The Truth About Sugar

Trick-or-treating

Above is a photo of the mangy munchkin reveling at her first Halloween in costume. Just over 1 1/2, she spent most of the evening in a daze, looking somewhat confused whenever someone placed a treat in her little basket. A year later, when I searched for that same basket to use again this Halloween, I found it in the pantry–still full of the candy I wouldn’t allow her to eat.

Every year at this time millions of parents face the dilemma of what to do with bagfuls of candy that we really don’t want our children to eat but that we feel strangely obligated to allow. After all, we don’t want to let it go to waste. And we don’t want to be the mean parents who keep our kids from enjoying Halloween.

Or do we? I, for one, have no trouble dumping whole baskets of candy in the trash can (it’s garbage anyway) or saying NO to gorging on sweets on Halloween night. I’ve never been one to bend to peer pressure, and when my children’s health is at stake, my resolve is even stronger. I’m known (probably not very affectionately) as the food nazi in my family, monitoring every bite of food that goes into my girls’ mouths. I’ve even leapt across rooms to defend my children from spoonfuls of sugary sweetness that I don’t want them exposed to, and I can only hope that some day my relatives come to respect my concern over the large amounts of sugar customary in our society.

You see, it’s not just a temporary sugar high that impacts our children (or ourselves) when we eat too many sweets. Eating sugar–especially refined sugar–alters our microbiomes in a way that leads to damaging inflammation in our bodies, which in turn makes us susceptible to autoimmune conditions such as autism, ADHD, asthma, eczema, diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimers, not to mention everyday illnesses such as the common cold. Having an imbalanced microbiome can even impact our moods, making us more irritable, anxious, and/or depressed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we altered the mangy munchkin’s diet in order to clear up her asthma and eczema, her temper tantrums also abated. Terrible twos? Maybe it’s just too much sugar (and refined carbohydrates in general).

So what constitutes “too much” when it comes to sweets? I once read that the human body has not evolved to handle much more sugar than is contained in a single orange–about 35 grams per day (I unfortunately can’t remember where I read this information, but rest assured that I wouldn’t have committed it to memory had I not trusted the source). I was shocked when I first read this because at the time I consumed far more sugar than that even though I ate far less sugar than most of the people around me. I still consume more than 35 grams of sugar on most days, but I try to keep my “overdosing” to a minimum.

With time, I’ve slowly whittled away at the primary sources of sugar in our diet. We don’t eat desserts after meals (my girls don’t even know that word) and we snack on more veggies than fruits (although I do allow up to two servings of fruit each day). We don’t eat breakfast cereals, nearly all of which have some amount of added sugar; in fact, we don’t eat processed foods at all since a majority of them contain high-fructose corn syrup–even foods that aren’t generally thought of as sweet such as ketchup. We don’t drink fruit juice but instead sip on water kefir, whole milk, and just plain water.

As I’ve eliminated sources of sugar, I’ve found that I’ve simultaneously lost my desire for sweets, making it surprisingly easy for me to resist cakes, cookies, and candies, even when they are the centerpiece at a party. Instead, I crave fats, proteins, and whole grains: lightly salted fried eggs, buttered whole-wheat sourdough bread, oatmeal cut with coconut oil and heavy cream. Yum! I do allow myself a serving of dark chocolate every day, but I don’t consider it candy–it’s brain food.

If you think you or your kids could NEVER stop craving sugar, consider this: the microbes in your gut actually send signals to your brain to feed them the kind of foods they crave, so when you start starving the bad bugs (the ones who crave sugar and refined carbs), they will begin to die off and you, too, will stop craving sugar. In fact, “die-off” is a term that refers to the process your body may go through as your microbiome rebalances itself, during which time you may experience headaches, diarrhea (or constipation), or other unpleasant flu-like symptoms as your body expels the unwanted microbes (you can read more about die-off here). This short article by Dr. Raphael Kellmen explains how rapidly our microbiome can adjust to dietary changes–literally overnight!

