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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Moroccan Potato + Summer Vegetable Tagine: Performance Meal Planning with Potatoes

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By posting this recipe I am entering a recipe contest sponsored by Potatoes USA and am eligible to win prizes associated with the contest. I was not compensated for my time.

In one of my first nutrition classes, we read the book Nourishing Wisdom and I distinctly recall a section about the flavor of place, and how the author found himself loving and craving pizza when living in New York, avocados when in San Diego, and Gravenstein apples when in Sebastopol, California, a place where they’re particularly grown. When I read that section of the book, it took me back to fall term of my senior year as an undergraduate. I lived in Ireland that semester and for the first time in my life, could gladly eat potatoes every single day. My favorite was to buy the smaller baby potatoes, slide a few into a pot of cold water on the stove, bring to a boil and cook until soft, and then serve plain as a side with no additional flavorings except a little heavy-on-the-vinegar Irish ketchup and a dash of salt. It was heaven.

And then I returned home and my affinity for potatoes dropped away just as quickly, even though I grew up eating them a whole bunch.

I haven’t craved a single potato-based meal since living in Ireland. Enjoyed, yes. But never craved in that same way.

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Which is really too bad because my local farmers grow some particularly lovely and flavorful potatoes, baby size and all.

I’ve an intention to focus more on making the main components of my meals from local ingredients for the next couple months, and that means exploring some great foods I don’t always rely on. While at my local farm the other day, I noticed all the different potato varieties lining a whole section of the stand and I quickly grabbed up several handfuls of each, envisioning all the different ways I’d like to enjoy them. While simple can often be best, I decided to center them in a savory sweet Moroccan Tagine. If you’ve never tried a tagine, I think this version is the Northern African equivalent to the very-Irish Potato Stew I grew up on.

So completely different, but also so similar.

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And while still on the topic of flavors of place, there’s actually a good reason why we crave foods grown in our regions, those in season, or what is super super fresh. They’re the foods that are often packed full of all the nutrients!

This is particularly important for us athletes who are trying to maximize our nutrient intake, pack in some quality meals to enhance recovery, and eat for flavor, texture, and enjoyment. For me anyway, even several years beyond the Ireland potato phase, this meal hits all those spots.

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While I don’t generally go into nutrients and calories and nutritionism in detail in this space, I recognize that some of you actually do want this information, and to be honest, I live in this world for at least half my time right now so I do understand.

And to be clear, I also once thought potatoes weren’t a very nutritionally sound food choice but that’s generally only true if they’re eaten without their skin, are fried in rancid oil or processed beyond recognition.

For athletes especially, potatoes provide a good source of carbohydrates and potassium, as well as several trace minerals, and if super colorful like the one below, phytonutrients needed to perform at one’s best. A medium potato with the skin provides just 110 calories and a good hit of the daily value of vitamin C, which is an antioxidant needed for optimal athletic recovery. They also provide more potassium than a medium banana, which aids in muscle, cardiovascular and nervous system function. And nearly all of us–athletes or non-athletes–fail to get enough of this essential electrolyte!

Lastly, potatoes provide as much — if not more — of several essential vitamins and minerals found in spaghetti, brown rice or whole wheat bread, making them a smart addition to the other favorite performance foods. This is especially true because the more diversity in our whole-food choices, the happier our gut microbes–and thus health! And even more important for athletes who stress the GI to the max in all our fun but grueling endurance pursuits.

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1 Nutritional data is based on a 5.2 ounce skin-on potato.
2 Gelibter, A., et al. Satiety following intake of potatoes and other carbohydrate test meals. Ann Nutr Metab. 2013;62:37-43.

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Moroccan Potato + Summer Vegetable Tagine, 
serves 3-4
– Ras el Hanout is a Moroccan spice blend, somewhat similar to a garam masala. The name actually means “Top of the Shop” and each spice house will usually have their own blend which features their best spices. I made my own (see below), but there are several good ones available to purchase, or improvise with a garam masala knowing it won’t provide quite the same flavor profile.
-Other than the potatoes, any summer vegetables will work in this and I encourage you to use what is fresh and available near you!

