Clean[ish] Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

It’s FALL, my favorite season, and that means PUMPKIN! I am basically in love with all things pumpkin flavored—coffee, soups, and anything baked! Pumpkin itself is a fantastic food—rich in fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and potassium, pumpkin is a tasty and nutritious addition to just about anything you can think of.  In baking, pumpkin adds moisture and density, and its texture is unmistakable.  I love to add it to my oatmeal pancakes, protein pancakes, smoothies, curries, cookies, breads, and just about anything else I can squeeze it into!

Last year, at the very beginning of my Unwrapped adventure, my daughter challenged me to baking a pumpkin pie.  At the time, I was in the process of working through my list of taken-for-granted packaged foods in an attempt to learn how to make everything from the source.  Her request threw me for a loop—I had absolutely no idea how to derive pumpkin puree from an actual pumpkin, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might come up.  I felt intimidated and completely unprepared to turn jack-o-lantern material into food!  Somehow, though, I figured it out and through trial and error I learned the ins and outs of preparing pumpkin.

Did you know that many “pumpkin” foods, including pies, are made with sweet potato or squash instead of pumpkin?  I did not!  Imagine my surprise when I cooked my first pumpkin and ended up with a pile of yellow mush that looked nothing like the brown puree that comes in the can!  I learned to look for certain varieties of pumpkins, such as sugar pie and baby bear (sounds like pet names, no?), which are smaller and tastier than your typical jack-o-lantern pumpkin.  I have also found that to get a sizeable amount of puree, I need several of them.

For pies and baked goods I actually prefer to mix pumpkin and sweet potato.  Sweet potato is not only an optimal carbohydrate that is preferred by most bodybuilders—it is also much easier to work with and is sweeter than pumpkin, which eliminates some of the need for additional sweeteners.  And honestly, it looks much more like the canned pumpkin we’re all used to seeing.

Today, I had a brown banana and a small pumpkin on my kitchen counter, and I had to do something with them before it was too late.  I came up with a pretty impressive recipe for pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, if I do say so myself!  As always, my challenge is to create recipes that are not heavy in butter, sugar, oil, or gluten—while passing the kid test.  This one passed–my seven year old daughter loved them!

To avoid gluten, I use oat flour.  You can use a food processor to make your own if you don’t have any handy—simply pour some oats in and chop them up.  If you don’t mind the extra fats, you could also use almonds or almond meal, or some combination of oats/almonds.   I also used splenda.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies:

  • 1 cup pumpkin/sweet potato puree
  • 1.5 cups oat flour
  • 1 mashed banana
  • 1 egg
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg  (I have no idea how much I used of either spice)
  • 1/2tsp vanilla
  • ½ cup mini chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ¾ cup splenda

Preheat oven to 350.  Mash banana until it is nearly liquid; stir in the splenda until the mixture is smooth, and then stir in egg and pumpkin.  Add the remaining ingredients to the pumpkin mixture.  Spoon onto cookie sheet—these cookies are dense and will not spread out, so I recommend making smaller cookies.  Bake for 14 minutes.  This made about 20 cookies.

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Children are the Greatest Inspiration!

 

Last week, I watched my daughter become aware of her body for the first time.

“Mommy,” she asked, “how come I’m not skinny like you?” I’m pretty sure I felt my heart stop at that moment.  There really are no words for what I felt at that moment. I asked her what she meant, and she said, “my tummy pokes out.  I can suck it in and make it like yours but I can’t keep it like that. Is that what other people do all the time?”  I felt like I had just been dropped off the side of a cliff.  At an age where “beautiful” means a long dress, and “rich” means ten dollars, it makes sense that “fat” means a big belly—including her beautiful child’s tummy.  I was crushed.

I wanted to scoop her up and run with her all the way to the North Pole, where I could find a cabin and hide her away from the world.  But I realized that the world isn’t the problem yet—she is human, and she is simply understanding her Self in comparison to Others.  Isn’t this one of the natural stages of development?

