Food for Thought

Heather says:

It’s been a long time since I have brought up my thoughts on why I believe cooking “from scratch” is a vital life skill. Notice I didn’t say important, I said vital.

Over the weekend I had to spend some time in the car, so I loaded up a couple of podcasts, as I tend to do. The first one is only tangentially related to today’s discussion, but it’s fascinating, nonetheless.

The podcast is “Stuff to Blow your Mind” and the show is titled “Cat Parasites Conquer the World.” Right about now you’re probably wondering, “What on earth do parasites have to do with Heather going off on a rant about food?” Just bear with me for a few moments. There have been some interesting studies lately on how parasites can affect behavior. It has fairly recently been discovered that rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii are influenced by the parasite in ways that make them more likely to become prey for cats. The organism seems to make rats slower, clumsier, and even specifically attracted to the scent of cat urine. This attraction helps ensure that rats end up in the belly of the host necessary to complete the parasitic life cycle.

First of all, it’s insanely creepy to learn that a parasite may be able to not only influence the behavior of rats, but humans, as well. There have been some studies showing that 30 – 60% of the human population may have Toxoplasma gondii,  and a few studies suggest that those with the parasite exhibit behavioral changes, much like rats, not necessarily a specific attraction to cat urine, but a loss of fear that results in taking unnecessary risks. Crazy stuff, right?

I found the topic fascinating (and have been ruminating on it for the last few days). When that podcast ended the next one in my queue was WNYC’s Radiolab Show “Guts.” Which wasn’t about parasites, but rather how the bacteria we carry within our digestive track (about 3 lbs worth) may affect our mental health. See, I told you there was a segue!

Much of the show focused on a study of mice given lactobacillus, the bacteria that gives us all kinds of delicious foods including yogurt. Some mice were given foods fortified with lactobacillus and two other groups of mice were given a control food and sterile food. The mice were then dropped into containers of water and observed. In general mice paddle around freaking out for 4 minutes before giving up in despair and just floating. This happened with the two control groups, the mice acted as expected and their stress hormone (cortisol) levels did what your would do if you were dropped in a container of water and believed you were going to die (they went through the roof). The mice on the lactobacillus diet continued to paddle around until the 6 minute mark when they were removed from the water (dead mice wouldn’t do much good for the study) and it was found that their stress hormone levels were significantly lower than those in the control groups.

Now how does a bacteria in your gut influence what’s going on in your brain?

There is a very large nerve that runs between your digestive track and your brain it’s known as the vagus nerve. The study with the mice was repeated, but this time the vagus nerve was severed in some of the mice. The gut was no longer communicating with the brain. Guess what? The mice with the severed nerve responded just like the control group mice in the first study, freaking out for four minutes and then giving in to despair.

There are now studies happening that are investigating the possibility of using lactobacillus as a means to treat some mental disorders including anxiety and depression. As a person who sometimes struggles with anxiety, I find this incredibly fascinating.

So what does this have to do with processed food? The more we refine and process our food, the further we take it from the state from which we, and the bacteria we host, evolved to digest it.

We are learning that we have more of a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria within our bodies than we ever thought. (Does anyone else remember the book by Madeline L’Engle A Wind in the Door? No, I don’t believe our mitochondria are sentient, I’m just musing on the broader concept)

The next time you’re in the grocery store choosing between a food that has been designed to survive a nuclear holocaust and a food that is highly perishable, but as close to fresh as possible. . . you may be doing your body more good than we know.

If nothing else, eat a little more yogurt, it just might make you feel better.


  1. Rosie on July 26, 2015 at 12:00 am

    I want more people to cook from scractch because I keep seeing photos of recipes that look so fantastically delicious but then their ingredients include Actual Foodstuffs like, frozen crescent rolls (it’s ALWAYS the crescent rolls) and then I can’t make those Best Homemade Cronuts here in New Zealand, and I become incoherent with rage and hunger and it’s all a Bit Not Good.

    • Heather Solos on July 26, 2015 at 8:23 am

      I can’t make those because my SO is allergic to wheat. Well, I could, but then I’d be the only one eating them and that? That is not a good idea.

      But regardless, I strongly prefer to start with ingredients.

  2. lyndsiannmusic on May 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    I have to agree that this is fascinating! Thank you for sharing this “food for thought.”

  3. milonumber2 on April 21, 2012 at 2:38 am

    Thanks for the article and learned something new, it was interesting to read.

  4. Joquena on April 17, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    I agree that it’s very important to have healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. I try not to have a lot of dairy so I don’t do the yogurt thing very often. however they sell probiotics (the healthy bacteria you getting out of the yogurt) in pill form.

