5 ways to Improve Digestion & ease Tummy Trouble

Gastrointestinal discomfort, or tummy trouble, is one of the most common health conditions I encounter in my nutrition practice.

Some of the more familiar symptoms include: bloating; cramping; heartburn; gas; constipation and/or diarrhea.  The associated discomfort levels can range from mild to debilitating and the causes, consequences and potential cures, are equally diverse.

What I want to talk about today are some of the founding principles and practices we can put in place to help lay the groundwork for gastrointestinal health.

These strategies are not meant to be mutually exclusive but rather work together to inform the overall picture of health.  Often with digestion, our bodies will accommodate a certain amount of flux (and tolerate a certain amount of abuse) before things start to come undone.  As things deteriorate, we are often visited by clear — and sometimes loud — signs of trouble.

The founding principles are just that — the basis upon which healthy digestive habits are formed.  At first blush they may seem simple but, like all things, the trick is to practice them.  The results don’t come instantaneously or from a single act of intensity.  Rather, they are achieved through regular practice over time.

5 ways to improve digestion and ease tummy trouble

1.  Slow Down & Change the Focus – our digestive system does not like to be rushed, which is very different from the way most of us live our lives. By slowing down we help calm our nervous system and support proper chewing, the first critical step in the digestive process.

Trying to imagine mealtime in more ritualistic, even celebratory terms ~ as it was once practiced ~ can be very helpful for transforming our approach.  I don’t mean making things complicated or fancy, quite the opposite, I just mean shifting our mind so that we pay attention.  Setting aside, even momentarily, the usual distractions and focusing instead on the smell, taste, textures and nourishing properties of the food we are about to eat.  We might even imagine how our food serves us by providing energy, growth, repair and rejuvenation and how fortunate we are to receive it.  It’s hard to imagine this kind of singular, uncorrupted focus – I know.  But if we can manage it, even intermittently, we begin to see how the act of shifting our attention to our food allows us to slow down naturally.  Other simple elements such as candles, field flowers and pretty cloth napkins can also enhance the dining experience by transporting us out of our electronic fields and bringing our focus back to the joy and celebration of eating.

2. Chew, Chew, Chew — digestion begins in the mouth ~ it is initiated and facilitated through the act of proper mechanical chewing. As we chew our food, digestive juices from our saliva further assist in the process of breaking down our food. The more thoroughly chewed our food is, the more exposed surfaces there are for enzymes to work on as our food moves through the intestinal tract.

It has been said that many intestinal conditions could be significantly improved if people chewed their food

Proper chewing is made difficult by the fact that we are not always aware of how quickly we are eating our food. Shifting our focus will help with this but in the initial stages, when our minds are more prone to wander, the following strategies can be very helpful for slowing down and promoting proper chewing:

  • the fork rest — simply put your fork down between bites and wait until your food is properly chewed and swallowed before picking it up again.  You might be amazed to discover how this small step will make you aware of just how quickly you eat your food (you may also find it rather annoying which is also informative);
  • chopsticks — I encourage the use of chopsticks wherever and whenever possible; they are a natural speed and quantify tamer and a great way to promote proper chewing and digestion.

 3. Identify your Tummy Triggers – certain foods can promote inflammation in the body and intensify tummy trouble.  Cleaning up the diet is a very helpful, often essential, step in improving gastrointestinal comfort (not to mention systemic health). Triggers (and symptoms) will be different for each of us and keeping a food journal is a very helpful tool in pinpointing individual trouble spots.  With this in mind, some principles:

whole foods — often the simplest and most important step we can take towards promoting an anti-inflammatory diet is to increase our intake of whole foods and decrease our intake of manufactured foods.  By whole foods, I simply mean food that looks the way it did when it was growing in nature – on trees, in our gardens and on the farm.  These foods deliver the greatest concentration of nutrients for our bodies (vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals) as well as enzymes which help break down our food and facilitate digestion.

manufactured foods — manufactured foods (processed/refined foods and fast foods) by contrast, contain a disproportionate amount of sugar, sodium and unnatural fats relative to whole foods which can bog down digestion and undermine systemic health. These same foods also tend to contain a host of artificial preservatives, colorants, flavor enhancers as well as binders, emulsifiers and/or other ‘gums’ which can further act as triggers in a host of different ways (digestion/migraine/mood) depending on individual susceptibility.

the sugar load — excess sugar can put our immune systems on alert and increase levels of pro-inflammatory messengers (cytokines) in the body.  Sugar is abundant in processed foods and often hidden in “low-fat” and “no-fat” dressings and sauces. Keep in mind that although honey and pure maple syrup may be less refined sources of sugar than white sugar (and carry tiny amounts more of trace minerals/vits), they are still very much sugars and operate like sugars in the body.  I happen to enjoy their taste but nutritionally there is very little difference between them so the focus should really be on the overall load/quantity used.

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4. Be aware of the role of Stress – this is possibly one of the most important and least appreciated keys to digestive vitality.  Proper digestion depends on the engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” branch of our nervous system).  During times of stress, it is our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response) that takes over and digestion begins to shut down.

Stress is one of our body’s most powerful, adaptive responses.  It triggers the release of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol which prepare us for fight or flight. When this happens, certain body systems become more acute or higher functioning (blood pressure, visual acuity, mobility reflexes) while others, deemed not essential or unsafe, begin to shut down.  When there’s a saber-toothed tiger on the scene, the stress response makes a great deal of sense and may well save our life. The difficulty is when we start seeing saber-toothed tigers on every corner (in our home, at the office, in our cars, etc) — we begin to live in situations of chronic stress where we are continuously triggering the stress response in our bodies and preventing the rest and digest branch from doing its job.  The last thing that is safe for us to do when preparing for fight or flight is to spread a picnic blanket and enjoy a relaxing meal.

Whether our saber-toothed tigers are real or imagined, they have the same effect on our bodies 

5. Engage the Relaxation Response — once we become aware of the link between stress and digestion, the next step is to engage the rest and digest branch of our nervous system.  There are many effective ways to promote this response and each of us will have our preferences.  Experimenting with different modalities is often the key.  I touched on many relaxation techniques in this feature, but the one I want to highlight today is breathing.

Breathing techniques have been an integral part of wellness practices throughout Asia for centuries.  Lauded for their ability to calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve sleep, digestion and mental clarity, breathing exercises do not require any special equipment or membership and you can practice them anywhere — while you’re stuck in traffic, standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for takeoff or trying to fall back to sleep in the comfort of your bed.

The idea with breathing exercises is that when practiced regularly, we start to feel the benefits not only during the directed breathing itself (voluntary nervous system) but also eventually in our day-to-day actions and reactions to things (involuntary nervous system) – and that is the true gift.  Here are two methods for consideration:

◊ Diaphragmatic/ Belly Breathing – most of us are chest breathers (thoracic breathers) particularly when we are stressed, anxious or upset, we tend to take short, shallow breaths without fully engaging our diaphragm (the muscle beneath our ribcage).  Breathing with a fully expanded tummy allows us to benefit from deeper, fuller breaths, while calming our nervous system as we go along. Herbert Benson (Harvard physician) describes the belly breathing method in his book The Relaxation Response, as follows:

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose allowing your belly to fully expand (like a pregnant tummy) – exaggerate this motion to get the idea – hold the position for a count of 3 seconds (eventually moving up to 5)
  • Exhale gently through your nose or pursed lips if preferred – the diaphragm will relax as the tummy moves back to its resting position
  • There is little or no upper chest movement – place one hand on your chest and one hand over your belly.  You should feel your belly hand extending and your chest hand staying relatively still
  • Practice 10 series of breaths (inhale/exhale) and if you find your mind wandering, gently but firmly return your focus to the breath, counting as you go along

◊ 4-7-8 Breathing — the 4-7-8 breathing method is another technique (likely originating from India) that has been adopted in the West.  One of my favorite interpreters is Andrew Weil (American pioneer of Integrative Medicine and graduate of Harvard Medical School). I first came across the 4-7-8  breathing method back in 2011 when I was preparing a research piece on digestion and relaxation. I will describe the method verbally but for a more helpful visual demonstration, you can view the video link below.

