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.

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.

Golden Fire Cider for times of illness

One of the most practically useful classes I took in grad school was an herbal elective on how to make my own herbal medicines. Each week we used a different method for preparing herbs, from medicinal herbal infusions and decoctions (often simply called herbal tea), herbal honeys, infused vinegars, salves, tinctures, and even herbal baths. As a runner, the best information on the benefits and how-to’s of water therapy for exercise recovery was actually gained in my herbal medicine making course!

Beyond being able to make my own tinctures for potent low-dose, completely natural medicines to help with everything from boosting the immune system, relieving nervous tension, and putting my spinning 2am brain promptly back to sleep, this recipe for fire cider is by far my most repeated recipe that came out of that course.

Fire Cider is a kitchen-hearth recipe originally created by herbal elder Rosemary Gladstar. If you’ve never heard of Rosemary, she is a founder of the Traditional Medicinals tea brand you’ve more than likely seen on shelves in the supermarket tea aisle, among her many other accomplishments.

The idea with fire cider is that the ingredients are easy to access, likely already on hand, and make for a warming, stimulating and potent combination that gets your blood moving, with the heat from the ingredients pushing pathogens and heat to the surface of the body during times of illness. The real key to the formula is movement, using herbs to stimulate and circulate movement through the immune system, lymphatic system, cardiovascular system, and digestive system.

Fire cider is great to take as a tonic all season long, or in larger amounts if you’ve contracted a virus. One to two teaspoons daily mixed in with a little water is usually a good way to take it.

My recipe for Golden Fire Cider varies slightly from Rosemary’s. For one, I add turmeric since it is incredibly anti-inflammatory and pungent, and thus supportive in times of illness. I also don’t add honey to my formula. The honey was originally included to make the stimulating herbs more palatable so can be added if one desires. Lastly, the fresh horseradish root can sometimes be difficult to source. I’ve got a jar of wasabi powder in the back of my pantry that has served as great substitute in those instances. Ideally, the ingredients are infused in the vinegar for at least a month, so if you’d like some to carry you through cold and flu season, start a batch now!

Golden Fire Cider, makes 2-3 cups
¼ cup grated horseradish root
1/2 cup chopped onions
2 Tbs. minced garlic
2 Tbs. fresh minced ginger root
1 small hot pepper such as jalapeño or serrano, minced
1 tsp. dried turmeric root or 1 Tbs. fresh root, minced
a couple pinches black pepper
raw apple cider vinegar
raw local honey, to taste

  • Add all chopped ingredients to a quart jar.
  • Add apple cider vinegar to three inches above herbs. Cap the jar and shake. Infuse for about 28 days before straining, and shake/mix daily or as often as you remember.
  • Add honey to taste, if desired. (I don’t).