Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club

The Olive Oil Hunter News #154

Bountiful Breakfast Quesadillas Recipe, Spotlight on Whole-Grains, The Cake Lifter, and The Mental and Physical Effects of Poor Sleep

Eat more whole grains—it’s at the top of most of our New Year’s health resolutions, yet it’s often so difficult to do. First, there’s the common misconception that whole grains aren’t as tasty as refined ones. Then there’s the problem of confusing package labels that don’t accurately describe what’s inside. This edition of The Olive Oil Hunter Newsletter homes in on the problem with easy fixes, starting with a delicious quesadilla—a great way to start your day! 

Bountiful Breakfast Quesadillas

  • Bountiful Breakfast Quesadillas Bountiful Breakfast Quesadillas

    This take on a quesadilla makes a festive presentation for brunch, and you can customize it with ingredients you love best.


    • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 onion, finely diced 
    • 1 bell pepper, any color, seeded and finely diced 
    • 1 chile pepper, such as a poblano or a jalapeño, seeded and finely diced 
    • 6 eggs
    • 4 corn or whole-wheat tortillas 
    • 1-1/2 cups grated Manchego, Monterey Jack, or cheddar cheese, or a combination 
    • 1 cup black beans
    • 1 avocado, cut into thin slices
    • Your favorite salsa


    Step 1

    Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add two tablespoons of olive oil, the onions, and peppers. Sauté until the onions soften and turn a light brown. Whisk the eggs and add them to the pan; cook to a soft scramble.

    Step 2

    Heat a griddle over medium heat. When hot, drizzle on the remaining olive oil. Place two of the tortillas side by side on the griddle and layer on the ingredients, in this order, divided between the two: half of the cheese, the scrambled eggs, beans, avocado slices, and then the rest of the cheese. Top with the remaining tortillas and press down gently with a large spatula or cake lifter (see Quick Kitchen Nugget in Newsletter #154). 

    Step 3

    When the bottoms of the tortillas brown and the bottom layer of cheese has melted, flip them and continue cooking until the other cheese layer has melted. Transfer the quesadillas back to your cutting board and cut them into quarters. Serve with salsa as desired.

    Yields 4 servings

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight: Choosing Whole-Grain Tortillas 

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight

Choosing Whole-Grain Tortillas 

An easy way to get more whole grains and fiber is to use corn or whole-wheat tortillas in place of the traditional white flour kind. But it’s still important to read the list of ingredients to be sure you’re getting 100% of the grain (see For Your Best Health below for more) and choose brands with the least salt and additives. 

Quick Kitchen Nugget: The Cake Lifter

Quick Kitchen Nugget

The Cake Lifter

Picture a spatula the size of a 9-inch or 10-inch round or square cake layer—that’s a cake lifter. And it’s great not only for evenly stacking cake layers and transferring baked goods from pan to serving plate, but also for flipping tortillas and other foods cooked on a griddle. They’re available from well-known cookware companies like Wilton and Nordic Ware for under $20.

For Your Best Health: Are You Really Getting Whole Grains?

For Your Best Health

Are You Really Getting Whole Grains?

We know that whole grains are healthier than refined ones because they contain all parts of the grain, including all-important fiber. But according to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, unclear or misleading labeling makes it difficult to really know what you’re getting in packaged foods. The researchers pointed out that some manufacturers use deceptive labeling tactics, like putting the words “whole grain” in the product name or listing the amount of whole grains present but not what percentage of total grains that represents. A product with a vague callout, like “made with whole grain,” may contain only minuscule amounts. And there’s no current government policy that requires a complete disclosure. 

What can you do to shop smarter? Look for products with the “100% Whole Grain Stamp” from the Whole Grains Council. This indicates that the food contains a full serving or more of whole grain in each labeled serving and that all the grain is whole grain. Whole-grain products not yet using this symbol may list the grams of whole grain somewhere on the package or use words like “100% whole wheat.” You can also look for the “50%+ Stamp” on products; it means that each serving of the food is at least half whole grain, with a minimum of 8 grams. There’s also the “Basic Stamp”these products have at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving but overall may contain more refined grains than whole grains.

