Diet, nutritionism, and health

I believe we are what we eat but for the longest time the whole notion of counting calories, talking about carbs, fats, proteins and nutrients seemed a bit odd to me. I tried supplements and stopped because I don’t care what anybody says – I don’t think my urine should be bright orange/yellow/green. So here I was interested in food but utterly confused by all the nutrition advise out there. Until I discovered Michael Pollan. As a historian, I can recognize his research as good and his arguments as solid. But most importantly, it all makes sense in a way that even our great grandmother would agree. If you don’t have time to read his books, at least watch this video.


Running progress

I’m still at the run-and-walk stage but I made good progress today. Last week I ran 2 1/2 laps at Hart House and walked 1 so this week I planned to run at least 3, possibly 3 1/2. The day didn’t start well – I went to bed past midnight last night, which made getting out of bed at 6 AM really hard. It is still warm and humid and since I had to meet a friend at Hart House, I decided to run inside. The first few strides felt awful, my legs weighed a ton. But then I got to the end of the 3 1/2 laps still feeling ok – or at least not dying yet – so I kept going. I ended up doing 7 1/2 laps before I started feeling a little bit of a stitch. I then walked for 2 laps and then run again for a full five minutes (something around 5 laps maybe). It felt really good!

Food allergy test…

So, I went to the naturopath again today. As you know, on my last visit she had me do a blood test to determine possible food intolerances. They screen you against 93 different foods and I was afraid they’d tell me I had to give up something I actually love like coffee, tea or eggs. But the results were better than I thought:

I have to eliminate white rice, sheep’s milk, and cola (i.e. coke). White rice might be difficult but she said I can have brown rice, which makes it a lot easier. As for the others, I don’t drink sheep’s milk or cola drinks at all.

I should also reduce (i.e. not have it more than twice a week): soya beans, rye, wheat, grapefruit, pineapple, and yeast (baker/brewers). Hmm, I guess it means I need to reduce consumption of bread. Reducing soy is the harder part since I have been trying to increase my consumption of it recently and I was actually getting used to it. Oh well, I guess it was too much of a good thing.

But like I said before, at least it wasn’t essential foods (for me) like onions, garlic, coffee, nuts or chili peppers!


My approach to health care has always been based on prevention. I had a few traumatic experiences at the hands of medical practitioners as a child so that led me to try as hard as I can not to get sick so I don’t have place myself in their hands again. So far, it has worked. I had my last serious cold/flu about 8-9 years ago and the last time I took prescription drugs was 4 years ago when I had the beginnings of a stomach ulcer.

One of the keys to maintain proper health, for me, is to pay enough attention to nutrition and to our bodies. I read a lot about how to optimize my diet and the kinds of vitamin and mineral supplements available. As I don’t much believe in synthetic food, I keep my intake of vitamins to a minimum. When I feel the first signs of a cold coming or whenever I come into contact with people afflicted by colds/flus, I bump up my immune system by taking lots of vitamin C and garlic (both in pills and in my food).

Although I have a pretty good handle on these things, I’ve been wanting to visit a good naturopath for a while. I need someone to look critically at my diet and also look holistically at my body. My energy levels are not always great, I have issues with anxiety and digestion. But I didn’t just want to go to my Family Doctor, I wanted to go to someone versed in alternative approaches to health care, chinese medicine, and was well versed on nutrition for optimum health. And I finally found someone!

Dr. Sushma Shah is a graduate of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine and “uses various natural therapies such as acupuncture (Traditional and Cosmetic Acupuncture), Traditional Chinese medicine – tongue and pulse diagnosis, herbal medicines (Chinese and Western herbs), homeopathy, diet and lifestyle counseling, nutrition therapy and spinal manipulations to heal the person holistically – body, mind and spirit.’ She was highly recommended by a friend of mine and yesterday I went for my first of three consultations.

