An especially important, and often overlooked, key to better digestion

One of my mentors recently shared a phrase that’s stuck with me, and really helped in my day to day. She shared in an almost offhand way, Rushing is ego. It feeds self-importance. As someone that tends to perpetually feel rushed and scattered and multi-tasks far more than I should, her statement was like a gentle but stern hand on my shoulder. And a reminder that rushing never makes me feel better in any way.

One of the main areas I tend to rush, multi-task and be scattered is when eating. Alone and left to my own devices, I tend to rarely eat without distraction. And when William and I enjoy meals in the evenings together, catching up on our days and eating while talking (quickly) is more the norm. A couple years ago, recognizing a pattern in myself, I started an experiment of several days of eating with no distraction. What I realized from that experiment was that I’ve tended to avoid being alone with my thoughts at meals because it brought awareness to things I didn’t want to feel. A few months later, I reinstated the distraction free eating practice, having lunch every day outside on the patio without technology or (my weakness), things to read. Instead I simply enjoyed my meals, listened to the summer bugs and watched the hummingbird’s daily visit to the pink zinnia. It was lovely and stress-reducing. And a few weeks into that new habit, I noticed my digestion had really improved, and that I’d begun to feel a lot better in my autoimmune pain and other symptoms. And quite noticeably, I was running and recovering really well during that time.

Summer ended and the practice gradually fell away. I went back to distracted eating and well, I’d notice my digestion was off, stress ran higher, and I didn’t tend to enjoy my meals much because I wasn’t paying attention to actually eating them!

Today, I’ve got a short but incredibly substantial tip if you’re struggling with poor digestion, GI pain (whether it’s general or after a tough workout), bloating, excess gas, etc. And it also helps A LOT if you tend to be generally mentally scattered or anxious. It’s one that you don’t have to spend a ton of money on – actually it’s free! It doesn’t take special skills or preparation. And the process of eating your meals and the hours afterward (those poor digestion side effects), will be much more enjoyable.

Are you ready?

For the next few days, try really chewing your food.

And by that I mean, chewing every bite until it’s broken down into a mush. This means you might chew 20-35 times per bite. Yes, really.

That’s going to be tolerated better than it used to…

Before food ever gets to our stomach or small intestine where stomach acids and digestive enzymes contribute to the chemical process of digestion and then nutrient absorption, digestion actually begins in the brain (just thinking about and then smelling food) and in the mouth. Digestive juices, saliva, enzymes, and digestive hormones are released and begin flowing in anticipation of a meal. Then saliva contains enzymes that further initiate digestion. Likewise, mechanical breakdown of food with our teeth is incredibly important so the enzymes, gastric acids, and hormones can then take over further along in the process.

Some people like to count the number of chews per bite, so go ahead if this helps you to establish the practice. Focus on chewing every mouthful until it is liquid.

The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, is often quoted as saying that all disease begins in the gut. Interestingly and unsurprisingly, most traditional (and much older) medical systems around the world believe the same. For all I know, some wise sage (or perhaps just my wise mentor) also came up with that phrase about rushing and feeding ego’s self-importance. Especially now in mid-December leading up to the holidays — especially now when Covid-rates are increasing stress (again), help your digestion out a little, and actually enjoy your food, by chewing it a little more.

Impaired digestion and subsequent absorption of food is one of the primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically with impaired digestion. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, fatigue, or anxiety, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I shared about the nervous system’s role in part 1 of this topic, the immune response and subsequent inflammation in part two, gut microbes and dysbiosis in part three and I’ll explain remaining categories in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI and would like to get back to feeling and training well, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Butternut Buckwheat Porridge from Living Ayurveda

About a year ago near the solstice, I wrote the words grounded/focused on a bookmark. The back was painted with a small cross-section of watercolor tulips from a local artist; her cast-offs she’d cut into cards for an intention setting gathering. Grounded and focused were my intentions for how I wanted to feel by the end of this year. Little did we know then what 2020 would entail, but what I did know was that I struggle with being mentally cluttered and scattered, sometimes switching topics mid-sentence in conversation, and often letting my thoughts and ideas run away from me and having nothing to show for it minutes (and sometimes hours) later. I also knew that the internal atmosphere of being grounded and focused wasn’t so much an end goal for months away, but a daily, and sometimes minute by minute practice.

It’s safe to say I have succeeded and failed in my intention, multiple times a day.

