What does it mean to have a ‘healthy gut?’

Healthy gut

Can you improve the health of your gut?

The phrase ‘healthy gut’ is used a lot in the health space at the moment. But what does this actually mean? And can you improve the health of your gut? I will address these questions in the following article.

First of all, let’s define some terminology. The gut refers to the human gastrointestinal tract or GI tract. This is composed of the stomach, the small intestines and the large intestines or colon.

You may have heard the term ‘gut microbiome’ when gut health is being discussed. The human GI tract is home to 1013-1014 microorganisms or microbes (that is between 100 000 000 000 000 – 1000 000 000 000 000). In fact there are over 10 times more bacterial cells in your gut than there are your own cells making up your body. The community of microbes living in your gut is referred to as the gut microbiota. The gut microbiota is mostly made up of bacteria, but viruses and fungi are also present. The total genome content of these microbes, meaning all of the genes carried by all of these microorganisms, is referred to as the gut microbiome. Thanks to advances in the ability to sequence DNA, scientists are now starting to understand just how important this complex community of microbes is to human health and disease.

Health benefits provided by the gut microbiota

The health benefits provided by the gut microbiota include preventing disease causing bacteria, breaking down toxic compounds, shaping the immune system (1), providing nutrients, the synthesis of vitamins, particularly vitamin B and K (2) and the production of important metabolites. Metabolites are the intermediates or end products of metabolism. The metabolites produced by the microbes in the gut make up one third of all the metabolites found in the human blood and these compounds have some very important functions. Short-chain fatty acids are the main metabolic end products produced by the gut microbiota.

What are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)?

The main end products produced from the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates by the microbes of the colon are the short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) acetate, propionate and butyrate (3). Fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugars to acids, gases or alcohol that often occurs when oxygen is lacking, known as an anaerobic environment.

One of the health effects of SCFAs in the human gut is lowering the pH making a more acidic environment. This stops the growth of disease causing bacteria and increases the absorption of some nutrients (3).

Another important function of SCFAs is maintaining the gut barrier function. Don’t worry – I will explain what this means. The gut barrier is a layer of cells lining the inside of the GI tract. This layer of cells, referred to as the intestinal epithelial cells, has two jobs: controlling the absorption of nutrients, electrolytes and water from the inside of the gut into the blood stream and preventing harmful substances, such as disease causing bacteria and toxins, entering the blood stream. The mucus produced by this layer of cells also helps maintain this barrier (4). SCFAs play a role in gut barrier function by providing a fuel source for the intestinal epithelial cells thereby increasing mucus production.

The cells of our colon, known as colonocytes, also use the SCFA butyrate as an energy source (5). The SCFAs that are not used by the colonocytes travel to the liver and will be used in gluconeogenesis (a metabolic pathway that produces glucose from non-carbohydrate substances) and lipid (fat) synthesis. So SCFAs provide an energy source for the human host.

SCFAs can even act as signalling molecules in the gut where they can influence appetite by changing the production of particular hormones. A study in 2003 showed that SCFAs can activate free fatty acid receptor (FFAR) 2 and 3 (6). These receptors are found on cells in the colon that secrete the appetite suppressing hormones peptide tyrosine tyrosine (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide (GLP)-1. Studies in rabbits and rats have shown that SFCAs increase the production of PYY and GLP-1 (7, 8). A recent study using human volunteers showed that the SCFA propionate, when delivered to the colon, increased the release of PYY and GLP-1 and prevented weight gain over a 24-week period (9). While there is still a lot more research needed in this area, these results suggest that the right combination of gut bacteria producing the right amounts of SCFAs could prevent obesity.

Diseases/conditions associated with disruptions to the gut microbiota

A major change in the gut microbial community is known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis has been linked to a number of diseases and conditions in humans including the following:

Obesity and metabolic disorder

Obesity and the associated metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, were thought to be a result of a combination of genetics and life-style factors. It now seems that the gut microbiota is also playing a role. Studies in mice have shown evidence that the gut microbiota can influence obesity. Transfer of the microbiota from obese mice to mice with no microbiota caused weight gain and insulin resistance. This did not happen when the microbiota from lean mice were transferred to mice with no microbiota (10).

Inflammatory bowel disease and Irritable bowel syndrome

Major changes in the composition and the diversity of the gut microbiota have been found in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (11). Currently it is thought that low levels of SCFAs, particularly butyrate, are causing the inflammation that is associated with inflammatory bowel disease (12).

