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    Copyright 2008-2015Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

“Healthy” breakfast muffins? Miscalculated.

Julia Moskin’s latest “Recipe Lab” in the New York Times food section revisits one of my (cranky, irascible) pet peeves: the “healthy” muffin. She claims her version, filled with an expensive and lengthy list of the latest buzzword ingredients and yet supposedly lighter-textured than most bakery offerings, is healthy, always a warning sign, especially when paired with the instruction to make sure it’s well-leavened and to use “unprocessed” oils. These are code words for a heavy dose of baking soda and baking powder on the one hand and coconut oil, the newest darling of the hipster food world, on the other.

But–benefit of the doubt–I looked at the recipe and scrolled down to mouse over the nutrition stats. They’re provided in a popup link you can’t copy, with a very faint “i-in-a-circle” watermarked icon below the ingredient list. Not a good sign, generally: hiding the nutrition stats signals that they’re kinda suspish, or at least unflattering. But okay, at least they’re posted here.

Edamam provides the analysis–and per average muffin, 20 to the batch, claims the following stats:

318 cal, 16 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 trans, 9 g monounsaturated, 4 g polyunsaturated, 39 g carbohydrate, 2 g fiber, 19 g sugars, 4 g protein, 38 mg cholesterol,260 mg sodium

Something didn’t sit quite right with that. I looked up at the ingredient list.

Sure enough, the fat was provided by 1 1/3 cup of coconut oil. Yick. But never mind. The point here is that Edamam lists the saturated fat at a very improbable 1 gram per muffin.

There is–being kind about it–no way this is correct. The only thing I can think of is that Edamam used the soybean or canola oil option for the calculation, but why would that be? Coconut oil is listed as the much-preferred fat. And it’s got more saturated fat per gram than lard. About 82% saturated fat by weight, if you check the most reliable lab analysis at the USDA National Agricultural Library’s nutrient database. And actually, the mono and poly stats suggest something closer to olive oil than soybean or canola.

The correct calculation for 315 ml of coconut oil is 260 grams of saturated fat for the recipe. For 20 muffins, that’s almost 14 grams of saturated fat per muffin, not 1. And 14 grams is pushing the recommended daily max of 20 grams of sat fat for a 2000 calorie-per-day diet. Just for a muffin.

Given the nice way the New York Times provided the grams as well as cups and spoons measures in the recipe, here’s what I came up with, direct from the USDA NAL database and averaging a bit for the different options between apples and carrots and between walnuts and pecans.

  • Total calories for the recipe: 7213, per 1/20th (1 muffin): 361
  • Total saturated fat: 273 g,  per muffin: 13.7 g
  • Total monounsaturated fat: ~50 g, per muffin: 2.5 g
  • Total polyunsaturated fat: ~50 g, per muffin: 2.5 g
  • Total cholesterol: 744 mg, per muffin: 37 mg
  • Total carb for the recipe: 699 g, per muffin: 35 g
  • Total sugars: 390 g, per muffin: 19.5 g
  • Total fiber: 49 g, per muffin, 2.5 g
  • Total sodium: ~4670 mg, per muffin, 234 mg.

And yes, it’s kind of a pain to navigate all the USDA data chart by chart, ingredient by ingredient, put in the actual amounts in grams, have it recalculate the whole chart, add the totals up nutrient by nutrient, and then divide by 20. It would be so nice to find an accurate and complete free recipe-style app to pull all the relevant data and stick it in a single spreadsheet. The myfitnesspal.com recipe calculator is about the best I’ve found so far, but it’s not as complete, and neither unfortunately is the USDA’s Supertracker calculator, as far as I can tell.

How did Edamam and the New York Times Food Section do? The sodium, though a bit much for a single bready item (4 t. baking powder, 1 t baking soda and half a teaspoon of salt on top of that, plus whatever’s in the buttermilk), came out about right at 260 mg (I got 234 per muffin). The carbs are about right too, if kind of a lot. Sugar at 19 grams is about half the total carb and makes it no great bargain (not to mention, brown sugar plus maple syrup? cha-ching, and the maple flavor probably disappears with all the other stuff. Kind of a waste.). This is still a pretty cakey item, despite Moskin’s protestations to the contrary and all the grated carrot and blueberries and multigrain ethos. Edamam’s calorie estimate is a bit low by 40 cal per muffin. You could probably live with that.