  • Place the tip of your tongue gently and loosely against the ridge behind your front teeth; keep it there throughout the exercise
  • Exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound.
  • Then, with mouth closed, inhale deeply and quietly through your nose for a count of 4
  • Hold for a count of 7, and exhale audibly through your mouth for a count of 8.
  • Repeat the exercise for a total of 4 breath cycles twice a day.  After a month, if you’re comfortable with it, increase to 8 breaths each time.

Here is a clip of Andrew Weil’s demonstration (there are fancier versions that have been recreated but this one remains my favorite in terms of background and technique – if it doesn’t work in your geographic area simply google 4-7-8 + Weil for a video demo that does): The-4-7-8-Breath-Benefits-and-Demonstration.

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Rule out Medical Causes — if you are living with chronic and persistent gastrointestinal discomfort, be sure to follow-up with your trusted health care practitioner to investigate any underlying medical causes for your symptoms.

The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.

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Spring Frittata with Fresh Garden Herbs

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This year marked our first spring planting season at our new home.

I was intent on growing herbs and getting a vegetable or two into the ground.  So with a deep breath and a huge leap of faith, I kept my ambitions low, stayed focused and started small.

My husband built me two wood boxes and with that, our adventure was underway.

herb & vegetable planters

Having had a high success rate for growing weeds in the past (you know the mint and clover variety of ground cover that you can’t kill no matter how hard you try) and an abysmal success rate for keeping anything otherwise edible/desirable alive — how about some basil or cilantro for a change? — I entered the fray somewhat weary but not ambivalent.  This is California after all.  I can do this.

herb bouquets_Inspired Edibles

And then it happened.  Just like that. Within one month, growth was so abundant that I found myself making herb bouquets for our neighbors — (waaa?) I felt like I was starring in somebody else’s garden show and I liked it — a lot.

Fast forward 6 weeks from our original planting date and we now have three boxes, 13 different herb and vegetable varieties growing and tomato plants that are hip high — little miracles, each and every one of them.

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So today, a celebration of spring, growth and green with this garden fresh frittata! (aka: quiche’s sexier Italian cousin).

Of course with the frittata, much like its fussier kin the omelet and its more matronly cousin the quiche, (I do love quiche incidentally), you can truly make it your own by working with whatever seasonal or preferred ingredients you wish.

Ideal for serving a group, the gorgeous golden-rimmed frittata is a breeze to make and works well not only for breakfast/brunch but for any meal of the day.  Leftovers are also delicious.

The hallmark of the frittata is that it is crustless and its contents are sautéed prior to hitting the oven. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a rebel among egg pies and all rules are subject to interpretation (well, at least in my world view with deference to all Italian grandmothers out there).

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I want to dedicate this post to mothers around the globe — those who are still with us and those we carry in our hearts.  And to all of our sisters, aunts, cousins, nieces, friends and loved ones who have acted as mentors in our lives.  Thank you.

5.0 from 2 reviews
Spring Frittata with Fresh Garden Herbs
 
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A spring celebration frittata featuring asparagus and leek with fresh garden herbs
Author:
Serves: 8 pieces
Ingredients
  • 1 heaping cup chopped leek (1 stalk should do it)
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed and salted
  • ½ pound asparagus (about 10 spears), cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 8 (or more) cheery tomatoes, cut in half
  • 10 large fresh eggs
  • ⅓ cup half and half cream (10%)
  • pinch of fresh grated nutmeg, optional
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (or cheese of choice)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
  • 2 tsp fresh oregano (or other herb of choice), minced
  • 1 ounce feta cheese (or cheese of choice)
  • sea salt & black pepper
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 425 F
  2. Warm a 10" cast iron skillet (or oven proof skillet of choice) over low-medium heat making sure to grease sufficiently with oil or butter (I used coconut oil)
  3. Sauté leek, onion and garlic in the skillet over low-medium heat, just until the onion/leek become translucent being careful not to scorch the garlic, about 3 minutes. Add the asparagus and toss with veggies for a minute or two just until it brightens.
  4. Meanwhile whisk together: eggs, cream, nutmeg, 1 Tbsp parsley, oregano, sea salt & coarse black pepper together in a bowl.
  5. Add the grated Parmesan to the egg mixture and combine.
  6. Pour egg mixture into the skillet over the vegetables and cook for only 3 or 4 minutes over low-medium heat -- resist the urge to stir -- instead, draw a heatproof spatula across the bottom of the skillet in 3 or 4 long, deliberate strokes, pushing the cooked eggs toward the center and allowing the runny parts to gather underneath - this prevents scorching on the bottom of your frittata.
  7. Remove the skillet from heat and sprinkle the egg surface (which will still be runny in the center and barely set around the edges) with crumbled feta and then dot with tomatoes, as desired.
  8. Place the skillet in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until the egg mixture is puffed and beginning to take on a golden brown appearance (particularly around the edges).
  9. Carefully remove the skillet from the oven, top with remaining sprinkle of fresh parsley.
  10. Run a spatula around skillet edge to loosen the frittata, then carefully slide it out onto a serving plate to cut and serve.
Notes
Make it your own - one of the beautiful things about frittata, omelet and quiche is that they are completely adaptable -- use whatever ingredients you have on hand and take advantage of what is in season near you. The custard content can also vary from milk (or alternate milk beverage) to cream to coconut as well as your cheese and herb selection.
Sauté to remove excess water - vegetables contain a lot of water, (notably: mushrooms & zucchini), sautéing them prior to baking the frittata allows much of this water to be released so that you don't end up with a soggy mess during the baking process.
Leek Prep - to prepare leeks, cut the ends off (the roots) and darker green tops (you can reserve for stock). Be sure to rinse thoroughly as leeks can be sandy. Slice the white/yellow part of the leek in half lengthwise (and then again if still large) and then chop the long pieces, widthwise.
Leek Nutrition - leeks form part of the powerful allium family together with its confrères garlic, onion and chives - a class of vegetables which are rich in phytonutrients and operate as antioxidants in the body. This s one sexy allium rich pie!
Smashing Garlic - I recommend smashing the garlic (as distinct from running it through a garlic press) for two reasons. I love the chunkier texture of the garlic and chopping/slicing the garlic cloves alone without first flattening it (smashing/crushing) will not release the allium's beneficial oils. To smash, simply use the flat side of a large knife and carefully press down on the garlic over a cutting board until it breaks/flattens somewhat. Sprinkle with sea salt which will absorb beautifully into the oils and then chop or slice the garlic.

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Strawberry Ricotta Cake (Gluten Free)

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I’ll admit to feeling a little torn between lovers these days.

It’s a spring thing, you know.

With each passing day, I find myself surrounded by new and ever-growing possibilities.

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Now I’m not one to name-drop but, if I must, I’ve got asparagus, artichoke, beets, leeks, radish, ramps, rhubarb, spinach and strawberries, all knocking at my door right now.

