Conquering Stove-A-Phobia: Making Friends with the Kitchen Again

How many of you have dust on your kitchen stove? Or on your pans and other cookware?  Was the last “oven” you used a microwave? I’m not going to point fingers and giggle.  I avoided cooking (at home at least) for about ten years or so.  I grew up cooking.  As soon as I could reach the stove top (about 12 years old), I was pretty much in charge of cooking at home.  Since my parents were divorced most of the time, I got to cook at both of their houses.  (It was either that or sandwiches!) When I was about 20, my grandmother was recovering from surgery and wasn’t able to make the Thanksgiving turkey so she asked my aunt to do it.  My aunt freaked out: “I don’t know how to roast a turkey!” I was incredulous: how can you not know how to roast a turkey?!  I had done it myself a couple of times by then. (hint: it’s like a chicken, only bigger, so it takes longer! Oh, and it matters if you’ve stuffed it or not.)

Before we go any further, I am not a gourmet or even any kind of ‘foodie.’ I learned to cook out of necessity: two divorced working parents and one younger sister.  (FYI: my sister learned to be a much better baker than I ever was.) We both learned to cook because this was before processed prepared foods were cheap and easily available.  I remember when Pepperidge Farms came out with their frozen cakes; until then, if we wanted cake, we made it ourselves- with and without the boxed mixes. Popcorn was made in a cast iron skillet with a glass lid, cream puffs began as batter, and chicken, rice, and enchiladas were all made by hand.  Nothing really fancy, unless it was my sister’s Boston Cream Pie (awesome!) but we grew up reading recipes, tweaking them and making all kinds of things.  It was cheaper to buy a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, baking powder, and other ingredients that would make several cakes, pies and whatever else we wanted to make than it was to buy them already made or even the boxed mixes and a tub of frosting.

By the time I was in college and living on my own, I was pretty tired of cooking.  I didn’t hate it (much) but I had done it all my life and cooking for myself was just one more thing that I didn’t want to do. So, I opted for prepackaged or fast food/ takeout as much as I could.  It wasn’t that cooking was “such a chore”; part of it was that food-not-made-by-me was a bit of a treat. There were some really nice dinners that I made for myself on weekends and other times that I really enjoyed making and eating.

To be honest, I never really thought people could be of cooking or dread it as much as the do until recently. One of my water aerobics classmates recently started the GoLo diet program (you’ve probably seen the ads on tv) and she was groaning about how it seemed like it was mostly vegetables and the whole idea of cooking was just awful: “it takes such a long time and I don’t want to have to pick up groceries and then go home to cook them after working all day!” I tried to be as supportive as I could but another classmate sort of headed me off by commiserating with her.  Sympathy is great, but it’s not a solution, and in this case, it just added to her dread and reinforced her reluctance to cook. When I mentioned that I go grocery shopping on Sundays and buy my groceries for the week, she countered me with ‘meal planning dread.’  This is actually something that Robb Wolf handles rather well in Wired to Eat.  While he actually has menus and meal plans in his book, he offers some quick, on-the-fly ideas using five protein, five vegetables, and five spices.  Using those fifteen total ingredients, he makes a variety of meals, none of them particularly complex or time consuming.

I do something similar when I do my Sunday grocery shopping.  I make a grocery list, but I don’t make any meal plans or menus and certainly nothing complicated.  I buy my breakfast and lunch items, usually just a protein and maybe a fruit or smoothie ingredients, and for dinner- my most ‘complex’ meal of the day- I buy enough protein to see me through the days I plan on cooking and whatever vegetables I’m in the mood for, which can be sweet potatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts or bagged salad greens, and whatever else I want on the salad.  Yesterday, I came home and threw a pork shoulder steak on the stove (cast iron skillet with avocado oil) and then I poured out half a bag of butter lettuce, threw on about ten grape tomatoes and in a my ‘salad dressing’ container (an empty spice jar), I poured two teaspoons of Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of olive oil.  I let it soak for about ten minutes while I let my dog out and did some other stuff.  I flipped the steak, poured the dressing over the salad and I ate the salad while the steak finished up.  The steak obviously took the longest, about 20 minutes, and when I was done eating the salad and steak, I sliced some strawberries for dessert.  The whole meal took about 30 minutes tops to make.  It definitely isn’t fancy or complicated, but it’s real food and it’s foods that I like that are good for me.  The only reason the salad wasn’t fancier is that I didn’t want to slice a bunch of radishes or onions (although I have shallots in the fridge- I put them in eggs) and most of the avocados I find aren’t worth the money.  I cook what I like since I’m the one who has to eat it.

I think what puts most people off are the recipes they see in the cookbooks or diet plan books.  There’s a lot of spices and ingredients they aren’t familiar with and they feel unsure. Usually, they are cooking for family too, so there’s the whole idea that the family won’t like what they cook. What if they screw up the meal? What if it takes too long? Cooking- like everything- takes a little practice.  Accomplished cooks know that one side of the oven cooks hotter than the other; I know my favorite skillet is a little lopsided on one burner, so we just rotate what’s in the oven or move the food/ skillet around. Usually these little defects aren’t disastrous to what you’re cooking anyway.  When you’re cooking for a family, just ask them what they like, if you don’t know already.  If you have an “I don’t like carrots” person, either 1) don’t make carrots; or 2) make something in addition to carrots. For example, if you are roasting a chicken and one of your kids won’t eat carrots, make a medley of roasted veggies with it, like potatoes, brussels sprouts or veggies you know they do like.  If you have someone that won’t eat beef, then when you make your pot roast, just make something that they do enjoy (toss a chicken in the oven- they can have chicken leftovers while the rest of the family has pot roast leftovers.) Usually it doesn’t take any longer to make one more part of the meal than it does to make the entire meal itself.  When I lived with my dad, I did it pretty much every time one of us wanted something the other one didn’t like (lamb for him and goulash for me).

Don’t be afraid of your own inexperience.  Remember when you were learning to drive?  You only get driving experience by driving, so you had to get behind the wheel if you wanted to learn.  Of course, on your first day, you probably didn’t get on the 405 in L.A., either! If you don’t have a lot of experience cooking, or you’ve been away from it for a while, then start simply with some basic meals.  It’s a lot easier if it’s just you or your spouse, but if it is for a larger bunch, then make some notes.  I know my sister really hates fish of almost all kinds, so nothing fishy on her menu. My mom doesn’t like anything salty.  My dad is not a fan of lamb and I am not a fan of rice or most beans, so it’s simply a matter of finding the middle ground.  Most soups, stews, pastas and other main dishes aren’t too complicated. Chicken stew is not hard (chicken, veggies to taste, spices to taste).  This also has the advantage of something you can start in a slow-cooker and add some of the softer veggies later in the day.  Even with a family, you don’t need to do complex meal planning.  Sometime over the weekend, or whenever is convenient, make a list of what dinners you want for the week and make sure you have the groceries.  It also helps to have a back up entree in the freezer just in case.  If you do have a group you are cooking for, a meal suggestion box is a good idea.  That way you’re not stuck doing all the planning and you learn more about what they prefer.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your cooking.  A good cookbook will give you some variations on recipes, but the more you cook, the more confident you will get. As a teenager, I used to make a lot of fruit pies for family holidays and the recipe in our cookbook called for 2 tablespoons of flour as a thickening agent (apple pie), which frankly was pretty icky, no matter how long you let the filling macerate or how much you mixed it.  What works a lot better? Instant tapioca.  I switched the tapioca for the flour with much better results.  Recipes are basically a framework for the dish, and most experienced cooks don’t hesitate to switch one ingredient for something they like better. For a lot of foods, you don’t need a recipe- you just need the ingredients you like.  My chicken soup is closer to a chicken stew: legs and thighs, barley, peas, mushrooms, onions and lots and lots of bay leaves. Macaroni and/ or noodles depends on my mood.  This is why for some ‘traditional’ dishes, there are as many recipes as there are cooks.  Ever ask a Texan how to make chili? Or a Filipino how to make adobo?  How about asking a Mexican how to make huevos rancheros? The only wrong way to make something is the way you don’t like it.

I was living with my dad when we both decided we wanted enchiladas one night.  The way we grew up making them was really time consuming: cook the meat, grate the cheese, chop the onions, warm the sauce, then soften the tortillas in hot oil, soak them in the sauce, stuff and roll them up.  When we made them for family gatherings, we made a few dozen and it took an assembly line to make them for the whole family.  This was just two of us.  So we cooked the meat, bought grated cheese, and chopped the onions, then I stuffed two tortillas, put them on a plate, covered them completely with the sauce, and I microwaved them for two minutes! Were they ‘traditional’? Hell, no! Were they good? Hell yeah! and they weren’t a huge production and we had leftover filling for the next night to make more fresh enchiladas. This is the kind of recipe that you can prepare the filling when you have time and then have your dinner in ten minutes or less when you get home from work.

