Strong roots make for great resilience; that’s as true for plants as it is for people. Without strong roots, trees blow over in the wind while people without strong roots get exhausted in the face of challenge. That connection accounts, in part, for why I love to eat root vegetables whenever I am about to face a demanding athletic challenge. The energy stored in those starchy tubers gives me the energy to go the distance in my race. Such vegetables should not be a daily indulgence, but they do have their place in a healthy diet. Read on to find out how they fit in.
It’s interesting that at the same time as my colleague, Christina Lombardo, has rolled out resilience coaching as a new LifeTrek specialty, I would make the connection between resilience and root vegetables • the focus of this week’s Pathway. Whether it has to do with plants or people, resilience is all about roots.
I’m not sure why, since I did not grow up on a farm, but I can remember planting potatoes as a child. There were no seeds to plant. We just took some old potatoes, waited until the eyes had sprouted, cut them up to preserve the sprouts, waited a few more days for the potato to seal the cuts, and stuck them in the ground. Two weeks later we had potato plants. A few months later, we had more potatoes than we knew what to do with.
Now that’s resilience! I wish we could all bounce back from our wounds stronger and more plentiful than we were before. The reason potatoes can do this has to do with its starchy tuber. There is enough energy stored in the starch to generate the sprouts and to start new plants without seeds. That same energy is what makes potatoes, and other root vegetables, so attractive to marathon runners. As someone who avoids eating grains, I do not carbohydrate load with the typical pasta dinners. Instead, I load up on baked potatoes, both white and sweet, and they have never failed yet to get me through a marathon.
That, too, is resilience. The high carbohydrate energy load of potatoes, and other root vegetables, makes them good to eat both before and after demanding, endurance activities. Eaten in advance, they stoke up the body’s glycogen stores. Eaten afterwards, they replenish the glycogen in muscles and other tissues. This makes root vegetables an endurance athlete’s best friend. They are part of the formula, along with lean, grass-fed meat or wild fish, to recover quickly in order to run again another day.
Unfortunately, the same high-starch, high-carbohydrate quality of root vegetables gets people in trouble when they become a normal part of the diet in the lives of sedentary people. And normal they have become for millions, if not billions, of people around the globe. Think French fries, chips, and mashed potatoes. In the United States, French fries account for 25% of all the vegetables eaten and more than 35 billion pounds of potatoes are harvested every year.
That’s really a shame, because these high-starch, high-carbohydrate vegetables contribute mightily to the obesity epidemic and to other chronic health problems. They have their place in a healthy diet, but that place is not daily, let alone multiple times per day, and it is certainly not fried in oil or mashed with dairy products. Their place is best limited to providing energy for demanding athletic activity and to sweetening an occasional meal which otherwise has an abundance of salad, leafy green or cruciferous vegetables, and lean protein.
Unlike fruits, flowers, leaves, shoots, and stems, starchy vegetables fall in the category of foods that need to be intentionally limited by design. As we discussed earlier in this series, when it comes to fruits and other vegetables, we are free to eat all we want. That’s because these foods are typically low-calorie, high-fiber, and self-limiting. You might be able to eat a quart of ice cream after dinner; but there’s no way to polish off a quart of broccoli on top of an already-full stomach. “All we want” of these foods turns out to be a reasonable amount.
Not so when we come to high-starch, high-carbohydrate root vegetables. These things can rapidly make blood sugar soar, especially if they are fried in oil or mashed with dairy products. And once blood sugar spikes, the body enters a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. That’s why I call these food the have-a-little-want-more foods or, to quote a famous maker of potato chips, the bet-you-can’t-eat-just-one foods. They are chemically addictive and medically dangerous. They can do a number on human health.
With the introduction of root vegetables in the LifeTrek Optimal Wellness Prototype, we have therefore turned a corner in our series on optimal wellness. Up until now, I have been singing the praises of the foods our bodies were designed to eat and digest: edible fruits, flowers, leaves, shoots, stems, and mushrooms; lean, grass-fed meat; wild fish; free-range eggs; and raw, unsalted nuts and seeds. No one needs to eat anything other than those foods in order to be perfectly healthy.
In fact, limiting ourselves to only those foods is the prescription for optimal wellness. We do not need to eat starchy, root vegetables, legumes, oils, salt, sugar, grains, corn, dairy products, candy, or other processed foods for any health reason. Such foods pose more problems than they solve when it comes to personal wellness (even though they solve more problems than they pose when it comes to species survival, since it is primarily their calories that keep 7 billion human beings alive every day).
Most of us, however, deviate on occasion from the perfect diet. The reasons are legion. We may have developed bad habits, find ourselves in social settings where it is awkward to refuse certain foods, be chemically addicted to processed foods, or simply may not care about how long or how well live. Whatever the situation and whatever the reason, it’s because of the inevitable deviations that we make exceptions in the LifeTrek Optimal Wellness Prototype and that we specify how to handle those exceptions in order to minimize their negative impacts.
Root vegetables are one such exception. In addition to being high-glycemic foods, some root vegetables • most notably white potatoes and yams, which are distinct from sweet potatoes • are edible only when cooked. White potatoes contain toxic compounds called glycoalkaloids that can cause headaches, diarrhea, cramps and, in severe cases, coma and even death. Cooking not only makes the starchy tuber more digestible, it also destroys most (but not all) of the toxic compounds. White potatoes should not be eaten if they are green or have green, leafy sprouts, since either condition indicates the elevation of glycoalkaloid levels.
Other root vegetables, such as turnips, rutabagas, carrots, beets, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, radishes, and sweet potatoes can be eaten raw or cooked. Since cooking breaks down the starch in the tuberous roots, making it more readily digestible, cooking root vegetables also raises their glycemic index and glycemic load. In other words, cooking root vegetables makes them more likely to cause a spike in blood sugar. From this vantage point, it’s better to eat them raw. Sliced thin, they add crunch, taste, and nutrition to tossed salads.
The best ways to cook root vegetables are to steam, pressure cook, boil, stew, or bake them. These forms of cooking require no added oil, salt, or sugar. I like to make bison or buffalo stew with turnips, rutabagas, carrots. and beets (each of which have a lower glycemic index than potatoes and less 75 calories per cup). I also like to add cubes of cooked sweet potato to my steamed greens; that makes for a nice sweet-and-sour taste.
Other than that, my main consumption of root vegetables revolves around my workout schedule. There’s nothing like a sweet potato, a banana, and a tablespoon of high-potassium blackstrap molasses, a couple of hours before a long run to give me the energy I need to go the distance. Their resilience becomes my resilience in the ebb and flow of the effort.
Coaching Inquiries: How often do you eat starchy, root vegetables? How often do you eat other starchy vegetables, such as winter squash? Do you eat them fried in oil, mashed with dairy products, or otherwise loaded with fatty condiments? How could you reduce or eliminate such preparations? How could you make splendid, tossed salads a part of your daily routine? Who could join you for a healthy lunch in the days ahead?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..
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