Healthy Living in the North

Northern Table: Plant-based sources of iron

A hand holds a plate of Moroccan lentils on rice and broccoli.

Many health organizations are suggesting that you should eat more plant-based proteins, like this dish of Moroccan Lentils, brown rice, and broccoli.

Do you pay attention to how much iron you consume? Most people don’t, but many health organizations are urging people to choose plant-based proteins more often, and this could mean taking a closer look at where your iron comes from.

Iron is a very important mineral that carries oxygen throughout the body. Symptoms of iron deficiency can include fatigue, a weakened immune system, and difficulty regulating body temperature.

There are two types of iron:

  • Heme iron, which is found in animal products like meat and seafood.
  • Non-heme iron, which is from plants.

Non-heme iron doesn’t get absorbed as well, so people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diets need to consume almost twice the recommended amount of iron as people who eat meat. Also, women need more than twice the amount of iron than men, and pregnant women need even more!

The best way to make sure you’re getting enough iron is to include a good source of iron at each meal and snack. Other than the small amount of iron in a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin, it’s important not to take an iron supplement unless you’ve received a diagnosis of iron deficiency and have spoken to your doctor.

You can find iron in a variety of plant foods. Some of the staples in my diet include:

  • Dried apricots, tomato paste, and greens (for instance: spinach, kale, and beet greens)
  • Oatmeal, bran, and iron-fortified cereal
  • Edamame, tofu, lentils, beans, chickpeas, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and tahini
  • Blackstrap molasses

If you’re trying to increase your iron intake, it’s important to squeeze in extra iron wherever you can:

  • Sprinkle savoury dishes with sesame seeds.
  • Use peanut butter and tahini to create a sauce or dressing.
  • Use blackstrap molasses in place of some of the maple syrup or honey in baking.
  • Include a variety of fruits and vegetables with each meal.
  • Use onions and garlic frequently in your cooking. Onions and garlic can increase absorption of iron.
  • Vitamin C also increases the absorption of iron.

There are many factors (other than intake of dietary iron) that can affect your iron levels. If you have questions about how much iron you should be consuming or if you think you might be iron deficient, speak with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian.

Sarah Anstey

About Sarah Anstey

Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sarah moved to Prince George in 2013 to pursue her career as a Registered Dietitian. Since then, she has enjoyed developing her skills as a Clinical Dietitian with Northern Health, doing her part to help the people of northern B.C. live healthy and happy lives. Sarah looks at her move to Prince George as an opportunity to travel and explore a part of Canada that is new to her, taking in all that B.C. has to offer.

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Northern Table: Getting my feet wet in the kitchen

This article first appeared in the Summer 2019 Northern Health: Health and Wellness in the North magazine.

A table, full of Vietnamese dishes.

Lan’s Mom’s cooking — complex and with many different ingredients.

What would you do if you were shooed out of the kitchen?

You might stay out.

Growing up, my place in the house was anywhere but the kitchen. I always seemed to be in the way or, as my mother put it, “doing things too slowly.”

My mom worked full time, but still managed the household and whipped up delicious meals in a jiffy.

My early childhood was spent in Vietnam, and food is an important part of my life; family meals and gatherings define the Vietnamese culture.

Vietnam is a tropical country with an abundance of vibrant, fresh produce that’s available year-round. One of my fondest memories is going to the outdoor markets every morning with my grandmother to pick out food for the day (in Vietnam, daily shopping is popular because it guarantees freshness and minimizes waste).

When we moved to Canada, daily shopping was no longer possible, as time was limited. As well, many of the foods and spices we ate in Vietnam weren’t available.

What did my mother do? She created her own mouth-watering dishes from the ingredients that were available. She called them “Vietnamese-inspired.”

Every time I asked her how she made a dish, she’d shrug and tell me she just threw it together. I assumed cooking came naturally to her, and that I’d never be a cook.

Fast forward to university: I was living away from home and missed Vietnamese food. Not having much experience, I was intimidated by the thought of cooking. I was overwhelmed by the steps and techniques, and by having to familiarize myself with an endless list of spices and seasonings that I couldn’t even pronounce.

However, I learned that if you want it badly enough, almost anything is possible.