There are a lot of gourmets and foodies who think of ‘food as art,’ and in at least one way, they are right: one person’s art is another person’s trash. We like what we like, whether food or art.  That’s why there are so many different cooking shows on tv: Martha Stewart’s mac & cheese might be fabulous, but I’m not going to make it!  It’s just not my style, cooking-wise or eating-wise. My best friend loves refried beans and rice, and she can have my share because I won’t touch them.  I can eat lamb seven days a week for weeks on end and my dad thinks that’s crazy. Cooking is about trying new things, and learning what things you like and don’t like.  Yes, you will get a few things ‘wrong,’ but more often you will get them right.  Don’t be afraid of finding your own style of cooking and don’t be afraid of getting it wrong. The more you cook, the more you learn about how to tweak things so they are a little more to your taste. (Why do you think I put 4 bay leaves in the chicken soup?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Wired To Eat by Robb Wolf

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was listening to Robb’s new book (thank you, Audible!)  Generally, I don’t like to ‘read’ books this way, but his book sounded a lot like an extended version of his podcast.  Even though it was not read by him, Robb’s personality definitely came through and I believe one of his best attributes is that he explains some really technical info in terms that everyone can understand.  Not only did I finish his audio book in record time, but while listening to it, my attention did not wander! (Minor miracle!)

I’m not going to go into chapter and verse here, but I will give you a quick overview. In 2011, Robb published his first book The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet and it was a resounding success.  Paleo was already being discussed by the weight loss/ fitness community and most people fell into one of two camps: either they thought it was another goofy fad diet or they were firm believers.  Most people today still fall into those two camps, but the Firm Believer camp is growing fairly steadily, mainly because more and more health professionals (including doctors and nutritionists) are finding that even if they don’t buy the complete ‘Paleo premise,’ the fact that the lifestyle emphasizes whole unprocessed foods, healthy movement and quality sleep is enough to merit a hearty endorsement.

In Wired to Eat: Turn Off Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite to Lose Weight and Discover the Foods That Work for You (really really long title, dude!), Robb is taking the Paleo diet and individualizing it for you.  He’s developing the idea of Personalized Nutrition by first laying a strong foundation of healthy eating, movement, sleep and community and then taking it one step further by helping you find what foods are better for you and which foods you should be avoiding.

One of the things I like best about Robb (and I think it’s a big factor in his success helping people eat healthier and be more active) is that he has no illusions about the weight loss/ fitness community and industry.  He tells you a few times in the first few chapters that this is basically a ‘diet book’ and the fact that we are reading it at all instead of “killing it with fire!” is a small miracle on its own.  Robb understands that most of his readers are going to be looking for a quick fix and that many won’t make lasting changes unless the program isn’t complicated and they see some positive results fairly quickly.

Robb begins with his 30 day Reset, which is essentially a Paleo diet plan.  He admits he chose Paleo because it’s a whole food diet, emphasizing what he calls the four pillars of good health: nutrition, sleep, movement and community.  By focusing on eating whole unprocessed foods, we give our bodies the best materials we can to repair and refuel itself.  By getting enough quality sleep (and those two adjectives are important!), we give our minds and bodies the time it needs to repair and refresh themselves.  By getting enough healthy movement, we keep our body in good working order, which is also good for the mind, and by maintaining positive healthy relationships, we also keep our bodies, minds and spirits healthy and vibrant.

Robb gives us a little background on our basic human wiring.  Humans evolved to move.  As a species we walked on an average more than five miles a day, pretty much consuming everything edible that crossed our path and we rose and slept with the sun in an extended family unit or tribe.  This paradigm served us pretty well until the last hundred years or so.  Even after the agricultural revolution, we were still doing okay until the invention of cheap electric light, industrial foods and antibiotics.  We began eating highly processed but nutritionally barren foods, using broad spectrum antibiotics which wiped out our healthy intestinal bacteria (which allowed us to eat the nutrient rich foods) and started sleeping less and less and becoming more and more cut off from society. As a result, over the last century, we’ve become steadily more unhealthy, increasingly obese and much less active, and- a much more frightening statistic- the rates of digestive and autoimmune diseases have skyrocketed.  Under the current functional medicine point of view, most of our rampant health issues stem from the lack of good nutrition, lack of activity, lack of sleep, and growing social isolation.

Most of Robb’s book focuses on getting us through the 30 Day Reset, in which we stop eating the Standard American Diet of processed foods and high glycemic load carbs.  We start moving more, getting more sleep and building or maintaining our social connections.  He essentially talks the reader through why these things are important to our success not only as a species but as an individual.  He also has some quick easy meal planning tips for those who are intimidated by the idea of cooking most of their own food as well as some tips for what happens when the reader goes out to eat.  A lot of them are pretty common sense to me, but I grew up in front of a stove, cooking for my family. When I got older, I elected not to cook (with amazingly disastrous results, BTW!) When I mention cooking to others, I am frankly shocked by how little most people know about cooking and how resistant they are to the idea.  Many of them think making dinner involves hours of meal prep and slaving away over the hot stove.  They also think meal planning takes hours of complex menu convolutions.  Robb gives a few ingredients and menu variations with those few basic ingredients that only take about 30 minutes to prepare.  Most of them sounded really good too!

He also goes through some healthy advice on movement, community and sleep. He outlines ideas on getting more quality sleep and its benefits.  Some of these sounded a little ‘out-there’ to me, but I’m pretty atypical in this arena.  What works best for me and some of my friends is a sleep/ relaxation app, a warm cozy blanket and my pets.  Robb emphasizes the benefits of sleep and how it not only restores our brains and bodies, but it also helps us recover from the stress of the day.  We are not a society that values relaxation and stress management any more than we value sleep and this shows in our lack of good health.  Even though we live in a high tech, food-rich society, we are generally more unhealthy than our grandparents because, although food is plentiful, it has fewer nutrients than the food our grandparents ate, and thanks to our modern lifestyle, we isolate ourselves in front of our devices for hours on end, without moving or sleeping.  None of this behavior is healthy.

As far as movement goes, his advice is pretty basic: choose an activity you enjoy and do it as much as possible.  If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it.  As a coach and a gym owner, he gives some background on endurance and your mitochondria, but the bottom line is even if you choose the healthiest activity there is, if you don’t do it, it doesn’t matter.  I really like water aerobics and while it may not be the healthiest activity, it’s one that I do as often as I can because I like it and I like hanging with my friends in the class. That makes it a successful workout regimen for me.

Community is also something that is overlooked by our high tech high stress society.  In the past, we lived and worked in communities with strong social ties. Being isolated increases stress and depression, among other things, while shortening our lives.  Social isolation ranks with cigarette smoking when it comes to shortened life span. Humans are social creatures so maintaining and developing social ties are important to our stress relief, mental and physical health. Again, I am atypical in this regard, in that I am happily single and living with others actually increases my stress.  Let me clarify that: living with other humans increases my stress and irritation.  I have a strong social human network  with whom I interact nearly every day, but at the end of the day, I go home to my furry family.  Although I am the only human in my household, I certainly do not think of myself as ‘living alone.’

After laying a pretty solid foundation for healthy living in his 30 day Reset, Robb goes the extra step and tells us how to customize our eating plans through the 7 day Carb Test. By the time you’ve gone through the 30 day Reset, you’ll have noticed that most of the carbs in the menus are low carb, unprocessed and/ or fiber rich.  It is Paleo after all, so there’s not a lot of things like pasta, breads, rice, white potatoes, wheat, corn or other grains on there.  The 7 day Carb Test is where he explains how we can get some of those back in our diet.  The 30 day Reset is to help you establish a healthy baseline and healthy habits.  It gets you off the crazy carb roller coaster and other unhealthy habits and once you’ve done that (and probably lost a few pounds, are feeling more rested and focused), he shows you how to figure out what foods work better for you than others.  He suggests getting a glucose monitor to test your blood sugar.  What most people don’t realize about blood sugar is that cravings, hunger, headaches, low energy and weight gain, not to mention diabetes and other diseases are related to your blood sugar, which is pretty much dictated by what you eat.  If you want to ride the blood sugar roller coaster, start with bagels and juice for breakfast, a sandwich and chips for lunch, a grande mocha in the afternoon, pasta marinara for dinner and a scoop of ice cream for dessert.  Even if you add in some extra protein, that menu will have most of us going up and down with mood, energy and hunger all day, with the accompanying weight gain.  But not all carbs are bad for everyone, and that’s what Robb’s 7 day Carb Test helps you figure out.  He outlines a program to let you test yourself on some of the carbs you like and want to add back and then you can determine if you are too sensitive to them. Even if you aren’t really sensitive to them, some foods may just make you feel worse or better than others.

