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On taking a pause, and being honest with ourselves

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I have a huge amount of respect for people who know their limits. For those who recognize that sometimes taking a break is the most sensible way to go, no matter how much responsibility they feel towards their family, work, or friends. We all carry heavy loads at times, and I honestly believe that the world would be a better place if everyone felt that they have a right to say stop, please stop for a second.

This is, of course, a luxury. Not everyone has the support network or simply the choice to take a break when they need it (big or small). Frankly, there is little or no room in our society for stopping when we need to catch a breath. This is especially true at the workplace, where any sign of fatigue is simply interpreted as weakness.

And this is why I’d love to bring to your attention a blog post written by Dreena Burton, vegan cook author and super mama to three girls.

In “Pressing Pause,” Dreena says that she needs to slow down because she feels overwhelmed by her career and her motherlode. As has always been the case with her, her words were so candid and genuine that I really sympathized with her. Her call for a break seems very brave to me, and I think she’s teaching her children an invaluable lesson in self-respect. So, here’s to Dreena, for teaching us a little more than just cooking amazing food.

If you’d like to learn more about Dreena Burton, check out to her website, Plant-Powered Kitchen. And please get one of her cookbooks if you don’t have them yet. I own all of them! (The photo above is my variation on Dreena’s Super-charge-me cookies from her book Eat, Drink and be Vegan).

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Honey, oh sugar, sugar: the green guide to sugar do’s and dont’s

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I picked up a copy of EcoParent today and found the most practical guide to sugar-eating there is. So, as we dive into the cookie-ladden holidays, I want to share some bits of it with you.

(Full disclosure: I contribute to EcoParent. But, rest assured, I would have endorsed this information regardless of my relationship with the magazine.)

 

Dr. Heidi Lescanec, the Naturopathic Doctor who writes the article, explains the difference between processed sugar and naturally occurring sugar, like the one found in fruit, this way:

  • In nature, sugars and carbohydrates (our energy sources) come with vitamins, minerals, enzymes, proteins, fat and fiber. (…) In their whole form, sugar fuels our body function, while refined sugars, on the other hand, are devoid of nutrients.

That’s the Doctor’s first warning. And then she goes on to say why consumption of refined sugars has been linked to diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer:

  • Regular high consumption of refined sugars actually depletes the body’s essential reserves of what it needs to function. In addition, when we consume refined sugars alone without proteins, good fats, or fiber, they enter the bloodstream in a rush.

Dr. Lescanec offers a general recommendation:

  • Choose more wholesome sweeteners, eat them in moderation, and make sure to include protein, fiber or healthy fat in your meals or snacks so that the entry of glucose into the bloodstream is slower.

Now, this is the practical knowledge you need before making that first batch of gingerbread cookies. (This is a summary. Do pick up a copy of EcoParent to read the whole thing. It’s truly enlightening —plus, the rest of the magazine is a great read!).

Refined, commercial sweeteners that you should avoid:

Agave: Sold as a health food, agave is now in the hall of shame of sugar. It is marketed as having a low glycemic index, usually a good thing, but the only reason for that is that agave is high in fructose. In short, this means that your body doesn’t metabolize it well at all. I used agave quite a bit in the past but it has no place in my pantry anymore.

White granulated sugar: You probably know this already, but white sugar is highly refined, has no nutrients, and is simply terrible for your health. If you’ve substituted white sugar for brown sugar, see the next entry.

Brown sugar: It might look more artisanal, but the knowledgeable Doctor Lescanec reminds us that brown sugar is pretty much exactly the same as white sugar, only that it has kept some of its molasses. Meaning: brown sugar is also terrible for your health.

Demerara, Turbinado, and Muscavado: I have fallen victim to their fancy names before. Have you? These three types of sugar are pretty much the same, with varying amounts of molasses. All of them are refined sugars with 99% sucrose —same as white and brown sugar. Their appeal is that they are less processed sugars, if only slightly.

High Fructose corn syrup: This is the real bad guy on the list. Known as glucose-fructose in Canada, HFCS is pretty much on every processed food there is, savoury or sweet. It’s the main ingredient in pop. You should avoid this like the plague. Your body simply doesn’t digest this type of sugar, so it goes directly into your bloodstream. HFCS has been directly linked to the obesity epidemic in North America. (A huge bonus of avoiding HFCS is that you will inevitably stop buying processed foods for the most part, if not altogether. Try it as an experiment. You’ll never look back and your future self will thank you.)

This list doesn’t include artificial sweeteners, so here’s my own advice: That stuff is crap. Research has shown that it will hurt your brain cells. Don’t have it.

 

Now, for the good news: sugars you can have!

Unrefined natural sugars that are better options:

Honey: Honey contains vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids and good bacteria. You should, however, look for raw, pure honey, since the processed kind generally lacks all this good stuff. Plus, it tastes so much better.

Stevia: This is extracted from a natural herb and it’s a lot sweeter than regular sugar. The down side is that it’s not easy to cook or bake with. It’s mostly used for hot beverages.

