Athlete's Ice Cream

Recently I was digging through my assignments from when I was in school for my nutrition consultant cert.  I came across this recipe that I created during the sports nutrition module, and I decided that it had to be my next blog post. (I don't know how I ever forgot about it in the first place-ice cream, chocolate, highly nutritious?!)

This ice cream recipe is delicious, easy to make, and just in time for summer. Let's take a look at why it's beneficial to athletes (straight from the text of my school report!). Even if you're not an athlete, you can still enjoy the nutrition that this yummy recipe has to offer.  

Potassium

Maintaining proper sodium to potassium ratio is key for cell health as well as maintaining fluid and PH balance within the body. A healthy ratio of potassium to sodium intake is about 5:1, but most Americans are consuming an excess of sodium and not near enough potassium, creating a ratio of something like 1:20! Getting some extra potassium in the diet will help improve heart health, reduce fatigue, relieve muscle aches/soreness, reduce water retention/bloating, and is especially beneficial for those who exercise and sweat often. Bananas seem to be the obvious source of K, but did you know that 1 avocado has almost 4 x the amount of a banana?  

Magnesium

This recipe is also a great source of Magnesium. Magnesium is vital to heart function, energy production, metabolism, and muscle contraction. Mg aids in healthy muscle function, prevents cramping, and can ease symptoms of PMS. Mg is a natural relaxer as well. It can improve sleep quality, and all the athletes I know could use a few more zzz’s! 

Antioxidants and Flavanoids

What would ice cream be without chocolate?! Cacoa is probably best known for its antioxidant and flavonoid content, both of which have ant-aging and cancer fighting properties. As healthy as exercise is, it produces a lot of free radicals in the body. This means we need more antioxidants to clean that stuff up so it doesn't do damage to our tissues. Also, a single ounce of cocoa powder contains 4% DV calcium, 35% magnesium, 54% manganese, 5 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fiber.

Anti-Inflammatory 

Keeping inflammation under control is key for sports recovery. Chronic inflammation can lead to muscle degeneration, increased viral infections, gut problems, and even arthritis or tendinitis. Zucchini is a surprising anti-inflammatory food because of the omega 3 content in the seeds and the caretnoids like lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene found in the skin. 

Other Benefits

This ice cream is packed with fiber which helps create satiety and improves gut motility. The healthy fats and fiber help balance blood sugar, keeping energy and moods stable while also preventing excess fat storage on the belly.  If you choose to boost your ice cream even more with protein and collagen (see recipe below) you gain the added benefit of joint health, muscle building and repair, and healthy hair, skin, and nails. 

Athlete's Ice Cream

Serves: 2

Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium sized ripe bananas
  • 1/2 avocado
  • 1/2 cup chopped zucchini, peel and seeds included
  • 1 heaping Tbsp cacao or cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • Honey, agave, or maple syrup to taste (optional, the banana will give it some sweetness already)
  • Pinch of sea salt (also optional, but very tasty!)

Remove the bananas and avocado from their peels and cut into pieces. Put both in freezer overnight or until frozen. Once they are completely frozen, put them in a blender or food processor with the other ingredients and blend until you have a nice smooth consistency, about 30-60 seconds. Some food processors tend to heat up quickly, and if this is the case with yours, give it time to cool off briefly in between 10-15 second pulses. This recipe is best eaten right away, as it doesn't hold the same consistency after being stored in the freezer. 

Addition ingredients/toppings:  I like to add a half scoop of whey protein and a serving of vanilla flavored collagen in mine. When adding protein and collagen, you may need to throw in a splash of water or other liquid to help absorb the extra powder. Other great additions include toppings such as nuts, seeds, dried or fresh fruit, or dark chocolate chips. 

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Nutrition Basics Part II: The Three Most Valuable Nutrition Habits

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Nutrition can be a confusing and complex topic that leaves most of us with heads spinning. There’s so much information out there and it’s often contradicting. Foods that are cancer-causing this week will be a "superfood" next. Last week in Part I of Nutrition Basics, I explained WHY nutrition can seem so complicated, but now where do we go from there?

So much of optimal nutrition is dependent upon the individual, but I've broken it down into three principles that are applicable to everyone. Also, implementing these practices are the groundwork for achieving any goal reached through nutrition.  We can’t begin to use nutrition to improve performance, lose weight, or manage health problems until these building blocks are in place. In fact, many common issues are often relieved or at least minimized by making these simple shifts.

Whenever I find myself getting swept up by the enormity of nutrition, I ALWAYS fall back on these three principles:

1. Eat Real Food

Unfortunately we exist during a time when food is often altered far from its natural state, and the consequences on both our health and our environment aren’t pretty. Our bodies are designed to digest and utilize foods in their most natural form. Most foods found in our grocery stores today are no longer in that natural form and contain harmful additives.  When we ask our bodies to process substances it doesn’t have the machinery for, we put unnecessary stress on our digestion, immune system, metabolism, and detox processes. This contributes to some of the most common health problems Americans experience such as gut issues, fatigue, sleep disturbances, weight gain, mood disorders, skin problems, and more.  

What to do?

  • :Add nutrient dense, minimally processed foods into your diet as much as possible. Examples include fresh fruits and veggies (especially dark leafy greens), organic meats and dairy, beans and legumes, unrefined starches such as brown rice, quinoa, and potatoes, and healthy fats such as avocados, coconut, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Oh, and tons of water!
  • Minimize nutrient sparse and processed foods such as fast food, convenience and snack foods (cookies, chips, and candy), sodas, and refined starches (white sugar and white bread). Many pre-packaged foods contain added preservatives and artificial flavors and colors, so buying foods in their most natural form is an easy way to avoid those. 

2. Balance Blood Sugar

The human body is very particular about how much glucose it wants circulating in the blood at any given time. The body regulates blood sugar with two hormones: insulin and glucagon. If blood sugar increases, insulin shuttles glucose from the blood to cells to either be burned for fuel or stored as fat. Glucagon helps raise blood sugar levels in the case that it drops too low.  Dygleciemia is a state of chronically dysregulated blood sugar, and can include both low and high blood sugar. This is often the result of inadequate physical activity, irregular eating patterns, skipping meals, big or high carb meals, and chronic stress. The consequences are mood swings, fatigue, weight gain (especially around the abdomen), hormonal imbalances, and in some cases diabetes.

What to do?

  • Eat regularly: Aim for three meals a day with 1-2 high protein snacks in between. Include protein,  healthy fats, and veggies at every meal to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Try not to skip meals, and eat before you feel too hungry (hangry!). 

  • Complex Carbs:  Refined starches and sugars (candy, cookies, pastries, white flour) raise blood sugar like nobody’s business. Choose complex carbs such as brown rice, potatoes, squash, quinoa, fruit, and sprouted grain bread. 

3. Manage Stress

Stress and mindset have everything to do with nutrition. Our bodies are actually well equipped to handle stress whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, or dietary, but the modern world exposes us to an overload of stimuli, information, and demands. When the total load of stressors outweighs the parasympathetic nervous system’s ability to bring us back to balance, all of the body’s major functions take a hit. Stress and high cortisol levels inhibit absorption of nutrients, slow metabolism, disrupt digestion, and cause the body to hold on to extra fat. That just means we have to be all the more tenacious about rest, recovery, and stress reduction. 

What to do?

