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The Bicarb No-Poo Hair-Washing Controversy

I never even knew that there was a baking soda hair washing controversy. I’ve been washing my hair with bicarb and vinegar since last June, and I’ve had no problems. My hair looks and feels better, and I’m in love with the simplicity of it. So when I got this email from a reader, I was quite surprised!

“I was looking at the bicarb/vinegar hair cleaning idea and saw a couple of links like the one below about the pH levels etc. Just wondering if you’d come across this kind of feedback before and if so, whether you found it valid or not? I’m sure like anything there’s people for and against, just curious about the science behind this lady’s thoughts.”

The link she was referring to was an article called Baking Soda Destroyed My Hair. Punchy title, no? I hadn’t seen the article before, so I read it, and then a few more.

Here are my thoughts.

The Science Behind Bicarb and Vinegar Hair Washing

The pH scale measures whether a substance is acidic or alkaline, and runs from 0 to 14. 0 is the most acidic, 14 is the most alkaline and 7 is neutral (pure water has a pH of 7). The skin has a layer on the surface known as the acid mantle, which is a mixture of sebum (oil that the skin produces) and sweat. This acid mantle has a slightly acidic pH (around 5.5).

Most cleansers and shampoos are alkaline because these clean better than acidic products. Alkaline products will also open up the hair cuticle, as will hot water and hair brushing. However alkaline products can leave the skin and hair feeling dry, and if hair cuticles are left open the hair is more susceptible to damage. That is why conditioner is used after shampooing – to smooth the cuticles and protect the hair shaft.

Bicarb soda is a base with a pH of about 9. Vinegar is an acid with a pH of almost 2. Bicarb is used as a cleaner to remove dirt and grime from the hair; it is also an excellent exfoliant. The vinegar rinse (the vinegar should be diluted so it is not too acidic – I use a 1:4 ratio vinegar:water) restores the pH of the skin to an acidic level, and closes the hair cuticles.

Thoughts on Whether Bicarb and Vinegar Cause Hair Damage

I’ve never read that you should dilute the bicarb to make it less basic – to me that just doesn’t make sense! I use bicarb knowing that it is a base, and only mix with a tbsp water. If hair is wet and you’re in the shower, there’s gonna be some dilution going on, but bicarb is still alkaline.

I disagree that using bicarb and vinegar is like dyeing your hair twice a week. Hair dyes, which are also alkaline, are left on the hair and scalp for for ages, hours even. The bicarb goes straight on, wait a minute and then off. Not quite the same!

Most bar soaps are alkaline and can have pH as high as 10. Many facial cleaners also have an alkaline pH – that’s how they clean.  Alkaline products are definitely drying on the skin, which is why it’s important to moisturise or use facial oils. It’s also important that these finishing products more closely match the skin’s pH as these products will be left of the skin, whereas cleansers are washed off fairly quickly.

The principle is the same with hair. Using an alkaline product will help clean the hair but it risks drying out the scalp and hair if the alkalinity is not countered, wither with a vinegar rinse or other moisturizing treatment.

Remember too that plenty of other environmental factors play a role in the condition of our hair. Diet, medication, hair dyeing, pollution, sunshine, ocean water, chlorine from swimming pools and aging all have an impact of the condition of our hair.

It is clear that the lady who wrote the article has suffered hair damage. What works for some people doesn’t neccessarily work for everyone. In the same way that some people live using bar soap whilst others find it too drying, bicarb clearly does not work for everyone. I know several people who have used bicarb and vinegar for decades and swear by it; the internet will tell many other stories of people who didn’t get on with it.

My conclusion would be that it’s not dangerous, but its also not for everyone. If you can’t get on with it, it’s probably best to try something else.

Don’t Want Bicarb Drying Out Your Hair? Try These Alternatives

If you’re worried about bicarb drying out your hair, there are plenty of alternatives.

  • If you’re happy to stick to bicarb, you can use oils or other treatments (such as avocado, egg or honey) to moisturize your hair after washing.
  • Try using oil to restore moisture to you hair after washing. Try treating your hair with olive oil: After cleaning your hair, squeeze out excess moisture, rub a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in your hands, and then rub evenly through into your hair. You can leave the oil on for as long as you like – even overnight (but you’ll need to wear a shower cap!) – the more dry or damaged your hair is, the more beneficial leaving it for longer will be. Wash the oil out after you’re done.
  • Another alternative is moisturising your hair with coconut oil before washing, to help protect the cuticles from damage.
  • After using vinegar ,you could always opt to use regular conditioner (choose one with natural ingredients and preferably some oils) to moisturise your hair.

Feeling less trusting of bicarb after reading this?

