Basics: Digestion 101

Lindsay and Danny setting a good example.

Lindsay and Danny setting a good example.

“You are what you eat.”

How many times have we all heard that statement? I have heard it most of my life and while in the broadest, most general sense it is true, it is not specifically accurate. Why? Because everything you put into your mouth and eat does not make it through your digestive system and deliver the nutrients to create your new cells.

Let’s back it up for a moment. You eat a food, hopefully chew it at least a little, and down it goes. It is further broken down in the stomach before moving on through your system to the small intestines where nutrients can be delivered to the rest of your body to create your new cells which replace your old cells.

No matter what it is that you are eating, we can agree that it would be ideal if all nutrients consumed can be used for your benefit. But that, unfortunately, is not always the case.

Here are three bottom-line, basic factors to know about good digestion.

Is what you’re eating actually real food?

The main factor is whether you are eating something that your body can recognize as “food.” Your body is programmed to break down, digest and absorb the nutrients of anything it recognizes is food.  Everything else, your body is programmed to safely get rid of as something which doesn’t belong in it.

So if you are eating chemicalized foods, fake, manufactured food, food dyes, additives, preservatives, synthetic vitamins, inorganic minerals–anything that is not “real”–your body is going to process it as something to get rid of and protect itself from. That includes, by the way,  microwaved food in which the molecular structure of the once-real food has been scrambled into something unrecognizable by the body to be digested! It also could include genetically modified foods.

So first of all, you can’t be what you eat unless you eat “real” food. And second, the quality of the food you put in helps determine the quality of the new cells your body makes.

Are you doing your part when the food goes in your mouth?

My sister used to have a saying that she learned early in her schooling which I considered a funny, old-fashioned idea until I realized the truth of it. She used to say, “Drink your food and chew your water.”

It meant that food should be chewed until it is like liquid and drinks should be well-mixed with saliva before swallowing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say you really should chew water but I wholly agree that food must be chewed very well.

This is something I started paying attention to when I first began learning about macrobiotics. Macrobiotics comes from the words “macro” which means “large or great” and bios which means “life.” It can be interpreted as having the largest view of life or simply living a great life. My first teacher was Georges Ohsawa via his book and later on I met and studied with some of the best macrobiotic teachers in the world. It is with them that I learned the valuable lesson of chewing your food well.

Chewing is your part of the job of digestion. Chewing allows food–especially carbohydrates–to be broken down by your saliva. We new students used to count 50 chews per mouthful! It soon became habit and I learned that chewing alone can increase your health, improve or even solve digestive problems and helps ensure that your body will have available all the nutrients you are consuming.

Lucky for all of us, additional chewing costs us nothing but a few moments!

Is your natural defense system in place?

What I mean is, who or what is living in your intestines? We have probably all heard about having “good bacteria” in our intestines. Every commercial yogurt advertisement reminds us that we need it. So what exactly is this about?

There are a multitude of living things that can be found in one’s intestines. The intestines, being long and having a ridged shape inside, provide tons of real estate for these bacteria and yeasts and other things to take up housekeeping. And it is natural to have (and even necessary) certain of these in there–even yeast. These bacteria and things contribute to further breaking food down, helping it move through the lines and also preventing things that don’t belong in the system from getting in.

Some live in the small intestines where your digested food is absorbed into your bloodstream and some live in the large intestines where waste is directed so it can be eliminated. (Such a smart body!) If you have a healthy community of good bacteria taking up space in your intestines, that leaves little or no room for unwanted bacteria (such as those that cause illness and disease) from having a place to live.

Probably I could write (and maybe I will) an entire post about this because healthy bacteria in the intestines has many, many benefits. For instance, did you know that the bacteria called, “acidophilus” produces a very powerful natural antibiotic called “acidophillin?”

My main point here is that eating naturally fermented food (not just pasteurized yogurt with some manufactured “acidophilus” thrown in), such as miso and pickled foods and naturally made yogurt, can provide tremendous help to your body in getting the good nutrition “in” and keeping the unwanted elements “out.”

You are what you assimilate!

This is a much more accurate statement! Assimilate simply means, taking in the food and making it part of the body. Just because you put something you think may be “food” in your mouth doesn’t mean you are delivering nutrients to your body. Some people–whether meat-eaters or vegetarians–can eat and eat and eat and still crave more food.  Why? Because they aren’t assimilating much of what they eat and the cause is usually one or more of the three factors above.

