Keys to a Healthy Smile

Proper care of teeth is essential for overall health. Regular brushing and flossing are of course important. And a diet that provides a number of key nutrients is critical as well.

There are several factors that contribute to the health of our teeth. When we eat foods, particularly those that contain starches and sugars, certain bacteria in the mouth, called mutans streptococci, convert these foods into acids. These acids attack tooth enamel, which can lead to tooth decay over time. One way to slow this process is to avoid eating frequently throughout the day. The same goes for drinking liquids other than water. This helps ensure that the teeth are not constantly exposed to decay-promoting acids. Another way to protect the teeth from acids is to consume xylitol. Xylitol is classified as a sugar alcohol, and it actually targets the bacteria responsible for tooth decay (source). Xylitol is now commonly found in toothpastes, mouthwashes, and chewing gum.

Teeth, like bones, constantly lose and gain minerals. The process of adding minerals to the teeth is known as remineralization. Calcium and magnesium are particularly important minerals and are continually being incorporated into teeth during remineralization. Calcium is found in dairy products, canned salmon with bones, broccoli, asparagus, and dark leafy greens. Magnesium is also found in dark leafy greens, as well as in mackerel, avocados, and plain yogurt, to name a few. Not only is it important to consume these minerals, it is also important to ensure that they are properly absorbed. Calcium absorption is aided by Vitamin D. Vitamin D production is triggered by exposure to sunlight. (Be aware, though, that in many parts of the country, it is difficult to produce sufficient amounts of vitamin D during the winter months.) It is also available in supplement form and in enriched foods, like milk.

While vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, there is an “anti-nutrient,” called phytic acid (or phytate), that inhibits the absorption of not just calcium, but several other minerals as well, including magnesium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus (source). Phytic acid actually binds these minerals, making them unavailable for use in the human body. This, of course, has implications for both teeth and bones. And it gets worse: a number of very common foods in the American diet are high in phytic acid. It is found in nuts, grains, seeds, and beans. In grains, phytate is found mainly in the bran (or outer part) of the grain. So, ironically, by increasing our whole grain consumption in recent years, we have also increased our phytate consumption (and therefore negatively impacted our ability to absorb key minerals).

When I first came across this information about phytic acid, I was not thrilled to read about it. We don’t eat a ton of grains in our house. I’ve been preparing low gluten meals for several years now, so we’re doing pretty well when it comes to wheat in particular (though phytic acid is found in other grains as well). But we do love nuts, seeds, and beans. So…what was I to do with this new information? My first reaction was that we needed to cut all of these foods if not completely, then significantly from our diet. But then I started to think about it more. One thought occurred to me: Since phytic acid is present in so many foods that are common in the American diet, we would expect to see very high numbers of people with decayed teeth. This does not seem to be the case, so what gives?

I started to wonder if there is more to the story. Turns out there is. There is some evidence that the human body is capable of adjusting to the effects of a high-phytate diet. Studies have shown that people who are given a high whole wheat diet do at first excrete more calcium than they consume. However, after a few weeks, they no longer excrete excess calcium (source). It should be noted, though, that studies have not looked at the effects on other minerals.

Phytic acid can certainly be a threat to health in developing countries that rely mainly on grains and legumes for nutrition. In these parts of the world, phytic acid truly can compromise health because the diet is very limited. Developed countries, however, have access to a much wider variety of foods and can get important minerals, including calcium and magnesium, from foods that also are low in phytic acid (source). These sources include various vegetables and animal products. As I mentioned above, vitamin D also aids in calcium absorption, so adequate levels of this vitamin help ensure that calcium is absorbed.

I think that it is important to be aware of phytic acid and to be mindful not to over consume foods that contain high levels of it. Vegetarians and vegans probably should pay extra attention to it, as they do not get minerals from animal sources. However, after doing some research on the subject, it is my personal belief that it is safe to consume foods with phytate at moderate levels.

