Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ignorance May Be Bliss, But Knowledge Is Power

I'd taken some time off blogging and freaking out about delicious foods a while ago due to a horrible and crippling chronic inflammation in my esophagus that had, after many tests, been determined to be GERD, an acid reflux variation that--in layman's terms--sets up residence in your throat. Awful.

Every day, it felt like there was a fuzzy tennis ball in my throat, physically holding it open while also obstructing airflow. Hiccuping-type burps would embarrassingly emerge in fits from my throat, with low growls and the constant flow of air and gasses trying to push themselves out would actually make me physically nauseated and lightheaded. I would have to push into my stomach or neck to try to force burps out, but because these episodes didn't stem from the gut, but rather from gas bubbles trapped in my throat, they weren't satisfying belches. Instead, my esophagus would become further trapped in the "open" position and the cycle would continue until it became a night of sleepnessness and discomfort. In fact, I became afraid to eat and try things (a fate worse than death for a foodie), not knowing the exact triggers; the usual suspects that are culprits to regular acid reflux didn't cause a reaction for me.

Garlic, onions, tomatoes ... still tremendously enjoyable. Cake, sometimes would cause a reaction, but I could still eat to obscenity and feel okay. Stonyfield and Chobani (more on this cheating, sugar-loaded, fake "healthy" brand here) yogurt? Terrible. But meanwhile, the Fage (however gross the new, supersweet Fruyo blended line is--24 grams of sugar is more than a candy bar!) was fine, except when it was expired and there was too much liquid up top. Coffee would lead to incidents as well. Cream cheese was a guarantee of misery afterwards, but mascarpone was 50/50 (mmm, tiramisu ...). So I thought, maybe it's dairy? Lactose sensitivity? I am genetically predisposed to it; a whopping 90% of the Asian population is lactose sensitive or intolerant, which makes sense since it's not a food found in the ancestral diet.

This terrible affliction that affected my day-to-day living to an incredible extent was initially what triggered my workout spree, motivation to lose the unhealthy extra poundage that I was carting around after moving back to lonely Long Island and working a miserable, disreputable, thankless, soul-sucking day job that made me even sadder about giving up my life in New Orleans. However, through my commitment to lose weight, fat in my midsection that was definitely affecting my digestion, squeezing my poorly functioning organs whose very DNA protested becoming squished in fat, I was able to slowly but surely get this GERD-like thing under control.

I'm sure dropping 40 pounds helped tremendously since my innards now had some room to move around and do stuff. Being active again definitely contributed to helping those internal gasses escape in a healthy way. I thought I was fixed.

But then, I was confused when after I started counting calories and eating healthier, the burps came back. There didn't seem to be much in common with the things I was eating, and like I said, I suspected dairy. But ... it also happened when I didn't have any moo juice products. So I thought it could be oil and/or fat that upset my overly sensitive stomach. But cutting down on healthy fats just led to my nails flaking apart and skin drying out. And I would still have some bad days.

However, I think I've finally figured out what the REAL culprit: artificial sweetener.

When I started experimenting with eliminating and tracking food intake and my body's subsequent reaction, Splenda with my coffee would kick this in. Every. Time. I started reading labels more closely, not just for calorie and nutrition counts, but for ingredients labeled as that tricky bastard sucralose. The added fake sugars to my low- or non-fat food (which, by the way, they do to compensate for the loss of richness in flavor to the reduced fat product)? Always.

Apparently, although I had to pay hundreds of dollars to doctors to not tell me this (seriously--why do specialists just send you to other specialists and labs? Do they get kickbacks from them? Wtf goes on with this medical game?!), using my own body as a guinea pig was the best way to figure out that this was the toxic thing. I mean, yes, too much dairy inevitably leads to gas and throat burps, but that's because I have a tendency to sliiiiightly overdo all things comestible. But without exception, sucralose led to misery ... and still does. No matter how much I work out, how healthy I eat. And now, after finally identifying it, I'm finding more and more evidence that Splenda and other chemically-made artificial sweeteners are TERRIBLE for you. Not only does it create more of an addiction to sweets and increasing your tolerance for it, but it actually increases the amount of bacteria in your gut.

Not good. And I could go on and on even longer than this, ranting disconnectedly (yes, I am openly acknowledging the poor writing quality of this very stream-of-consciousness post), but I won't.

Seriously, just Google "Splenda" and "Is Splenda bad for you?" You'll be shocked and appalled.

So why am I talking about this? Well, in case anyone else out there is suffering from this, since all the message boards I'd ever read researching "throat burps" came up with nothing. Yes, I know that's gross, but this was really an experience that sucked the joy out of my eating life for over a year--misery.

Also, to reinforce the importance of quality, real ingredients in food and what a difference it can make not only to your diet, but to your life. Prilosec, Prevacid, and all that shit didn't work for me. You know what did? Eating pineapple (the bromelain enzymes help to you digest better; it's not always about the acid in a food!) ... and eating whole foods. Cooking at home. Committing to eating local and taking fast food and chain restaurants completely out of the equation. Going to restaurants that believe in farm-to-table and sourcing locally, letting natural flavors shine through. Visiting other countries that default to local produce, non-genetically modified food and grass-fed/pasture-raised/free-range meat sources ... all of which, by the way, taste significantly and noticeably better and are more concentrated in flavor than conventional American whole foods.

