Who says it's got to be turkey?

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing particularly wrong with turkey and all the trimmings - at least nothing you don't already know. Yes, it's usually too much, and yes, it can be a bit high on the carb side (but doesn't have to be), but hey, it's Christmas! Nobody eats like that all the time, and in any case this particular post is not about the calories. 

If you know me, you'll know that I'm not British. I'm German, and I have always been fascinated by the fact that apparently every family in a whole country (and some other countries) eats the exact same thing at Christmas, every Christmas. In Germany, we don't do that. 

Christmas, turkey, Christmas Dinner, trimmings, weight loss, weight, fat

Christmas Dinner is something you see on restaurant menus everywhere right now and in fact many Britons have had three or four Christmas Dinners already before Christmas even arrives. Many of you – as I know from asking friends - don’t even care all that much for turkey with all the trimmings. “It’s bland,” some say. “Turkey is such a dry meat.” – “You have to keep eating it until the New Year, when it’s FINALLY gone!” Many truly HATE Brussels sprouts, and yet they’ve got to be bought, cleaned and cooked, even if they are destined for the bin.

Our 'big day' at Christmas is Christmas Eve - at least that's the day when we open our presents. Some choose to have their big meal then, others have it on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is not a bank holiday, so shops are usually open in the morning, and some offices are, too. Growing up, we had a grocery shop and of course Christmas Eve was very, very busy and our dinner was kept simple: potato salad and Wiener sausages - and that's actually a very common meal on Christmas Eve in Germany. 

WHEN the main Christmas meal is may differ, but so does what we'll eat. Yes, there is a traditional German Christmas Dinner: goose, potato dumplings, braised red cabbage with apple, gravy - but I honestly don't know anyone who would ever actually have that at Christmas. For many families a whole goose is too big a bird anyway. But it's something that is on offer in restaurants around Christmas time and - like the Christmas Dinner here - a popular option for work Christmas lunches. 

So, what do we eat? Whatever we fancy, is the answer. Christmas is a time when we might cook something that’s perhaps a little expensive and luxurious, something we wouldn’t normally allow ourselves to have. Or maybe it is something more elaborate and time-consuming, too special to have on a ‘normal’ day. Or it’s something easy, yet social, such as fondue or raclette – which can mean many happy hours around the table.

Yes, Germans overeat at Christmas, too, and yes, the Christmas meal is not usually the healthiest, there is plenty of alcohol flowing and desserts, biscuits, Lebkuchen and chocolate are on offer 24/7. We, too, flop on the sofa after the meal, waistband taught, watching the usual Christmas TV offerings. There’s no difference there at all, but this post is not about health (for once), but enjoyment: Who says that you have to endure a dinner you don’t really like? Would the world end if you didn’t have a traditional Christmas dinner? Wouldn’t it be exciting to rebel and cook something different?

Push the boat out! Be brave! (And while you're at it, you could theoretically even have a healthy Christmas dinner. Only saying.)

Have a merry, yummy Christmas!

What is the appendix for?

One of the most interesting fields of research for me right now is the microbiome. New research in the area comes out every day and the more we learn, the more scientists realise we don’t know.

Although not all bacteria and other microbes have yet been identified – let alone everything they do – we do now know that diversity is key to good health: the more different species there are, the healthier the individual. Hunter-gatherers have a much, much more microbiome than we do in the Western world, and we get many diseases that are unheard of in primitive cultures, e.g. Crohn’s disease.

appendix, appendicitis, microbiome, gut flora, immune system

Appendicitis - infection and inflammation of the appendix - is so common that everyone knows someone who has had it and has had an appendectomy as a result, an operation that probably saved their life.

For as long as we’ve known that this little dead end in our gut exists, doctors and researchers have been wondering what it is for. It was thought to be vestigial, like the coccyx (tailbone) or erector pili (the muscles that make hair stand on end) and body hair. In fact, if you google ‘vestigial organs’ you’ll find the appendix at the top of the list. It is thought not to do anything much, because no purpose has been found and, more than anything, people without one live on without suffering any negative consequences at all.

For other vestigial organs we can find out what there purpose might have been if we look back at our ancestors or closely related species, such as the great apes or monkeys. Our ear muscles, for example, don’t do much anymore, but monkeys use them to twist their ears in different directions, to pick up the sound of approaching danger sooner. Vestigial organs usually have shrunk and/or atrophied: they’re there, but unable to do anything anymore. When it comes to the appendix, however, it appears that apes and humans have a larger and better developed one than monkeys – which suggests that the appendix must be doing something useful.

Most people never get appendicitis, but 6% do, and that’s a lot of people. Of those who do get it, 50% survive it without an operation. Because it’s so common, appendectomy is now routine surgery. So without any medical help, 1 in every 32 people would be wiped out by appendicitis. If it was that dangerous an organ that doesn’t appear to serve any particular purpose, you would expect that over millennia evolution would have made us lose it, not promote it.

It wasn’t until 2005 that it crossed one American scientist’s mind, that perhaps the appendix was a reservoir for bacteria! In order to come up with this idea, there first had to have been knowledge of the gut flora and immunity. The appendix is filled with bacteria, antibodies and lymphatic tissue. Why?