Fitness Flash Icon: The Mental and Physical Effects of Poor Sleep 

Fitness Flash

The Mental and Physical Effects of Poor Sleep 

Missing out on needed sleep often leaves us dragging through the next day. But it can also take a mental toll that we often fail to appreciate. That’s because a good night’s sleep prepares us for activity and helps us be more productive, while not getting enough sleep affects how well we do at tasks that require attention, memory, and executive functioning, including driving safely. Many people now rely on so-called readiness scores given by their fitness and sleep trackers to let them know how restorative (or not) their sleep was, but they were designed to predict physical performance and may not tell you how you’ll perform cognitively. 

A group of scientists decided to test how well cognitive function tracked with physical function. Professor Michael Chee, MBBS, Assistant Professor Stijn Massar, PhD, and Alyssa Ng, PhD student, of the Centre for Sleep and Cognition at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine of the National University of Singapore, asked 119 university students to report their mood, motivation, and sleepiness after waking and before going to bed daily for between two and six weeks. Sleep was measured with Oura rings and cross-referenced with smartphone app-based self-reports that also captured daytime naps and their duration. 

They found that after nights with longer sleep than a given participant’s average, that person experienced a better mood, higher motivation, and lower sleepiness, and that a good night of sleep following a poor one could be helpful for restoring social functioning. For those who regularly missed out on sleep, taking naps helped ease some of the ill effects. Their findings also reinforce the idea that sleep is highly personalized, with significant differences from person to person in the amount of sleep necessary to maintain mental well-being.

“People say they know all they need about their sleep within a few weeks of using a sleep tracker, but our work suggests there is real value in continuing to measure sleep to help you judge when to push it and when to hold back in work or social settings,” said Dr. Chee, who has been a significant contributor to research evaluating the utility of wearable sleep trackers.

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The Olive Oil Hunter News #137

Savory 3-Cheese Stuffed Shells Recipe, Spotlight on Parmigiano-Reggiano, Plus Antioxidants to Help Ward Off Alzheimer’s and Making Up for Lost Sleep

Craving a hot and hearty pasta dish? My stuffed shells will surely satisfy, and they’re not as complicated to make as you might think. One essential ingredient is true Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and you may be surprised to learn that the parm you’ve been reaching for at the store isn’t the real thing! Here’s what you need to know, plus the details on two new studies, important for brain and heart health.

Savory 3-Cheese Stuffed Shells

  • Three Cheese Baked Stuffed Shells Savory 3-Cheese Stuffed Shells

    Move over, lasagna! This dish is a tasty way to get baked cheesy goodness without juggling long strips of pasta. I’m including a simple savory tomato sauce if you’d like to make your own (you can do this up to three days in advance), but a good quality store-bought one will make the prep quite fast.


    For the tomato sauce:

    • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
    • 1/2 cup chopped onion
    • One 6-ounce can tomato paste
    • 1/2 cup red wine
    • 1 20-ounce can crushed tomatoes
    • 1 teaspoon sugar
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
    • Pinch of sea salt

    For the shells:

    • 1 pound jumbo pasta shells
    • 2 teaspoons sea salt
    • 1 pound mozzarella, divided use 
    • 1 pound ricotta cheese
    • 2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided use
    • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the baking dish
    • 1 egg, beaten
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


    Step 1

    Make the sauce: Heat a large saucepan; when hot, add the olive oil, garlic, and onions, and then sauté until soft but not browned. Push the vegetables to the outside of the pan and add the tomato paste to the center; sauté the paste until it browns to release its flavors. Deglaze the pan with the red wine, then add the crushed tomatoes, sugar, oregano, and salt. Simmer for 20 minutes (or more) while you prepare the shells. 

    Step 2

    Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil and add the shells and the salt. Cook according to package directions for al dente (don’t overcook, as the shells will soften more in the oven). 

    Step 3

    While they’re boiling, line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. Preheat your oven to 375°F. Cut 12 ounces of the mozzarella into small cubes; shred the rest and set aside. Add the mozzarella cubes to a large bowl along with the ricotta, one cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, the olive oil, egg, oregano, nutmeg, and black pepper; mix thoroughly. 

