Thursday, October 20, 2011

Guilty Secrets and Baby Steps

I have a guilty secret, and after I tell you what I'm doing, you might think I'm compromising my integrity.

I know I'm compromising my integrity.  But where should I draw the line?  Let me explain:

My oldest child is in grade 7, and I have been volunteering at elementary schools since he was in Kindergarten.  Much of my involvement has been in food related ways.  So I know a thing or two about how to put together a meal for a crowd of kids, and make good money at it too.  Canadian public elementary schools don't usually serve lunches the way they do in the U.S., but it is normal for parent councils to sell what they call "hot lunches" on a monthly basis to raise funds for school extras.  Over the years we have progressed from serving pop and chicken nuggets, to a variety of healthier choices.

Here is a piece the now-famous Mrs. Q (the teacher-author behind Fed Up With Lunch) published last year in a guest blogpost I wrote about what we were doing in my kids' last school:

I really loved that program, but we have since moved to a brand-new school that is much closer to our home.  This is the third school I have been involved in, and for the most part, it's great.

However, the school is only a year old and we don't have enough systems in place to offer the whole school lunches like the one you see in the guest post.  However, we do run a monthly pasta lunch for the kindergarten classes.  This is how it works:  parents pay $10 to sign up their child at the beginning of the year, and we serve a hot pasta lunch once a month for each of the ten months of the school year.  Any parent who has ever been involved in counting money for school functions will immediately appreciate the brilliant simplicity of what we are doing.  It's affordable for almost everyone (this is very important in difficult economic times), and yet, because we rely on frugal procurement, we make a decent profit too.  I buy pasta when it's on sale, we get donated canned tomatoes, and I bring in carrots, garlic and herbs from my own garden.  Usually several parents get together to make a large batch of pasta sauce in the school kitchen.  We freeze it in smaller portions and use these to throw together a very simple but tasty lunch in very little time.

Me, organizing pasta lunches for children... can you see my moral dilemma?

Both of my children are beyond Kindergarten.  This is somewhat unfortunate for them, because the program is fantastic.  For one thing, there is a big emphasis on food.  The children grow herbs and vegetables, they bake in class, and they are encouraged to explore different flavours, textures and methods. (Ed Bruske, eat your heart out!)  I used to bake no knead bread myself, and when I stopped eating grains, I brought some of my pots and pans to the school for the kids to use.

The children now bake their own no knead bread in class once a month.  These four, five and six year olds bake their own bread with confidence!  It looks pretty good and I'm told it tastes great too.  (They offered it to me, but as you know, I stopped eating bread.)

But let's get back to the hot lunch. Today I served our October lunch, which for the most part, went down very well in the kindergarten room.   I topped a bowl of noodles slathered in a delicious tomato sauce generously with grated cheese before heating the dish in the oven, just like regular parents might do at home all over the developed world.  I did add one extra ingredient, and that was chopped parsley, which I picked in my garden last night.

Now I have been a parent long enough to have a good idea about how children's minds work.  I have been volunteering at school long enough to know firsthand that children are often hesitant to eat something unfamiliar, though in a group sitting, it's usually possible to encourage them, especially if they are younger, to try a little bit, and it's not uncommon for them to realize that they like it.

There's another part to this story.  In addition to the paid lunches, we also always make another bowl of pasta for a group of older kids.  This group consists of a motley assortment of kids who either forgot to bring their lunch, or they have difficult family circumstances.  Some of the kids have behavioural issues and need supervision at lunch time.  I don't get into any of the details, but poverty is a common theme.  I feel it is dealt with professionally, and I don't get any sense that they feel marginalized by their peers for being in this group.

The feedback this afternoon from this group of kids was something I totally expected.  But I'm somewhat subversive by nature, and I already have this moral dilemma in trying to reconcile being grain-free myself, while happily feeding it to children.  So the parsley was going to be served if I had anything to do with it.

When they saw me bringing the dish, one of the girls asked if it was spinach.  They did eat it, but were less than enthusiastic about the green bits.  Give them pizza, and they will clean the plate in one go, but if it's anything unfamiliar, they aren't interested.  For example, there wasn't a single taker to even try the spaghetti squash I offered last month.

