No dairy, no calcium?

We are taught from an early age that milk is an essential part of our diet. If we drink lots of it, we grow up big and strong. Without it, we will have weak bones and teeth. Milk and dairy products are the best source of dietary calcium, as well as other essential nutrients – this is the message put out by dairy producers and successive governments.

So being dairy intolerant, how do I get enough calcium? This was a big concern form me when I first cut dairy from my diet. What I’ve come to realise is that eating a wholefood plant based diet, it’s easy to consume fantastic amounts of easily absorbed calcium to keep my bones and teeth healthy and strong, maybe even better than dairy.

Although the marketing says otherwise, cow’s milk is not the best dietary source of calcium. For example, it has about a 10th of the calcium levels as sesame seeds and only 30% of the calcium in milk is absorbed by the human gut, whereas with seeds and nuts it’s much higher.

So where do I get my dietary calcium from? Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are the best source. 100g of watercress contains 151mg of calcium, compared to 120mg in the equivalent of milk. Oats, beans, chickpeas (there they are again!) and tofu also all have good amounts, so it’s really not too hard to reach the recommended daily intake of calcium of 800mg. A large green salad has as much calcium as a glass of milk, plus it’s well absorbed (as long as there’s not too much spinach in it, as this can block calcium absorption). A bowl of porridge made with rolled oats has 100mg of calcium – add some fortified soya milk and some dried figs, and it’s getting up to half your daily dose, just in one bowl!

As a relatively fit and healthy woman in her mid 40’s, I don’t have to worry too much at the moment about my bone health, but in 10 years time or so, once the menopause has hit big stylie, then calcium becomes more of an issue. Osteoporosis is a massive problem in the western world, and dairy is promoted as a necessity to keep bones healthy. However, it seems that maybe dairy might be part of the problem. Countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the highest number of people with osteoporosis – something to discuss another day.

Sesame seeds really are an incredible source of calcium – there is a fabulous 975mg in just 100g. However, being so tiny, that’s a lot of seeds to consume in one day! By incorporating them into a wholefood diet, it’s pretty easy. Being a hummus addict, I get a good dollop of sesame in the tahini, one of the key hummus ingredients. They can be added to cereals, baking, salads, stews and used in lots of Asian dishes. Sesame can be an allergen for some though, so it’s not for everyone which is a shame, as it’s also an amazing source of iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc. Quite something for such a tiny seed.
I have found an amazing ‘bread’ stick for dipping that not only tastes amazing (almost cheesy without the cheese) but is gluten free and contains calcium boosting sesame and chickpea all in one. Use it to dip in some hummus or other tahini containing dip, and your bones will be just zinging with strength and happiness!

Chickpea and sesame dipper sticks
1 cup chickpea flour (gram/besan/garbanzo)
3 tbspoon sesame seeds
1/2 tspoon salt
2 tbspoon fresh lemon thyme
1 tspoon olive/sesame oil
up to 1/4 cup water
Heat the oven to 180oC. You can toast your sesame seeds if you like to bring out the flavour, but the sticks work just as well untoasted.
Place the flour, sesame seeds, salt and thyme into a bowl and mix together. Stir in the oil then add the water a little at a time, stirring all the time, until you get a good supple dough. Knead for a couple of minutes until all the ingredients are incorporated, adding a little more flour if it gets a bit sticky. Flatten the dough into a disk, then place on a sheet of baking paper. Place another sheet on top and roll out until the dough is really thin – 3-5 mm if possible. Carefully peel off the top layer, leaving the dough on the bottom layer, and slice the dough into sticks with a knife. Prick each stick with a fork a few times so it doesn’t puff up when cooking. Place the dough and the baking paper underneath onto a baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or so but check after 10 –  you want a golden brown top. Too light and the sticks are not crispy, too browned and they’re a bit hard on your teeth! Once ready, remove from the oven and leave to cool. Then break up the sticks where you have previously cut them and they’re ready to eat. Happy dipping!
NB: these sticks soften after a few hours, so are best eaten soon after cooking. If you have any left over, leave out in the kitchen, not in a plastic tub, or they will sadly go soft.


