The Great Energy Challenge

As the world population quickly grows, so does our need for energy. How do we keep up with this growing demand in a responsible, equitable, and sustainable way? That is the question National Geographic is hoping to address with its Great Energy Challenge.

The Great Energy Challenge is program designed to help people understand the current energy situation and how they can be part of the solution.

Check out The Great Energy Challenge website to:

The site also allows you to share your progress with others joining the challenge. You can share your Personal Energy Meter score and challenge your friends or follow the journey of other households around the world as they embark on the energy diet.

The Great Energy Challenge is a fun and interactive way we can join together to make a positive impact on the current energy crisis.

Click here to take part in The Challenge today.

The Lowdown on “Natural” Sweeteners

Whether looking to drop a few pounds, maintain an already healthy lifestyle, or manage a chronic disease like diabetes, many people try cutting calories by using artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes.

Artificial sweeteners (e.g., Aspartame/Equal, Neotame Saccharin/Sweet 'n Low, Sucralose/Splenda) are synthetic sugar substitutes, some of which are derived from natural substances such as herbs or sugar itself. There is a lot of debate over artificial sweeteners and there has been for decades. There are various health concerns, but none have been scientifically proven true. Some argue over the taste of various artificial sweeteners, but that's really a matter of personal preference. The real problem with artificial sweeteners is that they do not trigger the same sense of satisfaction in the brain as sugar – so they never quite satisfy a sweet craving, leaving you wanting more.

Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are typically promoted as healthier than white sugar or artificial sweeteners. Yet most substances labeled natural sweeteners do undergo at least some processing and many vary little from sugar nutrition- and calorie-wise. To clear up any confusion and help you make the best choice for you, here is the lowdown on natural sweeteners.

Agave nectar or agave syrup. Agave is made from a plant native to Mexico and Central America. Proponents of agave say that it metabolizes more slowly than sugar and doesn't cause blood sugar spikes. But how fast or slow agave metabolizes depends on how it is processed and the modern process of producing agave nectar is less like the method used by the indigenous people of Central America and more like the process of converting corn into high-fructose corn syrup. The big upside to Agave is that even though it has a similar amount of calories as sugar, it is much sweeter so you can use far less (one-quarter to one-eighth the amount of sugar) to achieve the same level of sweetness as sugar.

Honey. Honey is an all natural sweetener that's been used for centuries. While honey does contain more antioxidants than white sugar, it is not as antioxidant rich as dark and blackstrap molasses. Plus, it carries 33% more calories than sugar. So, if your concern is calories and/or blood sugar, then sugar actually makes a better choice than honey. Honey is not without any health benefits though. Studies suggest that honey helps boost the growth and activity of the good bacteria found in fermented dairy products like yogurt, which is helpful for those who want to promote digestion and support the immune system.

Maple syrup and molasses. Maple syrup and regular molasses contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to the zero nutritional value of sugar. Blackstrap molasses is the only natural sweetener with significant levels of nutrients, including calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and selenium. As with agave, maple syrup and molasses are so sweet that you can use lesser amounts to make food as sweet as it would be with sugar. When substituting molasses in a recipe you can typically use one-half to three-quarters of the amount of sugar called for.

Stevia. Zero-calorie stevia comes from the stevia rebaudiana plant and is 250 times sweeter than sugar. Up until a couple years ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not allow stevia to be sold as a food ingredient. There were concerns that stevia might cause reproductive problems and infertility and animal and lab tests suggested high doses of stevia result in mutations that may lead to cancer. Newer research concluded stevia was safe to use as a food ingredient and in December 2008 the FDA lifted the ban on stevia. Since then there has been a barrage of stevia-sweetened products on the market. While not everyone is entirely convinced of stevia's safety, proponents point out that it has been used in Japan, South America, Australia, and New Zealand for many years without any obvious problems. Even if you are convinced of stevia's safety, there is another downside to consider. Stevia, like those aforementioned artificial sweeteners, doesn't satiate like sugar and can leaving you wanting more despite its extreme level of sweetness.

As with most things in life the key is moderation. For most people any sweetener, sugar and most artificial sweeteners included, is fine in small doses. Products like agave and molasses can satiate your sweet tooth with lesser amounts than sugar allowing you to cut calories. If your main concern is blood sugar or you have type 2 diabetes, stevia may be a better option since it has a negligible effect on blood glucose and can even enhance glucose tolerance.

Taking Off Your Shoes for a Greener, Cleaner Home

Think of all the different surfaces you walk on getting to and from work or even just running a single errand. On any given day you probably tread on pavement, dirt, grass, and the grimy floors of public buildings. When you return home the soles of your shoes carry in not just dirt, but several pollutants and allergens as well.

