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Everyone knows that “junk food” is bad for us. Many of us know that “processed food” is bad for us. But what really is the difference? Why do many health-conscious consumers shun potato chips but enjoy granola bars in abundance? Why do many health-conscious consumers refuse to buy soda for their child but purchase fortified “juice” beverages regularly?

Cereal

Processed food is food that has been heavily manufactured in order to be shelf-stable. Processed food rarely resembles anything from nature. Processed food fills the inner aisles of the grocery store; things like cereal, crackers, breads, bottled beverages, granola bars, and other snack foods. There is no question that these foods are not part of a healthy diet. When a food undergoes so much manufacturing, it becomes nutritionally devoid. An enormous amount of preservatives and other artificial ingredients are added to these foods to keep them “fresh.” In addition, a great deal of sugar and salt is often added to make these “foods” taste better. The healthiest foods are the ones closest to their natural state. Our bodies are not designed to consume these man-made concoctions that America has come to accept as food. When we eat shrink-wrapped, boxed, bagged creations, we will not reach optimal health and weight. Calories are irrelevant here; the food you eat is a lot more complex than calories. [For more on this, read my post Confessions of an Ex-Calorie Counter.]

There is rarely any dispute over junk food. The general consensus is that foods like twinkies, potato chips, and soda are not good for us. This is true, however, there are many foods just like these that the average family would consider a healthy addition to their pantry. Unfortunately, a great deal of marketing fools most consumers into believing items like granola bars or fortified cereals are a beacon of health, while in reality, they are much like twinkies in disguise. [See my posts The Truth About Granola Bars and The Truth About Vitamin Water for more specific info on this.]

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While these healthy substitutes may be certified organic and may not contain harmful ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or trans fat, they are certainly not the foundation of a healthy diet. Nearly all these foods are very high in sugar and are heavily processed. “Whole wheat” bread is one of the worst offenders; consumers think that a “whole grain” label is a sign of a truly nutritious choice. These breads are full of preservatives and often still contain refined white flour. [For more on this, read my post All About Bread.] While I recommend them over their more unnatural counterparts, I really don’t recommend them at all. A long ingredient list is always worth avoiding.

But perhaps the worst offender is functional or fortified foods. These are standard, processed foods that have certain vitamins or nutrients added to increase their marketability. There is always a new nutrient in the spotlight with incredible health claims and promises. Things like vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants, omega 3s, and probiotics are just some of the current health buzzwords. Food companies know that consumers are becoming increasingly interested in health, so they fortify their processed, cheap, junk food with these substances. These are healthy substances when found occurring naturally in whole foods. However, supplementing a nutrient-devoid, sugar-laden, chemically-ridden cracker with a certain nutrient won’t make it healthy.

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Be a smart consumer. When considering your food purchases, don’t be enticed by health claims and packaging. Stick to foods that resemble something that may be found in nature and the nutrition will take care of itself.

Eat your vegetables,
Emily

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Herbs and Spices

Nearly all cultures incorporate herbs and spices into their regional cuisine. Unfortunately, American food culture focuses on heavily processed sugar, salt, and unhealthy fat to enhance the flavor of many of our dishes. Herbs and spices not only make food more palatable, but offer a wealth of nutritional benefits as well.

IMG_2428 (1)Fresh cilantro, basil, and home-dried dill.

During the warmer months, you’ll find a bountiful supply of fresh herbs at your local farmer’s market. Look for basil, mint, cilantro, rosemary, sage, and dill. You can easily grow your own herbs at home either in a garden or indoors in pots. You can also dry your own fresh herbs by hanging a bunch in a sunny spot for one to two weeks.

Don’t compromise quality when it comes to spices. An organic, high-quality spice will taste more potent and consequently last longer since you don’t need as much of it to enhance a dish.

Here’s a list of herbs and spices along with their respective health benefits and ways to incorporate them into your diet. This list doesn’t include everything… I encourage you to try any herb or spice that intrigues you! Many of these herbs and spices have a long list of health properties; I’m only highlighting a few. Remember when it comes to herbs, fresh is always best.

Fresh Herbs
Basil: Antioxidant, decreases inflammation. Use in home-made pasta sauces or pesto.
Cilantro: Antioxidant, digestive aid. Use in home-made guacamole or to add more flavor to any Mexican dish.
Dill: Antioxidant, antimicrobial, diuretic. Combine with greek yogurt to make a creamy dip or make Creamy Cilantro Dill Dressing.
Thyme: Antioxidant, inhibits bone resorption. Add to organic scrambled eggs.
Mint: Antioxidant, antimicrobial, stomach soother. Make your own herbal mint tea by steeping leaves in boiling water.

