Gingered Sweet Potato Dal + tips for better digestion

Every few months or when I notice a trend in increased GI upset, not digesting foods or absorbing nutrients properly, I strip my meals way back to simplicity so most of the hard work is done for me (in the cooking process). With the turn from late summer into fall, I noticed an uptick in the above symptoms, and since this tends to fall in a pattern each year, I decided to make the last last few weeks about eating primarily very simple, easy to digest meals. Conveniently, and also not so conveniently, these simple meals tend to be needed more as running mileage goes up – which also means less cooking time, planning and prep! If you’re busy and having trouble with digestion — or just enjoy easy, dreamy meals this time of year, the recipe below is one to add to your rotation.

Taking from Ayurvedic medicine, which has much to offer in terms of treating and preventing just the type of malabsorption and upset I tend to experience, I chose to make meal-in-a-pot dishes such as kitchari and lots of dal. Kitchari is a rice and lentil or split mung bean combination that’s perfect for these occasions. Dal, in my opinion may even be more so, as it often eliminates the grain component for even easier food break-down and assimilation.

Plus it’s incredibly delicious on a cold, blustery fall or winter day. And with the addition of sweet potato or other root vegetables, it’s still hearty and fulfilling like kitchari.

The classic dal that I make features red lentils, which I find to be the most digestible bean/legume there is, other than split mung beans, which can be difficult to track down. Red lentils break down and cook quickly, and they don’t usually need soaking or planning ahead. However, if one is already having tummy troubles, soaking is still a good idea. Here are a few more tips to help make lentils and beans more digestible:

– Soak and rinse in a big bowl of water, ideally for a few hours. Discard the soaking water before using the lentils in your recipe.

– If there is foam that rises to the top of the pot while cooking, skim it off. The foam contains a type of protein that is hard on our digestive system. When in nutrition school, my cooking instructor Eleonora constantly repeated, ‘skim your beans’ so often that that’s the one line I associate most with her!

– Make sure the lentils – or other beans – are cooked thoroughly. This means they are soft, not al dente. One of the biggest problems with canned beans, in my opinion, is that most of them are not actually cooked as well as they should be for proper digestion. Cooking until the lentils or beans begin to break apart, or in the case of red lentils, turn into mush completely, is the best way to know they’re done.

– Add spices! Carminative spices, meaning they boost the digestive capacity, is a long-held way in traditional cooking to make meals more digestible. This is why a big soup pot with beans and meat often contains a bay leaf. Other carminative spices include ginger, cumin, coriander, fennel seed, thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cloves, and more. Virtually every cuisine of the world is ripe with carminatives in the traditional recipes for the exact purpose of not only adding flavor, but also boosting digestion!

– Add a squeeze of lemon, lime juice, or vinegar. Ideally every meal contains a slightly sour flavor addition, since sour helps to activate digestive enzymes. Most meals don’t need to taste outright sour, however. A little addition at the end of cooking goes a long way and often balances the recipe that’s missing ‘just a little something.’

– Lastly, eat your foods warm, especially this time of year. If you think of an ideal digestive scenario as a nice little cozy fire in the digestive system, eating cold foods is like throwing cold water on it. Not so great for turning food into nutrients and energy! In the summer months when we can be overheated, eating cold and raw meals makes much more sense and is seasonally appropriate. But this is rarely the case as we turn into fall and winter.


One other little tip that I find incredibly helpful is to reduce stimulus, particularly around meal time, but perhaps throughout the day too to help rebalance digestion. Constantly checking our phones and computers, keeping up with what everyone else is doing while they’re avoiding being present themselves, and eating in a loud, overstimulated environment or while upset or anxious is a recipe for continued GI problems. Our gut and brain are incredibly closely linked. We can go a long way to improve tolerance to the foods we eat just by eating slowly, chewing each bite upwards of 30 times (yes, really!), and not doing anything else while eating, other than eating. If you try these tips, you might also find you enjoy your food more, which is always an added bonus.

Now, onto the dal!


Gingered Sweet Potato Dal, serves 3-4
adapted from Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind by Kate O’Donnell

Use the larger amount of coconut oil if you tend to have dry skin, variable hunger, feel often bloated, gassy, or constipated, and less if you tend to accumulate extra congestion, have oily skin, and slow metabolism.

