Winter Tabbouleh and How Fiber Helps Support your Health — and Hunger

In the health, wellness, and fitness community, we often hear all about the macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates). Yet, a nutrient that’s incredibly beneficial to our health is far less mentioned. That’s fiber.

Fiber is best known to keep you regular or prevent constipation, but there are many more benefits. In the athletic community, the one that comes to mind first is helping to relieve that ‘hungry all the time’ feeling that often comes with heavier training loads. Next is gut health, lowering disease risk, and helping to regulate the body’s use of sugars.

Dietary fiber consists of the non-digestible carbohydrates from components of plants. The human body does not make the types of enzymes needed to break the bonds in these fibers, so they pass through relatively intact.

Fiber is found in most plant foods, primarily vegetables and whole grains, as well as nuts, seeds, and fruit. There are two types of fiber— soluble and insoluble.  Both are beneficial to our health.

Soluble fiber absorbs water and turns into a gel-like consistency that slows down digestion. Ever had chia pudding or chia in a smoothie and felt full and satisfied for hours? That’s the soluble fiber at work.
Soluble fiber also helps slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream so blood sugar levels remain more stable. Food sources include chia, psyllium, flax and other seeds and nuts, oats and oat bran, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.

Insoluble fiber is not digested by the body. It is helpful for clearing out the buildup of undigested food and environmental and metabolic toxins in the digestive system as it moves through. Insoluble fiber also helps get the digestive system moving and eliminate any constipation. (Side note: constipation is not just having difficulty having a bowel movement. That’s the extreme. It also refers to spending more than just a couple minutes on the toilet, passing hard, dry, small pieces, failing to eliminate daily, and transit time beyond 12-24 hours.) Now that we’ve got that cleared up, insoluble fiber can be found in whole grains such as oats, millet, quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, brown rice, farro wheat, beans, and fruits and vegetables.

Fiber Nourishes Your Gut

Your digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiome. They live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with you. This means you and they both benefit from them being there. Just like you, the microbes need to eat to live and grow, so they obtain nourishment from the food you eat. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through your large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as Butyrate.

A healthy gut microbiome can protect you against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria compete for space in the intestines, literally out-populating the bad bugs from taking hold. It can also help you absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. What’s more, Butyrate has also been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrowth of bad bacteria, having ample and diverse beneficial bacteria is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 80% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes into play here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods that are in your normal routine. Prolonged problems here are part of the pathophysiology of autoimmune diseases. 

Fiber Keeps You Feeling Full Longer – Read this again during your next heavy training cycle!

Because fiber is so difficult for your body to break down, it stays in your gastrointestinal tract longer compared to simple carbohydrates like table sugar. Having food in your system helps you feel full longer. This is partly why eating an apple is better than 100% apple juice (stripped of fiber), which is then better than apple-flavored juice (stripped of all nutrients). We even have studies showing that diets rich in high-fiber whole foods help reduce the perception of hunger. This is good information if you experience the “hungry all the time” feeling during heavy training cycles when you’re actually eating enough.

How much do we need?

Research has found that hunter-gathers ate a large quantity of fiber compared to modern humans, upwards of 100g of fiber per day. The average American has around 10-15g per day, and the US Dietary Reference Intake is around 25-38g of dietary fiber per day – which is well above that of the average person –but easily achieved by gradually increasing plant-foods in the daily routine. Can we consume too much? Yes, that is possible. Too much fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea (which is also caused by many other factors).

Caveats

Some therapeutic diets eliminate fiber-rich carbohydrates temporarily with the aim of improving long-term health and shifting the microbial population. For example, this is the purpose of the low FODMAP diet for small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and the candida protocol. Individuals who try an extreme low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet also do so with the intention of improving health –often by way of improving the body’s response to sugars. But what’s commonly left out of the conversation is that all of these diets are meant to be temporary, because they all come with long-term negative health consequences such as eliminating all those beneficial bacteria that feed on fiber.

One more thing, we often hear the advice to reduce fiber in the days before a big athletic race, or eat ‘quick sugars’ in the few hours before athletic activity. This advice largely depends on the person, since just like we can train our bodies, we can also train our gut. Some of my best marathons were run after eating my routine high-fiber dinner and breakfast. I’ll delve more into this topic soon! 😊

Summary: Dietary fiber is an essential nutrient required for proper digestion of foods, proper functioning of the digestive tract, and for helping you feel full. A deficiency of fiber can lead to constipation, hemorrhoids, and elevated levels of cholesterol and sugar in the blood. Conversely, an excess of fiber can lead to a bowel obstruction and diarrhea. Individuals who increase their intake of fiber should do so gradually since this internal adjustment is going to adjust the populations of beneficial (and not so beneficial) microbial species in the lower GI –and thus might initially come with uncomfortable symptoms.

