Monday, March 26, 2012

Bees, butterflies and beneficials

Not only do flowers provide nectar for bees that pollinate my fruit trees and crops, and beneficial insects that help control unwanted pests, but they also make my garden a beautiful place to water, weed, plant and harvest. In my front yard, they create a welcoming pathway for visitors and they make my edible landscaping (persimmon, peaches, apples, watermelons, squashes and peppers) more attractive.

However, it's not the typical large flowers that attract the bees and beneficials. Instead, I plant a variety of perennials, annuals and shrubs with small flowers that bloom from spring to late fall, and I let some plants (like kale) flower and set seed in my garden, so my bug buddies will always have something to eat. In order to use a beneficial bug strategy for insect control, I don't spray pesticides, which would kill the beneficials along with the pests.

I'm not expanding my garden this year - much - but I've noticed several spots that could host herbs and flowers to provide habitat for beneficial insects that help control unwanted garden pests. I plant marigolds, sunflowers, and lantanas in my garden beds, but I tend to choose perennials for landscaping because they don't need re-planting every year. (In fact, my bright pink salvia is already in full bloom in March). I try to select varieties that need little water once they are established and have a long bloom period.

This year, I plan to plant some combination of the following:

Coreopsis - bright yellow flowers bloom all summer
Catmint - spreads, interesting odor, purple flowers bloom in spring and again in fall
Purple sage - edible herb, purple foliage until frost
Butterflyweed - drought tolerant, yellow/orange/red flowers attract butterflies and ladybugs
Sedum - fall blooming, tough
Yarrow - ferny foliage, attracts a wide variety of beneficials
Tansy - bright yellow flowers, tall herb, multi-use, attracts a wide variety of beneficials
Thyme - evergreen in my area of Oklahoma, tough
Golden marguerite - small chamomile-like flowers, attracts a wide variety of beneficials

For a much longer list of plants that attract beneficial insects, see this Mother Earth News article. What flowers are you planting for your bees, butterflies and beneficials? Have you used a beneficial bug strategy to control your pests, and has it worked for you?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The first two weeks

Challenge check-in time! Thanks to those of you who have shared comments and ideas over the last few weeks. I appreciate your stories and suggestions.

So how have I been doing with the Eight is Great challenge? Looking back over my log, I have eaten the full eight servings of fruits, beans, or vegetables 16 out of 18 days, and two days I had six servings. On one of those days I went to an evening meeting and on another I went to a party, which threw off my eating schedule. I'm finding that, of my eight servings, I eat about half fruits and half vegetables, with a bean serving about every other day.

Positives I've noticed: I've been much more attentive to the amount of nutritious food I'm serving the family and myself. I like my serving log; it helps me focus on what we're eating without feeling deprived. After all, this is not a calorie-restricted "diet" but an effort to choose healthier foods.

I've enjoyed experimenting with recipes to find interesting vegetable sides - kimchi (more on that in another post) and some new carrot, cauliflower and turnip dishes.

The biggest plus: I haven't been sick since the time I completed an easier version of this challenge last year (four or five months ago I did a "Plus Five and Thrive" challenge that I didn't blog about at the time). I picked up several healthy habits at that time, so I've been eating more fruits and veggies since then.

About a month ago, several nasty viruses and colds made the rounds; one flu incapacitated my husband and son for four days. I didn't come down with the plague then, which was so helpful (and unexpected) since I was caring for the rest of the family. I've also noticed that my allergies seem much better than they have in previous years. I can't definitively attribute the virus-avoidance and reduced allergy symptoms to the increased amount of fruits and veggies in my diet, but it seems possible that the additional phytochemicals and anti-oxidants have boosted my immune system.

Negatives I've noticed:
My stomach feels full pretty often, leading me to think that I may be eating more calories than usual. I'm not always substituting good food for other calories, instead, occasionally I'm adding a whole extra fruit or vegetable serving to try to get the full eight servings. I may have miscalculated the calories and servings that I need for my height (5'2")/weight/activity level.

