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Festival of Food

For the past 20 years or so, concern has been growing about the quality of food available to consumers, and the impact that the food we buy and eat has on both our health and on the health of the environment.
Much of the fruit on supermarket shelves has been sprayed with chemicals that slow down the ripening process, and by the time the fruit reaches the supermarket shelf it may already be several months old. In addition to the long-term effects of these chemicals on the body, this also affects the nutrient content of the fruit. Vegetables such as potatoes may also be treated with chemicals to prevent them from sprouting in the bag.

Virtually all milk sold in Ireland, with a few rare exceptions, is now pasteurized and homogenized. I suspect it is no coincidence that the rate of dairy intolerance (which now affects an unprecedented number of infants, as well as older children and adults), has dramatically increased with the growing consumption of homogenized milk products. Likewise, the growing incidence of gluten-intolerance and celiac disease seems to echo the increasing popularity of bread made using industrial processes and chemical flour improvers, which lower the cost of production and extend the shelf life of the finished product.

However, of greatest concern is the result of a study conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund, which found that consuming processed meat significantly increases the risk of bowel cancer, which is the second most common cancer in Ireland. The increased risk is thought to be mainly due to the various additives such as nitrites which make the meat look more pink.

In response to these issues, a number of groups, such as Slow Food Ireland and the Farmers Market movement, have sprung up to promote the availability of good food, which is produced as locally and as naturally as possible, and which pays a fair price to the producer while still being affordable to the consumer. Fresh, unprocessed, meat, chicken and fish bought from local suppliers benefits your health and well-being, as well as supporting local businesses. Likewise, eating plenty of vegetables which are locally-produced, fresh, unprocessed and preferably organic is one of the best things you can do for your health and for the local economy.

This weekend, Dungarvan will once again host the very popular “West Waterford Festival of Food” from Thursday 14th to Sunday 17th April. Its ethos is one of supporting local food producers, and there is a strong emphasis on natural food and healthy eating. As well as the festival market, fine dining experiences, and cookery demonstrations by well-known chefs, the festival programme includes various nutrition and health seminars at the ‘Health Hub’, a brand new addition to the festival, located in Friary Steet, just next to the Town Hall Theatre.

The Health Hub will be showcasing superfoods, fermented foods, and organic wine, and discussing various health topics such as nutrition for pregnancy and infancy, health food fads, and GMO. On Saturday 16th April at 11.30am, I will be hosting an event entitled “The Spice of Life” at the Health Hub, which will look at how to use common culinary herbs and spices for health and healing. Tickets for this event are €5, available for the festival of food website http://www.westwaterfordfestivaloffood.com

Good News for Chocoholics

It’s almost Easter and many children and adults alike are looking forward to a great excuse to indulge.  Chocolate is usually thought of as a tempting but very unhealthy treat, but is it really as bad as all that?
Chocolate is made from the beans of the cocoa plant (Theobroma cacao).  These contain a group of compounds called flavonoids, which act as antioxidants, helping to prevent cell damage, and thus providing a degree of protection against cardiovascular disease. A study published in the European Heart Journal found that consuming chocolate lowered blood pressure and helped to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Chocolate is also very rich in magnesium.  This important mineral increases energy levels, helps to prevent heart irregularities and muscle cramps, assists in calcium absorption, and is essential for healthy nervous system functioning.  People who experience chocolate cravings often find that these can be reduced by eating other magnesium-rich foods (such as whole grains, nuts and dark green leafy vegetables) or by taking a magnesium supplement.

Cocoa beans contain a fat known as cocoa butter.  This can be used as a soothing skin moisturizer, which is effective in preventing wrinkles and stretch marks.  It melts just below body temperature and is therefore easily absorbed and can also be used as a base for herbal suppositories and pessaries.

On the down side, chocolate contains large quantities of oxalic acid, which can exacerbate joint problems such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout.  The acidic effect in the body is also detrimental to other inflammatory conditions such as acne and psoriasis.  A more alkaline alternative is carob, a chocolate substitute that is widely available from health food stores.