If you are concerned about phytate in your diet, there are various methods of processing foods in order to lower phytic acid levels. These include soaking, roasting, and sprouting the foods in question before eating them. This article gives detailed instructions for doing so.

So, to sum up, in addition to regular brushing and flossing, the following habits can all contribute to healthy teeth:

* Avoiding eating and drinking liquids other than water frequently throughout the day
* Using toothpaste, mouthwash, and/or chewing gum with xylitol
* Consuming calcium- and magnesium-rich foods
* Getting adequate levels of vitamin D from the sun, food, and possibly supplements
* Being mindful of phytate in the diet

An Additional Note: I recently did some further research on xylitol and have come to the conclusion that xylitol is probably best used in products that are not swallowed. These include toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum. If you do consume it, it is probably best to do so in very small amounts.

Sources:

Curcio, Peter. “Dissecting Anti-Nutrients: The Good and Bad of Phytic Acid.” Breaking Muscle. Web. 9 November 2013.
http://breakingmuscle.com/nutrition/dissecting-anti-nutrients-the-good-and-bad-of-phytic-acid

Kelley, Jess. “Xylitol is Something to Smile About.” Natural Grocers. 27 February 2012. Web. 9 November 2013.
http://www.naturalgrocers.com/nutrition/xylitol-something-smile-about

Nagel, Ramiel. “Living with Phytic Acid.” The Weston A. Price Foundation. 26 March 2010. Web. 8 November 2013.
http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/living-with-phytic-acid

What is your dental health routine?

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10 Cleansing Foods You Probably Already Eat

Cleansing Foods

The holiday season is upon us. Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and Christmas isn’t far behind. The holidays are a wonderful time of year. But they can also be rough on your body. With so many sweet and rich foods around, there are some years that I feel like I’m ready for a cleanse and a fresh start by mid-December.

Fortunately, there are many foods that can help support the body’s cleansing processes, which means that fasting or a hard core cleanse aren’t necessarily required. These foods can of course be eaten anytime, giving your body a “mini cleanse” whenever you need it. And there’s more great news: there’s a good chance you’re already eating many of these “cleansing foods.” All of these foods are plant foods, which underscores the value of a plant-based diet. So here we go, 10 Cleansing Foods You Probably Already Eat:

Apples

These fruits are high in a type of fiber called pectin. Pectin binds heavy metals in the digestive tract and helps remove them from the body. Apple pectin is concentrated in the core and peels of the fruit, so be sure to leave the skin on. Try to eat organic apples whenever possible, as conventional ones are often heavily sprayed and are on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list.

Avocados

Avocados contain the antioxidant glutathione, which blocks around 30 different carcinogens as well as aids the liver in detoxifying synthetic chemicals. They also provide high levels of fiber, which cleanses the colon.

Cabbage

Cabbage helps the liver to break down excess hormones and also supports its detoxification functions.

Cranberries

Cranberries help to rid the urinary tract of bacteria that can cause infections. They do so by preventing these bacteria from adhering to the walls of the urinary tract.

Flax Seeds

Like avocados, flax seeds are a good source of fiber, which helps to remove toxins. For more on some of the other health benefits of flax, see my post on Yogurt and Fruit.

Garlic

Garlic has natural anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal compounds. It can also help cleanse the respiratory tract by removing mucous from it. Fresh garlic, not the powdered kind, is the best way to reap these benefits.

Grapefruit

As with apples, grapefruit contains the fiber pectin, which binds heavy metals and helps to remove them. Grapefruit has anti-viral compounds as well, so it helps rid the body of viruses.

Kale

Kale is high in antioxidants, which help protect cells and tissues from free radicals produced as a result of everyday metabolic functions. Like cabbage, kale also contains compounds that help cleanse the liver.

Lemons

Lemons are a good source of vitamin C, a potent antioxidant. Vitamin C is also needed in order to make another antioxidant, glutathione. As mentioned above, glutathione is used to help detoxify the liver. To get the benefits of lemons, add fresh squeezed lemon juice to water. I sometimes like to sweeten it up with a little bit of stevia.

