Food for Thought (or lack thereof)

Posted by NYU student intern Victoria Stroker

As I sat on my commute home, stuffed on the D train amongst a swarm of chatty, over-energized, lime-green-shirt-wearing children on their way to summer camp, I couldn’t help but notice the two young girls next to me. The young girl to my left, probably around 13 years old could not fit into the small, indented “seat” in the subway car; I found myself squished even more towards the metal bar to my right. As I considered the difficulties of being overweight as a teenager (let’s face it, teenage years are hard enough as it is—thank you very much braces AND glasses) I was disrupted by the sound of fizzing. The young girl sitting next to me was opening up an orange colored bottle of soda (mind you, this was 10 AM). Sip. Close up the bottle. Ruffling of her backpack. Crunch, crunch (Cheetos). Orange colored dust appeared on her fingertips. Dust off orange dust. Less than a minute later, repeat. Opening of bottle, sip, close up bottle, open up backpack, crunch crunch, dust off, close backpack. This repeated about ten times until I exited the train. She couldn’t stop. If I needed any more evidence that junk food is addicting, this was it.

Research that is conducted on junk food and the brain states that the interaction is very similar to drugs and the brain; as with drugs, there is a viscous addiction that takes place between the brain and hyper-processed food. This startling observation on the train is one of many I see on a daily basis.  The facts that face our country about childhood obesity are available and alarming. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a national organization, tells us that “childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years”  As of 1980, only 7% of children were obese; compare that to 2012 rates of 18%.  As Jamie Oliver, chef, TV personality and activist for better-food education mentions in his 2010 Ted Talk, “a child will lead a shorter life than his/her own parents (10 years to be exact) because of the issues of obesity and overweight youth.”

There is a misbelief that overweight children can easily “outgrow” their extra weight. Yet even if a child is lucky enough to “grow” out of their weight, many poor food habits stay with that individual into their adult life. Not to mention the teasing, name-calling, and emotional turmoil that overweight children deal with, which is imprinted for a lifetime. Being overweight as a child can also have serious consequences to one’s health, especially if their weight maintains into their adult years. Overweight or obese youth may be at risk for pre-diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and other risks. Additionally, as an obese adult, risks increase to include Type 2 diabetes, stroke, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, etc.

What I observed on the train forces me to reconsider a question from a course I took at NYU while gaining my Masters in Nutrition. The question: Whose responsibility is the health of our children? Here is where my thoughts lie: If a child is overweight, is it the school’s responsibility to inform parents? Does the nurse need to alert parents if a child’s BMI is alarming? Should schools be feeding better food to children, while banning sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks? Does nutrition education need to be implemented in schools at a younger age? How much of the issue should fall on personal responsibility? Should parents be making better choices for their children? What if parents do not have the resources (money, time, etc.) to cook fresh food at home? Should doctors be discussing with their young patients and parents the real risks of being overweight as a child? What if there is no doctor in the situation, due to a lack of health insurance? Public policy: do we need to create more awareness for parents of the health risks of junk food, just like we have done for cigarettes? Our government: should junk food commercials be banned from children’s networks? Should parents be limiting screen time for their children and focusing more on healthy foods and physical activity at home? How do you enforce something like that? Lots of questions for a complicated topic…

I don’t believe there is a simple solution to the issue of childhood obesity, but responsibility by all groups mentioned needs to be taken. The “broken” food system in the United States is “fueling an astronomically expensive epidemic of preventable lifestyle diseases for which we are all paying” (Mark Bittman). The future–our country’s children–is in danger.

Jamie Oliver has been on a global quest to change food education for young people. His 2010 Ted Talk discusses the harsh realities of childhood obesity in America:

Crackin’ Open the Coconut

Posted by NYU student intern Victoria Stroker

Between coconut water, coconut oil, coconut ice cream, coconut butter, etc. coconut’s popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years. Before my time at college, my only interaction with coconut was with my grandmother’s infamous but not so tasty bunny cake for Easter Sunday. Mimi (my grandmother) would douse her boxed white cake cooked in a bunny mold with sticky white frosting and artificially flavored shredded coconut, which flooded your mouth with a coconut oasis when digging in. That was it; one day a year coconut and I interacted. Today, you can’t walk down an aisle at the grocery store without seeing coconut this, or coconut that—coconut is everywhere!

