Banana Hazelnut Granola, and the Athlete’s Guide to Sugar

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Just about every week I read a new article about the latest thing we should be eating, buying or doing for our health. Translated into actually eating food, one thing I’ve noticed is that for many people who tend to eat healthfully and particularly those that choose foods for athletes, there tends to be a lot of snacking throughout the day on products that aren’t terribly different than eating dessert…like granola.

Granola in and of itself is not necessarily an unhealthy food. In fact, we could do far worse than add it into our daily and weekly routines. If you’ve been around this blog long you’ll see I love granola and would choose it as dessert over many other options. But–depending on the type of granola you buy or make, there tends to be a lot of inflammation-promoting added sugar and refined oils. These are foods that aren’t doing us any good no matter how active we are, especially if they’re being eaten daily and make up as much as a quarter of our intake, as snacks or breakfast often do.

And if you have an autoimmune condition like celiac disease, hashimoto’s thyroiditis, ulcerative colitis or others, added sugar and refined oils can do extra damage.

Today I’ll focus on sugar specifically. (Read more here for my take on healthful oils.) As most of us know, sugar is a type of carbohydrate that our bodies need as energy, though there are substantial differences in quality depending on the type. Sugars are naturally present in many whole foods including fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products. In whole foods, the sugars are balanced by the other nutrients. Refined sugars like plain old white or brown sugar, corn syrup, or organic cane sugar, have been processed so they are free of most nutrients and without their naturally containing minerals, they pass quickly into the bloodstream and create an imbalance in the body. They then weaken the digestive system and force the body to use minerals contained in our bones, blood, and other tissues to attempt to rebalance itself (1).

 

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What about sugar cravings?

If you crave sweet foods, take a look at your entire diet and compare the quantity of sweet foods versus meat, salt, and dairy products that are being eaten. Sugar cravings might occur because the diet and body is out of balance by eating too many meat, salt, and dairy-containing foods. Thus, the body is subsequently craving expansive foods like sugar and ice cream to balance itself (2). Alternatively, you can also crave sugar because there is not enough protein compared to the amount of sugar consumed (1), or because you have a larger population of so-called “bad” gut microbes, and less of the good species, causing dysbiosis and cravings for the sugars that the bad microbes love to eat. Lastly, high stress or fatigue can lead to us grabbing for sugary feel-good foods for a quick dopamine rush, which is followed by a sugar crash a short while later.

Ultimately, no matter what your lifestyle or activity level, it’s usually more health-promoting to consume less sugars of all types and more whole foods that are naturally sweet. Look to use the types of sugar that are the least sweet and most whole-food based as possible. These include dates, honey, pure maple syrup, brown rice syrup, blackstrap molasses (actually a by-product of sugar refining but it contains lots of minerals), and fruit–like bananas or apples.

For some people with excessive sugar cravings, it’s best to cut it out completely and repopulate the gut with beneficial species for a while, but for most of us, a gradual reduction of sugar is more sustainable. This might mean switching both the type and quantity of sugar in baking and cooking over time, like starting with using 75% of what’s called for in a recipe.

Over time, you will desire sugar less and in smaller amounts. And things that you once thought were deliciously sweet are now just–sickly sweet.

 

Now, how about a granola recipe that tastes like banana bread and is heavy on the whole-food sugars? This is my current favorite when I’m really feeling like I need some delicious granola to snack on or have as an after-dinner treat.

 

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Banana Hazelnut Granola
The addition of chickpea flour might seem a touch odd, but it makes this granola extra chunky. If you don’t care for clusters, go ahead and leave it out. Additionally, any flour will do but the choice of chickpea provides just a bit of extra protein to the mix. Likewise, using three cups of oats instead of half oats and half cereal is a great idea too.

1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups puffed or crispy rice cereal
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
3 Tbs. chickpea flour
2 medium bananas, mashed
3 Tbs. hazelnut butter
3 Tbs. pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

  • Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  • Combine the oats, cereal, hazelnuts, seeds, salt, spices and chickpea flour in a large bowl, and then set aside.
  • In a smaller bowl, mash the bananas and stir in the hazelnut butter, maple syrup and vanilla extract. Then pour the wet mix into the dry mix and stir until thoroughly combined.
  • Spread the granola out onto a large baking sheet and pat down firmly so the granola will be extra chunky. Bake for 35-40 minutes rotating the sheet approximately halfway through.
  • Remove from the oven and allow the granola to cool completely on the baking sheet before removing to a storage container or to eat.

References:
1: Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with whole foods: Asian traditions and modern medicine. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
2: Colbin, A. (1986). Food and healing. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

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Winter Herbal Chai

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Winter is the time for drinking chai, and by chai I mean all the warming winter spices blended and infused into tea. This winter herbal chai has been my daily blend for the last month or so and it’s full of lots of goodies to keep the winter body well and balanced. Plus, it simply tastes delicious with no need for sweetener or diluting down with milk.

