Friday, February 12, 2016

For Valentines Day, Chocolate and Love on The Brain

Chocoholics rejoice!! There actually is a right way to love your chocolate, and it’s not just about eating less of it. The key to knowing which is which and why lies inside your mind and brain.

Anyone who really loves their chocolate knows that this wonderfully delicious food must contain a raft of psychoactive chemicals because, obviously. 

It turns out that chocolate’s feel-good effects are a direct result of its impact on your neurophysiology and psychology.

Knowing what’s going on “under the hood” can help understand cravings, and make them work for you rather than against you.  

This Is Your Brain On Chocolate
The cocoa bean contains a wide array of psychoactive properties, each of which nudge your neurons in different ways. 
  • Its anadamide stimulates the same cannabinoid brain receptors as marijuana.
  • Chocolate’s theobromine may act synergistically with its caffeine within the brain to create a sense of pleasure.
  • It also contains phenylethylamine, known as the love drug because it is also released naturally when people fall in love or experience intense pleasure. 
  • In addition to all these other feel good chemicals, chocolate also contains tryptophan, which can be converted into serotonin. The levels of tryptophan and serotonin are both associated with your emotional state: if they’re low, so are you. 
  • Brain PET scans reveal that chocolate consumption light up the pleasure areas of the brain. This is also related to the chocolate-stimulated release of endorphins.

This is all very suggestive, but just because chocolate is associated with all these neurochemicals linked to positive mood. 

But the real question is intensely practical and personal. When you eat chocolate, does your mood actually improve? Are real world measures of anxiety changed, and in what direction?

The answer turns out to be yes and no. While that non-answer isn’t interesting, what is very interesting is the fact that chocolate “brings the happy” under specific conditions, but not in others. So once you know what those two conditions are, you can make sure all those upbeat brain chemicals work for you, not against you.

The Wrong Way: Chocolate Used As Treatment
Taking chocolate in response to emotions is a bad idea. This is what that looks like. “I had an incredibly awful day, I’m going to console myself with chocolate”, or “I had an incredibly awesome day, I’m going to celebrate with chocolate.”

One research group found that emotional eaters who used chocolate to treat their bad mood were actually more likely to have those negative feelings persist than those who didn’t use chocolate in this way. 

In other words, when used as a treatment for existing anxiety or stress, chocolate made the negative feelings persist even longer.

And think about how this condition can very quickly slip out of control. If a person continues this strategy (eating chocolate to fix an emotional state), the mood doesn’t actually improve. This can increase anxiety and/or depression, which increases the chances of self-medicating even more. At that point, you’re sliding down a slippery chocolate slope straight into a bog of emotional awfulness.

The Right Way: Chocolate As Prevention
On the other hand, eating 40 grams of high cocoa chocolate (about 8 thumb-size pieces, or 1 ounce) every day for 2 weeks can help lower stress levels

How? Consuming this amount of chocolate for this long is actually associated with a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol that floods your blood, can trigger fatty deposits, adrenal exhaustion, and even muscle wasting.

But does the statistical decrease in cortisol actually translate into you feeling less crappy? Less stressed? Less anxious? It’s one thing to measure a hormone in the context of some research study and show that the cortisol level in your blood stream moves up or down. But the real question is whether eating chocolate results in improved feelings in the long term.

As the continual bearer of good news, let me just tell you that the answer is a big, chocolaty yes. A 2010 study looked at the impact of cocoa polyphenols on two groups of people over an 8-week period. They gave one group 85% cocoa chocolate and the second group something that tasted just the same (it even had the same number of calories).

By the way, if you’re wondering how eating the equivalent of 9 thumb-size pieces of 85% cocoa chocolate daily impacted their weight, there was no weight gain at all after 8 weeks of eating this amount. Zero. Just one more reason to be happy!

So what happened? 
Those eating the 85% cocoa chocolate reported a 35% reduction in fatigue, a 37% reduction in anxiety, and a 45% reduction in depression. 

By comparison, those who ate the very same product without cocoa’s polyphenols reported slight increases in every one of those measures.

So if you’re responding to these stressors by using chocolate to basically self-medicate, your very best case scenario is that you’d just be treating symptoms. At worst, you are making the problem worse. The better solution is to have a little high-cocoa chocolate each and every day.

After all, it is good for your heart and mind when you take it slow, make it last, and think about it more as a One-A-Day than a Band-Aid.

For more information: Click here to visit Will Clower's website.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

How to know whether you are eating chocolate, or "chocolate"

For more information: Click here to visit Will Clower's website.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Is It True That You Should Eat A Big Breakfast?

