Spring has sprung: eating for the vernal season

transitioning into spring

We made it! We’ve  survived the most brutal winter of all time! Last weekend, my husband and I spent a Sunday afternoon taking a gentle hike through some forest trails – I was so happy I could have cried. The birds were back, the sun was shining, and I wasn’t even wearing a jacket. This weekend was equally glorious – the trees are budding, the grass is greener and the crocus flowers in our neighborhood are beginning to bloom. Spring is here!

With this change of seasons, it’s important for us to slowly shift away from the heavier foods and more reclusive lifestyles of winter. The Inner Classic, the most important text of traditional Chinese medicine, tells us that this is the time of year to “rise early with the sun,” to take  ”brisk walks” and to take part in the activity and rebirth occurring around us in nature.

Reflecting on this text and thinking about my record over the past few years, I realize I have not had the most graceful of transitions between seasons. And so, in an effort to keep myself on track, I have put together a seasonal transition regimen of sorts and thought it might be helpful to share:

Spring is a time for cleansing

Spring cleaning is not just for our homes and closets: in traditional Chinese medicine, this season is linked to the liver and gall bladder, and special care should be taken to avoid overburdening these organs. One should generally eat less, and the heavier foods of winter should slowly be substituted for lighter fare with ascending and expansive qualities (just like spring!) Think sprouts, greens and seasonal vegetables.

Heavy, overly-fatty foods can make the liver sluggish and should be avoided. Dandelion root is an especially cleansing, liver-supporting herb that you can enjoy as a tea.

Decrease salt consumption

Salt and salty foods (miso, soy, heavily-salted broths, processed meats, etc.) should be minimized during the spring season due what Chinese medicine refers to as their “sinking energy”. If you find yourself with salt cravings, increase your intake of complex carbs, which can reduce this desire (source: Pitchford, 2002).

Reduce your intake of animal products

The regular consumption of animal products should be avoided as they are heavy and taxing on the liver;  instead, enjoy whole grains, legumes and seeds.

Use pungent herbs for cooking

Pungent  herbs have an expansive effect on the body – basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, dill, caraway and bay leaves are wonderfully supportive (and delicious!). (source: Pitchford, 2002).

Enjoy some raw food…

Spring is the time to increase one’s consumption of raw foods (especially later in the season as we transition into summer). Just be careful and make sure to listen to your body: if you have any signs of digestive difficulties, then raw foods should be avoided or minimized, as they are more difficult to digest and are traditionally thought to dampen one’s “digestive fire.”

…however, most of your food should still be lightly cooked

Even though some raw food is good for many of us at this time of year, the majority of our food should  be lightly cooked (a diet composed primarily of raw foods, as mentioned above, is taxing on our digestive system and is usually not a good idea).

Spring cooking methods should differ from the slow-cooked stews and soups of winter: vegetables should be cooked for a short period of time, but at higher temperatures (it is best if they maintain some of their “crunch”).

Go outside!

Get reacquainted with nature (and, in my case, the sun!). Spring is  the season of youth, activity and rebirth, and nothing is more refreshing for the body and soul than some quality outdoor-time.

 

Understanding labels: the egg confusion

Eggs cover

If you take a stroll down the refrigerator isle in any grocery store, you will probably notice that an egg is no longer just an egg. Purchasing this kitchen staple entails deciding if you like your eggs cage-free, free range, vegetarian-fed, fertile, enriched, certified humane, organic and more… As with milk and meat, the humble egg has been brought into the food labeling world’s no-man’s land.

As confusing (and annoying) as it is, it is important for us to understand what these labels mean. Every dollar we spend on food has consequences on our health, the environment, and of course, animal welfare.

conventionally raised chicken

Factory farmed eggs have been dubbed “the cruelest of all factory farm products:” hens are tortured and condemned to live their life in tiny, shared crates where they do not have the luxury of enough room to spread their wings. Spending much of their life in filthy, feces-ridden cages under severe physical and emotional stress, the conventional egg is an inferior product, lacking in virtually every nutrient that its (truly) organic counterparts are able to boast. What’s worse, is that these hens are fed a dangerous amount of antibiotics, which of course are passed into the final product sold on our supermarket shelves (and eventually ingested by us…). Not appetizing.

To help, I put together the below resource with a list of commonly used labels on egg cartons in the hopes of helping you cut through the marketing clutter so that you may make an informed decision about your purchase:

different types of egg1

 

different types of egg2

I now purchase pasture-raised eggs from a farm I know and trust. My conscience is clear, the eggs honestly taste better, and the yolks are a brighter, richer color than the mass-produced ones I used to buy - truly egg-cellent ;)!

Natural ways to support the immune system this winter

tea_staying healthy till spring

I don’t know about you, but I am really ready for spring. I miss the feel of sunshine on my skin, this winter’s snow has ruined too many of my good shoes that were just too young to die, and I think if I hear the word “vortex” one more time I might cry. Plus, it seems that at this time of year, every other person is either sick or recovering from a horrendous cold or virus.

