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Olwen Anderson's Blog

This food tastes strange

Saturday, July 22, 2017
Market by Seemann via MorgueFileThe butcher warned me, as he must have warned many other customers: “This is going to taste a little different”.  I was purchasing a packet of bacon made traditionally – from free range pigs, genuinely smoked (you know, over a fire), and without preservatives. What a relief. I’d had a hankering for bacon but was unwilling to settle for the smallgoods usually available: made from pigs kept in cages, their meat injected with smoke extract to create the flavour and then embalmed in preservative for long use-by dates. It made me think about how real food can now taste ‘odd’; when in reality it’s just that our palates have become jaded by industrial production of food.

Same with celery. A weedy-looking specimen greeted me at the organic stall. I felt a little unsure about buying: would this bunch be inedibly stringy? It was a very dark green and didn’t have the plump appearance of other celery. The farmer shared that this crop of celery hadn’t had such an easy life with a guaranteed water supply, hence it’s ‘stunted’ appearance. The first bite, though, was a revelation: an intense celery flavour, not at all bitter or stringy. I knew that that the stronger in flavour a vegetable is, the more valuable nutrients it contains, so this celery was extra nutritious.  In reality I was actually experiencing  a‘real’ celery flavour.  Like we used to.

Organic chicken is another taste discovery. You might not know that fresh chicken, even free range birds, are routinely chilled during processing in a water bath with chlorine added; but organic chicken is air-chilled. The flavour difference is extraordinary; try it.

It seems we’ve become accustomed to eating foods plump in appearance and uniformly sized, yet short on flavour. And yet taste, after all, is what makes eating vegetables appealing. No wonder people find it challenging to eat enough vegetables. So, if you want more flavour-full produce to eat consider shopping at the local organic market for some less-than-pristine produce that’s actually bursting with flavour. Keep in mind, too, that if you keep settling for less that’s what will fill the supermarket shelves. Manufacturers and farmers will continue to produce the foods people open their wallets for.

What happened with the bacon? As the butcher warned me, it was “different”, mostly in texture. Yet the flavour was sublime, a really smoky, bacony flavour. Like food used to taste like before we began to settle for less. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Would you like that fish wild caught or farmed?'

Image credit: Seemann 

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Your very own internal border wall

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Within your intestines is your very own border patrol and border wall; so efficient it would put the wall construction border protecting aspirations of the president of a certain northern hemisphere country to shame: it’s an internal mucous-covered shag-pile carpet.  This is probably not the most appealing image to ponder, but fortunately it’s all hidden from our direct view. That border has an important role.

Living on the mucous are colonies of helpful bacteria. They pick up food particles then digest them into a form that we prefer to take in. Also present are enzyme molecules, which transform food rather like a tradesman will use tools. Immune cells lounge about here too. For all involved, that border checkpoint is a comfortable place to live.
There’s a few different ways nutrients make it across the border into your bloodstream. One is to just be allowed to pass through. These travellers have molecular ‘passports’ signalling they’re safe, and your immune system gives them the nod to seep through. Another is to be ‘assisted’ across, where a helpful molecule tucks the particle under its arm and carries it through; rather like an immigration agent.

There are many substances your body doesn’t want to let through, too; non-food substances, bad bacteria and the like. The strong barrier needs to hold.

But if your bowels become inflamed, though, the mucous barrier isn’t produced, the enzymes have nowhere to live, and the colonies of helpful bacteria shrink.  Now, not only can unwanted substances pass through without checking but, the usual process of nutrient absorption just doesn’t happen. For you, in the long term, this means more health problems, now from malnourishment.

What causes that protective barrier to disappear? Stress is the number one culprit, as cortisol produced in response to an alarming event stops the production of protective mucous. An influx of pathogenic (disease producing) bacteria that overwhelms the border patrol is another culprit, as is continuing to eat food that ignites an immune response; just like any war zone, normal function comes to a halt around the site of the battle and there’s quite a bit of damage. 

