Recipe: Quinoa with Spinach, Almonds, and Cranberries

You’ve heard by now that quinoa is good for you.  Whole grain, high protein, high fiber, and gluten free….need I say more? Plain quinoa, however, is a little boring so spice dinner up with the recipe below. It saves well for leftovers and can be served with a protein and veggie of your choice for a complete and delicious meal.


Tofu and Brussels sprouts make it a delicious and healthy meal!

Makes 4 servings

1 cup dry quinoa

2 cups spinach

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup sliced almonds

2 TBSP olive oil

2 cups vegetable broth

Cook quinoa based on package directions using vegetable broth instead of water (usually 2 cups liquid for 1 cup quinoa and simmer for 15-20 minutes). Add dried cranberries and almonds during last 2 minutes of cooking and stir.

While quinoa cooks wilt spinach in olive oil over medium heat. Add cooked spinach to quinoa mixture and stir to fluff. Serve warm.

Should You Eat: Chia Seeds

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! If you wephoto(15)re around in the 80s your first association with chia seeds was probably the same as mine, that is that they are for growing weird little grass pets.  I have to admit that because of this association I was at first skeptical about eating them when they started to get popular.  Nowadays chia seeds are toted as a nutrition superstar, capable of everything from controlling hunger and aiding in weight loss, hydrating you, fueling your workouts, and fighting cancer and heart disease.

But do they live up to the hype?

One tablespoon of chia seeds contains approximately 60 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrate, 5 grams of fiber, 5 grams fat, and 2 grams of protein.   Most of those 5 grams of fat are from polyunsaturated fats, specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fat.  It’s probably not new news to anyone these days that omega-3 fats are full of health benefits including promoting heart and brain health.  In those 2 grams of protein are all of the essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source and a good option for vegetarians in particular.   In addition, chia seeds are a good source of calcium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium and zinc.  That’s quite the nutritional punch!

So what about sports performance?  The omega-3 fats in chia seeds are anti-inflammatory, meaning they could be helpful with recovery from strenuous exercise.  Chia seeds were supposedly used for energy by the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who were said to be able to run hundreds of miles after drinking chia seeds soaked in water.  Chia seeds can help with hydration, as they are highly absorbent. Soak chia seeds in a glass of water for 10 minutes and you’ll see how much they soak up the water, becoming thick gelatinous blobs. Gross? Kind of, but this is why they are able to help with hydration.

Chia seeds also contain magnesium, which is thought to help with muscle cramping, another possible benefit for athletes who struggle with cramping.  So chia seeds could be beneficial for athletes, although studies on sports performance and chia seeds are scarce.

And what about all the other hype?  Chia sees are said to help with weight loss and feeling satiated.  They are high in fiber, which can help aid weight loss by helping you feel fuller longer.  It’s also believed that because chia seeds expand  in water they can help create a feeling of fullness as they expand in your stomach.  Chia seeds (and all seeds really) are pretty calorie dense however, so the calories can add up pretty quickly.  So if you are watching your weight stick to 1-2 tablespoons per day.

Chia seeds are a good source of antioxidants, which help eliminate free radicals in the body. Since free radicals may cause cellular changes that could lead to cancer, chia seeds could potentially be helpful with cancer prevention, but this by no means guarantees that eating chia seeds will prevent or cure cancer.  They could, however, along with other antioxidant packed fruits and vegetables, help form the base of a healthy diet that would provide potential cancer protection benefits.

As I mentioned above chia seeds contain omega-3 fats, which is why they have been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fats help raise the HDL or “good” cholesterol as well as lower trigylcerides. Because they are anti-inflammatory this means they can help reduce inflammation in blood vessels, thus helping stave off heart disease.  Unfortunately the only omega-3 that chia seeds contain is ALA, where as the omega-3s DHA and EPA have been correlated with greater health benefits.  Some ALA is converted in the body into DHA and EPA, but it may be best for heart health to eat foods that contain DHA and EPA, such as fish.