While we can’t change the seasons, there are a few things we can do to naturally build our immunity. In that vein, I thought I would share some ideas on how to boost our body’s defenses through the final stretch of winter:

Get your lymphatic system moving

Our lymphatic system, which is essential to supporting immune function, does not have its own pump as our cardiovascular system does. Hence, it relies on our physical movement to function effectively. No/low movement = sluggish lymphatic system = underperforming immune system. Moreover, from the perspective of Chinese medicine, a lack of exercise can result in what is called low protective energy (or qi), as sufficient movement is essential to building the defenses needed to protect our body from disease. On terribly cold days, I resort to exercising at home with this program, which is pretty cool.

Another way to stimulate the lymphatic system is through dry-brushing the skin daily before showering (I will post something about this soon).

Don’t fight nature’s cycles

Winter is a time when nature slows down and retreats; it is a perfect period for inwardness, contemplation, and self-care. At this time of year, it is best to emulate the sun’s winter cycles by getting to bed early and rising later. Extra effort should be invested into decreasing unnecessary stress, which is linked to increases in the common cold and other viruses (plus a plethora of other more serious ailments). In Chinese medicine, stress and anxiety is thought to deplete one’s protective qi.

To the best of your ability, try to use the last few weeks of winter as an opportunity to find balance and regroup. As always, nature is often our best teacher.

Check your diet

Enjoy whole foods which have not been denatured and are full of nutrients that boost the body’s defenses. Processed foods as well as refined sugars must be avoided as they are depleting. An excess of salt has a tendency of “working against the qi’s outer defense of the body”, and should therefore be avoided in most cases (Pitchford, 2002).

Helpful foods to include in your diet at this time of year are are broccoli, turnips, parsnips, garlic, lemon juice, grapefruit, carrots, turmeric and ginger.

If you find you are beginning to feel under the weather…

…cut out dairy, animal protein, sweets and excess salt until you recover from your cold as these foods can be mucous and acid-forming. Instead, a predominantly liquid, plant-based diet is more healing (think soups full of fresh vegetables and whole grains).

Your external environment is important

Chinese healing philosophies tell us that maintaining a neat, serene environment is essential to support our immunity (our outside environment often reflects our inward state). Sunlight and fresh air are also key, so make sure to open those windows on days that the weather is tolerable to allow the air to circulate.

Also,  at this time of year when everything outside looks gray and blah, I like to play make-believe and create a spring-like ambience in my home with lots of gorgeous flowers to keep my spirits high. Right now, I have three vases of beautiful blooms in the living room alone.

And of course, maintaining a healthy routine year-round and sticking to a clean, wholesome diet is always the body’s first line of defense against disease. 

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When “all-natural” isn’t a good thing

chicken_allnaturalf

I am thrilled that my friend, former coworker and super-talented writer, Megan Margulies, is sharing her thoughts on “natural” food with us below in what is NL’s first ever guest post.

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Back in February of 2013, Nourished Living shared a blog post called, “Understanding Labels: What is in your Meat? Conventional vs. Organic vs. Natural Meat.” We know that the “all-natural” label holds farms to very little regulations in the raising or production of their meat. Most frightening, and you will find this on the above-mentioned chart, is the fact that farms aren’t required to be inspected for federal/state compliance.

By now, it’s pretty clear that the “all-natural” label is one that we should be leery of. At first glance, the term sounds lovely. You can almost see the chicken gallivanting across an open field as its loving farmer looks on smiling.  But when you stop to really, truly think about it—of course that chicken breast is natural…it’s a chicken! There is no reason for you to look at this label, and think, “Oh, good, this chicken is natural…it’s not made out of…plastic?”

The FDA says “from a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” This means that they have not developed a definition for use of term “natural, ” but will allow the label to be used “if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

In recent years, we have been wired to think “natural” is the almighty version of meat and produce. Not so, says Jessi Haggerty, RD, and wellness blogger.  “It’s important to remember that “natural” ingredients can be harmful. Cocaine, Alcohol, and Tobacco are all natural, but shouldn’t be consumed in unlimited amounts.”

With ever-evolving education and public awareness of food and farming practices, it would be expected that stricter federal regulations would be put into place for food labeling. In a letter dated January 6, 2014, the FDA responded to the issue saying that they have not devised a formal definition of the term “natural” with respect to foods because there are too many factors to consider. These factors include “relevant science; consumer preferences, perceptions, and beliefs; the vast array of modern food production technologies in addition to genetic engineering (e.g. use of different types of fertilizer, growth promotion drugs, animal husbandry methods); the myriad food processing methods, and any strictures flowing from the First Amendment.” They go on to say that even if they were to define “natural” in the context of food labeling, there would be “no assurance that we would revoke, amend, or add to the current policy, or develop any definition at all.”

Action Steps

It’s clear that we cannot rely on the FDA to protect us from the marketing maneuvers of companies like Perdue. So what should we be looking for? Haggerty recommends buying meat with an “antibiotic-free” label. “Remember, you eat what the animal eats, and if it’s eating antibiotics, so are you. If you want to go one step further, find meats that are eating an ‘all-natural’ diet as well. Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, and free-range chicken are signs of higher-quality meats.  If you are looking for humanely raised meats, find something that falls on the Global Animal Partnership rating scale.

We live in a world that is constantly increasing in its rate of production and consumption—and with that, comes unhealthy “farming” practices. It’s important to keep ourselves educated so that we can continue to live long, healthy, and delicious lives.

Megan Margulies is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. To learn more, visit her website at www.meganmargulies.com

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