It’s not an unhealthy obsession to keep a close eye on your gut health: without a functioning gut border little of the nutrients from good food will get through. So if you’re managing a chronic health problem that just won’t seem to sort itself out, perhaps it’s worth taking a look inside your tummy function.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'nine clues that all is not well with your gut' 

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The breakfast that satisfies

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Noticed how some meals are really satisfying, and some leave you wondering when the ‘real’ course will arrive? Several decades ago I got taken in by the advertisement for a famous name slimming breakfast cereal that is still available today. Entranced by the television images of this slim, apparently successful and contented looking woman on the screen I rushed to the supermarket, and the very next day enjoyed this breakfast cereal that was going to make me slim, successful and happy too. 

What a disaster. Within just two hours my stomach was rumbling, my energy had evaporated and I was primed to leap ravenously upon any food not nailed down. These days I understand why some food is really satisfying and other foods leave you wondering where the rest of the meal is. Knowing how your stomach functions can show you how to easily shape what you eat so that you remain satisfied until the next real meal.

The first key is mechanical. I know you chew your food, but your stomach also rips apart those food particles so digestive enzymes can break it down even faster. It does this through using muscles to literally throw bits of food from one side of your stomach to another. You can’t usually feel this going on, fortunately.  But when there’s enough volume of food to begin this your stomach is more likely to feel ‘full’.

The second key is through messengers. Your brain is alerted through your nervous system when your stomach is deflated (empty) or inflated (full). Hormonal messengers also signal your brain about the contents of your stomach.
The third key is about chemistry. Special cells lining your stomach secrete strong acid and digestive enzymes to ‘melt’ food chemically. High quality protein (like in meat & eggs) is made of tough molecules that take time to break up. Fat globules and fibre also extend the time food will remain in your stomach because they simply get in the way of the chemical workings.

To create a really hunger-busting, satisfying meal include the ingredients that will slow stomach digestion: high quality animal protein, some fibre, some good fats, and enough volume.  For example, a breakfast of eggs and vegetables fried in olive oil. It includes the animal protein, good fat and fibre with enough volume to keep your stomach busy digesting and releasing the energy from that food slowly. A bowl of cereal alone just can’t achieve this for you. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Breakfast of Champions'

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It seemed like a good idea at the time

Saturday, June 24, 2017
“There must be an easier way to do this” was probably on everyone’s mind. So it seemed like a good idea at the time, I’m sure. Back then, people had to expend enormous amounts of energy just for day to day living. Wood cutters were swinging axes then somehow getting huge logs onto the bullock train. Housekeepers faced the laborious chore of lifting wet heavy linen in and out of a copper each week, on and off the line, then smoothing them with a heavy iron.  Almost everyone had to walk or ride a horse to get somewhere. 

So the motor car, the automatic washing machine and the chainsaw would have been welcome inventions: easing sore backs and aching muscles. Enabling much greater mobility and freedom for us all. With each new invention, the reduction in energy expenditure would have made little difference at first; so much of life still required effort. But as time has passed less and less energy has been asked of us to manage daily life. Cars carry us home from the supermarket. Leaf blowers replace using a rake and broom. Automatic dishwashers spare the drudgery of washing up after dinner. We even have robotic floor sweepers – you may never have to pick up a broom again. 

I suspect it’s no coincidence that over the last 100 years and particularly within the last 50 years, waistlines in general have expanded. Now we’re faced with a population obesity crisis of epidemic proportions. Perhaps there’s a connection here. Maybe our quest for an ever easier, more convenient way to get things done has got out of hand.
Why should this matter to you? Well, if you sense that you’re slowly but surely putting on weight when your diet hasn’t changed, it may be that the ease of modern life has caught up with you. Why not do a quick review of how much technology is now sparing you from expending energy between when you climb out of bed and when you lay your head back on the pillow at night.

It would be extreme to switch off the electricity, abandon your car, head out to gather firewood for cooking, or set aside Mondays completely for clothes washing like we had to. We don’t need to return to the Stone Age. But there may be many ways you can subtly shift your energy expenditure to stop your waistband becoming ever tighter. 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'An Antidote to the Hand Wringing About Childhood Obesity' 

Image credit: Edwin Garcia via MorgueFile

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Get those methylation moves happening with greens

Saturday, June 17, 2017
You might have heard of methylation, a fancy term for a particular biochemical reaction within your body that affects mood, skin, blood glucose regulation, wound healing and many other processes. If you know about methylation you might also have heard of the MTHFR gene mutation that makes methylation difficult for many of us and promotes development of conditions like depression, anxiety, addictions, acne, skin rashes, even muscle pain and fatigue.

