Lately, I’ve become really interested in what some call “functional medicine,” and more specifically, the impact that what you put into your body has on how your body operates and performs on a daily basis. In the simplest terms, this is the science behind “You are what you eat,” but the fact is, understanding all facets of how our daily meals and snacks change the way our bodies and minds function is anything but simple. In fact, trying to wrap your head around it all (are complex carbs good because they provide energy, or bad because they cause inflammation?!) can be enough to boggle anyone’s mind.
At the end of the day, I believe that the food choices each individual makes should be based on what feels right to you. No one knows how your body reacts to what you put into it better than you do; in line, surely no one has a better sense of what your own personal “hunger” cues and signals mean. Are you truly hungry, or are you just bored? Is that your daily afternoon sugar craving? Do you need to fuel an intense workout with extra carbs and protein? Are you okay with splurging on tons of pizza and wine this weekend because you know you’ll make healthier choices all week? We each decide individually how to fuel our bodies based on tuning in to what our innate needs are telling us.
For someone like me, who clearly loves food of all shapes and sizes and would gladly indulge in some of the least healthy types of food all the time if it wouldn’t impact on my health, one of the ways I’ve been pushing myself to try new foods lately is by understanding the positive impact different ones can have on my physical well-being.
But let me back up. For some, perhaps, this connection between the food we eat and what goes on in our bodies has been obvious all their lives. I, however, was somehow oblivious to the link between food and body weight throughout all of my childhood and early teenage years (which probably explains my childhood obsession with bread and butter, and potato chips). As I reached my teenage years, I started to connect the dots and watch what I ate a little bit more. But even then, I thought only in terms of calories, not in terms of nutrient requirements or balance.
While spending a year in culinary school, where I sampled the widest variety of cuisines imaginable, often at odd hours, like late at night on a very empty stomach, I became even more aware of the impact food has on our body. Sometimes I would feel a rush of energy after eating a culinary school meal at 9 pm at night; other times, meals would leave me feeling drained and sub par for 24 hours afterwards. I started to pay more attention to the impact that consuming gluten and dairy had on my energy levels, as well as my skin and mood, based on my own experience, reading about others’, and learning more about the science. And while I’m far from gluten or dairy free in my daily life (again, pizza!), its something I now monitor and try to reduce in my diet. Again, its a personal choice – based solely on what works for me.
Where am I going with all of this? My point is, the way I , and probably most of us out there learn and think about food is constantly changing! The news is full of articles on everything from diabetes, to childhood obesity, to “diseases of affluence,” all of which tie back to what and how we eat. Don’t get me wrong – I love to eat, cook, and enjoy food on many levels. But I also believe we have a responsiblity to view food as more than just an indulgent pleasure, and to better understand how it fuels and nourishes us, so that food can help us overcome challenges, not create them for us.
After watching a great talk by Dr. Mark Hyman at TedMed last week, I signed up for his newsletter so I could regularly learn more about the basics of functional medicine and nutrition he touts. His last newsletter was all about getting an “oil change” by understanding what types of oils and fats are necessary in our diets. While dietitians have touted the importance of a low-fat diet for years, evidence is increasingly surfacing that healthy fats, in the form of Omega-3 fatty acids, are needed in the human diet for everything from cellular health and regeneration to brain function.
All of our cells need Omega-3 fats to have strong, flexible, resilient cell walls; however, many of us get most of our fats from other (non-omega 3) sources, and when our cells use these fats to regenerate and grow, their walls are more rigid and more likely to inflame. Inflammation is at the root of a whole slew of everyday problems, from indigestion, to bloating, fatigue, achiness, etc. Omega-3 fatty acids are also crucial for a healthy brain, since our brains are more than 60% fat, so getting more Omega-3 in your diet could potentially make you feel more alert, intelligent, and happy! Are you sold yet?
All this evidence makes Omega-3’s sound like a miracle nutrient, and I was immediately bent on trying to incorporate more of them into my diet. I had been planning a new recipe for an “Energy Cookie,” based on one I’d had at my favorite SoHo cafe, ‘Snice, that is gluten-free and vegan with no added sugar – meaning this “cookie” gives you slow-burning energy, rather than a “rise-and-crash.” The only problem? The energy cookie at ‘Snice doesn’t have very much Omega-3 in it.
So I started with that cookie’s ingredients – oats, dried fruit, almonds – and bulked it up with tons of golden flax seeds, which are the top source of Omega-3 fats: just 1 tablespoon provides 100% of your daily value. Toss in a couple of omega-3 eggs, and out came an “energy bar” that provides over 1,000 mg (or 100% of your daily recommended amount) of Omega-3’s per serving. Not to mention, it’s still GF/SF/V, and tastes pretty darn great!
Oh, and they’re pretty.
So maybe you’re not ready to jump on the functional medicine bandwagon like I am, but are you ready to replace your afternoon sugary pick-me-up with one that tastes just as good, but will give you slow-burning energy? If you are, this recipe is for you. Give it a shot!
Fruit-and-Flax Energy Bars – Makes 18 bars
Adapted from Kath Eats
- 3 cups rolled oats
- 3/4 cups of golden flax seeds
- 2/3 cups of chopped or slivered almonds
- 1/2 cup of dried apricots, chopped
- 1/2 cup of dried apples, chopped
- 2 eggs (use Omega-3 eggs for 100% DV of Omega-3)
- 2.5 cups of skim milk
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cardamom
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp baking powder