  • Eliminate stressors where you can. Learn to say no to unnecessary demands and make self-care a priority. This includes getting plenty of sleep every night, eating well, and exercising. Also remember, STRESS ABOUT FOOD is still stress.  If you are micromanaging your diet and constantly fretting over what to eat and when and how much….well then we’ve missed the point, haven’t we?
  • Find your calm. Engage in practices that down-regulate the nervous system, such as meditation, taking a bath, journaling, deep breathing, prayer, or progressive relaxation techniques. 
  • Have fun. Fun is actually good for your health, so don't forget to engage in activities that you enjoy and spend time with people who support and energize you. 

Making Lasting Changes

As you make lifestyle changes, remember to always keep it simple.  Diet and exercise should be healing and energizing, not overwhelming, stressful, and guilt-forming. Decide on one or two changes you can make and work with those until they become second nature.  When those shifts become habit, incorporate the next ones. Slow and steady is the best way to make lasting changes.

This can be tough advice to swallow (no pun intended) because we are impatient people. The diet industry is thriving off of quick fixes, fad diets, and products that suggest quick results. I can promise you that these companies don’t have your best interest at heart. A healthy lifestyle is a life-long endeavor that takes some effort and intention. The reward though, is much greater and well worth the work. 

Nutrition Basics Part 1: Why Nutrition is so Complicated

I see it all the time. It's that glazed over, deer in headlights look that people get when they are feeling overwhelmed by ALL the nutrition and diet information they've ever read and heard. What should I eat? And when? Am I eating too much or too little? Should I eat gluten or dairy or meat? This website says I should, but that book says I shouldn't... 

Nutrition is complicated. Even I, despite studying this science for years, still find myself baffled by the complexity of the human body and the role that food plays in it. It's very easy to become frustrated and overwhelmed by the colossal amount of (often contradicting) nutrition information out there.  Here's a few main reasons why nutrition is really effing confusing:

  1. We don't actually know very much. Our ancestors have been using food as medicine for thousands of years, but nutrition as a studied science is very new. Some very basic discoveries, such as the chemical makeup of carbs, fats, and proteins, were made in the 1700 and 1800's, but it wasn't until the 1930' and 40's that vitamins, amino acids, and various other compounds were identified. In 1968, scientists finally determined that eating the right amount of these nutrients can impact health and prolong life (seems obvious now, but it was a big discovery at the time)- which is where modern nutrition science as it relates to health and weight loss really begins. So, we don't even have a full 50 years of nutrition science under our belts. 
  2. The research we do have is limited and often flawed. One reason for this is the newness of it that I mentioned above. It's difficult to determine the long-term effects of specific diets or compounds if they haven't been around very long. (There's not too many 80 year olds out there who have been eating Splenda and GMO's their whole lives...) Also, non-biased funding for nutrition research is hard to get. In comparison to things like cancer research, nutrition isn't really seen as a priority. So what happens is major food corporations provide funding for these studies, but you can imagine the conflict of interest when, say, the sugar industry funds research on the health impact of sugar. Scientists get paid off, and the results are fudged and manipulated so that the outcome almost always (some studies say 90% of the time) favors their sponsor. 
  3. No two bodies are the same. Nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all, and in fact, it's the exact opposite. Everyone is so drastically different in what foods their bodies tolerate well, how much of each macro and micro-nutrient they need, and what allows them to reach their goals and feel their best.  Oftentimes, Joe Shmoe will find a diet that allows him to lose weight and feel amazing, so Joe goes out and preaches his diet as though it's THE way to nutrition salvation- and there are a lot of those Joes out there. What they may not realize is that even though that method worked amazingly well for them it, it could actually be detrimental to someone else. (Consumers, beware of health gurus that claim to have THE answer.)

Hopefully this information helps explain why nutrition can be so confusing, but there still lies the question of how. How do we navigate this maze of information to figure out what to eat to optimize health and weight management? Next week I'll be posting Part II of this article which will answer that question on a foundational level. In Part II I will give you three of the most important nutrition practices that can benefit anyone. So if you're looking for a good nutritional starting point, or just need a couple surefire things to fall back on when you get overwhelmed, you can always focus again on these three basics. 

Catch ya then!

Digestion 101: Simple Steps for a Healthy Gut

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Nobody likes a cranky gut. Gas, bloating, constipation, and loose stools are all very inconvenient symptoms of digestive problems. When the gut is unhappy, you're probably not utilizing the nutrients in your food as optimally as possible. BEFORE you attempt a full-blown elimination diet or spend big money on allergy testing, try some of these simple steps first. Oftentimes, it's the little things that make a big difference in your gut.

  1. Chew your food slowly and thoroughly. This is probably the most important practice, yet very few people do this regularly. Chewing your food stimulates digestive enzymes in the mouth, which means smoother digestion through the stomach and intestines.
  2.  Sip a homemade electrolyte beverage during your meals, using 6 oz warm water (not hot), juice of 1/2 a lemon OR 1 tsp apple cider vinegar, and a sprinkle of sea salt. This will help facilitate the breakdown of foods while you eat.
  3. Go crazy with gut friendly herbs and spices such as sea salt, ginger, rosemary, thyme, oregano, turmeric, and cinnamon.  
  4. Lightly steam or cook veggies. Raw veggies are harder for your system to break down, so until your GI tract is in tip top shape, consider cooking them lightly to start the breakdown process, in turn making more nutrients available to your body. Blending veggies into a smoothie has a similar effect. 
  5. Eat fermented foods daily. Examples include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi. These foods contain healthy bacteria and enzymes that a healthy gut thrives on. 
  6. Calm down! Managing stress is another vital, yet often overlooked, aspect of optimal digestion. When you're stressed, your "fight or flight" system is activated. Part of that system is a stunting of digestion that allows more blood into the parts of your body that are needed to handle the stress- usually your muscles and brain. Try taking 10 deep, slow breaths before diving into your next meal. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of gut-friendly practices, but it's a great place to start. As I said earlier, most people feel a world of difference doing just a couple of these simple things. If these things do not relieve GI discomfort, you may need further analysis and supplementation. Consult a health practitioner or doctor, and consider getting tested for food sensitivities and/or candida.  

Tuna Curry Salad

Any Office fans out there? Eating tuna makes me think of how Andy always calls Jim "Big Tuna", which makes me think of John Krasinski, which makes me happy. So when I do the math, tuna = happiness. I've been making this super simple Curry Tuna Salad for lunch this week and wanted to share it in hopes that it brings you the same happiness, even if only for its delicious flavor and nourishment. 

(Maybe I should have named this the "Big Tuna" Curry Salad??)

Tuna Curry Salad

Serves: 1

Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 1 can tuna
  • 1/4 red bell pepper, chopped
  • About 2 Tbsp chopped red onion
  • 2 Tbsp Greek yogurt
  • Curry spice (I use about 1 tsp, but you can adjust to your liking)
  • About 1/4 - 1/3 cup Garbanzo beans
  • 2 Tbsp cashews
  • Mixed greens

Mix all ingredients together except greens, adding more yogurt and spices to achieve the desired creaminess and flavor. Serve over a bed of greens. 

What's on My Menu this Week?

This article is a little out of the ordinary for me, as I don't usually post what I eat regularly. Over the weekend, as I was making my grocery list and planning my meals for the week, I realized that I've found myself in quite the food rut; egg sandwich for breakfast, salad with chicken or tuna for lunch, and some kind curry or stir-fry for dinner. So I did some recipe research and found a couple new ones to try out, and man did I hit the jackpot! I've been enjoying some really delicious meals this week, so much so that I want to share what I've been chowing down on. (I did not, however, change my egg sandwich breakfast because that is my favorite meal ever and I can't live without it!)