Bottom Line:

Chia seeds are certainly packed with nutrition and may provide some benefit for weight loss and heart health, however studies on this are limited.  Chia seeds are not a superfood though, because there are no superfoods! Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is no one magical cure-all food. It’s best to aim to eat a wide variety of foods, since different foods contain different nutrients.  That being said, because chia seeds are highly nutritious they are worthwhile to incorporate into your diet.

Chia seeds are a bit pricey. I paid about $17 for a 15 oz bag (35 tablespoons).  Granted they were organic and I bought it at Whole Foods so I’m sure there are better deals to be had.  A little bit goes a long way though, as 1-2 tablespoons a day is sufficient.

If you want to try chia seeds for sports performance, consider soaking them in water and drinking them as part of your pre-workout fluids.  Remember never to try anything new on race day!  Make sure to experiment with this on training runs or rides first as the fiber could cause GI distress for some people.

Chia seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, ground or whole. Unlike flaxseed, the human body is able to digest whole chia seeds.  They can be sprinkled on top of oatmeal, yogurt or salads or even baked into breads and other baked goods.  Beware that chia seeds have a tendency to stick to your teeth when eaten in oatmeal and yogurt!

Or try this delicious dessert recipe that contains my last “Should You Eat” blog topic as well, chocolate!

Chia Seed Pudding

  • 2 cups of coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup chia seeds
  • 2-3 tablespoons cocoa powder (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla (or to taste) or cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon or more sweetener of choice (optional)- honey, agave, Stevia, pure maple syrup

Put in a blender and blend until smooth. Divide amongst 4 small bowls or cups and put in fridge to thicken. Pudding will thicken in about 10 minutes in the fridge.


Can You Improve Your Pain Tolerance?

Pikes Peak 2013

Suffering through the final mile of the 2013 Pikes Peak Ascent

I am in a daily plank competition, and it’s really starting to hurt.  It started at 4 minutes and now it’s up to 22, and it just keeps hurting more every week.  I’m not even sure how I’m doing it frankly, as there have been so many days I wanted to quit. I won’t go into the details of the competition, because that’s not the point of this blog.  What I’ve been wondering is if all this painful planking is making me mentally stronger (I know it is physically!)  To be a successful athlete, you have to be able to deal with a certain amount of pain.  I know that I’ve had experiences that taught me just what level of pain I can really handle.  For instance, when I went to France and rode my bike around the French Alps on some of the classic Tour de France climbs.  There were hills that were so steep that, by looking at them, I didn’t think I could physically pedal up them without tipping over.  But I dug deep and I did it, and in the process I learned just how much my body could hurt and still not blow up- literally.  I also think that I made some breakthroughs in my ability to handle pain during races this past summer.  It was mostly mental adjustments that I made- accepting it would hurt, and finding a way to deal with it such as reminding myself of my goal or why I was doing the race.  You’ve probably heard that when it comes to exercise your mind will give out long before your muscles.  It’s so true…but what to do about that?!

I’ve read that athletes have a higher pain tolerance than the general population, and that elite athletes have higher pain tolerances than their recreational counterparts, but this is one of those “which came first, the chicken or the egg” situations.  Do elite athletes develop a higher pain tolerance because of their training? Or do they get to the elite level because they can naturally better deal with the pain of training?  I’m not sure that can be answered, just like I still don’t know if the chicken or the egg came first!

But, even more importantly, can you train to improve your pain tolerance?  I think that you can, both mentally and physically.

I once read an interesting article in Outside magazine (see link at bottom) about pain tolerance.  The article stated that researchers found people who had experienced more physical pain in their lives (like from injuries or childbirth) had a higher pain tolerance than those who didn’t.  One of the ways they discovered this was by having study participants stick their hand in freezing cold water for as long as possible. Those who had more past physical pain tended to be able to keep their hand submerged longer.   To me, that means that training your pain tolerance for exercise is quite possible.  So aside from sticking your hand in frozen water, how can you increase your pain tolerance for exercise?

