Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Great Agave Nectar Debate

Last Thursday afternoon in the sweeteners aisle at Whole Foods a mighty heated debate raged over the angelic and demonic qualities of pure cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, and stevia. It was a near argument and very entertaining. I walked away from it smiling and shaking my head over the “hipsterness” of the whole conversation because, seriously, you probably wouldn’t hear anything like this in Randalls, Kroger, or Safeway. Yet the conversation did get me thinking about my own relationship to sweeteners and what might really be the best choice.

I think we’re all clear by now that excess sugar in your diet is bad for you, causing all sorts of health problems ranging from dental decay to obesity and diabetes. So seriously…what can you indulge in once in a while that isn’t horrible for you? What’s life without sweetness after all?

I have been a dedicated agave fan for a number of years because it’s sweet like honey without the honey flavor and because of it’s low glycemic qualities, but some people think it’s awful stuff. This prompted me to educate myself. I started by looking at the label on my bottle of agave syrup, shown left. I can see the words “wholesome,” “organic,” “raw,” “low glycemic,” and “gluten free.” No wonder I bought it. But that’s just labeling and I don’t trust labels: they are mostly about getting you to reach for the product rather than telling you the truth. That’s a harsh reality, but it’s largely true.

So what about agave nectar? I knew it was made from the agave plant which has long been associated with healing properties. I knew it came from Mexico. I assumed it was healthy and an old school native sweetener. Well, as it turns out all of that is kind of true….kind of. There’s more to the story though.

Here is what is true:

  • Agave nectar does indeed come from the blue agave plant.
  • Blue agave really is grown in Mexico in volcanic soil or in the southwestern U.S.

Now the story starts falling apart. Here’s the bad stuff that isn’t publicized

  • There really is a sweetener made from the agave plant, but it’s not agave nectar
    The blue agave plant leaves are cut away from the central core, called a piña. The piñas are baked or steamed to get the sweet liquid out of the core. This sweet goo is indeed a sweetener that is native to the region of Tequila, Mexico. It called miel de agave, or agave honey. But this is not agave nectar.
  • Agave nectar is made from the root bulb which is high in a complex carbohydrate called inulin – basically a whole lot of fructose molecules. The sweet stuff isn’t as easy to get to here as it is in the piña. Agave nectar producers use a chemical soup to extract the sweet stuff out. When was the last time you went to the grocery store to purchase cationic or ionic resins, sulfuric or hydrofluoric acid, dicalite, clarimex, inulin enzymes, or fructozyme? What is this stuff? These are just some of the chemicals that are used to make agave nectar.

Much to my disappointment, I found that this is a highly processed sweetener. According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, from the American College of Nutrition (also an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health), “Agave is almost all fructose, a highly processed sugar with great marketing.” What a bummer. Another bummer is that it’s just not great for your health. Putting aside that the consumption of sugars and fructose is what is causing our teeth to rot, our bellies to get fat, and giving us type 2 diabetes at an alarming rate, the consumption of processed food is a killer as well.

So what do you do? Pick a sweetener that isn’t highly processed. This would be a food you could reasonably grow, harvest, and process yourself without chemicals, enzymes, or expensive specialized machinery. I’ll give you a list of better alternatives, but you’ve got to use your head about this – even the items listed below can be heavily processed. Make your choices wisely, read the labels knowing that the truth is often hidden from you in favor of getting into your pocket, and research the companies you buy from well.

Better sweetener alternatives that you could make in your kitchen if you wanted to and therefore better than processed anythings:

  • Stevia
    This one comes with a caveat. The white powdered stuff you buy in the store? That’s been super processed. Stay away from it. I’m talking about growing your own stevia plant on your patio or in your garden or getting it from the farmer’s market. Stevia is sweet to the tongue, but no sugar molecules are transferred into your system. Win! Use fresh or dried leaves in your tea. You can also make your own stevia extract using vodka and you can use that in your beverages, chocolate milk, coffee, even barbecue sauce. Good stuff.
  • Coconut palm sugar
    Minimally processed and you can use it where you would use granulated sugar.
  • Maple syrup
    Not the processed stuff, the organic tapped out of the tree stuff.
  • Miel de agave
    Hard to find unless you are in the Southwest, but it can be done.
  • Honey
    Make sure it’s raw and local for the best benefit. Supposed to be great to help you build up immunity to local allergies, but it has to be sourced pretty close to where you live.
  • Sorghum syrup
  • Sucunat or Muscovado
    This is granulated and works well as a sugar replacement in recipes too.