Meal #1: "Eggy Breakfast"

This is actually NOT new, as I mentioned above. I eat this almost daily, and it's one of my favorite meals, ever. In my house we call this "eggy breakfast", and it goes like this: sprouted grain toast on the bottom, then a layer of avocado, a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, spinach or other greens, a fried egg, and a drizzle of sriracha on top. I usually have this for breakfast, but I'll eat it for lunch or dinner sometimes too. 

I spy bacon in the background...

I spy bacon in the background...

Meal #2: Spicy Shrimp Tacos with Garlic Cilantro Lime Slaw

I'm salivating as I write about this recipe that I found on "Pinch of Yum's" website. Naturally, I made a few modifications: I used plain yogurt in place of the sour cream, added avocado and crushed red pepper to the lime sauce, and used purple cabbage instead of green (it was on sale).  Seriously, you need to try this!

Meal #3: Baked Sriracha and Soy Sauce Tofu Salad

I'm willing to admit that I love tofu, but I'm often at a loss for ideas on how to prepare it. So, I tried out this baked tofu recipe by "I Love Vegan" and fell in love. The only I change I made was to use sesame oil instead of olive oil. I added these into a salad that included quinoa, greens, cilantro (left over from the shrimp tacos), carrots, bell peppers, onions, and cashews .I drizzled some additional sesame oil and sriracha over the top and WOW. So so good. 

Though I'm without a photo of this, I've also been enjoying some delicious "yogurt parfaits" for breakfast or as a snack. These usually include Greek yogurt, maca powder, chia seeds, blueberries, walnuts, coconut flakes, cinnamon, and a drizzle of honey. It's pretty much pudding...

If you try any of these, please let me know how you like them, and if you have favorite go-to recipes of your own, leave them in the comments below!

Rhodiola; Nature's Steroids

Last week I posted an Instagram story of myself taking a shot of Rhodiola tincture and then grimacing at the potent flavor. The caption read, "give me that energy!" Surprisingly, I received a lot of messages in response to the post. Some people were agreeing that yes, rhodiola extract tastes like ass. Mostly though, people were curious about what it was and why I was taking it. This prompted me to share some info on one of my favorite herbs. 

Rhodiola Rosea is a flowering plant that typically grows in cold climates. It's considered an adaptogen, meaning it contains chemical compounds that help the body adapt to stress. Other common adaptogens include ashwagandha, ginseng, cordyceps (a type of mushroom), holy basil, and licorice root. 

The Siberian Secret

Here's some interesting history for you:  Rhodiola has been used for centuries by the natives of places like Russia, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Iceland, but it wasn't until the 1940's that researchers starting getting their hands on the stuff. During that time, the Russian government caught word from the Siberian natives of this powerful flower that could increase energy and stamina. The Soviets began running secret experiments (scientists working on this research were banned from sharing any information outside the country) on various adaptogens. They were searching for substances that would increase the athletic performance of their Olympians as well as help their military adapt to the stress of sleep depravity, frostbite, and exhaustion.

Several different adaptogens were used in these experiments, but ultimately it was rhodiola that produced the most impressive results. They found that it helped soldiers maintain energy and focus even when sleep-deprived, and it increased the endurance of their Olympic athletes. They even found that their astronauts were in better spirits after long periods of isolation!

Unfortunately, the Russians lost interest in rhodiola pretty quickly once they starting using synthetic steroids...

The Benefits of Rhodiola

Obviously, the effects of rhodiola are not going to be as striking as steroids, but it's still pretty impressive and a whole lot kinder to your body.  Think about it- if this plant contains chemical compounds that allow it to adapt and survive in cold, harsh climates, it stands to reason that we could also benefit from its constituents. 

While scientific evidence on rhodiola is still limited, there has been strong evidence that Rhodiola does the following to some degree: 

  • Increases energy and reduces fatigue, especially in cases of chronic fatigue and burnout
  • Boosts athletic performance (specifically for endurance athletes) and speeds recovery 
  • Improves cognition and focus
  • Reduces symptoms of depression
  • Help reduce the effects of all stressors- physical, chemical, mental, and emotional

How to Take

Take 50-200 mg rhodiola daily (preferably between meals) for fatigue reduction or before a workout. You can easily find rhodiola in most health food stores in either tincture or capsule form. Many holistic stress-reducing supplements contain this herb in combination with other adaptogens, which can be great for anyone struggling with chronic fatigue. Personally, I like these products:

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Resources:

Johnson, Kristina. "Before Steroids, Russians Secretly Studied Herbs." National Geographic. National Geographic, 12 Jan. 2017. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <http://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/08/long-before-doping-scandals--russians-were-studying-performance-/>.

"Rhodiola Rosea - Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects." Scientific Review on Usage, Dosage, Side Effects | Examine.com. Examine.com, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2017. <https://examine.com/supplements/Rhodiola+Rosea/>.

"Rhodiola Rosea." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhodiola_rosea>.

"RHODIOLA: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings - WebMD." WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2017. <http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-883-rhodiola.aspx?activeingredientid=883>.

Train Your Brain in 2017

We put a lot of time and effort into training our bodies, whether it's preparing for a 10k, learning a handstand, trying to lose weight, or slowly carving out that 6-pack (it's in there somewhere!) But we often forget that our minds need just as much training to stay sharp and healthy. Do you have routines in place that improve your mental health? Maintain a calm and focused state of mind? Cultivate a positive outlook on life? These things (like big biceps) don't just happen. You have to give it some effort. 

Let's face it. 

We live in a society today that celebrates a certain level of workaholism, regardless of the toll it takes on our mental health. We are overworked, under-rested, and drowning in toxic information. Our collective mental health as a nation is dwindling, and our stress-related health problems are rising. Even if you're not on the verge of a total nervous breakdown, my guess is that you could benefit from a little brain-care. Here are a few practices that you can adopt this year to help you manage stress, reduce anxiety, improve mental clarity and focus, and increase your overall sense of happiness and well-being.

  1.  Meditation: Recent studies are proving that the positive effects of meditation on health, happiness, and self-confidence are numerous. Even if the practice seems daunting, you can still reap the benefits of meditation with 5 minutes of deep breathing, visualization, or mindfulness practice a day. Try using a meditation app to help keep you focused, such as Headspace, Calm, Mindshift (designed specifically for anxiety), or Take a Break
  2. Gratitude: Gratitude is powerful. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis, specifically in written form, has been shown to improve mental health and even increase feelings of well being in those with chronic pain. Try keeping a daily gratitude journal, and notice how your mentality shifts. I recommend the "5 Minute Journal" app, which serves as a daily journal for gratitude, intentions, and affirmations.  
  3. Journaling:  Life can move so fast that we're often left with no time to process our thoughts and feelings. This accumulation of bottled up emotions can manifest itself in depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, or even physical pain. Writing can give you a safe outlet to express and process your thoughts, feelings, fears, frustrations, desires, or anything else going on with you. It's also an excellent way to work out solutions to problems you may be facing in your life. So put the pen to paper and just let if flow- there's no judgement from your journal!
  4. Simplify your life: If there's clutter in your home or work-space, there's clutter in your brain. Take the time to keep things tidy, and don't be afraid to throw shit away! Also consider other ways in which to remove mental clutter, such as reducing time spent on social media and watching TV (gasp!). Seriously, give your mind regular breaks from the constant flow of (often unimportant and toxic) information. Your frazzled brain will thank you for it, and you'll probably notice that you didn't miss much anyway!
  5. Let go of perfectionism: If you struggle with any type of anxiety, chances are you have some perfectionistic tendencies. Striving to do your very best is an great quality, but sometimes perfectionism can cause quite a bit of anxiety, guilt, obsessive thoughts/behaviors, and procrastination. Even as you pursue excellence, give yourself permission to make mistakes and not have all the answers. Also, consider changing your inner dialogue from "should", "have to", "need to", to "can", "want to", and "choose to". 