You can obtain relatively inexpensive genetic tests now to determine whether your genes for methylation are defective (we can easily arrange this through the clinic); but even without the testing there’s something in your diet that can help your methylation processes and boost your health. Something ordinary. Something most of us don’t eat enough of: greens.

These vegetables, particularly raw greens, contain an important nutrient for methylation: folic acid, also known as folate or folinic acid. The name for this nutrient comes from where it’s most abundant, in green leafy vegetables. It’s in quite a few other foods as well, but green vegetables are a particularly rich source. As folate is a water soluble vitamin your body can’t store it, you have to top up on it each day. 

Vitamin C, found in all fresh raw fruits and vegetables, also helps the methylation process along by ‘recycling’ the folate so it can be used again and again to make the biochemical process happen at the right rate to keep you healthy and happy.

The big challenge is how to include more of these greens in your diet. The easiest way is to enjoy a salad every day. Not just salad in a sandwich, but a real salad; about two cups of salad vegetables with plenty of leafy greens like lettuce, dandelion leaves, rocket and herbs. Plus a yummy dressing, of course. Then for your evening meal aim to cover half your plate with steamed greens. 

You can even add greens to your breakfast: For example, lay a couple of rocket leaves on top of the bread before topping with eggs or savoury mince. 

Green smoothies are okay too, but try not to overdo them, as some raw greens regularly included in this drink, like kale, actually need to be cooked first to disable the phytic acid that can block the uptake of minerals.

One last tip to help you eat more leafy greens: Wrap them in a damp tea towel and enclose in a plastic bag to keep them fresh in your fridge.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Greens, the Ultimate Super Food' 

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The extra tag needed on an emergency services uniform

Saturday, June 10, 2017
Thank heavens for our emergency services. When flood waters rise they head out in boats to pull people to safety. Rush into burning buildings. Pull us out of mangled cars after an accident. Keep us alive on the way to the hospital. Keep us safe. So if you are one of the many people in uniform out there, we are immensely grateful.

Those uniforms you wear seem pretty sturdy. Tough-looking overalls, hard hats, protective boots and gloves. I guess each set comes with a helpful washing instructions label like “wash in cold water”. But perhaps there should be an extra tag: “Warning: wearing this uniform will not protect you from emotional trauma. Seek regular support.” Because that uniform can protect you from a lot of muck and mud, but it can’t protect you from the trauma of witnessing the distress of people you're looking after.

It’s now widely accepted that those who look after us are actually human, aren’t immune to the effects of trauma, and can be affected by other people’s distress. But media reports indicate it’s still difficult for many in the helping professions to reach out for ongoing support. Maybe because it may seem like everyone else on the team is coping, not affected. But it’s away from the main event when there’s time and space to think that feelings can surface. Sometimes you can recognise that what you’re feeling is about what you witnessed; and sometimes the feelings emerge just as a sense that you’re not functioning as well as usual, or your relationships are struggling.

Tempting as it is to numb these unpleasant feelings with alcohol or some other unhelpful coping strategy, the sense of feeling affected just returns when you sober up. It doesn’t help that the culture in some workplaces actively deters any need for extra support, deeming it a sign of weakness. But as anyone who has gone through counselling will attest, fronting up to talk over your feelings requires an immense amount of courage.

In many of the helping professions like counselling we are obliged to have ongoing ‘supervision’ through counselling to help us manage our feelings about what we are witness to. And yet, this kind of supportive 'supervision’ still isn’t an mandatory part of the job in other fields, like emergency services. If it were, perhaps more of our heroic helpers would feel comfortable accepting help for themselves so they can keep helping us.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'How To Avoid Developing PTSD'

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Manipulating the neurotransmitters that make you feel good

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Brain produces dopamine and other neurotransmittersDon’t know about you, but I rather enjoy the experience of feeling happy. Whether that emerges just from enjoying a day of glorious weather, or a job well done. When something good happens that makes you feel good your brain shoots out a flash of dopamine, a neurotransmitter designed to create feelings of satisfaction and reward. 