A dizzying array of prospects, don’t you think?

It’s a little overwhelming in a wonderful kind of way.  I want to feature them all in an endless blaze of seasonal glory. And yet, each week I find myself having to pick and choose without hurting anyone’s feelings — (food can start to take on a rather human presence in a foodie’s life) — just this week I found myself apologizing to asparagus for putting it on the back burner. Again.

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This week’s nudge came from this lovely lady’s featured recipe.

I won’t go as far as saying that fights broke out over the last piece, although I’m hard-pressed to describe it otherwise.

As always, I’ll let you decide.

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About a month ago, I started playing around with the combination of rice flour and almond meal in baking, thanks to this post.  I had the successful experiment in mind when I started developing this recipe.

This cake is a snap to make but there’s so much going on in terms of flavor and texture — from the fluffy eggs to the luxurious olive oil, to the creamy ricotta to the juicy seasonal berries.

The result is a soft, silky and gorgeously moist cake with just the right amount of sweetness.  It holds together beautifully and is very portable (for those ocean-side picnics, you know). A perfect accompaniment to your afternoon tea or a pretty centerpiece for your spring brunch (mother’s day/father’s day).

Enjoy and, as always, be sure to read the Notes in the recipe card below for best results.

5.0 from 2 reviews
Strawberry Ricotta Cake (Gluten Free)
 
Prep time
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A moist and delicious ricotta cake with seasonal berries
Author:
Recipe type: Inspired by Bewitching Kitchen
Serves: 8 pieces
Ingredients
  • 1 cup white rice flour
  • ½ cup almond meal
  • 2 Tbsp tapioca flour/starch
  • ⅓ cup coconut palm sugar (or dry sugar of choice)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 + ½ cups whole ricotta cheese (full fat)
  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 heaping cup of coarsely chopped fresh raspberries or berries of choice
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350° F
  2. Line the interior of a 9-inch cake pan (the flat circle part) with parchment paper fit to size and lightly coat with olive oil
  3. In a large bowl, combine: rice flour, almond meal, tapioca flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt
  4. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together: eggs, ricotta, olive oil, lemon zest and vanilla
  5. Fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients just until blended
  6. Add ¾ cup strawberries and combine into batter taking care not to crush berries
  7. Scrape batter into prepared pan and scatter remaining strawberries over top pressing down ever so gently
  8. Bake cake until golden brown and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 50–60 minutes ** at the 20 minute mark my GF cake was already golden brown - I tented it loosely with foil to prevent over-browning **
  9. Remove cake from oven and allow it to cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before running a clean dry knife around the edge of the cake and then gently and carefully unmolding - the greased parchment helps a great deal with this.
  10. Before cutting, sprinkle the cake with a dusting of confectioners sugar and serve with a dollop of fresh cream, as desired.
Notes
Ricotta - I don't generally eat cake for its protein content, but, I did think you might find it interesting to know that there are 7 grams of protein in just a ¼ cup of ricotta ~ more than your average egg! This recipe contains 42 grams of protein from the cheese component alone.
Berries - I used strawberries in this recipe because they are in season here and their gorgeousness would not be denied but you can absolutely use whatever tickles your fancy. Although I have not performed the experiment, the original recipe calls for frozen berries, so that should work too.
Choice of Sweetener - I most commonly use maple syrup or honey but I don't recommend them here - there is already plenty of liquid in this recipe and adding more might result in a mushy wet cake (not good).
Tapioca - tapioca (a starch extracted from the root of the cassava plant) has become my thickening agent of choice in cooking and GF baking - I have replaced cornstarch slurries (cornstarch/water) that I formerly used to thicken sauces with it to great success and have also begun using it in GF baking where it plays that critical role of binding/thickening to give baked goods solidity and sponginess. A little goes a long way.
Parchment - don't be tempted to skip the parchment paper; it makes the task of unmolding the cake a snap (if you've ever tried unmolding a 'sticky' cake only to have it break into pieces, you know what I'm talking about).

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5 Ways to keep Metabolism Strong & Healthy

In simple terms, our metabolism is the rate at which our bodies utilize calories.  The higher our metabolic rate, the faster our bodies expend calories.

Our metabolism may be influenced by a number of variables including our age, gender and genes – factors which may seem completely out of our control. The good news is that there are certain things we can do to help maximize our body’s calorie burning potential and improve our global health.

The strategies I set out in this feature are science-based. To be sure, I know of no magic pill, pouch or bullet that will do for you what exercise and sound dietary choices can.

ginger pear smoothie_blogrecipe for my gingered pear green smoothie here

some principles:

  • Men generally have a higher metabolic rate than women – this is because they have a higher percentage of muscle mass and muscle burns more calories than fat, even at rest.
  • Metabolism generally decreases with age - this is often attributed to loss of muscle mass, which is certainly a key consideration, but the situation is more complex than that.  Hormonal changes that occur in women during the perimenopausal and postmenopausal phases of their lives, can also contribute to metabolic changes and increased fat storage (study).
  • Our Daily Energy Expenditure – our daily energy expenditure is made up of three main components: (i) our resting metabolism or basal metabolic rate (BMR) – the energy required to perform our vital body functions while at rest (breathing and heart beating for example) – BMR can make up as much as 75% of our daily calorie expenditure; (ii) our physical activity – anywhere from 15-30% of our daily expenditure depending on our activity level; and (iii) thermogenesis – the energy needed to digest and absorb food – somewhere around 10% of daily expenditure depending on the type of food consumed.
  • Start where you are, do what you can — it’s important when considering the strategies below to always work within your individual parameters, whatever they may be — age, stage of life, health considerations, fitness levels.

5 strategies:

1. Build Muscle

Muscle is our body’s most efficient calorie burner.  The more muscle mass we have, the higher our metabolic rate and the more efficiently our body is going to use calories, even at rest.

The very unique (and wonderful) thing about building muscle mass is that it not only requires us to expend energy during the exercise of weight training (the ‘physical activity’ prong) it also, critically, raises our resting metabolic rate because muscle is more metabolically active than fat — so we end up burning more calories simply lying on the couch than we would if we had less muscle mass.  That’s a pretty nice return on our investment.

Building muscle mass not only helps improve our body’s calorie burning potential, it also helps build the necessary foundation to keep us strong and robust as we age. Weight-bearing and/or resistance exercises are integral to maintaining strong and healthy bones. Women are especially vulnerable to loss of bone mass in the years following menopause as estrogen production drops significantly.

nutrition feature_metabolism_blog

Strength training most commonly comprises of  weight lifting and/or resistance exercise.  Weight lifting – customarily through the use of weight machines or free weights such as dumbbells and barbells. Although a gym environment may offer the most efficient way to use this equipment, you certainly don’t have to go this route.  You can invest in dumbbells of differing weights and use them in the privacy of your own home.  If you are new to weights, start with lighter weights and gradually/safely build over time. Strength training that offers resistance by way of equipment — such as rubber bands and balls — or by using the body’s own weight to create resistance — notably: push-ups, planks and dips as well as squats and lunges used in tandem with bands/balls — can also be very helpful and offers a broader range of options.  Exercise classes that incorporate these weight-bearing and/or resistance exercises such as Pilates, yoga and interdisciplinary aerobics/interval training, provide multiple benefits and are also well worth investigating.

2. Engage in Aerobic Exercise

Any aerobic activity from walking, dancing, cycling, rowing, swimming to running (and many more) will increase calorie expenditure.  The longer and more intense the workout, the more calories expended. Aerobic exercise also has the advantage of benefiting our cardiovascular system, bone health, circulatory system and mood.