While the 7 day Carb Test isn’t complicated, there are a few caveats: if you have never tested your blood sugar, it means sticking your finger to draw a bit of blood.  Most glucose monitors will run you about $10-20 and you need to check to see if they include batteries and the lancing device and the actual lancets.  Some of them don’t and the lancing device and lancets will run about another $10 or so.  The device is reloadable: it’s the lancets that you need to change out each time and a box of those is fairly cheap.  Most lancing devices have a little dial at the tip: this controls how deeply the lancet sticks you to make you bleed.  Start with the most shallow number and do NOT lancet the tip/ pad of your finger! Too many nerve endings and it will hurt like an SOB! Stick the side of your finger tip and stick a different finger each time.  What is NOT cheap are the test strips.  Most reliable test strips will cost about a dollar a strip and they are usually sold in boxes of 50 or 100 (you may be able to get a box of 25 depending on the brand).  Should you opt to do the 7 day Carb Test, you MUST make sure that the test strips you get are compatible with your monitor.  Even if you get an off-brand that says it’s compatible with XYZ brand monitors, there is usually some discrepancy, like plus/ minus 10 points. Depending on how much you want to invest in your carb tolerance and your diet, the 7 day Carb Test may be worth it for you.  If you have pre-diabetes, D2, or another weight loss condition, your doctor might be able to give you a prescription for the monitor and the strips, etc but you will need to discuss it with him/ her and see if your insurance will cover it.  Personally, I’ve stuck my fingers too many times to be interested in doing it again.  I know what carbs I like and what works better for me, or at least is worth the ride on the roller coaster.

If you are interested in Robb’s book or anything else about Robb, his website is Robbwolf.com.  (The book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble if you want to skip his site.)  At his website, you can find info on his other book (The Paleo Solution), his podcast and a host of other resources.  Robb’s a real pro and I’m not kidding when I say he is a fitness and nutrition guru. [Obligatory disclaimer: I have absolutely no affiliation with him.  I just think he’s a great resource for anyone interested in eating better and getting healthier.] I hope you enjoy his book as much as I do and feel free to let me know what you think!

 

 

 

“Maximizing Your Potential”: Don’t Let the Jargon Get in Your Way

One of the first jobs I worked was with a manager who was a huge fan of Dale Carnegie and Tony Robbins.  He was always throwing out little maxims about how to get ahead and be successful.  I probably would have been more impressed if he hadn’t been the manager of a local pizza restaurant, which wasn’t even his own franchise- it was a corporate store! What made me and every other employee roll their eyes was the way he always acted as if he were on the fast-track to being a millionaire.

Don’t get me wrong here: having self-confidence is a great thing (and boy, did he!)  Keeping your eyes focused on your goals is also a great thing, but what made everyone giggle behind his back was the way he always had a quick quote and/ or rule for whatever situation we were dealing with: “you can be part of the solution or you can be part of the problem.” Yeah, that’s a pithy little quote, but I’m not sure he knew what it meant or how to apply it to whatever situation we were working on.  (FYI: he got transferred to the boonies and then fired!)

Every since then, I have really developed a bias against this kind of motivational jargon.  I have never found it to be effective (I’m way too cynical) but also I think it gets in people’s way.  Motivational speakers like to use phrases like “maximizing your potential” and “taking massive determined action.” I’m sorry but that’s a little vague to me.  To be blunt, what the hell does that mean for my situation?  How the hell am I supposed to know if my potential is being maximized or if my action was massive and determined enough?  Maybe I’m just being hypercritical (yeah, I am!) but I believe those phrases probably gets the audience’s blood pumping and when they walk out of the speech, they are all fired up to go out and act massively and determinedly and maximize that potential (yeah! go get ’em, Tony/ Dale/ whoever).  But then they get back to their desk and they’re looking at what’s on their plate and………”so…..where do I go from here? What’s my next step?  What does maximizing and acting massively look like for me?”

That’s my problem with motivational jargon: it’s far too vague and amorphous to be very effective for me.  Because it’s in a quick pithy little ‘sound-bite,’ it’s too general to be effective for the average person (or a cynical old crab like me anyways!)  I have mentioned before that I have post-it notes full of ‘inspirational quotes’ all over my cubicle.  The pic above only shows a few of them but as you can see, most of them are not short and ‘pithy.’  One of my favorites is by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel): “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”  Another favorite by Miguel Cervantes: “I know who I am and who I may be if I choose” and the one that probably most applies to working towards your goals is by Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  Two I do have that are short and might be classified as pithy are from Hannibal:”We will either find a way or make one” and by ‘Yoda’ (George Lucas, I am assuming): “Do or do not.  There is no try.”

Most of my ‘inspirational’ quotes are wordy and offer advice, generally about working hard, keeping your eye on your goals and making the most of your opportunities. When I sit down at my desk, these are the ‘maxims’ that give me direction, and for me that is the difference between “maximizing my potential” or “acting massively and determinedly”  and actually doing something that gets me farther along my path. When faced with a difficult task, I “do or do not.”  I either “find a way or make one.” And I always say what I think and be who I am- I am too old and crabby to change now! For some people, the pithy sound-bite motivational maxims work; it gets their blood pumping and they are on fire to make progress!  For others, they need a little more direction and guidance.

It is no different when it comes to losing weight or getting fitter: the old “no pain no gain” sound-bites don’t work for a lot of people, especially when they are stuck at someone’s party or as a guest out somewhere.  What kind of motivational advice do some diet gurus give? “Go hard or go home?” Does that really help a lot of people? Sometimes I believe it really puts a focus on things for me: don’t give in to temptation or peer pressure, but most of the time, it’s not what keeps me moving towards my goals.  Probably the worst thing about this kind of ‘go hard’ motivation is the way it makes us feel when we didn’t ‘go hard’ and had the piece of cake or the fried chicken or just too much of anything.  It makes us feel hopeless, worthless and helpless.  Offering a little more guidance and direction helps more when it comes to facing the overstocked buffet table full of unhealthy food or the morning after having eaten the overstocked buffet table: “what is the next best choice you can make to move you towards your goals?” “How do you want to feel in an hour/ tomorrow/ next week and what will make you feel like that?” This is the kind of motivational advice that I like best.  It offers a little direction and it’s specific to me. Yes, there is the table full of potato salad, fried cheese, croissant sandwiches and deep dish pizza, but how do I want to feel tomorrow?  Yes, I had the pizza, the beer and the deep fried ice cream last night, but what is the next best choice I can make this morning?

Maybe it’s a little simplistic but simple works for me.  Jargon just puts me off.  It burns hot and fast and then burns out; reaching your goals, whether fitness, weight loss or owning a Fortune 500 company takes hard work and long hours and lots of dedication.  You might get there by ‘maximizing your potential,’ but you’re more likely to get there by making the next best choice for you.  Another of my favorite quotes? “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything” (Wyatt Earp- and he ought to know!)

Stress: Real and Imagined

We tend to think of stress as a modern day malady, but while we may have more of it in forms that really are new (ie internet stress), stress has always been part of living. There is also the idea that having lots of stress and being crazy-busy is somehow a good thing: the person with the most stress wins!  Maybe they win a heart attack or a stroke, but I’m not sure they win anything else! If they want all that stress, they can have it!  My old Boss From Hell was always running around shrieking “I’m overwhelmed!” as if somehow that gave her license to be rude, demanding, and made her important.  I really believe that there are people who believe they can’t be important if they aren’t “overwhelmed.” If your sense of self-worth as a person is tied to the amount of stress in your life, maybe you should speak to a professional about it.

When it comes down to it, it’s impossible to avoid stress in our lives.  Like I said above, it comes with living. Driving in traffic is stressful; our jobs are stressful; our families are stressful; even our pets can be stressful. Our challenges are two-fold: 1) how to minimize the stress in our lives; and 2) how to handle the stress that remains. The irony is that these usually get shoved to the bottom of our to-do list because of the stress we are dealing with at the moment.  They should be at the top of our list, because the less stress we have and the better we handle it, the more time we have for the things we actually enjoy in life!