As usual, we overcatered this afternoon, and on my way back to the kitchen, I stopped into a random grade 8 classroom (yes, unfortunately the kids eat in the classrooms at their desks) to offer some "free pasta".  In no time, they had polished off the dish, and not a single kid complained about the parsley.

To me, this was a great example of how socio-economic differences play into people's health and well-being and their nutrition.   All the students in our kindergarten classes are very fortunate to be exposed to a variety of foods in class.  There is a much greater likelihood of them growing up to be open to a variety of healthier options than children who haven't had exposure to such a great program, particularly if they aren't exposed to different foods at home either.

It is clear to me as well that carbohydrate-rich meals will be with us forever.  They are affordable, easy to prepare, and deeply embedded in our culture.   Even though I don't eat them myself (and I've noticed quite a few of the teachers don't either), grains are fully endorsed by the nutrition authorities and our Ministry of Education.  While I feel I am compromising my integrity by being so closely involved in this program, I am also acutely aware that the alternatives of serving more processed foods (which is what most other schools do), or nothing at all, are both worse.

And maybe cutting out grains, for the most part, is the cherry on the nutritional cake.  Part of me wonders if processed and sugary foods aren't the bigger hurdles to overcome in our school system.

If we can score well on those two fronts, maybe there is a case to be made for serving carbs to kids, especially if they are combined with plenty of other freshly prepared ingredients that do add to their nutritional well-being.

I have to keep reminding myself these are still early days in the school lunch revolution.  Perhaps we should consider this to be a first step, and if we keep working at improving what we offer the children, we will eventually be able to tackle the third hurdle as well.

Big Box of Baking Soda

Since writing about boxed foods earlier this week, I've been racking my brain to think of grain-free foods that typically come packaged in boxes.

I do have a couple of grain-free low carb foods in boxes in my cupboards (well actually, everything is currently on the floor in the living room, because of the renovation).  However, they are all small items like creamed cocout, agar-agar, sea salt and stock cubes.

The largest box that makes the grade is baking soda.

Though these days I use it more for cleaning my pots and pans than for cooking, so maybe it doesn't even count as a food, and more as a household cleaner.

Have you ever wondered why boxed foods typically contain a lot of grains?

The main reason why grains have historically been such a mainstay of human diets is that they can be easily stored for periods of drought, poor weather or famine.  The other major food groups that provide energy (proteins and fats) go bad or rancid quickly without processing.  But grains can be stored well for long periods of time without processing or refrigeration.  Pulses and legumes are combination carb/protein foods and share the same advantage.

The interesting thing about grain foods is that they lend themselves to a variety of cooking processes, after which they typically become much more brittle than when they are in their whole form.  Think of cookies, pies, and breakfast cereals.  When heated, the starch in the grains hardens, which adds to the flavour and texture.  But it also means the foods need rigid packaging to keep them from getting crushed.

Also, people who cook a fair amount themselves know how cheap it is to make a grain-based food.  I'm thinking, for example, of puffed rice (yes, I admit to having tried to make it on an experimental day, long ago).

Don't get me wrong:  I'm not suggesting that it's practical for grain-eating consumers to make their own puffed rice for breakfast, but if you compare it to popcorn (it's a similar process), it's easy to see that a handful of a dirt-cheap commodity easily expands into a much larger amount.  The box packaging allows the producer to illustrate the product being sold in a way that convinces consumers to pay a much greater amount of money for the product than its underlying value.

When you think about it this way, it's easy to see how our societal predeliction for grains and starches has contributed to our consumerism and the wasteful environmental practice of single-use packaging.  By switching to a simpler diet that eliminates grain-based foods, the consequences go beyond simple nutrition, and start impacting other facets of our lives as well.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Kitchen Renovations

Our kitchen used to be new, but that was almost 50 years before we bought our house, and we've already been living in it for 15 years. In other words, a renovation is long overdue. We knew this when we bought the house, but I could never figure out what I wanted.  And so we continued to live with the kitchen we hated.

