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The Facts about Worldwide Hunger, and How YOU Can Help

Let’s talk about hunger.

No, I’m not talking about what you might feel when you wake up in the morning and can’t make a bowl of oatmeal fast enough. I’m talking about hunger that kills. As a dietitian, worldwide hunger and nutritional deficiency hit close to home. And as a dietitian, I know that there is more than enough food to feed every single person in the world, and feed them well.

While on a trip back home to Virginia, I had the pleasure of lending my help to an an anti-hunger campaign called Stop Hunger Now, which was hosting a meal-packaging event in my town. I hopped onto the assembly line and made sure meal packets were the right weight and consistency to be shipped off to over 65 countries worldwide. Within two hours we had packaged 25,000 meals. That’s right — 25,000 meals! Each of those packets will feed six children and boasts rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables, and 21 vitamins and minerals.

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Children are hit hard by malnutrition and the diseases that arise from (or are amplified by) not having enough food. Measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia are some of the leading causes of childhood death. And malnutrition can start before kids are even born, if their moms aren’t taking in enough nutrition. Read more about the effects of malnutrition here.

The meals that we packaged were exclusively vegan. Now, depending on what country they are sent to, various meats may or may not be added per the local culture. But the meals cost just 25 cents because they are plant-based.

“Stop Hunger Now created its meal packaging program, in 2005. The program perfected the assembly process that combines rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables and a flavoring mix including 21 essential vitamins and minerals into small meal packets. Each meal costs only 25 cents. The food stores easily, has a shelf-life of two years and transports quickly. Stop Hunger Now works with international partners that ship and distribute the meals in-country.”

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(c) Stop Hunger Now

So if we have enough food to feed everyone in the world, why does one person every three seconds die of hunger or hunger-related illness? I’ll briefly summarize some of the key reasons. I don’t pretend to be an expert in this matter, but I have learned quite a lot through my studies and my travels to food-insecure countries such as Tanzania and the Dominican Republic.

1. Poverty and a Reliance on Meat as a Protein Source

Farmers and families living on $1 or less a day simply cannot afford to buy or trade their food. And farmers trying to make a living off of their own land are often not supported by their governments. As the renowned Marion Nestle writes,

“Governments must support food systems that provide farmers and workers with a reasonable standard of living, replenish soil nutrients, conserve natural resources, and minimize pollution and greenhouse gases—and promote health.” Part of minimizing pollution and greenhouse gases naturally involves growing more plants, and less meat. When the focus is on growing crops to feed animals, an opportunity arises to feed more people instead of fueling a meat-driven system that just isn’t working. 

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2. Climate Change (read the 2009 World Food Programme’s climate report here)

You don’t have to believe in human-accelerated climate change — it’s happening, and it’s been happening, for a long time. Due in part to increased heat and decreased water availability, farmers all over the world will suffer a decrease in agricultural production (mostly wheat, rice, and maize). This will cause an increase in food prices worldwide, but mostly in Africa, South Asia, and Central America. Extreme natural disasters as a result of climate change will  continue to wreak havoc. By 2050, we expect an increase of 10-20% of people at risk of hunger worldwide.

3. Lack of nutrition education.

During my time in Tanzania, I sampled probably twenty kinds of root vegetables, dark leafy greens, and native fruits. Unfortunately, many of them were underutilized by the local population and sometimes even treated as throwaway foods. But these foods were rich in vitamins and minerals, protein, and valuable starch. It takes dedicated professionals to provide nutrition and cooking education to teach people how to rely on the food that their own soil can produce.

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In America, 48 million people are hungry and rely on government initiatives like SNAP. I encourage you to read about the $1 a day challenge — this is something I was tasked to try for one day in college, and it was hard. But over a billion people worldwide have to do for their whole lives. And remember:

“It’s not due to laziness that someone is poor. It’s not due to a lack of ambition or lack of intelligence. It’s because they lack the things that we take advantage of every day.” — Living on One Dollar

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So how can YOU get involved? I’ve compiled a list of Portland-specific organizations that need help. Oregon is the fifth-hungriest state in America.

1. Have a garden, or participate in a community garden? The “Plant a Row” program with the Oregon Food Bank allows you to donate home-grown food to the needy.

2. Want to get involved long-term? Growing Gardens offers programs to help schools start gardens and provide cooking classes. In the summer, weekly garden parties will involve a local Portland chef who can teach people how to cook what they grow. They even have an internship, which will focus on fundraising, building gardens, and hosting garden summer camps.

3. Reduce your own food waste. With so many hungry in the world, it’s a damn shame to throw so much food away. And Americans waste 40% of the food they buy. The Kitchn has a great article on ways to get the most out of the food you buy. And remember to compost your food scraps if you can, as decomposing food in landfills contributes methane to the environment.

