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.

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.

The best seasonal braised cabbage, kitchen morning mindfulness, and connecting to our food’s story.

When I wake in the morning, my tendency is to go towards some distraction immediately, whether it be reading emails on my phone, putting on a podcast to hear others talk at me, or perhaps even social media, though that’s much less my go-to than it was. When I am in the kitchen a little later cycling the dishes and making breakfast, my tendency is to reach for a distraction again.

Last year, I listened to a really impactful series of short podcast episodes on BBC’s Slow Radio about Benedictine Monks meditating on the nature of silence. One of the monks spoke about listening to the pauses in the everyday noise of our life, not filling it, but letting it be there, for it’s in the pauses that we hear guidance about our life (whether you’re religious or not, I’m guessing you have experienced this). So instead of filling the early hours with someone else talking, I’ve taken to letting my attention go to the moment and what I’m doing, walking this stack of bowls from the dishwasher to the cupboard, tracking back to the dishwasher, stacking the plates and walking them across the kitchen to the cupboard, pouring the boiling water over my first cup of tea, asking Alexa for a three minute timer, turning to the other counter, picking up the pear and knife, cutting the pear into haphazard pieces and scraping them into my oatmeal pot. Making my experience of the everyday morning hours, still technically dark outside, a fits and starts routine with less distractions from the outside world.

This kitchen meditation is important because it sets my whole day. My mind has a tendency to jump around, jump ahead, form conversations that will never happen, and turn unimportant moments and experiences into catastrophes, dreams and goals into hopeless pursuits. I’m not consistently mindful in the mornings, not able to have this presence always, nor do I carry it through for the rest of the day. But the daily practice lately is helpful. When I stack days on days of this practice, I notice I become more present for longer stretches elsewhere and thus my go-to mind chatter and on-too-much stress cascade is triggered less or bounces back a little quicker.

I have this Ayurvedic Cookbook by Kate O’Donnell, which I love for its easy meal inspiration and adaptability, but even more I love the introductory section, which makes up a good chunk of the book. Part of Kate’s introduction has a story about her yoga practice. She asks a long-time practitioner about the myth of mental calm through yoga and he tells her, “Do less physical monkey business and more concentration. Count your breaths.” She tells of not being particularly impressed with this advice, but then says, “When I practiced counting my breaths, I began to wonder – who is that counting and observing, and who is that telling me that I should be doing something else? So often, we identify with only the turbulent aspects of our minds, because they tend to be the loudest, and we are in the habit of joining their conversation. It takes patience and focus to stay tuned to the calm center, but it is possible. With practice, I stopped listening to the person arguing and began truly concentrating. It was in this state of focus that I finally found calm.”

Beyond this practice of paying attention, not engaging with the chattering, turbulent mind, is food, nutrition, and lifestyle. We have consistent research now backing up what the yogis and buddhas have known for centuries –that the mind and gut are connected. That there are energetic frequencies between the foods we consume and their effects on our mind and body. That the state of mind we prepare our food in has an affect on how we process it. That the symptoms we continually fall into, anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and on –they are symptoms, not problems, but symptoms of the body trying to get our attention.

As I’m writing this, it is the beginning of NEDA week –National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and as such it has been fairly routine for me to reflect on my own place in recovery annually. This week, it’s become apparent through my morning kitchen mindfulness practice that I’ve been connecting a little more into the beginning of my recovery, which began haphazardly about 13 years ago. What worked for me then, what really was my life raft out of my mental control and self-sabotage through food restriction was really connecting to my food community. I grew up on a ranch and our family had a garden growing up. Local food was really a way of life even if it was far from the romanticized version of farm life we all think of. As I found my way into nourishing instead of punishing my body, I needed that connection again, not to awareness of my mind’s tendencies–I wasn’t that far along and mindfulness wasn’t a thing that was ever brought up in therapy–but connection to my food. Who grew my carrot? What were the steps involved in getting that _____________(name that ingredient) to my store or farm stand and then to me?


