A Poster for Healthy Eating, 1940s Style

A curious diagram appeared in the most recent NEJM, in a perspective on U.S. dietary guidelines. It’s a USDA food wheel from the early 1940s. With Twitter-like style, it says: “For Health…eat some food from each group…every day!

The details are rich: “butter and fortified margarine” constitute 1of the 7 groups. Further inspection-worthy, IMO.

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Mars Chocolate Company Advertises With Broccoli

MARS chocolate ad

The other day, over lunch, I was reading the Sept 2011 issue of the Atlantic and came upon this image on p. 37. According to the not-so-fine print, this full-page broccoli fix is sponsored by MARS chocolate, North America, website listed:


So we can find out about nutrition from the company that manufactures M&M’s, Snickers, Twix, MilkyWay and 3Musketeers.

Part of a trend –

The New Yorker recently ran a profile of PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi that almost persuaded me the super-sized soda-based conglomerate does the right thing in the healthy living department.

Kinda like Shell, Exxon and BP doing good work for the environment.

Got it?

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New Fairway Delivers Fresh Produce to My Neighborhood

On the local, national and nutritional fronts:

How refreshing, in this heat, that Fairway opened a new store on East 86th Street yesterday. Coincidently, Michelle Obama’s push to eliminate “food deserts” – places where it’s hard to find affordable fresh produce and other healthy foods – was highlighted this week when several big retailers signed on to the initiative.

PHOTO CREDIT: DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer (Manhattan Local News)

There was a carnival-like atmosphere on the sidewalk outside the new store, which occupies a large, multilevel space where there used to be a Circuit City (bankrupt, closed) and a Barnes & Noble (moved). Inside, I made a rough tally of unpackaged (6 varieties), nectarines (4), plums (3), string beans (4, including a yellow variant I’ve never seen before), potatoes (11 non-sweet, +  yams and “yellow yams”), onions (7), mushrooms (5), not counting the pre-packaged kinds), peppers (11), tomatoes (9) and beets (3).

You get the picture: if you’re looking for a fresh ingredient and it’s available anywhere New York, chances are you can find it here. Downstairs, there’s fresh fish, meat, coffees, baked goods, and tons of regular and organic grocery items. I counted 22 types of pure honey, not including differently-sized items of the same brand and flavor, and then stopped. Upstairs, there’s a limited selection of prepared foods, a competitively-priced smoked fish counter, a wide cheese selection, dried fruits, nuts and more.

I spent a while meandering through, and heard only positive comments. The shoppers seemed happy; the employees registered glee. A woman next to me on a briskly-moving line summed up the consensus: “This is the best thing that’s happened to the neighborhood in years.”

We should all be so lucky –

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A Recipe for Fresh, Low-Fat Blueberry Muffins

This morning I noticed we had too many blueberries in the fridge. So while my husband went out for a run, I opened the windows wide (to cool the apartment), turned on the oven and made some fresh breakfast food.

fresh muffins, Sunday morning

It had been two decades or so since I’d baked anything like these. My recollection, mainly from my suburban childhood, was that muffins involved a fair amount of work; we used to pull out a mix-master with beaters, a flour-sifter, and all sorts of stuff that then had to be cleaned. That was far too much work for me this morning.

So I simplified and halved an old recipe I’d hand-written sometime back in my Moosewood years. And I adjusted it so there’d be less sugar, and swapped whole milk for skim.

Preparation time: 8 – 15 minutes, depending on your proficiency in the kitchen; Baking time: 30 minutes

Ingredients (for 8 small muffins):

1/4 cup softened butter (vegetable oil is OK, too; some people say that improves the texture and taste of the baked goods, but I’m not convinced and try to minimize chemicals in my cooking.)

2/3 cup sugar

1 large beaten egg

1/4 cup skim milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup flour (I used organic, which I happened to have, and didn’t bother sifting it)

optional: cinnamon, ~ 1/4 teaspoon

ripe blueberries, about 2 cups, washed



1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees (F)

2. Use a fork to smash the butter at the base of a deep, medium-sized bowl;

3. Add the beaten egg and mush everything together;

4. Add in the sugar, stir with a fork or large spoon;

5. Add the milk, swirl everything together with the spoon;

6. Add the salt and baking powder, mix thoroughly at this point to evenly distribute the salt and powder;

7. Add the flour, and mix again.

(This step completes a basic muffin batter.)

