To say Devon Yanko is a “runner” feels like a bit of an understatement; an Olympic Trials Qualifier and winner of the 2015 Javelina Jundred 100-miler, she’s run more than 30 marathons and 30 ultra-marathons, and has racked up even more wins, decorated accomplishments and prestigious accolades than one can even accurately count. As a chef, I’m even more impressed that she’s an uber-accomplished runner in addition to being a personal chef and part owner in M.H. Bread + Butter in San Anselmo, California.
(Read: she a makes a croissant just as expertly as she crushes trails!)
Clearly, we share a love of food and endurance sport and so not surprisingly, when we connected we immediately began gushing over our shared passion for building (in Devon’s words) “beautiful, bountiful, straight from the garden” menus with a diversity of whole foods, specifically when it comes to grains and flours.
As athletes and cooks, Devon and I agree that a diverse, colorful array of grains and flours is integral to the way we fuel our endeavors and build our menus, but we approach this philosophy from different points of necessity; Devon was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant in 2007, shortly after running her first marathon and before qualifying for the Olympic Trials. She was a student in a nutrition based culinary program at the time and, as gluten-intolerance graced their curriculum, Devon began to see many similarities and patterns between the symptoms of celiac sufferers and her own life long, undiagnosed issues. Since, Devon has been building her gluten-free repertoire.
My spirit menu would be tons of grilled vegetables, salads and meat served with chimichurri served family style!
I approach a diet rich in grain diversity from a completely different perspective; my mother -a lifetime baker – was diagnosed as celiac when I was 12 years old. As she worked to re-craft a menu to feed our family when “gluten free substitutes” didn’t exist, I started experimenting with flours and “alternative baking,” and my appreciation for vibrant, whole foods began to bloom. Today, as a pastry chef, I see that each grain and flour has its own unique flavors, nutritional profiles, and qualities that make meals and baked goods over-the-top delicious.
Whether gluten intolerant, or gluten-aware, and regardless of the buzz associated with “gluten-free diets” both Devon and I have found ourselves in a place where we feel integrating a wide variety of whole grains and flours into our diets is an optimal way to eat, train and thrive.
Why might you consider cutting out gluten if you aren’t intolerant?
By limiting the amount of gluten you consume, you open up the door to enjoy other nutritious, delicious grains, and pave the way to healthier digestion. Gluten is the sticky, structured protein that creates shape and binds together wheat and it’s relative grains. Consuming too much of anything can be rough on your digestive system, but if you’ve ever eaten toast for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner, you know it’s very easy to eat a lot of wheat, and therefore a lot of gluten in one day. There’s nothing wrong with eating this way, especially if your body feels good on this sort of fuel. But by not mixing up the grains you consume, you’re missing a whole lot of other flavors and nutrients that could be fueling our endeavours and exciting our tastebuds. Who wants to miss out on deliciousness? Certainly not us!
So where do you start mixing up your meals with delicious, gluten-free grains?
“I think it really means being more conscious and creative with your diet” says Devon. Diversifying your meals with color, flavor and variety is actually an exciting and delicious experience. Way more tantalizing than sliced gluten-free bread would ever let on. But we recognize that over the years we’ve realized a few things that made this healthy, whole foods approach to eating more straightforward.
Our best advice for building a diet around gluten:
1. Focus on the “Can Do’s”: if you find yourself unable to eat gluten, or considering reducing the amount of gluten you consume, keep things positive by focusing on all the delicious things you CAN eat, instead of the things you can’t.
You have to change your perspective and build habits around seeing your diet in a different way!” says Devon.
2. Look Beyond Substitutions: when working to cut gluten out, many people look to substitute their favorite foods with gluten free options. Devon suggests a different approach. “Instead of just opting for ease and readiness, think and plan which ultimately brings more mindfulness to what you eat. I don’t simply swap in a gluten free version of something for a gluten filled one because that isn’t necessarily healthier.” So while breads, pastries, and pastas all have tasty and delicious gluten-free forms available at your well-stocked grocery stores these days, remember that there are lots of different ways to eat carbohydrates; maybe whip up a quinoa bowl instead of pasta! 3. Get to know those grains: a healthy gluten-free diet absolutely requires whole grains. Luckily, there are lots to choose from! Oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth, and rice are all common whole grains available in the bulk section of your grocery store. Need help with how to cook these bread-and-pasta-alternatives? Here’s a quick cooking guide.
