Posted by Jo on May 20, 2013
It’s May (although you could well confuse it for October due to the grey skies and central heating) and I’m now back from my sabbatical *cough cough* in Malawi. I have neglected the blog and therefore must confess to having too much sunshine and good times to sit down in front of a computer and connect. I learnt a great deal while I was away from gardening skills, seed saving and compost making to communal living, making our own yoghurt, baking bread and living eating a vegetarian diet.The whole experience was wonderful and certainly life changing but more on that hippy stuff another time.
For now it’s National Vegetarian Week which certainly does warrant a shout out. Why? Because – although I am not a fully fledged veggie, i recognise the benefits for both the environment and health reasons and therefore think that to eat vegetarian (no meat, no fish) a couple of days a week is a good thing and one which more of us should consider. Like i said, I did so in Malawi and my skin was radiant, I was full of energy and I’ve never felt better.
By cutting out/reducing meat in your diet it means that you will be living a more compassionate lifestyle, given that over 2.5 million farm animals are slaughtered for food every day in the UK alone. It is also the healthier choice. A well balanced meat free diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Protein needs are met by a balanced plant-based diet. Tofu, rice, beans, pulses, wholegrains, soya and cereals are rich sources of proteing. Animal free sources of Omega-3 include plant oils such as flaxseed, rapeseed and hemp. other lesser sources include nuts and seeds (especially walnuts), green leafy vegetables and grains.
Going veggie is also better for the planet as animal farming uses much more land, energy and water and has a far greater impact on climate change than plant-based agriculture. Growing crops to feed animals is not sustainable. Growing crops to feed people uses less land, water and other resources. The amount of land needed to produce food for someone following a typical meat-based diet could feed two and a half vegetarians. Astoundingly, it takes around 13000-100,000 litres of water to produce just one kilo of beef!
Posted by Jo on Mar 30, 2013
Just before I left London on this adventure, there was an exclusive short film entitled ‘Madam President’ available on the Guardian (you can still watch it here) produced by the guys who made ‘When China Met Africa’ in 2010.
In the film, Malawi’s first female president- Joyce Banda describes how ‘African women carry heavy loads’. They are brought up to believe ‘nothing is unbearable’ and what I have witnessed here the statement rings true. In its most literal sense, immense strength is displayed as women carry huge sacks of rice, firewood or buckets of water on their heads unaided with babes suckling on their fronts. Younger girls learn this fine skill by balancing smaller bags of food and carry siblings wrapped in zitenjes on their backs. The mothers of Malawi cook, clean and care for their extended families in the most inspiring way and I have felt quite humbled in meeting them throughout my travels.
Here at Kusamala, we have our very own amayi (mother in Chichewa) Maureen. Mother to nine of her own children (and half a village by the looks of the brood she is surrounded by at the football pitch) and patriarch of the kitchen, Maureen is the epitome of African women. The 15 male gardeners flock toward her in the kitchen as she serves lunch and tells stories characterised by her wicked laugh and booming voice which ricochet through the farm. When she wants your attention she will heckle and when she wants to dance she will shake it better than any other. Those hips don’t lie!
Maureen and the beautiful Rhoda comprise the Food and Nutrition team at Kusamala and consequently I have been fortunate enough to spend days with them in the kitchen. Maureen manages to boss me around, make me laugh and teach me how to prepare nsima (the staple maize dish) even though she speaks no English quite simply through her warmth,patience and sterling smile. Given the opportunity she enjoys showing me what to do in the garden – how to use a hoe properly or save seeds. Every week she makes a cake for snack time, enjoyed by the staff with their mid morning tea. I asked her to show me how to make it and wanted to share the secret recipe.
It’s a basic cake made with maize flour and bananas and then cooked on an open wood stove (Malawi style). However you could easily vary the ingredients and bake it in the oven (UK style). It seems that every mother has a family recipe for a delicious tea cake.
Add 10 mashed bananas and 2-3 cups of maize flour with 1tsp salt and a splash of oil.
Add 2 palm fuls of brown sugar, 1.5 teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda and 1.5 cups of warm water.
