Tag Archives: Mediterranean diet

What do I do with hummus?

Going vegan can be bewildering for many people. You’re discovering all these enticing new foods, and you have no idea what to do with them. In particular, you’re seeing hummus everywhere but have no idea what to do with it.

Hummus is a spread or dip made from chickpeas, garlic and tahini that is a mainstay of Middle Eastern and eastern Mediterranean cuisine, and can be used in many different ways. There are countless varieties of hummus, some that are very lemony, some more garlicy, and some that are very spicy.

While many people just use it as a dip for chips or bread as an appetizer, you can make some delicious, more elaborate meals from it.

Here’s some suggestions.

Screenshot from 2017-11-08 08:16:34

A hummus-chickpea-arugula wrap: Just use a tortilla wrap or pita bread and stuff it with hummus, chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, tahini sauce, harissa(Tunisian hot pepper sauce), olives, fresh parsley, lemon juice and black pepper. The hummus is there, it just got buried under all the other ingredients. Not only is this very tangy and delicious, it’s also very nutritious.

Screenshot from 2017-11-08 08:15:50

Not in the mood for a wrap? Another suggestion is to make a hummus platter with stuffed grape leaves(dolma), tomatoes, romaine lettuce, tahini sauce, hot sauce, lemon juice, and black pepper. Another delicious, easy to make(unless you make the dolma from scratch) Middle Eastern meal that’s totally vegan.

This barely scratches the surface of all the things you can do with hummus, and Middle Eastern cuisine has so much to offer vegans. Have fun!

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Say goodbye to olive oil? No way!

Huile_d'Olive_Tanche

It seems there’s always something you must eliminate from your diet if you really want to be healthy. Or at least, that is something a certain sub-group of the vegan/plant-based community who supposedly have a monopoly on truth and perfect health want you to believe. For many, it’s gluten, for others, it’s soy, but what gets demonized the most nowadays are oils, including and especially olive oil. Oil-free veganism is all the rage these days, with some advocates of this approach getting frustrated whenever they run into skeptical vegans like me who disagree with them. Although they eschew all oil, olive oil is usually the main target of oil-free proponents because of the common, largely accurate idea that it can be healthy in moderation.

Where did this bizarre notion that olive oil is bad for you come from? A group of plant-based doctors have been pushing this idea for years now, based on some flawed studies that don’t always have control groups. To say that there is room for skepticism based on their research is the understatement of the century. Besides the inherent flaws of these studies, another reason I am very skeptical is because I prefer looking at the totality of the evidence, not just what a small group of researchers are saying. Overwhelmingly, the evidence from the wider scientific community doesn’t agree with them. The idea that all fat is bad is something the scientific community repudiated a long time ago.

Beyond just being skeptical, as an animal advocate, I don’t like placing any more restrictions on a vegan diet than is necessary(read Ginny Messina’s articles below for her take on this). Most people think a vegan diet is too restricted as it is. Why recommend eliminating something that science shows is okay or even healthy in moderation? Numerous studies show that people following a Mediterranean diet, which very often includes olive oil, have significantly lower heart disease risk. This isn’t to say that you have to consume olive oil, or that it’s okay to consume it in large amounts, it’s just that it shouldn’t be the big issue it currently is.

I’ll gladly give up olive oil when and if the evidence shows it is harmful in moderation. I tire of hearing “I’m giving up olive oil because I attended a lecture by the brilliant Dr. So and So and he convinced me it’s the most horrible thing ever”. I also don’t care for the often hypocritical whole foodist dogmatism that underpins this anti-olive oil stance and which forbids consuming anything that isn’t considered a “whole food”. For some, overly rigid whole foodism is a stepping stone to the even more extreme and pseudo-scientific world of rawfoodism. Sometimes it seems like there’s a bizarre kind of competition going on to see who can survive on the most restricted diet.

