Could Small Businesses Improve Your Health?

A new study published in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society has found communities which rely on small businesses — not large companies — have fewer problems, and their residents have fewer health problems.

Why?

Sociologists theorize that given their ties to the community — which creates a sort of built-in accountability — small businesses are more likely to care about the well-being of their employees, customers, and other local citizens.

To me, this is a surprising, albeit welcome, finding.  As I understand it, the lack of large businesses in poor urban neighborhoods is one reason for the existence of food deserts.  (Food deserts are communities with limited or no access to fresh produce).  The disadvantage of a community served by small business grocers alone is that mom-and-pop shops have more difficulty absorbing the cost of unsold foods with short shelf lives that are more likely to spoil or expire before selling.

Could supporting small businesses really improve your health?  It sounds plausible in the case of restaurants.  No matter how many poor quality ingredients your corner store is loading onto your sandwich, it’s probably still a sandwich.  The same cannot be said of sandwiches from fast-food chains, which more closely resemble chemical cocktails.

There’s little question that supporting small businesses is good for the health of our economy — successful small businesses have always been the engine of America — but could they be better for your personal health, too? 

What do you think?  Is supporting small businesses healthier?

Read the full study HERE.   Read The Atlantic‘s summary, “Towns With Small Businesses Have Healthier People,” HERE.

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Should Politicians Regulate Our Sugar Habit?

Florida Republican State Senator Ronda Storms is no stranger to controversial legislation.  She’s the mind behind the 2004 sterilize-a-pedophile bill.  In the case of regulating sugar for those on food stamps (who also happen to be the unhealthiest among us), she might be onto something.

Mark Bittman of the New York Times writes:

When Ronda Storms, a Republican state senator in Florida, is accused of nanny-state-ism for her efforts on behalf of a sane diet, it’s worth noting. When she introduced a bill to prevent people in Florida from spending food stamps on unhealthy items like candy, chips and soda, she broke ranks: few of her party have taken on Big Food. And as someone who has called for the defunding of an educational Planned Parenthood program and banning library book displays supporting Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, she is hardly in her party’s left wing. Not surprisingly, she’s faced criticism from every corner: Democrats think she’s attacking poor people, and Republicans see Michelle Obama. Soon after Storms proposed the bill, she told me, “Coca-Cola and Kraft were in my office” hating it.  Click here to read the full NYT article, “Regulating Our Sugar Habit” by Mark Bittman.

Bittman’s most important point is that food stamp payments have been based on the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet, and do not account for the added cost of nutritionally-empty food.  In addition, the poorest among us — those on food stamps — are also the least likely to have access to healthcare to correct diet-related ailments.  Often, they are using those food stamps to buy meals for children.  The correlation between food stamps and obesity is well-documented.  What if we ensured, through the regulation of food stamps, that our nation’s poorest children and adults spent government dollars on nutritious food?

Take this poll to share your opinion:

Workplace Wellness: Are You Happy On The Job?

Happier people are healthier people — and job satisfaction has a signficant impact on happiness.  Among other traits, the happiest among us are those who own their own businesses, according to the Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index.  Simply put, toss your boss — but retain your income — and you might just be on the path to true happiness.

Last fall, a Forbes article, “The Ten Happiest Jobs,” found that the people who reported the highest job satisfaction were those who help others and find meaning in their work: clergy members, firefighters, physical therapists, authors, teachers, artists, and psychologists.  A Wall Street Journal article by Leslie Kwoh, “Hazard of the Trade: Banker’s Health,” discusses the workplace-related afflictions of investment bankers. Despite high pay and on-the-job perks, the investment bankers reported a slew of health problems from stress.  Although job satisfaction increases — slightly — with salary, even the highest pay can’t make up for meaningless work.

The good news: Your job satisfaction is likely to increase as you age. 

Do you think that’s because people get used to jobs they hate?  Or is it because, as people age, they gravitate closer to what’s most important to them, and seek out jobs they love?

