Any plant foods are good for the planet


Shopping at the local farmers' market offers variety and supports local growers. But does it reduce your carbon footprint?

Shopping at the local farmers' market offers variety and supports local growers. But does it reduce your carbon footprint?

Reducing our environmental footprint is on everyone’s mind these days, and eating local food plays a big role in that. “Local” also has become a marketing buzzword, as The New York Times’ Kim Severson noted in her terrific story about national food manufacturers seeking ways to jump on the local bandwagon. Severson interviewed big players, like Frito-Lay, about their attempts to inject local fare–and appeal–into mass-market food, as well as Jessica Prentice, the Berkeley, CA, baker who coined the phrase “locavore.”

Prentice advocates eating food sourced within 100 miles of where you live. If you reside in a rich food region, like, say the Bay Area, that’s a challenge you can meet more easily than if you live in, oh, Missoula, MT, where the winters are long and the growing season fleeting. I would argue that greatest success of Prentice and other local-food devotees has been to get the rest of us to take a closer look at where our food comes from and to find out what actually is available locally. When I lived in Alabama–hardly a bastion of agricultural variety, at least compared to California–I was pleasantly surprised to discover locally made goat cheese and high-quality pork, in addition to a reasonable variety of fruits and vegetables.

There’s much to recommend eating locally–or at least regionally–cultivated food, but does it really reduce your carbon footprint? Yes, but not as much as you think.

Recent food safety scares have made local food more attractive to consumers, the thought being that  if there is a food safety concern, it’s easier to trace the source and contain the outbreak. And I certainly like the idea of supporting local farmers–my extended neighbors–especially in this tough economy. There’s also the culinary incentive. A trip to my local farmers’ market offers a choice of many types of carrots, or potatoes, or lettuce, or whatever. The stuff is wonderfully fresh, gorgeous, and inspiring.

But does eating local food reduce my carbon footprint, as touted by local-food advocates? Mmmm….a little. Last year researchers from Carnegie Mellon released an intriguing study reporting that “food miles”–the distance food travels to your table–only account for about 11% of the average household’s food-related greenhouse gas emissions. People’s dietary choices, as opposed to food-source selections, have a much bigger impact. Switching to an entirely locally based diet would lower your greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of driving 1,000 fewer miles per year. Not bad, but simply shifting from meat and dairy to plant-based foods just one day a week would yield the same benefit, regardless of where those plant foods were sourced. That’s because producing red meat and dairy products is energy intensive. If you switched to an entirely plant-based diet, you’d save a whopping 8,000 food miles a year.

Eating more plant foods is good for you and for the planet, says Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, of the American Institute for Cancer Research. Limiting red meat consumption to 18 ounces or less per week may reduce your risk of colon cancer, while eating more plant foods (including vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, and whole grains) is linked with a lower incidence of all types of cancer. The AICR recommends filling your plate at least two-thirds with plant foods. And the health benefits are the same, whether those foods come from your neighborhood farmers’ market or the supermarket.

The beef with meat


A new study that links red meat consumption with higher mortality rates could be good news for cows. (Photo by Dreamstime.)

A new study that links red meat consumption with higher mortality rates could be good news for cows. (Photo by Dreamstime.)

Red meat can be a killer, according to new, large-scale study by the National Cancer Institute just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study, which followed a half-million people for 10 years linked red meat and processed meat consumption (and that includes pork, even though it’s marketed as “the other white meat”) with higher overall death rates, including deaths from heart disease and cancer.

When I saw this, I thought, wow those people must have been eating a lot of steaks.

Uh, not really.

Turns out, people with the highest intakes were eating just over 2 ounces of red meat per day, per 1,000 calories (or about 4 1/2 ounces for an average 2,000-calorie diet). They had an 11% (for men) and 16% (for women) higher death rate than those who averaged just 1/3 ounce of red meat per day per 1,000 calories. The findings were similar with processed meat.

