Thursday, April 28, 2011

An Awesome Nutrition Blog

Whole Health Source is one of the best health and nutrition blogs I've ever encountered. It's written in a totally accessible way by a young neurobiologist whose day job involves studying body fat regulation. He really knows his stuff and can explain complex biochemical processes in a way that doesn't make your eyes glaze over. When I stumbled across his blog I spent about three days reading my way through his entire archives! It's good stuff.

Boiled down to absolute bare bones, Stephan believes these three things are the most destructive elements of our modern diet: wheat, sugar/fructose, and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (namely industrial vegetable oils). The quickest way to regain health is surely to eliminate these nasties from your diet.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How to Afford a Healthy Diet When You're Poor

One thing I hear repeatedly online in health and nutrition forums is that it's impossible to afford a healthy diet when you're poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. A healthy diet (at least in the US) can be had for very little money. A change in eating and cooking habits is all that's required. Here are a few tips:

Only buy real food and only buy unprocessed food (or in the least processed form possible). Buy dried beans instead of canned beans. Buy pumpkins instead of pumpkin puree. Buy milk to make your own yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products. Buy bulk spices to make your own taco seasoning and other spice mixtures that usually come in expensive little packets. Make your own condiments from scratch--like mayonnaise, horseradish sauce, mustard, ketchup, and salad dressings.

Buy your grains, beans, nuts, seeds, spices, and coffee in bulk. Look into buying clubs and food co-ops--bulk foods can be super cheap bought that way.

Reduce or eliminate meat. Think of meat as a condiment. A little really does go a long way.

Grow your own food. Make it a priority to have access to a patch of land for gardening. If you don't own land, look for community gardens, go in with a friend who has land, garden in an elderly person's yard for a share of the produce, garden on your balcony or with cheap fluorescent grow lights, plant a secret garden on public land.

Plan your meals and use up all leftovers. Waste nothing. Save vegetable peels to make into vegetable stock. Save bones to make bone broth. Strain tallow and lard drippings when you cook meat and save for re-use.

Don't use coupons. Coupons are almost always for overly-marketed, over-priced items (usually processed foods). Those aren't the foods you should be buying and they aren't cheaper than bulk foods and whole natural foods.

Don't buy boxed cereals--they're a nutritional disaster and insanely overpriced. But whole grains are fine for cereal--rolled oats, wheatberries, buckwheat groats, etc. These you can buy in bulk at a natural food store or through a buying club or co-op.

Grow sprouts. Sprouting seeds are cheap and fresh sprouts are packed with nutrition.

Don't stock your cupboards with empty calories. Every calorie should be packed with nutrition. So--no chips, pretzels, cookies, pastries, refined sugar, refined flour, white rice, toaster pastries, puffy cereal, candy, soda, or fruit drinks.

If you see a good deal on produce at a roadside stand or at the grocery store, stock up. Freeze, can, dehydrate, ferment, or root-cellar the excess so it doesn't spoil.

Forage. Learn to safely identify wild edibles. Eat dandelion greens, lamb's-quarters, chickweed, etc. Pick fruit from neglected fruit trees (ask permission first if you'll be on private property). Find farmers who allow public gleaning after harvest.

Buy full-fat everything. Every calorie counts and you need fat in your diet. When you give up processed foods you eliminate a lot of unhealthy fats. Replace those fats with whole milk, whole yogurt, butter, lard, tallow, fatty fishes, virgin coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil--all of these fats in their natural state are great for the body.

Cook and bake everything from scratch--all your soups, stews, breads, pasta, sauces, etc.

Go in with friends to purchase a side of beef or a whole hog and do the final cuts and processing yourself.

Raise backyard livestock--chickens, meat rabbits, or whatever you have space for. Make it more economical by selling excess eggs, breeding bunny pairs, etc. to cover feed and veterinary costs.

If it's economical in your state or province to do so, get a hunting or fishing license and try to bag your limit.

Make all your beverages at home--fruit and vegetable juices, gingerale, rootbeer, yogurt and kefir based drinks, beers, wines, teas, etc.--but mostly drink water.

You don't have to do all of these things to eat cheaply, but obviously the more the better. The change with the biggest pay-off is giving up processed foods, and the second biggest is probably finding a way to grow as much of your food as possible. But do what you can--there are many ways to drastically cut your food budget and still eat very, very well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Should We Worry About Peak Phosphorus?

We should worry about peak phosphorus, yes. It is going to become a major issue with very dire consequences. Yet it's all a bit ridiculous because before the Green Revolution--before the advent of industrial agriculture--we got along just fine without rock phosphate (the form of phosphorus experts are referring to when they talk about "peak phosphorus").

We're not about to run out of phosphorus. We're about to run out of the form of phosphorus that allows industrial agriculture and monocropping to exist. Ultimately, this is a great thing. Industrial agriculture is unsustainable and this one hard limit will certainly be its downfall if nothing else is able to bring it down. Unfortunately, billions of bellies around the globe depend on this unsustainable system of agriculture, and hunger and starvation are all but inevitable as phosphate reserves are depleted. And long before reserves are depleted, the price of rock phosphate will skyrocket, and along with it the price of food. The crisis is coming soon. World production is expected to peak around 2034, and while that might make it seem like we have plenty of time, we don't. There are a number of issues, the main one being the fact that 90% of remaining reserves are located in only five countries, and the bulk of that 90% resides in just two of those countries (China and Morocco). The US is one of the top five producers, but we have already passed our peak and we are now consuming more than we produce and must import some of our rock phosphate each year. As reserves decline, those countries with large reserves will begin to limit exports, creating global shortages. An additional issue, already at play, is that the best phosphate has already been mined. What's left is more expensive to extract and contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins.

The answer to peak phosphorus is to go back to the old ways, the sustainable ways. Phosphorus is abundant in nature and can be recycled many times before it ultimately gets washed out to sea. Animal manure, urine, humanure, bones, bodies, leaves, food waste--all of these things are rich in phosphorus. One Swedish study found that the urine output of one person is rich enough in nutrients to produce 50-100% of a person's food supply--just one person's urine! Phosphorus depletion should be a non-issue. It's so easily remedied. But at this point, how do we transition back to sustainable agriculture, so that billions of bellies don't go hungry? That's the challenge.