    Step 4

    Drain the shells, place them on the prepared sheet pan, and use a small spoon to fill them with the cheese mixture. Lightly coat a large baking dish with olive oil and add half the sauce; use an offset spatula to spread it out evenly. Place the filled shells in the dish in rows and cover with the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle on the grated mozzarella and the rest of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese topping is thoroughly melted and slightly browned. 

    Yields 4-6 servings

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight: Burrata

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight


Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club members know about the tricks mass marketers use to sell inferior olive oils. Well, the same is true when it comes to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, with the worst offenders being producers of containers of grated Parmesan—investigations have found that often a higher-than-stated percentage of their contents is actually cellulose, adding to avoid clumping. While Parmigiano-Reggiano can be costly, it doesn’t take a lot to fill a cup when grated, and you can grate a batch easily yourself, either by hand or with the grating blade of a food processor, and then keep it in the fridge for a week or more. 

While American-made Parmesan sold in blocks is real cheese, it isn’t necessarily made according to any of the strict guidelines—including a minimum of 12 months’ aging—established in the regions of Parma and Reggio in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna. For true Parmigiano-Reggiano, not only should the label say “made in” or “from” Italy, but the rind itself should be embossed with the words Parmigiano-Reggiano in a dot pattern, visible even on the smallest wedge you buy. Look for vacuum-sealed packages if buying pre-cut wedges—Costco is a great source for this—or shop at cheese stores experienced in the best storage practices to avoid getting a piece that’s dried out. 

Quick Kitchen Nugget: Rinsing Lettuce

Quick Kitchen Nugget

Using Parmigiano-Reggiano Rinds 

Make the most of your investment in real Parmigiano-Reggiano by saving and using the rinds—they have wonderful flavor and are completely natural. What’s more, you can store them in a freezer-safe container for a year and use them directly from the freezer to flavor stews, stocks, and sauces. Use 2 ounces of rind for every cup of liquid in a recipe in order to maximize flavor. While the essence of the rind will meld into other ingredients in your pot, the rind itself won’t disappear, so remove it before serving, just as you would a bay leaf (some fans will use a spoon to scrape off and gobble up the softened cheesy parts that are left on it).

For Your Best Health: Imperfect calorie counting may be good enough

For Your Best Health

Antioxidants to Help Ward Off Alzheimer’s

A new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease by C. Kathleen Dorey, PhD, of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, found that brain levels of dietary lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene, and vitamin E in those with Alzheimer’s disease are half those in normal brains. 

“This study, for the first time, demonstrates deficits in important dietary antioxidants in Alzheimer’s brains,” says Dr. Dorey. “These results are consistent with large population studies that found risk for Alzheimer’s disease was significantly lower in those who ate diets rich in carotenoids, or had high levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in their blood, or accumulated in their retina as macular pigment … Not only that, but we believe eating carotenoid-rich diets will help keep brains in top condition at all ages.”

The brain is vulnerable to cumulative oxidative damage, which can be prevented by antioxidants from a healthy diet. Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that are commonly found in colorful plants. Lutein is especially abundant in kale and spinach, and zeaxanthin is highest in corn and orange peppers.   

Dr. Dorey and Neal E. Craft, of Craft Technologies in Wilson, North Carolina, first reported in 2004 that the brain selectively accumulated carotenoids such as lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Since then, researchers around the world have demonstrated better cognition in those with higher levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in their macular pigment and lower risk for dementia in those with highest levels of lutein and zeaxanthin in their diet or accumulated in their macular pigment. 

The Rush University Memory and Aging Project, for example, followed the diet and cognitive performance of more than 1,000 participants living in Chicago for more than a decade, assessing their intake of carotenoids, and found that those following the MIND diet with its high levels of antioxidant-rich fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fish, and lower levels of meat and sweets, had reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, higher cognitive performance before death, and less Alzheimer’s disease-related brain pathology. Moreover, those with the highest intake of total carotenoids or lutein/zeaxanthin over a decade had 50% lower risk for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Although studies had strongly suggested that carotenoids may protect the brain against damage contributing to Alzheimer’s disease, there had been no evidence that brain carotenoids correlated with the disease. The Dorey-Craft report in the June issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has helped to show a clear connection.

