Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Some Notes on Labwork -- One Vegan's Example

A recent discussion thread on Alicia Silverstone's "The Kind Life" website: "Where Do You Get Your Protein?" prompts me to share a bit of what I've learned about nutrition pertaining to healthcare in general. From some of the responses to this thread, it becomes abundantly clear how much misinformation is out there, and how much guesswork goes into some of our personal decisions about our health. In my young, carefree, invincible years I never tended to "consult a healthcare professional" before starting a new workout regime or dietary supplement as is normally suggested. My social calendar was too busy, and I was too poor for a doctor appointment that would only clear me to do yoga. Back then I mostly listened to my body. If it felt good I did it, if not, no.

These days I've learned the value of consultation with three experts: my own trusty body intuition, my invaluable Integrative Medicine M.D., Christine, who has been serving me well for over 6 years, and now more than ever, my own Primary Care Team -- the ones insurance pays for. There have been years when I haven't seen much value in the primary care docs, clueless as they have sometimes tended to be, but I am mindful that there are good doctors and bad doctors, and some of the bad doctors are still learning and can eventually become good doctors with a little guidance.

I have a long history of working with many specialists, which obviously contributes to my former distrust of most mainstream doctors. In the almost-16 years I have been diagnosed with MS, I have had six neurologists, only one of whom I would characterize as good, and three who I would characterize as bad, one of those being very bad. The others were nice people who basically let me tell them what I wanted, and then wrote the prescriptions.

For my MS, I do take a pharmaceutical injection every day, but not the interferons most neuros are pushing. The one I take acts as a "decoy", so that my system attacks the drug rather than my central nervous system, should an exacerbation occur. Through a self-conducted experiment (shh! don't tell my neuro!) when I recently stopped the injections for two months, I have found them to still have value for me. My vision had begun to worsen and my left arm had begun to get weaker. Back on the shots now, I am much better.

Besides the injections, I credit my vegan diet and supplements prescribed by Christine for keeping my MS in check. This doctor utilizes bioidentical hormones (the kind made from yams and soy, not the synthetic pharmaceuticals made from the urine of impregnated mares) to keep me at a hormonally very early pregnancy stage -- the time when most female MS patients are least bothered by MS symptoms. My hormones do not produce the compounds from metabolization which contribute to breast cancer, the way the pharmaceuticals do. In addition, I receive an infusion of glutathione every two months to regenerate brain tissue lost to the disease. Finally, Christine prescribes high levels of vitamin D to keep my MS activity at bay. It has been discovered that the worldwide demographics of MS show fewer cases in the tropic and sub-tropic regions. Many of us living outside of the tropic regions have vitamin D deficiency, and are thus susceptible to contracting MS. My doctor keeps me at a vitamin D3 level of 61, with normal being between 30 and 100. One of the many reasons I trust my Integrative Medicine doctor is that twice a year she looks at my blood levels to be sure that the nutrient levels are still being metabolized to reach the same numbers. In other words, to be sure that what goes in is what comes out. Many things can affect the way a nutrient is metabolized, and diet is one of them. I have had a few dosages tweaked since becoming vegan.

While Christine watches the levels of what she prescribes, recently a P.A. at my Primary Care office suggested a regular physical, since it had been a while. Their bloodwork confirmed the levels from Christine's office, but also found I actually have a lower blood count. At first I worried about having to take iron, which I can feel is toxic to my body, but, consulting with Christine, found that iron supplementation was not needed. Like many vegans, I don't get enough B12 -- darn depleted soil! I had been under the impression that, since I was taking a B supplement prescribed by Christine, I would be fine. Well, like all supplements, they are metabolized differently by each body. Dosages were altered, and Christine gave me a B12 injection to immediately raise my level. Now that she knows to look for this deficiency, she will be tracking it.

A personal friend, who is also a physician, posited that we cannot absorb an oral B12 supplement, the injection being superior. I asked Christine about this and she explained that the injection is the only way to know for sure that a certain amount of B12 is making it into the blood, but that doesn't mean an oral supplement is not being absorbed. The point is that each body absorbs differently, so blood tests are necessary to confirm the levels. Christine also confirms that many brands of B12 are not as well-absorbed as others. My B12 is available only by prescription.