Maple syrup: This one is my absolute favourite. I buy the 1L jugs at Costco whenever I can and use it for almost all my baking. Maple Syrup has tonnes of anti-oxidants and more vitamins and minerals that any other type of sugar. We’re so lucky that we can get the good stuff here in Canada. ❤

Sucanat and Rapadura: These two are pretty much the same, except for the size of their granules. They’re made of dehydrated sugar cane juice. They preserve the good vitamins and minerals of sugar cane, which means that this helps you digest it.

Coconut sugar: I was pleased to find this one on the list because I felt adventurous at Bulk Barn the other day and bought a bunch of it. It’s delicious and perfect for baking. It’s not very nutrient rich, but has a very low glycemic index.

Molasses: We’re vegetarian, as you may have noticed, so we need to keep an eye for our iron levels. I buy the blackstrap molasses kind, which is very high in iron (and many other nutrients), and use it to cook beans in it. For regular molasses, which is high in iron, zinc, copper and chromium, look for unsulphured molasses (it’s safer because it has no sulphites. These are bad for you, and especially bad for kids.)

 

I really hope this list helps you navigate the supermarket isles better. I’m definitely going to keep it handy in the future. Again, I highly recommend that you pick up the magazine and read the whole article. There’s a lot more useful information, plus a couple of recipes, in it.

Lastly, if you’re still curious about the topic of sugar, the CBC’s Fifth Estate recently aired a pretty good, short documentary about sugar. It’s not the most in-depth investigation but it definitely has useful information, like how to visualize your sugar intake in a whole week —totally scary. You can watch the documentary here.

As always, let me know your thoughts! Have a great week and happy good-sugar baking : )

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Products, products, products

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It’s been about five years since I started paying attention to what type of products I buy. It started with food, right about when D and I began our quest for a healthier, meatless life (I’ll write about this in a separate post soon). As reading ingredient lists and nutrition tables proved to be an eye-opening experience, I began questioning my choices on everything else I buy: cleaning products, beauty products, even clothes.

There are different opinions about whether it is our responsibility as consumers to buy ethically sourced products. (I use this expression in the broadest sense: I mean products that are manufactured safely and without cruelty to animals or workers; I mean products that are made with components that don’t harm us or the environment; products that are intended do do good, not just earn a profit). D and I decided to live by better ethical standards; we made a conscious decision to be better consumers, at least more informed consumers, in order to support not only our well-being but to support people and companies trying to make this a better world. Like everything, this is just an attempt to do things better.

Not everybody agrees with this approach. It takes too much time, and too much effort, the argument goes, to figure out where and how everything is made. It’s up to governments and companies and regulatory bodies to clean up their act, not to consumers, to make this a healthier marketplace. I completely agree that being more informed takes a lot of time and effort, and that people in positions of authority should definitely be the ones leading the way. But I think individual choice can have a huge impact. In a sense, I vote with my wallet.

Anyway, this is getting long! What I really wanted to do is show you a list of products I buy or look for that fall into this category of “better for you and for the planet”. This is just to give you an example of what I buy and why –and to get you thinking next time you go to the store.

Food (this is a huge category so I’ll just touch on organics).

I try to avoid the middle aisle in the supermarkets, and rather go for the bakery, the cold, and the fresh produce sections.

Pesticides are known to be harmful, especially for children (read this). I buy organic when it’s not absurdly expensive and I’m selective: apples, grapes, and fresh berries I try to get organic as much as possible. The same with Tofu. And the same with food for lil’ Sophie: she gets as many organics as possible.

Personal products

Parabens and phtalates are said to be harmful, yet they’re common ingredients in products like shampoo and deodorant (read this from the Campaign for Safe Cometics). I buy paraben and phtalate-free shampoos and conditioners, and try to get the ones with a “cruelty free” label on the back (or the label that looks like a rabbit, which means it hasn’t been tested on animals). The same goes for face and body moisturizers. I like the Jason and Attitude brands.

I only buy deodorant and not anti-perspirant, because some research has linked the aluminum-based anti-perspirants to breast cancer–although this is controversial. See here.

D has eczema, and the only soap he can tolerate is natural pine tar, by The Soap Works, so that’s what we get. It’s an all vegetable soap and I like that it has no packaging –I still don’t get why soap bars are being replaced by liquid soap in wasteful plastic containers. I like soap bars!

As far as baby stuff goes, I try to get anything that’s labeled all-natural, plus fragrance and alcohol free–that includes her baby wipes. I also don’t use soap for Sophie’s bath-time every day, but rather every two or three days. We’re currently using Baby Bee for her.

Cleaning products

Everything from detergent, to dish soap to all-purpose cleaners can accumulate over time in your clothes and on your skin. So I try to buy brands that contain no petro-chemicals, that are unscented, and that have as few ingredients as possible. I love everything by Seventh Generation. I also just use hot water and vinegar most often for general cleaning purposes. And I don’t use fabric softeners. They’re not only unnecessary but they have been linked to –you guessed it– cancer: read this.

This list can go on and on, but I think I’ve bored you already with this long post. Do you have any tips about products you prefer to buy? Any comments? Please do share! Have a wonderful day.