Lately, I’ve been putting more emphasis on getting to my local Saturday market. It’s inconvenient to do so, I have to drive across town on a busy weekend at an inconvenient time of day, find a place to park, walk a few blocks, get cash ahead of time, deal with traffic back home, build the extra trip into my schedule, etc. But each time I do this, I’m reminded of the faces that feed us. The farmers themselves –often the farmer’s employees but still farmers—standing for hours on concrete in the middle of winter on cold, blistery, rainy days selling what we think of as ‘expensive food for the elite’ for mere dollars, and at the end of the day and year only making the farming business work because of a spouse or partner’s off-farm job or health insurance. If that sounds totally unglamorous, it was meant to—being aware of the reality of our thoughts or situations is rarely glamourous.

But when I see the hands that feed me and stay more connected to the origins of my food, I stay on the right side of my relationship to food in the recovery process. My relationship with my body is better, I care more for the livelihood of those that grew my food, I have more gratitude for our extremely happy and spoiled ‘ladies’ (hens) who provide the best eggs I’ve ever eaten, I translate that energy of good vibes into my presence in the kitchen and my emphasis on being in a state of calm and clear-mindedness, rather than cluttered, flustered, or not caring for myself well. Again–mostly. This takes practice. It’s certainly not my go-to mindset.

So much of each of our trajectories in this lifetime are like hiking up a slippery, icy mountain. We take a step towards improvement in whatever regard and then we slip back, sometimes giving up for a while before starting anew. As eating disorders and other mental health conditions become a little less stigmatized, or at least acknowledged, it’s important to remember that the glamorous recovery stories we read or hear, of healing through this or that process or someone else staying on the straight and narrow while we slip and slide up and down the same stretch of mountain, are not actually glamorous like they may appear. William’s ladies might lay golden, delicious, nourishing eggs, but there’s a lot of chicken manure in the process. The same goes for the beautiful food brought to the town square – freezing fingers and toes, big waterproof coveralls to wash off all the winter mud before it gets there are more the reality.  And have you ever picked vegetables for at least a day? I have. Once. For a day in the middle of a hot and humid July in Virginia as a community service project. It was back-breaking work. Truly uncomfortable and challenging. And there were giant spiders.

Connecting to the story of your food has a real way of anchoring in gratitude and mindfulness, whichever way that background story goes.

This National Eating Disorders Awareness week, if you’re inclined, I encourage you to try some sort of mindful connection, to the source of your food, or to the process of preparing it for yourself and/or family. Count your breaths. Tune into the process of preparing your food. Thank a farmer. And most especially, give yourself a big hug.

The Best Simple Braised Cabbage, serves about 4, if you’re lucky. ;)

Cabbage is one of my all-time favorite foods this time of year. I crave it every winter before all the new colorful fruits and vegetables start to appear again. Truthfully, I enjoy it just about every way, steamed simply with some salt and pepper is at the top of my list, then braised, roasted, boiled in a flavorful broth, or lastly shredded into some sort of raw salad creation–they’re all good. Cabbage cooked simply has a subtle natural sweetness that comes through and it’s just one of those still wintery-filling foods that walks the line between the green leaves of spring. At my local farmers market, all the different types of cabbage have been catching my eye lately. Use any type here, from bright red/purple, crinkly savoy, or your standard green variety.

a little splash of olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. raw apple cider vinegar
1 medium cabbage, thinly sliced
1/2 cup water

  • Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally for about 8-10 minutes, or until tender and starting to turn golden brown.
  • Turn up the heat slightly and stir in the salt, apple cider vinegar, and sliced cabbage, along with the water. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat, cover the pan, and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the cabbage is very tender. Check and stir the cabbage a few times while cooking and add a little more water if begins to dry out or starts to stick.
  • Season with pepper, additional salt as needed, and then enjoy as a simple, tasty side dish.