For years I looked in magazines and at other people's kitchens and although I saw plenty of individual features that were lovely, I could never envision the whole picture. Part of the problem lies with me just not liking the styles that are popular here. We live in a small city, and most people go for the traditional look. Lots of granite and country features. I have always preferred contemporary lines, like you see in bigger cities, but I wanted functionality too, and the higher end European kitchens I saw seemed to be more about style than function. On top of that, it was hard finding a local kitchen designer who could deliver what we wanted, but we did, eventually.

Looking back at the notes I made over the years, I realize that many of the features I thought were essential for my new kitchen, have now fallen away.  And this is purely because of the way we now eat.

For example, I used to bake a lot of bread, so my ideal kitchen had a baking corner with a kneading station. We wanted lots of pantry space. We thought of creating a walk-in pantry underneath our staircase.  I wanted appliance garages to store countertop clutter like the toaster and the bread bin.  I also wanted large bins for efficient bulk storage of grains and sugar.

Now that we live more of a paleo lifestyle - or at least, my husband and I do, and the children are inbetween - we have very different needs:
  • Since I'm no longer baking bread, we aren't using the KitchenAid stand mixer very much any more, so it won't need to be up on the counter at all times.
  • We need lots of counterspace for bringing in and prepping produce from our garden outside, and a large sink to wash it in. Our new counters will be stainless steel. I want them to be highly functional, durable and easy to wash. 
  • There is an enormous kitchen window that lets in lots of light and fresh air, and provides a good view of the vegetable garden.  This is good for inspiring us to pick fresh veggies and herbs for cooking with, rather than storing packages of frozen or storebought refrigerated produce.
  • We store far fewer foods on our pantry shelves than we used to. Although we will have a fair amount of storage space, it won't be much more than we currently have. The big difference is that it will be more efficiently designed. But the pantry idea has gone out of the window. I do buy canned tomatoes when they are on sale and we always have a selection of other cans in storage, but the boxes are gone.I realized with a shock that I virtually never eat anything from a box anymore. Why is that, I wonder?  Low carb foods come in cans and jars, and some are packaged in cellophane or plastic e.g. seeds and nuts, but I am struggling to think of boxed foods that make the low carb grade. Hmmm... I wonder if that could be a variation on Michael Pollan's rule of avoiding all foods with more than 5 ingredients?
  • The other big change is that we are bringing our dining room table (it's a heavy farmhouse-style table made of reclaimed teak) into the kitchen. The idea behind this is to focus more on family meals, and what better way to do this than to eat in the kitchen?   To me this is symbolic of a simpler, more straightforward way of life that brings us closer to the things that matter.
Maybe the reason we struggled so long to decide on the right kitchen design was because much of what you see in the media focuses so much on spaces designed for entertaining and showing off. Until the financial crisis started to gain traction, I used to watch HGTV renovation shows in total frustration at the emphasis on entertaining. I'm so glad those days are over.  Yes, I know it's still happening, but it's not quite as in your face as it used to be.

We wanted our house to be for us to live in, not our friends, even though they will be very welcome to join us around the dinner table when the construction is finally complete.

And now, the end is in sight.  I received a call yesterday that the cabinets will be ready for installation in two weeks. I can't wait.  We'll have contemporary design but this will be married with lots of functionality for a low carb lifestyle.  I will update you when it is done.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Very high GI in whole grain bread: Canadian Living response

Do you remember my post from last week about the glycemic index of whole grain bread being similar to that of white bread?  Well, this morning I received a very nice reply from Canadian Living (I am still waiting for a response from Liberte regarding the sugar in their yoghurt):
Thanks for getting in touch with your concerns about our writer's whole grain bread recommendation in the September 2011 issue of Canadian Living. I shared your email with our registered dietitian, writer Cara Rosenbloom, and thought I'd in turn share our rationale for including whole grain bread in that feature on foods that boost your brainpower.