  • One popular alternative I found is using rye flour to clean your hair. You use it in the same way as bicarb, making a paste with a small amount of water and rubbing into your hair, before rinsing out and proceeding as normal. Rye flour has a pH of 5.5 so is slightly acidic. I haven’t tried this but I would expect it to be worse at cleaning, but I like that it is plant-based rather than mined. Rye flour has less gluten than other flours so should make less mess in your bathroom.
  • Another option might be to combine bicarb with rye flour so the mix is less alkaline. Again, I haven’t tried this or measured the pH – if you do this please leave a comment and let me know the results.
  • A third option is washing your hair with clay. (Yes, clay!) Meg from Mrs M’s Curiosity Cabinet uses Rhassoul clay and loves it!

I love the way bicarb and vinegar cleans my hair: I also love the simplicity and minimalism of it (no extra bottles cluttering up my bathroom!). I’m keen to try flour and even clay, but for now I’m sticking to what works for me.

How about you – have you tried bicarb and vinegar hairwashing? Did it work for you or did you never quite get on with it? When did you start using it and have you noticed any drying or damage? Do you have any other green alternatives to suggest? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below!

5 Superfoods You Already Have in the Cupboard

Superfoods is a word that’s banded about a lot these days, and marketers have got on the bandwagon, telling us we need to be buying superfoods (complete with super-hefty price tag) for optimum health and well-being. If you’re into sustainable living, and don’t want to spend a fortune on your food budget, purchase overpackaged ingredients that increase your plastic consumption, or buy produce shipped from faraway countries, superfoods can seem like they’re an impossible ideal.

Thing is, if you know what “superfoods” actually means, and look through all the marketing hype, you’ll find it’s possible to source superfoods that are cheap, sustainable and readily available – in fact, you probably already have a few in your pantry. Not all superfoods are super-expensive air-freighted plastic-packaged portions of exotic berries, or fancy obscure powders.

The term “superfoods” means foods that are particularly nutrient-rich, and considered beneficial for our health. The sometimes outrageous health claims that accompany some of these ingredients are marketing hype, often designed to sell more or to justify the hefty price tag. Whilst these claims may or may not be true, superfoods are proven to be packed with minerals, nutrients and vitamins that our bodies need.

Disclaimer: this is for information purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice. Superfoods are not a substitute for professional medical care.

Five Superfoods You Probably Already Have in the Cupboard

1. Cinnamon

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Cinnamon is a spice made from the bark of Cinnamomum trees, which can be found as rolls of dried bark or as a ground powder. There are two main varieties of cinnamon: Ceylon cinnamon and Chinese (or Cassia) cinnamon.

In studies, cinnamon has been shown to control blood sugar levels, and aid people with type 2 diabetes to respond to insulin. It is anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial, preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi, including Candida. Cinnamon also boosts brain activity – even the smell of cinnamon improves cognitive processing! There have also been links made to prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, MS and HIV. (If you’re interested in the science, check out this link).

Cinnamon is very high in manganese, a mineral used by the body to form connective tissue, bones, blood clotting factors, and sex hormones. Manganese also plays a role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism and calcium absorption. Cinnamon is also a very good source of calcium and an excellent source of fibre.

Serving suggestions: sprinkle some cinnamon on your porridge in the morning, add to muesli or hot chocolate, or use to spice up your baking.

2. Turmeric

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Turmeric is the bright yellow spice used in curries and Asian cooking. The powder is made by drying and grinding fresh turmeric, a root that looks similar to ginger on the outside, but with orange flesh inside.

Turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which is responsible for many of its health benefits. Curcumin is anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant (antioxidants absorb free radicals which cause cell and tissue damage), which may help reduce symptoms of inflammation-based diseases such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel symptoms and and heart disease. It supports healthy liver function and is thought to aid digestion. Studies have shown curcumin having the potential to fight degenerative brain diseases and depression; in lab experiments curcumin has been shown to inhibit tumour growth.

Turmeric is high in iron, and also contains calcium. Fresh turmeric is a source of vitamin C. Black pepper aids absorption of curcumin into the bloodstream.

Serving suggestions: Add to curries and soups, or add to egg dishes such as omelettes. If you’re feeling braver, add some to your smoothie. Some health cafes serve turmeric lattes as a coffee alternative – they’re usually made with nut milks.

3. Cacao

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Cacao needs no introduction – yes, we’re talking chocolate! Raw cacao is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans. This is different to cocoa, which is made using roasted cacao beans and treating the powder with an alkaline solution (called Dutch processing) to produce a more mellow flavour. The processing also makes the resulting cocoa lower in nutrients, particularly antioxidants. Confusingly, the two names are sometimes interchanged, but raw cacao will always say “raw” on the label.

When the USDA’s Nutrient Data Laboratory tested the antioxidant activity of a number of foods, measured as an Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) score, raw cacao was found to contain the highest antioxidant activity of any food, with a score of 95,500 per 100g. Whilst only having around a quarter of the antioxidant properties of raw cacao, roasted cacao still contained the third highest level of antioxidants of the foods tested, and more than berries such as acai, goji and blueberries.

Not only that, raw cacao has the highest concentration of iron of any plant (double the iron in spinach), and is very high in magnesium. Cacao also contains potassium, manganese and zinc, and also the “bliss chemicals” theobromine, phenethylamine (a mood enhancer) and anandamide. These are what cause the happy feeling you get when you eat chocolate!