Mix thoroughly until it looks like thick porridge
Add 1/2 cup of water to make it bit thinner than typical cake mix
Scrape into large oiled saucpan
Posted by Jo on Feb 10, 2013
Malawi is home to over 600 different foods yet relies almost wholly on maize to feed its population. Why a nation so rich in indigenous foods has based all its agricultural efforts on a grain introduced from South America that is not even suited to the tropical climate, is both baffling and hugely frustrating. The relationship between the emphasis on maize, the activities that lead to environmental degradation and the resulting nutritional problems is apparent. The body needs to eat a variety of different foods in order to maintain health, just as the environment needs to contain a variety of plants, animals and insects to maintain its healthy balance. Permaculture emphasizes learning about and imitating these natural systems of variety and balance to provide for all our needs, and by doing so it provides us with the diverse diet needed for health.
I have been amazed by the number of local fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices that are available here at Kusamala. I am like a kid in a candy shop wandering the garden learning about all these new and exciting things (and wondering if I’ll ever be able to grow them at home). One that has caught my eye – less so for its nutritional wonders but more for its appearance, name and impressive growth on a vine – is what the Malawians call a ChoCh0 – Sechium edule (or vegetable pear).
A vigorous climber with long stems arising from a tuberous root and bearing large, soft leaves, small yellow flowers and distinctive pear shaped fruits that vary from smooth to spiny, green to white in colour. The plant resembles a pumpkin and cucumber but the one-seeded fruit is unique. Their taste isn’t remarkable yet they have become a welcome addition to salads – simply grated like a carrot, or hollowed out and stuffed with various tastier ingredients and baked in the oven.
Posted by Jo on Jan 26, 2013
I have frequently seen okra for sale in my favourite shop in Brixton Market: Nour Cash and Carry. Unsure of quite how to cook it and slightly perturbed by its other name – ‘lady’s fingers’, I have walked on in favour of a head of brocolli or a bag of carrots.
Oh what a mistake! This beautiful green vegetable has made rapid advances up my personal vegetable hall of fame over the past few weeks. Not only have I learnt how to identify when it is ready and ripe for the picking off the plant, I have also thoroughly enjoyed eating it. Let this be a note to (your)self: if you haven’t had it before, make amends in 2013 and choose okra.
Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) have slightly hairy, finger like pods and attractive yellow flowers. Each fruit can grow up to 20cm long when mature. They are mucilaginous inside and contain numerous round seeds. It’s not really one for the garden as they grow best in tropical climates, however certainly one for the shopping basket if you see it on your rounds.
They are best cooked lightly stir fryed or in stews or curries. It has relatively high nutritional value as it is rich in minerals such as calcium, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium and iron plus vitamin C. Here are three of the finest recipes to try with okra:
Brocolli, Cauliflower and Okra with Creamy Lemon Sauce
Spiced Okra Curry
Posted by Jo on Jan 22, 2013
Malawi has an abundance of natural medicines and herbs to rival the most well stocked apothecary. As many western medicines and pharmaceuticals are too expensive for the average Malawian, they have become more than capable at finding their own solutions. As a result there is much enthusiasm and interest in the botanical wealth to be found in the environment.
One of the most distinctive smells on the farm is that of Marigold – Calendula Officinalis. With its brilliant orange daisy-like flowers, it makes a striking splash of colour in the gardens. In the kitchen, young leaves and petals, with their slightly sharp taste, add a tang to salads. I have learnt that Marigold is very easy to grow in any patch of sunny soil. It germinates quickly and self sows easily.
Lisa and Kristie decided today that they were going to harvest the marigold heads, dry them out in the solar dryer and make a marigold ointment. Traditionally, marigold has been valued for comforting the heart and soothing the spirit but it is best known for treating all kinds of skin complaints. In the form of an ointment, marigold is a remedy for eczema, acne and spots. It can also be used to help heal minor cuts and abrasions.
