Fabulous fibre

Have you noticed how fibre has suddenly appeared in the news again? That’s food-related fibre, not the high-speed broad band type! A large meta-analysis of research studies published in The Lancet last week concluded that a diet high in complex fibre and whole-foods could prevent the development of many chronic health problems. It concluded their study provided a ‘causal link’ between a low fibre diet and poor health (read more here).

The world of food and health is complex and fickle. The fact that fibre is good for health has been known for a long time, but gets conveniently forgotten when more popular diets come along, like low-carb/high fat, or ketogenic programmes. There’s a lot of confusion about the carbohydrate element of foods with many people automatically associating ‘carbs’ with sugar. And it’s true, refined sugar isn’t good for us, but complex, unadulterated carbohydrates are.

As anyone who has participated in my Eat Well Live Well course will know, I’m a big fan of fibre. And one of the benefits of eating a whole-food plant-based diet is that it is packed full of lovely complex fibres that the body just loves. And rather than worrying about how much you should consume, it’s just part and parcel of every meal – as long as you eat a wide range of whole plant foods that is.

So why might you not get enough fibre in your diet?

  1. Only food from plants contain fibre, so if you eat mainly meat, dairy and eggs you’ll be missing out on fibre.
  2. Refined cereals and grains loose their healthy complex fibre, so if you eat white bread, pasta or rice, processed breakfast cereals or ready meals, you’ll be losing all the lovely complex fibre.
  3. Fresh fruit and vegetables contain fibre too, so if you don’t hit your 5 portions a day (like 70% of the UK population), you’ll be missing out on fibre.

So what does fibre do for us? Lots, as it turns out. I go into more details in my new book Eat Well Live Well with The Sensitive Foodie (out next month!), but in a nutshell it:

  1. Improves gut motility – ie: make you poo!
  2. Removes excess bile, fats and toxic waste
  3. Fills you up
  4. Releases nutrients slowly
  5. Looks after the friendly bacteria living in your gut.

As more is learnt about the importance of gut health, this last one is really key. Bacteria living deep down in the large intestine dine out on the insoluble fibre found in complex carbohydrates that we can’t digest ourselves, and then puts it to good use, carrying out functions we have outsourced and can no longer do ourselves. Gut health is connected to many health challenges, including food sensitivities and autoimmune conditions, hence my personal love of all things fibre!

So how do you get more fibre in your diet? It’s easy – eat more plants! And a wide variety of them too. Add beans to soups and stews, more veggies to dishes. Ditch the processed breakfast cereals and opt for wholegrain or oats. Swap to wholegrain pasta, rice and bread. Or just focus on eating amazing plant foods throughout the day and then you don’t have to worry where your fibre is coming from.

A word of warning though, if you’re not used to eating lots of lovely fibre, or have IBS or something similar, take care! Fibre makes you fart. And if your gut is not happy, a sudden overload of high fibre foods could find you trumpeting at inappropriate moments or doubled up in pain. So think about gradually increasing the amount of whole foods over a few days rather than all at once – you, and anyone around you, will appreciate it!

If you’re not sure how to start eating more fibre, check out the recipes on my blog. Made with whole plant foods, they’re all packed with fibre in various forms. And if you’re interested in finding out more, my book is a good place to start. Look out for more information about publication date, or sign up to my book mailing list. You’ll get the lowdown before anyone else, plus special launch information and offers. Just click here.

Super quick quinoa and brown rice salad

I’m so excited now that the weather is finally improving and we are beginning to see more sunshine. Add that to the long light evenings that we have at this time of year and I’m positively brimming with the joys of Spring!   Some days have already been lovely and warm – fabulous opportunities to get outdoors. Which leads me neatly on to one of my favourite warmer month activities – eating outside.

There’s something so wonderfully compelling about al fresco dining, whether it’s a quick snack, lazy lunch or full on evening gathering with friends. Unfortunately, evening outside eating is still a rarity in the UK, even in the height of summer – or at least it is for me, I get cold too easily! I guess that’s why we find spending time further down in Europe so attractive. It’s certainly one of the influencing factors for our latest adventure – we’re buying a home from home in Portugal! More about that another time though.

