Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Power Foods Part 1: Spinach and Sunflower Seed Pesto

When I was first losing weight, I found that shopping for one person and being on a tight budget made selecting healthy choices at the grocery story difficult enough on its own.  But then when I started looking at fat grams, sodium content, fiber, nutrients and everything else on the back of a package, it was enough to make my head spin.  So, to make it easier on myself, I just counted calories and portion sizes and didn't worry about any of that other stuff. 

While calorie counting alone worked for me through the first year of my weight loss, when I started training for my first marathon, it came to my attention in a hurry that I needed to start looking at the quality of the food that was going into my mouth, not just the quantity.  After all, I wasn't just eating now, I was fueling!  As someone who loves cooking and creating recipes, I found a lot of ways to disguise things I don't like (vegetables) with things I do like (cheese).  Over the years, I've come up with several recipes that not only taste good, but pack a nutritional punch as well and can boost your energy for a big workout!

For the first installment in my Power Foods series, I'm going to post a great recipe, but first I'll tell you what makes it so great:

1.) We all know that green stuff is usually good for us, and certainly by the taste of raw spinach you can tell it doesn't have a lot of calories, but the real reason we should eat more spinach is not quite as obvious.  Spinach is a super food that is packed with nutrients and studies show eating the leafy green may protect against osteoporosis, heart disease, cancer and arthritis. And while you should definitely be eating your spinach to help prevent diseases, the reason that it is important for boosting your energy is because of its high iron content. Iron is an integral component of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to all body cells, and is also part of key enzyme systems for energy production and metabolism. Women in particular need to make sure they are getting enough iron in their diets, since menstruation can cause iron deficiency. Also, if the above reasons weren't enough to eat spinach, it's also got a high fiber content, which will keep you fuller longer than less fiberous foods, and as we all have discovered by eating too much of it, fiber aids in your digestion.

2.) We also have all heard that garlic is good for us (even if it's not so great for our breath), but most of us aren't sure why.  Studies have shown that garlic thins the blood, reduces clotting and helps in controlling blood pressure and poor circulation. Garlic also stimulates the immune system and helps in fighting against various diseases.

3.) While traditional pesto uses pine nuts, sunflower seeds are quite a bit less expensive, have a similar taste and pack a huge punch in terms of energy. One of the reasons why many athletes enjoy eating sunflower seeds is that they provide a supply of protein and carbohydrates. Both are important for maintaining energy levels while training or competing. The seeds can also stimulate the liver to release glycogen into the bloodstream. Because glycogen is a form of sugar, this provides an additional boost of quick energy.

4.) Most of us also know that olive oil is the best kind of oil to be consuming, but here's why:  Olives are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (as opposed to saturated and trans-fats that are in butter and partially hydrogenated oils).  Monounsaturated fats are more stable than polyunsaturated fats, and therefore their presence makes the cellular membranes more stable themselves against the action of free radicals. Also, in case you were wondering, all types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fat, but "extra-virgin" or "virgin" olive oils are the least processed forms, so they're the most heart-healthy. Those types contain the highest levels of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that also can promote heart health.

So, now that we know what we're eating and why, here's the recipe:

Spinach & Sunflower Seed Pesto
2-3 large handfuls of baby spinach
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup shredded or grated Romano or parmesan cheese

2 cloves of garlic

Start by getting out your blender or, ideally, if you have a Magic Bullet (umm, the kitchen appliance, not the sex toy), that works perfectly.  Pile the spinach into the blender and add the lemon juice, olive oil, sunflower seeds and cheese.  If you have one of those handy-dandy garlic presses (pictured at right), use it to crush the garlic.  (If you don't have a garlic press, you really should go buy one.)  Add salt and pepper to taste.  I usually add about 1 tablespoon of salt and about 2 tablespoons of pepper, but it's up to you. Blend all the ingredients together until they form a sauce-like consistency.  If you want it a little more thiick and rustic (more of a pesto consistency), add a little less olive oil and lemon juice and just pulse it, don't blend it.  Then, put it in sealed container and let it chill out in the fridge for a bit. 

I usually like to eat it cold as a dip with french bread or vegetables, but it's also a great warm as a topping for pasta or chicken.


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