This new evidence of selective carotenoid and tocopherol (vitamin E) deficiencies in the brains of subjects with Alzheimer’s disease adds further support to the growing evidence that a greater dietary intake of carotenoids may slow cognitive decline prior to—and possibly following—a diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease.

Research also has shown that the retina selectively accumulates lutein and zeaxanthin from the diet, forming visible yellow macular pigment that enhances vision and protects photoreceptors. By noninvasively measuring patients’ macular pigment optical density, researchers can estimate the concentration of lutein and zeaxanthin in the brain.

“Recent advances in new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease show exciting promise as an effective way to slow disease progression,” Dr. Dorey said. “I’d be thrilled if our data motivated people to keep their brains in optimum condition with a colorful diet with abundant carotenoids and regular exercise. Available studies suggest this may also reduce risk for dementia.” 

Fitness Flash: Exercise: Exercising to Burn Fat

Fitness Flash

Making Up for Lost Sleep: Not So Fast

A new study led by Penn State researchers and published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that we can’t truly make up for the effects of lost sleep during the week by sleeping in over the weekend: Heart health measures, including heart rate and blood pressure, worsen over the course of the week when sleep is restricted to five hours per night, and attempting to catch up on sleep over the weekend isn’t enough to return these measures to normal.

“Only 65% of adults in the U.S. regularly sleep the recommended seven hours per night, and there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that this lack of sleep is associated with cardiovascular disease in the long term,” explains study co-author Anne-Marie Chang, PhD, associate professor of biobehavioral health. “Our research reveals a potential mechanism for this longitudinal relationship, where enough successive hits to your cardiovascular health while you’re young could make your heart more prone to cardiovascular disease in the future.”

The team recruited 15 healthy men between the ages of 20 and 35 to participate in an 11-day inpatient sleep study. For the first three nights, the participants were allowed to sleep up to 10 hours per night to achieve a baseline sleep level. For the next five nights, the participants’ sleep was restricted to five hours per night, followed by two recovery nights, in which they were again allowed to sleep up to 10 hours per night. To evaluate the effects of this sleep regimen on cardiovascular health, the researchers measured the participants’ resting heart rates and blood pressure every two hours during the day.

Dr. Chang says that the team’s study is unique because it measured heart rate and blood pressure multiple times throughout the day for the duration of the study, which enabled the scientists to account for any effects that time of day might have on heart rate and blood pressure. For example, heart rate is naturally lower upon waking than later in the day, so measuring heart rate multiple times throughout the day can account for this difference.

Specifically, the average baseline heart rate was 69 BPM, while the average heart rate by the end of the study on the second day of recovery was nearly 78 BPM. Systolic blood pressure also increased by about 0.5 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) per day. The average baseline systolic blood pressure was 116 mmHg and was nearly 119.5 mmHg by the end of the recovery period.

“Both heart rate and systolic blood pressure increased with each successive day and did not return to baseline levels by the end of the recovery period,” says lead author and Penn State graduate student David Reichenberger. “So, despite having additional opportunity to rest, by the end of the weekend of the study, their cardiovascular systems still had not recovered.”

Dr. Chang noted that longer periods of sleep recovery may be necessary to recover from multiple, consecutive nights of sleep loss. “Sleep is a biological process, but it’s also a behavioral one and one that we often have a lot of control over,” she explains. “Not only does sleep affect our cardiovascular health, but it also affects our weight, our mental health, our ability to focus, and our ability to maintain healthy relationships with others, among many other things. As we learn more and more about the importance of sleep, and how it impacts everything in our lives, my hope is that it will become more of a focus for improving one’s health.”

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The Olive Oil Hunter News #117

French Onion Soup with Cheesy Croutons Recipe, Spotlight on Onions, A Better Beef Broth, Vegetables that Lower Diabetes Risk and Breakfast for Better Sleep

It’s one of the mainstays of fine French dining—classic soupe à l’oignon, or onion soup. You might think it’s hard to recreate at home, but if you have the patience to caramelize the onions, you can be enjoying it tonight! It’s a great way to get in more veggies, which may help you avoid type 2 diabetes, according to a new study I’m sharing here, too.