We can all do what we can locally--in our backyards and by supporting farms that cycle their own nutrients instead of importing them. But we also need to support global efforts aimed at sustainable agriculture. Although all of us will be hit by high prices, those of us in the western world who aren't so dependent on the products of industrial agriculture will probably weather the transition just fine. It's everyone else we need to worry about, especially the world's urban poor.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Gavin over at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op had a nice post earlier this week about food waste. It got me thinking again about my own habits. Gavin mentioned bones being an issue in his household, and the same is true for me. Bones still are the only food-related waste I create. I'm sending them off to the landfill when absolutely everything else gets either consumed or composted. It seems like I should be able to cross this last hurdle on my way towards zero waste.

In the past I'd done a little research on how to make homemade bone meal. First, I would need to dry the bones, then find a way to pulverize them before spreading them on the garden. That first part, drying them, was a problem for me. I couldn't justify wasting energy by drying them in the oven, yet I couldn't leave them out in the sun to dry either, for fear of attracting vermin. That's as far as I got before I gave up--it shows just how rigorous my thought processes can be sometimes. ;-)

So this time around I think I've finally figured it out. Sometimes I just make the simplest things way too complicated. Yesterday I took all the bones out of the freezer (that's where I store them, since I only go to the landfill about twice a year). I've been boiling the bones for almost 24 hours now. This seems like a much better approach than drying them, because I also will get a huge pot of bone broth. Since I didn't think this through ahead of time, the broth won't be fit for human consumption. Some of the carcasses I threw in the freezer had sat as leftovers in the fridge for a little too long and seemed a bit "off". So, this batch of broth will not get eaten, but in the future I'll be careful to segregate any questionable pieces when I put them in the freezer. Then the good stuff can be made into an edible, mineral-rich broth. Most of the carcasses already had been made into stock once, but I've been in the habit of only simmering them for a few hours--not long enough to release the minerals in the bones.

Once the bones are soft enough, I plan to dilute the broth and spread it over the garden (for this batch). The bones I'll crush and bury in the compost pile. I took out some of the bones awhile ago to see if they had softened. Some of the smallest ones just crumbled between my fingers. The larger bones will need to simmer longer. I've read if you have a meat grinder, you should be able to send them right through. I don't have one, so for the larger pieces I'll opt to just mash them to bits with a hammer.

How did I deal with the issue of using too much energy to do all of this? Easy. I have baseboard electric heat in my house. I turned off all the heaters and for the past day have been heating the house with just the heat from the simmering bones. It's been relatively warm this week, so that little bit of heat is just enough to keep the house comfortable. In the future, I'll need to plan to do this only during the heating season. Twice a year would probably be often enough, since I don't go through much meat--so early in the heating season (say, the end of October) and then again late in the heating season (sometime in April). That way the heat from cooking can also serve as needed heat for the house.

Bones after 15 hours of simmering (above)

Finger-mashed small bones (above)

Friday, February 18, 2011

First Progress Report--Cutting Back on Sugar and Flour

Yay for me! There's progress to report in my first progress report!

I've had no--zero, zilch, nada--refined flour in the past month. Only whole grains. And I'm loving it. I may never go back to using refined flour at all. One hundred percent whole grain breads are definitely dense, but I'm learning to enjoy bread that way. And actually, I'm not baking bread very much at all. Mostly I make tortillas, and sometimes pitas.

I'm having fun playing around with different grains, too. I've had a jar of teff sitting in my freezer forever. I bought it once when I had a craving for Ethiopian food. I wanted to figure out how to make injera, the spongy flatbread that accompanies Ethiopian meals. Injera is a sourdough, but the only time I attempted to make it, it turned out much too sour. I never tried again, and in the back of my mind I formed the belief that teff is awful stuff. It isn't, however. In fact it's quite delicious. I've only made tortillas with it, but since it doesn't contain gluten it doesn't hold together well. The only time I got it to stick together well enough to make it into a burrito that I could pick up and hold was when I added some wheat gluten to the dough. But I don't mind that it falls apart--I just eat it with a knife and fork. Teff tortillas cook up into a beautiful dark cocoa color. They look so pretty stuffed full of beans, rice, sprouts, salsa, and sour cream--and they taste phenomenal too.

I've discovered that all my quickbread and cookie recipes turn out well made with whole wheat flour or rye. I haven't been baking too many sweets, but the things I've baked turned out great--like my favorite cranberry nut bars and the Moosewood Six-Minute Cake.

As far as sugar goes, I've cut way back. I'm using a little bit of honey in my tea, some brown sugar when I make oatmeal, and brown sugar the few times I've made quickbreads. I ran out of granulated sugar last month and decided I wasn't going to buy any more sweeteners until I used up everything I had in the house. Once everything's cleared out I think I'll stick to local honey, brown rice syrup, and maybe a little Rapadura.

I haven't started keeping track of the quantities I'm using, but I know I'm staying far below my quotas. Once I buy my next supply of flours and sweeteners, I'll start to track everything.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Last year I experimented with growing oats by planting a single 100 square foot bed of nude oats (avena nuda). I expected to get roughly 4 pounds of oats from that space. Unfortunately the grasshoppers more or less ate the entire crop. All I had left was enough for a single bowl of oatmeal. Needless to say I won't be tying up 100 square feet of my garden with oats again until this current plague of grasshoppers (it's now lasted two seasons) is at least a year or two behind us. I have to wonder if traditional oats would have withstood the little green monsters better? Nude oats are hulless, making it easier for us to get to the seed, but it also makes it easier for every other critter too.

But even though I had a miserable experience growing oats, I would highly recommend others give it a try. It's a great introduction to growing grains and very easy to grow. Plus, you not only get a crop of oats, but you're left with a big heap of oat straw which can be put to use in many ways. There are the obvious uses--as mulch and animal bedding--but oat straw is also a very useful medicinal herb. To harvest for medicinal purposes you should cut it when it's still in the green or "milk" stage. If I had known that last year, I would have cut part of my crop at that point. Then I would have gotten something useful out of the crop. When I do get around to growing oats again, I will set aside part of the crop to harvest as medicinal straw, and part to harvest for the grain.

