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Blog Posts, Recipes

The Dessert Scale and a Defense of Chick Peas

The amount of effort I put into my weightlifting, combined with my goal of getting stronger and not being too obsessed about putting on weight (still struggling with that one), allows me a bit of leeway in introducing some extra “fun” calories into my diet. In fact, it almost demands it. There are very few folks who can bench press 225 pounds while eating less than 2000 calories a day.

On the other hand, it’s been a full 14 days since I lasted used my asthma inhaler, and I have Paleo to thank for resetting my allergy-addled GI tract, or so I would think. I’ve reintroduced grass-fed butter (and a lot of it), cheese, chocolate, ice cream, and potatoes (in that order) into my diet since the end of January, without any slip in my well-being, my workout performance, or my ability to walk 1.5 miles to work without a wayward cough or throat-clear.

As I’ve discovered and will write about next week, healthy fats may be the best way to increase caloric intake to support muscle growth. But today, I’m interested in desserts. And for argument’s sake, I’m calling anything with added sugar a “dessert”. Donut? Dessert. Pancakes? Dessert. Breakfast cereal? Breakfast dessert. Bailey’s? Definitely a dessert. The first question I want to ask myself, before rating these items on a hierarchy, is: do I really want this? Will the endorphin rush from eating this flavorful morsel be worth the post-prandial guilt and gumming-up of the metabolic works that ensue?

Thus, eliminated from my scale are “spite desserts”, things I would never eat in polite company, save for the fact that I’ve been denying myself sugar for days or weeks in a row. Hard candies and lollipops. Skittles. Sugar cookies. Donuts, except for the following: blueberry cake, Boston creme, maple bars, and Krispy Kreme glazed. Also gone are “fake-ass desserts”, the kinds of food lab concoctions that Paleo purists snarf to convince themselves that they’ve overcome their sugar cravings. Bananas with almond butter or sunflower butter. Carob anything. Frozen coconut milk with blueberries and a dropperful of Stevia extract. So here’s the rating scale:

Could the dessert survive a nuclear war? Yes.

Rating 0: Twinkies. Pop Tarts. Oreos. Candy corn. (Man, do I love candy corn.)

Is the ingredient list identifiable but still full of refined flour or high-fructose corn syrup? Yes.

Rating 1: Bad ice cream. Muffins and cakes from a mix. Store-bought cookies.

Is the ingredient list less than ten, but still contains refined flour or HFCS? Yes.

Rating 2: Pies. Donuts. Home-made cakes and cookies. Soft drinks. Bread pudding.

Is it gluten, soy, and corn-syrup free? Yes.

Rating 3: Most Indian desserts (the inspiration for this column); peanut butter cups.

Is it grain-and-soy-and-legume-free, but also low in fat? Yes.

Rating 4: Sorbet, mixed drinks, frappuccinos, sugary tropical fruits, pure maple syrup, pure honey.

Is it grain-and-soy-and-legume free, but higher in fat (at least 50% of calories)? Yes.

Rating 5: Good chocolate, truffles, creme brulee, good ice cream. Hot chocolate with heavy cream.

Is it grain-and-legume-and-dairy free, *and* high in fat?

Rating 6: Candied bacon. I bow to you, Delicious God of Smoky Sugary Yum Yum.

This doesn’t take into account the amount of actual free sugar in the dessert, but assuming that you’re relatively healthy and don’t overload your pancreas with excess carbs all day, the extra fat in a dessert is *helpful* to slow the absorption of sugars, decrease the insulin spike, and allow the sugar to be metabolized gradually (blunting the “sugar high” and eventual low).

Which brings me to my mom’s “care package”. Every so often, she thinks that I’ve lost 20 pounds and desperately need a sugar infusion, so she mails me a couple pounds of homemade Indian desserts. Some of these were covered in an old post on South Indian food. The big item in this month’s shipment was an old favorite called mysorepak, a kind of chick pea cake or fudge. Three ingredients. Chick pea flour. Sugar. Ghee (clarified butter, with the milk solids separated out by high heat – the new darling of healthy animal fats).  Drizzle 3 cups hot ghee into a mixture of chick pea flour (or besan), sugar and water, let it cool, and enjoy.

(Photo and recipe from indianfoodforever.com)

And there’s the catch. Chick peas are legumes. Legumes, while gluten-free, are apparently going to kill you. Slowly and painfully. Or are they? They are a dense source of carbs and starches, but different health/weight-loss/fitness sites have different opinions on them. Paleo? You’re gonna die. Perfect Health Diet? Avoid them like the plague. Primal? In moderation, maybe, if you feel lucky. Gluten-free? It sure is. 4-Hour Body? They argue that beans and lentils should be your primary carbohydrate source, a slow-digesting starch that doesn’t spike blood sugars.

So what’s the beef with chick peas, and legumes in general? Two chemicals that legumes contain in high amounts. Phytic acid is the most important. Phytates in the GI tract bind available trace elements like calcium, selenium, and iron. Eating enough legumes *could* cause you to bind enough calcium that you risk bone demineralization, osteoporosis, and general deficiency of trace elements that aid in maintaining healthy vascular tone (magnesium) and hormonal balance (zinc). But actual amounts of phytate in different beans and pulses differ. The worst offenders in this chart are soybeans, pinto beans, and almonds, with lentils/chick peas way down on the list of evildoers. So a chick pea dessert, in moderation, may not actually destroy your insides like some allergic Roto-Rooter. Just make sure you’re eating lots of other mineral-heavy greens (kale, spinach) and meats.

The other issue is protease inhibitors in legumes. Yes, they have ’em. Not as much in chick peas as in soy beans, but still some. Protease inhibitors prevent the breakdown of ingested proteins into amino acids, leaving them unabsorbed and unable to be used for energy and cell maintenance. The extreme case of this, a genetic syndrome called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, causes malabsorptive diarrhea and poor weight gain in infants, or premature lung tissue damage in 20-30 year olds.

My conclusion on legumes is this: if you need some starchy carbs, they’re a source that comes with a price, not nearly as good as sweet potatoes, root veggies, or white rice. If you eat them regularly, it may lead to mineral or vitamin deficiencies, unless the rest of your diet is chock-full of the same minerals. Also, it’s quite easy to get into the 200-300 carb/day range from a couple cans of kidney beans in your chili. As a dessert at an Indian restaurant or if you’re visiting my mom’s house, they’re gluten-free, unprocessed, slow-digesting, and really goddamn delicious. So… yeah, I’m finishing off my mom’s mysorepak, preferably after a workout. But given the choice, I’m not gonna load up on hummus anytime soon.

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