The reason I am making this post today is to urge you to know your levels. I had been relying too much on "how I feel" which is a very valuable indicator, but not the only one. Looking back now, I realize I was ignoring more frequent episodes of light-headedness since I was feeling so much better in general as a vegan.  My bloodwork shows that my vegan diet has prodeced a B12 deficiency which is being corrected and carefully tracked. But here is some of what it has also produced:

  • Very strong bones, "not the bones of a 45 year old!" from one x-ray technician. Christine confirms this is from my not eating dairy, which depletes bones of calcium, and from a high consumption of dark green leafy veggies along with my high D3 level.
  • An exponential increase in my energy -- Christine believes this is because each of us is lactose intolerant to some degree. I must have been highly lactose intolerant since fatigue is one of the major symptoms of intolerance. I had previously attributed my fatigue to my MS.
  • An easy-to-maintain healthy body weight. No more counting calories! I stay within three pounds of my regular weight regardless of the specifics of my indulgences.
  • A peaceful, positive attitude most of the time. Antidepressants I had taken for years, for depression that resulted from some of my MS pharmaceutical treatments, are completely unnecessary now.
  • No more seasonal allergies -- I used to have about 4-5 sinus infections a year. I've only had one in my 18 months of being vegan!
  • For the first time since 1995 -- No clinical progression of my MS! That's right -- since 1995, each MRI showed MS progression as compared to the previous MRI. I had an MRI last month that showed NO Progression from the MRI taken two years prior!
Thanks for bearing with me in this tedious, personal post. I am only led to share my findings from my health saga in hopes that it will encourage all of you to arm yourself with information that will optimize your own health.

Monday, June 27, 2011

I Like Tempeh Now!

Look at this hearty, healthy, rustic panful! Inspired by Isa Chandra Moskowitz'"Smoky Tempeh & Greens Stew" from Appetite For Reduction, I actually followed a recipe instead of perusing it and doing whatever the heck I want in my usual, lazy pattern. I followed the recipe because I was working with an unfamiliar ingredient.

Heretofore, I've been under the impression that I am not a tempeh kind of girl. Accustomed to the lovely, bland, homogeneous nature of tofu, tempeh did not appeal to me the one time I attempted to cultivate a taste for it about a year ago. I had bought a shrink-wrapped portion of tempeh with no plan in mind, and cut into it and popped a chunk of it, cold and unadorned, into my mouth. Not knowing anything about tempeh at the time, I was put off by the slightly sour flavor of this fermented soybean product. I was not entirely sure I did not have a bad batch of it, so I am ashamed to say it went into the trash, and I resolved to stick to beans and the occasional tofu meal.

I'm so glad I finally bothered to actually follow Isa's recipe! This stew is positively delicious in an uber-wholesome way. So I am a big fan of tempeh now! Even more shocking, my omni-husband also enjoyed the stew. Knowing how my husband's psychology works, I am better off not asking him about whether he indulged in any tempeh chunks. He's more likely to eat "funky" vegan food if I keep it under the radar and just sneak it in there stealthily. So, I don't know if he ate any or not, and I don't really care. He liked the stew!

We ate the stew with some jasmine rice, which I know my daughter loves.

Some notes about my actually following a recipe:  Isa says the active time for this prep is 15 minutes and the total time is 45 minutes. I agree with the 45 minute figure for the actual cooking time, but only 15 minutes for the prep time? No ma'am! I spent at least half an hour chopping, but that may be because I didn't actually weigh my gigantic sheaf of collard greens, and I may have prepped much more than a pound of them. My collards were at least as large as the biggest Miss America congratulatory bouquet you can imagine. That's how we grow 'em down here in the deep south, I guess. No matter, as the greens cooked down, I was able to work all of them into the pot. Otherwise, I think most measurements matched the recipe's. I did use full-grown organic carrots instead of the baby ones (which aren't really babies anyway - they just carve 'em that way).

In shopping for smoked paprika, I had no luck. I went to the ethnic aisle first (I can call it that because my kids are ethnic) because the spices are soooo much cheaper than in the baking aisle.

There was only this regular paprika in the ethnic aisle, so I went to the expensive aisle in search of the smoked paprika. There was no smoked paprika in the expensive aisle either, so back to the ethnic aisle I went. The ethnic paprika cost $1.53 and the ethnic bay leaves cost $.59! You won't find any spices in the non-ethnic aisle for less than $3! Marketing -- pricing can be so random.  My ethnic spices did the trick, with the addition of a few drops of liquid smoke.