It took some time for me to be more comfortable in the kitchen. I started out by stocking my little kitchen with salt, pepper, and fish sauce — the Holy Grail sauce of Vietnamese cooking.

A plate of cucumbers, a omelette dish, and a glass of water are pictured.

Lan’s simpler style of Vietnamese cooking.

Slowly but surely, my time in the kitchen yielded semi-edible foods and a growing confidence. Meals from my kitchen were simple: steamed rice, boiled veggies, and steamed chicken with fish sauce.

In the beginning, I often phoned my mom for help, which, as a by-product, also helped deepen our relationship.

Through many “learning opportunities,” I’m now at a point where I can navigate the kitchen without setting off the smoke detector!

Although my cooking is simple, I enjoy it. I’m still learning and excited to grow through this process.

My goal is to be able to re-create some authentic Vietnamese dishes, because food is such an important part of my identity, and I want to preserve that.

My tips for budding cooks:

  • Start simple – try a recipe with less than seven ingredients.
  • Stock your kitchen with basic ingredients. For me, that included rice, veggies, a few key spices, and fish sauce. It might be different for you.
  • Recognize that things might not turn out the way you’d hoped. One way to get around this is to use recipes from trusted sources. And if you fail, just try again!
  • Ask for help – call your relatives or friends.
  • Make cooking social – cook with friends or family.

Becoming a confident and competent cook doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t be too harsh on yourself — you can always try again tomorrow. I know it sounds cheesy, but if I can do it, I really believe that you can too!

Lan Nguyen

About Lan Nguyen

Lan is a dietetic intern at the University of British Columbia who just completed a 10-month internship with Northern Health. She enjoys learning about food and what it means to others. Lan hopes a career in dietetics will allow her to support people to achieve their best health in a culturally respectful manner.

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Northern Table: Eating well when living alone

Amelia eating alone, takes a bite of food.

Canada’s Food Guide says to “Eat Meals with Others.” What about those who live, and eat, solo?

The newest edition of Canada’s Food Guide focuses on the “hows” of eating just as much as the “whats.” One of the recommendations is to eat meals with others – but what does that mean for those of us who live, and eat, solo?

Eating together is best for our health

Food is one of life’s great pleasures. When we share a meal with others, we share our joy, companionship, heritage, and life experiences. People typically eat more vegetables and fruit when eating with others, and the social connections that we create around food are so special (I personally love the message behind this video). There are good reasons that the Food Guide suggests this practice; however, many people experience loneliness and do not always have that privilege. It can be hard to be motivated to cook interesting, healthy, and enjoyable meals for one person – especially when you know you’re doing all the clean up as well!

The effects of loneliness

Loneliness can exist for people in many different ways. For instance, some people live in one-person households, while others live with family or friends, but have challenging work schedules. Feeling lonely, no matter the circumstances, can impact your ability to engage in health-supportive practices and can affect overall health. Some studies suggest that loneliness is more damaging to our health than other risky behaviors, such as smoking.

Staying connected when living alone

I live in a single-person household and am faced with loneliness at times. From keeping on top of household chores to taking time to prepare and eat healthy meals, loneliness can make day-to-day tasks more challenging. I’ve learned that living and eating alone doesn’t have to be all leftover leftovers, microwave meals, take-out, and eating over the sink. What has worked for me is finding ways to simply and quickly feed my “family of one” meals that are nutritious and enjoyable, and to plan to share food with others when possible.