Researchers are still parsing why red meat is linked with more deaths. It might be due to the saturated fat content or carcinogens that form when meat is cooked at high heat.

On the flip side, eating more white meat, like chicken, was associated with lower death rates.

So does this mean you give up burgers and steaks in favor of grilled skinless chicken breast? No, but I do think this study points to importance of variety and smart portions. Don’t eat red meat or pork every day but as part of a rotation with other lean sources of protein, including chicken, fish, and beans and legumes. Keep portion sizes small (4 ounces, raw, or less), and choose lean cuts. That’s how you can have your steak, and enjoy it, too.

Lean cuts

Beef: flank, round, tenderloin, top sirloin, chuck shoulder, 95% lean ground

Pork: tenderloin, boneless loin roast, boneless loin chops

In other words, “loin” in the name=lean.

Saturday starters

dreamstimefree_1149421It’s all about calories

Physicians and nutritionists have been saying this for years: To lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories than you expend. That’s a simple equation, but many of us still seek a magic weight-loss bullet. You know, the special diet that finally unlocks the key to shedding all those excess pounds. So what works best? High fat/low carb/high protein? High protein/low fat/low carb? High carb/low fat/some protein? A new study published in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine compared four different weight-loss diets over a two-year period and found that what really matters is: consuming fewer calories, regardless of diet. So if you want to drop a few pounds, just eat less and move more.

Grow your own

lettucecloseupAs the terrific blog RecessionWire notes, when times get tough, people start planting. During the Great Depression, anyone with some spare dirt grew something; that was followed by the victory gardens of World War II. These lean days are no different, and the National Gardening Association predicts the number of households growing vegetables will sprout 40% this year. This can range from a few containers of herbs to full vegetable gardens. To help you get started, the editors at have just launched Vegetable Gardener, a cool site devoted to growing and cooking with fruits and vegetables. is another good source of info. Finally, for glorious inspiration, check out Jeanne Kelley’s book Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden, in which she shares delicious recipes inspired by her own home garden. Think of it as uber-local food.

duo10qt_large_horizontal_productTried it, loved it

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with pressure cookers, which cook food in less than half the time of conventional methods. You may remember those retro gadgets from your grandma’s kitchen–they rattled menacingly on the stovetop while pressure built up in the pot. They even exploded on occasion. Hmmm, why bother with them now? Today’s models are safe, sturdy, and easy to use. I recently picked up a 6-quart, stainless-steel Fagor Duo pressure cooker on Amazon for $80 (it typically retails for $120). It’s a solid piece of cookware–you can saute and sear in it before adding other ingredients and starting the pressure. It’s also simple to handle, quiet, and speedy. We enjoyed homemade split pea soup in about 20 minutes, start to finish. I also like to cook dried beans, but hate the long soaking and simmering time. The pressure cooker will speed that process up, too, enabling me to use cheap dried beans instead of pricier, sodium-packed canned legumes.

Take that, raw foodies!


Raw foodies miss out on the soul-soothing comfort found in a hot pot of gumbo.

I’ve always thought the raw food movement was a crock of hooey, a kooky offshoot of vegetarianism in which followers believe heat (above 108 F or 112 F or 116 F, depending on the source) “kills” the nutrients in food.

Okaayyy…of course, once a plant is harvested–pulled from the ground, cut off from its root system–it is no longer living. It is in the process of decaying, in other words. It is not “living.”

So I read an article in the current issue of The Economist with particular interest. It details Harvard anthropology professor Richard Wrangham’s theory that cooking is humanity’s killer app. In other words, cooking makes us human. A few years ago, I caught Dr. Wrangham’s keynote address on the same topic at the annual meeting of the International Society of Culinary Professionals. He noted that humans have big brains that require lots of calories. Heat renders otherwise inedible foods digestible–and palatable–which greatly expands our range of things to eat. And even foods that don’t have to be cooked–calorie-dense meat, for example–are more easily digested when cooked. Cooking makes some nutrients–lycopene and iron, for instance–more bioavailable and therefore more nutritious. Heat also kills bacteria, making many foods safer to consume.

