I THOUGHT I KNEW WHAT A CALORIE WAS.
A calorie is not a calorie, as least, not the way we’ve come to know it. When I think back to health class in high school, I learned that a gram of protein, carbohydrate and fat have 4, 4, and 9 ‘calories’, respectively. These numbers represent the average energy absorbed by my body when I digest one gram of each type of food.
From my many physics classes, I learned that one calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of on gram of water by one degree Celsius (and what we commonly refer to as a ‘calorie’ is actually a kilocalorie, or a thousand calories.)
So when it comes to taking care of myself, all I have to do to lose (or maintain) weight is to workout and diligently count calories and then I’ll be great, right?
Well, sort of. It’s true that what you put into your body plus what you burn is the ultimate equation for you to balance. In college, I lost a decent amount of weight by using my love of Excel and diving into the USDA nutrition database to record everything I ate, weighed or portioned out to measure exact calories when possible. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t eating too much—or too little. (Fortunately, now there are plenty of fitness tracking apps, such as MyFitnessPal.)
But what happens when what you think you’re putting in your body turns out to not be totally accurate?
THEN WHAT IS A CALORIE?
New studies, and some not-so-new studies, have shed a bit more light onto what we think we’re consuming. The short of it is that the average calorie counts of 4 and 9 were developed by chemist Wilbur Olin Atwater in the 19th century. There is one key factor to notice here: average.
Any two foods may be digested in various ways, even if they look the same. In fact, just because a food has the same grams of fat, protein and carbohydrates, it may actually be harder to digest resulting in a lower net calorie count than a seemingly comparable food. (E.g., in a study by the USDA, they found that almonds actually result in 129 net calories as opposed to the 170 reported on the label.) Aside from natural composition, how the food is treated and processed will affect the net calorie count.
Here are just a few factors that affect the net calorie count of food:
- Digestion efficiency (evolved by food or your genetic ancestors)
- Traditional cooking method (boiling, baking)
- Modern cooking method (microwave)
- Preservatives or other food treatments
- Level of digestion-assisting bacteria in your stomach
DOES THIS MEAN I AM SCREWED?
No. My take** on this is that I will do three things to better understand how to optimize my calories eaten + calories burned equation:
(1) USE TRADITIONAL CALORIES AS A BALLPARK
Although the traditional calorie counts aren’t necessarily accurate, I can still use them to roughly estimate what you’re eating – and helps me have a better way to compare the potential “goodness” of various types of foods.
(2) EAT MORE WHOLE AND RAW FOODS
Clearly, cooking breaks food down to make it more easily digestible. Similarly, the more processed a food, the less energy that needs to be expended by my body in digestion, potentially resulting in higher actual net calorie count than expected.
(3) LISTEN TO MY BODY
Because each person may digest food differently, it’s important to be constantly learning and improving my relationship with food. What works best for my body? How do certain foods make me feel? What kind of energy do they give me?
Ultimately, it’s about feeling as healthy and happy as possible—and that means being true to my “eating self.”
FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
If you’d like to read more, below are some studies and articles I suggest you explore.
Postprandial Energy Expenditure in Whole-Food and Processed-Food Meals: Implications for Daily Energy Expenditure. Sadie B. Barr and Jonathan C. Wright in Food & Nutrition Research, Vol. 54; 2010.
Discrepancy between the Atwater Factor Predicted and Empirically Measured Energy Values of Almonds in Human Diets. Janet A. Novotny, Sarah K. Gebauer and David J. Baer in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 96, No. 2, pages 296-301; August 1, 2012.
The Hidden Truth About Calories, Scientific American, August 2012.
It’s important to me that anyone who comes to my house feels comfortable and well-fed. I’ve several friends with serious dietary issues related to wheat and dairy, and many who are vegan. I’m a fan of making my own pasta, but often, these friends can feel left out. This dish, a zucchini ‘pasta’ with ‘creamy’ roasted red pepper sauce, provides an easy substitute that keeps every type of eater included, even those that dislike the “slimy texture” of or have other complaints about zucchini (a.k.a. courgettes.)
Note: I have ordered the ‘pasta’ recipe first for purposes of the image flow on the blog, but when executing this dish, it’s better to make the sauce ahead of the zucchini ‘pasta’.
Serves 6. Prep time: 5-10 min Cook Time: 5-10 min
Zucchini’s mild flavor and texture make it a fantastic substitute for pasta. I recommend using a mandoline if you like finer cuts of pasta such as angel hair or fettuccine–or just want to save time. Note: the thicker the cut, the less your mind will be “tricked” into thinking it’s pasta. (It will never be fooled fully, FYI.) Regardless, if you have serious food restrictions or are just trying to reduce your carb intake, these noodles make a great dish that can be paired with any of your favorite sauces, including the one below.
