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Vegan Coconut Flan

Dessert lover? This light tofu pudding is very much like an egg custard made with coconut milk - a very common Southeast Asian dessert (but good with any tropical menu, including Latin American). I like to serve it with chunks of pineapple and fresh mint sprigs as an edible decoration. Fans of traditional flan will find this to be a delicious and healthful substitute. If you don't tell your guests about the switch, it's likely they won't even know the difference! There is an option, too, for vegan crème caramel.


5 tablespoons brown sugar or Sucanat or Rapadura
3 tablespoons water

2/3 cup medium-firm tofu (or use extra-firm silken tofu), crumbled
2 tablespoons light unbleached sugar or white beet sugar
1 tablespoon of the Syrup, above
3/4 teaspoons coconut extract
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups (reduced fat, if you like) soymilk or other non-dairy milk, such as rice or almond milk
3/4 teaspoons agar powder or 1 ½ tablespoons agar flakes


To make the Syrup: 
1. Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan with a heavy bottom, over low heat. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. 

2. Working quickly, place in the blender the tofu, 1 tablespoon of Syrup, 2 tablespoons sugar, coconut extract and salt. Set this aside and pour the remaining syrup evenly into 6 custard molds. Rotate each one to coat the base and sides with the syrup. Set aside. 

3. Into the same saucepan pour the non-dairy milk and the agar. Bring this quickly to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Continue stirring. Add this hot milk mixture to the ingredients in the blender and immediately blend it to a smooth cream. Stir down the bubbles. Pour the blended mixture into the coated molds, and skim off any remaining foam. Cover the molds with plastic wrap, and refrigerate them until serving time. 

To unmold the puddings:
Dip the bottom of each mold briefly into boiling water, then remove the plastic wrap and turn upside down on a dessert plate. The pudding should slide out easily. Pour any syrup left in the bottom of the mold over the pudding. Decorate each plate with fruit and mint or lemon balm sprigs. 

Variation: Vegan Crème Caramel or Individual Spanish-Style Flans: 
Omit the coconut extract and add 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract (you could use some orange extract or orange zest in the pudding and/or the syrup, if you like, and use less vanilla). I like this version less sweet, so I leave out the extra 2 tablespoons sugar in the pudding mixture, but you can leave it (or part of it) in, if you prefer.

Food as Medicine: Those who worry that vegan foods are iron deficient, note that tofu is an excellent source of iron, providing more than 33 percent of the Daily Value for this vital mineral.

Nutritional considerations for vegans to take into account.


What's a Whole Grain?

Most people - including your average health-food enthusiast - consider whole-grain breads to be examples of "whole-grain foods."  But in terms of glycemic load, only intact, unpulverized grains should qualify as whole grains. Here's why:

More on true whole grains vs. whole-grain flour products.


Lose Weight to Ease Aches and Pains

We all know that excess weight increases the risks of chronic health concerns - cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and asthma. But that knowledge hasn’t been very effective in motivating individuals to lose weight. Now, in hopes that other benefits would be more motivating than the danger of future disease, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have documented a more immediate perquisite of weight loss: relief of the musculoskeletal aches and pains that often accompany excess pounds. The investigators recruited 32 women between the ages of 22 and 76 who already were enrolled in a local weight-loss clinic. At the start of the 12-week study, they collected data on the women's weight and any associated pain in the neck, shoulders, elbows, hands and wrists, upper back, lower back, hips, knees, lower legs and feet. They tracked each woman's weight loss weekly and asked the participants to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 10. After losing an average of 10 pounds, 21 percent of the women reported significantly less pain in their lower extremities and back. Overall, the participants reported a 20 to 30 percent reduction in pain after losing weight. 

My take? Earlier studies have shown that weight loss improves quality of life, including increased energy and less physical pain. If you have arthritis, excess weight puts additional stress on the hip and knee joints, and you're likely to feel better if you can lose even a few pounds. Losing weight to relieve pain is a worthwhile and achievable goal - you'll feel better even after relatively small losses. And, incidentally, you'll also lower your risks for the diseases that can endanger your long-term health.

More on diet and weight loss.