You’ll note that there is no mention of turbinado sugar, truvia, xylitol or erythritol above. All of these are processed, some more heavily than others. Stay far away if you can. You’ll also notice that the theme here is that less processed is better. Make your choices wisely. Mother Nature’s kitchen always trumps the processing plant when it comes to your health.

Wishing you happiness and health,

Cat Calhoun, L.Ac.


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Filed under Nutrition, Processed foods

Summer Tuneup and De-Stress

Welcome to summer (almost)!

This is a busy time in Austin: you probably have kids graduating from high school or college, kids getting out of school and going to summer camps, vacations to plan, weddings to attend, and more outdoor activities than you can go to even if you had every day free and all the money you’d ever need. This is supposed to be fun season, yet for adults it can be the beginning of a whole lot of stress and enough items on your to-do list to overwhelm an overly caffeinated Type A personality.

With all of that on your plate how do you cope? You could hire someone to do it all for you, but most of us don’t have those kinds of resources. I’ve got an even better solution: take a little time out for yourself to de-stress and rejuvenate so you can conquer the world. It’s simple to say that, but most of us are not trained in how to let go and take care of ourselves, nor does our culture even encourage us to do so. But it is absolutely vital to our bodies, our mental state, and to our families that we do just that.

Here’s why:

  1. Stress is a killer.
    Sure it goes by other names: cancer, heart attack, diabetes, arterial sclerosis, obesity, stomach ulcers, adrenal fatigue, etc. but stress is a huge contributor to all of these physical problems. Stress triggers a flood of chemical changes in our bodies that are linked to all of the problems listed above and more.  Want more information about what stress can do to you? Check out Stress: Portrait of a Killer.
  1. Stress is linked to all kinds of psychological and emotional problems too.
    Anxiety, depression, and insomnia are all linked to and triggered by stress. Most of us are under a constant level of stress that never decreases. Why? Because most of us are never taught how or why we need to decrease it.
  1. Stress affects our relationships.
    Ask any couple who has had problems in their relationship why they had problems and most of the answers you hear will be about money, sex, work, kids, or housework. What it really comes down to is stress: stress about having enough money, stress about not having enough time or desire for sex, stress about kids (fill in any number of options here), stress about working too much or not enough, stress about getting everything done in the house.

OK. So now you know why you should. How do you do it? Here are 3 simple ways:

  1. Get body work!
    It only takes an hour and will give you long term benefits. Acupuncture is a proven way to de-stress andimprove your health at the same time. I’m great at this. You can read testimonials here. You can book online or call me at 512-619-5549.I’ll customize a treatment just for you. Acupuncture relaxes and un-stresses you, changing your body chemistry, improving digestion, energy, and your ability to heal from the damage that stress does to you. I will give you some simply relaxation tools to take away with you so you can help heal yourself.
  1. Go for a swim.
    Water is a great way to wash your cares away. Barton Springs Pool, Deep Eddy, or your local pool are great for this. Want to do it for free? Go to Big Stacy Pool. Go by yourself or with friends if you can. Leave the kids at camp, at summer school, or with your mom. You need time for yourself and you need time to have fun.
  1. Take a yoga or qigong class.
    If you live in Austin haven’t driven by at least one yoga studio this week I would be surprised. There are tons of options and many by-donation classes available.Qigong is a little harder to come by, but very valuable. I can help you with this too.Qigong is something you can do for yourself anywhere you are. I can teach you simple Qigong for de-stress and healing – call me at 512-619-5549.

Learning to lower your stress gives you the resources to be a better partner, parent, and friend. You can’t take care of the world around you if you have no resources to draw upon!

Wishing you health, happiness, and prosperity,

Just in case you’re still reading, click here to get an unadvertised special savings on appointments booked between 5/23/2012 and 6/6/2012. Book an appointment, print the coupon and bring it with you to get a $5 discount on any treatment you get in this date range.

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But I’m too young for hot flashes!

When I was growing up and becoming an adult I associated menopausal symptoms with women in their mid 40’s. That’s about the time my aunts and older cousins (it’s a big family, folks) began to fan themselves when I thought the temperature in the room was just fine.  And right on target when I was 45 I had my first “power surge” hot flash that started on my arms, thighs and back and then spread all over. I felt like I’d stepped into a microwave. That’s about the time I learned to appreciate that big refrigerated room in CostCo with all of the vegetables in it, the one I affectionately refer to as ‘my hot flash room.’

