S3E12. The Leafy Greens Rabbit Hole

I’m not one to shy away from going down rabbit holes and this week found me tumbling my way down to Wonderland once again.

It all started with a report I read of a study published in Neurology this month that found (upon autopsy) that people who most closely adhered to the Mediterranean Diet had far fewer harmful plaques and tangles in their brains than those who did not.

What was surprising about the result, though, was that almost all of the benefit was found to be associated with consumption of leafy greens. I don’t want to get this wrong, so here is the finding verbatim: “People who ate at least seven servings of leafy greens per week had brains that looked 19 years younger than the brains of people who ate greens once a week or never.”

The authors, in typical researcher understatement, suggested that the findings are “enough for people to consider adding more of these vegetables to their diet.” 

Duh! Ya think?

After reading that, I packed my bags for the rabbit hole!

First question: What are leafy greens?

A quick google search answered that pretty definitively: “Leafy greens include various types of lettuce (e.g., romaine, Bibb, butterhead, Boston, arugula, spring mix, red leaf, green leaf, etc.) as well as spinach, Swiss chard, watercress, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and kale.

Since I was headed down a rabbit hole, though, I asked which were the most beneficial in terms of nutrients. The ranking, from most to least, is: kale, microgreens, collard, spinach, cabbage, beet greens, watercress, romaine, Swiss chard, arugula, endive, bok choy and turnip greens. (Keep in mind that they are all good for you. This ranking is like seeding the Top 10 basketball teams in the country.)

I then got to thinking about the 7 servings part. That’s one serving per day. Since (1) I don’t consider leafy greens a breakfast food (and my breakfast granola is already a complete and completely filling meal) and (2) I don’t really eat a lunch, the math compels me to (3) get my one serving at dinner every night.

But what, I asked, is a serving of leafy greens?

Ladies and gentlemen…welcome to the leafy green rabbit hole!

Of all the options, spring mix with baby spinach is the one I most prefer. It frequently forms the base for a large salad with multi-colored peppers, red onions, mushrooms, avocado, tomatoes, salmon or anchovies, dulce and an olive oil dressing. (It’s also how I most often honor the research suggesting that brightly colored vegetables are better for you.)

But 7 nights a week? I don’t think so.

So exactly how much spring mix do I need to nibble to reach my daily quota?

Back to the google. Several reputable sites agreed that one serving was equal to 2 cups of loosely packed leafy greens.

‘Loosely packed,’ though, is not a clearly defined term, now, is it?

I tried putting spring mix into a measuring cup, but the act of grabbing the leaves and getting them into the cup inherently led to some amount of packing. When I poured it out into a bowl, it was definitely more than what I would consider a reasonably-sized serving, but I couldn’t see any way to pack it more loosely. 

Come to think of it now, isn’t ‘loosely packed’ pretty much an oxymoron?

Then it occurred to me that I could look at my spring mix’s package for guidance. I knew there would be a nutrition label on it that indicated serving size and how many servings there were in the container.

Are you ready for this?

The label said that there was 1 serving per container.

Are you kidding me???

The label also told me that the contents weighed 5 ounces or 142 grams. So back to the google I went once again to see how much a serving weighed. The answer was a little ambiguous: 60-90 grams, depending on the vegetable. Using the midpoint of 75 grams would suggest that there are really 2 servings in that package, not 1. 

Even if I went with that formula, though, it was still an impossible quota to meet.

It seemed that implementing the dormouse’s urging to  ‘feed your head’ was not as easy as it ought to be!

Deep from within the recesses of my early memory banks, though, an image surfaced of Archimedes dropping objects into his bathtub and discovering that they displaced an amount of water equal to their volume.

‘Eureka!’ I cried.

I’ll empty out the container of leafy greens and fill it with water using a measuring cup. That will tell me exactly how many 2-cup servings there are in the container.

I’ve kept you guessing long enough. Four. There are exactly four servings in a 5 ounce package of loosely packed leafy greens.

And that amount meets the eye test. It looks like a reasonably-sized side salad.

I can handle that. 

Needless to say, there are any number of ways to satisfy your leafy green requirement other than doing it all with spring mix. You can cook spinach, kale, mustard or collard greens, for example. But I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the serving size for each of those.  😀


S2E50. Granola Revisited

It’s astonishing what can happen to a bowl of granola over the course of a year!

In S1E47: A Granola Ritual, I described the results of my effort to make my own sugar-free granola. Here’s what it looked like then, oh so many breakfasts ago:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon each of turmeric, cumin and ginger

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup olive oil

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

6 raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

I know rituals aren’t supposed to change, but the apostate in me just couldn’t resist. Every time I read the results of a new study linking a different food to brain health, I just had to figure out a way to get it into my diet…and my granola bowl every morning was the easiest place to do it.

