Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Top toppings

As the temperature drops my craving for hot food extends to breakfast. Whilst a cooked breakfast is appealing (when I have one I always go for the vegetarian version to limit the damage), porridge is undoubtedly the healthy warming winter breakfast of choice.

Having gone gluten and dairy free sometime ago I make mine with organic rice flakes, rather than oat flakes with rice milk which makes it naturally sweet. I also often add a tsp of Ndali natural vanilla extract to make it taste creamier and some ground flaxseeds for extra fibre.

It's actually a pretty tasty alternative but, as with all foods, having the same breakfast everyday isn't much fun. It's also healthier to eat a greater variety of foods to ensure you're taking in a variety of nutrients.

Consequently I like to have my porridge with different healthy toppings. These both add extra flavour and texture and extra nutrients: Dried fruit contain iron and other minerals, fresh fruit adds vitamin C and antioxidants and the nuts and seeds add essential fats and extra fibre slowing down digestion of the meal helping me feel fuller for longer.

These toppings are also great to add flavour to natural yoghurt as a healthy pudding or sustaining snack.

My favourite porridge toppings:

Chopped Dried apricots, chopped figs and sunflower seeds (leave the dried fruit to soak over night or buy pre-soaked)

Dessicated coconut, turmeric and goji berries. I tend to cook in the goji berries in the porridge so they soften. Don't be put off by using turmeric, it's used in Indian pudding and gives a warm spicey flavour.

Apple, cinnamon and raisins - delicious old school combo!

Banana, agave, chopped hazelnuts.

Stewed berries, cinnamon + flaked almonds. I keep frozen berries in my freezer over winter so I can always make a quick berry compote to go with breakfast. Just add a couple of tbsp water and stew for 5-10mins.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Making the connection

On the way home tonight I read an interview in the evening standard with Kirsty Wark. It wasn't a very good interview (when the interviewer themselves admits it's not going well that's a bad sign!) but she did say something with regards to her stint on masterchef that I thought was worth sharing:

"To know what you are eating and to know why you are eating it and to feel passion for it is a great thing."

I think that this is so true and that a passion for food and an understanding of it are key to having both a healthy body and a healthy relationship with food.

So many kids today are brought up not knowing how their food is grown or produced, how to cook a meal from scratch, or what effect that food then has on their bodies. This mindless approach to food leads to mindless eating and not respecting your body through eating well.

I'm sure most people would stop eating fast food if they saw the whole process of how it was produced, but even with something like a beautiful homemade cake - until you've made one yourself you won't realise how much sugar and fat goes into them!

Whilst having the time to cook meals from scratch is a luxury for most city folk, making time to do so, even just once a week, is worthwhile. Learning to cook helps us express our creative sides and can be very satisfying at the same time it can teach you a lot about what's going into the food you're eating during the rest of the week.

Here's my suggestion for how to approach this:
Choose a recipe for a meal you know you like and give yourself time to get all the ingredients you need (missing out ingredients generally leads to disappointing results).
Buy the best ingredients you can afford - organic meats and dairy products both taste noticeably better. Buy local and in season fruit and vegetables for maximum flavour and try and choose seasonal recipes.
Give yourself extra time to cook - first time recipes always take longer than they state
Think about the nutritional value of the meal - what's good about it and what's not so good.
Once you've tried it a couple of times have a think about how you could healthy it up - could you use healthier fats or less sugar? Could you up the ratio of veggies to carbs?
Once you've mastered a recipe invite some friends round and cook for them, feeding appreciative friends can be very rewarding and they might even be inspired to try your recipe themselves.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sugar and spice and all things nice

I felt like a proper Sunday lunch today and that involved having a proper wintery pudding. I'm quite happy with a bowl stewed orchard fruit this time of year, especially with a bit of cinnamon cooked in, but today I wanted something a bit more substantial and quite frankly there was only one thing that would fit the bill .... crumble!!

Fruit crumble is such a wonderful pudding .. stodgy, comforting and rich in flavour. It's also a great way to get fruit into your diet over the cold winter months when you might not feel like raw fruit. Crumbles are also a sneaky way to get fruit into the diets of fruit (or adult!) averse children and use up any bottled or frozen fruit from the summer.

Sadly despite it's virtues, crumble is not sugar, dairy and gluten free (most puddings aren't). But, as with all my favourite dishes, I don't see cutting these out as a hurdle and with a little help from Delia Smith and Elena from Elena's Pantry I came up with a hybrid crumble .... rich in flavour but without the saturated fats, sugars and flour.

This recipe is particularly up my street because it incorporates some of my favourite wintery spices, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, with my favourite fruit. These spices are all wonderfully warming but also have antibacterial qualities, much needed as the winter bugs start emerging. Cinnamon is also helpful in balancing blood sugar levels and enhances the sweetness of anything you add it to, that means you need less sugar in the recipe, so you won't get the usual sugar low after this pudding that you might after other sugary desserts. Cloves and nutmeg also have anti-inflammatory properties, so good for those creaking joints on a cold morning.

Spiced pecan & apple crumble
Core and chop 5 medium dessert apples into large slices and put in a small ovenproof dish.
Add to this 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ground cloves, 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg, 1 tbsp agave syrup and 1oog raisins. Stir thoroughly and leave.

In a cup mix 1/3 cup of grapeseed oil, 1/4 cup of agave syrup and 1 tbsp vanilla essence.

In a bowl mix 2 cups of ground almonds with 100g chopped pecans (I used my little handheld braun blender with it's chopper attachment) and a pinch of salt. Stir in the liquid from the cup and mix thoroughly. Spread over the apple and spice mixture and pat down firmly with your fingers to seal the top.

Bake at 180C for 40-45 minutes (until golden on top).

