September 27, 2012

Getting Your Whole Family Outside This Fall

Last Saturday marked the first day of autumn, my favorite season. As Carol Bishop Hipps put it, it's “the mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause between the opposing miseries of summer and winter.”

I hope you all take the time go out and enjoy this most splendid season. Getting outside and into nature is an important part of keeping everyone in your family happy and healthy. In fact, a University of Illinois study found that children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder were able to raise their attentiveness scores simply by taking a walk outside. Not surprisingly, walks in natural settings had an even more significant impact than walking on city streets.

Being in nature can benefit your whole family's mental, emotional, and physical well-being, so here are some ideas to get you and your whole family outside this fall.

Visit a farm. Check out LocalHarvest.org for farms near you.

Try a hay or corn maze.

Go apple picking or search for the perfect pumpkin. Check out pickyourown.org to find a pick-your-own farm near you.

Go on a hay ride.

Jump in the leaves.

Create artwork from the leaves, acorns, and pine cones available in your yard or a nearby park. Click here for fall craft ideas and directions.

Round up the neighborhood for a game of touch or flag football.

Play outdoor games like freeze tag, Red Rover, hopscotch and Kick The Can.

Fly a kite.

Visit a local park.

Plant a tree. Many people don't realize that planting isn't just a springtime activity. The fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs as well as flower bulbs like daffodils, crocus, and tulips.

Visit the zoo. Fall (and even winter) is a great time to visit the zoo. Summer's heat keeps many animals hidden in their cool, shady spots. Cooler temperatures mean more animals roaming about for easy viewing.

Visit state and national parks in your area. Many offer great family-friendly activities.

Go on a nature expedition at a local park, in your yard, or around your neighborhood. Bring along binoculars, a magnifying class, and a journal (young children can draw pictures of what they see) and teach your kids how to observe, enjoy and appreciate nature without disturbing it.

Make a nature journal. Have your kids decorate a notebook they can carry with them to note what they observe when they're outside. Even young kids can keep a nature journal by drawing what they see.

Explore the wonderful world of bugs. Check your local library for books about bugs and then head outside with a magnifying glass to see what you can find and identify.

Learn about birds. Check out some library books or use the online bird guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then get outside with some binoculars and that nature journal and see what you can find.

Set up an outdoor scavenger hunt. The Love The Outdoors website offers a great guide to setting up your own scavenger hunt for kids, along with a few sample lists to get you started.

Have a picnic (even if it's in your own yard).

Start an outdoor hobby together. The options are limitless – biking, fishing, hiking, canoeing/kayaking, horseback riding, etc.

Build a fort. Use these simple directions from wikiHow or get fancy with these instructions from This Old House.

Go letterboxing. Letterboxing is an outdoor activity that dates back to the 1800s. It combines elements of orienteering, hiking, art, and puzzle solving. Participants search for letterboxes hidden in public places, such as parks, by following clues from a catalog or web site. These letterboxes usually contain a notebook and a rubber stamp. Finders stamp their personal journal with that stamp to record their find and then leave their personal stamp in the letterbox's log book. Your own local parks and recreation department may have a program or you can check out one of the many web sites available to help you get started. If you'd prefer a more high tech treasure hunt involving gps tracking, try Geocaching.

Learn about the solar system. Kidsastronomy.com has several great resources you can check out before heading outside to connect the constellations together.



September 24, 2012

Eating Seasonally This Fall

Buying local is a great way to get fresh, healthy food that hasn’t been chemically modified to keep its appearance after traveling half way around the world. Buying local means buying seasonal . . . purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season in your area. By buying in season you get the freshest, best-tasting produce at the best price, while eliminating the environmental damage caused by shipping food thousands of miles.

You can better plan your meals around what’s in season with the seasonal produce guide available from Natural Resources Defense Council.