Now that we’ve got our daily dose of nutrition wisdom, let’s eat! William labeled me the queen of grain salads the other night after presenting this dish. It’s a seasonal variation on a plethora of other fiber rich tabbouleh-like grain salads in the recipe archives of this space –and one I’m really favoring right now for the bright colors, balance of slightly sweet and savory, and all in one dish for dinner. I routinely use millet or quinoa, but used both in this version. We had a stockpile of pumpkins in our house from last season’s harvest which I’ve by now mostly used up, but I noticed at our local farmers market last weekend that winter squash and pumpkins are still going strong—locally we tend to have them until mid to late March. If they’re less available near you, swap them out for some other seasonal vegetable – or leave out completely.


Winter Tabbouleh, serves 4-6
1 small pumpkin or winter squash (about 2 cups cubed)
1 cup millet or quinoa or a combination of both
2 cups water or vegetable broth
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 cup cilantro
½ cup mint
3 green onions
¼ cup walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
¼ cup goji berries
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
1-2 handfuls spinach or other greens, optional
2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. honey
1 Tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
  • Cook millet by combining with 2 cups of water or broth, along with the cinnamon, in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, cover and cook until the liquid is completely absorbed, 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  • Place the squash cubes on a baking sheet with a little water. Bake for 25-35 minutes until the squash is soft. Alternatively, you can bake the squash whole until soft, then peel off the skin and chunk into pieces. This is my preferred quick-prep-ahead method lately.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the garbanzos, cilantro and mint, gojis, toasted walnuts, cooked squash and green onions. Then add the millet and spinach greens and give it all a good stir. Finish it off with the apple cider vinegar, honey, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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!

Rosemary-Balsamic Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke Chips

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I’ve been a long-time participant in the monthly Recipe Redux challenge, a recipe challenge founded by registered dieticians and focused on making healthy, delicious meals. One of the things I love about the monthly themes is that it challenges me to keep trying new foods or techniques, and to be open-minded when sometimes I want to fall back on the same old thing. In fact, one thing I’ve noticed this winter is that William and I have regularly taken to relying on “oatmeal night” on weeknights when nothing else sounds good and we want a quick and easy comfort meal. We both love oatmeal, me even more than him, and I’d gladly eat it for several meals a day.

But there’s one thing we all need more of in our meal routines, and that’s diversity, because the more different whole foods we eat, the better our gut and overall health tends to be. So I’m glad for the extra push to focus on diversity. This month, our theme also speaks to this idea, with the idea of adding in a new ingredient with the new year.

Since I’m always trying to work on adding whole foods and encouraging others to do so, I focused on seasonally appropriate locally grown Jerusalem Artichokes, which are also known as sunchokes. Even though they’re not entirely new to me, Jerusalem artichokes are just about the only locally grown vegetable I don’t regularly add into my winter routine, for no particular reason. If they’re new to you, they are not artichokes, nor from Jerusalem, and they’re actually from the sunflower family. Many years ago when I was managing school gardens, we grew sunchokes, and the plant was a truly towering, sunflower-esque behemoth. In the late fall, we dug up the tubers, which are quite knobby and look like ginger roots. Texturally, they’re somewhat akin to a waxy potato and jicama, and the flavor is mild and just a touch nutty. I’ve had them before in soups, but thinly sliced and roasted is where their flavor and texture really shines!

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Now, beyond just tracking down a novel vegetable, Jerusalem artichokes have some unique nutritional aspects that make them worth eating more often. That’s because they are particularly rich in inulin, a type of fiber that assists the digestive system, particularly because it feeds the good bacteria in our lower gut. We can think of inulin as fertilizer for the digestive system! In addition to their digestive health benefits, sunchokes also host an impressive amount of iron, calcium, and potassium. For those of us ladies (or men) who are super active and always in need of good sources of iron and calcium, this is a great vegetable to add into the winter rotation!

Here, I’ve sliced the tubers into thin chips and roasted them on low with a little water for 30 minutes, to help make them more digestible. Since they are so high in inulin compared to what most of us regularly ingest, it can initially cause some GI upset, and this method of slower-roasting helps. Then I upped the heat and added rosemary, sea salt, and balsamic vinegar to finish them out and get the right crisp-tender texture. Once they’re done, they are absolutely delicious.

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Rosemary-Balsamic Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke Chips, serves about 4
20 oz. Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed clean and thinly sliced
1/2 cup water
a couple good pinches of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary, minced
2 tsp. coconut oil
2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar

  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. On a baking sheet lined with parchment, spread out the sliced sunchokes and add the water. Bake for 30 minutes. Then turn up the heat to 425 degrees.
  • Add the salt and pepper, minced rosemary, oil and balsamic. Toss to coat and then bake for another 15-20 minutes, until crispy but still soft. They’ll have some crispy golden edges but still slightly soft centers.
  • Remove from the oven and cool slightly before serving.

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