Wednesday, December 26, 2007

'Llowance Lowdown

On the off chance that my recent research can get your family's child cash conversation kick-started, here goes:

1)Many people recommend an allowance of a buck per year of age, something large enough that a child can purchase tangible items of interest and can also benefit from saving money. She and she alone should decide how to use this money. She can spend, save, or share it -- and will benefit from hearing your beliefs -- but she must be empowered to make her own choices. To make it worth her while to save, pay her an exorbitant interest rate (at least 6%, steep but allows the money to grow visibly in child time) once a month, a la The First National Bank of Dad, a great book on teaching kids about finances that also provided the next point of advice.

2)Distance allowance from parental dollar hostage-taking from the get-go. It is tempting to threaten to take it away and effectively banning linking the allowance to behavior is important. That would be boring. And kids should have to participate in household tasks as part of a family team effort. Choosing not to do chores (ie I don't need that stinking allowance) shouldn't be an option.

3)Optional jobs offered as extra money-makers should be just that, optional, above-and-beyond jobs she can opt to do to earn extra $ above and beyond her allowance. These tasks will come as a set; just like there are parts of your employment you dislike but do anyways, she can't pick and choose from the xtra joblist. It's all or nothing. {I got this idea from Michelle Singletary -- I totally love her column The Color of Money and was reading her archives last week while on the hunt for books for my 10-year old entrepreneurial cousin (this and this look promising).}

4)Any ideas your kid comes up with that save your family money should go directly into her pocket, ie if she finds us a $1 off coupon for her favorite yogurt drinks, give her the dollar. This idea comes directly from my maternal grandfather. I totally loved when he did this for me as a kid. I still clip coupons.

Here's hoping that lots of discussion about money will help our kids have a healthy relationship with cash -- respect for the power of money to do good, to make our lives easier, and to provide freedom of choice and freedom from want.

Also, this via Green as A Thistle: by all means save, but only with a figurative piggy bank -- hoarding coins is bad for the environment. Think about that when you are fuming about the person in front of you in line (me?!) fishing around for exact change. Read more!

Reading Up for A Green New Year

Poster child for Carol Gilligan here. Tell me your life story and I am yours. My librarian at my elementary school used to set aside biographies in stacks for me. Didn't matter the person involved. Nowadays with time being short I tend to try to read about folks I want to emulate.

I have *really* been enjoying reading about people who are trying to live green and chronicling their lives day by day (ie taking on some new enviro lifestyle change every day). It's certainly changed my paradigm (one woman in Canada has unplugged her fridge and given up toilet paper! Me? SO light green. Her? Darker than forest.) You might be into some of them, too, so here's my faves:

  • Green as A which aforementioned young Canadian explores life without tp among other moves
  • Going which a suburban mother makes enviro choices in the DC area
  • Fake Plastic which one woman systematically tries to rid herself of plastic

Got any daily-change-type blogs you'd like to share? I'm so into learning by imitation -- I'd rather watch someone program my remote than read the manual.... Read more!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Crafty New Year

Thanks to BeanPaste, author of the unparalleled blogpost chronicling her husband's dire Crouton Lung diagnosis, I've been inspired to gift something handmade to three lovely readers. I love handmade stuff for many reasons: its individuality in our cookie-cutter world, its tendency to reuse/recycle materials, its potential to support indy and sometimes SAHparent artists, and, of course, its lure for bored 4 year olds needing pleasant indoor activities.

So without further ado, I announce my very first give away! All you have to do is be one of the first three readers to post a comment below.

If you live nearby, I would vouchsafe that this will be something culinary in nature. Further away? Hard to say, but it will be amusing to see the result (I love crafts but tend to create limited quantities of things, never really achieving mastery). Please include your email so I can be sure to contact you to get mailing info.

I will mail the handmade gifts out early in the New Year. Read more!

BS and V (Green Clean Duo)

Lucky for me, the nesting frenzy I had right before procreating five years ago has carried me a ways down the parenting road. In a prescient moment while swollen like a tick with my darling daughter, I realized if I didn't act immediately to start a green cleaning routine pre-kids it would never happen.

Said cleaning routine's been pretty much undisturbed for about 5 years now. I must say that I need this routine to be automatic so I basically clean everything with baking soda and vinegar.