 

The History of Red Velvet Cake & A Retro Velvet Cake Recipe

Happy (almost) Valentine’s Day! I have always loved the concept of Valentine’s Day, and whether you’re single or partnered, I hope you do, too. Valentine’s Day doesn’t need to be commercial, it doesn’t need to be expensive, and it doesn’t need to be limited to romantic love. This year, think of Valentine’s Day as an excuse to show your love for the people who matter most in your life.

Since I love to bake, I decided to bake red velvet cupcakes for my Valentine. The only problem? Red velvet cake recipes call for red food coloring (ie. Red #40 and/or Red #3).  Red #3, also known as disodium 2 (2,4,5,7-tetraiodo- 3-oxido- 6- oxoxanthen-9-yl) benzoate monohydrate, has more recently been replaced by Red #40, a chemical derived from petroleum, also known as 2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-, disodium salt, and disodium 6-hydroxy-5-((2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo)-2-naphthalenesulfonate)These don’t sound like foods, do they?

Since artificial food coloring has been linked to ADHD, thyroid cancer, chromosomal damage, asthma, migraines, and a variety of other symptoms, artificial food coloring is an additive I try to avoid. So I set to work researching red velvet cake to find out how I could create it authentically and naturally — without the use of artificial food coloring.

The origins of the first red velvet cake are as mysterious as they are romantic. As Southerners tell the story, the red velvet cake came about in the South during the Civil War. The cake has certainly become something of a Southern tradition, showing up at Juneteenth celebrations and even making appearances at traditional Southern weddings.  New Yorkers claim the cake was invented in the 1950s at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

Wherever the cake originated, recipes for Red Devil’s Food cakes began appearing in American newspapers in the 1930s. What do a 1938 Los Angeles Times recipe, a 1946 Joy of Cooking recipe, and a 1956 Betty Crocker recipe all have in common? They don’t use food coloring. The deep red color we know so well today was not part of the original red velvet tradition. There is speculation that the name came from a reaction between alkaline ingredients (baking soda or powder) and acidic ingredients (natural cocoa, buttermilk, and vinegar) that produced a subtle, earthy, rust-brown hue.  Another theory suggests that brown sugar, which was originally called “red sugar,” was a prominent ingredient in the original recipe, and thus influenced the name. One thing is for sure: Red velvet cake was not born red. The color may seem important today, but recipes dating back to the late 1800s for Velvet Cake make no mention of the color red. Velvet was a reference to the fine crumb texture.

The most likely story for the roots of red-colored velvet cake as we know it today comes from a food coloring manufacturer, The Adams Extract Company. To combat slowing sales during The Great Depression and encourage consumers to find new uses for food dyes, The Adams Extract Company advertised their red food coloring under large color illustrations of red-colored cakes, and included a cake recipe with every purchase of a bottle of Adams Red Color.

My search for dye-free red velvet cakes returned recipes calling for beets instead of red dye, and bakers’ claims that lemon juice can preserve that beet-red color during the baking process. Please let me know if you find an all-natural recipe that actually produces a color you identify as red. I read reviews of countless recipes, and concluded that the only way to achieve that deep, blood-red color without artificial coloring is to use so much natural coloring (pomegranate juice, beet roots, etc.) that you risk altering the flavor of the cake.

But if you love red velvet cake, you know it’s not about the color.  Red velvet cake is known for its sweet, tart, and savory taste. This Valentine’s Day, let’s not take the name too literally.  Be retro, be traditional, be old-fashioned — be natural. Make that red velvet cake brown.  Recipe below.

