Thursday, 31 May 2012

Happiness is free!

Leaving my house for my morning dog walk today, the first thing I saw was this message on the pavement. We often complain about the things students (who use our road as a thoroughfare) do to our property in the name of fun - dented cars, broken wing mirrors, rude drawings on our windscreens - but I defy anyone to rub this away. It's reminded me that we can all find at least one lovely thing to smile about every day. And it's a bonus if it takes us by complete surprise. The other day, as I was walking through the market place, a busker started playing the best gypsy guitar I've heard in years. We get a lot of buskers - many of them good - but he was exceptional. Watching, though, were two policemen. And, as soon as he started playing, one of them walked over to him. My heart sank - was he going to move him on? No... He just wanted to be the first person to drop some money in the old guy's cap! ;)

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Supplementary benefits

I’ve just returned from a wonderful weekend in Guernsey where (along with 9 other health writers) I was a guest of Healthspan, the mail order supplements company that is based there. 

What a treat! It was hot and sunny and we stayed in the wonderful Fermain Valley Hotel... It felt just like being on holiday – except for a few hours’ work, getting to know Healthspan and its products a little bit better.

It was a worthwhile exercise for Healthspan, which has long been on my radar – but no more than that. Amazingly, despite selling more supplements than Boots, the company has a low profile in the press – only tending to appear in the advertising pages, and not in editorial, so this was a long overdue chance for the press to meet the people behind the pills, and to discover how very passionate they are about their product.

I know a lot of people are cynical about supplements – but Healthspan’s aim (the clue is in the name) is to optimise the span of your healthy life. We are all living so much longer these days – but that could feel like a life sentence if you don’t have good health. Supplements may not be able to solve problems that have already set in, but Healthspan’s hope is that they can at least prevent our health from getting any worse.

Most nutritionists seem to think that we should start with a good multivitamin  and an omega-3because, despite our greatest efforts, it is not as easy as many would have us believe to get everything we need from diet alone.  Once we have that basic foundation, we can add according to our needs and priorities.

One of my priorities is joint health – my knees already being a bit creaky in certain yoga postures. So I take Litozin  – which contains a unique rosehip extract (GOPO) proven to help joints. Turmeric is also good for joint (and digestive) health, so I take that too. At the moment I’m taking one made by Schwabe and marketed for digestion, but I also like Power Health’s turmeric (a capsule packed full of turmeric powder), and now I am going to try Healthspan’s product . The third thing I take for my joints is a nightly dose of Cherry Active, made from Montmorrency Cherry Juice and created after the company owner used it to get over gout and then found it also helped uncurl his elderly mum’s arthritic fingers. According to Patrick Holford it also contains the equivalent in ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) of 23 regular portions of fruit and vegetables. In fact it’s best known and promoted for its benefits for sleep – as it contains a natural form of melatonin, but for me that’s just an added bonus as I generally sleep very well.

Here are a few supplement ideas for other health priorities you may have:

The magic ingredient for a sharper brain is omega-3 essential fatty acid, found in salmon, walnuts and flaxseeds, according to researchers at UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. The brain is 60% fat and it needs omega 3 boosters for better memory, mood and concentration, and some patients have come off their antidepressants after embarking on omega-3 supplements. A supplement will give you a bigger dose than you’ll normally get from food alone. Look for one containing about 500mg of combined EPA and DHA. 

Healthy hormones need B vitamins (and B6 in particular), which strengthen the pituitary gland, which regulates hormone production. Evening Primrose Oil  is also helpful as it dampens down hormonal pain caused by inflammation - eg breast pain.

The thyroid controls metabolism, which if it slows down can affect all body functions. Common symptoms include difficulty losing weight, feeling cold and tired, and hair loss. Many people understand the need for iodine in the diet (from kelp and fish), but to convert this form of thyroxine (T4) into the type our body can use (T3), we also need selenium and zinc

Several studies have shown that extracts of black elderberry activate the immune system by increasing inflammatory cytokine production, and in test tube studies it was 99% effective in killing the bird flu virus.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic say there’s some evidence that the naturally occurring enzyme CoQ10 helps lower blood pressure and strengthen the heart. Natural levels decrease with age – so supplements can help as we get older. If you’re taking statins to lower your blood pressure, these will also deplete your CoQ10 – another reason to supplement. 

If you’re prone to anaemia or get very tired after your period, iron supplements can help. Choose a liquid form, which makes it easier to absorb, and with added vitamin C to further aid absorption. Take it for a week before and after your period. 

Buy wisely
Are you a one-a-day person?
If you’re likely to forget your supplement, make it as simple as possible with a multivitamin and mineral. Aim for 100% RDA and you won’t be getting too much or too little of the nutrients you need. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

What are you eating?

I love a free lunch as much as any other journalist, but when Coca Cola recently invited me to break bread with their nutritionist I was so surprised to see the words nutrition and Coca Cola in the same email that I couldn’t even think of a polite way to say no thank you... So I didn’t.

And now – in the absence of a reply - they’ve asked me again. I’m sure they’ll choose a lovely venue too – or even (as occasionally happens) invite me to name the restaurant of my choice. But, much as I love eating out, I will just have to bite the bullet and say I’m not interested.

I am, of course, assuming I know exactly what their on-board nutritionist will say. And it will be something along the lines that Coca Cola is fine “in moderation”. Blah blah blah. What else can they say? That they are trying to turn their drink into a healthier product?  That’s another possibility of course. And then, who knows, it could one day be promoted as a health drink. Just as sugary Sunny Delight was when it first made it on to our supermarket shelves in the naughty nineties.

I love meeting with nutritionists – but only when they are independent. I don’t care if they’re promoting their own book or clinic. I do care – a lot – if they have been paid to promote processed food and drink. Which brings me to the subject of today’s blog: what are you eating?