Many people have asked me what recipes I use to clean and I would like to say that Annie Berthold-Bond's book is my favorite on this topic; I consult it whenever I, say, have an ant infestation and can't remember what repels them safely (cinnamon).

My faux spray cleaner is just water, vinegar, and eco-friendly detergent. I mix them in a bottle with roughly 2/3 warm water and 1/3 vinegar with a squirt of dish soap (in my inaugural and never-repeated use of my label-maker, I printed out the recipe and stuck it onto the spray bottle, which was a key move in those early days post-partum when I was a complete germ fanatic but also suffering from total nursing brain death). I no longer measure out ingredients, I just make sure I have more than enough vinegar and soap in the bottle. This works for bathrooms, counter tops, floors, you name it.

To clean baked on pans I put baking soda on with enough water to make a paste and leave it overnight. This also works for cleaning your oven but it's very messy. And you all probably remember from scouting that if you're out of toothpaste you can use baking soda mixed with salt.

To clean my toilets, I mix vinegar and baking soda right in the bowl (those of you who have made play-dough volcanoes will be able to imagine the fizzing). Baking soda's a great scourer for things like bathtubs and the vinegar gets rid of soap scum.

I abandoned essential oils a while back when I learned that lavender oil and tea tree oil may cause hormone disruption in boys (holy man-boobs Batman!) but should you desire a kitchen-y smell, rosemary is also a natural antiseptic about which I've heard nary a bad word. So's lemon juice but you'd have to refrigerate that mix...which means, of course, that it's too high maintenance for me to use. Worth keeping in mind as one's trying to disinfect a cutting board tho. And speaking of lovely smells, don't fret, the vinegar scent while you're cleaning dissipates rapidly. Vinegar itself can be used in open bowls to remove bad smells (smoke, vomit) from the air.

For dishwasher detergent, I tried making my own (boric acid, baking soda, etc.) but was beyond dissatisfied with the results. I now use Trader Joe's liquid with vinegar as my rinse agent (which does interesting things to aluminum, I realized belatedly) to get rid of any chemical taste (I had to stop using commercial dishwasher detergent while pregnant with Kid 2 as the residue was making me gag).

Since the things I do clean with are pretty simple, a lot of cleaning green for me has meant stopping the use of more toxic products. One of the biggest offenders for the environment is bleach, and I was reminded recently why via a Grist Q&A-- producing bleach creates dioxins, and using bleach may produce carcinogens that harm you and marine life. So although my whites may be a little dingy (no tomato stains, though -- leave them out in the sun! no kidding, a little vinegar and sunshine and they disappear) we are pretty confident that our kids and dog aren't being harmed while we clean. Read more!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bodacious, Bad-Ass Brownies

I've been loving browsing through my favorite blogs via my steady supply of RSS feeds while expressing CBoy's milk for a couple weeks now and this link is all-time proof of the worthiness of that particular time investment. It's to The Perfect Recipe brownies by Pamela Anderson (the Cooks Illustrated one, not the giant boob mama). GoodyBlog talks chocolate specifics so I will admit that I deviated from their recommendations to cater to our particular brand of sweet toothiness. I used 2 oz unsweetened Ghirardelli's and 4 oz good ol' Nestle semisweet chocolate chips. With a couple more handfuls of chocolate chips thrown in just to be on the safe side.

These are seriously the best brownies I have ever had, chewy, moist, and delightful and you all know I am pretty disdainful of the cacao bean products. More importantly, the CandyMan himself loves them. This recipe is a total keeper.

Fudgy, Chewy, Cakey Brownies

2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking powder
Vegetable cooking spray
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
10 Tbsp. (1 stick plus 2 Tbsp.) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs
3/4 cup toasted walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts or peanuts (optional)

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 325°F

2. Whisk flour, salt and baking powder in a small bowl; set aside. Spray an 8-inch baking pan with vegetable cooking spray. Fit a 16-by-8-inch sheet of foil in pan and up two sides, so you can use foil overhang as a handle to pull cooked brownies from pan. Spray sheet of foil with vegetable cooking spray.

3. Melt chocolates and butter in a medium bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from heat; whisk in sugar and vanilla. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each one before adding the next. Continue to whisk mixture until completely smooth. Add dry ingredients; whisk until just incorporated. Stir in nuts, if desired.