8. Now, add the fruit.* For blueberries: With extra-clean hands, grab a fistful of washed blueberries and squeeze them into the batter for flavoring. Then add in the remaining whole berries and mix those around, gently.

9. Insert paper cupcake holders into the holes of an oven-proof muffin tray. Drop about 1/3 cup of batter into each cup, not overfilling.

10. Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees in the center of the oven.

11. Remove from the oven. (If you’re compulsive, as I am: insert and withdraw a toothpick with a quick in-out stroke; if the muffins are cooked, raw batter won’t stick. If batter does stick to the toothpick, put the muffins back in the oven for 5 minutes or longer, until they’re done.)


If you follow these instructions, you can make fresh muffins with minimal equipment and little to clean up. You can freeze and store the muffins, no problem, once they’ve cooled.

*There are countless fruit variations and other add-ins you might use. This morning I prepared half of the batter using a ripe, diced banana and a fistful of cut-up walnuts.


Not everything I cook is nutritious. And while I don’t advise eating muffins regularly, as these are essentially confections, I figure if you’re going to serve these to your family, it’s better that they be prepared with fresh ingredients and a minimum of chemicals, sugar, salt and fats. These have some relative advantages over similar breakfast treats:

These lack preservatives;

They’re roughly half the size of typical store-bought muffins (countering the super-sized effect);

They’re made with skim milk instead of whole milk;

They have approximately 2/3 the usual amount of sugar.

Besides, they came out great!

Of course, dear readers, I’d like to know what are the true nutritional benefits in blueberries, and what happens to their putative anti-oxidant properties once they’ve been baked for 1/2 an hour. But I don’t think anyone knows, for sure.


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A New E. Coli Outbreak, Hemolytic-Uremic Syndrome, and Eating In or Out

There’s a newly-identified E. coli strain that’s causing a serious illness called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The recent cases, mainly in northern Europe, have been attributed to eating raw vegetables like cucumbers, lettuce and tomato. So far, authorities aren’t sure of the exact source.

Like any stomach bug, these bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever and other symptoms related to the gut. When people develop HUS, the kidneys fail and they may need dialysis. (Uremic Syndrome refers to uremia, when toxins normally cleared by the kidneys circulate in the bloodstream and cause problems in other body parts.)

blood smear reveals fragmented red blood cells (schistocytes), image from Wikimedia Commons

The “H” in HUS is for hemolytic, which describes how red blood cells are destroyed in the bloodstream. This occurs sometimes from effects of a bacterial toxin, such as might happen upon ingestion of a toxic strain of E. coli bacteria. This condition results in jaundice – a visible yellowing of the eyes and skin, and anemia – a paucity of red blood cells.

According to NatureNews, the culprit’s genome has been sequenced. It encodes broad-spectrum beta-lactamases. This means these toxic E. coli will, in general, resist antibiotics that exert their antiseptic powers by means of beta-lactam rings.

What’s my take-home message, as a home-maker and mom?

If I were traveling in areas affected now, I wouldn’t panic or change my plans. But I would avoid eating salad and any raw fruits or vegetables that can’t be peeled. I’d be mindful of foods like guacamole and salsa with fresh cilantro or other imperfectly-washed ingredients. Better to order cooked food, especially in restaurants where you don’t know who’s rinsing the greens.

The same rules apply at home, except that I’ll eat salad and fresh vegetables that I’ve prepared diligently.

Hand-washing after touching any part of a toilet, bathroom sink or faucet is always wise. The point is to avoid accidentally putting germs in your mouth that come from animal or human feces.


My next post will be on another topic, entirely.

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Cooking With Leeks

A note on cooking with leeks, inspired by a NYT Well post with a list of related Recipes for Health:

I use leeks all the time, as my neighbors are probably too aware. I use leeks sautéed in olive oil as filler, mixed with an egg and flour for a tart, or to season simple pasta, or to flavor and decorate roasted potatoes.

How I prepare leeks is this:

First I cut off the base and ragged tips of 3-4 stems, slice the mainly dark-green stems lengthwise, and then cut the stalks into 1 – 3 inch sections, depending on what they’ll be used for. Because there’s often dirt from the ground deep in the lower, paler sections of the leeks, I manually expose and separate each rounded layer, and then wash everything  under briskly-running water, thoroughly rinsing at least three times.

