The Secret Behind Midnight Snacks

It’s a classic, isn’t it?

You’re reading a fantastic book, and you keep saying to yourself, “Just one more page!” Or your best friend forever is visiting from out of town, and you talk late into the night, heart to heart.

Big Ben Clock FaceSuddenly you realize that it’s midnight and you’re starving.

I never gave the classic midnight snack much thought. I’d heard health experts recommend against it for various reasons: it didn’t give your gut a chance to rest; calories ingested at night got converted to body fat more readily; etc.

I’d also read that the food-to-body-fat superhighway was nonsense: it didn’t matter when you ate, rather that how much you ate overall was the key.

But I never paid more than cursory attention to all the discussion.

When I was younger, I happened to be one of those lucky people who maintain an ideal weight without much attention or effort.

Now that I’m older, my metabolism has slowed – as most people’s do – and I pack on extra pounds much more easily. So the pros and cons of midnight snacking hold more interest for me than heretofore.

But I’ve also learned that the simplistic calories-in-calories-out model (calories expended must match or exceed calories ingested) still touted by much of the medical establishment grossly ignores the action of the hormone insulin on the body.

My blog posts Thinner and Healthier and Test first, then conclude! go into this more extensively, if you’re interested. But the bottom line is that most people become much more sensitive to the effects of insulin in the bloodstream as they get older. The hormone packs fat into the fat cells and, once we’re over 50, makes it more and more difficult for any of that fat to be removed and used for fuel. While starving yourself on super-low-calorie diets merely deprives your body of needed nutrients and lowers your metabolism further. Catch-22!

But I digress! 😀

Sleep SmarterThe reason I bring this up is because of something I learned in Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson.

When you are sleep deprived, the amount of glucose reaching your brain dips.

Brains run on glucose. They must have it. However, there’s no need to eat sugar to fuel your brain. In fact, don’t do it! Your liver can make all the glucose your brain requires, without you ever ingesting any sugar at all.

In a sleep researcher’s lab, where the amount of sleep deprivation induced for the purpose of study is extreme (24 hours), glucose reaching the brain dips by 6%. But suppose you regularly get by on only 6 or 7 hours of sleep. No doubt your glucose dips much less, but it still dips.

Even worse, the reduction of glucose to the brain is not distributed equally. When the reduction is 6% overall, the parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex lose from 12% to 14% of the glucose they should receive.

Why is that important?

The parietal lobe and the prefrontal cortex are the areas of the brain we use for thinking, for discerning the differences between potential actions, for social interactions, and for knowing right from wrong.

When the parietal lobe and prefrontal are short of their necessary fuel, our decision making suffers.

That’s why you might do something really unwise late at night and then wonder in the morning: “What was I thinking?” In fact, you weren’t thinking, or not very well.

On top of this, your brain late at night – desperately seeking glucose, due to the growing dearth of this necessary fuel as the hour latens – knows perfectly well that a shot of glucose is conveniently at hand in a bag of potato chips or a bowl of Cheerios® or a few scoops of ice cream.

That’s why those foods prove so irresistible at midnight!

I took away several things from all of this.

1 • If I’m asleep before the glucose dip arrives, it will never even happen. Asleep, my body will be in the repair mode that occurs most intensely between 10 PM and 2 AM. (That’s another fact I learned from Sleep Smarter.)

My brain chemistry will be exactly as it is supposed to be, initiating repairs, instead of losing glucose and frantically seeking a resupply by prompting cravings.

(Unless I am chronically sleep deprived; in which case, the glucose dip occurs even in sleep and can actually wake me up!)

2 • It’s not that eating late at night is a problem in itself. It’s that such snacks are usually extra and often composed of sugar or simple carbohydrates. I’ve already ingested all the food I truly need at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Whereas, if I fall asleep somewhere between 10 PM and 11 PM, I’ll never even get hungry at midnight, let alone go seeking extra food.

3 • If I do happen to stay up too late – which will happen at times, because I’m a night owl – I have the perfect hack. I’ve tested it, and it usually works, although not infallibly. The brain in search of fuel is pretty fierce!

