Are you eating enough for your activity level?

Today’s topic is one that’s been on my mind a whole lot lately. A nutrition question that is frequently asked is:  Should I be eating intuitively when I’m hungry or tracking what I eat and going off the numbers?

Before I tell you my answer, I’d like you to think about this question for a moment. No really, take a moment and think about what you’d say if someone asked you. (Humor me please, this is the educator in me.)

From my instagram a couple weeks ago: as mileage and/or time on feet goes up, eating becomes almost another part-time job. the last few days I felt like I wasn’t quite eating enough, and not surprisingly, today’s long run felt a little extra challenging.
low energy availability is extremely common in athletes, and long term, it can cause widespread physiological and psychological imbalances.
so the short story is if you’re moving a lot, you need to be eating a lot.

Now, my answer:  YES, eat intuitively!! Tracking numbers often leads to becoming reliant on the numbers rather than recognizing your own body’s needs. Your body is incredibly wise and those tracking websites and apps are all using estimates. They’re estimating your energy needs and using nutrition data done in a lab on a random sample item of the food tested. And that’s not to mention that your estimates of portion size, etc. are usually not entirely accurate either.
So random sample food that may not reflect the actual nutrition of the food you ate, formula estimating your energy needs, and, unless you’re a super type-A person that weighs every morsel ingested to the nearest gram (also please don’t do this), inaccurate food measurement. Yes, they can give you an idea if you might be in the ballpark with your nutrition needs, but as above, it can vary so much. And yes, some individuals can go into a lab and get their metabolic rate measured to determine a more accurate picture of energy needs, but most of us don’t have access to or need that data.

AND also my answer: It depends. Many active individuals are actually not eating enough for their on-the-move lifestyles – and the body, because it is wise, makes decisions about where it is going to prioritize its precious calories. So if you’re going to go for a trail run in the forest for the day followed by an evening bike ride or weight session, and then follow with something similar tomorrow and the next day, and throw in a weekend long couple workouts, AND you’re routinely not eating enough to meet your caloric needs, the body is going to choose where to spend those nutrients because when this precious energy is used for one function, it is not available for another one. Essentially, you are putting your system into survival mode.

And it plays out along these lines as your body says,  “Well, if you’re going to make me go do these workouts, I’ll put my energy here, though maybe with a little less pep, energy, and high-end ability, but I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul, so I’ll compromise over here with bone metabolism, or over here with female reproductive hormones or thyroid health, or immune function, or over here with the GI system and the ability to break down nutrients in food (because digestive enzymes are made of proteins which may be lacking in the diet), or muscle and tissue repair or”…. and the list goes on.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because it’s actually common for active individuals to be eating to hunger levels and still not be eating enough.

While intuitive eating means we should honor our hunger, many athletes have a suppressed appetite after long or intense workouts, and we still need to replace nutrients quickly after exercise, and learn to recognize that symptoms of hunger go beyond simply an empty stomach.

While intuitive eating means we should respect our fullness, if you get to the point of overeating by having excessively large meals, it is often because of low energy intake throughout the day or because you did some seriously strenuous exercise. With more even or adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, you can avoid that ravenous feeling of needing to eat quickly and impulsively, which means you’re paying more attention to fullness.

A SELF-ASSESSMENT TO HELP YOU NAVIGATE YOUR ENERGY NEEDS

So what to do if tracking all your meals isn’t very accurate (and not to mention time-consuming and takes the joy out of eating and deciding what to eat), and eating intuitively might be a little faulty, especially at the beginning?

My suggestion is to start with a self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions:
– Am I sick more than I should be?
– Do I struggle with fatigue more than I think I should?
– Am I improving in my performance?
– Have I had a lot of injuries?
– How’s my overall health?
Basic bloodwork results holds a plethora of data on how the body is ‘performing’ internally.
– How is my menstrual cycle and/or sex drive? Women have a little advantage here in that any menstrual symptoms or irregularities* are symptoms telling you to heed warning because there’s a larger health story.
– Do I have a lot of gut upset / discomfort?
– Am I more irritable, depressed, anxious, or have decreased concentration?
– Am I sleeping well?
– and if you have teammates or friends/family that you work out with regularly: Do I eat less than my teammates but have a higher body fat? This is subjective of course because every body is different, but yep, higher body fat and eating less is also a tell-tale sign, since lower metabolic rate occurs with lower energy availability, meaning you might be eating less but weighing more or having more cushion than previously.
– and one more because it can become prevalent with long term low energy availability: Am I thinking about food ALL THE TIME? We know from eating disorder and starvation studies that chronically deprived individuals become obsessed with food, far beyond just being interested in food.

So where to go from here?
Above all, food and exercise should make you feel good. The goal is to be aware and in tune with yourself and your body’s ability to show you signs that something may not feel right or as great as it should.

And you may benefit from professional guidance. If you’re confused or concerned about your needs, or would like a professional opinion, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

*Women on hormonal birth control will not have the same ability to use their menstrual cycle to gauge abnormalities, since it is designed to eliminate ovulation and the normal hormonal fluctuation that occurs. If symptoms or irregularities occur without birth control, that is vital sign that your body has an imbalance somewhere.
This information does not intend to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. 

References:
2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Bronwen, L., Rowe, G., and Girdlestone, C. (2020). Low Energy Availability – an imbalance that impacts more than performance. CompeatCon Nutrition Conference.
Fahrenholtz, IL., Sjodin, A., Benardot, D., Tornberg, AB., Skouby, S.,…and Melin, AK. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and reproductive function in female endurance athletes.
Torstveit, MK., Fahrenholtz, IL., stenqvist, TB., Svlta, O., Melin, A. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and metabolic perturbation in male endurance athletes.
Tribole, E. and Resch, E. (2003). Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary program that works. (2nd ed.). St. Martin’s Griffin.