But I’ve also been able to add a lot of tools and practices for how to gain a less scattered mind and actions over the years. One of which is continually learning from Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is the indigenous health system of India, and arguably the oldest health system (or one of the oldest) in the world. While I didn’t learn Ayurveda outright in nutrition graduate school, mine was a program that married traditional systems of health with the latest nutritional and medical sciences, and thus incorporating components of Ayurveda in my nutrition classes and clinic was widely accepted – and especially in my herbal classes. In the meantime, as if I didn’t need to study more, I was studying it on the side and incorporating increasingly more aspects of Ayurveda in my own life, helping to get closer to healing many of my GI and autoimmune struggles.

The cluttered and scattered mind is a common feature of imbalanced vata in the body, and like many people in our modern lifestyles, I struggle with this imbalance, a lot. As well as many other high-vata tendencies. Vata is one of the three energies or forces which can be observed in all things, and which are ideally in balance. Pitta and Kapha are the other two energies. Eating foods that support high vata or perhaps foods that support one of the other two doshas that make up our body and mind, is a primary way we can return our ailments to balance, but it’s certainly not the only practice.

So many years ago that I don’t remember, but around the time I first learned of Ayurveda, I discovered Claire’s blog with simple delicious Ayurvedic recipes. Claire has recently released her gorgeous book, Living Ayurveda, which is full of the kind of guidance that helps us achieve a little more balance in our lives. It encourages us to make the connection between time of year and patterns that afflict us (but don’t have to), incorporating building and lightening ingredients in the right ratios in our meals, and recipes that can be adapted depending on the season and our individual doshas or imbalances. Likewise, there are yoga sequences for each season too.

Some of the recipes that I’ve already tried and truly will make again and again include:
Pumpkin Empanadas with Cashew Crema
Shakti Chai
Simple Stewed Apples
and this Butternut Buckwheat Porridge

So many more are on my list – actually all of them really:
Warm Cinnamon Date Shake
Creamy Miso Tahini Dal
Delicata, Wild Rice & Pomegranate Salad
Kitchari Burgers
Fall Harvest Muffins
and most definitely the Yogi Bowl, a variation on something I could eat daily.

Butternut Buckwheat Porridge from Living Ayurveda, serves 2-4
To be completely transparent in portion sizes, I make this recipe as a half batch for one meal. That is a perfect amount for me, as a very active person, to go several hours between breakfast and the midday meal with excellent energy and ‘fuel’. Claire’s suggestions include adding an extra spoonful of ghee for vata support on very dry and cold days, reducing the cinnamon slightly for high pitta (cinnamon in large amounts is quite heating so good for some with high vata and kapha, but less so for others), and taking out the oats and doubling the buckwheat for high kapha. For a completely vegan and/or dairy-free version, I suggest using untoasted sesame oil, especially for vata/kapha, or coconut oil instead.

3 cups water
1/2 cup (untoasted) buckwheat groats or short-grain brown rice
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
1 cup peeled butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup raisins
1 tsp. ghee
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
milk of choice and maple syrup, for serving (optional)

  • In a medium pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil on high heat. Cover with a lid, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes, until butternut squash is tender and the grains are fully cooked. You might need to stir once or twice during that time. Toward the end, add a splash of water if needed.
  • If using a pressure cooker, reduce the water to 2 1/2 cups and follow instructions for pressure-cooking porridge. Once done, remove from heat and serve hot with a splash of milk of choice and a drizzle of maple syrup on top. I found the milk and syrup is a preference, and I enjoy this without either.

Simple {gluten-free} Sourdough Stuffing and a 2020 Thanksgiving Menu

I stumbled upon a twitter thread the other day amongst the celiac community on the topic of the upcoming holiday celebrations. The initial question was about handling cross contamination at gatherings involving food. So many individuals repeated what I’ve felt all year, a sense of not having to worry about it for the first in a long time, due to smaller stay-at-home gatherings this year. As sad as it to think about such a drastic change to our social traditions the last few months, not traveling or eating with others has also been much easier on me. For the first year in more than a decade, I haven’t experienced any of the multi-day ill effects after eating out at restaurants or in others’ households due to cross-contamination.

Even before the pandemic hit, William and I had planned for this year to be a non-travel year for the holidays. What we didn’t necessarily intend was that we would be spending Thanksgiving (and likely Christmas), not with friends or family coming to us, but with only the two of us. A continuation of the norm this year. Instead of lamenting over not catching up with anyone or seeing friends in person, I’ve decided to take the perspective that this year can be a good ‘rest year’ from the constant scurrying about that has become the last 15 years. And because I love to cook, I’ll be making holiday meals of the dishes we truly enjoy. Because I’m married to a traditionalist, and trend towards the traditional as well, I’m planning for a smaller-scale traditional Thanksgiving featuring all my / our favorite sides that I can now enjoy free of gluten-fear.