I love Isa's recipes and am grateful for this chance to expand my vegan ingredient repetoire.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

This is Vegan Junk Food

If I were Catholic, I guess this would be my confessional. I've veered off track from my usual beans/greens/whole grains formula that normally keeps me in top form and at peace.

I guess it all started with our travels for the wedding, but then, back at home, we've struggled to create a new routine, in this "summer but not really" season. You see, my 17 year old son, who you may remember missed a lot of school last year due to chronic migraines, has luckily received three incompletes out of his 6 junior year classes (instead of failing the classes). This means he has until August 1 to finish the classes. He feels grateful for the extension, as do I, but being close to adulthood, he bristles at any attempt on our parts to create any sort of routine. He wants to do the work when he feels like it. Well, this won't work, so we have negotiated a settlement with him which involves various sleep schedules and accompanying consequences that he may choose from day to day according to how he feels. Recounting the details of the arrangement would be tedious. We figured out he needs at least 4 hours of work per day to meet his deadline. Hans has been very good at following the guidelines thus far, but the variable nature of the arrangement involves a watchful eye by me. I need to get up at night to make sure he is going to bed when he says he is. So I'm tired. And you thought it would get easier once they are older? Nope, just different problems.

Most of us vegans get clear signals from our bodies about what is needed to achieve balance. But if we ignore or misread the signals, they are of no benefit. I have been misreading my tired signals as cravings for carbs. Oh, you're right, I really knew better, I just wanted an excuse for some vegan junk food.

The photo above is a couple of lovely toasted cheese sandwiches (I'm still in my Anglophilia phase from the Royal wedding, so I will call them that instead of the American "grilled cheese"). The bread is a delicious sunflower seed bread and, yes, it is white flour, and I don't know if there are eggs in it or not (confession). The cheese is daiya -- non-dairy, made from tapioca. It is not animal fat but it is still fat. These were delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed the ten minutes it took to consume them, but then felt overstuffed and miserable for an hour.

Here is some more recent vegan junk food in which I've indulged:

Herbed smashed potatoes! Yum -- boiled potatoes, some peeled, some not, mashed with plenty of earth balance and tofutti sour cream, salt, pepper and a big handful of herbs from my garden -- in this case Italian parsley. White carbs again and plenty of vegan fat. The result? Pretty much the same as the toasted cheese -- ten minutes of joy and satiety, followed by an hour of discomfort, with no residual energy.

It occurs to me that my dietary rebellion mirrors my son's responsibility rebellion. But as our pendulums swing, equillibrium is what we ultimately crave. We know what to do to achieve it, and the rewards are much longer lasting.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Decadent Veggies!

"Decadent" is normally an adjective associated with chocolate, cheese, tiramisu and the like. You may wonder why I've chosen it to describe this flavor combination. Try it for yourself, and let me know what you think.

Baby bok choy is one of my favorite veggies. I find the baby variety to be a more pleasing white-to-green ratio than the full-grown kind. The mature heads are heavier on the white. I've really enjoyed Alicia Silverstone's simple preparation of baby bok choy with the ume vinaigrette and sesame seeds and have made it that way several times. In my 18 months being vegan, I've now finally run out of my ume vinegar, so it was time for me to come up with another way to honor simply steamed heads of baby bok choy. Perusing my condiment shelf, I noticed something quite decadent, indeed:  Black Truffle Oil.

At that point,  a wonderful idea popped into my head -- truffles are in the mushroom family. I resolved to create a buttery mushroom melange with truffle oil with which to top the lightly steamed bok choy.

A large handfull of button mushrooms were sauteed in about a tablespoon of earth balance butter, then taken off the heat and topped with a scant teaspoonful of truffle oil. The truffle oil is very flavorful, so I knew I wouldn't need much, and I was unfamiliar with the results that high heat would impart, so I just allowed the oil to warm in the already warm mushrooms.

While I was preparing the mushroom melange, I arranged the bok choy in the steamer pan of a double boiler. Once the water was rapidly boiling, I steamed the veggies for only three minutes, and finally arranged the bok choy cut side up so that the heads could catch all the mushroom/truffle goodness. The still-crisp, fresh greens were a foil to the over-the-top earthy, fatty melange, and together the ingredients were elegant, and, yes, decadent.