And then there’s the social aspect of cooking. As people gathered around the fire to share a meal, relationships and society blossomed. That’s not a small thing.

Some raw foodists claim their way is more “natural.” I’m not sure what this means. Humans have been cooking–i.e., applying heat to food–since the Neanderthals, so one could claim cooking is part of humanity’s evolution. In any case, raw cuisine certainly entails processing food as ingredients are dehydrated, blended, juiced, and soaked. (I’m sorry, but cold-pressed coffee beans, really? Yuck.) It requires finesse and skill. In that respect, raw foodism is a culinary cousin of molecular gastronomy.

The science behind raw food diets is sketchy at best–raw food adherents don’t typically have weight problems, but they can be low on vitamin B12, calcium, and protein. Longtime followers can have low bone mass, which leaves them vulnerable to osteoporosis.

I have nothing against raw food, per se. I love the crunch of a great salad. But I think it’s even nicer paired to a bowl of hot (not tepid) soup.

Oh, Joy


Portion sizes and calorie counts in The Joy of Cooking have burgeon over the years, along with our waistlines.

Portion sizes and calorie counts in The Joy of Cooking have burgeoned over the years, along with our waistlines.

If you’re of a certain age–like, say, mine–you probably grew up in a household where The Joy of Cooking held an honored spot on the cookbook shelf. Well, maybe not honored in our house, since my mom didn’t really like cooking all that much, but it was a reference to which she turned with some regularity.

First published commercially in 1936, Joy has been updated every few years since. (Irma S. Rombauer had self-published the original edition in 1931.) Leave it Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, Ph.D., to examine how the cookbook has evolved over the years to reflect our changing food habits. Wansink is the author of Mindless Eating and heads up Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, where he and his colleagues do amazing research into our attitudes and behavior when it comes to food. He and former postdoc researcher Collin Payne culled through 18 recipes that have been published in every addition of Joy, including such beloved American faves as brownies, sugar cookies, mac ‘n’ cheese, and beef stroganoff.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that portions have gotten bigger over the decades, but I was shocked to discover they’ve ballooned 63 percent. Um, that’s a lot. In 1936, the average recipe was a trim 268 calories. Seventy years later, the average was  436 calories per serving. “What served four people in 1986 would have served almost seven people by 1936 standards,” says Wansink. He thinks analyzing other long-published cookbooks would yield similar results.

What served four people in the 1986 edition of The Joy of Cooking would have served almost seven people by 1936 standards. 

“People often blame eating out as being one of the big culprits for gaining weight, but this study suggests that what we do in our own homes may be equally bad or even worse,” he says. “Family size has gotten smaller, but calorie content and portion sizes have gotten bigger.” Several factors contribute to this, he explains, including:

  • Americans have grown larger.
  • Restaurant portions have gotten bigger, which has changed our expectations for portions at home.
  • Food has gotten cheaper, so we spend a smaller proportion of our income on it and buy more of it.

Now, the last point is really interesting, because when Joy’s 1986 edition was published in the heart of the go-go ’80s, and even when the 2006 version was published, food was indeed cheap. But as we all know, the cost of food has risen steadily in the past year, while salaries have dropped, people have lost their jobs, and the economy has slowed to a deep and tenacious recession (depression, some say). I can’t help wondering how this will influence Joy’s editors as they prepare the 80th anniversary edition for 2011. It will be interesting to see if portion sizes and calorie counts hark back to Irma Rombauer’s Depression-era incarnations.

Food prices have risen sharply over the past year, and we’re in the midst of a stubborn and deep recession. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming 80th anniversary edition of Joy harks back to the portion sizes and calorie counts of its Depression-era roots.

In the meantime, when cooking from the current version of Joy, Wansink has some advice: If you’re preparing a recipe that’s supposed to serve 4, set aside half the recipe to enjoy another night. “Families need to be aware that serving size and calorie composition of classic recipes “should be downsized to counteract growing waistlines.”