You don’t have to dry the cut, washed leeks. What I do is heat a heavy, wide pan on the stove, add a thin layer of olive oil, and then throw on the damp (or dry) leek pieces. With the flame set low, I toss on about a half teaspoon of salt for a volume of 3-4 large stalks. Sometimes I add fresh ginger, cut into tiny pieces, into the mix.

And then I work on other things in the kitchen – often while listening to NPR or talking to my mom on the phone – while the leeks wilt. If I’m running late, I’ll put a lid on the pan, which makes the leeks soften faster, but that’s not ideal. Every few minutes I stir them around a bit with a wooden spoon or spatula, until they’re soft and, typically, shiny with varied shades of green.

You can store cooked leeks in the refrigerator for a few days, if they’re in a sealed container. So you might, as I have, use a small amount with pasta on a Monday, and then use the remainder for a goat cheese and leek tart later in the week. There are many variations, and I’ve only started using this vegetable in the past four years or so.

This summer I intend to try making a potato-leek soup.

According to Martha Rose Shulman, writing for the Times, leeks are milder than onions but contain sulfur compounds present in onions and green garlic that some people find hard to digest. Leeks are a good source of nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids – thought to be important in vision, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and vitamin K. Leeks are fiber-rich, I might add.

I should learn more about each of these elements; how they’re best cooked and absorbed. Unfortunately I’m still searching for the nutrition textbook they never assigned in med school.

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Noting Depression in Susan Glaspell’s 1917 Story: A Jury of Her Peers

Recently I read the short story, A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell, with a group of women in my community. The author, with whom I wasn’t previously familiar, first reported on the real 1901 trial of Margaret Hossack, as a journalist writing for the Des Moines Daily News. Later she adapted the story as a one-act drama, Trifles, and then in 1917 as a short narrative published in Everyweek, a long-defunct magazine of the Crowell Publishing Company.

Original performance of "Trifles," (from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center)

There’s a lot you might take from this swift, rich read. It goes like this: A man and his son came upon a couple’s house in rural area. The man’s been killed, clearly; his wife sits in a chair, oddly, and can’t say what happened to her husband. The local authorities and a few neighbors step in. The home was not well-kempt; the wife is accused of murder. Two other women, whose words spin the tale, poke about the kitchen and make inferences about the jailed woman’s circumstances.

Some points are readily gleaned: on homemaking, and quilting – literally and metaphorically, in early 20th Century America. There are legal elements, and allusions to domestic violence and abuse. What intrigued me most, though, was the author’s indirect depiction of their neighbor’s isolation and apparent depression:

“A person gets discouraged–and loses heart,” one considers…

“I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful–and that’s why I ought to have come,” says the other.

The two women express sympathy for the accused wife’s plight; they regret that they didn’t visit or otherwise help her earlier on, before the situation took a catastrophic, violent turn. The women understood, without saying it exactly. Mental health wasn’t a topic of common discourse, then, but these characters – and so must have the author, clearly – got the drift.

I won’t tell the whole story here, but I do recommend the tightly-woven, knotted piece.


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The Trouble With Ginger

A short post for Friday:

The Times published a short piece on ginger this Tuesday, on whether or not it relieves morning sickness. The conclusion is that it’s less effective for nausea in pregnancy than in seasickness and chemotherapy treatment.

When I was getting chemo, I received a gift of ginger tea. It didn’t help at all. Now, if I even sniff that stuff, I want to throw up.

Curiously, I have no problems with ginger in food. I use the fresh ingredient all the time.

No explanation –

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Passover Preparations, and Good Housekeeping

There’s so much medical stuff I’d like to write on today. The thing is, it’s almost Passover. I’ve just got a few hours to finish readying our home for the holiday.

And so this will be the topic for today’s ML, on home-making:

Part of the Passover preparation is, in my mind, like spring cleaning: we scrub surfaces in the kitchen, pantry and elsewhere; we shake out all the rugs and vacuum or sweep extra carefully; we go through old foods and decide what’s worth keeping or should be discarded. We remove all bits of bread, and then set a minor flame (I use a match) to, symbolically and really, burn the last crumb.

