Friday, October 27, 2006

Top 5 Myths about Food and Diet

Here are five big myths about our food choices, our health, and the environment.

Which are true and which are false?

Myth #1
Cows' milk is the best source of calcium.
It's true that cows' milk is rich in calcium. But animal protein actually impedes the absorption of calcium, and cows' milk is high in protein. Calcium is more readily absorbed from vegetable sources, such as soy milk, broccoli, kale, chard, spinach and other leafy greens, navy beans, calcium-fortified orange juice. These sources not only provide more accessible calcium, they have no saturated fat or cholesterol. See the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine web site for more vegetable calcium sources. Vegetable sources are more likely to be environmentally friendly too, since one dairy cow drops 120 pounds of waste every single day. The waste winds up in waste "lagoons" that leak and spill into our surface waters and ground water.

Myth #2
Fish is essential for optimum health.
Studies that are cited to promote fish consumption compare fish eaters to people who are eating other kinds of meat instead. Sure someone who substitutes fish for burgers will have better health. The average American eats 185 lbs of meat per year, much of it loaded with saturated fat. But fish is not an improvement over a vegetable diet. Skipping the fish also protects the environment, as most commercial fisheries now use indiscriminate fishing methods that destroy unwanted marine wildlife as well as the targeted food fish.

Myth #3
Skipping breakfast helps shed pounds.
Eating breakfast actually kick starts your metabolism into high gear after slumber, so that your body begins burning calories at a faster rate. Skipping breakfast is counter-productive, if your goal is to lose weight. A breakfast of complex carbohydrates and vegetable protein, such as a bowl of oatmeal or other whole-grain cereal, topped with walnuts and banana slices, and a glass of soy milk or calcium fortified orange juice, is a great way to start the day. The complex carbohydrates are metabolized slowly, giving you a steady source of energy all the way until lunch time.

Myth #4
Fish is the only good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which may promote heart health.
Omega-3s may be good for your heart; some studies suggest it is. But fish is not the only source, and almost all fish has at least some mercury in it. Flax seeds and walnuts are two plant sources that are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and are also mercury free. Two tablespoons of ground flax seeds per day are a good source of omega-3s; ground flax seeds are also an excellent source of fiber and support digestive system health. The ground flax seeds can be stirred into a bowl of soup, into hot cereal before adding the boiling water, sprinkled over salads and vegetables. They are easily ground in a coffee grinder. See previous post for more info and links about omega-3s and flax.

Myth #5
We should worry about how much protein we're getting, and seek animal protein at every meal.
This is probably the biggest myth we hear when doing presentations about our book Veggie Revolution. Most Americans get much more protein than they need, and a vegan diet can easily provide plenty of protein. For breakfast, a cup of cooked oatmeal alone provides 5 grams of protein. Add walnuts, ground flax and fruit for more protein and lots of fiber. One cup of soy milk provides 7-10 grams, depending on the brand. For lunch and dinner: one veggie burger is 10-12 grams, 2 tbsps peanut butter has 8 grams, 2 ounces dry whole wheat pasta are 9 grams. One cup of cooked lentils, beans, or peas is 15 to 17 grams. Just one slice of whole wheat or multigrain bread has about 3 grams of protein. Protein is in a lot of different vegetable foods. For more protein ideas from an authoritative source, consult the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. As I've said before in many posts, one of the most important things we can do to leave our planet in functional condition for future generations is to give up the heavy reliance on animal products. Factory farming is trashing our water, converting wild lands to livestock support areas, and greatly adding to our use of fossil fuels - to grow and harvest and transport livestock food, to move their carcasses to market, etc.

Eat Green and Save the Planet - even if you do it just one day a week. Start small, start occasional, but consider health and environmental impact when you make some of your diet choices.

Keywords: food, diet, milk, medicine, health, fish, saturated, fat

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tuna Is the Biggest Source of Mercury from Fish: Is It Safe to Eat Fish?

A new article in the Journal of the American Medical Association advises Americans to continue eating fish in spite of the fact that at least 44 of our 50 states now post mercury advisories. The author's rationale is that people who eat fish have 35% fewer heart attacks.

Fewer heart attacks than whom? Fewer than the average American who eats 176 pounds of meat per year? Or fewer than vegetarians? Or vegans? So misleading....

Any deviation from the Standard American Diet, which is very high in animal fat, is likely to improve the risk of heart attacks.

But, that said, what is the scoop on mercury? Is it safe or not? That depends on whom you ask, and what the alternative is. Mercury has been demonstrated in several studies to cause neurological deficits in fetuses and young children. Even the above-mentioned article in the Journal of the AMA acknowledges that. But the amount of mercury consumed seems to be a crucial factor.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the most common source of mercury exposure for Americans is tuna fish. Tuna does not contain the highest concentration of mercury of any fish, but since Americans eat much more tuna than they do other mercury-laden fish, such as swordfish or shark, it poses a greater health threat. For more from the NRDC, see their guides to mercury levels in fish and to eating tuna safely.

The NRDC also reports that subsistence and sports fishermen who eat their catch can be at a particularly high risk of mercury poisoning if they fish regularly in contaminated waters. Across the United States, mercury pollution is known to have contaminated 12 million acres of lakes, estuaries, and wetlands (30 percent of the total), and 473,000 miles of streams, rivers, and coasts. And many waterways have not even been tested. In 2003, 44 states issued fish consumption advisories, warning citizens to limit how often they eat certain types of fish caught in the state's waters because they are contaminated with mercury.

