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Ginger Carrot Soup

Usually found in tropical gardens, ginger root - which is actually an underground stem, or rhizome - sprouts large pink and orange flowers that look as if they've been carved out of wax. Although they are a much more common sight in home gardens, carrots (a member of the parsley family) aren't given to such showy blooms. Nevertheless, carrots pack a nutritional punch as impressive as any ginger blossom. Put the two roots together and you've got one of the most delicious flavor combinations I know of. Buy smooth ginger pieces (wrinkled ones are old and dry) and peel the skin away. Ginger is a wonderful digestive aid that strengthens the lining of the upper gastrointestinal tract, protecting against ulcers and parasites. The carotenes from carrots fortify the immune system and help maintain healthy skin and hair. When buying carrots, avoid those with cracks and be sure to remove carrot greenery, as it leaches moisture and vitamins from the roots. 

2 teaspoons expeller-pressed canola oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger root
3 cups carrots, chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
8 cups vegetable stock
Salt to taste
Dash of dry sherry
Dash of nutmeg
Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro (optional)

1. Heat the canola oil in a large pot, add the onion and ginger, and sauté, stirring, just until the onion is translucent.

2. Add the carrots, potato and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and boil gently until the vegetables are tender, about 30-45 minutes.

3. Purée the soup in batches in a blender or food processor.

4. Add salt to taste and flavor with the sherry and nutmeg. Serve plain or garnished with chopped fresh parsley or cilantro.

Food as Medicine: Ginger has been shown to significantly reduce both nausea and vomiting associated with "morning sickness" that some women experience during pregnancy.


Nonstick Pans and Thyroid Disease

A chemical used in nonstick pans and water-resistant fabrics may play a role in thyroid disease. This finding by British researchers isn’t at all certain - the investigators identified a link between PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and higher rates of thyroid disease but didn't show that the chemical actually causes the disease. They discovered that adults with the highest concentrations of PFOA in their blood serum were more than twice as likely to report thyroid disease as those whose blood levels of PFOA were lowest. The study participants were nearly 4,000 American adults age 20 and older. At this point, we don't know whether this finding means that the PFOA disrupts binding of thyroid hormones in the blood or alters metabolism of the hormones in the liver. It could be that the thyroid disease occurs first and alters the way the body handles PFOA. Another possibility: since thyroid disease often is caused by an immune system malfunction, PFOA may be affecting the immune system. The study was published online in the Jan. 20, 2010 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.


An Apple A Day Boosts Beneficial Bacteria 

Here's a possible explanation for the old saying "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." Danish researchers looked into the question of why apples are good for us by analyzing the microbial content of the digestive systems of rats. The study animals were put on a diet rich in apples, apple juice, and apple purée and their gastrointestinal flora was compared to the microbial content of animals on a regular rat diet. They reported that rats eating a diet high in pectin¸ a component of dietary fiber in apples, had increased amounts of beneficial bacteria - the kind known to improve intestinal health. The investigators concluded that as a result of eating apples regularly, the friendly bacteria "help produce short chain fatty acids that provide ideal pH conditions for ensuring a beneficial balance of microorganisms." They also found that the good bacteria produce butyrate, a chemical that is an important fuel for cells of the intestinal wall. More research is needed to see if pectin has the same effects in humans. The study was published Jan. 20, 2010 in BMC Microbiology.


What Really Makes You Fat

Simply not having enough awareness about eating could be the culprit. A recent study designed to examine the attitudes of middle aged American women toward food, found that those who tended to eat impulsively or who were described as "guilt-ridden dieters" were the most obese among a group of 200 women who participated in the study. Those who weighed least were women who were concerned about nutrition and were determined to eat well and those who were creative cooks focused on healthy food for their families. In the middle was a group of women who led busy lives and were preoccupied with responsibilities and activities other than food, and therefore tended to avoid cooking. The average age of the women in the study was 46. This was a well-educated group - two-thirds of the participants had four-year college degrees. The researchers compared the groups of women by percentage of body fat, waist size and body mass index. The study was published in the December 2009 issue of Health Education & Behavior.

