Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dark Chocolate, the Superfood

I wasn’t always the chocolate-obsessed woman you see before you today. In my youth, I would invariably choose a fruit pie over chocolate. I even wondered what the hoo-ha was about chocolate. Then menopause hit me with a tsunami of chocolate lust. I have never looked back. Dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) is the most important meal of my day.

Happily, dark chocolate has miraculous health benefits, which I am about to share with you; but before that, some key qualifiers. First, let’s be clear that when I say dark chocolate I mean good quality, organic, at least 70% cacao (the darker the better) chocolate. Second, to gain the health benefits of chocolate, you should limit consumption to no more than an ounce a day. The lower the sugar content the better, and don’t buy chocolate made with milk. Buy organic chocolate only. Commercial chocolate not only contains toxic substances, but it does not contain cocoa sourced from sustainable farming that provides for the preservation of the land and a fair livelihood for the farmers. Inorganic chocolate = exploitation.

That said, why is dark chocolate good for your health?

The sugar added to chocolate masks cocoa’s inherently bitter taste, and bitter foods (like kale and arugula) are super-strong antioxidants. Many of the health benefits of dark chocolate stem from the antioxidant flavonoids it contains. Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, which is extraordinarily rich in flavanols, a type of phytochemical that is a powerful antioxidant and a terrific anti-inflammatory. Two of the main causes for disease and aging are oxidation and inflammation. Oxidation, the result of oxidative stress, has many instigators, including toxins in the environment as well as the toxic load we carry from stress, anxiety, and depression. Chocolate is high in certain flavanols, which are also found in green tea, apples, grapes, and berries. Dark chocolate keeps good company. Let’s look at some specifics.

Dark chocolate has a positive impact on our neurotransmitters that regulate mood and sleep. It’s not surprising that dark chocolate improves sleep, since it contains a large amount of magnesium, a mineral that increases the body’s ability to engage in restorative sleep. However, the caffeine in chocolate may keep some people awake. I can’t eat chocolate any later in the day than 1:00 PM or it keeps me awake at night. That’s a good thing for me since it prevents me from eating more than a few squares of dark chocolate a day.

Dark chocolate protects against heart disease, lowering the risk for heart attack and stroke. It releases a chemical messenger (nitric oxide) that improves arterial blood flow, increases arterial dilation, and reduces platelet clumping. It is important to know that the casein in milk prevents the absorption of dark chocolate’s flavanols. This is why you should not eat chocolate with milk in it or eat chocolate alongside milk. Dark chocolate also protects the heart because of the way it is digested, which will be discussed below.

Dark chocolate lowers blood pressure, according to a recent study conducted in Italy. Study participants ate three ounces of dark chocolate daily. A control group of similarly healthy people ate the same amount of white chocolate. Dark chocolate contains flavanols and white chocolate does not. The people who ate the dark chocolate had a significantly lower systolic blood pressure reading after fifteen days of eating the chocolate.

Dark chocolate decreases insulin resistance, a critical risk factor for Type II diabetes. Cocoa improves insulin sensitivity according to research published in Endocrine Abstracts (Farhat, 2014). Dark chocolate improved insulin sensitivity even in people who did not have diabetes. The study concluded that eating a little dark chocolate every day might significantly contribute to the delay or prevention of the onset of diabetes in pre-diabetics. Furthermore, researchers (Mellor, Sathyapalan, Kilpatrick, Beckett, and Atkin, 2010) discovered that one ounce daily of dark chocolate improved the arterial health of diabetics by increasing HDL (“good cholesterol”), without affecting weight, insulin resistance, glycemic control, or inflammatory markers. Furthermore, in another study, researchers (Yasuda, Natsume, Osakabe, Kawahata, and Koga, 2011) found that dark chocolate consumption lowered LDL (“bad cholesterol”).

Dark chocolate improves mood and reduces depression. People suffering from depression often crave chocolate, and for good reason. The impact that the flavanols in dark chocolate have on neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin) can make us feel better and more positive. Evidence-based research shows that dark chocolate decreases depression (Bunce, 2007). It creates the amino acid tyrosine, which is a precursor to a chemical cascade that results in feelings of euphoria (Ross, 2002).