4. Pour batter into prepared pan; bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into center comes out with wet crumbs, 35 to 45 minutes. (Do not wait until the toothpick comes out clean!)

5. Cool brownies in pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Use foil handles to pull brownies from pan. Completely cool brownies on rack, at least 3 hours. Cut into squares and serve. If not serving immediately, do not cut brownies. (Whole brownie cake can be wrapped in plastic wrap, then foil, and refrigerated for up to 5 days.)

I'd like to credit GoodyBlog, one of my new parent-fluff reads, for many of my favorite tidbits lately (gumdrop trees, towel animals, mama spine curvage, baby Samaritans). Don't really know the netiquette for citing pass-through sources, hmmm, but I guess this is it? And next time I will just say "link via GoodyBlog" as I belatedly realized some other bloggers do. Thinking this over inspired me to update my links (so check them out for other good reads).
Read more!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kissing Kermit?

Wow, I never thought I'd say this, but maybe we should let the states handle matters once and for all. While the FDA's basically letting beauty product companies do what they will (forget the bunnies; let's not test for safety at all), Minnesota's going to ban mercury in cosmetics (thanks Grist for the link) and California, via its Safe Cosmetics Act, requires companies to disclose carcinogens in beauty products.

You'd think that banning mercury in cosmetics and forcing companies to reveal their cancer-causing ingredients might be, um, unnecessary, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

EWG's Skin Deep cosmetics database is a great resource for figuring out what's in your current stash (you can search by brand or just enter ingredients). But I haven't spent time scoping out much more than my baby's bubble bath and soap so far, so this topic is timely for me. We already avoid parabens in shampoo/conditioner/lotions, don't use air freshener (ick) and avoid perfume/fragrances (pthalates). But it seems I need to delve further. For a quick list of ingredients to avoid, check out this Q & A - Are Your Beauty Products Safe? from Care2. I plan to check out the product recommendations in this National Geographic Green Guide lowdown on organic makeup, and to print out/carry their Dirty Dozen guide to unsafe personal care ingredients and Smart Shopper's Non-Food Labels Guide.

Fake Plastic Fish's musings about makeup include a link to this article from Common Ground about the dangers of synthetic chemicals:

"It’s your story and mine because all of us alive on the planet today share something in common that was unshared by countless generations of humans who lived before us: we carry man-made pollutants inside our blood, urine and breast milk."
This makes me want to get serious about figuring out safer makeup for that holiday event: lead in lipstick?? (Echoes of Sandra Steingraber, who initially inspired me to start paying attention to persistent organic pollutants in breastmilk.) Fake Plastic Fish's blog comments are interesting; her readers have recs for specific brands of eco/safe cosmetics and one woman even recommends beet juice! My SIL makes her own lip balm; this seems attainable.

Word of mouth may be in order, though. I've been meaning to ask and see what green makeup other folks wear (and not the Halloween kind). I don't go the Tammi Bakker route but it would be nice not to have to worry about kissing my kids when I do toss on a little lipstick. I would love practical advice from anyone who's thought this through. Read more!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Not for Nibbling

Deck the halls with boughs of holly mistletoe Boston ferns...

So, after our 1 year old wolfed down a leaf off our lipstick plant this morning, I called poison control (love them! love my operator's calm, calm voice and subsequent willingness to talk about every single plant in our house) for some plant 911 411. Turns out the plant in question was safe, mainly because I did some serious houseplant purging five years ago in preparation for kid one. Gotta love the pre-kid frenzy. Anyhoo, I thought I would share what I (re)learned with y'all.

Safe plants: spider plants, Christmas cacti, aloe (may cause stomach upset), poinsettias (despite causing stomach upset, these actually get an undeserved bad rap for being toxic), Boston ferns, African violets, and hibiscus, among others.

Lethal plants: holly, mistletoe, rhododendrons, philodendrons (including pothos and calla lilies), peace lilies, delphinium, foxglove, lantana, and lupines, among others.

Check out these guides to poisonous houseplants and make sure you have those blecch face stickers on your phones with the poison control phone #s on them.

Lucky for us I gave away and/or hung up our dangerous plants years ago. I probably even could have told you yesterday that lily of the valley, nightshade and belladonna were bad news. But I am newly reminded of the need to be aware of all our plants (in our tiny front yard, we have yew bushes, azaleas, a cherry tree, and vinca vines -- all fatal if ingested! -- and hydrangeas, which can cause serious illness and vomiting. We're hoping for the cessation of constant mouthing by spring).

