Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My African Adventure in Food & Nutrition - Part 2: Malnutrition Expedition

Coming to South Sudan I have been faced with seeing malnutrition as a common problem in kids. Many young children (under 5) at the orphanage and in the community show the obvious sign of malnutrition – a swollen abdominal. This can signify a lack of protein (kwashiorkor) or carbohydrates (marasmus). Technically though, malnutrition is when the body is missing anything it needs. With these children, because the diets are deficient, they are missing micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, as well as lacking the macronutrients. This breaks my heart.

What especially saddens me though is that this state of malnutrition has become the norm and it is not looked at with so much concern. Even when I was talking with a well-qualified nurse, he said that this (the swollen abdominal) is normal. I urged him, “No, this is not normal. Children in North America do not have these swollen bellies.” He conceded that their diet is lacking but it isn’t serious enough because it doesn’t cause long-term damage. I can agree that the children here aren't severely malnourished or wasting away, but if a growing body is not getting enough protein or carbohydrates or BOTH along with missing numerous vitamins it will affect their development.

Fortunately, tI was able to teach a seminar at the orphanage (to the leaders) about the basics of nutrition and explain the problems of malnutrition. I explained what carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are as well as vitamins and minerals. We looked at the different food groups (Vegetables, Fruit, Grains, Protein – not Dairy, since they don’t really have that here), and identified which local foods fit into which categories. We worked together to complete a basic menu plan to see how you can use foods from each food group in a given day and use variety in your diet (eg. Instead of eating maize 3/day for your grains, you could have cassava at a meal and sorghum at another meal). I was able to do some teaching to provide knowledge about nutrition and hopefully they can continue to apply this knowledge in accordance with their economic capacity.

In thinking about the malnutrition here, some similarities to my own North American culture struck me. Just as the people here expect a degree of malnutrition and see it as “normal”, we do the same thing with our health. We don’t recognize if we are sick when that is our constant state of being and we have never experienced a higher level of health. We live each day with the effects of our high-sugar, high-fat, highly-processed diets thinking we are healthy for the most part. Perhaps we are all feeling sick from these things, but it has become the new normal. I encourage you to improve your diet and lifestyle and see if you can reach a higher level of wellness. Don’t let sickness become your norm.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My African Adventure in Food & Nutrition - Part 1: My Sustainer

It has been a very long time since I last blogged. The past 2 months have been a whirlwind, getting ready for our summer and diving into it. We (James and I) spent 2 weeks in Israel visiting family and now have been in South Sudan for almost 2 weeks.

Over the course of the next 2 months I will focus my blog on what I am learning and experiencing in Africa around the subject of Food & Nutrition. The posts will be less frequent as internet access is a difficult thing to come by!

My Sustainer

Coming here to South Sudan was a difficult decision for me, someone who loves nutrition, because I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of control or choice over my diet—and that it would be less nutritious than what I eat at home.

Our typical diet here is porridge (made out of maize flour and water) and white bread for breakfast; white rice or maize with beans for lunch; and a repeat for dinner. Sometimes there are cooked leafy greens or some peanut butter added to the beans. To supplement the diet we are fed at the orphanage we occasionally eat some cucumber or plain lettuce from the garden, buy bananas and peanuts at the market and get a mango down off the tree. So basically, I am eating a lot of refined carbs, and limited fruits and vegetables – quite the opposite from my diet at home.

Knowing in advance our diet would be lacking, we packed some vitamins and supplements for us to take each day, but this definitely isn’t a replacement.

I learned a very important lesson this week in a very real way—that God is my Sustainer. In Canada, it is easy to trust myself as sustainer, because I could eat the foods I know are good for me and take the supplements or medications I need. However, here in South Sudan, I don’t have so many options so I cannot rely on myself for sustenance—I need to rely on God.

Although supplements are helpful and I should use what God provides (knowledge, resources) to care for my body, ultimately I must rely on God to sustain my body, to keep it going and keep me healthy. By this, I am not saying that I will remain in great health necessarily, beacause God can use sickness in our lives as well. In Philippians 4:12b – 13, Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

My prayer is that I can learn this contentment that Paul had and trust in God to give my body strength – and continue trusting him in this way even when I return to Canada.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Refined Foods: Perhaps not so “Fine”