Dark chocolate is helpful for people with chronic fatigue syndrome. In a small study in England, 1½ ounces of 85% cocoa dark chocolate was given to a group of participants with chronic fatigue syndrome every day for eight weeks. Participants reported feeling less fatigued after eating the chocolate.

Dark chocolate can alleviate the discomfort of PMS. It releases calming endorphins that reduce anxiety. The high magnesium content can lift mood, reduce water retention, and reduce cramping.

Dark chocolate improves the ecology of our digestive tract and contributes to a strong immune system. Dark chocolate is loaded with fiber and is therefore largely indigestible. Undigested cocoa fiber ferments in the gut and releases substances that feed beneficial gut microbes, including probiotics (e.g., lactobacillus, which is also found in yogurt). The numbers of beneficial probiotics increase in the gut after the introduction of cocoa; while undesirable microbes, like staphylococcus, decline in the presence of cocoa fiber. (Reynolds, 2014). Coming down with a cold? Eat dark chocolate! You have to love this.

The dynamics of how the digestive tract processes cocoa is fascinating and has a larger impact than simply building the immune system. Dark chocolate is good for your heart because of that fermentation of cocoa fiber by gut bacteria, creating anti-inflammatory compounds that improve blood vessel function. Researcher Katherine Harmon Courage writes (March 2014) that research suggests that beneficial bacteria that reside toward the end of our digestive tract ferment both the antioxidants and the fiber in cocoa. These microbes create the anti-inflammatory compounds that are linked to the ways in which dark chocolate benefits cardiovascular health. Magic. OK, science. But isn’t science magical?

Eating a little dark chocolate every day may improve thought processes of people with mild cognitive impairment, according to a study in Neurology Journal (Aug. 2013). Dark chocolate has been shown to keep the aging brain sharp, warding off dementia, by increasing blood flow to the brain. Moreover, its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are virtually unmatched for enhancing cognition for people of all ages and in all stages of health.

Forget the cod liver oil, I'm bringing home the dark chocolate. But before we get carried away (oh yeah, dark chocolate causes euphoria), remember the rules about eating chocolate:  1) at least 70% cacao (the darker the better), 2) no milk in it or with it, 3) 100% organic (made with an organic sweetener too), 4) the less sugar in it the better, 5) eat in moderation (about an ounce a day). I play by the rules and I savor my daily dose. Me and my good-quality dark chocolate, we're going to live to be a hundred together, sharp as ever, blogging onward. Yum.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Things a Woman Should Have by 60

Last week one of my 20-something Facebook friends posted a link to a blog entitled 25 Things a Woman Should Have by 25. It was a pretty good list, albeit heavy on the fashion element. It got me thinking, and I decided to write my list of things a woman should have by 60. I couldn’t keep it to 25. I guess by 60, I expect a lot out of life. Below is my list, in no particular order. I keep thinking of more things to add, but I’ve called it quits for now. What would you add?

1) A healthy relationship with high-quality dark chocolate.
2) Retirement savings and no credit card debt.
3) An excellent skincare routine and a brilliant dermatologist.
4) A flattering bathing suit.
5) An exercise regimen that is fun and something to look forward to.
6) A stack of books by the bed.
7) A reliable car plus membership in an automobile association that will send help for any emergency road situation, at any time night or day, within 30 minutes.
8) Abundant proof of competence at your chosen profession.
9) A toolkit with basic tools hidden away where no guy can find it to co-opt tools at his whim, ruin them, or lose them.
10) More than one close woman friend who has been through hell and back with you.
11) Peace with the parents (dead or living).
12) Frequent opportunities to dance.
13) Children of your own who communicate with you regularly, or someone else’s children who think you’re rather special.
14) Grandchildren, the prospect of grandchildren, a dog, a cat, and/or a Betta fish (depending on your level of tolerance for noise).
15) An herb garden and a place to grow tomatoes and basil in the summer.
16) Warm boots.
17) A sympathetic hair stylist.
18) A Thanksgiving tradition.
19) An honest car mechanic.
20) A favorite beach.
21) Good scented soap.
22) A book group.
23) The ability to enjoy time alone.
24) An emergency first aid kit in your handbag.
25) Enough favorite, easy recipes to last at least a week without repetition.
26) The ability to speak more than one language.
27) A creative accountant.
28) Ongoing real appreciation for the work you do.
29) An apple a day.
30) A toolkit for stress management that includes both physical activities and herbal supplements (Ashwagandha, ladies).
31) A nearby place to go for a walk among trees.
32) A Rain Shower showerhead.
33) Fancy underwear.
34) Fuzzy house socks in an assortment of colors.
35) A home that you love.
36) A funny movie that you watch at least once a year and never tire of.
37) Soft Egyptian cotton sheets and a down comforter.
38) A cast iron skillet.
39) Reading glasses in every room of the house.
40) A favorite getaway location.
41) A magic masseuse.
42) A beautiful big basket to take to the Farmer’s Market.
43) A loving partner or the memory of a truly loving relationship once had.
44) A fun hobby you’re totally good at.
45) Photo albums that make you laugh and cry.
46) The ability to say “no” without feeling guilty.
47) An ever-changing current favorite song to sing along to at the top of your lungs while driving alone in your car.
48) Fresh flowers on the kitchen table every week.
49) Gratitude for the joys experienced so far, reconciliation with the losses, and the conviction that more wonders are yet to come.
50) A future to look forward to, the ability to be present in the moment, and an avalanche of wonderful memories to savor.