So what does stress have to do with weight loss? Way more than most people think it does! Stress of any kind triggers a hormone reaction in the body: ‘save your reserves! We may need them!’ Simply put, when our body releases the stress hormone cortisol, we are not able to burn our fat stores. The more stress we feel, the more cortisol is released, the less we lose weight. I have seen in this in my own body: when I am in a prolonged period of stress, even though I may be eating to lose weight, my weight loss is slowed down (or stopped) pretty much until I can get out from under the stress.  It’s not what I’m eating that’s the problem; it is literally how I am feeling- stressed!

Minimizing Stress: This can be a little tricky because most of us don’t like thinking about the things in life that stress us and then having to focus on dealing with them- ugh! It’s stressful! It takes a little practice (doesn’t everything?!) but the key for me at least is thinking about the situation objectively. Most of us are pretty aware of the ‘big stressors’ in our lives: mostly bills/ money issues and relationships. Thankfully, most banks now have an automatic bill-paying service.  If yours has one, it might be a good idea to use it.  It really depends on how much you trust your bank.  Many of the people and services you will be paying also have an auto-pay feature in which your account is debited automatically, sometimes at a discounted rate too.  Again, this depends on how much you trust the company.  Of course, this only solves the “paying on time” problem; the “funds in the account” problem is another issue!  If this is a chronic issue, you may have to sit down with a budget how-to book, and if you have a significant other, have him/ her join you.

Which brings us to the other big stressor: relationships.  I’m going to be honest: I spent my childhood watching one relationship disaster after another, and as a result, I elected to avoid that fight by not participating.  My ‘long-term relationships’ generally last about the entirety of the pet’s lifetime: I win most arguments and if they’re really a headache, I leave the house! So, all I am going to say is if you can’t talk to your spouse/ partner about money/ finances, then you really need to work on your relationship (a professional might be in order). If you are afraid of your spouse/ partner, this definitely needs professional and possibly legal help.  Being afraid of the one who is supposed to love you can be dangerous and life-threatening. Get to someplace safe and get help immediately. That’s pretty much all I’m qualified to say about relationships.

Then there are the ‘little stressors.’  These are the little annoyances that rob us of our time, energy, and our peace of mind.  These are things like: traffic congestion; tasks that take longer than you think they will (ie the dry cleaner can’t find your blouse) or something unforeseen (you lost your keys/ phone/ whatever).  Some of these can be avoided by a little planning on your part and some of them (like traffic) you just have to learn to live with. As a kid, I used to (and still do) observe my mom’s never-ending searches for her keys/ wallet/ phone.  I grew up watching her frantically race around the house looking for the lost item (which somehow was always our fault rather than hers.)  As a result, my wallet stays in my purse, which stays in its regular spot along with my keys (on a neon green lanyard) and my phone, if not in my purse, is at its charging station.  It’s that old truth: we either become our parents or we become their opposites, and when it comes to losing daily necessities, I’m the opposite of my mom.

Other little stressors, like traffic, I try to plan for.  Example: on Tuesdays, traffic is much worse than any other day of the week, so my alarm is set fifteen minutes earlier on Tuesdays. That’s about enough time to make up for the traffic delay.  Before I go to bed, I make sure that the things I need for the next day: lunch, gym bag, mail going out, etc.  I put these things next to my purse, and I usually lay out the clothes I plan on wearing.  These are some of my biggest ‘little stressors’ because I know I am not a morning person and I am neither patient nor at my best in the morning.  If I can make plan for it, I do and if I can’t (traffic delay) then I am a lot more sanguine about missing an appointment or being late.  (This comes under the next heading of dealing with the stress that remains.) I try to choose my battles. Why make things more stressful than they need to be?

Then there is the stress we make ourselves: the ‘imagined’ stress.  In some ways, it really is imagined, in that we make it ourselves, but the effects we feel are very real. These are things that seem a little silly from an objective point of view: Facebook, tv shows, and other ‘elective’ stressors.  Yes, it’s great keeping up with everyone on Facebook, but if you missed your brother-in-law’s posts, is it really a disaster? Even if you are the only one in the family who didn’t know that he broke his leg water-skiing, it’s not a big deal missing his post about his accident on Facebook. (Giving him a call might be a better use of your time and his.)  As for tv, if you have a DVR or OnDemand or even stream it online, it’s just a tv show and you can catch up with it when you have the time.  If you can’t catch it later for whatever reason, it is still just a television show! I know that TWD fans will heartily object, but it’s not life or death. There are a lot of shows that my friends love to talk about and that I would probably like, but I don’t have time to watch them all so it’s not worth my stressing over cramming them into my schedule. There are a lot of things we stress over getting done, getting done on time and that are piling up on us: we need to choose what is worth the effort.  Bills, relationships/ family, home/ car maintenance- yes, those are legitimate concerns; hobbies, tv/ internet, other elective activities- maybe you can be a little more selective on these.  Recently, I had an opportunity to attend a crafts workshop and I had even bought all the items I would need for the project when my schedule changed.  Suddenly, I had my dog’s grooming appointment and lunch with my dad the same morning as my workshop.  I could have crammed all three of them into that morning: drop the dog off early, go to the workshop and meet up with my dad afterwards and then pick up the dog.  Why create all that stress?  I picked my priorities: I hadn’t seen my dad in a month and the dog needed grooming (Cockapoo), so those were my priorities.  I’ll catch the workshop another time.

Dealing with the stress that remains: even if we are good at planning for potential problems, choosing our battles and reducing our stressors, we still have to deal with the stress we cannot avoid.  Sometimes, changing our perspective can really work wonders, and other times, we have to be a little more Zen about things. This is way easier said than done. Changing your perspective is a matter of learning to look at situations from another vantage point while being a little more ‘Zen and/ or sanguine’ is generally a combination of not worrying about what hasn’t happened and having faith in the higher power of your choosing.

By changing your perspective I don’t mean having a ‘rainbows and happy flowers’ mentality.  It’s a matter of making the best of a situation you can’t change.  Probably the best example of this is the 2+ hour commute I do five days a week mornings and afternoons.  Most people groan when I tell them how long my commute is but actually, I don’t mind the drive.  Since I am stuck in the car anyway, I use the time to listen to podcasts, audio books, call my friends (via Bluetooth) or put on a favorite playlist.  The commute is ‘Me Time’ where I spend time doing something I can enjoy (while driving) and on the drive home, it’s mostly wind-down time.  This was probably the last straw with the Boss From Hell: she started calling me on my drive and the constant stress of dealing with her (when I was off the clock, mind you) was more than I could handle. She was taking away my precious ‘Me Time,’ which was a major source of stress-management for me! That 2 hour commute which most people might hate is something I learned to enjoy.

Being a little more Zen (or sanguine) just comes down to accepting what you cannot change.  It’s a little different than trying to change your perspective, because it is usually either an unpleasant situation or an unpleasant possibility.  If it is just a possibility, then the stress mainly comes from worrying about it.  If it does happen, then you are stuck dealing with it. Dealing with the problem that has arisen is going to be stressful enough: fretting over it, worrying over it and all of the problems, real or potential, are not going to help.  The best way to deal with stress is to take some kind of action.  Doing something is not only constructive but it makes us feel better, ie something is getting done. I know this sounds simplistic, but it’s true.  Almost two years ago, my father was forced to evacuate because of a forest fire. Literally, he got a call from the neighbor down the hill at midnight letting him know the fire had jumped the canyon and was headed their way.  My dad escaped with his travel bag, his dog and his truck in the middle of the night.  It was two weeks before he knew if he had a place to live or not.  The stress and worry were overwhelming for him: he was in limbo.  There was nothing he could do but wait and worry.  After two weeks, he got the news he was dreading: his entire home was gone.  A lifetime of belongings and irreplaceable mementos were destroyed. He was going to have to start over again: building a house, replacing items, and dealing with the hassles of limitless paperwork.  Ironic as it is, doing something was less stressful than the waiting.  Moving forward, even if it was just making a bunch of calls and filling out paperwork, was less stressful than waiting and worrying. The action alone kept his mind and body occupied so, even while he was still ‘camping out’ at my sister’s, he was moving forward. As enormously stressful as this situation is for my dad (house is almost but not quite done), he made the best of it: since he had to rebuild anyway, he made some improvements to the floorplan and made changes he’d have liked to made to the old house. (He also joked that he’s easier to shop for at Christmas now!)  He still feels like pulling his hair out at times, but doing something about it is still easier for him than stressing over something he can’t control.