Hot doc is a pudding purist and insisted on having custard with this, but it was delicious on it's own. Otherwise serve with natural yoghurt (soya for dairy free), or you can even make your own dairy free custard with custard powder, rice milk and fructose or agave to sweeten to taste.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

How to be a happy puppy

On the tube home there was a guy with the most adorable little staff puppy, so full of energy and inquisitive. A stark contrast with the sad faces of tired commuters.

I know what it's like to feel worn down from a long days work and it's easy to feel sorry for yourself, but right now if you're in the city and still in your job you probably should be counting your lucky stars not feeling sorry for yourself.

It all comes down to perception and attitude - two people can be in the exact same circumstances and one can feel fortunate and the other one down on their luck. It's certainly true with health - there are some people with serious health problems who feel lucky to be alive and bring a positive attitude to facing their conditions, and others who may actually be in reasonable health but still find something to complain about without taking any action.

I don't want to be a total polyanna and say you can deal with anything with a positive mental attitude - there's obviously a strong genetic factor in numerous health conditions - but I do think people generally would benefit from recognising the positive aspects of their lives and taking more responsibility in fixing anything they're not happy with.

It's not even that difficult all you need is a pen and paper:

1. Write down everything you like about your life and everything you're grateful for ... Give yourself some time to think and include little things like 'pancakes for breakfast' and 'a lie in on the weekend' - the list may end up pretty long.

2. Write down everything you don't like and aren't happy about. Be honest here - still the list probably won't be longer then 1 - your glass is already more than half full.

3. Next to every item on the second list write down an action that you could take towards fixing or improving that problem. Start with baby steps where possible rather than big actions so against something like 'I want a flatter stomach' 'do an abs class once this week' rather than 'exercise for an hour a day' or against 'I don't like where I work' list 'review my cv' rather than 'get a new job'.

4. Set aside an hour or two on the weekend and tackle as many of the actions in list 3 as you can. As soon as you take action you'll already feel less negative about that item.

Keep working through the actions and repeat step 1 once a week until you start to feel like a genuinely happy puppy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Serious side-effects

I've taken my fair share of flu medications and pain relief in my time but since cleaning up my act diet and health-wise I've been keen to keep all medications to a minimum and try and use natural remedies when possible.

Sometimes though when it comes to pain relief, no amount of garlic and ginger is going to cut it! and anyone who's endured any long-term pain will feel hugely grateful to the inventors of ibuprofen and paracetamol. The problem is once you get used to using pain relief on a regular basis it's easy to fall into a habit of taking pain relief medication for every slight twinge.

Today in the bbc there was an article on the dangers of taking too much paracetamol - and these aren't just nasty side effects - experts have warned that taking slightly too much paracetamol day after day can be fatal, even just a few pills too many taken regularly over days, weeks or months, could lead to serious and irreversible liver damage.

In my opinion anything where the side effect is death should be avoided whenever possible and even if you're not taking a dangerous dose, it's just not something you should be taking regularly even in small doses. Obviously when you're injured or genuinely ill over the counter medication can be a real godsend, but if you've just got a headache or a slight twinge, maybe think twice before popping a pill.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Winter warmers

There was a winter chill in the air today which finally gave me cause to don my winter coat. But it's not just my outer wear that has to change when the temperature drops ... so does my lunch.

A salad just doesn't cut it when it's chilly out, instead I crave hot cooked food. This actually makes sense in terms of how the body reacts to the cooler temperatures. Firstly our immune systems operate better at a higher temperature so sitting still at a desk all day can leave you cold and vulnerable to infection - this is why exercise is important over the winter months and also why having hot food and hot drinks can help keep the bugs at bay.

Secondly, despite not being doormice (although I sometimes feel like I am one!) our bodies do crave certain elements of hibernation, we need to (and tend to want to) sleep more, we naturally store more fat to keep us warmer and our digestive systems become more sensitive, so stewed and cooked foods which are easier to digest are better for you over winter.

I'm not a huge fan of microwaving and as the party season starts I won't always have time to make a packed lunch so as a result I tend to buy my lunch much more often over the winter months.

One of my go to winter lunches is soup - easy to digest, satisfying and usually pretty healthy. However, assuming all soups are healthy is a mistake, they can be just as fat laden as other city lunches.

One way to make sure your bought lunch is healthy is to go for the vegan option. You meat eaters may turn your nose up at this suggestion but by choosing a vegan option you're guaranteeing you're missing out on any unhealthy animal fats. You'll also likely be getting a lot more nutrient rich veggies than in the other options. For the budget conscious meat-free options are also usually relatively cheaper (lunches in the city are pretty extortionate).

Unfortunately if you want vegan and gluten free you're much more restricted on choice but both EAT and Pret have options that fit both, just not every day.

However man cannot live by soup alone, although the EAT very big soups are filling enough! But I like a bit more variety to my lunch. Firstly if the soup doesn't contain any pulses I'll want some extra protein to go with it and might get a small serving of sashimi or sushi to go with it. A natural yoghurt, low-fat cottage cheese, or some hummous with crudites would be some other healthy protein options.

Even with the soups with pulses I still enjoy some nice bread to dip in it. EAT actually does a good wheat-free bread, but sadly if you want gluten free you'll have to BYU. Dietary specials wholemeal ciabatta rolls are my favourite for soup dipping. It's a simple meal but one I find totally satisfying and warms me right up.

Vegan/Gluten free soups:

Spicy tomato and basil
Goan potato

Lentil and coconut dahl
Spicy three bean chilli
Sweet potato and lentil

Monday, 21 November 2011

A soothing supper

I usually get the tube home but tonight I got the bus and witnessed an unbelievable amount of road rage in my ten minute wait at the bus top.

I'm not entirely sure what all of it was about, certainly alot of beeping came from the swarm of motorbikes and scooters hurtling down the bus lane and there was also some close misses as a drunk weaved his way across four lanes!

