Food of the Week: Bananas

After taking a holiday weekend break last week, I am back to posting a food of the week each week. I’ll pick a fairly basic or simple food, describe its health benefits, and then suggest a few recipes or ways of eating it. I’m open to suggestions each week! This week, I have chosen a very cheap, portable, easy to find year round food: bananas.

As an athlete, I have eaten many bananas; they are a great snack before a practice, game, or race because they are not too heavy but fill you up enough to provide energy. In college, one of the most useful presents I received was when my roommate bought banana cases for all of us. Now we could bring bananas in our backpacks everyday without having to worry about banana explosions! It was a sad day when my case broke after three years of every day use… Luckily I haven’t had any disasters yet.

The broken case!
The broken case!

Many people know that the potassium in bananas prevents cramps, but there are still many other reasons bananas are so healthy. Another important role of potassium is to help maintain normal blood pressure, improving cardiovascular health and reducing risk of stroke.[1] The high fiber content of bananas also is involved in lowering the risk of heart disease. Fiber is also important for digestion, as it helps regulate the speed. It keeps blood sugar levels stable by controlling when sugars are released from digested food.

The next health benefit of bananas involves digestion. Besides reducing risk of heart disease, fiber is also important for digestion. By helping regulate speed of digestion, the fiber in bananas helps keep blood sugar levels stable, preventing you from feeling hungry and making a great pre-workout snack. Another important compound in bananas is called pectin. This is a type of fiber, and it also explains why bananas soften when they ripen. The water-soluble version of pectin increases as a banana ripens, making it soften. The water-soluble pectin also increases the fructose concentration relative to other sugars in the banana, which also regulates digestion speed. One more digestive wonder of bananas is their prebiotic nature, due to their fructooligosaccaride (FOS) content. An FOS is a carbohydrate that is not broken down by digestive enzymes. As a result, it moves into the lower intestine and then is metabolized by bacteria. This helps maintain or increase the presence of “friendly” gut bacteria, resulting in fewer gastrointestinal problems.

Finally, the importance in athletic performance—what most of us have figured out on our own when we eat them before every practice. Studies have found that endurance athletes receive the same benefits from eating half a banana every 15 minutes as they do from drinking the same amount of sports drink. And because bananas have fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients, they may be even better than a sports drink![2]

So eat your bananas for decreased heart disease risk, help with digestion, and improved athletic performance!

I used to only eat slightly green bananas because I couldn’t stand the taste of overripe (or I guess just ripe) bananas. I have grown to be more tolerant, but in case you are particular about your bananas, here are a few creations that you can make with any sort of banana. Sometimes you don’t even taste the banana!

  1. Frozen banana : Simply putting chunks of banana in the freezer is a good ingredient to have on hand. They can be eaten plain or make a great addition to smoothies. No matter what you put in a smoothie (even bitter green stuff), frozen banana will make it taste sweet and creamy. This also makes blended banana a healthy alternative to ice cream. Blend a frozen banana with any of your favorite mix-ins—chocolate chips, nuts, mint, caramel—to have a vegan, dairy free treat!

    Even though it's green, it still tastes good!
    Even though it’s green, it still tastes good!
  2. Banana in oatmeal : After discovering this trick, it will be hard to eat plain oatmeal again. Adding a banana to your oatmeal before microwaving or cooking it will make it seem like you have double the amount of oats. I usually microwave the banana (with cinnamon) for 30-45 seconds before I add the oats and water. The melty banana smells like dessert and helps the oats explode when you heat them with water. In the end, the oatmeal doesn’t really end up tasting like bananas, but there is an extra sweetness. Ripe to slightly over ripe bananas work best for this recipe. Often times the greener bananas simply become dry when microwaved (less water-containing pectin!).

    One little oatmeal packet turned into a huge bowl of oatmeal with the banana (also added some Nutella)
    One little oatmeal packet turned into a huge bowl of oatmeal with the banana (also added some Nutella)
  3. Banana pancakes : Make gluten-free pancakes! Simply mix a large banana (mashed), two eggs, 1/8 tsp baking powder and cook in a skillet on low heat. Or add bananas to your favorite pancake mix for a delicious extra topping.

    With some extra banana on top
    With some extra banana on top
  4. Peanut (or almond) butter, banana, and cinnamon sandwich : This isn’t really a recipe, but as I alluded to in my Clean Eating lunch post, I lived off of these while training in the fall. I used Justin’s Maple Almond Butter (if you haven’t tried it, highly recommended), sprinkled some cinnamon, and sliced a banana. Because I made my lunch in the morning, I often found that it tasted better when I ate it a few hours later and the banana had some time to melt into the bread and almond butter a little bit more.
  5. Banana in the microwave : Also not a fancy recipe, but this is an invention that I got famous for among my friends. Every time I made it, people would look at my plate and ask what I was eating because it looked and smelled so good. Like the oatmeal trick, slice a banana with cinnamon and microwave it for about a minute. By the end of the minute, it should be pretty mushy and smell very sweet. Even better if the banana is ripe enough to now be soaking in a bit of liquid. If not, microwave a little longer or add some honey. Right now, it is good enough to eat plain. What I often did for breakfast (or lunch or snack), was to toast some bread or a bagel, spread peanut/almond butter on it, and then spoon the melted banana on top. If you want to get a little fancier, slice a bagel and cut out the insides. This just leaves you a hollow bagel that is perfect for holding the melted banana. Dessert for breakfast!
The bagel trick
The bagel trick (done here with cinnamon apples)

 

Some last second suggestions from my cousin, who does not like bananas: they taste good with Nutella and in cereal. Mashed bananas can also often be used as a substitute for butter/oil in many baking recipes.

 

[1] http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=7

[2] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120529113258.htm

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