1-2 Tbs. coconut oil
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground turmeric
½ tsp. cinnamon, optional but delicious
1/8 tsp. fennel seeds
1 3-inch piece of ginger, finely grated
1 cup red lentils
4-5 cups water
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced small
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
a squeeze or two of fresh lemon or lime juice

  • Warm the coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the spices including fresh grated ginger, and stir just until they start to smell.
  • Add the lentils and sauté for 1-2 minutes, making sure they’re nicely coated. Then add the water and diced sweet potato. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer until the mixture is creamy and soupy, about 20 to 30 minutes. Stir occasionally. The lentils will be broken down, making a nice porridge-like consistency. Add more water if you need to.
  • Near the end of the cooking time, add the salt and pepper, and a squeeze of citrus. Remove from heat and enjoy!

Beet + Seed Loaf Cake

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I had an instance last weekend that after some consideration, seemed like a metaphor for life right now. I had been planning a creative cake project for William’s birthday and in retrospect I planned the more creative aspects of it, but not so much the logistics of size and weight, how many layers can actually stack before it’s too much. That sort of thing.

After a few hours of baking, as assembly got underway, the cake began breaking apart before me, each layer collapsing in to the next as their weight was too much. In panic, I *tossed* the whole thing in the freezer, hoping it would chill quickly enough to stop the destruction.

 

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And then like the cake, I completely melted down. William who really didn’t care whether he had cake or not, tried to reassure me, but the damn cake falling apart was in that moment an abject failure on my part after toiling away for hours and planning and looking forward to it for weeks.

So I took a break, made some tea and ate a snack because sometimes a blood sugar boost and tea actually is the best remedy before going on.

A little more resolve in my system, and I found a way to salvage two of the four layers, effectively putting the cake back in adequate proportion territory, and still plenty enough for a birthday.

 

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For the artistic frosting finale, I realized the downsizing really put a hamper on how the color scheme / paint-like effect of the frosting was going to end up and at the end, William laughed at the looks of my finished result, although ‘it doesn’t look bad, really‘ were the words that came from him, and ‘just different than what you were going for.’

 

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Different than what I was going for are probably words that describe most things for me. There’s that river again, which I cannot push. Trust and go with the flow. Again.

And maybe believe in yourself and know that you / I / we can make good come from every challenge.

 

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Back to the birthday cake and it turned out tasting, if not looking, perfect. Almond poppy seed layers from this base recipe, cream cheese frosting, and a few splashes of color from mostly natural food dyes, which was part of the project.

What all that has to do with today’s recipe, I’m not entirely sure. Other than we like poppy seeds in this house. And raisins. And cake, in various forms. Occasionally.

Fittingly though, I first made this beet + seed loaf cake, a major spin-off from Nigel Slater’s popular original, for a Mad Hatter Tea Party at work last spring. The party was for our volunteers and since most of them are retired master gardeners who also love earthy flavors and garden-inspired things, the cake was quickly gobbled up with approval. The tweaks I gave the original involve substantially less sugar and some more wholesome flours and it’s safe to say this is more of a breakfast or snack loaf, rather than a sugar rush in a slice.

 

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Beet + Seed Loaf Cake, makes 1 9×5 or 8×4-inch loaf
The flours can be changed here, depending on what’s on hand. Instead of chickpea, sorghum or millet are great substitutes. I used ground flax seeds here instead of eggs, but an earlier version of this made with 2 eggs instead also resulted well. 