Tips to achieve a reddish-brown hue naturally:

  • Choose a recipe that calls for both distilled white vinegar and buttermilk. (The chemical reaction is said to deepen a reddish tint.)
  • Use all-natural (not Dutch-processed) cocoa powder.
  • Replace the food coloring with a mixture of pureed beets and lemon juice (at a ratio of 4:1, beats:lemon juice).

redvelvetcupcakes

[Dye-free Retro Red Velvet Cake]

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cups white flour
  • 3/4 cup organic cane sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs cocoa powder *
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 large cage-free egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk, room temperature
  • 1 tsp white distilled vinegar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup cooked beet (about 1 small beet, boiled and pureed)
  • 1 tbs lemon juice

* For a more authentic rust-brown hue, be sure to look for natural cocoa powder and avoid Dutch-processed.

[Cream Cheese Frosting]

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz. cream cheese (1/2 package), softened
  • 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup organic powdered sugar (Trader Joe’s sells organic powdered sugar.)
  • Optional Garnish: strawberries or chopped pecans

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line 12 muffin tins with cupcake liners.
  2. Puree (cooked) beet.  Add lemon juice and mix.  Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder.
  4. In a large bowl, mix softened butter, buttermilk, (beaten) egg, vanilla, and vinegar.  Add beet-lemon mixture.
  5. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix until smooth.
  6. Divide equally into 12 lined muffin tins.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely.
  8. To frost: Mix cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until smooth.  Slowly add powdered sugar and gently mix until incorporated.  Beat until light and fluffy.  Frost.

Now, don’t forget to share your cupcake creations with your Valentine(s)!

NonProfit Spotlight: The Fresh Air Fund

The single most important predictor of a child’s overall health is his or her economic situation. What if we could offer children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods a vacation from their tough lives? Through The Fresh Air Fund, you can. The Fresh Air Fund is a not-for-profit agency that pairs disadvantaged children from New York’s inner city with host families in suburban and rural areas in New York and surrounding states for a two week summer vacation.

Are you interested in opening your home and your heart to a child in need? There is no financial requirement to host a child. Click here to find out if you’re eligible to host.

If you decide to host a child, please contact me and let me know about it!

Mindful Eating: Why Should You Eat Slowly?

We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare.  In Aesop’s famous fable, a hare ridicules a slow-paced tortoise, who challenges him to a race.  The hare soon tires and decides to nap mid-race.  When he awakens, the tortoise has already won.  Scholars have debated the meaning of the fable and struggled to find applications for the moral that it is better to be slow.  Even if you move like a hare in your daily life — hurrying to work, hurrying home, crossing errands off your to-do list — one time you should aim to be sloth-like is mealtime.

An article published in the New York Times yesterday, “Mindful Eating As Food For Thought,” by Jeff Gordinier, discusses the merits of eating mindfully.   The article focuses in particular on mindful eating’s roots in Buddhist tradition, but the concept of mindful eating is a practice across many religions and cultures.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have rituals involving prayer before, and in some cases during, mealtime — that is, waiting for everyone to be present, and taking a moment to offer appreciation.

Gordinier notes that the practice of mindful eating — which involves moment-by-moment awareness of the senses while eating — has “begun to seep into a secular arena, from the Harvard School of Public Health to the California campus of Google.” According to some experts, Gordinier writes, “eating slowly and genuinely relishing each bite… could be the remedy for a fast-paced Paula Deen Nation in which an endless parade of new diets never seems to slow a stampede toward obesity.”

I have always enjoyed long meals.  As a child, I lingered at the kitchen table after the meal was over and everyone was gone, and kept my mother company while she did the dishes.  (Try as she might, there was no convincing my brother and I to do the dishes, so she settled for entertainment: I chattered about my school day while she washed pots and pans.)  Although I have been called a slow eater, I have not always been a mindful eater.  When I began paying more attention to health, I began paying more attention to my food, and I became a mindful eater.

Mindful eating is not just for your mind; there are physical benefits, too.  Why should you eat mindfully?