Over the past couple weeks I have been studying all the vitamins and minerals our body needs, the sources they come from, their functions, various uses in treatment and the effects of deficiency or toxicity.
I came across a few themes when it comes to vitamins and minerals. First, significant amounts of many vitamins and minerals are lost during food processing and/or cooking. Second, depleted soil (which is an ever-increasing problem with modern agriculture) causes nutrient depleted foods. Here are a few examples (all taken from “Staying Healthy with Nutrition” by Elson M. Haas”):

o Vitamin E – “The protective covering or germ part of the grains is what contains the E, which is lost easily in the milling of flour or in the refinement of grains. For the vitamin E to be preserved, extraction of the oils from nuts and seeds must be done naturally, as by cold-pressing, rather than by heat or chemical extraction, which is used commonly in food processing”
o Folic Acid (a B Vitamin) – “Folic acid is sensitive and easily destroyed in a variety of ways—by light, heat, any type of cooking, or an acid pH below 4. It can even be lost from foods when they are stored at room temperature for long periods.
o Potential Mineral Loss in…Wheat Milling – “Manganese 88%, Chromium 87%, Magnesium 80%, Sodium 78%, Potassium 77%, Iron, 76%, Zinc 72%, Phosphorus 71%, Copper 63%, Calcium 60%, Molybdenum 60%, Cobalt 50%”
o Potential Mineral Loss is…Refining Sugarcane – “Magnesium 99%, Zinc 98%, Chromium 93%, Manganese 93%, Cobalt 88%, Copper 83%
o Magnesium – “Many factors affects magnesium availability from goods. One is the amount of magnesium in the soil in which the good is grown…”

These are just a few examples. Many vitamins and minerals follow the same patterns. This is a big problem! We are eating food that may give us energy to burn, but doesn't provide us with the nutrients we need to sustain basic bodily functions, such as cardiac function, fluid and pH balance, conducting nerve impulses, muscle contraction, blood clotting, maintaining strong bones…the list goes on!

So what can we do to make sure we get the vitamins and minerals our body needs? Supplements can help, but unfortunately good health isn’t as easy as popping a pill. We should avoid consumption of refined foods and eat whole foods instead. Look for cold-pressed oils instead of vegetable/canola oils processed at very high heats (you’ll likely have to go to a health food store). Buy local produce that is picked ripe (when its at its highest nutrient content), so that you can eat it fresh, since nutrients often degrade over time. (Your know the produce in the grocery store doesn’t get here from Peru overnight!) Also, eat a variety of foods, especially vegetables since different foods are high in different nutrients. Once the food is in our hands, how we prepare it also affects the nutrient content (see below).

Check out this pyramid, taken from the website of Udo Erasmus, Ph D. in nutrition and an expert on Fats and Oils for more info on how processing affects our food.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Living off the Land--Are we Pushing the Limits?

In recent years, North Americans are starting to become more aware of how much of the world’s precious resources we are consuming—but we have a long way to go. WorldWatch Institute states that, “the planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes—yet the average person on Earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. These “ecological footprints” range from the 9.7 hectares claimed by the average American to the 0.47 hectares used by the average Mozambican.” (

The idea of the respecting the earth’s limited resources is no new phenomenon. In the Bible, in Genesis 13:6 it tells the story of Abram and Lot separating. “But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great.” This happens again two generations later with Jacob and Esau. Genesis 36:7b stays, “Their possessions were too great for them to remain together; the land where they were staying could not support them both because of their livestock.” As the second verse points out clearly, a person’s amount of livestock was usually how one’s wealth was measured during this time. The solution to the problem at this time (roughly 2000 B.C.) was fairly simple, just move away so you can occupy more land. However we are beyond maxing-out our resources—we can’t move away because someone is already living there.

So what does this all have to do with food? This verse from the Bible shows that just like us, animals are consumers of the land, and the land can only support so much (it has limits!) Modern farming has pushed these limits by factoring farming and feeding animals unnatural diets instead of allowing them to graze on pasture or be free-run. Pushing these limits has had a big impact on the environment and our health.
Abram and Lot as well as Jacob and Esau respected the limits of the land and we need to follow suit. We should only have as much livestock as can live naturally off the land and that, in turn, limits our diets as well. Keep in mind you can feed more people off plant foods than animal foods, so reducing our animal product consumption helps reduce our use of the earth’s resources.

Another aspect to this idea of respecting the limits of the land is to eat local food. The cost of our food on the earth’s resources grows exponentially when we use oil to ship it half way around the world. But I won’t get into the details of local eating here…that deserves at least a post of it’s own! What I will say in the time being, is to find local food sources and buy what you can from them. Even if you can get 50% of your food locally, that’s good progress!

This post just scratches the surface of way to apply this verse, because they are so many ways in which we need to make changes so we are living sustainably. Please feel free to leave any ideas or comments about sustainability, it would be great o get a discussion going.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Recipe: Almond Cookies

As promised, here is another recipe that you can use soaked and dehyrdated nuts in. To see how to soak & dehdrate nuts see my post "Nuts over Nuts" This recipe for Almond (and other nut cookies) is great because it adds a source of protein to your cookies and does not contain white flour or white sugar. The arrowroot flour used is nutritious and easily digested (that’s why it’s used for babies – remember arrowroot cookies?) You can purchase arrowroot flour/starch at the Bulk barn or a health food store.