Regardless of what your 2017 goals are, all of the above practices can help you achieve them. Who wouldn't benefit from a calm and focused brain that is happy and healthy?!

 

 

 

Snack Bar Showdown

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I encourage all my clients to eat snacks in between meals to prevent their blood sugar from dropping too low. Low blood sugar causes anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, mood swings, and is usually the culprit of those annoying sugar cravings. An occasional bout of low blood sugar is nothing to worry about, but chronic dysglycemia contributes to weight gain, fatigue (adrenal fatigue) and perpetuated cycles of food cravings and mood swings. 

It's much more complex than that, but the point is: snacks are important. Now, before you take this as an excuse to eat ALL the potato chips and candy, remember that I'm talking about high-protein, healthy snacks. Some examples are nuts, seeds, cottage cheese, hummus with veggies, a small protein shake, yogurt, etc. 

These types of whole-foods snacks are ideal, but sometimes (and I'm guilty of this too), grabbing a protein bar is just way more convenient. There are so many different snack bars out there, and it can be hard to know how to make the best decision. The good news is, I've broken it all down for you into a simple guide, as well as picked apart some popular brands for you. 

What to look for

Here are 3 things to look for when choosing a snack bar, and notice that none of these involve counting calories.

  1. Ingredients: This is key. There are plenty of seemingly healthy snack bars out there, but the ingredient list never lies. Look out for bars with added sugar (cane syrup/sugar/juice, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, and of course sugar. ) Also beware of excessive additives, preservatives, and hydrogenated oils. Even "natural flavors" are a little red flag (MSG, aspartame, and bugs fall into this category!) If you don't know what it is or can't pronounce it, it's probably best just to steer clear. Look for ingredients that are whole-foods and things you recognize like dates, nuts, fruits, seeds, etc. 

  2. Protein to sugar ratio: The goal is to find a high protein, low sugar snack. A good rule of thumb is to aim for no less than 10 grams of protein and no more than 10 grams of sugar. Or, try to get your protein-sugar ratio to be either equal, or better yet, higher in protein per gram than in sugar. 
  3. Organic: Thankfully there are more and more food companies that are catering to the increasing demand for organic foods. If you can find a snack bar that meets the above requirements and contains organic ingredients, then you've hit the jackpot. Organic foods have been shown to contain higher amounts of nutrients than their conventional counterparts. They also limit your exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticides.

Bonus:  Many snack bars these days include a powdered greens blend that usually contains green veggies, spirulina, chlorella, and other alkalizing greens. I wouldn't say that this is a necessary requirement for a healthy snack bar, but it's definitely an added bonus. Why not go for that boost of vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrients?! 

Let's look at some popular snack bars

Now that you have some guidelines for choosing healthy and blood sugar balancing bars, let's see how some of the popular ones measure up.

CLIF: There's a reason CLIF bars taste like cookies; they pretty much are. First of all, let's take a look at the ingredients in the basic CLIF bar recipe. The very first ingredient is brown rice syrup (sugar!). Then if you read on, you'll find cane syrup, dried cane syrup, and barley malt extract (sugar, sugar, and more sugar). You'll also find "natural flavors" and added vitamins and minerals that, apart from the foods they occur in naturally, can't be assimilated well by the body. Some of the ingredients are organic, depending on which flavor you buy, so at least there's that.  Lastly, CLIF bars average about 9 grams of protein and 23 grams of sugar. YIKES! 

The verdict: If you really are that guy climbing up a steep rock face, then the high sugar content might be just what you need to keep you from bonking, and even then there are better sources of this sugar. But for the average person on an average day, 23 grams of sugar is way too high for only 9 grams of protein, and you're better off attaining essential vitamins and nutrients from whole food sources rather than the added ones in these bars. 

What about CLIF Builder and Luna bars? One thing the Builder bars have going for them is that they contain more protein than regular CLIF bars. The Luna bars have about the same amount of protein as the regular CLIF's, but are much lower in sugar that the regular and the Builder.  Other than that though, they aren't a much better choice. They still contain multiple sources of added sugar, additives, and synthetic vitamins and nutrients. 

The verdict: They're candy bars with some protein powder in it. Move on. 

LARABAR: Now we're getting a little closer to something of substance. All LARABAR products contain simple, whole-food ingredients with the main source of sugar being dates. Most of their bars are not organic, but they have recently released a few new ones that do contain organic ingredients. The downside is that most LARABARS only contain about 5 grams of protein and 20-25 grams of sugar! Their "Crunchy Nut and Seed" bars are a slightly better option with only 7 grams of sugar, but still low on protein. 

The verdict: A LARABAR is a good option when in a pinch, but I'd recommend eating it with an additional protein source to help balance out the protein-sugar ratio.

KIND bars: The ingredients in KIND bars are not organic, but the list is pretty short for all their products. You will find some added sugar, but generally just one source per product, as opposed to 3-4 sources of sugar in the CLIF bars. The protein-sugar ratio varies from bar to bar, and most of them have more sugar than protein. 

The verdict: Similar to LARABARS in that they'll do in a pinch. The ingredients are decent, but make sure you read the nutrition facts before choosing your flavor, as some KIND bars have a better protein-sugar ratio than others. Their "Strong and Kind" bars are the best option, containing 10 grams of protein and around 5 grams of sugar. 

Pro Bar: I am looking specifically at their line of "Base" bars, as these are their high protein bars. The protein-sugar ratio is excellent, containing 20 grams of protein and about 15 grams of sugar. The ingredients are where things get tricky. They do have a good amount of organic and whole foods ingredients, but then you'll also find natural flavors, 3-4 sources of added sugar, fractionated palm kernel oil (trans fat!!!), and other processed oils such as partially defatted peanut oil. 

The verdict: It's really hard to pass this bar with flying colors after reading some of its ingredients. The sugars and processed oils are too high up on the ingredients list to be ignored, but the protein-sugar ratio is excellent. This bar is not a terrible choice, but eat these sparingly too minimize trans fat intake. 

Nature Valley: Nature Valley has quite a wide variety of granola and protein bars, and all of them have a pretty offensive ingredient list. They all contain added sugar of the worst kind (corn syrup, fructose, barley malt extract, sugar), as well as vegetable oils, corn starch, and preservatives. None of their products or ingredients are organic, and the only bars with enough protein are their "Protein Chewy Bars". 

The verdict: Not worth it. These bars are full of poor quality ingredients, and most have too much sugar. You'd be better off with a CLIF bar!

My Top 8 Healthy Protein Bars

So if a CLIF bar has too much sugar and a LARABAR has too little protein, what's a health nut to do? Here are eight of my favorite snack bars that pass the above standards. 