Once the petals are dry, you are to crush them and in mix with petroleum jelly, or an oil of your choice, in equal proportions. Once you have warmed the jelly, add the marigold petals and press them down into the pan. Bring it to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain into pots and leave to cool.
Watch this space to see how the marigold ointment turns out!
Posted by Jo on Jan 21, 2013
Since arriving in Africa, my senses have been electrocuted back into action. Farewell grey London; with its concrete, weather and vibe. Hello Malawi with its vibrant colours, landscape, farm full of lush green foliage and rich aromas from herbs grown organically and the sweet delicious taste of ripe avocados and mangoes in abundance. Although this is a permaculture farm and I have zero experience of farming (I’ve never even managed to keep a window box alive), i’m enthusiastic to learn and am already relishing the experience only one week in).
On a trip into Lilongwe on Friday, we stopped to get a drink. Curious of all the alternatives, I reached for a bottle of Roselle Iced Tea. It was the perfect thirst quencher, cool, fresh and not too sweet. I’d never had roselle before but later found out that we had some on the farm so yesterday I decided to make my own batch and now wanted to share some nutri facts about the plant (and encourage you to try it!)
Roselle – Hibiscus Sabdariffa seeds, leaves, fruit and roots are used in various foods. They are used for making wine, juice, jam and are dried and brewed to make tea. The red calyces contain antioxidants including flavoniods. Flavoniods comprise a group of compounds that give the red colour to wine, watermelon and grapefruits. These antioxidants help our bodies fight the harmful molecules known as free radicals, which can cause cell damage and contribute to disease. By quenching free radicals, antioxidants help maintain the good health. By containing antioxidants, Roselle is good for you! If you really want to geek up, click here
If you see ‘Hibiscus’ tea it is likely to have been made from Roselle. It’s a caffeine free herbal tea, red in colour and tastes like berries. A wonderful alternative to squash (for adults and children) as you don’t have to add sugar. A slice of lime or a little grated ginger would provide the perfect pick me up.
To make the tea, take 2 grams of the dried calyx/petal, add boiling water and steep for around 5 minutes (longer if you desire). Can be sweetened, but best chilled and served on a hot day. (It’s also delicious with vodka and a slice of lime).
Posted by Jo on Jan 13, 2013
Earlier in 2012 I decided I wanted to have an overseas adventure. I didn’t just want to quit my job and rent my flat out to travel gap-yah- style to a glorious beach for a month or so of rum punch, sunburn and Bob Marley tunes. In a twist of fate (I like to think), I learnt of a permaculture farm just outside Lilongwe, Malawi that seemed to provide just what I was looking for.
Once called Nature’s Gift, and more recently renamed Kusamala (meaning to care or to nurture in Chichewa), the farm spans 20 hectares of land. It demonstrates how permaculture can enhance agricultural yields, land use and improve overall nutrition for those who implement it on their land.
My application was successful and I was offered a 3 month internship opportunity at the farm. They were enthusiastic to have me to stay. So before I knew it, I was setting off from London Heathrow and one week later I’m here, sat on this beautiful farm.
Over 90% of people living in Malawi fulfil their nutritional needs through subsistence agriculture. If the environment around doesn’t supply the necessary food, then there is nothing to eat. Despite this, the current agricultural systems destroy the soil that plants depend on to grow, leading to smaller yields year on year. Permaculture is a useful approach for improving the environment while at the same time providing food, water, fuel and building materials.
Permaculture = Permanent Agriculture + Permanent Culture
It is a philosophy that allows us to use the resources that we have around us to their fullest potential. By observing and learning from our environment, such as how nature replenishes its soil, how nature protects and conserves its water resources, how nature has adapted to the specific climate of an area—we can learn how to imitate these natural processes when we are designing farms or gardens. The more closely that we can work with nature, the more likely we are to establish a balance which will provide us with the things that we need without damaging the environment.
One of the founding fathers of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, has defined applying Permaculture to agriculture as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems, which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.
