Microbes, probiotics, and prebiotics


Some time ago, Michael Pollan had an article in the New York Times Magazine about the cohabitation of microbes and human beings. It turns out that each one of us is a huge colony of cells, some of them specifically human, but the majority foreign to us. We contain more single-celled microbes than human cells, believe it or not.

But we coexist with those microbes. They live in us, and on us, and have done so for a very long time, and we have found ways of coexisting that are beneficial to all. Some microbes help to regulate our digestion; others regulate our immune systems; and so on.

Example: Helicobacter pylori. H. pylori was discovered several decades ago to be the main cause of stomach ulcers. Before this discovery, ulcers were one of those things you just suffered with, like arthritis. After the discovery, a quick course of specific antibiotics cured ulcers double-quick.

Except that it turns out that it’s more complicated than that. H. pylori helps regulate stomach acid when we’re younger; when we’re older, it causes ulcers. This (Pollan speculates) may be on purpose: maybe the body and the bacteria are collaborating to kill us, to move us off the stage so that younger and stronger people can take over.



H. pylori has been largely eradicated now. Is this a good thing? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Pollan also takes on the issue of probiotics. Can we tend our gut flora as if it were a kitchen garden? Perhaps. We already do it with yogurt, and pickles, and sauerkraut, and all kinds of things. But now you can buy foods with “beneficial” microbes, which will colonize your stomach and intestines and make you unbelievably healthy.

Then there are “prebiotics.” These are foods that serve as quick-start fuel for microbial populations.

I tried one of these a few years ago.

Evidently I have a very lively microbial population in my gut. Giving it a little extra food was like giving Hitler the A-bomb.

I will never eat anything labeled “prebiotic” again.

I love my internal microbial population, but I don’t want them to take over completely.

Fast food

fast food

Partner and I took an impromptu holiday on Cape Cod recently. We had a nice meal at Captain Parker’s in West Yarmouth, which is a terrific little seafood restaurant. We had a couple of nice country breakfasts at the Hearth ‘n Kettle in South Yarmouth, which gives you a nice hot pitcher of coffee with your meal.



And we also ate at McDonald’s and at Wendy’s.



Partner and I normally don’t eat fast food. But on holiday: why not?



Just as a test, I ordered a Big Mac. It was almost as I remember from the 1970s and 1980s: it had the same feeling, and the same squishy delectableness, but they hadn’t put enough of the Special Sauce on it! I was a little disappointed. (Special Sauce, for the younger among you, is a mix of mayonnaise, relish, mustard, and other seasonings.)



How about Wendy’s? I’m not a faithful diner here, but their food is good. I had a double-burger thing, and some fries, and a “milkshake” so thick that I couldn’t use a straw. Very nice, all in all.



Much has been written lately about the fast-food cabal and how horrible their food is nutritionally. So the chains – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s – are making soft and gentle noises about wanting us to eat healthily.



They’re kidding, of course.



They do enormous amounts of research into our natural cravings for sweet and salty and protein, and work until they find perfect combinations. (The Big Mac is one of those perfect combinations.)



They’re devious. They want you to eat there every day.



Don’t do it, kids. Beat them at their own game. Make it a treat, once in a while. It won’t hurt you. It’s really delicious, in its peculiar salty / sweet / protein way.



Just don’t overdo it.


Sardines for dinner!


I believe that, if you crave something, you should eat it. Your body is wiser than you are, and if it’s asking for a particular kind of food, probably you should give it the food it’s asking for.



I crave sardines sometimes. I started eating them in Morocco in the 1980s, because they were cheap and didn’t need cooking and were good with fresh bread. Also, the Atlantic waters off the Moroccan coast are rich with sardines (or they were in those days).



I learned then that sardines are not always four inches long and are not born in little metal cans. The best sardines are seven or eight inches long, and are wonderful when you grill them. The Moroccan fishermen kept all the best and biggest sardines, and we ate them with pleasure in Moroccan bars and restaurants. The rest were shipped to canneries.



But even small canned sardines are tasty.