1. Your body cannot immediately tell you if you’re full.  It takes about twenty minutes for your body to accurately determine how full you are.  This is one reason humans are able to engage in timed all-you-can-eat competitions — the pain of being too full doesn’t set in until after the fact.  What this means is that those first twenty minutes of eating are a sort of free-for-all when it comes to tracking hunger, which is not necessarily a good thing for your waistline.  You may be able to eat less and feel just as satisfied, but you won’t know unless you eat slowly.

2. Highly-processed foods are chemically designed to taste good for only the first couple of chews.  If you eat slowly, you will get more satisfaction from healthy, natural foods, and less satisfaction from processed foods.  You might not realize the level of forethought that goes into designing the number of milliseconds that a certain flavor lasts (or doesn’t last) in your mouth, but manufacturers like PepsiCo, General Mills, Nestle, and Kraft are extremely familiar with these decisions.  They hire teams of flavorists whose goal is to make artificial flavors last just long enough that they register as tasty, but not so long that you don’t swallow immediately and take another bite — and another, and another.   An apple tastes like an apple whether you chew that bite three times or ten times.  Not so with a bag of Cheetohs.  A Cheetoh may taste salty for the first few crunches, but if you savor that Cheetoh, you’ll be rewarded with flavorless mush.  Eating slowly teaches you to genuinely prefer the taste of natural foods.

3. Chewing your food well aids the digestive process.  Digestion begins in your mouth — both chemically and mechanically — when enzymes in your saliva break down the food as you chew.  Since the taste and smell of food also sends alerts to your body in preparation for digestion, chewing gives your body time to prepare for the process by relaxing the appropriate muscles.  The longer you chew, the more easily the food will pass through your digestive tract, and the less work your stomach has to do after you swallow.  Not chewing your food well enough can lead to incomplete digestion, which can lead to bacterial overgrowth in the colon, gas, and other problems.  How much is enough chewing? If you can tell what kind of food you’re eating from the texture of the food in your mouth (not from the taste), then keep chewing.

4. Conscious relaxation — including during a meal — decreases stress.  You probably already know that your mind and body are deeply interconnected, but did you know that stress can make you fat?  The hormone cortisol, which is produced during times of stress, is thought to contribute to weight gain.  In fact, cortisol seems directly correlated to weight gain in the abdominal region.  The good news is that many studies have found that relaxation results in a decrease of cortisol.  If you share your meals with others, you will have more time to talk and enjoy their company — another benefit, since social interaction makes people happier.  Take a break from the fast pace of life, and eat mindfully to benefit both your mind and body.

What’s In Your Fitness Supplement?

In today’s New York Times article, “Army Studies Workout Supplements After Deaths,” Peter Lattman and Natasha Singer write about the Defense Department’s inquiry into the safety of dimethylamylamine (also known as DMAA), a common ingredient in workout and fitness supplements sold at GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe.

The ingredient has been implicated in the sudden deaths of two young soldiers, aged 22 and 32, who died of heart attacks while exercising.  The Army’s safety review is currently underway, but the Defense Department has already removed all products containing dimethylamylamine from stores on military bases.

I admire the Army’s swift action.  When civilians question the safety of a product, their concerns are followed by debates, petitions for recall, paperwork, studies, lawsuits, and — if all goes well — eventually, action.  Military bases are a different story; the military has long functioned as more of a bureaucratic establishment. The military does not live and breathe by funding from pharmaceutical companies and food manufacturers, much like so many of our elected officials.  When the Army bans an ingredient from its military bases, the public should take note.

In addition to the untimely deaths of the two soldiers — whose toxicology reports both noted the presence of DMAA — the army had also received “reports of liver and kidney failures, seizures, loss of consciousness and rapid heartbeat in other military personnel who have used products containing DMAA,” according to the article.  USPLabs, the maker of DMAA, compared the effects to those of caffeine.

