A Taste for Water

A while ago I wrote about beverage choices in Nicaragua. Today I am revisiting that topic with a focus on water. Whenever I have volunteered in health clinics in Latin America the issue of dehydration comes up with surprising frequency. Of all the frustrating and difficult health conditions one sees in these clinics I never anticipated that dehydration could rank so highly as a major concern. Dehydration worsens dozens of common health problems and was almost single-handedly responsible for the numerous daily cases of urinary tract infections and kidney problems (including kidney failure) that walked through the Nicaraguan clinics I volunteered at.

These home carbonation gizmos are getting quite popular. One of my favorite drinks is carbonated water, a few squeezes of lime and a few drops of Stevia

Even more interesting is that when I talk to patients about staying hydrated they say the exact same thing that people in the States say: “I don’t like the taste of water.” How can we lose our taste for water? Our species drank water, and only water, for hundreds of thousands of years. Three quarters of our body weight is water. All animals on earth, indeed almost every living organism, consumes water. We are the blue planet; if the Earth had a flag there would be water on it. If we had a sports team it would be called The Flood, if we had a mascot it would be…well you get the point.

I trace water’s fall in popularity to the three “Cs”:

1)    Competition – It is a challenge for water’s simple taste to compete with wide variety of highly sweetened and processed beverages available. The complex tastes, textures, colors, and smells make water seem lackluster by comparison.

2)    Contamination – our water supplies include many elements that alter water’s taste (the chart below contains a few common examples but there are thousands..), this is true even in Nicaragua where both natural  (volcanic soil) and man-made (agricultural run-off and factory waste) elements influence water’s taste.

3)    Containers – water picks up the taste of plastic, metal, and some ceramics. Glass containers solve this problem well.

In addition to keeping the urinary tract and kidneys healthy, staying hydrated also helps with reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. The signals for thirst and hunger are similar and often get confused with the result being that often when people think they are hungry, they are actually dehydrated. Staying hydrated decreases overall calorie consumption.

Pollutant Effect of water flavor
Iron Metallic taste
Chlorine the taste and smell of disinfectant, for most people it brings to mind a swimming pool
Decay of organic material or non-harmful bacteria Musty, moldy, or woody smell
Hydrogen sulfide gas and or sulfate reducing bacteria Rotten egg odor
Chlorides Salty or brackish taste
Sulfates Salty or brackish taste
Phenol An industrial waste. Can cause an objectionable taste in chlorinated water due to the formation of chlorophenols.
Zinc From corrosion of plumbing





Sara loses 70 pounds in 6 months!

I have spent the last two summers teaching nutrition, culinary and fitness classes at Wellspring, an organization that specializes in weight loss. (for more info on Wellspring listen to this National Public Radio piece: http://www.npr.org/2011/12/12/142661672/school-transforms-teens-lives-one-pound-at-a-time )

Last summer I worked with Sara, a music teacher from Virginia who has spent years struggling to lose weight. Sara recently got in touch with me to share her continued success and was happy to have me share some of her story on this blog.

What a difference 6 months makes!

Of her transition Sara says, “I discovered how to conquer obstacles that seemed impossible before and was able to change my mindset on exercise, food, and body image.” Sara came to every nutrition workshop with an open mind and a ready pen. Her dedication paid off and by the end of her 6 week stay at Wellspring Sara had lost an astonishing 40 pounds. During the following 6 months Sara lost another 30 pounds for a total of 70 pounds. Sara also lost 55 inches from: bust: 9, waist: 17, hips 14.5 inch, thighs 8, arms 6.5.

Sara used no gimmicks, no pills, no juicing, and no fasting. Sara credits her success to monitoring her diet with daily journaling and following a strict low fat, high fiber,  diet. She plans to continue her weight loss and achieve her goal weight. Sara plans to celebrate her success by hiking in Yosemite with close friends.