We talked for over an hour and a half. At the end, she suspected I might have a food intolerance, which is something I’ve always suspected. So she asked me to have a blood test done that will test my tolerance for 97 different foods. I had that done yesterday and I’m now due back in her office for a full physical and to discuss the result of the blood test in two weeks. I just hope it isn’t something hard to give up, like cheese or eggs….

But just talking to her made me feel better. I got home so inspired that I prepared this amazing meal of mashed potatoes, chicken breast marinated in balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, onions and herbs, stir-fried broccoli and bok choi, and fennel and tomato salad with fresh basil. I also prepared a tabule made with quinoa for lunch today (it was yummy!). Looking forward to seeing her again in two weeks.
Oh and she also has a blog with some useful tips.

Universal health care

I’ve recently got into a discussion with my brother on the issue of universal health care. It’s a big debate and one which we may be far from agreeing on. It boiled down to two basic issues – freedom of choice and trust.

My brother doesn’t believe in the welfare state because he doesn’t think the state is better than its population and we shouldn’t depend on it. According to him, the state shouldn’t abandon education and health care but should focus on providing it to those who need it as opposed to those who want it. He was very alarmed when I mentioned there’s no private health care in Canada. He felt that the lack of alternative hurts his individual rights to choose the kind of health care he wants.

In theory, I have nothing against the co-existence of public & private education and health care. In practice, I don’t think it works. Take universal health care for instance. I think it only works when an influential segment of our population, the educated middle class, the opinion-makers, rely on the system and therefore demand a certain basic quality. If you have a private alternative, the minute the first glitch on the public system appears, this influential group moves on the private option, which is easier than demanding change on the public side. Soon all the ones left using the public system are only those who need it – those on the margins of society, who can often be ignored by the policy makers. The pressure to keep the system working well disappears and soon only those with money can receive quality care.

That, to me, limits my freedom of choice as an individual. If my choice of hospital or treatment is limited by the amount of money I have in the bank or the kinds of benefits I get from my employer, it hurts my individual rights much more than not having the choice to pay for private health care. Full individual freedom is illusory. Our freedom ends when it interferes with the freedom of our neighbour. We all have the right to quality health care irrespective of our previous health history, job, class, or financial conditions. If to have that I need to wait a bit more for a non-urgent test because someone else who has a life-threatening condition needs to be taken care of first, I’m happy to oblige. I don’t want to be able to do whatever medical test I want the next day just because I have enough money to pay a private clinic when there are other people who are denied that choice. That, to me, is no freedom.

Update: Interesting article debunking some commonly-held myths about the Canadian healthcare system

Part 2 of article here.

Canadian Health Care

During the past few years, I’ve watched with alarm as more and more people criticized the Canadian health care system as being inefficient and plagued by long wait-times. Let me make it clear: I am completely against introducing private health care into Canada and creating a two-tier system. The minute you have private health care and private insurance, health care becomes a luxury for the wealthy and not a right of all citizens.

I’ve recently come across this article by a Canadian doctor that’s worth a read and whose advice I’ll be sure to take:

Health Care Worth Fighting for

I remember walking into the daunting emergency room of a Los Angeles county hospital in 1996. It was my first day of a year I would be spending at UCLA completing my second year of surgical residency.

“This is where it all happens,” my chief resident snorted, motioning to the huge crowd in the waiting room. “These are America’s medically indigent,” he added with a smirk. “Oh – but you don’t have to worry about things like that in Canada. Don’t you have socialized health care up there? Doesn’t it take a year to get a CT scan? I can never imagine having a health-care system like yours.”

I cringed at his description of the people that the county hospital served and I hated his uninformed assumptions about the Canadian medical system.


Spending a few months rotating through a private facility, I found it unconscionable that patients needing urgent medical care were turned down at the door if they did not have medical insurance. I spent as much time treating lacerations and gunshot wounds as arranging immediate transfers to county institutions. I found it disturbing that the richest country in the world had a medical system that favoured only the wealthy and insured.

At the end of my year at UCLA, I ran into my senior resident after he had written his qualification exams. I knew he had passed, so I was surprised by his sullen mood. He told me that his wife had recently become sick and needed the expertise of a particular surgeon, one that his HMO refused to cover.