◊ The best type of aerobic exercise is the kind that you enjoy and that you’re more likely to do on a regular basis.  This is what building a sustainable lifestyle is all about ~

Keep in mind too that exercise is cumulative.  If you only have 10 minutes at lunch — use it and try and sneak in another 10 minutes after dinner.  Any amount of exercise is worthwhile and beneficial so don’t feel like the circumstances have to be ideal before partaking.   The trick is to start — do what you can, when you can.  As a general rule, aim to include at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity into your daily routine. You can challenge yourself by adding time and intensity to your workouts over time and experiment with different types of exercise to see what works best for you.

3. Consider High Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT) 

HIIT is a training technique that involves alternating intervals of high-intensity exercise followed by brief recovery periods.  HIIT can be a very demanding/intense form of training and it is not for everyone.  HIIT is lauded for its ability to not only burn calories during the course of the exercise itself but also notably, for its ability to burn calories following the completion of exercise (this is due to an increase in excess post-exercise oxygen consumption — or EPOC — wherein the body continues to recover from the intense exercise ~ sucking wind as my friend would say).

Although studies have shown that interval training does raise EPOC and calorie expenditure following exercise (study), it would appear that this increase is highest among untrained individuals (study).  The higher your cardiorespiratory fitness level, the lower the magnitude of EPOC you will experience.  Stated differently, the better shape you are in, the less you will benefit from the post-exercise calorie burn because you recover more quickly and your body’s metabolism returns to normal sooner. In well-trained individuals the post-exercise caloric expenditure, or after-burn, has been found to be as low as 1% (with a mean of 4.8%) (study).  Still, an average 4.8% post-exercise expenditure is more than baseline and if you enjoy HIIT (and it’s a safe form of exercise for you), you can certainly take advantage of the metabolic benefits.

4. Eat a balanced diet that includes sufficient Protein

I’ve written about the importance of protein in other features (and will no doubt do so again). Unlike carbohydrates that are metabolized relatively quickly into sugar in the body, protein requires more work for our bodies to break down and metabolize.  This not only leads to a higher expenditure of energy relative to other macronutrients that we consume, it also means that protein can help stabilize our blood-sugar levels, improve our sense of fullness and satisfaction and assist in helping our mood and concentration.

Keep in mind as well that protein is essential for building muscle mass (strategy number 1 above).

There is also new and compelling research to suggest that individuals who consume normal- and high- range protein in their diets store more excess calories as lean tissue, or muscle mass, than those on low-protein diets – and while the mechanism is not yet fully understood, this remains a promising area of study (research).

5. Make sure you’re getting enough Sleep 

Sleep is intimately connected to hormonal processes in the body and critical for maintaining metabolic homeostasis. Sleep deprivation has been associated with multiple physiological changes, including increased cortisol and ghrelin levels, decreased leptin levels, impaired glucose metabolism, increased pro-inflammatory markers (review, review) and decreased energy expenditure.

A compelling study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that just one night of total sleep deprivation was enough to significantly reduce resting metabolic rate in adult men in comparison to those obtaining 8 hours of sleep. Since up to 75% of the calories we consume during the day are used by our bodies while at rest, this is a significant finding.

Most adults require 7 to 8 hours of restorative sleep per night.  More information on sleep and strategies for obtaining a better one, here.

The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.

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Ancient Grains Salad with Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Golden Beets & Blood Orange Vinaigrette

ancient grains salad with blood orange vinaigrette_main

The best part about the limited variety of produce found at my neighborhood Safeway is that it requires me to make the occasional trip to Whole Foods.  (I say occasional because no matter how narrow a mission I set out on, my grocery bill is anything but lean by the time I walk out the door).

On this particular visit, the first display that caught my attention was a stunning pyramid of blood oranges. California grown and still very much in season, their soft orange skin streaked with red blush appeared like little globes of sunlight beckoning me to take them home. Some neighboring golden beets, freshly pulled from the spring soil, decided to hitch a ride and jumped into my basket too.

ancient grains salad with blood orange and golden beets

I wanted to combine the goodness of these distinctive spring jewels with the earthy, nutty flavor of ancient grains and surround them in a bed of market fresh Brussels sprouts.

The combination of greens and grains is an idea that we’ve been coming across quite a bit lately in California cuisine. We had a memorable shredded kale and quinoa salad on new year’s eve at this establishment that incorporated sunflower seeds, grapes, manchego and parmesan tossed in a lip-smacking lemon vinaigrette.  I can still taste it!

ancient grains salad with blood orange vinaigrette

Visually stunning, blood oranges derive their distinctive color from the presence of anthocyanins — a pigment that operates as an antioxidant in the body.  The flesh of the orange can vary anywhere from soft pink to brilliant red (crimson) to deep purple depending on the pigment permeation.

That means that the color of the vinaigrette will also vary depending on the pigment saturation of the oranges used. You could make this vinaigrette a hundred times and get a slightly different color each time.

ancient grains salad with blood orange vinaigrette_1

The taste also varies but generally I find blood oranges slightly less sweet and mildly tarter than conventional oranges or mandarins.

If you can’t get your hands on blood oranges for the vinaigrette, simply use whatever orange variety is available to you.  It will be every bit as delicious and if you prefer something on the sour side, just add a little fresh lemon juice to the orange to achieve desired tartness.

Same idea with the vegetables. I’ve used Brussels sprouts and golden beets in this recipe, both local and seasonal, but you can source from anything available to you (even if you’re still digging out from under the snow!) — pick what appears freshest because that will also be what tastes best and carries the greatest nutrients.

Substitute different nuts and seeds and add cheese if you wish – goat, crumpled feta and harder varieties like grated pecorino and parmesan would all be delicious here. Play around with different combinations and see what works best for you.

super foods salad_4

You can plate this salad however you wish – in layers on a singular serving tray, segmented in a large bowl, or chopped up into smaller pieces and mixed together.

Full of texture and delicious flavor, this satisfying spring salad is bursting with color and nourishing properties.

Enjoy.

5.0 from 4 reviews
Ancient Grains Salad with Shaved Brussels Sprouts, Golden Beets & Blood Orange Vinaigrette (Gluten Free, Vegan Option)
 
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A nourishing spring salad featuring 3 ancient grains and seasonal vegetables dressed in a tangy blood orange vinaigrette.
Author:
Recipe type: Salad
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • For the Salad:
  • 1 cup cooked whole grains of choice (I used a combination of millet, buckwheat and white & red quinoa sold together as a 'super grains' organic blend)
  • 12 or so Brussels Sprouts (more if they are small), shaved with mandoline or knife (see Notes)
  • 4 roasted golden beets, sliced or chopped
  • 1 avocado, sliced or chopped
  • 2 Tbsp pine nuts, toasted