Before I leave the flora front, houseplants can also do remarkable double duty as air purifiers -- some of the best are also poisonous (pothos) but some aren't (spider plants, Gerber daisies). Check out this guide to plants that can clean up your indoor air.

And for goodness' sake, lose the mistletoe. Read more!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smart Babies + Flexible Mamas = Sweet Reward

And you thought all those saintly mothering moves were going unnoticed? The best bites of buttered toast topping tiny tongues? The perennial postponement of peeing? Turns out that babies favor doers of good deeds from infancy. In a recent Yale study, 6 month olds and 10 month olds favored "helper" shapes over "mean" shapes. Way to go, babeez.

Speaking of mothering moves, apparently women's lower backs curve differently than men's to compensate for our giant pregnant selves (and beer bellies, no joke, should we head in that direction postpartum). Read the whole article (Why Pregnant Women Don't Tip Over) for an amusing lowdown on the work of Harvard and UTexas anthropologists isolating differences between male/female and human/chimp spines.

Finally, why not make gumdrop Christmas trees? You might want to find an alternative to the styrofoam (gasp) cores, but they are super cute and they will keep your kids from gnawing on their lead-laden stocking stuffers. Read more!

Oh, You Meant Or-GAN-ic, Not You've-Been-Tricked

Turns out my supertaster pregnancy aversion to Safeway's O Brand (O is for Obnoxious Overpricing of Outright Obfuscation?) wasn't so far off (don't even get me started about how far away from artificial sweeteners the gestating tongue made me go). I'd heard suspicious stuff about Aurora's version of organic farming back in, oh, 2005, but didn't even know they were a supplier to Safeway until seeing today's ABC story detailing the lies many big retailers told while charging triple for, well, regular milk. By regular milk, I mean milk with just as many unhappy, grain-fed, rBgh-laced, eColi-ridden, antibiotic-pumped cows behind it as any other brand. Lovely news! It's back to the local dairies we must go...

{We actually signed up for home delivery (zippity doo dah!) of local, grass-fed, non-rBgh milk in glass bottles a couple months ago (super cool except for the price, sigh, as with anything labeled enviro or healthy -- the green tax is just as bad or worse than the baby tax) but then I had some dietary concerns that led me to give up dairy for awhile and they kindly allowed me to postpone our start date. That day has come. It's time to go local, my friends.} Read more!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


BPA in plastic? Check. Sippy cups? Pacifiers? Toys? Check. Head exploding, but check.

Now bisphenol-A in cans? Ruh-roh. Wasn't I just talking about how being healthy and sustainable was making me feel like we are living out Little House on the Prairie? Time to make our own soup (good thing I got that stock simmering....) and, well, read this. Read more!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How To Fold Towel Elephants

Maybe I should turn this into a series? Cheap ways to thrill your kids? Check out this link for super cute origami towel animals. And yes, I am filing this away in the so-cute-but-no-chance-in-h$%&-it-will-ever-happen category too. As you can see, though, I am keeping my inner Martha alive and hopeful. Read more!

Monday, December 10, 2007

How To Send Your Child a Santa Letter

...for under a buck, the US Postal Service will do it for you. Awwww. Gotta send yours out by December 15th! Thanks to ZRecommends for the lowdown. Read more!

More Better Bunk

A couple people wrote to tell me they liked yesterday's post about stuff so I thought I would share some particularly compelling writing (not mine, these guys'):

Check out this article as it lays out the anti-consumerism message so eloquently: "Our happiness does not depend on the consumption of conventional economic goods and services, but instead is enhanced when we have more time and space for socializing, for nature, for learning, and for really living instead of just consuming." Yup. When above a certain threshold, of course, which nearly everyone we know is.

Then there's this MoJo article from back in the spring written by Bill McKibben which has an amazing take on our desire to consume from a historical and anthropological standpoint. It hit upon all the nagging questions I had -- doesn't money equate with happiness if you're living in a shack? (yes, but only up to about $10K a year) and don't we need huge industrial farms to feed all the people on the planet? (no, they are actually less productive than small farms using mutually sustainable systems instead of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and he backs it up with large scale research done in developing countries). He also notes that our American psyche developed in the roots of some serious poverty and that the Founders were right to focus on economic growth when our ancestors only had one dress to wear (if they were lucky gals) and no shoes.