One of the most beautiful moments in my life so far – dancing with my son at his wedding. He chose the song. A perfect moment for a 60-year-old mom. I hope this link works for you to see us dancing.  Mom's Dance with the Groom

Sunday, October 12, 2014

School Lunch Wars

The health of our nation’s children is playing out on a quiet battleground. Every school day, school cafeterias in this country serve up 30 million lunches and 13 million breakfasts paid for by taxpayers. One would think that providing children with nutritious food at school would be the best place to make an impact on lifelong health and to stop the obesity epidemic. First Lady Michelle has thrown her back into this one. But once again corporate greed prevails. Food biz giants want their profits at the expense of the health of our children and they won’t give up ground without a fight.

One in three American children is obese or overweight. Right now. Projections indicate that in less than 15 years half the adult population will experience impaired health because of overweight/obesity (i.e., diabetes, heart disease, hypertension). Interestingly, some of the impetus behind improving school lunches in the past came from the military, which was having trouble finding enough fit young people to serve. In 2009, the Department of Defense reported that more recruits were turned away for obesity than for any other reason.

In 2010, the Obamas promoted the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This bill placed new restrictions on food available to children at school based on guidelines for healthy eating. Passing the bill not only involved gaining approval from congressional reps, but also from manufacturers of food sold to schools, nutrition experts, and the cafeteria workers (who convinced children to take, try, and eat food on a daily basis). The Act passed, but when implementation began, things fell apart. The Republicans faulted the Democrats for getting behind Michelle to enforce heavy-handed, government-regulated rules about what children could eat at school. Food moguls hired lobbyists to work to derail and dilute the regulations. And the food moguls have the School Nutrition Association (A.K.A. the cafeteria workers) in their pocket. In public, the SNA pretends to be behind the Act, but behind closed doors it is the biggest critic.

As part of the Act, in 2012 school lunches were required to meet a host of new standards, including offering twice as many fruits and vegetables as previously. Starchy vegetables (read French fries) did not count. Believe it or not, there is a starchy vegetable lobby! But the biggest flashpoint of the war centered around pizza. Schools spend more than $450 million each year on pizza, the most popular cafeteria food. Prior to 2012, pizza could be served indiscriminately in school lunches because the pizza sauce on a pizza, rather than being counted as two tablespoons of tomato paste, could be counted as eight tablespoons of tomatoes (a vegetable). This may remind some of you older folks of the days when Ronald Reagan was raked over the coals for claiming that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable in school lunches. The 2012 changes associated with implementation of the Act no longer counted tomato paste as any type of vegetable. The SNA flipped out. I guess, cafeteria workers could not figure out how to design meals and prepare food that children would eat without the crutch of pizza. Furthermore, they didn’t want to try to get children to eat all those new fruits and veggies required.

Yay for Director of Food Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest Margo Wootan! She turned the opponents to the 2012 regulations into fools by stating in the media that Congress wanted to pass off pizza as a vegetable. Unfortunately, the pizza-makers lobby was strong and rules regarding how pizza sauce and tomato paste were classified were diluted by lawmakers. Regulations were changed and pizza can be served with little else of nutritional value to offset it.