Problems with the composition of the gut microbiota have also been found in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is different from inflammatory bowel disease as in this disorder there is no inflammation of the lining of the intestines and the symptoms are abdominal pain, diarrhea and/or constipation. Again it is thought that low levels of butyrate are involved, as well as increases in the gas hydrogen sulfide in the gut (13).

Mood and neurological disorders

Would you believe that the microbes in your gut can change your mood and your brain function? Dysbiosis has been linked to a range of mental illnesses including autism (14), stress (15), anxiety (16) and depression (17). How is this possible? The gut microbiota are able to influence the enteric nervous system (ENS) (18). The ENS is basically the brain of the gut and controls intestinal motility and sends signals to the central nervous system (CNS). The communication that occurs between the gut microbiota, the ENS and the CNS is referred to as the microbiota-gut-brain-axis.

One way that the gut microbiota can influence the ENS is through the production of neurotransmitters. Studies in mice have shown that bacteria found in the gut can affect the metabolism of tryptophan (19), an amino acid which is required for the synthesis of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Certain bacteria from the gut of mice and humans are even able to directly make serotonin (20). Serotonin has many effects in the body, including regulating mood, perception, fear, anger and appetite, so this suggests that our gut microbiota can directly influence our behaviour in a major way!

Also, chronic stress can disrupt the intestinal barrier. This disruption is known as ‘leaky gut’. When leaky gut occurs, parts of the outer protective layer of the bacterial cell, known as the cell wall, can leak into the blood stream and cause inflammatory responses. A study from 2012 showed that the leaking of bacterial cell wall components into the blood stream may play a role in causing chronic depression in people (21).

But it is not clear whether changes in the gut microbiota can cause neurological disorders OR if neurological disorders cause changes in the gut microbiota.

What makes up a healthy gut microbiota?

The human gut contains over 1 000 different bacterial species (22). It is not yet known which combinations of microbes make up the ideal ‘healthy gut’. However, high levels of diversity are thought to be important for a healthy, well-functioning gut microbial community (23) and several diseases of the human GI tract are associated with a reduction in microbial and genetic diversity (24). A diverse gut microbiota is necessary to ensure that we extract all of the nutrients out of our diet. Humans only produce less than 20 enzymes for the digestion of complex carbohydrates. Therefore, we rely on the microbiota in the digestive tract to break down the complex carbohydrate structures found in fruits and vegetables (25).

Interestingly, major differences in the gut microbiome between Westerners and members of hunter-gatherer tribes have been observed. For example, the gut microbiota from the Hadza hunter-gatherer tribe from Tanzania is more diverse compared to urban living adults from Italy (26). The Hadza are one of the last remaining hunting-gathering communities in the world and live on a diet of wild foods including meat, honey, baobab (a fruit high in dietary fibre, vitamin C and polyphenols found in sub-Saharan Africa (27)), berries and tubers. One study has shown that a loss of diversity in the gut microbiota can result from a low fibre diet, such as a typical Western diet (28). The decrease in gut microbial diversity resulting from a typical Western diet could be a reason for the high rates of obesity and metabolic disorder in today’s population.

How can you maintain a healthy gut microbiota?

A number of factors can affect your gut microbiota including antibiotics, inflammation, ageing, GI tract motility and even the way you are born. However, it appears that diet has the greatest influence on the composition of the gut microbiota. So what can you include in your diet to promote a healthy gut microbiota?

One thing that stands out from the studies on diet and the gut microbiota is the influence of dietary fibre. Dietary fibre, particularly fibre that is classified as a prebiotic (29), appears to be important in maintaining a healthy and diverse gut microbiota (30). Prebiotics are defined as a selectively fermented ingredient that results in specific changes in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microbiota, thus conferring benefit(s) upon host health.

Finally, there is a method that is receiving attention at the moment that may gross you out, but is interesting. I am talking about feacal microbiota transplantation (FMT). Basically this means implanting the poop from a healthy person into the stomach, small intestine or large intestine of a sick person. FMT has been used successfully to treat infections with Clostridium difficile, which you may have heard referred to as C. diff. C. diff. is a nasty species of bacteria that causes severe diarrhea (31).

