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Thanksgiving: My Favorite Squash Soup

If foods could be our friends, then squash would be my best friend. For the record, I don’t actually believe foods are our friends – they can’t love us back, and they’re no substitute for real human connection. Foods are just foods. But again, IF they could be our friends, then squash would be my Bestie. I enjoy everything about this beautiful food – the natural sweetness, the complex and varied flavors from squash to squash, the vibrant, cheerful color, its versatility. I’m salivating just writing about it.

 

So it’s no surprise that every year for Thanksgiving I make some version of squash soup as one of our side dishes, but I give a wide berth to the common, overly sweet versions that include apples, maple syrup, or sugar and leave my taste buds feeling manic. In my (humble) opinion, those versions usually do a disservice to the natural sweetness squashes like Kabocha, Butternut, and Delicata have to offer, leaving nothing but the taste of sugar behind. Instead, why not allow the sweet, rich flavors of squash to reveal themselves naturally, whispering themselves into our taste buds instead of shouting at us?

 

The recipe below does just that. I can’t remember where I got the original version of this one, but I’ve tweaked it plenty over the years. Add more peppers or curry paste if you want more heat, less coconut milk if you want it more squashy, more basil if you love it, or use a different squash besides Kabocha (although a traditional acorn squash would probably fall a bit flat). Honestly, there’s not much you can do to ruin this soup unless you add too much fish sauce or lime juice. It’s a delicious twist on a fall classic. Have fun playing!

 

Red Curry Kabocha Soup

Yields: 8 servings

1 medium Kabocha squash

4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup yellow onion, diced

1 Tablespoon red curry paste, or to taste

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 lime, juiced

½ cup fresh basil, torn into pieces

2 Tablespoons lemongrass, finely chopped

2 small jalapeno peppers, diced

6 cups chicken stock

14 ounces coconut milk (whole or reduced fat, whichever you prefer)

salt, to taste

toasted coconut flakes for garnish (optional)

 

Heat oven to 375º F. Slice squash in half and scoop out seeds and stringy guts. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and put face down in a roasting pan. Rub peeled garlic with a little oil and toss into pan along with ½ cup water. Cover and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until squash is tender and garlic is caramel-colored. When cool enough to handle but still warm, scoop out squash flesh and toss squash shell.

 

In a large soup pot, heat remaining 2 Tablespoons oil. Add onion; reduce heat to low. Cover and sweat onion until translucent, about 7-10 minutes.

 

Whisk together curry paste, fish sauce, lime juice, basil, and lemongrass. Add mixture to large soup pot along with roasted squash, garlic, and stock. Stir in diced peppers. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

 

Simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in coconut milk and heat through. Puree soup in a blender or food processor. Adjust seasonings, if necessary, and top with toasted coconut, if desired.

Dairy: To Eat or Not To Eat?

Beginning in childhood, most of us were taught that dairy was good for us. We drank milk daily and freely snacked on cheese sticks and yogurt so we’d have strong bones and teeth. The USDA Food Pyramid recommended 2-3 servings of dairy daily throughout the 80’s and 90’s, which means we were encouraged to have some form of dairy at nearly every meal. After all, these foods are rich in calcium and protein; therefore, they must be critical for good health, right?

 

The discussion of dairy can become complex quickly. Yes, dairy can be a healthful food for some people, but it’s not healthful for everyone. In fact, it’s one of the top three most common food sensitivities, along with gluten and nuts. Negative reactions to it can range widely, including acne, eczema, rashes, asthma or other breathing problems, a persistent cough, seasonal allergies, headaches, digestive distress (stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas), and more. Dr. Walter Willett, MD, PhD and chair of nutrition at Harvard, estimates that 75% of the world’s population is genetically unable to properly digest dairy products. That’s a staggering statistic! In addition to those of us who are sensitive to dairy there are also lots of folks who have a full-blown allergy and can’t ingest it at all without having a dramatic, life-threatening reaction (often involving anaphylaxis).

 

While it’s becoming more widely known that dairy may have some pitfalls, the revelation that a food group long touted as healthy could be at the root of someone’s health concerns can still feel confusing at first if you, too, were taught that dairy was unequivocally good for you. Dairy is a prime example of how every individual walking this planet is unique and why we simply can’t make blanket statements about how certain foods are “good” or “bad.” As the saying goes, “One person’s food is another person’s poison.”