As adults, we can likely muster the fortitude necessary to do what we know is good for us–but what about our kids? How do I get a one-year-old and a two-year-old to eat well? It’s actually surprisingly simple: you say no to the bad stuff (refined sugars and carbs, processed foods, and vegetable oils) and provide them with the good stuff (whole grains, healthy fats and proteins, and plenty of fresh veggies and fruits–just don’t overdo it on the fruit). It may take a few days for your children to accept your “no” and begin to eat the healthier foods you offer them, especially if they’ve become accustomed to a particular diet, but they WILL learn. We had to go through several days of the mangy munchkin barely consuming a bite of food when we transitioned her away from the snacks that daddy had been sharing with her (chips and candy) and back to eating solely healthy foods, but she eventually learned that no means no and if she wanted to satiate her hunger, she’d better eat what was offered.

Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, describes an approach based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for getting children to change their diets. She suggests presenting a small bite of a child’s favorite food, set off to the side, and only allowing it to be eaten once a bite of a healthier food is eaten first. If the child refuses, allow him or her to do so and don’t try to stop any kicking or screaming. Simply restate your conditions and give the child time to decide that they are willing to eat the healthier food in exchange for a bite of their desired food. The next day, mandate two bites of the healthier food before the desired food is allowed. Continue increasing the number of bites of the healthy food required to obtain a bite of the unhealthy food until the child will contentedly eat a full meal of healthy, nutritious food–and then stop offering the unhealthy food altogether. Persistence is crucial because if you break your resolve just once, you will prolong the battle indefinitely. Your child needs to know that you will not cave when they throw a tantrum or use whatever tactic they are prone to use to get their way. Due to the rapid changes that occur in our microbiome when we alter our diets, it shouldn’t take long for children to begin appreciating and even craving the healthier foods. My girls absolutely love sauerkraut, milk kefir, and real sourdough bread, foods that most people consider far too sour and tart to consume, and I believe it’s because their microbiomes have come to crave these rich sources of probiotics.

I suppose some moms might call me mean for not allowing my children to eat sweets devoid of other nutrients (we do eat fruit and coconut puddings sweetened with a tad of honey), but I don’t have a problem saying no when the mangy munchkin asks to have a piece of cake or a cookie at a party, or when the nurse offers her a lollipop after a doctor’s appointment (I bring a small box of raisins instead). I’ll jealously guard the health of my children’s microbiome for as long as I can do so because you become what you eat, and I want my girls to become healthy women whose microbes send them signals to choose nutritious foods. I’ll still allow them to go trick-or-treating tonight, but that bag of candy they come home with will go straight in the garbage–where it belongs.

Homemade beef stroganoff

The Best Beef Stroganoff

Homemade beef stroganoff

Beef stroganoff is a staple in our household. Everyone in the family from my kids to my husband devours this dish and asks for seconds–and sometimes thirds and fourths! We had to avoid it for a few months when the mangy munchkin was healing her leaky gut (she had a sensitivity to dairy and gluten that has now cleared up) but it’s finally back in the rotation and making everyone smile–especially me because it’s so easy to make!

My basic recipe incorporates the following ingredients:

  • 1 pound ground beef (preferably grass fed)
  • 10-15 crimini mushrooms, chopped (any small mushroom is suitable)
  • 8 tablespoons butter (also grass fed)
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (use a full teaspoon if using unsalted butter)

If you prefer a thicker sauce, you can also add 1/4 cup of flour to the list, stirring it into the butter/cream mixture at the end. I leave the flour out because we try to minimize sources of starchy carbohydrates in our diet. In fact, we often eat this dish without the bed of pasta underneath, supplementing the meal instead with sides of squash and veggies, which are healthier sources of carbohydrates that contain other important nutrients as well.

To make the stroganoff, begin by melting the butter over low heat in a saucepan. While the butter is melting, begin browning the ground beef along with the mushrooms in another pot or pan (I use my cast-iron frying pan). Once the butter is melted, add the chopped onion and turn the heat up to medium-low, allowing the onion to turn translucent before adding the garlic. In the meantime, continue browning the beef until it is thoroughly cooked, stirring occasionally. Once the onions are translucent and the garlic has been added, stir in the heavy cream, pepper, and salt, continuing to stir until all is well blended with the butter. Combine the sauce with the ground beef and mushrooms and serve.