If you didn’t already know that your brain can create emotional feelings this may come as a surprise. But your brain really is running the show when it comes to your behaviour, craftily squirting out a bit of serotonin for happiness, or dopamine for satisfaction, and many other neurotransmitters designed to get you experiencing particular feelings so you’ll behave in certain ways. And you thought you were in control. Not as much: if your brain decides that what you just did was something worth doing again, it will produce happiness neurotransmitters. It has decided that what you just did is worth repeating: job well done, do it again.

There are two problems with this: sometimes those neurotransmitters are produced in response to doing something that really isn’t good for us: like smoking, alcohol, caffeine and recreational drugs. Over-use of computer games and social media (that smart phone you’re carrying can induce a shot of dopamine, making it all too easy for us to get lured back to swiping and liking.) It’s good old self-discipline that helps you control those urges towards self-destructive behaviours that feel good in the moment but less so in the long term.

Brains can get inflamed, too, which inhibits their ability to produce neurotransmitters, including happiness inducing serotonin and dopamine.  If your body is inflamed then it’s possible your brain can become inflamed too, generating mood disorders like depression and anxiety. 

Although some of that dopamine can be re-absorbed and used again, your brain needs a steady supply of nutrients like protein, minerals and glucose to keep producing more. There’s another problem with dopamine: it can be exhausted. This is most evident with recreational drugs, where larger amounts are needed as time passes to extract the same feelings the drug offered.

On the positive side, ordinary helpful day-to-day activities can spark a dopamine reaction too. Exercise, particularly, is well known to produce the class of neurotransmitters known as ‘endorphins’ because they make you feel good. One of the best ways to boost your mood (in a healthy way) is to get sweaty exercising.  

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Natural Mood Boosters'

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Is fragrance making you sick?

Saturday, May 20, 2017
Ever found yourself pausing at the supermarket cleaning products aisle, uncertain whether to push your trolley through the cloud of smells? Would you get one of those mysterious headaches? Sneeze? Have trouble breathing until you got back into the open air? For some people this supermarket aisle has become the one to avoid. If you’ve experienced this you’re not alone; more and more people are finding our lives are over-fragranced.

There’s a reason why you’re not feeling overwhelmed by different smells already: soon after experiencing the new scent your nose stops registering it. For example, as you’re putting on your t-shirt you’ll briefly get a whiff of the laundry powder, but then it will go. So although it seems like the perfume you applied earlier has all gone, in fact other people can still smell it. 

Think your life isn’t over-perfumed? Tally up the number of fragranced products you’ve encountered already today. You might have washed your hair with a nice-smelling shampoo, used a perfumed soap. An aerosol deodorant spray helped avert worries that your perspiration would offend others, and you used after-shave too, the one your partner appreciates. The clothes you’re wearing were washed in perfumed laundry powder. In the kitchen, your bin liner was fragranced, the dishwasher detergent had its own distinctive smell, and just in case your house didn’t smell pristine, an automatic dispenser sprayed air ‘freshener’ regularly. That’s a lot of artificial chemicals your body has encountered even before breakfast.

Questions are being asked now about whether our exposure to fragrance is affecting our health. After all, we can absorb chemicals across our lungs, increasing the burden of toxins our livers and kidneys have to process. Kate Grenville, the author of ‘The Case Against Fragrance’ has asked some hard questions about perfume while reviewing research already done on the effect of synthetic fragrances. She didn’t find many answers, but her research generates even more worrying questions about what we are unconsciously splash around in our quest to smell good.  It’s a book worth reading if you suspect breathing in artificial fragrances could be affecting your breathing, generating mysterious headaches, creating nausea, even upsetting your hormones and nervous system.

There’s lots you can do to help yourself, beyond opening windows. Select unfragranced products more often. And grow some greenery indoors: House plants have been found to be particularly adept at absorbing the chemicals that make up artificial fragrances. 
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How to support the people you care about

Tuesday, May 09, 2017
Image credit paahulb via MorgueFileFor readers who don't live locally, we had a major flood wash through our community a few weeks ago. This article was published in our local newspaper. the Tweed Daily News.

