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  Most of the time, when one either tries to plan a healthy meal for themselves or their family, or is given a healthy recipe in some popular fitness/health/food magazine or website, focus is   given almost entirely to numbers. Numbers like grams of fat, calories, cholesterol, and fiber seem to dominate people’s minds when looking for a healthy meal. There’s a major problem in this equation, however: it’s just not healthy!

Say what?

Yes indeed, there is more (much, much, much more) to healthy eating than numbers. The number one thing to consider, is quality. As a health coach, I never pay attention to the numbers; instead I read the ingredients to see if there is anything in that specific food that will be harmful to me. Of course, it’s best to just plain avoid anything in a package, but that doesn’t happen over night and some people just plain aren’t interested in making everything themselves.

Why quality is paramount

Let’s make this real simple and go straight to the recipe. Here is a recipe I found on Eating Well Magazine’s website. It’s low in calories and supposedly heart healthy and good for diabetics and those looking to lose weight.

Here is Eating Well’s version of this recipe:

Sautéed Chicken Breasts with Creamy Chive Sauce

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, (about 1 pound), trimmed of fat
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
  • 3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 large shallots, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 14-ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup reduced-fat sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup chopped chives, (about 1 bunch)

Low in total fat, low in calories, low in sodium, and simple ingredients; what on earth could be wrong here? Let’s start straight from the top.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Firstly, I am seeing no suggestions are far as buying organic goes. But just to give Eating Well a small leg to stand on, I’ll assume that they actively encourage their readers to buy organic products. What’s the big deal? Well, for one there are no synthetic ingredients that are known to be cancerous. Secondly, there have been a number of studies showing that pesticides are triggers for a number of diseases.

You can drink all the skim milk you want, but if it’s got growth hormones, then you’re increasing your chances of getting cancer, and the lack of vitamin A & D (which are found in the fat) isn’t good either since they help protect against cancer (and a number of other pathologies). Lastly, cholesterol is needed for the body to help synthesize vitamin D, so even if one is consuming other foods that may be rich in vitamin D, you still want the dietary cholesterol to help keep your body from being deficient.

Goodness, this is just one single ingredient. Can you imagine what the big picture is? Well then, let’s continue.

As mentioned previously, reduced-fat dairy products are refined foods. If it’s pasteurized, the nutrient content will be minimized and the homogenization will increase the chances of heart disease. Even if it’s organic, reduced-fat products are nutritionally useless, and they can even lead to weight gain, as studies have shown.

It’s safe to assume that the animal products that are used in this recipe also don’t come from pastured animals. You see, most farm animals are kept in barns with minimal access to the outside and they are fed not their natural diet of grass (cows) or bugs and plants (chickens) but soybeans and corn (and it gets even worse when you purchase them from a conventional grocery store). Pastured animal products are naturally lower in fat and cholesterol, have a higher nutritional profile that includes the wonderful omega 3 fatty acids.

Lastly, the chicken stock used here is worthless. Even gourmet chicken stock that has added gelatin can not compare to the long-boil bone broth it originates from. Bone broths have been a nourishing tradition of a variety of healthy cultures for generations. Rich in gelatin, fat soluble vitamins, and a host of minerals, these broths have true healing properties that help to reduce bad bacteria in the gut and actually help to improve digestion.

Let’s get it on!

Now let me show you how to do this right:

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 boneless, chicken breasts, (about 1 pound)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
  • 1 tablespoon raw grass-fed butter
  • 2 large shallots, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 14oz home-made chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup whole, raw sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon lacto-fermented Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 cup chopped chives, (about 1 bunch)

What’s right with this picture?

You’ll notice I removed the big fat scare with the chicken. Fat doesn’t make you fat, and neither do calories. In actuality, more fat in the diet can help encourage weight loss. Fat helps to fill you up, which means it will be longer until you’re hungry and that also means less between-meal-snacking. As I had mentioned previously, extra calories aren’t what makes us fat.

Calories themselves are a useless unit of measure. I’ve heard the objections; “but if you eat 500 calories of ice cream (or chips, or candy bars, or milk chocolate, or doughnuts..), then you get fat!”. Well yes, that is true, but it’s not because of the calories. The reason is due to simple human physiology. For these foods, the extra load carbs and sugar will cause the pancreas to produce more insulin and thus will lead to inflammation and weight gain.

