Monday, June 28, 2010

Olive Oil and Beyond

Have you ever taken a close look at the oil selection on the supermarket shelves? There are close to three dozen different oils to choose from, so how do we know which one to select? The truth is, there are a number of different types of culinary oil that you should keep on hand in your home kitchen, each having it’s own purpose and health benefits. Knowing how to select and purchase, discovering the beneficial health properties of each type, and correctly using them in your cooking makes all the difference in oil exploration.

Deciding on the correct type of oil in the grocery store is where it all starts. Oils, especially those that are that are liquid at room temperature, are susceptible to oxidation. Once oil is oxidized, if consumed, it creates a cascade of harmful free radicals in your body leading to systemic inflammation. There are three things that cause oxidation of oil: light, heat, and air. Take precaution, and you can easily prevent your oils from spoiling. When purchasing liquid oil, make sure that it is in an opaque glass bottle or metal can so it is protected from light. Store oil at home in a dark cabinet or in the refrigerator, away from the stove, and always keep the lid on the jar securely fastened. Choose oils that are cold pressed, meaning that they haven’t been exposed to high heats in the refinement process. It is also best to purchase oil in smaller containers, that way they are consumed faster, and exposed to less air. If you buy oil in bulk, share it with a friend and store it in smaller jars.

Each oil has it’s own unique health benefits. Olive oil is rich in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. Consuming a diet rich in oleic acid can improve HDL levels, the heart healthy type of cholesterol. Olive oil is also loaded with polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that scavenge free radicals and reduce inflammation. Olive oil has a low smoke point so it is best used for low heat sautéing, salad dressings, and dips.

Coconut oil has a high percentage of medium chain triglycerides, which are essential for healthy gut function. It is also rich in lauric acid, giving it anti-viral and immune boosting properties. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, meaning that it is solid at room temperature, making it more stable and less susceptible to oxidation. For this reason it is a perfect substitute for butter, margarine, or shortening in baked goods and excellent for medium heat sautéing or frying. Beyond culinary uses, coconut oil can also be used as a lotion on dry and sensitive skin.

Flax seed oil is rich in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega 3 fatty acid. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for proper brain function and can be used therapeutically to combat inflammation. The American diet is especially low in these wonderful fats, so by adding some flax seed oil to your diet, you will be doing your body a huge favor! Flax seed oil should not be exposed to heat at all. It is great for adding to smoothies and for drizzling over salads.

Sesame oil is definitely one that you will want to have on hand. It is especially resistant to rancidity and adds wonderful flavor to Asian stir-fries and dressings. The toasted version is especially tasty and its unique flavor is an excellent addition to many dishes. The health benefits of this magnificent oil go far beyond use in the kitchen. Ayurvedic practitioners in India use it to cure many different ailments such as athlete’s foot, dandruff, diaper rash, and the common cold.

Using your oil properly in the kitchen will insure that you gain all of the health benefits that it has to offer. When sautéing, make sure that the pan is heated prior to adding the oil, and then add your vegetables or meat immediately. This will lessen the time that the oil is exposed to high heat and air, decreasing the chances of oxidation. It is also important to note that if an occasion arises when your oil begins to smoke in the pan, dump it out and start over. Smoking oil has certainly been oxidized and has changed flavors. It is unhealthy and tastes unappealing.

Now that you have a wonderful selection of healthy oils in your kitchen, the sky is the limit. Enjoy making nutritious stir fries and salad dressings packed with wholesome essential fats. You will feel great knowing that you are cooking healthfully and your taste buds will thank you too!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cupcake Confessions

Chocolate, cupcakes, cheese, and steak. Fried chicken that would make anyone immediately begin drooling. That’s right folks, Grocery gal has officially over done it. I went to a marvelous wedding this past weekend for one of my very best friends. The food and alcohol were in excess and I certainly indulged. This got me thinking about what healthy eating exactly is and when is it okay to throw caution to the wind and chow down?

You have all heard me preaching about whole grains, avoiding sugar and preservatives, and eating with consciousness. I think that it is also important to confess that even the nutritionist in training eats a little junk food every so often. The truth is that I enjoy it as well. Cupcakes piled high with pink frosting are delicious, and even though there is very little in them that can provide our bodies with nutrition, they can still fit into our diet in moderation.

