Shock and Ossify: Raw Fig and Cherry Bars
[Yep, another raw bar. . . and so soon! But there's a good reason. . . ]
Well, it’s finally happened: after years of needless anxiety before every annual medical check-up (only to be told each time that nothing’s wrong). . . this time, something was wrong. And I must admit, I’m shocked.
When I saw my doctor a few weeks ago, she sent me off for all the standard tests appropriate for “someone my age.” Then yesterday at the call-back appointment, I was informed that I have osteopenia. Sounds scary initially: osteopenia is the (potential) precursor to osteoporosis, as the word means “thinning of the bones.” Osteoporosis means “porous bones” and is a greater danger.
Even as she was speaking, questions caromed around in my mind: What, exactly, does this mean? Doesn’t everyone experience thinning of the bones as they age? How serious is my situation?–etc. Apparently, the test, called DEXA (“Dual Energy X-Ray Absorption”) works by measuring the density of my bones and comparing it against the bones of an imaginary 25 year-old woman (the “gold standard,” as my doctor says. But hey, shouldn’t that be the “greyish-white” standard?). Statistically, my bones were a 1.3 per cent standard deviation from that (no idea what that means). A 2.5 per cent deviation equals “osteoporosis.” When I asked how I compare to other women my age, she noted that I was still a bit below average.
Now, I simply cannot express how much this news ticks me off! I mean, isn’t being fat good for anything these days?? One of the health issues I never (I mean, never) considered as a possibility was osteoporosis; you see, being overweight is actually a preventative in that area (bones rebuild and strengthen in accordance with ”weight-bearing exercise,” and I have definitely been bearing excess weight the past few years.). I do, however, have some of the other risk factors (such as being female).
Well, I’m trying not to get overly stressed about this (stress, as it turns out, is one of the factors that contributes to bone loss. Bien sûr). Even my doctor noted that, should nothing change over the next few years, she wouldn’t give it another thought; it would only be considered a problem if I keep losing bone density.
This shocking diagnosis got me moving (in the sense of ”getting hyped up,” though of course also in the sense of “walking more”–gotta increase that exercise now!). I pulled out a bunch of my old texts from nutrition school and started reading. Seems that the absolute amount of calcium and other essential bone-building nutrients is irrelevant, if you’re not digesting them properly. Bad digestion=malabsorption=too few minerals in the bloodstream (at which point your opportunistic bloodstream leaches them out of your bones, teeth, and whatever else it can find–the nerve!). In other words, you can consume calcium out the yin-yang, but if your body isn’t absorbing it properly, you may as well be eating matchsticks (actually, no, don’t do that–too much sulfur isn’t good, either).
A highly acidic diet (as in, “those heinous, calcium-siphoning, bone-sucking junk foods and chocolate bars that have wooed me too many times in the past”) will also cause you to lose minerals from the bone (chocolate is a particular culprit, apparently, as it contains both caffeine AND refined sugar–both mineral-leachers). And believe it or not, meats and most dairy products are equally bad, as they are also highly acidic (too bad I grew up in a household where we ate meat every day, usually more than once). Oh, and let’s not forget that surreptitious bone-stealer: stress. So, in a contest to see who possesses the most negative traits contributing to malabsorption–well, all I can say is, “Yay! I finally won a contest!”
So now I have a real reason to eat better and exercise more: unlike my Stone-Age ancestors, I am partial to walking upright, and would prefer to retain that ability.
For those of you who are interested, you can prevent (and some even say reverse) osteopenia with the proper diet. This includes ingesting sufficient calcium, of course (think green leafys, almonds, legumes, figs, blackstrap molasses and, if you’re so inclined, sardines, salmon and yogurt); sufficient Vitamin D (at least 10 minutes of sunshine per day, or 1000 IU in supplement form); lots of magnesium (green leafys and beans/legumes again), and a complement of other vitamins and minerals, such as B’s, K, and boron, in smaller quantities. Basically, a diet high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. Because it’s been a while since I practised nutrition directly, I’ll be heading for a trip to my naturopath next week to see what she has to say. And this will mean a bunch of new, ultra-healthy recipes on the blog!