As you know, the GI values for foods all come from – the definitive database of the GI value of thousands of foods tested by researchers at University of Sydney. If you search the database for "bread," there are 315 different entries. There is a range of glycemic index (GI) values for whole grain bread -- some have a higher GI than others (up to 71) - but the vast majority of whole grain breads have a GI between 36 and 54, which is considered low. Those are obviously the breads we'd recommend. White bread usually has a GI of 70 -100, which is considered high. 

Of course, it you take just two outlying examples from the database (in this case, a whole grain bread that has a GI of 69, and a white bread with a GI of 71), they can look similar. At the other extreme, you can compare a whole grain bread with a GI of 34 with a white bread with a GI of 89. The idea that whole grain and white bread have similar GI levels is true for some brands of bread, but false for many others. As with any science, the same literature can be interpreted many ways. But, in general, whole grain breads do have a lower GI than white breads, so we stand by our initial recommendation. 

Thanks again for sharing your concerns about out nutrition feature. We do appreciate your perspective!
I hope you aren't thinking at this point that I got my facts all wrong.  I totally disagree with that the vast majority of whole grain breads listed on have a lower GI.

I have also scrolled through the 315 different entries, and in fact, the ones with the very low GI readings are not even bread on their own, but whole meals and sandwiches.   For example, 37g of "Greek lentil stew with a bread roll, home made" is one of the 315 low GI entries.  

When we are told to eat more whole grains, my understanding is not that we are being asked to seek out specialty grains like spelt, buckwheat or einkorn.  

The vast majority of whole grain breads available to us in the stores on a day to day basis are not the specialty low GI ones.   

It is widely understood (albeit mistakenly so) that regular whole grain bread in the grocery store is a better nutritional choice than white bread.

Have you ever heard a nutritional expert advising the public to stay away from commercially produced whole grain sandwich loaves - the kind that are served in cafeterias and institutions?  The kind my husband's diabetic inpatients are served on a daily basis?

When they tell us to "eat more whole grains", do you understand that to mean that products marked "whole wheat" are nutritionally acceptable?  

Because that's the message I'm hearing from the nutritional authorities.

So, this is the response I sent:
Thank you for your detailed response to my email.  Your point about varying GI's is well taken, and I do understand the difficulties involved in making blanket statements about whole grain bread as a category.  Also, as someone who has baked a lot of bread, I am fully aware of the possible GI impact of the ingredients that are used in different recipes.  Many recipes add sweeteners, powdered milk, refined white flour and even mashed potatoes to the dough to improve the flavour and the texture of the crumb. 
This makes it very difficult to assign one average GI reading to a food category as broad as whole grain bread.
However, I think you would agree that the vast majority of whole grain bread consumed is in the form of the common sandwich loaf.  This is what one would typically see in cafeterias, hospitals, schools, old age homes and all other institutions. It is also the kind of bread that most children would eat, when they eat whole grain bread.  As much as I or other health-conscious consumers would be naturally drawn to coarser artisanal loaves, which may indeed have a lower GI, it is simply not what the majority of people consume.
I know that Wonderbread is a particular brand name, but it is a popular one both in the US and here in Canada.

This is what the Harvard Medical Schools GI index listing shows:

Wonder™ bread, average
Whole wheat bread, average
71± 2

Furthermore, lists the following range of whole wheat breads*.  As you can see, these all in a close range in the high end of the GI scale.

Food Name GI serve (g) carb/serve (g) GL
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread (Hovis, UK) 68 30 11 7
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread 69 30 13 9
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread (Sainsbury's, UK) 71 30 11 8
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread 72 30 12 9
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread 74 30 14 10
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread (Hovis, UK) 74 30 11 8
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread 75 30 13 9
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread (Tip Top Bakeries, Australia) 77 30 12 9
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread (Tip Top Bakeries, Australia) 78 30 12 9
Wholemeal (whole wheat) bread 85

It seems to me that the two examples I originally sent you were not outliers, and in fact, are fairly representative of many of the items listed above.
This is why I would disagree with Ms. Rosenbloom that the GI impact of the vast majority of whole grain breads is much lower.

