Sunlight in the Kitchen

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Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me:

As much trouble as I’ve had with chronic pain over the past ten years, I’ve had almost just as much trouble with digestive issues.

I haven’t written about those issues yet for a few reasons.  For one thing, they’re embarrassing.  Really embarrassing.  I’d much rather talk about running injuries and muscle pain.

For another, I wasn’t sure how many different topics it would make sense to talk about on one blog.

But digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, are actually pretty closely related to fibromyalgia.   From the time I’ve spend interacting with other bloggers, it seems like most people with fibro have some digestive issues.

I happen to know a little something about all of that.

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In the past ten years, I have been through six gastroenterologists, four nutritionists, and four pelvic-floor physical therapists.

I didn’t find any answers at all until I met my fifth gastroenterologist in 2011.  Even then, what really made the difference is that I had started doing a lot of my own research about what I thought might be causing my issues, and this doctor was open-minded enough to humor me.

At that point, I finally started to figure things out.  None of my issues turned out to be terribly rare, or even hard to diagnose.

It was simply that I had fallen through the cracks– that I was a young, relatively healthy-looking woman, and that the first four doctors I saw found it easier to write my problems off as being caused by stress, rather than ordering some pretty basic testing.

The fact that I had fibromyalgia made it even more likely that these doctors would write me off, because pretty much every medical person knows that these issues are so closely connected.

But just because there are connections between fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome does not mean that treating one will automatically treat the other.  And just because a patient has fibromyalgia does not mean there cannot be other causes and contributing factors to her IBS.

So I have decided to start sharing my experience with digestive issues with others.  To raise awareness about the basic things that most gastroenterologists and other health professionals already know, yet don’t always bother to investigate with their patients.  Once you know about these potential issues, and the tests that can be done to diagnose them, you can begin to take charge of your own health.

I have decided to write about these issues on a second blog, simply because I don’t want to completely overwhelm the people who are already following this one.  I plan to post a lot of recipes/cooking inspirations on the new blog, which I know might not interest every single follower here (and that’s totally ok!).

I hope you will check out my new blog, Sunlight in the Kitchen.

**Strawberries photo courtesy of Sharon Mollerus**

Nutrition Skepticism is Healthy

This is a great article on the nutrition “myths” that get circulated in the health and fitness industry.”  It’s from BBoy Science— a site which I really enjoy.

I thought this post was incredibly vindicating, especially the part about “Anti-Inflammatory Foods.”  I’ve encountered this concept time and time again in the alternative health world.

The author sums up the concept perfectly:

“Anti-oxidant foods are supposed to neutralize ‘free radicals.’ Free radicals are chemicals that naturally occur in your body, and are involved in some very important things – like killing infections and cleaning up by-products, and much more. However, they are also thought to be one of the things responsible for aging, and perhaps cancer.”

Proponents of the anti-inflammatory diet believe “… that free radicals can sometimes go a little too far in their clean up job. Kind of like how dad would throw out perfectly good cardboard for making crafts when you were a kid. Eating more anti-oxidants is thought to keep those pesky free radicals from going to far. Interesting theory, and sounds sciencey enough right?”

He outlines several problems with the idea that inflammation needs to be fought at all costs.  For one, there isn’t actually any evidence that people who eat a diet high in “anti-inflammatory foods” have a lower incidence of chronic disease.  In addition, the inflammatory response is actually part of the healing process– when you slow it down, you might also be slowing down healing.

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I really appreciated this part of the article in particular, because it is relevant to my own life.

When I first started having my digestive troubles in my early twenties, I had a hard time finding a doctor to take me seriously.  (I finally found an explanation, five gastroenterologists later).

After gastroenterologist number three, I decided to give up on doctors for a while.  I went to the health food store down the street– it’s kind of famous in my town, and people come from a 50 mile radius to shop there– and met with their “alternative health nurse nutritionist.”  Basically, she is an RN who has some kind of alternative/holistic nutrition certification.

I told her what my symptoms were, and she gave me dietary recommendations, as well as a long and expensive list of products to buy.

One of the things she was going to have me do was eat anti-inflammatory foods.   She also had me taking several large capsules of curcumin, which is an extract taken from turmeric (you know, the herb).  Many people believe it has anti-inflammatory properties.

I always thought this idea was a little bit fishy.  Apparently Tony Ingraham is on the same page as me.  He writes,

“Furthermore, is lowering inflammation even a good idea? There are serious side effects to anti-inflammatory drugs, so why not in foods as well?”