If the effects of DMAA are like those of caffeine, then why are fitness buffs and the manufacturers of fitness supplements choosing DMAA over caffeine? Here’s why:  Because the effects of DMAA are more like those of methamphetamine. DMAA was first developed my pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.  When doctors noted that its effects were amphetamine-like — and medical literature reported that its effects were more powerful than heart-stopping ephedrine — Eli Lilly stopped marketing it as a pharmaceutical, and DMAA quietly resurfaced as a dietary supplement.

Let’s examine what went wrong here.

Who is regulating the safety of dietary supplements?  The answer, in short, is no one.  In 1994, the FDA decided to consider anything labeled a “dietary supplement” as a special category of food, not as a drug.  As the FDA explains, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), “the dietary supplement or dietary ingredient manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement or ingredient is safe before it is marketed.”  In fact, the safety of dietary supplements is only regulated by those who stand to benefit from their sale: the manufacturers. The DSHEA was a major boon for lobbyists of the manufacturers of dietary supplements, who had engaged in a massive campaign intended to bring about this legislation.  The New York Times called the act “ill-conceived” and “a formula for covering up problems.”  A Time magazine article described the act as giving manufacturers “virtually free reign to market products defined as dietary supplements, while severely limiting the FDA’s ability to regulate them.”

Does this mean that all dietary supplements are harmful?  Absolutely not.  What this means is that you must research the safety of your dietary supplements on you own — because our government is not doing it for you.

The good news is that plenty of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and herbs fall under this category as well.  One example is Stevia.  Stevia, also called “sugarleaf” and “sweetleaf,” is an herb related to the sunflower family.  Stevia has been available as a sweetener around the world for decades, and has been widely used in Japan since the 1970s.  In powder form, the naturally sugar-free, calorie-free herb, which has little effect on blood glucose levels, was an obvious answer to the United States’ sugar addiction.  Unfortunately, due to the FDA’s close ties to the manufacturer’s of artificial sweeteners, stevia was not approved as a food additive.  However, through the DSHEA loophole, stevia was available in health food stores as a dietary supplement. (In 2008, the FDA approved a chemical extract of Stevia, known as rebaudioside A, as a food additive; the approval just so happened to coincide with Coca-Cola’s launch of Truvia and PepsiCo’s launch of PureVia, two highly-processed forms of rebaudioside A with additional non-Stevia additives and flavors.  Truvia and PureVia are extremely different from true Stevia, and many side effects have been reported.)

The onus to research dietary supplements falls on you. In the United States, the fact that you can legally purchase a substance labeled as a “dietary supplement” has absolutely nothing to do with its safety.

How can you avoid dimethylamylamine and DMAA?  In a health safety alert to athletes, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association warns of the effects of dimethylamylamine and advises athletes to:

  • Avoid the following substances: methylhexaneamine, a 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), dimethylpentylamine (DMP) 4-methylhexan-2-amine, Geranamine, geranium oil, geranium extract, geranium stems, geranium leaves
  • Avoid the following products: Jack3d (USP Labs), Lipo-6-Black and Hemo-Rage Black (Nutrex), Spriodex (Gaspari Nutrition), F-10 (Advanced Genetics), Clear Shot (E-Pharm), 1.M.R. (BPI Sports), and many others.
  • Avoid products with names or marketing performance terms such as “stacked,” “muscle,” “mass,” “tren,” “bol,” “anabolic steroid,” “legal steroid,” “power,” “blast,” “energy,” “stimulant,” and others.
  • Use your best judgement.  Unfortunately, due to the extremely permissive regulation of dietary supplements, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association notes multiple “instances where a supplement actually contained ingredients that were not listed on the label.”

If you must supplement your workout, keep it simple: Drink a cup of coffee.  Since we know the human body responds differently to extracts than to ingredients in their natural form, avoid caffeine-containing supplements as well.  Better yet, let the workout itself raise your heart rate, and skip the stimulants altogether.  Your only have one heart; your next fitness shake, drink, pill, or supplement, could be your last.

Still unconvinced? Visit Supplement Safety Now.

Photo Credit: William P. O’Donnell for The New York Times