But you shouldn’t. Because with the trendy, expensive coconut oil option, the published saturated fat estimate is way, way, way off. Way off. Bizarrely off.

I visited Edamam’s web site to see if I could figure out how they calculated this–whether their own calculator would give me the right result if I input “315 ml. coconut oil,” or whether their API, which features natural language processing, somehow makes  errors this big when it parses a recipe and does the lookup in the USDA database. Did it pull the wrong ingredient, or did the NY Times staff type the wrong thing into their recipe submission? Or what? Continue reading

Parsley Doesn’t Count

It’s nearly June, the big northeast snowfest that lasted into April is pretty much over, and all the May and June issues of the big food magazines are showing…almost no fresh vegetables on the covers. Or inside. Oh, you do see some green–but it’s garnish. Flat-leaf parsley, a little cilantro, a sprig of basil maybe, chopped or torn over the cover dish to make it pretty. But very few actual vegetables–take a little walk with me down the newsstand for a sec.

magcovers

All magazine cover thumbnails shown have been lifted shamelessly–they’re not mine, they’re the property of their respective publishers–and pasted together here solely for parody value and critical review of the food literature.

Saveur? Fried chicken. Seriously. Cooking Light? Hotdog special–one with a slice of pickle and tomato, another with avocado, to represent Vietnamese and Mexican, respectively.  Whoo-don’t you feel like a world traveler now. Food and Wine? Burgers by Bobby Flay. Bon Appétit? Another burger. Food Network? They don’t even pretend. Ice cream cone. With whipped cream and a cherry on top. On a cone.

The women’s mags are leaning toward desserts: Martha Stewart–cake. Southern Living, Allrecipes–pie. Better Homes & Gardens and BHG Diabetic Living both feature watermelon and ice cream or sorbet assortments. All of it very pink.

Eating Well cover Vegetarian Times cover

But even EatingWell and Vegetarian Times aren’t doing all that much vegetabalia on their green-looking covers. EW has a vegetable serving platter with a nice looking bunch of raw green beans and tomatoes at the bottom, but more than half of the platter is canned  beans or dip. Not that I’m against those, but they really aren’t fresh veg.  VT has a grilled veg and quinoa salad platter that looks wholesome enough, but if you zoom in for a closer look you realize it’s not mostly veg either. If you took a quarter of it for yourself, you’d only get 3 or 4 thin slices of pepper and zucchini on your plate along with the grain. Most of the green you see in the picture is a token sprinkling of arugula and basil sprigs strewn over the top–a strategy that’s being used and abused in the less veg-forward pubs to make steak or pork loin or mac ‘n’ cheese look like they have something fresh and healthy about them.

Lucky Peach and Cook’s Illustrated both go for graphics rather than photos. LP has a cartoony poster graphic of garden lushness for “The Plant Issue”–do they really have vegetabalia inside? Cook’s Illustrated has a pastel of radishes.

It’s as though they all decided to try to look summery without  including actual bulk greens–the signature of summer (well, other than watermelon). I’ve complained about this before, I know, but back then I was talking about friends who don’t cook much and are somewhat veg-phobic, not about upscale food media. For years the food glam world has been touting local sourcing, farmers’ markets, heirloom this and that, Provençal and Spanish and Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, which are full of vegetables one way and another. But they really are no longer practicing what they preach. They’ve shrunk their focus down to the meager American fast food paradigm while pretending otherwise. And charging you between 4 and 10 dollars an issue.

But vegetables are so easy to ruin, you say. The green ones turn brownish olive if you hold them too long after cooking. If you’re going to hang around a whole hour waiting for the photographer to get the right shot, you’re going to have to cook a couple of batches in a row. Strewing a couple of sprigs of cilantro or parsley over something is so much easier!

