My Pilgrimage to
Foodie Mecca

Why a Whole Foods in Texas must be the best grocery store in the world.

Health nuts are always seeking organic, unprocessed, natural foods. Gourmands or foodies seek out the highest quality delicious foods from around the world. For those of us who are both health nuts AND foodies, Whole Foods is a Godsend.

(Full disclosure: I own Whole Foods Market, Inc. shares. I'm not enthusiastic about the store because I own shares, I own shares because I'm enthusiastic.)

The first Whole Foods was launched in 1980 by John Mackey, co-founder and current CEO. The store opened in Austin, Texas, just a few blocks from the company's global headquarters and flagship store. The old store is now a music store called Cheapo Discs.

Launching Whole Foods wasn't easy. Within the first year, the store got flooded. Staff and even customers volunteered to rescue the building by helping with the cleaning, putting the shelves back together and getting the store up and running again. This experience inspired Mackey to pursue his grandest visions for Whole Foods and what it might become. It solidified his mission to create a better and healthier alternative to conventional grocery stores, and on a scale that would matter.

Fast-forward three decades. Whole Foods now is a Fortune 500 company with 270 stores worldwide. The chain is known for providing customers with the best selection of local and global organic foods, and one the most rewarding shopping experiences in the world. Whole Foods has figured out how to offer incredible customer service in an age when customer service is a dying art.

The company aims to be more than a grocery store. It's a place where you can bring your family, have a pleasant experience or even spend the day and meet your friends for lunch.

Those familiar with Whole Foods know stores are generous with food samples. But what many don’t realize is that if you want to try something new, all you have to do is ask. A team member will cut or open it so you can try it.

Each Whole Foods store offers a unique experience. I’ve been to about half of their stores worldwide including, the posh European flagship, the Kensington store in London. The London store blew me away, and was the best grocery store I had ever shopped in. Until, that is, I experienced Whole Foods' Austin flagship store.

Dispatch from Deep In the Heart of Texas

On a recent, coast-to-coast road trip—7,328 miles on the odometer—my husband and I relied for sustenance (and Internet access) mainly on Whole Foods Markets across the country. It turned out to be quite a food-themed adventure. We discovered great stores in surprising locations—for example, the Whole Foods in Kansas City is probably one of the best in the chain. We encountered a few not-so-great stores as well. The best by far, however, was the flagship Whole Foods Market in Austin, Texas.

The current store in Austin—called the Alamar store—opened its doors in 2005 in a space of just over 80,000 square feet, one of the largest in the U.S. The store now employs 650 team members (employees). The store is in the same building that houses the company's global headquarters (six floor's worth of offices).

We spent more than three days in town and practically lived at the store. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner there, and worked in one of the two indoor dining areas (complete with free Wi-Fi).

It sounds odd when describing a grocery store, but it was incredibly fun to spend time there. My husband described me on Facebook as "a six-year old at Disneyland." I felt like I was in heaven. So much so that I actually started thinking about the possibility of moving to Austin, just to be able to shop there all the time.

I arranged with Whole Foods headquarters to be given an official tour of the store for this column, and also for permission to take pictures. (We took photographs early in the morning, before the crush of shoppers showed up.)

There is something unique and special about the Lamar store. Team members seem to take a lot of pride in their work. They act like one big family.

The store also features a rooftop plaza where they put together quite a few events for the community. Friday nights is free movie night. They set up a portable and inflatable big screen on the rooftop. You can buy yourself a meal at the store or the buy the special dinner sold at the rooftop. And after Thanksgiving, they put up a skating rink that’s open during the winter holidays—the only skating rink in Austin.

The store has an enormous pre-chopped bulk vegetable section, which I have to admit I actually liked. (I normally prefer to peel and chop my own vegetables when I cook because generally I believe that for food to be as nutritious as possible it also needs to be as fresh as possible—and as recently chopped.) The section consists of clear individual bins with a huge variety of already chopped veggies. You can help yourself to one or many different kinds of chopped vegetables in any quantity you desire. It’s all one price per pound. Ingenious.

