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.

nutrition journal: thoughts on pleasure and joy, restrictive diets, eating disorder recovery, and intuitive eating

Do you have any rituals that make your weekends complete?


As a Taurus (sun sign), I most certainly do. As much as possible, I like my weekend mornings enveloped in ‘cozy’, wrapped in a blue fleece blanket, a high school graduation gift from my dressage instructor/mentor, comfortable with a pot of tea, pleasing music, time spent clearing my inbox, experimenting with creative kitchen projects, and choosing and planning recipes and meal ideas for the week ahead. Lately, I’ve also been researching and scheming ways to improve the coziness of our inside space and making it ‘even more me’ so when I walk in the door after a long day, it’s even more the space I want to come home to.

Even though we bought our house ‘done,’ and to my liking internally, I’ve been hesitant to invest in decorating the interior since we’ve never planned to stay long-term. But it also seems silly not to put my personal touches on the inside simply because we might move in a couple months or the very distant future.

Which brings me to my real topic today, a little weekend nutrition journal, which I’ll see about sharing more often in this space. Today is about denying ourselves pleasure because of an idea in our head or society’s messages. I follow several of my Facebook friends on Pinterest where I see much of what is pinned for meal ideas and I’m likewise part of a very large and active Facebook group here in Eugene for all the ‘foodies.’ These two groups are quite diverse, but if often breaks my heart to see the pins and posts go over the weeks and years from one diet ‘religion’ to the next. Right now, I see a lot of the sensational meat and dairy version of the keto diet, which seems to be all the rage and I’m sure is not contributing to long-term health.

As a clinical nutritionist, I have all sorts of thoughts and opinions about all the various dieting trends and their short and long-term effects on the body and mind. But when I speak to or think about individuals actually following these highly restrictive diets, I mostly I think about the (very Tauresian) pleasures of eating, dinner parties and eating in community, and eating what nature right outside our doors provides. And sticking to rigid dietary dogma or thinking all the time about what this or that particular food is doing to our bodies is simply not healthy. Anyone who’s ever had or is currently struggling with an eating disorder knows the havoc that rigid thinking can play on life satisfaction.

Sometimes I think about the food intolerances I do have, gluten and dairy, and the food preferences and avoidances I continue with (mostly meat, processed food, high sugar). I stick with the first two since I feel ill for days whenever I eat traces of them. I avoid the second list out of taste preference and because I generally feel better when they’re not consistently in my days.

But I periodically wonder if my subconscious didn’t help create my food intolerances and preferences out of my eating disorder as a way to not be pressured or to be automatically excused from the office pastries, co-workers’ baked goods, supermarket impulse buys, etc. In a way, I question whether my subconscious created a rigid rule to avoid certain mainstream ingredients as another way to control my food?

I consider myself to nearly always eat intuitively these days, meaning if I want to bake cookies or have dessert (which I often do), I will. And if pizza sounds good for dinner, if not today, then maybe sometime this week. I tend to be often training for a race, managing my autoimmune disorder, and eating to stay feeling healthy in those two regards, and that means my goal is to eat to feel good in my body. But I also highly value enjoying my meals and feeling good in the moment. And the way of eating that works for me largely does both.

One of my nutritionist peers shared a social media post recently that has had me reflecting on this topic in particular. It was a ‘Food for Thought’ on current caloric restriction and dieting patterns happening in mainstream culture, and their relation to a landmark nutrition study back in the 50’s called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

Here is what was written as a reflection to the post (not my words, but ones I highly agree with based on personal experience):

1200kcal per day is NOT enough to nourish any adult body.

There have been a lot of people I follow speaking out about how 1200kcal per day (as promoted by @myfitnesspal) is harmful and dangerous. I thought it might be perfect time to look back at one of the key (no pun intended) studies on the effects of human starvation.

The most interesting findings of this study (in my opinion) were not the physiological effects (which are somewhat expected), but the psychological effects. These previously healthy men became newly obsessed with food, looking at recipe books, and talking about food. They had strong urges to overeat, many chewing and drinking constantly up to 40 sticks of gum and 80+oz of coffee each day. Any opportunity to gain access to food, the men would binge consuming thousands of calories in a sitting. Interestingly enough, they also developed distorted self image and some men became preoccupied with their abdominal area.

I love these takeaways of this study from an article on @projectheal:

“1) The restriction of nutrition leads to a heightened interest in food and eating. So there is an “explanation” for why you may be overwhelmingly preoccupied with food. 2) Overeating may be a direct result of undereating. 3) Many features of anorexia are actually symptoms of starvation and resolve with refeeding. 4) Prolonged restriction of food negatively impacts mood. Restriction and weight loss may lead to an increase in anxiety symptoms and obsessive thinking. 5) Inability to stick to strict diets is not because of a lack of willpower. There is a biological pull to maintain a consistent body weight.”

Sources:

1) Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henshel, A., Mickelson, O., & Taylor, H.L. (1950). The biology of human starvation, (Vols. 1–2). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Full study)
2) The psychology of hunger. The American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/10/hunger
3) What we can learn from the Minnesota starvation study about the impacts of restriction in behaviour: https://www.theprojectheal.org/healblog/impact-of-starvation-on-behavior

I formally struggled with orthorexia which quickly became anorexia, which became an incredibly shameful binge/restrict season (which lasted the longest), until my weight was restored and I allowed healthy relationships and less control over food into my days. Learning to eat intuitively also helped me to reach the weight and size that feels best for my body, which interestingly happens to be the weight and size I sought to achieve when I first began controlling my body as a sixteen or seventeen year-old. This is just my experience and one I expect will vary by individual.

Learning about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment a few years ago helped me in not only understanding, but finally working through the shame I harbored for many years about the bingeing phase of my weight restoration, which was more or less part of the physiological consequence of severe caloric restriction and malnutrition.

This is all to say, I’m not a big fan of food patterns that feel rigid or overly forced, and eating in a way to reach or maintain optimal health for one’s condition (as is often the way of functional medicine) has to be balanced with eating in a way that feels good, is intuitive, and doesn’t lead or contribute to disordered behaviors, obsessions, or control-mentality around food. It’s a fine balance and I’m not sure I’ve yet met a nutritionist, dietician, doctor, or otherwise nutrition professional that’s got the balance quite right in practice.

But one thing I do know. We all need to ask more questions of ourselves in the everyday process. Questions such as:

– Am I eating this to feel good in the moment or to feel good long-term? (To which there’s no right or wrong answer but simply knowing is a first step).
– Am I avoiding this food because of fear, or because I want to control my body?
– What makes me feel good (food or otherwise)?
– What do I need right now? (A meal, a snack, a hug, a kiss, quiet, noise, love, sleep, connection, etc.)
– What does hunger look like for me? How do I know I’m hungry?
– What way of eating makes me truly feel my best? If you’re not sure, think back to a time when you felt particularly healthy, happy, and satisfied for more than just the short-term.
– And, what brings me joy?

This last one is particularly important.

One of the major things that brings me joy is baking. I have vivid memories of learning to bake, and doing so has been a lifelong love that I feel absolutely no need to give up. Back to being that earthy, sensual, comfortable Taurus, baking is a way to indulge all my senses in delight and to enjoy the end result.

If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to take some time for reflection, journal your responses to the questions above, or free-write your personal takeaways. Reach out to me if you’d like to chat. And overall, be well in this season.

Stay tuned for a recipe treat coming later this week.


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!