The other reason we’re not seeing vegetables on the magazine covers: editorial production lag. Monthly magazines typically take anything from 2-6 months to produce from start to finish, so they work ahead. The May and June issues probably went to press two months ago, when it had barely stopped snowing in the northeast (per my mother and sister). Summer vegetables are not bountiful in March and April under those conditions–at least not in New York and Boston. But the editors could have put together something decent and thematic for the covers if they wanted to–I’m pretty sure I could have sent them a likely looking CARE package from my local greengrocer’s if they’d only asked and were willing to foot the overnight shipping.

A weekly haul from my greengrocer's comes in under $30 even with coffee, spices and special items.

Eat your heart out, foodie magazines! Time to gloat. A typical weekly haul from my greengrocer comes in at under $30 even with a pound of coffee or tehina or yogurt (not shown, obviously), bagged spices, dried beans, and  specials on fruit or nuts. When the tomatoes are better I stagger out the door with 5-10 lbs. at a time, but on the other hand the snow peas were a serious bargain this time around.

There are plenty of good vegetables around. Fresno tomatoes are back in my Armenian grocery (for which, oh! be joyful), we have green and romano beans, we have lettuces and purslane and bunches of fresh basil and dill and mint and za’atar (and yes, parsley, Continue reading

2000-calorie meals in pictures

The New York Times has just posted a very clear picture-it chart of how people get to 2000 calories in a single meal, sometimes even a single dish, without realizing it when they eat out. Not just at Burger King, Denny’s or IHOP, either–some of the upscale chains’ ordinary dishes are just as devastating. If you’re having trouble figuring out your own diet, you might take a look and see What 2,000 Calories Looks Like.

One thing I like about the restaurant-by-restaurant feature is the breakdown of calories for each item in the meal, so you can see how you might do better while eating out.

One obvious takeaway–so to speak–is that fries, shakes, full dinner plates of pasta with cream sauce (or any sauce, really), and slices of cake as big as your head–topped with caramel goo!–are a bad deal for excess calories, lack of nutritional value, and are basically not really necessary.

The other obvious takeaway is that for things like sandwiches, burritos, burgers and similar protein-containing main dishes, you probably don’t want to be eating more than about 500 calories at lunch or maybe 600ish at dinner. Preferably 350-450, to give yourself some room for a salad or fruit. So the hoagies and double cheeseburgers at 900-1100 calories should really be split in two–maybe three. Share one with a friend unless you’re actually a linebacker in training. Or else get rid of the cheese, the excess meat, the bacon, the mayo-based sauces. Go back to a single burger with ketchup and mustard and a couple of pickle slices. And maybe you shouldn’t eat anything else with one of those but a plain apple or orange or some tomatoes or carrot sticks.

The other thing I like is the set of pictures at the bottom–whole days’ worth of decent food from home that are worth 2000 calories per day, and they look a whole lot better than what you get at the restaurants. For the same money or less, and with a microwave, maybe even in less time. A lot more vegetables and fruits, a decent amount of meat and fish and dairy, a lot less in the way of french fries, milkshakes, salad dressing, breadings, special sauces, burger buns and unlimited pasta.

Breaking the Rules: Fish with Red Wine

tilapia fillets Veracruz-style, with smoky salsa, onions, garlic, alfonso olives, red wine and fresh za'atar or "wild thyme"

One way to cook fish well using red wine

Wine is something I drink mostly for taste, not volume–I can’t really hack a lot of alcohol at once, blame my ancestors–but I do like wine tastings, even though I have to limit myself to about three small sips per glass if I don’t want to wobble out the winery door. Focusing on the flavors in a wine, and comparing several side by side, sharpens your palate and makes you think very specifically about what you’re experiencing. It’s rewarding even for someone with my drinking limits.

I also like to cook with wine, maybe more often than I like to drink much of it. Decent wine has such a complex combination of flavors that when you figure out how to do it well, cooking with wine can make even rapidly cooked dishes come off like serious Slow Food.