The point that I am trying to make is that food needs to be enjoyable. It shouldn’t be a chore and you shouldn’t feel like you are depriving yourself, otherwise you’ll end up binging anyway. Eating with consciousness and truly enjoying different foods on special occasions is important for our emotional health. If I am at a wedding or another social setting where the food isn’t organic, grass fed, and dairy free, I don’t stress. I eat it because that is what is being offered; I enjoy it and appreciate it because I am with people that I care about. If I can’t nourish my body the way that I am used to, I nourish my soul with the company and good times. Eating food is a social experience that we are meant to enjoy and last weekend, enjoy I did! What is your favorite “forbidden” food? How long has it been since you indulged?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sweet on You

One thing that I really enjoy doing when I have a little extra time is baking. I like to make cookies and quick breads, but my husband complains because often times I give all the food away as soon as it comes out of the oven. My rationale is that I don’t want all these delicious, highly caloric baked goods just sitting around the house. Jon works nights and is practically never home to consume them so guess who ends up eating all the cookies? It's not the dog.

I made banana bread on Sunday and I pulled out all my usual stops to make it as healthy as possible. I subbed whole-wheat pastry flour for white flour. Whole-wheat flour has the bran and germ of the wheat, which contains fiber and B vitamins, while white flour is only the endosperm of the wheat, leaving only carbohydrates. White flour causes a spike in blood sugar because it is digested quickly, so it is not considered as healthy as slower digesting whole grain products.

Another move I always make when it comes to baked goods is to add nuts. Nuts are delicious, but beyond that add heart healthy fats and protein.

Then it comes down to the sugar. What to do? White sugar is a highly refined product that simply has no nutritional value whatsoever. Excess sugar in the diet is easily transformed into stored fat in the body and causes a blood sugar spike higher than Mt. Kilimanjaro. So what are the alternatives?

There are a lot of health gurus shouting from the rooftops about agave nectar. Agave is made from a cactus like plant and has a sugar profile that is similar to high fructose corn syrup. For this reason it doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes and it is often recommended for diabetics. It is VERY sweet and you need to use less of it than you would sugar.

Blackstrap molasses is one sweetener that I can get behind. While it is a processed ingredient, it is actually a by-product of sugar production; it contains all the healthy minerals that are extracted out of crystalline sugar in the refinement process. It is high in iron, calcium, and magnesium, and it has a distinct flavor that I enjoy. Unrefined sugar like sucanat and turbinado sugar are also good options in that they still contain many of the minerals that are boiled out of white sugar.

Then there are my favorites, honey and maple syrup. I chose a combination of the two for my banana bread. Maple syrup is usually produced in Vermont or Canada, so you don’t have to worry about free trade regulations and human rights like you do with the sugar industry. Grade B has a stronger maple flavor and I believe it is best suited for pancakes and waffles. Grade A has a more delicate flavor, which might be nice for baking. Personally I enjoy the rich maple flavor, and it was delicious in my bread!

Honey is also a winner in my book. My in-laws gave me a big jar of raw unrefined local honey a few weeks ago and I have been slowly savoring it. I used some in the banana bread because local honey may be able to reduce some seasonal allergies and it is as unrefined a sweetener as you can get.

The banana bread turned out delicious and I feel good about putting it in my body knowing the ingredients I used were the best I could get. Do you enjoy baking? What sweeteners do you like to use?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Coconut Joe Helps Me Out

Last summer I had the pleasure of attending my cousin’s wedding in Belize. It was a beautiful ceremony on the beach, it was breezy and had cooled down considerably from earlier that day when the August temperatures had reached well over 90 degrees and the humidity was close to 100 percent. At the time my aunt was training to walk the Chicago marathon and, despite the heat, she was determined to get in her power walk that morning. I decided to join her and off we went to walk 10 miles along the beach of Ambergris Caye. We started off early, as to beat the mid day heat, but the sweat was pouring only a few minutes into the walk. By mile 7 I was petering out, but that is when I met “Coconut Joe”. He was cracking green coconuts on the beach and passing them out to people as they strolled by. He called out to us and immediately I was at his side sipping the delicious coconut water. After my coconut pit stop I was ready to take on the rest of the walk, no problem. I felt refreshed, had pep in my step and my thirst had been quenched.

you have never tried it, coconut water is truly miraculous. It is the liquid that comes from inside the young coconut, not to be confused with coconut milk, which comes from pressing the coconut meat. It is a good source of potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, and calcium. Coconut water is a naturally isotonic beverage, which means it has the same electrolyte balance as our blood. This makes it an ideal sports drink! Other sport drinks on the market today feature ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors, which are things that I don’t really care to “refuel” with. It is available in supermarkets and comes in tetra packs and cans so you can find it even if you live somewhere that coconuts don’t grow overhead. So, after your next workout or power walk on the beach swap out your Gatorade and give it a try!