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book review: The “Food Matters” Cookbook

21 Sep

I have been coveting The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living, by Mark Bittman, for a while, and I got it for my birthday. I’ve used it for a few weeks now, so I guess it’s time for my review.

For the most part, I like it. It contains a lot of how-to-cook ideas and bits about technique, in the recipe instructions sections. It’s simple and descriptive. My biggest peeve is that it doesn’t contain pictures, although I can understand why (it’s already a hefty book with just the text). The dishes I’ve made have been good, and it’s given me some great ideas for lunches and breakfasts, which are the hardest for me to keep interesting.

In theory, I’d also like calorie counts, but in practice, these recipes are so flexible that it would be sort of pointless to include those. Bittman’s recipes are basic plans, not prescriptive or fussy blueprints. He includes plenty of choices and variations for almost every recipe. This approach encourages the use of seasonal produce, which I like.

This cookbook is aimed at readers who have read Bittman’s more argumentative book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes. I like both of these books very much, and I recommend them both. If you’re not interested in reading about food, though–you just want the recipes and that’s it–there’s no reason you can’t get the cookbook alone. The basic philosophy is simple, and it’s covered in the cookbook as much as it needs to be in order for you to understand it.

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quick overview: the glycemic index

16 May

Since many of the most-recommended eating plans for PCOS patients are based on the idea of glycemic response, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss a couple of things about the glycemic index (and debunk a couple of other myths). Here are a few basic facts about glycemic response, the glycemic index, and how this idea can help you eat better and reduce your PCOS symptoms.

Basics

The glycemic index is a measure of the effects of a certain kind of carbohydrate on blood sugar. Foods with a high GI are the sugars and simple starches that make your blood sugar spike and then plummet (all of those baked goods we love), plus things like potatoes (although these are not as bad as some people have suggested!), and juices or sodas or other sugary drinks. Lower-GI starches include whole grains, beans, some kinds of vegetables, or certain kinds of breads like pumpernickel or rye.

When you hear about “good carbs” vs. “bad carbs,” the difference is the GI. Higher-GI foods set up a number of bad outcomes: the spike in blood sugar causes increased hunger and cravings when it bottoms out, and this eating pattern–over time–can wear out your pancreas, raising your risk of diabetes (especially if you are already insulin resistant, which many PCOS patients are).

In other words, the lower-GI carbohydrates fuel your body without causing drastic ups and downs in your blood sugar–which makes you feel better and is easier on your pancreas. (Eating those lower-GI carbohydrates instead of the sugary or starchy foods can also help you lose weight, especially if insulin resistance is at the root of your difficulties.)

What to Eat
The best books on the glycemic index don’t advocate a radical eating plan. Rather, they mostly suggest reducing carbohydrate portion size and exchanging high-GI carbs for low-GI ones. You can easily find lists of foods by GI on the internet, but it’s really mostly simple (with a few surprises, such as the variation in GI between types of rice). Just choose whole grains, less-processed carbohydrates, and more vegetables instead of starches. (Hey, I said it was simple, not easy.)

The Glycemic Load
You might also hear doctors or nutritionists discussing the glycemic load. This is basically a formula for how much carbohydrate is in a food, multiplied by its GI. The reason it’s useful is that some foods have a high GI, but don’t contain that much carbohydrate, so they don’t affect your blood sugar much. (Carrots are the classic example here.) A food that has a high GI but is low in overall carbohydrate is usually a good choice to eat.

Is this the same as low-carb?
No, it is not. None of these eating plans are low-carb. Atkins, for example, is low-carb, and I do not believe it is a healthful diet at all. But these plans–which have more in common with, say, the South Beach Diet–all emphasize higher-quality foods, better nutrition per calorie, and a balance of macronutrients (that is, a balance between carbohydrate, fat, and protein).

Finally, a Myth
Just because I hear this all the time and read it all the time: no, pasta is not particularly high GI. It’s fine to eat pasta if you can do so wisely and in moderation. It is moderate GI and should be eaten with a low-GI accompaniment. The main reason that so many people struggle with pasta is that Americans tend to eat a lot of it–it should be a moderate serving size, not the only thing you eat at your meal. Also, many people use jarred pasta sauce, which can be a source of a LOT of sugar. Read your label! One sauce that I really like is Victoria marinara (available in most grocery stores, at least on the East Coast, and at Costco). It has no added sugar and it’s delicious.

That said, we eat much less pasta than we used to, because I do find it hard to eat just one serving of it. The main reason I used to cook it was that it was easy: boil noodles, add sauce, and there you have it: dinner! The truth is, though, that it really needs to be just PART of a balanced meal, with more vegetables and possibly a protein source, and at that point I’m cooking anyway and it might be just as easy to cook a whole grain or vegetables instead.

Recommended Reading
My favorite books on this topic are those by Jennie Brand-Miller (she has an assortment; choose the one that reflects your goals or situation!) and the Insulin Resistance Diet. I do also like the South Beach Diet, in many ways, though I find that it is too focused on artificial sweeteners for my taste.