If you’re worried about the calories in this dish … don’t be! Butter is actually an extremely healthy source of essential fatty acids as well as vitamins A and K. Ground beef, when sourced from grass-fed steers, is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids as well as important minerals such as iron.

Every cell in our body requires fat in order to carry out its functions, and our brains are actually 50% fat. Young children, whose brains are developing rapidly, especially require healthy portions of fat in their diets, including saturated fat. More and more evidence is coming to the fore that the low-fat fad of the 1980s and 90s was in fact terrible for our health and has only contributed to the rise in diet-related diseases rather than ameliorated them (carbohydrates, especially refined ones, are turning out to be the real villains). Furthermore, fat is necessary for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E. According to Dr. Mercola,

In order to absorb fat-soluble vitamins from our food, we need to eat fat. Human studies show that both the amount and type of fat are important. For example, one study showed that absorption of beta-carotene from a salad with no added fat was close to zero. The addition of a lowfat dressing made from canola oil increased absorption, but a high-fat dressing was much more effective.

So smother your salad with dressing, butter up your bread, and enjoy a handsome helping of rich, creamy stroganoff every so often. Every cell in your body will rejoice!

Grow Indoor Herbs and Veggies–Even in Small Spaces!

Indoor basil plants

When I began this blog a month ago I shared a trick I learned for making indoor plants flourish. In that post, I promised to eventually share a few tips for getting started on indoor planting for those who are novices. Also included are a few ideas for branching out (pun intended) if you’re already a practiced potter.

If you’re just getting started, you’ll need a few basic supplies:

  • Pots with drainage holes and a catch plate
  • Potting soil
  • Bark, wood chips, or mulch of some kind
  • Seeds
  • Sunny spot to place your pots (indirect sunlight is fine for most plants)

Gardening supplies can be purchased at your local nursery and at many common Big Box stores such as Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, and Tractor Supply. I recommend using unpainted clay pots for your indoor planting, as I’ve found that some of the decorative clay pots I’ve purchased leach their colors into the soil (I no longer use these pots to plant anything I’ll be eating). I discovered this one day when I over-watered one of my plants and the water that spilled over the edges of the catch plate was the same color as the pot.

As you can see in the photo above, I’ve used plastic pots as well, although I plan to transition to clay once I uproot my basil plant and replace it with kale (unfortunately, the mangy munchkin seems not to like basil, so I don’t need such a large plant anymore–notice the smaller one I’ll be replacing it with in the adjacent pot). I’ve read so many reports of plastics leaching chemicals into the environment that I worry we might be ingesting a small amount of toxic residue when we eat from the plants in plastic pots.

When I first potted my plants a couple of years ago I couldn’t locate organic potting soil, so I used the standard Miracle-Gro potting mix available at Walmart. When I replenish the soil each spring, I replace several handfuls of the old soil with several handfuls of an organic compost that I’ve since identified at Tractor Supply if I don’t have any of my own backyard compost ready (another post to come on the topic of home composting sometime in the future).

Covering your soil with a layer of mulch is important for keeping moisture from evaporating out of your pots and leaving the top layer of soil cracked and dry. In a pinch, a few handfuls of grass clippings will do the trick, too, although it won’t be quite as attractive; layer the clippings an inch or two thick since they will shrink down as they dry out. Grass clippings will double as food for earthworms if you go the route suggested in my first post (note that the earthworm trick is only for established plants and not seedlings).

So now that your pots are ready, what are you going to plant? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box–or pot–when it comes to selecting the herbs and veggies you’ll plant. What kinds of herbs and veggies do you most like to eat? I like to choose my indoor plants based on cost savings. Fresh herbs and greens are often the most pricey items you’ll find in the produce section, so I tend to plant those. Just remember that the size of the plant will be in proportion to the size of your pot. If you’d like to grow a nice-sized kale plant, you’ll need a larger pot like the big green one in my photo. A bunch of kale equivalent to the sort sold in the grocery store can be harvested from a healthy kale plant about twice a month–just make sure to leave enough leaves (I generally leave about half) for the plant to continue absorbing sunlight and performing photosynthesis, otherwise it will die.

