Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nutrition Nerd Alert: National Artichoke Hearts Day!

Are you obsessed with artichokes like I am?  I lived in Los Angeles during part of my childhood until I was 12.  When I moved back for graduate school in 2007, it was one of the first things I bought at the farmer's market and cooked for myself that summer.  Artichokes used to intimidate me because they can be difficult to prepare.  I stuck to baby artichokes and artichoke hearts canned in water to add to antipastos and chop salads.  I tried repeatedly to steam them myself but always struggled to prepare them without losing half of the heart.  I was so traumatized over a ruined batch a few years ago that I did what I always do - consult my mom!  She studied horticulture in college and is a self-taught cook (her homemade bread or grilled, well, anything are not to be missed).  She's one of those people who have an idea for any question you can come up with.  She's incredible (Love you, Momm!!).  Thanks to her tips I've had the confidence to steam them myself ever since.

So why all the trouble to prepare the artichokes myself when I could buy them prepped already?  Well, for starters the Nutrition Nerd in me knows that fresh is better than processed vegetables (that includes the chopping and preparation needed to can artichokes and artichoke hearts).  Artichokes also increase their antioxidant capability (by up to 15 times) when steamed.  Antioxidant capability is just a fancy way of saying the antioxidants are more bioavailable (aka more active and effective).  Boiling, the second best option, can increase antioxidant capability by 8 times (still great!).

Some of my favorite artichoke heart nutrition facts:
  • Artichoke hearts naturally contain both vitamin C and iron.  That means you absorb this non-heme iron source better than from plants that do not contain vitamin C.  Add a squeeze of lemon to enhance this effect and brighten the inherent flavors, too!  Not too much, though, as too much acid tends to make artichokes taste bitter.
  • Artichokes contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are in the carotenoid antioxidant family.  That means artichokes are great for your eyes!  While artichokes are relatively fat-free, carotenoids are fat-soluble.  Paired with a light vinaigrette including a small amount of healthy oils will help absorb these eye-protecting wonder antioxidants!
  • Being from the thistle family, artichoke hearts contain silymarin.  Silymarin is an antioxidant known to be hepatoprotetive aka liver-protecting.  With its 10% of daily fiber, it's great for your digestion in other ways, including cholesterol reduction!
  • Talk about nutrition density!  For a minimal number of calories, artichokes also contain potassium, folate, phosphorous, and calcium.  Artichokes are also a good source of magnesium and chromium (meaning 10-19% of your daily value).  Magnesium is needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in your body.  Chromium enhances the activities of insulin, making it vital to diabetes prevention.
If you've ever had canned artichoke hearts (even if they're in spices and/or oil) - the flavor is nothing compared to freshly steamed artichokes.  They're also a great food for kids.  It's fun to peel off and eat the bits of the heart that remain on the leaves.  Just be careful of the "choke" - a sure sign that they are part of the thistle family.  In fact, they're a perfect green category addition to National Nutrition Month!  BONUS!

Artichokes grow wild in southern Europe to this day and have been cultivated in California since the 17th century (thank you Spanish settlers).  Originally, artichokes were deep fried and served to the noble class in ancient Rome.  They're even mentioned in Greek mythology!  Today, there are many healthier ways to serve them (although I have to say I'd love to try a fried one someday!).  Just over 80% of our artichokes in the US come from one place - Castroville, California.  Who wants to go with me to the Artichoke Festival in May?!

If you're new to artichokes, I recommend starting with the NY Times Recipes for Health link here.  Tips for selecting them at the farmer's market or grocery store are here.  It's a little early for seasonal artichokes, but there's plenty of time to learn a few tricks before they're ready for you!

Special note:  Thanks to my fellow RD-to-be classmate, Nancy, for inspiring me to write a Nutrition Nerd Alert today!  I've been wanting to start these for AGES.  They'll be shorter than this, normally, but I got too excited about artichokes :)

Peace, love, and nutrition,

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Guest Post - Nutrition Round Up: The National Nutrition Month Edition (PART 1)

Factual Fridays Guest Post on Healthy Men Today (Friday, March 4, 2011)

PART 1: Add One New Color to Your Plate Every Week

Eat Right With Color. That is this year’s theme for National Nutrition Month. Over the month of March I’ll share some of my favorite tips that help make small changes in the colors of your plate that can lead to BIG benefits. This week’s post includes tips that can help you add one new color to your plate per week this month (that’s 4 extra servings of fruits and vegetables if you start this weekend!).

Half of Your Plate = Fruits and Veggies

The new 2010 Dietary Guidelines were released on January 31, 2011. As part of these guidelines, the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services released tips for consumers. Among these: make HALF your plate fruits and vegetables. You can do this in many creative ways. Here are a few of the tips that I have used to implement this in my life:
  • Adding seasonal fruit to breakfast every morning
  • Switching from a side salad at lunch to an entrée salad (more veggies, not more dressing)
  • Keep easily transported fruit (i.e. bananas, apples, pears, grapes, kiwis, citrus fruits) with you through the day for snacks
  • Focusing on a vegetarian entrée for dinner several nights a week
  • Shrinking meat portions (or replacing them with a plant-based protein)
  • Browse the produce aisle for easy pre-made fruit salads, chopped salads, and healthy veggie side dishes that you can take with you on-the-go
  • Try a new fruit or vegetable
What’s On Your Plate? Spin that Color Wheel

More than just overall fruit and vegetable tips, it’s important to focus on colors. Each color (green, orange/yellow, blue/purple, red, and white/tan/brown) provides unique benefits. Start by thinking about your typical plate for dinner. Does it include all of the colors of the rainbow (including the clouds at the end!)?

For a helpful list (and a really fun challenge for the month of March) see Inspired RD’s blog post from this week.

Completing that Rainbow

Once you’ve determined which color(s) is/are missing, pick a color to add this week. In addition to the tips above, you can also use resources that help you add color to your meals and snacks.

The simplest option is to add fresh produce to meals and snacks you already have planned. If you’re not sure where to start, try getting the smallest box at your local CSA as a trial box. This is a common practice for many CSAs and will help you experiment with fruits and vegetables you’ve never tried before. Even better, most CSAs include recipe ideas with their produce boxes. This is also a great opportunity to focus on local foods and help local businesses. Even if you live in a colder winter area, many of these CSAs are about to come out of hibernation!

Frozen produce is a great option if the fresh produce section of your local supermarket or a CSA is not an option. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great way to get added colors that may be hard to find in your area and have equivalent nutrition. This also means that you can find many foods year-round, reaping their benefits. Try organic when you can (usually only a marginal increase in price).

Canned fruits and vegetables are also an option. If you think this is the only change you will make, go for it! Any change is a good change. 

You can add a new recipe with the color you chose. There are many sites with healthy food recipes, but a few of my favorites are here, here, and especially here. There are great healthy snack ideas, too!

I hope this blog post helps you get started by trying at least one new fruit or vegetable this week (especially if it’s a color not normally on your plate). I hope you’ll share your adventures with me and keep adding a new color every week this month. In the coming weeks I’ll explore ways to help your kids eat more colorful plates, what all these colors in your foods mean, and how to sustain a more colorful plate beyond the month of March.

Happy eating!

Jenn Jackson, MPH 
The Nutrition Nerd

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What is your favorite food fact?

One of my favorite things is food facts!  What is your favorite?

The Nutrition Nerd