Instead of panicking (ok, maybe in addition to panicking…), I took a deep breath and listened.  Really listened.  Now, if you haven’t experienced a deep conversation with a seven year old, then let me tell you—it’s harder than it sounds.  But you don’t know what you’re missing.  We talked about our plants, friends, shiny things, tummies, TV shows…and luckily, I began to understand that the crisis I was prepared to face really wasn’t a crisis at all.  She was just genuinely curious.  It still has not crossed her mind that different equals bad, or that her body might be somehow flawed.  She had simply observed a difference and was trying to make sense of it.  But how amazing to be present for and aware of this critical moment in her life!  Now it is my job to introduce her to the different ways of appreciating her body, and to make sure she grows up plugged into things that make her body make sense to her.

As a personal trainer and coach, this is very similar to the situation I’m in with my clients–only they’ve had years to make sense of things in their own ways. I have become the confidant of all things body related, the listener to the rambling thoughts of the body conscious, and the answerer of all questions health-related.  I am often the first person to explain body types, to help them understand why they have fought with their bodies for so much of their lives, or to introduce even the concept of non-aesthetic body goals.  Often, I find myself wishing I could go back in time and catch everyone at age seven and present a greater variety of body ideals.  The body best suited for sprinting, for instance, may not do so well in volleyball.  The body best suited for gymnastics may not excel as well in ballet.  If someone could have told us these things early, how differently might we perceive our bodies now?

 

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

― Albert Einstein

 

It is not enough to simply put people on a cookie cutter workout plan or meal plan that will help them burn a few calories and lose a few pounds —I must instead attempt to plug each one into a style of training that best suits his or her body and interests, and help to re-program his or her understanding of body ideals, health, and fitness.  “Fit” for an endomorph is quite different than “fit” for an ectomorph—and without that understanding, we will get absolutely nowhere in setting, defining, and reaching goals.  And I think this is the step where many people get lost and give up.  They resign to being “too skinny,” or “too fat,” or “too muscular” and simply give up—or worse, fall into unhealthy habits that set them further back in the long run.  We could prevent this simply by setting performance goals that are appropriate for our bodies.

So how do we quantify non-aesthetic goals? Can we conceptualize a fitness goal that has nothing to do with pounds or inches lost? In some cases, these are critical goals that can mean the difference between health or a future with life-threatening illnesses.  But for many, these could really be seen as peripheral goals.  I promise that with good nutrition and training programs in place, we can make inches and pounds disappear.  Why focus so much of our attention on how our bodies look? Why run for the sake of weight loss but hate running?  Why not focus more on what we can do when we apply ourselves at something we enjoy?  What kind of life will you lead if every day is spent in misery over the pursuit of an image in the mirror?

Here’s where you can call me out.  But Sheena, you may be thinking, aren’t you involved in a purely aesthetic sport?  And yes, I am.  But believe it or not, I am not motivated by an aesthetic goal to train every day. Even the best bodybuilders I know understand that the pursuit of a perfect physique has to come in cycles in order to be effective—that is, to look our best for one night on stage, we have to be willing to step away from that as an immediate goal and focus on strength, rebuilding, and repair.  And we all set goals during that time—a bigger bench, a stronger squat, a faster sprint—that keep us motivated even when we’re taking time off from the immediate aesthetic reward.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t care about our aesthetic outcome—I am suggesting that we consider our bodies in other ways as well.

This week, don’t look at your tummy (yes, tummy…) and wonder why it doesn’t look like someone else’s.  Don’t envision what your body will look like when you grow up…er, I mean, reach your goal.  Don’t look in the mirror and wonder if it could be different—not today.  Don’t skip breakfast because your jeans were tight this morning.  Look at the bigger picture—learn to understand your body in a greater sense.  It would have been great to have started at age 7, but it is not too late to start now.