The uplifting effect of chocolate is partly due to the sugar content and partly due to a caffeine-like substance called theobromine, which has a stimulant effect.  However this initial boost is quickly followed by a sharp dip in blood sugar levels.  The inevitable consequence is a craving for more chocolate, for another hit.  Anyone who has attempted (successfully or otherwise) to give up chocolate for Lent will testify to its addictive quality!  Over time, excessive chocolate intake can lead to excessive weight gain and depleted energy stores, and in young children it may be partly responsible for the increasing occurrence of hyperactivity.

Unfortunately most of the chocolate that is readily available in the shops contains higher amounts of sugar and milk than of cocoa.  These contribute to conditions involving excessive mucus production such as sinusitis and asthma.  Excessive sugar consumption also increases the risk of diabetes and other health problems.

In order to benefit from the more positive attributes of chocolate and to minimise the detrimental effects, choose a good quality dark chocolate which contains at least 70% cocoa, such as O’Conaill, Green & Blacks or Lindt and remember: all things in moderation!


A Burning Issue

Most people have, at some time or another, experienced acid reflux, or ‘heartburn’ as it is more commonly known. For many people this is just an occasional discomfort, caused by eating too much rich food. However, for individuals who suffer from Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease, or ‘GERD’, acid reflux is a constant problem which can cause a great deal of pain and distress.
When we eat, the stomach secretes acid, enzymes and other substances, which help to break down food. The lining of the stomach is uniquely designed to resist the corrosive nature of these substances. Under normal circumstances, a band of muscle at the top of the stomach, known as a ‘sphincter’, prevents reflux of stomach contents into the esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach). However, in some people, this sphincter becomes weak, and the stomach contents flow back up into the esophagus. This often affects babies due to an under-developed digestive system, and pregnant women due to hormone changes that affect muscle tone. Obesity and structural abnormalities of the gastrointestinal tract such as hiatus hernia can also contribute to acid reflux.

Reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus leads to symptoms such as a burning sensation in the chest which is usually worse when bending or lying down; pain or difficulty swallowing; chronic hoarseness or cough; a sour taste in the mouth; bad breath; and excess production of saliva (waterbrash).

The lining of the esophagus is not designed to resist the acid contents of the stomach, and repeated exposure can therefore cause inflammation (esophagitis). In severe cases, erosion of the esophageal lining by stomach acid may lead to the development of an ulcer. In some people a tightened or narrowed area of the esophagus (known as a stricture) may develop which can lead to pain and difficulty in swallowing.  Chronic inflammation due to acid reflux may also trigger the cells lining the esophagus (which are not designed to resist acid) to mutate and become more like acid-resistant stomach cells. This condition is known as Barrett’s Esophagus, which may lead to the development of cancerous cells.  It is therefore extremely important for anyone who regularly suffers from heartburn or any of the other symptoms of GERD to consult a medical herbalist or GP.

Orthodox treatment for GERD usually consists of a type of medication known as a   proton pump inhibitor (e.g. omeprazole) to reduce the production of stomach acid. This is usually effective in controlling the symptoms and reducing the incidence of inflammation and other complications. However, the problem with GERD is not one of too much acid, but rather the presence of acid in the wrong place.

Acid is required in the stomach for proper digestion of food and to control harmful bacteria. Long-term use of medication to reduce the production of stomach acid does not cure the underlying disorder, and may lead to a disturbance in the microflora of the digestive system, and decreased absorption of a variety of vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients, such as Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Calcium, Magnesium and Iron. This can lead to an increased risk of serious infections, such as pneumonia and Clostridium difficile, and increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. Recent studies have also shown that long term use of proton pump inhibitors is also associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and heart attacks.

Fortunately there are more natural ways of treating GERD, which are both safe and effective. First of all it is important to avoid any foods that trigger the problem. These vary from person to person, but common culprits include acidic foods such as oranges and tomatoes, fatty foods, onions, chocolate, coffee and alcohol. Gluten intolerance is also a major cause of GERD and I have had many patients who were able to come off long-term medication and remain symptom-free after switching to a gluten-free diet.

