Are you eating enough for your activity level?

Today’s topic is one that’s been on my mind a whole lot lately. A nutrition question that is frequently asked is:  Should I be eating intuitively when I’m hungry or tracking what I eat and going off the numbers?

Before I tell you my answer, I’d like you to think about this question for a moment. No really, take a moment and think about what you’d say if someone asked you. (Humor me please, this is the educator in me.)

From my instagram a couple weeks ago: as mileage and/or time on feet goes up, eating becomes almost another part-time job. the last few days I felt like I wasn’t quite eating enough, and not surprisingly, today’s long run felt a little extra challenging.
low energy availability is extremely common in athletes, and long term, it can cause widespread physiological and psychological imbalances.
so the short story is if you’re moving a lot, you need to be eating a lot.

Now, my answer:  YES, eat intuitively!! Tracking numbers often leads to becoming reliant on the numbers rather than recognizing your own body’s needs. Your body is incredibly wise and those tracking websites and apps are all using estimates. They’re estimating your energy needs and using nutrition data done in a lab on a random sample item of the food tested. And that’s not to mention that your estimates of portion size, etc. are usually not entirely accurate either.
So random sample food that may not reflect the actual nutrition of the food you ate, formula estimating your energy needs, and, unless you’re a super type-A person that weighs every morsel ingested to the nearest gram (also please don’t do this), inaccurate food measurement. Yes, they can give you an idea if you might be in the ballpark with your nutrition needs, but as above, it can vary so much. And yes, some individuals can go into a lab and get their metabolic rate measured to determine a more accurate picture of energy needs, but most of us don’t have access to or need that data.

AND also my answer: It depends. Many active individuals are actually not eating enough for their on-the-move lifestyles – and the body, because it is wise, makes decisions about where it is going to prioritize its precious calories. So if you’re going to go for a trail run in the forest for the day followed by an evening bike ride or weight session, and then follow with something similar tomorrow and the next day, and throw in a weekend long couple workouts, AND you’re routinely not eating enough to meet your caloric needs, the body is going to choose where to spend those nutrients because when this precious energy is used for one function, it is not available for another one. Essentially, you are putting your system into survival mode.

And it plays out along these lines as your body says,  “Well, if you’re going to make me go do these workouts, I’ll put my energy here, though maybe with a little less pep, energy, and high-end ability, but I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul, so I’ll compromise over here with bone metabolism, or over here with female reproductive hormones or thyroid health, or immune function, or over here with the GI system and the ability to break down nutrients in food (because digestive enzymes are made of proteins which may be lacking in the diet), or muscle and tissue repair or”…. and the list goes on.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because it’s actually common for active individuals to be eating to hunger levels and still not be eating enough.

While intuitive eating means we should honor our hunger, many athletes have a suppressed appetite after long or intense workouts, and we still need to replace nutrients quickly after exercise, and learn to recognize that symptoms of hunger go beyond simply an empty stomach.

While intuitive eating means we should respect our fullness, if you get to the point of overeating by having excessively large meals, it is often because of low energy intake throughout the day or because you did some seriously strenuous exercise. With more even or adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, you can avoid that ravenous feeling of needing to eat quickly and impulsively, which means you’re paying more attention to fullness.

A SELF-ASSESSMENT TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE YOUR ENERGY NEEDS

So what to do if tracking all your meals isn’t very accurate (and not to mention time-consuming and takes the joy out of eating and deciding what to eat), and eating intuitively might be a little faulty, especially at the beginning?

My suggestion is to start with a self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions:
– Am I sick more than I should be?
– Do I struggle with fatigue more than I think I should?
– Am I improving in my performance?
– Have I had a lot of injuries?
– How’s my overall health?
Basic bloodwork results holds a plethora of data on how the body is ‘performing’ internally.
– How is my menstrual cycle and/or sex drive? Women have a little advantage here in that any menstrual symptoms or irregularities* are symptoms telling you to heed warning because there’s a larger health story.
– Do I have a lot of gut upset / discomfort?
– Am I more irritable, depressed, anxious, or have decreased concentration?
– Am I sleeping well?
– and if you have teammates or friends/family that you work out with regularly: Do I eat less than my teammates but have a higher body fat? This is subjective of course because every body is different, but yep, higher body fat and eating less is also a tell-tale sign, since lower metabolic rate occurs with lower energy availability, meaning you might be eating less but weighing more or having more cushion than previously.
– and one more because it can become prevalent with long term low energy availability: Am I thinking about food ALL THE TIME? We know from eating disorder and starvation studies that chronically deprived individuals become obsessed with food, far beyond just being interested in food.

So where to go from here?
Above all, food and exercise should make you feel good. The goal is to be aware and in tune with yourself and your body’s ability to show you signs that something may not feel right or as great as it should.

And you may benefit from professional guidance. If you’re confused or concerned about your needs, or would like a professional opinion, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

*Women on hormonal birth control will not have the same ability to use their menstrual cycle to gauge abnormalities, since it is designed to eliminate ovulation and the normal hormonal fluctuation that occurs. If symptoms or irregularities occur without birth control, that is vital sign that your body has an imbalance somewhere.
This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. 

References:
2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Bronwen, L., Rowe, G., and Girdlestone, C. (2020). Low Energy Availability – an imbalance that impacts more than performance. CompeatCon Nutrition Conference.
Fahrenholtz, IL., Sjodin, A., Benardot, D., Tornberg, AB., Skouby, S.,…and Melin, AK. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and reproductive function in female endurance athletes.
Torstveit, MK., Fahrenholtz, IL., stenqvist, TB., Svlta, O., Melin, A. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and metabolic perturbation in male endurance athletes.
Tribole, E. and Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. (2nd ed.). St. Martin’s Griffin.


