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Are you a healthifier?

I’ve been reading a book recently called “It’s not about the broccoli” by Dina Rose. Of course my immediate reaction was, “…er, excuse me? It’s ALWAYS about the broccoli!”, but I persevered. And actually, although I am not on exactly the same page as the author, she makes some really great points. One of her most thought provoking observations was that many of us become obsessed with “healthifying” – the concept of making everything you make just a little bit more healthy. Muffins with hidden vegetables, smoothies with added protein, pancakes with ground up seeds – I have done (and still do) all those for my kids. I am, it seems, a regular “healthifier”… is there a problem with that? Maybe.

Dina Rose makes the point that we usually “healthify” muffins, pancakes and other fun foods in an effort to present our kids with things they want to eat, without feeling guilty about offering them. If our kids are clamoring for cookies at breakfast, isn’t it nice to be able to keep the peace, whilst relaxing in the smug knowledge that they’re actually getting a good dose of protein and maybe a vegetable too? I do believe there’s a place for that, especially if it takes the sting out of mealtimes on a temporary basis. Taking the stress and frustration away is key if you want to put your children in the right frame of mind for trying new foods and expanding their palates.

The problems occur however when all we offer is muffins, cookies or pancakes for breakfast. “It’s ok! They’re healthy versions!” we think, but we are missing this essential point. When our kids eventually leave the nest, muffins and cookies and pancakes will be the norm. Do we really think they’ll be grating carrots into their muffins and ordering their pancakes with a side of chia?

In many ways I do think that “healthifying” is a smart way to navigate the current food environment. Whether it’s birthday parties or super-snacks at school, it’s always great if you can dilute the sugar and sneak in some extra nutrition (especially when these kind of events are so prolific.) But it’s important to remember to rotate these items with obviously healthy things too. If you always offer pancakes (or similar) at breakfast, work on getting eggs or unsweetened cereal in to the rotation too. If snacks are always based on cookies, try mixing it up with veggies and hummus, or fresh fruit and nuts. That way, when our kids grow up, they will be less likely to get stuck in the “baked goods” snack rut.

But I think teaching our children how to make “better” treats is useful too. Research does show that even if children stray nutritionally when they are independent, that the vast majority eventually eat in a way that’s similar to how they were brought up. If they were raised on two green veg with dinner, then that is more likely to be their norm. And likewise, if you have taught them to bake from scratch (and make wise choices with it), they are more likely to do so too.

So, it’s without guilt that I pass on this dark chocolate quinoa brownie recipe! The deal is, you need to work on getting better desserts (fruit) or healthier snacks (raw veg and hummus, or apple slices and nut butter) into your children too. I was passed this recipe by some friends in Oakville, Ontario so kudos goes to the Canadians for this one! However I did reduce the sugar, and switch the milk and oils to make it more allergy-friendly.

If you bake this one with your kids, age-depending, you could discuss how adding extra protein (quinoa) helps to steady the release of the glucose (sugar) into their bloodstream. This leads to a more sustained energy release – so they still get the “pick me up” without the uncomfortable crash afterwards. Extra protein (and fibre) also helps them to feel more full, so instead of asking for another and another and another, they will likely be satisfied with one. This is an example of where smaller servings of quality, nutrient dense items, trump the 100-calorie snack packs.

In addition, you can point out how you know exactly what all the ingredients are when you bake something yourself. And how you get to play around with the amount of sugar you use. Find a regular brownie mix box in the store and then go through the ingredient list. Make the point that if they don’t understand what an ingredient is, it’s usually not a good idea to eat it.

One word of caution with the quinoa though. It’s a good idea to soak it for two hours before you cook it. Quinoa, which some people refer to as a “pseudo-grain” (because we use it like a grain but it’s actually a seed), has a very high saponin content. Saponins are naturally occurring detergent-like substances that are concentrated on the outside of seeds. The purpose of them is to protect the seed from microbes or insects. The problem is that although this is effective in nature, those saponins can work against us in concentration, contributing to “leaky gut” and interfering with digestion.

So, if you are working with quinoa as a whole grain (as in this recipe), then I suggest you soak it for two hours before you use it. Then agitate it well as you rinse it off. You’ll see the cloudy, soapy saponins in the water as you rinse. Some brands already say “pre-washed” on the package, but I always soak again anyway. Soaking does reduce cooking time and for this reason you will see that I suggest you just cook until tender in the method below.

If you are using quinoa flour, or if you are buying a product made from quinoa flour, then you need to be careful. Take note of any discomfort you feel afterwards. It’s not mandatory to wash quinoa before turning it into flour so the saponin content may be quite high. For this reason I find that some people with sensitive digestion are fine when they cook quinoa at home, but may react to quinoa cooked in a restaurant or used as flour in a shop-bought product. Fortunately many health food manufacturers are clueing in to this and so you may see “sprouted” quinoa on the label. Sprouting requires 1-2 days in water so the saponin content should be greatly reduced.

It’s also helpful to soak the majority of nuts, seeds and grains (even rice!) too. For a comprehensive guide for soaking times, head over to my Facebook page as I’ll post a summary there on Friday morning. There’s also a few pictures of the brownies, so you can see what you’re in for!

Dark chocolate quinoa brownies

Ingredients (makes one 8 x 8 pan)

Blender mix (all ingredients at room temperature)

1/3 cup Silk almond milk (regular)

4 large eggs

1 tsp real vanilla extract

2 cups soaked/rinsed, cooked and cooled quinoa

¾ cup refined coconut oil (melted)

Dry mix

1 cup sucanet (or regular sugar if need be)

¾ cacao powder or 1 cup regular cocoa powder

1 cup small chocolate chips (I used Enjoy Life so GMO, dairy and gluten free)

1.5 tsps baking powder

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

Method: (preheat oven to 350F and grease an 8 x 8 baking tin, rectangular would work fine too.)

1. Soak, rinse and cook the quinoa until tender. I tend to boil it in lots of water, drain it and place it back in the pan with the lid on for ten minutes. This way the quinoa absorbs any excess moisture and is fluffy without being wet. Allow to cool.

2. If your coconut oil isn’t liquid (it will be when the weather is hot) melt it over a LOW heat in a pan. Do not microwave.

3. Put all blender ingredients in the blender, making sure they are at room temperature. If the other ingredients are cold, the coconut oil may harden as it comes into contact with them making the mixture lumpy. Blend into a rich and smooth consistency. The smoother the better!

4. Whisk the dry ingredients together well in a large bowl. Real, minimally processed cacao is more bitter than regular cocoa so you need less.

5. Add the contents of the blender to the bowl and use a hand whisk to combine (makes the mix light!)

6. Pour the batter into the baking tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 45mins (mine was still moist in the middle at this stage.)

7. Allow to cool for a few minutes. Can be served warm!

The advice given in this article is not intended to replace medical advice, but to complement it. Always consult your GP if you have any health concerns. Catherine Burns BA Hons, Dip ION is the Managing Director of Natural Ltd and a fully qualified Nutritional Therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the U.K. Please note that she is not a Registered Dietitian. For details, please go to www.natural.bm or call 236-7511. Join Catherine on Facebook: www.facebook.com/nutrifitandnaturalnutritionbermuda.