4. Read Your Labels: gluten is hidden away in many places you wouldn’t expect, and is absent from many places you would. Salad dressings, ice creams, and many prepared foods contain gluten these days. Additionally, many gluten free “substitution foods” have lots of extra fillers and stabilizers that your body doesn’t need; ingredients that can cause GI distress when you’re running or training hard. Conversely, whole grains are all natural and your body can use – and will thrive – on the nutrition they contain. Listen to your body and eat what makes it feel great!
5. Build Your Menu with Nutritional Building Blocks: On considering her menu, Devon says, ‘I think about what kind of nutrients I need to support my active lifestyle and build from there. I need carbs, so I think through the sources I CAN have and stock up on those. I need protein, so I make sure I have healthy sources on hand. Then vegetables, lots and lots of vegetables. I never have to think about including vegetables in my diet, they are the majority of what I eat!” All of these nutrients can be derived naturally from gluten free foods. Sweet potatoes, rice and other gluten-free grains are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates. Quinoa is the only complete vegetable protein on the planet, and also happens to be gluten free. Chia seeds, nuts and legumes are naturally healthy sources of fat and add flavor without gluten as are lean, well-sourced meats and seafoods. Enjoy them all over bountiful leafy greens and colorful vegetables and you’ve got fresh, flavorful, out of this world healthy (and delicious!) meals and you won’t miss the gluten one bit.
6. Employ flour power: In addition to cooking whole grains, baking with whole grain, legume and nut flours present a whole world of pastries, breads and treats and flavors to go with them. Quinoa, sorghum, oat, almond, and garbanzo bean flours and even gluten-free flours mixes are all readily available and easy to substitute into your favorite recipes to make gluten free versions of your favorite baked goods at home.
7. Mix it Up: If you’re the type of person to have bread at every meal, then the idea of mixing up your grains might cause a little panic. But, Devon and I agree that aiming to eat several different types of gluten-free carbohydrate every day (or, at least aiming not to eat the same thing twice in one day,) keeps things interesting, in a way that eating gluten-free bread for every meal doesn’t. Enjoy gluten free oats, rice pudding or quinoa porridge for breakfast, quinoa or your favorite gluten free bread for lunch and sweet potatoes or squashes for dinner.
8. Think ahead and stock up: Being gluten-intolerant has forced Devon to plan her nutrition ahead of time and be prepared. “I have to think my fueling through, before and after runs a lot more than most since I can’t just grab something at a coffee shop or anywhere in a pinch. Ultimately, the impact has been minimal except for the occasional bad run due to cross contamination!” she says. She suggests keeping that pantry topped up so you’ll always have delicious, healthy options on hand. ‘Sweet potatoes, frozen bananas, coconut flour, almond milk, lots of spices!” are always on hand in Devon’s kitchen.
9. Build a repertoire: playing in the kitchen, and having a few favorite go to dishes is key to building a gluten free diet from the start. For Devon, these are easy, clean, healthy meals that she knows her body responds well to. “My ultimate go to meal (and pre-race meal) is steak, salad and sweet potatoes!” she says. Here are a few of my favorite recipes to get you started:
Flourless Almond Cake (pictured below)
10. Keep it simple + cook with the Seasons: keep your menus interesting by mixing gluten-free grains up with in-season vegetables and keep the preparations simple, and creative. For example, your favorite gluten-free recipes can be mixed up with seasonal vegetables and spices to make an entirely different meal.. A quinoa rice bowl might be made with carrots, roasted mushrooms and warming spices in the winter, but with fresh herbs, grilled asparagus and avocado in the spring. Want some tips on how to make a great bowl of grains? Here are some one-bowl-meal best practices.