Transitioning Your Eating into Spring

When it comes to eating and ingredient choices, eating in tune with the seasons can go a long way towards creating an internal environment that leads to lasting health.

You know you don’t choose the same foods on a hot, sticky summer day as you do in the middle of winter. But what about a blustery spring day when the options at the farmers market (or grocery store) can be a little lackluster?

Below are a few tips for transitioning your eating into spring, as well as a deeper look at the why behind them.

Tips for Eating in the Spring

  1. Avoid congestive foods – these are generally foods that are heavy, cold, and wet.
    This includes refined grains and sugar, dairy (especially cold, sweetened dairy products, like ice cream, and fruit-sweetened yogurt), processed / pre-packaged meals and takeout, high fat foods, excessively salty foods (miso, soy sauce, restaurant meals), wheat products – a heavier grain that is inflammatory when digestion is compromised.
  2. Add in more dark leafy greens!
    What grows in spring? GREENS! Early spring greens tend to be bitter, pungent and cleansing. They’re perfectly designed to balance us after a winter of heartier fare.
  3. Sip on warm beverages rather than cold water and drinks.
    For many individuals with compromised digestion, this tip will always be true, but spring is a time of year when this is true for everyone.
  4. Sip on dandelion and/or burdock tea.
    These are bitter, detoxifying roots, and are nearly always included in any herbal “detox” formula. They support healthy liver function and help the body get rid of unwanted waste products and excess moisture.
  5. Try to eat three meals each day with little snacking.
    Or if you’re quite active, four balanced meals with no snacking in between. Giving the digestive system time to rest by about 3.5-6 hours after each meal really supports its ability to fully digest the last meal before the body has to begin digestion again.
  6. Get Moving!
    Getting your heart rate and circulation up and breaking a sweat regularly is an excellent way to promote optimal detoxification – of environmental toxins and pollens, of hormones, of inflammatory substances from foods. Moving promotes lymph flow, which when stagnated leads to congestion, mucous, retaining water, and sluggish digestion.
    If you’re already active, and perhaps training for a spring race, make sure you balance some of that heavier training with slower movement, and gentle yoga or daily self-massage that can gently move out some of the extra inflammation that can accumulate during this season.
  7. Up your spices!
    In the springtime, spices help the body to warm up and remove mucus. They also promote optimal digestion, and help to digest more difficult foods such as beans and legumes.

Broccoli Olive Sourdough Pizza – emphasis on the broccoli topping!

The Why: Energetics of Early Spring

First, look at the energetics of the season, or the energetics of the weather outside today. Energetics means the quality that is present in the environment, your body, or the ingredient, and the effect it has. The most basic energetics to work with are hot, cold, (and thus heating or cooling), and wet, dry (and thus (moistening/dampening, or drying).

In most places in the northern hemisphere, late winter and early spring tends to be cool or cold, and wet or damp. When we’re using a food as medicine approach, we do so by eating in a way that has the opposite quality of the body or of the seasonal environment that we’re a part of – eating in this opposite approach then provides balance for the body to be at, or return to equilibrium, where health occurs.

So in the cool, damp weeks of early spring, we want to eat meals that are warm and perhaps slightly drying in nature. One of the easiest ways to work with this component is by eating all meals cooked, and adding in more spices as we’re preparing foods. In terms of spices, nearly every common cooking spice will be drying in effect. Many of them will also be warming, and some will be more warming, or just plain hot, than others –like garlic, chilies, onion, and ginger.  

Energetics of Your Body

Now take a look at what’s going on in your body. Do you tend towards having symptoms of spring allergies, mucus, a wet phlegmy cough, swelling of the lower legs, retaining water, lack of appetite, or sluggish digestion where you eat and feel full for hours, like food is heavy and just sitting in your belly? This means you can use more warm and drying foods and spices! 

Key spices to incorporate into meals in late winter and early spring season include black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, horseradish, cayenne and chili in small amounts, garlic in small amounts, fenugreek, mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, ajwain, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano.

Putting Them Together: Cook with Three Spices


One of the best ways to start spicing your foods without it becoming an overwhelming task is to choose three spices to use in each meal. For breakfast, if you’re having something warm and porridge-like, such as oatmeal, incorporating a trio of spices in the total amount of ¼ – ⅜ teaspoon is just about right.

A couple combinations to start with include:
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, anise seed, and cardamom
⅛ teaspoon each of ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon

In midday and evening meals, we can slightly increase the total amount of spices to about ½ – ¾ teaspoon total per person.