A lary commute really isn't what you need after a stressful day in the office and it got me thinking about the effect on all these commuters from this extra daily dose of agro.

You see you don't just feel grumpy and annoyed after a horrid commute home, you will also have actively depleted your body of some pretty useful nutrients.

Amongst others the body's stress response tends to use up:

B vitamins - also important for nerve function, good skin condition and fat burning - one of the several reasons that stress can make you over-weight

Vitamin C - super important for the immune system - one of the reasons that stress can make you more susceptible to catching bugs

Magnesium - also needed for muscle relaxation, including the heart - one of the reasons that stress can lead to higher blood pressure as well as general muscle tension

In the past I've actively recommended people change their route to work, even if it's to a slightly longer one, to make it less stressful for them to help improve their health. Avoiding multiple changes, particularly nasty stations (Bank/Holborn top my list) or walking down particularly polluted or dodgy roads. For cyclists, following the cycle super highways reduces the chance of having an accident or near miss.

If there's really no way round it at least load some uplifting tunes onto your ipod to listen to on the way home and when you get home make sure you have a regenerating dinner.

Wholegrains and oily fish will help top up you B vitamin levels, dark leafy greens such as spinach, rocket and kale all provide magnesium and add in some red and orange veg for some vitamin C - grilled salmon with brown rice, wilted spinach and roasted sweet potatoes would be just the ticket.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Lasagna Lite

In my quest for healthy comfort food I'm always trying to adapt my favourite recipes to health them up but keep the comforting element.

Lasagna is one such meal that I've always enjoyed eating, but felt very heavy afterwards. Sadly that combination of wheat, pasta and cheese is a recipe for indigestion and falling asleep and if consumed too frequently a recipe for weight gain and ill health.

Obviously now I don't eat dairy, gluten or meat making lasagna posed a bit of a challenge and to be fair I couldn't expect my lasagna substitute to taste like the original, but my substitute actually hit the spot in terms of comfort food keeping that tomato/pasta/stodge factor.

This recipe is gluten free, dairy free, vegan, low in fat, high in fibre and basically guilt free .. perfect for a cold wintery evening ... if one comes along soon!!

Emilie's Light Lasagna:
Prepare 4 lasagna sheets according to instructions - I used dietary specials gluten free lasagna sheets

Heat 1.5 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and add 1 onion diced and 2 cloves of garlic minced. Once the onion has softened add 1 small courgette and half a small aubergine cubed. Fry for 10 minutes til softened and take off the heat.

In a jug mix 1 tin of green or brown lentils, 500g passata, 1 tsp each of drived oregano and dried basil plus 1 tbsp tomato puree and a sprinkling of freshly ground pepper. Mix thoroughly.

Brush an oven proof dish with olive oil (I used an 8 inch diameter circular dish) and put a layer of half the courgette and aubergine mix in the bottom, top with one third of the tomato/lentil mix and then top with two lasagna sheets. Repeat the layers again and then on top of the final lasagna layer pour over the final third of the lasagna/tomato mix (this will stop the top layer of lasagna from burning)

Bake for 40 minutes in an oven preheated to 140C.

Serve with a green side salad.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Blurred lines

This evening on my way home from work I saw something that really saddened me. I watched a Big Issue Seller sell a copy and then rush straight into M&S and buy some cheap alcohol with the proceeds as if their life depended on it.

Alcohol for a lot of people has positive associations of celebrations, fun nights out and being pleasently tipsy. However it's important to remember that alcohol is a drug which is why it can be such a destructive force in peoples lives and to society. Just the cost to the NHS from alcohol related disease or treating injuries caused by alcohol is astronomic and such a terrible waste when money is short and needed for much more worthwhile treatments.

In fact I'm pretty sure that were it invented today alcohol would be never be licensed, and that may be no bad thing. But when consumed sensibly, and by those not pre-disposed to addiction, I think it can be an enjoyable treat without being harmful.

Still the problem is a lot of people don't have alcohol as a treat, they have it as a regular part of their diet - often drinking daily, without thinking this is bad for them. However having more than one medium glass of wine a day, as a woman means you're already over the government limit - and that's a recommended maximum to avoid harm - not a target to hit!

Regulalry drinking over the limit can lead to heart disease, liver disease, depression, mood disorders, reduced libido, weight gain, hypothyroidism, increased risk of cancer ... the list goes on. But even if you haven't got any of these yet (I hope you don't) prevention is so much better and easier than cure, especially in the case of alcohol. Even reduced energy, hard to shift dark circles under the eyes and a bit of a muffin top/spare tyre are signs you could benefit from a break.

Personally I think it's best to avoid drinking during the week when possible and to limit alcohol to two nights a week. In addition, I think it's extremely beneficial to have one month off all drugs including tobacco, caffeine and alcohol every year to give your body a proper break.

If the idea of giving any of those up for a whole month horrifies you that's a pretty good sign that it's something you should do. Maybe not right now - but sometime after Christmas when the social calendar is emptier and less hard to navigate sober.

By the end of the month you'll likely feel full of energy, be sleeping better, have better skin, have lost spare weight and be in a much better mood. I gave up for three months and felt so significantly better that I never went back to regular drinking. A couple of glasses of champagne a month is more than enough for me!

Ps The current government advice for pregnancy is not to drink any alcohol, which I entirely agree with, a developing featus is extremely sensitive and you should limit it's exposure to toxins as much as possible, including tobacco, over the counter or illegal drugs, caffeine and alcohol. I would, however, go further and say that anyone trying for a baby should also not drink as you will likely be pregnant for a couple of weeks before knowing. In addition drinking alcohol reduces fertility in both men and women so guys should also stay off the beers for the best chance of conceiving.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Dining without

Something I get asked about a fair bit, and can be a problem for people trying to improve their diets, is how to cope with eating out when on a restrictive diet, particularly on holidays. So now seems like a great time to cover this off with a bit of a food diary from my trip.