The first thing that happened was that my annual physical showed my cholesterol getting a little high, so I immediately added 2 cups of oats and a cup of oat bran to the recipe. (I also started adding oat milk to my nightly kefir cocktail.)  With the addition of oats, my morning mix now officially met the criteria for ‘granola.’

Next came cacao. Studies showed brain health benefits for cacao, but I couldn’t figure out how to ingest it without  adding a lot of sugar. Then it occurred to me that I could mix it into my granola where the prune and fig might provide the desired level of sweetness.

So I bought some cacao powder and put a few tablespoons in the mix. It turned out that it added a little sweetness on its own, so I added some more. Now I’m up to 8 tablespoons of cacao powder, which is enough to give the flax milk a little color when I stir it all together, and just a hint of chocolate flavor without turning it into Count Chocula or Cocoa Puffs.

It wasn’t long before I realized that I wasn’t really tasting the spices in my recipe, so I increased the dosage to 1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, and ginger, and I added a tablespoon of nutmeg to the mix. Having done so, there wasn’t any difference in taste that I could discern. A warning, however, is in order. One evening, for a snack, I tried eating just the mix with flax milk but without the fruits. It was god-awful! A ton of stevia made it palatable, but it isn’t anything I would ever do again.

So why add all these spices, you ask? Well, because each one has been linked to improved brain health. But you are only getting minute amounts in each bowlful, you say, so are you really getting any benefit from them? Good question! My hopes are buoyed by two pieces of data. First, there was a study out of India that showed eating curry twice or more each week was protective. And so I thought, “How much spice can that be?” Surely, my daily mini-dose (plus the additional mini-doses of these same spices that I get in my daily matcha green tea brew) must add up to a significant level. 

Secondly, studies show that, in supplements, massive doses of these things must be taken to generate a measurable effect. But other studies suggest that eating a brain-healthy diet that includes them on a regular basis seems to offer just as much protection. So, yes, I think I am benefitting from this approach.

Now in an experimenting mode, I started adding things that I had read about but hadn’t included because they didn’t tickle my gustatory fancy. But the experience of adding things without fouling the taste gave me courage. So I added a cup each of sunflower seeds and hemp hearts. They added new textures, which were interesting, but left the flavor intact.

Turning to the fruit section, I quickly discovered that I could substitute a date for a fig and that it was even sweeter. After going through a few bags of dates, though, I think I prefer the figs.

It was several months into the new year before it dawned on me that I didn’t have any strawberries in the bowl. I couldn’t fathom how that had happened, so I bought a quart and pulled out the 7 largest, dicing one each day and adding it to my bowl. (The rest of the berries go into my kefir, as do 3 bananas, when I make 2 quarts every week.)

At this point, my bowl was overflowing and I had to switch to a larger one!

I always wanted to add raisins, but couldn’t find unsweetened organic ones at my supermarket. But then one day it happened: there they were on the shelf! The same held true for dried cranberries, so I added a cup of both to the recipe, mixing them in after it had finished baking and cooled.

But something strange happened. Even though I store my granola in an air-tight glass container, the raisins and cranberries turned into little rocks, barely chewable and sticking to my teeth when I crunched into them. With deep regret, I dropped them from the recipe.  😦

And then came Thanksgiving and the arrival of fresh organic cranberries to the produce section. I tried adding a handful of them, halved, and, boy oh boy, were they tart! But a recent study had them outperforming cacao and so I thought it was worth it to keep them in. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that they will disappear after the holiday season.

And now for the piece-de-resistance: vitamin gummies!

Sally has a prescription for medical marijuana to help her sleep and she takes it in gummy form. But as we prepared for our trip to Greece in October, we learned that it’s illegal to bring marijuana—in any form—into the country. I came up with the idea of smuggling it in by mixing hers into a bottle of vitamin gummies. By the time the bottle arrived, though, we decided it wasn’t worth the risk, which meant that I now had 170 vitamin gummies that I couldn’t use. Or could I?

I was never a fan of taking vitamins even though they pretty much can’t hurt and they often help. I tried the gummies and they tasted fine, with a hint of citrus, and the texture was interestingly rubbery. When I read the label, it said to take 2 every day with food…and that is when it hit me: I could quarter them and add them to my granola in the morning. So I did…and it’s a hoot! I play this game where I try to identify all 8 pieces when I bite into them. So now I’m taking a daily vitamin and have added a bit of whimsy to my morning ritual.

Reflecting back on my granola’s evolution over the course of this past year, it occurred to me that Forrest Gump had it all wrong: life isn’t like a box of chocolates…it’s like a bowl of granola!