After dinner, as I was cleaning up, I had to smile as I found myself pouring the bok choy steaming liquid into a mug to drink as a tea the way my Mom used to do with water that had steamed the vegetables she served our family. It's true -- we really do turn into our moms as we get older! In my case, I don't mind -- my Mom's amazing!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Odds-n-Ends, Avocado Season

I love avocados. Packed with nutrition and healthy fat, these beautiful fruits afford a lovely, creamy "mouthfeel" which never fails to satisfy. I eat avocados in many ways. Here are some of my recent indulgences. Above, I topped warm, leftover rice pasta with raw kale, avocado and a sprinkle of mozzerella daiya. The warmth of the pasta wilted the kale ever so slightly and made the avocado all slippery. Topped with a sprinkle of kosher salt, this was delicious.

Here's one of my favorite smoothies -- I know, how many green smoothies do we have to see on vegan blogs? But seriously, this one is soooo good, and imparts a healthful, peaceful energy. You've got to try it! Here are the contents:

An avocado, a peeled cucumber, a frozen banana, a large handful of kale, about an inch of peeled ginger, and my secret ingredient:

Coconut water! There are so many beneficial enzymes and electrolytes in this, you will have an energy charge for hours. The smoothie is delicious to me with only these ingredients, but if you want it sweeter, just add a drizzle of agave nectar.

Here's a recent breakfast -- Eziekiel toast topped with tofutti cream cheese, avocado and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Look at how the salt has begun to draw beads of moisture from the luscious avocado. Mmmmm.

Here are recent tacos I made for my husband and myself. They really began as a vehicle for him to use up a rotisserie chicken. Here, on my vegan version, is leftover wild rice with lentils, garlicky black eyed peas (I used earth balance and about 5 cloves of garlic, chopped), an amazing avocado-lime coleslaw (half a cabbage, half a lime, a tablespoon of vegenaisse and half an avocado), and a delicious onion confit (half a red onion, three spring onions, sauteed in olive oil). This was a remarkable flavor combination. I ate two tacos and am still loving the rice and slaw leftovers. The black eyed peas went away very quickly, since I love garlic so much.

In my mind, when I am writing an "odds-n-ends" post, I take licence to veer wildly off topic. So here is my wild veering: this little baby bunny first came to my attention when my daughter noticed him about a month ago.

"Mom -- you've got to see this little guy -- he's microscopic!"

Well, while my daughter's assesment was a bit of an exaggeration, as he was actually visible to the human eye, I got the spirit of her enthusiasm. At the time, the bunny was only about three inches long, but perfectly proportionately formed except for his large innocent eyes, of course. The precious little thing only eats the weeds in the creeping juniper which must be his home. Now he has grown to about 7 inches long and he still chooses his food wisely.

The photo stinks since I had to be quick and zoom in before he noticed me. When I've tried to snap him before, the shy little thing has scurried away. So there you have it -- avocados and a baby bunny!  What could be better than that?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Vegan at a Wedding!

My family and I just returned from a quick trip to the Washington, D.C. area for my husband's brother's wedding. It had been many years since we had been to that part of the country, but the three of us who have memories of living there felt quite nostalgic. Many formative years of our lives have been spent in the D.C. area. It was great to see so many family members and friends. I would have loved to have stayed longer.

Check out the menu for the wedding -- a VEGAN entree!!  So exciting! Heather and Sol, I don't know if you did this just for me, or if you had other vegan guests, but I loved it -- thanks! Besides the "Espinacas a la Catalana", I also enjoyed some lovely hors douvres (little shot glasses of gazpacho with avocado, eggplant tapenade and olive tapenade) some bread and I even had a little spoonful of the paella without the chicken or chorizo (I know, chicken/clam broth, but it didn't hurt me just this once.) It was all delicious! The wedding was lovely and fun for all.

Besides the fabulous Spanish-style wedding menu, I had plenty of amazing vegan food over the few days we were in the area.