Resolutions that work, part 6: Accept a challenge


January if flyin' by, baby. How are those resolutions coming along? (Flickr photo.)

January if flyin' by, baby. How are those resolutions coming along? (Flickr photo.)

It’s hard to believe we’re almost halfway through January. And there’s a good chance all those New Year’s intentions to eat better are starting to wane in the face of a busy post-holiday, return-t0-work routine. One way to stay on track is to join a group challenge, and there are a number of national diet and fitness challenges currently underway. You can start them anytime.

“I am going to do the Small Plate Movement Challenge and start eating dinner from a salad plate,” says Health magazine associate editor Shaun Chavis. “I love eating food from bowls, so I’ll have to find some smaller ones.” (Check out Shaun’s awesome weight-loss blog for Here’s the deal on the Small Plate Movement and four other (free!)  challenges you can join:


For portion control: This year, Shaun is accepting the Small Plate Movement Challenge, which was developed by Brian Wansink, PhD. Wansink is a psychologist who heads up the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. He has done fascinating research on food behavior, including the influence of plate size on how much we eat. It’s pretty simple: When we eat off larger plates (and dinner plates have gotten larger over the last couple of decades), we consume more food. The Small Plate Movement challenges participants to eat the largest meal of the day off a 10-inch plate for one month. It’s a simple challenge, and an easy way to start controlling portion sizes.

To keep an eye on what you eat: Munching while distracted (i.e., mindlessly) leads to consuming unwanted calories. The National Mindless Eating Challenge is another of Wansink’s projects; it allows you to customize weekly and monthly goals, for which Wansink offers research-supported tips to improve your chances of success.

To improve your overall diet: The editors of EatingWell magazine have designed the EatingWell Diet Challenge, which you can start anytime. The 12-week program has interactive tools, tips, and research to help you set realistic goals and meet them. I really like this one, because it anticipates obstacles, like weight-loss plateaus and overeating triggers.

Short and sweet: If you just need to kick-start better eating habits, try the Dairy Council of California’s Meals Matter Nutrition and Fitness Challenge.  Designed by registered dietitians, “the Challenge has three weeks of diet, fitness, and lifestyle assessment and improvement through interactive tools,” says Sara Floor Miller, the council’s communications manager. Miller has accepted the challenge. “I’m already planning to increase my excercise by walking my dogs. I’m also planning to be more dilligent about planning and preparing healthy meals.” 

Extra incentive: Register for Discovery Health’s National Body Challenge, and you’ll get a free 30-day membership to Bally’s health clubs–in addition to free online tools to set and track your diet and fitness resolutions.

Previous posts in the Resolutions That Work Series:

Fruit of the Day

Pay Attention to What You Eat

Eat Your Greens

Plan Ahead to Eat Well

Accessorize with Meat

Red wine boosts omega-3s


Moderate consumption of red wine may boost hearty-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in your blood.

Moderate consumption of red wine may boost hearty-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in your blood.

File this under good news: Wine Spectator reports that drinking red wine may boost blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are linked to lower rates of heart disease and may help ward off depression (wow, so you really can drink your troubles away–just kidding!). You need to consume foods rich in omega-3 fats, since your body can’t produce them. Oily fish like salmon and mackerel are good sources, as are nuts and nut oils, flax seed, and canola oil.

European researchers have found moderate red wine consumption–one (4-ounce) glass per day for women, two for men–helps boost blood levels of omega-3s. They say wine helps the body synthesize omega-3s from plant and animal sources. 

Of course, the key is moderate consumption. Heavy drinkers in the study had lower blood levels of omega-3s.

You can celebrate the news tonight by grilling wild Alaskan salmon (it’s available frozen this time of year) and glass of pinot noir. If you want to find a good, super-affordable red table wine, check out Jason’s Wine Blog, which rates the cheap sips available at Trader Joe’s.