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.

Buttercup Squash + Creamy Black Bean Tacos

I frequently share with nutrition clients about the connection between mental and physical health, particularly between the gut and brain, but also just a reminder that it’s all connected. We’re all connected. Something that’s been labeled “all in your head” is also in your body, and vice versa.

That’s the paradigm I work out of.

In my own life, I’ve had a long journey with things in the realm of “mental health;” in the last few years mostly related to low grade anxiety that can simply be summarized as high vata dosha in Ayurveda. So I try to balance myself with daily habits that invite in slowing down (physically and as a result mentally), practices that sooth my nervous system, and a practice of breathing and meditation that’s begun to infuse into my days.

For the last few weeks, I’ve felt like I really hit a flow with presence and slowing down my brain’s looping and too-quick thoughts.

I’d cracked the code! (haha, right).

Then over the weekend, I set out on the longest run of my current marathon training cycle. As I settled into the last hour of running, when my body was tired and my pace/effort was meant to get higher, my brain kicked in.

My brain kicked in in all the ways I’ve been working to slow my thoughts down or just observe them rather than let them dictate my actions.

The run wasn’t a failure. Today, a few days beyond it, I mostly feel really good about how it went physically. But I’m disappointed with how I coped and let my mind decide to take it easier than planned in that last hour when I’d prepared for and practiced something else.

I guess that’s why we call it a practice. A running practice. A meditation practice. A breathing practice.

In fact, my last conversation with my long-time naturopath who sadly moved away was on this very topic. She told me that if I wanted to keep running marathons, I was going to have to balance the running out with yoga. And she didn’t mean the physical asasa of yoga poses–although that can be helpful too! She meant that if I was going to continue the going fast of running, I needed to balance it out with the slowing down of practicing breathing, presence, and eating slowly and mindfully, to digest food well.

It’s safe to say I’ve made progress from where I was then. But I have not cracked the code of always getting it right. Nor will I.

We’re all works in progress but as reminder to you, and to myself, we rarely make linear progress.

This recipe for creamy black bean tacos with lightly baked and seasoned winter squash, a simple sliced cabbage and creamy sauce to drizzle over the top, is one of those many-years-in-progress, mind and body are all connected recipes. It’s truly delicious for your fall and winter taco nights.

But I also wouldn’t have been eating it a couple months ago, when my gut health had temporarily returned to a compromised phase – I had to do a bit more healing and re-balancing first to return to eating a “more complicated meal.” That’s all to say, if you’re still in an iffy-digestion state, save this one for a little later. And let’s see about getting your system working optimally first.

And if you’re like me and tend toward too-fast, scattered thoughts, I encourage you to keep up the practice of breathing and returning to presence. I’ll be right there with you.

A true fall and winter favorite, these tacos have all the elements of a balanced meal with the six tastes, and are prepared in a way that makes them easier on digestion. The black beans are next level flavorful when cooked from scratch into a creamy, easier to digest consistency.
Any type of full-flavored winter squash works for this recipe. That includes basically all varieties of winter squash commonly used for eating except spaghetti squash and delicata. See what you have available from your local farmers and try a couple new varieties! I used a super tasty variety called Burgess Buttercup.
Nearly all components of this can be prepped ahead and gently reheated if you want to turn this into a weeknight meal. Additionally, I’ve shortened the preparation time with the way I slice and bake the squash.

Prep:  overnight   | Cook: 3-4 hours (for beans); 45  minutes to finish  | Serves: about 4

1 medium buttercup squash, or similar variety (butternut or any hubbard variety of squash)
Pinch of mineral salt
½ tsp. smoked paprika and/or taco seasoning (without preservatives/fillers added)

3-4 cups of red and/or green cabbage, thinly sliced
⅛ tsp. mineral salt
1-2 Tbs. lime juice

Cooked black beans, see below
Cashew crema, see below
12 small corn tortillas (6”)
Cilantro, minced

Black Beans
½ pound /  1 cup black beans, soaked overnight
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
Water to cover by 3-4 inches

Cashew Crema
1/2 cup cashews, soaked for 4-8 hours or overnight
¼ tsp. garlic salt
1-2 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste
a pinch of ground turmeric and dash pepper
a pinch of ground cayenne, optional
1 Tbs. nutritional yeast, optional
½ cup water or more