4. If you like gardening a whole lot, get involved with the Produce for People Program. Last year they grew and donated 20,3337 lbs of produce to needy families.

5. More of a day-to-day volunteer? The Oregon Food Bank (and any food bank, no matter where you live) needs help. Here’s an easy way to get involved.

6. Host a meal-packaging event with Stop Hunger Now. This would a fantastic event for an organization or club to host. With 40 people, you could package 10,000 meals in two hours, at just 25 cents a meal.

7. Make your dollar count. Support local farmers, and local produce. Alleviate your carbon footprint by reducing your meat intake.

There’s so much more to be said about hunger, and so many experts out there who can say it better than I can. I hope this post left you with the knowledge that hunger and the disease that occur with it can be stopped. What do you know about hunger?

 

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How to replenish your gut flora after taking antibiotics

Well, it’s been a couple weeks since I updated, mainly due to a nasty bout with a kidney infection. Luckily for all of you, my experience made me realize that I should talk about how to replenish your healthy gut flora after it’s been decimated by antibiotics!

Don’t get me wrong–I’m happy that I live in a time where I have quick and easy access to antibiotics when I really, really need them. After all, penicillin was one of the most important discoveries in the history of humankind, and became a modern-day miracle elixir. (Although penicillin is now much less effective than it was in 1928.)

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A kidney infection isn’t something to mess with, and refusing to take antibiotics quickly can cause permanent kidney damage. And hey, I like my kidneys. They do lots of important things for me, like control my blood pressure, make red blood cells and keep my bones strong, and remove waste and fluid that I don’t need. So yeah, I’d like to keep them.

But after two weeks of antibiotics, I was feeling the effects. For whatever reason — regular physical activity, daily coffee, a vegan diet high in fiber — I am fairly, ahem, regular. But all that went right down the proverbial toilet.

Antibiotics are just what they sound like: prescribed killers of the biological agents known as bacteria. And while I had to get rid of the bad bacteria in my kidneys, taking them meant that I killed the good gut flora in my digestive tract, too.

There’s some fascinating work being done on why a healthy gut flora balance is so crucial to health. It’s said that beneficial bacteria make up three pounds of our total body weight, so you know they’ve got to be important! A healthy microbiome:

  • Ferments (breaks down) undigested carbohydrates, forming short chain fatty acids that can be used as an energy source
  • Protects against leaky gut syndrome, a widely misunderstood condition in modern-day medicine
  • Synthesizes vitamins B and K
  • Protects the body from disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella
  • Strengthens the immune system

But how and why gut flora is important still largely remains a mystery to researchers. Some scientists have speculated that being born without a healthy gut flora store, or not maintaining a balanced microbiome throughout life, might cause autism spectrum disorders, obesity, allergies and asthma, and even Parkinson’s disease. The research is so important that Michael Pollan himself wrote an op-ed detailing the his voluntary biomapping of his own gut flora, a piece that went viral via the NY Times this year.

Few of the scientists I interviewed had much doubt that the Western diet was altering our gut microbiome in troubling ways. Some…are concerned about the antimicrobials we’re ingesting with our meals; others with the sterility of processed food. Most agreed that the lack of fiber in the Western diet was deleterious to the microbiome, and still others voiced concerns about the additives in processed foods, few of which have ever been studied for their specific effects on the microbiota.

— “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs”

Some hospitals have started to jump on board the beneficial bacteria bandwagon. During my internship at OHSU, I learned that dietitians at OHSU and several other hospitals in the area will automatically order kefir or Nancy’s Yogurt for a patient who is taking antibiotics, as a way to replenish their healthy bacteria. As a dietitian, that’s pretty fascinating to me!

But what about replenishing gut flora by way of vegan foods? Don’t worry, kefir isn’t the only solution for a bare digestive tract. In fact, there are lots of ways to help your gut grow back some of its little helpers.

1. Eat fiber. Any kind. All kinds. Soluble fiber (fresh fruits and veggies, legumes, seeds, oatmeal, psyllium, flax, etc.) will be fermented by bacteria in the colon and synthesized into vitamin K and some B vitamins, and short chain fatty acids. The SCFA will nourish the walls of the colon and may prevent colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, and diverticular disease. Fiber can also decrease triglycerides and cholesterol.

Soluble fiber is what’s known as a prebiotic — the stuff that nourishes the probiotics, or the healthy bacteria. Some prebiotic foods include onions, garlic, tomatoes, asparagus, whole wheat, and bananas.

2. Enjoy fermented foods. Tempeh, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, miso soup, and kombucha and Kevita are fantastic alternatives to dairy probiotics. Even wine and beer have some probiotics in them (but I would recommend a hearty tempeh stir-fry in addition!). Try namu shoyu, a Japanese soy sauce, drizzled over tempeh and broccoli.