French Onion Soup with Cheesy Croutons

  • French Onion Soup with Cheesy Croutons French Onion Soup With Cheesy Croutons

    This simple adaptation of the classic French onion soup is a meal in itself—perfect for lunch or dinner. If you’ve got a free afternoon, making your own rich beef stock is a slow-food pleasure, but a store-bought brand will still deliver rich taste. Take the time to fully caramelize the onions at the start of this recipe—that’s where most of the active cooking time is needed and where the deep flavor develops. You’ll be well rewarded for the effort. This recipe is for a very large batch, enough for two or three meals, depending on how many people you’re serving. For the melted cheese topping, this twist on bread rounds is fun and easier to eat with a spoon! 


    For the soup:

    • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 5 pounds yellow onions, peeled and sliced into roughly ½” rounds
    • Coarse salt
    • Sugar
    • 1/2 cup cognac
    • 8 cups beef stock
    • 1 cup dry vermouth
    • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

    For the croutons:

    • 10 baguette slices, about ½” thick, cut into cubes
    • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese


    Step 1

    Caramelize the onions: Heat a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Note: Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to work in batches or use two skillets at once. Add one tablespoon of the oil for every pound of onions you sauté at a time. As you place the onions in the pan, separate each slice into rounds. Toss the onions in the oil and then cover the pan to sweat the onions for about 10 minutes over low-medium heat, taking care not to burn them. Take off the cover, sprinkle the onions with large pinches of salt and sugar, and continue cooking until they become soft and browned, up to 50 minutes (the liquid in the pan will evaporate; add a tablespoon of water as needed to prevent burning). At the end of the cooking time, add the cognac to deglaze the pan and then transfer everything to a large stockpot.

    Step 2

    To finish the soup: Add the beef stock and vermouth to the stockpot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and continue cooking for another hour. Taste and add black pepper, if desired.

    Step 3

    For the croutons: Just before serving the soup, turn on your oven to broil. Spread out the bread cubes on a cookie sheet and toast under the broiler, watching closely, as it should take only a few seconds. Very carefully, take the sheet out of the oven and use tongs to push the toasted croutons together. Sprinkle on the grated cheese and put back under the broiler until the cheese melts, again for only a few seconds.

    Step 4

    To serve, ladle soup into bowls or wide mugs and, using tongs, top each with some cheesy croutons.

    Yields 10-12 servings

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight: The Color of Onions

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight

The Color of Onions

Onions are wonderful flavor enhancers and can impart different degrees of sweetness based on the variety:

The most popular and easy-to-find onion is the yellow onion, a great option when the onions will be cooked. You might also see Spanish yellow onions, which are a bit sweeter. 

Even sweeter are varieties such as Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Maui, though they’re not usually available year round. When caramelized, they add exceptional flavor to dishes like French onion soup.

Occasionally, you’ll see white onions, milder in flavor than yellow onions and with a great crunch that makes them perfect for eating raw.

Red onions add bright color to dishes, and a more noted, spicy flavor to go with it. The taste is sweeter right after summer harvest, but can turn sharp as they age, so you might find that they taste different depending on the time of year (they will always be milder when cooked). They’re a great choice for pickling and for boldly flavored recipes, but they can overpower a mild dish. 

Quick Kitchen Nugget: A Better Beef Broth

Quick Kitchen Nugget

A Better Beef Broth

Supermarket shelves are filled with options from thick pastes you dilute to ready-to-go cans. New, more authentically made broths, often labeled bone broths (though meaty bones are at the heart of any broth) are now available. Some come frozen, others in pouches or milk-like containers. Not always at the corner grocery, many are available online. Bonafide Provisions, Brodo, and Pacific Foods brands are some flavorful choices. 

Be aware that many store-bought broths get a lot of their taste from added salt, sometimes a lot of it—anywhere from 350 to 700 mg a cup, a big chunk of the 1500 mg recommended maximum daily intake. For the salt conscious, it’s worth noting that Pacific Foods organic low sodium beef broth has just 125 mg sodium per serving. When using prepared broth, you may not need to add any additional salt to a recipe—reach for black pepper first to avoid sodium overload.