It’s great to get invites round to friends for a BBQ or an impromptu dinner; eating whole-food and plant-based means I always offer to takes something with me, partly to take the pressure of the host who may not be used to cooking that way, and partly to make sure I get something to eat! Sometimes this can be a bit of a challenge though, especially if it’s a last-minute arrangement and the fridge is looking rather empty! That’s when you need a quick and easy fall-back dish to take; this wholegrain salad can be rustled up in a minute. Literally!

Since changing the way I eat, I spend little time in the supermarket aisles dominated by packets of processed foods. It actually makes shopping much quicker! There are however still a few items that I always make sure we have in the cupboard – sachets of pre-cooked wholegrain is one of them.

It’s not the cheapest way of buying whole-grains, but a fantastic time-saver and remarkably versatile. You still need to take care and check the ingredients label, as some brands add in a wide selection of flavourings and preservatives, as well as refined oils. Plus you need to make sure the word ‘wholegrain’ is on the packet otherwise you will be losing vital nutrients and fibre. Quinoa and wholegrain rice is my favourite combination; a tiny bit of olive oil helps it not to stick together in the pack, otherwise that’s all there is in the sachet. That means that the only other flavours are the ones I choose to add, ones that are natural and as whole as possible. They are a great quick option for people with food intolerances or sensitivities too, or for anyone who needs to look for gluten-free options.

I always have fresh herbs in my fridge – this is a great way to use up any bits and bobs left over from other recipes. My little herb garden out the back is also coming to life, giving me another source of flavour. This particular recipe asks for a combination of parsley, coriander and mint – that’s what I had in the fridge! But they are a naturally a great combo anyway (phew!). Add in some alfalfa or other sprouted seeds if you have them along with some toasted seeds like pumpkin and a good amount of seasoning and bam, there you have it – a simple yet super-tasty salad in the blink of an eye. Not only that, but it’s a great way to use up left-overs and reduce food waste (herbs are one of the most commonly thrown away foods). If you have a bit more time, soak some sultanas or raisins in hot water to plump them up before adding them in. Or chop up bits of cucumber or radish for an extra crunch. Let your imagination fly and see what combo you can come up with, and enjoy it with friends – or just yourself if you prefer!

Super quick quinoa and brown rice salad
1 sachet (250g) cooked quinoa and brown rice
3 tablespoons fresh herbs (parsley, coriander, mint etc) finely chopped
2 tablespoons sprouted seeds (alfalfa, broccoli seeds etc)
2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons raisins, soaked in hot water and drained
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon flaxseed oil (optional)
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Stir well then taste, add more seasoning or herbs as needed. Serve chilled.

 

 

Raspberry and almond cake

The soft fruit has been amazing this summer. Everything seems to have been ripe for picking earlier than normal too, so the season of home grown fruit has been long and luscious! That is apart from my own raspberry canes that seem to be taking their time to produce anything.

Berries are high on my list of favourite foods. In the past, it would be hard for me to decide whether strawberries or raspberries would come out on top. Strawberry flavoured anything was always my choice as a child, even over chocolate. And when the fruit was in season, I took any opportunity to cram those beautifully sweet, juicy berries into my eager mouth. Today, strawberries are available nearly all year round, which is great, but they no longer taste like the berries of my childhood. Mainly grown under cover, often requiring extra chemicals, they can be watery and drab. Home-grown strawberries still hit the mark, but there’s all too few to satisfy, once the weather, the slugs and the birds have been involved!

So raspberries are now my soft fruit of choice. Sweet and sharp at the same time, their flavour holds true. Homegrown are still the best in my mind, particularly as supermarkets charge a high premium and use a large amount of plastic packaging. The great thing is they freeze really well and so can be accessible all year round.

Bright red berries are packed full of vitamins and helpful phytonutrients so that not only do they taste amazing, our bodies love them too. In particular, the flavonoids in raspberries are thought to help reduce inflammation in the body that can lead to heart disease as well as help improve memory. They are also packed with anti-oxidants, those wonderful pac-man like substances that help mop up nasty free radicals circulating in the blood and have a high amount of fibre so can help with gut health as well as slow release of sugars.