The salad bars were incredible, unlike any I've seen. Even the salad bar at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods in New York City (which is amazing) is no match for the salad bars at the Lamar store. I particularly liked the salad bar featuring an entire side of salads made from whole grains, including quinoa, wheat berries, brown rice and barley. Another succulent cold foods section is a bar featuring marinated vegetables. The marinated giant beans were delicious. But you can also buy different kinds of olives, sauces and dips including fresh pesto, bruschetta, cilantro pesto, roasted garlic, artichoke hearts and more.

The juice and smoothie bar is the best I’ve ever seen as well. They even have an acai bowl consisting of blended frozen acai with other frozen fruit topped with hemp granola and fresh berries. It was delightful.

Their taco eatery was excellent. Remember: This is Texas. Locals know their Mexican food. My veggie and bean taco had a truly fresh and authentic Mexican flavor.

The store's many sections feature a wide variety of foods for every possible taste, and to meet the strictest dietary preferences and guidelines.

No matter where you are in the Lamar store, you can always see chefs and cooks at work. Many kitchen areas are completely open. For example, you can see bread being baked from scratch, cookies being dipped in chocolate and cannoli being filled.

My favorite middle-aisle section was their bulk foods section—the largest with the most extensive selection I have ever seen. Truly unbelievable. (Though I hope that next time I’m at the store they carry chia seeds in bulk. They certainly have the room for it.)

Speaking of favorites, one of the best and healthiest meals I had on the trip was at the organic raw food and vegan bar, which is Mackey’s favorite also. We ate a raw pizza made with a flax seed crust, tomato relish, caramelized onions and sweet peppers. We also had a garden wrap, a raw kale salad and my favorite, a "Happy Tuna" salad that was out of this world (no real tuna in it, of course—that's why the tuna are so happy). Everything at the raw bar is made from scratch every day.

Impressed yet? I'm just getting started. The Lamar store actually has a concierge desk. They're ready to provide personal shoppers (employees that help you shop), as well as ideas for meal planning, help with pantry stocking and bicycle delivery for orders called in.

Whole Food's Lamar store serves as the pilot store for many of the company’s new programs and initiatives. One of their latest is a new healthy-eating specialist area right at the entrance of the store. This program was launched just a few months ago. Their goal is to provide free education and resources for guests who want help. The eating specialist takes guests on a tour, talks about how to cook something, such as collard greens and kale—things that might be a little more intimidating to the average guest. She’s available to answer questions such as “why don’t they carry diet soda?” and to suggest healthier alternatives.

The store also provides an in-store nutritionist who does consultations for a fee, available to those who need more in-depth support.

The healthy eating specialist area also features many health and nutrition books available for purchase. I was particularly surprised and impressed to see the China Study book on the shelves among others that advocate whole foods and plant-based diets.

There is always something happening at the Lamar store, from book signings to chef visits (Alton Brown will be there to do book signing soon, I was told). They celebrate holidays, too. For example, they're planning a haunted house, equipped with spaghetti brains and grape eyeballs to freak out and delight small children.

I have been to grocery stores all over the United States and around the world. Because I haven't visited them all, I can't say for sure. But my guess is that Whole Food's Austin store has got to be the best grocery store in the entire world. I'm sure there must be bigger or fancier grocery stores elsewhere in the United States, Europe, Japan, China and elsewhere. But I very much doubt any combines the healthiest foods, the tastiest foods (and the sheer variety of both), a devoted staff and a world of incredible services and resources the way Whole Food's Lamar store does.

No matter where you live in North America (or if you ever visit here from another part of the world), I believe it's worth the trip to Austin just to shop at this wonderful store. 

Click here to see my pictures of the store!


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When it comes to overall health and happiness, it’s all connected: your food, your relationships, your lifestyle and you career. Let me help you find your solution.


Give Fennel a Chance

Fennel or “sweet anise,” is one of those vegetables you think you don’t like until you try it. Give fennel a chance! Or, more accurately, give yourself a chance to be rewarded with the wonderful flavor and nutrients offered by fennel. It’s a great addition to many meals in its raw or cooked form.