I have to admit, I've never been that crazy about oats. I'm just starting to appreciate them, mainly because I've finally learned how to prepare them properly. Oats are very hard to digest unless they've been soaked in an acidic medium. They contain high levels of phytates which interfere with digestion and keep many of the nutrients bound up and unavailable. Whenever I ate oats that hadn't been soaked, they always sat like a lump in my stomach and I would feel miserable. At some point, I began soaking them overnight in water. The following morning they would cook up nicely and have a much better texture, but they still did not sit well with me. Because I hadn't added an acidic medium, I hadn't broken down any of the phytates.

So just recently I began adding either a little bit of yogurt or a little bit of yogurt whey to the oats when I soaked them. What a world of difference! The texture is fabulous, the flavor is amazing, and they don't sit like a rock in my stomach. I actually love oatmeal now.

I use Sally Fallon's recipe from Nourishing Traditions, except I use less yogurt or whey than she recommends. In the afternoon I put a cup of oats in a bowl and add a cup of warm water and either a half-tablespoon or a tablespoon of whey or yogurt. I cover it and let it sit on the counter until the next morning. Then in a pan on the stove I mix the oats with an additional cup of water and a half-teaspoon of salt. It cooks up in less than five minutes. I like to serve it with a pat of butter, some fruit, and a bit of brown sugar. Lately I've been adding cranberries. I put them in to cook with the oats, so they have time to burst and spread their tartness around. I haven't tried bananas yet, but the texture of the oatmeal is so similar to mashed bananas, it seems like it would be a perfect combination. And I suspect the texture is something little kids would love. So if you've got toddlers who hate oatmeal, try it this way and see if it makes a difference. I think it will.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Getting Enough Iodine

Iodine deficiency is on the rise again in the US. It seems hard to believe that living as we do in such an affluent culture we still have to worry about such a basic nutritional deficiency. After all, didn't we eradicate iodine deficiency back in the early part of the twentieth century? Hasn't iodizing our table salt solved the problem? Well, in a word, no. We are increasingly deficient in this nutrient, and there are some suspicions that many of our health woes--including most reproductive cancers (male and female)--can be traced back to this simple deficiency.

Iodine, of course, is important for thyroid function--and a properly functioning thyroid controls many metabolic and reproductive functions throughout the body--but iodine is important outside of the thyroid as well. All of the glands in our body use iodine in the production of hormones. In fact, iodine is the only mineral our body uses to produce hormones. In addition to the thyroid gland, many tissues throughout the body possess an iodine pumping mechanism--the breasts, stomach mucosa, salivary glands, the part of the brain that makes cerebrospinal fluid, the joints, arteries, bones, etc. Most research has focused on iodine's role in thyroid function, so in many of these other organs and glands throughout the body, little is known as to its role. We do know iodine acts as an antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, and anticancer agent and is a potent antioxidant and detoxifier. Iodine is especially important in pregnancy, as iodine deficiency leads to poor brain development in the fetus. In fact, iodine deficiency is recognized as the leading cause of mental retardation. Even a slight deficiency during pregnancy can lead to cognitive impairment in offspring.

In studies done in the early 1970's, 2.6% of the US population were deficient in iodine. By the early 1990's that figure had risen to 11.7%. I'm not sure where it currently stands within the general population, but one recent study showed that 50% of pregnant and nursing women had an iodine deficiency. Fifty percent!

So what is causing this huge spike in iodine deficiency? There seem to be a number of causes. Prior to the 1970's, iodine was used as a dough conditioner in refined flours. A single slice of bread provided your full daily requirement of iodine. But in the early 1970's this practice stopped and manufacturers began using bromide instead. Bromide has no role in the human body (except as a suspected carcinogen) but it is in the same family of chemicals as iodine (the halogens) and will occupy the iodine receptors in the thyroid gland and elsewhere throughout the body. In other words, it bumps out iodine. And it's not just bromide that bumps out iodine--other halogens, like the fluoride in our water and the chloride in salt do so as well. So not only are we taking in less iodine than before the 1970's, what we are still getting is being blocked by the presence of bromide and other halogens. In more recent years, an additional issue is the trendiness of gourmet salts. Sea salt, kosher salt, and other trendy salts do not contain iodine. Nor does the salt typically used in processed foods or restaurant foods. Seafood has always been a reliable source of iodine in the diet, but today people are eating less seafood due to justifiable fears of mercury poisoning.

And then there's the issue of our soils. The soils of the Great Lakes region have long been recognized as the most iodine deficient soils in the world. This was one of the main reasons that iodized salt was added to the US food supply in the first place. But if you live outside of the Great Lakes region and buy locally grown food, that doesn't necessarily mean you're getting foods rich in iodine. Studies have shown that the presence of iodine in US soils has fallen 50% in the past fifty years. Not only are our bodies deficient in iodine, but our soils are as well.

If you decide to supplement your diet with iodine, you meet with some additional problems. Purnendu Dasgupta, a researcher at the University of Texas, looked at 88 samples of iodized salt and found only 53% of those met or exceeded the FDA's recommended levels of iodine. And researchers at Boston University analyzed iodine-containing prescription and OTC prenatal vitamins. Many contained less than the recommended daily amount of iodine and about one in six samples contained less than half the amount stated on the label.

So what's a person to do? Lugol's solution and Iodorol tablets are two good sources of iodine. Most physicians would consider these to be megadoses, far exceeding the FDA's recommendations, so if you do supplement with these do so under a health practitioner's care. Too much iodine can be just as much a problem as too little. I personally don't believe Lugol's solution or Iodoral are excessive--each Iodoral tablet contains the amount that the average person in Japan consumes daily in their diet (12.5 milligrams), and each drop of Lugol's is half of that. Average US consumption of iodine is 240 micrograms (0.24 milligrams) and the FDA's recommendation is a pathetic 150 micrograms per day. If you are suffering any inexplicable health issues, I'd suggest that one of the first things you take a look at is your iodine intake. It just might be something as simple as that. Personally, I can say I have totally reversed my fibrocystic breast disease by just increasing my iodine intake.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Trying to Tackle Sugar And Refined Flour AGAIN

If you've followed this blog for awhile you'll know this is something I really struggle with--trying to cut down the amount of sugar and refined grains in my diet. I know what a health disaster these substances are, I know I feel much better when I don't eat them, and yet my addiction persists. I've never gotten to the point where I'd be willing to give up sugar and refined grains cold-turkey--perhaps that's what it'll ultimately take--but I do have a plan.