The second thing I changed was the kosher salt. Sure it’s better than irradiated, iodized, sodium chloride (ie: regular table salt), but sea salt is a healing food that helps the adrenal glands thanks to the number of trace minerals that are found within it.

What’s next? The health-supportive powerhouse of raw grass-fed butter! Yes indeed, raw butter from cows that live their entire lives on the pasture and eat only grass and hay is a nutrient dense food. Butter helps prevent heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and osteoporosis, it helps support the thyroid and digestion, and it contains 13 different fatty acids, including stearic acid, arachidonic acid, and glycosphingolipids! Butter contains a perfect 1:1 ratio of omega 3 to omega 6, which is good for the heart. Lastly, butter is a super-rich source of vitamins A, E, & K2, selenium, lecithin, iodine, and the Wulzen factor! But wait, butter is a saturated fat, isn’t that terrible? The science is out, and it has shown unanimously that saturated fatty acids are in no way correlated with heart disease. In fact, saturated fats help prevent heart disease by lowering lp(a), a known risk factor.

As I mentioned previously, there is a stark difference between the chicken-flavored water that you can pick up at the store and real, traditional, nourishing bone broth. Not only is bone broth incredibly nutritious (in addition to butter, I suggest making bone broth a dietary staple), but the flavor is astounding. Use it in a sauce or gravy for your favorite meal and you will notice a dramatic difference. The flavor is incredibly rich and it really makes a dish. It’s very easy to make (all you need is some aromatic vegetables like celery, onions, carrots, parsley, and cilantro, a pound or two of chicken bones, and a stock pot), especially if you cut up the vegetables ahead of time.

There is another load of fat with the raw sour cream. Isn’t this too much? Heck no! This of course beats the pants off of typical store-bought sour creams in that it’s loaded with the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K, and K2), a great source of omega 3 since the cow ate grass, and it’s properly fermented (instead of just made sour) to ensure it not just goes down easy, but it contains wonderful probiotic bacteria as well (on top of the beneficial bacteria that’s already found in raw, unpasteurized dairy).

Lastly, what is lacto-fermented mustard? Traditionally, condiments were fermented using whey (hence, lacto-fermented) and this helped to make them healing foods. Mustard, when lacto-fermented and made from organic whole mustard seed, is indeed a traditional healing food that has been used for ages in Asia and the Middle East. Sally Fallon writes in Nourishing Traditions:

Mustard seed use for food and for healing dates back to antiquity. In China during the Tang Dynasty, it was used to treat lung diseases. The Egyptians used mustard for “respiratory therapy”. In the Middle Ages mustard was used for respiratory ailments such as chest congestion, coughs, and asthma. Eighteenth century English physician Herberden endorsed mustard seed for the treatment of asthma.

Mustard is a cousin of cabbage and broccoli. During grinding the mustard seed contains sinigrin, and releases sulfur compounds and oils. The odor irritates the skin and mucous membranes. All the more interesting that mustard seed has been used all over the world for treating the sinuses and lungs.

Looking at these two recipes, which do you think nourishes the body more? Which do you think matters more? A paper-tiger chase of fat, sodium, and calories, or helping the body heal and encouraging wellness? Which do you suppose is more like how our ancestors ate, during a time when there wasn’t epidemics of disease and obesity?

Since perhaps the USDA’s 2004 dietary recommendations, the entirety of the US has had a clear message: the more whole grains, the merrier. I remember I would buy 7 grain bread and then see 12 grain and think “wow! I need soma’ that!”. In my article about whole foods nutrition, I mentioned how whole grains are a great source of magnesium and selenium, but what I didn’t know at the time was that there was something else they’re good for: digestive distress.

This information drove me crazy at first. How is it that grains are bad when there are traditional cultures that have made grains a staple of their diet for centuries? The production and consumption of grains as we know it today is quite different from what once was. Traditional cultures used to soak their grains before preparing them. This process increases digestibility and neutralizes various anti-nutrients. Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A Price Foundation, explains:

Our ancestors, and virtually all pre-industrialized peoples, soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes and casseroles. A quick review of grain recipes from around the world will prove our point: In India, rice and lentils are fermented for at least two days before they are prepared as idli and dosas; in Africa the natives soak coarsely ground corn overnight before adding it to soups and stews and they ferment corn or millet for several days to produce a sour porridge called ogi; a similar dish made from oats was traditional among the Welsh; in some Oriental and Latin American countries rice receives a long fermentation before it is prepared; Ethiopians make their distinctive injera bread by fermenting a grain called teff for several days; Mexican corn cakes, called pozol, are fermented for several days and for as long as two weeks in banana leaves; before the introduction of commercial brewers yeast, Europeans made slow-rise breads from fermented starters; in America the pioneers were famous for their sourdough breads, pancakes and biscuits; and throughout Europe grains were soaked overnight, and for as long as several days, in water or soured milk before they were cooked and served as porridge or gruel.

