Five Resolutions for 2016 to Live the Longest, Healthiest Life You Can

For Hanukkah, my parents got me a cookbook full of recipes that originated on a Greek island called Ikaria. Ikaria is known for having one of the highest life expectancies in the world. Not only does the average Ikarian live into their 90s, but they also remain healthy and active until the very end, suffering from chronic disease at much lower rates than the rest of Greece, Europe, and the United States. The cookbook’s author (a native Ikarian herself) offers some evidence and wisdom about the elements of the Ikarian lifestyle that confer the people such longevity. I will share with you now some New Years resolutions that will help you be more like the Ikarians.


  1. Eat more plants: This one’s hardly news, folks. As dietary recommendations go, the one to eat more whole fruits and vegetables is the least controversial. And it just so happens that the Ikarians eat mostly a whole food, plant-based diet, with a small amount of yogurt, cheese, meat, and fish sprinkled in. They eat a ton of dark, leafy greens, beans, grains, and other fruits and veggies. This year, find the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that you like and eat them as often as you can.
  2. Cook from scratch more often: Most Ikarians actually grow a lot of their own food, including the animals. Even if they didn’t grow it themselves, it is very rare to find them heating up a frozen dinner or digging into a bag of potato chips . They prepare their meals from whole ingredients, with patience and love. This one’s backed up by research too; people who cook more tend to have better health outcomes. This year, resolve to cook more often than you did last year.
  3. Be liberal with the EVOO: Olive oil definitely has health benefits —it improves cholesterol, helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins — but like all oils, it’s calorie dense (i.e. fattening). Still, the Ikarians are remarkably heavy-handed with the stuff. It certainly explains how they make the piles of greens they eat so delicious. And who am I to argue with their thriving cohort of centenarians? This year, try using olive oil for cooking, dipping bread, salad dressings, whatever you like.
  4. Drink wine regularly: Hang on now, don’t get too excited. My fellow college students, let me assure you that I’m not endorsing binge-drinking, but the Ikarians do drink a couple of glasses of wine daily with their meals. Empirical evidence is on our side with this one too — alcohol in moderation is consistently associated with lower incidence of heart disease. If you don’t drink at all, this is no good reason to start, but if you do, a glass or two of wine a day is definitely much healthier than seven shots on Saturday.
  5. Take life slow, not too seriously, and be spontaneous: Ikarians are known for not having a great sense of time. They don’t rush anything, especially their meals. Case in point: see above the baked chickpea dish I made from the cookbook that took three hours in the oven (and it was delicious, by the way). They don’t generally make plans in advance; it seems like people just show up at each other’s homes around dinner hour and they happily share food and wine. I know that’s not really how it works over here, but this year, resolve to make a little more time for you, for doing things just because you feel like it, and for spending time with the people you love. It might just mean a longer, happier life.

I’m No Nutrition Saint

Around this time of year, health-oriented news sites and blogs become filled with one piece after another on how to avoid holiday weight gain. It’s usually a series of tips on what to eat and what not to eat from the buffet table of your next family party, along with what you already know about living healthfully: everything in moderation, and get plenty of exercise.

As much as I want to encourage healthy practices that discourage excess weight gain, I think the focus on the holidays really misses the mark. Your health is determined by what you do the majority of the time, not the small fraction that is special occasions like Christmas and New Years. I am the first person to indulge when I’m celebrating. When confronted with a buffet of desserts, I will typically take one of everything. And I never pass up the opportunity to have a particularly special treat (like last weekend when I savored a decadent piece of “cheese” cake on a rare trip to one of my favorite vegan restaurants). I feel comfortable indulging heavily that 5% of the time, because 95% of the time I’m eating plants on top of plants.

And another thing: some of my good friends seem to think that I’m going to judge them for eating something that isn’t healthy. It is true that I do tend to mother my friends a bit, and I’m not afraid to tell them they need something green on their plate when we’re in the dining hall. In all seriousness, that is out of love — I would never think less of anyone because of what they’re eating, especially just on one occasion. How hypocritical would that be? I am no nutrition saint.