If you have kids, allow them to help you decide what to plant. Doing so is a great way to get them into gardening and to teach them where their food comes from. I grew a pea plant last winter since the mangy munchkin loves fresh peas. She was incredibly excited when we were finally able to harvest the pods and split them open to eat (in that vein, it’s a great lesson in patience, too!).

I purchase my seeds from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds, where prices aren’t much higher than at the Big Box stores but quality is much better. You can request a free catalogue and browse the dozens upon dozens of options. Look for herbs and veggies that recommend a plant spacing of about 12 inches or less, as those that require 18 inches or more will develop root systems too large for indoor planting. If you have extremely limited space for plants, you can also try Bambeco’s garden-in-a-bag approach. When I lived in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia, I grew cilantro, basil, and chives this way and was pleasantly surprised by how well the plants flourished.

Another option for those with little space is to purchase a packet of claytonia seeds. Claytonia is a delightful little salad green with tiny white flowers that are also edible. It would grow well in a small pot and could be harvested periodically for a stylish addition to salads; in the meantime, it will serve as a pretty decoration.

There are endless possibilities for indoor planting that will enable you to enjoy fresh herbs and vegetables throughout the year. Just make sure to refresh your soil at least once a year in the manner suggested above so that your plants will have the nutrients they need to flourish. And DON’T try to save on the cost of pots or potential leakage by purchasing pots without drainage–you will end up with swampy, stinky soil that will kill whatever you plant. To avoid leaks and messes, simply water slowly using just enough water to see a small amount trickle into the catch plate (eventually, you’ll get used to how much water your plants need and won’t have to watch for the trickle).

Happy harvest!

Why Non-Pastured Meat and Eggs Are Junk Food

Herding pastured cattle

Above is an idyllic photo of a herd of cattle being driven out to pasture by yours truly in the expansive valley east of the Crazy Mountains in central Montana. They aren’t my cattle but are part of a herd managed by my husband’s cousin, who calls on her relatives every year in springtime to help with branding.

My husband and I are fortunate to know exactly where a majority of our food comes from. In addition to owning some of our own cattle, we also hunt and fish and manage a small flock of chickens, who lay for us delicious eggs with deep orange yolks. When I feed my family meat and eggs, I feel confident that they are receiving high-quality fats and proteins in the proportions intended by nature.

Unlike my husband and I, many people (probably you) are unable to harvest their own meat and eggs. They are confronted instead with an array of choices in the supermarket, labeled with confusing and often misleading catch phrases such as “organic,” “free range,” “vegetarian-fed,” and “hormone free,” along with the standard non-hyped meat and egg products.

As a consumer, it’s becoming increasingly important to know what these labels mean as well as to be aware of what goes into the animals’ bodies before they go into your body. More and more processors are now catering to consumers’ desire to make healthy choices at the supermarket but do not actually care about their health. The label “free range,” for example, is allowed on any package of eggs (or chicken breasts, thighs, and wings) as long as the chickens they come from have access to the outdoors while they are alive, which in most cases means they are allowed to roam a very small strip of land outside of the industrial-sized coop that houses them along with thousands and thousands of other birds; hardly the free-range picture most consumers have in mind when they purchase free-range eggs (which sell for more than regular eggs despite the fact that they are hardly raised any differently).

In my post on federal food policy, I discuss the ubiquitousness of corn in our food system, including in the animals we eat. Most concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)–which is where most of the meat, poultry, and eggs in the supermarket comes from–use corn and soy as the base for their feeds. Animals fed a high-corn diet develop a different, and unhealthy, ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their systems, which researchers are now associating with high levels of chronic disease. Chickens, like other birds, are biologically suited to a diverse diet of bugs, worms, grasses, legumes, and whatever else they encounter as they peck around on the ground in the sunshine. Cattle have a digestive system suited to grasses and are healthiest when allowed to roam and graze across large outdoor expanses.

When animals AREN’T fed the diets for which they are suited they are more likely to become ill, a likelihood that is further compounded when they are confined in close quarters with other animals. Consequently, most cattle and chickens raised in CAFOs require antibiotics. But get this: the antibiotics aren’t just doled out to prevent and treat disease; they are also administered to induce weight gain, which results in greater returns for the seller since most animals are paid for by the pound.