A regular pair of shoes, after just 14 days of wear, hosts a slew of bacteria, including E. coli. In the largest study of its kind, the California State Department of Public Health found an average of 22 pesticides in the dust of homes studied. Another study found that coal tar, a carcinogen used in products like driveway sealant, is tracked into homes from driveways and parking lots. And even though it's been removed from paint and gasoline, lead is still remarkably prevalent in the environment and can be tracked inside (along with mercury and other heavy metals) on people's shoes. The buildup of pollutants is even greater in homes with carpeting because carpet traps pollutants and is usually not cleaned well enough and often enough to prevent buildup.

Infants and young children, with their proximity to the floor, tenancy to put things in their mouths, and developing nervous and immune systems, are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of toxins being brought into the home on shoes.

There is an extremely effective measure everyone can take to cut their exposure to pollutants being tracked inside. Take off your shoes! Eighty-five percent of the dirt in homes is tracked inside on clothing, shoes, and pet paws. By taking your shoes off at the door you can avoid 70% of the allergens and pollutants being tracked into your home. Having a shoes-off policy makes your home cleaner and healthier and saves you time and energy vacuuming and dusting. Plus, it's simply more relaxing to walk around barefoot or in cozy sock or slippers.

Worried about how to ask guests to remove their shoes without coming off as a shrew that covers all their furnishings in plastic? A simple sign on the front door can be a big help. There are several simple “Please Remove Shoes” signs available. Or, you can go with something humorous like this "Life is full of choices. Remove shoes or scrub the floor." sign. It also helps to have a specific place to take off and place shoes. Leaving a basket of various clean and comfortable-looking slippers by the door helps send the no shoes message while also providing a considerate amenity to your guests.

So kick off those shoes, put up your feet and enjoy your greener, cleaner home.

Green Home Improvements

A home is a constant work in progress. There is always something to rearrange, repair, replace, update. With some careful planning and a little creativity you can bring the same eco-consciousness you use in your everyday lifestyle choices to your home improvements.

Whatever your home improvement project, start by considering what materials you can obtain used or salvaged. Check online for sources of salvaged building materials near you or visit one of Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores which sell new and gently used building materials, appliances, furniture and home improvement items that have been donated. You can even check Craigslist for used flooring, fixtures, housewares, and tools you may need for your project. You’ll save money and help keep these items out of landfills.

Fortunately, environmentally-friendly home products are becoming more popular. So, if you are buying new materials you have several more options for green materials than you would have had just a few years ago.

For countertops there are several great-looking green options, including green laminates which are made from recycled materials and formaldehyde-free substrate, paper composite countertops made from post-consumer recycled paper and a resin binder, and highly durable countertops made from recycled plastics. For more details on green countertop options, check out the U.S. Green Building Council's Buyer’s Guide to Green Countertop Materials.

Carpets made of wool (a renewable and biodegradable resource) and other natural materials (such as plant fibers, jute, and seagrass) are greener options than traditional carpet which is made of synthetic materials and backed by SB latex, a petroleum product that contains the toxin styrene and is a suspected carcinogen. Keep an eye out as more companies come out with eco-friendly options made from recycled products like recycled plastics and organic materials like corn.

Bamboo is a good-looking and durable green flooring options. It comes from trees that have stopped giving fruit and grow back much quicker than old-growth forest trees. Other durable green flooring options include cork and natural linoleum (a long lasting material made from natural ingredients such as linseed oil, wood resins, cork, limestone, and jute).

Paint is a great inexpensive way to give a room a whole new look, but traditional paints contain harmful ingredients that are damaging to human health and the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paints, stains, and other architectural coatings are the second-largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles. When looking for low-VOC paints seek out products certified by a third party such as Green Seal and make sure that the VOC levels are measured after the tints are added. For wood and concrete stains, opt for soy- or other plant-based stains. If you're feeling adventurous, try paint made of earth-based materials like clay and lime.

Many home improvement projects can even serve the added purpose of reducing your home’s carbon footprint. Updating or replacing drafty windows, adding insulation, upgrading to energy-efficient appliances, and switching to high-efficiency water fixtures are all great green home improvements. For more ideas check out 13 Steps to A Greener Home

Natural Solutions for Common Hair Problems

Dry hair. Oily hair. Dandruff. Thinning hair. For every hair problem there are several solutions available in the health and beauty aisle. Instead of sorting through all those products, many of which we know contain some pretty unsavory ingredients, you can look to your pantry for some all-natural, do-it-yourself solutions.

First, start with a healthy hair diet. Basically, what's good for your body and overall health is good for your hair. Stick with a balanced diet of unprocessed foods – veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, and good fats found in foods like walnuts, olive and canola oil, and fatty cold-water fish. Then, try these home remedies for your specific hair dilemma.