McKibben cites research on happiness pointing to more sustainable ways of living (note to self, gotta read this book by a 2003 Nobel Prize-winning economist) -- like the fact that having social networks makes you physically stronger as well as happier (a researcher injected flu viruses in college students' noses to prove this, which is amusing considering, well, the kids who got sick might actually have a word or two to say about how much happier that participant fee made them!), bringing us full circle to the idea that acting in environmentally sound ways being better for us as well as the planet. Going to a farmer's market involves 10x the human interaction aka connections than going to a grocery store.

Even better if you can swing actually going as a family instead of depleting all of your marriage capital for the weekend by leaving the children with your spouse for hours while you fetch said sustainably-produced farm products. Convenience did emerge for a reason, so we could spend more time with our families instead of churning butter.... If we're really hanging out with our peeps (which I guarantee this unit is as much as humanly possible) instead of jumping on the hamster wheel to churn out more duckets, it makes the sustainable food endeavor somewhat like being a Luddite as I tap my computer keys. My Polyface beef bones are in day one of a three-day long simmer into delightful stock as I write, and that whole process, beneficial as it is to the environment (local farmer!) and to our health (grass-fed!) is not without its cost (procuring the food, preparing it=time not focused on those I love). But that's a whole 'nother struggle: enviro-friendly, slow-food savoring vs efficiency and convenience, which doesn't have to instantly translate into the Golden Arches, just less prep more family time). Whew! I'll stop hair-splitting here.

(Couple quick shares: When Santa Turned Green looks so cute and perfect, you should snap it up to put in your kid's Christmas stocking wait until it comes to your local library and borrow it!

For those of you who are following the presidential election lead-up, I've found my fave new source of campaign news: Political Nanny.) Read more!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Stuff It

Like all of us, well, more than many, I've been struggling with organization lately. Trying to keep the flow in our house efficient and pleasant...trying to keep our newly walking child from braining himself on the 18,000 items that are lying on the floor, trying to effectively store stuff from kid one for kid two, trying to keep the hand-me-down cycle well-oiled but not poised to fall on my head when I open the linen closet, and trying to figure out what to get everyone for Christmas (um, more stuff?!).

In that vein, thought you'd enjoy the following:

There's this perfect Gift Guide -- for the 3 and under set. You'll get a chuckle out of it, I promise.

This is an interesting look at how environmentally responsive (paper-wise) the companies inundating us with holiday catalogues are... Victoria's Secret gets a thumbs up and Sears gets a hilarious scolding for being naughty....

The Story of Stuff is a 30 minute (ok, kinda long, and mostly a reminder of what you already know about consumerism, but I liked it) short about trying to change the paradigm of the rape-the-earth, pollute, purchase, chuck out/pollute the earth more, buy more stuff trajectory. It's a simple line-drawing cartoon backing up a woman who's spent 20 years tracking trash. She ends up with exhorting us to try to close the loop, to re-value thrift and conservation, stewardship, to make a sustainable cycle. Did you know that 99% of the stuff people buy in this country ends up thrown out within 6 months? Wowza.

Annie Leonard, the narrator of The Story of Stuff, notes that there was a concerted effort by post-WW2 government officials and companies to spur consumer spending by weaving spending into our personal rituals and rhythms. (Remember Bush telling everyone to spend more after 9/11? It's our response to crisis, our response to celebrating....)

I think this is a fascinating dilemma. Of course it's silly that saying you love your family has come to mean buying them stuff that pollutes the planet that we have no space for. And we all do have lots of stuff, more than any other people on earth (we all know that an American's carbon footprint is gargantuan). So in the absolute, yes, we all have too much.

And yet there are still a few things on your secret wish list, aren't there? They might be expensive or frivolous or silly. But we all know that giving -- or getting -- compact fluorescent bulbs, while utilitarian, ain't gonna win any all-time gift awards. My mom laughed uproariously when I suggested she could get us rechargeable batteries, sigh. And I know more than one person who's been offended when told what to want (ie when they've been given a gift to a charity they didn't choose, or told that they wouldn't be invited to exchange gifts at all anymore for whatever valid reasons).