 

Dairy can be troublesome for a few reasons. Some people don’t have an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose (milk sugar) present in dairy (lactose intolerance). Other people react to casein, the main protein present in milk. Other people yet notice they don’t do well with the antibiotics, pesticide residues, and effects of homogenization and pasteurization found in conventionally-raised dairy but seem to tolerate organic, pasture-raised products better. And lastly, there are numerous exceptions and nuances within the big category of “dairy.” For example: Some people can handle yogurt, which is fermented and contains beneficial bacteria for our gut ecosysem, but can’t eat cheese. Other people can enjoy hard cheeses like Parmesan and Peccorino Romano, which have enzymes present that help our body digest that food, but can’t touch softer cheeses like cheddar or Swiss without feeling rotten. Some individuals can sauté things in butter and feel fine, but they can’t drink a glass of milk without getting sick.

 

Additionally, cow dairy is different from goat or sheep dairy. Many people who can’t handle cow dairy do just fine with goat or sheep products. One shouldn’t assume that all of these foods will produce a similar reaction. Yes, it can all feel a bit confusing and muddy.

 

If it seems that your body tolerates dairy and you decide to continue consuming it, please seek out quality sources. Your body deserves the best! Check out a farmers market or neighborhood coop and find out who’s offering quality dairy in your area. In Minnesota, we have a couple favorite sources, small farmers who take great pride and exceptional care of their animals, products, and land. They don’t give their animals antibiotics unless absolutely necessary (and then that milk is discarded until free of the antibiotic residue), and their animals enjoy roaming and eating outside in an environment natural to them:

 

Stony Creek Dairy

PastureLand Cooperative

 

Both of these farms produces 100% grass-fed dairy, which means their products are more nutrient-rich than conventional dairy. Specifically, they will be richer in vitamin D and omega 3 essential fatty acids.

 

If it doesn’t look like anybody in your area is producing pastured dairy yet, Organic Valley is a nationwide company with a good reputation for providing quality products.

 

Foods are just foods. They are not inherently good or bad, and we’re not going to learn whether or not our body likes a certain food by reading an article about it. If you’re feeling confused about whether to eat dairy, the only surefire way to learn whether a certain food is healthful to our unique body is to take a break from it, experiment with it by reintroducing it, and then listen – and respect – our body’s messages after we eat that food. If you’ve had a nagging, persistent health concern that feels mysterious and seems to evade a firm diagnosis, a food sensitivity is often the root. Dairy can’t be labeled a bad food, but it does lead the pack of potential suspects.

Strength Training for Increased Metabolic Rate & Fat Loss

Somewhat recently, I’ve resumed a focused strength training journey. Those close to me know that exercise, in general, isn’t my favorite thing to do. I’m pretty transparent about the fact that exercise will easily fall off my to-do list if I give it an ounce of wiggle-room. Cook a nutritious meal? Check. Meditate? Check. Exercise? Fine, I suppose.

There are a few exceptions: dance, yoga, walks with my husband, and Pilates are activities I look forward to, and now I’m realizing I can add strength training to that short list, which delights me to no end. After just a couple of months of focused strength training – twice a week at most and once a week when my schedule gets more hectic – I’m already noticing feeling stronger and leaner. Some jeans that had become pretty tight around my hips are fitting again and I’m feeling more comfortable overall.

So I thought I’d share a few things I’m learning and reinforcing about metabolic rate and fat loss as I travel this strength training path myself:

 

  1. The variability in your Resting Metabolic Rate or “Basal Metabolic Rate” (the number of calories required to support normal bodily functions and the number of calories you expend each day when you aren’t physically active or exercising) is attributed largely to the amount of muscle tissue on your body. The decline in your metabolic rate that occurs as you age is usually blamed in large part to a wasting away (atrophy) of muscle. If you strength train and regain or retain your muscle tissue, your metabolic rate should improve.

 

  1. Strength training has a positive, acute effect on metabolic rate. When you strength train, your metabolic rate is elevated between 7-11% for the next three days (I like that fact a lot!). This effect exists for beginners or experienced exercisers alike.

 

  1. Strength training has positive, chronic effect on metabolic rate. When we add muscle tissue to any part of our body, we burn more calories constantly to support that new muscle.

 

Additional Thoughts

The information above has been adapted slightly from an informational card I received from my trainers at Discover Strength. The workouts at Discover Strength focus exclusively on strength training, which I believe in wholeheartedly – especially as we age. I often recommend strength training to my clients and friends because I believe it’s helpful for just about everyone, whereas other forms of exercising – like intense or prolonged cardio – can be devastating for people with compromised adrenal function, hormonal imbalances, or heart conditions. Even if you have an injury, there are usually ways you can continue strength training while protecting your injury.