What on earth do antibiotics have to do with weight gain? The answer is linked to one of the fascinating new findings about the human microbiome discussed in Dr. David Permutter’s new book Brain Maker, which I overview in my post on gut health. Researchers have discovered that there are certain strains of bacteria that are able to extract more calories out of food than others and that those strains happen to thrive when antibiotics are given (which will kill other strains of bacteria that keep the fat-inducing strains in check). When our gut flora–or that of a pig or steer or chicken–becomes unbalanced in this way, we will absorb more of the calories from our food and gain more weight. As a result of this phenomenon, the administration of antibiotics proves to be an easy way to produce cheaper meat. This is a big reason why meat that isn’t truly free range is so cheap, yet we will all be paying the price in the form of the antibiotic resistant diseases that are becoming increasingly common. If you come across a package of meat that claims to be hormone free (which it may be), don’t assume the animal from which that meat came was raised in a healthy manner; it could just mean that antibiotics were used to induce weight gain rather than growth hormones.

In 2011, the latest year for which Perlmutter had data upon the writing of his book, fully 80 percent of antibiotic sales in the United States went to livestock, not people. But if you’re a person who eats factory-farmed meat, then you too are ingesting these antibiotics as well as all of the other toxins and genetically modified substances that these animals come into contact with during their lifetimes. You’re also contributing to a major pollution problem by supporting an industry that concentrates animal waste in disgusting proportions rather than allowing it to scatter across acres and acres of land and act as a natural fertilizer as animals roam, which is what nature intended (for an insightful and humorous look at how poop can and should be used, pick up a copy of Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, by Gene Logsdon).

Not all grass-fed and organic operations are necessarily sustainable, either, but they are leaps and bounds better than CAFOs (by the way, the “organic” label can be trusted if you see the USDA Certified Organic seal on the package–but if you don’t, be wary). Your best bet for high-quality meat is to buy it from a local or regional farmer or rancher, even if they aren’t certified organic (just make sure they don’t use hormones or antibiotics). Farmers’ markets and butcher shops are great places to find quality meats because they are places where you can ask questions and get answers about where your meat really comes from (you can also try asking the manager at your local grocery store, but s/he may not have all of the answers). Not sure where to find a farmers’ market or butcher shop in your area? Check out the website Eat Local Grown or contact a nearby Weston A. Price Foundation chapter. You will pay more for quality meat at the checkout but what you’ll save in healthcare costs down the road will surely make your free-range and grass-fed sources more economical in the long run.

If you have the space for a chest freezer, you can make free-range and grass-fed meats more affordable by purchasing them in bulk. Many farmers, ranchers, and butchers will sell a “quarter beef” or “half beef,” which means you’ll get a quarter or half of the meat from an entire steer (or pig), which can be processed to your liking. If you purchase a whole chicken rather than the individual parts (such as boneless, skinless breasts and thighs), you will also make buying better meat more affordable. See my post on slow-cooker chicken and broth for an easy and delicious way to prepare whole chickens.

As for eggs, if you can’t get to a farmers’ market and don’t have neighbors or friends with chickens, your best bet is to purchase eggs fed an omega-3 rich diet (this typically means that flaxseed is mixed in with the standard corn and soy fed to CAFO birds). It isn’t ideal but it’s better than buying eggs from birds fed strictly corn and soy. You might also consider getting a few backyard chickens of your own if your town or city allows it (many do). You can also ask your local grocer or health food store if they’d consider sourcing eggs from nearby farmers; our food co-op buys eggs from anyone who has chickens of their own and more eggs than they can eat and then sells them to their customers.

It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers and to anyone who pays attention to the news and its reports of ever-rising morbidity rates from diet-related diseases that what we eat matters–and that what we eat eats matters, too. Don’t be lulled by cheaper prices into buying meat and eggs that are bad for your health and bad for the environment. If you need to cut costs somewhere, cut out organic fruits and veggies and buy organic meat and eggs instead. According to Dr. Mercola,

Animal products, like meat, butter, milk, and eggs, are the most important to buy organic, since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins from their pesticide-laced feed, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables.