Dealing with stress, whether the real life dramas or the stress we make ourselves, is a headache all on its own. Most of us are too busy dealing with what’s on our plate right in front of us to think about ways to handle stress. A little planning can help with some of them: when you notice something stressing you, make a note on your phone and later, when you are relaxed, try to figure a strategy for getting around it. As for perspective, that is going to depend on you.  Some people look for the humor and some of us have to dig a little deeper for meaning and relevance in the situation. If nothing else, finding some time each day to relieve the stress is paramount.  Giving yourself some peace of mind will not only improve your quality of life, it can help you find solutions and perspective on the problems you’re facing!

 

 

 

 

Potayto- Potahto: Diet v Lifestyle

The summer is rapidly approaching and so is the second wave of “diet season.”  There’s the first wave at New Year’s, the second wave at summertime and a smaller third wave around the holidays (“look good for New Year’s parties!”)  Of course along with all the new diet programs and services, there’s a whole new wave of exercise gizmos designed to burn fat and give you rock hard to-die-for abs.  I’ve looked at a lot of these kinds of diets and doodads, mainly because my mom bought them and shoved them at me.  I didn’t try all of them but the ones I did try obviously didn’t work.  Not the magic ‘fat-binding powder’ or the deck of food cards to keep me from eating too much or even the food delivery program I picked out and bought myself.  After so many years, I finally know why they didn’t work: simply put, diets are temporary and temporary by definition does not last!

When I started losing weight and began looking for a long term solution, I found Paleo.  Most people know this as the “Paleo diet” or the “Cave Man diet.”  In the Paleo community, most followers call it the “Paleo lifestyle,” because a diet is temporary and many of us will not be going back to the way we ate before.  For most of us who adopt a certain way of eating and living, it is by definition a ‘lifestyle.’  I’m not going to go all militant Paleo Stormtrooper on you and insist you call it a lifestyle, but I have learned that so much of the success with losing weight and getting healthier has to do with mindset as much as it does nutrition.  This isn’t just a semantics or a ‘label’ issue: I think this is fundamentally why diets don’t work: instead of the diet mentality (I can go back to my old eating habits once I’ve lost weight), we need to change our thinking to “I am living a healthier life now.”  By thinking this is a temporary situation until we reach X goal, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.  I know how wonderful it feels when you finally lose weight: something is finally working! Hallelujah! And I also know how utterly hopeless it feels when you gain the weight back.  This is why so many of us just give up and resign ourselves to being the ‘fat woman’ or the ‘fat guy.’  Obviously, there’s something wrong with us, since ‘Diet Program XYZ’ didn’t work for us.  It works for everyone else, but either we did it wrong or we’re just destined to be fat forever.

Well, odds are, we didn’t ‘do it wrong’ nor is there something in our genes compelling our bodies to be fat forever.  Diets are temporary solutions to life-long issues.  By the time most of us reach our thirties, we have been dieting on and off for years, and despite that, we are still overweight. Many of us find as we get older that it’s harder to lose weight, the weight comes back faster and each time we regain the weight, we gain back more than before.  As a result, not only are we not losing weight, we are getting progressively more obese.  This is a result of dieting and the metabolic damage that it causes.  The diets have made us fat.  These ‘temporary solutions’ have definitely had a permanent effect on our bodies and metabolisms, but not the one we wanted.

As a result of constant yo-yo dieting, we cause long term (and sometimes permanent) harm to our metabolism.  The more you restrict your calorie intake, the slower your metabolism becomes.  Your body triggers you to eat more because it’s recognizing that it’s not getting enough fuel to sustain it as it is.  So not only do you become tired and lethargic, you are hungry all the time.  This is your body lowering your energy level to conserve the fuel (body fat) that it has and it’s telling you that the tank is running dry, so eat something, buddy! This is why people find dieting so hard: you are starving your body, but in a diet battle between you and your body, the body wins every time!  Even if you do lose weight, the reason you gain back faster is because your body is used to functioning at the lower metabolic level, so even if you go back to eating what you used to eat, say 2000 calories, your body is still functioning at the 1200 calorie level you were at on your diet. As far as your body is concerned, you are eating 800 calories above what it takes to maintain your current body, so you gain weight.  That means the next time you diet, eating 1200 calories is going to keep you right where you are, so now you need to lower your calories to 1000 or lower. This is how people end up gaining weight on 1000 calorie diets.  [FYI: fasting is not the same as dieting.  Fasting has beneficial qualities and does not cause the same kind of metabolic damage.]

So how can we lose weight without tanking our metabolism and spending the rest of our lives eating rice cakes and plain tuna? We change our lifestyle instead of dieting.  Changing your lifestyle starts with changing what you are eating rather than how much you are eating.  Yes, you will have to eat less than what your body needs in order to burn fat, but your body was originally programmed to burn the excess body fat when necessary.  That’s why the fat gets stored to start with! But we have been really bad care-takers of our bodies and we have jacked up the wiring (to use the technical terminology) and so now our body is used to periods of extreme deprivation aka dieting and so it hangs onto as much fat reserves as it can because it doesn’t know how long this extreme deprivation will last.  What we need to do is feed it enough good nutrition so that it starts letting go of some of the fat reserves because not only is it getting enough to survive, it’s getting a lot of really good stuff that allows it to function at a higher level.  Personally, I think it’s a little ironic that most people who will go out of their way to feed their pets the best food and treats and make sure they get enough exercise won’t do the same thing with their own bodies.  I confess to doing this myself: I made sure my pets had high quality food while I was eating Jack in the Box.  My first clue should have been when My Yorkie refused to eat the McDonald’s burger patty I offered him (and he was not the picky eater I have now!) Some people use a technique called ‘reverse-dieting’ to repair metabolic damage. I am not sure how this works, or if it is effective. (Metabolic Radio did a podcast on it if you want to find out more.)

For myself, I began by viewing this as a lifestyle change, not a diet. I decided- before I started- that whatever eating plan I was going to follow was going to be a life-long plan and not something temporary.  The changes I made were going to be permanent, so that did two things for my mindset: 1) there was no expectation of ‘this is only until [insert goal here]; and 2) there was no pressure to hurry.  Since I intended to do this for the rest of my life, it didn’t matter if I made 6 changes in one week (NOT a good idea) or if I made one change a month (much more doable). It also gave me a little more freedom to experiment: if I tried eating more kale instead of something like rice, there was no penalty if the kale didn’t work for me (FYI: I discovered I really really hate kale!)  So nix the kale, stick with broccoli! No harm, no foul! Since this is a lifestyle, there is no ‘doing it wrong’ unless I am forcing myself to eat the kale (or something else I don’t like) because it is ‘the healthy choice.’  Being healthy doesn’t mean that we are miserable.  I really think this is part of the dieting mentality: we feel like we are making sacrifices to gain the weight loss prize, so we put up with the suffering but as soon as we get the prize (or close to it), we stop torturing ourselves and go back to eating what we like.  This is pretty much how a diet works: no sugar, no chips, nothing that we like until we lose X lbs, and then- relief!! No more kale, rice cakes or dried out chicken breast!……..and the weight comes back!

This is the difference between a lifestyle and a diet: because I am making permanent changes, my focus is on eating things that I enjoy, that are healthy for me and that don’t leave me starving.  My criteria isn’t the calorie count, but the nutritional value.  If it’s a whole food I like with good nutritional value, ie strawberries, broccoli, or sweet potatoes, I eat as much of it as I like.  Portion control at the beginning was a bit of a struggle, but after a while, I got used to eating normal sized portions mainly because whole foods are more filling than processed stuff and the body takes longer to digest them.  So instead of feeling bloated and sluggish after dinner, I feel pretty good.  That’s because dinner used to be a sourdough jack, fries, jalapeno poppers, diet soda and maybe cheesecake.  Now dinner is a lamb shoulder chop, sweet potato fries and strawberries.  Not only do I feel a whole lot better, it tastes a whole lot better too. I am also not hungry all the time, either.  Eating processed foods used to make me feel like a blob right after eating them, then I’d be hungry and tired in a couple of hours or so.  My energy level was always either ‘okay’ or ‘about to fall asleep.’  Now my energy level is pretty even throughout the day and at the end of the day, I am hungry for dinner, but I’m not starving.  If I have to run a few errands before I get home and make dinner, I’m still okay.