  5. HélèneMétivier on April 15, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Fascinating find, indeed. I am just starting to test possible food intolerances, since I have many light symptoms. I think it is all interrelated. Real food = health. And I do eat yogurt every day! 🙂

  6. DSAldridge on April 11, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    I have gotten to where I hate processed food. Well, all except Cheez-Its and Fritos, but I digress. When I eat processed food, I get anxious and hyper and feel like my head is going to explode. Strangely enough, when I get this way, what do I crave? Yogurt or cottage cheese. No joke, I really do. I knew nothing about this study,and at the same time, my body knew it all.

  7. BrandyEastmanTanner on April 10, 2012 at 11:20 am

    I have been trying to figure out how to be more creative and cook from scratch for processed or over processed foods can’t be good for us. My kids started eating school lunches again and as I watch them put on more weight, I am realizing I need a creative, fun way to offer them a healthier take from home school lunch some how…. any suggestions?

  8. writercook on April 10, 2012 at 6:33 am

    This is fascinating. Thank you for ruminating. Now I’m ruminating about this, too. Puns all around, as well. 🙂

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 6:46 am

       @writercook I’m glad you caught that. 🙂

  9. writercook on April 10, 2012 at 6:33 am

    This is fascinating. Thank you for ruminating. Now I’m ruminating about this, too. Puns all around, as well. 🙂

  10. Rajeshwari on April 10, 2012 at 6:12 am

    Hi! I really love Home Ec 101 but for last several posts my RSS feed doesn’t load, I opened your blog today and saw the new posts; is anything the matter with it?

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 6:45 am

      Thank you, yes, it’s messed up and I’m trying to figure out the cause. I think it has to do with that post I did with the giveaway in partnership with a few other sites. Now that the giveaway is over I can move it to drafts and see if that fixes the problem.

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 7:07 am

      I do believe I have gotten rid of the problem, I think it may take a little while for the feed to refresh and get rid of the error. Thank you and Jim Stark for letting me know.

  11. Hewitt on April 9, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    I’ve noticed a friend who suffers from depression, gets into a cycle of eating badly (basically living on white bread sandwiches and junk food) and staying in bed. If we visit and make her salads etc she becomes more active and less depressed. Good food and physical activity do help to combat depression – not cure it of course. That would be a bit too easy! There’s a lot about our bodies we’re yet to find out.

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 7:28 am

       @Hewitt I’m sure the social interaction plays a significant role, too. Wouldn’t like (and nutrition) be easier if it were all if x then y? 
      That is wonderful that you care for your friend in such a kind and thoughtful manner.

  12. Revanche on April 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    This vaguely reminds me of the zombie ants….
    I’m trying to generally cook from scratch as much as possible. We revert to processed ingredients on occasion but less whole meals/foods are processed than ever, unlike my early teens and early adulthood. Despite working full time and running around a lot more, it’s still easier because I actually enjoy cooking in our own kitchen and blogs like yours are great resources to continue to eat reasonably healthy foods within our time and talent limitations. 🙂 

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 6:45 am

      @revanche they totally mentioned the zombie ants in the first podcast.
      For those that don’t know, there is a parasite that causes ants to climb to the top of grass, hang on to the grass with their jaws, and just stay there until they get eaten. This gets the parasite back into its end host where it can reproduce.
      We live in a crazy world my friends, crazy.

  13. HomemakersDaily on April 9, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    I hate yogurt.  I do cook from scratch, though. 

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 6:47 am

       @HomemakersDaily lactobacillus can be found in capsule form, too. Look for it in the refrigerated section of your local crunchy food store. 

      • HomemakersDaily on April 10, 2012 at 2:44 pm

         I didn’t know that.  Thanks.  I’ll check it out.

  14. TheAmyTucker on April 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    So Toxoplasma gondii totally explains why some folks are attracted to zombies? 

  15. Bobbie Laughman on April 9, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I try to make sure I’ve got plain yogurt on hand at all times. After using it medicinally for a while (meaning, eating it because I knew it was good for me, not because I liked it) now I actually love and crave the sour taste of plain yogurt. And yeah, it does make me feel better.

  16. janlnye on April 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    I strive to live up to my motto: Eat real food in moderation.
    Butter, not margarine.
    Sugar, not artificial sweeteners.
    Cheese, not cheese “food”.
    Wine, not wine coolers. 😀

    • HeatherSolos on April 10, 2012 at 6:49 am

       @janlnye exactly. I think this is just part of why we get along so well.

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