When Tommy Douglas first introduced equal medical access to Saskatchewan in 1959, few at the time could predict its success and integral role in defining part of our Canadian identity. But even with this history of success, our system seems to be under constant attack from critics in the public and more insidiously from within the uppermost ranks of the Canadian Medical Association. The inaction of Stephen Harper’s government and the track record of his health minister demonstrate a genuine lack of commitment to this ideal.

We possess a health-care system worth fighting for. We need to take control. We need to wrestle it out of the hands of those who cast doubts and spread fear and would sacrifice a system that benefits all Canadians so that a select few can profit. Our health-care providers are arguably the best trained in the world and our infrastructure attempts to deliver these services to all Canadians in a timely fashion.

Remember, we all share responsibility for maintaining Canada’s health-care system:

  • Health care is not free, but because we never pay directly out of our own pockets, there is a tendency to treat it as such. Our hard-earned money, in the form of taxes, funds almost every aspect of its delivery. Use it ethically and responsibly.
  • Be proactive instead of reactive regarding your health. Regular exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, smoking and alcohol cessation, and regular hand-washing are all inexpensive measures that, in the long run, will save our system a lot of money.
  • The environment is directly linked to our health. We all need to take personal responsibility for its preservation.
  • With impending federal and provincial elections, make your voice heard and your vote count. Remind politicians and decision-makers that there is no compromise or middle ground when it comes to universal health care.
  • Remind politicians and decision-makers at every level of government that women’s, children’s, community and social service, and educational programs all have a direct impact on our nation’s health. Funding cuts to these programs undermine and jeopardize the health of our collective future.
  • Recognize and reward sincere efforts to improve our system, like the joint effort by the Ontario provincial government and the Ontario Hospital Association to reduce wait times for investigations and procedures.Thinking back, it makes sense that my chief resident couldn’t understand a medical system like ours. Growing up in California, he could not comprehend a system that provides the highest standard of care to all its citizens regardless of socio-economic status with decision-making unfettered by third parties like profit-centred insurance companies and HMOs.
  •  We need to continue our proud medical tradition in this country and I hope there will never ever be a “medically indigent Canadian.”


    It all started with a BBQ chicken…

    Nothing like having fesh, wholesome ingredients to feel inspired to cook! Judging by the number of times I mention restaurants on this blog, you might think I don’t cook very often. But I do. I love to cook. I love coming up with new things in the kitchen. But I have to feel inspired and this week, a BBQ chicken did it!

    It all started on wednesday when I picked up a BBQ chicken for lunch. I had onions and garlic at home, so I picked up a few tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and celery as well since I wanted to make a broth with the carcass afterwards.

    I wanted a moist rice to have with the chicken but since I was too hungry to take the time to make risotto, I opted for some basmati rice with some nice tomato sauce instead.

    Basmati rice with tomato sauce

    • 1/2 cup basmati rice
    • 2 tomatoes, finelly chopped
    • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 1 small onion, chopped
    • 1 cup water, boiled
    • 1tbsp olive oil
    • salt & pepper to taste (I used herb salt)
    • paprika/red pepper powder to taste

    Heat a small sauce pan. Add the olive oil and stir fry the onions for about 5 min. Add the garlic and continue to cook for another 1-2 mins. Mix in the chopped tomatoes and let simmer until you have a nice sauce, about 5-10 mins. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, red pepper powder. Add the basmati rice, mix in thoroughly. Pour the hot water and let the rice cook – it will take about 10 mins.

    The result was nice and moist, exactly what I wanted to balance the dryness of the chicken.

    After we finished lunch, I cleaned the rest of the BBQ chicken off the carcass and put it the way. Since you can’t let a good chicken carcass go to waste, I decided to make some chicken broth. So I put the chicken bones in a pot, added a couple coarsely chopped carrots, one large onion, 2 celery sticks, 2-3 bay leaves, some dried herbs (I only had parsley), poured about 2-3 litres of water and let it all simmer for about 3 hours.