I think part of this gift-giving dilemma is rooted in the age-old divide between the list-makers and the "surprise me" folks. You know the deal, some people really like gift certificates! You can pick out what you want. They are practical, utilitarian. List makers don't end up with bric a brac that's going to take up prime real estate in already too-small houses. Then there are the creative givers, who often despise the exchange of wampum as defeating the spirit of the endeavor. You know, if you really knew me and loved me you would take notes all year long and I wouldn't have to tell you my secret would fulfill it. While the list-makers can rightfully point to the efficiency of their method, and the enviro folks can validly point to the insanity of our level of consumption, there's an emotional component to gift-giving and nurturing that we'll all have to wrestle with on our own in order to get this beast under control.

I think for me, gifting aka consuming may be a little like eating at the top of the food chain: something I want to do consciously, with awareness of the costs and drawbacks involved. Buying secondhand, reusing and regifting are all great options, as is buying exactly what someone wants -- even if it's at a premium -- so that they won't be replacing that item anytime soon. I think the long-standing tradition of going with what the receiver would most want is my right choice.

'Cause that is, of course, what the gifting spirit is all about, and perhaps the stuff, as well. Trying to nurture each other, to sustain and build relationships. And we don't all have time and creativity in spades... and some circumstances don't warrant a hand-written copy of a favorite Neruda poem. Or a compact fluorescent bulb for that matter. Some of my relationships would benefit more from hanging out for a weekend and actually spending time remembering what we love about each other. Gifts may just be a substitute for the time we all lack.... Which is why, when grasping for ways to connect, we should open our minds to the full range of options available (some of which don't involve buying stuff at all, some which do) as we try for that smile of surprise, of happiness, that spark of recognition that we get each other. Read more!

Straw(berry) Man

Wow, we really need to buy organic strawberries. And not just because they're in the Dirty Dozen (list of produce items with most residual pesticides put out by EWG). In October, the EPA approved an even more toxic fumigant, methyl iodide, to "sterilize" the soil pre-planting. By that the farmers mean "kill everything in sight that might resemble a roundworm." As you might imagine, it's bad news for a host of other living things, including humans (think attacking central nervous systems and reproductive disorders, for starters). Methyl bromide, the old fumigant, was so toxic that the US agreed to phase it out back in 1987 but we've been using it (at increasing levels!!) ever since via maniacally greedy and shortsighted clever loopholes. Its replacement seems like it's even worse, and the impact on farmworkers was already gruesome with methyl bromide. Time to eat blueberries instead...or, um, anything else. Read more!

Monday, December 3, 2007


I've long been fascinated by fat; apparently, as a child I used to sneak sticks of butter instead of cookies. My prescient brothers used to call me Fathead.

There's no way to miss the basic message that's out there about fats (they're no longer all bad! hydrogenation is really, really bad!) but I've been hankering for an easy-to-understand summary of the role of fats in our diet, a reference guide, if you will. There's good info out there:

The Philly science museum has a great educational piece that takes on both the impact of dietary fats on health and how fat consumption affected brain size from an evolutionary perspective. First off, it gives the basic lowdown about what's what. Eating ALAs (alpha-linolenic acids) found in dark green leafy veggies and flaxseeds, gives our bodies the building blocks for omega-3 fatty acids. Eating LAs (linoleic acids) found in safflower, corn, and soybean oils helps our bodies form omega-6 fatty acids. You want to have ALAs and LAs around to make DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid) -- the long-chained fatty acids that make up the membranes of our neurons and the protective myelin sheaths covering them. Your body cannot make ALAs or LAs; you have to obtain them from food. (DHA and AA you can make or get directly from food sources.) Apparently, the balance between omega-3s and omega-6s is important, as well. You want about a 1:1 balance between the two, and our modern diets tend to heavily tilt towards omega 6s. Diets rich in DHA may help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's and may help combat depression and ameliorate developmental delays in kids.

  • Eat ALAs and LAs to make omega-3s and omega-6s. Eat lots of omega 3s directly. Don't eat too many omega-6s! The more DHA and AA the better.
Apparently, scientists think that the reason some humans were able to make the leap to higher cognitive function was the combination of omega-6 (via plant sources) and omega-3 (seafood sources) of fatty acids in their diet that allowed them to increase the amount of available DHA. Our brains are 2/3 fat! And they need precise lipids for the brain to develop to its greatest potential. The slow-mo Neanderthals, btw, were limited to a red meat diet. Ruh roh, burger lovers. Eating omega-3s in fish and shellfish helped the human species become the devious little critters we want our babies to be...

