Environment Affects Healthy Habits

new year
It is clear that environment affects healthy habits. I’m in my hometown for a holiday visit with family. Funny thing is, there’s not much family left here so I’m not running from party to party with no time to spare. I’ve had time to notice how quiet it is in this little town. It reminds me of a snow day when there’s no traffic and a blanket of white absorbs the noise.

There’s a wonderful new restaurant in town. I eat there every time I’m here. Last night when I finished eating, the manager walked me to my car. It was about 7pm, but really dark outside. There were more bright stars visible in the sky than you can imagine. The whole scene struck me as ironic. In a town so small that I can see every star in the sky, the restaurant manager is courteous enough to make sure I get safely to my car…at 7pm.

This stands in sharp contrast to a recent experience in the neighborhood where I live. After a concert at a highly touted restaurant, in order to reach my car I had to walk past two men who had rolled out a mattress in the parking lot where they were openly smoking crack and talking to the car next to them. The car was empty, but the alarm had gone off causing the men to loudly admonish it. There was no security guard and certainly no restaurant volunteer to walk with me.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered a crack-encumbered man outside of an upscale restaurant in my city. One night on the way to my car, another man who was flying high hugged me after I told him I wasn’t going to give him money. He could just as easily have shot me.

I felt pretty sure a gold-toothed man I encountered at a gas station was going to hurt me whether I gave him money or not. I don’t go to that gas station any more, but I don’t think my instincts were wrong. Four people have been shot and killed near that intersection in the past year. And so it goes where I live. In the past month, a two-year-old and a 3-year-old were shot and killed while riding in cars.

You might dismiss this as a large inner city problem, but I don’t live in a large city. The population is under 200,000. You might dismiss this as my choice of neighborhoods, but I live 5 blocks from the governor’s mansion. In an even more affluent nearby neighborhood, two women were recently robbed at gunpoint in a grocery store parking lot. My daughter-in-law had just left that store moments before.

Today I’m left pondering the contrasts – a small town that is often called ultraconservative, redneck, closed-minded, uneducated, bigoted, and the most racist small town in America where a total stranger wants to make sure I’m safe on a short walk to my car vs a small city that is considered more sophisticated, diverse, educated, inclusive, and enlightened where it is commonplace to encounter danger and uncommon to encounter concern for my welfare.

If I had grown up in the community where I now live, would I believe that I would live long enough for healthy habits to matter? Would organic produce seem important when I’m rolling off the couch into the floor to crawl away from external walls because I hear the rapid-fire shots of an AR-15 and the screeching tires of the car out of which it’s being fired? Would I be more likely to seek comfort in a high carbohydrate, endorphin releasing meal?

I can answer one of those questions. The most recent drive-by shooting at my house was within the past year. Nothing seems more important than hitting the deck when you hear gunfire outside. Period. You’re not going to make sure to grab your phone so you can call the police. You’re sure as hell not going to make sure you grab a salad while you wait for your heart to stop pounding.

If there’s a way to import the attitude of community concern I experience in my insular hometown, sans bigotry, to the city where I currently live, it’s sorely needed. Self-care begins by giving our bodies good nutrition, adequate sleep, plenty of movement, and enough stillness, but the feeling that we are worthy of self-care begins when we feel valued. That feeling comes when our environment provides safety and responsiveness to our need for food, warmth, comfort, and touch.

It is ideal when that responsiveness comes from our parents and extended family in our first moments, but it can be healing even when it comes later. The violence and divisiveness in my community exposes a huge need for healing. Extending a hand may require courage. It could make us vulnerable. But if we don’t begin to summon some courage to reach out, we all become more vulnerable anyway.

As I move into the new year, it is with an acute awareness of the unhealthy environment in which I live. No matter what I do within my household, I am still affected by my neighborhood and the community at large. I must decide how I can best take care of myself while best contributing to the larger community. It is the ideal time for reassessment and reevaluation.

The extent to which I am willing to face my failures, own my weaknesses, understand my limitations, enforce my boundaries, and feel my shame will determine the extent to which I am effective in contributing to healing, health, peacefulness, and joy.

In 2017, I hope you will join me on a journey to create an environment for ourselves, our partners, our children, and our communities in which we can all become healthier as well as more whole, peaceful, and joyous. We may not solve the world’s problems, but when we show concern and kindness one walk to the car at a time, we will make a difference.

Happy New Year!

Additional Reading:

Yuccity, Yucity, Yuca

yuca starchYuccity, Yucity, Yuca. James and I recently had a confusing conversation about tapioca starch/flour. As it turned out, the confusion began with spelling and ended with laughter once we figured out the problem. 