In the future, once we know more about what makes up the ideal healthy gut microbiota, ‘cocktails’ of beneficial bacteria may be a common method of treatment for a number of diseases and health conditions. But until then eating a diet rich in dietary fibre can help maintain a healthy gut.

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  10. Turnbaugh PJ, et al. (2006) An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest. Nature 444(7122):1027-1031.
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  17. Jiang H, et al. (2015) Altered fecal microbiota composition in patients with major depressive disorder. Brain, behavior, and immunity 48:186-194.
  18. Hyland NP & Cryan JF (2016) Microbe-host interactions: Influence of the gut microbiota on the enteric nervous system. Developmental biology.
  19. Wikoff WR, et al. (2009) Metabolomics analysis reveals large effects of gut microflora on mammalian blood metabolites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106(10):3698-3703.
  20. Yano JM, et al. (2015) Indigenous bacteria from the gut microbiota regulate host serotonin biosynthesis. Cell 161(2):264-276.
  21. Maes M, Kubera M, Leunis JC, & Berk M (2012) Increased IgA and IgM responses against gut commensals in chronic depression: further evidence for increased bacterial translocation or leaky gut. Journal of affective disorders 141(1):55-62.
  22. Rajilic-Stojanovic M & de Vos WM (2014) The first 1000 cultured species of the human gastrointestinal microbiota. FEMS microbiology reviews 38(5):996-1047.
  23. Costello EK, Stagaman K, Dethlefsen L, Bohannan BJ, & Relman DA (2012) The application of ecological theory toward an understanding of the human microbiome. Science 336(6086):1255-1262.
  24. Walker AW & Lawley TD (2013) Therapeutic modulation of intestinal dysbiosis. Pharmacol Res 69(1):75-86.
  25. Cantarel BL, Lombard V, & Henrissat B (2012) Complex carbohydrate utilization by the healthy human microbiome. PloS one 7(6):e28742.
  26. Schnorr SL, et al. (2014) Gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers. Nature communications 5:3654.
  27. Coe SA, Clegg M, Armengol M, & Ryan L (2013) The polyphenol-rich baobab fruit (Adansonia digitata L.) reduces starch digestion and glycemic response in humans. Nutrition research 33(11):888-896.
  28. Sonnenburg ED, et al. (2016) Diet-induced extinctions in the gut microbiota compound over generations. Nature 529(7585):212-215.
  29. Gibson GR & Glenn R (2010) Dietary prebiotics: current status and new definition. Food Sci Technol Bull Funct Foods 7:1-19.
  30. Simpson HL & Campbell BJ (2015) Review article: dietary fibre-microbiota interactions. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics 42(2):158-179.
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Image Copyright: http://www.123rf.com/profile_rangizzz’>rangizzz / 123RF Stock Photo

Healthier quick and easy Sticky date pudding

healthy-sticky-date-pudding-3This weekend was another big one for me. On Saturday I competed in a 21km trail run in horrendous conditions. It had been pouring with rain all night and the trails were muddy to say the very least. My Hokas were so caked in mud that they were sliding off my feet as I was running. Every now and then a big chunk of mud would fly off my shoes and hit me in the back of the leg. Despite the conditions I still managed a win for the females and placed 4th overall. Then on Sunday I competed for the first time in the Flight Centre Cycle Epic.

Cycle Epic 2016 - Images © ESi sports photography

Here I am winning the 21km trail run

The Epic is an 87km mountain bike race consisting of a mixture of fire roads, single track, flowy single trails and some steep, rocky climbs. Due to the rain the race was postponed until 10am on Sunday and the course was shortened to 77kms. This was my longest mountain bike race to date. Actually, I haven’t done a lot of mountain bike racing and I was feeling a bit nervous prior to the start. I was concerned about the mud on the course and I was concerned that I would be slowing down faster riders. It took a good 30kms before I finally relaxed and started to enjoy the race. At the 40km mark I had a quick chat to our wonderful supporters, topped up my water, downed a mini Mars bar and continued for the last 37kms.

I felt more comfortable going in to the last 37kms because those riders who were doing the 40km race were finished at that point. This meant that there were less riders on the course and I did not have to worry about getting stuck behind slower riders or in front of faster riders. I really started to enjoy the race and felt like I was riding quite strong and confidently. I was pleased to finish the 77kms in just under 5 hours – faster than I expected – and 7th age group female.