This is a whopper. In fact, its a whopper with cheese. 

Here's what we hear: 
You need a big breakfast. In fact, as the saying goes, you should "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper." 

But no healthy culture does that. No healthy culture encourages its people ... 

  • to eat their largest meal of the day in the morning, or
  • to eat a big breakfast at all.

Just saw this study result, and it confirms what you see out in the world: 
extended morning fasting does not cause compensatory intake during an ad libitum lunch, nor does it increase appetite during the afternoon. Morning fasting ... reduced concentrations of the appetite-stimulating hormone-acylated ghrelin during the afternoon relative to lunch consumed after breakfast.
Science to English Translation:
If you're not hungry in the morning, and you don't eat, that does not make you more likely to eat more at lunch, or after lunch for that matter. 

This was one study, in an obese population. Plus, everyone is different, so your individual mileage may vary. However, this study does ring true with other healthy cultures, such as in the Mediterranean region. This gives it the advantage of having common sense on its side. 

For Mardi Gras, a brilliant gumbo recipe

"Will Clower." It’s not a Cajun name. Maybe this gumbo recipe would be more credible coming from someone named Lafayette “crawfish” Prud’homme. But I promise this gumbo really is authentic.

Even though, it’s true, I have no bayou water splashing through my veins, I managed to get some good recipes and sneak them back east after my sister married a certified, born and bred, crawdad-snatching, zydeco-stomping Cajun. I’m not sure how legal it is, exporting genuine Cajun recipe magic across state lines, so just keep this to yourself.

My son was always a picky eater. He knows what he likes and, more importantly for him, he knows what he doesn’t like. This gumbo falls into the first category, and has become his definition of great food. 

In fact, since he was a kid gumbo has become a reward item for him – a prize for good efforts and noble deeds benefiting humanity at large. However, we’ve had to draw the line at him bathing in gumbo or eating it for more than 2 meals per day.

In the recipe below, you may notice in the “You’ll need” list that some of the items are a bit vague. But no worries, you cajuns-in-training, I’ll explain everything below. There’s a bit of alchemy involved. After all, it is authentic.

You’ll need:
1 ½ gallons water
8 large chicken pieces, bones and skin still on them
1 small handful salt
3 – 4 bay leaves
3 lb spicy sausage
1 cup vegetable oil
11/3 cup flour
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup parsley
1 – 2 stalks celery
Red and black pepper to taste
Gumbo filé
Green onions, chopped

First make the stock.
When you get the chicken, be sure to buy the parts with skin and bones still on them. This dramatically adds to the flavor you get on the other end. One result of the fat free frenzy is that people tend to just eat breast meat, and avoid legs and thighs. For the gumbo, you should include both. The darker meat is richer and, frankly, has a better flavor.

Put them all into the water with the salt and bay leaves, bring it to a chummy sort of boil in a large gumbo pot. During the early part of the boiling you’ll notice some whitish foam gooze bubbling on the top. Get a large spoon and ladle this out. It’s yuck. The stock should boil along until the chicken meat falls off the bones, about an hour or so. In the end, your stock should have boiled down by about ¼, from 1 ½ gallons to a little more than a gallon.

Make the sausage
There are a couple of options here. You’ll have to play with them to see what works best for you (I always love it when I’m instructed to “play with my food”).

You can get the firm Andouille sausage that slices into small medallions and fry them up like that. They’re generally very spicy, but it’s really great when this flavor seeps into the broth of the gumbo.

If you are not such a fan of spicy foods, you can also get the hot Italian sausage, which comes in the casing. Squeeze it out into the pan and chop it up as it cooks. Even though it says “spicy” Italian sausage, you’ll be adding it to a vat of gumbo, so never you fear.

Either way, you simply cook up the sausage and set it aside.

Remove the chicken from the bone 
After the stock has cooked down by a quarter and the meat is falling off the bones before your very eyes, pull out the chicken and pull off the meat.

Let it cool a bit first because it’ll be quite hot. But be careful to remove all of the bones. Cover the chicken and set it aside with the sausage.

Do the roux
Roux is the elixir of life. Not many people know this, although I guess this book has let the cat out of the bag now. If you do this part of the recipe correctly, your gumbo will be triumphant! (Triumphant. No kidding, you just wait and see if you don’t agree with that word at the end.)

Get a 2-cup measuring container. Fill the first cup with vegetable oil. Now stir in some flour until it’s smooth. Keep stirring in flour until the level gets up to 2 cups. 

You’ll end up adding in much more than 1 cup of flour to the oil, because it all mixes in together. 