At the rehearsal dinner at my mother-in-law's house in Maryland, we were all too busy catching up with friends and family and, as it turned out, didn't eat enough. When we returned to our hotel room we got room service -- pizza and quesadillas for the kids and beans and hummus for me. (my husband fell fast asleep as soon as he got to the room, so he ate nothing) These platefuls were enormous, but luckily we had a little fridge in the room so the leftovers were part of my breakfast the next day.

We were able to stay with my parents in Virginia the day we arrived, and also the evening before we left to come home. At my parents' house, there is always a delicious feast. This time, my sweet parents made so many vegan dishes! They also provided vegan condiments -- the little bowl by my water glass has canola mayonaisse for the avocado. In addition to my food, of which most of us partook, they also served steaks and pizzas, covering all their bases.

This plateful is only round one of one of my parents' feasts -- it features, quinoa with onion, a bean salad with plenty of fresh parsley, a tomato and basil salad, and a steamed artichoke. I also loved the green salad with organic vinaigrette, the abundant fruit bowl and more, plus seconds. Everything was so good! Thanks, Mom and Dad! I should have taken photos of the feast the night before we left too, but I was all tuckered out from such a busy weekend, and it never crossed my mind.

Speaking of the busy weekend, the day after the wedding we decided to take a little tour of D.C. for the kids. Wynne didn't remember living there at all, since she was a toddler at the time, but I used to drive the kids into town about once a week to see the museums and ride the carousel, etc. This time, we started off at Arlington National Cemetery so we could lay a flower on my grandfather's stone. The kids were very impressed with the place. We went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and to the Eternal Flame at Kennedy's grave, of course.

Next, we went to everyone's favorite, the Air and Space Museum. The food service at the museum is handled by McDonald's, so I wasn't too excited, but look what I got:

It wasn't exactly "fast" food -- I had to wait almost 15 minutes since the food is actually made in the basement of the museum and only assembled at the serving counter -- but I definitely had the freshest salad in the joint. This is a southwest salad without cheese or chicken. It had a wedge of lime and was very agreeable. I filled in the gaps in my tummy with a couple of fries and a handful of trail mix.

After our time with the airplanes and rockets, we enjoyed the beautiful weather, a little warm, but not Sahara-hot like Atlanta, and walked around the Mall and up to the the Capitol Building. I loved seeing my old place of employment, the U.S. Holocaust Museum, from the outside (very nostalgic now) and resolved to plan better next time, getting the tickets in advance as one needs to do (though they are free like the other museums) and allowing enough time for the solemn visit. I wonder if anyone who still works there remembers me.

After wandering all over the Mall grounds, we hopped into our rental car and drove the few blocks to the White House. Everything is different now, of course, after 9/11. I used to drive right in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, which is now closed to traffic. The other roads around Lafayette Square are also closed. One thing is the same though. The homeless lady with a tent on the edge of Lafayette Square who protests against nuclear weapons is still there. My husband says she is the very same woman who he first noticed in that spot thirty years ago! This blew the minds of my kids.

My 17 year old was very much impressed with D.C., as was I. We were both full of nostalgia and felt at home there. My husband doesn't like the traffic, and while my 13 year old daughter enjoyed D.C., it wasn't home for her. She's a Georgia girl. But the best part of our whirlwind trip was the time spent with those dear to our hearts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Comfort Food!

Today I would like to feature a FANTASTIC recipe I found on Danielle's blog, "Chronicles of a Dairyland Vegan" (

The recipe is "Southern Comfort Cheesy Green Bean Casserole". Danielle sold it so well in her description of this luscious combination, that I went far outside my lazy chef box and actually followed the recipe, with a couple of changes based on what I had on hand. I used rice pasta instead of other whole grain, and, not possessing any fried onion rings, I topped it all off with some panko bread crumbs mixed with dried minced garlic. This combo was deliciously agreeable. I also had no frozen green beans, but had just taken advantage of a coupon for prewashed store-brand fresh green beans, which I washed and trimmed again, then used raw in the recipe. The result was a soft, creamy casserole with slightly crunchier beans than the frozen ones would have provided. I liked them crunchy, though, and the beans cooked a little more with each subsequent heating of the many leftovers but were never overcooked (nobody else wanted to try this dish, so it was MINE, ALL MINE!!) The leftovers just kept getting better. I miss this casserole's presence in my fridge.

Please visit Danielle's blog and give this amazing casserole a try. You won't be sorry!