2 Tbs. coconut oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, diced
1 Tbs. ras el hanout
1 tsp. sea salt
1 lb. small potatoes, sliced 3/4-in thick
1/2 lb. yellow summer squash, diced
small bunch / 4 oz. broccoli, chopped
3 cups water
small handful / 4 oz. green beans, ends trimmed and diced
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans
4 dried plums or dates, diced
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon, to taste
cooked quinoa, optional

  • In a large pot or dutch oven, warm the oil over medium heat and add the garlic and onion. Cook until the onions begin to soften.
  • Then add the ras el hanout spice, salt, potatoes, summer squash and broccoli. Stir to coat, and then add enough water to barely cover most of the vegetables. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
  • About 10 minutes before the potatoes are done, stir in the green beans, garbanzo beans, and dried plums.
  • As the vegetables are done, add in the lemon juice to balance the flavors and then taste and adjust seasonings.
  • Serve it as is, or alongside some quinoa.

 

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Ras el Hanout seasoning
Blend this up by weight or by teaspoons.

4 parts cumin
4 parts ginger
4 parts turmeric
3 parts black pepper
2 parts coriander
2 parts cinnamon
2 parts cayenne
1 part cloves
1 part allspice
1 part cardamom
1 part rose petal powder

 

Nutrition Information // Based on 1/3 of recipe served without quinoa
Calories 475 | Fat 12.8 g | Cholesterol 0 mg | Sodium 830 mg | Total Carbohydrates 79 g | Fiber 16 g | Sugar 18 g | Added Sugar 0 g | Potassium 1563 mg / 33% DV | Protein 17g | Vitamin C 93 mg

 

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Blueberry Lavender Smoothie Bowls

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I have a big race planned for the morning of the 4th and am now in full on taper mode for the next few days. As anyone who has raced the marathon distance or longer knows, the taper period can be full of anxiety, pre-race nerves, last minute poor decisions, and all around stir-crazy-ness. This time around I haven’t had a big taper due to some training adjustments a few weeks back. It has also become my norm now to fit in my summer classes around the rest of my life so a lot of my otherwise “free” mornings, early evenings, and weekends are spent with my head in a gazillion research papers or on clinical nutrition cases. So all in all, I can’t complain about the current taper.

Even so, as is maybe obvious, I’m definitely prone to anxiety as my emotional go-to, and as the day grows nearer, I’m starting to have a little of that prickly circular overthinking creep in.

 

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At this point in my nutrition program, I’m close to being done on paper, but I’ve returned to taking minimal classes each term to retain some semblance of work-school-life balance so it will still be another year or so to finish. The classes I do have left are also the most intensive because we’re starting to pull all the pieces together and use them in clinical work. Lately, we’re focusing on nutrition for mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, and I was glad to see some good solid research supporting the use of lavender for anxiety symptoms.

 

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I created a lavender tincture for one of my herbal classes last year for this very reason and on certain days, nothing is so wonderful as opening the top just to let it’s floral aroma infuse into and calm my system. I also created a tincture formula that uses lavender for just this calming and grounding purpose, and there’s one more left in my online shop, if you’ve the mind.

Lavender, in addition to its ability to relieve nervous tension and anxiety, also helps with cognitive function and exhaustion. Its essential oils in the flowers have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well, and I find their aroma just lovely. The recipe below is one of my favorites for a mid-afternoon snack and it ups those anti-inflammatory abilities by packing in lots of blueberries, greens, and healthy nuts and seeds. The lavender really rounds out all the flavors and adds that calming touch.

 

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Blueberry Lavender Smoothie Bowl, makes 1
– Add culinary-grade lavender flowers or if available, 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. lavender extract/tincture.
– I’ve experimented with lots of plant-based protein powders and currently enjoy PlantFusion brand for its easy digestibility and fermented ingredients. Vega Sport and Garden of Life Sport are also good.
– If you make smoothies or smoothie bowls on the regular, keep in mind it’s wise to change up your choice of greens on the regular to get in all the good nutrients each type has to offer. 

1 1/2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)
1 cup spinach or kale
20 grams/ half scoop vanilla plant-based protein, optional
3/4 – 1 tsp. dried lavender flowers
2 tsp. chia seeds
1 tsp. almond or sunflower butter
1/3 cup almond milk, or as needed to reach desired consistency
1 – 1 1/2 tsp. adaptogen powder of choice, optional

  • Combine all ingredients in a high speed blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Add additional liquid to reach your desired consistency. I prefer mine spoon-able.