So make room in your budget for healthier meats and eggs and make the proportions smaller if necessary so that you can afford to do so. You’ll be doing a wonderful favor for yourself, your family, and the planet.

The Many Uses of Melaleuca Oil

Homemade wipes

Essential oils have become all the rage among natural mamas. While I do not believe that they are a magic bullet by any means, I do find that keeping a bottle of melaleuca oil around the house can be quite handy. Here are several uses I’ve found for melaleuca oil, commonly referred to as tea tree oil:

  1. Homemade wipes for dirty hands and bums
  2. Diaper rash ointment
  3. Acne cream
  4. Mastitis treatment
  5. Laundry disinfectant
  6. Freshening spray

With two toddlers, homemade wipes are a must in our household. When our washing machine broke down last month and I was forced to use disposable diapers and wipes, I realized that without homemade wipes I would go through an entire package of 60 wipes every week. Not only does that cost a lot of money but it also generates a lot of waste. Even for mamas who don’t use cloth diapers, cloth wipes can be incorporated into the diapering routine by limiting their use to cleaning non-poopy bums, in which case the wipes can be thrown in with the regular laundry; doing so cuts down on at least a little bit of the waste associated with disposable diapering without adding much work. It takes me about five minutes once a week to prepare and apply a solution to my set of cloth wipes, which I purchased on Etsy.

To make a wipes solution, add one drop of melaleuca oil to a tablespoon of witch hazel in an 8-ounce squeeze bottle (I use the peri bottles I received in the hospital when I gave birth to my daughters) then fill the remainder of the bottle with water and shake to distribute the melaleuca oil, which will act as an antimicrobial agent to keep bacteria from growing in your wipes once you dampen them with the solution. You can store your wipes in a standard wipe warmer or in a wet bag, which makes them portable (just keep an extra wet bag with you for dirty wipes).

The antimicrobial properties of melaleuca oil also make it great for use in homemade diaper rash ointments, acne creams, and mastitis treatments. For all of these uses, I dilute several drops of melaleuca oil in several teaspoonfuls of virgin coconut oil (one drop of melaleuca oil for every teaspoonful of coconut oil). Simply melt your coconut oil over low heat on the stove and blend in the melaleuca oil, then pour the mixture into a small glass container for storage. Apply to diaper rashes underneath an application of moisture-blocking ointment (we use Boudreaux’s Butt Paste) to help prevent infection and hasten healing.

For acne, apply a dab of the melaleuca/coconut oil mixture to the pimple.

For mastitis, rub the mixture into your skin over the sore/reddened area, avoiding the area around the areola where your baby nurses (melaleuca oil is not safe for ingestion). Note that mastitis is a serious infection that should not be allowed to progress; if your homemade treatment does not seem to be improving the infection within 24 hours, see a doctor. The homemade treatment is best used if you catch mastitis early, when the infected tissue is just beginning to become painful. If it has already progressed to the point of serious pain and inflammation, skip the homemade treatment and go straight to the doctor. I was able to avoid the use of antibiotics by catching my mastitis early enough and applying my homemade treatment four times over a 24-hour period.

Melaleuca oil can also be added to your wash cycle to freshen and disinfect your laundry and washing machine; simply add several drops to liquid detergent when you pour it into your machine. If you use cloth diapers, this is a great way to keep your diapers smelling fresh during the winter months when they can’t be disinfected in the sun. The melaleuca oil won’t remove stains but it will keep stinky microbes from settling in.

Finally, melaleuca oil can be used in a freshening spray for your home. I add about 20 drops of melaleuca oil to a 20-ounce spray bottle full of water that I store along with my cleaning supplies. When the mangy munchkin has an accident (she’s currently potty training), I spray the area with my solution after cleaning it up. I also use it when the trash can gets stinky and when one of my daughters spills milk on the couch, which will take on a sour smell without a few spritzes of my melaleuca solution.

You can find additional uses for melaleuca oil on WebMD and on Dr. Mercola’s website. The MayoClinic offers some cautionary advice for those considering its use, including a warning that frequent use of melaleuca oil on prepubescent boys may cause a rare condition called prepubertal gynecomastia. A study discussed in the New England Journal of Medicine found an association between this condition and the use of melaleuca oil in young boys; fortunately, once the use of melaleuca (and also lavender) oil was discontinued, the condition disappeared.