* Try this yourself by searching for "bread whole wheat" on

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More Canadian radio Thanksgiving treats

I've seen a couple of well-argued critiques of Wheat Belly from the Paleo community, even though they stand united in their opposition to wheat and gluten.  While I don't entirely disagree with their viewpoints, I think the point the critics are missing is that this book is an excellent start for anyone who is new to the low-carbohydrate way of thinking, and especially those who want to lose weight after years of gains.

Luckily, CBC, the Canadian public radio, has been on a low carb tear this past Thanksgiving weekend.  Yesterday, the popular morning show, The Current hosted an interview with Dr. Davis.  Please take a listen.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright

CBC listeners were treated to a great interview with Gary Taubes this morning on Michael Enright's radio show, The Sunday Edition.  If you missed it as I did, you can listen to it online.

It's a half hour discussion on why Taubes believes carbohydrate consumption underlies obesity, and how, as a journalist with a solid science background, he came to write about it.

I believe his book "Good Calories, Bad Calories" is excellent, but at over 500 pages, it's not a quick read.  This is why he also wrote the much shorter "Why We Get Fat".  It covers most of the same material, but in a way that is more palatable for people who don't have the time or the inclination to work their way through the original book.

Whether you'd like to know more about why Taubes is making waves in the world of nutritional science before deciding which of the two books is best for you, or if you simply want to hear him speak, it's well worth listening to.

As Canadians celebrate their traditionally carbohydrate-rich Thanksgiving across the country this weekend, this interview couldn't have been more timely.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Did you know white and wholegrain bread have the same GI?

No?  Well, you're not alone.  Canadian Living doesn't either.

The September 2011 issue features an article titled "Feed your brain:  Mind-mending miracle foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner" on page 51.

Unfortunately the author's recommendation to eat whole grain bread is flawed, and I felt compelled to send the following letter to the Editor:
Cara Rosenbloom advised eating whole grain bread in the September 2011 issue (Health is Happiness) because it is less refined than its white counterpart, stating that the higher fibre and protein content would slow down the stream of energy.  I would like to point out that any difference in glucose release between the two is normally so small as to be negligible.  This can be easily verified by referring to a glycemic index table.

Also, although it is true that the brain's main source of fuel is glucose, it is a common misconception to believe that this glucose comes only from carb-rich foods.  In fact, while carbohydrates can provide a quick source of fuel that can be helpful in times of famine, the human body can technically thrive on a diet that is totally devoid of carbohydrates because of a metabolic process named gluconeogenesis.  Far from being an uncommon process, it is widely used by animals as well as plants, fungi, bacteria and microorganisms to generate glucose from non-carbohydrates.
It's really easy to compare the glycemic index of different foods, and if you didn't know it already, you might be really surprised to learn that the glucose load from whole grain bread is virtually the same as that of white bread.  This is what I found on

Remember that this is typically one slice of bread.  Most people eat two slices in a sandwich.  And a can of pop has about 26g of sugars.

Just because it's made with whole grain, it's not going to give you a slower energy release.  Some whole grain bread can even give you a more rapid energy release, depending on the ingredients it's made with.  Suffice it to say that I totally disagree with Ms. Rosenbloom.  Not that I'm defending white bread, mind you.

I recommend staying away from both.

As for the comment about the brain's main source of fuel being glucose, this is something I already wrote about in May:  It is true that glucose fuels the brain.  However it is not true to imply that when we eat glucose, it makes its way there via a direct path and that this makes carbohydrates good for our brain function.  If it did, people would be far more susceptible to hypoglycemia than they normally are.  And it would be the really-bad-for-you kind of hypoglycemia, not just a shaky feeling.  Don't believe me?  Go back and read my post, and feel free to check out the references I provided.

Bottom line: Canadian Living isn't the only guilty party.  After all, Mother Earth News published something very similar, which is why I wrote that post in May.  Given the extent of the misinformation, and the fact that it's commonly propagated by people with nutritional credentials that make them appear to be experts in the field, it's not entirely surprising to me that so many people believe carbs from whole grains are good for you, essential even for optimum brain function.