It might help to first explain what I don't eat to give some context to my choices, but as with all nutritional programmes this is specific to my health needs so won't be the best list for everyone. This also applies about 80 per cent of the time and the other 20 per cent I'll eat whatever I fancy. It's worth noting that I can do this as most of the foods I miss out are intolerances rather than tru allergies. If you have a true allergy you should avoid the food altogether and also double-check when ordering if any of the foods you are allergic to will be in the dish.

My preference infact is to eat a vegan diet most of the time but I tend to eat fish and seafood when I eat out. If also avoided fish and seafood altogether I know that eating out would be a lot more difficult.

I totally avoid
Gluten (includes wheat) (intolerance)
Dairy (Intolerance)
Coffee + tea
Oranges (allergy)
Raw onions/raw chillies (intolerance)

I generally avoid:

So with this in mind here are the choices I made - you'll see I have a bias towards Asian cuisine, which is mainly because I love it, but also because it's the most gluten and dairy free friendly cuisine available.

Thai cuisine:
Tofu and aubergine curry with rice

Broccoli and shrimp stir fry with rice noodles (sauce had some sugar in it)

Vegetarian ramen soup - I asked for rice noodles instead of soba noodles which contain wheat - most japanese restaurants will happily make this switch for you

Veggie mixed starter with veggie skewers, vegan summer rolls and rice dumplings, followed by mixed vegetable curry with brown rice (the tofu on the menu was battered so I gave it a miss).

Jack Lallane veggie burger in a gluten free bun. I couldn't believe my luck when I saw this on the menu at Ellen's Stardust diner on Broadway.
It was delicious as were the waffle fries it came with and felt totally indulgent despite having half the calories and hardly any of the fat of hot docs cheeseburger! And of course I was delighted to see Jack honoured in this way - what a legend.

Minestrone soup (in the states this is just veggies no pasta) followed by steamed sea bass with courgettes and fennel - delish

Spinach salad followed by salmon and asparagus risotto - this has to count as a 20 per cent exception as risotto is made with butter.

Modern European
Scallops with apples and watercress followed by plaice with artichokes and new potatoes.

Lunches on the go:
When you're playing at tourist you generally don't want to stop for a long lunch so these were more like my city lunches:
- pret, sushi box
- au bon pan, tuscan bean soup
- mangia, green smoothie and tuscan bean soup
- kelley + ping, veggie pad thai (had eggs and a little sugar so was a 20per cent exception), with ginger pak choi and summer rolls

Breakfasts in nyc:
Brunch in america is an egg or dairy laden affair so pretty tricky for me. Instead I headed to the wonderful Wholefoods Market and got myself some gluten free bagels which I had each morning with no sugar peanut butter - yummy and kept me full til lunchtime.

To be completely honest in this diary I have to fess up to my indulgences of the week which were half a slice of new york cheese cake - delicious but too sweet to finish! and two squares of a godiva dark chocolate truffle bar - divine!

Still if I had to stick to my diet more strictly and hadn't had these I wouldn't have felt hard done by - despite sticking to my healthy rules I still felt I'd indulged thoroughly and enjoyed all my meals.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Flying solo

Anyone who has ever travelled with me will know that I don't travel light. Partly because I like my creature comforts and partly because I usually take a fair amount of food with me when I go abroad. This comes from experience of struggling to stick to a gluten, sugar, dairy free diet in an unfamiliar neighbourhood without knowing whether or not the land I'm visiting will cater for me.

This planning usually pays off as I always have something healthy to snack on but I still find it frustrating that I can't just travel light and grab food as and when I feel like it. So in the spirit of taking a true holiday, including from my usual fastidious food planning, I took off to the states with absolutely no supplies with me at all ... And survived!

Ok so there were a couple of instances where I had to resort to unhealthy ready salted crisps as a snack (usually just potato, oil and salt so pretty allergy friendly). But generally I found it fairly easy to stick to my usual healthy diet without having to go out my way.

One place I usually never go without some snacks is the airport because plane food is both unappetising and rarely healthy, so that was probably the area I was most worried about. But I was positively surprised by my vegan meals - yes you can now pre-order a vegan or gluten-free meal on your flight but sadly not in combination so I had to eat some wheat, but I'd rather that than the usual cheese/cream laden gluten-free vegetarian food.

On the flight out dinner was rice with cannelini beans and veggies with some grapes for dessert, which hot doc stole as it was nicer than his nasty plane dessert, and the pre-landing snack was a filling and tasty roasted Mediterranean vegetable ciabatta. On the flight home dinner was pasta with ratatouille, again with fruit and breakfast was a granola bar with a banana. I did supplement all this with a packet of kettle chips and a bottle of water I picked up in the airport as you don't always get fed when you're hungry and I usually need more water than I get given.

Even if you're allergy/intolerance free ordering vegan meal is a great idea if you're flying long haul - you'll sleep much better after a lighter meal and feel a whole lot better when you wake up than if you'd had some rich meat or cheese dish. You also get more fruit and veggies that way, so more vitamin C to fight off your neighbours germs, and less calories than the standard meal so it's better for you all round.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Howdy partners!

Well hello there ... NITC is back in the saddle after my holiday in the Big Apple and champing at the bit to start blogging about my American food fest. But quite frankly looking at the FAB blogs from the lovely Lisa and my great friend the Zen Dog, I'm not sure I'm even needed back on the blog! Major thanks to both these amazing ladies for blogging in my absence and providing me, and hopefully all of you, with inspiration to make some positive changes.