Watch out for fermented foods with vinegar: oftentimes, the vinegar ends up killing the good bacteria. Lacto-fermented products are a better choice.

3. If you’re really worried, try a supplement. GoodBelly, Garden of Life, and RawGreen Organics are just a few of the vegan options I found. However, these supplements tend to be pricey, as most supplements are. A balanced diet with the aforementioned foods should do the trick.

Be aware: the strain of bacteria known as lactobacillus is vegan in and of itself, but is often grown using a dairy food source. Knowing this, I would choose a supplement that does not list lactobacillus in its probiotic arsenal.

Here in Portland, lots of people try their hand at fermenting their own kombucha and pickling vegetables. It’s really not that hard, and making your own food is quite empowering! There are lots of references out there for trying your hand at fermenting foods and beverages safely and effectively. Try this guide!

If you already enjoy a balanced microbiome but are considering having a baby, listen up: as it pertains to healthy gut flora, researchers have found that breastfeeding will promote a more diverse bacterial landscape compared to formula-fed babies. These bacteria work to protect your baby against toxins and other intruders that might cause illness such as colic. These bacteria can influence your baby’s immune system for life, and might mean the difference between allergies, asthma, and other auto-immune conditions.

I hope this brief overview was helpful. I know I’ll be trying my hand at fermenting more of my own foods, especially now that fall is rolling in. I mean, who doesn’t love miso soup on a rainy day? Feel free to comment on this post with questions or comments! And remember to keep growing that garden of gut flora 🙂

VegFest 2013 and the Plant-Based Nutrition Conference

I had the pleasure of attending my first ever health conference as an actual health professional yesterday! The “Enhancing Health with Plant-Based Nutrition” conference was organized by Adventist Medical Center and Northwest VEG and was a great learning experience. Registered dietitians are required to earn 75 continuing education credits every five years to make sure we are continuing to learn in our field, and I had a lot of fun earning my first six! And as a vegan RD, I was so grateful that the Academy approved this lifestyle medicine conference for credit.

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Huge props to whoever organized the food for this event. I was fed a hearty breakfast of oatmeal with PB. Lunch was a delicious buffet of all gluten-free and vegan items, ranging from cashew cheese spread over millet and tempeh, to tacos with delicious guacamole and salsa. But dessert really took the cake –we were treated to raw raspberry cheesecake. Drool!

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Overheard: “But seriously, how much kale is too much?”

I really enjoyed the speakers at this conference. They spoke on a wide range of topics, from enhancing your brain health and preventing Alzheimer’s dementia with a plant-based diet, to one dietitian’s research in the Marshall Islands working with a population stricken with a diabetes epidemic. After hearing her tales of diabetes reversal and the new life and vigor these people have for plant-based nutrition, I was even more inspired to live my life as a joyful, vegan RD.

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I wrote down a few key points that stood out to me, so I’ll go over them briefly if you’re interested in evidence-based nutrition information:

1. 51% of American calories come from processed foods. It’s hard to remember that outside of the Portland bubble, where everyone seems to care about locally-grown, whole foods, there’s an entire nation of people who are still surviving off of factory-produced or imported food.

2. The average American consumes 12 cows, 25 hogs, and 2400 chickens in their lifetime.

3. Blue Zones, or geographic areas that have been identified as spots where people live significantly longer than the average human and have a better quality of life in their golden years, have specific lifestyle factors in common: strong family ties, non-smoking, plant-based diets, a habit of constant moderate activity, and healthy social engagement. Read more about Blue Zones here. Here are some research articles about how people following a plant-based diet have been shown to live longer and have less incidence of chronic disease (including cancer and heart disease): Adventist Health Study, AHS-2 Fraser, Crowe, & Huang et al.

Some of the specific patterns that have been isolated as promoting significantly higher risk of disease included red and processed meat consumption, refined grain consumption, and consuming foods rich in saturated fats such as sweets, desserts and french fries ( this was from the well-known Nurses’ Health Study, with fourteen years of data from over 69,000 nurses).

I was particularly shocked to read about heart disease reversal and diabetes reversal in the Marshall Islands. Type 2 DM is the number one cause of death on these islands, and 50% of the population who are over 35 years old have it. I can’t even wrap my head around that, but I fear that our country may see these numbers someday (right now about 8% of our population has diabetes). Brenda Davis, RD, of the Diabetes Wellness Project traveled to these islands and helped to integrate a lifestyle change of exercise, stress management, and a fully plant-based, low-glycemic load diet. The results? Within two weeks patients who couldn’t walk without pain were starting to walk to the end of the block and back. Blood tests became normal — in fact, one woman’s HbA1C went from 8.7 to 5.7 (if you’re a health professional, you know this is unheard of without medication!!). I was so impacted by this project and the word Brenda Davis has done with plant-based nutrition.