All this got me thinking about Susan at Food Blogga’s “Beautiful Bones” event in honor of National Osteoporosis Month. I’d actually been planning to submit this very entry to Susan. Now, however, I’m also motivated to go make another batch, just for me. (Oh, and Susan also offers a list of calcium-rich foods on her event page.)
I came up with this recipe when I first started teaching cooking classes a few years ago. Each of the classes was assigned a theme, such as ”Glorious Greens,” “Tricks with Tofu” (foods, not making it disappear), or “Great and Gluten-Free.” One class, called “Bone Builders” (which now sounds to me more like an architectural firm on The Flintstones), was the impetus for these bars. They were a great hit with the cooking classes, and later, a popular seller at the organic market where I sold baked goods for a few years. And since they were designed specifically to improve bone health, these treats seem the perfect contribution to Susan’s event.
In the past few years, I’ve discovered that these are terrific as a mid-day energy booster, a great portable lunch on the go, or a substitute for trail mix. You can keep a wrapped bar in your drawer at work for an emergency nibble, or bring it along during a walk through the woods. Once made and wrapped, the bars will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge (they have honestly never lasted that long over here). With a texture like that of a protein bar you’d buy at the store, these are much more flavorful, with tart lemon peel, dried cherries accented by sweet dried fig, and the crackly, popping crunch of fig seeds alongside ground almonds. They’re very filling and a fabulous bar to have on hand.
When I first created these, I ran a quick nutritional analysis to ensure that they’d provide a meaningful boost of calcium. Courtesy of almonds (the nut with highest calcium levels), dried figs (the fruit with highest calcium levels), tahini (made from sesame seeds–yep, the seed with highest calcium levels) and sour cherries (no slouch in the calcium department), these bars are a powerhouse of bone-building minerals. The stats confirmed my expectation: each bar offers 140 mg. of calcium per bar (about 1/10 of the daily requriement) along with 6 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber (bonus!). I’m not sure how much deviation that represents from the statistical norm, but no matter–they’re delicious all the same.
[EDIT, January 2012: I finally took my own advice in 2010 and embarked on a year-long quest to improve my bone density, with the help of my naturopath, a changed diet, and more exercise. Read about how I reversed the bone deteroriation here.]
Raw Fig and Cherry Bars
These are deliciously chewy and not too sweet. If you can find organic UNsweetened dried cherries (the kind that are very tart), they are really the best choice. If you can’t find them, you may wish to reduce, or even omit, the agave nectar.
2 cups ( 290 g.) raw natural almonds
1/4 cup (30 g.) finely ground flax seeds
finely grated peel of 2 organic lemons
1-1/4 cups (190-200 g.) quartered dried figs, stems removed (measure after removing stems)
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) to 1/4 cup (60 ml.) agave nectar, to taste (and depending on how dry the mixture is)
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) raw tahini (or regular, if you’re not concerned about the bars being raw)
1 cup (120-130 g.) organic dried tart cherries, unsweetened
Lightly grease a 9″ x 9″ (about 20cm x 20 cm.) pan, or line with plastic wrap (I prefer the plastic wrap option).
In the bowl of a food processor (this recipe won’t work in a blender), combine the nuts and flaxseeds, and process until you have a fine meal that begins to adhere to the sides of the processor bowl (it will appear as if the mixture has stopped spinning round the bowl). Do not overprocess, however, or you’ll end up with nut butter!
Add the lemon peel and figs, and process again until well blended and the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add remaining ingredients and process briefly to chop the cherries and create a moist “dough” (it will form a ball). Pinch a bit of the mixture between your fingers to test the consistency. If it sticks together and feels slightly moist, it’s ready.
Turn the mixture into the pan and press down very firmly with your fist or the back of a metal spatula. The mixture should be very compact and solid.
Refrigerate until firm, about an hour, or at least 20 minutes. Cut into 12 bars and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or wrap each bar individually in plastic wrap. The bars will keep refrigerated for up to two weeks.
Per bar: 140 mg. calcium, 5 g. protein, 5 g. fiber
[This recipe will also appear in my upcoming cookbook, Sweet Freedom, along with more than 100 others, most of which are not featured on this blog. For more information, check the "Cookbook" button at right, or visit the cookbook blog.]