Dry Hair
Dry hair can result from a variety of reasons – harsh shampoo, over-shampooing, styling products, high heat from styling tools, sun, etc. Before trying to treat dry, damaged hair, consider why it's dry and damaged. To protect your hair from any further damage avoid over-shampooing (those with coarse hair can get away with shampooing once or twice a week), use a mild, sulfate-free shampoo, condition after every shampooing, wear hats to protect hair from wind and sun, get regular trims, wear a swim cap or rub olive oil onto hair before swimming in chlorinated or salt water, and always brush hair gently. Heat from blow dryers and curling/straightening irons is probably the leading cause of dry hair, so use only the minimum amount of heat needed to style your hair and allow your hair to air dry as often as possible.

Most homemade dry hair remedies can be found right in your kitchen. Mayonnaise and eggs are probably the two most popular home treatments for dry hair. With mayonnaise, simply slather a tablespoon or two of full fat mayonnaise onto your hair and gently massage it into your scalp. Leave it on for 30 minutes and then shampoo and condition as usual. To add some shine with eggs, beat an egg with a bit of tepid water and massage the mixture into your hair and scalp. Then rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water (any hotter and you risk cooking the egg on your head).

You can use vinegar to clean and condition your hair into a healthy shine. Simply rinse with apple cider vinegar after your usual hair washing and conditioning routine. You can use beer the same way. Both will leave your hair shiny and, whether you use vinegar or beer, the smell will subside completely once your hair is dry.

For a yummy smelling hair mask mash up overripe banana and avocado and work it into your hair. Leave it on for at least half an hour and rinse with warm water.

For very coarse dry hair you can even try rubbing oil (olive, grapeseed, or coconut) onto your scalp, working it though the ends of your hair, and letting it sit for at least half an hour before shampooing.

Limp or Oily Hair
If you have oily hair, make sure you are rinsing your shampoo out thoroughly. Any shampoo left on hair can attract more oil and dirt. If you do use conditioner, apply only a small amount to the ends, never near the scalp. Also, avoid brushing or touching your hair too much.

Baking soda is great at cutting grease. Add 1 to 3 tablespoons to your regular shampoo and massage it into your hair to really get the oil and dirt out. Then wash and condition as usual.

A vinegar rinse can help remove built up hair products and excess oil from your hair. Just add some vinegar to your final shampoo rinse. If that is not enough, mix two parts water with one part vinegar (distilled white or apple cider) in a spray bottle, apply thoroughly to hair after shampooing, and leave on for 5 to 10 minutes before rinsing. A mixture of equal parts water and lemon juice can be used the same way.

Vinegar can also help treat dandruff. In this case, you massage the vinegar onto your scalp before shampooing. Do this every time you shampoo until the dandruff is gone. Going forward you can make your own dandruff-preventing conditioner by mixing two parts water with one part vinegar.

You can also try adding either crushed aspirin or baking soda to your shampoo, massaging the mixture onto your scalp, and leaving it on for a few minutes before rinsing and washing with regular shampoo.

Thinning Hair/Hair Loss
While harsh hair products and treatments can damage hair, they do not cause hair loss. Hair loss is caused by internal factors such as nutrition, stress, hormones, and illness. If the following dietary recommendations don't work, your hair loss may be an indication of an underlying medical condition so consult a doctor.

First, consider if you're getting enough iron in your diet. Many women are anemic and don't even know it. Some iron-rich foods are egg yolks, dark leafy greens, beans and lentils, and red meat. Consuming these foods with foods rich in vitamin C aids in absorption. Also important to healthy hair growth is vitamin B12. It's found in eggs, meat, and poultry, but if your hair is already thinning due to a B12 deficiency, you need a supplement to restore levels and curb hair loss.

Another B vitamin, biotin, is absolutely essential for hair growth. It is found in foods like liver and egg yolks, but it's hard to get enough to help hair (as well as skin and nails) without a supplement. The recommended daily intake (RDI) of biotin is 300 mcg, but hair loss doctors recommend 2 mg to 3 mg of biotin a day for those suffering from hair loss. Hair loss experts usually also recommend a nutrient called methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). It's another building block of healthy hair and skin. The recommended dose of MSM is 700 mg a day.

If you want to go beyond nutritional supplementation and try an herbal remedy for hair loss, there is some evidence that saw palmetto is effective in treating hair loss. This herb is strong enough to effect androgen pathways, so discuss with your doctor first. A safer option may be green tea. The jury is still out on its effectiveness, but green tea does have many health benefits, including being a good source of antioxidants, so it can't hurt to try.

May you have many good hair days ahead of you!