You many have noticed that I tend to add fruit to cakes. This is partly because I love fruit, but also the natural sweetness helps reduce the need for additional refined sugar as well as adds in extra fibre and all these nutritional goodies. Cake as a ‘health food’ – what could be better than that?

Almonds are another key ingredient that not only taste good, but will provide your body with wonderful nutrients like magnesium and vitamin E as well as healthy fats and fibre. In fact there’s much to say about this amazing nut – that’s another blog post!

This cake is a perfect summer recipe; because you can use frozen raspberries, you can now bring a bit of summer into your kitchen at any time of the year! It’s soft and so tasty, and works well with gluten free flour or wholemeal. And of course as it’s dairy free and egg free, it’s good for your vegan friends or those with food intolerances  (apart from nuts – sorry nut allergy people!). If you want to make it look more beautiful, drizzle some stripes of simple icing mixed with a little almond essence over the top. Not only does it look good, but creates a flavour reminiscent of Bakewell Tart.

So give this a go and enjoy a sunny summer’s afternoon any time of the year. Do let me know how you get on!

Raspberry and almond cake (makes 8 good slices)
150g wholemeal or gluten free self-raising flour
100g ground almonds
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of baking powder
100g coconut sugar (or other sugar of choice)
200ml almond milk
70ml olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
100g raspberries (fresh or frozen – the berries keep their shape better if frozen)
25g flaked almonds

Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas Mark 4. Grease and line a 18cm round cake tin or a 2lb loaf tin.

Measure the flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt into one bowl. Mix the coconut sugar, almond milk, olive oil and vanilla essence in another. Keep the raspberries and flaked almonds to one side for now. Pour the wet mix into the dry and mix quickly but carefully. Once everything is roughly combined, pour half the mix into the prepared cake tin, sprinkle the raspberries over the top then fill with the remaining mix. Make sure all the the raspberries are covered with the mix, sprinkle the flaked almonds over the top and place in the oven for 35 minutes.

Check the cake – it should be risen slightly and lightly browned on top. Check with a skewer to see if it is cooked through – if some mix sticks to the skewer, place back in the oven for a few more minutes. Once you’re happy it’s cooked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for 10 minutes, then tip out onto a cooling rack. Decorate as above if you wish when fully cool, or just tuck in as it is. Enjoy!

 

 

The cost/benefit analysis of cake

When someone finds out that I don’t eat any dairy products, the conversation generally goes like this:

Aghast person: “You don’t eat dairy? What not even cheese?”
Me: “No, nor milk, or cream or butter.”
Aghast person, face starting to look like Munch’s ‘Scream’: “Oh you poor thing. I just couldn’t live without my cheese!”
Me: “It’s actually not that difficult once you haven’t had it for a while.”
Aghast person’s, expression turning from horror to disbelief: “Really? You must be so strong-willed. I couldn’t do that.”

I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly strong-willed. Or brave, single-minded or mad (all regular responses). Although cheese was hard to resist at first, for me it was cake. How to say no to a beautifully fresh buttery sponge laden with jam and cream, or a sumptuously delicious chocolate mud cake topped with whipped cream? There’s no denying my refusal to offers of cake were heavily laden with regret, enveloped in a thick wave of self-pity and woe. Life was so cruel, why did I have to deny myself such pleasure?

The moments when my self-control cracked and I indulged in the momentary pleasure of dairy-laden cake soon hit me with a stark reminder of why it was off the menu. The ‘grey gunge’ would soon descend, my neck wouldd start to ache and the tell-tale signs of a misery migraine would start to flicker, ending in booming pain and general discomfort. Once dairy and yeast were out of my diet, I didn’t feel awful all the time. When the headaches and general feeling of grot reappear due to a slip-up, they seem even more intense than before. It’s a real lesson in appreciating how great your new normal is.

Once I understood this, it didn’t take long to realise that there was a clear decision making process to follow when tempted to indulge in something deliciously and aromatically enticing but accompanied by unpleasant consequences; the cost/benefit analysis of cake/cheese/bread or anything else that you happen to be intolerant to.