I am spending more time looking for recipes and cooking, probably an average of ten minutes per day. The amount of time and mental energy I spend on cooking should decrease as choosing fruits, vegetables and beans for my meal planning becomes more of a habit.

Strategies I'm using to get the full eight servings:
- Starting the day with orange juice and 1/2 cup of fruit in my oatmeal or parfait
- Snacking on whole fruit, dried fruit and nuts, or hummus and carrots
- Cooking extra vegetables at dinner to use in lunch meals the next day
- Cooking vegetarian meals several nights per week
- Often skipping the "starch" part of a meal, instead eating a small protein portion and two servings of beans and/or vegetables
- Choosing quick veggie meals on days when I need to cut cooking time (sweet potato quesadillas or veggie omelets, for example)

For me, the benefits have far outweighed the small additional effort needed to eat more fruits and vegetables. I feel positive about setting a good example for my son and helping him develop healthy eating habits. I've also found several new vegetable recipes that my son likes.

I'll continue this challenge for the full month, when I'll decide what habits to keep for the longer term. I hope the rest of you are seeing some positives from this challenge as well - feel free to share your experiences and tips!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Immunity superstars

One reason I took on the Eight is Great challenge is to try to boost my immune system. Over the last five years, I've had several colds, and I hate the possibility of getting my little boy sick. There's no way for me to take time "off" unless I'm lying on my bed near death. Also, as I've passed my twenties, I've become more aware of the effects of aging and the threat of cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.

There are many factors that affect susceptibility to illness. We all know how important it is not to smoke cigarettes and how critical it is to wash our hands during flu season. Healthy food choices are just one more way, albeit an important and often overlooked way, to build a robust defense system. So as I choose my fruits, vegetables and beans every day, I'm also trying to choose foods with immune-boosting effects: foods that have been shown to have high nutrient density, high fiber, and anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.

The fruits and vegetables with the highest health-boosting scores across a range of factors appear to be:
Greens (+ cruciferous vegetables): Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, romaine lettuce
Onions and garlic
Mushrooms, including the white button mushroom
Berries and cherries: Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries
Tomatoes, including tomato sauce and salsa
Beans: Black, kidney, pinto, garbanzo
* Note that this list is primarily sourced from Super Immunity by Dr. Joel Fuhrman cross-referenced with 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden. They have compiled extensive stacks of research on this topic.

While I'm not about to limit my diet to these foods, each research article and book I read makes me more motivated to include these immunity superstars in my meals whenever possible. Luckily, many of the immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables are cheap or reasonably priced. I can even grow several of them in my garden, including carrots, the greens, onions and garlic, and tomatoes. Well...maybe tomatoes.

I've seen most of these choices on various nutritionist "Top Ten" lists over the years. One surprise of my recent research is the health benefits of the common white button mushroom. In the past I'd had the impression that shiitake and other pricier mushrooms had a nutritional edge on the cheap-o, easily available button mushroom, but in fact the white buttons seem to have important anti-cancer effects.

The research on these foods has spurred me to find ways to include at least three choices from this list in my meals every day as part of the Eight is Great challenge. Frozen blueberries have easily become part of breakfast and the occasional smoothie. I eat various kinds of beans at least three times a week as hummus, chili, bean salad, taco, or a simple side. Onions and garlic can be included in almost any dish (whether they are actually in the recipe or not). Carrots and broccoli, beloved by my son and thus also by myself, have become part of the regular meal rotation.

The two foods that I have challenged myself to include more often are kale and mushrooms. Kale grows rampantly in my garden, seemingly immune to the cabbage moths that plague other cruciferous vegetables, and so it is incredibly easy to run out and harvest a handful every day - even through the winter. The ultra-nutritious high-anti-oxidant kale just continues to grow back. Lately, I've been sauteing kale with olive oil, salt and lemon as a side dish. As for mushrooms, I've been able to incorporate them frequently in omelets, pasta sauces and piled high on veggie pizzas.