We have more of the same all along the gut, but if we a struck down with infection and disease that causes severe diarrhoea, e. g. cholera, we will lose our gut flora and antibody protection in a very short space of time. Add to that these days enema before colonoscopy or antibiotic treatments. We’ll end up with a very clean gut indeed! But as we now know that is not a very good way to be.

The appendix appears to provide a save haven for bacteria during any such attack, and it is from here that bacteria emerge to recolonise the gut once the threat has passed. So, while we can live without an appendix, there is great benefit in having one. And by the way: appendicitis is another disease that is extremely rare in developing countries. Could the fact that we are so prone to it also have something to do with our Western lifestyle?

For further reading: Rob Dunn - The Wild Life of our Bodies, Harper Perennial, 2011.

Go nuts!

Do you avoid nuts because you are worried about the calories? Don't! Nuts are a great addition to the diet and there is much more to them than 'calories' (which don't even matter all that much). On the flipside, there are some health concerns to consider with nuts, not only for those that are allergic, so have a read of the pros and cons. 

Why I cook

I know, not everybody likes it and it can be a chore: Cooking. But at the same time I think the arduousness of it and level of difficulty is often overestimated by those who never cook. There are a lot of dishes you can rustle up very quickly, that only takes as long as it takes to thaw a frozen pizza in the oven.

So, what’s so good about cooking (by which I mean ‘preparing food from scratch’, even if it was ultimately eaten raw)?

cooking lifeskills fun hobby healthy eating

The Obvious First

Of course it’s healthier. Food cooked from fresh ingredients doesn’t contain artificial flavouring, preservatives, emulsifiers, colouring, transfats and whatever else goes in, plus it’ll have much less salt and sugar.

Your food will be more interesting

If you rely on take-aways and ready meals, you’re restricted to what there is to be had, and - let’s face it - the selection is limited and boring: lasagne, Bolognese, Chicken Kiev, Maccaroni Cheese, burgers, Chicken Tikka Masala, … It’s always the same. If you cook your own food, the possibilities are endless and you may discover flavours you never knew existed.

You decide what goes in

If you don’t like or can’t tolerate something – say, garlic – your options are even more limited as garlic is in a lot of ready-made dishes. When you cook your own food, you’re the one who decides what goes in, and even if garlic is on most ingredients lists: So what? Don’t put it in. You’re in charge.

It’s cheaper

Yes, believe it or not. You get better quality food for less money. If you pick your ingredients according to season and special offers, reduce the meat and add some lentils and extra veg instead, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck. Don’t you sometimes think those ready-meal portions are a bit small? If you cook from scratch, a second helping won’t break the bank.

You can be creative

Sometimes you may not get around to shopping for food and just have to make do with what you’ve got. Most of us have enough food at home at all times to make a meal of it: tinned tomatoes, tinned beans, tinned tuna, some onions, a bit of cheese, eggs, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled peppers in jars, pasta, rice, or quinoa, dried herbs and spices … That’s plenty to come up with something. And then there’s still the freezer; who knows what lurks in there? Coming up with ideas of what to make with what you’ve got can yield surprisingly delicious results. And a sense of accomplishment.

You’ll learn a life skill

It’s not only extremely satisfying, but also very useful to know how to cook. The more you do it, the better you get. As you hone your chopping skills, you’ll get faster. With a little experience, you’ll know what will work, if you haven’t got all the ingredients in the recipe: You need red chillies, but only have green ones? Who cares, they’ll do. You have no chillies at all, but dried chilli flakes – that’ll be fine. You don’t like spicy food or have no form of chilli in your cupboard? It may be just as nice or even nicer without any chilli at all.

It’s relaxing

When I used to work in the City, I’d use that cooking time to unwind. As soon as I got home – at around 6:30 pm, if I was lucky – I’d change into jeans and T-shirt, put on my apron and start chopping while listening to a podcast. And yes, I did cook dinner every day. Commuting was no excuse. The time for a healthy meal is always there. It’ll just have to come off my TV or Facebook time.

It's social

If you cook with your kids, your partner or your friends, the time spent in the kitchen together adds to your quality time. At the same time, it speeds up the process and saves you some time. Bonus: Kids that have helped prepare food are much more likely to actually eat it. 

It starts off your digestion

Thinking about what you’re going to have, preparing, stirring, tasting, smelling what you’re cooking gets stomach acid and digestive enzyme production going. Your body is getting ready for the meal that is about to arrive, and the more time to give it to do that, the better. If all your preparation is to open the door to the pizza delivery man and start eating, you’ll take your digestive system by surprise.

For more of this last and many other useful and practical tips on how to improve digestion, come and join me at my Happy Gut Workshop on 18 November 2017! 

Happy Gut - Happy You!

The digestive system is the least talked about and probably our most underrated organ, and yet it truly is the foundation of good health. While I cannot guarantee that a healthy gut will make all your troubles go away, I can safely say that true health will remain out of reach if the digestive system is not working well.