It’s a simple equation – how much is that moment of pleasure worth related to how long the side-effects will last for? As you can see from the diagram, it’s a simple process of weighing up the pros and the cons. What’s the ultimate value of cake vs feeling well?

It’s also a conscious decision; most importantly it’s your decision; don’t let anyone else do the analysis for you, as they don’t know exactly how it feels (this is one of the subjects I address in my new book ‘The Sensitive Foodie‘). Sometimes you will make the wrong choice (I gave in to a small soft bread roll on a flight one time, no idea why. It led to a 3 day migraine. Never again!) but the key to it is it’s your choice. Mindful decisions are the best ones!

And of course, by eating a whole food plant based diet, there are loads of amazing alternatives to enjoy just as much, especially cake. So all is not lost, just different. Check out some of the gorgeous cake recipes on my blog – eating these is definitely a good decision!

Dairy free ‘parmesan’ cheese

Cheese is one the most difficult things to replace in a dairy free or plant based diet. There are lots of alternative products on the market, but very few that either taste that good or are not full of fake ingredients – usually both!

I used to really crave cheese, but it’s so long since I’ve eaten it I now have no emotion about it. Having said that, I’m always on the lookout for alternatives that work, as cheese can bring flavour and texture to a dish. Parmesan cheese is particularly good as a last minute salty savoury shot, but I had never found a dairy free alternative I liked – until now.

I was flicking through my Twitter feed recently when a link to a cashew parmesan recipe caught my eye, as well as the website – BBC Good Food. It just goes to show how much interest there is in dairy free food – it’s gone mainstream!

As with many ‘cheese’ recipes, it uses nutritional yeast. This used to be a no-go area for me, as yeast was one of my food intolerances. In fact, my initial reason for changing the way I ate was for the very shallow purpose of being able to drink wine again! And it’s working – I can tolerate a glass or two now, as long as it’s vegan (remember the post about milk in wine? http://thesensitivefoodiekitchen.com/milk-in-wine-surely-not/). Result!

Nutritional yeast is dried, inactive yeast that is supposed to free from forms of Candida that contribute to unhealthy yeast overgrowth in the gut as well as thrush. If wine, which is made with activated yeast, is ok, I hoped this would be too. And all seems well – so far, in small doses.

Having tried to move away from processed foods and only eat real whole foods, it does seem a bit odd adding a non-food entity to my diet. Grown on sugar, this yeast is manipulated to create a completely man-made product. But it does have some good nutrients in it, like the B vitamins, as well as zinc and some fibre. It’s also gluten free. And it does somehow provide a stinky cheese kind of flavour, which is missed at times!

It’s so long since I’ve eaten parmesan cheese, it’s hard to remember the true flavour. Trying out the cashew nut recipe, it certainly added another salty, savoury dimension to recipes; I’ve ended up adapting the original recipe by increasing the amount of nutritional yeast. I’ve also tried it with sunflower seeds – it’s just as good, a great nut-free cheesy alternative. It keeps in the fridge for a good four weeks too.

High-speed blenders like a Nutribullet are too powerful for this recipe – whilst you want the nuts or seeds broken down, a slight crumby texture is needed, not a sticky mass! Pulsing rather than blitzing is the action you need here.  I used the bowl attached with my stick blender, but a small bowl of a food processor will work just as well. Sunflower seeds take a few seconds more than cashew nuts to break down, but otherwise the recipe is just the same.

So if you’re looking for a tasty cheesy topping to sprinkle on your salads, pasta or roasted veggies, why not mix up a batch of this ‘parmesan’ for a flavour infusion?

Dairy free ‘parmesan’ cheese

75g cashew nuts or sunflower seeds
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon Himalayan salt
4 tablespoons nutritional yeast (I used Engevita yeast flakes)

Place the nuts or seeds into a small processor and pulse a couple of times to break down into a rough crumb. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until blended. Keep in a clean jar in the fridge.

Edamame or pea and mint dip

Everyone is different; we look, sound, feel and act differently, and so it follows this is reflected in what we choose to eat, from what we just love to something that may potentially be lethal if we’re allergic to it. Food choices are influenced by a whole multitude of factors from family, religion or health to income, location or social standing. It’s a fascinating subject.