Like many herbal students, when I first began to study herbs, I was especially taken with all the more complicated ways to ingest or use them, not really factoring in how much value drinking them in tea can have. As it turns out, when the scientists decide to determine nutritional values of foods in the lab, herbs and spices consistently rank as especially potent sources of nutrients, but we never seem to eat enough of them to add much value. That is, until drinking daily cups of herbal tea.

 

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This blend has many of my favorites for assisting proper digestion (fennel, ginger, coriander, licorice), supporting the immune system (ginger, orange peel, astragalus), regulating blood sugar (cinnamon), and helping the liver detoxify heavy meals and daily toxins (dandelion root). Plus, it is a well-rounded combination of sweet, spicy, warming, and just enough bitter to balance.

One of the slightly less common and optional herbs in this blend is astragalus. Astragalus root is slightly sweet and warming, and it is best known for its ability to stimulate the immune system, thereby helping to prevent viral infections such as the common cold and flu, as well as assisting cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy by preventing immunosuppression (1, 2). Additionally, though not listed above, astragalus has also been shown in research trials to assist in healthy digestion and blood sugar regulation, so like most herbs, it’s uses are multi-faceted (1). Astragalus is a well-known and used herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and under that paradigm of medicine, it is not recommended to use when suffering an acute infection, because it is believed it can feed the illness. (1, 2).

 

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When it comes to brewing herbal teas, there are two general methods. The first is boiling water and then pouring it over the top of the herbs to infuse, as is traditionally done with black and green teas. (Dunking a bag of tea into warm water does not have the same brewing effect, mind). This method of boiling water over herbs is called an infusion and it’s usually done with blends that consist of leaves, flowers, and aerial parts like chamomile, holy basil/tulsi, lavender, and the like.

The second method is called a decoction and it is how to properly extract the flavors and medicinal constituents of roots, heavier spices, and sometimes dried berries or fruit. This method is a touch more time-consuming because the herbs are gently simmered on the stovetop in water for 20 to 30 minutes. This herbal chai involves the decoction method of course, due to the ingredients, and the best way to do it is to make a big pot and then reheat and drink the tea for a couple days or more rather than making multiple small pots each time.

 

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Herbal Winter Chai, makes 4-6 cups
If you do not quite have all the ingredients for this blend, don’t despair. I’ve listed them in order of most important in terms of flavor, so if after the star anise you’ve exhausted your immediate resources, make as is and enjoy. Licorice, dandelion, orange peel, and astragalus are more commonly found at well-stocked bulk shops or online from herbal shops such as Mountain Rose Herbs (my local favorite). Additionally, the orange peel does add a lighter, citrusy quality to this blend, and the flavors will be deeper and more spicy, more like a traditional chai, without.  

6 cups water
3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. dried ginger
3/4 tsp. fennel seeds
1-2 petals star anise
1 Tbs. licorice root
1 Tbs. dandelion root
1 tsp. orange peel powder (optional)
1 tsp. astragalus root (optional)

  • Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan, covered with a lid, and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Use a tea strainer or fine mesh strainer to filter the tea into mugs or into a clean container to store it in.
  • Serve immediately or alternatively, store chilled and reheat over the next couple days.

 

References:
1. Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: an evidence-based guide. (Vol. 2). Chatswood, NSW, Australia: Elsevier. 
2. Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

nutritional and herbal allies for immune support

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We’ve hit that point in the year where everyone I know is sick, just getting over being sick, or living or working with someone who is sick. Since I work within public elementary schools, which are among the germiest places on earth, I’m often asked if I’ve gotten my flu shot. I never tend to go into a long diatribe but I long ago stopped getting one as it rarely helps ward off the actual virus I end up coming down with, and does nothing to support the natural strength of the immune system. Instead I’ve slowly built up a natural medicine cabinet of traditional foods and herbs to support the system throughout cold and flu season.

While this is a long list that I’ve been using this year, it is by no means comprehensive. Nature is incredibly competent at providing ample foods and herbs that support health and prevent viruses and infections, and truly, the herbs and products one might reach for should depend on the nature of the condition since even with the same virus, individual symptoms may vary and are best supported by addressing the nature of their presentation, such as assisting a dry cough with different herbs than a “wet/mucousy” cough, etc. And fortunately enough, this is also where herbs shine in their support of immune health.

 

Vitamin C // citrus // rose hips powder
Vitamin C helps stimulate white blood cell production, the blood cells that act as an army to take care of infection, pathogens, and inflammation in the body. Rather than relying on a supplement, I prefer to eat vitamin C rich foods including citrus fruits, berries, and dark leafy greens. I also sometimes add in a few shakes of powdered rose hips into smoothies, as rose hips are among nature’s richest and most-potent sources of Vitamin C (1).

Vitamin D
Vitamin D has a variety of positive effects on the immune system including enhancing innate immunity which means those white blood cells do their jobs when a cold or flu virus is on the scene. Vitamin D also protects against autoimmune conditions. All individuals should have their vitamin D levels tested when getting normal bloodwork done, and suboptimal levels should be supplemented with vitamin D3, especially in the fall and winter months or when one primarily works inside and doesn’t get adequate sunlight.