Onions

Onions are high in certain amino acids that contain sulfur. These amino acids are useful in cleansing the liver.

Eating these cleansing foods year round can help support your body’s natural detoxification systems, and some of them also boost immune health– an added benefit during the winter months. Eating a few extra helpings during the holidays can keep you from feeling like you need a major cleanse when they’re over.

To incorporate some of these foods into your diet, try some of these recipes:

Berry Smoothie with Strawberries

Gluten Free, Diary Free Berry Smoothie

Yogurt Parfait

Yogurt Parfait

Cranberry Pumpkin Granola

Cranberry Pumpkin Granola

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shrimp Fajitas

Shrimp Fajitas

Tomato Soup with Quinoa

Tomato Soup with Quinoa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Bourdeau, Annette. “Detox Foods: 15 Most Powerful Detoxifying Foods.” Huffington Post. 15 July 2013. Web. 7 January 2014.
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/25/15-detox-foods_n_2950173.html#slide=2262877

Schoffro Cook, Michelle. “Top 15 Cleansing Foods.” Care2. 4 August 2011. Web. 7 January 2014.
http://www.care2.com/greenliving/top-15-cleansing-foods.html?page=1

Do you do regular cleanses?

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal

Fall has definitely arrived in the mountains. There’s a little chill in the air, the aspens are turning gold, and the elk are bulging. If “bulging elk” doesn’t say “fall” to you too, let me explain. Early autumn is rutting season for elk, and the males make this strange noise to attract the ladies. They don’t make it at any other time of the year, so the sound of bugling elk is an indicator of fall. Last week we had a huge elk bugling in our yard for several days in a row. Pretty neat.

This big fella was hanging out in our yard a couple years ago.

This big fella was hanging out in our yard a couple years ago.

But I’m getting WAY off topic. This post is actually not about elk. It’s about fall foods- Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal in particular. I think fall may be my favorite season; I just love it! I love the cooler air and the foods and spices that are associated with fall: apples, pears, cinnamon, cloves. So last week I felt inspired to make a fall-ish breakfast for the boys. Since apples are coming into season, I sliced up a couple of little ones and added them to the oatmeal. I usually put ground flax seeds in oatmeal as well as maple syrup. I talk about the health benefits of both of these ingredients in my post Yogurt and Fruit. I also include cinnamon in this recipe, which, in addition to being delicious, may help balance blood sugar levels. Cinnamon also contains powerful antioxidants known as polyphenols. My kids love this oatmeal. Here’s my recipe for Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal:

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal (Gluten Free, Vegan)

Ingredients:
2 cups water
Dash of salt
1 cup rolled oats*
1/2 medium apple, peeled and cut into small pieces
1/4 cup raisins
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. flax seeds
4-8 tsp. maple syrup, divided
Almond milk, to taste (I like to add a splash to make the oatmeal a bit creamy)

Directions:
1. Put the water and salt in a medium sauce pan and bring to a boil.

2. Reduce the heat, and add the oats. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the apples and cinnamon. Continue cooking until the water is completely absorbed.

3. Remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the raisins and flax seeds. Divide the oatmeal into bowls and drizzle with one or two teaspoons of maple syrup per bowl. Add a splash of almond milk. Serves 4.

* If you want to be sure this meal contains no gluten, look for oats that are labeled “gluten free.”

Note: Oatmeal can help support immune function. To find out how, see my post on 7 Ways to Boost Immunity Naturally.

