Q: I'm not much of a cook, but I've been trying to adopt a healthier diet. What cooking methods should I emphasize?
A: The main rule of thumb for healthy cooking is to avoid methods that require excessive fat. I would urge you not to fry food and especially to avoid deep-frying, which not only adds lots of calories but also exposes you to the health risks of oxidized fats. However, stir-frying is a different story - it allows you to cook foods quickly, combining vegetables and protein. Just use small amounts of good oils (extra-virgin olive or organic expeller-pressed canola) and keep them below the smoking point. (If you want to pan-sear anything, use healthier oils that can tolerate higher heat like grapeseed oil.) One technique I like is "steam frying" - that is, sauteing food briefly in a little oil, then adding water, stock or wine and covering the pan. Allow the food to cook until it's almost done. Then uncover and boil off any excess liquid.
Broiling, baking and roasting can also be healthy methods of preparation, provided you don't add unnecessary fat.
I often steam vegetables and fish - this is a particularly healthy cooking technique because it does the least damage to nutrients, and as a bonus, lends itself to a quick cleanup. I tend to steam tender vegetables and boil less delicate ones (potatoes, beets, corn on the cob). A rule of thumb is when you smell it, it's done. I like my vegetables when they have a deep color to them and are a bit crunchy.
I enjoy grilling outdoors. But high-temperature grilling (and broiling) of foods that contain fat and protein (meat and poultry, especially) produces carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HAs) that can raise the risk of colorectal cancer in those with a genetic predisposition to the disease and may increase the risk of other cancers.
To protect yourself from exposure to HAs, grill more vegetables and fish and less meat, and try not to cook animal foods (including fish) to the point of charring. (Blackened fish is popular but unhealthy - try to avoid the blackened parts if you're served food this way.) If you do grill meats, use leaner cuts and marinate meat, poultry and fish before cooking. The marinade may help reduce HA formation, especially if it's made with spices such as ginger, rosemary and turmeric.
And, finally, avoid charcoal lighter fluid or self-starting packages of briquettes in a charcoal grill - they will leave residues of toxic chemicals in your food. A healthy alternative is an inexpensive chimney lighter that uses a small amount of newspaper to ignite a mass of charcoal in a large metal cylinder. Gas grills are good alternatives to those that use charcoal.
Cold hands and feet?
Q: What do you recommend for Raynaud's disease?
A: In those with Raynaud's disease, the fingers and toes blanch and may become numb or painful on exposure to cold. The root problem is abnormal neurovascular reactivity - that is, the nerves controlling blood flow through small arteries become oversensitive, constricting vessels in peripheral areas of the body (fingers, toes, nose and earlobes) in temperatures that should not trigger this response. (Constriction of peripheral blood vessels is a protective response to conserve body heat in cold environments.)
This condition is most common in women between the ages of 15 and 40. Raynaud's disease can occur on its own or it can accompany (and often precedes) serious autoimmune diseases such as lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, also known as SLE) and scleroderma. It is weakly associated with developing in people who have carpal tunnel syndrome, and it can also be triggered by some medications, including beta blockers used to treat high blood pressure, drugs for migraine that contain ergotamine, certain chemotherapy agents, and in over-the-counter cold remedies that cause blood vessels to constrict.
To prevent the symptoms of Raynaud's, be sure to dress warmly during cold weather - wear thick socks, heavy gloves or mittens, a hat and scarf. If you smoke, stop. Along with all the other health hazards that smoking presents, nicotine constricts arteries in the extremities and can worsen Raynaud's symptoms. Other stimulants, including caffeine, can also aggravate Raynaud's.
My colleague, hypnotherapist Steve Gurgevich, Ph.D., notes that Raynaud's disease is quite responsive to such mind/body methods as self-hypnosis and biofeedback training to "warm" the hands. Using these methods, you can quiet the reactivity of nerves and blood vessels in your hands and feet and allow more blood to flow in them. During attacks, running warm (not hot) water over your hands and feet may shorten the episode or reduce the severity.
Try my relaxing breath exercises to help relax the entire autonomic nervous system, including the nerves that control small arteries in the hands. And because stress can bring on attacks, relaxation training may help you avoid episodes. You also can try acupuncture, which may decrease the frequency of attacks.
In addition to addressing temperature changes and trying mind-body techniques, I recommend taking 100 mg of niacin (vitamin B3) twice a day. This helps dilate blood vessels. Ginkgo can also help increase circulation in the fingertips. Take 120 to 240 mg per day. Prescription medications, such as the calcium-channel blockers, usually given to treat high blood pressure, are often used if other strategies aren't sufficient. They can decrease the frequency and severity of attacks, but they also have side effects - such as ankle swelling, headache and flushing.