I know this isn't going to sound like much at first blush--well, heck, you'll probably think I'm being a complete wimp about this--but baby steps, you know. The plan is to limit my consumption this year to just thirty pounds of sugar and seventy-five pounds of grains (at least half of which must be whole grains). I suppose you're laughing at my "just thirty pounds". I know it's still a lot! But consider this--the average per capita consumption of sugar in the US is 97 pounds per year (I'm using the word "sugar" here as shorthand for all types of caloric sweeteners: honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, etc.). Grain consumption per capita in the US is over 137 pounds per year. So if I achieve what I'm setting out to do, my consumption will be substantially below average. Still too much--I recognize that--but it feels like a reachable goal and better than my earlier efforts which only lasted a few weeks. This will keep me accountable all year.

The nice thing about this approach is I can divvy up my allotment of sugar and refined flour into twelve separate parcels and only allow myself access to one parcel per month. Each parcel would contain 2.5 pounds of sugar and 3.125 pounds of refined flour. I won't put the additional 3.125 pounds of whole grain flour into the parcel since I'll probably want to vary the types of whole grains a bit--but I'll keep a tally. If I run out of sugar on the 10th of a month, too bad. I'll have to wait to the 1st of the next month to get a new allotment. If I run out of refined flour, too bad. If I run out of everything, too bad. I'll just have to do without.

I actually feel this won't be too hard of a challenge, but I'll post my results even if I fail. This is the one big, bad thing left in my otherwise healthy diet and I'm really motivated to succeed.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Are You Working on Your Beta-Carotene "Tan"?

A study out this month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that the golden skin tones attributed to diets rich in carotenoids appear more attractive to us than the "glow" of suntanned skin. It makes such good evolutionary sense--we will be more attracted to a mate who shows visible signs of good health. And a carotenoid "tan" is typically an assurance of robust health, as carotenes are potent antioxidants and promote healthy immune and reproductive functions. (See Eating Vegetables Gives Skin a More Healthy Glow Than the Sun, Study Says.)

We've known for some time that carotenoids have been linked to attractiveness and mating choices in birds, but this is the first study that looked at the link between carotenoids and perceived attractiveness in humans. In birds, males get the vivid coloration of their beaks from carotenoids in their diet, and it's been shown that female birds have a strong preference for the males with the brightest beaks. (See article: Bright beaks provide honest look at male immune system, Science says.) Now we have an indication that the same selectivity might be at work in humans too.

So how do you achieve a carotenoid glow? By eating a wide variety of yellow, orange, and red vegetables and fruits; dark leafy greens; and certain animal products. Some good sources of the various carotenoids (alpha- and beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein, for example) are winter squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, mangoes, swiss chard, spinach, kale, collards, tomatoes, pink grapefruit, shellfish, salmon, butter, and egg yolks. Carotene-rich foods are best assimilated when eaten with a bit of fat, and light cooking often makes the carotenes more available than when consumed either raw or overcooked.

This study came to my attention at the perfect moment. All autumn long I was troubled by the fact that my skin seemed to be taking on a rather sickly yellow cast. This I confirmed at Thanksgiving when I took some photos of my son and me and it was obvious that compared to my rosy-cheeked kid, I was definitely looking a bit yellow. Then last week I had an RN say to me, "You must spend a lot of time outdoors." Well, that was a hoot because this time of year I'm soundly hibernating--but she meant that I looked tan. So the plot thickened. How could I look tan in January at 40 degrees latitude, when I've been in hibernation for four months? Fortunately, she didn't tell me that I looked yellow, sickly, or jaundiced. She perceived my coloration as a healthy glow. It puzzled me at the time, but now that I've come across this study, it all makes sense. I eat a lot of carotene-rich foods, especially over the winter months. In the past month alone, I've easily eaten five or six pounds combined of butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots. Add in all the other carotene-rich foods I've eaten and it's no wonder I'm turning yellow! I'm still not convinced I wear the beta-carotene tan very well, but even if I can't pull it off, I'm sure I'm reaping the health benefits. How about you--have you been working on your "tan"?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thermos Cooking

Since I'm planning to go off-grid in the next few years, learning what I can about low-energy cooking seems important. I'm planning to build an experimental solar cooker, a solar dehydrator, and a rocket stove, but haven't gotten around to any of these projects yet. But there's one technique I can easily play with right now--since I don't need to build anything first--and that's thermos cooking.

Thermos cooking uses retained heat to cook foods. Instead of needing to fuel a stove for two hours to cook a pot of beans, you fuel the stove only long enough to achieve a boil and then cook the beans for five minutes. After that, the beans and water are sealed into an insulated thermos and allowed to finish cooking using just the retained heat. This obviously takes much longer, but with a little planning it's an excellent method. It conserves fuel, requires little tending once the food is in the thermos, and retains more nutrients than higher-temperature cooking.

In the past week I've done my first experiments using this method. First, I made a batch of wheat berries. One of my favorite bread recipes uses a cup and a half of cooked whole wheat berries--the yield I get when I start with a half a cup of dried wheat berries--and since I was planning to make bread anyway this seemed like a good place to start. I put a half a cup of dried wheat berries into my thermos (actually what I have is an insulated carafe, not a thermos) and added boiling water to cover them and completely fill the thermos. I left the thermos alone overnight and in the morning I had perfectly cooked wheat berries ready to go into my next loaf of bread.