Many gluten-free recipes include tapioca starch or tapioca flour as an ingredient. The brands I see most often in the store identify tapioca as both starch and flour, i.e., starch/flour, implying that there is no difference between the two. In fact, there is only a slight difference in that tapioca starch is derived from the starch of the yuca plant and tapioca flour is derived from the root.

That wasn’t where the confusion entered our conversation. The confusion was that James thought we were talking about YUCCA, not YUCA. There’s a big difference there. Yucca with two Cs has edible parts, but they all grow above the ground. The Yuca plant with one C is known in many countries as cassava or bitter cassava. 
The name tapioca came about as a reference to the method used by the South American Tupi to prepare bitter cassava to make it suitable for eating. There are harmful chemicals in the branches of cassava that, if not properly processed, can cause paralytic disease when consumed over a period of time. Processing yields the third best source of carbohydrates in the world and takes the form of flour, rectangular sticks, pearls (boba), and flakes.

The root of the yucca on the other hand is not used as food. It seems James had the spelling confused, so when I said something about yuca, he googled yucca and neither of us could figure out what the other was talking about. There’s no shame in the confusion. In fact, confusion with cassava by early discoverers of yucca led to the similarity in the names of the two plants.

A small typo could result in an equally amusing conversation or a menu stumper. A local Brazilian restaurant serves adorable little cheese rolls made with yuca/tapioca/cassava flour, BUT they list it on the menu as yucca root flour. English is a second language for the owners, so translation may be the origin of this disconnect.
As a practical matter, you will get a satisfactory result from using either tapioca starch or tapioca flour in a gluten-free recipe so there’s no need for extensive searching for a product that says it’s one or the other. I include small quantities of one or the other in many Cooking2Thrive bread, cracker and cookie recipes.

Whether you call it cassava, manioc, tapioca, or yuca, this carbohydrate starch/flour can serve you well in gluten-free baking. Cassava can also be enjoyed as tapioca pudding, boba tea, and Kerala-style tapioca masala, and you can find recipes for yuca root fries, chips, fritters, and hash – all of which will leave you saying, “Yum!” And that, we all can spell.

” target=”_blank”>http://www.cookingandme.com/2013/02/kerala-kappa-masala-tapioca-masala.html

Can Lasting Improvement Stem From Commitment to a Process?

snowCan lasting improvement stem from commitment to a process? We’re swiftly approaching the time we traditionally look back to review our progress of the past year and set goals for the upcoming one. We’re also swiftly approaching the time when we fail to meet those goals and give up on them. Perhaps that’s because we commit to goals in the first place. This year, rather than resolving to meet some goal, perhaps it is better to commit to a process of improvement that can be broken down into easily repeatable steps.

For example, rather than resolving to go to the gym more, commit to dedicating 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week to doing something that raises your heart rate. One day you might walk to a neighborhood restaurant for coffee. One day, you might take race your children in the pool. One day you might take the stairs at the office. One day, you might walk the dog in a hilly neighborhood. You could join a rowing team. Or you might go to the gym, walk on the treadmill, or play basketball with your friends. Whatever you do can be different each day, and it can be part of your daily life. Just make sure it makes you feel good.

After years of buying gym memberships to go to gyms I didn’t like to change in locker rooms I hated in order to share a lane in the pool with someone who ruined my swimming experience, I finally allowed myself to start working out at home. I wish I could say, I finally built a saltwater lap pool in the back yard, but alas I have not progressed that far. After some experimentation with walking, stair climbing, yoga, and weight lifting, I finally landed on a combination of yoga and weight lifting that makes me feel great and want to come back for more. I do 3 days on, alternating lifting and yoga, then a day off, then 3 days on. That means I’m working out 6 days a week. If it happens to turn into 5 days on a specific week, I don’t worry about it because I know I’m stronger than I was last year. My heart resting heart rate has dropped, and any soreness I experience now is from overdoing, not underdoing.

Another example of lasting improvement would be to commit to shopping differently to save money. Rather than denying yourself any new clothes, commit to only buying things that solve a problem. If your feet get wet each time it snows, buying some boots can solve the problem. If your hip hurts every time you wear your current boots, buying new boots may solve the problem. If you already have a couple of pairs of well functioning boots, then say no to the cute pair you want because buying them will not solve a problem. Unless, of course, your problem is that you’re depressed because your well functioning boots are ugly. If that’s the case, then donate the ugly boots before you purchase a new pair. This will slow you down enough to make sure you are making a wise decision.

I started reducing the number of things I own a couple of years ago. I didn’t go crazy. My house is still full, but I reduced the number of things sitting on shelves, the number of books in my bookcase, the amount of clothes in my closet. Now when I buy something new, it’s to solve a problem. And when I buy it, I also get rid of something. It makes me feel better to have fewer things. Too many possessions make me feel weighed down.