“Diabetes Wellness Program participants have overcome seemingly insurmountable mountains of Spam, donuts, ramen noodles and cola. They have managed to put together low-cost, healthful meals despite the high cost and poor quality of their produce. They have managed to do it with little education and marginal English skills. They have managed to do it with few gyms, no hiking trails and limited access to fitness facilities. These pioneers are providing a powerful example of health and healing for other Marshall Islanders. They are providing hope amid a deep sense of hopelessness.”

4. Curcumin (the extract from turmeric) really is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory agents. Check out my post on the turmeric-raspberry iced tea! Combining curcumin with pineapple for its bromelain, an enzyme, increases its absorption. This seems like a great excuse for some  Indian pineapple curry 🙂

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6. Areas of the world that have the highest incidence of multiple sclerosis are also the areas of the world that eat the most meat and dairy (aka, have a higher saturated fat intake). Read more about this here. Dr. McDougall is currently conducting a study through my alma mater, OHSU, support his and the late Dr. Swank’s theory that MS can be halted with a low saturated-fat and plant food based diet.

Phew!

After all the brain-power that went into this all-day conference, I couldn’t wait to attend Portland’s annual VegFest today! I love this event for so many reasons — the people are friendly and informative, the vegan foods and products (books, clothes, kitchen-ware, makeup and toiletries, etc.) are delightful, and…perhaps most importantly…the free samples are EVERYWHERE! I purposefully skipped my breakfast because I knew I would be heartily nourished 🙂 I think my favorite had to be the cashew crème fraîche with fig. I mean.

Of course, I couldn’t walk away without some treats. Apart from tasting about 9058723 samples of soups, kale chips, chocolates, vegan artisan cheeses, kombucha, power bars, popcorn mixtures, teas and coffees, I ended up with organic deodorant and an awesome zip up hoodie from Herbivore Clothing Company, a local and sustainable clothing and accessories shop in Portland. I can’t wait to check out their real location! Oh, and check out all those coupons and recipes!

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That’s all for today! Look for my upcoming post on how to replenish healthy gut flora after a bout with antibiotics (long story) in the next couple of weeks. And remember…

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Controversy: to break the fast or not?

There’s some big news out in the land of nutrition today, folks. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), one of the staple academic journals used in my profession, has released a definitive article stating that there has never been concrete evidence to say that eating breakfast promotes weight loss. As you might imagine, the commentary from the public has been fiery, and reflects confusion, anger, bad science, and a downright “told-ya-so” attitude.

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For my entire life, I’ve been taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I myself am a breakfast eater and am liable to faint if I don’t get something in my stomach first thing in the morning. In fact, I eat the exact same thing for breakfast every day: oatmeal with crunchy peanut butter and some coconut sugar. Bam, done, on to the rest of my day.

When I counseled patients during my rotations at hospitals and community clinics, though, I found that many of them couldn’t stand the thought of eating something in the morning. Even though it was hard for me to put myself in their shoes, I always respected what their body was telling them and simply encouraged them to try something small, or to eat within a couple hours of waking up.

What bothers me about this article is that it is framed by the goal of weight loss. Once again, the American people are spoon-fed the “ultimate goal” — to lose weight, look great, and forget about what’s going on inside your body. Because this article “proves” that eating breakfast isn’t necessary to drop pounds, it gives the public justification to skip breakfast, even though eating breakfast carries benefits that have nothing to do with your weight. For example, a cohort study of over 29,000 men followed for 16 years showed that those who skipped breakfast had a 21% greater risk than breakfast eaters of developing Type 2 Diabetes. Breakfast is also a great opportunity to help reach your daily fiber goal and keep your “bad” cholesterol in check, which is just another way of being nicer to your heart.

Again — I am an intuitive eater, and I respect others’ choices about what they want to eat, when they want to eat it. For me personally, eating breakfast means that my blood sugar remains stable throughout the day. It means that I have enough glucose in my body to start my day and focus on my tasks at hand. It means that I have enough fuel in my body to bike to work. I will still recommend a balanced breakfast to my patients, as they can tolerate it.

I think what would be more helpful to the public is not whether breakfast will help you to lose weight, but further studies on how it helps to regulate blood sugar and stave off chronic disease. I also wonder how Big Breakfast will respond to this news: will we see a major PR initiative promoting the protein content of bacon and eggs à la Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwiches? Readers, you already know my opinion on that, and I would encourage you to choose a breakfast that doesn’t come frozen out of a box.

I welcome your comments about this topic!