When the 2012 regulations went into effect, cafeteria workers and schoolchildren across the country staged their own local protests to the new rules. Some children refused to eat the extra fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, the children who refused the extra fruits and veggies and brought brown-bag food from home instead were more often from affluent families. The children living in poverty ate the extra helpings of fruits and veggies far more readily, and were grateful to receive them. In fact, participation in the free lunch program (for low-income students) increased in the wake of the new 2012 regulations. As a vegetarian, who has spent a lifetime cooking delicious food dominated by vegetables, I have to say that most people who don’t eat a vegetarian diet have no clue how to cook vegetables in a delectable way. No wonder the children pass up these delights on the school lunch line. Vegetables and fruits are the best things going if you know how to prepare them. Sheesh.

By 2013, the Republicans and the wave of anti-government right-wingers had seized on the school lunch wars as something requiring their attention. Don’t let government tell children what they can eat. Conservative media sites have had a field day attacking Michelle and the Let’s Move! campaign. Wait, what? I guess Michelle is too momly for them. They don’t want to eat what Mom puts on the table, it seems. All this opposition could have a devastating effect when the Act comes up for reauthorization in September 2015. All of Michelle’s hard work could be for naught. It’s entirely possible that the Republicans, corporate giant food moguls, and cafeteria workers (who are being manipulated by the food moguls) will pull the plug on efforts to improve the nutritional value of food provided to children at school. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate at the midterm election, the Act will likely be gutted, and the war the Obamas have been waging against childhood obesity will essentially be lost.

Education of children and families about what foods will make them feel great and give them the gift of health is desperately needed. People need to vote with their forks. 

On Friday I attended an evening service at my synagogue. It was followed by a potluck dinner. I brought a Mediterranean cucumber and tomato salad to the potluck. I also brought several packages of organic seaweed snacks. I opened the seaweed snacks and left them out on the table. Within minutes, the children at the synagogue had devoured the seaweed snacks as if they were the most marvelous delicacy. That’s what I’m talking about. Nutrition happens!

Wait, what? Are the carrots and grapes supposed to make it 
OK to serve chicken nuggets and Oreos as lunch? Appalling! 
And what about the non-food meal of only nuggets and Oreos? 
Do we even care about our children's health?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wedding Notes

I thought that writing about the wedding beforehand was sufficient schmaltz from a mom with a son getting married, but quite a few of my blog readers have asked me why I didn’t write about the wedding afterward. I guess you all want to share in the good time, so here is a reflection on the wedding, this time from the other side.

The whole week in SoCal was full of enjoyable events and memorable times. Ron and I drove down with Sudi on Wednesday. The long drive through the parched Central Valley (so sad to see the devastation of the drought) afforded us time to chat with Sudi and get caught up on his doings.

On Thursday we hooked up with my dad and my brother Bill and went over to Akili and Tina’s lovely new apartment to check it out. They can even see the Pacific Ocean from their balcony on a clear day. I took the opportunity to pull Akili and Tina aside and give them the quilt I made for them as their wedding gift. Giving them the quilt was emotional for me since I put so much love into it. Some of the material in the quilt came from Akili’s clothes from when he was a little boy (yup, I saved some of them). The front of a Hopland Bears T-shirt (from Hopland Elementary School) was sewn into it along with the front of two other T-shirts from Akili’s boyhood. There was material from the dresses I wore when I was pregnant with him and material I have saved all these years that I inherited from my mother – material she had used to make curtains for the house I lived in until I was eleven years old. Other material was selected because it would be significant for Tina – shoes, red hot chili peppers, sock monkeys. Akili and Tina have a sweet little personal thing about sock monkeys. My first cry of the weekend came when I gave them hugs with their wedding quilt.

Thursday was the rehearsal dinner. My youngest's girlfriend and my daughter's boyfriend traveled to join us for the rehearsal dinner. On Friday, a few of us went to Newport Beach. We lolled by the glorious ocean for hours; longer than we had intended because it was just so gorgeous. Ron remained at the hotel waiting for his family to check in. By that evening the Reed family contingent had arrived – Ron’s sister Wanda and husband Rick, our niece Denise, nephew Keith and his wife Shana; also my stepson Brian rolled in from St. Louis. By Saturday, everyone from our side of the family/friends had checked in at the hotel. We were ready to party. The most raucous party of the evening occurred in Sudi’s room where they engaged in a loud, wild, competitive game of cards with Sudi’s younger cousins (teenaged children of my brother Dan and my first cousin Deb).