My other experiment was with pinto beans. I wanted to try a relatively large bean, since I've read online that beans can be difficult to fully cook using this method. I figured if I could get it to work with the largest beans, it would work with almost anything. Wednesday night I soaked the beans as I normally would, then in the morning I put them in a pot of water on the stove, brought the water to a boil, and allowed the beans to simmer for five minutes. Then using a funnel, I poured the beans and boiling water into my thermos, filling all the way to the top. I sealed the thermos and left it to cook. From what I've read online, some people have found their thermoses (is that the plural of thermos?) lose too much heat during the long cooking time that beans require, so at some point they need to drain the cooled water and add a fresh batch of boiling water. I checked my thermos before I went to bed last night and the water was still piping hot. The beans weren't done yet, so I let it continue with the original water throughout the night. This morning when I got up, the water was still hot, and the beans were perfectly done.

I'm really excited about this method. It'll be great for all of my grains--wheat berries, oats, rice, etc.--and beans, and I've read that people have used thermos cooking for even more adventurous things, like stews. I definitely have some more experimenting to do! If this is something you want to try, and you don't already have a thermos handy, I've read that Stanley Aladdin and Nissan thermoses are best at retaining heat. You'll also want one with a wide-enough mouth for scooping out whatever you cook--gloppy or sticky things like oats or rice might require getting a utensil of some sort in there--and if you think you'll do a lot of thermos cooking, then find a thermos for which you can get replacement gaskets.

I lucked out because I already had my carafe on hand. It turned out to be superbly well-insulated. The only bad thing is it's a no-name brand, so there'll be no replacement parts if the gasket ever wears out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Food Self-Sufficiency A Pipe Dream?

Lately I've been coming across quite a few people online who rail against the idea that anyone could achieve food self-sufficiency. One guy on a forum asked the other members if any of them were growing and/or raising all their own food. He was arguing that food self-sufficiency is unrealistic. The replies went on for pages and pages but not a single person could say yes to his question. A lot of people wanted to defend the idea, but nobody could provide the proof. On other sites, I see people arguing that it's a ridiculous goal to aim for--we're social animals and we should all work cooperatively to ensure a solid food supply. Growing your own food supply is portrayed as inherently antisocial.

What do I think about all of this? I'm one of those who defends the idea of food self-sufficiency, yet haven't achieved it for myself yet. I don't see anything inherently antisocial about growing food or learning everything you possibly can about growing crops and/or raising animals. It's just like learning to be a good cook--if you love cooking you want to develop a wide repertoire of skills. You don't neglect a certain area of cooking--say pastry-making--just because there are others who could do that more efficiently for you. You dive into everything. Developing multiple competencies is something we thrive on. It's fulfilling, and from a survival perspective it is enormously advantageous. I think it's important for each of us to constantly work to expand our personal competencies. Does that mean we then only use those competencies for self-serving purposes? Of course not. We can use those skills in community just as well as in our private spaces. I for one would love to participate in a community of well-rounded people who have multiple competencies, rather than in a community of specialists. In strong communities, redundancy of skills is important. It's not that I don't think a certain degree of specialization is helpful--just that each specialist should also have basic broad competencies as well.

So I've been puzzling out this self-sufficiency thing. Is it really that difficult to grow all of your food supply? I just don't think so. I've been doing a lot of calculations this weekend and what I've deduced is that I should easily be able to grow 80% of my food supply in just 800 square feet of space. That's 80% of all my nutritional needs: calories, protein, starches, vitamins, minerals, and fats. The weak area would be providing enough fat in my diet. The climate isn't right to grow foods like avocados or olives but I would be getting some fat from nuts and seeds. Adding a few hens would be helpful (each egg has 6 grams of fat) but that would mean expanding the garden to grow their feed. One or two dwarf or pygmy dairy goats would more than cover my need for fats, but again, the land area required would increase significantly. Since I'm living on about a sixth of an acre currently, goats aren't a possibility. However, my ultimate point here is that growing a complete diet isn't at all unrealistic, nor would it be an overwhelming amount of work.

I already have experience with growing a 500 square foot garden and that was extremely easy to manage. This year's garden should be over 1000 square feet. The challenge isn't really the work involved, it's the knowledge that's required. Understanding my body's nutritional needs and then translating that into the right foods to grow and the correct amount of space to allot to each food--that's the real challenge.

The other big challenge is that given the standard American diet most of us are accustomed to, growing your own food almost by default means massively changing your diet. And even though that change is healthy and in your best interests, it's still very hard. I've been in the process of changing my diet for the past five years--eliminating processed foods, cooking from scratch, and using as much garden produce as possible--and still I know that I have to change my eating habits even more dramatically if I want to eat only what I grow. I've mentioned before how growing my own food is teaching me about what is sensible to eat and to grow. What's sensible to grow ends up being what's very, very healthy to eat, but it also ends up being a diet very foreign to us in the modern western world.

In February, the USDA came out with the most recent statistics (from 2008) on our food consumption patterns. It's quite scary. If we were to try to model our gardens on the diet these statistics show we're eating we would need quite a large amount of land and resources. The average American is eating 922.6 pounds of food per year, or 2648.6 calories per day. It breaks down like this:

Obviously each person's needs are unique. A teenage boy or a manual laborer will need to eat much more than a sedentary senior citizen or someone with an office job. A good formula for calculating your individual caloric needs can be found here. My needs fall somewhere around 1800 calories per day (less in winter when I hibernate), which amounts to roughly 68% of the average cited above (2648.6 calories/day). If I was a representative American (thankfully I'm not!) that would mean I'm eating 93 pounds of grains per year, 66 pounds of sweeteners, 85 pounds of fruit, 114 pounds of vegetables, 39 pounds of added fat, 127 pounds of dairy products, and 103 pounds of meats, eggs, and nuts. It adds up to 627 pounds of food per year.

Using intensive gardening methods I know that across all crops I'm roughly able to yield 100 pounds of food per 100 square foot bed. Obviously some yields are much higher and some much lower, but that's a good figure to play with. In order to grow 627 pounds of food I need approximately 6.27 100 square foot beds, which is an incredibly manageable thing to do. But it's not enough to just grow 627 pounds of food--it has to be the right combination of crops to ensure I'm getting adequate calories and nutrition.

I'm still trying to figure all of this out. John Jeavon's book How to Grow More Vegetables has been very helpful. His charts listing expected yields allow me to calculate my space requirements. Learning the nutrition side of things has been more daunting, especially when there's so much conflicting information. Just how much fat does a person need? How much protein for optimal health? This is where I need to focus my energy--educating myself on nutrition. I'm one of those Weston Price groupies, so my ideas are far from the norm. Finding good information is challenging.