If you care about your health, completely eliminating olive oil from your diet is probably pointless(unless your doctor recommends you do so or if you have a condition that makes it difficult for you to metabolize fat); if you care about helping animals, this is pointless, a big distraction, and potentially a hindrance in vegan outreach efforts. While I follow and recommend a mostly whole food vegan diet, I am not overly rigid about it, though I was more rigid years ago. A little oil or a few sweets are going to harm the health of a healthy distance joggler like me? Really? To me, as a non-expert, it all comes down to what consensus science says, not just a few doctors or scientists with an extreme minority view. For this reason, you won’t see me making dietary recommendations on this blog that have little to no basis in science. I realize that my approach makes me a black sheep to much of the vegan community, but so be it.

Related articles:

  1. Olive oil, Health, And Advocacy
  2. Vegan Health: The Fatty Acids
  3. Mayo Clinic: If olive oil is high in fat, why is it considered healthy?
  4. Farewell, Low-Fat: Why Scientists Applaud Lifting A Ban On Fat
  5. Help Animals With Healthful and Practical Vegan Diets
  6. Nutrition Professor Says “No Broccoli Health Benefits. Ditch ASAP!”

The centenarians of Ikaria, Greece

Ikaria, Greece

Ikaria, Greece

Greece as a whole isn’t that exceptional when it comes to life expectancy, but the Greek island of Ikaria in the Aegean sea is similar to Sardinia and Okinawa with its exceptionally large number of centenarians.

Why is this? The reasons are similar to why so many Sardinians live to be 100: staying active, a healthy Mediterranean diet, and close-knit families. According to The Island of Long Life:

Chatting to locals on the plane the following day, I learn that several have relations who are centenarians. One woman says her aunt is 111. The problem for demographers with such claims is that they are often very difficult to stand up. Going back to Methuselah, history is studded with exaggerations of age. In the last century, longevity became yet another battleground in the cold war. The Soviet authorities let it be known that people in the Caucasus were living deep into their hundreds. But subsequent studies have shown these claims lacked evidential foundation.

Since then, various societies and populations have reported advanced ageing, but few are able to supply convincing proof. “I don’t believe Korea or China,” Buettner says. “I don’t believe the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. None of those places has good birth certificates.”

However, Ikaria does. It has also been the subject of a number of scientific studies. Aside from the demographic surveys that Buettner helped organise, there was also the University of Athens’ Ikaria Study. One of its members, Dr Christina Chrysohoou, a cardiologist at the university’s medical school, found that the Ikarian diet featured a lot of beans and not much meat or refined sugar. The locals also feast on locally grown and wild greens, some of which contain 10 times more antioxidants than are found in red wine, as well as potatoes and goat’s milk.

Chrysohoou thinks the food is distinct from that eaten on other Greek islands with lower life expectancy. “Ikarians’ diet may have some differences from other islands’ diets,” she says. “The Ikarians drink a lot of herb tea and small quantities of coffee; daily calorie consumption is not high. Ikaria is still an isolated island, without tourists, which means that, especially in the villages in the north, where the highest longevity rates have been recorded, life is largely unaffected by the westernised way of living.”

But she also refers to research that suggests the Ikarian habit of taking afternoon naps may help extend life. One extensive study of Greek adults showed that regular napping reduced the risk of heart disease by almost 40%. What’s more, Chrysohoou’s preliminary studies revealed that 80% of Ikarian males between the ages of 65 and 100 were still having sex. And, of those, a quarter did so with “good duration” and “achievement”. “We found that most males between 65 and 88 reported sexual activity, but after the age of 90, very few continued to have sex.”

Here is another interesting article about Ikarian longevity: The Island Where People Forget to die.

I wonder how much of this longevity could be due to fasting, which many Greek Orthodox Christians practice. This means what is essentially a vegetarian or near vegan diet during much of the year. According to Effects of Greek Orthodox Christian Church fasting on serum lipids and obesity:

Adherence to Greek Orthodox fasting periods contributes to a reduction in the blood lipid profile including a non-significant reduction in HDL cholesterol and possible impact on obesity.