In the early 90’s, coconut oil was seen as the devil, filled with saturated fat and viewed as incredibly unhealthy for you. Now coconut oil has converted itself onto the health “superfood” list. Errol Schweizer, the global senior grocery coordinator at Whole Foods stated in 2011 that “annual sales at Whole Foods for coconut oil has been in the high double digits for the last five years” and these numbers have continued to grow. One of the reasons behind coconut oil’s gained popularity is its lack of animal fats, therefore making it a wonderful vegan-cooking substitute. In addition, it has the ability to stay solid giving a vegan pie crust its flakiness or melt into a liquid form to sauté warm apples. Coconut oil is not even limited to dishes seeking coconut flavor, as now refined coconut oil is tasteless. Coconut oil has been marketed as “healthy” butter, shaving cream, the greatest addition to your coffee, hair conditioner, and even as eye make up remover?! Coconut oil literally is believed to solve almost every issue a human may have, resulting in health food trend seekers racing to the closest grocery store to get in on the action. Continue reading

Nourishing with Intent

“The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts” – Aristotle. We are more than the sum of our parts. So is the food we eat. This is the principle of food synergy.

We can view our food from the perspective of health by the choices we make. We can even improve upon that by making conscious choices that create improved absorption and function of the nutrients within the meal. Choosing meals and creating recipes this way  optimizes our health, reducing inflammation and risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer,  improving gut function and immunity and overall health.

Take it one step further and bring the intent to your meal by visualizing these nutrients interacting with one another. Visualizing my food working within my body is something I try to practice. When I think about the poached egg and chicken vegetable miso soup with wakame I had after my run this morning, I can see the egg protein amino acids flooding my muscle cells to rebuild and repair. I see the collagen, chondroitin and glucosamine working to heal my aching back. I visualize the the vegetables providing vitamins A, C and antioxidants gobbling up free-radicals; minerals being extracted from the seaweed and the miso improving my gut microbiota. For some reason, when I think about all of these amazing interactions going on while I’m enjoying my nourishing, steaming bowl of soup –  I feel better. Nourishing every cell in my body with my intention seems to magnify the results. Of course, this is all in my head but no matter. I know I’m getting the most from my meal and feeling grateful in the process.Miso Chicken Veg Soup with Poached Egg

Imagine the wonderful synergy going on when you sit down to eat. Creating intention and mindfulness brings so much more than just nutrients to your meal.

Bring Fitness to Your Plate


Join me for a fun and informative cooking intensive on Sports Nutrition at The Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC on March 5-8. James Pierce MS, RD, CSCS, who is the resident sports dietitian for Columbia University Athletics as well as NYU, will presenting lectures and in-class activities. The second part of the day will be in the kitchen with me – translating the latest on nutrition and sports performance with hands on cooking, and lots of it! Great for both recreational athletes as well as competitive athletes and their coaches. Topics include nutrition for strength, speed and endurance, recovery nutrition, weight management, glycogen replenishment, hydration strategies, special diets such as paleo, vegan and gluten free.

Here’s the link, hope to see you there!

*CPE credits available for RD’s.

Food Synergy and Your Plate – Endless Possibilities

The dinner you eat tonight may (or may not ) be working to it’s best potential to promote your health. An amazing concept called Food Synergy teaches us how certain food combinations or even components within a single food can work synergistically together to increase the effectiveness of the nutrients in protecting our bodies from harm, such as free radicals and carcinogens. Food combinations also promote the absorption and retention of nutrients, needed for basic functions in our bodies. Even components within a single food do this effortlessly. A simple basic concept such as tomatoes cooked in olive oil will improve the absorption of the carotinoid lycopene by the monounsaturated fats in the oil. Many combinations exist such as folic acid + vitamins B6 + B12 to reduce heart disease risk. Vitamin E and Lycopene may reduce both risk for heart disease and prostate cancer. There are dozens more. Once you get the basics down, you can optimize your plate every day to give you the most bang for your buck – nutrition wise.

Emerging research in the field of nutrition is just tapping the surface.  Whether it comes from single food items, combinations or food systems – it’s easy to promote risk reduction and health with every bite you take. Whole foods provide macro and micro nutrients as well as phytochemicals and bioactive substaces that not only have a singular purpose, but also interact together in ways not completely understood. You cant’ get those benefits from a bag of chips or a box of oreos!

David Jacobs, a researcher from the University of Minnesota propose to think “food first” with strong evidence for certain dietary patterns rather than individual food constituents.  An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Jacobs explains how unless one is in a state of deficiency, individual dietary constituents are best delivered by foods rather than supplements, based on the biological environment and significant interrelations between the constituents. This idea supports variety, nutrient-dense whole foods to promote health.