If you do decide to go ahead and purchase a bottle of melaleuca oil for home use, make sure to test yourself for sensitivity first by applying a drop to the inside of your (or your child’s) wrist and watching for any rashes to occur within a 24-hour period. No one in my family has ever exhibited any sensitivity to the oil but its best to check first to avoid complicating any situations that you are trying to correct (you certainly wouldn’t want to use melaleuca oil in a diaper rash ointment if your child is sensitive to it, for example).

By keeping a bottle of melaleuca oil in your home, you can avoid the use of many potentially toxic products by replacing them with your own melaleuca-based concoctions. You’ll also save some money and cut down on quite a bit of waste!

Chocolate Brain Pudding

Brain pudding ingredients

I just came across the most wonderful news last night as I was reading through the eighth chapter of Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life by David Perlmutter, MD. The chapter on “Feeding Your Microbiome” lists dark chocolate–along with coffee, tea, and wine–as Key #3 to maintaining a healthy microbiome based on the latest science.

Researchers have long found that flavonoids, compounds prevalent in the plants used to produce these products, provide numerous health benefits for those who consume them (in moderation, of course). What scientists are now finding is that flavonoids also feed the friendly bacteria in our guts, which may in fact account for the other benefits associated with these compounds such as reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, which in turn reduces risk for cardiovascular and other diseases.

Reading this fantastic information reminded me that it had been awhile since I’d made one of my favorite snacks, which I’m now deeming Brain Pudding. The ingredients are shown in the photo above. Full-fat coconut milk serves as the base for the pudding along with a tablespoon of honey, a dash of vanilla extract, a few pinches of cinnamon, and 4-8 squares of melted dark chocolate (how many you use will depend on the size of the squares and how chocolaty you want your pudding). Coconut fat contains brain-boosting beta-HBA while the flavonoids in the dark chocolate feed friendly gut bacteria–and as Dr. Perlmutter’s book reveals, what is good for the gut is good for the brain.

To make brain pudding, simply add all of the above ingredients plus 1/4 cup of milk (we use hemp milk since the mangy munchkin can’t drink cow’s milk) to a small blender or food processor (I use my Magic Bullet) and whip until smooth. I melt my chocolate in a small saucepan on the stove over low heat (the lowest level possible–otherwise it burns) and scrape it into the blender with a spatula. Once the ingredients are blended, pour them into a pint-sized glass jar or container and refrigerate for a few hours to thicken. If you don’t mind the consistency of tapioca, you can also stir in a handful of chia seeds after the pudding has been blended for added nutrition.

Although I haven’t tried it myself since I’m currently a stay-at-home mom, I bet you can make a great to-go pudding snack out of this recipe if you have single-serving containers to pour the pudding into. You’d need to keep an ice pack with your pudding so it doesn’t liquify before you get a chance to eat it, or if you have access to a fridge at work you could store it there (it won’t soften much in the time it takes to get from home to work, and even if it does, it will re-solidify in the fridge).

Chocolate brain pudding is an easy, satisfying, delectable, healthy snack or dessert that you can actually feel good about eating. Isn’t that some of the best news of your day, too?!

Reading Weeds to Identify Your Garden’s Needs

Bedded down for winter

After pulling weeds and tending to plants all summer, it’s tempting for a gardener like me to hang up the hoe as soon as the last bunch of kale is gathered and the last tomato is picked–or frost-bitten, as is often the case in Montana. Finally, a break from the daily maintenance of a 52-foot plot!

But before stowing away all of my implements for the winter, I have a few final tasks to tend to. In a plot like mine, sewn on soil that is far from ideal for planting, it is critical to take measures to improve the soil a little bit each year so that its clay-like, calcium-poor quality will gradually transform into a carbon-rich, nutrient-dense bed for my fruits and vegetables.

This past May I attended a soil seminar by international specialist Nicole Masters, who has been consulting with a local rancher in my area to improve the health of his grazing range. I gleaned numerous takeaways from Masters’ workshop, which focused on practices engineered to get carbon back into our soils and out of the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming. Most of these practices must be implemented well in advance of planting in order to reap their benefits, making fall just as important a season for gardeners as spring and summer.

