Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Coconut & Sweet Potato Noodle Soup

Vegetables, noodles, and a sweet, coconut and sweet potato soup come together to make a great, filling meal with few ingredients. It's a little bit Thai, especially if you choose to add certain ingredients!


You'll need (serves 3-4):
1 large sweet potato
1 can of coconut milk
Noodles of your choice - I used tagliatelle noodles
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika
1 clove of garlic
Vegetables of your choice - I recommend courgette, leek, peppers and tomatoes

1. Put the sweet potato in an oven (150C). If you leave the whole potato in there, you'll need 45 minutes to an hour, so the most effective method is to cut it up into cubes first, place it on a baking tray and drizzle with a little olive oil. This way, it should only take about 15 minutes - you'll know it's ready when you can slice a knife right through the potato.

2. Let the sweet potato cool a little, until you're able to remove the skin (which should be easy once it's cooked).

3. Start boiling water in a pan. When it comes to the boil, add the noodles.

4. Add spices, oil and chopped garlic (and onion if you want) to a frying pan and stir for 2-3 minutes.

5. Add the chunks of sweet potato to the mix and stir. Now add the coconut milk and continue to stir.



6. Throw everything into a blender with 200ml of water and blend until smooth!

7. Clean the frying pan and add your vegetables, with a tiny bit more oil.

8. Add the mix back into the frying pan, onto the vegetables.


9. Add a little water until it's the desired consistency (soup-like!). Drain the noodles and add them to the mix.


The most challenging part is probably getting this into bowls... Enjoy!


Saturday, 18 October 2014

Just 10 Days of a Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Your Mood!

Although Coca-Cola might try convincing you that buying their product will bring happiness, people generally
seem aware that too much processed food is bad for you. But it isn't just your body that can suffer from a bad diet - it's your brain. While plenty of research suggests that certain chemicals and eating patterns can negatively affect your mood there are very few actual control trials that look at the effect of diet on mood and brain power.

McMillan et al. (2011) decided to test whether a 10-day Mediterranean diet intervention would influence people's mood and cognitive performance. Often cited as one of the healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean diet contains a lot of fruit and vegetables, fish, olive oil, whole grains and legumes, with a reduction of processed food and refined carbohydrates.

They recruited 26 women (1 dropped out) and randomly assigned them into "diet change" (DC) or "no change" (NC) groups. The DC group were given guidelines on how to eat in a way that was consistent with the Mediterranean diet, while the others were told to follow their diets as usual. These ladies kept a daily food diary during the study, and their mood and performance on a range of cognitive tasks (e.g. working memory, attention) were measured before and after the 10-day diet.

Although three of the women's diaries were incomplete, recorded meals from the food diaries of those in the DC condition were 93% compliant with a Mediterranean diet. It turned out that those following the Mediterranean diet reported higher feelings of vigour, alertness and contentedness at the end of the 10 days, while those who did not change their diets reported lower alertness and contentedness that at the start.
As well as improved mood, those who had followed the Mediterranean diet also performed faster on a spatial working memory test at the end of their diet intervention. Strangely, though, those in the NC group performed faster at the end of day 10 on numeric working memory reaction time and word recognition than they had on day 1, while the effect was not seen in the DC group. The researchers were unable to explain that one.

So, does that mean we should all switch over to a Mediterranean diet straight away? Maybe not. As the women in the DC group were only given loose guidelines for what to eat, it is hard to know exactly what they did eat - and if they recorded it accurately. Actively changing diet, rather than doing nothing, could have been responsible for the effect. "Although the Mediterranean diet was not mentioned explicitly," say the researchers, "it is likely that those in the DC group will have been aware that they were changing to a healthier diet, and this may have led to expectations of more wellbeing with a direct or indirect effect on mood."

With such a small sample size and short-term intervention, it is clear that more research is needed before proclaiming the Mediterranean diet the route to happiness. However, there's a bunch of research showing its benefits for overall health, and less processed food and more fruit and veg sounds like a good idea to me!
References:


McMillan, L., Owen, L., Kras, M., & Scholey, A. (2011). Behavioural effects of a 10-day Mediterranean diet. Results from a pilot study evaluating mood and cognitive performance. Appetite, 56(1), 143-147.


http://www.mind.org.uk/media/7498/mind-guide-to-food-and-mood-2010.pdf

Picture from http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/Mediterranean-diet-s-benefits-confirmed-4308008.php

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Great Books - The New Good Life by John Robbins

How do you define the good life? This is the question that John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and son of a very successful ice-cream salesman (yes, Mr Robbins, as in Baskin-Robbins), asks in The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less. Growing up surrounded by wealth (and ice-cream), John was more inspired by Henry David Thoreau's ideas of being nearer to the earth than his father's ambitions for him to take over the family business. At 21 years old, John walked away from what could have been his dairy destiny and cut himself off from his father's money.