For Your Best Health: Vegetables to Lower Diabetes Risk

For Your Best Health

Vegetables to Lower Diabetes Risk

According to an Edith Cowan University analysis of the long-term “Danish Diet, Cancer and Health” study, eating your veggies can translate to lowering diabetes risk. Comparing dietary intake records from 54,000 people, the scientists found that those who consumed the most vegetables were 21 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who consumed the least amount. 

At the top of the list were leafy greens and cruciferous veggies such as spinach, lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower. Interestingly, white potatoes, often thought of as unhealthy, were actually neutral…as long as they were boiled rather than mashed with butter and cream or deep fried. People who ate potatoes prepared with unhealthy fats were also more likely to consume more butter, red meat, and soft drinks, foods known to increase type 2 diabetes risk. The researchers also pointed out that plain potatoes shouldn’t be lumped in the same category as certain other high-carb foods such as white rice and pasta because the potatoes have fiber, minerals, and good nutrients, which make them a higher-quality carb.

The study, “Vegetable, But Not Potato, Intake Is Associated With a Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health Cohort,”was published inDiabetes Care.

Fitness Flash: Breakfast for Better Sleep

Fitness Flash

Breakfast for Better Sleep

Tired of waking up groggy? “Many of us think that morning sleepiness is a benign annoyance,” said Matthew Walker, PhD, UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology and senior author of the study, “How people wake up is associated with previous night’s sleep together with physical activity and food intake,” published in Nature Communications. “From car crashes to work-related accidents, the cost of sleepiness is deadly. As scientists, we must understand how to help society wake up better and reduce the mortal cost of society’s current struggle to wake up effectively each day.”

He and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, teamed up with other researchers, including those in the UK and Sweden, to learn how to avoid that sluggish feeling. By analyzing data culled from more than 800 people over a two-week period, they were able to predict individualized metabolic responses to foods based on a person’s biological characteristics, lifestyle factors, and the foods’ nutritional composition. 

The participants were given a variety of breakfast meals; wore wristwatches to record their physical activity and sleep quantity, quality, timing, and regularity; kept diaries of their food intake; recorded their alertness levels from the moment they woke up and throughout the day; and wore continuous glucose monitors.

The researchers found that the secret to alertness is a three-part prescription: getting the right amounts of exercise and sleep and eating the right breakfast, one that won’t spike blood glucose. “All of these have a unique and independent effect,” said UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Raphael Vallat, PhD, first author of the study. “If you sleep longer or later, you’re going to see an increase in your alertness. If you do more physical activity on the day before, you’re going to see an increase. You can see improvements with each and every one of these factors.”

Here are the specifics:

Breakfast. The participants were given preprepared meals with different amounts of nutrients:  moderate amounts of fat and carbohydrates; high protein; high carbohydrate; or high sugar. The worst type of breakfast, on average, was high in sugar; it was associated with an inability to wake up effectively and maintain alertness. The high-carbohydrate breakfast, without simple sugars and with only a modest amount of protein, was linked to individuals revving up their alertness quickly in the morning and sustaining that alert state.

“We have known for some time that a diet high in sugar is harmful to sleep, not to mention being toxic for the cells in your brain and body,” Dr. Walker said. “However, what we have discovered is that, beyond these harmful effects on sleep, consuming high amounts of sugar in your breakfast, and having a spike in blood sugar following any type of breakfast meal, markedly blunts your brain’s ability to return to waking consciousness following sleep.”

Sleep. Sleeping longer and/or later than usual resulted in individuals ramping up their alertness very quickly after awakening. According to Dr. Walker, between seven and nine hours of sleep is ideal for ridding the body of “sleep inertia,” the inability to transition effectively to a state of functional cognitive alertness upon awakening. Most people need this amount of sleep to remove a chemical called adenosine that accumulates in the body throughout the day and brings on sleepiness in the evening, something known as sleep pressure.

“Sleeping later can help with alertness for a second reason,” Dr. Walker said. “When you wake up later, you are rising at a higher point on the upswing of your 24-hour circadian rhythm, which ramps up throughout the morning and boosts alertness.”

