December 16, 2011
Children—though by no means all of them—tend to be fairly picky eaters. Most expand their culinary horizons as they get older, but a few people hold fast to limited diets of safe, familiar things like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. My friend and co-worker Niki is one of them.
You know that queasy, I-can’t-bear-to-watch feeling you get watching a show like Bizarre Foods, as host Andrew Zimmern slurps down fried worms or rotten shark meat? Niki feels that way about foods that most of us consider perfectly edible, like eggs or raisins. She has a byzantine list of rules for what she is willing (or, more often, not willing) to eat: No cooked fruit. No “out of context” sweetness (which she defines as anything other than dessert). No cookies with nuts. No soft fruit. No dried fruit. In fact, hardly any fruit other than apples. Cheese only if melted. Tomatoes only in sauce, and then only without chunks. No eggs. No mayonnaise. (Her version of a BLT is a bacon and butter sandwich.)
Everyone has a few popular foods they dislike—the first piece I ever wrote for Food & Think, about my distaste for the ubiquitous herb cilantro, is still one of the blog’s most commented-on—but Niki’s list is so long and inscrutable that she has become a source of fascination to our other co-workers and me.
It turns out scientists are fascinated, too. Researchers at Duke University have been studying picky eating as a bona-fide disorder, with “selective eating” being considered for addition to the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Although the causes of selective eating aren’t yet known, there appear to be some patterns: smell and texture are often more important than flavor, for instance. A possible link to obsessive-compulsive tendencies is being explored.
With such a limited diet, people with the disorder sometimes find it hinders their social lives or even careers, not to mention the potential for nutritional deficiencies. But if it’s a disorder, is it curable?
Niki is giving it a shot. Although her friends and family have long become accustomed to her quirky preferences, I think the recent attention to her diet at work has caused her to think more about why she feels as she does. A couple of months ago, on the way to lunch to celebrate her 39th birthday, I commented (probably insensitively, in retrospect) that maybe when she was 40 she would start trying new foods.
She decided to do me one better and start that very day. At lunch she ordered her first Bloody Mary—a bacon Bloody Mary, so that there would at least be one ingredient she knew she liked. It didn’t go over well.
But Niki persisted. She resolved to eat a new food every day until her 40th birthday. She started a blog called Picky Niki (with the tagline: Choking Down 365 New Foods) to chart her results. So far many of the foods have bombed, but she has discovered a handful that she can tolerate, and a few she really likes. If she sticks with it for the rest of the year, her repertoire will have expanded considerably.
As for me, I will try to be more understanding of her predicament and stop the teasing. I admire what she’s doing, and truly hope it opens up new possibilities for her. And maybe I’ll even give cilantro another shot. Yecchh.
December 14, 2011
When I decided, at age 40, that I wanted to try to have a child, I knew I faced a few elevated risks over younger women: first and foremost, I might not be able to conceive at all. I mentally prepared myself—as much as I could, anyway—for that and other possibilities, including the higher risk of the baby having a genetic defect.
So far I’ve been fortunate. The one risk I hadn’t given much thought to—the higher chance of developing gestational diabetes—is the only one that has been a factor in my pregnancy. I’m fairly healthy, I have no history of diabetes in my family, and I try to eat well—lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and few highly processed junk foods.
But older pregnant women—and that means even women as young as in their late 20s, believe it or not—can have a harder time regulating insulin, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Gestational diabetes, if not controlled through diet and exercise, can cause high-birth-weight babies and potentially lead to delivery complications, as well as increasing the risk that the child will develop obesity and type 2 diabetes later in life. For the mother, there’s also the risk of high blood pressure and a higher likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes in the future.
I haven’t been diagnosed with gestational diabetes so far. But because my blood sugar was a little high during my early glucose tolerance test (this is given to all pregnant women around 28 weeks, but women of my age are also sometimes tested earlier), I was advised to exercise more frequently and follow a low-carbohydrate diet, the same advice given to those with the diagnosis.
The last thing a pasta-loving pregnant lady with a sweet tooth wants to hear is that she should cut out carbs. I have always been skeptical of the low-carb diet craze, suspecting it was a ploy by meat-lovers to make eating triple bacon cheeseburgers acceptable—as long as they’re sandwiched between lettuce leaves instead of a bun.