An interview with a Peruvian Shaman about diet

In 2011 I spent 4 months in Peru and was able to a little investigation into on one of the most unique human-plant relationships on earth. The shamans of Peru are famous for the phyto-spiritual “surgery” they facilitate with their patients. Using the ayahuasca plant, a strong hallucinogen, shamans guide participants on an inner journey with common goals including promoting insights into problems and healing life traumas. As would fit a blog focused on sobriety I will skip the sexy discussion on the controversial psychedelic aspect of the custom and will instead explore the role diet plays in the process.

First light of dawn hits the peak! My tour guide at Machu Picchu claimed the use of ayahuasca inspired much of the Inca religion including the design of this sacred site

All Shamans strongly recommend a period of dietary cleansing from several weeks to several months prior to taking ayahuasca. The belief is that a strict regime prepares one for the vigors of the powerful visions and emotions that wait. Shamans call this “la dieta”, the diet. Typical restrictions include: salt, sugar, vinegar, sweets, spices/chili, fats/oil, seasonings, canned food, stimulants, alcohol, drugs/medications, chocolate, red meat, and pork. Last spring I interviewed a shaman to learn about this piece of the custom.

Why is it important to follow the diet prior to the ayahuasca ceremony? The experience of ayahuasca starts with the knowledge gained during cleansing, the participant arrives to the session with an already modified state of consciousness.

How can following a strict diet effect consciousness? Every food has a message, some are stronger than others. Following the diet cleanses the mind from conflicting messages. Ayahuasca is a planta maestra, a professor plant, it has a great deal to teach. If your body has been influenced by strong foods than it can’t give itself completely to the ayahuasca.

How does not following the diet impede the experience? Sugar, caffeine, flesh and heavy foods (fats) modify consciousness, they have a strong influence, the ayahuasca plant is jealous over the power they have.

How can a plant be jealous? The body isn’t free and independent with those foods exerting their control. The healing and revelatory effects of ayahuasca work much better if the body is free.

Is there a physical reaction as well or are you only talking about the effect on the mind?It is difficult to separate the effects but, yes, those who follow the diet don’t throw up as much, get sick, or feel weak and in general they feel stronger, the experience goes more smoothly for them.

A boxed lunch, Peruvian style. In the mountains many people travel with little sacks of boiled potatoes and beans, both of which are considered good choices by the Shamans

Outside of diet, what recommendations are there for one’s lifestyle prior to working with a Shaman? The goal is to lessen outside influences, one should avoid over exposure to rain, sun, smoke, fire, polluted air and foul odors. One must abstain from sexual activities for at least two weeks, but longer is better. Also, interacting with people that are strongly pessimistic or sick should be avoided.

Why are these practices important? We weaken the power of our material desires and the societal influences that separate us from nature. In this way we can be more open to guidance and power from the plant world, from Ayahuasca. [Interestingly many native tribes from North America have similar practices of isolation from society’s (the tribe’s) influence prior to taking part in vision quests]

What I found intriguing in these conversations was that the Shamans have a firm belief that diet effects consciousness. They have singled out many of the same foods as having undue influence that so many of us crave: sweets, salty foods, rich and heavy foods, alcohol, and caffeine. As a Dietitian I couldn’t help enjoying the respect that these Shamans had for the transformative power of diet.

Personal note: I did not participate in the ayahuasca ritual, though I did follow the cleansing diet and found it to be a remarkable trip of its own, as much of a consciousness changing experience as my shaman friend insisted it would be.


Beverages and status in Nicaragua

A while back I assisted on an eco-tourism project in Padre Ramos, in the remote Northwestern corner of Nicaragua. One of our tasks was to improve the palm thatched, wall-less and floorless, restaurant in town so that they could host foreign tourists. I was in charge of re-making the menu and noticed the only beverage offered was Coca-Cola, despite the fact that right next door was a house that processed coconuts. The operation consisted of three grinning teenage boys jamming to salsa while hacking away with machetes to slice off the nuts’ thick green husks. A tall glass of delicious coconut juice from the machete boys ran 12 cents while the restaurant charged 40 cents for a glass of Coke. In spite of this, the locals, who had an average salary of a few dollars a day, never drank coconut juice and loved Coke. I was inspired to dig deeper into the matter, from then on I talked to every Nicaraguan I met about beverages.