Now that fall is on its way, we here in the northeast can look forward to the following fruits and vegetables coming into season: Apples, Asian Pears, Beets, Blackberries, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cantaloupes, Carrots, Cauliflower, Celery, Corn, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Onions, Peaches, Peas, Pears, Potatoes, Pumpkins, Radishes, Raspberries, Snap Peas, Spinach, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelon.

Eating seasonally is a great reason to try new foods. Check out the seasonal recipe guides from Allrecipes, Cooking Light, Epicurious, and The Food Network. Martha Stewart's Seasonal Produce Recipe Guide, in addition to offering seasonal recipes, lets you know what produce is in season, what to look for when selecting a particular type of produce, and how it should be stored.

Try eating seasonally. Your taste buds, wallet, and planet will thank you.


September 20, 2012

The Greenest Water Bottle

If you read Drinking Green, you know that swapping bottled water for tap water is healthier for you, the environment, and your wallet. A quick recap for those who missed it: Unlike bottled water, tap water is regularly tested with the test results openly reported. So by replacing bottled water with a reusable bottle filled with tap water you can be sure that you're getting properly purified water, save about $1400 a year, help cut back on the 47 million barrels of oil used every year to manufacture disposable plastic water bottles, and keep at least some of those bottles which take 450 years to break down out of landfills.

But which kind of reusable water bottle is best? Greenest? Here are some tips to help you find your own eco-friendly water bottle.

Consider durability. Make sure to buy a reusable bottle that will last because it's only being green if you actually use it in place of disposable bottles the majority of the time. You may need one bottle for the office or running errands and another for more rigorous activities. And if you're going to try keeping one in the car, make sure it fits into your cup holders.

Make sure your bottle is BPA-free. Bisphenol A (BPA) is a substance used to make plastic food containers firm. It also happens to be a hormone disruptor (a fact known since the 1930s) linked to an assortment of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, early puberty in girls, low sperm counts in men, reproductive problems, liver disease, and asthma. If you're shopping for a plastic or aluminum bottle, look for a label that says BPA-free. Otherwise, it's likely to contain BPA. Stainless steel bottles are always BPA-free.

Plastics Bottles. Plastic reusable bottles are lighter and easier to use for sports than metal bottles. While they take fewer resources to produce than metal bottles, they are not as durable as stainless steel. Bottles made with plastic no. 3, no.6, and no. 7 polycarbonate contain BPA. Plastics with recycling codes 2, 4, and 5 are considered safer.

Metal Bottles. Metal water bottles are very durable, making them great for everyday use. Since aluminum is reactive, aluminum water bottles must contain a liner to prevent leaching. It is those liners that may contain BPA. Also, lined aluminum bottles are not recyclable. Stainless steel, on the other hand, has been used in the food industry for a very long time and has proven to be durable and safe, without any impact on taste. Plus, stainless steel can be cost-effectively recycled compared to plastic which is typically only recycled into a lesser product.

Best Choice. If you can only buy one reusable water bottle, stainless steel is your best option. It does not leach any harmful chemicals, lets water retain its taste, and has the smallest carbon footprint of all your reusable water bottle options.

Still, ANY reusable bottle is a better option than bottled water. So, find the bottle you like best and will use consistently. Then raise it up and toast to your health, saving money, and protecting the environment.


September 17, 2012

Greener, Safer Kids' Toys

Every parent hopes to provide the best for their child. Parents want to give children toys that will entertain and enrich their minds, not ones that can harm them and the environment we work so hard to protect for them.

Toys considered “greener” are safer for children (especially the very young ones who put things in their mouths), are made of more sustainable materials, and are manufactured in way that produces less environmental waste and pollution. Here's what to look for when seeking greener, safer toys for your child.

Start with the best toy of all . . . imagination. Your home is already stocked with things your child can play with. Add a wooden spoon to a few pots and pans and you have a drum kit. Old clothes make for a great dress up session. A little creativity is all you need to act out your favorite fairy tales. And never forget the endless possibilities a cardboard box holds.