Curse of Chalion 300 pxHere’s the scenario: I get to re-reading The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, one of my absolute favorites, and – whups! it’s midnight!

I realize I’m feeling really hungry, hungry enough that it will keep me awake, even though my eyelids are falling closed with my fatigue.

In the past, I’ve poured a big glass of local, farm-fresh milk and stirred a little stevia and cocoa powder into it.

The problem with that is that I’m getting an awful lot of carbs in the lactose (milk sugar) contained in that milk. On top of that, the sweetness of the stevia will trigger a larger insulin release into my bloodstream than would the lactose alone. And, on top of that, the big glass holds twice the amount of milk that I would normally drink in one go. So I’m getting a huge lactose hit with little else to cushion it.

While I was fighting my sleep schedule in the aftermath of my retinal detachment – before I read Sleep Smarter – I drank that huge glass of milk nearly nightly. And I gained 10 pounds. Not good!

(Chronic sleep deprivation all by itself causes weight gain, without any big glasses of milk, so some of my gain of ten pounds was no doubt due to several months of sleep loss.)

These days I’m usually asleep by 11 PM. Plus I’m finally visiting the gym swimming pool again after a long layoff. So I’m hoping to take those 10 pounds off! (Fingers crossed.)

But on those nights like last night, when I was absorbed in The Curse of Chalion and got hungry, this is what I do:

FIRST, I remind myself that my sensation of hunger, while powerful, is due to the dip in glucose to my brain. This actually does help, although it is not enough without my next step.

SECOND, I eat 2 tablespoons of coconut oil.

coconut oilCoconut oil is made up of largely medium-chain fatty acids that are not normally stored in the body’s fat cells at all. Instead they are quickly converted to energy. Additionally, coconut oil acts as a slight appetite suppressant for many people. It certainly does for me.

Anyway, it’s a much better option than the huge glass of milk. That 2 tablespoons of coconut oil diminishes my craving for food at midnight just enough that I can get to sleep. And it gives me a slight energy boost – not a frenetic boost like caffeine, but a calm can-do feeling – just enough oomph for me to go brush my teeth, spray some magnesium oil on my legs, and turn out the light.

CAUTION: If you decide to try my coconut oil hack and see if it works for you, be a little careful. The short- and medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil don’t require bile for digestion. But coconut oil also contains some long-chain fatty acida, and those do require bile for digestion.

If you’ve been eating a low-fat diet for a while, which many people do these days, your body hasn’t needed much bile for a while and has adjusted by not making much. It won’t suddenly produce more when you abruptly dump 2 tablespoons of coconut oil in! Which means you’ll feel nauseated and maybe even experience diarrhea.

So start with a quarter of a teaspoon and work up slowly to give your pancreas and gallbladder a chance to ramp up.

(I’ve blogged about the benefits of coconut oil in Butter and Coconut and Cream, Oh My!, if you’d like to know more.)

The bottom line? It’s really best to be asleep long before midnight!

But I found the why of the midnight munchies to be fascinating, so – of course! – I had to share it with you. 😀

To read the blog posts I mentioned in passing, see:
How I Rehabilitated My Sleep
Thinner and Healthier
Test first, then conclude!
Butter and Coconut and Cream, Oh My!

 

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Handle with Care

glass cannister of granolaI’ve learned to be cautious with grains.

They’re high in carbohydrates and, as I’ve gotten older, my body has grown more sensitive to carbs. Philip Maffetone’s In Fitness and in Health taught me that carbs were likely behind the chronic fatigue of my 30’s and the weight gain of my 40’s.

Gary Taubes, in his Good Calories, Bad Calories, explained some of why. When eaten, carbohydrates can provoke an inflammatory response (fatigue) and do cause the body to release insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin then causes the body to cease burning fat for energy and switch to burning glucose. Which means the fatty acids stay in the fat cells, and more fatty acids are packed in (weight gain).