For the adventurous among you, here’s the current recipe:

1 cup each of chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds

2 cups oats

1 cup oat bran

1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes

1 cup sunflower seeds

1 cup hemp hearts

½ cup each of chia and flax seeds

8 tablespoons of unsweetened cacao powder

1 tablespoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and cumin

1 teaspoon vanilla

¾ cup olive oil

1 dried fig, chopped

1 prune, chopped

¼ apple, chopped

1 large strawberry, chopped

15 red grapes, halved

A handful of raspberries or blackberries

A handful of blueberries

A handful of cranberries, halved

2 gummy vitamins, quartered

Enough flax milk to fill the bowl

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and toss until the nuts are coated and the seeds stick to them. Spread the mixture out on a cookie sheet (no need for parchment since there is no sugar to stick to the bottom) and bake for 25 minutes at 300 degrees. Voila…granola!


S2E24. Supplements? I Don’t Think So.

Last November, I posted that I wasn’t a fan of probiotic supplements (S1E44: Probiotics…really?)

Actually, I’m not a fan of supplements, period. There is no meaningful oversight by the FDA, you’re not guaranteed that you are getting the ingredients you think you are getting, and the research trail is pretty spotty for most of them, if there is a research trail at all. In fact, the World Health Organization has concluded that vitamins and supplements should not be prescribed to treat cognitive decline or dementia. Finally, I hate to take pills. So there’s that.

There is one important exception to my recalcitrance. I think it’s ok to take supplements if lab tests indicate a meaningful deficiency. If a doctor orders them for you and can recommend a reputable manufacturer, well, then, I guess I have no qualms with that.

As I continue to monitor the brain health literature, though, I’m always on the lookout for anything beneficial that I might be able to fit into my diet. My niece, Kay, has been helpful in that effort. She is a consumer par excellence and does her own research before telling me about a food or a product that might be of interest. A little while back, she told me about Lion’s Mane mushrooms and just this past week she asked if I knew anything about matcha tea. So I followed-up with both.

From what I can tell, Lion’s Mane has a decent empirical track record. Studies have used a wide variety of dosage levels, though, and there is no recommended level of daily intake. You can eat them, use them in powdered form to make tea and smoothies, or take a pill. 

I once ate them when I lived in Kennett Square (‘Mushroom Capital of the World’) where they were readily available…and I gagged on it. I’m sure I didn’t cook them correctly, but I’m not willing to give it another shot. And you already know how I feel about pills, so that left the powder form as my only viable option. Since I drink tea every morning, I decided to add ½ teaspoon (about 2 mg.) of the powder to my mug which is already laced with a ½ teaspoon mixture of turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and black pepper.

Matcha (which is sold in powder form) appears to be green tea on steroids. It has more of all the active ingredients of regular green tea and appears to give an additional boost above and beyond what you would otherwise get. Apparently, turning the entire leaf into a powder instead of steeping the leaves is what creates the potency. It is also cultivated a little differently from regular tea, adding to its mystique. There’s quite a ritual around serving it, as well, but the pageantry has no appeal for me.

The instructions on the label suggest adding ½ teaspoon of powder to 2 cups of hot—but not boiling—water and letting it steep. Looking for a boost, though, I upped that to 1 full teaspoon and, thankfully, it tasted just fine.

My morning tea, then, is brewed with: 1 teaspoon of matcha powder, ½ teaspoon of mixed spices, ½ teaspoon of Lion’s Mane powder and 2 cups of filtered water. (Yes…everything is organic.)

Now, if you had put all those powders into a pill and told me to take it every morning, I’d have told you to shove that pill where the sun don’t shine! But using the same powders to make tea seems perfectly acceptable to me. Why is that?

Maybe I’m just being a big old hypocrite, but I rationalize what I’m doing by saying that if I use it in cooking, then it’s not a supplement. And brewing tea is ‘cooking.’

So what do you think? Am I really taking a supplement? Do I need an intervention here to break through my denial?

Whatever it is I’m doing, I’m convinced that drinking 2 cups of this tea followed by my bowl of granola overflowing with a ton of fruit is about as brain-healthy a way to start each day as I can imagine!


S2E20. Brain-Healthy Menu Plan

I’ve written often about your diet’s effect on your brain’s health, but it occurred to me that I haven’t yet put all the pieces together to demonstrate that it’s possible to incorporate this kind of diet into a daily routine. I’ll try to do that now.

One of the things that has always bothered me about diet recommendations is the idea that you have to have X many servings of various foods every day or week. I just don’t have the patience to measure things out to see if I’ve got enough to meet the criteria for a ‘serving,’ nor do I possess the discipline to keep track of all of those servings to see if I’ve met the goal. 