But I do think the registered dieticians who write these erroneous articles are doing the public a disservice, and it's time to set the public straight. 

It would be very nice to see my letter published, though I'm not going to pin too much hope on it happening.  I'm sure their letters department is inundated with reader comments.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wheat Belly

I've been following Dr. William Davis' blog for a long time, and I've made enough links to it, that I have sometimes felt like a bit of a groupie.  So when his book came out recently, I didn't think I needed to read it.  After all, I thought I'd already absorbed his message.

But then I did recommend it to a friend who had been diagnosed with a dairy allergy in childhood and has been living with IBS for most of her life.   As it happens, we went camping together on the trip I described last week, and she couldn't believe how good she felt after a couple of days of eating almost no grain.  I had told her about going grain free before (I was worried I was beginning to sound like a proselytiser), but for the longest time she wasn't convinced.  We share an interest in wholesome cooking, and like most people, she found it very difficult to believe that whole grains might be bad for you.

Yet she felt so good after our camping trip.  And she lost 4 lb as well, which was a bonus.  So when I told her about Wheat Belly, she picked up one of the last few copies on the shelf at her local bookstore, and has been most enthusiastic about ditching grains ever since.  Not only is she feeling fantastic after about a month, but she has continued to lose weight and is now down almost 16 lb.  Effortlessly.

You see, she realized her dairy allergy was most likely either a misdiagnosis, or she may have grown out of it.  Because she doesn't have it anymore.  However, she most definitely does have a severe gluten intolerance that she hadn't been aware of. This would explain the chronic IBS symptoms.  Incidentally, her family physician had told her there was little to do about this, and that she would most likely have to live with it for the rest of her life.  He never mentioned that avoiding gluten is often an effective way to alleviate IBS symptoms.  How pathetic is that?

While I was at her house the other day, I peeked inside Dr Davis' book lying on the coffee table.  I realized it was worth a second look.  For one thing, it has some interesting looking recipes in the back.  I happened to open the book on his recipe for a pizza crust made of cauliflower.  I had found a very similar recipe online myself some time ago, and have made it several times already.  It's a big hit at our house!

If you haven't encountered it before, I'm pretty sure you are totally doubtful.  However, it's really delicious and even if you eat loads of it, it doesn't leave you feeling bloated afterwards the way regular pizza does.  I don't cook the cauliflower beforehand though;  I mix the raw florets in the food processor until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs.  I like to lay the crust on a sheet of parchment and bake it in the barbecue on a pizza stone.  Oh, and since I'm incapable of following a recipe, I throw on ingredients that catch my fancy.  The version in the picture above had tomatoes and yellow peppers from the garden, blobs of pesto from last summer's harvest, and mozzarella.  Yum.

But to get back to Wheat Belly, I decided to buy it after all.  Actually, I downloaded it onto my eReader, thinking this will be a useful format in the kitchen if I want to try out the recipes at the back.  If you're unfamiliar with eReaders, you should know that you can download the desktop application for free, and download books either from the store, or from your local library.  It's much cheaper than buying the book itself, and doesn't take up any shelf space either.

And I don't regret that I did it.  I'm finding the book very enjoyable to read - he writes humorously and explains metabolic processes in an easy-to-read manner that people who are as biology-challenged as I am can understand.  As he says, bear with him, and you'll understand more about lipoproteins than 98% of physicians.

I won't write a review, because I haven't finished the book yet.  Besides, you can find plenty of them (70 at last count), including many descriptions of personal experiences, on Amazon.  The only negative review I found seems to come from somebody who likely didn't read the book.  (Dr. Davis suspects it came from a grain lobby insider).

Go check it out - this book is especially well-suited for anybody who can't seem to lose weight in spite of eating "healthily".  Or if you (or somebody you know) suffer from celiac disease, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease or poor cholesterol.  Or even if you are simply curious about what the low-carb movement is all about.  I'm pretty sure you'll agree with me that Dr. Davis makes a compelling case against the consumption of wheat.