Serving suggestions: use raw cacao powder in smoothies, desserts and baking. If buying bars of chocolate, dark is best and the higher the cocoa content the better.

4. Honey

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Honey has been used by humans for millennia. Cave paintings in Spain dating to 7000BC showing beekeeping practices, and Egyptian hieroglyphs from 2400BC showing bees kept in hives.

Honey has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, and has been found to help burn wounds to heal more quickly. In lab tests, honey has shown antibacterial activity against bacteria including E. Coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. Honey also helps soothe coughs and sore throats.

Antibacterial quality varies between different types of honey. Manuka honey is a particularly potent anti-bacterial honey, due to the presence of methylglyoxal (MG) found in manuka flowers native to New Zealand (you can read more about manuka honey here). West Australian Jarrah honey also has high antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Generally, honey that is darker will have more antibacterial and antioxidant power. Raw unprocessed honey is considered better and more nutritious than regular honey, which has been heated and pasteurised.

Nutritionally, honey contains manganese, iron, zinc,selenium and calcium, plus B vitamins. Refined white sugar contains none of these!

Serving suggestion: anywhere in place of refined sugar! Drizzle on porridge, add to smoothies, include in salad dressings or use in baking as an alternative to sugar.

5. Oats

Oats pic

Oats are a grain that, unlike wheat, rye and barley, are naturally gluten-free. (NB Because oats are often processed in the same facilities as these other grains contamination may occur, so they are not usually considered gluten-free unless processed in a separate facility.) And yes…actually, oats are a superfood!

Oats contain more dietary fibre than any other grain. The insoluble fibre aids in digestive health, whilst the soluble fibre, beta-glucan, has cholesterol-lowering properties. Oats have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels due to the presence of tocotienols, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, relieve hypertension and to stabilise blood sugar levels.

Even when hulled, oats contain all three parts of the grain: the bran, endosperm and germ. This makes them wholegrains, meaning they retain their natural minerals and vitamins. Oats contain manganese, selenium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, molybdenum and iron, and also folate, B vitamins and vitamin K.

The other super thing about oats? They’re super cheap!

Serving suggestions: start the day with a bowl of porridge or make your own oat-based muesli, bake into cookies or cereal bars, or grind into flour. You can make oat milk by soaking oats, blending with water and straining.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to be healthy. Ordinary foods have super powers too!

Plastics and Health: Phthalates

Plastic was the wonder product of the 1960s. Strong yet lightweight; durable yet inexpensive; plastics made everyday items affordable to the less well-off and revolutionized consumerism. The popularity of plastic means today it has become the manufacturing material of choice. After all, it’s so versatile. Plastics can be transparent, translucent, opaque; they can be coloured and patterned; they can be molded into any shape.

A true wonder product? Or not?

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Sadly, plastics are no exception. I’ve talked about the fact they last forever and the problems that come once their useful life is over (you can read about that here). But what about during their life?

It turns out that plastic isn’t the inert, safe material that was once thought. Chemicals added into plastic to instill specific properties can leach back out… and they’re entering our food, our water and our bodies. Plastic is affecting our health.

I’ve already talked about BPA, one of the additives used that has been found to leach from plastic – an additive linked to cancer and developmental problems in children. (You can read more about BPA here). Now I want to talk about another group of additives that have gained a lot of bad press: phthalates.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates are a group of chemicals, sometimes called plasticizers, added to plastic to make them soft and malleable. They are a particularly common additive to PVC (plastic type #3). Without plasticisers, PVC is rigid (this is sometimes called uPVC, meaning unplasticised PVC, and is used for building materials and window frames).

Where are Phthalates found?

PVC is used for all kinds of products. If a plastic PVC product is flexible, unless the packaging states that it does not contain phthalates, the chances are that it does.

Plastic wrap (cling film/Glad wrap) is typically made out of PVC.

So are many children’s toys, clothing and school supplies, including lunchboxes and eating utensils, school bags, pencil cases, ring binders and folders, raincoats and umbrellas.

PVC is also found in households as furniture, flooring, shower curtains, wallpaper and electronics.

Baby products including sippy cups and bottles, squeezy toys and changing mats also contain phthalates, although since 1999 in Europe and 2009 in the US, some phthalates have been banned from baby and children’s products because of the negative health implications.

Not Just Plastic…

Phthalates are not just found in plastic. They are also found in many beauty products, including shampoo, lotions, perfumes, hair gel, nail polish and deodorant. They help make lotions feel smooth, mix better and increase absorption into the skin.

You may not see them on the labels either: the law permits them to be labelled as ”fragrance”.

Why are Phthalates bad?

Phthalates don’t actually chemically bind to the plastic they’re mixed with, meaning that phthalates are released from plastic products over time. This occurs more rapidly as a result of heat, exposure to solvents and friction.