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Eating More Fruits and Vegetables

Eating-More-Fruits-and-Vegetables

In Monday’s post, I talked about how a healthy diet can support your immune system. Fruits and vegetables are of course an important part of a nutritious diet. My family does pretty well when it comes to eating enough produce, but there are days that we could do better. So there are a few little tricks we try to use to make sure that everyone eats enough fruits and veggies throughout the day. Here they are:

Eat at Least One Serving of Fruit and/or Vegetables at Every Meal

If you aim for a minimum of one serving of produce at each meal, you’ll be eating fruits and veggies throughout the day, and the amount that you eat can really add up by the end of the day. I never used to eat veggies in the morning, but I try to eat them with breakfast now at least three times a week. I often make quiche at the beginning of the week, and then my husband and I have it for breakfast for the next couple of days. (I’d love to be able to say that our kids eat it, too, but they’re just not there yet.) I have smoothies for breakfast a lot, too, and I often add a handful of spinach or a bit of frozen kale to them. Blended with lots of fruit and a little bit of honey, the greens aren’t noticeable.

Strawberry Smoothie

Sneak Your Veggies In

My kids will eat almost any kind of fruit, and they do pretty well with veggies. But they don’t eat everything when it come to vegetables. So we sometimes sneak extra ones into our meals. Earlier this week my husband made lasagna. We had a little bit of several different vegetables in our fridge, so he put them all in the blender and then mixed them in with the tomato sauce. Now, I’m not going to tell you that our kids gobbled down every bite. They didn’t. However, they did try it, and if you’ve read my post on 7 Tips to Help Cure Picky Eaters of Their Pickiness, you know that we believe that simply trying foods (over and over) is very important in teaching kids to be healthy eaters. Pureed soups are also great for slipping extra veggies into a meal. This recipe for Tomato Soup with Quinoa is full of vegetables and some nutritious herbs. Most soups can be pureed, so if you’re making one that you think your kiddos might turn their noses up at, try pureeing it.

Prep Fruits and Vegetables for the Week

We sometimes chop up fruits and vegetables to have on hand for the next few days. Sweet peppers, carrots, broccoli, celery, watermelon, pineapple, and cantaloupe can all be sliced up and stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days. These foods make a ready-to-go snack. Be sure to store them near the front of the refrigerator, so they’re in plain view when you need a bite to eat. We also like to make a large salad that will last several days. Then we have it ready to eat with lunch or dinner. Of course, cutting into some types of produce will cause it to lose some of its nutrients. Ideally, we’d cut everything up immediately before eating it. But slicing up fruits and veggies for the week generally means that we eat more of them than we would otherwise, so it’s a trade off I’m willing to make.

 

Keep Frozen Fruits and Vegetables on Hand

During the summer months, we pretty much eat only fresh produce that’s in season. But in the winter time, we keep a variety of frozen fruits and veggies around. The fruit is great in smoothies, on yogurt, and in oatmeal. And frozen vegetables are nice to have for those nights when you need to pull a quick dinner together. Frozen vegetables are good for meals like Fried Rice and Stir Fry, for example. Another advantage to frozen produce is that it is often frozen shortly after being picked, so it sometimes retains more nutrients than fresh produce.

Fried Rice with Vegetables

Frozen Blueberries

Plan Ahead

I do a lot of the cooking at our house, and we eat much healthier meals when I plan the menu for the week, or at least a few days in advance. Taking a little time to plan the menu and make a grocery list makes things so much easier for me. When it comes time to make dinner, I just take a look at my list of meals for the week and make whatever I’ve planned.

Are you trying to eat more fruits and veggies? What “tricks” do you use to get more in each day?

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7 Ways to Boost Your Immunity Naturally

ways-to-boost-your-immunity

Well, we are one week into September. Technically, there are still two weeks left of summer, but for the past couple of weeks, there has been a definite change in the air around here. The days are still warm. But there’s a chill at night that lingers until mid-morning. With the change of the seasons often comes colds, coughs, stomach viruses, and other unwanted bugs. We are also starting the fourth week of school, and various illnesses are already being passed around amongst the kiddos.

Fortunately, there are a number of things that we can do to help prevent illness and support our immune systems naturally. I like to think of our kitchen as our family’s primary medicine cabinet. A healthy diet doesn’t prevent every illness, but it goes a long way toward maintaining good health. Here are seven simple ways that you can support your immune system naturally.

