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.

Gently Spiced Beet + Orange Smoothie

It seems we’re fully into the new year now. The Christmas decor is all taken down, the neighborhood immersed back into winter darkness without the festive lights. We’re all back to work and school, business and workouts as usual. Back into our old routines and maybe struggling with any resolutions made at the turn of the decade.

I suspect like a lot of people, I didn’t actually make any concrete resolutions. But I did reflect on the old year, realizing a lot of good progress on ‘overall health and happiness’ was cemented in 2019. And since I like the changes I made to get there, I’m continuing to put an effort into them.

Because there’s still progress to be made. The last several years have brought so many health challenges my way, and I’m finally seeing real longer-term improvement.

Since I work within the public health and nutrition industries, I read a lot this time of year about the best diets, and this and that. Veganuary is under way, the climate crisis and wildfires in Australia are on the top of many individuals’ minds, and reducing plastics are a topic of discussion–in Oregon, we’ve finally instated a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags–which seems archaic that we’re only just now getting there when it was standard practice 12 years ago when I first traveled to Europe.

But that’s a topic for another day–though one I do want to get to.

It came across my newsfeed today that despite the massive media attention given to the best way of eating, of working out, of ‘self-care’ – ing, etc., the best way is still personalized nutrition and integrative health. Which means one size does not fit all. And sometimes one size doesn’t even fit most.

I made a big list this morning of the positive health changes I saw come to fruition last year and after looking them all over, I realized two big foundational pieces stood out. One, I received a comprehensive micronutrient test to measure my intracellular nutrient values – as opposed to the not as reliable serum markers that a doctor might measure (which don’t show whether nutrients are actually making their way into the cells to be utilized); and I drastically reduced my stress.

Even though I was already ‘walking my talk,’ through diet, my micronutrient test showed otherwise. You may have heard the saying ‘we aren’t what we eat, we’re what we digest.’ Coming in after marathon training and a particularly bad-timing autoimmune flare, my micronutrient status was sub-optimal in many random not obvious nutrients.

What followed were several months of repletion, and continued focus on gut health to actually absorb those precious nutrients. And feeling substantially better.

But I was also frequently reminded about the link between stress and nutrition. When stressed, we use up nutrients faster and we don’t absorb them as well, because the stressed brain and body is not a resting and digesting brain and body. That means we need to try to eat in a relaxed mindset. The smoothie I’m sharing below can cause me an uncomfortable, bloated tummy on days when I eat it at my work office in a rush, or when there’s too much stimulus in the building. And on other days when I’m relaxed, it has no such negative effects.

Likewise, partially ‘mechanically broken down’ foods like soups and smoothies help our stressed systems get more nutrients in the system when we need them.

Beyond practices that help me keep daily stress in check and continuing to work on optimally digesting / absorbing my foods, I’ve also given myself a little personalized nutrition challenge to incorporate more beets and greens in this winter season. I chose these two specifically given several months of bloodwork results, but they’re incredibly health promoting for most of us.

This daily smoothie, which I often have for a mid-afternoon snack, is my current go-to.

Spiced Beets and Orange Smoothie, makes 1 ~16 oz.
To prep for several days of smoothies, I wrap a few medium beets in foil and roast them all together to use as needed. Though the ingredients might seem tedious with this and that random seed and nut, I’ve included a range of them to hit more of the antioxidant micronutrients we need. Use whatever protein powder is appropriate for you, or if you don’t need extra protein – simply leave out.

1 orange, peeled and sectioned
1 medium beet, roasted
20 grams / 1/2 a scoop vanilla protein powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. cardamom
a small handful spinach or other greens, or 1-3 tsp. moringa powder
1 tsp. chia seeds
1 Brazil nut
1 Tbs. raw pumpkin or sunflower seeds
1/2 – 1 cup water, to desired consistency

  • Add all ingredients to a high-speed blender and puree until smooth. Double batch, divide, and store in the fridge if you prefer a couple days’ worth at a time.