Paying for his studies with part-time jobs and poker games, John found a pretty sizable plot of land on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Colombia, for only $2000 (this was in 1969, mind you). Here, he and his wife lived in a tiny one-room log cabin for ten years, growing most of their own food, owning only a single set of clothes, spending no more than $500 a year (doubling when their son, Ocean, was born) and feeling, as he puts it, "alive in a way I never had before". They made enough money from teaching yoga and hosting retreats to save around $1000 a year. While many people may shudder to think of this kind of life, they never felt poor - in fact, John looks back on those years as the richest of his life.

The New Good Life re-examines the old American Dream - the idea of getting rich, gaining power, and defining yourself through your possessions and status. While it may hardly seem original to attack the acquisition of money and power, this book is a great starting point for those who have just started to question their lifestyles. Let's face it - every day we are preseted with evidence that our economies are struggling, the world is full of injustice and our environment is changing in ways that may completely destroy the way of life that we're used to. Put bluntly, it just isn't possible - or sustainable - for everyone to be rich, (or perhaps even for those who are rich now to keep their wealth forever).

If you're not swayed by the argument that a lifestyle of high earning and high spending contributes to the earth and other people's suffering, you might  be interested to know that those who focus more on financial success, looking good to others and gaining social recognition are generally less happy than people who strive for self-acceptance, community feeling and physical health. One of the reasons for this is that many "rich" people work very, very long hours to accumulate that wealth - hours that rob them of social relationships, meaning and pleasant experiences. What's the point of having loads of money if you can't enjoy it? Another is that obsessing over how you appear to others stops you from enjoying the present and forming authentic relationships with others. Here at GreenJoy we're all about achieving happiness in a way that's good for you, other people, the planet and your bank balance - and this is one of those great books that lays it down pretty well.

The book starts by helping you to identify your "money type" - that is, your relationship with money. Are you a careful saver, budgeting every penny and always living within your means, or does the thought of doing your taxes make you break out in a cold sweat? Whether you struggle because you blame others for your financial problems, sacrifice joy to save a few pounds or obsessively seek the approval of others through your possessions, Robbins shows you how you can make the most of your money type - helping you to shine as who you are rather than trying to force yourself to be something you're not.

The rest of the book is full of useful tips, ranging from how to lower the cost of all your bills and save money on getting from place to place to great eating tips (with a few healthy recipes thrown in). What I really like  is that he isn't just full of empty ideas - he gives concrete, practical tips for more natural and affordable living, for example spraying white vinegar on mouldy areas of walls, leaving for a few minutes then wiping (not rinsing) rather than using toxic cleaning products. For good measure, there's also a chapter on making the huge financial (and emotional) decision whether to have children or not (and tips for raising them), and a chapter about the relationship between money and happiness across the world.

If you have been thinking about making changes in your life and you realise that, just maybe, it isn't all about money and status, then this book is a great starting point. Robbins's book acts as a sort of Bible for living in a way that will bring more health, happiness and financial freedom into your life. Let's get this straight - this is not a book on how to get rich and enjoy your free time yachting around the world. This is a book that shows that you don't need a ton of money to have a great life, and that anybody - even those on a very low income - can have a spiritually fulfilling, healthy life with the right resources and knowledge.


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Home-made Healthy Butterfinger Bars!

A few weeks ago, my parents-in-law brought us a stash of Butterfinger bars from the States. If you haven't tried them, they're basically peanut butter brittle coated in chocolate and they're delicious. What isn't so good is the list of ingredients on the back....

Corn Syrup, Sugar, Ground Roasted Peanuts, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Cocoa, Molasses, and Less than 1% of Whey, Confectioner's Corn Flakes, Nonfat Milk, Salt, Lactic Acid Esters, Soy Lecithin, Soybean Oil, Cornstarch, Artificial Flavours, Citric Acid (Added to Preserve Freshness) E110, E129/ Yellow 5, Red 40.


Mmmm! Here's a link to one of many articles on the dangers of corn syrup, for one thing. I try to operate by the rule that, if the list of ingredients sound like the inside of a chemical lab rather than your grandmother's pantry, it's best to avoid. 


So, I decided to find out whether I could make my own, healthy versions at home, and found this recipe at Detoxinista. Just to test it out for you, and to make the recipe a little easier to follow, I've attempted this a couple of times and I think I've got it down to an art. OK, so they're covered in chocolate rather than coated, but they're so good... and they only require 4 ingredients!


Ingredients:
1 jar of honey
1 jar of peanut butter (or you can make your own)
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 bar of dark chocolate to top it with

You'll also need - a saucepan, a tray and a candy thermometer. I got mine from Amazon.