I did some online sleuthing and also spoke to my sister Kim, who regularly sticks her feet in a bath of freezing cold water after training runs, and here’s what I found out.

*Side note: it’s important to clarify that we are talking about mental pain during exercise and the pain from exhaustion/pushing yourself hard and NOT about the pain from injury, which you should not push through!

Physical Training:

  • Do interval workouts close to VO2 max.   They hurt.
  • Try “trick yourself workouts”, such as going for your planned 8 mile run, then making yourself go a mile or two more.  Having to manage more than you originally planned helps teach your mind to deal with painful changes.  For these it helps to have a coach or running partner spring the change on you, since it’s harder to trick yourself!
  • Practice negative splits- where you run the last miles of your training run faster than the first ones.
  • During challenging workouts don’t stop just because it starts to hurt and your brain tells you to (which it will).  Instead, tell yourself you’ll go another 5 minutes and then reassess if you can slow down. After those 5 minutes are up, tell yourself the same thing.
  • Ice bath!  There is conflicting data on whether or not ice baths help with recovery, but man do they hurt.  A cold Colorado stream works well. Be sure not to give yourself frostbite though.

Mental Training:

  • Practice positive self talk: such as “I don’t feel this pain” or as Jens Voigt says “Shut up legs!”.  Think about how much you have accomplished so far, not how much you have left to go.  Try reciting a positive mantra such as “I feel fast, efficient, and strong”.
  • Have a purpose/goal for the pain and remind yourself of that goal.  Remind yourself the pain is temporary. For instance, the most helpful sign I saw during my last half marathon was one that read “Pain is temporary, but Facebook is forever”.  It’s lame, but I really wanted to post that I had PR’d on my Facebook page, and that little reminder helped me to pick up the pace during my roughest miles.
  • Don’t think too much about how tired you are or how long you have to go.  If those thoughts arise, try to let them go and instead focus on the things you can control, like breathing and good form.
  • Commit to hurting. You have to accept it to deal with it.  Visualize yourself doing it anyway, successfully, and tell yourself that you can do it despite the pain.  As one of my favorite quotes goes “ You aren’t gonna get out of this pain free so pick your pain- the pain of the race or the pain of regret!”

To read the Outside article:

Sweet Potato Black Bean Tacos

Looking for a healthy vegetarian meal? Look no further than these tasty tacos!

photo(14)1 large sweet potato

1 can black beans

1 small yellow onion

1 avocado, cut into bite sized pieces

½ bunch kale

8 6-inch tortillas (white corn/wheat mix works well)

Cumin or coriander

Olive oil


Pre-cook sweet potato in the microwave for 3 minutes, then cut sweet potato into ½ in cubes.  Toss cubes in 1 tablespoon olive oil and bake at 375°F for 25-30 minutes, or until tender and golden.

While the potatoes are cooking heat the beans over low heat, adding a pinch of cumin or coriander midway through.

Dice onion and sauté in olive oil until tender.  (If you are feeling adventurous and have a dark beer around, cooking the onions in beer instead of olive oil yields a nice flavor).

Rip washed kale into bite size pieces and sauté in a pan over medium heat with 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Divide sweet potato, beans, onion, kale, and avocado evenly amongst 8 tacos.

Should You Eat: Chocolate?

chocolateI’ve decided to add a new feature to my blog, the “Should You Eat: XX” blogs!  Here I will choose a particular food, usually one with lots of hype around it, and break it down to see what it really offers in terms of nutrition and sports performance enhancement, and whether or not I think it’s worthwhile to incorporate it into your diet.

First up, chocolate.  Let me preference this blog with a confession:  I love chocolate.  Most days of the week I have a piece or two, and it’s not always the dark “healthy” kind.  I don’t do it for my health so much as for enjoyment, but I do sometimes wonder if all this chocolate is helping or hurting my health and sports performance (physical health that is, there is no doubt it helps my mental health!).

Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, which is a good source of a group of phytochemicals called “flavanols”.  These nutrients have antioxidant properties and are thought to help reduce the risk of heart disease, improve blood flow, and lower blood pressure.  There have also been studies that found improvement in memory and cognitive function with an increase in flavanols from cocoa in the diet, possibly from increased blood flow to the brain.  So that’s why you often hear that dark chocolate is good for you.  The difference between dark chocolate and regular milk chocolate is mostly the cocoa content.  Dark chocolate also contains much less milk than milk chocolate and it is generally only dark chocolate that is thought to have health benefits.

The downside is that chocolate is full of calories in the form of fat and sugar.  There have been some studies (on animals mostly) about the addictive properties of sugar and fat combined, meaning you may have a hard time stopping after just 1-2 pieces!  I, however, would like to think that I have a little more mental strength than a rat so I’m not sure how applicable those studies are to humans.  Still, it’s important to consider that to get 200mg of flavanols from dark chocolate (70% cacao) you would need to eat 2 ounces, which would contain about 300 calories**.  That’s no small sum.  Milk chocolate is too low in flavanols to even pretend you are eating a health food, so no luck there, sorry.

The good news is there is another form to try if you want to reap the health benefits of chocolate- cocoa powder.  Because it’s less processed it contains more flavanols than any other form of chocolate.  And because it doesn’t have sugar and milk added to it like chocolate, it doesn’t contain the fat or sugar either.  To get 200mg of flavanols from cocoa powder, all you need is 1 ¾ tablespoons, which will only set you back 20 calories!  Chocolate lovers beware though, cocoa powder is not sweet. In fact, it’s quite bitter and, well, kinda gross tasting.

Wondering if chocolate or cocoa powder can improve your sports performance? It would make sense that increased blood flow could be beneficial.  After all, that’s part of the reason beet juice helps.  A quick search on Pub Med didn’t yield a whole lot of results though.  There was one study that found reduced oxidative-stress markers and increased mobilization of free fatty acids after exercise but no observed effect on exercise performance with regular dark chocolate consumption.   I also found an article referencing a study claiming “eating dark chocolate improves athletic performance just as much as exercise”, which I find hard to believe. Turns out it was a mice study. I didn’t realize mice liked chocolate!  Anyway, looks like we need more studies on athletes and dark chocolate. I’d volunteer for that!  The down side with chocolate and sports performance is potential weight gain.  As I noted above, you’d have to eat 300 calories worth of dark chocolate to get the health benefits.  That’s a pretty big chunk of your daily caloric needs if you are eating, say, about 2200 calories a day.

So, the question is, should you eat chocolate?  Like so many things with food and nutrition, I’m not going to give you a straight yes or no answer! First of all, I’m only talking about dark chocolate here.  There aren’t enough flavanols in milk chocolate to provide any health benefits, so if you really like milk chocolate make sure to have it as an occasional treat, not a daily occurrence, and don’t kid yourself into believing you are eating it for your health.  That being said, I think that there are some great possible health benefits to eating dark chocolate, but these must be weighed with the cost, i.e. lots of calories from fat and sugar.  However, if you don’t like dark chocolate and already eat a healthful diet there is probably no point in starting to add in dark chocolate.  If you are interested in amping up your diet but don’t care for dark chocolate, try incorporating cocoa powder.  Add a tablespoon or two to smoothies, recovery shakes/drinks, or coffee or even top your yogurt or oatmeal with it.  Now, if you do like chocolate then I say go for it!  Not only are there the potential health benefits, but there is also the pleasure factor to consider.  Depriving yourself of something you really enjoy is likely to make you want it more-and to end up eating a whole pan of brownies when you finally let yourself have some.  That will put way more of dent in your diet and health than a piece or two a day.  Plus, it’s okay to incorporate foods you enjoy into your diet (within reason of course). Just make sure to opt for dark chocolate (70% cacao minimum) most of the time and be sure to factor the chocolate into your daily caloric needs as well as your total sugar intake to avoid unwanted weight gain.