Cycle Epic 2016 - Images © ESi sports photography

And here I am taking out the Female Overall Champion of Epic Endurance! My best trophy so far and the Shiraz was very nice.

I achieved my goal for the weekend, which was to take out the Female Overall Champion of Epic Endurance! Quite a name, isn’t it? I won this because I finished both the 21km trail run and the 87km (well 77km actually) mountain bike race with the fastest combined time. It was totally worth getting covered in mud for.

My eating was not great over the weekend. We camped over the weekend and I had burgers, beers and pizza at the Barn Bar. I was more focused on racing than anything else so I didn’t bother preparing any proper meals. During the mtb race I was doing Cliff bars, gels and my new favourite race food – mini Mars bars. These are the best. Rapidly digestible carbs that are tasty and easy to eat. And the chocolate makes you feel good. I also had a bottle of Trailbrew; a new energy/hydration mix made by my friend Troy.

So after a weekend of pretty junky food I was looking forward to getting back to eating well. That doesn’t mean I have to go without dessert. Tonight I had a go at making a healthier version of Sticky date pudding with a Warm caramel sauce. Our oven is in the process of being replaced so I made these mini Sticky date puddings using the microwave.

I made them with dates, erythritol, coconut flour, flaxmeal and coconut milk, so they are high in fibre and not loaded with refined carbohydrates. The warm caramel sauce was made with Greek yoghurt, coconut milk, erythritol and vanilla bean paste.

The combination of coconut flour and flaxmeal give the pudding a firm but soft texture. If you are not familiar with flaxmeal, or golden flaxseed meal, this is the product left after pressing flaxseeds to get flaxseed oil. Flaxseeds and linseeds are actually the same thing, however, flaxseed is used to describe flax when consumed as food while linseed is used to describe flax when it is used in industry or for animal feed. Flaxmeal is low in carbs, high in fibre and low in fat. The nutritional information tells me that it contains only 8.0 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams, 33 grams of fibre per 100 grams and 12 grams of fat per 100 grams. It really is high in fibre so do not over consume flaxmeal. I found that it really gets my bowels moving and I can see how too much could cause gastrointestinal issues, so please be aware. A small amount of flaxmeal added to baking seems to give a doughy texture. I also like to make a little pudding with flaxmeal, as it takes on a gel consistency when combined with liquid.

healthy-sticky-date-puddingBack to the Sticky date pudding. Not only were these Sticky date puddings healthier than traditional sticky date pudding, which is full of sugar, butter and refined white flour, but they were very quick and easy to make. I blended all the ingredients together, poured the mixture into two small bowls and microwaved the puddings for 3.5 minutes each. That is it!

Healthier Sticky date pudding with warm caramel sauce

Makes 2 serves


½ cup pitted dates soaked in ½ cup of boiling water

½ cup coconut milk (I used low fat to reduce the calories)

1 tablespoon erythritol

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

1 tablespoon flaxmeal

¼ cup coconut flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

2 eggs

Warm caramel sauce

1/3 cup Greek yoghurt

1/3 cup coconut milk

1 tablespoon erythritol

½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

A few drops of maple extract


Measuring cups and spoons

3 small microwave safe bowls

Food processor




  • Allow the dates to soak in the boiling water for at least 15 minutes.
  • Add the dates to the food processor and process until they are finely chopped.
  • Add in the remaining ingredients and process until the mixture is well combined and smooth.
  • Divide the pudding mixture between two small, microwave safe bowls.
  • Microwave each pudding for 3.5 minutes. This may vary depending on your microwave but I basically microwaved them until they were completely firm and starting to come away from the sides of the bowl.
  • While the puddings are cooking in the microwave, prepare the Warm caramel sauce by combing all the ingredients in a small, microwave safe bowl.
  • Mix until well combined (you could also add all the ingredients to a clean food processor and process to combine).
  • Microwave the sauce for 30 seconds. Give the sauce a mix. If it is warm enough do not microwave further. If it gets too hot the yoghurt will curdle.
  • Tip the puddings upside down onto two plates. Poke holes all over the warm puddings with a fork.
  • Pour the caramel sauce evenly over the puddings allowing it to soak in.
  • Serve and enjoy.healthy-stick-date-pudding-2

Healthy Strawberry and ricotta soft serve (low calorie, low fat, no refined carbohydrates)

Strawberry and ricotta soft serve 4Believe me when I tell you that the combination of ricotta cheese and strawberries is absolutely delicious. To make this healthier Strawberry and ricotta soft serve simply freeze some low fat ricotta cheese in ice cube trays, freeze some strawberries then throw them into a high-speed blender along with erythritol and coconut milk. I added some cinnamon, maple extract and vanilla bean paste for extra flavour.