1. Pour the jar of honey into a saucepan and stir in the cream of tartar. Add your thermometer. The original recipe recommended rubbing butter or coconut oil around the rim of the saucepan to spot the boiling honey from overflowing. I've done this, and nothing has overflown, so try it!


2. Turn on the heat and watch that honey boil! As you probably only have about 1cm of honey in there, you'll want to wait until the thermometer reaches around 290 farenheit. This is going to happen first:

3. Once it's reached that temperature, take the pan off the heat and quickly spoon in the entire jar of peanut butter, stirring as you go. Once it's mixed, pour into a baking tray.


4. Leave it for 10-15 minutes to cool down. I recommend you use boiling water to clean your saucepan and anything else that's touched the mixture, or wait until everything's cooled and chip the mixture away.

5. Cut the bars up before they set completely, then pop in the fridge for an hour.


6. Melt the chocolate - I usually put it in a small bowl, then place that bowl in a larger bowl full of boiled water. Coat the butterfingers with chocolate and put back in the fridge.


Mmm-hmm! So, yes, honey and peanut butter are still a little bit naughty in large doses, but these are much better for you than the shop-bought chocolate bars. They're best 5 minutes after being taken out of the fridge.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Czech Potato Soup - Bramboračka

You may not know this, but I lived in Prague for just shy of two years, working as an English teacher. I only left last year, and have visited again once since then. The Czech Republic is a beautiful country, and Prague is an amazing city where you'll have to work hard to find a bad (or expensive) meal! Plus, their beer is wonderful... mmm...here's a quick link to my travel blog, with some Czech-based posts.

The Czech wouldn't dream of having lunch without a soup starter, and throughout the week restaurants offer lunchtime specials - usually soup and a main dish for the equivalent of £3-4. As ridiculously filling as these meals are, they're a great introduction to Czech cuisine, and if you look in the right places you can find some great meals. Yes, a great many of them only offer "hovězí vývar" - a watery beef broth that doesn't do much for the taste-buds - but if you can get your hands on bramboračka, or potato soup, give it a try.



After satisfying my craving for it on my last visit to Prague, I started to wonder how to actually make it myself. I was delighted to find that it's easy to make, and due to its simple ingredients it's a good way to get some vegetables into your system!

To make enough to serve 4, you will need:
250g potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 mushrooms (of your choice)
1 carrot, peeled and cut
100g of celeriac root, peeled and cut
100g cabbage, sliced
1/2 a leek (mostly the white part)
1/2 an onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp marjoram
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp flour
Ground black pepper, to taste

1. After washing the mushrooms, place them in a small bowl of hot water. Leave to the side and start to sauté the onion in a pan with a splash of olive oil. Stir for 2-3 minutes, then add garlic and stir for another 2-3 minutes.

2. Add all of the vegetable (except the mushrooms) and stir for around 5-6 minutes.

3. Add the mushrooms, including the water. Add more water until the water line is around 1cm higher than the vegetables. Add your salt and pepper.

4. Simmer on a medium-low heat until the vegetables are soft (usually 10-15 miutes)

5. Mix the flour with a little cold water, stirring quickly so it doesn't become lumpy. Pour into the pan and stir. Add in the thyme, parsley, marjoram and any other seasoning you might like.




6. Let the soup simmer for another 10-15 miutes. You may want to add a little more salt and pepper - the original recipe calls for broth or bouillon, but I'd only use this if you can find a non-MSG variety (all I had were OXO cubes, which are full of weird things).

Sometimes the Czechs eat this out of a bread bowl - if you fancy doing that, then hollow out a round loaf and go for it! However, the temptation to then eat all of the bread will possibly be too strong, and you'll find yourself very full!



Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Art of Savouring and Mindful Eating

How often do you absent-mindedly shovel nuts, crisps or other snacks into your mouth while your focus is on something else, like the TV or the day's events? Do you ever reach the end of the day and realise that you "accidentally" ate far more than you intended to?

In the first Mindfulness class that I attended, each of us were given a raisin and asked to focus on it; the feel
 of the raisin in our hand, the ridges we could feel when we ran our finger over it, its squishiness between our fingers. Then, we brought it up to our noses and focused on the smell, before slowly popping it on our tongues. We took a moment to appreciate the gentle sweetness on the tip of our tongues, and noticed the texture of its ridges inside our mouths. Finally, slowly, we bit into it, focusing on the flavours and textures, on how our teeth and tongues knew just what to do, before allowing ourselves to swallow it.

Approaching food with the "raisin mind" might seem like teasing yourself when you just want to devour the thing, but the practice exists to draw our attention to things that we would not normally notice and to bring our awareness to physical sensations, as mindfulness often does. As well as making the raisin taste a hundred times better, it made me appreciate it so much more than I normally would have.