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A plastic-free life

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It’s impossible. You can’t really run away from plastic, and you probably don’t even want to: it’s too convenient, too cheap, and sometimes too pretty to avoid. But what you can do is minimize your and your family’s exposure to plastic.

As I mentioned in a previous post, some compounds found in plastic containers, such as Bisphenol A, are known to leach into food and drinks and harm human health. Pregnant women, children and infants are at a higher risk of exposure to these toxins. BPA free plastics are not necessarily safe for us.

You can take very simple and affordable steps to minimize your family’s exposure to plastic, especially when handling food and drinks. Here is what we have done so far:

Avoid tupperware. We mostly use glass containers to store leftovers and bring lunch to work. Yes, they are a little heavier but it really hasn’t been a big deal. Plus if we need to warm our food we can safely use a microwave. (Don’t ever, ever microwave plastic, no matter how “safe” manufacturers claim this is. I’ve consulted with many scientists and they all agree it isn’t.)

Make it fun. We’ve recently become fans of the salad-in-a-jar trend. D has been taking his lunch in mason jars or old pasta sauce jars and he’s loving it. If you haven’t already, Google “salad in a jar.” You’ll find this is no small trend!

Make it nice. I have to say, I simply enjoy a meal better when it’s not served in plastic. Every meal should be a good experience, and re-heated tupperware just doesn’t do it for me.

Start early. Since our lil S was born, just over a year ago, we’ve tried to minimize her contact with plastic. Instead of regular baby bottles, we bought two glass bottles by LifeFactory.

Find what works for you. Instead of buying expensive glass containers marketed for babies (we also found out that some glass containers still have BPA in them, in the liner for the lids), we found the best solution: mini mason jars. I can’t recommend them enough. They’re cheap. They don’t break easily. They are the perfect baby portion. You can boil them, freeze them and stack them, and they come in lots of different sizes. They are honestly the best kept secret when it comes to storing baby food. The only caveat is that the lids can become a little rusty with the constant washing. But they are so cheap, you can afford to buy new ones and keep your old jars for other things, maybe leave them as candle holders.

Avoid packaging. I try, as much as I can, to avoid fresh food packaged in plastic. I always go for the bunch of spinach instead of the boxed kind. I don’t buy bagged peppers. If two similar products come one wrapped in plastic and one in cardboard, I’ll go for the latter. I know this might seem like an exercise in futility, but I like to think every little bit counts. Plus this rule usually means I end up avoiding processed stuff anyway, because my default is to buy fresh, unpackaged food. Now, that’s fodder for a whole new post…

If you have any comments or other ideas on how to stay away from plastic, please do share them!

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About those plastic pellets in your facial scrub

The news that millions of tiny plastic particles used in facial scrubs and toothpaste have been found in the Great Lakes is making its rounds in the media this week.

The gist of this concerning news is that small and sometimes microscopic plastic particles go down the drain after having made contact with your skin and show up in our lakes. They are making their way up the food chain, being eaten by fish that we, humans, end up eating ourselves.

Reading and listening to this report has made me think of The Story of Cosmetics, one of the videos produced by the brilliant Annie Leonard. (If you don’t know her, please stop everything you’re doing and head to www.storyofstuff.org now!)

If you’re concerned about what’s in your family’s cosmetics and toiletries I highly recommend watching the video. There’s so much to think about here.

“It’s like a giant experiment. We’re using all these mystery chemicals and waiting to see what happens.”

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“BPA Free” not as safe as you thought

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If you’re like me, you probably check that any plastic gadget going anywhere near your kids’ mouth or little hands has the “BPA Free” label. However, new research suggests that this might not be enough to keep toxins away from your family, as some manufacturers are simply replacing Bisphenol A with other–potentially more–harmful chemicals.

The reason you want to stay away from BPA is that it can leach into foods and drinks, potentially disrupting human hormonal activity. BPA is known as an “estrogenic-mimicking” compound. Pregnant women, infants, and toddlers are especially sensitive to its effects.

A study released in August 2012 by Toxicology In Vitro found that, since the 2011 European ban on BPA use for baby bottles, manufacturers have been using a similar compund, Bisphenol S (BPS), to replace it not only in bottles but in all kinds of hard-plastic products. The study concludes that “the estrogenic activity of Bisphenol A and Bisphenol S is of a comparable potency.” Even worse, the researchers believe BPS might be more harmful than BPA to environmental and human health because it takes longer to biodegrade.

In June this year, the journal Chemosphere published further concerns about other types of Bisphenol being used to replace BPA. It said that Bisphenol AP, Bisphenol M, and Bisphenol P are all currently used in generic consumer products, even though they have “genotoxic potentials that are greater than that of BPA.”

Yet another study, published by Environmental Health Perspectives, adds reasons to be wary of the BPA Free stickers. Researchers tested numerous plastic products labelled BPA Free to see if they still showed signs of estrogenic activity, or EA. They summarize their results like this: “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products.”

This is definitely a source of concern for everyone, but most importantly for those with young children. I certainly didn’t know about BPS and the other harmful types of Bisphenol, and will keep an eye on this research in the months to come.

I’ll write about how my family tries to stay away from plastic products (not always successfully) in a different post. If you have any comments or questions about this, please feel free to share them below.