Have you noticed how soft plastics get increasingly hard and brittle over time? That’s because the phthalates have leached out of them.

Some phthalates are particularly attracted to fats, and food products with a high fat content such as cheese, meat and other dairy wrapped in PVC film have been found to contain notably high levels of phthalates.

Phthalates enter our bodies via ingestion, but also inhalation and absorption through the skin. As well as being detected in blood, sweat and urine, they have been found in breast milk and are known the cross the placenta. We are widely exposed to phthalates because PVC is such a widely distributed material.

Children are more exposed because they spend time playing on floors, many children’s toys are made from PVC, and children are more likely to put plastic products in their mouths. This is compounded because they are much smaller than adults so the toxic loading increases.

Women are also more susceptible because of their use of beauty products containing phthalates.

Like BPA, phthalates are now known to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic hormones in the body. Phthalates have been linked to increased obesity, liver damage, reproductive disorders, asthma and development issues in children. The phthalate DEHP has been classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the US EPA, meaning it is likely to cause cancer. Studies have linked phthalates to breast cancer.

 How can I avoid Phthalates?

There’s plenty of things you can do to avoid exposure to phthalates. Here’s just a few ideas to get started:

1. Avoid PVC (plastic #3, also sometimes written as V within the recycling arrow). If you need to buy products made of plastic, look for plastics #1, #2 and #5 as these are considered “safer” plastics. Or skip the plastic altogether. Choose products made from wood, metal, glass or natural fibres.

2. Don’t use plastic wrap! Whilst safer alternatives that are phthalate-free do now exist, how long before these safer ingredneits are exposed to be hazardous too? Plastic wrap is really unneccessary. Store food in tins, jars, in glass or pyrex, or simply in a bowl with a plate on top.Try not to buy cheese or meat that’s been wrapped in PVC film either – take your own container, ask for it to be wrapped in paper or look for non-PVC plastic packaging.

3. Choose safe cosmetics. Look for certified organic products; a product that says “contains natural/organic ingredients” may still contain many chemicals. Choose products with fewer ingredients, preferably ones that you have heard of! Seek out products fragranced only with essential oils. Find local producers that make small batches using natural ingredients; you can speak to them about exactly what does and doesn’t go into their products. If you want to know how safe the products you are already using are, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database of over 68,000 products. Question whether there’s any products you use that you could actually do without. Simplify.

4. Look for phthalate-free children’s toys and clothes, and remember if buying second-hand that phthalates were not banned before 2009, so older products may still contain these chemicals. Be particularly wary of school supplies. Anything shiny, glossy and waterproof is probably made of PVC.

5. Eat organic. Phthalates are found in pesticides, and also in sewage sludge (remember phthalates are found in urine). Organic farms are not permitted to use either of these and so organic crops are less exposed to phthalates than conventional crops.

Make Your Own: Plastic-free, Sugar-free Muesli

I used to be a huge lover of breakfast cereals. I’d hoard them. I actually had a cupboard dedicated to breakfast cereal. I liked to have a minimum of 5 different choices in my cupboard, and I remember once having 11 different types on the go. I’m not the only one either, it seems. In 2011 Australians spent $1.17 billion on breakfast cereal, and consumed almost 8 kilos per person!

My tastes changed over time of course – as a kid I loved Frosties (I cringe at that thought now), as a teenager my staple cereal was Fruit ‘n’ Fibre, and as an adult I fell for those luxury muesli lines with the beautiful packaging.

But then I began to fall out of love with cereals. Firstly there was the media reports revealing how cereals are way too high in salt and sugar. Low fat cereals are particularly high in sugar, and a UK study found cornflakes that contained as much salt as ready-salted crisps. Next was the constant bombardment of adverts and marketing. Oh we’ve made this new product. Oh we’ve made that new product. Oh we’ve made a chocolate version! A cereal bar version! A chocolate cereal bar version! I started getting cereal company fatigue. And then there was the packaging. Boxes that would appear enormous until I opened them to find the contents only half-filled the bag inside. Or packets that would declare “contain 20 servings”, only for me to discover that their interpretation of a serving was 4 teaspoons, and for my portions, the box contained nearer to four servings. Which actually made cereal a rather expensive habit.

And the final straw? Plastic. When I gave up buying anything in plastic, only a couple of options remained. Some super fancy muesli sold in glass jars for exorbitant prices, or plain oats in cardboard. The love affair was over.

But recently, I’ve started craving cereal again, and so I’ve started making my own using the ingredients I get from the bulk-bin stores. It’s super easy and there are limitless possibilities. This recipe is my current base.

I wanted to keep it sugar-free so it doesn’t contain any dried fruit. If one morning I fancy something sweet I add some fresh fruit, or blend a banana with some (cashew) milk and sprinkle the muesli on top.

Or I add a teaspoon of bee pollen or a tablespoon of cacao nibs. You can always add the sugar in, but you can’t take it out!