Luckily, the diet prescribed for me was not so extreme. The point is not to lose weight or to cut out carbohydrates entirely, but to limit them and to ration out their consumption throughout the day, always combining them with protein and a little bit of fat.
There were a few surprises in the information the dietician gave me. An unpleasant one was that my usual breakfast—a bowl of cereal—was out. Even sugarless, high-fiber varieties far exceed my maximum allotment of 30 grams of carbohydrates for the morning meal. (Blood sugar levels are especially prone to spiking in the morning, so the breakfast allotment is lower than that at lunch and dinner.) On top of that, I was surprised by how many carbs there are in a glass of milk—about 13 grams per cup. My other favorite breakfast, a bagel with cream cheese, was also way over the mark. Instead, I’ve switched to a whole grain English muffin with peanut butter.
On the upside, I’m not going to starve. In addition to the three regular meals, I’m supposed to eat a morning and afternoon snack, plus a smaller evening snack. And I can still have pasta, but instead of a big bowl of it on its own, it should be a side dish or mixed with enough vegetables and protein so the carb portion is limited. The happiest news of all? On those rare occasions when I am allowed to squeeze in a little treat, I was told it’s better to go for ice cream than sorbet, because the fat helps slow down the breakdown of carbs. Can do, doc.
November 1, 2011
It’s first day of November and kids everywhere are sitting down with stashes of goodies they earned the night before by dressing up, knocking on doors and rattling off the three magic words that win them a treat. And for adults, the leftover Halloween goodies are all on sale, so the time is right to enjoy a treat or two as well. Personally, I love my Good and Plenty, the licorice treats with pink and white sugary shells that spokesperson Choo Choo Charlie uses to make his locomotive zip down the track. But it turns out that Charlie should consider cutting back on his candy habit. According to a consumer awareness update published by the FDA, overindulging in licorice can cause health problems.
In Western medicine, licorice root has been used for hundreds of years as an herbal remedy to treat conditions from common colds to hepatitis. Clinical evidence of its effectiveness, however, is decidedly mixed. While it may soothe your symptoms, licorice more than likely isn’t curing what ails you. But licorice—the root as well as the black-colored iterations of the candy—can potentially do you harm, due to a chemical called glycyrrhetinic acid. When consumed in large quantities, it can cause your body’s potassium levels to fall to the point that some people experience arrhythmia, a rise in blood pressure, swelling and even congestive heart failure. People taking diuretics or medications for high blood pressure should be especially wary as the licorice may inhibit the effectiveness of the drugs. How much is too much? According to the FDA, a diet including 2 ounces of black licorice a day for two weeks might merit a trip to the hospital to have an irregular heart beat checked out. And consuming one to two pounds of licorice candy in one go may cause the blood vessels in your eyes to spasm, causing temporarily impaired vision. Though predominately a concern for persons over 40, it is recommended that everyone should moderate a high licorice intake.
That said, it pays to be an avid label reader. Some licorice products don’t contain extracts from the actual root and instead use anise to achieve a similar flavor. Packaging language such as “licorice-flavored” might serve as a tip-off that you’re not getting the real deal, but take a second to read the fine print on the ingredients list. Furthermore, licorice can also be processed so that the trouble-causing acid is removed, so you can keep an eye out for products marked DGL, or de-glycyrrhizinated licorice.
October 18, 2011
The adoption of the automobile as our primary mode of transportation has impacted how we eat, notably with the proliferation of quick-service roadside restaurants replete with convenience foods. We usually think of fried and grilled fare when it comes to eating on the go, but another breed of convenience food is a direct result of the rise of car culture: road-kill cuisine. Although the concept is a source of class-conscious condescension—just search the internet for jokes on this theme—some see the roadside-cum-deli aisle as an acceptable, if not preferable, alternative to supermarket meats.
One such person is 44-year-old taxidermist Jonathan McGowan of Dorset, England. He’s been noshing on scavenged meat for decades. Living near a chicken production site prompted McGowan to seriously consider the source of his meats, especially after seeing farm-raised animals living in inhumane conditions. ”I used to cut up dead animals to see their insides,” McGowan told the Daily Mail, “and when I did, all I could see was fresh, organic meat, better than the kind I had seen in the supermarkets. So I never saw a problem with cooking and eating it.” His food-sourcing methods have resulted in kitchen creations such as owl curry and badger stew. And he’s not alone. Road-kill cuisine has inspired regional cook-off competitions and even cookbooks.