Walnut Butter with Blueberries, Goji Berries + Vanilla

I received free samples of California Walnuts mentioned in this post. By posting this recipe I am entering a recipe contest sponsored by California Walnuts and am eligible to win prizes associated with the contest. I was not compensated for my time.

There was a conversation going around the last few weeks about using up what’s in the cupboard, finding random stowed-away forgotten, stale, and outdated ingredients, and actually making a meal of them. As that went around, I truthfully had the thought of Ha, well that doesn’t apply to me.
I also remember a few years ago, a friend that first got to know me as a study abroad/international student and came to visit. He remarked at how elaborate the collection of ingredients in my pantry were. At the time, it felt like a moment of baring my soul, for what’s in your pantry and fridge tell as much or perhaps more about someone as taking a look in their medicine cabinet.

I tend to have a fairly vast collection of cooking ingredients simply because I love to experiment and create, and I like the flavors of a lot of different places. My kitchen is perhaps the [adult foodie] version of my dear grandmother’s elaborate dress-up closet that we loved as a kid.

Lately, I’ve also been making meals inspired by Heidi Swanson’s Near & Far cookbook, though I’ve particularly been drawn to the Near section, meaning Northern California cuisine. In the springtime particularly, this means I’ve been making meals with plenty of greens and herbs, and with flavors and ingredients that are pretty close to home here in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley. In other words, as the stay-at-home recommendations went into effect, I craved even more the flavors that come from closer to home.

And…when I finally dug through the pantry and fridge to inventory what’s there, I discovered I’m not the outlier with no outdated or forgotten foods in the pantry like I’d convinced myself to be.

A jar of freeze-dried wasabi powder
An untouched jar of Rhubarb Cordial which I made during cordial-making week in Herbal Pharmacy class four years ago
A few blooming teas and flavored teas and extra-floral teas that various individuals have gifted me – love tea, kinda picky about which ones I’ll drink on the regular
A package of pizza spice mix
A jar of jalapeño jelly I made a long time ago that appears still good – the gift of high sugar content
A big pack of spring roll wrappers I’ve only needed in small amounts
A couple dried habaneros – before I realized only a smidge in a recipe will singe the hairs off, clear the mucus membranes, and help me breathe fire like the dragon I sometimes claim to be. ;)

And, not outdated at all and in constant rotation, an entire third of my fridge and a shelf on the pantry dedicated to the nut, seed, and dried fruit collection. Because I like to start from the equivalent of primary colors when making recipes, I usually purchase raw, unroasted nuts and seeds, and dried fruit with no added oils or sweeteners. This also means their amazing nutrients are retained without adding extra oils, salt, or sugar. Despite a few other ingredients that clearly need to be tossed or regifted – that cordial did not look good and went down the drain this morning – this preference for having diverse and fresh ingredients on hand came in real handy the last few weeks.

So let’s turn to this particular recipe, shall we?

One of the components of total health and overall diet that is important is the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid types in our daily diets. Both omega-3s and omega-6s are essential, meaning we have to get them from our foods to have adequate health, but their ratio is perhaps just as important. In traditional diets, our evidence shows that peoples were likely eating a 3:1 or even 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s, and this is still optimal. In a standard Western diet, that ratio is often skewed to a 20:1 or more ratio. Anything above a 5:1 ratio begins to be more of a pro-inflammatory state for the body.

Omega-3 fats are primarily found in fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines.
But they’re also found in plant-foods including walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds, as well as edible wild plants – a major source for our ancestors.

Omega-6 fats, though essential, are ones we usually don’t have to work at getting because they’re prolific in our food supply – primarily through corn, soy and other-vegetable oils, but also in most of the other nuts and seeds not mentioned above.

One important note is that no food has just one type of fatty acid profile – foods contain varying amounts of all types of fat, both monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (those omega-3s and 6s), and saturated fats. Our body thrives with a balance which is another reason it is wise to eat diversely and seasonally.

Working a little of that Near & Nearer concept into my meals and snacks lately, this recipe primarily features California walnuts, which I love because they offer a rich, sophisticated flavor, and they’re the only nut to provide an excellent source of the plant-based omega-3, ALA (2.5g/oz).

And a handful (or spoonful) of California walnuts is a versatile snack and can satisfy any taste preference, from savory to sweet.​ As far as this walnut and berry nut butter goes, it works that slightly sweet angle with blueberries that were grown by one of our local farmers, a handful of antioxidant-rich goji berries, and just enough sunflower seeds to balance out the stronger flavors that walnuts on their own in a nut butter provide. I particularly enjoy this as a snack or alongside apple slices as a little after dinner treat. And if you make it, whether you have to go source a few ingredients or work that Far angle of the Near & Far concept, I promise you will too. :)

Walnut Butter with Blueberries, Goji Berries + Vanilla, makes 240 grams (about 8 oz.)
1 ¾ cups / 175 grams California Walnuts
¼ cup / 35 grams sunflower seeds
2 Tbs. / 20 grams unsweetened dried blueberries
2 Tbs. / 10 grams dried goji berries
1/8 tsp. vanilla
a dash of salt and up to 1/8 tsp.

  1. Set the oven to 160°C / 320°F.
  2. Spread out the walnuts and sunflower seeds on a baking tray and roast for 15-18 minutes until they begin to turn a slightly darker, toasted hue.
  3. Transfer to a food processor and mix on high speed for approximately 10-15 minutes or until it starts to become smooth and perhaps a little runny (stopping and scraping down the sides every now and then). 
  4. Add in the dried berries, vanilla, and salt.
  5. Puree again until the berries are mostly incorporated but might still have some small pieces.
  6. Pour into a 8 oz. jar and store extra in the fridge.

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.