  • For the Blood Orange Vinaigrette:
  • ½ cup blood orange juice (from 2 blood oranges) + more orange segments for the salad as desired
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp grainy Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp honey (or pure maple syrup for vegan version)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • good pinch of salt
Instructions
  1. See prepping Notes below.
  2. In a large bowl, combine cooked (and cooled) grains and shaved Brussels sprouts, add half the vinaigrette (giving it a final whisk beforehand) and mix gently but thoroughly to combine.
  3. If you are plating on a singular tray, add sliced beats and sliced avocado and drizzle with remaining vinaigrette. Top with pine nuts and garnish with orange segments.
  4. If you are combining all the chopped elements together, add roasted chopped beets and avocado, drizzle with remaining vinaigrette and mix gently to integrate with grains and Brussels sprouts, taking care not to mash. Add toasted pine nuts and serve in individual bowls or plates, garnished with orange segments, as desired.
  5. Enjoy!
Notes
Harvard Study: Just as I was preparing to upload this feature, my friend Sarah over at Cooking for Kiwi and Bean posted this compelling link.
Prepping the Beets: You can roast your beets in advance and store in fridge until you are ready to assemble salad. There are many different roasting methods, one of the simplest: trim stems off beets, brush beets with a little olive oil and wrap each beet in aluminum foil. Place beets on a cooking tray in 375 F oven for 45 - 60 minutes or until cooked through. The beets will be fragrant and hot. Be sure to allow them to cool before carefully unwrapping. Once unwrapped, the skin will slide off easily and you can then slice thin (with mandoline or knife) or chop into small pieces as desired.
Prepping the Grains: The grains can also be prepped in advance. Cook the grains according to package directions, generally 2:1 water to grain ratio. I use my rice cooker ~ works like a charm. If you are buying your grains unpackaged you can use this Guide to Cooking Grains.
Prepping the Pine Nuts: The pine nuts can be toasted ahead of time. I simply use a small dry skillet set to the lowest heat and toast the nuts -- be sure to keep a close eye on them to avoid burning. It only takes a minute or two.
Prepping the Brussels Sprouts: If you have a mandoline, you will make short work of the sprouts (I have a basic hand-held model that I bought a few years ago ~ very easy to use and works well). The biggest issue with mandolines is safety (very sharp blade). If you don't have a mandoline simply use a knife and slice the sprouts as thin as possible holding the end as you go. Discard ends.
Prepping the Blood Orange Vinaigrette: simply whisk all vinaigrette ingredients together in a small bowl or container with fitted lid. I recommend making the dressing at least two hours in advance (ideally overnight) to allow the flavors to permeate. Be sure to taste the dressing and make any adjustments before using.

super foods salad_2

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5 dietary strategies to help combat fatigue and restore energy

In my last nutrition feature I talked about the importance of sleep and discussed dietary/lifestyle strategies for achieving it. The piece generated some good discussion in the comments section so if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, be sure to drop by to take advantage of that information as well.

nutrition feature_fatigue_IG

One of the most common concerns I encounter in my nutrition practice is low energy levels and fatigue. Whether it’s difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, the classic afternoon slump, crashing early evening or low energy levels persisting throughout the day, fatigue can strongly impact our work productivity, mood, motivation and the quality of our interactions with others.

Along with regular exercise, managing stress levels and obtaining a proper night’s rest, eating the right foods at the right time can go a long way to avoiding common energy drains and restoring balance.

1. Eat Breakfast (or bring it with you) – after prolonged sleep, breaking our fast (breakfast) helps kick start metabolism and promote mental acuity. It supplies us with the energy we need to begin our day and prevents hunger from striking at a time when we are more apt to make poor dietary choices.

If lack of time or appetite is a factor, (or if you are in a long-standing habit of not eating breakfast), consider starting small and simple: a handful of nuts and seeds;  a wedge of cheese; plain yogurt; a wholesome granola bar; a hard-boiled egg or two tablespoons of peanut butter — it doesn’t get much easier than that — and the difference between any of these simple choices and no food in the morning can be significant in terms of mood, alertness and concentration.  Start small with what is tolerable for you (or the individual you are supporting), and build slowly from there. Over time, you can expand your repertoire — smoothies are another great option for reluctant breakfast eaters.

2. Include protein not only at mealtime but also when snacking — it requires more work for our bodies to break down protein and fat than carbohydrates.  By combining a quality carbohydrate (example: vegetable/fruit/whole grain of choice) with a protein and/or fat (example: nut or seed butter, guacamole, hummus, cheese, milk, yogurt) it slows down the rapid conversion of the carbohydrate to sugar, helping us feel fuller longer and preventing jags in insulin levels.  By stabilizing blood sugar in this way, we also help supply a smooth and steady release of energy over time rather than a quick burst.  This dietary strategy is not only important at meal time but also, critically, when snacking during long stretches of time between meals — for example the gap after lunch (around 1 pm) and dinner (around 7 pm or later).

3. Plan ahead to avoid large time gaps between food consumption eating irregularly or skipping meals can play havoc with blood sugar levels leaving us feeling weak, shaky and irritable.  When we wait too long to eat, our bodies naturally cue us in to consume the quickest form of energy available which is almost always those low nourishment carbohydrates (sweets and the whole gamut of refined ‘bready things”) which give us a quick boost of energy but almost as quickly leave us feeling hungry, tired and sluggish all over again (the sugar crash). If you know it’s going to be a busy day, or one spent mostly on the road, plan ahead for some simple snack options that include those vital proteins and/or fats in tandem with quality carbohydrates and experiment with different options and time frames to see what works best for you. Something as simple as a handful of trail mix can make all the difference.  Orchard Valley Harvest has a line of portioned grab-and-go snacks of this nature that I carry along when we travel.

Frequency and timing of food intake will vary according to a number of variables — age, stage of life, activity levels and the type/amount of food consumed throughout the day (6 grams of protein at lunch will not have the same staying power as 30 grams, for example).  As a very general guideline, eating every three hour to four hours for most adults (more frequently for children) can help keep blood sugar levels stable and mood balanced.

4. Make sure you’re well hydrated — we’re all familiar with the mid-afternoon slump that has our eyes watering, heads bobbing and minds fogging over.  The overwhelming desire is to curl up and take a nap (which is not always possible, practical or desirable).

Eating well-timed meals/snacks that include the vital protein/fat element will go a long way to preventing this scenario but another critical component is staying hydrated.  If you’re having one of those afternoons, and we all do, one of the very best remedies is to pour yourself a tall glass of water and gently stretch your body as you sip it (if you have the option of going outside, even momentarily, to get some fresh air or walk around the block, that can also be powerfully helpful).  The whole process will only take about 10 minutes but will do your body and mind immeasurable good.

smoothie_inspired edibles

Water is the hub of all biochemical processes in the body and even mild dehydration (1-5% loss of body water) has been shown to reduce efficiency and performance and is one of the most common causes of daytime fatigue.

How much water — water needs fluctuate depending on a number of factors: ambient temperature, activity levels, diet and general health.  Consumption of diuretics, such as caffeine and alcohol, increase urinary output requiring more water consumption to make up for this loss.  The Mayo Clinic estimates that the average adult produces 6.3 cups (about 1.5 litres) of urine a day plus an additional 4 cups of water through breathing, sweating and bowel excretion.  Food generally accounts for 20% of water intake.  By this standard, we should aim for a minimum of 8 cups of water per day (or 2 litres) to replenish lost fluids in addition to food sources (fresh fruits and vegetables are a particularly good source of water).

Ideas for enhancing taste — some delicious ways of enlivening the taste of water include adding fresh herbs, edible flowers, fruit and vegetables to your beverages. Some choices include: sliced cucumber,  lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, berries, pomegranate, mint, thyme, rosemary and lavender.  You can also enjoy herbal teas and sparkling water or add a splash of your favorite unsweetened fruit juice to water. Smoothies are another delicious way to stay hydrated (and nourished).  Have fun experimenting and coming up with your own combinations.

5. Have your vitamin/mineral levels checked - sometimes lack of energy is attributable to certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies. The most common deficiency implicated in fatigue is iron (especially for menstruating women – vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk).  Iron deficiency, even in the absence of anemia, can cause fatigue, lethargy and difficulty concentrating and is certainly worth investigating.  Another deficiency that arises on occasion is B12 (vegans and those who do not absorb B12 well are at higher risk). You can have your vitamin and mineral levels tested through your health care practitioner.