The following recipe for Almond cookies is taken directly from the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

Almond Cookies (makes about 18)

1 ½ cups crispy (soaked & dehydrated) almonds, preferably skinless
½ cups butter, softened or coconut oil
1 cup arrowroot or 7/8 cup bulgur flour
½ Rapadura**
½ tsp sea salt
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
18 crispy almonds

Place almonds in food processor and process to a fine meal. Add remaining ingredients except 18 almonds and process until well blended. Form dough into walnut-sized balls and place on buttered cookie sheets. Press an almond into each. Bake at 300 degrees for about 20 minutes. After about 5 minutes in the over, press cookies down lightly with a fork. Let cool completely before removing to an airtight container. Store in refrigerator.

Variation: Raspberry Jam Cookies
Instead of using 18 almonds, use ¼ cup naturally sweetened raspberry jam. After 5 minutes in the over, press cookies down slightly, make an indentation and fill with raspberry jam.

Variation: Peanut Cookies
Follow the same instrUctions as with almond cookies, but replace with peanuts. Omit lemon zest and extract and add 1 more tsp vanilla extract.

** A note about Rapadura – Never heard of this before? That’s okay! I hadn’t until about a year ago. Rapadura is evaporated sugar cane juice. It is a much healthier alternative to white sugar because it contains the vitamins and minerals naturally found in the sugarcane, whereas almost everything nutritious is stripped from white sugar. You can find it at a health food store.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Recipe: Nut Butter

As promised, here is a recipe that you can use soaked and dehydrated nuts in. To see how to soak & dehydrate nuts see my post "Nuts over Nuts" This is a great alternative to store-bought peanut butter which contains hydrogenated oils and roasted nuts instead of soaked & dehydrated. And it's so tasty! It's great on a sandwhich, pancake, celery sticks or apple slices.

Recipe is taken from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon (with my variations)

Nut Butter (makes 2 cups)
2 cups crispy (soaked & dehydrated) nuts such as peanuts, almonds or cashews
2/3 cup cold-pressed coconut oil (recipe suggest 3/4 cup, but I put in less)
2 Tbsp raw honey (can be omitted for a sugar-free version)
1 tsp sea salt

Place nuts and sea salt in food processor and grind to a fine powder. Add honey and coconut oil and process until "butter" becomes smooth. It will be somewhat liquid but will harden when chilled.

It is best to store in fridge to keep the oils in the nuts from going rancid, however it needs to be served at room temperature, so you'll have to take it out of the fridge a few hours before you want to use it. If you can't plan ahead that well, keep most of it in the fridge and take out what you think you'll use in a few days and leave it in the cupboard. Enjoy!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nuts over Nuts

Nuts make a great snack! First of all they are tasty, but they also are a good source of protein and nutrients and their fat content (healthy oils) keeps you feeling full. However, there a few things you should know about nuts before grabbing a jar of planter peanuts.

Most commercially available nuts come to us already roasted. This means that the good healthy oils are negatively affected, the B vitamin and mineral content is decreased (Elson M, Haas. Staying Healthy with Nutrition, p. 334), and the enzymes are destroyed. To add to this, they are roasted in more oil (often not very good oil) and a lot of salt is added. Intead of roasted, raw is a better choice—but even raw nuts require some preparation.

Nuts can be difficult for our body to digest because of the enzyme inhibitors that are present. Enzymes are a very important and often overlooked part of our food. Enzymes are used in our body to be a catalyst for chemical reactions, so that means without enzymes many reactions cannot occur. In terms of our digestion, we need the enzymes present in the food to be able to use the energy and nutrients available in our food. Fortunately, the enzyme inhibitors in the nuts can be neutralized by a simple soaking which provides the following benefits:
• Increased digestibility
• Increased nutrient availability and absorption
• Better taste, especially almonds and walnuts

To soak you nuts, use a glass jar or bowl and soak in warm filtered water, with some sea salt added. The nuts will expand when they absorb the water, so make sure there is extra room in your container. There are different recommendations for the length of soaking for each nut, but in general the harder the nut, the more soaking is required.

In the cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, the author suggests soaking 4 cups of nuts with 1 Tbsp sea salt (only 2 tsp salt for walnuts and pecans) for 7 hours or overnight and then dehydrating the nuts in a warm oven (150 F) for 12-24 hours (depending on the nut) until they are dried out. Although, you can eat them still wet, drying them out will give a texture close to that of a roasted nut, but without killing the enzymes, nutrients and oils.

Keep posted for some recipes with these delicious nuts in the next few days!