Wednesday 5 September 2012

The most delicious vegetable on the planet?

I have a food obsession. It’s not chocolate (although I am partial to the odd square of dark goodness). It’s not lollies (haven’t had those bad boys in a long time). And it’s not ice-cream (rash-inducing and best avoided). It is….drumroll please….SWEET POTATO!!
It should come as no surprise to you, me being the nerd that I am, that my favourite food du jour is a vegetable, but before you scoff at me and roll your eyes in a “ that’s-so-typical-you’re-so-boring-can’t-you-ever-just indulge-in-something-naughty- like-the-rest-of-us” kind of way (don’t pretend you’re not doing it – I’ve seen it many times – believe it or not, eye rolling is quite obvious to the eye-rollee), hear me out. And to those of you who are in the “oh my god she’s eating carbs” camp….whatevs! No, just kidding – I will explain my rationale behind my carb-fest (if you could even call it that).

So what’s with the carbs?
Often a paleo/primal lifestyle conjures up images such as this:

….where “cavemen” dine on meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, making it an inherently low carb, high protein diet. However, our ancestors originated from a range of different geographical and cultural environments. For example, the Inuit (eskimos) survived on a high-fat diet of meat and blubber, the Maasai in Africa preferred milk, blood and meat, whereas the Kitavans of Papua New Guinea apparently dined predominantly on tubers (e.g. sweet potato), fruit, coconut and fish. What ALL of these cultures had in common though were the following:

  • They were free of many diseases we suffer from today (obesity, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune conditions)
  • They ate FRESH food or they fermented fresh food which improved in nutritional value over time. Believe it or not they didn’t have  Twinkies back then
  • The food they ate was of HIGH QUALITY – no chemicals, no added hormones, no factory farming

What should we take from this little reflection on the past? Aside from the fact that quality is of utmost importance when it comes to food, we should recognise that THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL DIET! We are all different and so have different needs, and these needs may also change throughout your life. What works for you now may not work for you in 10 or even 5 years time. If you want optimal health, you need to learn to listen to your body – if something isn’t working for you, then change it!

So why the paleo diet?
Well, I like the way Chris Kresser puts it – the paleo diet should be viewed as more of a “paleo template” – a starting point to build upon. When you start with the basics of meat, non-starchy veg, a little fruit, eggs and some good sources of fat you are essentially starting with a clean slate – resetting your body or, if you would like a more PR-ish term, you could possibly call it a “detox” by eliminating potentially toxic foods such as grains, legumes and dairy, which some people may tolerate however you won’t know if you do or don’t until you remove them from your diet for a period of time (30days at least). 

Umm – you haven’t addressed this whole “carbs” thing yet…..
Queen of waffling I am! Apologies! So when it comes to starchy vegies, the paleo community are somewhat divided – some say avoid them – sugar is sugar is sugar, while others say they may play a beneficial role in the diet. Lately, I have found the latter to be true for me. 
Previously I have not avoided starchy vegies, but I have simply consumed them as a post-workout snack. Why? Because exercise increases your muscles sensitivity to insulin and also allows non-insulin mediated glucose transport (i.e. when glucose doesn’t require insulin to get into the muscle cells to be stored as glycogen).  However, recently there has been talk of perhaps increasing the overall amount of carbohydrate in the diet by way of starchy vegies (as opposed to things like bread and pasta which are relatively devoid of nutrients and can cause digestive problems) with meals. 

But why???
Well, the reason why we do not need to consume copious amounts of carbs in the diet is because the body can actually make it’s own glucose from amino acids (proteins) by way of gluconeogenesis. Ergo we could survive on a diet of fat and protein. However, this process requires the production of the hormone cortisol, which is our stress hormone. Now this is all good and well if you keep your stress levels in check in other aspects of your life, but if, like me, you are a bit of a stress-head with already raised cortisol levels, you may want to avoid increasing them further. Why? Well for one, if you are over-producing your stress hormones, there is a chance you are doing so at the expense of your sex hormones(read - low sex drive and impaired reproductive function) – a process termed “the pregnenalone steal”(more on this another time). A little starchness here and there could potentially help provide a small amount of glucose, thereby minimising gluconeogenesis and cortisol increases. 

So, being the little experimenter I am, I thought I would give this a shot. I started including some form of starch (mainly at lunch and dinner) to see what would happen. What happened???? Drumroll please (loving the drums today)…….nothing drastic, although I do find my energy levels have improved slightly, along with slightly better digestion and my co-experimenter (Az) reports improved mood. On the flip side, no negative effects have been noted by either subject. 
Now please note that our experiment of n=2 (that means 2 people participated) proves sweet F.A. 

How do you know if you should start including some starchy veg in your diet? Try it and see! Take them out for a while (around 30 days), see how you feel then re-introduce them and again, note how you feel. If you feel better with them, then there’s your answer!

However (a lot of caveats with this one!) I probably would recommend keeping starchy veg to a minimum if you have any issues with blood sugar regulation. How to know? If any of the following apply to you, maybe take them out for a while:

  • You are starving less than 4-5hrs after a meal
  • When you get to this starving state you:

- Are irritable and angry ("Hangry")
- Are tired and can’t concentrate
- Are dizzy/light-headed/shaky
- Feel like you could chew someone’s arm off

If these do not apply to you, then might I suggest trying the humble, yet insanely delicious, sweet potato with some of your meals. 

Back to the sweet potato goodness

This amazing morsel of goodness doesn’t just provide carbs in a tasty package, the sweet potato is also high in fibre (equivalent to that in a serving of oats – take THAT Uncle Toby’s!), which we all seem to be soooo obsessed with. This little baby is also a rich source of beta-carotene which can be converted to vitamin A in the body (although animal sources of this invaluable nutrient are superior), which is essential for reproduction, vision and immune function.  It’s also going to give you a hit of vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium, manganese, iron and vitamin E. Woo hoo!

OK, so how to cook it? Here are 3 stupidly simple and delicious ways to eat the sweet potato:
1. Baked in coconut oil
The best kind for this kind of cooking is the purple skinned, white flesh variety which literally tastes like a dessert. Heat the oven to 120 degrees celcius and melt about 1tbspn of coconut oil in a baking dish. Wash the sweet potato and cut it into rounds, then coat it in the melted coconut oil in the pan, sprinkle with salt and bake for around 30-40mins turning once until soft and gooey in the middle. 

2. Sweet potato mash
Sooo much better than your average white potato mash. I like the orange flesh variety for this style of cooking. Peel, chop, steam and mash with any combination of coconut oil, butter, coconut milk and salt. 

3. Sweet potato soldiers
One of my uni friends actually suggested this one. Cut the sweet potato up like chips – bake or fry them in some coconut oil and a little salt. Once cooked, use them in place of bread as soldiers to dip into soft boiled eggs. Yumm! Or I guess you could just eat them as chips. The world is your oyster!

So what are you waiting for? Go and experiment with the delicious and nutritious sweet potato! If you have any other suggestions of how to eat the sweet potato, please throw them my way! Or if you would like some more sweet potato porn, check out "Sweet Potato Power" by Ashley Tudor

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