Recipe: plastic-free, sugar-free muesli

Ingredients:

3 cups coconut flakes
2 cups oats
1/2 cup brazil nuts
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup raw almonds
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds/pepitas
80ml macadamia oil (or other high quality, flavourless oil)

Method:

[I soak my almonds and pumpkin seeds overnight to activate them and make them more digestible, and then dry them out before chopping and adding to the mix. If you can’t be bothered with this step or are short of time, just skip it.]

Roughly chop the brazil nuts, peanuts and almonds. Combine in a bowl with the coconut flakes and oats. Stir in the oil and mix well until everything is well coated.

Line a baking tin with baking paper. Spread the mixture evenly over the paper and bake at 100ºC for 30 minutes, until golden. Leave to cool.

Store in a glass jar. It will keep for a few weeks, but I think it is better to make small batches and more often to keep it fresh.

Enjoy!

mueslimix

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This delicious breakfast was made using half a banana blended with half a cup of cashew nut milk to form the base, and topped with half a cup of muesli. I like doing things by halves, it seems!

What I Learned from Quitting Sugar

At the end of last year, I decided to try quitting sugar. For a while I’d been noticing articles popping up in the media about the negative health impacts of sugar. I looked into it a little more: I read David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison and also I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson. I had long conversations with my next-door neighbour about the book Primal Body Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas (which I attempted to read myself, but couldn’t motivate myself past the introduction – it’s a dry read). I decided to jump on the sugar-quitting bandwagon, and try it out myself.

The Science-y Bit

If you’ve missed the “sugar-is-actually-really-bad-for-you” frenzy, let me briefly explain. The word “sugar” actually refers to a number of different compounds characterised by a sweet taste. Simple sugars include glucose and fructose.  Table sugar (sucrose) is actually a double sugar made from fructose and glucose. Carbohydrates are complex sugars that can be broken down by the body into glucose.

Our body needs sugar (namely glucose) to function. But it doesn’t need the immense quantities that most people eat every day. Almost all packet foods have added sugar, even the “healthy” ones like muesli bars and granola. Those low-fat options that we were told were better for us? All have far more sugar than the standard versions. Sauces and condiments are also often packed with extra sugar. It’s everywhere.

After the low-fat revolution of the 1980s led to higher rates of obesity and diabetes, researchers discovered that fat wasn’t making us fat. The culprit is sugar. The American Heart Association recommend only 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for men (one teaspoon is a little under 5 grams). It is estimated that the average American consumes more than 42 teaspoons of sugar every day!

The sugar that’s receiving all the bad press is fructose. It’s the sugar found in fruit, and also in table sugar and honey (which is usually around 50% fructose). Our bodies don’t respond to fructose in the same way as with other sugars. Whilst eating glucose or carbohydrates causes a hormonal response that makes us feel full, fructose doesn’t work in this way. Not having an off-switch means we’re far more likely to over-indulge. And when we have more fructose in our bodies than our liver can break down, our bodies convert it into fat.

It’s not just about weight-gain, either. Research has suggested that fructose is linked to the development of a number of cancers including pancreatic and small intestine cancers, it inhibits our immune system, causes inflammation,  it speeds up aging, it impacts our digestive system, and many more.

All of this is pretty scary stuff. If that wasn’t enough to convince me to give it a try, the promises of feeling clearer mentally, of having more energy, of not succumbing to sugar cravings (and accidentally eating an entire chocolate bar when I only meant to eat two squares) definitely were.

Quitting Sugar

What I didn’t Eat

In order to quit sugar, there’s a surprising number of things to avoid:

  • There’s the obvious added sugar of course, which means avoiding most packaged foods. As I don’t eat packaged food anyways, this wasn’t a problem for me. If you do eat anything from a packet or jar, check the label – the amounts of sugar might shock you!
  • All of the “natural” sugars, like honey, maple syrup and molasses are still sugar, so they were crossed off too.
  • All fruit, including dried fruit…and this includes tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. Remember how in school we were always taught that they were a fruit? Well, it applies now. Have you ever seen how much sugar sun-dried tomatoes contain? No wonder they are so tasty!
  • Sweet vegetables, including sweet potatoes, beetroot and carrots, which all contain fructose.

What I Did Eat

So what was left?

  • Proteins such as fish and eggs. I don’t eat meat, and I don’t eat a lot of fish, so this meant eating a lot of eggs.
  • Nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • Leafy greens and other non-starchy vegetables.

How Did I Find It?

If you’re looking at that list above thinking it all sounds very boring, then I’m going to tell you – it was. It was extremely boring. In I Quit Sugar, Sarah Wilson advocates eating a lot of meat and dairy. I don’t eat either of these, and this severely limited my options. I ate virtually the same meals every day for two weeks – which made me question whether I was missing out on valuable nutrients by cutting out so much.

As to how it made me feel… I didn’t get the amazing clarity of mind that I was expecting. But I didn’t get the sugar cravings that I read I should expect, either. Everything just carried on as before. I don’t really know how much sugar I was eating before, but I guess my body didn’t need the big sugar detox I had expected it would.

