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.

Strawberry Tabbouleh Salad + an early summer catch up

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It has been a while since I rounded up all the inspirations that are lifting me and the last couple of months, there has been much. I enjoy going back and reading my previous posts of these types, so in the off-chance you’ll enjoy any of these as much as I have, I’m bringing them to you here.

Otherwise, this strawberry tabbouleh salad is so absolutely delicious that I’m going to make it on repeat until the strawberries slow down. It just might be my new favorite spring meal.


Reading
:
Tender: a cook and his vegetable patch

Iron and the Female Athlete: This review article was an assigned reading from my micronutrients class this term. I am learning so much and I really appreciated delving more into the research on select micronutrients that I (and many others) struggle with.

When Times Are Tough

Sick, Again: This perspective on living with an invisible and life-changing disease is one I resonate with. I love how Tessa was able to write about her experience and ultimately perspective on living with Crohn’s Disease.

The Power of a Letter: I’ve been saving this story about Obama’s mailroom for months. Just thinking about it lifts me up when the politics/media cloud threatens to take over.

Listening To:
Let it Out Podcast with Jessamyn Olivia Stanley and my one of my favorite ladies in food, Sarah Britton.

Connie Chapman’s Podcast about Ditching the Victim mentality (ep #69): Find Someone to Call You Out on Your Bullshit.(!)

The Rich Roll Podcast with John Mackey: Whole Foods Market opened in our city about eight months ago and I still haven’t been as I try to shop at the locally owned natural foods stores as much as I can. I didn’t expect to enjoy so much of this episode, especially Whole Foods’ founder John Mackey’s perspective on business.

And also, the episode with David Clark. I think I listened to this one about four times over in the space of three days this last week.

Self Care:
Inspiration from Claire

Self Care, Two Ways

Let it Out: I bought this journaling book last year, also authored by Let It Out podcast host, Katie Dalebout. I’ve been returning to its helpful prompts lately as there is so much good stuff here.

Into the Woods: I’ve followed Aran’s beautiful blog, Cannelle et Vanille, for as long as I knew food blogs existed. I love that she shared this video of her experience with food, as a therapy to heal and where she was able to find community and connection. So much of this resonates with my experience.

Lastly, Pia’s beautiful wisdom on a postcard from my younger self:
Ten years on again, as I look back at my younger self…I remember asking myself at the time, when everything seemed so chaotic in my life… Would I be bold enough to pursue my own dreams? To live away from my family? To live differently to my family? Will I be ok when my mother dies? Will I become a mother?
Trust. Because, yes. I need to remember this every time I ask myself heart questions in times of messiness and chaos. “Trust. Because, yes.” 

 

Strawberry Millet Tabbouleh, serves 3-5
I am a big fan of combining cooked grains, beans, and whatever seasonal vegetables are on hand to make main-dish style salads that can also double as potluck or celebratory sides. This salad, though a complete deviation from the traditional middle eastern tabbouleh, was a recent favorite in our house. The addition of strawberries really takes it to the next level.

1 cup millet
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon each cumin and coriander
2 cups water
3-4 green onions
1 pint strawberries
½ a bunch of radishes
2 cups cooked lima beans
A small handful of mint leaves, finely minced
A slightly larger handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely minced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Juice from one small lemon
½ to ¾ teaspoon sea salt and black pepper
1/4 cup dukkah seasoning, as desired

  1. Place the millet in a small saucepan and then add the spices and 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and then cover. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the water is absorbed, and then set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Thinly slice the green onions, strawberries, and radishes and add them to a large mixing bowl. Then add the cooked and cooled millet, beans, mint, parsley, oil, vinegar, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. Taste as you go and adjust seasonings as needed. Top with dukkah seasoning if desired.
  3. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Dried Plum + Millet Tabbouleh

 

 

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

 

For me, the spring season means a whole host of grain salads. I tend to eat gluten-free whole grains like millet, brown or black rice, quinoa and buckwheat as the center of many meals year-round, but in the spring, fresh, raw greens and herbs start to take more of the center stage. Inevitably, I end up adding sweet things into these meals, often in the way of fresh or dried fruits.

 

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May happens to be National Osteoporosis Month, and the California Dried Plum Board is hosting a No Bones About It Recipe Redux challenge. As a child with first a dairy allergy and then an extreme dislike for the taste of milk, I was often prompted to drink milk to prevent osteoporosis later in life. Interestingly, it wasn’t until last year that I learned about the many other vitamins and minerals that are also important to bone health like phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamins K and D.

 

Dried plums are one of the foods that can help support healthy bones. Emerging research shows that eating dried plums may have positive effects on bone health. Previous studies discovered that eating 100 grams (two servings; about 8- 10 dried plums) of dried plums for one year was associated with increased bone mineral density (BMD) and improved indices of bone turnover in postmenopausal women. At Experimental Biology, March 28- April 1, 2015, a current study presented as a poster, examined whether 50 grams (one serving; about 4-5 dried plums) would be as effective as the larger dose. The results indicated that one serving of dried plums may be as effective in preventing bone loss in older, osteopenic postmenopausal women. There are also natural elements in dried plums which help heighten the flavors of other ingredients in a recipe. They can be used as a flavor enhancer, both in savory and sweet dishes.

 

My grandparents must have had a plum tree because for years, every time they visited, they brought us bags of dried plums. My parents still have a ton of dried plums in their freezer and whenever I visit, I take a package or two, as I love experimenting with less-used ingredients and flavors.

 

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This salad hosts both dried plums and a whole bevy of nutrients essential to bone health. More importantly, with flavors inspired by middle eastern cuisine, it tastes delicious.

 

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It’s definitely making its way to the top of my favorite spring grain salads.

 

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Dried Plum + Millet Tabbouleh, serves 4-6

3/4 cup dry millet

1 1/2 cups water

3/4 cup dried plums, diced

2 large bunches parsley, finely diced

1/2 large bunch mint, finely diced

1 small red onion, finely diced

2 Tbs. apple cider vinegar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. salt

black pepper to taste

1 orange, finely diced (optional, but not at all necessary)

  • In a medium saucepan, add dry millet, water, diced dried plums, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down to low heat, and cover. Cook for 20 minutes, and then remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.
  • Meanwhile, dice the herbs and onion and add them to a large serving bowl.
  • Toss the millet and plum mixture with the vegetables and stir in the spices and vinegar. Adjust the seasonings to taste and then serve at room temperature.