2 Tbs. ground flax seeds
6 Tbs. water

100 grams / 1 cup chickpea flour
70 grams  / a scant 1/2 cup brown rice flour
25 grams / ¼ cup arrowroot flour
½ tsp baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla extract

¼ cup coconut oil
½ cup applesauce
70 grams / 3 Tbs. brown rice syrup
150-170g / 5-6 oz. raw beet, shredded coarsely
juice of half a lemon
½ cup raisins
½ cup mixed seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, etc.)
4 tsp. poppy seeds, divided

  • Preheat the oven to 350F / 180C. Line a loaf pan with baking parchment. A 9×5 will yield a larger, more compact loaf, and a slightly smaller pan will yield slices that are taller.
  • In a small bowl, combine the flax and water and then set aside for a few minutes.
  • Stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, mix the vanilla, coconut oil, applesauce, and brown rice syrup. Stir in the flax meal.
  • Grate the beetroot coarsely and fold into the mixture, then add the lemon juice, raisins, mixed seeds, and 2 teaspoons of poppy seeds. Then stir in the flour mixture.
  • Pour the mixture into the cake pan, smooth the top, and then sprinkle over the remaining 2 teaspoons of poppy seeds. Bake for 50-55 minutes and test with a toothpick to see if done. The cake should be moist inside but not sticky.
  • Leave the loaf to cool for a good 20 minutes before turning out of its pan on to a  cooling rack.

Meeting Your Protein Needs as a Vegan Athlete – and a quick socca recipe

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Over the years as I increased my athletic activity load and gradually began eating in a way that was more vegetable and plant heavy and included even less animal protein than before, I was curiously never asked the question that so often comes up when one stops eating meat. No one ever asked me Where do you get your protein?, the stereotypical question that so often comes up about plant-based diets. Knowing the basics of nutrition, and always adding a small protein source to my meals, I wasn’t at all worried about not getting enough. And interestingly, amongst many of the athletic women in my community who choose predominately vegan meals, it’s common that no one else is worried about protein either, with many active individuals like myself commonly eating plenty of whole grains and plant-heavy dishes that seem incredibly nutrient dense–yet they’re still left wondering over time why their health is in decline. I know I’ve for sure been in this scenario.

It wasn’t until I saw a nutritionist near the beginning of graduate school that I began to realize I too fell into dietary imbalance. My nutritionist mentor pointed out, You’re REALLY active. And for your activity level and because you tend to avoid meat, you need A LOT more protein. For quite a few months before I learned the particulars of what protein’s amino acids are doing in the body, and the higher needs of plant-based athletes, I really struggled with her suggestions to increase my intake.

Now before we get into the particulars, I’ll add a caveat that I do tend to eat some animal protein, usually in the form of monthly-ish wild-caught fish, a handful of eggs per month, and every once in a while, a bit of other meat. This blog post is not about the why’s of how I eat, or to encourage or discourage anyone from adopting a plant-based or vegan diet, it’s simply to support what the nutritional science currently knows about protein and our needs based on activity level and dietary choices.

 

As we all learned in grade school science, protein is made up of amino acids. Certain amino acids are essential to eat because the body, though incredibly wise, cannot make them out of other amino acids, as it otherwise can do.

Protein at its most basic understanding, builds muscle. We all learned that in elementary school and the idea is popularized in the cross-fit / weightlifting community. Beyond that role, amino acids from protein are used for bone health, enzyme formation to catalyze and carry out essential metabolic reactions, energy creation, to bind together skin and tendons, blood vessels, in the digestive system, and more. Nearly every one of the body’s 100 trillion or so cells is composed of various proteins, so our bodies require amino acids to function optimally. We don’t necessarily need “a lot” of protein in the diet, but we do need enough to meet our individual body’s needs.

 

Where vegetarian and vegans differ from meat-eating individuals is that they actually require a bit more protein as a percentage of body weight. Athletes of all types who train more than about 30 minutes 3x / week require more too than the non-athletic community. And vegetarian and vegan athletes require just a bit more. So compared to their meat-eating counterparts, a vegan marathon or ultrarunner for example, needs quite a bit more protein than an individual who fuels with meat, and that protein can be more difficult to come by—especially when or if further dietary limitations come into play, such as when soy, legume, or nut allergies also limit food choices.

 

When I work with individuals, I don’t tend to give amounts or percentages of protein because we all eat food and food contains many different macro and micronutrients. In fact, even a plate of plain vegetables can offer a little boost of protein. I also never encourage anyone to get caught up in tracking meals rigidly to reach a certain number of either calories or nutrient values. That practice breeds its own problems.