I am challenging everyone to set (and achieve!) a non-aesthetic fitness goal.  Push yourself in a way you normally might not.  Get stronger, get faster, get moving when you often wouldn’t, or achieve consistency when you think you can’t.  Get started, or get re-started.  Get through one training session without being motivated or shamed by an aesthetic outlook.  Test yourself and fall in love with what you can do. 

Example: that’s my daughter in the photo at the top.  She hiked Blood Mountain at age 6.  In the dark. On New Year’s Eve, in the cold.  The second time, just a month ago, she looked up and wasn’t sure she could do it.  That photo was taken at the top.  Now, she defines herself as a good hiker who set a goal and achieved it.  🙂

REST is WORK! Recognize and Prevent Over-training

In the pursuit of health and fitness, most people tend to focus their energies on food and training.  However, there is a third component that is often overlooked and absolutely critical: RECOVERY.

What we do in the gym is important, so don’t get me wrong, but what we do AFTER the gym is critical to reaching our goals.  It’s where the magic happens. Think, for a moment, about the process by which we grow our muscles: during weight training, we essentially break them down by creating damage to the muscle fibers. The process of repairing these damaged muscle fibers is what causes muscles to grow, as new cells are created to repair the site of the injury.  The result is literally bigger and stronger muscles.  Mind you, there are many factors, including genetics, that determine exactly what your bigger and stronger muscles will look like, but the process is the same for everyone.  So stay with me for a minute—I’m not going to turn you into Arnold.

Continuing to train on muscles that are never allowed to recover is the fast track to overtraining; this not only halts any progress you are trying to make, but also leads to injury.  Think about it: if you damage your muscle but don’t allow it to heal properly, and then train on it again, you just damage it further.  And if you continue to push, your body will be miserable, you’ll be depressed, your progress will halt, and you’ll be wondering where on earth you went wrong.  I am usually on the other end of this phone call or email at least once or twice a week.

Most people have experienced or will eventually encounter overtraining, whether they know it or not.  So it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of overtraining.   A quick Google search for “overtraining” will turn up an exhaustive list of all of the possible symptoms, but sometimes they are pretty far-reaching and may leave you wondering how to tell the difference between the flu and overtraining.  So here are some descriptions of the ones I see the most.  If you recognize yourself, as I suspect many of you will, be patient with me.  And if you’re a skimmer, make sure you catch the last few paragraphs—I’ll tell you how you can avoid or respond to the following:

1.  Lack of motivation.
I see this one most frequently, and for me it’s the first sign.  Last week you couldn’t WAIT to get to the gym, but suddenly you realize that for the past few days you haven’t really been feeling it, your workouts seem aimless, and you can’t get motivated.

2. Changes in your normal sleep pattern.
Insomnia is usually my second sign.  After a good workout, you should be tired at night!  Suddenly you’re up all night for no reason, or just aren’t sleeping very soundly.  You may also experience more difficulty getting out of bed than normal.

3. Low immune system.
You know that feeling you get when you’re just about to get sick?  Learn to recognize it if you can’t already.  When you feel this way, you usually have an opportunity to prevent the impending illness.  When I encounter days like this, I know it can go either way: if I’m smart, I won’t train in this condition.  Admittedly, I’m not always as smart as I should be. Do as I say, not as I do…I’ve learned this one the hard way!

4.  General pain, discomfort, or not-quite-right-ness.
For me, this one shows up as a discomfort that edges on pain that I can’t quite put my finger on.  I’ll usually say that “my central nervous system hurts,” as a joke that really isn’t funny because it’s kind of true.  This one can also show up as muscle or joint pain that persists longer than normal or for no apparent reason.

5.  Moodiness/irritability/low patience.
Usually due to one or more of the above.  You know it when you have it.

6.  Sudden decline in performance.
Weight that should be easy isn’t.  Endurance is way off.  You probably had trouble getting started (see #1), but once you did it didn’t get any better.  Maybe you float around the gym unable to actually commit to your workout.