You don't have to practice mindfulness to pay attention to what you eat. When we don't fully notice what we're eating, we're more likely to eat junk food, gain weight (as we don't remember what we've eaten) and less likely to appreciate not only food, but life. Stopping and savouring positive experiences increases our enjoyment of life and can reduce the number of negative emotions we feel (Hurley & Kwon, 2012).

Psychologically speaking, "savouring" (Bryant & Veroff, 2007) involves making the most of positive experiences. This can mean being more "present" while good things are happening, such as focusing on a beautiful piece of music, sipping a cup of coffee slowly while appreciating its aroma, or taking in a sunset. It can also involve savouring precious memories of the past, through visualising them or using photographs or stories to relive them.

As part of our Masters in Applied Positive Psychology course, we had to try a few "positive interventions" on ourselves and see whether they made us feel happier, more satisfied with life or enhanced our sense of meaning. I decided to try savouring, so I made a point of walking to work while focusing on the flowers and tress that I saw and listening to the birds, rather than my usual practice of over-thinking possible future scenarios and replaying memories. Savouring has a lot in common with mindfulness; it's about being present in the moment, about paying attention to the input from your sensory organs, rather than letting thoughts rule you and grey your experience or experiencing life on auto-pilot.

I have to admit that I often eat while watching TV (in my defense, we're talking quality TV like Doctor Who, Arrow or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which can take a lot of the experience away from the food itself. That's why I made a concerted effort to eat at least one meal per week at the table with no distractions, honing in my focus onto the smell, the texture, the flavours, and appreciating how each individual ingredient had found its way into my kitchen somehow.

Dalen et al. (2010) found that "mindful eating" helped with weight-loss, self control and reduced negative emotions. It makes sense - if you are truly mindful of what you consume, you reduce the chance of "secret eating" - where you shovel food into your mouth without it even registering consciously - and feeling more in control of your life will reduce those feelings of guilt that we so often get when we realise we just ate another donut (but someone brought them into work and left them in the office, damnit!). I even started to realise that I didn't like some of the things I was eating, but rather was eating them due to habit.

So, here are some tips for increasing your awareness and enjoyment of what you eat:

  • Keep a food diary and show it to a friend (or your online community) so that you are accountable for what you eat.
  • Try, with at least one item of food or drink a day, to inhale the smell, to slowly place it on your tongue and focus on the texture and the flavours that reach your mouth, to feel it travelling down into your belly. If you can touch the food - e.g. a raisin, not so much soup - focus on the feel of it against your fingers, too.
  • Take a moment to think about the origins of your food - think of every ingredient that was used, where it came from, and all the people who had to work together to grow, harvest and transport that food to the shop where you purchased it, and mentally thank each individual person for contributing to your meal. Gratitude also contributes to our well-being and might increase your sense of connectedness to the world and the people around you.

    Of course, savouring isn't just about food - it's something you can do for any pleasant experience; however, I find that eating is something we all enjoy, and so is an easy one to start with! References:



Bryant, F. B., & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A New Model Of Positive Experience. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.


Dalen, J., Smith, B. W., Shelley, B. M., Sloan, A. L., Leahigh, L., & Begay, D. (2010). Pilot Study: Mindful Eating And Living (MEAL): Weight, Eating Behavior, And Psychological Outcomes Associated With A Mindfulness-Based Intervention For People With Obesity. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 18(6), 260-264.

Hurley, D. B., & Kwon, P. (2012). Results Of A Study To Increase Savoring The Moment: Differential Impact On Positive And Negative Outcomes. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 13(4), 579-588.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Recipe - Beetroot and Pepper Salad

Fancy a healthy, easy salad for lunch? This quick creation does ideally require a food processor, but it's a refreshing way to start your day (or any meal) - juicy, crunchy beet(root), healthy greens and a bit of yellow pepper for added flavour (and, OK, they made it look better). 



To make the beetroot mixture (this serves 2):

2 tbsp olive oil
Two beets/beetroots (yes, you can use packaged/pickled ones if you wish!)
The juice of a whole lemon
A handful of parsley
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1. Cut the roots off the beets - you can actually cook and eat these, too, so save them for later. Peel the beets - this can be very messy, of course! Cut them into cubes and throw into a food processor with the other ingredients. Blend.

2. Wash your messy red hands. Slice up some lettuce, adding any other leafy greens of your choice - rocket, mizuna, spinach, whatever you've got - plus some nice slices of pepper. Put in a bowl and scoop on the beet mix!

Optional: Take pretty pictures of it in the sun before eating! Those are some of my pak choi growing in the background...