Of course, this probably isn’t that important of a factor in Ikaria’s longevity, since a lot of people fast in the rest of Greece. Now if only Greeks could cut back on their high smoking rate, their life expectancy would be greatly improved.

The secret to Sardinian Longevity

800px-Sardegna_-_Lago_Omodeo

Lake Omodeo, Sardinia. Source – Wikipedia

Sardinia is a beautiful, mountainous island in the Mediterranean sea that is an autonomous region of Italy. One of the most interesting things about the people of this island is the very high level of centenarians or people who live to 100 and beyond among them. More interesting still, unlike other longevity hot-spots around the world(like Okinawa, Japan), the sex ratio is very low, almost 1:1. This is remarkable because centenarians are overwhelmingly female in other countries. The number of centenarians per capita in Sardinia is an astonishing 20 times higher than in the U.S. What is their secret?

Why there are so many centenarians in Sardinia, and why the sex ratio is so low in particular is the focus of ongoing research. It’s obviously due to a mixture of genes, diet, culture, and climate. Genes unique to Sardinian men are thought to protect them from heart disease. Their diet is also quintessentially Mediterranean, including a special type of red wine that is so dark Italians of the mainland call it vino nero or “black wine”. Usually the darker the wine, the more antioxidants. They also eat a special type of cheese that I will explain in detail below. According to International Business Times in Sardinia’s Secret To Longevity: Genetics, Diet and Lifestyle:

The secret to Sardinians’ long life is the subject of study of a project called AKeA – an acronym for “A kent’ annos,” a traditional toast in the Sardinian culture that means “May you live to be 100 years.”

The leading researcher, Luca Deiana from the University of Sassari in northwest Sardinia, found that genetics play a key role, observing that it is generally in the central-eastern mountainous region that longevity is most common.

The ruggedness of the geography has repelled invaders for centuries, and there has been little intermarriage with outsiders since then, thereby preserving some of the beneficial genetic traits.

For example, Deiana, along with his team of 25 Italian doctors and biologists, identified a gene in the Y chromosome that can greatly reduce heart attack and stroke in men.

This gene, passed down from fathers to sons, can explain the ratio of male-female centenarians in the region, which is about 1-1, while the ratio is generally 1-4 all around the world.

Diet is also considered to be crucial — as the Sardinian diet is rich in healthy nutrients from fresh locally grown vegetables, prepared simply with olive oil and served with lemon, garlic and other spices.

It is not surprising that they eat little meat and eat a lot of vegetables. This is generally associated with longevity around the world. It is also interesting to note that the highest rate of centenarians in Sardinia is in a region that had long remained pagan even after the rest of Sardinia converted to Christianity. This is in the hilly eastern-central region of the island, in the province of Nuoro. They eventually converted to Christianity by the early middle ages. It seems that whatever helped hill-country Sardinia remain a pagan paradise for so long is also helping them maintain a very healthy lifestyle.

Another interesting thing about the Sardinian diet, and I bolded something that may make some of you feel sick for emphasis, in On the Table in Sardinia: Red Wine, Bread and Cheese:

Diet Stresses Less Fish, and Special Cheese

Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t place too much emphasis on the importance of fish. He says that in the so-called Blue Zones — the areas of the world he’s studied where people live the longest — fish consumption doesn’t seem to be overemphasized.

“The longest-lived diets don’t include a lot of fish,” Buettner said. “If you’re gonna … include protein in your diet, I suggest this cheese that the Sardinians eat.”

The cheese, called pecorino sardo, is made from the milk of grass-fed sheep, resulting in a product that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids.

Sardinia is also known for having another kind of cheese — one that actually is infested with live maggots.

That cheese may contain bacteria that are good for the gut.

“We don’t know,” Buettner acknowledged. “We just know the longest-lived men in the world eat this. And they eat it as a manifestation of toughness.”

Maggot cheese! How long before this unique Sardinian delicacy becomes the next big thing at health food stores?