I’m reminded of the spring of 1987, when I spent the second half of Passover in a small apartment in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where I followed an endocrinologist in his rounds and learned about so-called tropical diseases: malaria, Chagas, amoeba and other parasites I hadn’t seen first-hand before. There was running water for only 4 hours early each day in the place where I stayed; I learned to gather, boil it and apply iodine to sterilize it before washing my few dishes. There I ate matzah I’d stashed in my suitcase. (Later on in my journey, its well-known constipating effects proved beneficial.)

The main public hospital in Cochabamba held patients in old-fashioned, long rectangular rooms with 15 or 20 beds along each side. Ventilation came by breezes through the open windows, and patients’ families were responsible for giving them food. Nurses – nuns, really – kept the place clean; they swept under each bed daily. No blankets or sheets touched the floor; it was immaculate.

I know there are people out there who think a sterile home breeds diseases – like asthma and peanut allergies and maybe even Hodgkin’s; the notion is that somehow it’s good to get our immune systems exposed at an early age to lots of bacteria and other organisms, so they won’t respond too vigorously to nature’s tiniest offerings. While there may be a germ of truth in some of these arguments (for the record, I don’t agree with most, and am fearful of the harmful bugs and parasites that can be lethal if ingested), I do think that for the most part, we could do a better job on the hygiene front.

At the AHCJ meeting I attended a session on food safety. There was a lot of discussion of how the FDA, USDA and other agencies are and aren’t tracing sources of contamination in the food supply, from large and small (excluded from some regulations) growers and manufacturers, and what to do about imported foods, which are screened now for radioactivity as well as for unwanted germs.

The way I see it is this: We’re responsible for our health to the extent that our behavior can reduce our risk of illness. Keeping a clean home, and washing food thoroughly, and cooking it carefully, are things we can do to reduce the odds of getting sick. Nothing’s full-proof, and I don’t mean to suggest that if someone develops hemolytic uremic syndrome from eating contaminated spinach or bad ground beef that it’s their fault.

But maybe we’ve become lazy as a culture, or just too rushed: we buy prepared food and pre-“washed” salad. We grow accustomed to the dust behind a bed-board or bookcase that’s hard to move; we don’t flip the couch cushions periodically and clean what’s under there, as perhaps our grandmothers would have, should they have been sufficiently fortunate to have upholstered furniture.

I admit that I’m very imperfect in all of this, that my home is far from absolutely clean, and that I sometimes eat salad in restaurants where I doubt it’s been quite so-well washed as I’d like or want to know. There is surely some dust on this laptop, and I fear now there may be a crumb of bread that’s escaped the feather’s final sweep.

But I’ll do my best, and sign off now, and enjoy the holiday with my family.

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A Nutritional Tidbit, on Quinoa

I first heard about quinoa a few years ago, when food-sellers started marketing the stuff as a cereal-like, cholesterol-lowering nutritious substance.

Chenopodium Quinoa (Wiki Commons)

It’s from the Andes, I knew, and comes in some varieties. If you purchase the raw stuff or receive a gift, say, from a Peruvian person who knows her quinoa, you’ll find quickly that you have to rinse it a few times with water before cooking it with whatever seasoning you choose, such as cilantro or just a pinch of salt, or with some olive oil and ground pepper, cinnamon or curry, because the starch has to be rinsed of its saponin (soapy) coating.

What I learned yesterday, beginning with an informative feature in the Times, is that quinoa is not a grain but a seed. According to that article and Wikispecies (a fabulous web-find, in itself), quinoa belongs to the chenopod family or subfamily of plants which includes the likes of beets and spinach. The word chenopod stems from the Greek roots: <chen> (goose) and pod (foot), as in goosefoot. These are said to be flowering plants that lack petals.

The U.S. MyFoodPedia site is devoid of information on quinoa, as is the USDA’s Nutrient Database, as of this morning. Sellers say it’s rich in fiber, protein and minerals. A research study published by agricultural scientists based in Santiago, Chile, found an ideal balance of amino acids and minerals mixed in the starch, along with omega-6 oils and vitamin E.

In my fourth year of medical school, I spent most of two months in Bolivia studying infectious and other diseases in Cochabamba. But I don’t think I ever tried quinoa. And it’s definitely not something I learned about in class.

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