My healthier version of soft serve is low in calories and contains no refined carbohydrates. So go ahead and eat both serves if you must. Top this Strawberry and ricotta soft serve with extra chopped strawberries. Some chopped dark chocolate on top would be lovely too.

Strawberry and ricotta soft serve 2Healthy Strawberry and ricotta soft serve

Makes 2 small serves (or one large serve if you are feeling particularly hungry or just want heaps of dessert)


300 grams low fat ricotta cheese frozen into ice cube trays

6 medium – large strawberries, washed, tops removed and frozen

2 heaped tablespoons erythritol

½ cup low fat coconut milk

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon maple extract (not necessary but very delicious)

½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste



Ice cube trays

High-speed blender (I use an Ominblend V– buy yours here)

Measuring cups and spoons


  • Spoon the ricotta cheese into the two ice cube trays. Spread the ricotta cheese out evenly with the back of a spoon and freeze for at least 6 hours.
  • Freeze the strawberries for at least 6 hours.
  • To prepare the soft serve remove the frozen cubes of ricotta cheese from the trays. Add the frozen ricotta cheese, frozen strawberries plus the remaining ingredients to a high-speed blender and blend until a smooth, even consistency is achieved (I stirred the soft serve with the tamper/stirring stick during blending).
  • Divide the soft serve between two bowls and freeze for 30 – 60 minutes before serving.

Healthier Peanut butter pretzel ice cream

Healthier peanut butter pretzel ice creamI am happy to say that I was part of a team of two that won a 12-hour adventure race this weekend. This race involved two of us paddling, trekking/running and mountain biking through the bush navigating our way to as many check points as possible in 12-hours. Well, to be honest, I did not navigate – that job was up to my partner, Gary, who is a very experienced navigator. After winning back-to-back trail marathons last weekend at the Lamington Eco Challenge http://gonyaadventures.com.au/ my legs felt a bit heavy and tired. But we still managed to come away with the overall win.

Here we are climbing up the face of a cliff - great view and heaps of fun

Here we are climbing up the face of a cliff – great view and heaps of fun

I was left with half a bag of crushed pretzels after the race. What was I to do with this seemingly useless food item? I decided to make a healthier version of Peanut butter pretzel ice cream. My version is healthier because I have reduced the calories by making the ‘ice cream’ with reduced fat coconut milk and Greek yoghurt. I used PB2, which is a powdered peanut butter with the majority of the fat removed http://www.bellplantation.com/index.php?route=about/about. PB2 is higher in carbs than peanut butter so if you are eating low carb then this might not be the best option for you. I sweetened the ‘ice cream’ with erythritol and added some vanilla bean paste for extra flavour.

And this is us paddling - I need to work on my technique

And this is us paddling – I need to work on my technique

OK, so pretzels probably aren’t really a health food but this version is surely better for you than typical store bought ice cream. The combination of peanut butter with the salty, crunchy pretzels was very delicious and after paddling, running and mountain biking for 12 hours I really wasn’t too concerned about eating excess carbohydrates. In fact I ate a whole pizza immediately after the race and it was great!

Healthier peanut butter pretzel ice cream 2Healthier Peanut butter pretzel ice cream

Makes 2 small serves


250ml of low fat coconut milk frozen in ice cube trays

¼ cup low fat Greek yoghurt

¼ cup PB2 (or just use regular peanut butter if you are not too concerned about calories)

2 tablespoons erythritol

½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste

½ cup crushed pretzels


Ice cube trays

Measuring cups and spoons

Food processor or high-speed blender (I use an Ominblend – buy yours here)


  • Add the frozen cubes of coconut milk to a food processor (run some hot water over the bottom of the ice cube trays if you are having trouble removing the frozen cubes).
  • Process until the frozen coconut milk is finely ground (I process one tray first then add the second tray).
  • Add in the Greek yoghurt, PB2 (or peanut butter), erythritol and vanilla bean paste and process until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
  • Finally add in the pretzels and process briefly until they are chopped finely and combined with the ice cream.
  • Divide the ice cream into two bowls and freeze for an additional 30 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with extra crushed pretzels.Healthier peanut butter pretzel ice cream 3

Chocolate chickpea mousse (high fibre, low calorie, vegan)

Chocolate chickpea mousseThis is a healthy dessert that is quick and easy, yet still tasty. What makes it healthy? Well, it is high in dietary fibre, thanks to the chickpeas, and is far lower in calories and refined carbohydrates compared to any traditional chocolate mousse.