Lessons from Quitting Sugar

It was a good experiment, and I’m glad I did it because it made me more mindful of the sugar in my diet. More importantly, it made me realise how much enjoyment I get from food – from cooking, to eating, to sharing with others – and that wasn’t something I was willing to sacrifice. Food is my creative outlet. My experiment coincided with the start of mango season; I realised I didn’t want to be eating omelettes for breakfast when there was so much beautiful fresh produce out there for me to enjoy.

fruit2It is worth recognising that other people’s journeys aren’t the same as our own. David Gillespie, who wrote Sweet Poison, was struggling with obesity when he quit sugar; he was also eating and drinking a lot of processed food. Sarah Wilson has an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s, and reducing her sugar intake helps her manage this. Neither of these conditions apply to me, and so I don’t have the same incentives to make quitting sugar a way of life.

Plenty of bloggers, writers and recipe creators out there talk about quitting sugar, and being sugar free, when what they mean is refined sugar-free. Don’t get confused by the two. Honey, particularly raw honey, is thought to have great health-improving properties, but it is still sugar. Berries, such as blueberries, are extremely high in antioxidants, and are considered superfoods because of their high nutritional content, but they are a fruit, and fruit contains sugar. If you want to enjoy these and many more amazing foods, then do! Just don’t kid yourself that you are eating a completely sugar-free diet.

What works for me is quitting refined sugar. That means I can still eat fruit, and I can still bake, but I choose sugars that have not been highly processed and still retain nutrients. They are more expensive than table sugar – which helps limit the quantities I eat! (I’ll cover unrefined sugars in another blog post.)

If you want more information about sugar, I’d recommend reading both the books I mentioned at the start (I found both of these in my local library). The science behind sugar is really interesting, and I think it’s important that we connect with the food we eat in as many ways as possible.

Have you tried quitting sugar? How did you find it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The Irony of the “Treat”

Why is it, that when we think of treats, we often think of the over-processed, over-packaged, sugary, additive-filled, preservative-pumped, nutritionally-devoid excuses for food that we can buy at the supermarkets? I used to think that way, and I’d head to the supermarket to pick up a sugar-laden, calorie-filled, preservative-packed “treat” whenever I felt like I deserved a reward, wanted to celebrate, or was feeling sorry for myself.

Thing is, after that initial euphoria that came with eating said “treat”, I’d end up feeling less than special. All that refined sugar and refined carbohydrates would make me feel tired and lethargic.

I’d often end up bloated and with stomach ache.

I’d feel guilty – for having filled my body with junk, for having wasted my money, for not having the willpower to eschew junk food altogether and treat myself to a relaxing bath instead. The kind of guilt that could possibly be placated by the soothing comfort of a chocolate bar – and so it would continue.

I used to think like that, but I’ve changed. I haven’t stopped enjoying treats though – I still love chocolate and cake and all of those things. What’s happened is I’ve discovered that it’s possible to enjoy treats that still taste amazing and are made ingredients that are actually good for us. More on that later.

profiteroles and ingredients

Custard-filled profiteroles. But seriously, have you seen the ingredients?! How is filling your body with rubbish like that any way to treat yourself?

This change wasn’t a quick process. A combination of a few things – increasing interest in my health, a desire to stop buying things in plastic packaging and a passion for sustainable food – led me down this path, but it took time to learn and adjust. Once I was on the path though, I knew there was no going back.

I can’t tell you how much better I feel. When I eat something packed with nutrients, there’s no way I feel guilty! Food made with real ingredients fills me up, tastes far better, and the flavours linger… which helps stop me eating 100 cookies all at once.

If I served you a banana, an avocado and some walnuts for breakfast you’d probably think that was pretty healthy. And possibly also a little boring. But chuck it in a blender and add some cacao powder and a few other bits and pieces and you have chocolate mousse. For breakfast. How awesome is that?!

chocmouseebreakfast

Yep, this was breakfast! Chocolate mousse topped with walnuts and cacao nibs, with oatbran and cashew nut milk. What a way to start the day!

The point of a treat is just that. It is a treat. A treat should be something that makes us feel good. But this feeling shouldn’t just come simply from the knowledge that we are indulging ourselves. It should also come from the fact that we are indulging in something that will nourish us, that will provide our bodies with what it needs to feel good, to repair itself, to restore us.

With food, this means something that will continue to benefit our bodies long after the taste has left our lips. What is the point in “treating ourselves” to something that tastes sugary and satisfying but as soon as it is gone we are plagued with regret, because we know it is actually bad for us – full of preservatives and fillers but devoid of any nutritional benefit?

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m super passionate about food! So this year, one major focus on the blog is going to be to try to inspire you in the ways of clean eating, by making and sharing simple recipes (with probably far too much focus on desserts and sweet treats!) that are packed with things that are good for us and make us feel great. You don’t need to be a great cook. For some of them you won’t even need an oven! Simplicity is best.