  1. Oatmega: 
    1. 14 g protein/about 5 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. Grass fed whey protein
    3. Mostly organic ingredients, does have 1-2 additives per product
    4. High in omega 3's
  2. RX Bar:
    1. 12 g protein/about 12 g sugar depending on flavor (I love that the protein in these bars is from eggs rather than protein powder)
    2. Not organic, but all ingredients are non-GMO, non-soy, and non-dairy. Also contains very minimal, completely whole-foods ingredients (similar to LARABAR)
  3. Amazing Grass Protein Superfood bar:
    1. 12 g protein/ 13 g sugar
    2. All organic ingredients, no additives
    3. Includes "superfood" greens powder blend
  4. Whole Earth and Sea Greens Vegan Protein Bar
    1. 15 g protein/ 23 g sugar (sugar content is a bit high, so save this one for a post-workout snack)
    2. All organic ingredients, no additives
    3. Includes "superfood" greens powder blend
  5. Epic bar:
    1. 8-15 g protein/ 2-7 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. Meat sources are either grass-fed, organic, or all natural
    3. Minimal, whole-foods ingredients with no additives
  6. Health Warrior Superfood Protein bar
    1. 10 g protein/ 10 g sugar
    2. Some organic ingredients, mostly whole-foods, only 1-2 additives per bar
    3. High in omega 3's
  7. 22 Days:
    1.  6-20 g protein/14-17 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. All organic ingredients, all whole-foods ingredients, no additives
    3. High fiber
  8. Greens Plus:
    1. 15-18 g protein/6-19 g sugar depending on flavor
    2. All ingredients are GMO free, some are organic
    3. Includes "superfood" greens powder blend and herbs

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's a great place to start. Most of these can be found at Sprouts, Whole Foods, and online. If you have a preferred protein bar or even a recipe for one, please share!

 

Peruvian Stuffed Avocado (Palta Rellena)

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With Thanksgiving only a week away, I probably should be posting a healthy stuffing recipe or a gluten free apple pie. Buuuuut that's just not what's inspiring me right now.  Today's recipe isn't seasonal or pumpkiny and has absolutely nothing to do with Thanksgiving. Rather, it was inspired by my recent trip to Peru.

I really enjoyed exploring Peruvian cuisine, but you can only have so many heaping piles of rice and potatoes before you just want a freaking vegetable. One afternoon, while sitting in our favorite corner restaurant in Cusco, I was perusing the menu for something that resembled a salad. I had zero luck with that, but a "stuffed avocado" caught my eye. The picture on the menu didn't look like more than an avo half with a measly scoop of chicken on top. I figured what the hell, it's something other than fries. 

The meal that was brought to me far exceeded expectations. On my plate were three plump avocado halves under a mountain of chicken, veggies, and potatoes, and topped with kalamata olives. 

My first reaction: "This is like a chicken pot pie- in an avocado!"

Second thought: "I have to make this when I get home!" 

Palta rellena soon became my go-to meal when I wasn't up for ordering mystery food. I knew that I'd at least get a good serving (usually two or three) of protein, veggies, and healthy fats. 

Peruvian stuffed avocado (palta rellena)

Makes: about 4 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 1/2 lb baked or grilled chicken
  • 1 cup white potatoes, cut into cubes about 1 cm in size
  • 1/2 cup shredded or chopped carrots
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp plain yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice (about 1/2 lime)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Kalamata olives for garnish (I used about 1/3 cup)
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  1. Chop potatoes into cubes about 1 cm in size. Add them to a saucepan with enough water to fully submerge potatoes. Bring water to a boil and allow to cook for about 7-10 minutes, or until tender. 
  2. While potatoes are cooking, chop carrots and onions and put them in a medium sized bowl. Add chicken, olive oil, yogurt, and lime juice.
  3. Cut the avocados in half and remove the pits. Use a spoon to scoop the avo out of its skin while keeping its shape intact. 
  4. When potatoes are done cooking, drain the water. Allow them to cool for 10 minutes or run cold water over them to speed the cooling process. Add potatoes to mixing bowl with other ingredients and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  5. To serve, scoop the salad mixture into the avocado "bowls" and top with kalamata olives.  

Mayonnaise option:

The stuffed avocados that I had in Peru were always made with mayonnaise, like a potato salad. I've never been a mayo fan, hence the EVOO and yogurt substitution. For the mayo lovers out there, you can make this dish more authentic by using mayo instead of the yogurt and oil. 

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5 Habits for a Healthy Brain

Have you been struggling with fatigue, gut problems, weight gain, depression, anxiety, or other reoccurring health issues? The truth is, it might be all in your head. I don't mean to say that you're making it up, as these issues are very real and all too common. Rather, your health problems may be the result of an unhealthy brain.  

The human brain is a vital organ that does more than thinking and learning.  It governs everything that goes on in your body including digestion, metabolism, muscle contraction, sleep, breathing, moods, and energy. Brain problems aren't just for those with head injuries and the elderly. The health of your brain can suffer, just as any other body part can. 

Symptoms of an unhealthy brain:  

  • Brain "fog" or trouble focusing
  • Poor memory
  • Low motivation
  • Low moods or mood swings
  • Food or alcohol cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive issues
  • Insomnia
  • Hormonal imbalances 
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Weight problems
  • Anxiety, irritability, or anger
  • Impulsiveness or obsessive thoughts/behaviors
  • Poor muscle control

Ups and downs are a part of life, but a healthy brain is generally optimistic, focused, calm, energized, able to handle life's challenges, and keeps all the parts running smoothly. I'd say that's some motivation to care care of that squishy gray matter upstairs. 

Caring for your brain

Check out 5 things you can do to maintain a healthy brain. Don't want all the details? Scroll down for the summary of do's and don't's. 

1. Balance blood sugar: Your brain's main source of fuel is glucose; sugar in the bloodstream. That doesn't mean you should head to the nearest doughnut shop for some brain fuel.  It means to balance the amount of glucose circulating at any given time. It's a complicated system that involves insulin, glucagon, and sometimes cortisol, but basically- too much or too little glucose circulating is damaging to the brain. Avoid things that cause blood sugar dysregulation such as excessive sugar/carbs, large meals, skipping meals, caffeine, chronic stress, and lack of sleep. Instead, eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day that include protein, healthy fats, veggies, and complex carbs. Exercise regularly and aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night. 

2. Oxygen: Like glucose, oxygen is also crucial for optimal brain function. As we go through our day to day routines, most of us aren't giving much thought into how we're breathing. Many people (especially when stressed) breath in short, shallow bursts or even periodically hold the breath. This limits the amount of oxygen available for the brain to function optimally. Practices like meditation and diaphragmatic breathing are excellent for increasing oxygen to the brain. Also, don't forget to exercise regularly. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, allowing for more oxygen to be delivered up there. 

3. Anti-inflammatory diet: Just as our joints, muscles, and gut can become inflamed, so can the brain. This causes the communication between neurons to slow, meaning slow thinking, slow movement, and slow reflexes. Include plenty of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet such as turmeric, ginger, salmon, tuna, fruits, and veggies (especially dark leafy greens). Avoid pro-inflammatory foods such alcohol, caffeine, sugar, refined starches, margarine, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, and any foods that you may be sensitive to such as gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts, and/or shellfish.  Stress also exacerbates inflammation, so find healthy ways to manage the stressors in your life. 

4. Essential fatty acids: Just as your brain loves glucose and oxygen, it also loves EFA's. In fact, your brain is composed primarily of fat. In order to balance blood sugar as mentioned above, you'll want to add healthy fats to every meal. These include avocados, olives and olive oil, coconut, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, organic butter, and organic eggs. Avoid the brain damaging fast found in junk food, fast food, fried food, and conventional animal meats. Omega 3 fats are especially great for brain health, and I highly recommend including a fish or krill oil supplement to your diet. 

5. Amino acid therapy*: All of your neurotransmitters are built from amino acids, found in protein-rich foods. Eating a diet rich in protein not only stabilizes blood sugar, but gives your body the materials it needs to maintain healthy levels of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and catecholamines.  Even with a good diet, sometimes amino acid levels can be too low for ideal brain health, especially if mental health problems run in your family. If you eat generally healthy and still have symptoms of depression, anxiety, low motivation, brain fog, or fatigue, it is a good idea to have your amino acid and neurotransmitter levels tested. Taking concentrated amounts of specific amino acids can help increase NT levels and give a significant boost to your mental health. 

