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February 2005


It’s been a quiet month, a dormant winter period for charging up our batteries for the new year and its activities. This means that we need to start thinking about what we do next: February is coming up as I write this and next month is March, so if we’re going to do something for the Great American Meat-Out (which tradition-ally occurs on and about March 20, the first day of Spring), we had better start getting it going! This year March 20 is a Sunday, which would make for perfect timing for an event on the Saturday, March 19. Are we going to have Dr. Gregor to speak? If so, where and when? Will we do anything in conjunction with that? This year will be the 20th anniversary of the Great American Meat-Out, which was launched as a way to promote the health, environmental, and humane advantages of vegetarian eating; that’s a reason in itself to make sure we do some-thing. Come to the Feb. 6 potluck with your ideas so we can make some decisions and move on them! (By the way, I expect to get to the potluck late, but I do expect to be there and help figure these things out.) See you there!


Sunday, Feb. 6, regular potluck, 5 PM, at the Friends’ Meeting House, 3224 N. Gordon Pl. in Riverwest (from Humboldt Blvd., go east on Auer a few short blocks to the parking lot). Focus will be Mexican food.

The next regular potluck will be at the same time and place on March 6, and will focus on the Eating of the Greens (in honor of St. Pat’s Day later in the month).  

Other potlucks

The February macrobiotic potluck will be on Sunday, Feb. 20, at Pat O’Neill’s place, 2431 N. Bartlett, at 5:30 PM. Call (414) 964-9759.

The raw foods potluck is usually held on the last Saturday of the month at 6 PM in Brown Deer. Call (414) 355-7383 for further information and directions.


Eat your veggies, but don’t clean your plate.”

-- Food section headline for a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article on recent dietary advice, which pretty well sums it up.


We saw a cartoon of a very small and barren desert island, on which are seen only two discouraged people and one palm tree, which is so badly decimated that only one frond is left on it; one of the people is saying worriedly to the other, “We may have to temporarily consider abandoning our vegetarian principles…”


Animal foods are still bad news in various ways. Canada has confirmed the detection of two new cases of mad cow disease since last I wrote this column, and this came just after the U. S. announced its readiness to start importing Canadian beef again. This news will do no-thing to lower sky-high beef prices here, nor will the usual loud governmental self-congratulations on catching it before it reached the food supply convince me personally to eat beef again. On a different note, we heard a news report of an EPA plan to offer huge factory hog “farms” a 4-year amnesty on violations of the Clean Air Act (which the “aroma” from these operations regularly violates) if these operations will help gather data on exactly how badly they are in violation. The Sierra Club was quoted in protest of the plan. A still different point was the item about a Racine restaurant temporarily closing after 63 diners there got sick; it was not clear which of the foods in the suspect dinner was the actual culprit, but chicken and dairy were both involved in the meal. Prevention magazine ran an item warning about mercury in fish (again). And The Green Guide, a monthly newsletter of advice on green and healthy living, ran an article about flame retardant chemicals called PBDEs being found in such foods as catfish, salmon, duck, hotdogs and other animal foods. It recommended eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and minimizing animal fats…

A different matter is a repeat/ confirmation of something we reported on last month: a whole news story about how careful some egg farmers are to keep their operations very clean because they supply the eggs in which flu vaccines are grown – and eggs can so easily harbor other disease organisms as well. This makes just another reason why I will be avoiding flu shots! (In any case, I tried out the elderberry syrup preparation I reported on last time, Sambucol, and it kept me fluless even though I was at high risk for the disease this past month). And in any case, bacteria are not all bad: there was a report that probiotics placed in infant formulas helped the recipients avoid fever and diarrhea (although not as effectively as mother’s own milk!).

In general food news, the Natural Ovens of Manitowoc package insert had a piece about spelt, describing it as an ancient grain native to southern Europe, easily digestible, with slightly more protein than wheat, and often tolerated by people with wheat allergies. Another article I saw advised sauteing, roasting, or steaming vegetables rather than boiling them to get the best taste and nutrition. And water is in the news again. There are rumors that Waukesha might ask to take water from Lake Michigan, even though Waukesha is in the Mississippi basin rather than the Great Lakes basin, and even though a report surfaced which blamed a drop in lake levels on 1962 dredging of the outflow of Lakes Michigan and Huron. As far the Diet Wars go, the Associated Press reported on a review of the nation’s 10 most popular weight loss programs, and found that only Weight Watchers offered any real documentation of its actual results – and they are pretty puny, revealing that participants lost only about 5% of their original weight in 6 months, with only about half of them keeping it off for two years. This dismal picture probably correlates with the announcement by Kraft Foods that it will stop advertising cookies and junk food on children’s TV shows, and the banning of vending machines from French schools – something needs to change!

On the other hand, there were two bits of good news on another occasionally controversial subject: soy. The NY Times ran an article about how delicious well-prepared fresh tofu can be, along with listings of some New York restaurants that serve it. And The Green Guide’s main story in its January/ February issue asked “Should You Eat Soy?” then re-viewed the points alleged for and against, and concluded that unless you already have breast cancer, you most certainly should. Known and possible benefits of eating soy foods include lowering cholesterol , preventing breast cancer that has not yet started (especially if a girl starts eating it in her teens), easing menopausal symptoms for many women (though not all), strengthening bones, preventing prostate cancer, and lowering cholesterol-related heart attack risk. The article did mention that supplements of isolated soy products may not be safe and should be avoided, and that given the negative environmental impacts of industrialized farming, you should eat organic soy.