Spices
Cayenne Pepper: Boosts metabolism, decreases inflammation, improves digestion. Sprinkle on soups, stir-fries, or anything that could use a spicy kick.
Turmeric: Antioxidant, decreases inflammation, antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal. This Indian spice is being widely recognized for its astonishing health benefits. The taste is similar to mustard. Sprinkle on salads for flavor, or use in curry powder to make Indian dishes.
Cinnamon: Antioxidant, antimicrobial, controls blood sugar, boosts metabolism. Add cinnamon to fresh fruit or any sweet dessert to help manage blood sugar levels.
Garlic: Antioxidant, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, decreases inflammation, boosts immunity. Add to sautéed vegetables.
Ginger: Antioxidant, decreases inflammation, boosts immunity, digestive aid. Use fresh ginger in stir-fries or home-made vegetable juices.

This only skims the surface of what herbs and spices have to offer. Not only are the health benefits are astounding, but they’ll bring your cooking to life, too! What are your favorite herbs and spices and how do you use them?

Spice things up,
Emily

It’s no secret that I’m a huge advocate for salad. I eat a large salad for two meals of the day on average. But no matter the combination of vegetables, greens, and patés, salad can get a little redundant. That’s where dressing comes in.

Nearly all dressings you buy in a bottle are full of chemicals, additives, thickeners, and sugar. A quick check of the ingredient list tells all. But an easy, healthy, and considerably more delicious option is to make your own dressing. Fresh squeezed lemon juice and a good quality olive oil make a nice dressing, but sometimes you want something with a little more pizazz.

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Personally, I’m partial to creamy dressings. I use nuts and seeds to achieve a rich, creamy dressing while adding healthy fat. I have never measured the ingredients while making a salad dressing, but I’ll give you a basic template to experiment with, as well as some of my dressing recipes.

Template for Salad Dressing
1/2 cup nuts or seeds. Try cashews, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, or a combination.
Tangy component. I prefer fresh squeezed lemon juice (one lemon’s worth) which is detoxifying and alkalizing to the body. You can also use 1 tablespoon raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, which has many known health properties as a detoxifier. Avoid other types of vinegar as they encourage “bad bacteria” growth in the intestines and don’t offer anything nutritionally.
Fresh herbs or spices. I will use almost a full bunch of cilantro or basil to make a dressing flavorful. Herbs and spices have great medicinal properties and can be used in abundance. Don’t be stingy; this is creating your dressing’s flavor identity! Basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, and thyme are all good options. If you don’t have fresh herbs on hand, try spices like cumin, curry powder, or powdered ginger.
A little kick. I will often add 1-3 cloves of fresh garlic. You can also use a bit of red onion. Remember that because these ingredients are raw, they will be quite pungent. A little goes a long way. If you like a spicy dressing, add cayenne pepper.
Sea salt. How salty you like your dressing is up to you, but certainly add some to enhance the flavor. You can also use raw soy sauce (Nama Shoyu) or Bragg’s Liquid Aminos.
Water. I’ve never measured how much water I use, but I estimate around a half a cup. Add more as needed. How thick you want your dressing is up to you. Remember that once you refrigerate your dressing, it will thicken.

Combine all ingredients in a blender. I use my high powered Vita-Mix. If your blender is not very strong, consider grinding your nuts/seeds in a food processor first. Store in a glass jar or tightly-closed tupperware container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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Here are a few of my dressings to get you started.

Creamy Cilantro Dill Dressing
(pictured above; quantities of ingredients can vary)
– 1/2 cup combination of pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds
– 1/4 to 1/2 cup water
– 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
– 1/2 bunch to 1 bunch fresh cilantro
– 2 tablespoons dried dill
– 1/8 cup chopped red onion
– sea salt

Tahini Dressing
(quantities can vary)
– 1/2 cup sesame seeds
– 1/4 to 1/2 cup water
– 2-3 cloves of garlic
– 1 tablespoon cumin
– juice of one lemon
– sea salt

Basil Pesto Dressing
(quantities can vary)
– 1/2 cup combination of cashews and almonds
– 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water
– 1/2 bunch to 1 bunch fresh basil
– 2 cloves of garlic
– juice of half a lemon (optional)
– drizzle olive oil
– sea salt

I hope this inspires you! Do you have any good ideas for salad dressings? Share them with me. I’m thinking of attempting an Asian-inspired dressing next, using fresh ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil. If you need a little salad inspiration, be sure to check out my post, Salad Making 101 for a step-by-step guide. Keep your salads interesting!

