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.

summer peach oatmeal

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At times over the years, I’ve considered making this a blog of oatmeal recipes. It’s pretty much my favorite food, I’ll eat it just about any time of day and it’s been my breakfast of choice for the strong majority of my life.

What I’ve added to the oats has definitely changed over the years however. From the brown sugar, milk, and stink bugs (aka raisins) of my youth, to the 10 carefully counted blueberries and half a banana of the days when I ate religiously too rigid during my eating disorder, to now when the toppings are varied and more numerous, oatmeal has been my tried and true.

 

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For many years the one ‘error’ I made in my morning bowl was that I was afraid of adding any healthy fats to it. I notice this with others too. Either seasonal fruits or berries or dried fruit are a popular topping but the thing about eating nutrient rich foods like fresh berries or anti-oxidant filled fruits (and vegetables), is that without a carrier fat in the meal they’re eaten with, those fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K can’t actually be absorbed. We need healthy fats to make them effective. After years of being afraid of fat, I’m now a big fan of eating it in moderate amounts since fats are important for both cellular and hormonal health. Fats surround all cells and organelles in what is called the phospholipid bilayer and they are essential for proper cellular development, as well as carrying messages throughout the body in the hormones.

It’s important for us to eat a variety of fat types from foods rich in saturated fat to the unsaturated mono and polyunsaturated omega 6 and 3 fatty acids. Our modern diets tend to be less diverse and mainly have an abundance of saturated and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. The omega 6 fats are found in soy, corn, safflower, sunflower and peanut oils, as well as sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, and most nuts. In whole food form, they are incredibly healthy and essential, but need to be balanced with omega-3 fats such as freshly ground flax, chia, walnuts and wild caught cold-water fish such as salmon, halibut, anchovies, cod, and sardines. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3’s should be under 5:1 to be considered anti-inflammatory and for most individuals, this ratio is at least 20:1 or more.  For anyone with health concerns that are inflammation-related such as any of the common ‘lifestyle diseases’ like diabetes, high cholesterol or blood pressure, autoimmune conditions, arthritis of any type, and/or you are an otherwise healthy athlete looking to improve recovery between workouts, consuming those delicious nutrient-filled fruits and vegetables along with a healthy fat source and eating an optimal balance of omega 3s and 6s can be incredibly helpful. (My personal example is as an athlete trying to improve recovery and with an underlying chronic autoimmune/arthritic-like condition.)

One other thing to note is that all fat digestion first takes place in the mouth from chewing and saliva beginning to break down food–so chewing is important–and intestinal digestion requires bile salts and pancreatic lipase, an enzyme that specifically helps to break down and absorb fat molecules. If you find you don’t digest fats well, consider sending me a note. There are lots of natural ways to assist the digestive process!

 

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Now for my favorite oatmeal bowl lately. It’s got a super-seasonal local peach chopped and added in the last few minutes to old-fashioned oats, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon or so of tahini, and a good tablespoon of ground flax seed. In the summer, I tend to always add a sprinkle of fennel seeds, which also support digestion, and then top it all off with a bit of cinnamon.

 

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Creamy Summer Peach Oatmeal, makes 1 large or 2 small bowls

1 1/2 cups water
1/2-3/4 cups old-fashioned oats, gf certified as necessary
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1 large peach, chopped
1 tsp. tahini
1 Tbs. ground flax
cinnamon, to sprinkle

  • Bring the water to a boil, add the oats, and turn down to medium-low. Cook until nearly all the water is absorbed and then stir in the remaining ingredients except the cinnamon. Cook until it is creamy and all the water is absorbed.
  • Turn out into a bowl and then top with cinnamon.

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 40-50 minutes rotating the sheet approximately halfway through. If it seems a touch soft at 50 minutes, turn off the oven and allow the pan to cool completely inside.
  • Otherwise, remove from the oven and cool completely on the baking sheet before breaking into clumps and chucks.

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.