By the time the actual wedding day dawned, we had been celebrating for days. Ron and I spent the morning of the wedding watching football with our Fantasy Football League – one of the rare occasions when so many of us from both sides of the country were in one location. We turned the football off after lunch and cleared the room so we could get fancy and beautify ourselves to see our son married. I could have worn a potato sack and flip-flops and everyone would have told me I looked fabulous because I was glowing with such happiness. I didn’t wear a potato sack, though. I wore a fancy outfit that was comfortable and Tina’s florist helped me put a gardenia in my hair. I never looked more respectable. Even my fashionista daughter approved. (She looked spectacular as always.)

We arrived early at the wedding venue and so did the rest of the family so we had more time to visit. I spent a pre-wedding hour in the “bar” watching football with the guys, of course. Photos of everyone dressed up were taken. The guests took their seats. My dad was ushered down the aisle first by Dan’s youngest son Ben (Dan’s other two children were in the wedding party). Ron and I followed. Then Tina’s mom and Akili. Then the wedding party walked. There were about a dozen bridesmaids and a dozen groomsmen so it took a while for everyone to take their places. The flower girl was Tina’s four-year-old niece and she was a hit; so poised and adorable, accompanied by her little cousin, the official ring bearer (although Sudi actually had the rings). Tina’s niece refused to call Akili “uncle” until he officially married Tina.

I expected I would make a fool of myself crying when Tina came down the aisle. Well, I was not alone as it turned out. Everyone was crying. She was so beautiful and so happy; and her Dad, well he was the picture of happiness. Knowing how important Tina’s dad has been in Akili’s life, it was extra special to see him hand his daughter off to my son. Our friend Jim officiated. He was not only the best man at our wedding (Ron’s and mine), but he had been present at Akili’s birth. Jim said some excellent words for the occasion, finishing up by telling the bride and groom that he believes we should strive to live a life of which we can be proud and that their relationship is an exemplary relationship of which they can be proud. He also shared that when planning for their wedding, Akili had told him that he could not imagine the world without Tina in it. Tina spoke her words to Akili. Then it was Akili’s turn. Akili’s words to Tina included “I never  thought I would find a girl that likes cars, football, video games, cartoons, and beer, but somehow there was you.” He also told her that she inspires him to be a better person. When Jim asked for the rings, Sudi pretended he couldn’t find them, patting his pockets and looking confused. Then he laughed and produced the rings. Rings exchanged, Jim pronounced them husband and wife. Akili and Tina do not often show affection publicly. They are private that way. So I have never seen my son kiss the love of his life for real. But he sure gave her that real kiss before they walked back down the aisle. Any romantic would have swooned over that kiss.

As we returned to the reception area, a mariachi band (friends of Tina’s mother) began to serenade. They were exceptional. Dad and I soon began to dance with Tina’s mother and her cousins and women friends. We danced to that mariachi as the sun set on a golden day. There were cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and we were shepherded in to dinner. Tina’s dance with her dad melted me and Tina’s mom as we wept together at the parents’ table. But I have to say that my Macy’s mascara held and I didn’t look like a raccoon. Akili had chosen the Beatles song “In My Life (I Love You More)” for his dance with me. Dancing with him to that tune was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

The dinner was delicious. I went around and talked briefly with all the guests who were my family and friends. I wish that I had been able to meet all of Tina’s family and her parents’ friends, but there was just “not world enough and time.” Everyone was so happy that we danced and danced and danced all night. Many people told Akili when they left that it was the most fun wedding they had ever attended. There is so much more that I could write about the wedding. But this is already a lengthy description. I hope this account was enjoyable for you to read and satisfies the wish of those of you who wanted to hear more about the wedding. I thought that I would be sad afterward; let down because it was all over. But I’m not. I feel as though my life has shifted into a new place. Crazy, huh? I pray that Akili and Tina continue to live a charmed life of their own making.

 Our immediate family.

Me and my dad. Love this guy to bits. So fun to party with him.

A snapshot of the quilt I made -- laid out on my bed at home.