Exercise. “It is well known that physical activity, in general, improves your alertness and also your mood level, and we did find a high correlation in this study between participants’ mood and their alertness levels,” Dr. Vallat said. ” Participants who, on average, are happier also feel more alert.”

It’s not completely clear what physical activity does to improve alertness the following day. “It may be that exercise-induced better sleep is part of the reason exercise the day before, by helping sleep that night, leads to superior alertness throughout the next day,” Dr. Vallat said.

“How you wake up each day is very much under your own control, based on how you structure your life and your sleep. You don’t need to feel resigned to any fate, throwing your hands up in disappointment because ‘it’s my genes, and I can’t change my genes,’” said Dr. Walker. “There are some very basic and achievable things you can start doing today, and tonight, to change how you awake each morning, feeling alert and free of that grogginess.”

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The Olive Oil Hunter News #109

Rich and Hearty Chili Recipe, Grinding Your Own Meat, How to Boost the Gut Microbiome and The Risks of Shortchanging Yourself on Sleep

Cold winter nights demand soul-satisfying dishes, and this chili recipe really delivers. Rich spices and slow cooking give it depth of flavor—there’s also a health advantage of all those spices. While the answer to winter’s chill isn’t to hibernate, it pays to take a look at how much quality sleep you’re getting. Turns out the risks of poor-quality sleep are much greater than you might realize.

Rich and Hearty Chili

  • Rich and Hearty Chili Rich and Hearty Chili

    A mix of rich spices takes run-of-the-mill chili to a whole new level. You’ll need a few hours for the flavors to develop, but not a lot of active effort. And the results are more than worth it! If you prefer to start with dried beans, soak a total of two cups of your favorite variety or varieties and add them to the pot when you add back the cooked beef. Made with beans, this chili is a good source of important fiber as well as other nutrients.


    • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 2 large onions, diced
    • 3 garlic cloves, minced
    • 16 ounces baby portobello or white button mushrooms, sliced thin
    • 2 pounds ground beef, chicken, or turkey
    • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
    • 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with liquid
    • 2 15-ounce cans great northern beans, rinsed and drained
    • 2 15-ounce cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained
    • 3 bay leaves
    • 2 cinnamon sticks
    • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
    • 2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
    • ½ teaspoon each cayenne, allspice, and coarse salt
    • 1 tablespoon apple cider or sherry vinegar
    • Optional toppings for serving: diced raw onions, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and crushed corn or tortilla chips as desired


    Step 1

    Heat a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the oil and then the onions and garlic. Cook over medium heat until soft. Add the mushrooms and sauté until soft. Add the ground meat in batches and cook until browned. 

    Step 2

    Push everything to the sides of the pot and add the tomato paste. Cook it until it turns a deep, brownish red and then fold it into the vegetables and meat. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine. 

    Step 3

    Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for three hours, stirring every half hour. If the liquid is evaporating too quickly, place the lid ajar. Remove the bay leaves and serve with your choice of toppings. 

    Yields 8 hearty servings. 

Food Pairings: The Power of Purple Potatoes

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight

Grinding your own meat

Convenience rather than flavor is the reason to buy packaged ground meat at the market. Doing the grinding yourself allows you to choose your cut of beef (and fat content) or, in the case of chicken or turkey, your desired mix of light and dark meat. A home grinder, like the attachment made for the KitchenAid mixer, is great, but you can grind your own with the steel blade of a food processor using the pulsing function. The secret to a great grind is a chill-down for the meat and the grinder parts/processor blade. For meat in particular, this keeps more of the fat integrated and creates less fat smearing on the sides of the workbowl. 

Prep the meat by trimming as needed and then cutting it into 1-to-2-inch cubes. Place the cubes in a single layer on a sheet tray and pop it into the freezer along with your grinding blade for about 30 minutes—you want the meat cold and firm, but not frozen.

There’s no limit to how much meat you can run through a dedicated grinder. For the average size food processor, pulse about 8 ounces at a time; use a spatula to get out as much as possible before adding another batch. 