What I didn’t know was that this train had been bearing down on me for years. Perimenopause, the years before you hit the technical definition of menopause, can happen 10+ years prior to menopause. But no one talked about it: not my family, my doctor, or my friends. Maybe it’s because none of us were really aware it was happening. I was 35 years old when I started experiencing some serious mood swings. I could go from zero to angry Amazon warrior queen then crumple into a pile of tears in 20 seconds or less. My mother commented that I acted like a woman in menopause and I needed to get a grip. I was exhausted all the time and was gaining about five pounds a year I just couldn’t shed no matter what I did. My doctor suggested prozac, wellbutrin, diet pills (speed, basically) and a host of other pharmaceuticals.

What was really happening? Hormonal shifts and imbalances. See if these symptoms sound familiar:

  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood or sadness
  • Weight gain, especially around the middle
  • Fuzzy thinking or “brain fog”
  • Feeling overwhelmed, confused, or just not like yourself
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Irregular periods
  • Heart palpitations
  • Achy stiff joints
  • Less interest in sex
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Cravings for sweets or alcohol
  • Yeast infections or urinary tract infections
  • Bouts of gas, bloating and/or diarrhea
  • Hair or skin is getting dry, fragile or brittle

If any of these sound like you, what do you do about these things? Don’t just suffer through it. This is your body’s way of telling you something is off kilter. You can do a lot to help balance your hormones even after you start experiencing symptoms. My recommendations:

  • Educate yourself.
    Find out all you can about your hormones and how to balance them. Read Ann Louise Gittleman’s book, Before the Change: Taking Charge of Perimenopause. If you can’t afford it or want more information after you’ve read it, check out the author’s blog.
  • Change your diet.
    You can regulate your hormones quite a lot by changing your diet. I know that’s hard. Believe me, I know. Change a little at a time so it’s not so difficult. The book and blog above has some great suggestions for you. The book lays out a diet to aspire to and a support group like Weight Watchers can help you not feel overwhelmed by the changes you might need to make.
  • Get some acupuncture.
    It de-stresses you, makes you feel more balanced, clears the mental fog, and helps your hormonal balance right away. It can also relieve insomnia, irregular periods, PMS symptoms, anxiety and palpitations, depression, and the other symptoms listed above. Call and talk to me if you have questions: 512-619-5549. I’m happy to chat with  you.
  • Herbs and supplements.
    Your body needs some extra help. I can help you with herbs and supplements to help your body come back into balance. You can book an appointment with me by calling 512-619-5549 or by going to my online booking site.
  • Exercise.
    Another dirty word, I know. Moderate exercise is great for helping your body out though. It even helps with the next recommend, managing your stress levels. Why not take a yoga class or a tai chi class? You’re getting two things done at once. Pat yourself on the back for multitasking!
  • Manage your stress.
    Stress is a killer. Literally. And it doesn’t do your hormones any good either. If you’ve got Netflix, look for a National Geographic production called Stress: Portrait of a Killer. You can stream this online or order the DVD from them. It’s the best and simplest explanation of what stress does to the body that I have seen.  It starts a little corny, but within 5 minutes it gets really good.

Give me a call at 512-619-5549 or drop me an e-mail. I’m happy to talk with you about painless ways to make these changes and get control of your life again.

Yours in health,

–Cat Calhoun, L.Ac.
 Calhoun Acupuncture 

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Filed under Hormones, Perimenopause

Wanna get dumb quick? Consume HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup).

Suffer from foggy thinking? Feeling the mental slow-down since you were younger? Are your kids having trouble keeping up academically?

Sure, there are a lot of possible reasons, not the least of which is getting older. But the culprit could be the high-fructose corn syrup in your diet. It’s hidden in an awful lot of common foods in the American diet because it’s so much sweeter than sugar and so much cheaper.  You’ll find it in everything from baby food to yogurt to crackers to pizza and spaghetti sauces. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to avoid unless you’re paying attention.

Unfortunately, HFCS changes your brain’s ability to remember and to learn in addition to the well-publicized research showing that it contributes to diabetes, obesity and fatty livers. Yet Americans love it – we consume something like 40 pounds of this stuff per person every year.

I know how hard it is to make conscious choices about your diet, even when you know your food choices are slowly damaging or even killing you. Though the better choice is to eat foods free of HFCS, if you just can’t live without that ice cream sundae or those Nutter Butters, you can still do something about it. Here are two suggestions which help counter the disruption that HFCS causes in your brain:

  • Consume more foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds or flaxseed oil.
  • Take DHA supplements daily. DHA is essential for synaptic function (communication in the brain)

If you want to read more about this, you can read the full article by clicking here.

Wishing you health and happiness,

Cat Calhoun, L.Ac.

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Filed under Brain Health