Strategies I use for eating well when living alone

  • I batch cook, but keep meals simple so I can switch things up. Over the weekend, I batch cook simple proteins and whole grains that can be served in different ways throughout the week by changing up the spices, sauces, and presentation. Using frozen fruits and vegetables helps cut down on prep and cooking time, and allows for variety throughout the week. Batch cooking also helps me reduce cleanup time – a real bonus in my books!
  • I keep in mind “quickie” meals that I can make in a hurry. These fast meals more or less follow the “healthy plate” in Canada’s Food Guide, and can save time and money versus ordering in or relying on highly-processed convenience foods. Staples for me are:
    • Breakfast for dinner.
    • A taco salad of canned black beans and corn with other veggies and Tex-Mex spices.
    • A sandwich, piled high with my favourite ingredients like chicken, spinach, avocado, and sliced apples.
  • I plan to eat with others when I can. My friends and I get together a few times a month to share meals. It could be potluck-style or one person can host everyone, or we may choose to gather around a table of take-out pizza or sushi. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but we all enjoy it! For me, eating with others also means carving out the time in my work day to eat meals with coworkers in the lunchroom, and occasionally planning potluck lunches or other special meals at work.
  • I set up the right environment for myself. When I’m eating alone at home, I find that I’m better able to enjoy my meal and eat mindfully (two other Canada’s Food Guide recommendations) when I’m at my dining room table and I’m listening to an audiobook or a podcast. Watching television can be too distracting, and eating in silence feels isolating to me. When the weather is nice, I might take my meal to eat outside.

Putting it all together

Canada’s Food Guide offers tips on how you can eat together with others more often. It even gives special considerations for families and seniors. We all experience variations in our eating habits. These day-to-day variations cause normal fluctuations in the amounts and types of foods that we choose and eat. The healthy eating habits, such as eating together, that we practise can also change from day to day.

We all experience “normal eating” a little differently. Your “normal” might be eating most meals alone or practising self-care by preparing nutritious foods you enjoy. If that’s the case, consider including others at your table. It could bring valuable benefits to your health!

Want to learn more about the Canada’s Food Guide? Here’s what Northern Health’s dietitians are saying about it.

Amelia Gallant

About Amelia Gallant

Amelia is a Primary Care Dietitian living and working in Fort St. John. Born and raised near St. John's, Newfoundland, she made her cross-country journey to northern BC in 2017 and is delighted to see comforts of home in the kindness of the people she meets and their love of the outdoors - even in the long and snowy winters. Forever a foodie, Amelia's the one at your dinner table trying to snap the perfect picture, or trying to replicate the latest food trends in her kitchen. As a dietitian, she hopes to simplify the mixed nutrition messaging and help people re-learn to enjoy their eating experience while supporting their healthy living goals.

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Mindful eating: 4 practical strategies you can do at work

A person holds a white plate of food. On the left of the plate is pasta noodles with spinach, on the right is a chicken breast covered in chunks of tomato.

Mindful eating focuses on paying attention to the eating experience.

Do you eat lunch at your desk? Eat until you are uncomfortably full? Inhale your meals?

If this sounds like you, keep reading — this blog post is all about how to incorporate mindful eating into your work day!

What is mindful eating?

Mindful eating focuses on paying attention to the eating experience. The focus is more on how to eat, and less on what to eat. In practising mindful eating, the goal is to be present, use all of the senses (seeing, tasting, hearing, smelling, and feeling) without judgment, and to notice the emotional and physical responses that take place before, during, and after eating.

Why is mindful eating important?

Becoming more mindful while eating can bring awareness to your own unique habits, thoughts, and feelings around food. I know I fall victim to eating at my desk and working through lunch to try to “catch up” with a never-ending to-do list, or parking myself on the couch to watch Netflix and eat a bowl full of snacks. I know I’m not the only one!

Eating in these moments becomes mindless, not enjoyable, and provides a sense that eating is not important. But, eating is important! Not only does it nourish our bodies with the vital nutrients we need to survive, it provides us with enjoyment and an opportunity to appreciate food and regain food freedom.

Making time to eat helps productivity

Making time to just eat instead of also working during your breaks can help you be more productive at work. Taking a break and focusing on something else while you eat nourishing food can help you recharge your brain, reduce stress, and get you ready for the next item on your daily to-do list.