Green goodies and a couscous salad for tea

There’s a lovely little organic grocery store close to home. Buying fresh organic produce is quite a challenge here in Bangalore, partly because demand hasn’t been particularly high and I think because a lot of the farms have been replaced by concrete as the city rapidly expands at the edges. The weather also plays a massive role in the quality and quantity of goods available; the summer months were too hot and the produce suffered greatly.

Delivery day is Friday afternoon and I have finally sussed the time to go; yesterday the baskets were stacked high with glorious green leaves, herbs, fresh brightly blushing tomatoes, massive fresh carrots and even bunches of perky celery. So often, celery, if available at all, lies on the shelf sad and stringy, wilted from lack of water and impossible to eat. I packed my basket high with fresh goodies, and returned home, mouth watering and mind overflowing with ideas for tea.

Out of all the food items that are difficult to come by here, the one thing I crave more than anything else  (including chocolate!) is greens. It must be my body telling me it needs more B vitamins! So last night, the green veg won and I knocked up a incredibly easy couscous salad heaped with greens and herbs.

On the scale of healthy wholefoods, couscous doesn’t rate too well. Actually a form of semolina derived from wheat, it’s steamed and then dried, forming little granules. No good for those who are gluten-free. It only takes 5 minutes to prepare, so it must be pretty well processed; this removes much of the beneficial vitamins and minerals available in the wheat germ, but it is still a good source of selenium (43mcg) and potassium and pretty low in fat, so not bad really. Quinoa or brown rice would be healthier options.

So what went in to the salad? First, I prepared the couscous according to the packet instructions – added boiling water, a pinch of salt, covered the bowl and left it alone for 5 minutes. Once cooled, it needed fluffing up with a fork then combined with lightly steamed broccoli and green beans, mint, coriander, beetroot leaves, cucumber and spring onions for the greens. For a little sweetness, I added some dried apricots and finished it off with some sliced almonds for an extra crunch and a dash of extra virgin olive oil. Seriously yummy! Oh, by the way, beetroot leaves are one of the best sources of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A and so excellent for eye health.

Dried fruit can be a problem for some people with a food allergy or intolerance, due to the sulphites added as a preservative – it’s not used in organic products which is why they tend to be a darker brown/orange colour, and not so appealing. Dried apricots tend to have the highest levels of sulphites and can give rise to asthma or other respiratory problems.

The apricots and almonds I used come from Kashmir; I bought them from a market stall on a trip to Srinigar back in June and they are incredible. The fruit in Kashmir is amazing – deeply flavour apricots, peaches, cherries; tree fruits you just can’t buy down in Southern India. The intensity and sweetness just burst onto the tongue and I was like a little kid in a sweet shop so excited to find these natural goodies. The dried apricots are equally intense in flavour and sweetness, and are dried naturally out in the sun, no additive required. Eating them in the salad brought back great memories of an amazing trip, so feeding my soul as well as my body!

Tastebud tales

There’s a BBC Radio 4 Podcast called the Kitchen Cabinet that I listen to in the gym, a kind of foodie question time. It’s full of fun facts and anecdotes about all sorts of food, and makes me laugh out loud less than Friday Night Comedy, which always leads to strange looks as I cackle away to myself on the treadmill!

On one recent episode, Peter Barham, the programmes resident food science expert, talked about tastebuds, and I discovered that what I was taught at school was completely wrong.

I was taught that the taste buds are grouped together on specific parts of the tongue, each area either sensitive to sweet, salt, sour or bitter. But that’s so last century! For a start there are now 5 recognised flavours – the previous 4 and umami, a savoury sensation, like Parmesan cheese. Some scientists are suggesting that fat is also a recognised flavour and I guess there may be more yet to be identified.

It’s now been recognised that our taste buds are scattered over the tongue, not grouped in one specific area – and this makes sense. Many poisonous foods and substances have a bitter flavour, so this is a protective mechanism as too bitter and we want to spit it out. Having bitter grouped at the back of the tongue as illustrated in my school days diagram would have been pointless, as by the time the offending substance was tasted it would have been half way to being ingested.

As with so many things in life, everyone tastes and experiences flavours so very differently. And it’s not only the density of tastebuds, but also smell, sight, texture and memories that influence the sensations that tingle our tongues. Apparently about 10% of people have a high density of tastebuds which makes them ‘supertasters’, perfect for a job in a chocolate factory!