Crafts are another great way to get kids using their imagination. A few simple supplies like non-toxic paints, glue and scissors can help your little artist transform boxes, paper rolls, used paper and cardboard, pine cones, rocks, leaves, and such into their own masterpiece. Before throwing anything away think of how you might be able to use it in an arts and crafts project. If you're not particularly crafty, there are plenty of books at the library full of ideas. Put together an “invention box” with paper holders, bottle caps, leftover bits of ribbon and yarn, left over art supplies, etc. and see what your child's imagination comes up with.

Who needs toys when you have the whole great outdoors to play with? A University of Illinois study found that children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder were able to raise their attentiveness scores simply by taking a walk outside. Being in nature can benefit your whole family's mental, emotional, and physical well-being. You can plant a garden together, go on a nature walk right in your own neighborhood, hit the playground, or play something as simple as tag or hide and seek.

When you are looking to purchase toys consider buying used. There are great deals to be found in thrift stores and on eBay, Craigslist, and Freecycle. Many consignment stores will check for recalls for you or you can check the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission web site yourself before making a purchase. Buying secondhand toys saves you money and helps keep perfectly good toys out of landfills.

When purchasing new toys, take into consideration the toy's durability and longevity. You want toys that are solidly constructed so you don't have to buy a replacement after a short time. A multi-faceted toy that can be used in multiple ways (think blocks and simple dolls and cars) will last much longer than a gadget toy that only performs one function. Long lasting toys save you money and cut down on trash.

Avoid toys made with polyvinyl chloride (i.e., PVC or vinyl). PVC releases toxins into the environment through every step of its life cycle – from manufacturing to disposal. Many PVC toys also contain phthalates, hormone-disruptors with strong links to cancer. Opt for plastic-free toys made of wood, cloth, wool, or paper.

Avoid metal kids' jewelry and toys with small metal pieces or magnets. These items are perpetually being recalled due to lead content or paint. Despite all the recalls, a study by the Center for Environmental Health found that many of these products still on shelves are also tainted with lead. Even if lead is not an issue, there are still other toxic metals, such as cadmium, antimony and barium, being used to make imported kids' jewelry.

Toys made of wood, on the other hand, are a great idea. Wood toys last much longer than plastic ones and, so long as they are not treated or painted, they are safer for young children to chew on. Toys made of bamboo are a particularly good option because bamboo is a fast-growing renewable resource that requires no pesticides and little water.

Thanks to its excessive use of pesticides, cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop. Not exactly what you want your little ones snuggling up with. When selecting fabric toys, like stuffed animals, opt for ones made from organic and naturally-dyed cotton, bamboo, or wool whenever possible.

It's one thing to say avoid toys made with PVC or painted with lead paint and quite another thing to actually try and figure out what toys are made of. Toys today do not include an ingredient list on their labels, which can make the shopping process difficult and worrisome for parents. Especially when you consider that about one third of the 1,500 toys tested by the Ecology Center contained medium to high levels of toxic chemicals. Fortunately, sites like GoodGuide.com and HealthyStuff.org provide a tremendous resource for conscientious toy shoppers.

The scientists from GoodGuide.com have analyzed data taken from numerous sources and rated toys based on environmental, social, and health attributes. You can use this online database to view the top- and bottom-rated toys in various toy categories or look up a specific item. If your item is included in the database (and it is a good-size database), it will let you know if the item contains lead, mercury, chlorine, or other unwanted chemicals.

HealthyStuff.org has tested thousands of toys since 2007. This online database, created by the nonprofit The Ecology Center, is based on research conducted by environmental health organizations and other researchers throughout the U.S. and includes information on over 8,300 products. Each product tested is given an overall rating, as well as an individual chemical rating for cadmium, chlorine, lead, arsenic, bromine, mercury and, for some product categories, tin.

Once you find a company that offers green, safe toys you and your child like, stick with them. Today even companies like Amazon and Toys R Us have an Eco-Friendly or Green toy category. They wouldn't do so if there wasn't a market for it. By continuing to demand safe toys for our children we can continue to increase this market until the day when all toys will be green toys.