It was truly amazing, how after the floods everyone just stepped up to help each other wash out mud, wash clothes, deliver food. So many ways we expressed that we all really care about each other.  Along with the practical assistance, many people wonder how they can best support the emotional and mental health of their family, friends, neighbours and community when talking about the disaster.

A major event like the floods affects people in different ways, at different times. Some people can appear to be handling it all okay and then a few weeks or months down the track realise they’re really not coping at all. Others need extra support from day one. There’s no ‘normal’ time frame for recovery;  but being there for people is always helpful.

The way to best support someone is to simply listen. It’s been proven by science that genuine listening is actually immensely therapeutic. But there’s a way to listen that makes it helpful. First, allow time and space for listening. Simply sit and be with the other person in a place they’re comfortable. This could mean over a cuppa, or even while sitting together fishing. Some adolescents seem to open up more on long drives (perhaps because they don’t have to make eye contact). Young children may talk while you’re playing in the sandpit with them. 

Here’s the tough part that can undo your good intentions: While listening remind yourself, as often as you need to, that you don’t have to take on their problems. That means you don’t dispense advice. Nor try to fix the problem for them; that’s not your job here.  All you have to do is be present, with your ears, and let them know you’ve heard what they say.  You can expect to feel frustrated inside, as you can probably think of many things that they could or should do. But try to restrain yourself.

It may help to let them know you’ve heard with a phrase like “so what you’re saying is….” They might agree, or disagree, or just repeat the story. That’s OK; people in shock will often repeat the same story over and over as they try to make sense of it all.

One more thing: Trauma is sticky, so through listening to many upsetting tales you may feel you need some support yourself.  So don’t be afraid to reach out towards help for yourself.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Help When Life Is Turned Upside Down'

Image credit: Paahulb via MorgueFile

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The illusion of fancy food on social media

Saturday, May 06, 2017
Breakfast with mushroom(Yes, I know, I have my own Instagram account, here, where I share what I'm cooking and eating. But, just like the article you're about to read points out, you don't get to see the 'train wrecks'. The photo here is one of my better looking breakfasts; and yes, it had gone cold by the time I'd posted it on Instagram. So enjoy the pictures but please don't think my food is perfect - it's often not.) 

When you want to improve your diet I can understand how the fabulous food portrayed on social media could feel overwhelming and seem expensive; because many of the spectacular looking meals on social media sites like Instagram include some exotic, hard-to-obtain and pricey ingredients in a dish that’s taken hours to prepare. Then you can fear you’re missing out as you fork through your own, less photogenic dinner.

Social media can ignite some genuine food anxiety, perpetuating the illusion that everyone else is tucking into stunningly attractive healthy meals all the time. But many of those photos you’re admiring actually take ages to arrange and photograph, and could certainly have gone cold by the time the photographer picks up their cutlery. The reality of life is that sometimes your meals can look like a train wreck when they land on your plate. Another, although hidden reality, is that you only get to see the finished product when the photographer thinks it’s worth sharing. Which isn’t all the time.

Another fallacy perpetuated by social media and advertising: that in order to eat healthy you have to include exotic, expensive and fashionable ingredients. If you can afford to live that way, fantastic; but most of us have a budget. Instead, reach for some of the great recipe books devoted to showing you how the plain, inexpensive foods our grandparents and great-grandparents accessed can be made into delicious and yet healthy meals and snacks. Or google ‘budget healthy food’.

The short cut to saving money with food is to keep in mind that the more hands your food has passed through before it gets to your table, the more you will pay for it. For example, if you make your own yoghurt in bulk at home, then add fruit you stewed yourself, the price you pay for that snack will be less than buying a snack-sized tub at the supermarket. Same for home-made salads, cakes, even bread. The more of the work you do yourself, the less you pay. 

A once-a-week food preparation campaign will help ensure you’ve always got healthy food on hand, and having a meal plan for the week will save you from having to make decisions when you’re tired.
So enjoy those food photos on social media – they can inspire you to focus more on eating healthy food; but don’t let them deter you from your quest to eat healthy.

If you enjoyed this article you might find my meal plan helpful. It's here.

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