We hear a lot about long-cooking stews and coq au vin and so on, but many simpler and less time-consuming dishes benefit from smaller amounts of wine. Adding a couple of spoonfuls of dry white wine to mustard vinaigrette tempers the sourness, the garlic and the mustard sharpness a little and gives the sauce a quiet depth. And if my experiment with giant favas marinated in rosé and rosemary was any indication, we should be thinking about wine a lot more often and a lot more creatively as a cooking ingredient.

So I’ve been on the lookout lately for clear and simple techniques for cooking with wine without wasting it, and for doing it in less than a three-hour stew, because to me that’s slow-food-slow in large crowd-feeding quantities, to be attempted a maximum of once a year. I want better, more sophisticated-tasting food fast, using at most half a cup to a cup of wine, not a whole bottle, and preferably without huge cleanup.

But these days, when so much of the cookbook aisle in your local independent bookstore is taken over by Food Network Channel collateral, cooking with wine is almost a lost art. Most of the popular TV chefs aren’t even doing it anymore. Everyone’s gone sorta-Asian (but without Martin Yan’s shaoxing wine-wielding expertise or sense of humor) or sorta-Middle Eastern or bacon-filled-Tex/Mex or wishful-thinking-Indian-or-Moroccan wannabe (if I hear the words “ras el hanout” mispronounced one more time by any TV chef, anywhere…)

Most of those cuisines don’t include wine as a regular ingredient because of religious restrictions against alcohol, which I fully respect, or, in the Tex/Mex case, because wine doesn’t go with football (the true religion of Texas, although if you see the documentary Somm, you might be surprised at how many American master sommeliers and exam candidates are former football players.)

The new vegan and vegetarian cookbooks don’t consider wine at all, as far as I can tell, even though there are plenty of  vegan-approved wines and organic wines touted throughout Whole Foods (and even a few at Trader Joe’s). And a number of seitan and bean or lentil dishes (and certainly Roman-style lentil soup) would probably do all the better for a tinge of red, white, or rosé, either in the sauce or as a marinade ingredient.

Even the French- and Italian-trained chefs don’t use wine on TV very much, and if they do they don’t really explain it–why they chose that particular type of wine, how much to use and why, how to get the best flavor out of it in the dish, what else you could make using the same technique. Or else they’re kind of wasteful about it, using a whole bottle of wine for a single dish. Most people cooking for themselves would balk at that. Should balk at that.

It bothers me that I don’t actually see a lot of solid advice about cooking with wine, or at least not specific techniques that make sense in a home kitchen with a standard family budget.

Where am I going to get this advice? Not from the churn-a-minute Food Network chefs, clearly. Not from Harold McGee, either. To my great surprise, he devotes a total of about three paragraphs to “cooking with alcohol” in his food science books. The most interesting thing he says, other than to make sure and boil out the alcohol (duh) is that tannins will concentrate unpleasantly if you boil down a tannic red wine, but adding a protein to pick them up will tame them.

But since most of my uses for wine so far are to do with fish, I guess I’m already doing that…

As you might expect from some of my odd microwave-centric ideas, I tend to cook fish with wine in ways that probably seem unorthodox to anyone professional. For one thing, I cook several kinds of fish with red wine (sound of Francophile traditionalists screaming, then fainting in shock). Continue reading

The Devil’s Food is in the Details

Melissa Clark has published an over-the-top cake recipe for the New York Times this week with two frostings and a demo video in her usual breezy style. The devil’s food cake, one of my favorite kinds, is pretty enough, and it looks like a fun idea, but… two homemade buttercream-type frostings? What kind of cake recipe is she using, and how does it compare with my usual (dare I say it) Duncan Hines?

I checked out the recipe itself and did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation on the basic nutrition stats–carbs, fat, sodium, calories–then stared at it for a minute and wondered if I could possibly have been right.

Because the total I was coming up with was scary:  more than 1000 calories per serving for 10 servings. Half a day’s calories crammed into one piece of chocolate cake. It was about twice what I would have estimated looking at the photo. I mean it LOOKS pretty standard, if a little tall, on that cake stand. But 1000-plus calories per slice? Are you kidding? Had to be wrong.