Nevertheless, I think I'm on the right track with what I'm planning to grow this year. I've got some good protein crops--seeds, oats, amaranth, chickpeas, and dent corn (never did get around to ordering Spanish peanuts this year--darn!) and good calorie crops (same as above plus potatoes and sweet potatoes), plenty of starches and a huge range of fruits, veggies and herbs to round out my nutritional requirements. I still want to get this down to more of a science, however.

The diet I end up with is not going to look anything like the standard American diet. That's one thing I'm quite certain of. I suspect it will end up having an indigenous American flavor to it when all is said and done--depending more heavily on corn, beans, squashes, amaranth, and potatoes for a large percentage of my calories--and less on wheat and sugars.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Toads: Garden Helpers

Yesterday I was out enjoying our 88-degree weather, double-digging one of this year's new garden beds. There were a number of surprises as I dug, including part of an old foundation, chunks of coal, an old rusty pipe, and broken glass. At one point I unearthed a huge lawn grub, all pasty white, curled in a ball, and squirming. A few minutes later I dug up this gigantic pasty white thing, round and feebly squirming, about two-thirds the size of my palm. I thought it was some over-sized mutant form of lawn grub. It really freaked me out! I looked closer and realized I had dug up a hibernating toad. I never knew they lost all their pigment and warts when they hibernated. This little lady was smooth, off-white, and glistening. I quickly re-buried her in the loosened earth. Hopefully the rude awakening I gave her won't lead to any harm.

Toads are great for the garden. They'll eat many pests. Last year we were overrun with them, which was a really good thing since we were also overrun with grasshoppers. The toads didn't seem to make much of a dent with the grasshoppers, but I hate to think what it would have been like without their help. They definitely kept the squash bug population under control however.

One day last summer I overhead the neighbors sending their grandkids out to hunt and kill toads. They garden too, so I guess they just didn't realize how beneficial toads are for the garden. Or maybe they just are creeped out by them. I can't imagine ever intentionally harming a toad.

The other day I read an article which predicted a particularly bad year for grasshoppers again. It didn't specifically mention Colorado, but did mention enough of the neighboring states to have me concerned. I'll need all the toads I can get this year (and a bunch of floating row covers wouldn't hurt either).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hands in the Dirt

Ah, Spring is really here. After a long winter of dreaming about gardening, the busy season is finally here. No more time for dreaming, there's way too much to do.

Yesterday I finished sifting the compost. I got about two-thirds of a cubic yard of finished stuff which I need to spread on all the beds that will be getting the earliest plantings. Then there's a huge pile of unfinished compost which I hope will cook down to another two-thirds of a cubic yard and I'll be able to use that for the later plantings.

In the next couple of days I need to prepare these first beds. I've got to get my nude oats sown (well, other things too, but I had to say nude oats--it sounds so sexy). We'll be planting kale and some potatoes and other things, plus starting the peppers indoors. And since I'm expanding the garden (again) this year I have to de-sod and double-dig the new beds.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Human Health Our God-Given Right?

I've been a subscriber of Dr. Mercola's alternative health newsletter for several years. While I don't always agree with everything there, it's very informative and I've learned a lot. Plus the community is great too.

One thing that has irked me a little is Dr. Mercola's push to sell krill oil as a source of omega-3's. Today there was an article, Lawsuit Raises Fish Oil Supplement Concerns, railing yet again against fish oil supplements and praising the virtues of krill oil. I personally don't think we should be going to the ends of the earth (Antarctica) to harvest a sea critter best left for the whales.

Here's the comment I left. I wonder what kind of response it'll bring?

I'm assuming my opinion won't be a popular one, but I will share it anyway. To me, there's a kind of hubris involved in going to the ends of the earth to find critters (say krill, for instance) to harvest for the sake of human health. We've caused so much contamination to the world's fisheries we now have to go to extremes to harvest something safe for human consumption. The hubris is in thinking that we have a right to pursue human health at all costs, when no other animal on this planet has that luxury. I believe we should be eating from our local foodsheds and rehabilitating our local foodsheds so they can provide us (and all of the local critters) with the optimal health that's possible in that location. This won't be perfect health. I don't believe perfect health is an option for any living thing on this planet any longer due to the damage we've already inflicted. For us to push into ecosystems where we have no business being will just cause more degradation.

Putting ourselves and our health above other living things is the same kind of mentality that created this mess in the first place. I'm willing to sacrifice a degree of my own health to live more sustainably. That means I forgo health-giving substances shipped in from somewhere else for what I can find locally. In these times we have to strike a balance, being healthy-enough while ensuring the health of all others.

Thanks in advance for allowing me my contrary opinion!:)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Forget Moldy Spaghetti Sauce, Grow Your Own Tomatoes This Year

An article last month in the New York Times revealed a case of bribery and corruption that allowed tainted tomato products to be sold for years.  SK Foods, one of the largest tomato processors, sold millions of pounds of moldy or otherwise defective tomato products to more than 55 companies, including Kraft.  Some companies sent the defective tomatoes back, but many more did not and the tomato products ended up on store shelves and in the hands of consumers.
...prosecutors say that for years, SK Foods shipped its customers millions of pounds of bulk tomato paste and puree that fell short of basic quality standards — with falsified documentation to mask the problems. Often that meant mold counts so high the sale should have been prohibited under federal law; at other times it involved breaching specifications in the sales contracts, such as acidity levels or the age of the product.

For the past several years, tomato products were pretty much the only processed foods I was still buying.  Then last year I finally got around to growing my own tomatoes--thirty some odd plants that provided all the tomatoes we needed for a full year.  We made all of our ketchup, sauces, paste, juice, etc plus enjoyed fresh tomatoes at the peak of ripeness and made a batch of sun-dried tomatoes as well.  There's no looking back now.  I can't imagine ever buying a jar of spaghetti sauce at the store again.  Or ketchup--I was never all that partial to ketchup until I made my own.  What a world of difference!  Even though I made more ketchup than we normally would consume in a year, I'm in danger of running out just because it's so amazingly flavorful.