Strangely enough for someone who is trying so hard to eat vegetables, I haven't been eating many salads. While I like salads, and they are highly recommended, they seem like an extra effort to make. Perhaps my failure to eat them, while still being able to get eight fruit, bean and vegetable servings per day, just demonstrates that salads are only one way to get vegetables. There are many other possibilities for including veggies, and their immunity-boosting benefits, in your diet.

* Note: Information provided is educational in nature, please consult your physician or nutritionist for advice about your particular situation.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A little nutritional wrinkle

As you may recall, I have a four year old boy, which makes my Eight is Great challenge a little more...challenging. Although cooking for a child can restrict my meal and food choices, it also helps keep me inspired. I hear constantly about the childhood obesity and diabetes epidemics, along with the increase in many other childhood ailments, and the number and amount of medications prescribed to children, and I hope that better nutrition will help him avoid some (or all) of those problems.

I generally don't cook separate dinners for my son, preferring that he eat the meal I cook for the family, and trying instead to include some vegetables that I'm sure he'll like. Luckily for me, he's not extraordinarily picky. He eats most fruits, except for strawberries. This means he usually eats two or three servings of fruit per day. However, getting him to eat enough vegetables is harder - though he does like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, sweet potatoes, okra, beans and hummus. He's definitely not fond of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, peppers, turnips, and greens.

Therefore, many of my dinners have a definite kid-friendly component. Although this doesn't mean serving chicken fingers or Goldfish, it means that for my son's particular preferences, I have to avoid spiciness, hide onions and tomato chunks, and concentrate my meal-planning on the vegetables that he does like.

Here are some of the ways that I try to encourage my son to get enough servings of vegetables:

1. Include beans

Beans are very versatile. I put them in soups, chilis, salads, hummus, tacos and quesadillas, and serve them alone as a side. Because they are high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and anti-oxidants, and because I was a pescatarian for nine years, I cook with them quite often. Technically, they are a legume, but they are nutritionally very impressive, much like vegetables.

2. Blend it up

In this, the immersion blender is my good friend. In prior days, I avoided any kind of pureed soup or stew due to the trouble and extra clean-up involved in transferring the soup. With an immersion blender, I can blend onions and tomatoes in with the rest of the soup, chili, or pasta sauce, and my son isn't bothered - it's only the texture of onions and tomatoes that he doesn't like, not the taste.

The immersion blender is also helpful in making other dishes that he likes, including cauliflower mashed "faux-tatoes," hummus, and smoothies.

3. Rotate

My son does like several vegetables; I just have to remember what they are, and rotate them through our dinners. This can be as easy as including a roasted okra side, sauteeing broccoli with lemon, making sweet potato quesadillas, or serving carrots and hummus as a snack.

We try to eat seasonally, so sometimes this can pose a challenge. He likes many cold-weather vegetables, but not as many warm-weather vegetables, so we compromise, erring on the side of more nutrition, and less local food. I buy broccoli and carrots almost every week even when they are not in season.

4. Explain and involve

Jonny Bowden's book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth has been helpful in encouraging healthy choices by providing an easy way to talk about nutrition. The book is nicely divided into specific foods, with pictures, and research citations for every food. I'm fairly sure my son doesn't understand what an anti-oxidant is, but he likes to eat "star foods" (Mr. Bowden's designation for super-extra nutritious foods like blueberries, kale, garlic, etc.) and we'll count the star foods included in any meal. Although his "star" designations may or may not be based in any rigorous scientific study, he also includes Top Ten foods lists from fifteen other nutritionists and doctors, for a variety of perspectives.

My son also likes to help cook and help with gardening activities like starting seeds. I think that including him in these activities will help ground him in healthier choices, in the long run.