During her seminar, Masters discussed the critical role that carbon plays in retaining moisture and nutrients in our soil as well as the consequent decline in fertility that occurs when topsoils are mistreated, as they commonly are in industrial agricultural operations (not to mention the disruption caused by urban and suburban land uses). In the middle of the last century in Montana, where I live, soil carbon levels hovered around 20% whereas today those levels linger between just 1.5 and 2.5%, resulting in reduced moisture and nutrient content. No wonder we are not getting enough minerals such as magnesium in our systems for healthy sleep!

Masters shared numerous soil-building practices that can help reverse this trend such as minimizing tillage, herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers and replacing them instead with natural soil amendments such as organic compost, compost tea, cover crops, fish meal, manure, mulches, and lime, all of which provide food for the microorganisms that play a critical role in soil health as well as add the nutrients necessary for plant growth (man-made amendments simply furnish isolated minerals without feeding soil organisms). Much of this I already knew; I bed my garden down with leaf and grass clippings every fall (as shown in the photo above), underneath which I leave the remains of any plants I pulled up. The clippings and plant remains feed the earthworms and microorganisms beneath the surface throughout the winter. In the spring, I add a handful of organic compost along with each seed that I sow.

But one thing I DIDN’T know before attending Masters’ seminar was how to read the weeds in my yard to determine just what types of soil amendments I should be adding to my soil to correct its unique imbalances. According to Masters, every weed species has evolved to thrive in very specific soil conditions, a fact that can be a boon to gardeners rather than a bane. By identifying the weeds in our plots and determining the types of conditions that those weeds thrive in, we can learn a great deal about the types of soils we are dealing with.

As for me, the dandelions, Canada thistles, lambs quarters, and scouring rushes that populate my plot indicate that my soil is low in calcium and phosphorous and high in potassium and magnesium (most soils in eastern Montana actually have the opposite problem: they are too high in calcium and too low in magnesium). Note that just because a soil is high in a particular mineral doesn’t mean that the mineral is necessarily available for plants to absorb; without a healthy balance of soil organisms, minerals remain bound up in an unavailable form.

So how did I read my weeds? I purchased a publication Masters recommended entitled When Weeds Talk, by Jay L. McCaman. The text includes table after table detailing the conditions in which hundreds of species of weeds thrive (you can likely find similar information online). The downside to the publication is that it doesn’t include images, so I purchased a copy of Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies, which has the pictures and descriptions I needed to identify my weeds.

To identify the weeds in your own yard, you can talk to neighbors and friends who have lived in your area for awhile; to other gardeners and farmers; and to extension agents from your state’s university system. If you don’t live near an extension office, you might be able to mail specimens of your weeds to the nearest extension office for identification, which may or may not entail a fee. Once you identify your weeds and figure out what they tell you about the nutrients (or lack thereof) in your soil, you can develop a plan appropriate for your own plot’s improvement.

After identifying your garden’s needs, I recommend doing a Google search for organic or natural soil amendments, making sure to include the specific nutrients you need in your search query. In the search results you’ll find options for purchasing amendments online as well as gardeners’ tips for making your own amendments at home. As for me, I discovered that saving up all of my eggshells throughout the summer, boiling them (to kill any potential salmonella), air-drying them, then crushing them and adding them to my soil in the fall will fix calcium back into my soil by spring (the microorganisms and earthworms need about three months to break the eggshells down and release the nutrients). I keep a jar next to my sink so that I can store my eggshells there after rinsing them out; once the jar is full, I boil the shells then dry them on a cookie sheet in the sun (you can do this in the oven as well). Once they’re dry, I crush them in my fists and add them to a tub full of crushed eggshells that I build up during the winter, spring, and summer.

In a few weeks, once nighttime frosts set in and my kale finally kicks the bucket, I’ll work the crushed eggshells into my soil and cover my bed with a layer of leaves and grass clippings to feed the earthworms and microorganisms that will work their magic throughout the winter to make my soil just a little bit better next spring than it was in springs past, thereby making my fruits and vegetables evermore nutrient dense.