Echoing the evolutionary advantage of DHA, it appears that babies also benefit greatly from the right types of fat. Lise Eliot's fantastic book about brain development traces an overview of the role of fats in both neuron myelination and the creation of new brain membranes, both of which happen primarily in the first two years of life. Apparently, human babies need specific lipids (fats) for these brain-growing processes. Some must come from dietary sources, and some are fats that humans can produce later in life but are difficult for babies to produce on their own (hence the evolutionary need for these lipids in breastmilk).

Researchers' close attention to the lipids in human milk (which differs greatly from cow's milk) has resulted in DHA being added to infant formula, but the exact composition of breast milk is still being scrutinized. The lipid content of mother's milk changes over the course of time and even over the course of the day. Good dietary sources (for nursing mothers and for all of us) of DHA and AA (those beneficial long chain fatty acids) are: cold-water fish, shellfish, egg yolks, liver, and organ meats. Soooo...we don't totally understand all of the component parts of breastmilk, but the fats we do know are beneficial point again to eating foods that will help us produce DHA and AA.

How, you might, ask, can we figure out which foods to eat? Harvard School of Public Health's guide to fats and cholesterol has a handy chart that notes the importance of choosing fats wisely rather than avoiding fat altogether and provides actual foods along with definitions (smile). It advocates a shift from "bad" fats to good: from saturated/trans fats (bad) to unsaturated fats (good), which basically entails eating only fats that are liquid at room temperature, along with a soft margarine-type fat that doesn't have trans fats or hydrogenated fats on the label.
  • Saturated fats=animal fats (all dairy/meat)
  • Trans fats=margarine/shortening, other hydrogenated fats ie frying oil used in fast food, lots of commercial baked goods
  • Monounsaturated fats=olive, canola, peanut oils
  • Polyunsaturated fats=sunflower, soy, corn oils, fish (includes omega-3s and omega 6s, fyi)
Cook everything in olive oil like my grandmother, even (especially) your eggs. And eat your sardines (mmmm).

I must caveat all of this info by saying that there is a dissenting point of view, in the person of Sally Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation, who believe that animal fats are a healthy part of a traditional diet -- if the animals are treated properly and allowed to eat grass. I won't go into their ideas in great depth but if you haven't read Nourishing Traditions, it's fascinating. They are proponents of fermented foods and raw milk as well. Fallon and Mary Enig have written extensively about fats and Enig's got a book out; I want to read more of both. They have long been suspicious of trans fats -- long before the current labels -- and they, too, support the consumption of omega-3s via fatty fish. It's the saturated fat they're not willing to condemn....

I'm no scientist, and the argument that people for thousands of years have lived well off animal fats rings true, except that our ancestors knew scarcity and moderation as we'll never experience it and had a far lower bar for their dreams of longevity. That said, I *am* a butter lover, and I don't regret dodging the sticks of oleo in my mom's fridge. Research bears out the Fallonites' claims that grass-fed beef is healthier; its ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is 2:1 rather than the 4:1 ratio found in conventional grain-fed beef.

One final note about fats, per Sandra Steingraber who wrote in Having Faith about the breastfeeding conundrum we face in this day and age: persistent organic pollutants (POPs) like dioxin bind to fat molecules. Many toxins are fat-soluble and concentrate as you head up the food chain, which is why we must buy organic everything that contains fat (dairy, meat, oils), and it's why you should predominantly eat lower on the food chain. Avoiding the toxins altogether seems impossible, because organic or not, pollutants are everywhere. The hope is to make strategic choices when moving up the food chain, as we do with salmon (ie wild over farmed) and to continue getting the fats we need to keep our brains alert enough to choose wisely. Ahem.

Speaking of fats, a quick shout out to Mrs. G at Derfwad Manor, who hooked me for life with this commentary on New Zealand's refusal to allow a woman with (ahem) larger-than-optimal BMI to emigrate, and also turned me on to Saturday's baby laughing video. Thank you, ma'am!
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Saturday, December 1, 2007


If you haven't seen this already, make sure you have the volume on. Quality belly laughs...

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