All of this is new to me so I intend to share a selection of stories, facts and photos of my time here via this blog.#
Posted by Jo on Dec 3, 2012
There is a drug that claims to potentially lower the risk of depression in women, protect against Type 2 diabetes and stave off dementia. It’s not a pill but if it were, it sounds like one I would happily pop in the hope of preventing chronic conditions into my old age. It may come as a surprise that this drug is not pharmaceutical but is natural. The drug I’m referring to is caffeine.
The debate around caffeine rattles on. The research is abundant both ‘for’ and ‘against’. But which side do you take? Are you completely committed to caffeine or think it is best avoided?
If you are on the fence, or just interested in the debate, here are both sides of the argument:
(Superficial) arguments FOR:
- It smells divine and tastes delicious (ever made it with condensed milk? that is a seriously creamy coffee)
- Hot drink to warm your cockles on a cold day
- It wakes you up when you simply cant muster any energy from anywhere (and can help through long meetings!)
- ‘Going for coffee’ is a positive social behaviour, encouraging human interaction between friends which is linked to dopamine release (the happy hormone)
- The barista in your local coffee shop is cute? (double dopamine daydreams?)
A large study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 42,659 regular coffee drinkers. Results found they had a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. Their risk of heart disease or cancer was not increased. The study also took into account diet and existing health status – both contributing factors for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The study ran for nine years and found that consumption does not increase the risk of chronic disease.
A recent study out of the University of South Florida and University of Miami found consuming higher levels of caffeine is linked with a delayed onset of Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, drinking coffee has even been suggested to increase longevity.
There is an abundance of research supporting the health benefits of coffee, because it reduces the stress around a habit that we may have erroneously believed was not good for us. It’s nice to have some relief from the ‘food police’ every once and a while. When our chosen rituals can be enjoyed without guilt, there is a benefit to our emotional health.
How to keep your coffee consumption healthy:
Before you order that extra large triple latte, keep in mind that experts do agree it is best to limit your intake to one to two cups a day. Use common sense; some people are sensitive to caffeine and should limit it or choose decaf. Too much caffeine can contribute to insomnia, nervousness, anxiety, gastrointestinal issues and may cause palpitations. Pregnant woman and those with blood pressure issues should check with their doctor. Also, excess sugar or cream in those fancy take away cups are not recommended if you are trying to manage your weight.
Now for the arguments AGAINST:
- Its a costly habit! Just £2 per day amounts to £730 per year. You could have a pretty nice holiday on that!
- It can make your breath smell and stain your teeth
- Extra sugars will also rot your teeth and add to imbalanced blood sugar levels
- Caffeine is a vicious cycle…..the ‘high’ that caffeine provides us in energy and concentration is short lived and followed by a fall. You may begin to feel tired and irritable and surprise surprise the only way to fix it seems to be yet another cup. Before you know it you’ve had 4+ cups and are jittery and jumpy. Sleep becomes a struggle so you wake up feeling jaded and then? The only solution is yet another cup of steaming java.
The truth is that not everyone responds to caffeine the same way, due to our individual metabolisms. Our detoxification pathways are genetically determined. That is why some people have one cup in the morning and can’t sleep for days and others can have a double espresso after dinner and hit the pillow and fall into deep sleep. What this means is that some are better than others at tolerating caffeine. Heavy consumers will find that going ‘cold turkey’ will bring about headaches for a couple of days. Once this has passed you should experience a renewed energy, alertness and improved sleeping pattern.
Coffee has a lot to do with the wide-ranging health impact of sleep deprivation has on our health, including heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. And lets not forget that coffee is a drug. Occasional use may be fine, or for when you just didn’t get enough sleep. But the dark side is that it is addictive. It requires you to drink more and more to get the same “high” and eventually is needed just to feel “normal.” Headaches, exhaustion and other biological signs of withdrawal put it clearly in the camp of addictive drugs.
It may stimulate the release of dopamine, which helps us focus, pay attention and remember. But it depletes those neurotransmitters over time and loses its effectiveness. It stimulates the release of stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. This may lead to palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, and even spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
It increases homocysteine (increasing risk for heart disease, depression, cancer and dementia) and depletes vitamins and causes mineral loss, including magnesium the relaxation mineral. It also causes urinary excretion of calcium which can contributes to osteoporosis. For those with sensitive constitutions, it can cause diarrhea, reflux and heartburn.