So I went to the recipe nutrition calculator at myfitnesspal.com and tried it again. And it confirmed again that the recipe is indeed over-the-top, and over 1000 calories per tenth of the cake. What’s gone wrong here?

Here’s Clark’s recipe in the New York Times online for reference:

Devil’s Food Cake With Black Pepper Buttercream

and here’s what I saved off the nutrition calculator for everything–the cake plus both frostings:

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark's 2-frosting devil's food cake for 10

Nutrition stats for Melissa Clark’s 2-frosting devil’s food cake for 10 people Calculated using myfitnesspal.com, 5/5/2014. Click the image to enlarge as needed, the numbers are still pretty scary.

My crude estimates, based on experience from having to calculate carbs in baked goods for a diabetic kid, were very close to the online calculator totals, within about 2o calories per serving and within 2-5% for each of the other stats.

And although it’s good to know my arithmetic and skepticism skills haven’t gotten rusty in the past month or so of trying hard not to bake, I think the nutrition chart above really tells you what’s going on in the world of popular recipe publishing today, particularly for American baking.

So let’s hit it over the head once more, because it’s still ridiculous: The first thing to think is, geeeeeeezzzzzz, over 1000 calories per serving.

How does Clark keep so thin? Did she actually eat a whole piece of this thing, or just pose for the photographer?

A 1/10th wedge of cake is a pretty big slice to begin with, and this cake is six layers tall–three full pans, cut crosswise in halves–for a standard-diameter round cake. In the accompanying demo video, Clark explains that the extra layers give you more room for frosting. “And isn’t that the best part?” she quips.

Well–I guess if you really like buttercream. She’s got both a vanilla-and-black-pepper buttercream AND a whipped chocolate ganache frosting. Does devil’s food cake really need so much dressing up to be good?

But here’s the added cost per serving: 111 grams of carb (about 2 meals’ worth), 86 grams of which are sugar. That’s 21 teaspoons of sugar per slice. A full day’s worth. 71 grams of mostly-saturated fat. Three full days’ worth.

Pro chefs excuse themselves for this kind of thing by calling their food “indulgent” or “decadent”. But this isn’t just excess, it’s mindless excess that doesn’t really add to the flavor or quality of the kind of dessert it’s supposed to be.

If you look at just the frosting ingredients, we’re talking 4 sticks of butter and 2 1/2 cups of sugar. The cake itself contains another stick-plus of butter and almost another two cups of sugar. So 5 sticks of butter and 4 1/2 cups of sugar total, or about half a stick of butter and half a cup of sugar per person, if you serve 1/10th cake as suggested. That puts it way into Paula Deen territory. Maybe even beyond Paula Deen.

I have to ask: Can’t we do a little better and still be decadent? Do we really need all that excess goo for it to be an okay cake?

It’s not that the frostings or even the cake are terrible-tasting or artificial or bland–she uses a whole real vanilla bean in the buttercream.  But it’s an awful lot of fat and sugar piled up with cake included merely as the excuse for the frosting.

That kind of tells you that the cake itself isn’t so hot. I’d rather have a smaller piece of a really good, really chocolate cake with more intense flavor per bite and no actual need to rely on frosting for interest. Something like Alice Medrich‘s revamped, lower fat Reine de Saba-style cakes (“Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake” and “Bittersweet Deception,” neither of which contain any butter) from Bittersweet, which she’s just reissued as Seriously Bittersweet. Or even David Lebovitz’s chocolate-butter-sugar-eggs flourless chocolate cake, which he’s dubbed “Chocolate Idiot Cake.”

If the cake’s just there as a frosting vehicle, why not be honest? I’d rather skip the cake and make dessert some intense ganache truffles to eat in smaller quantity with strong coffee. And even then I’d cut back on the fat and sugar so I could concentrate on the flavor.