    Now that I had some nice homemade both, I had to use it, so I decided to make a soup. I looked through the cupboard and found some Puy lentils. I also had about a cup of tomato rice from lunch. It wasn’t enough for another meal, so I decided to use it in the soup. Here’s what I came up with:

    Lentil & rice soup

    • 1/2 cup Puy lentils
    • 1 cup left-over tomato rice (you could use a little bit barley or 1/4 cup basmati rice)
    • 1 onion, chopped finelly
    • 2 small carrots, chopped in small cubes
    • 1/2 zuchini, shredded
    • 2-3 cloves garlic
    • 1tsp turmeric (curcuma)
    • red pepper powder
    • 1l chicken broth
    • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
    • salt & pepper to taste

    Heat the olive oil in a medium soup pot and stir fry the onions and garlic for a couple of minutes. Add the carrots and stir fry for a few more minutes. Combine the dry spices and let it fry for another minute. Blend in the lentils, add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. When the lentils are almost done (15-20 min), mix in the rice and let it simmer for a few more minutes.

    It was delicious and a nice meal in a cold night. It tasted even better the next day.

    But I wasn’t done with the chicken broth or the left-over BBQ chicken yet. I wanted a single-plate dinner so I decided to make a paella. In Spain, I have learned that a paella is not really a specific recipe, but rather short grain rice cooked in a paella (pan, in Spanish) like these:


    So here is what I came up with:

    Paella de pollo con vegetales

    • 200g short grain rice
    • 1-2 cup leftover BBQ chicken, chopped
    • 3 tomatoes
    • 1 small green pepper, finely chopped
    • 1 onion, finely chopped
    • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
    • 1 cup shredded zucchini
    • 1/2 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
    • 500 ml chicken broth
    • 1/2 cup dry white wine
    • salt & pepper to taste
    • paprika
    • red pepper powder
    • 2 tbsp fresh parsley

    Heat the paella (or a medium casserole, if you don’t have one) over medium heat. Stir fry the onions for a few minutes and then add the garlic and ginger. Cook for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes & green peppers. Season with the dry spices, salt & pepper. Simmer for about 10 mins. If the tomatoes are of the acid kind, add 1/2 tsp of sugar. Stir in the white wine and let it evaporate, another 2-3 mins. Add the BBQ chicken and let it simmer in the sauce for a few minutes. Combine the rice & zucchini, add the parsley and mix thoroughly. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Correct the salt & pepper, cover and let it cook until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid, about 10-15 mins depending on the kind of rice. Once cooked, let it sit for 10 mins and serve. It will look something like this:

    Chicken paella

    All in all, a fun cooking week with a few ingredients!

    Speaking of ingredients, the choice of spices on these dishes weren’t random or dictated solely by taste. I believe in the medicinal properties of food, and often keep that in mind when choosing how to season a dish.

    Turmeric, for instance, is a root from the ginger family and is mostly sold as a powder made from the dried root. Also used as a dye for its bright yellow colour, it is one of the main ingredients of yellow curry and very mild in taste. It’s a strong anti-carcinogen (helps prevent the growth of cancer cells) and has a protective effect on the liver. Look here for more information. Because of its attractive colour – I love yellow – and mild taste, it goes well on any dish and I tend to use it often. Turmeric and oregano are probably the spices I use most often (btw, a USDA study found that, gram for gram, oregano has the highest antioxidant activity of 27 fresh culinary herbs.; I didn’t use it in any of the recipes above because unfortunately, I have run out of it).

    Paprika/red pepper powder/chili powder – All of these are related and contain capsaicin, whose anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects may lower the risk of cancer.

    Garlic – also has anti-carcinogenic effects and improves the immune system, helping fight colds & other sicknesses. I also it for almost everything.

    Ginger – It has been used in Asian, Indian and Arabic medicine since Ancient times. It aids digestions, helps ease stomach ailments, bowel problems, eases the symptoms of the common cold or flu, nausea, etc.