But there’s another reason to be cautious with grains. Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions explains that we modern westerners aren’t preparing whole grains safely any more. Our ancestors did. And a few of us still possess the old knowledge. (I did not.)

images depicting traditional peoples from around the worldIn India, rice and lentils are fermented for two days before being made into idli and dosas. In Africa, coarsely ground corn was soaked overnight before being added to soups and stews. Ethiopian injera bread is made by fermenting the grain teff for several days. American pioneers were famous for sourdough breads and biscuits. In old-fashioned European porridges, the oats or barley berries were soaked overnight or even for several days before cooking. Flours were never simply scooped from a canister, mixed into whatever, cooked, and eaten two hours later. There’s a reason for that!

All grains contain phytic acid in the outer layer, the bran.

Of course, you can eat refined grains which lack the bran and the germ, but that leads to its own set of health problems. (White flour acts on the body a lot like sugar.) But if you eat whole grains, improperly prepared, phytic acid will harm you.

So what’s the problem with phytic acid?

It combines with minerals in the digestive tract and blocks their absorption. All that lovely calcium or iron or zinc or whatever binds to the phytic acid and rides away, right out of the body. On top of that, phytic acid can be very irritating. Hello, irritable bowel syndrome! Hello, mineral deficiencies! Hello, osteoporosis!

And that’s not all.

The protein in grains, especially the gluten, is hard to digest. Soaking and fermenting breaks down these proteins into their simpler building blocks, which are much easier on digestion.

Consider animals nourished primarily by plants. They have multiple stomachs (sometimes four!) and long intestines. Plants take a lot of digesting! Humans have only one stomach and shorter intestines. We need the help of friendly lactobacilli (the bacteria in yogurt and other live foods) when we eat plants such as grains (and legumes).

Another possibility to consider: add a dollop of cream or butter to cooked grains. The fat acts as a catalyst for mineral absorption. You’ll get more of that critical calcium (for example), if you pair those oats with cream.

And a final consideration: most processed breakfast cereals – even granola, alas! – are downright dangerous. Not only are they rife with phytic acid, but they are processed at high heat and under high pressure. This destroys many of the valuable nutrients in grains, turns the fragile plant oils rancid, and changes the proteins enough to render them toxic.

The take-away lesson is that grains (and legumes) need to be soaked or sprouted to confer their benefits.

If you’re a baker, bake true sourdough breads or loaves made with sprouted grains. If you purchase your bread (raising my hand here), buy true sourdoughs (not just flavored with sourdough) and sprouted grain breads.

I go very light on the grains myself. But for all the grain lovers among us, I’ll share three basic recipes with the grains properly prepared. (Plus crisp nuts.)

The oatmeal in this photo has raisons in it, cooked on the stovetop with the oats, but not soaked overnight with the oats!

oatmealOatmeal

1 cup oats, rolled (not instant or quick-cooking)
1 cup filtered water, warmed (but not hot)
2 tablespoons whey or yogurt or lemon juice
1 more cup filtered water
1/2 teaspoon Celtic sea salt

Add the whey to the warm water and soak the oats in it overnight (at least 7 hours). Find a warm spot. A covered bowl on the kitchen counter is fine, if your house isn’t too chilly.

(Chlorine can interfere with lacto-fermentation, so don’t use straight water-plant tap water.)

In the morning, bring the additional cup of water to a boil. Add the salt. Add the soaked oats (along with any remaining liquid). Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit (still covered) for 5 minutes.

Serve with cream or butter.

Other optional toppings include maple syrup, raw honey, apricot butter, or crisp nuts.

Rice

2 cups brown rice
4 cups filtered water, warmed
4 tablespoons whey or yogurt or lemon juice or vinegar
1 teaspoon Celtic sea salt
3 tablespoons butter

Rinse and drain the rice.

Add whey to the warm water and soak the rice in it overnight (at least 7 hours).

When soaking is complete, transfer mixture to a cooking pot and bring it to a boil on the stove top.

Skim off the foam that rises to the top.

Lower the heat, add the salt and butter, stir, and then cover tightly. Cook (without removing the lid) for 45 minutes over very low heat.