Occasional use of addictive legal drugs such as alcohol, sugar, or caffeine causes no harm, but regular, habitual use and addiction may cause significant risk. But more importantly, it has a negative effect on the quality of life for many who drink it — they sleep poorly and are more tired and irritable and anxious. For something that is supposed to give you more energy, it usually offers only a brief lift with increasingly diminishing returns. The surprising thing many former coffee drinkers discover is that they have more energy, not less, when they finally kick the habit.
Posted by Jo on Oct 26, 2012
The debate around fat rattles on and is a source of much confusion. Alongside sugar and salt, fat has been branded a bad guy, with some people being meticulous about the quantity in their diets and an obsession with low-fat and fat free foods. However not all fats are evil. For example, there is an awareness of the importance of eating oily fish; something to do with omegas and brains and skin is the general vibe. So how do we make sense of all this information regarding types of fats and why they are important? Here is a little guide on what fats are ‘good’ and what fats are ‘bad’.
The truth is we do need fat in our diets, particularly a group called the essential fatty acids (EFAs) – also known as Omega-3 and Omega-6. They are fats that cannot be made in the body and therefore must be obtained through the diet and/or supplementation. They have a number of functions and are implicated in:
- brain health
- hair & nails
- inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psorasis
- heart health
A link between omega-3 fatty acids and cardiovascular health was first suggested after it was observed that the Greenland Inuit people had low mortality from coronary heart disease despite consuming a high-fat diet. The best sources of Omega-3 fats are oily fish – salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring and fresh tuna (not the canned variety) as well as flaxseed, soybean, walnut and rapeseed oils. Typically, the Western diet has a higher ratio of Omega 6s in it compared to Omega 3s. Ideally, it should be the other way round with a greater emphasis on consumption of Omega 3s as they are particularly beneficial (they are anti-inflammatory, for example). It is recommended that we eat 2 servings of oily fish per week.
If you lack confidence or inspiration for cooking with fish, why not try one of these heart healthy salmon favourites
Saturated fat is found in animal products such as butter, cheese, red meat and whole milk.Although a little bit of saturated fat isn’t too bad, excessive amounts are associated with increased blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease. It is good to keep an eye on saturated fat levels in the diet, especially if you have weight management concerns. Check labels and aim for 5g or less of saturated fat per 100g.
Trans fats are man-made fats. They can be formed when oil goes through a process called hydrogenation, which hardens the oil. This type of fat, known as hydrogenated fat, can be used for frying or as an ingredient in processed foods. Artificial trans fats can be found in some processed foods such as biscuits and cakes where they are sometimes used to help give products a longer shelf life. It is advised that we carefully watch the amount of trans-fats in our diet as they are associated with a number of health concerns. Read more about trans fats here.
Posted by Jo on Aug 30, 2012
Those who know me know how I love an acronym (or abbreviation for that matter). I know it’s trashy and immature but whatevs…. YOLO.
FODMAP is a legitimate (albeit uncatchy) acronym – it stands for ‘Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides and Polyols’ but more importantly, it’s a dietary approach for IBS sufferers that is receiving a great deal of accolades from both health professionals and patients.
The link between food intake and gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS is well recognised. Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols are all types of short-chain carbohydrates (sugars) found in foods. For example: lactose is the sugar naturally found in milk and milk products, fructose is the sugar found in fruit and sucrose is the white, table sugar found in pretty much everything! It is suggested that FODMAPs have three common functional properties:
1. Poor digestion and absorption in the small intestine.
2. Osmotic properties: they draw water into the small intestine = bloating and gut motility (laxative).
3. Rapidly fermented by bacteria: it is this fermentation that leads to IBS symptoms such as bloating.
FODMAP content varies from food to food. The theory proposes that following a low FODMAP diet may result in a decrease in gut symptoms. For example, for some people, restriction of lactose helps manage symptoms. Although for others simply restricting just one sugar in isolation does not get to the crux of the issue; ignoring the likelihood that other FODMAPs in the diet still have an effect on the bowel. Evidence suggests that it is the cumulative effect of the total amount of fermentable sugars consumed that should have a far greater and more consistent effect. Therefore the central focus is to reduce the intake of all FODMAPs to optimise symptom control in patients with IBS.