Here’s to a year of deliciousness : )

How to Eat Clean

My last post was about clean eating, what it is and why it is so important. I thought I’d follow up with this post on how to eat clean… in the real world.

A lot of clean eating guidelines just aren’t practical. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be filling up on cheap but nutritionally devoid foods like white rice, pasta and white bread that offer us no health benefits. In an ideal world, we’d all be buying fresh, seasonal produce by the trolley-load, drinking cold-pressed juice daily and we’d all be fantastic home cooks and bakers with limitless free time to spend on preparing the best meals we can. But we don’t all live in an ideal world, we live in a world where good quality food is expensive, time is at a premium and it seems much easier to grab a piece of toast and rush out of the door in the morning than it is to knock up a almond flour pancake stack with stewed fresh fruit and homemade yoghurt.

The good news is, there’s plenty of things we can do to make our diet cleaner, whether we’re short of money, or time, or even motivation. Here’s a few ideas.

Be Prepared to Spend a Little More

It is definitely possible to eat clean on a budget, but you will need to spend more than the bare minimum if you want to eat fresh, clean food. For people who are genuinely struggling to make ends meet, clean eating may not be a priority. But for most of us, we have a choice about what we spend our money on. For me, eating good quality food is more important than spending money on an expensive phone contract or a magazine subscription. Our food is our health insurance. (In fact, as someone without health insurance, it literally is my health insurance.) That’s not to say we need to spend a fortune. Spending a little bit more in the right places goes a long way.

Organic versus Non-Organic

Organic food isn’t a modern concept or a fancy premium product invented for the rich. It’s how our grandparents used to eat, before modern unsustainable practices took over in the quest for ever increasing yields and ever increasing profits. Organic food is better for us and for the planet, and if I could afford to, I would ensure all of the food I bought was organic. Who wants to eat pesticide residues?! However, it can be seriously expensive!

Eating clean means eating fruit and vegetables untainted by pesticides. Pesticide levels vary on conventional produce from plant to plant, so some are safer than others. For those of us on a budget, the US-based Environmental Working Group does a fantastic job each year of telling us which ones have the safest levels and which ones are the highest risk.

dirtydozenIf you can’t afford to switch your entire shop to organic, try to switch the so-called dirty dozen (the ones containing the highest pesticide levels): apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, chillies, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, bell peppers/capsicum, kale and courgette/zucchini. If you can’t afford to purchase organic at all, try to limit how many of these foods you consume per week.

EWG found that people who ate conventional products daily from this list were ingesting 10 pesticides per day.

Ditch the Supermarket

Food should be exciting and inspiring! Supermarkets are soulless, depressing places… crowded, noisy and without natural light, where we are bombarded with “choice” yet can never find what we want. Yet, it is extremely easy to find all the processed overpackaged rubbish we don’t want – and no doubt it is on ‘special’ too. How many times do we buy things we don’t really want because we were seduced by the saving?! Special offers don’t mean money saved, they mean money spent. The best way to avoid temptation is not to shop there.

SPECIAL

There’s nothing ‘special’ about wasting our money on food that we don’t need and isn’t good for us!

In supermarkets, fresh doesn’t mean fresh. They have huge centralised distribution centres so “fresh” produce spends days on the road and days more in storage before reaching the shelves. It’s picked before it’s ripe so it lasts longer, but this impacts the taste. To top it off, it’s usually far more expensive than you’d pay at a farmers market or local farm shop… especially organics.

If you really don’t have any option available to you other than your local supermarket, try to keep to the edges and avoid the middle aisles. When buying fruit and veg, to get an idea of what’s in season, look at the country of origin and choose local.

Buy Loose

If you want to save money (and reduce your packaging consumption) find a bulk store where food is sold by weight and priced by the kilo. Prices are usually far lower than the supermarkets, and no endless fiddly packets either. The range is also far greater. Items that often appear on the exotic world food aisles with their exotic prices in supermarkets are a fraction of the price at these stores.

bulk1Shop Local

The Farmers’ Market is your friend. Fruit and vegetables are far fresher than those in the shops, they’re are seasonal, and far cheaper. Plus you can chat to the producers themselves! It’s not just fruit and veggies that you can pick up. Often there’s cheese, meat, fish, olive oil, eggs, bread and endless tasty wholesome treats to be had. Farmers Markets have a great atmosphere; they’re welcoming and relaxed, and make the whole shopping experience far more pleasurable. And that’s what food is about, right?

If you’re not a fan of the early rises that accompany Farmers Markets, let the shopping come to you! There’s plenty of local vegetable box schemes that deliver right to our doors, and they often deliver milk, eggs and grocery items too. If you lead a busy life, this can be a huge help, saving you time and energy.  And if you’re really not a fan of grocery shopping and tend to put it off until you literally have nothing left to eat, a delivery scheme ensures your fridge stays full and you don’t need to resort to emergency pizza to fend off starvation.

When we buy our food, we are making a choice about our future. If we want to live the fullest lives we can, to achieve all the things that we want to do, and be there for our communities, our children and our grandchildren, then we need to look after ourselves.