But for the sake of being more precise, our current research suggests that vegan athletes need from 1.3-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight in the diet per day (1, 2, 3), with that intake being closer to the high end when there is a lot of high intensity or big-mileage pursuits in the regular training plan. For a 130-ish pound female athlete, that’s roughly 120 grams of protein per day, which is more easily achieved with two servings of fish or meat in the meal plan for a day, but maybe not so much with beans, quinoa, and lots of fresh vegetables. In other words, active vegan athletes training for challenging events are going to have to work to get the necessary protein in to meet the body’s needs and repair itself adequately. That’s where and why a good-quality protein powder might come in handy, as well as adding in little extras throughout the day and diet to help.

One other thing to note is that our currently data suggest that a good amount of protein per meal is from 20 to 30 grams, and this is enough to help the body begin to recover post-exercise and throughout the day. More than 30 grams in a single meal is not necessarily beneficial, i.e. the body metabolizes protein best when it’s eaten throughout the day in meals that contain that 20-30 gram amount. Weightlifters slamming 50+ grams post-workout aren’t necessarily doing their body any favors. And neither is the person that eats one large meal that contains a burger and bacon, or a surf and turf steak and seafood meal, or a meat-lovers pizza.

 

Beyond just needing more protein if you’re a vegan athlete, those with active inflammation, such as when healing from an injury, getting over a long illness, or dealing with an autoimmune disorder likely need more protein as well, since more (of all nutrients) are going to be used in the body’s process to repair itself.

 

For a lot of individuals who know or suspect their protein intake is low for their needs, I generally suggest making small changes that start to add up. Adding more nuts and seeds of all types to morning porridge, swapping the amounts of beans and rice for dinner (more beans / less rice), rotating in tofu and tempeh more often, and adding in chickpea or other bean flours where previously grain-based flour was used are examples I often employ in my own meal patterns.

When choosing to eat whole grains, there are also certain choices that are higher in protein than others, such as wild rice (6.6g / cup), spelt berries (6.6g / cup), quinoa (6.4g / cup), amaranth (6.4g / cup), buckwheat (6g / cup), oats (5.9g / cup), and barley (5.6g / cup) (4).

Another idea is to start being more creative with beans such as using a chickpea flour to make delicious socca, a French pancake or crepe-like flatbread that’s simple, quick, and tasty. Socca is one of my favorite ways to add a little extra protein boost in a meal when I’d otherwise reach for a more-carbohydrate-rich food, like bread, flatbread, or a cooked grain.

 

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If this topic interests you, below are a couple follow-up articles that give more meal ideas and delve deeper into one of the amino acids that frequently falls short in a vegan diet (leucine). They are all great short reads.
Thinking about becoming a vegan athlete? (with information about meeting leucine requirements)
No Meat Athlete Protein Bowl with 30 grams protein
The Full Helping’s protein meals combinations (not specific to athletes / contains some lower protein examples)

 

 

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Socca, makes 2
1 cup chickpea flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt and dash or two of black pepper
1 tsp. turmeric
1 cup water
oil, just enough to coat the pan

  • In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper, turmeric, and then water. Whisk until you have a smooth batter. Set aside while you heat a large skillet over medium heat.
  • When the pan is hot, lightly brush the bottom with oil. Pour in half the socca batter (about 3/4 cup) and tilt the pan to distribute it evenly. Cook for about four minutes, until the bottom is browned and comes away easily from the pan, and then flip to do the same on the other side. Repeat with the remaining socca batter.
  • Remove the socca to a plate, and serve alongside or as a base for whatever other ingredients you prefer.

References:

  1. Kerksick, C.M. and Kulovitz, M. (2013). Requirements of Energy, Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fat for Athletes. Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-396454-0.00036-9.
  2. Zhou, J., Li, J., and Campbell, W.W. (2013). Vegetarian Athletes. Nutrition and Enhanced Sports Performance. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-396454-0.00036-9.
  3. Witard, O.C., Garthe, I., and Phillips, S.M. (2019). Dietary Protein for Training Adaptation and Body Composition Manipulation in Track and Field Athletes. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 29(2), 165-174. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2018-0267.
  4. Whole Grains Council. (2014). Whole Grain Protein Power! Retrieved from: https://wholegrainscouncil.org/blog/2014/02/whole-grain-protein-power.