September 13, 2012

Food Additives to Avoid

A truly healthy diet consists of a variety of whole, unprocessed foods. That means eating real pieces of fruit rather than “fruit flavored” products and whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa and barley instead of “made with whole grains” goods. It means eating an actual snap pea instead of a snap pea that's been freeze dried, disintegrated into flakes, processed, and reconstituted into a snap pea-shaped chip-like snack product.

When food came from the farm or small, local grocers eating whole, unprocessed foods was easy. Now that so many of our foods are processed, packaged, and shipped by major conglomerates it has become harder to avoid food additives – substances, like preservatives and coloring, added to food to alter its appearance, enhance taste, or increase shelf life. While food additives contain little or no nutritional value, several of them can have harmful effects on human health.

While it's nearly impossible to avoid processed foods completely, it is a good idea to at least avoid these additives which conclusive studies have found to be harmful:

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT). BHA and BHT are antioxidant preservatives used to help keep oils and fats from going bad. They're most commonly found in cereals, chips, and vegetable oil products. Multiple studies have shown these substances to cause cancer in rats, mice, and hamsters. Some will argue that those cancers occurred in the forestomach, an organ that humans do not have, but the scientific standard holds that any chemical that causes cancer in at least one organ in three different species demonstrates a likely possibility of being carcinogenic in humans. That is why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has classified BHA and BHT as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

Food Dyes/Artificial Coloring. Food dyes are used in a variety of processed foods, from fruit snacks and candy to baked goods, cereal, and sausages. Although artificial coloring has been used for years, its use has increased fivefold in the past 50 years. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has reported that Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Yellow No. 6 and Red No. 4 have been found to contain cancer-causing properties. As if that wasn't enough, food dyes have been shown to cause hyperactivity and ADHD in children. Of most concern are Red No. 4, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6, which account for 90% of the food dyes found in food today. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to make any determination as to whether certain foods with artificial coloring should be banned or made to include a warning label.

Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is created when food manufacturers transform liquid vegetable oil into a semi-solid shortening by reacting it with hydrogen. This process creates trans fats, which have been proven to increase bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, and make blood vessels less flexible, thus increasing blood pressure and promoting heart disease. The FDA has stated that gram-for-gram trans fat is more harmful than saturated fat. And a Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that trans fat caused about 50,000 premature heart attack deaths annually. Nutrition labels must, by law, list the amount of trans fat per serving, but labeling regulations allow for some deception. A food containing 0.49 grams per serving or less of trans fats can be labeled "0 grams trans fat.” Only the label "no trans fat" actually means no trans fats at all. Since both the American Heart Association and the Institute of Medicine have advised consumers to consume no more than 2 grams of trans fats a day, it is important to read labels carefully. One can quickly exceed that 2 gram limit by eating just a few “0 grams trans fat” foods.

Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG is a flavor enhancer and preservative used in a variety of packaged and canned foods, including soups, canned meats, salad dressing, chips, frozen entrees, and restaurant foods. It can be listed on labels as "natural flavoring" or "glutamic acid." One study dating back to the 1960s found that, when administered in large amounts, MSG destroyed nerve cells in the brains of baby mice. More recently, a report by the Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine states that MSG promotes the growth and spread of cancer cells within the body. The report also suggests a link between MSG and sudden cardiac death. Finally, a study reported in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Autoimmunity linked MSG with obesity and inflammation within the body, particularly the liver.

Olestra. Olestra is a calorie-free synthetic fat that cannot be absorbed as it passes through the digestive system. It is most commonly found in fat-free or reduced-fat chips. Olestra can cause digestive problems, such as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and flatulence. It can also interfere with the body's ability to absorb fat-soluble carotenoids (which help reduce cancer and heart disease risk) from fruits and vegetables. Although the law allows products made with olestra to be labeled “fat free”, they actually contain substantial amounts of indigestible fat. Healthier alternatives are baked chips and snack foods, which are still crunchy and lower in fat and calories without any of the unpleasant side effects.