Some Spring Spice Combinations include (amounts per serving):
¼ fresh garlic clove, ¼ teaspoon each of rosemary, and oregano
¼ teaspoon each of cumin, mustard seed, turmeric
¼ teaspoon each of fenugreek, sage, and rosemary
¼ teaspoon each of fresh ginger, turmeric, and a pinch of black pepper

If you’re using other people’s recipes to cook with, adjust the spicing according to what you’ve learned above, particularly about your body. Most modern recipes over-rely on heating spices and condiments. 

An example is a recipe with several cloves of garlic, chilies, several tablespoons of fresh ginger, tamari, soy sauce, or miso, all in one. This is a recipe that’s probably going to burn us up internally, even if you and the season is running cold! You can tame the recipe and spice level by slowly reducing the amounts of each spice, or switching an ingredient out for one that has a milder effect of the same quality, such as using a pinch of black pepper instead of a ½ teaspoon of cayenne, or using 1-2 teaspoons of finely grated fresh ginger in a recipe that calls for 3-inches of the fresh root.

Signs of Balance and Imbalance

Ultimately, the goal is to feel good in your body and mind in each season. 

During this time of year, signs of balance include slowing down more than other times of year to rest more, having steady energy throughout the daylight hours, maintaining a healthy immune system and response, and eating to nourish yourself with no signs of impaired digestion.

Signs of imbalance include over committing, feeling depleted throughout the day, stagnation (mentally or physically), depression, mucus in the respiratory system, overeating  (especially high sugar, extremely rich, or cold foods), and having heavy, sluggish digestion with reduced or no appetite.

Beet and Banana Pancakes

Pancakes.

A food I had a love/hate relationship with for many years. But after realizing they don’t have to be glorified breakfast cake or particularly even eaten at breakfast (which also isn’t my go-to), I’ve fully embraced pancakes in all the wonderful ways. 

This version is just about as whole-food as you can get, with oats, beets, banana, eggs, and not a lot else. These days, I tend to add on greens and maybe an additional egg to make pancake meals a balanced meal.

Hope you enjoy!

One more big / little thing

I’ve decided to share most of my recipes in my newsletter going forward this year, rather than publishing all of them here on the blog portion of the website. If you enjoy regularly receiving recipes from me as well as focused nutrition topics, I encourage you to sign up to receive my nutrition newsletter.

Beet Banana Pancakes, serves 2

Inspired by David of Green Kitchen Stories
Prep:  40-60 minutes to roast beets (can be done ahead) | Cook: 15  minutes 

2 eggs
1 banana, peeled
1 cup /100 gr rolled oats
2 – 4 Tbs. filtered water, or more as needed
⅛ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. baking powder
2 medium / 100 gr cooked beets
coconut oil or ghee for frying

To Serve:
1-2 tsp. olive oil
1-2 handfuls of greens
1 fried or scrambled egg, for each serving

  1. Prep ahead: Wash and halve the beets and wrap them in foil. Roast in a 400 degree F oven until soft, about 40 minutes. You can prepare more while you’re at for other meals or snacks. 
  2. To make Pancakes: Crack the eggs into a blender; add the banana, water, oats, salt and baking powder and blend until smooth. 
  3. Then pour into a bowl. Grate the cooked beets and add into the batter and stir through. 
  4. Heat a little oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. 
  5. Whisk the batter and thin it a little as needed, then pour in ⅓-½ cup amounts into the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes on each side. Repeat with the remaining batter. If planning to have some leftovers, reserve the unused batter, so you can cook and enjoy them fresh. 
  6. For the greens and eggs: Heat the remaining coconut oil, add a pinch of salt, and stir in the greens, and a splash of water if needed. Steam/sauté for a couple minutes until wilted. 
  7. Then fry or scramble one additional egg per serving
  8. Serve topped with a dollop of yogurt, molasses or applesauce, and with the fried egg and greens on the side. 

Are You Eating Enough For Your Activity Level, Part II

If you read running websites or magazines, view social media accounts of various athletes, and perhaps overhear conversations in your run community, in the past few years you may have noticed an increased attention to a topic called RED-S (pronounced reds), or relative energy deficiency in sport, which can also be called low energy availability. 

Low energy availability is most accurately calculated by removing the energy cost of your daily exercise from your total dietary caloric (energy) intake, and then having what is left not being enough energy (calories) to support the body’s normal physiological function, such as bone metabolism, endocrine/hormones, reproductive system, etc. Low energy availability is associated with downregulation and impairment of key physiological processes due to the lack of adequate energy support. 

That’s the scientific definition. I simply call it “Not eating enough for your activity level.” Even simpler, that translates to not eating enough.