Don’t be put off by the chickpeas. They contribute only a subtle nutty taste but create a smooth and creamy texture. It happens to be vegan too. You could use any sweetener you like. I choose to use the low calorie sugar alcohol erythrtiol.

You could top this dessert with blueberries, frozen cherries, some shredded coconut or some crushed nuts – or all of these options if you feel like it. The pink umbrella was my attempt to make this dessert look pretty. I really suck at food photography!

Chocolate chickpea mousse 2

Chocolate chickpea mousse

Makes 2 small serves (or 1 big serve if you are hungry)


1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 tablespoon erythritol

¼ cup apple sauce

¼ cup reduced fat coconut milk

½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste


Measuring cups and spoons

Food processor


  • Add all the ingredients to a food processor and process until a smooth, even consistency is achieved.

Coffee ricotta panna cotta with Cinnamon walnut topping (low calorie, no refined carbs)

Coffee panna cotta 3Although this dessert sounds a bit weird to say (a lot of words ending in ‘a’), it tastes very nice. To reduce the calories I made this panna cotta with low fat coconut milk and ricotta cheese and sweetened it with the sugar alcohol erythritol. It is flavoured with coffee extract and vanilla bean paste. You could use a shot of espresso instead but I didn’t want the caffeine right before bed.

I guess you could say that this is actually an upside down panna cotta. Typically panna cotta is removed from a ramekin or mould and served attractively on a plate. I really could not be bothered with attempting to remove these from the bowls. After all, it will taste the same, right?

I decided that it needed some sort of topping, so I went for a crunchy Cinnamon walnut topping. This does bring the calorie count up, but you only need to use a small amount. Overall, this dessert was very simple to prepare and could easily be scaled up if you had friends over for dinner.

Coffee panna cotta 1Coffee ricotta panna cotta with Cinnamon walnut topping

Makes 2 serves


1 cup low fat coconut milk

2 tablespoons erythritol

1 ½ teaspoons coffee extract (or a shot of espresso)

½ teaspoon of vanilla bean paste (this stuff is expensive but very nice)

3 gelatine leaves

1 cup low fat ricotta cheese

Cinnamon walnut topping

¼ cup walnuts

2 tablespoons desiccated coconut

½ tablespoon erythritol

½ teaspoon cinnamon


Measuring cups and spoons

Small saucepan



2 small bowls or ramekins/moulds

Food processor

Coffee panna cotta 2


  • Put the gelatin leaves into a bowl or container and cover with cold water to allow them to bloom (this just means allow the sheets to soften and swell slightly).
  • Add the coconut milk, erythritol, coffee extract and vanilla bean paste to a saucepan. Begin warming the mixture over medium heat while stirring.
  • Squeeze out the excess water from the gelatine leaves and add them to the saucepan.
  • Continue heating and stirring until the gelatine is completely dissolved.
  • Take the mixture off the heat and stir in the ricotta cheese until it is completely mixed through.
  • Pour the panna cotta into the small bowls you plan to serve them in. If you are planning on removing the panna cotta lightly grease your bowls/moulds first. There is a method for removing the panna cotta which you can easily find online.
  • Allow the panna cotta to set in the fridge for at least two hours.
  • To make the Cinnamon walnut topping add all the ingredients to a food processor and process until the texture of crumbs is formed.
  • Serve the panna cotta sprinkled with the topping.

My first ultra distance trail run (96kms) and improvements for the next one

Two weekends ago I completed a very challenging, yet rewarding event – the 96km Kokoda Challenge. This event takes competitors through the Hinterland of the Gold Coast in QLD, Australia. With elevations reaching 550m, this is not an easy event. According to the organisers, the 96km Kokoda Challenge Gold Coast is hailed as Australia’s toughest endurance event.