6 large zucchini
3 tbsp olive oil
dash of salt
pinch of pepper
DIRECTIONS: Peel the zucchini and, using a cross-slicing mandoline, cut into angel hair sized pasta (or size of your choice.) Heat a pan to medium heat and add olive oil. Add pasta, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss until zucchini frequently for 3-5 minutes. (Tongs are useful for this step.) Once the zucchini is slightly limp, like a regular wheat-based noodle, remove from the heat. (Then, toss with warm sauce of choice.)
CREAMY ROASTED RED PEPPER & CASHEW SAUCE
Serves 6. Prep time: 30 min Cook Time: 30 min
A take on a classic Romesco sauce, I replaced the almonds and hazelnuts with cashews for a softer taste that places more emphasis on the roasted red peppers. I also add thyme blossoms for a subtle note.
6 vine ripe tomatoes (medium in size)
3 red bell peppers
1 bulb roasted garlic
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
3 bay leaves (fresh or dry)
1/2 cup raw cashews
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp chili powder (paprika or cayenne, depending on your spice tolerance)
4 tbsp fresh thyme blossoms (or fresh thyme leaves)
ground black pepper
Large pot for boiling water
Oven with broiler setting (or grill)
DIRECTIONS: The steps you will take are to (1) roast the garlic (2) roast the peppers (3) peel the tomatoes (4) simmer the sauce (5) puree the sauce and (6) toss with prepared zucchini pasta and garnish. Some steps overlap others, so read ahead to save time.
(1) Put the small saucepan over a low heat with 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and the entire bulb of garlic, peeled. Stir occasionally until a light golden color and soft in texture. (Quick way to do this, cut off the bottom of the bulb, place in a large container and shake vigorously for 30-40 seconds.) You can keep the garlic cooking while you prepare the peppers and tomatoes.
(2) Turn on your broiler to medium-high heat. Place the red bell peppers on the highest rack, closest to your broiler. Turn every 2-3 minutes, until you can see that the skin has bubbled up and darkened. Place immediately into a sealed container (the steam helps the skin separate from the flesh of the peppers) and let cool. While the peppers are cooling, complete step 3: peeling the tomatoes. Once you’re done with the tomatoes, the peppers should be cool. You can then, remove the top, seeds, and skin of the pepper with your hands (easiest). Dice and set aside.
(3) To skin the tomatoes, lightly cut (score) an “x” at the bottom of each tomato. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have a large bowl of ice water ready. Drop each tomato into the boiling water for about 30-45 seconds, then remove and quickly plunge into the ice water. You should see the skin of the tomato curling back from the place where you made the “x”. Peel off the skin and remove the base of the stem. Dice and set aside.
(4) In the same pot as the garlic, remove all but 4 cloves of garlic and set aside for later use. Add the diced tomatoes, diced roasted red peppers, 3 bay leaves, 1 sprig of rosemary, a dash of salt, and a pinch of pepper. Simmer for approximately 15 minutes.
(5) Remove rosemary & bay leaves from the simmering mixture, adding the remaining mix to your blender, along with the cashews and chili powder. Puree on high until it becomes silky in texture. Add additional salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste.
(5) Toss with the prepared zucchini ‘pasta’ and garnish with thyme blossoms and roasted garlic. Alternatively, you can store the sauce in a sealed container in your fridge for up to a week, or freeze if you’re truly planning ahead.
The starting point for any good meal is great ingredients. I’m fortunate to have access to wonderful produce–both down the street and a strones throw away on on charming local islands. Below is a quick snapshot of “souvenirs” from a short afternoon trip to Vashon Island.
Cashews are something I grew up with, regularly inserted into our family’s diet whether toasted, raw or ground into a creamy sauce for something delicious and spiced. But I rarely translated these delicious nuts into my non-Indian cooking. I’m fortunate enough to have been introduced to a wonderful vegan chef, Chad Sarno whose use of cashews inspires me–especially when I might feel helpless without dairy.
A quick variation in my own kitchen was to take two of my favorite salad staples, kale and radishes, and make them just a bit more decadent for a recent at-home asado (…where they were served with rosemary-smoked chicken and roasted yams. Sorry, Chad.) In this salad, I love the combination of bitter, sweet, creamy–and how each time I get a bit of radish, it cleanses my palate and takes me through all those experiences again.
- 1/4 cup cashews (raw)
- 1/4 cup of water
- 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (coconut oil also works, but changes the flavor quite a bit)
- 1/4 clove of garlic
- juice of 1/2 a lemon
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 4 blackberries
- pinch of salt
- 1 bunch white radishes, sliced lengthwise (A bit sharper than your normal red radishes, which are a fine substitution.)
- 1 bunch lacinato or “dinosaur” kale (Now is the season to plant them. We do in pots on our patio!)
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley (curly or Italian)
- 2 tbsp good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup of blackberries, cut in half, lengthwise
- 1/4 cup of hemp hearts for topping (optional)
Blend all of the ingredients for the dressing in your blender until smooth. Drizzle in extra lemon juice or olive oil and blend further, depending on the needs of the resulting emulsion.
Place the dry, washed kale in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, and massage for 30 seconds. Next, add the dressing and massage until evenly distributed. Then, toss in the rest of the ingredients except the blackberries and hemp hearts. Sprinkle the blackberries and hemp hearts on top as a garnish and serve.