Environmental Defense and Oceans Alive have published guides to choosing fish for those who wish to minimize health risks and minimize the environmental impacts on marine ecosystems. The ED site evaluates contaminants, such as mercury, individually.

Is it necessary to eat fish? No. The omega-3 fatty acids seem to be the fish ingredient that motivates people to choose fish. But you can get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from vegetable sources that have zero mercury. The most generous recommendations for fish still say to eat no more than 12 ounces per week, which is two average servings. One easy and safe way to get an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids every day is to grind up two level tablespoons of organic golden flax seeds (available at any natural foods store) and mix them with dry oatmeal before adding hot water. The seeds should be ground just before eating, or they loose some nutrients. I use a coffee grinder. Add a small handful of walnuts on top of the oatmeal for even more omega-3s. Scrumptious.

Flaxseed Provides Comparable Cholesterol-Lowering Benefits to Statin Drugs

In a study involving 40 patients with high cholesterol (greater than 240 mg/dL), daily consumption of 20 grams of ground flaxseed was compared to taking a statin drug. After 60 days, significant reductions were seen in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and the ratio of total to HDL cholesterol-in both groups. Those receiving flaxseed did just as well as those given statin drugs. For more info, see this well-documented article about the health benefits of flax.

Environmental Concerns
I won't be eating any fish, but for reasons of sustainability as well as mercury exposure. The "long-lines," gill nets, and blastfishing techniques used by today's modern fishing fleets are destroying our marine ecosystems the world over.

How does mercury get in our waters to being with? From coal-fired power plants, which provide 57% of the electricity in our country. For a thorough indictment of coal as an energy source, and an exciting review of solutions to coal, see Jeff Barrie's important documentary, Kilowatt Ours.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Top 10 Eco-friendly Yard and Garden Choices

Here are ten ways to craft a yard that will use fewer resources, preserve habitat, contribute less to landfills, pollute less, cool your home, and bring you the satisfaction of making responsible choices for the future of the planet.

1) Leave mature trees standing, unless they are invasive species such as Mimosa, Tree-of-Heaven, and Chinaberry. For more info on identifying invasive trees, google "invasive species" or go to the U.S. Forest Service's Invasive Species Program and click on Plants in the right column. Or the USDA's National Invasive Species Information Center, which lists invasive plants. Mature trees add to your property value, also keep your home and yard cooler in summer. In addition, they provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and help your yard retain rainwater without eroding and adding sediment to streams.

2) If you plant shrubs and ground cover, choose native species. See the interactive map from the Nature Conservancy and U.C. Davis about invasive species, "The Global Invasive Species Initiative." When you click on your state, it tells you about invasives shrubs and weeds in your area that you should avoid planting, because they spread aggressively and displace native species.

3) If you are shopping for a new home, look for a neighborhood that was designed using "conservation development" principles. The book Practical Ecology, and this web page about it, explain the principles. The conservation supervisor in my county recommended the book to me. Typical and more destructive development involves extensive grading of road beds and road sides to eliminate or reduce slopes, and creating wide straight roads with "long sight distances." This usual kind of development destroys large amounts of native habitat. A conservation development can, in contrast, preserve as much as 86% of the existing natural habitat by making narrow roads, preserving topography and natural vegetation, and clustering homes that will share green space.

4) Create a "raingarden" or bioretention area in your yard, that allows rainwater to percolate through the soil rather than running off into a storm drain that feeds a stream. Allowing rainwater to filter through soil recharges ground water, which in turn feeds streams with water that has been filtered and cooled. The streams ultimately flow into the lakes that provide our drinking water. For the same reasons, don't use a commercial lawn service. The chemical and fertilizer applications pollute streams, lakes, and groundwater.

5) Consider replacing your lawn with a native meadow or native woodland. For more info on that, see our previous post. Native meadows and woodlands require no watering, fertilizing, or trimming. In contrast, maintaining a yard with lots of manicured ornamental plants uses fossil fuels, creates noise pollution, and generates waste for landfills. Yard waste is one of the major components of landfills. The EPA has a good web page about "Beneficial Landscaping" that helps the environment.

6) If you have a vegetable garden, mulch your plants to reduce watering needs. Don't use mulch that has been dyed red to simulate redwood - the dyes will wash out quickly and into streams, etc. Grass clippings or dead leaves or newspaper provide good mulch.

7) If you do water your yard or garden plants, use a dribble hose perforated with holes to deliver water straight to the soil, without shooting it into the air first. This uses far less water, reducing your water bill and helping our water resources. If you must use a sprinkler, avoid midday when the sun will maximize evaporation.

8) Create wildlife habitat in your yard. See the National Wildlife Federation for guidelines, which include choosing native plants that provide food for wildlife, and providing water and shelter.

9) Keep your cat indoors to protect wildlife. See our previous post for data and several links to studies about dangers to the cats themselves, as well as the astonishing volume of songbirds and small mammals killed annually by prowling housecats. The links suggest solutions too.

10) Consider leaving dead trees standing. Dead trees provide excellent habitat for woodpeckers, many of which are declining because of the scarcity of suitable habitat. Consider leaving the rodents in your yard alone (mice, chipmunks, cotton rats, etc.), rather than trapping or poisoning them. They are food for birds of prey such as owls and hawks.

If you do even one of the things on this list, you're making a difference. Every little choice helps.