My take? It's not surprising that impulsive eating was linked to weight problems in this study. When you reach for chocolates, snack foods or other "comfort" foods, it's often because you're stressed, depressed, or bored. When you eat in response to social cues - such as having lunch or dinner when you're not hungry - or when you eat unconsciously, you're not really tuned in to your nutritional needs or your body's signals of hunger and satiety. To successfully control your weight, you have to pay attention to what you eat - both quality and quantity - and carve out the time to think about your nutritional needs and prepare healthy meals.


A Note on Pistachios

Shelled or unshelled, pistachios are a sweet and meaty green nut to add to your diet. One ounce of pistachios contains more fiber than a half-cup of spinach and the same amount as an orange or apple. They are also a good source of vitamin B-6, thiamin, copper, phosphorus, and magnesium. I recommend avoiding dyed pistachios and instead eating only the natural ones (any green hue of the actual nut is natural and comes from chlorophyll.)


Nutrients to Fight Alzheimer's

A new nutrient "cocktail" developed by researchers at MIT may help improve the memory of Alzheimer's patients. The nutrients - uridine, choline and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA plus some B vitamins and antioxidants - boosted verbal memory in patients with mild Alzheimer's in a clinical trial. The investigators suggested that the cocktail works by promoting the growth of new brain connections (synapses). Richard Wurtman, the MIT professor who performed the basic research that lead to the cocktail, found in animal studies that the nutrients increase the number of small outcroppings of neural membranes (called dendritic spines). When these spines come into contact with each other, a new synapse is formed. Patients in the study drank the cocktail or a control beverage daily for 12 weeks. Those who received the nutrients improved significantly compared to the controls: 40 percent of them did better on tests of verbal memory compared to only 24 percent of patients in the control group. In the "cocktail" group those patients with the mildest cases of Alzheimer's did best on the tests. The study was published in the January 2010 issue of Alzheimer's and Dementia.


Pycnogenol for Hemorrhoids

This antioxidant extract from the bark of the French maritime pine tree may help treat and prevent hemorrhoids. A study from Italy found that both topical and oral treatment with Pycnogenol® reduced the intensity and duration of pain and bleeding from hemorrhoids and even reduced the number of procedures and hospital admissions due to severe cases. The Italian investigators divided up 84 patients suffering with pain and bleeding from an acute episode of external hemorrhoids that had lasted 24 to 48 hours. One group was given 300 mg of Pycnogenol tablets daily for four days and then 150 mg daily for the next three days; those in group two received the same treatment plus 0.5% Pycnogenol topical cream; the patients in the third group were given a placebo. After a week, bleeding had stopped in patients in groups one and two but continued during two weeks of follow up among patients in the placebo group. The patients in the Pycnogenol groups also reported less pain and fewer lost working days. The research team concluded that Pycnogenol can help with all major hemorrhoid symptoms. Their findings were published in the December 29, 2009 issue of Phytotherapy Research.

More information on treating hemorrhoids.


Music, Art, Theater and Good Health

If you're a culture vulture - if you paint, dance, play the guitar (or another musical instrument) and appreciate the arts - a Norwegian study suggests that you're better off physically and psychologically. Cultured citizens there are healthier and less inclined to be depressed than those who don't dab paint on canvas, dance, or make music. As a matter of fact, the study found that those who simply attend concerts or the theater are healthier and less depressed than those who don't. The investigators reached their conclusion after assembling health profiles of more than 48,000 men and women and also collecting blood and urine samples from the participants. They reported that they found less depression among men who engaged in cultural activities, but the data didn't show less depression among women. Surprisingly, the results held true regardless of the socio-economic status of the group studied - cultural activities had an overall positive effect on an individual's sense of health and well-being. The lead investigator said that the health link to cultural activities isn't strong enough to say that culture actually makes people healthy, but offers some insight on how to think about risk. The findings have not yet been published but were presented at a Norwegian health conference in November, 2009.

My take? This interesting study isn't the first to see a link between culture and health. We've known for some time that music can have a powerful effect on mind and body. Hospitals use music therapy to ease pain, boost patients' moods and counteract depression, and music therapy stimulates nursing home residents and improves the moods of psychiatric patients. And I believe that viewing art is a wonderful way to raise your spirits. Paintings, sculpture, architecture and other forms of art can please the senses and nourish your nonphysical being. They can also inspire creativity and excitement, and can be savored as a tangible expression of history. And going to the theater is just one of the stimulating habits that can keep your mind active and may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.