Potassium Bromate. Potassium Bromate is an additive used to help activate flour and increase the volume of bread. It has been banned in just about every industrialized country except the U.S. and Japan. It is rarely used in California where a cancer warning would be required on the label. The concern is that while most bromate quickly breaks down into harmless bromide, a tiny amount of bromate may remain in bread and bromate itself has been shown to promote kidney and thyroid cancer in animals. Due to this risk, many millers and bakers over the past decade have stopped using bromate.

Sodium Nitrite/Sodium Nitrate. Sodium nitrite and nitrate are preservatives that enhance the color and flavor of processed meats like bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats, smoked fish, and corned beef. While no studies have definitively shown nitrites and nitrates to cause cancer, researchers have found that adding nitrite to a food as a preservative can promote the formation of cancer-causing chemicals in that food, particularly in fried bacon. Companies now add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to bacon to inhibit those chemicals and this measure has ameliorated the problem. While the risk of cancer is small, studies haven't proven conclusive and it is still advised that those more susceptible to the risk, such as children and pregnant women, avoid consuming cured meats processed with sodium nitrite/nitrate. And since nitrites and nitrates are primarily found in fatty, salty foods, most people would be best advised to keep consumption to a minimum.

This brings up a good point. Simply avoiding these food additives does not make for a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Avoiding processed foods is only one part of a healthy lifestyle. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar and salt can be more harmful than all these additives combined. Yes, it's best to avoid certain additives, but the best thing you can do for your health is follow the golden rule of healthy eating (and living) . . . Everything in moderation!

September 10, 2012

Sustainable Seafood Guide

Seafood can be an integral part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Many fish are a good source of lean protein, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids (an essential nutrient that helps boost immunity and reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other diseases). Yet, for all the nutritional value of seafood, fishing is having a devastating impact on our ocean ecosystems. Over the past 50 years advances in fishing technology have allowed people to fish farther, deeper and more efficiently than ever before leading to the depletion of as much as 90% of the large predatory fish (shark, swordfish, cod, etc.) from the world's oceans.

While overfishing is threatening our food supply and marine economies, oceanic pollution is threatening our health. A lot of seafood is contaminated with metals like mercury, industrial chemicals like PCBs, and pesticides. These toxins usually originate on land and make their way into the smallest plants and animals which then get eaten by bigger species. Contaminants continue to accumulate up the food chain so the largest fish, like swordfish and shark, end up with the greatest concentration of toxins.

By making better informed decisions we can help protect our oceans and our health. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program researches and evaluates seafood products for sustainability and then develops recommendations to help consumers and businesses make ocean-friendly seafood choices. You can use their online database, print out a pocket guide, or get recommendations on your mobile device.

Don't eat seafood, but take a fish oil supplement for the health benefits? Mercury, PCB and dioxin contamination is a risk for you too. Fortunately, the Environmental Defense Fund investigated the purifying process of 75 of the most popular fish oil supplements. Make sure your brand comes from one of the companies purifying their fish oils to meet stringent safety standards.



September 4, 2012

The Farm Stay Vacation

Consider making your next family vacation a “haycation” by booking a farm stay. Already common in Europe and Australia, farm stays are garnering greater interest in the U.S. as more people are looking for ways to connect with nature, simpler times, and local food sources.

Simply put, a farm stay means reserving accommodations on a working farm or ranch. The accommodations may be a room in a farmhouse or other farm building that's been converted for company; or, you may get to pick your own camping spot on the farm. The experience varies from farm to farm. Some are geared towards families with young children, while others are more adult-oriented. Some involve daily chores and activities, while others simply offer classes and demonstrations for those interested. Bottom line: You won't have to put in a full day's work as a farmhand to earn your keep.

If the thought of starting your day by gathering eggs for a down-home breakfast and ending your day sitting in a rocking chair watching the sun set over the fields appeals to you, check out farmstayus.com  or farmvisit.com for more information on booking your very own farm stay vacation.