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Eat well,
Emily

My philosophy is that diet is the single most important factor in reaching good health. I believe food has the power to affect all aspects of physical as well as mental and emotional wellness. I am often asked about my take on exercise and fitness and where that fits in a healthy lifestyle. Some people claim that with enough exercise, the proper diet is not necessary. Many athletes consume a wealth of processed, chemically-ridden sports drinks and supplements to “improve performance,” or insist on a high protein, meat-based diet for muscle recovery. I’d like to address a few of these issues and also talk about what I believe is an adequate amount of physical activity to maintain good health.

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How Much Exercise is Enough?
I think it’s very important to emphasize an active lifestyle. This doesn’t necessarily mean setting aside hours to spend at the gym each day. Making time to use your body on daily basis has enormous immediate benefits. It invigorates you, it keeps your metabolism happily spinning, and it undoubtedly improves your mood. If you’re looking to lose weight, you’ll certainly benefit from a setting a clear routine (more on that below). If you’re simply looking to maintain your weight or improve your physical health, start by finding easy ways to be active each day. Opt to walk or bike to any destination that’s close enough. If nice out, enjoy the weather and go for a leisurely jog. Find some simple home exercises that don’t require equipment (push-ups, crunches, lunges, and stretching) and make time to do them each day. Even a shopping trip will get you on your feet for a few hours!

Which Types of Exercise are the Most Beneficial?
I cannot stress enough the importance of variety. Our bodies are programmed to be as efficient as possible. When we work out the same way every day, like plugging along on the elliptical trainer for half an hour, our body learns to burn less calories in the process. By changing your work out every day, your body stays challenged. You also ensure that you’re working different muscle groups in different ways. If you always work out the same way, you are inevitably neglecting certain muscles or motions. If you have a gym membership, alternate between the elliptical trainer, stairmaster, treadmill, and stationary bike. Try interval training, an extremely effective way to burn more calories and improve your cardiovascular health. Simply alternate between going at an easy pace, a challenging pace, and your maximum pace. By switching between these “intervals,” your heart works much harder and your body stays challenged. Outdoor jogging is significantly different from running on a machine and is worth incorporating into your exercise routine for variety. Just be sure you have good, stable footwear and start slowly. Also, don’t neglect strength training. Strengthening your muscles improves your overall fitness level and speeds up your metabolism. Many muscles can be trained at home without any equipment. A quick google search can give you easy, at home exercises for your abs, arms, chest, glutes, and legs. Remember to always use proper form when doing strength training exercises. Without good form you drastically decrease the effectiveness of the exercise and risk injury.

How Does Diet Affect Exercise?
We all know someone who is very diligent about working out, yet they remain overweight and seemingly unhealthy. As I mentioned, I believe strongly that diet has a much greater affect on weight loss and health than exercise. That being said, the benefits of exercise should not be overlooked, and a healthy diet can make exercise yield better results and be executed with greater ease. Food is our fuel; without quality fuel in our bodies, they cannot perform. If your diet is rich in processed foods, sugar, and conventionally-raised meat, your body will not be nearly as energized as someone with a diet abundant in vegetables and natural, whole foods. If you keep processed foods and simple carbohydrates out of your diet, you will naturally have more energy, making your workouts more effective and less torturous. There is a misconception that we must load up on carbohydrates before exercise. If you’re choosing simple, refined carbohydrates like white bread, you are choosing a nutrient-deficient food. Even if simple carbs offer a quick burst of energy, they are not improving your overall health. The most important “food” to consume before and after a workout is not a food at all; it’s water. Keeping your body hydrated is of the utmost importance. Another misconception is the necessity of protein. Muscles are built from healthy blood. Healthy blood is made from alkalizing foods, namely green vegetables. Why do you think Popeye ate spinach?

Don’t I Need Protein and Sports Drinks and Supplements?
Let go of the conventional ideas about nutrition, even in regard to fitness. In order for your body to repair and rebuild your muscles after exercise, it needs a consistent supply of nutrients. If you’re eating a diet based around vegetables, you are meeting nearly all your nutritional requirements. You can make sure you’re taking in adequate healthy fat by including raw nuts, seeds, oils, and avocado in your diet regularly. Adequate protein can be obtained by incorporating organic eggs, organic grass-fed or raw/unpasteurized dairy, and organic grass-fed meat. With all of these as the foundation for your diet, there is no need for fitness supplements or sugar-laden sports drinks. These are just products covered in marketing and false claims. No chemical concoction can fuel your body like real, pure food. In the past year, I’ve taken to fitness as somewhat of a hobby. I work out, on average, one hour a day, six days a week. I incorporate both cardiovascular workouts and strength training. I eat a diet of mostly raw vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I don’t consume what most people would consider “enough” protein, and I certainly don’t look malnourished (that’s me in the picture at the top of this post).

