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.