If you are living with persistent low energy levels, be sure to follow-up with your health care practitioner.  Ongoing fatigue may be indicative of other health concerns.

The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.

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Matcha Green Tea Soft Serve (vegan)

Green Tea (Matcha) Soft Serve_blog

Our youngest stumbled upon his first four-leaf clover when he was barely six years old.

We were getting out of the car and walking across a stretch of indecipherable greens when he looked down and said, “Mommy, look, it’s a four-leaf clover.”

Just like that.

Now having spent countless hours looking for four-leaf clovers in my youth (and tearing the third leaf in two to create the fourth), I knew a little something about the likelihood of this nonchalant discovery.  I smiled in that motherly kind of way thinking how sweet, he thinks he found a four-leaf clover. But before I could complete my dismissive thought, he had plucked it from the ground to reveal its perfection.

He went on to find two other four-leaf clovers, as accidentally as the first, over the next couple of years.

Green Tea (Matcha) Soft Serve_blog_2

It’s estimated that there is a one in 10,000 chance of finding a four-leaf clover when actively searching (I never met one I didn’t make myself).

So whether our son’s accidental discoveries are attributable to the luck of the Irish, early pattern recognition or the spirit of his Irish Grandfather cheering him on, we’re not sure. But we’ll take a little Leprechaun dust wherever we can find it.

clover! blog

Have you ever found a four-leaf clover?

No matter, today we’re all Irish — and lucky too — because I’ve got a gorgeously green, creamy delicious soft serve that you can pull together (are you ready for this?) in less than 10 minutes!  No fancy equipment required. That’s right, just using chilled whole ingredients in your every day blender.

I have to say I’m a little in love with this refreshing delight and it may have played a small part in my desire to make it every day this past week to get it just right for you.  My sacrifices are truly boundless.

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to try the antioxidant-rich Japanese jewel matcha (green tea powder) with its unparalleled taste, this might be the one for you! It seems to hit all the right notes and dovetails nicely with the arrival of spring and the sun shining warm upon our faces. Our whole family welcomed this one.

Cheers to the Irish in all of us ~

5.0 from 2 reviews
Green Tea Soft Serve (Vegan)
 
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Author:
Serves: Serves 4
Ingredients
  • 2 frozen bananas (peel the ripe bananas before freezing them for ease of use)
  • 1 large ripe avocado, chilled in the fridge overnight
  • 1 + ⅓ cup full fat coconut milk, chilled in the fridge overnight
  • 2 tsp matcha green tea powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp pure maple syrup
Instructions
  1. Place frozen bananas, avocado, coconut milk, matcha powder, vanilla and maple syrup in a blender or food processor.
  2. Blend the ingredients until smooth, stopping the machine to scrape down the sides as necessary.
  3. Serve immediately in individual bowls or cups.
Notes
1. Enjoy Immediately this dairy free soft serve is best eaten immediately (think of it like a smoothie). Unlike processed ice cream that contains various binders and emulsifiers, this homemade version will become rock hard if left in the freezer. Keep in mind as well that over time, the avocado oxidizes (perfectly natural process) but this will darken the color of the cream.
2. Storing Bananas if you're anything like us, overripe bananas accumulate quickly in your kitchen. Before they reach that stage, peel the bananas and pop them into a airtight freezer bag and store in the freezer for later use -- loaves, smoothies, soft serves, etc. They preserve nicely.
3. Matcha tea is made from green tea leaves that have been finely milled into a silky, radiant green powder. When you drink matcha you are benefiting from the entire green tea leaf, not just the brewed water from the leaf. Matcha is considered amongst the highest quality green teas with one of most concentrated antioxidant contents. You can find matcha at any specialty tea shop and you can also order it online.
4. Avocado not only tastes delicious, it is also endowed with gorgeous, nutritive properties. An excellent source of heart healthy monounsaturated fat, avocado is also rich in lutein, a carotenoid that operates to help protect our eyes from disease. Other health supporters found in the avocado include: fibre, folate, vitamin K, vitamin E, and vitamin B5.

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Green Tea (Matcha) Soft Serve_blog_4

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Vibrant Chili-Rubbed Salmon Bowls

chili rubbed salmon bowls

March has finally arrived and I know that comes as a great relief to many.

Spring buds, longer sunlit days and warmer temperatures on the way to caress those weary winter bones (and not a moment too soon if I’m reading the collective temperament right).

The transition has been quite noticeable here in NorCal.  Spring vegetables strutting the best version of their naked selves in markets and on shelves — rainbow carrots, multicolored miniature bell peppers, radiant radish and beets of all description.

Our backyard is also in flux.  The prolific mandarin tree that kept us well fed (and hydrated) through the winter finally delivered its last fruit and now sits bare and quiet beside the flowering apricot tree.

flowering apricot tree_blog

I know how it works but it still manages to make me sad.

To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season…

Our lemon trees continue to produce but we’re having the toughest time motivating our little lime tree. It hasn’t made much progress since we planted it last fall and clearly missed the memo on margarita hour.

baby lime tree_blog

We’re hoping the spring session will give it the boost it needs. And today, a celebration of early spring with these vibrant chili-rubbed salmon bowls.

If you’re looking for a new way to enjoy salmon, or perhaps entice another family member to feel the love, this recipe is a must-try!

Soft succulent salmon morsels enrobed in a crispy delicious chili-oregano rub. Nourishing, packed with flavor and quite possibly one of the easiest and most time efficient recipe you’ll ever come across.

chili rubbed salmon bowls_cropped

When our boys were young, I would cut salmon up into bite-sized pieces — it seemed more manageable for them and I would mix the pieces in with a grain and some chopped veggies — a big happy mess.

Of course, you don’t have to chunk off the salmon the way I’ve done in these bowls.  You can enjoy this recipe in whole fillet form with veggies on the side and skip the starch element altogether if you prefer, or serve it up however you wish.

The heat in the seasoning can also be easily adjusted to suit your taste or the taste of those you’re cooking for. More information under the Notes section of the recipe card.

Enjoy and cheers to spring (whenever it comes!)

5.0 from 2 reviews
Vibrant Chili-Rubbed Salmon Bowls
 
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Serves: Serves 4
Ingredients
  • For the Chili-Rubbed Salmon
  • 4 medium-sized salmon fillets (4-6 ounces each) with one skinless side
  • 2 Tbsp quality chili powder of choice (see Notes)
  • 1 tsp oregano powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • pinch sea salt
  • Sprigs of fresh oregano for garnish