If we don’t look after our bodies, where are we going to live?

The sustainable, ethical, natural way to eat – the ‘clean’ approach

Have you ever heard of clean eating? No? I hadn’t until I started preparing for the Living Smart session I presented on Healthy Homes, Healthy You back in November.

Food is one of my passions, and I wanted to cover a range of things: eating natural, whole foods; the importance of organic; shopping locally at farmers’ markets; avoiding packaged products filled with preservatives; the evils of mass-produced processed foods – low or no nutrition, fake ingredients that our bodies can’t recognise; and the huge unethical corporations we support when we buy the brands they own (and the 10 biggest companies own almost all of the everyday brands we that buy).

This is the way I eat, although it was a transition that didn’t happen overnight. As I’ve said so many times, it started with Plastic Free July – cutting out plastic meant cutting out junk, buying more raw ingredients and making more from scratch. I began to seek out organics and shop at farmers markets as I became more committed to sustainability. I also started taking a lot more interest in my health. Whereas in my twenties I could eat anything and everything and get away with it, my thirties have not been so forgiving, and my digestive system no longer appreciates being bombarded with junk. I have found that a simple approach to food is the answer. Eating fresh, nutritious, healthy food every day actually makes me feel good – and tastes delicious.

Until I started my research though, I’d never thought about a way to describe my way of eating, other than plastic-free, which doesn’t quite do it justice. Or maybe whole foods (meaning food as close to its natural state as possible), but that doesn’t cover the ethical aspects. “Plant-based” doesn’t fit because whilst I eat a lot of plants, I also eat eggs and fish. Then I stumbled across the term “clean eating”, and I realised, there was a word that described how I eat after all, and so perfectly.

Clean Eating – What does it mean?

It’s actually quite simple. There are plenty of people out there who have dreamed up complicated rules for clean eating, saying all kinds of things like: you shouldn’t eat after 6pm; you shouldn’t eat gluten, or any grains, or even things that look like grains but actually aren’t; or you should only eat by the light of the moon (okay, I made that one up – but you get the idea). I think such rules are unnecessary. Why make things complicated? The way I see it, there’s just one guideline:

“If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.” ~Michael Pollan

So simple!

Of course, it can’t be taken completely literally. There are plants that are poisonous. Fish, meat and eggs may not be plants but that doesn’t mean they are bad for us. Following this rule doesn’t mean we all have to turn vegan. It’s more about understanding where our food comes from. Free range chickens that roam around in grassy meadows in small-scale farms are very different from battery chickens that have never seen daylight and are forced to live in confined, unhealthy conditions before being processed – in factories.

To me, clean eating encompasses a few things. Eating organic, and buying as local as possible. Shopping directly with producers and cutting out the middle-man (by which I mean, the supermarkets). Using ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible. Cooking from scratch. Choosing the best quality ingredients I can afford. Avoiding anything with preservatives, additives, or containing ingredients that I haven’t heard of or can’t pronounce. Choosing free range and fair trade (food produced by workers who are exploited can hardly be called ‘clean’).

Food is so important – we literally can’t live without it. Our food needs to be real in order to nourish us and keep us healthy. It needs to be grown in ways that are sustainable so that the land (and waterways) will continue to feed us for generations to come. And it needs to be grown the way nature intended. Not pumped with chemicals and drugs, or fed inappropriate feed (jellybeans, anyone?). Or worse – synthetically manufactured in a laboratory from man-made “ingredients” so it looks and tastes like food but is devoid of any actual nutrition. The only thing healthy about this is the profit that these companies generate for themselves.

“I prefer butter to margarine because I trust cows more than chemists.” ~Joan Gussow

What I’ve been up to…

Do you ever get yourself into a situation, and wonder how on earth it was that you ever agreed to get involved in the first place? This time last week, that was me. You may have noticed (from the distinct lack of personal photographs on the blog) that I’m not a particular fan of having my picture taken. So how was it that I agreed to be photographed last Monday morning wearing a pair of overalls, sitting in a knitted (yarnbombed) wheelbarrow, clutching a live chicken?

Well…

Let me tell you about the Less is More Festival. Read more

Blogging, not blogging and holidays

You may remember that I wrote a post in September about how my life was going to be ridiculously busy over the coming three months? And how I was hoping that I’d be able to juggle everything successfully? Well, it hasn’t quite been the plain sailing that I’d hoped. I knew it was going to be a challenge, and whilst I was hopeful that I could manage everything, I knew it was a long shot. In fact it’s been super hectic and stressful, and of course some things have had to give. One of those things has been the blog. I haven’t been posting as frequently as usual because I’ve been so busy.

Fortunately, the end is in sight and we are due to go on a long (four week) holiday in just under two weeks. Bliss. Of course it would probably be a little less stressful if we’d actually done something in the way of preparations other than make sure our passports were valid and book flights, but no matter. Next Friday night we will be off, and leaving all this busy whirring spinning busy-ness behind us. Read more