Although my goal was- and still is- losing weight, my focus isn’t on eating low calorie foods that I don’t like and don’t make me feel good just so I can lose more weight faster.  I don’t want to be thinner and miserable any more than I wanted to be fat and miserable.  I want to feel good no matter what my weight is.  For me, this is the most important difference between a diet and a lifestyle: I want to enjoy my food and my life for the rest of my life; I don’t want to be miserable for a few weeks so I can be thinner for a few more weeks until the weight comes back.  Tried it and frankly, it sucked! Once I decided to make being healthier a lifestyle, I have been losing weight for the last two and a half years and I have been enjoying myself doing it.  It’s not a hassle; there’s no drudgery involved and there’s no fear of gaining the weight back.  There is also no deprivation involved: if I want to eat popcorn, cake and frappacinos, I have them.  I make a point not to have them a lot, not because they’re ‘fattening,’ but they don’t really taste great anymore and sometimes they give me a rocketing sugar high followed by the accompanying blood sugar plummet.  I stress way less about my weight and health now than I have since I was ten years old and never thought about it at all. Instead of scrutinizing everything I eat, I eat what I like, because now I know that what I like is good for me. This is the second most important difference between a diet and a lifestyle.  The most important difference is that a lifestyle actually works for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing Directions: When Just Losing Weight isn’t Enough Anymore

If you ask almost anyone who is overweight what they want most in life, I can pretty much guarantee you that “being thin” would make their top ten wishes, if not their top five.  Having been overweight since I was about 12, I used to have dreams about being thin. I don’t have to tell you how unpleasant it is being ridiculed and criticized by strangers, doctors, family, fellow students (& a couple of teachers) for being overweight.  It’s a character flaw: I’m either lazy or a glutton.  You have no idea how much fun it is in Catholic School when the teacher is covering the 7 Deadly Sins, which include Gluttony and Sloth (Laziness).  It’s the equivalent of being told you are on the fast track to Hell, and the rest of the class (& this teacher in particular) makes sure you know it!

Needless to say, I’ve tried most of my life to lose weight and eventually, I pretty much gave up somewhere in my mid-thirties. It felt like I had tried literally everything and nothing was working, so I was just destined to be the fat one in the family.  I tried to console myself with stories about dieters actually eating less than most people but still gaining weight and that our metabolism is what determines our weight, not how much we eat. Those kinds of stories made me feel better for about 10 seconds before reality hit me in the face again: whether it was ‘my fault’ or not, it was still pretty miserable being fat.  I learned to live with it, but if you gave me three wishes, my first would be to be thin; my second would be good health for my family; and my third would be a toss-up between being super-rich or marrying the man of my dreams (hey, as long as I’m wishing…..!)

There’s a really old expression: “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”  I really doubt most people know where it comes from or what it really means anymore, so I’m going to update it for the 21st century: “when someone gives you a free car, don’t look under the hood or check the mileage.”  This expression came to mind the other day as I was at the gym and I was thinking about what my goals are.  Two years ago, it was real simple: “I want to be thin.” Now, it’s more like: “I want to be fit.” Being thin is good, but being fit and strong is better.  Two years ago, losing nearly two hundred pounds was the same as winning the lottery:  “My number one wish came true! Whoo hoo!!” But now it’s feels like I want more than just being thin; I want to be strong and fit and athletic. It’s like I got that free car and now I’m lifting up the hood to check out the motor and the mileage.  It’s good, but it’s not good enough anymore.

While there’s the niggling feeling of looking a gift horse in the mouth, the fact is that this is a completely normal development.  Most of us change our goals the closer we get to accomplishing them. The horizon keeps advancing the closer we get to it, because if we didn’t keep pushing our goals, we would stagnate and stop growing as individuals and as a society.  The more we learn and grow, the more we want and the farther we want to go.  We see this most clearly in children: they start crawling around, then walking around and before you know it, they are running out the door.  They climb higher in trees, on the jungle gym, on anything they can find.  They keep pushing their limits and when we grow into adults, while we may change how we push our limits, most of us keep pushing.

Am I happy I have lost weight? No brainer, that one!  Do I feel guilty for wanting to be more than ‘just thinner’? No, I don’t.  Occasionally, I hear experts and coaches talking about keeping a strong connection to your Why, as in “why do you want to lose weight?”  For a lot of people, it’s things like wanting to see their kids/ grandkids grow up; wanting to look good for a wedding/ special event; or wanting to live longer and stave off disease.  For me, it’s wacky things like wanting to be able to tie my shoes without holding my breath or sucking in my gut; wanting to walk fast/ far/ long distances. It’s things like wanting to be active or do things without first stopping to think: do I fit in that seat/ chair/ space?  Can I do that without getting stuck and/ or hurting myself?  So, for me, wanting to be fit and strong and- dare I even hope?- athletic is the natural next step for my Why.  To paraphrase Muhammed Ali, it’s not the mountains ahead that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe. That pebble for me has always been things like tying my shoes, putting on socks, walking for any distance or length of time, sitting in chairs with arms: anything that causes embarrassment, discomfort or even pain- things that keep me from doing what I want to do! Pretty much no one I know thinks about how long they are going to have to stand and walk when they need to pick up a few things from the store, but for a long time, it was the first thing that came to my mind when I needed to go to Target or the mall: how far out am I going to have to park? is what I need close to the entrance? are the lines going to be really long? can I carry that thing out to and in from my car? I was starting to think like a disabled old woman and I wasn’t even 50!

One of the most exciting things for me happened just about a year ago: I went to the Queen Mary last Memorial Day weekend with my sister and a friend of ours. While there are elevators, most of the ship has stairs and it’s a bit narrow in spaces (it was built in 1936ish) and while we were there, we covered the ship on our own from stem to stern and top to bottom and took two tours, all of which included visiting the engine room three times! (Google the map of the ship and you’ll see what I mean!) All told, we covered about 12 miles of walking that weekend, and that included spending about 8 hours round trip in the car.  About three years earlier, I had gone to Disneyland with a couple of friends, and while it entailed a lot of walking, it was nothing like the Queen Mary, which was pretty much nothing but walking and standing (no rides, no carts, no ‘transportation’ options). I nearly died at Disneyland that trip: it hurt to cross the parking lot, to cross the park, to do any shopping.  I didn’t want to ruin the trip for my friends, so there was a lot of my sitting around and ‘guarding our shopping bags’ while they went off to enjoy a ride, a show or more shopping.  The Queen Mary trip was such a contrast since the friend we went with had recently hurt her knee and brought her crutches along.  Instead of my sitting around and watching our shopping bags, it was our friend.  I got to run down to get her something to drink or carry her crutches as she hopped down a staircase.  She had an actual injury getting in her way, but in my case, I was just too unhealthy to do normal things.

Losing a lot of the weight alone made a significant improvement on my health.  My back and my knees felt so much better, which made it a lot easier to move around.  My overall health was much improved even without working out or being more active.  But, as so often happens, one thing leads to another: since it was a lot easier to move around, it made me want to do more.  Since I could walk without pain, why not walk more?  Since I could be more active without getting short of breath or feeling like I was going to die, why not do more activities?  Like a kid, I found the more I could do, the more I wanted to push my boundaries.  I guess this is why people do crazy things like run marathons: they’re asking themselves “how much farther can I go?”

I have no intention of running a marathon, though at some point, I might try walking one.  I’d really like to try a ‘mudder’ (kind of like an obstacle course with a lot of mud, obviously), but probably not anytime soon.  Right now, I’m just enjoying my continued weight loss and pushing my boundaries.  I think it’s a positive sign of continuing to grow and discover new capabilities on my part.  People often call this a “weight loss journey” and it really is: I am going somewhere I have not been since I was a kid.  It also reminds me of the slogan “Life is a journey- enjoy the ride!” Not only am I enjoying it, I’m enjoying all the little stops along the way!

Hyperpalatability: The New Taste Sensations!

Hyper: a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, where it meant “over,” usually implying excess or exaggeration

Palatable: acceptable or agreeable to the palate (the sense of taste); adj. palatability

Just so we are clear from the start, hyperpalatability is NOT  a good thing.  We have all had hyperpalatable foods: they are the super yummy delicious foods that make you want to eat them over and over again until either you run out or you can’t eat another bite without throwing up.  Seriously.  These are foods that were created in laboratories, not nature.  It’s not enough that we grind the corn into a paste, toast it in little triangles and sprinkle them with some salt; now we coat them in all kinds of chemical flavors designed to light up the pleasure centers of our brains so we eat them over and over again.  This is called the Dorito Effect (from the book of the same name by Mark Schatzker.)