I hope this gives you some things to remember when considering an exercise routine. If you are looking to add more fitness to your life, or you’re already an avid exerciser, I’d like to point you over to Stay Well, a health and fitness blog that gives great unconventional workout advice with a strong emphasis on natural health and well-being.

As always, thanks for reading. I’m always happy to take your questions and hear your comments.

-Emily

Book Reviews

I wanted to let you know about a new review for my book, 101 Natural Healthy Eating Tips, that was just posted on About.com’s Teen Health site. You can read the review here. Also, the nice vegan blog Vegan Lunch Box did a review of my book which you can read here.

If you’ve read my book, I’d love for you to write a review on Amazon. I’m always interested to hear your thoughts, concerns, and questions!

-Emily

Food, Inc.

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Have you heard of the newly released movie, Food, Inc.? It’s a documentary on our over-processed, chemically-ridden, corrupt food system. [Watch the trailer here.] It’s only out in select theaters, but you can see dates and places of release here. I’m seeing it tomorrow in Cambridge, MA, and if it’s playing near you, I strongly encourage you to go see it! It wouldn’t hurt to bring a friend who’s not so enlightened about just how unnatural the American food system is. I’m very excited to see it, and if you do, let me know what you thought!

-Emily

Sometimes I resent that salads are looked at as a mere appetizer or the dinner choice of prissy weight watcher. Many tend to think of salads as bland and uninteresting. Not true! They can be unbelievably filling and satisfying while providing extraordinary nutrition. Awhile back I did a post on salads (see Salad-Making 101) that gave a basic foundation on how to make a great, healthy salad. I wanted to add to that, exploring some more options to make your salad exciting without the junk (croutons, ranch dressing, bacon bits).

IMG_1897This salad is made with a Curry Paté and topped with Creamy Tahini Dressing.

When it comes to vegetables, I usually use whatever I have on hand (see Salad-Making 101 for detailed tips). I like to vary my non-vegetable additions. One of my favorite things to make is a nut or seed paté. Patés are very popular for those following a raw food diet as they offer protein, healthy fat, and fiber from a raw source. I don’t follow a specific recipe to make patés. Instead I combine various nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices in the food processor and taste along the way. You only need about one cup of nuts/seeds to make a batch with upwards of four servings.

Template for Raw Patés
1 cup raw nuts or seeds. In this curry paté I used sunflower seeds, cashews, and sesame seeds. Try almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, or pumpkin seeds.
Herbs or spices. I had no fresh herbs on hand, so I used 1-2 tablespoons of curry powder and a teaspoon of cumin. Any fresh herb will work, too.
Fresh flavor. I used one clove of garlic (a little goes along way) for this batch. Also try a bit of raw red onion, bell peppers, or fresh squeezed lemon juice.
A little sea salt.
Drizzle water. I didn’t measure how much I used, but how creamy or chunky you want your paté is up to you.

In a food processor, grind all nuts and seeds to a relatively fine texture. Add remaining ingredients, saving water for last. Process until ingredients are fully chopped and mixed. Add more water if necessary.

Patés make salads more delicious and infinitely more satisfying. A batch using about a cup of nuts or seeds makes multiple servings. It should last about a week in the fridge, but is best consumed as soon as possible.

Homemade dressings are also a way to make your salad healthier and more interesting. Most store-bought dressings are full of sugar, preservatives, thickeners, and other unnecessary ingredients. An organic, cold-pressed oil and lemon juice make a divine dressing, but if you’re looking for something more exciting, consider making your own. I like to make a guilt-free creamy dressing like tahini. Tahini, which is ground sesame seeds, can be purchased roasted or raw. You can also blend sesame seeds with a small amount of water to make your own tahini dressing. Add lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and salt and you’ve made a creamy dressing, effortlessly. If tahini is too bitter for you, consider using other nuts or seeds to make a creamy dressing. Also experiment with fresh herbs to flavor your dressing.

A paté or dressing can completely change the taste and character of your salad, and that’s not even factoring in all the vegetable combinations! Salad possibilities are endless. Just remember to avoid the processed junky salad add-ons and get creative!

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How do you like your salad?

-Emily