Walnut Butter with Blueberries, Goji Berries + Vanilla

I received free samples of California Walnuts mentioned in this post. By posting this recipe I am entering a recipe contest sponsored by California Walnuts and am eligible to win prizes associated with the contest. I was not compensated for my time.

There was a conversation going around the last few weeks about using up what’s in the cupboard, finding random stowed-away forgotten, stale, and outdated ingredients, and actually making a meal of them. As that went around, I truthfully had the thought of Ha, well that doesn’t apply to me.
I also remember a few years ago, a friend that first got to know me as a study abroad/international student and came to visit. He remarked at how elaborate the collection of ingredients in my pantry were. At the time, it felt like a moment of baring my soul, for what’s in your pantry and fridge tell as much or perhaps more about someone as taking a look in their medicine cabinet.

I tend to have a fairly vast collection of cooking ingredients simply because I love to experiment and create, and I like the flavors of a lot of different places. My kitchen is perhaps the [adult foodie] version of my dear grandmother’s elaborate dress-up closet that we loved as a kid.

Lately, I’ve also been making meals inspired by Heidi Swanson’s Near & Far cookbook, though I’ve particularly been drawn to the Near section, meaning Northern California cuisine. In the springtime particularly, this means I’ve been making meals with plenty of greens and herbs, and with flavors and ingredients that are pretty close to home here in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley. In other words, as the stay-at-home recommendations went into effect, I craved even more the flavors that come from closer to home.

And…when I finally dug through the pantry and fridge to inventory what’s there, I discovered I’m not the outlier with no outdated or forgotten foods in the pantry like I’d convinced myself to be.

A jar of freeze-dried wasabi powder
An untouched jar of Rhubarb Cordial which I made during cordial-making week in Herbal Pharmacy class four years ago
A few blooming teas and flavored teas and extra-floral teas that various individuals have gifted me – love tea, kinda picky about which ones I’ll drink on the regular
A package of pizza spice mix
A jar of jalapeño jelly I made a long time ago that appears still good – the gift of high sugar content
A big pack of spring roll wrappers I’ve only needed in small amounts
A couple dried habaneros – before I realized only a smidge in a recipe will singe the hairs off, clear the mucus membranes, and help me breathe fire like the dragon I sometimes claim to be. ;)

And, not outdated at all and in constant rotation, an entire third of my fridge and a shelf on the pantry dedicated to the nut, seed, and dried fruit collection. Because I like to start from the equivalent of primary colors when making recipes, I usually purchase raw, unroasted nuts and seeds, and dried fruit with no added oils or sweeteners. This also means their amazing nutrients are retained without adding extra oils, salt, or sugar. Despite a few other ingredients that clearly need to be tossed or regifted – that cordial did not look good and went down the drain this morning – this preference for having diverse and fresh ingredients on hand came in real handy the last few weeks.

So let’s turn to this particular recipe, shall we?

One of the components of total health and overall diet that is important is the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid types in our daily diets. Both omega-3s and omega-6s are essential, meaning we have to get them from our foods to have adequate health, but their ratio is perhaps just as important. In traditional diets, our evidence shows that peoples were likely eating a 3:1 or even 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s, and this is still optimal. In a standard Western diet, that ratio is often skewed to a 20:1 or more ratio. Anything above a 5:1 ratio begins to be more of a pro-inflammatory state for the body.

Omega-3 fats are primarily found in fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines.
But they’re also found in plant-foods including walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds, as well as edible wild plants – a major source for our ancestors.

Omega-6 fats, though essential, are ones we usually don’t have to work at getting because they’re prolific in our food supply – primarily through corn, soy and other-vegetable oils, but also in most of the other nuts and seeds not mentioned above.

One important note is that no food has just one type of fatty acid profile – foods contain varying amounts of all types of fat, both monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (those omega-3s and 6s), and saturated fats. Our body thrives with a balance which is another reason it is wise to eat diversely and seasonally.

Working a little of that Near & Nearer concept into my meals and snacks lately, this recipe primarily features California walnuts, which I love because they offer a rich, sophisticated flavor, and they’re the only nut to provide an excellent source of the plant-based omega-3, ALA (2.5g/oz).

And a handful (or spoonful) of California walnuts is a versatile snack and can satisfy any taste preference, from savory to sweet.​ As far as this walnut and berry nut butter goes, it works that slightly sweet angle with blueberries that were grown by one of our local farmers, a handful of antioxidant-rich goji berries, and just enough sunflower seeds to balance out the stronger flavors that walnuts on their own in a nut butter provide. I particularly enjoy this as a snack or alongside apple slices as a little after dinner treat. And if you make it, whether you have to go source a few ingredients or work that Far angle of the Near & Far concept, I promise you will too. :)

Walnut Butter with Blueberries, Goji Berries + Vanilla, makes 240 grams (about 8 oz.)
1 ¾ cups / 175 grams California Walnuts
¼ cup / 35 grams sunflower seeds
2 Tbs. / 20 grams unsweetened dried blueberries
2 Tbs. / 10 grams dried goji berries
1/8 tsp. vanilla
a dash of salt and up to 1/8 tsp.

  1. Set the oven to 160°C / 320°F.
  2. Spread out the walnuts and sunflower seeds on a baking tray and roast for 15-18 minutes until they begin to turn a slightly darker, toasted hue.
  3. Transfer to a food processor and mix on high speed for approximately 10-15 minutes or until it starts to become smooth and perhaps a little runny (stopping and scraping down the sides every now and then). 
  4. Add in the dried berries, vanilla, and salt.
  5. Puree again until the berries are mostly incorporated but might still have some small pieces.
  6. Pour into a 8 oz. jar and store extra in the fridge.

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.