People shouldn’t assume that just because something is “natural,” or it comes from a food, that it is better than medication.  I would never just take ibuprofen willy-nilly without keeping track of my dosage, so why would I do that with a food that happens to have medicinal properties?  The nurse’s advice just seemed so unspecific… take 5 capsules a day, but also try to include as much turmeric in my cooking as possible.

If I could find a way to use food to take the place of ibuprofen once in a while, that would be great.  Ibuprofen is so hard on my stomach– I couldn’t take it regularly, even if I wanted to. But like ibuprofen, I would want to know the exact dosage I was getting, and I wouldn’t be shoveling it down every day by the truck load, like people seem to imply we should do with anti-inflammatory foods.

Needless to say, the nurse’s recommendations didn’t end up helping me.

Anyway, definitely check this article out, and take a look at BBoy Science in general– it’s a great site!

Arsenic levels in rice… too high for comfort.

brown rice

This was all over the news a few months ago, but in case you missed it, Consumer Reports published a report in November 2012 showing surprisingly high levels of arsenic in dozens of brands of rice and rice products.  This is not good news for people who eat a gluten-free diet, or for people who just plain eat a lot of rice.

Arsenic is a chemical element that exists naturally in the earth’s crust.  It is toxic to humans, affecting the nerves, heart, and blood vessels, and is a known carcinogen.  Arsenic is nothing new– it has been around for the duration of our evolutionary history.  But all of the human activities of the past few centuries– farming, mining, construction– have disturbed the ground and allowed higher levels of arsenic to seep into our soil and water.  Arsenic is also found in many pesticides, which is why it ends up in even higher concentrations on rice farms.

The Food and Drug Administration currently does not have any restrictions on arsenic levels in food, however there is a limit for the maximum allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water.  This is currently set at 10 parts per billion (ppb), although the Environmental Protection Agency originally requested it be set at 5 ppb.  Consumer Reports says,

“Using the 5-ppb standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter.”

This is scary, especially when you consider that people on a gluten-free diet and those who eat traditional cultural diets which rely heavily upon rice are going to have way more than one serving of rice a day.

Now, all of the articles I’ve read on this subject have been quick to point out that there haven’t yet been any studies published proving that higher levels of rice consumption leads to health drawbacks.  But it’s pretty obvious that’s because no one knew about the high levels of arsenic until now.  It’s not as if there have been any studies proving that high levels of rice consumption doesn’t have any health consequences.  I would bet money that there are researchers submitting grant proposals right now for funding to examine this very issue.

Until those studies start to be published, I think it’s best that people don’t make rice a cornerstone of their diet.  Here are some of the best pieces of advice that I’ve gathered from various articles on how to deal with this issue.