In Morocco, you could buy sardines canned with preserved carrots, and peppers, and tomatoes, and anything you might wish. They were all delicious. Here in the USA, you can buy them in oil, or with hot sauce, or with mustard.



They are pungent, of course. The house smells of sardines for a few hours after I eat them. And you really shouldn’t heat them up, because they stink like holy hell if you do that.



Sardines are full of healthy stuff: calcium (you’re eating their feathery bones as you eat their succulent flesh), iron, omega-3 fatty acids, phosphorus, protein. They contain next to no carbohydrates. They contain Coenzyme Q10, which is an antioxidant and does just about everything but cure cancer.



They have a bad reputation, I think, those dusty little cans sitting in the back of the cupboard.



Get those little cans out of the cupboard and open them and have a feast.



Live a little.




I was talking the other day to a coworker about her weight-loss plan, which is making her considerably thinner. Sadly, it’s one of those high-protein / low-carbohydrate diets which always backfire.



See, your body has several different metabolic settings. When it’s getting mostly protein (as with the Atkins Diet and its many imitators), it swings into a metabolic cycle that burns up your body fat very quickly. Then, unfortunately, if unchecked, it begins to digest your muscle mass, including your heart muscle. You must be very careful on these diets.



Fortunately, most people stay on these diets for limited periods of time, because they’re expensive, and because the range of foods is so limited and monotonous.



I have known about these diets since the 1980s, when a coworker (nice-looking, but with a pot belly) confided his weight-loss secret to me: now and then – once a year or so – he’d live on bologna and eggs for a couple of weeks, and his pot belly would disappear.



(Other dangers of this kind of diet: the waste products are highly toxic. You need to drink a lot of water, all the time, in order to detoxify yourself. Also, you need to consume a certain amount of carbohydrates, just to reassure your body that it doesn’t need to start consuming itself.)



Better, in some ways, the Maria Callas Diet (which is championed by my workfriend Apollonia, who has never tried it, but who thinks it’s a wonderful idea): swallow a tapeworm. It will keep you thin, no matter what you do.






To quote Paul Bartel, who plays a “thinologist” in the 1990s movie “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills”: “It’s like I told the police: if you have a bunch of rich people in one place who are determined to lose weight, some of them are going to die.”



Or you could just eat less and exercise more.



You should choose the diet that’s right for you.



(Unless it poisons you, or devours you from within.)



The joy of soy


Normally I buy a pint of milk once every two weeks.  I use maybe half of it, on cereal and in occasional baking/cooking projects.  Then I buy a new one and throw the old one away.  Expensive and wasteful.  But what’s to be done?



Well, there’s soy milk, naturally.  And cashew milk, and almond milk, and all kinds of other things.



I tried soy milk about two years ago.  I was suspicious of it; I was prepared for it to taste weedy and green and wild, not like milk at all, but like edamame, about which I am not crazy.  And, naturally, I conned myself into thinking it did taste like that, and so it fulfilled my worst expectations.



But it kept preying on my mind.  So, a few months ago, I bought two waxed-paper cartons of WestSoy soy milk, one vanilla-flavored (which sounded mostly innocuous and less like edamame), the other plain. 



I find that I like them both.  The vanilla soy milk is delicious on cereal – better than regular milk.  The regular soy milk is also not bad. 



Soy milk lasts a lot longer in the fridge than regular milk.  You have to shake it up before you use it, but I don’t have a problem with that.  And it’s faintly sweet (at least the WestSoy product is), which is pleasant.  I want to see how it works in baking projects, and mashed potatoes, and sauces, and things like that. Then we’ll see.   (It’s also – supposedly – packed with some botanical equivalent to estrogen, so I will be watching to see if it takes away any of my intense masculinity.)



My brother-in-law Dwight was a dairy farmer for years.  He and my sister used to leave little nasty notes at restaurants when they were served margarine instead of butter.



I can only imagine what Dwight might think of soy milk.



But, hey, you gotta live a little.


The Vegetarian Times


Last weekend I cooked a pork roast.  I also read the latest issue of the Vegetarian Times.



Yes, I know. 