To Sleep Better, Get More Exercise

Here's further proof that regular aerobic exercise can help middle aged and older adults overcome insomnia. Researchers at Northwestern University recruited 23 sedentary adults, mostly women of ages 55 and older, who had problems falling or staying asleep, to take part in a 16-week study. The participants were divided into three groups; the first group performed two 20-minute sessions of aerobic activity four times per week; the second group completed a 30 to 40 minute workout four times a week; the third group did not engage in any physical activity, but instead took cooking classes, attended lectures at museums or took part in other recreational or educational programs three to five times a week. Those who exercised reported that their sleep quality improved from "poor" to "good" and that the duration of their sleep lengthened as well. What’s more, the participants reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness than they had in the past. The study was scheduled for publication in the October, 2010, issue of Sleep Medicine.

Hate to exercise? Here's my advice.


Preparing for Lifelong Health, Part 1

Keep a personal medical journal that includes a record of past illnesses, injuries, treatments, tests and screenings, hospitalizations, current medications and family history. Based on family history, identify the categories of age-related disease you are most at risk for, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, and know the preventive lifestyle strategies to help keep these at bay.


Butter vs. Margarine

When it comes to spreads for your bread, I am a longtime proponent of olive oil. Its heart-healthy fats are a much better choice than margarine or butter.

Margarine was originally developed as a cheap substitute for butter, and has evolved from some fairly unappealing animal-based ingredients into a vegetable-oil based spread with added chemicals that make it more flavorful and easier to spread. To achieve that solid, spreadable consistency, margarine manufacturers hydrogenate vegetable oil, creating unhealthy compounds that may contribute to heart disease and stroke. In addition, the heat and chemicals used to harden vegetable oils produce trans-fatty acids (TFAs), which can contribute to heart disease, increase cancer risks, promote inflammation and accelerate tissue degeneration.

Butter is traditionally made from animal milk and contains saturated fat, but is definitely the better choice. In fact, some recent studies suggest that natural saturated fats may not significantly contribute to cardiovascular disease, though I believe further study is warranted. In any case, butter is closer to a whole food than margarine. If you must opt for a spread that is not olive oil, I suggest natural, organic butter in limited quantities.


Massage Boosts Immune System

We all know that massage feels good, but new evidence suggests that it can be even better for your health than previously thought. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles noted that while some small studies had shown the health benefits of massage, their larger investigation revealed that Swedish massage triggers measurable and beneficial changes to both endocrine and immune system responses. The researchers recruited 53 physically healthy volunteers who had no mental disorders and divided them into two groups: 29 of the volunteers received 45 minutes of Swedish massage while 24 received 45 minutes of light touch massage. Prior to massage, all the participants were fitted with intravenous catheters so that blood samples could be taken at intervals before and after massage. Results showed significant changes in lymphocytes, white blood cells that are key players in immune system responses; a large decrease in a hormone (arginine vassopressin) believed to play a role in aggressive behavior and linked to prompting increases in the stress hormone cortisol; a decrease in cortisol levels, and a decrease in inflammatory cytokines, which are immune system mediators.

Other health benefits of massage.


Magnesium Intake May Reduce Diabetes Risk

And that's a big "may." So far, all we know for sure is that people who consumed the most magnesium in food and from supplements during an ongoing investigation had half the risk of developing diabetes over the next 20 years as those whose magnesium intake was lowest. The study looked at diabetes risk and magnesium intake among nearly 4,500 people between the ages of 18 and 30, none of whom had diabetes when the investigation began. Over the next 20 years, 330 of the participants developed diabetes. When the researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at their subjects' magnesium consumption, they found that those with the highest intake - an average of about 200 mg for every 1,000 calories consumed - were 47 percent less likely to have developed diabetes than those who consumed about only 100 mg of magnesium per 1,000 calories. More research will be needed to determine whether magnesium or some other factor really was responsible for the difference. Good food sources of magnesium include whole grains, leafy green vegetables, almonds, cashews and other nuts, avocados, beans, soybeans and halibut. The study was published on line by Diabetes Care on August 31, 2010.

More on sources of magnesium.