With the Humane Society of the United States estimating that approximately one million animals are killed by traffic daily, the idea of “waste not, want not” doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Even PETA, renowned for its anti-animal-eating stance, has said the consumption of road kill “is a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped plastic packages of meat in the supermarket.”
But is it safe? Unlike the average Joe, hunters and people like McGowan know their way around dead animals and are trained to spot the red flags that signify meat isn’t safe to eat. And while farm-raised meats undergo federally mandated health inspections,what you find by the side of the road may expose you to pathogens such as E. coli or tularemia, a bacterial infection common in rabbits and other rodents. Furthermore, a collision with a car can cause an animal such extensive internal damage—which might not be readily apparent—that it is unsuitable for consumption.
First off, if you hit an animal, call the local authorities. Regulations on what you are allowed to lift from the roadside vary from state to state, and if an animal is still living after a collision, it should be tended to as humanely as possible. And while you might be hard pressed to find formal instruction on how to handle road kill you bring home, you might try a hunter education course to get a sense of how to handle animals killed in the wild, be it by bullet or bumper. Those of you who prefer supermarket meat can satisfy yourselves with a round of road-kill bingo during your next car ride.
September 7, 2011
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “home economics”? Perhaps the image of a perfectly attired Stepford wife criticizing the texture of the first pound cake you attempted to make or memories of the flyby course you took when you wanted to put in minimal effort and come out with a passing grade at the end of the term. For many people, the class has a reputation for being an outdated course where the most you learn is how to make biscuits and maybe a cake from a mix and use uni-tasker kitchen appliances. (During a perfectly useless semester in seventh grade, I was made aware of the wonders of an electric sandwich press, but it’s not something I would ever include in my kitchen arsenal.) But with a little retooling and updating, home economics classes could be a valuable tool in the fight against obesity.
Home economics had its start in Lake Placid, New York during a series of annual conferences held between 1899 and 1910. Organized by MIT sanitary engineer Mary Richards, librarian Melvil Dewey and a host of other educators, the meetings were dedicated to finding ways to apply the latest in science and technology to improve life in the American home. In 1908, the conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture. Between stocking a pantry, furnishing and maintaining a home, caring for children and managing a budget to take care of it all, there are a lot of issues a person has to juggle in order to make a home function smoothly.
But along the way home ec attained the reputation of being a relic, a gender-stereotyped course meant to confine women to domestic roles. Some school systems have managed to breathe new life into the course by divvying it up into more specialized classes—like courses that specifically address food preparation, which might be more attractive to prospective students in the age when Food Network-style programs inject fun and excitement into life in the kitchen. However, because home economics is typically classified as an elective course, it—like art and music classes—is prone to being eliminated from a school’s course offerings.
Furthermore, over time the cutting-edge knowledge about nutrition and sanitation that was the impetus for home ec in the first place came to be viewed as common sense. But is common sense really all that common? We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter, and a cultural preference for prepackaged convenience foods isn’t helping matters. If this is the case, couldn’t a home economics course focused on planning and preparing nutritionally balanced foods help alleviate this problem?
It’s a question assistant professor of history Helen Zoe Veit explores in a recent New York Times oped. A victim of the stereotypical kind of class where you learn how to make doughnuts from prefab biscuit dough, she argues that instead of condescending to students’ fledgling abilities in the kitchen, classes should teach them how to cook real food. “Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook,” she says in the article. “Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis.” Those sentiments are shared by nutrition scientist Alice Lichtenstein and physician David Ludwig, who wrote an editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “[G]irls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century,” they say. “As children transition into young adulthood, they should be provided with knowledge to harness modern conveniences (eg, prewashed salad greens) and avoid pitfalls in the marketplace (such as prepared foods with a high ratio of calories to nutrients) to prepare meals that are quick, nutritious, and tasty. It is important to dispel the myths—aggressively promoted by some in the food industry—that cooking takes too much time or skill and that nutritious food cannot also be delicious.”
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I learned my way around a kitchen because I had a mom who cooked all the family’s meals. That’s the standard of living I want to maintain because I prefer the taste of “from scratch” food over the prefab stuff. If I didn’t have that kind of a model at home to follow, I might have ended up trying to sustain myself predominantly on convenience food. Wouldn’t giving home ec a much-needed facelift—and maybe even making it a graduation requirement—potentially turn out more savvy, self-efficient and healthy young adults?