The food industry has spent billions developing chemical flavors and food textures designed to keep you eating and getting the maximum enjoyment from your food.  They run tests on human lab rats to determine what flavors and textures excite the brain more than others and then figure out how to get those into our food.  It would be great to think that they just wanted us to enjoy what we are eating but we all know the truth: the more we eat, the more we buy and the richer they get while we just get fatter and unhealthier.  This is why we have loaded baked potato flavored potato chips, salted caramel everything and ice cream with pretzels and peanut butter in it.  Food manufacturers have realized what many of us have known for years: different flavors taste good together and switching from one to another makes us eat more.  How many of you remember the old joke about pregnant women craving pickles and ice cream?  It’s because sweet and salty taste good together.  When I was in college, my favorite trail mix was sunflower seeds, M&Ms and raisins and almonds: it was the Sweet & Salty Mix.  The idea of taste diversity (ie, sweet + salty) is now being mixed with more hyperpalatable foods and the result is a disaster for us consumers.  We are getting fatter and more unhealthy by leaps and bounds, and more of us are losing control of our eating.  Experts go back and forth about whether “food addiction” is a real thing, but frankly if you get urges to eat mindlessly until you are bloated and nauseated and still feel the urge to eat, I think that qualifies as an addiction for me!

The combination of these two new food trends, taste diversity and hyperpalatability, is now all over the media and worse, in our supermarkets.

Taste diversity: This is the idea of pairing two foods together to complement each other.  We do this when we put salty nuts on our ice cream sundaes, pair fried chicken and waffles, or pair a sharp cheddar with apple pie.  These pairings, among others, have long been traditions in our culture, but now food manufacturers are finding ways to market similar combinations (like the sweet & salty trail mix I frequently bought during college).

Hyperpalatablity: This is how food manufacturers to hook our taste buds.  They develop flavors and food textures (it’s called ‘mouth-feel’) to trigger the pleasure centers in our brains.  This is the same thing that happens when we engage in almost any kind of addictive behavior.  This is literally what causes addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, video games, sex, shopping, cigarettes or salted caramel peanut butter fudge brownies.  When that pleasure center lights up, we feel the urge to keep lighting it up again and again and again. Food manufacturers are designing the foods chemically.  It’s not just a matter of adding more butter to make the cookies taste richer; they are adding in chemicals that most of us would not recognize as food.  Most of recognize things like cheese, corn, wheat or butter as a food, and even things like oil, salt, spices and roots like ginger or turmeric as food, but disodium inosinate? Disodium guanylate? Acesulfame potassium?  That sounds more like a chemistry test, but these are now common ingredients in our foods and they are designed to either enhance flavor or add sweetness. These aren’t just the chemical names for food, like calling lemon juice “citric acid.”  These are actual chemicals which were developed by scientists.  (Incidentally, saccharine was originally a by-product from coal mining and its sweetness was discovered by accident by a scientist who didn’t wash his hands when he went home to dinner. Yay…..?)

In the past, most of us would buy a bag of pretzels, a jar of peanut butter and a pint (or gallon) of chocolate ice cream and we would mix the three things together at home to make a chocolate peanut butter pretzel ice cream sundae.  There was a little work involved and for most of us, it was an indulgence.  What food manufacturers are doing now is packaging that ice cream for us, so now we just need to go to the freezer section and buy it already mixed for us.  We just scoop it into our bowls, or eat it out of the carton- let’s be honest here! We buy chips with the flavors already on them, so we don’t even need to make a seven-layer dip anymore.  For most consumers, it’s a great thing: we get all the tasty indulgent treats we like with little work and little extra cost (no more having to buy an entire bag of pretzels, jars of salsa or peanut butter or marshmallows- whatever we are going to put on our chips or ice cream.) I confess, it was easier for me to buy the bags of Sweet & Salty trail mix rather than mixing it up myself (and trail mix sure isn’t brain surgery, but it’s a bit expensive making it yourself!) Yay for convenience!….. Until, it’s not only too convenient, but it’s addictive as well.

This is something that I believe food manufacturers were counting on.  I have no evidence to support this allegation; it’s just my opinion, but I think it’s a reasonable conclusion. When you are given a choice between plain ice cream and a more taste diverse/ hyperpalatable ice cream, which one do you choose?  Remember the last time you bought ice cream? What flavor did you buy?  This was the actual choice you had: in that store’s freezer, you had a choice between plain vanilla, chocolate, strawberry (at least) and the more complex flavors like raspberry cheesecake, rocky road, and many other flavors with other tastes mixed in, such as marshmallow topping, nuts, chocolate chunks, pretzel pieces, toffee bits, cookie dough and cookie pieces.  Which one ended up in your freezer?  Even if you were buying it for someone else in your family, they chose it over plain vanilla, chocolate or strawberry.  I will confess, when I used to buy ice cream, my favorites were Ben & Jerry’s New York Superfudge Chunk or their Brownie Batter. Now when I buy ice cream, I buy another brand because it comes in single serve cups and I usually buy plain vanilla or strawberry since I share it with my dog (his favorite is strawberry.)

One of the major problems with hyperpalatability is that is overstimulation.  It’s similar to what happens with violence in tv and movies: the more graphic violence and gore you see in the movies, the less it shocks you, so if the next film maker wants to shock their audience, they have to add in more violence and gore to get the same shocked reactions the previous film gave the audience. Example: when I was a kid, absolutely no one used profanity on tv.  I distinctly remember the first time I heard it because it was such a shock (Alan Alda said ‘son of a b*tch’ on a M*A*S*H episode).  Now, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard worse on regular tv, not ‘late night’ or something I streamed or downloaded.  It has lost its shock value.

This happens with our food: when we are used to eating sugar sweetened anything all day long, when we eat a banana or orange or apricot, it doesn’t taste sweet to us.  The natural sugar in the fruit cannot compare with the artificially sweetened whatever we had before.  All processed foods have ‘natural flavors’ that have been added to enhance the taste, in addition to some of those other additives mentioned above (disodium inosinate is a flavor enhancer found in nacho flavored Doritos). [Incidentally, just because it says ‘natural flavors’ on the label doesn’t mean it came from food: some ‘natural flavors’ come from wood products or other ‘natural’ sources.  To qualify as ‘natural’ it can’t be something man-made, even though it is ‘man-derived’ from whatever natural source it started in.] So the more processed, ‘super flavor boosted’ foods we eat, the more bland, boring and tasteless whole unprocessed foods taste to us.  Most of us notice it most with things like sugar and salt, but it affects our entire palate. We get used to complex flavor combinations boosted by sugar, salt and chemical enhancers and then to get more flavor, more pleasure, more excitement out of the foods, we have to keep pursuing more and more, like an addict chasing the high they crave.

This behavior not only keeps us eating hyperpalatable foods but keeps us away from eating whole foods.  After eating pepperjack burgers on onion rolls with cheesy garlic fries, roasted chicken and sweet potatoes seem really really bland, and they don’t have the same ‘flavor pop’ in your mouth as the processed food.  The pleasure center in your brain doesn’t light up like a Christmas tree, so there isn’t a big draw to have the chicken and sweet potatoes again. But, wow, that pepperjack burger was yummy! So were those garlicky cheesy fries!! This is why so many people give up on eating whole healthier foods after a few days or so: “it tastes awful”; “it’s boring;” “I don’t like it.” (Try getting kids to eat broccoli after garlicky cheesy fries! Ugh!)

Fortunately for us, our palates change over time. We got used to eating hyperpalatable processed foods, and we can get used to eating whole unprocessed foods again too.  It takes some time to reset your taste buds, but you can do it, and once you do, I think you’ll be a little surprised.  (I know I was!)  As some of you may know, I was on first name basis with the Jack in the Box drive thru guy and after several months of not visiting, I happened to drive thru and I ordered the burger I used to get regularly: what a change!  I was expecting the yummy crunchy delicious burger I remembered, and it was just barely edible.  It tasted nothing like I remembered and I haven’t been back since (going on two years now). For the months in between, I had been eating whole foods and I had gotten used to them.  The whole foods taste good to me now and the processed foods just taste really weird and a little gross, some of them.

I don’t miss eating the super flavor boosted processed foods: now they all taste really sweet, salty, chemical-ly and just ‘off.’  They don’t taste right anymore and knowing that they are full of chemicals, preservatives, additives and ‘food-like’ substances doesn’t make them more attractive, or delicious.  On the other hand, eating fresh plain strawberries is a real treat, especially since they aren’t available all year round. They also taste a lot better than anything ‘strawberry-flavored.’  It takes a little getting used to, but the real food flavors are worth the effort, and they are better for you too.

 

 

Dancing to Your Own Tune: Personalize Your Healthy Living Routine

As some of you know, I like to eat Paleo and one of our chief gurus, Robb Wolf, recently published a new book, Wired to Eat, about customizing your eating plan.  The book has been out a little over a week and I downloaded the audio version.  I confess I am not a big fan of audio books, but what the heck! I can give it a listen on the drive home.  One of my favorite people (Elizabeth Benton, Primal Potential) is also reading it and I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts on it.