  1. For the Black Beans: A few hours before or in the morning, cook soaked black beans in a medium pot in the spices and water until very soft and flavorful and creamy, almost to a refried bean consistency.
    This is best done for at least 3-4 hours, adding water as needed.
  2. For the Baked Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
    Slice your squash in half, and remove the seeds and pith. Then rub the salt and smoked paprika and/or taco seasoning onto the flesh of the squash.
    Then place the two squash halves in a large, rimmed baking pan (like 13×9-inch), with cut side down/skin facing up. Add water to about ⅓ of the way up the side of the squash and bake until completely soft when pierced with a fork. This will take about 30-4o minutes.
    Remove from the oven and allow to cool before slicing. The water should all be absorbed and the spices infused into the flesh.
  3. For the Cashew Crema: Drain and rinse the cashews.Put all the crema ingredients, except the water, in a high-speed blender or food processor and blend, adding water a little at a time until the desired consistency is reached.
  4. While the squash is baking, prepare the sliced cabbage. If your digestion is strong, you can thinly slice and dice the cabbage, stir in the salt and lime juice, and allow to sit at room temperature for 20-30 minutes to soften.
    If digestion is compromised, gently steam the cabbage instead, just until lightly soft. Then remove to a bowl or dish, add the salt, and lime juice.
  5. Heat the tortillas over high heat, in a clean cast iron skillet.Do this by working in batches, two tortillas at a time and heat for 30-60 seconds per side of each tortilla.
  6. To serve, spoon the black beans into each taco, followed by sliced squash pieces, cabbage, a pinch of minced cilantro, and then a drizzle of crema. Enjoy!

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Thyme-Roasted Eggplant with Basmati Rice, Sumac + Preserved-Lemon

Perhaps because I formally named my blog/this website and subsequent business after it, or because I have a particular affection for the vegetable that seems to be a mystery for most people, I get a lot of questions and recipe requests involving eggplant.

Eggplant is much loved and at home in food cultures of the Middle East region. And after this summer, the second hottest locally on record, I can see why. Eggplant thrives in hot weather. Our usual couple plants and a few nice eggplants for the year has turned into more than I can keep up with lately.

And we’ve been eating it a lot.

For me, eggplant’s meaty, Portobello mushroom-like texture is best prepared by roasting (or grilling). And it doesn’t need the gobs of oil that you often find in eggplant-based recipes.

Eggplant does act as a sponge for oil, but also for moisture in general. A nice tip to keep an eggplant-based meal balanced in terms of oil amount is to add a fair bit of water to the roasting pan. Since most oils are actually best used away from heat, that’s the method here, with a nice quality olive oil being added once all the components are out of the oven and off the stovetop, so the oil isn’t oxidized and damaged by the oven and cooking temperatures.

The other thing to highlight is that all the main components of this dish are made warm or cooked. This is because cooking will make the whole dish easier to digest. Even the dark leafy greens are “heated/gently cooked” in the way I add the fresh out of the oven eggplant over the top, as well as the warm rice and onion, and allow it to steam cook for a minute before gently stirring. The easy to digest factor is also why I’ve chosen to use a (white) basmati rice as the grain component. You can choose another whole grain if you have no digestive problems.

Hope you enjoy. This is definitely a keeper of an eggplant-based recipe!

Thyme-Roasted Eggplant with Basmati Rice, Sumac + Lemon

The mung beans are added as a side-dish to make this a complete meal. Mung beans, either cooked from whole green mung, or split mung dal, are the simplest bean to digest. If you’d rather serve another protein, simply leave out and skip that step in the cooking process.

Prep:  6 hours, unattended  | Cook: 1 hour  | Serves: 4

Roasted Eggplant:
1 kg chopped eggplant
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ teaspoon sumac
½ tsp. mineral salt
water to partially cover

For Mung Beans:
¾ cup dry mung beans, soaked for at least 6 hours
½ tsp. mineral salt
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. chopped dried curry leaf
water to cover

Basmati Rice:
⅛ tsp. mineral salt
½ a red onion, sliced thin
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
2 cups water

To Finish:
1/2 preserved lemon, finely chopped
Up to 2 Tbs. lemon juice, to taste
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 handful dark leafy greens, chopped
1 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds OR 1 Tbs. za’atar seasoning
Large handful of cilantro or basil, minced

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Dice the eggplant into medium pieces and place in a baking tray, lined with parchment.Sprinkle with thyme leaves and sumac, salt, and then add water to cover about ⅓ up the sides of the veg. Roast for about an hour, or until completely soft, stirring once or twice throughout.
  • Then start the mung beans. Add drained/soaked mung beans and spices to a medium saucepan. Bring to a medium-high heat and simmer until the spices become fragrant. Add water to cover by a couple inches, then bring to a boil. Once the pot is boiling, turn it down to a simmer and partially cover. Cook for 25-35 minutes, until soft. Set aside.
  • Add 2 cups water to a medium saucepan along with  ⅛ tsp. salt, sliced onion, and the basmati rice. Give it all a good stir, and bring to a boil. Once it’s boiling, turn down to a simmer, cover and cook for 25 minutes. When the rice has finished, take the lid off and allow the steam to escape for a few minutes. 
  • In a large serving bowl, add the diced preserved lemon, chopped leafy greens, and cooked eggplant. Then stir in the steamed rice and onion, along with the lemon juice and olive oil. Before serving, stir in the minced herbs and toasted sesame seeds or za’atar seasoning. 
  • Serve along with the mung beans on the side.

Notes:
– Finely grated lemon zest can be used in place of preserved lemon, if preferred.
– If you only have access to sumac OR za’atar seasoning, choose whichever you have, since za’atar contains the sumac berry as one of it’s components.
Recipe inspired by Emma Galloway of My Darling Lemon Thyme.