Next up, Should You Eat: Chia Seeds.  What other foods would you like to see featured?

**Statistics from Nutrition Action Healthletter, December 2013 issue

No New Year’s Resolutions!

Ah, 2014, we finally meet.  I’m looking forward to this year, as I plan on having lots of epic bike and running races on the calendar!  Not only that, but I’m joining a team this year: the Runner’s Roost Mountain/Ultra running team!  These are no resolutions however, since it seems to me that most resolutions don’t amount to much in the end.   So here is a blog I wrote last New Year’s about setting goals.  Enjoy!
 I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve always thought that if you want to change something you should do it now and not wait until the start of a new year, so I don’t usually set resolutions. Sure, there are those that want a “fresh start” and so the first of the year makes sense to embark on a goal, but statistically speaking most New Year’s resolutions fail within the first half of the year. Another potential problem I’ve noticed is that sometimes when we set a start date for a goal we give ourselves permission to do exactly the opposite until then, such as eating or drinking as much as we can before giving up alcohol or starting to eat healthier.

I recently read a statistic that by the end of January over a third of resolutions have been given up on. Anyone who goes to a gym can witness this trend. The gyms are packed in January to the point that it’s nearly impossible to find a machine, but by March they’ve generally returned to normal levels.

I’m not totally pessimistic about resolutions though. A majority of resolutions involve health in one way or another which I am all for, and setting goals can be a good way to stay on track and change one’s life for the better, just make sure to be SMART when setting your resolution!

SMART goals are often used in the business world, but they can work for health and fitness related goals as well. You’ll see some variations, but SMART generally stands for specific, measurable, attainable (or achievable), relevant, and time sensitive (or timely).

Specific- A specific goal is easier to stick with than a general one, so instead of saying “I will lose weight” or “I will work out more” make it specific, such as “I will work out 4 days per week in order to improve my body composition”.

Measurable- You’ll need a way to know if you are meeting your goal, so make sure it’s measurable. For the above goal you could say, “I will do 30 minutes of cardio at the gym 4 days a week”. You could also use body composition measurements as an indicator of staying on track.

Attainable- They say reach for the stars, but if you set your goals too high you’ll likely get discouraged and give up. I recommend setting mini goals that feel manageable and work you towards the greater goal. For instance, what’s the goal for this week? This month? Don’t focus too far into the future and don’t set unrealistic goals (like losing 20 pounds in a week or running your first marathon next month when you’ve never ran more than a mile in your life).

Relevant- You gotta want it to stick with it so don’t set a goal you don’t really care about. If it is not really relevant to your life or worth the effort to you, you’ll likely get bored with it quickly. So make sure it’s a goal you really care about.

Time Sensitive- Put an end date on it. Having a deadline can be motivating (as long as it’s realistic and attainable!).

Good luck and Happy New Year!

Beet and Goat Cheese Salad


beetsPerfect for a light lunch or a side at dinner, this hearty salad packs a nutritional punch with antioxidant rich beets and greens as well as heart healthy fats in the nuts and olive oil.  Wonder why beets are so good for athletes? Check out my blog on  Beets  here.

 Makes 4 servings

 4 cups arugula or mixed greens

2 whole beets, peeled and cubed

½ cup walnuts or pecans

2 oz goat cheese

Balsamic vinegar

Olive oil

Toss beets in 1-2 tablespoon olive oil. Roast at 400°F until tender, about 20-25 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook walnuts in a lightly oiled (or use cooking spray) skillet at medium-high heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Spread arugula evenly on 4 plates.  Evenly divide all other ingredients amongst the plates as well, and top with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.