Serve.

granolaGranola (a safe version)

This recipe is a bit involved. My kids adore it, but I don’t make it very often! In fact, it’s been more than a year for me. Which leads me to a note of warning. I’ve made lots of adjustments to the recipe since the first time, with lots of scribbly notes in the margins of my recipe binder. I hope I’ve deciphered them accurately! But if your rendition of this granola isn’t working, it’s probably me, not you. I hope to make granola this spring. (And if I discover I’ve erred, I’ll come back and correct myself.) So you might wait to try this until after my essay. Or – if you’re the adventurous sort – dive in and post any adjustments you make in the comments!

Update:I did make granola this spring (as promised to my kids). Twice! And the recipe as I posted it was pretty close to correct. But it needed a touch more spice. I increased the amount of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves in my second batch. Plus I made more. The first batch was devoured in 5 days flat. If you were waiting (as recommended above) for me to tweak my recipe, I’ve done so. The recipe below is the recipe. Go for it!

6 cups oats, rolled
6 cups filtered water, warmed
4 tablespoons whey or yogurt or lemon juice
3/8 cup butter (add 1 tablespoon butter, if you’re soaking the nuts with the oats)
3 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons maple syrup (add 1 tablespoon syrup, if soaking nuts with oats)
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1-1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 cups crisp nuts (no crisp nuts on hand? throw some in to soak with the oats)
2 cups raisins

draining and spreading the granolaAdd whey to warm water and soak oats in it overnight (at least 7 hours). If you are out of crisp nuts, add raw nuts to the oats to soak along with them.

Next day, drain the liquid off the oats. Press the mass a little (if it’s really soggy) to wring extra moisture out of it.

Spread baking parchment on 2 baking sheets. Spoon the oats onto the sheets and spread them out evenly. Place baking sheets in the oven and turn it on to 200ºF (no need to preheat). Bake for 3 hours. Check the oats for moisture. If you added nuts to soak with the oats, the mixture will be dry at the edges of the baking sheet, but still moist at the center. If you soaked the oats solo, they’ll be dry all the way through, but not crisp.

Near the end of this first baking, melt the butter, honey, and maple syrup. Stir in cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Set aside, off the heat.

granola in the makingRemove the oats from the oven. Put the oats in a large bowl and break up the large clumps using 2 butter knives. Then get a handful between your palms and rub your hands together. This works really well to break the clumps even further. Keep going until the texture of the oats is fairly fine. Then pour the butter mixture over the oats, and blend thoroughly.

Put fresh sheets of baking parchment on the baking sheets. (The used parchment will be soggy.) Spoon the oat mixture onto the baking sheets and spread evenly. Place back in the 200ºF oven. Stir the oats and re-spread them every hour. Bake for 4 hours.

Remove oats from oven and allow to cool. Break up any clumps with your hands. Mix the now-crisp oats with raisons and crisp nuts (if you didn’t add raw nuts at the soaking step). Store in an air-tight canister.

Serve however you prefer granola: with milk, with cream, with yogurt, with fruit, etc. It will be a little more crisp than conventional store-bought granola.

Crisp Walnuts

Use these as a topping on oatmeal, in the granola recipe above, or as a snack. Just like grains and legumes, nuts should be soaked to neutralize the many enzyme inhibitors in them.

4 cups walnut pieces, raw
2 teaspoons Celtic sea salt
filtered water to cover nuts

Mix the salt with the filtered water and soak the nuts in it overnight (at least 7 hours).

Next day, drain the nuts in a colander.

Put baking parchment on a baking sheet. Spread the nuts evenly on it. Place in oven, turn on to 150ºF and “bake” for 12-24 hours, until completely dry and crisp. Stir the nuts with a spoon and re-spread them occasionally. (If you have a food dehydrator, use that!)

Store the nuts in an air-tight container.

Walnuts, alone of all the nuts, must be stored in the refrigerator. Their unique composition of oils will go rancid at room temperature. The other nuts may be safely stored at room temperature.