*The specific aminos necessary to promote healthy levels of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and chatecholamines will vary depending on the individual. Consult your holistic practitioner or contact me for more info. 

Summary

Do's:

  • Eat 3 meals per day with protein-rich snacks in between.
  • Aim for 20-30 g protein per meal.
  • Eat lots of healthy fats and omega 3- rich foods. 
  • Exercise.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Eat anti-inflammatory foods.
  • Supplement with specific amino acids to boost neurotransmitter levels*. 
  • Find healthy ways to manage the stress in your life. 

Don't's:

  • Skip meals.
  • Eat meals high in carbs.
  • Eat excessive sugar or refined carbs. 
  • Eat unhealthy trans fats or hydrogenated oils. 
  • Consume excess caffeine or alcohol. 
  • Hold your breath or breath shallowly. 

*The specific aminos necessary to promote healthy levels of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and chatecholamines will vary depending on the individual. Consult your holistic practitioner or contact me for more info. 

Resources: 

Bauman, Ed. Therapeutic Nutrition. Vol. 2. Penngrove, Ca: Bauman College, 2014. Print.

Kharrazian, Datis. Why Isn't My Brain Working?: A Revolutionary Understanding of Brain Decline and Effective Strategies to Recover Your Brain's Health. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Pizzorno, Joseph E., Michael T. Murray, and Herb Joiner-Bey. The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2002. Print.

 

 

5 Minute Energy Boosters; Physical, Mental, Emotional, Spiritual

It's 3pm, and you're f***ing tired.

Maybe you sit behind a desk all day. Or maybe you stay at home and run around with your little humans. Or possibly you're a fitness coach and moving non-stop is your job. It doesn't matter who you are or what you do on a daily basis, I will bet my bank account that you get a case of the yawns at some point during the day. We all do, even if not every single day. 

The easy fix may be to reach for another cup of coffee, an energy drink, or sugary snack of sorts. These things can provide temporary energy, but negative effects usually outweigh the short lived boost. Relying on stimulants such as caffeine and sugar can cause blood sugar imbalances, resulting in energy crashes, cravings, mood swings, and hormonal disruption. 

I'm all about moderation and I LOVE my coffee, but it's important to have tools to maintain energy without relying on caffeine. Here is a list of some of my favorite ways to boost energy that you can do in 5 minutes or less. 
 

5-Minute Energy Boosters 

  • Deep breathing: Notice how you're breathing right now. Are you taking relaxed, full belly breaths? If not, you may be taking short and shallow breaths or even holding your breath for short periods. This limits the oxygen that gets to your brain and your body, hence the yawn mechanism.
  • Move: If you're feeling tired and sluggish, moving your body may be the last thing you feel like doing. Even a short walk or several minutes of movement can get the blood flowing and give you a nice burst of energy. Try doing a couple sets of something that requires your whole body, such as 10-15 squat jumps, push-ups, or burpees. If you're concerned about getting sweaty, try a brisk walk or some stretching. 
  • Laugh: Getting some giggles is a great way to shift your energy and lift your mood, especially if fatigue is a result of mental energy expenditure. Listen to a few minutes of your favorite comedy or watch kitten videos if that's more your thing.
  • Gratitude: Low energy is not always a physical issue, but is often mental, emotional, or spiritual. If you're feeling down or sluggish, try taking a few minutes to focus your attention on the good things in your life. Numerous studies are showing that directing your focus to gratitude has a powerful impact on health and happiness. Read more here
  • Music: Listen to a song or two that make you feel AWESOME. We all have those jams that bring back good memories or calm us down. Keep a few on hand for those mid-day blues.  
  • Healthy snacks: As I mentioned above, stimulants such as caffeine and sugary snacks can provide a temporary boost but usually cause a drop of energy later on, leaving you needing more. Have a protein rich snack to promote a steadier release of energy. A protein bar, nuts, hummus and veggies, or a small green smoothie are all excellent options
  • A focused and fun task: Sometimes boosting energy can be as simple as shifting your attention. A fun, yet mentally stimulating task such as juggling, engaging in a sport, playing a computer game, or drawing can give you a temporary break from your work and leave you feeling refreshed and focused. This can be anything that requires all of your attention so that your a taking a "brain break.

The next time you find yourself falling asleep at your desk, try one of these strategies before pouring that tenth coffee. If you're especially tuned in to your energy, take note of whether your fatigue is physical, mental, or emotional/spiritual. Fatigue isn't always about sleep deprivation or lack of healthy snacks. Sometimes it's a result of mentally taxing work or a stressful day. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated is draining in itself, in which case you may need a gratitude list or comedian. Play around with it, and find what works for you.

DIY Facial Cleanser

From the time I was about twelve until just a few years ago, I used the same conventional face wash every day, twice a day. I loved it- it made my face feel clean, not too dry, and left a lovely tingle. As I became more conscious of what I put in and on my body,  I felt less comfortable with the knowledge that I was applying chemicals to my face every single day for years on end. 

And so the search began. I tried purchasing several natural facial cleansers, but none were quite right and often left my skin feeling too dry. I tried that whole wash-your-face-with-olive-oil thing, and...no. Just, no. More research, more experimentation, a couple weird concoctions, and finally- a natural and effective face wash that I can make quickly and inexpensively.

Here's a breakdown of each of the ingredients and why they're awesome for your skin:

Aloe vera: Aloe is probably most well-known for its ability to sooth sunburns, but you don't have to have a sunburn to benefit from this healing plant. Aloe is an anti-bacterial cleanser, soothes inflamed skin, and effectively removes makeup.

Witch hazel: Witch hazel is a natural astringent, meaning it removes excess oil, toxins, and dirt that are often the culprit of clogged pores. As it removes this dirt and oil, it also tightens pores which prevents future clogging. Like aloe, it's also great for soothing irritated and inflamed skin such as in the case of acne.

Tee tree oil: Tea tree oil is great for it's anti-bacterial and cleansing properties. It gives your cleanser a fresh scent and leaves you with that nice tingle that I loved about my conventional wash. 

Jojoba oil: Jojoba oil (which is actually a wax) is the perfect moisturizer for the delicate skin on your face, especially if you tend to be on the drier side. It contains very similar properties to the sebum that our skin produces, making it a great natural moisturizer. 

Chia seeds: Chia seeds are packed with nutrients that are healing not only when ingested, but when applied topically as well. The ground seeds provide a gentle exfoliation of the skin, removing dead skin cells and other dirt/oils. This ingredient also gives your cleanser its firm, gel-like texture. 

Convinced yet? I thought so. Here's how to make it:

Gather the following ingredients. Though the cost of all these things will initially be more than a single bottle of facial cleanser, you will be able to mix at least 4-5 batches, making it cheaper in the long haul.  

  • 1/4 cup witch hazel
  • 1/4 cup aloe
  • 1/4 cup jojoba oil (optional, but recommeded for dry skin)
  • 3-4 drops of tea tree oil
  • 1 Tbsp. ground chia seeds. A coffee grinder works perfectly to get a nice fine texture. 

Stir all ingredients together in a glass jar, and let sit for about an hour before using to allow the chia seeds to gel. Store in a cool, dark place to protect the sensitive omega 3 oils in the seeds. To use, dampen your face with warm water and apply a quarter sized dollop of the mixture. Gently rub the cleanser over your entire face for a minute or two, then rinse well. 

Additional Tips: 

You may have to adjust the ratios of each ingredient according to your skin type. My skin tends to dry out easily, which is why I use so much of the jojoba oil in mine. You can use less oil if you have oilier skin. The amount of chia seeds can also be adjusted to create the desired firmness. The more liquid you have, the more seeds it will require to keep it from becoming too runny.  