If you're just getting started with gardening, tomatoes are a great place to start.  There's just so much you can do with them and even if you only get a few, they'll be so much better than anything you could buy--you'll be in heaven.  It's about that time to get your seedlings started in most parts of the US--the rule of thumb is 6 weeks before the last frost.  I'll be starting mine on April 1st.  Get yours started and you won't have to worry when you hear reports like the one I linked to up above.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How Many Twinkies Are Too Many?

Michelle Obama spoke about obesity Wednesday at a forum sponsored by Newsweek.  (The full transcript can be found here.)  If you read the whole thing it sounds pretty sensible, but the part about Twinkies seemed a little silly.  It started when the interviewer asked her if she thought Twinkies and Fruit Loops should come with warning labels. 
You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know. And what -- what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. And our kids would be pretty upset. And I am not supporting that.


I'm all in favor of good snacks. We grew up with snacks and chips. We did. But we have to exercise more, parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie; again, how does it fit into the overall diet. So we don't need a warning, we need information. And we need information that's easy to understand. That's something that I said yesterday in the speech. You read labels now and it's like the small print and it's all "oleosutomay" -- or I don't -- the chemicals, you can't even pronounce them, and the portion sizes compared to one, and you've got a small one and a big one. And then, before you know it, you don't know what to buy and how much to give to your kids and in what amounts. That's the kind of information that families need.

I'd like to know how she proposes we make the ingredient list on a Twinkie wrapper easier to understand?  In order to do that you'd have to take out all of the unpronounceable chemicals and then it wouldn't be a Twinkie anymore, would it?  If she wants labels to be understandable, what she really wants is for foods to be all-natural.  A Twinkie will never be that.  So she's really sending a mixed message.

My opinion:  from a health perspective a Twinkie is probably more like a cigarette than Michelle Obama is willing to admit.  I'd recommend she check out Steve Ettlinger's book, Twinkie Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats.  How do Twinkies fit into the overall diet?  They just don't, not at all.  The proper portion size?  Zero servings.

She makes a good point that we need to understand portion sizes better, but I wish she would have argued that sometimes the portion size should be zero.

We've really lost our ability to understand sensible portions and I think that came about because we quit growing our own food and started eating processed junk.  With processed junk you really don't know what you're eating, so how can you ever gauge what is a sensible amount?  When you grow your own food you understand what's sensible to grow, to store, and to eat and you understand how to create balance among a wide variety of foods.  It's all right under your nose.  You see it all, you know how much work is required and how many resources are involved in creating the food.  You will naturally create a diet that is sensible and has sensible portions.  And you won't have to mine anything to create it.

I think it will be a long, hard journey to get people to return to that kind of knowledge.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Taking Stock

I'm taking a little time today to look over where I stand as far as food security goes. If I got snowed in today by the blizzard to end all blizzards and couldn't get to the store for weeks, how would I fare? And beyond that, if something equally catastrophic but more slowly unfolding were to happen, such as total economic collapse, how well would I be positioned to ride something like that out?

The short answer is that for a brief emergency I'd be in good shape. For anything lasting longer than a few weeks or months I'd come up short, but probably be in much better shape than most people.

From last year's garden I've still got pesto, chard, chard stalks, zucchini, green beans, tomato paste, butternut squash soup, butternut squash puree, pickles, zucchini pickles, beet preserves, hot sauce, tomato sauce, tomato juice, ketchup, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, sauerkraut, spinach pasta, dried oregano, and fresh rosemary. I've also got tons of dried beans and legumes. I haven't started buying those in bulk yet, but I've got two pounds of this, two pounds of that. Altogether probably about 12-15 pounds of beany things, and then 7 or 8 pounds of rice. I buy refined flour by the twenty-five pound sack and I've got perhaps 15 pounds of the current sack left. And then various smaller bags of other flours: whole wheat, graham, rye, teff, and cornmeal (I'm all out of semolina). I've got plenty of salt: sea salt, iodized salt, pickling salt, and coarse kosher salt. And a whole arsenal of dried herbs and spices. And plenty of seeds for sprouts. I've got a large can of olive oil and several tubs of lard, both of which keep fairly well (and lots of butter which is obviously more perishable). With all of that I could eat well for quite some time. I could make soups, pastas, beans, rice, all sorts of bread products, stir-fries and more. Where I'm weak is with meat and dairy and also, this time of year, fresh fruits and veggies. We'd run out fast. Especially of eggs, milk, and butter.

I also took stock of where I stand with seeds and plants for this year's garden--and that's actually looking really good. I've got seeds here for nearly fifty different types of fruits, veggies, beans, grains, seeds, and herbs (combined). Some of those are seeds leftover from previous years, so they're of questionable viability (although I typically have great luck with old seeds). All in all though it represents a huge variety of foods and a nice range of nutritional qualities. I still need to buy my seed potatoes for this year and I have a list of other seeds I still need or want. I ran out of seeds for some of my most favorite veggies, so I'll at least be getting those: beets, chard, spinach, peas, green beans, and butternut squash. But some items on the wish list will probably end up waiting for another year.

If a disaster were to strike today and be ongoing I think I could get through the rest of the winter with what I've got. Springtime would be rough, before the garden was in full swing, but from summertime on I'd be okay.

Doing this thought exercise reminds me just how desperately I'd love to start raising my own hens and meat rabbits. Maybe I need to focus on those priorities a little better. And also I realized that I'm extremely vulnerable if there were a sustained power outage, since electricity powers everything in my house: heat, lights, stove, etc. For cooking I'd just need to get a camping stove and lots of fuel. For heat I'd be up a creek. Fortunately I can always go to a friend's house where there's a wood stove for cooking and heating.