  • Limit Rice Consumpion.  Consumer Reports suggests that adults eat no more than 1.5 cups of cooked rice per week, and kids no more than 1 cup.  Honestly, if I had kids of my own, they wouldn’t be getting any rice until at least the age of 10.  Even small amounts of a toxin are a big deal when they’re in a smaller body.
  • Eat a variety of foods.  FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement, “Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains – not only for good nutrition, but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.”  While I think Ms. Hamburg may have been downplaying the potential risks of rice, she is right that the best approach is to eat a variety of foods, and that includes where those foods are grown.  We never really know what gets into our food, even when it is grown on an organic farm (acid rain, anyone?) so it can’t hurt to switch up which company you buy your food from.  In case there are contamination issues at a particular farm, shipping truck, or warehouse, you’re just kind of lowering your odds of being exposed to more chemicals over time by switching up what you eat.  Not only should we be eating a variety of different foods, but we should be buying a variety of brands and switching it up.  In other words, you shouldn’t just buy one brand of pasta that you’ve decided you like and eat it for your entire life.  Better to rotate brands.
  • Choose white rice over brown.   Unfortunately, Consumer Reports found that brown rice contained higher levels of arsenic than white rice.  This was true for every brand they tested.  This is because much of the arsenic collects in the outer shell of the rice grain.  This outer shell contains the extra nutrients and fiber that generally make brown rice a healthier choice than white rice.  When you remove the shell from brown rice to make white rice, you are removing a lot of the arsenic.  (Unfortunately, you are also removing a lot of the nutrients and fiber that generally make brown rice a healthier choice than white rice).
  • Avoid rice grown in the US South.  According to Consumer Reports, rice grown in different areas is likely to have different levels of arsenic.  In general, rice grown in the US South tends to have higher levels of the toxin because the rice is grown in a lot of areas that were once cotton farms.  Those areas were heavily sprayed with arsenic-containing pesticides to combat the boll-weevil.
  • Choose aromatic rice.  According to the Chicago Tribune, “Imported basmati and jasmine rices showed about half to one-eighth the level of arsenic as regular rices grown in the Southern U.S.”
  • Aromatic rice grown in Bangladesh has been shown to have markedly low levels of arsenic.  Of course, it’s not so simple as walking into a supermarket and finding “low arsenic Bangladeshi rice” on the shelf, but maybe it will be in the future.
  • Wash rice thoroughly.  Several of the articles I found mentioned this.  Apparently, the FDA has found that washing rice thoroughly can reduce arsenic levels by 50-60%.  The Chigago Tribune quotes Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports, who explains that he cooks and drains rice similar to pasta. “‘We say to use about 6 parts water to 1 part rice… And then drain off the water after it’s done.'”
  • Remember the other gluten-free grains.  There are lots of other yummy grains out there… at least, they’re yummy when you cook them right.  Some good choices are potatoes, corn, oats (the ones that are specifically labelled gluten-free) and buckwheat.  Yes, buckwheat is gluten-free.  Next time you’re in a Thai restaurant, order buckwheat pad thai (aka pad thai soba)… it’s so amazing.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  Hope this article was helpful!

Rice photo courtesy of sweetbeatandgreenbean on Flickr.

I’m going to start eating more “bad” fat

I read this article last night on my phone while pretending to listen to some loveable relatives butcher some Christmas music, and it made me sad.

http://phys.org/news/2012-12-fat-decisions-brain-cells-production.html

Like pretty much every other girl who was unhappy in school in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s, I used to starve myself.  I mean, I ate, but if I ever get brave enough to post pictures of myself from that time period, you’ll see what I mean.  It was not good.

The one thing I absolutely avoided was fat because, of course, everything around me said that it was bad.  I had low-fat cheese on my sandwich (gross) at lunch.  I even had fat-free, cholesterol-free salad dressing in our refrigerator at home.  I had problems.

I get sad when I see people still trapped in that mindset, especially when they’re also engaging in extreme exercise. These are the people who pay more attention to their health than anyone else, but are in fact the ones doing the most damage.  It’s only a matter of time before their bodies break down (I know, because mine did).

We need fat, and we need cholesterol.  The article I linked to includes a quote from Ernest Arenas, a professor of stem cell neurobiology, on the role cholesterol plays in the body:

“‘We are familiar with the idea of cholesterol as a fuel for cells, and we know that it is harmful for humans to consume too much cholesterol.  What we have shown now is that cholesterol has several functions, and that it is involved in extremely important decisions for neurons. Derivatives of cholesterol control the production of new neurons in the developing brain. When such a decision has been taken, cholesterol aids in the construction of these new cells, and in their survival. Thus cholesterol is extremely important for the body, and in particular for the development and function of the brain.'”

You literally need cholesterol to form new brain cells.  Though we are conditioned to think of this substance as bad, it actually plays a vital role in the body.

There is also new research coming out that says there might not be as much of a risk from saturated fat consumption as previously thought.  Like cholesterol, you need saturated fat to perform certain functions in your body.

While the jury is still out on this, I personally am going to stop being so strict about avoiding saturated fat.  Our ancestors didn’t know anything about the different types of fat– to them, fat was fuel.  The fact that fat and cholesterol play so many vital roles in the body says to me that these nutrients played a significant role in our evolutionary history, and my body is tired of missing out.

This is not to say that I’m going to drop everything and head to McDonald’s (there’s plenty of other bad stuff in fast food!).  I’m not going to start eating bacon every single day.  But maybe I’ll actually let myself eat it when someone else offers it to me.  I think that if I can do this, it will be letting go of the last piece of me that’s still afraid of the things I eat.

I will be writing more on the saturated fat controversy.  Like anything, it’s important to be well-informed and do research from a variety of reliable sources, and it’s important to me that I don’t write a health-oriented blog based on opinion.  But this is how I’m feeling this morning.  If you enjoyed this post, eat a big hunk of cheese for me today.