This recipe may be used for pecans, almonds, or macadamias. Do not use it for cashews. Cashews are not raw when they come to us. They contain a toxic oil that must be released and removed by two separate heatings before humans can eat them safely. This means that they’ll get slimy and nasty if soaked too long or dried too slowly. Soak them at most 6 hours. Dry them in a 200ºF oven.

Nourishing Traditions at Amazon

Nourishing Traditions at B&N

For more Nourishing Traditions posts, see:
Yogurt & Kefir & Koumiss, Oh My!
Amazing Lactobacilli
Beet Kvass

Some posts challenging politically correct nutrition:
Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!
Test first, then conclude!
Thinner and Healthier

And some more recipes:
Coconut Chocolates
Coconut Salmon
Baked Carrots

Do you have any old-time grain recipes that include the soaking or sprouting of grains?
Do please share!

 

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Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!

After reading Maffetone’s In Fitness and in Health and Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions, I sought out more myth-busting information. Hold onto your hats! I’m going to tell you what I discovered, and we’re in for a wild ride!

The notion that intrigued me was this: what if saturated fat were actually good for you? Fallon’s notes on butter from grass-fed cows hinted at this idea. Maffetone’s advice to cut carbs out of your diet for his 2-week test echoed it. And the improved health and slimness of acquaintances following a low-carb regime further piqued my curiosity.

cover image with coconut palm treeI purchased Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig and devoured it in one evening.

Here was myth-busting with a vengeance!

The book includes a review of the basic chemistry of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats. It also touches briefly on the influence of the food industry on governmental agencies and the culture at large in promulgating the belief that saturated fat is bad for us. (There are big bucks to be made from processed food, with hefty profit margins if inexpensive vegetable oils are used instead of pricey animals fats or coconut oil or palm oil.)

(I read Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories after, not before, reading Eat Fat. He describes the sea change from “starches make you fat” to “fat makes you fat” in griping detail. I highly recommend giving his book a read yourself, if you haven’t.)

Many items in Eat Fat, Lose Fat grabbed my attention.

The first was Fallon’s analysis of the research to date about fats. Some consists of studies of the diets of indigenous peoples. Some are studies performed in labs.

I learned that the Massai, who drank a gallon of milk every day and consumed meat and blood for the rest of their nourishment, simply didn’t suffer heart attacks at all.

Then there were the employees of the Indian railway system. The largely vegetarian workers of Madras experienced 7 times more incidence of heart disease than the meat-loving Punjabi who ate 10 to 20 times as much fat.

In the Framingham-Peurto Rico-Honolulu study conducted by NIH, the participants who suffered heart attacks were those who consumed the most polyunsaturated oil.

A workshop held at the National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute and analyzing studies on women and cholesterol found that, for women, high blood cholesterol is protective. The longest lived among elderly women were those with the highest cholesterol. Further, the statin drugs proscribed to lower cholesterol offer no benefit to women in preventing heart disease.

There’s more; a lot more. But I’m not going to list every one of the 18 studies presented in chapter 2. Fallon is concise, but it’s still too much for a blog post. The take-away point? Most studies looked at saturated fats and trans fats as the same thing. Mary Enig is the researcher who first blew the whistle on trans fats, and now we all know that no level of trans fats is safe. But all those studies with bad outcomes for fat in the diet? It was the trans fats doing it. Saturated fats have been tarred with the same brush quite inaccurately. Trans fats cause heart disease, contribute to cancer, cause hormone synthesis to go awry. Saturated fats? Probably not.

Next stop on our tour is a short list of various organs and other body systems which possess an intrinsic and critical need for saturated fat.

The Brain

60% of the brain is composed of fat. And phospholipids – 50% saturated fat – are an important component of brain cell membranes. Without saturated fat being supplied to the brain by diet, brain chemistry may be compromised.

Cells

Saturated fats maintain cellular integrity everywhere in the body. Every cell membrane is ideally composed of 50% saturated fat. When polyunsaturated fat fills in on the job, the cells actually become somewhat “floppy” and cannot work properly.