Dark Leafy Greens
I don’t think I will ever be able to emphasize enough the importance of an ample variety of dark leafy greens on one’s health. Greens are rich in vitamins A, E, K, and C, as well as a myriad of beneficial phytonutrients. Choose a couple varieties to eat each week and rotate throughout the season including spinach, kale, mustard and collard greens, turnip and beet greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, broccoli, swiss chard, arugula, parsley and cilantro.

Probiotics // Miso
A daily dose of beneficial bacteria is good for more than just gut and mental health. Growing research is showing us that certain strains of bacteria modulate the immune system as well as bind to viruses and toxins to prevent infections (4). While I tend to rotate probiotic supplements for general health, consuming beneficial bacteria from traditionally fermented foods is best. My favorite during the winter is miso, as sipping on a little spoonful whisked into warm water, or making a miso broth-based soup when sick is really delicious and helpful.

Elderberry Syrup
There’s a reason this folk remedy has been around so long. Many scientific studies have supported the long tradition of consuming elderberry syrup to ward off or shorten the duration of viral infections. I take 1 teaspoon elderberry syrup every day throughout cold and flu season. Bonus is that when made with gently heated (not cooked) raw honey, it also includes a small daily dose of beneficial probiotics from the honey.

Adaptogenic herbs // reishi // Eleuthero  
Medicinal mushrooms have been getting a lot of trendy press time lately for a good reason. Reishi is my favorite as it strengthens both the immune and adrenal systems. Reishi, like several other mushrooms contains polysaccharides called beta glucans which stimulate the immune system. (2,3)
Eleuthero or Siberian ginseng is another favorite adaptogen. Like reishi, it can be used as an immune tonic with regular use reducing the incidence of colds and infections. It has also been shown to reverse low white blood cell counts in cancer patients. (3)

Herbal Throat Spray and Herbal Throat Lozenges // Zinc
Rather than reach for the common drugstore throat sprays, I’ve taken to using an herbal version called TheraZinc. It contains some of those soothing and supportive herbs such as elderberry, cloves, echinacea, and slippery elm, as well as zinc, an important mineral used as a co-enzyme in many cellular reactions, as it is essential for the normal development and function of cells and for regulating immune cells (4). I tend to rotate throat lozenges but some of my favorite ones also contain the same herbs and zinc.

Turmeric 
One of the current superfoods, turmeric has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine. It is highly beneficial and nearly a catch-all in terms of what it can assist with, including the ability to enhance immunity. Like dark leafy greens, turmeric also contains important antioxidants to support the immune system, including vitamins C and E (1). However, the thing about turmeric is that its beneficial compounds are exceptionally difficult to become bioavailable in the body. Taking it with a small amount of ground black pepper and with another ingredient that contains fat helps turmeric work its magic in our systems.

Ginger 
Common fresh or dried ginger is exceptionally beneficial in controlling inflammation and muscular pain, increases circulation, and also aids in digestion. Ginger is a warming and pungent spice, and I particularly enjoy it in hefty doses during the cold season. What’s more, many herbs act as synergists with each other meaning when you take them together the effects of both herbs are more than a sum of their parts. Happily, turmeric and ginger seem to work together to great effect in our bodies when it comes to combating inflammation.

Demulcent Herbs // Marshmallow Root // Licorice Root //Mullein
Marshmallow Root // Putting a few pinches in a jar of cold water and letting infuse overnight is the best way to see how marshmallow root works. In the morning, you will have a jar of slippery, soothing, slightly sweet liquid that is best for dry and sore throats and coughs. The root will provide a similar soothing action on the tissues of the GI so beyond cold and flu season, this is a great herb for digestive support.

Licorice Root // Despite the connotation with licorice candy, licorice root does not taste anything like the red or black ropes I loved to eat as a child. Licorice is an excellent herb for balancing the adrenals, balancing blood sugar, and helping decrease stress and inflammation. It is also soothing to the mucous membranes and GI tract, and makes for a good addition to a tea blend to help out a sore throat. Note: licorice should not be taken by those with high blood pressure. 

Mullein // Known for its ability to support the lungs and respiratory system, this common weed grows freely along roadsides and pathways in the summer months. Mullein brings moisture to the respiratory tract providing soothing relief to dry, inflamed tissues and tickly coughs (2). I’ve taken to adding a couple teaspoons of dried mullein to loose leaf tea blends when I need some moistening lung and throat support.

Bee Pollen
Look to adding bee pollen when one is especially depleted. Bee pollen, the food of the young bee, contains nearly all the nutrients we require, and contains protein in the form that is readily useable by the body. It is eaten throughout the world for a variety of indications including aiding recovery from chronic illness, building new blood, preventing colds and flu, improving endurance and vitality, and extending longevity (5). When using bee pollen, it’s wise to remember that it is precious food, with a daily dose taking one bee over an entire month to gather. Use consciously.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. 

References:
1) McBride, K. (2010). The Herbal Kitchen
2) Pursell, JJ. (2015). The Herbal Apothecary
3) Winston, D. and Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief.
4) Braun, L. and Cohen, M. (2015). Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide (4th ed.).
5) Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.).