Here’s a perfect example: last week, I was visiting a friend and her family, who were getting ready to celebrate Christmas. She texted me beforehand to ask if I was “morally opposed” to decorating a gingerbread house because it’s so bad for you to eat. It was a little disheartening to know that she thought I might be that rigid and judgmental. I fiercely want to hold the food industry accountable, sure. But I don’t consider it my responsibility to police the eating habits of everyone around me. Like I said, I am the first person to recognize the value and comfort of decadent food every now and then. And I certainly have nothing against gingerbread houses at Christmastime.

Don’t worry so much about the holidays — that’s once a year! Worry about the other 50 weeks a little more. (Speaking of which, look out for my New Year’s resolution post later this week.)

Thanks for reading!

My bacteria and me

Having just completed my microbiology final, I thought it would be appropriate to write a little bit about the microbes that live in and on us, and how they affect our health. The widely quoted statistic is that there are 10 bacterial cells for every human cell in your body, which I find an overwhelming notion when I really think about it. That’s literally hundreds of trillions of independent organisms colonizing your body that you cannot even observe. Scientists are just beginning to have a smidgen of an understanding of the complexities and the implications of the human microbiome, but there is no question that these bacteria have a huge role in both keeping us healthy and making us sick.

The first thing that’s important to point out is that most of these bacteria with whom we are living in concert are beneficial to us. We tend to think of microbes as inherently germ-y and unsanitary, but that mindset leads us to be inclined to keep our world sterile, which the medical community is beginning to understand is actually dangerous. We should not try to rid ourselves of all microbes, because they actually help us do some pretty important things. Two big ones are digestion and immunity.

The stomach is a pretty hostile environment and its acidity helps to kill any pathogenic organisms that find their way in there, but your intestines, small and especially large, are full of more bacteria than you can imagine that help you digest the food you eat. For instance, we cannot absorb certain types of fiber or short chain fatty acids, but there are bacteria in the colon that ferment it to compounds we can absorb (and occasionally gas). Since different bacteria thrive on different nutrient sources, you can imagine that people on different diets would have different types of bacteria in their GI tract. Conversely, many scientists are finding some evidence showing that the bacteria in our guts influence what food we crave. So it might just be a vicious cycle where if you eat junk your gut bacteria will make you continue to crave junk or you eat lots of wonderful fibrous plant foods and your gut bacteria make you crave those instead. There’s no firm evidence about what’s causing what yet, but a person’s microbiome is often associated with whether or not they are obese, have addictive tendencies, have a given chronic illness, or particularly if they have digestive issues. That’s why many people take probiotics, to try to shift the microbial population of their gut in a positive direction. That’s also why doctors are experimenting with fecal transplants (yes, you read that right, look it up).

With regard to immunity, there are two important concepts I want to put out there. One is that, according to my understanding, there are actually bacteria in your body that help fight infection by competing with pathogenic bacteria and viruses, so you wanna keep those guys around. The other is that the way your immune system actually develops is to be exposed to germs and pathogens and learn how to fight them. That’s why you can never get the same virus twice. The idea that I’m being more and more convinced of is that if we try to stay too clean, so to speak, our immune systems never learn to tell friend from foe, so not only can truly toxic pathogens hurt us more, but we can have inflammatory responses when there is no real danger at all, as in most allergies and auto-immune diseases.

Of course, there’s a fine line here. We need a very delicate balance of how many anti-bacterial substances we use, especially routinely. Chlorinating our water supply prevents cholera epidemics but evidence has shown that it actually may have made us more vulnerable to polio. There are times you really need antibiotics to cure an acute infection, and there are times when they cause more harm than good (eh-hemm, routine non-therapeutic use in livestock production).

This post was kind of all over the place, but that’s how I feel about this topic — it’s so unbelievably complex and nearly impossible to pin down using the conventional paradigm of reductionism in the scientific world. Reductionism has its place, for sure, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to piece together the microbiome one cause-and-effect at a time.

Some areas of research involving the microbiome are more developed, while others are just in their infancy. I’m very excited to keep learning; there have already been some major health innovations in this field and I suspect there will be more.