  • For the Vibrant Veggie-Quinoa
  • 1 cup of cooked quinoa (I prepare mine in the rice cooker and use 1 cup of vegetable stock + 1 cup water -- the stock adds flavor to the quinoa as it cooks)
  • 1 large or 4 miniature sweet bell peppers, diced
  • 1 head of broccoli cut into small florets
  • 1 bunch of colorful spring (!) carrots, sliced
Instructions
  1. Prepare quinoa according to package directions - generally 1:2 ratio quinoa to fluid (I use 1 cup quinoa and 1 cup vegetable stock to add flavor).
  2. Combine dry seasonings in a small bowl: chili, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder and sea salt.
  3. Add a little bit of moisture (a dab of water) to the skinless side of the salmon fillets before sprinkling with seasoning - pat the seasoning down on the surface with your fingers for adherence -- I sometimes rub the sides of the fillets with seasoning too. It's as simple as that!
  4. In a greased cast iron (or other) skillet set to medium heat, place the fillets, seasoning side down, on the skillet. Being careful not to burn the surface, allow the salmon fillets to cook for about four minutes before carefully turning them over. Depending on the thickness of the fillet, allow the fish to cook for another 4 minutes or so or until it until the fillets are nicely darkened on the outside and still tender and pink on the inside (you can test this at any time after you flip the fillet).
  5. Meanwhile add veggies to cooked quinoa, if using, mixing gently to combine.
  6. Using the tip of your spatula, chunk off pieces of the fillet right in the skillet if you like (it will be very easy to do and will fall away from the skin beneath effortlessly). If you prefer, you can also keep the fillets whole.
  7. Divide veggie-quinoa among four bowls and top with chunks of salmon. Adjust seasoning to taste and garnish with sprigs of fresh oregano, as desired.
Notes
The Veggies – this recipe is a great way to use up any veggies you happen to have in the fridge or the seasonal produce that surrounds you so don't feel limited by what I happened to use.
The Chili Factor – there are many different kinds of chile/chili you can consider for this recipe and it really just depends on the type of flavour impact you are looking for. Ground chile peppers such as cayenne and habanero are amongst the hottest varieties so you will want to use these chile powders carefully and sparingly (particularly initially) – I use small pinches (1/8 or ¼ tsp) of these powders on occasion in cooking. Ancho chile is beautifully complex and warm (but not as hot as cayenne/habanero). Paprika and chipotle (smoke-dried jalapeno) are other favorites. The more generic ‘chili powder’ that you find in the supermarket is really a mixture of milder chile peppers with the addition of herbs/spices such as onion/garlic powder and salt and may be more suitable for youngsters and those who don't tolerate or enjoy heat. Chili powder of this kind would be perfectly suitable for this recipe but you could also add a pinch of ancho or chipotle in addition to it just to give it a bit more robustness. It’s really just a matter of personal taste. I encourage you to visit my friend MJ over at MJ's Kitchen aka: The Chile Queen, for some detailed information on chile varieties ~ she's my go-to source.
Mighty Omega-3s – cold water fish such as salmon (mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout and black cod) offer the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids EPA & DHA which research reveals helps reduce inflammation and protect us against cardiac disease. Several neuronal and cognitive functions also depend on these fats to keep the lining of the brain cells flexible and communication fluid.

chili rubbed salmon fillet_blog_1chili rubbed salmon bowls_cropped

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Chickpea Tikka Masala (Vegan, GF)

chickpea tikka masala_blog_2

I’m finding my groove after some time away in the quiet mountains of the Lake Tahoe region.

It’s a strange thing harvesting lemons from your backyard one moment, and then finding yourself at a 9000 foot elevation surrounded by snow the next.  Strange as in unfamiliar, but certainly not unwelcome.

Boundless, beautiful California — ocean, deserts, mountains, forests, lakes — you choose. Don’t mind if I do.

chickpea tikka masala_raisins

So while I daydream about our starlit nights, ski-filled days and roasted Brussels sprouts with gorgonza fondue (yup, it happened), I have a delicious and warming meatless riff on the well-loved Chicken Tikka Masala for you today — and it all happens in one pot.

I am particularly drawn to the juxtaposition of heat from the spices and the cooling nature of the cream/yogurt in tikka masala — one of the principal features that distinguishes this dish from the lovely Chana Masala.

Now clearly my chickpeas were not cooked in a tandoor and being that it is vegan recipe, the dairy element is also represented differently here with a creamy coconut milk.  I also decided to ranch things up a bit by adding apple, raisin and almond which in my view work swimmingly in this adaptation (and you thought the British version was a departure – wink to my Indian friends).

chickpea tikka masala_ingredients

I’ve selected some beautiful Indian spices with their characteristic thermogenic properties and balanced the heat off against the cooling properties of the coconut milk. The resulting sauce is luscious and full of flavor — the meal satisfying and simple enough to pull together any day of the week. I often serve it over coleslaw but on occasion rice or as pictured here, quinoa. Our whole family loves it.

As always, be sure to read the Notes in the recipe card below for best results.

5.0 from 2 reviews
Chickpea Tikka Masala (Vegan, GF)
 
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Author:
Serves: Serves 4-6
Ingredients
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed and finely chopped
  • 5 cups cooked chickpeas, thoroughly rinsed if using canned
  • ½ heaping cup plump golden raisins
  • 1 large happy apple, skin-on and diced (I used red delicious)
  • ½ cup unsalted almonds (whole or slivered as desired)
  • 8 large button mushrooms, sliced thin
  • 14 fl oz/ 400 mL unsweetened full fat coconut milk
  • 6 oz/170 g tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp ground garam masala
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ - ½ tsp (or to taste) cayenne pepper
  • 1 large nub of ginger, grated (about 1 heaping tablespoon or to taste)
  • 2 tsp coarse sugar (brown sugar is fine)
Instructions
  1. In a large skillet set to medium-low heat, sauté onion, garlic and mushroom for a few minutes until the onion is translucent and the garlic fragrant.
  2. While the mixture is cooking, sprinkle the onion/garlic/mushroom with the following seasonings: garam masala; cumin; coriander; turmeric, cinnamon and cayenne pepper, tossing to coat.
  3. Add coconut milk and tomato paste to skillet and gently mix all ingredients together to integrate - making sure that the tomato paste is fully broken down and its color released in the spicy sauce.
  4. Add ginger and coarse sugar to the skillet, mixing to combine.
  5. Add chickpeas, raisin, apple and almond to the skillet, mixing to combine with the sauce.
  6. Taste the mixture and make any seasoning adjustments desired.
  7. Once mixture has heated through serve in individual bowls or plates with accompanying greens, coleslaw or grain of choice, as desired.
Notes
Why Chopsticks? although many Asian countries do not conventionally use chopsticks, I tend to use them frequently with many types of food as a way of slowing down the eating process and improving digestion. It's a wonderful technique.
Garlic: flattening garlic (smashing/crushing) is a surefire way of releasing the allium’s beneficial oils. To smash, simply use the flat side of a large knife and carefully press down on the garlic over a cutting board until it breaks/flattens somewhat. Sprinkle with sea salt (the salt absorbs beautifully into the garlic at this stage) and then chop finely.
Season to Taste: as with all recipes, seasoning is all about personal taste. If you know that heat doesn't work for you for example, ease-off on the cayenne or omit it all together. The same thing goes with ginger and garlic (or others) - experiment according to preference.
Don't soak mushrooms: mushrooms naturally contain a lot of water that gets released in the cooking process. If you soak your mushrooms in water to wash them, you will end up with a runny mess. To avoid this, use a damp cloth or brush to clean the mushrooms instead.
BPA: canned beans are always an option but try to seek out those with a Bisphenol A (BPA) free lining. BPA is a known toxin that continues to be used in the lining of many food and beverage cans. Studies have shown that this industrial plastic is absorbed by canned foods and when ingested can give rise to significant spikes in urinary levels of BPA.
Even better the next day: while this tikka masala is ready to eat from the get-go, I do find that the flavors develop even more over time. The almond remains crunchy (even on day 2 and 3), the apple mellows just enough to attenuate the high notes while still lending some sweetness and flavor and the raisins plump up and soften. In short, this dish makes awesome leftovers!

chickpea tikka masala_blog

Now, since you’re no doubt wondering about the lovely wood background you see in my photos today, here’s a closer look:

wood board_inspired edibles

It’s a cutting board! (which I have no intention of cutting on) — a beautiful gift from my boys. In addition to its ornamental use and entertainment value — I could stare at it all day — I might also use it as a food platter one day.