How to eat mindfully at work

Practising mindful eating at work can be challenging, but the routine of our job provides an opportunity to incorporate mindful eating as part of your own daily routine. Here are four strategies that you can do to practise mindful eating in the workplace:

  1. Be present – Put your phone down and step away from your computer. Most things can wait 15-30 minutes while you eat your snacks or lunch. Your breaks are built into your day, so use them to recharge! Eat with friends or find a quiet place to enjoy your own company while focusing on your eating.
  2. Listen to your hunger and fullness cues – Once you get to work, pay attention to when you start to feel hungry. If your breaks are flexible, try eating when you are truly hungry. Then try to eat until you’re satisfied, but not stuffed. Do you have food left over? Are you still hungry and looking for more to eat? Adjust what you bring in your lunch box tomorrow to meet your hunger needs.
  3. Eat slowly – Give your body time to recognize that you’re feeding it. This can take up to 20 minutes — whoa! Taking your time can help you eat until you’re satisfied, instead of hungry or uncomfortably full. Try eating your lunch slowly by chewing thoroughly and noticing how the food is making you feel.
  4. Engage your senses – For the first five bites of your meal, notice how the food tastes, feels in your mouth, smells, sounds, and looks. What do you think? Are you enjoying what you’re eating? You may be surprised with your thoughts!

Take action!

Pick one strategy from above that resonates with you. Write it down on a piece of paper, your note app, or set it as a daily reminder on your phone or in your Outlook or Google calendar.

Every day for the next week practice this one strategy. Remember, mindful eating is a practice, and it may be something that is completely different than your norm. Don’t fret! If you lose track, or get distracted, acknowledge it and then try again. It will get easier!

Have you tried these strategies and are looking to build a better relationship with food? Talk to a dietitian who can help you with your individual needs!

  • There are dietitians in various communities across Northern Health. A referral may be required. Talk to your health care provider to learn more.
  • BC residents can also access Dietitian Services at HealthLink BC, by calling 8-1-1 (or 604-215-8110 in some areas) and asking to speak with a dietitian.
Erin Branco

About Erin Branco

Erin is a dietitian who works with residents in long term care homes in Prince George. She is passionate about supporting residents’ quality of life as well as fostering their reconnection to food. In her spare time, you can find her with her family and friends, enjoying a meal, playing in the garden, camping or supporting clients in her private practice. She loves being a part of making positive change in healthcare, and is an advocate for providing best practice nutrition support to our northern communities.

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The Northern Table: It sat on my kitchen counter for a year – and then I ate it

An opened spaghetti squash and the inside 'noodles' in a dish.

Spaghetti squash will keep on the counter for a lot longer than you might think!

I love vegetables that keep. I’m thinking of things like cabbages, onions, carrots, potatoes, beets, and other root vegetables. These hearty vegetables can live in our kitchens for a long time without spoiling, giving us more chances to fit them into recipes and our busy lives.

Last year I discovered that spaghetti squash can be added to the list of foods that last a REALLY long time. We had gotten quite a few squashes from our local community supported agriculture project, but I’ll admit it: I was not well versed in how to use these foods. Therefore, they sat on my counter, tucked away behind the fruit bowl, and were neglected for quite some time. Some got eaten, some spoiled, and some continued to patiently wait for their fate to be decided.

Then fall rolled around again, and with that came more freshly harvested squashes. It was then that I realized that some of the previous year’s spaghetti squashes were STILL sitting on my counter! Embarrassing, I know. So one day I thought, “Well, these can’t possibly be good anymore,” but I sliced one open just to be sure.

To my great surprise, it was… pristine. So I put it upside down in a baking dish with about an inch of water, and baked it in the oven for about 40 minutes. When I sampled it, it had a lovely texture and tasted great! I used a fork to pull the “meat” out of the shell, breaking it apart into its tell-tale “spaghetti” strings. I served it with dinner, simply dressed with a little butter, salt, and pepper. Yum!

What a forgiving, hearty vegetable! You can bet that I’ll be keeping an eye out for more spaghetti squash in the future. In the meantime, there are still two left on my counter from last fall, one of which will likely be used for a spaghetti squash “pasta” dish.

How do YOU like to eat spaghetti squash?

Read more about squash in past posts:

Lise Luppens

About Lise Luppens

Lise is a registered dietitian with Northern Health's regional Population Health team, where her work focuses on nutrition in the early years. She is passionate about supporting children's innate eating capabilities and the development of lifelong eating competence. Her passion for food extends beyond her work, and her young family enjoys cooking, local foods, and lazy gardening. In her free time, you might also find her exploring beautiful northwest BC by foot, ski, kayak or kite.

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