Wash Your Hands

This bit of advice seems quite obvious, but the importance of hand washing to prevent illness cannot be understated. I discuss this topic in more detail in my post Why We Have a Household Ban on Triclosan. But the main thing to keep in mind is that giving your hands a good scrub with plain soap and water helps to loosen bacteria and viruses and wash them off your skin. Teach your kids to scrub long and hard, too. If you explain to them why hand washing is so important, they may be more motivated to do a good job. It’s also important to encourage them to wash their hands throughout the day. Washing with soap and water is the best way to remove germs from your hands, but for those times that they are not available, hand sanitizer can fill the gap.

Eat a Balanced Diet

A balanced diet is obviously crucial for overall health, and many of the nutrients that are obtained from eating a variety of healthy foods help support immune function. A balanced diet emphasizes vegetables and fruits (organic whenever possible) and lean protein (including poultry and cold-water fish). Modest amounts of whole grains, beans, and legumes are important, as are small to moderate amounts of dairy. Healthy fats, including those found in coconut oil, butter (yes, butter!), avocados, and olive oil should also be part of the diet. It is also best to keep sugars and refined carbohydrates to a minimum (more about this in following sections).

Increase Your Vitamin C Intake

Vitamin C is an important antioxidant and is critical for immune function because white blood cells require this vitamin to fight off infections. Vitamin C has a similar structure to glucose (sugar) and uses the same receptor sites on cells as glucose does. Too many sugars and/or refined carbohydrates in the diet increases glucose in the bloodstream and can prevent vitamin C from entering the cells, where it is needed.

There are many food sources of vitamin C, including citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi, avocados, broccoli, and bell peppers. Vitamin C is easily destroyed by heat, so these foods are best consumed raw if you are eating them for the vitamin C.

Feed the (Good) Bugs in Your Belly

There are billions of “good” bacteria (called probiotics) living in our intestines. These microscopic bugs provide a variety of health benefits for us. They produce food for the intestinal cells and even make some vitamins (how cool is that?!). They also support immune function by crowding out unwanted microbes (the ones that can make us sick) and making the intestines less hospitable for them. About 70 to 80 percent of the immune system’s cells reside in the intestines, and probiotics actually communicate with and support them.

There are several types of foods that can be eaten in order to increase and support the probiotics in our bodies. To begin with, consuming fermented foods like yogurt (plain is best because it has less sugar than flavored varieties), kefir, and kombucha (a probiotic drink) helps to colonize the intestines with good bacteria. There are also certain foods, called pre-biotics, that probiotics love to feed on. These include barley, berries, bananas, and other fruits (unpeeled), most vegetables (unpeeled), beans, peas, lentils, garlic, onions, honey, tomatoes, and oats and oat bran. Some foods also contain plant compounds, known as phenols, that actually act as selective antibiotics, inhibiting the growth of unwanted microbes. Most herbs and spices, berries, tea, red wine, dark chocolate, and coffee have phenols in them. Again, it is important to minimize refined sugars and carbohydrates because “bad” bugs like to feed on them.

Since many of the foods that support probiotics- either directly or indirectly- are part of a healthy diet, if you’re eating a variety of healthy foods, you’re probably already taking good care of the friendly bugs in your gut.

Cook with Garlic

Garlic is a staple in our house. We add it to everything we cook, it seems. Making tomato soup? Add some garlic! Veggie quiche? Throw in some garlic! Chicken fajitas?… You get the point. Part of the reason we use garlic so much, aside from the fact that it tastes good, is that it is so beneficial to our health. Garlic contains a precursor to a compound that, when activated in the body, has a mild antibiotic effect. It may also fight viral infections, including a form of the common cold. And it is effective against fungal infections as well.

Eat Coconut Oil

Many of the fatty acids in coconut oil are converted in the body into antimicrobial compounds that can fight off unwanted bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Coconut oil is stable at high heats and makes a great addition to Asian dishes. I also sometimes put a tablespoon or so in my smoothies.

