Celebrating the Season and the Athletic Off-Season

Every December for the last several, I’ve taken a running or training break. It has looked different every year, from the sharp and abstract non-injury pain and extreme anxiety that marked the beginning of my autoimmune ‘journey,’ to the slow easy miles that were part of most of the entire year afterward, to racing and recovering from my first and third marathons at CIM.

And then there was last year when a late-summer flare, autumn of struggle and grief over my grandfather’s death culminated in a December of laryngitis and bronchitis, so painful I carried a pillow around the house, holding it against my ribs as I braced against the wall each time I coughed. Thankfully I have an amazing chiropractor that somehow received the x-rays that weren’t supposed to be sent to him, massaged out and adjusted my painful, strained ribs, and gave me the go-ahead to put my body back in motion the day before Christmas.

When one either chooses—or is forced—to take a break, the return process can be such an amazing gift.

But how to mentally navigate the season of food, festivities, and excess when one is not as active? This is a concept I’ve struggled with off and on over the years. For the most part, I try to be mindful and stay intuitive in my eating patterns, but let in room for enjoyment and celebration.

In a recent training on eating habits of those that struggle or have struggled with anorexia nervosa, I learned that two habits tend to stay with individuals long after they’ve recovered. They’re two habits I identify with, and believe are actually pretty common in the athletic community. First is the inherent choosing of lower-fat foods; either foods lower in fat than the average population or low-fat foods in general, since meals will then be lower in overall calories. For athletes, this can often result due to a focus on carbohydrates and protein rather than outright avoidance of fat. The other is adherence to somewhat rigid food rituals – in whatever way that might present itself for the individual. Interestingly, these two habits are generally encouraged for those that are needing/wanting to lose weight, and therefore habits that are considered within the spectrum of disordered eating are promoted within the weight loss community.

Why am I bringing this up? Because the holiday season is ripe for advice and conversations that promote disordered eating and behaviors that take away the intuitive tuning-in to one’s body and state of being.

Faced with a plate of decorated cookies or a sad, (or maybe even delicious-looking) vegetable tray, which food would you choose? The answer for you depends on a great number of variables, but I hope this holiday season the decision can more often be made with intention and desire to care for yourself rather than punishment or tuning out needs to “think about it in January.”

This December, I am taking a training break but will still be enjoying movement of my body, and likely more of it than any of the last several years. I chose an early December half marathon to finish my training year rather than a full marathon and finished it neither going into an achy flare, or being ill and unable to run. I did however finish the last few weeks with a couple foods outside my normal go-tos of gluten and dairy causing digestive problems. Because I tend to be achier and more prone to inflammation than others considering my eating patterns, I plan to take the remaining weeks of festivities to be especially mindful and supportive of my body. A little decadent, inflammatory foods are okay when I’m feeling relatively good but can be especially problematic in excess (for me), or when my system is already challenged.

Cookie baking and gifting is part of my family’s holiday tradition and because of that, these festive and delicious Oatmeal Persimmon Cookies are part of this year’s line-up. They are perfect for the athletes that can’t get enough oatmeal in all the things. ;)

To balance out all the baking I will be doing, I’ve also been tasked with bringing that sad or delicious-looking vegetable and dip tray to the family festivities. Since cold, raw vegetables are especially challenging on one’s digestion in the winter— especially for those of us with sensitive systems—I haven’t decided if I’m going to deviate from the request and change up the raw vegetable / cold dip routine to some version that’s more warm and inviting to the system. If I do, let me know if you’d like me to share the recipe. 😊

Oatmeal Persimmon and Hazelnut Cookies, makes ~26
– Any all-purpose gluten free flour blend can likely be used, but I only experimented with my own mix. It is 70% whole-grain by weight.
The addition of two types of sweetener and two types of oil are a result of years of trial, testing, and learning from the wise recipe scientists at Cooks Illustrated. If you only have one or the other sweetener, go ahead and use just the one. Keep in mind that honey is slightly sweeter than brown rice syrup. Likewise, if only using one oil, choose coconut oil. Or use butter if it poses no problems. Digestive challenges and conscious choice to not use animal products aside for some individuals, butter is fabulous for baking.
Either the flat Fuyu persimmons or the larger Hachiya varieties works for this recipe. If choosing the latter, just make sure it’s fairly ripe. If no persimmons are available near you, perhaps try for another seasonal fruit.

1 Tbs. chia seed, finely ground
3 Tbs. water
1 1/2 cups gluten-free flour mix
1 1/2 cups rolled oats, gluten-free as needed
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 cup olive or canola oil
1/6 cup coconut oil (2 Tbs. + 2 tsp.)
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup brown rice syrup
1 cup persimmon chunks
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a small bowl, whisk the ground chia seeds and water to form a slurry. Set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, stir together all the dry ingredients and then set aside.
  • In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the oils, honey, and brown rice syrup. Then mix in the chia slurry.
  • Pour the liquids into the dry ingredients and stir together until combined. Then stir in the persimmons and hazelnuts.
  • The mixture should be a little looser than standard cookie dough. At this point it can be chilled for about 30 minutes so the cookies don’t spread too much, or baked directly and they’ll be a little larger and thinner.
  • Using a medium cookie scoop or a spoon, drop onto a baking sheet or stone and bake for 12-14 minutes, depending on your oven.

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.