The answer is to eat organic, whole food, chew it well, and make sure your diet includes naturally fermented food which can provide beneficial bacteria. Because you are not what you eat, you are what you assimilate!

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Nutrition: Your Valuable Ally in the Fight Against Cancer

My experience with using nutrition to fight cancer goes back many years starting with my macrobiotic studies with Denny and Judy Waxman.  Back in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s there was very big news in Philadelphia about a local hospital executive, Dr. Anthony Sattilaro, whose body was riddled with cancer.  With only a few weeks to live, per his doctors, he began the macrobiotic diet and overcame his disease.  He wrote a book about it, Recalled By Life, and suddenly eating brown rice and miso soup became extremely popular as an alternative treatment for cancer.

I learned how to prepare macrobiotic meals for people with degenerative illness and saw many of them make dramatic improvements that not only greatly extended their lives, but more important they were able to expand their quality of life, quality of joy and outlook.  So I have first-hand experience that nutrition plays a huge roll in fighting cancer.

And now I introduce to you Jillian McKee as my guest blogger!   Jillian has been the Complementary Medicine Advocate at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance for over three years.  She is enthusiastic about spreading vital information about complementary and alternative medicine and how it can be used in conjunction with cancer therapy.

Jillian has graciously offered to enlighten us and share a link to the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance Blog.  (For those who aren’t sure, mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.)

Nutrition: Your Valuable Ally in the Fight Against Cancer

By Guest Blogger, Jillian McKee

Cancer can be a terrifying disease. Those who have been diagnosed should be assured that cancer-fighting technology has improved dramatically over the past several decades, and their prognosis for most types of cancers is far better than it was for their parents and grandparents. Some of this research has lead to the conclusion that some fairly straightforward concepts, such as proper nutrition, can have a significant impact on the outcome of the battle.

Until roughly sixty years ago, little attention was paid to nutrition. Starting in the 1960s, a nutrition revolution took place through the medical world that spread into many aspects of modern life; one simply has to look at how much baseball players and other athletes improved through the 1960s to see this effect. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, studies consistently showed the symbiotic relationship nutrition and cancer treatments had with each other. Today, there is no debate: Proper diet leads to better outcomes.

Some of the results shatter notions of health prevalent in the 1950s and earlier. In the past, meat was valued as the best food to achieve good health and that fruits and vegetables had little effect on one’s health. Today, science has indicated that meat itself increases factors that can contribute to the development and progression of cancer, and cancer patients should take steps to gain their protein through other means. Beans and legumes are a great source of protein, iron and other valuable nutrients that the body uses to fight against cancerous activity and growth.

With a proper mix of fruits and vegetables, cancer patients can ensure that their body has the tools necessary to fight the cancer as effectively as possible. The human body has a variety of techniques it utilizes to prevent cancerous activity, and proper nutrition helps the body to hone these techniques. Further, good nutrition leads to better general health, which allows the body to focus on defeating cancer instead of maintaining other systems. The latest research has emphasized the importance of maintaining a healthy state of mind throughout the treatment process; positive thinking has a measurable effect. Proper nutrition helps maintain this mindset even when the effects of various cancer treatments have a draining effect on the patient.

Focusing on nutrition also gives patents something to focus on while treatment is underway. Too often, patients feel overwhelmed and start to believe that their fate is wholly in the hands of their doctors. By focusing on aspects of the battle that they can control, patients can direct their attention towards areas they can influence. By educating themselves about nutrition and honing their diet as well as possible, patients can feel that they are working in concert with their doctors.

Whether using nutrition to fight mesothelioma cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer or any other form of cancer, patients have a strong influence on their eventual results. By learning how to best balance their nutritional needs and making it a part of their treatment protocol, patients can have a significant impact on their outcomes.

What’s Good Enough to Eat?

They’re everywhere – diet programs, weightloss systems, food philosophies, miracles promised if you take certain nutritional products.  There are just about as many opinions on what a human being should consume as there are “experts” on the subject!  Books, TV doctors, websites, blogs, health gurus, traveling side shows, official government recommendations . . . and food advice involved with social/political/economic issues.