Enjoy Some (Sunscreen Free) Time in the Sun

Vitamin D is crucial for immune function; if you have adequate levels, you are better able to fight off infections. When the skin is exposed to sunlight, it converts a cholesterol compound into vitamin D. Wearing sunscreen, however, inhibits the production of vitamin D. This is why it is important to spend 10 to 15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen several times a week. It is important to be aware, though, that in roughly the upper third of the U.S. the sun’s rays are not adequate during the winter months to stimulate vitamin D production. It has been theorized that the incidence of colds and flu increases in the winter in part because of this effect (i.e. because people are unable to make vitamin D during this part of the year). People with darker skin also have difficulty producing enough vitamin D because their skin pigments block the sun’s rays. There are some dietary sources of vitamin D, including fish liver oil, fatty saltwater fish, canned tuna, shiitake mushrooms, diary products, egg yolks, liver, butter, sweet potatoes, and oatmeal.

There are a variety of ways to prevent illness and support the immune system naturally. A balanced and varied diet, proper hand washing, and a little time in the sun go a long way toward keeping everyone in the family healthy.

What do you do to stay healthy?

Sources:

Balch, Phyllis A. Prescription for Nutritional Healing. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Edelstein, Julia. “All About Vitamin D: Benefits, Sources, and More.” Real Simple, Web. 23 September 2013.
http://www.realsimple.com/health/nutrition-diet/vitamins/vitamin-d-benefits-00100000099543/index.html

Huffnagle, Gary B. The Probiotics Revolution. New York: Bantam Books, 2008. Print.

Pratt, Heather. “Good Health Starts in the Gut.” Natural Grocers, 22 September 2011. Web. 24 September 2013.
http://www.naturalgrocers.com/nutrition/good-health-starts-gut

Wilson, Lindsay. “You’ve Got a Cold… Now What?” Natural Grocers, 24 January 2012. Web. 24 September 2013.
http://www.naturalgrocers.com/nutrition/you-ve-got-cold-now-what

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Broccoli and Mushroom Stir Fry

 

Broccoli and Mushroom Stir Fry

Happy Friday everyone! And hooray for a three-day weekend, too!

I’ve been sharing simple, weeknight recipes this week. And while Friday night isn’t a weeknight, it’s also not a day of the week that I generally feel like cooking an elaborate dinner. So today I have one more easy, but nutritious, recipe to finish off the week: Broccoli and Mushroom Stir Fry.

Stir fry is a versatile dish that can be tweaked to satisfy just about any palette. You can add chicken, beef, or pork, or leave out the meat to make it a vegetarian dish. And of course there are all kinds of veggies that go great in stir fry: broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, onions, carrots, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, snap peas, and so on. Fresh and frozen vegetables work equally well in stir fry. It’s the perfect dish to make when you want to use up whatever you’ve got on hand. So think of this recipe as a starting point, and feel free to add any other ingredients that you like.

Broccoli and Mushroom Stir Fry

Ingredients:

1 cup rice

2 cups vegetable broth or water

1 Tbsp. butter (optional)

1 Tbsp. sesame oil

1/4 -1/3 cup low sodium soy sauce* or liquid aminos

1-2 tsp. crushed garlic

1-2 tsp. ginger  powder or 1-2 tsp. minced fresh ginger (optional)

Two heads of broccoli, cut into florets

8 oz. mushrooms (any kind), sliced

Directions:

1. Add the rice and butter (if using) to a pan with vegetable broth or water. Bring the broth or water to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, and cover. Cook for about 20-25 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed.

2. While the rice is cooking, stir together the soy sauce or liquid aminos, garlic, and ginger (if using) in a small bowl.

3. Put the sesame oil in a skillet over medium heat, and add the broccoli. Stir frequently until the broccoli begins to get tender, about 5 or 6 minutes.

4. Stir in the mushrooms and the soy sauce mixture. Continue cooking and stirring for 2 to 3 more minutes.

5. Remove the vegetables from the heat, and serve over the rice.

*Be sure your soy sauce is gluten free, if necessary.