Vegetarians and mental disorders

One of the most common features on this site are posts about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. In general, vegetarians are healthier than meat-eaters, though people who eat a Mediterranean or Paleo diet and minimize meat are about as healthy as vegetarians.

Truth be told, vegetarianism isn’t always associated with positive health outcomes. In fact, when it comes to mental health, vegetarianism may be more strongly correlated with mental disorders than meat-eating. According to Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey:

Results

Vegetarians displayed elevated prevalence rates for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and somatoform disorders. Due to the matching procedure, the findings cannot be explained by socio-demographic characteristics of vegetarians (e.g. higher rates of females, predominant residency in urban areas, high proportion of singles). The analysis of the respective ages at adoption of a vegetarian diet and onset of a mental disorder showed that the adoption of the vegetarian diet tends to follow the onset of mental disorders.

Conclusions

In Western cultures vegetarian diet is associated with an elevated risk of mental disorders. However, there was no evidence for a causal role of vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders.

None of this means that you are at a greater risk of developing a mental disorder if you are a vegetarian(the study showed that people became vegetarian after showing symptoms of a mental disorder). It shows just a correlation between mental disorders and vegetarianism. Further studies may find no such correlation.

But assuming this is true, why is it so? Vegetarians may just be more sensitive in general, and to animal suffering in particular. In this way, we are like artists. In some studies, creativity is also linked with mental disorders. If you remember my post, The Vegan Brain is Different After all!, it wasn’t that big of a surprise that the brains of vegetarians seem to be wired a little differently from the brains of meat-eaters. Although vegetarians may generally be more prone to mental disorders, vegetarians tend to have higher IQs, on average.

People who enjoy torturing or killing animals or other people are also very likely to have serious mental disorders, but of a completely different kind. It is depressing to even think about such people, and is obviously even more depressing for animal-loving vegetarians.

Legume consumption and cancer risk

Broad beans. Source: Public domain.

Broad beans. Source: Public domain.

Legumes are nutritional powerhouses. Not only are they packed with quality protein, they also contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, starch, and phyto-nutrients. Most contain only a little fat.

So it is for good reason that doctors and health professionals are increasingly recommending replacing animal protein with legumes like beans, lentils, and peas – high legume consumption is associated with a lower risk for heart disease. But what about legume consumption and cancer risk? According to the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo in Legume intake and the risk of cancer: a multisite case-control study in Uruguay:

CONCLUSION:

Higher intake of legumes was associated with a decreased risk of several cancers including those of the upper aerodigestive tract, stomach, colorectum, and kidney, but not lung, breast, prostate or bladder. Further investigations of these associations in prospective cohort studies are warranted.

Very interesting. It looks like legumes have a protective effect on the parts of the body they come in direct contact with. So you’re doing a lot of good for yourself if legumes are your preferred protein source.

Is intermittent fasting beneficial?

If there is one thing we could all do to significantly extend our lifespan, it would be restricting calories by eating less. This seems to imply that fasting could improve health. Or does it?

According to the J Nutr Biochem(2005), Beneficial effects of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems:

Abstract

Intermittent fasting (IF; reduced meal frequency) and caloric restriction (CR) extend lifespan and increase resistance to age-related diseases in rodents and monkeys and improve the health of overweight humans. Both IF and CR enhance cardiovascular and brain functions and improve several risk factors for coronary artery disease and stroke including a reduction in blood pressure and increased insulin sensitivity. Cardiovascular stress adaptation is improved and heart rate variability is increased in rodents maintained on an IF or a CR diet. Moreover, rodents maintained on an IF regimen exhibit increased resistance of heart and brain cells to ischemic injury in experimental models of myocardial infarction and stroke. The beneficial effects of IF and CR result from at least two mechanisms–reduced oxidative damage and increased cellular stress resistance. Recent findings suggest that some of the beneficial effects of IF on both the cardiovascular system and the brain are mediated by brain-derived neurotrophic factor signaling in the brain. Interestingly, cellular and molecular effects of IF and CR on the cardiovascular system and the brain are similar to those of regular physical exercise, suggesting shared mechanisms. A better understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which IF and CR affect the blood vessels and heart and brain cells will likely lead to novel preventative and therapeutic strategies for extending health span.