Gluten is one of the things that gets broken down in the soaking and fermentation process. Gluten is very hard to digest and it can cause an inflammatory reaction in many people. After time, it’s quite possible for one’s digestive system to become compromised due to the combination of this irritant and many others that we commonly consume. Dr. Marlene Merritt explains in her article myths about whole grains and vegetarianism that a diet high in unfermented whole grains, particularly high-gluten grains like wheat, puts an enormous strain on the whole digestive mechanism. When this mechanism breaks down with age or overuse, the results take the form of allergies, celiac disease, mental illness, chronic indigestion and candida albicans overgrowth. Recent research links gluten intolerance with multiple sclerosis. During the process of soaking and fermenting, gluten and other difficult to-digest proteins are partially broken down into simpler components that are more readily available for absorption.

Something else lurking in the grains: phytic acid and various other enzyme inhibitors. Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that binds itself to calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and especially zinc, in the intestines and blocks the body’s absorption of them. Because magnesium and calcium both play a role in bone health, frequent consumption of unfermented grains can lead to bone loss and mineral deficiencies as well.

Human beings, somewhat surprisingly, are not exactly intended to eat grains. Dr. Merritt says:

Anti-nutrients are there to protect the seed — they prevent sprouting until the time is right. What we forget is that animals that nourish themselves on plants and grains have longer, slower digestive tracts, with some having multiple stomachs for digestion. Those plants, grains and seeds want moisture, warmth, time and slight acidity to sprout, and imitating that is what will allow you to eat grains and legumes (soy excluded), extract the nutrients from them, and not have them cause short and long-term damage.

Does that mean that we should skip grains all together? Certainly, one can be in good health on a diet free of grains. The Masai tribe of Kenya is said to consume nothing but meat, milk, and animal blood. They are very fit, healthy, and have little to no dental carries (see my previous article to understand why this is notable). However, Dr. Price found that those who eat a varied diet had the best overall health. Grains however, just aren’t the pinnacle of health that we’ve been lead to believe from the USDA and all the other “diet dictocrats”.

To properly prepare grains, you want to soak them in a mildly acidic solution (for a day or more); to water, add in some whey, vinegar, lemon juice, kefir or yogurt and this will help to break down the anti-nutrients present and make the grains easier to digest and thus make the vitamin content more bioavailable. Sally Fallon outlines some additional information in her voluminous classic Nourishing Traditions:

Grains fall into two general categories. Those containing gluten, such as oats, rye, barley and especially wheat, should not be consumed unless they have been soaked or fermented; buckwheat, rice and millet do not contain gluten and are, on the whole, more easily digested. Whole rice and whole millet contain lower amounts of phytates than other grains so it is not absolutely necessary to soak them. However, they should be gently cooked for at least two hours in a high-mineral, gelatinous broth. This will neutralize some of the phytates they do contain and provide additional minerals to compensate for those that are still bound; while the gelatin in the broth will greatly facilitate digestion. We do not recommend the pressure cooker for grains because it cooks them too quickly.

While it is not necessary to rinse grains that have been soaked, some have said that they find it more flavorful after doing so.

UPDATE: A few months ago I decided to drastically reduce my consumption of grains aside from those that have been properly prepared, and white rice (something I’ll be discussing in the future). The largest source of grains for me used to be 2 bowls of “spelt flakes” I would eat in the morning with a handful of raisins in each. I now have Chris Kresser’s breakfast of champions (with an extra egg and extra coconut oil and butter for an added nutritional boost) in the morning and I’ve found that my digestion feels so much better! It’s really amazing when you experience something first hand. It’s one thing to read about what effect improperly prepared grains have on the body, and it’s another when you experience the difference first hand. Try this method out for a week and see if you notice a difference. Depending on how sensitive your digestion is, you may or may not notice, but either way, it’s good practice and healthier as a whole to adopt these changes.

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