Add even more positive effects by chosing foods grown fresh, locally and sustainably so that nutrients are retained better. This translates to way more nutrition for your body as the produce hasn’t been stored for long, losing valuable vitamins and minerals. As you bite into each forkful be mindful of not only where the food has been grown and transported, but how your body is assimilating and utilizing each component in combination or alone. It’s a perfect example of how even the human body works in perfect synergy with nature when you feed it amazing, fresh whole food.

The challenge: Use culinary expertise or just plain old creativity to come up with delicious recipes using these principles to support and improve health. You’re only limited by your imagination.

Heres a recipe which gives a double dose for preventing oxidative damage and heart disease by combining foods with both vitamin C and b-carotene plus garlic + onion for anti -platelet activity and reducing serum lipids.

Baked chicken with cherry peppers and tomato bruchetta 

serves 4

4 boneless organic chicken breasts

3 plum tomatoes, diced

1/2 c onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

4 Tbsp olive oil

2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp sea salt

fresh ground pepper

1/2 c hot sliced cherry peppers

Prepare bruchetta by combining tomatoes, onion, garlic, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Set aside in a non-reactive bowl for 15-30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375. Place chicken breasts in a baking dish and top with bruchetta. Place hot cherry peppers on top and bake for 40 minutes until cooked through, Serve over more B-carotene rich leafy greens and some fresh shaved parmesan.

Food Synergy at Work

Food Synergy at Work


What possibilities can you come up with?

Mix and match these for cardioprotective benefits:

Vit C rich foods: kiwi, berries, citrus, tomatoes, papaya, bell peppers, brussels sprouts, cauliflower


B-carotene rich foods: sweet potato, carrots, spinach, mustard greens, swiss chard, kale, romaine, butternut squash, cantaloupe, red peppers, dried apricots, peas, broccoli.

Fermentation – Good for your Gut and Your Palate

Interest in sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha are evident in many grocery carts lately. At a recent cooking class I attended at Peter Berley’s kitchen in Jamesport, I learned how easy and economical it is to make your own at home. I now have jars of vegetables bubbling away in my kitchen, much to the olfactory dismay of my family. But I can’t wait until next week when I can dip into my jars of kimchi and sauerkraut.

kimchi and sauerkraut

For thousands of years we’ve been using the art of fermentation to preserve foods. In modern times we’ve discovered the health benefits of cultured products. Here’s why you should learn more about it.

Fermented foods like yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut contain helpful bacteria that feed on their natural sugars. This creates lactic acid which preserves food and gives these foods their signature sour taste. These beneficial bacteria help breakdown some food components, making digestion easier and nutrients absorbed more readily. Yogurt or kefir are often easier to digest for those lactose intolerant just for this reason, as it’s partially digested by the bacteria in it.

Fermented foods provide food synergy by increasing nutrient’s bioavailability and absorption. Nutrients like amino acids, Vitamins A, C and B vitamins are more readily absorbed. For example, cabbage fermented into sauerkraut or kimchi increases the glucosinolates or anti-cancer compounds within. All of these friendly bacteria are a bonus for immunity in our gut and may help decrease inflammation, allergies and auto-immune disease. Consider adding some fermented foods daily, not only for the health benefits but to add dimension and flavor to your dishes. Think crunchy pickles, tangy sauerkraut, savory miso and creamy yogurt. It adds texture, umami and heft to a recipe and its easy to add as a condiment,  sandwich topping or snack.

Lacto Brined Beans by Peter Berley

Brine Ratio: 3 Tbsp salt and 1.5 Tbsp vinegar per quart water

Green beans or Wax beans, dill, garlic, fresh chilis

Note: Beans must be blanched 2 minutes in boiling water to destroy toxin before pickling

Pack beans, dill, garlic and chills into crocks and pour in cool water, drain the water out and measure it. Salt according to the brine ratio and cover the beans with the brine. Weigh and ferment for 7-10 days at room temp. Then refrigerate.

From North Fork Farm to Table

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I love summer – the weather is warm and the produce plentiful. One of my favorite things to do is visit local farm stands and figure out dinner from there. Crisp, unprocessed food in it’s natural state. Nutrition at it’s peak and keeping my ecological footprint to a minimum makes me happy. On a recent journey to Orient Point, I stopped at Latham Farm. They have beautiful produce and it’s easy to be inspired. Just looking at the freshly picked cucumbers, lettuces, carrots and spring onions creates dreams of a farm-fresh supper. Not to mention the incredible view of Orient Harbor. Next stop – the local fishmonger, and then to a winery right up the block.