I joined the United Farm Workers as a teenager.  My parents kept receiving brochures and letters signed by Cesar Chavez asking for donations to his cause, which at the time was about protecting the rights of migrant farm workers who were exposed to dangerous chemical pesticides in the grape fields.  (Remember the grape boycott?)  I read that the migrant workers came into the fields with their entire family and that the mothers and children were suffering with all kinds of health problems because of their exposure to poisonous substances. “Something,” I thought, “should be done about that.”

This truly concerned me and I joined for $10.  This was my first interest in a social cause and I continued paying for this membership for several years with my own allowance.  And of course, I did not eat grapes.

As I grew up my personal lineup of diet and health advice came from my mom and Soupy Sales (“Don’t forget your vitaminnies!”), Jack LaLanne, then Adelle Davis, next came the book, “Sugar Blues” by William Dufty, closely followed by George Ohsawa who coined the term “macrobiotics” and Michio Kushi who really brought this philosophy to life for me, and recently Dr. Robert Cohen and his research.  I have experienced being a meat-eater, a vegetarian, and a vegan over the years.  And what did I learn?

I learned that there are some very basic concepts that should be put in place before you can even begin to know what foods work for you.  They seem obvious to me now, but they weren’t at first and apparently they aren’t obvious to everyone else either.

The first concept is that you have to eat real food.  A friend of mine sent out a photo the other day taken by Deb Mahan showing a fast-food factory producing what looks like a pink, styrofoamy boa constrictor of foodstuff and asking you to guess what kind of food it is.  (I find the cardboard boxes with no other wrapping disturbing.) Anyway, it’s pretty easy to tell this is not real food.

I remember in college my boyfriend and I would chuckle over the fact that packages of individually-sliced and wrapped American cheese were labeled “cheese food” not “cheese.”  We knew that wasn’t real food.  We called it “plastic cheese.”

What about all those ingredients on so-called “food” packages that are mostly unpronounceable and that we mostly don’t have a clue what they are?  They aren’t real food, that’s for sure.

I think you get the point. Real food is not made of plastic, petroleum or chemistry-lab products.

[Additional case in point: Twinkies, the Undead Snack  opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com – Check out the third footnote at the bottom and click on it – there’s a list of the 39 ingredients in “Twinkies.”]

The second basic concept is that once you have chosen to eat a real food, you need to look at how refined or processed it is–i.e. how much has the original food been altered?  Most people know that refined white sugar is nothing like the original sugar cane plant.  Maybe you’ve heard that “carbs are bad.”  Well, that depends.  Are we talking about refined white flour products in which the flour bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original fields of waiving grain?  Rice that has been stripped down until there’s nothing left but the white carbohydrate part?  Or are we talking about whole grains like whole wheat, brown rice, whole barley or whole oats that are called “complex carbohydrates,” act nothing like refined carbohydrates when you eat them, and used to be staple food all over the world?

Brown and white rice.
Image via Wikipedia

The third basic concept (and this is closely related to the second concept) is that no matter what type of food you decide you should eat, choose the highest quality of that food that you can.  “Quality” is relative, certainly.  But this is where you should look into what it means for food to be organic and why that is important.  And why your food should not be genetically modified.  The subject of food quality is worth learning about because it is key to understanding how what you eat will affect your health and how you live. I encourage you to gain that understanding and get into the drivers seat of deciding what effects you will create for yourself and your family with your food and don’t just leave it up to the “chefs” at the local fast food place or your favorite chain restaurant or the marketing directors of food manufacturing companies.

There is so much data to sort through on the subject of food!  Unfortunately it is can also be a highly political subject.  After all, what better way to control people than to control their food sources?  Diet and health advice is rife with rumors forwarded by vested interests.  Here’s an article that reminded me of that fact:  CDC researchers say mothers should stop breastfeeding to boost ‘efficacy’ of vaccines  www.naturalnews.com

But take heart and just start finding out.  Find out about organic food.  Check out the subject of “whole food.”  And if you can confront the political/economic realities, find out about GMO’s (genetically modified organisms). Following the three basic concepts I gave you will take you a long way toward understanding what’s good enough to eat.

My Obsession

It is Thanksgiving Day 2011 and I have been toying with the idea of writing about cooking for thirty-five years or so.  I’ve considered cookbooks, novels in which cooking takes a major roll (á la Like Water for Chocolate), poetry, newspaper columns about cooking, and painting and drawing about cooking.  That last is not really “writing,” but you get the idea.  And that whole time the one thing I did do was cook!  A lot!