Below is what I plan to make, along with a little more inspiration if you’re still deciding on your own scaled down semi-traditional Thanksgiving meal. As per usual, all of these recipes are gluten and dairy free. Most are also vegan and soy free. William has ordered a ‘half turkey’ from his favorite local farmer, and though I don’t tend to crave meat left to my devices, we’ve both agreed it’s not really a Thanksgiving meal without the turkey — and stuffing of course! If you do not eat turkey, I suggest adding some sort of protein-rich side to your meal such as the creamy white beans linked below, and then make a centerpiece dish by baking this stuffing in a medium-large pumpkin or winter squash instead.

In whatever way you’re spending the Thanksgiving holiday, I hope you find a little time to reflect on what you are thankful for this year and what has brought joy or peace amidst the rest.

Savory //
Renee’s Harvest Moon Kale Salad
Claire’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts + Mushrooms
Celebratory Turkey (the best you can find, brined and rubbed with thyme)
Celery Root + Potato Mash
Simple Sourdough Stuffing (recipe below)

Other savory ideas:
Roasted Vegetables with Autumn Roots + Mushrooms
Persimmon + Grains with Moroccan Seasoning
For the Joy Salad
Wild Rice Stuffing Balls
Creamy White Beans with Greens
Delicata Squash, Rosemary + Cranberry Flatbread

Sweet //
Cranberry Chia Jam
Apple Pie with a Fabulous Gluten + Dairy-Free Pastry
Pumpkin Pie

Notes about the Menu:
– If you eat turkey and are highly sensitive to gluten, you may need to make sure your turkey has been processed without any gluten-additives. My first recommendation is always to purchase a turkey from a local farmer, if available, but I know that can be asking a lot, especially if you’re not hosting the meal. Otherwise, here is an excellent list of available brands that don’t process with gluten.
– For dairy-free / vegan mashed potatoes, we tend to skip the russet varieties and opt for German Butterball or Yukon Gold varieties. They have more flavor and moisture, and work well by mashing without butter, and just a bit of non-dairy milk, seasoning, and a splash of olive oil, if desired.

Simple Sourdough Stuffing, serves about 4
This is as close to the flavor of my mom’s (and similarly, grandma’s) gluten-full stuffing as I can get, but features whole-grain gluten-free sourdough bread instead. Truly, flavor rich! Growing up, my mom’s thanksgiving stuffing was my favorite dish to look forward to. Years later, when I finally asked what her secret is, she told “me lots of butter”. Though that’s not exactly true because I grew up on margarine. Anyways, I first made this with olive oil and the flavor fell a little flat. I could tell it was the lack of butter. If you can tolerate dairy products, using ghee will be best (flavor and digestibility) and alternatively a good quality vegan butter instead of olive oil. My preferred brand of vegan/non-dairy butter is linked below. My mom doesn’t keep a recipe and relies on tasting to make sure just the right amount of seasoning is added. That’s a good method since we all have a different preference and it will depend a little on the freshness of your dry herbs.

5 cups gf / whole-grain sourdough bread cubes (~ 1-inch)
2 Tbs. vegan butter (this one is preferred) or ghee
2 Tbs. dried sage leaves
2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 small onion, chopped (~ 1 cup)
2 celery stalks, finely chopped (~ 1 cup)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
1 3/4 – 2 cups mineral broth, or low-sodium vegetable broth
black pepper to taste

  • A couple days before you make the stuffing, place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and let them dry uncovered. Or speed up the process by putting them in the oven at 275 degrees F for about 25 minutes, or until they are dry.
  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Then, heat the oil or ghee in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sage and thyme leaves, as well as the salt. Cook for a few seconds until you can smell the herbs, then add the onion and celery. Saute for 6-8 minutes, or until the onion is soft and clear. Reduce the heat to low.
  • Stir in the bread cubes, along with the parsley and 1 1/2 cups mineral broth. Turn off the heat, and add black pepper, any additional sage or thyme, and more broth until the mixture tastes flavorful, and is soft and wet. If the bread is still a bit dry, add more broth.
  • Transfer the stuffing to a deep baking dish such as a 9 x 5 loaf pan. Alternatively, bake it inside your Thanksgiving turkey or inside a large pumpkin / squash, for a centerpiece effect.
  • Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Then uncover the dish and bake for an additional 20 to 25 minutes until the edges are starting to get a little crispy and golden brown.