Bones

Saturated fat is necessary for calcium to be incorporated into the structure of the bones. Osteoporosis, anyone?

Liver

Saturated fat protects the liver from certain toxins, such as those in acetaminophen.

Heart

Saturated fats are the heart’s preferred food, especially in times of stress.

Saturated fatty acids lower the blood substance Lp(a), a proven marker for heart disease.

Saturated fats lower C-Reactive Protein, an indicator of inflammation, which may cause many cases of heart disease.

Lungs

The lungs require a surfactant in order to work, and the fatty acids in that surfactant are 100% saturated fatty acids. When trans fats and polyunsaturated fats fill those slots, the lungs suffer.

Hormones

Hormones are the messengers connecting the brain, nervous system, and glands into a synchronous whole. Some critical hormones cannot be synthesized in the body without the vitamin A provided by fatty animal foods such as liver and shellfish. The wrong kinds of fats substituted into the equation lead to problems with glucose balance, mineral metabolism, and reproduction.

Again, there’s more, but I’ll move on to the next myth-busting tidbits.

Myth: Plants provide enough vitamin A.

Fact: Many vegetables and fruits contain carotenes, building blocks for vitamin A. Our bodies can convert these carotenes into vitamin A via a complex operation in the small intestine, but usually not enough vitamin A. And some bodies cannot do it at all, lacking the necessary enzymes: diabetics, thyroid patients, sufferers from certain digestive disorders, and babies and children.

Myth: Sunlight provides enough vitamin D.

Fact: Our bodies make vitamin D only in the presence of UV-B light. In temperate regions, this happens only when the sun is directly overhead. And exposing merely face and lower arms is not sufficient. How many of us can sunbathe for 30 minutes at noon every day wearing swim trunks or a bikini? That’s what it would take – in the summer. In winter, with the sun lower in the sky, we’re out of luck.

The bottom line: Not only are saturated fats healthy, they are necessary!

Enter the oil of the coconut, the nut of the coconut palm.

Fallon calls it the queen of saturated fats, because of its special properties, and it really is a marvelous substance. It’s almost tailor-made for losing weight, since metabolizing the lauric acid within coconut oil (coconut oil is 50% lauric acid) actually uses more energy than it provides.

Three key benefits of coconut oil:

• The fats in coconut oil are not stored in the body as fat. They are quickly converted to energy.

(I can personally attest to the subjective experience of this. For most of my life I suffered from physical fatigue and lethargy, worsening as I got older. Once I started eating coconut oil (and reduced my carb intake), that changed. The feeling of having a physical reserve I can draw upon is wonderful.)

• People living in countries where the coconut is an important part of their diet have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.

• The fats in coconut oil kill viruses and pathogenic bacteria by stripping their protective outer layer. (You’ll get sick less often, when you eat coconut oil frequently!)

Next comes a run through nutrient-dense foods such as pasture-fed eggs, butter and cream from pastured cows, liver (the sacred food of many cultures), raw cheeses, lacto-fermented beverages, bone broths, and Celtic sea salt. And then we’re on to the food plans and recipes, some simple like fried eggs, some more sophisticated like chicken with coconut peanut sauce, but all good, all good for you, and all helpful for those of us watching our weight!

This book, together with Nourishing Traditions, In Fitness and in Health, and Good Calories, Bad Calories, completed the process of turning my nutritional know-how upside down. I’m still adjusting my cooking habits, still learning how best to feed this unique body of mine, but my health is better, my weight is down, and I’m optimistic about my future.

I’ve blogged about each of these amazing reads over the past year. If you missed those posts, you can find them at the links below.

In Fitness and in Health

Nourishing Traditions

Good Calories, Bad Calories

Good health and good eating to you all! And if you want your very own copy of Eat Fat, Lose Fat, here are some links for that.

Eat Fat, Lose Fat at Amazon

Eat Fat, Lose Fat at B&N

For more on books important to continuing nutritional education, see:
Thinner and Healthier
Test first, then conclude!
Yogurt and Kefir and Koumiss, Oh My!
Why Seed Oils Are Dangerous

 

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