Working that hard can take all the joy out of eating!

Instead, I’ve developed a practical approach (some would call it a rationalization!) toward eating. Here are the 3 key points:

1. You can only eat but so much in a day or a week, so eat when you’re hungry and eat things you like that fit your diet plan. I have faith that your body will figure out how to maximize the benefit from the selection you offer it as long as you provide it with a buffet that covers all the basic areas, like Omega3 fats, antioxidants, etc. A little of something good is better than none at all, and it’s probably good enough when you just can’t work the recommended volumes into your plan.

2. Except for #3 below, everything you put in your mouth should provide some nutrient that is protective of your brain.

3. There is no such thing as cheating. So what if you eat something you shouldn’t every so often? What’s the big deal? Maintaining brain health is a long-term project that plays out over decades. The more days I eat all the right things, the better off I am. But it’s not fatal if I have a piece of cake or a hamburger once in a while. It might set my project back a day or two, but that’s not so terrible and it’s more than offset by the soul-satisfying lift I get from eating something that’s taboo. Bottom line: your eating lifestyle should be guilt free!

Let me offer one disclaimer before showing you what I eat:

I’m not recommending that you adopt my diet. I’m just trying to demonstrate that a brain-healthy diet is do-able. Only you can decide what will work for you: what times of the day, how often, and what you like to eat. So I’m not going to give you a ‘meal plan,’ per se. It’s more like an outline to help get you started. 

The diet that emerged for me was the result of my researching brain health in order to write this blog. As I learned about foods that contained important nutrients and compounds, I tried to add them to my diet. Having eaten this way for nearly a year now, I don’t remember what foods provide what benefits, but I can tell you that everything I swallow has a purpose based on the research.

Finally, before showing you what I eat, it’s important to show you what I don’t eat: products with added sugars of any kind, rice, grains (except for oats), dairy (except for kefir), refined flour, bread, fried foods, white potatoes, beef and pork. It sounds pretty restrictive, but it’s actually not all that bad.

Oh yeah…I almost forgot…the goal is to use all organic ingredients.

Here’s what my diet looks like:

Morning Tea: I try to do a 14-hour overnight fast each day, so I stop eating at 7:30pm the night before and have breakfast at 9:30am the next morning. Since I wake up hungry, though, I have 2 cups of tea at around 8:00am to hold me over. Decaf green tea is preferred, but I don’t like the taste all that much, so I mix ½ tablespoon of green tea leaves with an equal amount of mint leaves and then add ½ teaspoon of mixed turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper.

Breakfast: It’s the same thing every day: homemade granola with fruit. And it never gets old! It’s now my favorite meal. I linger over and savor every mouthful. Here are the ingredients: oats, chopped walnuts, pecans and almonds, turmeric, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa, flaked coconut, flax seed, chia seed, oat bran, figs, prunes, apples, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and grapes, with flax milk.

(I added oats to the mix after I wrote ‘A Granola Ritual’ because I wanted help in lowering my LDL (bad) cholesterol.)

As you can see, I pack a ton of brain-healthy goodies into this one meal. 

Lunch: Well…not really. I get hungry between noon and 2:00pm, but I don’t prepare anything that could legitimately be called ‘lunch.’ More accurately, I nosh…usually standing up. I know, I know…I should sit down when I eat…but I’m hungry!

I hope this doesn’t gross you out, but my go-to noshes are pickled herring, homemade sauerkraut and seaweed salad. Hummus with vegetables, guacamole, and a few mouthfuls of dinner leftovers are also on the noshing menu. So are oranges and almonds.

Post-workout hydration: 1 pint pomegranate juice made with 1 part juice and 2 parts filtered water.

Dinner: One of the joys of adopting this food lifestyle is trying out new recipes…and being surprised that things taste as good as they do! Here is a list of the items that have become staples of my evening meals: salmon, chicken, shrimp, eggs, kale, quinoa, roasted vegetables (eggplant, acorn squash, sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, carrots), mackerel salad with celery, grapes and walnuts, spinach, asparagus, salad (spring mix, grape tomatoes, onions, sweet peppers (red, yellow, orange & green), mushrooms, anchovies, avocado, parsley, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice), red lentil pasta, and 4 ounces of organic pinot noir.

Although garlic isn’t mentioned above, it, too, is a staple. You’re not doing it right if you’re not mincing garlic every day!

Dessert: This is the same every night: a half cup of homemade banana-strawberry kefir with a quarter cup of oat milk, a few dashes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and some stevia to make it sweet enough to pass as a dessert.

Bon appetit!