5 Things That are More Important to Include on Food Labels Than GMOs

You may have heard about the FDA’s recent approval of the first mass market genetically engineered food animal: a breed of salmon that grows twice as fast as conventional salmon. As you might imagine, given the intense controversy over the favorability of genetically engineered food, this news is causing quite an uproar. One particular point of contention is that the FDA will require no mandatory labeling to indicate that salmon or salmon products available for purchase are of the genetically engineered variety. Indeed, there has been a grassroots campaign in this country for several years now to require mandatory labeling for all foods that contain genetically modified ingredients. The media often cites polls that show that the majority of consumers are in favor of such labeling.

Now, I’m all for giving the people the information that they want, and of course I’m in favor of promoting transparency in food production. One of the main reasons I started writing this blog was to help people start to care more about and be less removed from the origins of the food they consume.

That being said, labeling of genetically modified ingredients will make out genetic modification itself to be the villain, which in my opinion is not only inaccurate but will also continue to detract from raising awareness about the practices involved in food production that are much more certainly and directly doing harm to individuals and society.

“So what are these practices?”, you must be wondering. Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are five things I would like to see labeled on foods that are much more concerning to me than genetically modified ingredients.

  1. Ingredients grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers: Why is it that organic farmers have to pay to get certified and use a label in order to farm in a way that is much more safe and ecologically sound, when industrial farmers are subsidized to use substances that are intended to be poisonous to grow our food, and then not even required to warn us about it? How backwards is that? Whether or not you believe pesticides are affecting health of consumers who eventually eat the crops, there is strong evidence to suggest that they are harming the farmworkers planting and picking the crops, and people who live in areas surrounding fields where they are used. Furthermore, crops genetically modified to be herbicide resistant are encouraging the proliferation of weeds that are resistant to herbicides, necessitating the heavier use of more toxic herbicides. This is what should be labeled, because the non-judicious use of pesticides and the monoculture are what’s threatening our health and our environment, not the genetic engineering itself.
  2. Meat routinely fed antibiotics used in human medicine: as I’ve written before, I find this one of the most, if not the most concerning practice common to industrial agriculture in terms of human health. Check out this article, which explains the potential crisis better than I can.
  3. Unfairly paid workers in deplorable conditions: Again, let’s look at how backwards our food system is. So-called “Fair Trade” producers have to pay to certify and label that they are treating workers fairly, while there have historically been no financial or legal consequences for producers and processors that abuse and underpay their laborers and no incentives to reduce such abuse. And there is no way for consumers to know about such practices, except through the work of investigative journalists like I wrote about here. It seems rather frivolous to spend our resources fear-mongering about “frankenfoods” while we are unknowingly eating foods all the time whose production has exploited already marginalized people. (It is important to note that patenting of GMO seeds is also causing economic harm to small farmers, but this is not by virtue of the genetic modification itself.)
  4. Added sugars: Thanks to the enormous lobbying power of sugar producers and the processed food industry, there is currently no way to differentiate between natural and added sugars on food labels, while the health consequences of the two are drastically different. The harms of added sugar and the support of public health experts for a recommended limit are well documented, much better than, say, genetically modified foods. Indeed, warning labels on sugar-sweetened beverages would seem much more well-placed to me than labels for GMOs. Fortunately, the FDA is seriously considering including added sugars in the upcoming revamp of the Nutrition Facts label.
  5. Food safety inspection scores: According to a new report from the World Health Organization, 1 in 10 people every year are directly sickened by contaminated food. The evidence validating the prevalence and threat to human health of foodborne illness is much stronger than that against genetic modification, yet no one is clamoring so loudly for more transparency about the sanitation of food production and processing facilities. I imagine that if every meatpacking company were required to label its product with a safety score from a rigorous and frequent FDA inspection, we’d see a lot fewer people harmed by E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and other foodborne pathogens.

Once the public is aware of these abuses, then talk to me about labeling GMO salmon. In the mean time, as far as I’m concerned, there are bigger fish to fry.