Kokoda Challenge Elevation Profile Overview

Teams of 4 make their way through the 96km course consisting of fire roads, 12 creek crossings and 5000m of vertical elevation. The event is in honour of the Australian troops during World War II who battled on the actual Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. In order to qualify for a place the entire team of four must start, reach each checkpoint and finish all together.

Kokoda 2016 winHere we are as the winning ladies team

I am pleased to say that our team was the first all ladies team and was third overall. To put this into perspective there were 55 all ladies team and 330 teams in total. We finished with a time of 15 hours 14 minutes. The overall winners finished with a time of 13 hours 57 minutes. The second placed ladies team finished with a time of 20 hours 1 minute. So we pretty much smashed our closest rivals (yes, I am a tad competitive).

Kokoda 2016 finishThis is us just after we finished – did I mention that it rained for over half the event?

Enough bragging. So now I will provide some details about how we, myself in particular, completed the race and improvements I will make for my next ultra distance trail running event, which is back-to-back trail marathons on Saturday August 13 and Sunday August 14.

  1. Foot care is paramount. My biggest mistake was not wearing good trail running shoes. The longest run I had done prior to the Kokoda Challenge was 5 hours. The shoes I had were OK for that period but not for 15 hours! In fact, I should have anticipated that I would have some trouble as even after 5 hours the shoes I was wearing were uncomfortable. I went out and bought some Hoka Challengers the very next day. I was using a foot balm to prevent blisters but the shoes I was wearing were not made for the ultra distance. Experiment with shoes before hand and make sure you have a quality pair of trail running shoes made for ultra distance. You do not want to end up with a blister the size of the one I had (see below photo).IMG_1496
  2. Keep your nutrition simple. Although I try to avoid refined carbohydrates in my every day diet, and this is because they are easy to over eat as they provide little fibre and nutritional value (I am by no means perfect, however, and do enjoy the odd pizza and corn chips), when it comes to racing I go for simple, easily digestible carbohydrates. I like to train on weekdays with little carbs and generally keep my carbohydrate intake low to become more fat adapted, but during races I consume what ever I need to allow my body to perform the best that it can. At checkpoints I was eating caffeinated gels, lollies, white bread sandwiches, salted potato chips, bananas, instant coffee and an oat slice. In addition, I was consuming an electrolyte mix called Tailwind. I really like this product. It is made by endurance athletes and consists of dextrose, sucrose, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. The flavours are not overly sweet and this product dissolves rapidly and quickly. Running with food in your stomach sucks so you need to find nutrition that you can quickly get down and will not cause stomach issues. Other members in my team were also using Tailwind along with gels, noodles, biscuits, rice and even chia pudding. Nutritional advice for racing can vary widely depending on opinion. I recommend experimenting and finding out what works for you. For me, although this seems in complete opposition to just about all the recipes I post on this blog, I go for easy to consume refined carbohydrates while racing.
  3. Invest in some good poles if there is a lot of steep hiking. If you are planning on entering an ultra event that has a lot of steep uphill sections, I recommend a decent set of poles. Having poles on the really steep sections takes the impact off your legs. I would only recommend them for races with very steep climbs. A set that can collapse and be placed into your backpack is ideal.
  4. Have a great support crew. There is nothing better than having a well organized, caring and motivating support crew. If you are doing an event that requires support crew, it is ideal to have members who have experience racing or supporting. They will know the questions to ask and the items to have ready for you. It can really make a huge difference to your race.
  5. Keep mobile the next day and eat well. I woke up the morning after the Kokoda Challenge pretty dam sore. My legs were sore all over, my feet were swollen and I had little sleep. However, I found that the more I moved the better my legs felt. So keep lightly active the days following the event. Try to avoid long periods of time sitting down to prevent pooling of fluid in your feet and legs.
  6. Allow yourself adequate time to recover before getting back into training. This may seem obvious but I always find after I do well in a race my immediate thoughts are about preparing for the next race. You need to control yourself and allow yourself to recover. I don’t think this is being ‘soft’ but I believe this is being sensible. I may have jumped back into training too quickly and I am now having some foot pain. Also, catch up on lost sleep.

So there are my tips on how I will improve for my next ultra distance trail event. I am by no means an expert at this point in time, but I have been performing consistently well in trail running races and hope to continue as I increase the distance of my races in the future.

Kokoda 2016 startWe love posing for the camera