 

I do, however, disagree with some of the philosophies that I’ll call “black and white thinking” about strength training and its correlation to weight loss, many of which are routinely promoted by gyms and well-meaning (and well-educated) trainers. Here are some other points I want to emphasize:

 

  1. Strength training is not the end-all-be all when it comes to “exercise” (as many trainers would have you believe). Don’t strength train twice a week (the recommended amount) and then just sit on your petudie for the other five days. Our body needs consistent movement. Yes, I recommend strength training, but I also hope you’ll continue to strive for 10,000 steps a day and find other activities you enjoy to keep you moving. Yoga? Dance? Team sports? Biking? Move it or lose it. (And remember, this is coming from someone who would rather sit on her petudie, if given the option.)

 

  1. Weight loss is not as simple as calories in, calories out, as many personal trainers tell you and want you to believe. A conversation my trainer and I were having about this very notion started getting a little heated (just a little) when he very earnestly tried to tell me that as long as you’re increasing your muscle mass and maintaining a caloric deficit you’ll lose weight. (He even dared to say that ‘hormones don’t matter’ when it comes to weight loss. You can imagine how I reacted to that.) Yes, the “calories-in-calories-out approach” works for some people, but not for everyone. Hormones play a profound role in how your body burns calories and how willing your body is to surrender and burn stored fat. So do food sensitivities and some medications. I’ve worked with many clients who severely restricted their calorie intake to 1000-1200 calories a day in an effort to lose weight. Guess what: their weight didn’t budge. Until you balance hormones, heal the thyroid, balance blood sugar, or uncover pesky food sensitivities, that weight is likely going to hang on like a death grip.

 

  1. Strength training doesn’t make women bulky. If you’re a woman, it’s going to be very difficult to bulk up, even once you’re lifting heavy weights. Women usually become more lean through strength training. Men are the ones who bulk up thanks to their higher levels of testosterone. I’ve talked with many women who are afraid to lift weights because they don’t want to bulk up. You can let that fear go.

 

If you haven’t lifted weights before, I encourage you to give it a shot and to begin your journey with a personal trainer until you get the hang of it. Just as with any exercise, it is possible to injure yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. Trainers will make sure you have the correct posture and are lifting a weight that’s appropriate for you. These two things are important not only for safety but also for achieving the results you want.

 

Conclusion: Physical Strength = Mental Strength

On a final note, many years ago a gym-owner friend said something that lodged itself in my brain and never left me alone. She said, “Increased physical strength breeds mental strength.” I’ve thought about that idea a lot since she mentioned it and especially since embarking on a more disciplined strength training regimen myself. I’m starting to see what she meant when she said that. Strength training pushes your limits. There are times you’re faced with lifting a weight heavier than you once could have imagined yourself lifting. Sometimes you can actually feel your muscles tearing as you near the end of your rep sequence (not to scare you), and you want nothing more than to drop the weight right then. Sometimes you have a day when your body can’t lift as much as it did three days earlier, and that feels frustrating. But it’s all part of the journey. Just like everything in life, there are days when we feel like a warrior, and there are days when we aren’t sure we can accomplish even simple tasks. Strength training teaches us that as long as we continue to show up, we’ll figure out a way to handle whatever task is in front of us and hopefully do a little bit better than last time. It’s all about showing up and giving it your best, which is exactly what the mentally strong do over and over.

Please Pass the Protein

Protein, protein, protein. There’s no doubt about it, protein is the macronutrient du jour. People everywhere are following high-protein diets and singing its praises, such as increased muscle mass and weight loss, which has landed this macronutrient squarely in the spotlight. But do we really know what we’re talking about when it comes to protein? And is there such a thing as consuming too much protein? Let’s explore this macronutrient a little and try to carve out some clarity.

 

Besides contributing to weight loss and preserving muscle mass, protein makes up the building blocks of your hair, nails, hormones, and blood — the cells of which break down and rebuild themselves all day, every day. It also helps to build and repair muscles, organs, tissues, and bones, and it plays an important role regulating blood sugar. In other words, it’s super important! Yes, most everyone should include quality protein at each meal.

 

The recommended daily intake (RDI) for protein is 46 grams for sedentary women and 56 grams for sedentary men. A more specific recommendation is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight (0.36 x body weight = recommended grams of protein per day), but this still doesn’t take into account your activity level and what your goals for your health are. Do you want to gain weight? Lose weight? Build more lean muscle? Depending on how active you are and who you ask, many people believe the recommended daily intake for protein is far too low; personal trainers in particular may suggest up to 100 grams of protein per day for a really active individual with some serious fitness goals (note: NOT somebody sitting in front of a computer all day). So you can see there’s lots of wiggle room within “expert recommendations.” As always, the question of how much protein your own body needs is going to be unique to you, and it will likely take some experimentation to discover what amount is ideal for you.