(The retro grocery list pad? — isn’t it the best, from one of my awesome sisters).

Bon Appétit mes chères amies/amis!

chickpea tikka masala_blog_3

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How lack of sleep may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts and what you can do about it

I’ve always been mystified by the characterization of weight management as a simple matter of ‘calories in vs. calories out’ – a reductionist approach that leaves plenty unsaid.

Our weight may be influenced by a myriad of factors including metabolism, hormones, medication, sleep patterns and stress.  And while none of these factors absolve us of personal responsibility for our health, they may mean that the picture is more complicated than we are often led to believe.

lack of sleep and weight gain

◊ Sleep Function

On a practical level, we all understand the importance of sleep and how it can facilitate or undermine our mental acuity, work productivity and the quality of our interactions with peers and loved ones.

Sleep is critical for restoration (growth, repair and rejuvenation), learning, memory consolidation, mental wellness, hormone function and immune defense.

There is also a mounting body of evidence to suggest that sleep deprivation increases our risk of obesity by altering brain function and disrupting the delicate balance of hormones that regulate our appetite, stress levels and glucose metabolism (more below).

◊ How much Sleep

The number of hours of sleep needed to maintain ideal balance will vary depending on our age, lifestyle, health and biochemical individuality.  For adults, somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep is generally regarded as ideal.

◊ Sleep Deprivation & Weight Gain

Lack of sleep often leaves us feeling physically and mentally weaker and less motivated.  In addition to making it more likely for us to skip our exercise regimens (or be unable to workout as productively as we might otherwise), studies also indicate that sleep deprivation makes us more inclined to eat greater quantities of higher-calorie, lower nutrient foods. This may be to make up for the energy deficit or, as another study suggests, because something fundamentally changes in our sleep deprived brain that makes us vulnerable to these dietary choices.

Sleep deprivation also appears to trigger powerful hormonal changes in our bodies:

  • Numerous studies show that lack of sleep is associated with elevated ghrelin levels (a hunger stimulating hormone) and lower leptin levels (an appetite-suppressing hormone). The result is that we end up with more chemical messengers signaling us to keep eating than those alerting us to stop.
  • Lack of sleep also gives rise to higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) that, when in balance, operates to regulate important body functions. However, elevated and prolonged cortisol has been associated with a number of negative health effects including: impaired blood sugar control, high blood pressure, lowered immunity and abdominal obesity.
  • A compelling study also showed that just one night of total sleep deprivation was enough to significantly reduce resting metabolic rate (our body’s ability to burn calories at rest) in adult men in comparison to those obtaining 8 hours of sleep. Resting metabolic rate is the energy required to perform our vital body functions (breathing and heart beating for example) while at rest. Since up to 75% of the calories we consume during the day are used by our bodies for this purpose, this is not an insignificant finding.

◊ Dietary & Lifestyle Strategies for Improving Sleep Quality

If it were as easy as lying in bed for seven hours to achieve blissful, restorative sleep, we would all be doing it. According to recent statistics, close to 40% of North Americans report sleeping less than seven hours a night with many experiencing recurrent sleep trouble.

With this in mind, some dietary and lifestyle tips to help promote a good night’s rest:

  • Room Climate – a comfortable mattress/bedding and a cool and dark room are essential to a good night’s rest. If you have furry friends who are sleeping with you, no matter how much you may love them, now is a good time to think about recreating the sleeping boundaries and moving your pets into a different room during the sleeping hours. If you find that you are waking from your partner’s movements, consider split mattresses in a singular frame which can reduce motion transfer or, depending on the circumstances, separate beds close by.
  • Avoid Stimulants — If you are not already doing so, consider limiting caffeine to the morning (or phasing it out 6-8 hours before you plan on sleeping). Caffeine is a stimulant that mimics the effects of adrenaline in the body and increases blood pressure.  Caffeine can also interfere with the brain’s production of a sleep-inducing chemical called adenosine.  Studies show that caffeine not only makes it difficult to fall asleep, it can also shorten the duration of sleep. Keep in mind as well that stimulation comes in many forms.  Turning off your computer, phone and television monitors several hours before bed can be an excellent way of decompressing the nervous system and preparing for rest.  You can ask anyone in my family how ruthlessly I apply this practice in my own life — I have found it to be enormously helpful.
  • Alcohol — There is a common misconception that alcohol assists in getting a good night’s rest.  While it’s true that alcohol may help us fall asleep faster (it is a depressant that slows motor and brain function), it’s also true that it disrupts the second half of the sleep cycle and interferes with critical REM sleep.
  • Evening Meals — Large meals at the end of the day put a heavy burden on our digestive system at a time when our bodies should be focusing on rest and repair. While there will always be exceptions, try to keep your evening meals reasonable portioned and as clean (close to nature) as possible. If you know that certain foods cause you digestive upset (even though you may enjoy them) such as spicy foods for example, consider moving them over to your lunchtime meal instead of the evening.
  • Tart Cherries and Almighty Melatonin — You may have heard of the importance of sleeping in a dark room.  This is because the production of the powerful sleep-regulating hormone melatonin is stimulated by darkness and inhibited by light. What you may not know however, is that tart cherries are a bioactive dietary source of melatonin. A compelling study recently published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed that consuming tart cherry juice twice a day gave rise to significantly higher levels of melatonin in participants who experienced substantive increases in sleep time and sleep efficiency over the control group. Benefits in sleep duration and sleep quality were observed in both men and women.
  • Consider a Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock — Have you ever noticed how much better you feel when you are allowed to wake up naturally (based on your own sleep cycle) vs. being woken up by a set time alarm clock or someone/something else? Sleep cycle alarm clocks claim to monitor the phases of your sleep by monitoring your movement and targeting the best time to wake you accordingly (you set the time range). And while there is no hard science behind their effectiveness, Apple’s sleep cycle alarm clock, for example, remains one of the company’s most popular apps and continues to receive top user reviews. If it works for you, it works for you.
  • Taming the Monkey Mind – One of the toughest opponents we will encounter to a good night’s rest is our overactive brain.  Calming our bodies in preparation for the more difficult work of calming our minds can be a highly effective tool in achieving a good night’s rest.  The formula will be different for each of us, but here are some ideas to experiment with.  Many of these techniques can be useful not only for falling asleep initially but also for falling back to sleep when we wake in the night:

♦ Daytime exercise (it is generally best to reserve higher intensity/aerobic exercise for earlier in the day) ♦ A relaxing evening walk in the fresh air ♦ Progressive Muscle Relaxation ♦ Breathing Exercises ♦ Meditation ♦ Yoga ♦ Journaling ♦ Visualization ♦ Music (a wonderful free source: calm.com) ♦ Soothing Herbal Teas (such as valerian root and chamomile) ♦ Essential oils (lavender and jasmine are notably helpful in connection with sleep though my personal favorite in the winter is frankincense — dab a little on your wrist and/or pillow case or add a few drops to your evening bath water or bedroom humidifier) ♦ Integrative Therapies (such as cognitive therapy and acupuncture).

  • Investigate other underlying Causes — If you are living with chronic and persistent sleep disruption, be sure to follow-up with your trusted health care practitioner to investigate further.  Obstructive sleep apnea for example, is one of the most common medical conditions that leaves people feeling tired.

The information in this post is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician or other health care professional directly before beginning or changing a course of health treatment.

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