In particular I know I need to get some Zen back in my life and start up my regular yoga practice again. On the environmental front I don't exactly feel saintly about all those airmiles, but I did have to have a clear out to fit my shopping in my closet and put a bag of clothes in the charity bin this evening .. does that count?!

Anyway enough of the preamble and onto my lessons from New York, one of my top three favourite cities. I remember my mum being very concerned about my first visit, back when I was 19 years old, thinking of New York as a very dangerous city and murder capital. But New York has undergone a huge transformation since the 1980s being cleaned up both literally and in terms of crime.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani kicked off the good work based on his “broken window” theory of government. The “broken window” theory is that a broken window left unfixed in an apartment block would give the appearance of decay and disrepair to the area encouraging the congregation of criminals, who would see the physical deterioration as a sign that their shady activities will go unnoticed. Once the criminal element started congregating then law-abiding citizens would start avoiding the area pushing it further into decline. By clamping down o,n and cleaning up vandalism and graffiti, the police were able to reduce the amount of run down areas and associated crime.

But this isn't just a phenomenon observed in big cities .... it applies elsewhere including in my bedroom! No it's not a centre of crime, but whilst I generally keep my bedroom pretty tidy and put my clothes away, if I have a couple of tops left out then I'm more inclined to dump the next one on top the pile and before you know it I have clothes all over the place!

The broken window theory also made me think of how this applies to eating habits. Something I've observed both with clients, and in myself, is that if you start letting yourself eat little unhealthy treats here or there you almost always end up gradually eating them more and more often and in larger portions. It starts with a couple of chocolates from a box in the office, a few biscuits with your tea, a chocolate bar from the vending machine because you were tired .... and without even realizing it you end up eating unhealthy snacks pretty much every day.

This is why I recommend people have their regular healthy day to day diet and then deliberate meals or days off, rather than just letting yourself have little treats here and there. If you have some basic rules you follow for healthy eating ... avoid sugar, don't eat dairy foods, avoid wheat ... whatever is healthy for you ... then it's easy to make healthy choices day to day. It also means that when you have your day off or meals off you can eat whatever you want without restriction and truly enjoy the food without feeling guilty.

I usually have a couple of meals a week where I indulge and eat whatever I fancy, which I can work around a special occasion, a nice meal out, or just feeling like a bit of comfort food on a night in. The point is I know how to eat the rest of the time so I don't have an excuse for naughty food to gradually creep into my diet without me noticing, but at the same time I don't feel deprived from never having any treats. This rule works for me and keeps my diet clean and crime free just like the streets of NYC!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Born to run.... but sometimes need a little help....

This is my last blog and I hope you have enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them.  I thought I would go back to where I started and touch back onto the subject of acupuncture....

I was totally enthralled by the set of programs, Origins of Us.  In one episode, it was described that our bodies haven't changed much in the last 200,000 years. When it was required for us to leave the forests in search of food on the savannah, this was the point our bodies started to stand upright and create a form so we could run for our food and run so we didn't become food!  To help us run, our gluteus maximus fires every time we land our foot to stop us from falling over, our big knees act as a pivot, the swinging of our arms stops our heads from jolting forward and our achilles tendon acts like a shock absorber.  Our bodies are amazing and watching programs like that just highlights it.

These days though we don't necessarily need to run to have dinner but there is still an instinct within us that likes to run, or do other cardio, to burn off excess energy.  Acupuncture can help our bodies stay well in our activities and also provide extra support if we injure ourselves.  The Chinese and Japanese Olympic teams have always had a resident acupuncturist as part of their athlete support, but its only recently this is starting to be integrated into teams from the West.  There has been a lot of research into the effect of acupuncture on sports injuries with very positive results.  Acupuncture is great to use on a fresh sports injury but is so versatile and can work so deeply that it can be used at any stage of the injury.

The trauma of an injury can stop the natural healing process and the area can change to a 'cold' state in Chinese Medicine.  Using acupuncture can warm the area and stimulate qi and blood through the superficial channels of the body, also directing the body to heal in this area.  The needles can stimulate nerves and tissues that will release endorphins, our natural painkillers.  They can also help relax the muscles and tendons and keep the joints mobile.  The approach of a Chinese Medicine acupuncturist is that they will look at the whole picture and also try to help any underlying condition that could be contributing to the possibility of being injured.  Also anyone that participates in competitions, acupuncture can help to dissipate any pre-race tension or nervousness to leave you fully focussed on the competition.

Now we have moved off the savannah and into offices it is good to explore the plethora of therapies at our disposal for us to keep on top of our well-being.  So if you are feeling a bit of a niggle then maybe this weekend is the time to check in with it and see if you can show yourself some TLC.... but also even if you don't have anything bothering you right now it is nice to invest in yourself to keep things at bay.

Just a quick note before I finish, if you were as touched by the film 'Life in a Day' as I was, then the day for us to be filming for 'Britain in a Day' is this Sat 12 Nov (  'Life in a Day' is a beautiful representation of the ups and downs, loves and fears, kindness and cruelty of humanity.  The film captures how weird and wonderful we can be, connecting up the human race and pulling together simple moments in peoples lives filmed on one day last July.

Happy weekends all

Zen Dog

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Don't fancy yoga? Have a thai massage....

This morning I opened my emails to find the regular newsletter from Mudita School of Thai Massage ( and this made me instantly tune into my body and think how much time I will have spent fixed and concentrating on a computer this week, both finishing assignments and at work in an office!  And I am sure most of us are probably the same....

Thai massage has so many negative connotations but in fact it is another type of therapy that has been around for thousands of years and it is said to have been developed by the Buddha's physician.  It was originally taught by monks within monasteries where only men could enter and then passed down to families and communities verbally.  Thai massage was developed over 2500 years ago and is made up of a combination of Yoga, Chinese meridians theory, Buddhism, Indian Ayurveda and also Thai indigenous healing practices.  The massage is performed fully clothed, with no oil and on a thick mat on the floor.  It is a spiritual dance by the practitioner using their hands, feet, knees, arms and legs to massage; by rocking, applying pressure to acupressure points, energy lines, myofascial release points and full stretches that could be seen as 'assisted yoga'.