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Healthy Kitchen Nugget

Taking chili vegetarian

If you’d like to skip the meat, this chili recipe can easily adapt. For the same number of servings, increase the veggies and the beans by 25 percent and opt for the portobello mushrooms, prepping them into a ½-inch dice instead of slices. If you’d like to increase the protein content beyond what the beans offer, crumble 8 to 16 ounces of firm tofu into the pot when you add the beans. 

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For Your Best Health

Boosting the gut microbiome

The human gut microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms that live inside the intestinal tract. The bacteria there can affect nearly all systems of the body, including metabolism and the building and maintaining of the immune system.

In two separate studies done at Penn State, nutritional scientists looking at the effects of small changes to the average American diet found improvements to the gut microbiome when participants added a daily ounce of peanuts or about a teaspoon of herbs and spices to their intake.

“Research has shown that people who have a lot of different microbes have better health, and a better diet, than those who don’t have much bacterial diversity,” said Penny M. Kris-Etherton, PhD, Evan Pugh University Professor of Nutritional Sciences.

In the peanut study, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, Dr. Kris-Etherton and colleagues compared the effects of snacking on 28 grams (about 1 ounce) of peanuts per day to those of a higher-carbohydrate snack of crackers and cheese. At the end of six weeks, participants who ate the peanut snack showed an increased abundance of Ruminococcaceae, a genus of bacteria linked to healthy liver metabolism and immune function.

In the herbs and spices study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, scientists analyzed the impact of adding blends of herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, cumin, turmeric, rosemary, oregano, basil, and thyme, to the controlled diets of participants at risk for cardiovascular disease. The team examined three doses: about 1/8 teaspoon per day, a little more than 3/4 teaspoon per day, and about 1-1/2 teaspoons per day. At the end of four weeks, participants showed an increase in gut bacteria diversity, including in Ruminococcaceae, most notably with the medium and high doses of herbs and spices.

“It’s such a simple thing that people can do,” said Dr. Kris-Etherton. “The average American diet is far from ideal, so I think everyone could benefit by adding herbs and spices. It’s also a way of decreasing sodium in your diet but flavoring foods in a way that makes them palatable and, in fact, delicious! Taste is really a top criterion for why people choose the foods they do.”

However, she pointed out that more research is needed to understand all the implications of diet and the workings of the gut microbiome itself. “We need a lot more research on the microbiome to see what its proper place is in terms of overall health,” she said.

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Fitness Flash

The risks of shortchanging yourself on sleep

According to a new study that involved 7,000 men and women between the ages of 50 and 70, getting less than five hours of sleep in mid-to-late life could be linked to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases. Researchers from the University College London in the UK examined the relationship between how long each participant slept each night and whether they had been diagnosed with two or more chronic diseases (called multimorbidity), such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, over the course of 25 years.

People who reported getting five hours of sleep or less at age 50 were 20 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with a chronic disease and 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with two or more chronic diseases over 25 years, compared to people who slept for up to seven hours. The researchers also found that sleep duration of five hours or less at age 50 was associated with 25 percent increased risk of mortality over the 25 years of follow-up: Short sleep duration increased the risk of chronic disease(s) that, in turn, increased the risk of death.

“Multimorbidity is on the rise in high income countries and more than half of older adults now have at least two chronic diseases. This is proving to be a major challenge for public health, as multimorbidity is associated with high healthcare service use, hospitalizations, and disability,” said Dr. Severine Sabia, lead author of the study. “As people get older, their sleep habits and sleep structure change. However, it is recommended to sleep for 7 to 8 hours a night as sleep durations above or below this have previously been associated with individual chronic diseases. To ensure a better night’s sleep, it is important to promote good sleep hygiene, such as making sure the bedroom is quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature before sleeping. It’s also advised to remove electronic devices and avoid large meals before bedtime. Physical activity and exposure to light during the day might also promote good sleep.”

As part of the study, researchers also assessed whether sleeping for a long duration, of nine hours or more, affected health outcomes. There was no clear association between long sleep duration at age 50 and multimorbidity in healthy people. However, for participants already diagnosed with a chronic condition, long sleep duration was associated with around a 35 percent increased risk of developing another illness. Researchers believe this could be due to underlying health conditions impacting sleep.

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