Not Eating Enough

For a couple decades, one piece of the larger puzzle of relative energy deficiency was known in the sporting community. That piece is the Female Athlete Triad, in which female athletes present with a pattern of low energy availability with or without an eating disorder, in relationship with amenorrhea (lack of menstrual cycle), or irregular menstrual cycle, and low bone density leading to osteopenia and osteoporosis. What we now know is that the Female Athlete Triad is just one section of a larger picture of pathophysiology that can present in athletes with long-term low energy availability. And it is not just a female athlete concern. 

When active individuals are not eating enough for their on-the-move lifestyles – the body, because it is wise, makes decisions about where it is going to prioritize its precious calories. So if you’re going to go for a long run in the forest for several hours, followed by an evening hike or weight session, and then follow with something similar tomorrow and the next day, and throw in a weekend of back-to-back long runs,  AND you’re routinely not eating enough to meet your caloric needs, the body is going to choose where to spend those nutrients—because when this precious energy is used for one function, it is not available for another one. 

Essentially, you are putting your system into survival mode.

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

On Our Radar

So why is this topic suddenly on more people’s radar? One, we have more research and knowledge on the expanded umbrella of RED-S and the widespread physiological consequences of being at a long-term energy deficit. But also because it’s fairly common for active individuals to not realize they’ve adopted many of the beliefs of the diet industry into their eating habits over the years. Or they may simply be eating to hunger levels, and still not be eating enough.

And, just eating to hunger can sometimes be misleading for us as highly active folks. For instance, many athletes have a suppressed appetite after long or intense workouts or races. In those cases, it’s ideal to replace nutrients after exercise—but when digestion is compromised, the body won’t metabolize the food as it should—hence the potential for working with a nutrition professional to help get the digestive system back to balance. Alternatively, we might need to learn to recognize the symptoms of hunger that often go beyond an empty stomach.

Within-Day Energy Balance

The other side of that low energy availability coin can also mean within-day energy balance. Meaning we don’t stack the majority of our calories into one meal or couple of hours of the day. Eating to fullness, or 80 percent of fullness, is recommended, but if you ever notice you get to the point of overeating after exercise by having excessively large meals that seem to top you up beyond fullness, it is often because of low energy intake throughout the day fueling a need for more food spread throughout the hours. This can often occur after a long run. In this case, you can train your body to tolerate more fuel during a run, and then you’ll likely both recover better, but also will have stressed your body less with the huge energy deficits and then subsequent deposits. 

 With a more even or adequate energy intake before and during a long workout, you can avoid that ravenous feeling of needing to eat quickly and impulsively.

A Self-Assessment to Help Navigate Your Energy Needs

If this topic has kindled your curiosity about meeting your own energy needs, my suggestion is to start with a self-assessment rather than calculating calories and meticulously tracking meals—those can be highly inaccurate and lead to neurotic food obsession. Ask yourself these questions:

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

Where to go from here?

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

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

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

 

Mini-Meals to Keep You Going

Ideally we spread our meals out throughout the day and leave time in between them for full digestion to occur, so we’re not throwing more food in when the last meal hasn’t fully digested. This causes more problems over time in other ways. In an ideal routine, aim for eating at intervals of four to six hours after a full meal, and two to four hours after a light meal instead of snacking continuously all day. The above article is featured over on the Territory Run Co. run journal, along with three snack recipes for those in-between times, featuring iron and vitamin C-rich Wonder Woman Bars, William’s Oatmeal Raisin Bites, and Sweet Potato Spanish Tortilla. Get the recipes here.

References:

2018 UPDATE: Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S)
Fahrenholtz, IL., Sjodin, A., Benardot, D., Tornberg, AB., Skouby, S.,…and Melin, AK. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and reproductive function in female endurance athletes.
Jeukendrup, A. (2013). The New Carbohydrate Intake Recommendations. Nutritional Coaching Strategy to Modulate Training Efficiency. Nestlé Nutrition Institute Workshop Series,63-71. doi:10.1159/000345820 
Jeukendrup, A. E. (2017). Training the Gut for Athletes. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.), 47(Suppl 1), 101–110. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0690-6
McKay, A.K.A., Pyne, D.B., Burke, L.M. and Peeling, P. (2020). Iron Metabolism: Interactions with Energy and Carbohydrate Availability. Nutrients, 12: 3692. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12123692.
Torstveit, MK., Fahrenholtz, IL., stenqvist, TB., Svlta, O., Melin, A. (2018). Within-day energy deficiency and metabolic perturbation in male endurance athletes.