 

Protein Sources

While most of us immediately think of meat when we hear the word “protein,” there are actually lots of different protein-rich foods. While meat might be the most common protein-source in the United States and widely promoted as the most useable form of protein for our bodies, there’s also protein in eggs, fish, dairy, whole grains, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and in things like protein bars and protein powders.

 

Here’s a short list of protein content for some common foods you may already be eating. If you briefly reviewed what you ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the last couple days right now, you could probably do a quick tally of your average protein intake for each day:

 

½ cup oats = 13 grams protein

1 cup quinoa = 8 grams protein

1 large egg = 6 grams protein

½ cup lentils = 9 grams protein

1 cup black beans = 39 grams protein

3 oz salmon = 21 grams protein

3 oz chicken = 23 grams protein

1 chicken breast = 53 grams protein

¼ cup almonds = 6 grams protein

1 cup whole milk = 8 grams protein

6 oz Greek yogurt = 17 grams protein

1 cup cottage cheese = 27 grams protein

2 Tbsp chia seeds = 4 grams protein

1 oz pumpkin seeds = 5 grams protein

1 cup broccoli = 3 grams protein

½ cup tofu = 10 grams protein

protein shakes = 20-35 grams protein per shake, varying widely depending on the brand and protein source – check the label for accuracy.

 

As you can see, it’s not very hard for most of us to consume enough protein.

 

In fact, it’s important to know you can consume too much protein, just like you can eat too much fat and too many carbohydrates. Excess protein in the body is related to several health concerns, such as constipation, bad breath, low blood sugar, dehydration, and kidney damage, especially if you follow a high-protein diet for an extended period of time. It can also lead to weight gain, which can feel puzzling to people since protein is promoted almost exclusively as a weight loss tool. But yes, excess protein is usually stored as fat, just as all excessive calories we consume will be stored as fat.

 

Speaking of excessive consumption, it’s worth noting that even though nuts are a protein source they are primarily a fat, and they are extremely dense in calories. Yes, they can be a healthful food, but they can also cause weight gain if we allow ourselves to go too “nuts on nuts.” If weight loss is one of your goals, be sure to become familiar with portion sizes for nuts.

 

Quality

Protein is not just about quantity; it’s also about quality. I am especially passionate about the quality of animal protein people consume. I promote organic, pasture-raised, 100% grassfed meat, poultry, and other animal products free of added growth hormones and antibiotics. I also promote wild-caught fish. Believe me, I know these foods are more expensive, but the benefits to our health and the health of the animals and our environment are more than worth it.

 

If you choose to buy animal products from farmers who raised their animals organically on pasture, you can rest assured that those animals enjoyed good health and the nutrients in that product will translate to your own health. You can also know that the production of that food is part of a system that builds healthy soil for generations to come and contributes to a healthy planet and food system. Everybody wins.

 

If you choose to buy products that come from animals who were raised in a conventional or factory farm environment, it’s important to know those animals consumed antibiotics in their feed for the duration of their lifetime to keep them from constantly being sick, which you will then ingest when you eat that product. (In fact, 80% of the antibiotics that humans consume in their lifetimes come from the meat they eat.) You will also be ingesting added growth hormones, which were used to help that animal grow larger, and unfortunately, you will be consuming meat that is lower in nutrition because that animal was raised on a diet in an environment (inside) that is completely unnatural to that animal.

 

To be clear, the protein content remains the same no matter which product you choose, but the quality and nutrient density of that protein varies widely, and that has a profound difference on your health.

 

Conclusion

I’m committed to sharing information about both plant-based protein and animal protein. I will simply encourage you to experiment with different proteins to discover what works best for your body at this time in your life. If you are a heavy meat eater and have been for a while, I encourage you to experiment with more plant-based sources for a couple months and see how you feel, especially if you are overweight. Honestly, most people I work with could use more plant-based foods in their diets. On the other hand, if you are underweight or have been a vegetarian for a while and you’re noticing some trends with your health that concern you, it may be time to experiment with small amounts of animal protein or different types of protein in your diet. I know this is easier said than done, and I respect everyone’s feelings about meat. I trust that through experimentation you will be able to successfully guide yourself in finding the right life-affirming, energy-producing protein sources for you.