Often described as smelling like licorice, fennel is indigenous to the Mediterranean. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus used fennel as a “trojan horse,” in which he stole fire from the gods and smuggled it to humans inside the hollow wand of a stalk. That’s how knowledge got passed to mankind. Fennel is also associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of food and wine.

During ancient Greek times, fennel was known as “marathon” because in grew at the site where the Battle of Marathon between the Athenians and the invading Persian forces occurred. Fennel was also awarded to Pheidippides, the Athenian runner who ran 150 miles to request help from Sparta in the invasion, and also from Marathon to Athens to announce that Athens won the battle.

All parts of the fennel are edible, including bulb, foliage and seeds, and are used in cuisines throughout the world. High in vitamin C, potassium, manganese, folate, fiber and phytonutrients, this hearty vegetable has a thick pale white base that looks like a bulb (though it isn’t), with large celery-like stems and feathery green foliage that looks like dill. Fennel has health-giving anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties as well, according to research.

Fennel is available in autumn through early spring. Choose fennel that has firm and very green foliage with no flowering. Also choose only organic fennel (conventional fennel is especially high in pesticides). The base should feel firm and have no splits or bruises. Prepare fennel by slicing off the bottom of the root or base, removing any damaged stalks, cutting off tops or stems and slicing the base in half vertically. Whether or not you remove the hard core in the center of the base once it’s cut in half is a matter of personal preference. Finish by slicing or julienning it crosswise or lengthwise very thinly to use raw in salads or sauté with onions as a side dish or simply added to any meals. It tastes great and makes you feel great.

Stay motivated - Read health-related research news, events and commentary every day. Check out Amira's Vegetarian Organic Blog.


Big Nutrition in Microgreens

My Autumn Raw Vegetable and Microgreens Salad recipe below features incredibly small plants—they’re powerhouses of nutrients called microgreens. Though small, calorie for calorie these tiny greens are higher in phytonutrients, compared to adult plants of the same varieties.

Micronutrients are basically sprouts, but grown vertically in a moisture-retaining medium, such as soil. (Spouts are usually grown without such a medium, in a sprouting jar.) These Lilliputian members of the greens community were pioneered in California. The ones that I buy at my local farmer’s market are grown with organic seeds designed for sprouting, and are completely untreated with chemicals. My microfarmer uses growing methods designed to keep the microgreens all perfectly clean at every stage of the growth. She even waters them only with filtered water.

My favorite is arugula, which has a mild peppery flavor, but I also love the brassica microgreens (see photo), which include broccoli, mustard, kale and red cabbage. When you buy a tray of microgreens, all you have to do is keep it on your kitchen countertop and keep the soil moist. If they begin to grow too tall, it’s time to eat or harvest. When you’re ready to eat them, all you have to do is cut them with scissors right at the soil line, wash them and place them on the salad spinner to dry.

One of the gratifying things about buying a tray of microgreens is that you harvest them yourself right before eating them. This means you're not losing any nutritional value because no significant time lapses between harvesting and eating. The fresher a vegetable is, the more of a "live food" it is, and the higher in nutrients it is. That’s the same reason that getting your produce from a farmer’s market is usually better for you than buying it at the grocery store—it’s fresher, not to mention better tasting. You can use microgreens any way you would use salad greens. Add them to your favorite tacos, sandwiches, soups, pastas and so much more. There is no wrong way to eat microgreens.


Why Age Affects Memory

As we age, we can experience temporary lapses of memory. It's frustrating to feel that our brainpower is declining. But recent research proposes that in many ways our brains can work even better in older age than younger.

As we age, or as the result of lifestyle choices such as smoking, we lose brain cells, which affects the way we store and retrieve information, which in turn affects short-term memory. The decline of this short-term memory may make it more difficult to recall a phone number, retain certain details of a recent experience or make it more difficult to learn new things. But overall brain function is not affected by this particular aspect of aging.

Dementia, on the other hand, usually begins to develop at the age of 60. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a natural part of the aging process. Most commonly, dementia is a result of Alzheimer’s disease, which is believed to have a genetic influence, as it usually runs in families. There is also evidence that optimal diet may prevent Alzheimer’s even in those with a genetic predisposition.

