A few years ago, I woke up early, picked a direction, and ran until I just couldn’t anymore. Nothing could be simpler and I never wanted to stop.
I spent months qualifying for the New York City Marathon, signing up for any race that would have me. I bought high-tech t-shirts and watches that could track me from space. Water became hydration and food became nutrition. After crossing the finish line in November, I found myself once again at the start, racking up races to qualify for 2012, looking for ways to run faster, better, and harder.
Unable to face another bowl of brown rice or plain pasta, I decided to take a closer look at the Latin American seeds and grains trending in certain circles as “super foods.”
That’s what initially led me to Christopher McDougall’s bestseller Born To Run. While his description of barefoot running garnered the most attention, it was the cornmeal piñole that the Tarahumara, or “running people,” ate on their mythic runs that caught my interest. Searching Mexican grocery stores and bodegas to no avail, I contacted the author to find out exactly what went into the piñole mixed in the Copper Canyons.
“[Tarahumara piñole] comes from a small kernel, densely packed heritage corn, not the plumped-up, watery, high-sugar corn we mass produce here,” explains McDougall. Rather than advocate a magic potion that will turn us all into barefoot super athletes, McDougall emphasizes the Tarahumara’s approach, not their grocery list. “We’re always looking for the super food. The Tarahumara come at it differently. They’re just trying to fuel the activity they’re already engaged in.”
I decided to focus on the seeds and grains which were more readily available. Chia seeds, given to Aztec warriors before hunting parties, were used as currency and offered as tribute, while the Incas believed that quinoa, the “mother of all grains,” to be the remains of a heavenly banquet. Amaranth, once as widely cultivated as corn, was almost wiped out by the Spanish because of its close association with Aztec religious ceremonies. They’re not magic, but who wouldn’t want to run like a warrior and eat like a God?
“Not only are ancient grains higher in protein, fiber, and vitamin B, they’re filling and give you a more stable energy” explains Lauren Antonucci, RD, consultant for the New York Road Runners club and member of the ING NYC Marathon nutrition team. While the grains’ nutritional value is well proven, it was hard to imagine the legends contained in the unassuming bulk bins of the health food store.
Looking for the nutrients I needed, I found a lot of options. I have quinoa for breakfast, amaranth in my soufflé, and chia seeds with just about everything else. The grains ease me into my morning run. Here’s the story behind each grain and what it has to offer:
Originating in Central and South America over 5,000 years ago, amaranth seeds contain a high amount of protein in the form of amino acids, dietary fiber, iron, calcium and magnesium as well as being gluten-free. Smaller than quinoa, they share a similar nutritional profile. They can be simmered in water for a creamy, nutty cereal or ground into a flour for baked goods. In Mexico, the popped seeds are combined with a sweet syrup to make candy called alegria or “joy”.
Also featured heavily in Born to Run, chia seeds are packed with Omega-3, antioxidants, and protein, decreasing inflammation and muscle soreness while speeding up your post-run recovery. Drop a tablespoon in a glass of water and you get a sense of how it acts in your body. “It’s a living raw food,” says Antonuncci. “Chia seeds become gelatinous in our digestive tract slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates.” This will help stabilize your blood sugar to keep you fuller longer. Similar to flax-seeds, a couple of tablespoons can be blended into yogurt or smoothies or tossed into pancake mix. Beyond running, they’re linked to heart disease prevention and provide a boost to your auto immune system. And to think, all this time we were keeping them as pets.
Made from toasted and ground maize kernels, the flour is combined with water to make a loose drink, heavy porridge, or dry portable paste. Though there are many websites selling pinole or suggesting cornmeal or maseca as substitutes, ground flour made from a heritage corn that’s gone through nixtamalization – the process that releases the bound niacin transforming it into a complete food and increasing the mineral content – is harder to come by. Without these elements, you may have a meal with the same caloric punch of the Tarahumara pinole, but you’re missing out on the nutritional benefit that distinguishes it from a less complicated bowl of oatmeal.
A staple food of the Incas, quinoa is native to the Andean region of South America. Though often described as a grain, quinoa is actually a seed packed with protein, dietary fiber, essential amino acids, iron and magnesium. It’s easy to digest and can be made in less than 20 minutes. Increasingly available, it needs to be washed thoroughly in cold water to remove any trace of its saponin coating that can add bitterness. Cooked like rice, it works well as a salad, pilaf with mixed vegetables, stews or for breakfast topped with honey and berries.