Is tonight’s supper going to be a shop bought moussaka, or a chicken that you cooked for yourself?  Processed ready meals have a lot to answer for, according to most independent nutritionists. If they’re not full of fat, they’re often packed with sugar and are now being blamed for the obesity epidemic. As Joanna Blythman (author of What to Eat, £16.99, 4th Estate) says: ‘The more processed food is, the worse it is for you. Food processing is the food industry’s way of making a profit by taking apart natural foods and reinventing them in a more lucrative form.’

Forget green lights and low calories on the label, according to Joanna any nutritional benefits (especially in commodity crops like wheat and corn) have often been stripped out – and replaced with synthetic vitamins and a load of sugar and salt... But it seems to me they also have another secret ingredient: one that tricks our brains into thinking they’re the easy way to save time and eat well.

It’s crazy! We love watching TV chefs like Jamie whip up something quick, easy and yummy... But then we go out and buy a box of food with an appetising picture on it (usually more appetising than the food itself in my experience) instead of cooking it for ourselves.

I have a great recipe for moussaka that is not difficult to follow but does take a lot of time to complete. But if I fancied moussaka and didn’t have the time to make it, the supermarket version would be no substitute. So I’ll eat something that’s quicker to cook – and usually much healthier. A slab of salmon or a spicy stir fry – with fresh vegetables and prawns or chicken strips – -- takes no longer than the time needed to cook the delicious Basmati rice to accompany it (about 10-15 minutes).  If you don’t have time to chop vegetables, Asda sells lovely fresh stir-fry veg, ready chopped, for about £1.0. Waitrose’s stir-fry packs are more pricey – and honestly not as good!

Here’s my advice: start cooking and get to know what’s good and cheap. What’s fast for your time poor days – and what’s extra delicious for the days when you have time to cook properly? When you have the time, cook big casseroles, curries, lasagnes, chillis, and moussakas, and freeze the spare portions for those busy days when you really don’t need the hassle of shopping for a yucky ready meal.

. 4 processed foods I do like:

. Hellman’s mayonnaise – I cheat and mix it with natural yogurt, mustard, lemon juice, and garlic to make a dressing that my daughters accept on a Caesar Salad. (Worth noting: the yummier the dressing, the more salad gets eaten!) *

. Alvalle Gazpacho – it is authentic, delicious and time saving. In England we rarely get tomatoes with enough flavour to make a Gazpacho like this. Wonderful for a filling and healthy low fat lunch.

. Chocolate – I buy very dark Green & Black and Lindt’s unctuous salty dark chocolate and stick to just a square or two in a day. Usually when I am on a stress high.

. Rakusen’s Matzos – with salty butter, which totally cancels out their low fat salt free status, they’re my favourite mid afternoon snack.

* My husband Steve, a chef, made a real caesar dressing last night. This involved whisking two egg yolks with a guessed and very large amount of oil. That's the bit that brings me out in hives because I am still haunted by the cringeful memory of the mayonnaise I made when I was 18 - for guests of my parents. When one of them peered at my split mess, and remarked, "I've never seen mayonnaise like that before", I boldly replied: "that's because this one is Viennese mayonnaise!" I am sure I'd still split any mayo I attempted today - and the remedy for this is, according to Steve, to start again with another whisked egg yolk to which you slowly and patiently add in the split mess, drip by gooey drip. It sounds agonizing doesn't it? Anyway, there was none of that with Steve's mayo base, and he then added lemon juice, parmesan and salt. Oh yes and a sprinkling of Cayenne for a bit of punch. We used it to dress romaine with sliced avocadoes, poached chicken breasts (sliced), and salty anchovies and it was yummilicious! 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Do healthy people really need to take statins?

A study this week has suggested we should all take cholesterol lowering statins once we hit the age of 50 – to reduce our risk of a heart attack. The research looked at individual trials (mostly funded by the drug companies who make statins, according to Zoe Harcombe, my favourite expert on this subject) and concluded that even when healthy people take statins, there is a lower risk of heart disease. 

But, as Dr John Briffa points out , a total of 500 healthy people have to take statins that they do not need for five years before one extra life is saved.  That would be fine if taking a statin was no different from eating a smartie every day – but it’s not. 

Zoe Harcombe explains: ‘These drugs work by slowing down the body’s production of cholesterol – and anything that stops the body doing something it is designed to do is serious and has side effects.  Muscle aches and pains are common, sometimes to the point of disability, and memory loss is also a big problem for a lot of patients. The drug works by blocking a key liver enzyme (HMG-CoA reductase) but also stops the production of CoQ10 – the body’s energy spark plug. This explains the muscle damage, and can be fatal as the heart has a significant need for CoQ10 – ironic!’

More to the point, though, do we really need to lower our body’s cholesterol production?

The British Heart Foundation says that high cholesterol is just one factor in heart disease – the trouble starts when a lot of these factors come together: smoking, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol. Smoking is top of the list of heart risks. Cholesterol on its own is far less of a worry – and a red herring if your diet is healthy (ie free of processed foods and trans-fats). As Zoe says: ‘The body is designed to make cholesterol. If a woman gets pregnant, the body makes more cholesterol because we need a lot of cholesterol to make a healthy baby. If we have an operation or injury the body will make more cholesterol because we need cholesterol to repair the damaged cells. If we are ill or stressed or compromised in any way our body will make more cholesterol – fat and cholesterol are the major tool kits that the body has. It’s why our bodies make them. This debate boils down to one question – do you think that we would have evolved and survived over 3.5 million years with a design fault that meant our bodies are trying to kill us? Or, could it be that – given that the first medical description of a heart attack was in 1926 – this modern disease is caused by modern substances: processed food, stress, chemicals and smoking?’