On this day, I just kept it simple- cucumber salad with red onion and fresh dill, local veggies and blackfish on the grill. A glass of local sauvignon blanc from Kontokosta Winery. Summertime just can’t get better than that.

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It’s Gluten Free… it Must be Healthy

It’s impossible not to notice the enormous amount of gluten free products everywhere lately. Whether it’s in the grocery store, convenience store, vending machine or restaurant – it’s hard not to think about trying these products. After all, they’re healthier than other foods, right? Think again. If you have celiac disease, then yes- it’s essential for your health. For weight loss? Not so much.

Having lunch with a friend the other day, we noticed a gluten free section on the menu. This brought up the subject of the virtues of gluten free diets. “So much healthier!” my friend exclaimed, and was excited to tell me about a new snack food she  found. “It is really healthy and so delicious”, she said. Was it? Delicious it was,  but healthy- well… let’s see.

glutinoThose with gluten intolerance may also feel some relief by avoiding gluten, a wheat protein. But the average person does not need to cut gluten out of their diet, despite what the media and food manufacturers would have you believe.

Of course, lots of gluten containing products are unhealthy, especially if they are refined and processed. But so are gluten free products that are heavily processed, and most of them are.

Let’s just look at the yogurt covered gluten free pretzels to the left.

You’ll notice that there are 150 calories, 7g fat (6g of which are saturated), and 12 g of sugar (that’s 3 tsp)- and just in 9 tiny pretzels. These little morsels are so tasty and impossible to resist (thanks to those clever food scientists) I could inhale that amount in approximately 30 seconds. Now look at the servings per package. This small 5.5 oz bag (yes you read it right) contains 5 portions– according to the manufacturer. Now, I ask you- who decided that? And who could possibly resist eating the entire bag? Someone with intense discipline (maybe Gandhi?), but the average mortal will be wolfing down this entire bag- along with 750 calories, 35g fat and 60 grams of sugar (15 tsp!). Ouch. Still think this is a healthy product?

Now take a look at the ingredients.  Sugar, palm kernel oil, soy lecithin,  corn starch, potato starch, palm oil and a host of other unfamiliar ingredients- none of which your grandma would recognize. And- it’ll set you back over $4 bucks to boot.

So, before you jump on the gluten free bandwagon- check out the the nutrition facts panel and then decide if it’s worth it. Maybe the new nutrition facts panel will help clarify these confusing and misleading labels in the future.

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Let’s Get Freekeh



Roasted green wheat. Sounds compelling, doesn’t it? While quinoa is the new whole grain sweetheart, Freekeh is the newcomer. Even the name is intriguing. Don’t be afraid to try this exotic sounding grain. Not only is it a nutrition powerhouse, it’s truly delicious. Similar to bulgar wheat, Freekeh is harvested young, an immature green wheat that is roasted and then cracked.  This gives it a roasted, nutty flavor and a wonderful alternative to other whole grains such as farro, millet, amaranth and buckwheat. It’s nice to have healthy choices.

Freekeh is perfect as a side dish and also stands alone as a main. Maybe it’s that process of harvesting it while young and green that gives it it’s nutrient edge. High in fiber, protein and nutrients like the  antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin (eye health benefits). It’s also a low glycemic food. This powerful combination can promote weight loss, stabilize blood sugar and promote GI health all in one bowl. It is not gluten free though, for those with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease.

Here’s a recipe for those looking for a satisfying plant-based meal, or as the main event on your plate with a side of lean animal protein. Be careful though, it’s so good you may have trouble with portion control!

Freekeh Pilaf with Beluga Lentils and Roasted Yellow Tomatoes/Garlic

First roast tomatoes and garlic in olive oil in a 400 degree oven for about 20-30 minutes until just starting to brown. Next prepare lentils and set aside.  In a wide, deep skillet or pot, sauté chopped onion and carrot in a Tbsp olive oil. Add Freekeh and toss to coat. Roast in pan for a few minutes to bring out flavor. Add the appropriate amount of veg broth (follow package directions for the amount you are using). Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until just about done (about 15 minutes). You may add some chopped green veggies at this point for a nutrition boost. Stir and let cook a few minutes longer until veggies are done. Season with  salt and fresh ground pepper as desired. Top with lentils and tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil if desired.