A really big Food News story this month was the USDA’s release of its next regular (every five years) update of its dietary advice. Unfortunately, I must report that my review of the changes is extremely mixed at best. On the one hand, it is very good that the USDA is finally acknowledging that whole grains are good food while refined ones are not very good, and is actively recommending that (a bit) more than half of your daily grain foods should be whole; there is also an acknowledgement now that some fats (saturated fats and trans-fats) should be minimized while other fats and oils (unsaturated ones and ones providing omega-3 fatty acids) are good and should be actively provided in one’s diet. The advice to balance one’s caloric intake with exercise is also a good idea. However. The new guidelines not only recommend plenty of vegetables and fruit (9 servings rather than 5 to 9), but divide the vegetable group into 5 different categories (dark green leaves, orange veggies, legumes (but listed as vegetables instead of protein foods), starchy ones, and “other.” I do not think “orange”in-stead of “orange-red-yellow” makes sense, since each of these provides different immune-system-boosting carotenoids and all are equally important. And having so many different categories makes juggling the lot to create a diet very complicated, whereas the whole idea of a Pyramid had been intended to give people the information they needed as simply as possible

so as to be easy to use. And vegans beware: there is a recommendation for 3 dairy servings per day, where it really ought to be 3 calcium servings per day, with dairy listed as just one of the ways to get it. Nor are a very large percentage of Americans likely to get the recommended 60 to 90 minutes per day of exercise, though it would probably be good for them if they did. In short, whatever science and good intentions went into this new formulation, the result is much more complicated and difficult to work with than before. It’s really too bad.

Meanwhile, as usual, there are many ways in which Plant Foods Are Good. Getting plenty of B vitamins helped to significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, and these are mostly plant derived, especially folate (from dark green leaves, whole grains, beans such as lentils) and B12 (from eggs if you eat them; otherwise take a supplement). Eating plenty of leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, etc) were also found in a Harvard study to decrease mental aging. But while foods high in vitamins C and E seem to help keep the brain young, taking supplements of these vitamins does not. Find Vitamin C in many fruits and vegetables, and vitamin E in fatty foods such as nuts, seeds, and oil. And apparently folate not only helps keep the mind sharp, but also has a beneficial effect on mood: in a study of people on a certain kind of anti-depressant, those with adequate blood folate levels had much better results from the drug than those whose folate levels were low.

Yet another international study has found that eating plenty of vegetables and fruits cuts the risk of heart attack by a good 30%. And every-one is always happy to report and learn that chocolate (the darker the better) is still proving helpful in raising good HDL cholesterol and so fighting heart disease.

On the cancer-stopping front, Prevention points out that lightly steaming your broccoli and its relatives is the cooking method that releases the most anti-carcinogenic sulforaphane, while microwaving decreases them.

Once again, garlic is pointed out to power-fully attack viruses and bacteria, and help lower cholesterol and blood pressure – and it tastes good too. Another plant with health benefits is the herb sage: it has both decongestant and antibacterial properties when inhaled with steam, and tastes good in stuffing, soups, and stews. And fennel can help dissipate gas in the intestinal tract, whether you suffer from gas pains or embarrassing odoriferous emanations.

Finally, Prevention did an article on seasonal eating for winter with a number of interesting tips, such as opting for fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, citrus fruits, root vegetables and winter squash that are in season now, and also opting for frozen and dried versions of summer produce, and using canned tomatoes and tomato sauces when fresh tomatoes are not around, though it did also suggest that salad greens brought in from Florida are especially tender in winter when they have fewer pests to fight. The article also touted whole grains, beans and soups to round out one’s winter-hearty pantry.


The more things change, the more they stay the same, goes the old saying. It’s probably inevitable that people who give advice must keep reworking it, even though at bottom the old, simple observations are really still what they’ve always been.

Take dieting and weight control, for example. The truth is, there always was only one rule: If you eat more calories than you use, you gain weight, and if you use (through physical work or exercise) more than you take in, you lose weight. Find ways to satisfy hunger and enjoy food while balancing intake with use, and then stop. And all the schemes that people have come up with can’t change these facts.

Again, they’ve discovered that whole foods, in the form of whole grains, whole beans, whole vegetables and fruits, with all of their beneficial fiber and phytochemicals (including the ones we don’t know about yet) are better for your health than either refined portions of foods or isolated elements of them (as with soy and vitamin C). But this is merely a rediscovery of what has always been true.

Eating seasonally is another one. Until quite recently in human history, there was no other choice. Most people grew their food, and in the summer they ate fresh produce and in the winter they ate what could be easily kept in root cellars and pantries: root crops, winter keeper cabbages and squashes, pickled and salted foods, dried beans, and grains. Christmas feasting was a way to turn what wouldn’t keep into fat, while Lent made a virtue of necessity by “giving up” what was no longer available anyway.

So I’m not going to sort through 70 internet pages to figure out how to use the new USDA guidelines. I’m going to keep eating a good balance of many whole seasonal vegetarian foods, and not worry.