It is another healing technique working with qi, or energy.  It helps to relieve stresses in the body that is reflected in tight muscles and tendons and general tension with low sense of well-being.  It helps to mobilise joints and also compress tissues to facilitate new blood and oxygen to deficient areas of the body.  It is both energising and relaxing and is much more dynamic than a Swedish massage.  It is sometimes called 'lazy persons yoga' as your body gets just as much benefit for being stretched and compressed even if it is with the help of someone else!  Thai massage has been overlaid with western anatomy and physiology but has its roots in eastern therapeutics and it is this history and combination of traditions that makes it such an effective and holistic treat for your body.

I was fortunate enough to have some time off over the summer and do a 90 hour course in Thai massage at Sunshine House in Greece (, having previously done a taster course with Mudita.  I am as intrigued by these techniques as I am with acupuncture and hope to be able to eventually bring them both together but for now will keep learning....

So if you are looking for a treat for this weekend, perhaps give your body a full MOT with a Thai massage... or even go on a taster course so you can share it with friends and family.

*always check the credentials of any therapist and there are the following governing bodies for Thai massage; Traditional Thai Yoga Massage Association (TTYMA) and British Complementary Medicine Association (BCMA)*

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Every Breath You Take...

As we know from last week's blog, qi (or energy) is produced by our cells.  It is the energy produced by the smallest atoms and molecules of the universe.  Qi is our life force and that which connects us to everything around us.  


The two most important components to forming healthy qi are the quality of food we eat and the quality of air we breathe.  Common sense really, when we think how terrible we can feel after a few days of heavy/greasy food or even the weakness from not being able to have much food at all.  Also, perhaps you have adventured to the top of a high mountain and felt the body start to give way due to lack of oxygen.  The qi we gain through food and air can be replenished on a second-by-second basis and is added to our unchanging pre-birth qi.  Pre-birth qi is like our inherited constitution which also forms a part of us.


Breathing is not something we really think about and if we did have to think about the process of breathing we really wouldn't have much time to do much else with our day!   It is easy to forget how much capacity the lungs have and I remember being told on my yoga teaching training that 60% of our lungs are in the back of the body - and hardly get used...  Emotional issues and stress can cause us to breathe just in our chests and not take air down into the lower lungs.  This weakens the diaphragm, the most important muscle in breathing.  The diaphragm muscle contracts to allow the lungs to expand and draw air in, it then relaxes so we can exhale fully.  Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is done in alot of yoga classes to help increase lung capacity, efficiency and also relax the body.  Diaphragmatic breathing slows your breath, relaxes your nervous system, detoxifies your organs, aids circulation and digestion, improves your immune system, reduces high blood pressure, builds stamina and heightens your sense of well-being.


Swimming is also particularly good for increasing lung capacity due to the pressure of the water on the chest and also the need to be very efficient with your air as you only have certain opportunities to breathe when your head is in the water.


If you are interested in going deeper into the benefits of conscious breathing there is a movement called Transformational Breathing (  I went on their half day course and find the techniques very beneficial.  During the course the body starts to tingle with the increased oxygen intake and you can also enter a trance like state due to the rhythmic breathing technique which is taught.


Breathing is our connection to life and when we aren't breathing properly we can lack mental alertness and energy for difficult tasks.  Lack of oxygen will impact all functions in the body as oxygen needs to be diffused out to our organs, tissues and muscles and carbon dioxide needs to be dispelled.  I know how difficult it is to try and breathe properly when we are at a desk most of the day but if you can just take a moment to bring awareness to your breath, this in itself will deepen it, focussing on breathing into your belly and seeing it softly expand.  Sometimes just putting your hand on the abdomen can help your breath direct itself there.  Be gentle, don't constrict the stomach muscles or tighten the shoulders.


There have been many books written about breathing and one of them is by a Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh - he says, "Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor." 


Zen Dog

Monday, 7 November 2011

A brussel sprout is for life, not just for Christmas!

I was on the train the other day and spied a health magazine someone had left behind.  I had never seen it before but it is a free magazine called Natural Lifestyle (  In the back of the magazine were some delicious looking recipes.....using brussel sprouts!  For me, picking up a bag of brussel sprouts in the supermarket is only ever done for the Christmas dinner and other than that they don't really feature very highly on my shopping list.  They are a notorious vegetable for being overcooked and all the flavour being drained out of them, but I went straight out and bought a bag so I could try one of the recipes!

I try to mix in vegetarian meals during the week and brussel sprouts are very are high in protein, for a vegetable! Mixing it with a whole grain seems to make it a perfect meat replacement.  They are also high in vitamin A and C for our winter defences!  The brussel sprout is high in fibre which can promote bowel health.  For additional brussel eating encouragement, there was an article in Optimum Nutrition magazine reporting that Leicester University had undertaken research into leafy greens and the prevention of type 2 diabetes.  The results were published in the British Medical Journal and stated that people who ate one and a half extra portions of leafy greens per day, reduced their chances of developing type 2 diabetes by 14%. (

So next time you are in the supermarket, grab a bag of the humble brussels and give this quick and yummy recipe a go....I altered it slightly from the magazine and, as always, add more chilli, garlic etc for your taste!