But here’s the thing: I am not the carnivore I used to be.  I go meatless two or three days a week at least.  I like very much Mark Bittman’s compromise: be as meatless as you can be without driving yourself crazy.



There are some good recipes in the most recent issue of the Vegetarian Times. I intend to try the black-bean-and-sweet-potato enchiladas, and maybe the stuffed mushrooms, and the nice Hungarian crepe-and-jelly dessert. 



But there is also a whole mindset to this vegetarian thing, a fiery self-righteousness.  One reader wrote to complain that a recent article might actually encourage people to eat sweet corn, which – gasp! – might be genetically modified.  The editors duly apologized.  References to obscure food items – tempeh, kombucha, chaga, spelt – are everywhere.  It’s like any other club: the members really don’t want you to understand what they’re talking about. 



It’d be helpful if they relaxed a bit.  It’s not a religion, after all; it’s just a way of eating.



I was especially bemused by references to something called Quorn.  Evidently it was a meat substitute, but I had no idea what it was; I assumed it might be something like soy. 



But, oh my, it’s ever so much better than that!



It’s a mycoprotein: a substance produced by a fungus called Fusarium venenatum.  The fungus produces strands called hyphae, which resemble the fibers in meat.  If you grow this fungus in a vat and harvest it, you can moosh it up and turn it into a meat substitute.



I have no problem with this; I’m Polish on my mother’s side, we love to eat fungi.  But the nice people at Quorn were concerned that people might not like their product, so they started telling little white lies.  They said, for example, that Quorn was “mushroom protein.”  (Our friend Fusarium is a fungus, but not all fungi are mushrooms.  Fusarium, to be frank, is a mold.  It is probably not good for sales to say so out loud.)  If you haven’t seen Quorn much in the USA, that’s because a couple of other companies screamed loudly that Quorn causes dangerous allergic reactions in a significant percentage of consumers.  (It appears that the claim is vastly overblown, and that Quorn is no more dangerous than, say, mushrooms.  Or peanuts, for that matter.)



And who funded the anti-Quorn campaign?  Why, a company called Gardenburger.  You may known them.  They make meatless products. 



See?  Vegetarians aren’t necessarily nice people.



This makes me feel better, because I know I will never be a nice person, vegetarian or not.




American fatness


There are lots of foreign tourists in Disney World and at Universal – an amazing number, actually.  I noticed this trip that they’re starting to put both Spanish and Portuguese on the signs; I assume this is for Brazilian tourists.   There are Brits and Dutch everywhere, and Chinese and Japanese and Koreans.  (There was a Dutch group at our hotel, and I know it’s horrible and bigoted of me, but when I see a skinny Dutchman light a cigarette and hold it between two fingers while surveying the room, I can only think of every villain in every World War II movie I’ve ever seen.) 



But here’s the thing: most of the foreign tourists are not overweight.  Some of the Brits and Brazilians are rugby-player stocky, but they are almost never fat.



For real honest-to-God fat, you really need to go American.



My dear lord!  When you’re walking in a group of Americans, it’s like a herd of mastodons.  The bellies!  The butts!  What do they eat?  How much do they eat?  Are they aware that they look like circus freaks?



Then you notice the people on scooters.  For grandmas and grandpas, and for the handicapped, scooters are great.  But then you see these mammoth sacks of flesh driving their little scooters down the main drag, presumably just because walking is just such a hassle, and you want to knock them over.



Naturally there are a lot of Southern tourists in Florida.  A lot of the men look like football coaches or ex-players: you know, tall, sunglasses, sort of brawny.  But there always seems to be that gigantic belly in front, which sort of ruins the jock image.



And then there are the wives. 



Also (and most sadly of all) there are the children.  There was a Minnesota family near us at the airport gate in Orlando, with two small very active boys.  And both of them had adorable little pot-bellies sticking out in front.  And, judging from the looks of Grandpa and Dad sitting nearby, those adorable little pot-bellies aren’t going away any time soon.



Honestly, folks: why are we doing this?  I tell you that this is not normal.  We need to reassess our national diet and our national approach toward nutrition, but immediately.



And, while you’re reassessing, pass me them there Cheez Doodles.



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