PCOS-friendly product: Kirkland Signature turkey burgers

5 Jul

So, as much as I don’t like eating processed foods, there are times when I really just do not have the time and energy to make my own hamburgers. (Well, to be clear: there are times when I keep forgetting to take the meat out of the freezer.) One solution that I’m fairly comfortable with: the Costco turkey burger.

They’re Kirkland Signature brand (which is Costco’s house brand), and they have few ingredients (just turkey, water, salt). They can go on the grill–or into the microwave or oven, for that matter–still frozen, which is the big benefit. They’re not something that you’re going to write home raves about; I’d say, for flavor and texture and juiciness, etc., I’d give them about a 6 out of 10. But let’s face it–when I’m cooking a frozen turkey burger, I’m really looking for convenience and speed, not gourmet, and if it’s decent, I’ll take it.

These are a pretty good center-of-the-plate option. Each one has 200 calories, which is a bit steep considering that it’s very boring by itself (I had one yesterday with bread, cucumber slices, and a dab of blue cheese dressing–which is not a low-cal sandwich!). On the other hand, though, they’re high in protein, low-carb, and filling. I think they make a good lunch. Sometimes I microwave one (which leaves you with a juicier, but not as tasty, final product), sprinkle it with a bit of shredded cheese, and serve with salsa and black beans over the top.

Anyway, the verdict on this product is that it’s one of the few processed foods that really fits into a PCOS-friendly diet, in my opinion; no preservatives, MSG, etc. I’m willing to accept the fact that it’s not going to be the best sandwich of my life (or maybe even the best sandwich of my week) when I’m in a major hurry.

I’d say these get 7 or 8 stars out of 10–for convenience and relative healthfulness.

product review: Dreamfields Pasta

31 May

One of the “healthier” options for pasta, which is increasingly available in average supermarkets, is Dreamfields. I am not a fan of whole wheat pasta–honestly, I’d rather do without pasta altogether–but this stuff is pretty darn good.

It isn’t noticeably different from regular pasta, either in taste or texture. It cooks in about the same amount of time, looks the same–frankly, it’s the best better-for-you pasta I’ve ever tried.

The big downside is price: when it’s on sale, I can snag it for $2/box…as opposed to regular pasta’s sale price of less than $1/box. But since it’s not something we eat every day or even every week, it’s not a big chunk of my grocery budget. Even though we eat much, much less pasta than we used to, I love to be able to make homemade macaroni and cheese once in a while!

This link takes you to a coupon for a dollar off a box, if you’d like to try it; you can also buy it in bulk online if you don’t have access to a grocery store that carries it, or if you want to get a better deal on a larger quantity.

Book Recommendation: Mark Bittman

11 Jan

You may know Mark Bittman as the author of “How to Cook Everything” and its spinoffs, or as the author of “The Best Recipes in the World.” You should, however, know him as the author of “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More than 75 Recipes,” a book that is both interesting and useful. Trust me: this book belongs in your kitchen!

Bittman’s project with this book is to outline a way of eating that is both healthful and socially responsible. In his research for this book (and, before that, for changing his own lifestyle), he assembled a compelling body of research for his theory, which is, essentially, that animal products require a lot more resources to produce than plant ones, and that plant foods are better for you.

Rather than advocating going vegan, however, Bittman argues that moderation is the key. He sets forth an eating plan that is heavily plant-based, supplemented with small amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy. He argues that changing the ratios of our meals, so that they are mostly plants with some animal products, works very well to satisfy us while promoting health and good stewardship.  He offers sample meal plans and his own personal approach (he is essentially “vegan before six”–eating almost entirely plant foods for most of the day–and less stringent at dinner, which is a more difficult meal for a self-proclaimed foodie to modify).

And…well…those 75 recipes? They are F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C.  Seriously, these are some good recipes. I have already made several of them and I have only owned this book for three days! All offer excellent health profiles, as well as socially responsible ingredients.

As for how this book relates to PCOS: I feel that women with PCOS have to work a little harder than the average person to stay healthy and maintain a reasonable weight. I also think, based on my own experiences, that reducing processed carbohydrates and other refined foods can help manage PCOS. This book gives excellent suggestions for doing those things, and fits in nicely with a healthful and satisfying culinary lifestyle. I highly recommend it! And if you buy it and cook from it, please comment and let me know which recipes you tried and how you liked them. (For the record, I have tried the basic tomato sauce and the frittata; both were awesome. I’m about to eat his breakfast hot cereal…and it smells great.)

product: Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta

18 Oct

I love this stuff: Ancient Harvest Quinoa Pasta.

This pasta is a mix of corn flour and quinoa flour. It is higher in protein and lower GI than regular pasta. It tastes like real pasta, not like twigs. I am not a fan of whole-wheat pasta, so I’ve had to do some looking around at different options. I still wouldn’t eat it every night, but on those occasions when you’re just about crazy wanting some macaroni and cheese–this is a great option. I’ve found it at health food stores and some regular supermarkets [Harris Teeter, some Giant stores]. It’s great with pesto!

One note, though: it doesn’t swell when it cooks, at least not like wheat pasta does, so you may end up with a smaller batch than you expect.