WHY COOKING MATTERS
Last week, I was chatting with my friend about how he stays healthy. One of the main ways, aside from being intentional about what he eats, is cooking for himself. But his main stumbling block was getting to the point where he gets to the grocery store—or even his kitchen.
“I know that cooking my own meals is good for me, but I seem to forget how much I like the process until I am cooking until I’m actualy cooking. It’s very soothing, almost therapeutic. But, it’s funny, when I’m thinking about how much time it’s going to take me, that really stops me about 80% of the time from cooking—let alone making anyting meaningful.”
As I’ve spoken with more and more friends, the key to healthy eating (granted, for a specific sample set) is learning to cook. There is something in the intentionality of thinking through what you’re going to select and what truly goes into a meal that can then translate to decision making when you’re not cooking for yourself.
Translating this to impulsive or bad habits, if you better understand what goes into that bacon double cheeseburger, you may find less satisfaction in ordering it or be a more discerning in where you choose to eat one.
I’m not advocating that everyone stops to become a world-class chef, I think that’s unrealistic. I believe that cooking is going to become an increasingly specialized skill, just like knowing how to build your house or growing your own food has. However, there will always be a desire to connect at a deeper level with food, and that’s where learning classic techniques, like good knife skills, will be critical.
But as fewer and fewer people know these skills enough to pass them on, where will we be able to learn to cook for ourselves?
AN ONLINE SOLUTION
Beyond friends and family, there are professional places to learn in-person (local community college, culinary academies, culinary stores, etc.) but over the past few years, online education has exploded.
Not only is there increased quality and speed of video, storage and sharing leading to exponentially increasing content online, there is more general penetration of smart phones, making it easy to access classes anywhere, anytime. Assuming food preparation does become increasingly specialized, online education is going to be key in providing those who are the most talented and passionate about food with training and certification they may not have been able to access or afford.
How does this technology trend translate to cooking for the individual? There are a few key advantages with online, video-based culinary education, aside from the lower cost and easier access.
Unlike a television program, you have choice over what you’re going to learn. Some of the schools edit out excess content, such as chitter-chatter of the more talkative chefs. With video, you don’t have to wait for things you would in a real class, like the oven to pre-heat or the water to boil so the demonstration can begin. You also get a front seat with video features such as zoom or alternate angles – and many have live chat functions to ask questions. But the biggest advantage? You can usually start, pause and re-start a video (class/course) as your schedule permits – often still getting to ask questions to live staff.
Here is a list of some of the most popular online cooking schools for you to check out. Some are more basic while others get into some rather advanced topics. Most offer free trials, but do your research and figure out which one will really help you connect with your food.
SELECTED ONLINE COOKING SCHOOLS
Tito and I don’t have a backyard, but we do have a rather large patio. The first thing Tito announced when we moved in was that we were going to have a garden, an efficient, practical garden. (Flowers were later allowed for pollination, but only if they were edible.)
I select what we’re going to grow (within reason), help select pots, soil, composting bin, etc., and Tito magically makes everything grow. But what happens if you don’t have a Tito, accessible land (e.g., a backyard or community garden), a big patio, or any outdoor space at all?
If you value fresh herbs, flowers, fruits and veggies, you CAN grow and even compost (adventure level=high) for yourself, at home, indoors–even in tight spaces. This can be as simple as a pot for your windowsill or one that’s wall-mounted, but you can scale it up a notch with some of these more advanced, beautifully designed products.
These amazing vertically-stacked, hydroponic gardens were launched by a Kickstarter campaign at the end last year. Prior to that, Window Farms showed people how to assemble these gardening systems using plastic bottles and a few other parts, but it took quite a bit of work and some McGyver-ing. Now, they’re beautiful and easy for almost anyone to put together. You can grow mostly smaller items, from salad greens and herbs to selected fruits and veggies–during any season. They start at around $200 for a single tower starter kit.
Designed by Hyundai engineers, this hydroponic solution for growing vegetables, flowers and herbs in your kitchen in a footprint the size of your refrigerator. You won’t have to use pesticides or chemicals, or even sunlight for that matter (it has lighting built in.) You can also control how fast the plants grow – and the device lets you know when you provide water or nutrients! It supposedly also filters out unpleasant odors, but I’m yet to actually see one in person as they’re not yet available for purchase, as far as I can tell. In the meanwhile, there are two similar versions recently created by The Urban Cultivator (TM): one large and one smaller, similar to a wine-fridge,
A clever name, this product (not yet available, but hackable) helps you grow herbs in tight spaces. It resembles cubby holes and integrates a fully-functional worm farm to help optimize the soil and act as a small indoor compost. It’s incredibly compact and has removable compartments to make it easier to switch out different plants.
HOW DO YOU EMBRACE URBAN FARMING?
What are some of the tricks you use or hacks you’ve created to bring farming to small spaces or city dwellings?
**Note: Photos of products are from respective companies’ or designers’ websites.