FODMAPs in the diet
It can be difficult to ascertain exactly which foods and in what quantities can be tolerated before triggering symptoms, implying that there is a threshold for the amount of FODMAPs an individual can tolerate at one time. The only way of finding out the real culprits is to do an elimination diet.
The elimination diet is just that. By cutting out all foods that might be causing a reaction, you are ‘resetting’ your body’s digestive system before you reintroduce foods containing FODMAPs one at a time. After two weeks of elimination, you can begin the ‘challenge’ phase whereby you test each food by introducing them one at a time to work out which you can tolerate and in what amount. So start by cutting out food sources of FODMAPs, see if your symptoms subside and then reintroduce one and a time. Dont forget to replace with alternatives during the elimination phase to ensure a balanced diet is maintained.
Food sources of FODMAPS and suitable alternatives:
Lactose: milk (cow, goat & sheep), ice cream, cheese (soft & fresh e.g.ricotta, cottage cheese), yoghurt*
Alternatives: lactose-free milk, rice milk, hard cheeses (including brie and Camembert), lactose-free yoghurt, butter *yoghurt with live and active cultures may be easier on the intestines but, as a lactose source, should be eliminated initially and reintroduced when symptoms are better controlled to assess tolerance.
Fructose: fruits * (apples, pears, peaches, mango, watermelon, melon, mango, papaya, figs), honey, sweeteners (high fructose corn syrup, fructose) molasses, agave, processed condiments (BBQ sauce, ketchup, jam, sweet & sour sauce), fruit juice, dried fruit, Ripeness affects the amount of fructose. *Firm, less-ripe fruit tends to contain more fructose
Alternatives: fruits (banana, blueberry, durian, grapefruit,grape, honeydew melon, kiwi, lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, passionfruit, raspberry, strawberry), maple syrup, golden syrup
Oligosaccharides (fructans and/or galactans): vegetables (artichokes, asparagus, beetroot, brussel sprout, broccoli, cabbage, fennel, garlic, leeks, okra, onions, peas, shallots), cereals (wheat and rye in large amounts), legumes (chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans).
Oligosaccharides are high in inulin and FOS. These are sometimes added to foods and supplements precisely because they are fermentable fibers, meant to encourage the growth of friendly gut bacteria. While this makes sense in general, they are sometimes poorly tolerated by people with IBS.
Alternatives: vegetables (bamboo, bok choi, carrot, celery, peppers, corn, aubergine, green beans, lettuce, chives, pumpkin, parsnip, tomato), cereals (gluten free and spelt bread/cereal products
Polyols: fruits (apples, apricots, cherries, lychee, nectarine, pears, peaches, plums, prunes, watermelon), vegetables (avocado, cauliflower, mushrooms, peas), sweeteners (sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maititol, isomalt).
Polyols are artificial sweeteners added to ‘sugar-free’ products. These sugars can create a laxative effect by producing osmotic diarrheoa (bring water into the bowel) when consumed in quantities above an individual’s personal threshold or in combination with other FODMAP sources. Look out for sugar additives that end in –ol
Alternatives: fruits (bananas, blueberry, durian, grapefruit, grape, honeydew melon, kiwifruit, lemon, lime, mandarin, orange, passionfruit, raspberry, melon).
(This is by no means a complete list, just an idea of foods containing FODMAPS in each group)
Please note that you are not intended to remain on a zero FODMAPS diet for the rest of your life (snore). But identifying which group of sugars cause your symptoms can bring relief to people with irritable bowel syndrome. Remember that each individual is unique and what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. The FODMAP diet is not considered a cure but certainly seems a worthy consideration. It is recommended that you consult your GP before embarking on an elimination diet.