Essential oils: feel free to include additional essential oils in yours, such as invigorating eucalyptus or calming lavender. 

Charcoal: One ingredient that I previously experimented with but decided not to include was activated charcoal. Charcoal is actually an excellent cleanser and provides many benefits to the skin, but as you might imagine, it creates a very black liquid and a huge mess every time I washed with it. More work than it's worth IMO, but you're welcome to give it a shot. 

My cleanser hard at work!

My cleanser hard at work!

Finished product- no makeup, no filter. (and a shirt change)

Finished product- no makeup, no filter. (and a shirt change)

 

 

Chocolate Chili Pecan Cookies (gluten free)

Sometimes I just want a cookie. Or three. I've been craving cookies this week, and since it's now September, my first instinct was to go straight for the pumpkin. I figured maybe, just this once, I could branch out and try some fall baking that doesn't include pumpkin. (Can that even be done?!)

And, let's be real- my blog is in no shortage of pumpkin recipes. Try some of these if you need a pumpkin fix:

Pumpkin Pie Smoothie 

Paleo Pumpkin Pie  

Sweet and Savory Stuffed Pumpkin

Anyway, about the cookies. They are without pumpkin, but they are still perfectly autumn in every way. The fall flavors of chocolate, chili, cinnamon, dates, and pecans come together to create a deliciously warm and spicy dessert that is perfect for this time of year. Enjoy. 

Chocolate Chili Pecan Cookies

Makes: 12 cookies

Time: 30-40 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup dates, pitted and packed down
  • 1/2 cup melted coconut oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/4 cup cacao
  • 1 1/4 chickpea flour
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 
  2. Use a food processor or blender to mix the dates, eggs, coconut oil, and vanilla. You'll want your coconut oil to be melted but not hot, otherwise it will cook the eggs. Make sure the dates are blended well into the mixture, leaving no chunks if possible. 
  3. Stir all the remaining dry ingredients except pecans together in a mixing bowl. Add the wet mixture and stir well. Fold the pecans into the dough. 
  4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll the dough into 1.5" thick balls, and then flatten them into 1/4" cookies.
  5. For a softer cookie, bake for about 7-8 minutes. Bake for about 10 minutes if you like them a bit firmer.
  6. Remove from oven and allow to cool 3-5 minutes.

I've found that these little morsels pair wonderfully with a warm chai! 

 

 

Sweet and Savory Stuffed Pumpkin

I am kind of like a werewolf, minus the part about transforming into a hairy mystical creature under the light of a full moon. It goes more like this: when the leaves begin to change and the air turns crisp, I morph into a complete fiend for pumpkin. I cannot control myself, so I just roll with it.  So far this season I have made pumpkin maple bars, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pancakes, homemade pumpkin coffee creamer, and pumpkin spice smoothies (and that doesn't include the copious amounts of pumpkin items I've consumed that I didn't make myself). I had been debating which one of these I should feature on the blog, until last week I made a new dish that blew all the others out of the water. This one is sweet, savory, pumpkiny, and...it has bacon in it. What more could an autumn-wolf ask for?!

 

Sweet and Savory Stuffed Pumpkin

Time: About 1 hour total

Serves: 2

You'll Need:

  • 1 pie pumpkin
  • 4-6 organic bacon slices
  • 1 cup chopped spinach or kale*
  • 1/2 cup chopped figs or dates*
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans*
  • 3 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ginger
  • salt to taste (optional)

*I like to use a food processor for chopping things. It's easier and faster than using a knife. 

Preheat oven to 425 F. Cut off the stem of your pumpkin, and then slice it in half. Scoop out the guts and seeds. Using a spoon is a nice idea for this, but you're probably gonna have to dive in with your hands. Hold on to the seeds and you can roast them later! Place the pumpkin halves on a baking sheet and bake for about an hour.

In the meantime, mix together the spinach, figs, pecan, and spices in a bowl and set aside. Cut your bacon strips into inch long slices. In a pan over medium heat, fry your bacon pieces until desired level of crispiness. At this point you can drain some of the bacon grease if you don't want it in your stuffing. If you don't drain the grease though, I most certainly am not judging. Throw in your spinach mixture and saute with the bacon for another 60 seconds or so. Remove from heat, and when your pumpkin halves are done, scoop the stuffing into the center of them. If there is extra stuffing, eat it quickly before anyone finds out there was leftovers.

Creamy Sunflower Seed Dressing

Have you ever tried sunflower seed butter? With the rise of health foods also came the popularity of various nut and seed butters, including that of sunflower seeds. I bought some on a whim the other day and then was like, "wtf am I going to do with all this sun butter?!"

The answer: a creamy and delicious dressing that I am in love with.  The yogurt base gives it the perfect creamy texture and adds some protein and probiotics.  I've been using it on salads (with some fresh salmon on top!) and as a dip for carrots and snap peas. 

 

Creamy Sunflower Seed Dressing

Makes: about 6 oz. dressing

Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients: 

  • 1/2 cup cup plain yogurt (I used an organic Greek yogurt which makes it extra thick!)
  • 1/4 sunflower seed butter or tahini 
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1 Tbsp. water
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder or 1/2 garlic clove
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper

Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor until creamy. It should be about the consistency of ranch dressing. This dressing is delicious on salads or as a veggie dip. 

Fluffy Protein Pancakes (gluten free)

Last week I spent some time in Michigan so that I could "meet the parents" (eek!). For some unknown reason, it ended up being the week of pancakes. We ate more pancakes in that five days than I've had in the last five years! And I'm not talking about the healthy kind of pancakes, but the good ol' white flour and maple syrup kind. They were delicious. There. I said it.

I thought that once I came home I'd be all pancaked out, but turns out that's not the case! So, what did I do? Made some deliciously fluffy and healthy pancakes! These cakes are gluten free and packed with protein and healthy fats.

Fluffy Protein Pancakes

Makes: about 5 6" pancakes

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 3 organic eggs
  • 1 cup organic cottage cheese
  • 1/4 cup rice flour, quinoa flour, or chickpea flour
  • 2 Tbsp. melted coconut oil, butter, or ghee plus a little extra for frying
  • pinch of salt
  1. Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until you have a smooth batter.
  2. Lightly oil a frying pan over medium heat.
  3. Pour about 1/4 - 1/3 cup batter into the frying pan. The batter holds together really well so you can make the cakes as big as you'd like!
  4. Once the cake starts to bubble, flip it and cook for about another minute on the other side.
  5. Repeat until you've used all your batter. Top pancakes with fresh fruit, coconut cream, nuts, cinnamon, maple syrup, or whatever else you love on your pancakes!

 

 

Chili Cheese Sweet Potato Fries

Look me in the eye and tell me honestly that you wouldn't enjoy a giant pile of warm and spicy chili cheese fries right now. Ya, that's what I thought. You can't resist. 

I've been dying to create a healthy recipe for chili cheese fries, and I believe I've done it! Not only is this a nutritious meal packed with protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and complex carbs, but it tastes incredible. Addicting, possibly. Proceed with caution...