Stirfried sprouts with lemon and chilli on a bed of rice noodles
serves 2

8 peeled shallots - thinly sliced
2tbsp sesame oil
sea salt
ground pepper
350g brussel sprouts
2 clove garlic, finely diced
1 tsp chilli flakes
zest of a lemon
2 tbsp soy sauce (clearspring make a gluten free one)
packet of ready to eat rice noodles that you only need to soak (you can use dried ones but check the cooking instructions)

Before you start cooking, soak your rice noodles in boiling water to soften

In a wok or large frying pan; stir fry the garlic, shallots and brussels in the sesame oil.  Do this for approx 5 mins until sprouts are tender.

Stir through the lemon zest and soy sauce.

Drain the noodles and serve.

Zen Dog

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Same, same but different

Just like the amazing variety of healthy foods that are out there at the moment there is also such a variety of yoga!  And choosing which yoga class to go to can be abit daunting!
Yoga is a Sanskit word, meaning 'union' or 'yoke together'.  This could be union within yourself, awareness of your body and your emotions and also union to the world around us and with other people.  The physical practice that we do in yoga centres is actually called Asana and is one branch of the Yogic philosophy.  The poses were developed by Rishis (similar to Shaman) who, thousands of years ago, would meditate for long periods of time.  Meditation would bring awareness and stillness and solve the universal problems of the body, mind and spirit.  To maintain health and suppleness the Rishis would take notice of their environment, how animals behave and also how animals would heal themselves, this became the foundation of the posture practise.  

The Asana practise helps with flexibility and lubrication of the joints, cleanses the system through contracting and expanding movements of the body, helps with focus and strength of mind as we work through challenging aspects.  It also develops awareness of your body and any changes within it. 
The foundation of any Yoga Asana practise is 'Hatha' - Ha meaning sun and Tha meaning moon. This is related to the right and left of the body, hot and cold, male and female attributes in all of us, the yin and yang of our energy.  Putting Ha and Tha together, into Hatha, represents the aim of trying to balance the two opposing forces within us and between us and our surroundings.

The Asana postures essentially come from one ancient repertoire but it is the teacher's interpretation, the direction they have chosen to take the philosophy and their particular focus that has created the variety.  Also, in the west, we tend to want to label things and be associated with the linage of a certain practise.  As yoga is such a generally used word these days, it also helps to name what you do for marketing purposes!

Here are some examples of classes you might come across;
Sivanada; 12 poses chosen by Swami Sivanada and put into a sequence, also including some of the breathing exercises and meditation time.  Sivananda was perhaps one of the first styles to be practised when it came over to the west in the 1957.
Ashtanga (Vinyasa); developed by Pattabhi Jois.  There are 3 sequences (or series) made up of a set of postures, each progressively harder and more advanced.  Most poses are normally held for 5 breaths.  This is very dynamic due to the jumping vinyasa between poses to build heat and strength.  This type of yoga has been described as a moving meditation.  'Ashtanga' relates to the eight limbs of yoga philosophy and the the 'Vinyasa' is the flow of connecting postures.
Iyengar; BKS Iyengar focused very seriously on alignment with his choice of postures.  Using bricks, straps, pillows and blankets to support the body and help the student feel postures they may not be able to get in to otherwise.  Any misalignments are actively corrected in a class to prevent any strain or injury to the student.  Standing postures are particularly emphasised as Iyengar viewed this as the foundation to moving onto more advanced postures.
Jivamukti; David Life and Sharon Gannon developed Jivamukti yoga in the 1980's.  The classes are very physical with the use of the vinyasa and they also use music (which I personally love in a yoga class!)  Jivamukti classes also bring in yogic breathing awareness, chanting and philosophy.
Bikram; This style consists of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises and is practised in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  It was originally developed to help people with injuries to rehabilitate and aid in stretching the muscles further due to the heat.  I know a few friends who do long distance running who like this to counterbalance it.
Yin yoga; these poses are held for anywhere between 2 to 20 minutes and even though some people may thing it is slow and very passive, it is actually very challenging.  Holding postures for this length of time is meant to give time for the connective tissues to start to release, particularly in the hips, pelvis and lower spine.
Anusara; Another style of yoga that incorporates talks about the yogic philosophy as it is being taught, developed by John Friend, an Iyengar student.  It does involve vinyasa but not a set sequence of poses in every class.
I did my teacher training with the World Conscious Yoga family in India, who name their teaching Akhanda, meaning whole or indivisable.  We were taught to try to balance our classes using not only postures but breathing exercises, relaxation, chanting and also the possibilities of incorporating readings on yogic philosophy.  There is no set sequence and classes can be flowing or more relaxing.
So next time you are bombarded with lists of yoga classes, here are a few tips; anything with 'vinyasa' in the name will be dynamic and fast paced, it could also be termed as 'flow' or 'power'.  Anything with 'yin' in the name will be restorative and slower, it could also be called just 'restorative'.  'Hot yoga' will be hot! and most probably flowing.  If it is just called 'hatha' or 'classical hatha', then it is probably a good balance of poses suitable for all levels.
The newest style to join the yoga family is anti-gravity yoga! I havent tried it yet but have a friend who is in the middle of her teacher training so maybe I can report back to you all in a few months time!...
Whatever style of yoga you try, remember to only go as far as your body feels comfortable and even though it is good to challenge yourself, you should never feel pain.  If at any point you feel you have gone beyond, then by coming out of the posture and going back into it again you will be practising yoga on yourself and your body will love you for it!

Zen Dog

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Pass me the pumpkin...

Since the clocks went back last weekend I have started to feel the urge of my inbuilt wintry hibernation mode - even if we are experiencing mildish weather!  

We are still moving through autumn, which corresponds to the element of metal in Chinese philosophy.  Metal is associated with the lung and the large intestine, so this time of year some people are susceptible to lung problems and/or digestion issues.  Eventually metal will change to the element of water, which is associated with winter.  During this change in seasons our bodies are at their most vulnerable to infection, so it is now that I am starting to think about how I can nourish myself and be ready for the bombardment of the winter colds and flu!