Avoid eating very large meals, which increase the pressure in the stomach, and opt for smaller, more frequent meals instead. Try to sit upright after meals until the food is digested and avoid slouching on the sofa, or eating a large meal at bed time. Likewise, bending and lifting may lead to worsening of symptoms and should be avoided after eating. It may be helpful to raise the head of the bed so that the esophagus is higher than the stomach.

Herbal treatment of GERD usually includes demulcent herbs such as marshmallow root, which helps to soothe and protect the lining of the oesophagus. Liquorice root is another soothing herb, which helps to reduce inflammation and promotes the release of substances that protect the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract. Calamus root helps to increase the tone of the oesophageal sphincter, and thus prevents reflux; while meadowsweet is a natural antacid, which also helps to protect the lining of the oesophagus, reduce inflammation, and prevent cell mutation.

Processed Meat Causes Cancer

Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement that processed meats, such as bacon, ham and hot dogs, have been shown to cause cancer, and that other red meats may also increase the risks.
The news has come as a surprise to many people, and the meat industry has been quick to try to minimise the impact of the statement, claiming that the findings of the report are misleading, and that according to some experts, “anything can cause cancer”. However, the research is based on a huge number of studies, which have been analysed to ensure their quality, and the findings are very clear. While it is understandable that the processed meat industry would seek to ensure continued profits into the future, it is unethical to mislead people about the known risks to their health of consuming these products.

It has been known for at least 10 years that processed meat can increase the risk of cancer. The current research, conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), simply confirms what was already known to be the case. The researchers reviewed more than 800 studies, and concluded there was a definite correlation between the consumption of processed meat and several types of cancer, particularly bowel cancer, and a possible association between consumption of red meat and increased cancer risk.

Processed meat is meat that has been modified, either to extend its shelf life or to change its taste. The main methods of processing are smoking, curing, or adding preservatives such as nitrites. Simply putting meat through a mincer, or adding sauces or seasonings does not mean the resulting meat is “processed”. Processed meat includes bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, and ham. The report found that 50g of processed meat a day (equivalent to less than two slices of bacon) increases the chances of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. Previous research has also found a correlation between diets high in processed meat and deaths from cardiovascular and other diseases. It is therefore advisable to avoid processed meat altogether, or to keep it to a very occasional treat.

The IARC also found a possible link between consumption of red meat and cancer, and stated that consuming 100g (under 1/4lb) of red meat per day may increase cancer risk by up to 17%. However, unlike processed meats, the evidence linking red meat to cancer was limited, and the WHO also stressed that lean red meat also has health benefits, as it is a valuable source of protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.

Bowel cancer, which is also called colon cancer or colorectal cancer, is the second most common cause of death from cancer in Ireland, and over 2,000 people are diagnosed with the disease every year. In over half of these cases the disease is already at an advanced stage, and 900 people die from the disease annually. Ireland has the third highest incidence of bowel cancer in the world, which may, at least in part, be a reflection of our fondness for processed meat products.

If you are concerned about reducing your risk of cancer, particularly if you have a family history of the disease, it would be advisable to avoid processed meat products altogether, or to keep them to a very occasional treat. It is also advisable to reduce consumption of red meat by reducing your portion sizes, and limiting consumption of red meat to a couple of times a week. Try to eat plenty of fish and some poultry instead, and include some vegetarian meals in your diet as well. Beans and pulses such as lentils and chickpeas provide an alternative source of protein in meat free dishes such as soups and curries.

It is also important to eat plenty of fresh organic fruit and vegetables, particularly those that are coloured (such as carrots, sweet potatoes, greens, cherries and other berries).  These contain nutrients known as antioxidants, which are deficient in most cancer patients.  Above all, stop smoking and get plenty of exercise, as smoking and obesity are also major risk factors for all types of cancer