If you are going to try and make some version of Melissa Clark’s cake, you really need to cut it down to size. In my two public performances exploring Continue reading

Leftover Logic

Two weeks ago The Guardian‘s business section published the following salvo against glam-food waste: “Food’s latest hot trend: leftovers”. Some of the interviewed chefs, who grew up eating leftovers in the ’70s, have apparently joined forces with the Women’s Institute in York (shades of “Calendar Girls” and Helen Mirren’s shaky attempt at a Yorkshire accent) for a project to reduce food waste as supermarket prices continue to rise and rise.

Some interesting quotes in the article, and interesting questions on frugality–the columnist claims household food waste is down about 13 percent in the UK since last year, which is pretty telling about the economy. She and the people she quotes attribute the current lack of knowledge on how to use leftovers to a sharp decline in cooking skills that coincides with the surging popularity of perfect, coffee-table-worthy food fantasy cookbooks.

Is it really the fault of photo-heavy cookbooks, food magazines, blogs and tv cooking shows that only perfect produce makes the cut, and everything with a blemish on it must automatically be thrown out? Possibly…but the article also cites another trend–the heavy push of boxed microwave-meals-for-one that leads so many people to fear cooking and believe they could never be talented enough to cook from scratch.

Of course, if you never touch an uncooked bulk vegetable or a piece of raw meat, you never risk making a mistake in the kitchen. But the other side of the coin is that the produce in the magazines will never show up on your table. Because the frozen tv dinners really don’t come out looking or tasting as good as the pictures in the magazines.

If you do cook, the idea of using up what you have in the fridge can be nearly as daunting as having to pay for fabulous (and expensive) first-rate pre-sorted extra-polished pre-cut vegetables. In a branded bag. Can you eat less-than-perfect-condition food mag-quality decorator vegetables and still be safe?

Yes, you can. Obviously, when you go to buy vegetables, you want the best and freshest ones you can get for a reasonable price. Nothing you buy should be leaking or moldy or worm-ridden or otherwise clearly spoiled. But short of that, quite a lot of produce can be eaten just fine without having to be picture-perfect.

No one in the professional or amateur food enthusiast world ever talks about how to handle imperfect, wrinkled or slightly old vegetables, but they should. Because no matter how they look when you buy them, if you actually buy enough vegetables and enough variety for a week, some of your produce is going to start drying out or going a little less crisp or whatever in the later days. And you don’t necessarily need to throw it out because of that. Most of it you can probably still use and it will still be fine.

Local corner greengrocers often sell the oversized, undersized, riper or otherwise less-perfect-looking vegetables for a fraction of what they go for in big chain supermarkets. Customers at my local Armenian grocery routinely stagger out with huge bags of red peppers, onions, green beans, cabbages, eggplants, zucchini…all at a dollar a pound or less. Probably most of those vegetables are less than shiny-perfect. It doesn’t matter. The customers who lug them home are going to cook them up in large batches and short of actual spoilage, they’ll use them up.

And I myself did it today–foraged around in the fridge for the eggplants I bought last week. They were just starting to show brown dimples at the flower end. Not lovely but not a disaster. Then I found the less-than-great winter Roma tomatoes, a few of which were already starting to show little smudges of black at the stem ends because I’d had to store them in the fridge–no room on the counter, and I had them in a plastic bag that kept the moisture in more than was really good for them. Damn! I weeded out two that were clearly beyond saving–cracked and leaking slightly, not good–and took the others out to inspect. How bad were they?

Now the eggplants were only a little bruised or dimpled in a few places. Peeling off a little of the skin at those points revealed that the flesh inside was still okay. No worse than a bruised apple. Cut them up, microwave them, drain off the juices and fry them for eggplant-and-chickpea stew, and they’re just fine.

The tomatoes are a little scarier, no question. No one wants mold on their vegetables. But except for showing the tiny beginnings of mold at the stem ends, the six tomatoes I had left seemed fine and firm, dry and uncracked. Throw out six tomatoes at this time of year? I decided not to. I washed them carefully on the theory that the peel, if it’s unbroken, is working hard to seal out dirt and contamination and any mold spores on the surface can therefore be washed off. I sliced off the tops about half an inch below the stem ends–giving them a margin of safety at least in my mind.  Then I dared to taste a bit of the tomato below that. Also fine–or as fine as winter tomatoes get, anyhow. No sight, smell or taste of bitterness anywhere, and not mushy or discolored, and they tasted reasonably fresh. So I cut up the tomatoes and put them in the stew.