Taste is yet another of the body’s amazing information channels. The tastebuds send signals to the brain telling it what to expect ie: sweet flavour means there’s some carbohydrates on the way, and so the brain tells the body how to respond appropriately. There’s an increase in salivary secretions, low levels of secretions in the stomach in anticipation and insulin is released to deal with the newly arrived sugar.

Also, the more we have of a flavour, the more we need to keep the same level of taste. So if you load your food with salt, you will gradually need more and more to produce the same level of flavour. Cutting out salt for a mere 2 weeks completely changes this. In the short term, food will taste quite bland, but once you reintroduce it again, you’ll only need a tiny amount to get the salty taste you require.


This new tastebud knowledge got me thinking about food intolerance and having to cut things out of your diet. People have said to me “how can you manage without milk, or butter, or sticky toffee pudding? I don’t think I could stop eating those things.” Dairy certainly produces some wonderful flavours. I realised I don’t really miss them. In fact I don’t know if I’d even like them any more as my taste have definitely changed, particularly with sweet. I used to trough the puddings quite happily, the sweeter and gooier the better, but now deserts taste too sweet to me and I seem to prefer the natural flavours of fruit or cut right down on the sugar if making cakes. Plus, if taste includes memories and associations, I equate dairy with having migraines and feeling rotten, and I certainly don’t miss that sensation!

More than just a cooking demo….

One of the great things I’ve been able to do since coming to Bangalore is attend a number of different cooking classes, some in restaurants others in people’s homes. Often, I can’t eat everything that’s on offer due to my milk and yeast intolerance, but there’s one class I’ve been to that I could eat everything on offer (well, nearly everything) that was not only really healthy but delicious too – a vegan one.
Say the word vegan and it tends to bring to mind aged hippies eating lettuce leaves, museli and chewy smoked tofu that gets stuck in the back of the throat, food with an odd taste and just not interesting. Go to a cooking demo by Dr Nandita Shah and you’ll get a completely different opinion and a taste sensation.

We had morning shakes, mayo, tongue tingling salads, curries and dals (this is India!!) and, the most exciting for me, home made vegan ‘cheese’ that was used for pizza.

I haven’t tried making it myself yet (the demo was only yesterday!) but I will, and once road-tested, I’ll put up the recipe; I’m hoping it works out as good as yesterdays. Not being able to actually eat pizza because of the yeast in the base, they kindly cooked the pizza sauce and some vegetables together, topped with the cheese and it was absolutely gorgeous!

Apart from eating mounds of yummy, healthy food, the purpose of these cooking demos is to put across a more serious and profound message – that the food we eat really does make a difference to our health and that the chronic diseases that are on the increasing around the world, such as diabetes and heart disease, can all be reversed or prevented through eating a plant based whole food diet. It’s a simple but radical message and one that can take some time to accept. Dr Shah herself is a the perfect advocate of this type of eating as she just glows with energy and vitality. This is the third session I’ve been to with her, and each time I take away more ideas and thoughts, and I’m gradually making the changes needed, although I haven’t managed to stop the tea or the alcohol!

There were some really inspiring stories yesterday of people who had made a real difference to their health – I spoke to one lady who has been eating this plant based whole food diet for 2 months and has already halved her diabetes medication. There was someone else who was almost medication free since starting in June. Years of health problems building up and growing turned around in such a short period of time – quite remarkable.

So it makes me think about why don’t more doctors advocate this instead of just handing out the pills and potions? Why aren’t governments that spend so much money managing chronic health problems promoting this kind of eating? Why are there so many fast food chains still just chucking out the same, addictive junk? I guess it comes down to money – there’s not a lot of it in carrots and brown rice, but there is in the pharmaceutical, meat, dairy and fast food businesses.  Co-incidentally, I read some startling statistics the other day. According to a UN report, 18% of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by animal agriculture, compared to 13% from all forms of transport combined together. Also,  it takes between 4000 and 18,000 gallons of water to make the beef for just one hamburger. So just from an environmental perspective, there are big issues related to animal food products even before you start looking at the health side.

So as well as feeding my stomach, the cooking demo also fed my mind, giving me lots to think and learn about. But one thing I am sure about is that food can harm, but it can also heal, and I’m following that route, so my next burger is definately a veggie one!

If you want to find out more about Dr Shah’s work check out the SHARAN India website at