This year I want to make a concerted effort to start a food storage plan. Ideally I'd like to accumulate a two year supply. It just seems smart to be prepared for anything. I read an author the other day who said that the western home was like a person on life support, utterly dependent on things outside itself for survival. We have everything we need piped in from somewhere else (electricity, natural gas, water, food, etc.) and all of our wastes carried off for us (trash, recyclables, black water, gray water). That leaves us incredibly vulnerable. I think it's in every family's best interest to take back responsibility for all of these critical needs, or as many of them as possible.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Dreaming of Lettuce

For the past two nights I've been dreaming about lettuce--if that isn't weird, I don't know what is! In the first dream I was in a large hall for some sort of celebration feast. There were these large tables set up with seed flats, row upon row of them, of young lettuce plants. The lettuces were all about 6 or 8 inches tall and there was every imaginable variety represented. It was beautiful, all the different leaf shapes and the shades of green and pink and red and purple. For your salad you just went up and picked whatever assortment of lettuce you preferred. In the second dream, last night, there was just one lettuce plant, about a foot tall, and I was plucking off leaves and eating them one by one. It was the most delicious lettuce I had ever tasted, very sweet and buttery.

I've been trying hard this winter to mostly eat from my preserved garden produce, without resorting to buying from the grocery store. This was the only option that was available to our ancestors and I've heard tales of how starved they were this time of the year, especially for greens. My body seems to be crying out too. It's not that I haven't eaten any greens, but apparently I haven't been eating enough. We still have some frozen chard that I've been using lately in stir-fries, and I've been growing sprouts too. But oh what I wouldn't give for a tender young lettuce plant right now, or even the first lamb's quarters of the season. I guess it's still a little early.

Maybe these dreams are telling me I should go ahead with my plans to plant some things (especially lettuce) ultra early. Soil temperatures as of a few days ago were hitting 35 degrees F for the first time this season. A small cold snap the past two days has brought nighttime lows down into the single digits, so the soil temperature has dropped again, but I imagine in the next week or so it'll reliably be hitting that 35 degree mark. That would allow lettuce to germinate. I'd have to put a little hoop tunnel up to protect the seedlings. I have the plastic--I just need to get rebar stakes and pvc tubing. Meanwhile, I might as well start some lettuce in the house.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Using Soil Temperature to Gauge Planting Times

Okay, I know it's only January and I'm already obsessing about gardening. But seriously, it's only a few more weeks before I can get started again, at least with seedlings in the house. And if I'm really on the ball I'll be able to get some plants in the ground soon too.

John Jeavons includes a chart in How to Grow More Vegetables that shows the optimal soil temperatures for germination of various vegetables. The earliest, most cold-hardy plants will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 35 degrees F. They certainly prefer somewhat warmer temperatures, but if your goal is to get things started as soon as possible it's good to know which plants don't mind the cold. You're taking a chance, obviously, by planting ultra early, but if it doesn't work out you simply plant more seed a bit later and if it does work out--terrific!

Here are some minimums for you (remember this is soil temperature, not air temperature):

35 degrees F: lettuce, onion, parsnip, and spinach seeds

40 degrees F: beet, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chard, parsley, pea, radish, and turnip seeds

50 degrees F: asparagus, corn, and tomato seeds

60 degrees F: bean, cucumber, eggplant, okra, pepper, squash, and melon seeds

Where I live (in Colorado) soil temperatures are hovering somewhere around 32 degrees F. right now. I don't yet own a soil thermometer but luckily the local water conservancy district posts soil temperatures daily. The closest testing site to me is about 4 or 5 miles away, so it's only a rough estimate but good enough until I get my own thermometer. If you check with your area cooperative extension they may have this sort of data for your area or may be able to point you to an organization which does. Our water conservancy district compiles a lot of really useful data--soil and air temperatures, wind, humidity, solar radiation, precipitation, and more (if only I knew how to interpret all of that!).

Last year our soil temperatures started consistently hitting 35 degrees in mid-February, and 40 degrees in mid-March. I've never tried planting that early but I might experiment this year just to see what happens. I haven't decided if I will take the lazy approach, just planting some seeds and forgetting about them (except to water) or if I'll be more involved and offer them some protection, keeping an eye out for hard freezes, covering and uncovering and otherwise coddling them.

I've never been good about getting anything planted early, but it would be so nice to have those early greens and peas and radishes this year.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reducing Our Recyclables

We're told to reduce, reuse and recycle, but it seems to me that when recycling becomes too easy people forget the first two principles almost entirely. Recycling becomes automatic, especially in places where curbside recycling is the norm and little thought is required other than remembering to drag the bin to the curb every week. When it's that easy people get complacent. They're doing the right thing, and the right thing is easy, so why bother to think about it?

The problem is that recycling isn't enough. Have you ever driven through neighborhoods on recycling day and seen the mountains of stuff set out? It's appalling. When recycling is that easy there's absolutely no impetus for reducing our use of resources. If those resources come in recyclable packaging, and dealing with that packaging is as simple as kicking it to the curb, why even give it any thought? It all gets recycled. It's not as if we're creating waste now is it?

But we are creating waste, mountains of it, but because it's hidden from view (in the factories and slag heaps and poisoned waters) it's not real to us or relevant. Recycling, of course, is important, but it should be an action of last resort. We should be working towards not only zero waste in our homes, but also zero recyclables. Reducing and reusing are the strategies that matter most and have the greatest environmental impact.

One of my goals this year is to reduce my recyclables to as close to zero as possible. That means not buying anything in cans or plastic, and saving glass for reuse (which I already do). Paper is actually the bigger problem for me, which seems a bit ridiculous since it biodegrades. I could simply shred it and add it to the compost pile. My concern there is the bleach, ink, and possible heavy metal contaminants. Instead, I 'm working to reduce my use of paper. I've gone paperless for all of my bills, I get very, very little junk mail, and no newspapers or magazines, but I'm a hopeless note-taker, scribbler, doodler, and disorganized jotter-downer. I have ideas, instructions, mathematical equations, website links and a million other bits of information scattered about on fifty million pieces of paper around the house. Breaking that habit is going to be a tough one.

In most families though a great place to start reducing the amount of recyclables would be with beverage containers. That seems to be the bulk of what gets placed out on the curbs. Instead of buying cans of soda, buy two liter bottles, or better yet kick the habit entirely. Making your own beverages at home makes the most sense both financially and environmentally, since you eliminate the need for packaging and you're not paying to have water shipped all over the country. What can you make at home, using your own filtered tap water? Coffee, teas (regular and herbal), ginger ale, root beer, beers, wines and other alcoholic beverages, yogurt and kefir-based drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices. In other words, what beverage can't you make at home?