 

 

 

Chili Cheese Sweet Potato Fries

Time: 45 minutes

Serves: 2-3

Ingredients: 

  • 2 medium sized sweet potatoes or yams
  • 1 can organic black or kidney beans
  • 8-10 oz. grass fed beef or organic tofu, crumbled
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1.5 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • Sea or pink Himalayan salt to taste
  • 1 batch Hatch Chili Queso
  • Toppings (optional) such as avocado, sliced onions, or sour cream.
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Slice the sweet potatoes into wedges and mix them in a bowl with 1/2 Tbsp of melted coconut oil. Make sure each wedge is coated in oil.
  3. Spread the fries on a baking sheet in a single layer and sprinkle with salt. 
  4. Bake for 30-40 minutes, stirring halfway through, until fries are soft and lightly browned.
  5. While fries are baking, chop the veggies and add them to a fry pan with the beans, meat or tofu, spices, and 1 Tbsp coconut oil. (If using beef, you might want to brown the meat first and drain the excess liquid before adding in the other ingredients.)
  6. Cover the pan and cook on medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want the peppers and onions to be nice and tender. 
  7. If you haven't already, use this time to also make your Hatch Chili Queso
  8. Once the sweet potatoes are done cooking, layer the chili mixture and queso over your fries, and top with avocado, diced onions, or sour cream. 

Hatch Chili Queso (vegan, paleo)

Let's play a game of association. I say a word, and you say what immediately come to mind. Ready....

QUESO. 

Super Bowl parties. Ball games. Mexican food. Comfort food. Satisfying. 

All of those are pretty positive associations. I mean, who doesn't love a good queso dip? And if you can have this delicious comfort food while still getting a boost of healthy fats, protein, and B vitamins, then I'd say that's a win on all levels.

I have experimented with various cashew cheeses, but this recipe has been my favorite so far. I just love the addition of the spicy hatch chilies! 

hatch chili queso 

Time: 2-4 hours to soak cashews + 5 minutes to make sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 4 Tbsp. nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 10 oz. can of diced tomatoes with jalapenos
  • 4-oz. cans of hatch green chilies
  • Water as needed 
  • Salt to taste
  1. Soak the cashews in water for 2-4 hours to soften them.
  2. Drain the water and put cashews in a blender with lemon juice, turmeric, yeast, salt, garlic powder, and just the liquid from the cans of tomatoes and chilies. 
  3. Blend until you have a creamy sauce. You may need to add water to create the perfect consistency.  You can also add olive oil to create a creamier sauce. 
  4. Transfer the mixture into a small bowl and stir in the hatch chilies and tomatoes. 

Serve warm with chips, veggies, or on my Chili Cheese Sweet Potato Fries!

 

 

Neuro-Nutrition: holistic support for depression and anxiety

Mood disorders like depression and anxiety are talked about very little for how prevalent these conditions are in the U.S. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, about 18.5% adults experience a mental illness in a given year, about 21.4% of youth (13-18 years old) experience a severe mental disorder, and about half of adults who have struggled with addiction or substance abuse also had a mental illness of some variety. 

The current go-to for treatment of depression and anxiety right now is usually a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Let me express right now that I believe that BOTH of those things can be very valuable, and they have been life-saving for me personally.  However, I also know that there are very powerful and proven nutritional therapy and lifestyle options to assist in treating these conditions. Let's take a peak....

Anatomy of the Nervous System: what affects your thoughts, mood, and mental health

The nervous system works in tandem with the endocrine system to govern our behaviors, state of consciousness, learning, emotional responses, motivation, memory, thoughts, and reasoning (Bauman, 2014). The main control center is the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. From the CNS branches the peripheral nervous system (signals from brain and spine out to muscles, skin, and glands), and autonomic nervous system (responsible for automatic processes such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and hormonal secretions).

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers responsible for communicating along these various pathways. They are what transmit signals between neurons (nerve cells). Most neurotransmitters are synthesized by amino acids, and are either excitatory or inhibitory- in other words; they either initiate an action within the body or prevent an action and are therefore calming. The neurotransmitters that are most prevalent in the body include:

  • · Serotonin: (inhibitory) Regulates appetite (reduces cravings), mood, pain threshold, sleep, sensory perception
  • ·GABA: (inhibitory) calming, inhibit action potential
  •  Glutamate: (most excitatory NT) enhances action potential, keeps us awake
  •  Dopamine: (Both inhibitory and excitatory) controls moto function, motivation, emotion, libido, “reward” system-the “addiction NT”
  •  Norepinephrine: (excitatory) drive, ambition, alertness, focus. Deficiencies often associated with depression, apathy, and lack of focus
  • Epinephrine: (excitatory) also known as adrenaline and raises heart rate and blood sugar, as well as prepares body for fight or flight.
  • Histamine: (excitatory) allergic reactions, wakefulness, regulates HCl secretions. Elevated histamine associated with deep depression and suicidal tendencies 
  • Acetylcholine: (excitatory) memory, learning, motor function
  • Endorphins: (inhibitory) pain reduction, pleasure

An imbalance in NT’s  can cause mental and emotional disturbances. The most common are depression and anxiety, but other nervous system-related issues include ADD/ADHD, Alzheimer’s, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic inflammation/infection, fibromyalgia, headaches, metabolic syndrome, and neuropathy. Because of the complexity of the nervous system, thoughts, and emotions, one of the best nutritional steps to take toward mental health is to eat a balanced, whole foods diet.  .

Nutrition & Lifestyle Recommendations*

("D" indicates depression specific, "A" indicates anxiety specific, and "D/A" indicates useful for both.)

  •  Exercise: produces endorphins, a hormone that promotes a sense of calm and euphoria (D/A)

  • Avoid “brain toxins” such as caffeine, alcohol, toxic metals, stress, tobacco, sugar, aspartame, MSG (D/A)

  • Balance blood sugar by consuming regular meals and snacks which include 1-2 servings of both protein and fat. Also include a variety of fresh fruit and veg (D/A)

  • High tryptophan foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, soybeans, milk/milk products, and cottage cheese can help increase serotonin levels in the brain.  (D)

  • Omega 3's: walnuts, fish, chia, flax, fish oil or krill oil supplements (D)

  • St. John's Wort: take 3 x daily at 300 mg (not to be used in conjunction with medication) (D)

  • Magnesium: dark leafy greens, nuts/seeds, avocado (A)

  • Kava and/or passionflower (3-5ml 3 x daily) (A)

  • Vitamin B's and Folate: nutritional yeast, eggs, whole grains, dairy, organ meats (D/A)

  • 5-htp is a precursor to serotonin and is comparable to SSRI's in treating depression. Take 100mg in divided doses (mid-afternoon and evening) on an empty stomach. 5-htp can be increased to 300mg per day, taken in divided doses (mid-afternoon and evening). (D/A)

  • L-Tyrosine increases production of noradrenaline and dopamine, and can be taken alone or with 5-htp to treat mood disorders. Take 1,000mg in divided doses (morning and mid-morning OR mid-afternoon). L-Tyrosine can be increased to 8,000mg per day in divided doses (morning and mid-morning OR mid-afternoon). (D/A)

The exciting news is that nutritional therapy has been shown to be at least as effective as medication for many people, but without the side effects. Consult a nutritionist or holistic practitioner to find out how to address your imbalances with targeted amino and nutrient supplementation. 

*The above recommendations are general suggestions and not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Make sure to consult with a physician or nutritionist before beginning nutritional therapy for mental disorders. Each individual is different in their needs for vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in order to get the best results. 


Resources:

"Anxiety Disorders: Types, Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention." WebMD. Ed. Joseph Goldberg. WebMD, 8 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. <http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/mental-health-anxiety-disorders>.

Bauman, Ed. Therapeutic Nutrition. Vol. 2. Penngrove, Ca: Bauman College, 2014. Print

 "Mental Health By the Numbers." NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI, n.d. Web. 14 July 2016. <https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers>.

Pizzorno, Joseph E., Michael T. Murray, and Herb Joiner-Bey. The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2002. Print.