Great news: overtraining can be prevented!  There are a few things you need to know.  First and foremost, recognize that REST IS WORK.  My clients should all recognize this statement!  Do not allow yourself to feel guilty for taking time off.  You need that time off for several reasons.  It not only gives your body a chance to repair and recover from the work you’ve done, but it also gives you a necessary mental break.  Too much of anything can lead to burnout, and this is true for the mental side of training–if you do something over and over, you’ll eventually get tired of it.  The people who train the most consistently also usually rest consistently.  Be the tortoise, not the hair.  If you don’t plan for a rest, then you’ll be miserable when your body forces you to rest—and it will, eventually.

Realize the importance of nutrition.  There is a reason why bodybuilders focus on protein—it’s what repairs the damages we inflict on our muscles! Translation: it’s what allows muscles to grow.  <—–you want this.  Trust me.  Now, I could write a whole new post on exactly how to optimize your body’s ability to use this protein, but for now I’ll just leave you with the knowledge that it can indeed be sped up or slowed down based on the form you choose and what you choose to eat with it.  If you want specifics, contact me or look it up.  No, contact me—there is a lot of junk out there written by supplement companies who are just trying to sell you something.

If you are on a heavy lifting program, don’t forget to designate an occasional de-load week.  I know it’s no fun to lift less than 65% of your max effort, or to sit around stretching while all of your friends are lifting; it’s tough on the ego.  But it’s necessary. “Go hard or go home” is a great motto, but sometimes it’s counterproductive.  No one should be lifting at or near full capacity every day of every week.  A day off won’t cut it.  You need several days of active recovery—keep your body moving, but lay off the heavy stuff.  There are many ways to do this, and it really depends on how you train—again, if you have specific questions please feel free to run them by me so we can create a plan that works for you.

Go to bed at a decent hour!  A large part of recovery takes place while you are asleep.  The fastest way to overtrain and piss off your adrenals is to not get enough sleep.  If you keep going and going, you will overtrain very quickly and end up in a vicious cycle that ends with fatigue and overcaffeination—eventually, your adrenals will hate you.  If you push yourself into adrenal fatigue, you will have a very difficult time reaching your fitness goals—many people experience this wall and eventually give up, and its ‘ll because they didn’t get enough sleep.  Very sad–don’t let this happen to you.

Add variety to your training.  A lot of the smarter programs I have encountered have variety built in, but even still it’s important to switch it up.  This functions in the same way as the de-load week, but gives your body a longer break from one kind of stressor while allowing you to focus on new goals.  I prefer to stick to a program for 4-6 weeks at a time.  If it is a program that I really enjoy, I might only interrupt it for a week or two, but it’s really important to me to focus on short term goals.  How many people go to the gym and lift the same way every week for years at a time?  Do you really think they get stronger every week? Probably not.  Curling 25lb dumbbells every week for a year, with no variation in training, is not likely to result in a substantial increase in the amount of weight someone can curl.  I often get emails from people who have become extremely frustrated and want to know why they are not getting stronger. The first thing I ask is how long they’ve been doing the same thing.  Invariably, I find that the person has not changed his or her training in months or even years. In order to break past a plateau, try something different.  Walk away, try something new, and come back to it.

At some point during your training, you are likely to encounter symptoms of overtraining.  But there are degrees of severity—learn to recognize the signs quickly so that you can manage a small problem before it becomes a much larger problem with a much longer-lasting interruption to your training.

And now, the clean cookie recipe I promised:

  • 3 cups oats
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • splenda/stevia (optional—I didn’t use any)
  • 1 overripe banana
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla
  • 1 grated zucchini and/or carrot (I used both)
  • ½ cup crushed walnuts
  • 2tbsp peanut butter (ok, maybe 3…it was a big glob)
  • ½ cup mini chocolate chips (optional for the kid version—I made it both ways)

Bake on 350 for 12 minutes.  This yielded six very large cookies.  I am not currently counting calories or macros, so if you are you may want to be mindful of the amount of nuts and peanut butter you use–they add up quickly.