And everything was fine, and no one got sick or started convulsing (or screeching at the top of their larynxes) like Robert Plant at the height of his Led Zep days. This was fortunate, because we don’t yet have the larynxes back in shape after Losangelitis week, not to mention the stomach muscles, the tight jeans (well, the jeans are a little tight but not on purpose–we’re workin’ on it! hate those sit-ups) or the massive and tossable hairdo. Then again, neither does Robert Plant these days. So I don’t feel that bad about it. And neither should you.

10 (or so) Warning Signs of a Half-Baked Diabetes Cookbook

For the past two months I’ve been scouring the library and bookstore shelves in search of practical guidelines for preventing and managing Type II diabetes with  diabetes-careful meal plans.

I have two goals for myself:

1. Get down to a healthier weight by eating less and exercising more–this is the big one with the best correlation to reversing prediabetes. And it’s going okay but slowly.

2. Eat balanced meals with somewhat less carb per meal, fewer free sugars and fewer calories overall than usual. This is the easier one generally…as long as I keep a food diary. Luckily, I know how to cook and I’ve been doing meal planning for a Type I diabetic child for four years now, so I know how to count carbs. And when I don’t, I have a copy of the American Dietetic Association’s handy, simple and cheap $3 or so guide on the shelf. And a link to the USDA nutrition database for the exotic occasional items like chestnuts in the shell (note to self, about 5 grams apiece).

But I still wondered if the diabetes and weight loss cookbooks I see around are solid and I’ve just been too lazy, arrogant or impatient to take them seriously all these years. Hence the trips to the library.

Because no doubt about it, the diabetes cookbook scene is burgeoning. There are loads of good-looking cookbooks out with pretty, gourmet-looking recipe photos and promises of perfect blood sugar management amid the desserts on the cover.

Here’s the short version of this post: a read through most of these books is NOT encouraging. All the popular diet book gimmickry of the past 40 years seems to have been transferred to a lucrative new target (read: gullible victim) market, complete with bright, shiny new drug company advertising and sponsorship potential on the coordinating web sites.

Considering that there’s no precise required diet for diabetes, just guidelines for budgeting meal carb totals and keeping some kind of commonsense balance between starches, fiber and sugars, even the premise of prescriptive diabetic cooking guides is a little shaky to start with. But what’s actually being presented as guidance in these popular books is far from that approach.

Even cookbooks affiliated with or endorsed by organizations like the American Diabetes Association and so on fail some pretty simple commonsense tests for honesty, accuracy, consistency, or relevance to standard public health guidance on preventing, managing and reversing Type II diabetes by way of diet. And if you don’t already know your way around carb counting and portion size measurement, they’re extremely confusing. Sometimes even on purpose.

So here are the main common flaws I’ve discovered in most of these books, with a few books singled out for personal ire and bemusement. You might want to consider these as warning signs if you’re looking for actual guidance to get you through.

10 Warning Signs that Your Diabetes Guide Cookbook is Half-Baked

1. The Dessert First approach to diabetes management. Telltale sign: does it show cake or ice cream on the cover? About half the books I scanned do. They treat desserts and snacks as a top priority, as though that were what diabetes control is all about. As though sweets were somehow necessary at every meal, or even every week. None of them ever say, “just stick with a small apple or orange most days. No recipe required.” Actual endocrinologists recommend keeping desserts occasional and snacks un-glamorous and limited in carb.

1b. Aside: Many of the dessert-first books show cheesecake on the cover, usually a 1/8 to 1/10 cake portion–a pretty hefty wedge by any standards. This is a come-on–cheesecake is usually high in fat calories, so it’s rarely a good pick for anyone attempting to lose weight (the main strategy for Continue reading

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