The restaurant in Padre Ramos, they had a large pig that roamed around eating scraps, we recommended that they keep the pig in the back, away from the customers.

Water has an image problem in Nicaragua. The poorest Nicaraguans drink only water, they don’t have money for juice, soda, sports drinks, coffee, or any other beverage. To drink something other than water says to your peers, “I have expendable income, I am doing well.” If you are hosting a social event here it is an absolute must to provide sweetened beverages, if you only provide water people will gossip about how cheap you are for weeks.

It goes beyond water is bad and everything else is good. There is a beverage hierarchy in Nicaragua. Water is at the bottom, above it are home-made juices and coconut water, sold in little plastic bags or ladled out from 5 gallon buckets, the next step up is domestically made bottled juices, coffee, sweetened drinks and sodas and on top of the heap are American brands of drinks and sodas such as Gatorade, Sprite, and the undisputed king, Coke.

Water’s place at the bottom is not just a matter of fashion, getting parasites or toxic exposure from water supplies occurs frequently. Even in urban areas with water treatment plants there are problems, the plants have frequent mechanical failures and when heavy rains come the run-off from agriculture and industry can overwhelm the treatment plants and contaminate the water. The enforcement of environmental regulations here is near nonexistent.

The consequences are an increase in chronic disease (such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes) from all the sweetened beverages and widespread chronic dehydration, many people just won’t drink anything if water is the only option. At the health clinics where I have volunteered patients come in frequently with conditions caused, at least partly, by dehydration: urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, and every variety of kidney disorder.




Should fruits & veggies get a divorce?


We always talk about them together, they sit together in the store, they are practically married, so what’s the big difference?

“Eat your fruits and vegetables” “Two cups a day of fruits and vegetables” “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” Public health officials, doctors and dietitians all repeat the same message. Since fruits are sweet and don’t require preparation time most people respond enthusiastically to upping their fruit intake but conveniently forget about the veggies. Well that’s ok, it’s one or the other, right? Unfortunately that’s not the case and for the overweight the difference is especially significant, fruits and veggies have entirely distinct effects on weight.

How do you define the difference?

Nutritional definitions: 1) Vegetables are low in sugars and calories, high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. 2) Fruits are high in simple carbohydrates (sugars) and contain moderate amounts of calories and fiber.

Fruits, Veggies and your Gut

Vegetables average four times the fiber per calorie as fruits. Whole grains, which are widely praised and advertised for their high fiber, average only 1/8 the fiber per calorie as vegetables. The high fiber of veggies combined with its complex carbohydrates give vegetables a unique role in digestion. Our small intestine needs time to breakdown the long chain carbohydrates and our large intestine works on the extensive fibers, as well as extracting the plentiful water out of the vegetables. When our intestines are busy, weight loss is easier because: 1) hard working intestines send signals to the brain saying we are full 2) the intestines are lined with muscles, which burn calories 3) the additional time it takes to digest veggies slows down the whole digestive process; our meals turn to energy slower and our blood sugars stabilize for longer which in turn delays and diminishes hunger. Meanwhile fruits, being mostly water, simple carbohydrates/sugars, and some fiber, digest rapidly.

Most importantly for weight loss, the divide in sugars and fiber impacts calories. Fruits average 60 calories per serving while vegetables average only 25 calories per serving. The following list shows calories content per 100 grams/3.5 ounces – equivalent to a small apple, 4-6 strawberries, an average sized carrot or a large bell pepper

Fruits Veggies
Watermelon 26 Mushroom 18
Orange 53 Bell Pepper 20
Apple 56 Lettuce 21
Plums 56 Broccoli 25
Cherries 70 Spinach 26
Mangoes 70 Cauliflower 30
Strawberries77 Cabbage 45
Banana 95 Carrot 48
Dates 281 Onion 50

In summary, vegetables are as close as there is to a magic pill for weight loss while fruits are fairly neutral. Raw fruits can be a useful player in a weight loss diet, particularly when used as a substitute for sweets. However fruit, when processed into juices, dried fruit, or in smoothies will contribute to weight gain, but that is topic for another blog.