Having a young boy to cook for makes getting eight daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and beans slightly more challenging; but having a plan, and the right tools (thank you immersion blender!) has made it much easier than I might have anticipated. For the first several days, it has not prevented me from meeting my quota of eight.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Eight is Great Challenge

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
- Benjamin Franklin

I always treasure my normally good health the most immediately after a bout with illness, and it was right after a nasty cold that I first decided to find out how well my diet measured up to the standard recommendation to get about eight daily servings of fruits and vegetables (for someone of my size).

According to many sources, consuming more fruits and vegetables helps boost the immune system. I've become much more concerned about ensuring optimum immunity as we've seen the repercussions of the financial and economic depressions echo throughout the health and insurance systems. Not only do I want health for health's sake, but also because I'm coming to believe that the health system may not have the resources to treat the illnesses that are running rampant in our society - heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other casualties of our toxic, sedentary and nutrient-poor lifestyles. The system is already staggering under the load of our poor health. And even if the system can treat these diseases, we may not be able to afford the treatment.

So how do we achieve optimum health and immunity? There are several avenues, but one key is consuming fruits and vegetables, which corresponds with lower risk of stroke and heart disease, protection against some kinds of cancer, improved digestion, better overall health, even protection of our vision. Many nutritionists believe that these same benefits cannot be achieved from consuming multi-vitamins and other supplements - our bodies don't absorb pills the same way, and the combination of vitamins, minerals, fiber, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals inherent in the whole food is important.

With all the evidence, the benefits are clear and compelling. Yet how many times have you tried to actually eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables - five to thirteen per day, depending on your weight?

As for myself, never. I was curious as to how many servings I was actually eating, and a few months ago I decided to find out. For one month last year, I wrote down every serving of fruit, vegetable, or beans I ate. I was surprised by the results. I discovered that at first, I was sometimes eating less than the minimum recommended amount of five fruits and vegetables. Once I started paying attention, I began finding more ways to get them into my snacks and meals, and I began to enjoy the challenge of experimenting with new foods.

Yet five servings is still far from the optimum. In fact, it's only the minimum! Why not go for better health, more energy, increased immunity?

Good question. My answer: I just started the challenge once again in honor of March, National Nutrition Month. This time, I'm going for eight servings of fruits, vegetables, and beans per day. How did I come up with eight? Well, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends nine servings for someone consuming 2,000 calories. Since I only need to consume about 1,800 calories per day, eight seemed like a reasonable number.

I'll be blogging about the adventure to improve my health, immunity, and nutrition over the next 30 days, as I try a variety of fruits and vegetables, grow some of the vegetables in my garden, and experiment with some unusual, but inexpensive and easy to make, foods. At the end, I'll summarize the habits and strategies that I want to keep.

Anyone want to join me in the challenge? Here's how:
1. Comment on this post and I'll send you a blank version of the calendar I'm using to track my results, which I'm posting on my fridge. If you don't want to publish your e-mail, you can send me a request for a tracking calendar at - but still comment in to join the challenge!
2. Track the fruit, vegetable and bean servings you eat every day (guidelines are listed below).
3. Find ways to increase the number of servings of these immunity-boosting foods.

I plan to have fun with this challenge, and I hope you will too! The challenge will run from today until April 5th. At that time, I'll do a drawing for Simply in Season, a seasonal cookbook, for challenge participants.

Here are some guidelines for what counts as a serving size for this challenge:
- 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables
- 1/2 cup of cooked beans (kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, lentils, hummus)
- Approximately one medium apple, banana, or orange
- 1/4 cup of dried fruit
- 1 cup of uncooked greens (lettuce, spinach, kale)
- 1/2 cup of not-from-concentrate juice (carrot or orange)

Note that potatoes do not count as a vegetable (nutritionists count them as a starch). Commercial fruit juices made from concentrate, and processed items like fruit roll-ups, also do not count as a fruit.