The five elements outside of us are also reflected inside of us and to live in tune with the changes in the environment is what our ancestors had to do to survive.  The metal (autumn) season is a time to let go of things and only store what is necessary for winter.  During the water (winter) season it is said we need to preserve this water energy so it can go on to germinate the seeds of spring, associated with the element of wood.  An example would be that towards the end of the year always feels like a good time to come up with new goals or endeavours that we want to plan into the following year.  We will need energy for these new ideas to flourish and that is where our reserves over winter will serve us well.

I feel the change from autumn to winter is a time to be gentle on myself, sleep more and stay warm and cosy using both clothing and warming foods.  Right now I am loving the surplus of pumpkins everywhere, left over from Halloween.  The pumpkin is a fantastic vegetable for warmth, nourishment and well-being.  Amongst its long list of benefits is a good dose of vitamin C, vitamin A, iron and magnesium -  plenty to help the body build up reserves during the colder months!  From a Chinese perspective pumpkins are good for cleansing and also can help resolve excess mucus conditions.

A great way to incorporate some pumpkin is to make a soup.  You may think making pumpkin soup after a long day at work is a bit of a chore but I make a 'no rules' quick and healthy thai pumpkin soup that you can have anytime - here is the recipe;

1 x pumpkin or squash
half a can of coconut milk (the thick one, not the one in my earlier block)
Thai Taste red curry paste (free from sugar and gluten -
couple of twists on the salt grinder

instructions - but remember no rules when it comes to taste!
chop the pumpkin into chunks - I don't peel it but its up to you
boil the chunks until soft but not mushy - about 20 mins
drain off the hot water into a bowl and put to one side
add the coconut milk to the cooked pumpkin squares
also add 2 x tablespoons red thai curry paste

using a hand blender just start to blend.

this is then down to your own taste buds....
you can add some of the hot water to thin it out
you can add more coconut milk for a creamier soup (as we have only used half a can)
you can add more thai curry paste for more kick!

Happy Bonfire Weekend..

Zen Dog


Wednesday, 2 November 2011

One Cup Or Two?

I have regular acupuncture and every time I see my practitioner I hope she leaves enough time at the end to give me some cupping!  Gwyneth Paltrow brought cupping into the public eye when she strutted down the red carpet with obvious pinky circles on her back a few years ago.

Cupping is like a very deep massage, deeper than a masseuse can go.  Quite simply cupping brings fresh blood and oxygen to the surface, improves circulation and helps to break down tension and congestion of the tissues.  I love having cupping on my back and lower neck to release tension from sitting at a desk and concentrating on studies or work.

Cupping has been practised in China since the 4th century, originally using bamboo or horn cups.  Luckily today we have glass cups with rounded smooth edges that, I should imagine, feel much more pleasant on the skin! There are two types of cupping; fire cupping or suction cupping.  Fire cupping is when a flame is used to remove the oxygen from the cup and also heat the cup slightly immediately before putting onto the skin.  Removing the oxygen creates the vacuum.  Suction cupping when there is a small pump connected to the cup to enable the practitioner to suction to the right level for the patient and then remove the pump leaving the cup in place.  Both techniques work fantastically.

The cups may be moved up and down on the skin or left in one place, depending on what is needed.  There are acupuncture points on the back that are very nourishing to all the internal organs so this could determine where the cups are placed.  Cupping is great for anyone with a cold, trying to shift mucus and tightness in the chest, as long as you aren't feeling too weak.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, it is all about balance and cupping is another technique to help bring calmness back to frustrated areas of the body that are depleted or not working optimally.  By increasing the blood supply and waking up the tissues we are again signalling to the body to go to this place and work its magic in healing and restoring health.

Just a warning, you will more than likely be left with reddish circles from the cups as this is an indication of the congestion of the tissues underneath, so make sure you won't be wearing a backless party dress the next day!..

Zen Dog

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What a lovely (and healthy) bunch of coconuts!

I am so in love with coconut milk that I have to tell you about its existence and its benefits!
I found out about coconut milk over the summer from a new friend on a course I attended.  We were talking about how difficult it is to find a tasty replacement for cows milk, especially when having it on cereals or in hot drinks.  My friend then mentioned that she had struck upon coconut milk.  And its not same thick coconut milk that you put in thai curries!
As soon as I got home I got my hands on some to see what she was raving about, and I have to say I was hooked.  It has a similar consistency to semi-skimmed cows milk.  It is not sweet or watery like rice milk and not sticky and heavy like soya milk.  It also doesn't really taste of coconut.
I then started looking into the health benefits and it really seemed a no brainer that I had found a perfect replacement! 
Coconut milk is made up of 60% Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT).  Coconut oil and the indian cooking product, ghee, are also made up of high levels of MCT's.
Fats are either Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) or Long Chain Triglycerides (LCT).  After reading information about these fats it became very apparent that MCT's are much healthier for the body.  Fats are made up of molecules which are composed of chains of carbon atoms.  As you may have guessed the MCT have less carbon atoms than the LCT chains and this is what is beneficial to health.  Due to its make-up it is rapidly absorbed by the body rather than being stored as fat.  There has been research into its benefits on exercise and energy levels, weight control, appetite control, the cardiovascular system and immunity, all with positive results.
I normally try to avoid dairy (along with wheat).  Ultimately, not having them in my diet gives me more energy, a lighter feeling, a better mood and improved condition of my skin - but you must always only do what feels right for you.
I still mix in soya, rice and hemp milk every now and again and even with all good intentions I have been known to dabble in a delicious milky belgian hot chocolate during my 20% 'eat/drink what you want' times!  So, if you decide to try coconut milk then remember to make it part of a balanced diet.
Zen Dog
(Coconut milk is sold in Holland & Barratt, Whole Foods and I believe some large Tesco's).