I taught cooking for over 25 years in various cities where I’ve lived.  I taught out of my home, at natural food stores and other places.  I have invented recipes and even invented a no-tomato pasta sauce and a vegetarian alfredo sauce that was actually manufactured for a brief time in a Brooklyn food factory.  That’s a story for another blog.

I also wrote a column about natural foods in the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin under the name of a local co-op.  It was a Q & A column.  We wrote the questions and the answers until people started actually sending in questions.  I have the columns in a portfolio I keep of my freelance writing adventures and not too long ago pulled it out.

And there was this Q & A column in which I once recommended making peanut butter and sauerkraut or peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.  That used to be a favorite with my kids, but I wonder how many people actually tried that?!  I know what you might be thinking—“No wonder the Philadelphia Bulletin shut down!”  No, it shut down years after my column ended.  Really!

I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement along the way that has made me pretty self-assured about my cooking.  Years ago my friend named Anne Marie bought me a book about how to write a cookbook and wrote me an incredible letter validating my talent and she continued to bug me about writing this for years.  But I never did it.

I used to cook for other people too. I did it for money but mostly I just loved doing it.  I had several friends who cooked for other people because we were studying and teaching Macrobiotics and eastern philosophy and healing.  So I cooked macrobiotic, vegetarian meals for friends and for people who were ill with degenerative diseases.  Many of them did better eating healthy food and some healed and some didn’t.  At that time I didn’t have the full picture of what would cause a person to heal that I have now.  That too is another subject.

Those wonderful people, friends and their families also urged me to start a catering business or open a restaurant.  I’ve always thought that would be way too labor intensive and really I considered it might ruin cooking for me.

I guess I could have gone to cooking school, and I did study with some fabulous teachers off and on in my life who remain an inspiration to me.  I never stopped studying cooking and have done it all sorts of ways via television cooking shows, books, friends and dining in all kinds of restaurants.

Probably the outstanding thing about my obsession with cooking is that I absolutely love my own cooking!  And this is annoying to some people who think I should not be the first one to compliment my own dishes at a meal.  (Sorry Dan, I can’t help doing that!)  It’s like being the first to “like” your own posts on Facebook.  Which I sometimes do also.

For instance today I’m going to my church for a big, beautiful Thanksgiving Dinner.  My friend Robin asked me to make the salad.  For a week now I’ve been imagining how various ingredients will taste together.  Now the salad is made and I taste-tested it to see how my chosen ingredients worked out together.  My first thought when I tasted it was, “I’ll probably mostly eat this salad at the dinner.  It is soooo good!”  So you see, I do love my own cooking and making and tasting this holiday salad pushed me over the edge to start writing!

The salad:

  • Red and Green curly leaf lettuce
  • Celery diced pretty small
  • Bits of sun-dried tomato
  • Fresh ripe pears skinned and diced
  • Roasted pecans flavored with a small dose of maple syrup (100% real stuff) and coated with a mix of cinnamon, cardamom, Hawaiian sea salt (I bought Hawaiian ‘cause I was thinking about my friends Kim and Ruth who now live in Hawaii and with whom I have shared many Thanksgiving dinners in the past) and some paprika.
  • The dressing is a simple red wine and olive oil vinaigrette that has salt and a dash of liquid stevia in it.
  • Garnished with a little shredded extremely sharp, stinky cheese if you like that.  (Sorry, I already threw the wrapper out and now I can’t remember the exact name of it.  It has holes like Swiss but it’s not Swiss and it’s not Havarti.  I will find out and let you know.) 

I won’t apologize for not including measurements!  I don’t measure hardly ever and you don’t need to either.  You just go by your taste and experience of what works.  That is the adventurous way to go.

Finally after all the years, I realized that the idea of creating aesthetic, delicious dishes and meals is my personal expression, my art.  And I realized that I have a viewpoint about many, many aspects of life that is manifested from my experiences, adventures and love of cooking.  So this is what I’m writing about—how I see and experience life through the viewpoint of cooking.

I hope you enjoy My Cooking Life and would love to have you contribute to it with your feedback, your own stories, or let me interview you!  At this point I have no idea how often I will be blogging but my target is at least once a week.

Much love,  Patty

PS:  I still love peanut butter and pickles on whole wheat toast!