When it comes to food allergies or intolerances, anything goes – there’s no end to the variety of substances people can be allergic to. This could be due to the makeup of a person’s microbiota, the billions of bacteria and other microbes that live in the gut. In the same way a person has their own characteristics externally, their internal makeup does too! It’s an exciting area of research, but not really that new as ‘alternative’ therapists have been going on about gut health for decades!

Despite our individual differences, there are a number of foods that people are more commonly sensitive too – the ‘Big 8’. Top of that list is dairy, followed by eggs, fish and shellfish, then nuts and peanuts, wheat and finally soybeans. Interesting that most of these are used in processed foods in some form, either as a main ingredient or a chemical derivative. Another good reason to avoid the ready-meal aisle!

I often get asked my opinion about soya products; it’s amazing how controversial a small bean can be! One of the biggest issues is that in the US, the vast majority of soya products come from genetically modified crops. Living in Europe, we don’t have the same problem but I always aim to buy organic soya products if possible, or check where in the world it has come from to avoid GM – consumer choice.

Soya is a key feature in a lot of vegetarian food, whether as tofu or tempeh, textured protein or in vegetarian or vegan products or ready meals. This is often used as a criticism of a more plant based diet, particularly as an increase in growing soya crops is responsible for deforestation and the devastation of tropical rainforests. What’s interesting though, is that about 75% of soya crops are actually used for animal feed, not human consumption. So you may avoid eating soya directly, but if you eat meat, unless it’s grass-fed, you’re also consuming highly processed soya. The world of food production is a complicated place these days!

Another issue with soya products is that it is thought to be a hormone disruptor, particularly for the thyroid gland. For some people, this may well be true. As I mentioned above, we’re all different, and foods can harm as well as heal, so it’s good to be aware if your thyroid function is compromised, but then there are lots of factors that might be involved, far to many to talk about in a blog post. Current research has found little correlation*, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Soya contains isoflavones, phytonutrients that can help balance hormone levels, good for ladies of a certain age suffering from hot flushes due to oestrogen fluctuations! But maybe another reason that soya may be associated with disrupting hormones is the type and volume of pesticides and insecticides that are used on non-organic crops. Chemicals and humans don’t tend to go together well, even when deemed ‘safe’.

Personally, I do include soya in my diet. It’s a great source of plant based protein, fibre and minerals and as well as phytoestrogen, it has other isoflavones beneficial for health. I don’t eat it every day, I check it’s source and tend to avoid highly processed ready meals, so mainly have it in the form of soya milk, yoghurt, tofu and edamame beans. But that’s my choice, which won’t be right for everyone!

If you don’t have a problem with soya but haven’t ever tried edamame, do give them a go. These are young, unprocessed soya beans. Bright green, fresh and packed with flavour, I love eating them straight out of the pod as a snack or starter at Japanese restaurants. This is soya at it’s most unprocessed, and so in my mind it’s healthiest – all the fibre and nutrients remain intact rather than lost in processing. Edamame have to be cooked otherwise it’s poisonous but only takes a couple of minutes, so no big deal. They can be added to salads, stews or just eaten straight from the pan. Alternatively, try this super tasty and simple dip to get a mouthful of flavour and bellyful of nutrients. If, however, you know that soya’s not for you, then peas work just as well – still lots of protein and fibre, just a slightly darker green. Enjoy!

Edamame (or pea) and mint dip
1 cup edamame bean or peas – defrosted if frozen
juice of 1 – 2 limes depending on size
20g fresh mint leaves
salt and pepper
flaxseed oil

Bring a pan of water to the boil and simmer the beans or peas for a few minutes until cooked. Drain and refresh with cold water. Leave to cool.

Place the beans or peas in a small food processor with the mint, lime juice and salt and pepper. Blitz until smoothish – a little texture is good – adding more lime juice or a dash of water if too thick. Add a glug of flaxseed oil, blitz again and taste. Add more lime juice, mint or seasoning if needed. Keeps in the fridge for up to 3 days.

* https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16571087