Source

Laboratory of Neurosciences, National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA. mattsonm@grc.nia.nih.gov

It looks like fasting could help many people, but do not do it without getting the okay from a medical professional since it can be dangerous for people with certain conditions. Safer than fasting would be to simply restrict calories by eating less.

You could of course just eat a lot less of what you normally eat, but perhaps a better way of doing this would be to adopt a healthier diet, like adopting a Mediterranean or whole foods vegetarian diet(or better yet, a Mediterranean vegan diet). These diets have almost the same health benefits as caloric restriction since they exclude or minimize many foods with high calories.

Primary Prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet:

Among persons at high cardiovascular risk, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of major cardiovascular events. (Funded by the Spanish government’s Instituto de Salud Carlos III and others; Controlled-Trials.com number, ISRCTN35739639.).

Health Effects of Vegan Diet(2009):

Abstract

Recently, vegetarian diets have experienced an increase in popularity. A vegetarian diet is associated with many health benefits because of its higher content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemicals and a fat content that is more unsaturated. Compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber. Vegans tend to be thinner, have lower serum cholesterol, and lower blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease. However, eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Micronutrients of special concern for the vegan include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that are fortified with these nutrients, appropriate supplements should be consumed. In some cases, iron and zinc status of vegans may also be of concern because of the limited bioavailability of these minerals.

Source

Department of Nutrition and Wellness, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, USA. wcraig@andrews.edu

Lentils with bulgur wheat

IMG_0891

I adore lentils. They are little gems of protein and so versatile, I can eat them every day. They are commonly eaten in the Middle East and adjacent regions, usually with rice, but I decided to use bulgur wheat instead. Bulgur wheat is also a staple of many Middle Eastern countries. I am minimizing my rice consumption(both white and brown) these days due it possibly playing a role in diabetes, and because other grains, like bulgur wheat, have a far superior nutritional value.

Bulgur wheat is often confused with cracked wheat. This may help clear up any confusion – GRAIN BASICS – BULGHUR (BULGAR) AND
CRACKED WHEAT

It took about 30 minutes to cook the entire meal, boiling the green lentils(which require more cooking time) first in half water/half vegetable broth. I then added some red pepper powder, black pepper, and garlic powder. I also added chopped onions, along with chopped garlic, and a dash of olive oil. It tasted great, though I think it would have been better if I had added some cumin.

As a side dish/appetizer, I had some Korean kimchi(or Korean pickle), which helps stimulate digestion due to its spiciness and friendly bacteria. Koreans eat kimchi with almost every meal. The kimchi wasn’t homemade(it was Sunja’s Medium Spicy Kimchi), but it is vegan. Kimchi in Asian restaurants usually has shrimp or fish added to it. I occasionally make my own sauerkraut, but every time I try to make kimchi it doesn’t turn out well. The ingredients in this kimchi are: cabbage, carrots, red peppers, leeks, green onions, garlic, ginger, sea salt.

Lentils with bulgur wheat can also be considered an example of “Mediterranean” cuisine, besides “Middle Eastern”, depending on your definition of “Mediterranean”(many Middle Eastern countries have Mediterranean coasts, so I see no reason why they they can’t be considered both). The Mediterranean diet is back in the news these days due to recent research reaffirming how healthy it is, in part due to legumes like lentils being an important protein source in many Mediterranean countries. So you can’t go wrong by consuming more lentils. The east Asian diet is also similarly healthy, so combining the two has a uniquely healthful synergism to it.

All in all, a delicious vegan power meal that is a fusion of the best of Middle Eastern and Korean cuisine.