As I get more and more into reading labels, uncovering the dirty secrets of food manufacturing in America (and believe you me, they are DISGUSTING, filthy secrets), and continue to fix my sad guts by cleaning up my act with clean eating, I just wanted to write a bit about my personal struggle with manufactured and chemically altered/created food and encourage others again to get out of the chains and into local restaurants and markets. Stop eating at Applebee's with their frozen, microwaved mediocrity, or Cheesecake Factory's sodium bombs when there are adorable hidden gems in your community. Don't head to a Hard Rock Cafe on your Hawaiian vacation when you could be enjoying local seafood, fresh from the docks from a mom-and-pop joint right on the pier. Shop your local farmer's market and support the little guys while rewarding yourself with fresh-picked produce rather than buying that super-shiny apple shipped from the other end of the country ... or continent, in the cases of some citrus and other stuff. Join a CSA and be adventurous, discovering new recipes. And most importantly, support your community.

Your stomach, health, and town will thank you. I know mine did.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Food Fit for a Cleanse

So, as I'd mentioned, I've been doing a sugar detox/low-glycemic eating kind of deal through my box gym, Primal Strength, and have since graduated to being able to add protein since I successfully made it through my first week. Here are some lovely things I've made that are vegetarian, low-oil, low-fat and high-flavor!
Eggplant, zucchini, garlic, tomato, and baked garlic ricotta towers

Fresh mozzarella marinated with red onions, tomato and balsamic, with red peppers on mesclun
Balsamic and rosemary-roasted portabellas with shaved red onions, roasted red peppers on arugula
Mesclun topped with beefsteak tomatoes, roasted red pepper, Golden Delicious apples, shaved red onion and cranberry goat cheese on arugula
Roasted sweet potato with apple-cider roasted Brussels sprouts and homemade tomato and carrot soup

Roasted zucchini with fire-roasted tomatoes and carrots (stewed together), topped with fresh basil

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Adventures Abroad: Leprechaun Gold

Lovely town of Kenmare, right on
the outer edges of the Ring of Kerry
I recently had the good fortune to be able to visit the magical island of Ireland, a destination I'd had on my list since I'd contemplated studying abroad there during college. The rolling, verdant pastures all sparkling in 40 shades of green; the colorful, jaunty villages painted in joyous hues as to defy the gray skies above; crumbling stone castles and manor homes covered in sheets of English ivy; the wilderness of the cragged shorelines as Atlantic waves pounded mercilessly against stoic limestone. These were all the things I'd envisioned when I'd pictured Ireland's treasures, and this country did not disappoint.

Cliffs of Moher. No photos can do
them justice.
A part of the magic of this land is in its virgin landscapes, a sense of ferality that lies as an undercurrent against the domesticity of black-faced sheep, patiently spray-painted blue, purple and red. For Boy, the spell of enchantment was woven most tightly around him in the exhilarating links golf courses, cleverly camouflaged between swells of ocean grass, rising above vertical-drop cliff faces as a comforting "thwack" marks a crisp morning.

However, even with all this, Ireland had dropped to a lower bracket on my bucket list due to its (undeserved) reputation for abysmal food. How could I justify a jaunt to Europe where the feast would be more for my eyes than my mouth? 

See? ADVENTURE! The so-called
"best" fish-and-chips in Ireland,
(I didn't agree) but all the fun was
in the field research and search.
Well, for $700 round-trip for a direct flight to Dublin, and great industry rates for a rental car and 4- and 5-star hotels, I justified it. With the Gathering and all, 2013 was a hot time for travel to the Emerald Isle, so the time was ripe and the deals were staggering. Boy wanted to play golf; I wanted to do something a bit different. I have grown tired and bored of all-inclusive, somewhat generic gluttony and after our cruise to the Western Mediterranean, I've discovered that there is joy in the hunt. I still research the crap out of places to make sure I'm going to the most notable restaurants, and that I don't miss any epicurean hubs, but the getting there and the getting -- that's what gets me going. 

I'd love to go on longer and talk in depth about my trip, but one singular thing from this vacation inspired this post: the gold at the end of an Irish rainbow.

Many say this is myth, fable, tall tale or what-have-you. But I just want to share that it's true. There are indeed pots of gold to be found in Ireland, in brown barrels, brown bread and everything in between.

I'm talking, my friend, about the BUTTER.

The glorious, unimaginably sweet, rich, bright gold butter of Ireland is a treasure against all of the land's wonderful, underrated treasures. The incredible difference grass-fed dairy presents! I'd known that Ireland's cheeses and milk would be exceptional, but the butter was an epic experience every time I had it.

Blueberry scone, with layers of sweet flavor
only quality butter can impart.
Boldly gold, its color was initially off-putting, as was the ease of which it transferred to my spreader. Soft, molten, I spread it on my first scone (another revelation--I'd go back just for the scones alone!), where it gave way like a docile maid and attached itself to the crumb of the pastry, yet taking nothing with it when I pulled the knife away. The lightness and lack of grease in taste and feel was startling, given the deep flavor of the butter. It was sweet, creamy and decadent, yet not heavy; it clung to your memory more than your tongue, leaving only a shadow of a pleasant sensation, like a dream in your mouth.

From first bite, I was obsessed. And although I generally eat very clean, I felt no guilt about indulging in this purest form of butter. It FELT clean. It TASTED clean. And as lactose-sensitive I may ethnically be prone to be, I felt like a million fucking bucks every goddamn day.

So this is what real butter is like. This is what it's supposed to be like, how it's supposed to feel. Free of chemicals, additives, preservatives, antibiotics from diseased teats and subsequent pasteurization, straight from the well cared-for udders of happy, free-roaming, grass-fed cows.

Naturally, upon my return stateside, I became a butter snob. No more Land O'Lakes or Breakstone's for me! It was Kerrygold imported FTW!

Unfortunately, it doesn't taste quite the same here as it did there, but it'll do for now. When you can't get 24 karat gold, you have to settle for 14, right? But until next time, because leprechaun gold be damned -- I found the real stuff and it is GLORIOUS.

Raspberry scones and raspberry meringues from one of my favorite places in
the world, Queen of Tarts. More on this place later!