Eating healthier can look like a commitment to eating 5 vegetables or fruits each day 5 days per week. This is easily accomplished by adding berries to yogurt or cereal in the morning, having some carrot sticks as a morning snack, eating a side salad for lunch, having an apple in the afternoon, and eating a vegetable at dinner. Done.
Eating healthier can also look like a commitment to choosing less packaged food and more fresh food in the supermarket every other week. After a while, your palate will taste the subtle flavors in fresh food and artificial flavoring will become less pleasing leaving you wanting the fresh food you are regularly buying. Choosing fresh food at home may also lead to a change in your restaurant preferences. I find myself staying home for more meals or being very selective about where I eat. Average restaurant food just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m happier with leftover chicken and rice and blackened Brussels sprouts than I am with many restaurant meals.

Reducing stress can look like a commitment to saying no more often. Many of us are stretched too thin trying to please too many people. With some practice, saying no will become easier and easier.

Increasing happiness can look like a commitment to saying yes more often. Some of us say no because we’re afraid to try something new. With practice, you may discover that fun moments can result from stretching your wings a little.

If you take a look at all the commitments we’ve explored, you can see they’re easily sustainable. You’re simply following a process rather than attempting to achieve a specific result. Because of this, there’s no reason to ever feel as though you’ve failed. If you miss a day, you just pick the process back up the next day. Day after day after day of lifting weights and you’ll get stronger. Day after day after day of eating fruits and vegetables will cause your body to respond positively to the nutrients you’re receiving. Day after day after day of purchasing to solve problems will curtail impulse spending and leave you with less problems.

It seems obvious. Sticking with a process can lead to lasting improvement! I think it’s time to get started…

What Xanthan Gum Really Does to Your Bread

breadEver wonder what xanthan gum really does to your bread? If you’ve done much gluten-free shopping or baking, you’re familiar with xanthan gum. It’s an ever present ingredient in packaged gluten-free foods like bread, doughnuts, muffins, and cookies. It’s included in many gluten-free cake mixes, pancake mixes, and measure-for-measure flour blends. Gluten-free recipes often recommend the addition of xanthan gum.

Sometimes described as a thickener, stabilizer, or binder, xanthan gum is a polymer composed of sugar residues secreted by the microorganism Xanthomonas campestris — the same bacteria that creates black spots on broccoli and cauliflower. It was approved for use as a food additive in the US in 1968.

While it’s generally accepted within the scientific community that it is safe to consume up to 15 grams of xanthan gum per day, you may want to think twice before consuming too much due to its laxative effect. Many people with compromised or sensitive digestive systems report experiencing increased discomfort and bloating after consuming even minor amounts.

Now that you know what it is, let’s look at what it does. I’ve been baking bread — lots of bread. I’m trying to finish up the original recipes that will comprise Volume 1 of Cooking2Thrive’s Breads and Crackers recipe card set. I begin each new recipe by creating a gluten-free flour blend that will give me the mix of protein, starch, and texture needed to create a pleasing crumb and appropriate rise for the particular muffin, biscuit, cheese cracker or bread I’m baking.

After several tests, I baked a delicious sandwich bread with a good rise. My tasters loved it! My only concern was that the slices tended to crumble a bit on the 2nd day. Without too much thought I decided to try the traditional gluten-free solution to this problem. Don’t ask me why. I haven’t used gum in a recipe in the past four years.

Nonetheless, I went out and bought two small packets of xanthan gum and added 2.25 tsp to the bread recipe — slightly less than was recommended for a recipe containing just over 3 cups of flour. I left everything else the same. The dough immediately seemed drier and more gooey, not really more sticky to the hands, just more glommed together. The amount of rise totally changed. And the bread had a slimy texture I couldn’t stand to eat.

You may have read that xanthan gum increases the elasticity of gluten-free dough. That is not my experience. What it seems to do is function more like glue that pulls the flour grains closer together. In the case of bread, that means more density, a lower rise, and a slightly slick texture. 

Rather than abandon the idea of using xanthan gum, I baked a second variation using .25 tsp xanthan gum. The result was better, but still noticeably different from the original recipe containing no gum. Finally, I baked a loaf that included .125 tsp xanthan gum. As you can see in the illustration below, even that tiny amount changed the texture of the bread, but the result tastes good and holds together better than the original as the days go by.
When the final version of this recipe is published, I may have landed on an even better way to reduce crumbling over time, but you can benefit from my trial and error right away. Now that you can see what xanthan gum is really doing to your bread, you can explore the options of minimizing or eliminating xanthan gum for improved taste and texture.