From having read the opening chapter (thank you, Kindle sample!), it looks like the point of this book is that no matter what eating plan you follow (Paleo, Keto, LCHF, etc) you need to find what works for you! You would think this would be a no-brainer, but many times we just “follow the rules” or “follow the crowd.”  For example, “my sister does keto and she doesn’t eat any veggies at all! I must be doing it wrong since I usually have salad once a day!” This is where so many of us run into problems, and not just with eating.  It’s that syllogism again: All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles.  We are all human, so there are some foods that are better for other species than for us (ie eucalyptus leaves are not high on our diets!), but we are not all the same, so there are some foods that are better for me than for you, and vice versa.  Even among poodles, there are variations, so we need to account for these variations when we start making improvements to our routines.  Sometimes, following the crowd and/ or rules will not work for us, and it’s okay to customize our routines.

We often forget that when we try to adopt a healthy new plan. For example, another one of my favorite people (Alan Misner, 40+ Fitness) was giving some tips on how to stick with your workout routine, and one of his tips was to get it done first thing in the morning. Honestly, I hear a lot of advice about getting your workouts done first thing in the morning, doing your journaling or gratitude or meditation, etc, first thing in the morning. For a while, I just figured I was out of luck, since I am the antithesis of a morning person.  The old expression “I’m allergic to mornings” is the best descriptor for me. Listening to their podcasts, I pretty much came to the conclusion that as a night person, if I tried to do the routines Alan and Elizabeth were describing, it would be a disaster for me. I am not awake in the mornings, so when they gave advice about doing self-care and journaling and workouts, it would be the same as a morning person trying to do it at night.  Most people come home from work and they are pretty worn out, ready to have dinner, watch a little tv/ internet and go to bed.  I am more awake in the evenings: I come home, do my journaling, get online, watch tv, have dinner, play with the pets, do my workouts, make my phone calls and if I had my way, I would go to bed around 1:00 a.m. or so. Going to bed by 11:00 p.m. is a sacrifice for me!

So, instead of setting up an evening routine that’s pretty much on autopilot, I set up a morning routine that is on autopilot.  Before I go to bed at night, I set out everything I need to pack for breakfast and lunch.  All I need to do when I get up is turn on the coffee maker and grab my lunch bag.  My gym bag gets packed the night before and left next to my purse.  My clothes are laid out the night before.  The only accommodation I really make is I get up a bit earlier to I can do my version of gratitude.  “Gratitude” is a practice that focuses on things and people you truly appreciate in your life and it starts (or ends) your day on a positive note.  I don’t write anything out or pray or meditate: I spend a few minutes each morning playing each of my pets individually.  The rest of the morning is pretty much on autopilot for about an hour or so, until I really wake up sometime after coffee and getting on the highway.

The reason most people do an autopilot routine in the evenings is that this is the time of day when they are most likely to veer off track and away from their goals because they are emotionally and physically drained at the end of the day.  Alan refers to this as “decision fatigue.”  This is when you’re asking yourself what to have for dinner, should you go to your workout? what should you do to keep on track to your goals versus what feels easier for you to do right now?  This is when they stop for fast food or call for pizza or blow off the gym.  I know from my own experience, these ‘evening’ pitfalls hit me more often in the morning: if I didn’t pack my gym bag the night before, I am more likely to blow it off in the morning because I’m tired, not awake, I have too much to do, etc.  It’s easier for me to make excuses in the morning.  The same thing happens with breakfast: if I didn’t set it up the night before, I can pretty much guarantee I am getting it to go at some fast food place.

Plain and simple, I don’t fit the norm, so following the routines that all the “professionals” advocate is almost impossibly hard for me. The idea of my working out in the morning is pretty much laughable: I’d never get there on time and I’d probably hurt myself being half awake.  I customized my routines to fit what works for me and after a little practice, they are working out really well.  But for some of us, we have never thought of customizing a plan to fit our own needs: we just follow what everyone else says is “the right way to do it.”  If it doesn’t work for us, we scrap it and try another routine from someone else.  We forget that we can modify things to fit our own schedule, (although both Elizabeth and Alan will remind you to do what works best for you.)

One of the other hot topics in the health & fitness media is sleep, both the quality and the duration.  I have never been a good ‘sleeper’ since I have been told since childhood that I am ‘doing it wrong’:  I sleep in the day; I am awake at night; I sleep with the lights on, with all kinds of noise, in a warm room and with all my pets jumping around the bed.  “Well no wonder you are sleep deprived!” they tell me. “You need to sleep in a cold dark soundless room during the night without anyone else in the bed!” Ummm…….no.  When I make my own schedule, I sleep just great: in the day, with the noise, the lights, the pets and the heat on. I sleep until I wake up naturally and I have lots of energy.  Trying to do it ‘the right way’ is an exercise in agony for me.  When I force myself to sleep according to the rest of the world’s day-night routine, I end up sleep-deprived. I am foggy-headed when everyone else is wide awake and I am wide awake when the “experts” tell me I should be getting my best sleep. I sleep just fine with the lights on (after a lifetime of pets sprawled out on the floor) and the lights going off will in fact wake me up.  The pets wrestling on the bed aren’t a blip on my radar. I wake up and find the ones who were on the bed are on the floor and the ones on the floor are on the bed, and I never even budged! How can I be doing it ‘wrong’ if the routine I use gets me the results that I want? [FYI: I was told the same thing by my study skills professor in college: studying in a noisy room while watching tv is “not effective!” Guess I just imagined graduating magna cum laude! My sister has the same habits I do, and she graduated summa cum laude, but what do we know!]

Robb’s book seems to be about taking this customization idea a little further to include your eating plan.  For most of us who eat Paleo, there are some foods that are simply off the menu if you follow the strict diet, like bread, wheat/ grains, refined sugars, beans/ legumes, etc.: “Completely non-Paleo! Bad food! Bad food!” But the truth of the matter is that if my sister and I eat a food like corn, I might have an extreme blood sugar response and she might not.  The corn will effect me negatively but she might be fine with it.  On the other hand, if we both have something like cherries, my sister might have more of a blood sugar response than I do. Sometimes, it’s not the foods, but the amounts of foods, and although most people focus on carbs and blood sugar, it’s not just the carbohydrates that effect us. Some of us don’t react well to fats or proteins.  MCT oil is not my friend and neither is coconut oil.  They don’t make me sick exactly, but I don’t like the way I feel after eating them.  If you listen to a lot of health gurus, both of those are really pushed at people as being “superfoods” (like kale, also NOT my friend-yuck!) and I am really “missing out” by not including them in my diet.  I beg to differ: why eat something supposedly healthy and good for me if it makes me feel awful?  “Awful” is not how I want to feel; if I wanted to feel awful, I would go back to eating the way I used to eat when I weighed 375+.  At least I was eating food I liked back then )although I have since lost my taste for it.) The point is that if your healthy routine and/ or eating plan make you feel miserable, awful or is just too awkward or difficult to maintain, then try changing it so it does work better for you.  Healthy living is supposed to make you feel better physically and mentally: if it’s not doing that for you, then you need to change what you are doing! You might be doing it “the right way,” but if your routine, whether eating, sleeping or working out, isn’t giving you the results you want, then you aren’t doing it the right way for you. You don’t win any prizes for following the rules; you only win the prize when you get the results you want.

I have to admit that the idea of creating something completely tailored to your unique lifestyle and metabolism can seem a bit daunting at first.  Everyone likes something custom-made just for you, unless we have to do the work to make it ourselves! Then it’s just too much work or too confusing: “Where do I start?”;  “What if I’m doing it wrong?”; “How do I know if it’s right?” Robb’s book gives you a great starting point, but even if you don’t decide to use his book, there are a few out there that will give you an idea of how to develop an eating plan that works better for you than a more generic “one size fits all” plan.  Dr. David Ludwig’s Always Hungry? is also very comprehensive and it gives you a structured format to start you off before you learn to fly on your own. The important points to remember are: 1) it takes time to get all the kinks out before you find the routines and foods that work best for you, so be patient!; and 2) simpler is always better! It’s generally easier and more convenient.  The more you overhaul the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain! And not just the drain: if something involves too many steps or is just too inconvenient, what are the odds you will stick with it long term?

In the end, it’s all up to you: only you know what works best for you: eating, sleeping, being active- all of it!  It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work for others or if they are telling you to try what works for them, even if it’s a family member who’s telling you. If what you are doing is getting you the results you want, then stick with it!  If it’s almost there but not quite, then give it a tweak and see how it goes.  Don’t abandon what you’re doing until you have given it enough time to know that yep, not working! Then you can try what your brother or your friend recommended, but since we are all unique, there is no ‘one size’ for everyone.