After the total beige mixture levels out at 2 cups, get a rubber spatula and scrape it into a frying pan over medium-high heat. You’ll need a metal spatula to turn over the roux as it cooks.

Here’s what you’re shooting for: chocolate. Not Hershey’s milk chocolate, a rich dark chocolate. As the roux cooks and you turn it over and over, it will go from an anemic pale, to milk chocolate, to a fine dark chocolate. Also note the texture. This will go from liquidy, to firmish and bubbly, to crumbly. When it gets to “crumbly dark chocolate,” remember the aroma you smell. This means you have arrived at gumbo nirvana.

Now for the alchemy. Watch out that you don’t scorch the chocolate. Keep the roux just this side of burned. I can’t tell you where that line is, young Jedi knight, so you’ll have to use the force. Or maybe just be conservative to start with and take it off when it’s crumbly and dark, but not yet burned.

Add the roux to the stock
Careful here. The chicken stock is water-based. The roux is oil-based. These two like each other as much as two irate alley cats in a shower.

Take just enough roux to fit on your spatula and set it down into the pot, but not all the way down into the stock. Have the lid in the other hand because it’s going to hiss and spit at you when the roux hits the water.

After all the roux is in, boil it hard for 1 hour. Stir occasionally.

Finish the gumbo
After the roux and stock have boiled themselves into blended perfection, put in the chicken, sausage, vegetables, salt, pepper, gumbo filé, and Tabasco. Let these flavors simmer for another 20 minutes.

You may notice that I did not specify any amounts for the salt, pepper, gumbo filé, and Tabasco. I want you to add these in as you taste. You’ll get a feel for how much is enough. Remember, you are cooking in a vat, so you may need more than you think. 

Add the gumbo filé last. It gives it that “dirty” flavor that’s the essence of Louisiana cooking. Add, taste, add, taste.

When it’s ready, chop some green onions to sprinkle on top. Gumbo is served in a bowl, on a bed of rice. I dash some Tabasco in on top. But then I like it hot.

For more information: Click here to visit Will Clower's website.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Mardi Gras Mentality and the Difference Between a Common Practice, and Common Sense.

Tuesday is Mardi Gras, when a parade of partiers famously let loose in New Orleans every year. 

“Mardi Gras” means “Fat Tuesday” and represents the day prior to Lent, the 40 days of fasting before Easter. Thus Tuesday is fat because the next six weeks are supposed to be lean.

Mardi Gras has become a cultural hood ornament for a splurge-and-purge mentality. 
Blow it out on Saturday night and expect to pay for it the next morning. 
The bitter medicinal spoon comes tomorrow, so drink from the sweet cup today.

The self-imposed credit/debt tradeoff of excess provides a rationalization for the wicked bender. And we pay back the dietary loan following the excess of overconsumption by punishing ourselves in one form or another. Some of us join gyms, undergo restrictive diets, or just feel bad about ourselves.
For many, this self-flagellation serves as a well-deserved punishment: If the problem was that we lived it up too much, the solution must be the opposite. 
If we were too good to ourselves, we now must be punished with the equal and opposite pain.
It’s clear how unhealthy this attitude is. It can lead to overconsumption, and going from one extreme of eating to another not only can lead to physiological problems like diabetes, but can also mirror emotional extremes. In addition, disordered eating patterns can lead to more weight issues. And suddenly, you can find yourself in a positive feedback cycle of abandon, regret, and self-loathing.

The dietary antidote to the splurge-and-purge self-denial trap is to avoid the binging in the first place. 
Avoiding the swings between excess and denial requires moderation.

The excess to avoid is not the quality of your food, but the quantity. The wine is fine in control, the party is fine in control, and everything from cheese to chocolate is great for you until you eat it out of control.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? The Mardi-Gras mentality we accept as the norm does nothing to promote moderation. It’s “either-or,” “all or nothing.”
And it’s more prevalent than once a year at Mardi Gras. For example, the CDC reported that an astounding one in six adults binge drinks at least four times a month. 
The 18-to-24 age group drinks nine drinks per booze-up (it’s even higher for those 65+). 
In other words, what sounds like the activity of the once-a-year Mardi Gras party is actually happening all the time.

Compare our drinking pattern to that of the French and Italians. They drink more than we do—their per capita consumption of wine is about 44 liters per person per year, compared to Americans, who drink closer to 9 liters per person per year. The difference between us and them is that many in these cultures drink a little wine with a meal. It’s consumed every day, but more in control.
Food and drink (and even a little Mardi Gras mayhem now and then) only become bad when they’re overdone. Find the sane middle ground.
For more information: Click here to visit Will Clower's website.

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