Memory loss can result from dementia, but experiencing memory loss by itself does not necessarily mean you have dementia. On the other hand, people diagnosed with dementia not only experience memory loss but also impaired judgment or language, as well as changes in personality and social behavior. But just because some kind of degenerative mental illness runs in your family doesn’t mean you have to develop it. Take responsibility for your well being by adopting a healthy lifestyle that will significantly decrease the risks.

Whether we’re trying to stave off dementia or simply sharpen our mental ability, working out our brains and physical bodies is critical for optimum mental agility and health. Put another way, physical activity and mental stimulation are both crucial for proper mental function. Think of the brain as a muscle that needs daily exercise—use it or lose it.

For good mental function, it’s vital to eat a healthy and balanced diet that’s rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Eating a diet rich in phytonutrients and omega-3 fatty acids helps maintain and optimize bodily and brain functions as well as slow the growth of the harmful effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Foods that contain omega-3s are salmon, mackerel, sardines, flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Also, turmeric has been found to reduce risk of Alzheimer's disease. Ginkgo biloba as a supplement has been found to increase circulation in brain boosting memory power. Also avoid fried foods, processed foods and alcohol. Keeping the mind in top shape enhances the ability to learn and boosts the capacity to concentrate and store information.

To optimize physical health and mental function be sure to keep active and stimulated in every possible way. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take walks outdoors (hiking trail, park, beach)

  • Exercise everyday (power walk, jog, swim, weight train, do yoga, do stadiums)

  • Listen to classical music

  • Listen to educational podcasts

  • Read the newspaper

  • Learn to play a musical instrument

  • Learn a new language

  • Learn to use a new software application

  • Participate in social networks

  • Learn to use a new computer application

  • Learn to use your computer mouse with the opposite hand

  • Take adult-education classes

  • Learn and play new board games (chess, backgammon)

  • Learn to dance

  • Read books (the more challenging the better)

  • Learn new skills (carpentry, cooking, gardening, drawing, painting, sewing, knitting, etc.)

  • Practice relaxation techniques (meditation, tai chi)

  • Have fun and be active in your social circle and community

  • Take educational classes or attend lectures

  • Go back to school to learn something new

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Here's the Vegetarian Organic Store where you can find my favorite cookbooks (and other books), kitchen tools, cookware, dry goods and even gifts and movies!

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Autumn Raw Vegetable and Microgreens Salad
(4 servings)

Click on the picture for a closer look!

As we move into colder months, it’s a good idea to continue eating live greens and vegetables (power foods) to fortify the immune system, stay healthy and ward off common viruses lurking around us as the weather gets colder.

This farm-fresh salad is made with all the delicious and nutritious produce available at farmer’s markets this time of the year. It's great to eat for brunch, and provides complete protein, lots of important phytonutrients and essential omega 3s—all vital for a healthy and strong body and mind. Although it is a cold meal, it’s warming, energizing and revitalizing.

Dressing ingredients:
2 cloves pressed raw garlic
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ teaspoon natural sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Salad ingredients:
1 ½ cups cooked quinoa (cold or room temperature)
½ cup finely chopped fennel
2 cups coarsely chopped arugula
1 cup finely chopped sweet Italian pepper (or red bell pepper)
1 heaping cup finely chopped kale (large stems removed)
2 cups fresh and raw corn kernels (1 corn ear)
1 cup chopped red cabbage
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives (or red onions)
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill (large stems removed)
1 tablespoon raw hemp seeds
2 tablespoons sprouted or raw pumpkin seeds
1 heaping cup freshly cut microgreens (broccoli, mustard, kale and cabbage)

1. In a small bowl whisk all the dressing ingredients (garlic, olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper) together and set aside.

2. In a large glass or ceramic bowl add all the salad ingredients, drizzle all the dressing over the salad gently tossing. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed and serve immediately.

Add ¼ cup pomegranate seeds and 1 chopped avocado for a sweeter and creamier salad texture.

Add another tablespoon of lime juice for a stronger citrus flavor if desired.



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