Food, glorious food!

Welcome to the second in this series of blogs on good health.  Recall that my path to good health has been a combination of diet, exercise and stress management.  Today’s topic is food.  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines food as “material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrates and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair and vital processes and to furnish energy; also: such material together with supplementary substances (minerals, vitamins and condiments).”  That’s just the technical definition.  To me food is so much more.  Food at various times provides more than nourishment for the body; it nourishes the soul as well.  I love good food, and I love to share it with family and friends.  Food can be an adventure, art, a gift, comfort, celebration, inspiration and just plain fun.  The trouble for me was when food became anything but nutrition for my body.

Again, my disclaimer is that I’m not an expert on nutrition, but I am an expert on what has worked for me.  Over the years, I tried many different “diets” including low fat, low calorie and low carbohydrate.  None of them worked in the long run.  On each of them, I lost weight while being miserable only to gain the weight right back.  The good news is that I learned something from each type of diet.  What I know now is that each of them was a distortion of the balanced diet that my body needed long term.  Simply put, none of them met the basic definition of food.  They all lacked something essential.  Putting those lessons together with the dictionary definition provided my answer.  I achieved a long term healthy weight by focusing on the quality and quantity of calories that I put into my body.  As it turns out, it’s a whole lot easier long term than I ever would’ve predicted.  My diet consists mainly of lean proteins, beans, vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts.  And, I don’t eat more than what my body needs.    

If that sounds complicated, trust me, it’s not.  For me it has been as simple as eliminating refined sugar and avoiding processed foods as much as possible.   Unlike other diets I’ve tried in the past, I don’t have wild swings in my energy levels and I’m rarely hungry.  Food cravings are a thing of the past.  I’m convinced that my metabolism is faster because my body has to work harder to process the foods I eat because they weren’t already processed by some machine in a factory.  I compare it to the difference between burning pine versus oak in my wood stove.  Pine creates an instant blast of fast burning heat.  The trouble with it is that it burns itself out very quickly.  Oak, on the other hand, burns efficiently and long term.  Plus, it doesn’t muck up the works with left over junk like pine does that can cause a chimney fire. 

For me, the hard part was getting started.  I was a sugar junky addicted to the stuff.  If my body didn’t get its regular sugar hit I’d get moody and sluggish.  That would lead to a sugar binge followed by an energy crash that left me even more cranky than the one before.  But, cranky wasn’t the only thing too much sugar caused.  It exacerbated my anxiety and of course caused me to gain weight.  Once I finally decided that refined sugar was just plain poison to my body and undermining my health, I went cold turkey off of the stuff.  It wasn’t easy.  First, sugar in the form of sucrose, fructose and corn syrup is in pretty much all processed foods.  Plus, my body wasn’t on the same page as my brain about giving the stuff up.  I decided to get rid of everything in our house that contained refined sugar.  My spouse was a little concerned to come home one day to find our cabinets pretty much empty.  That’s how much sugar was in our food. 

Those first few trips to the grocery store after the purge took forever.  Every box and bag that I picked up had sugar as an ingredient.  Plus, I had unhealthy brain to contend with.  It was constantly trying to undermine my efforts to detoxify my body of sugar.  I’d hear that little voice inside my head saying, “Hey you, you know you want those cookies.  Come on, it’s just one piece of cake.  It won’t kill you.”   Let’s just say that I wasn’t pretty to be around during the first couple of weeks of sugar detox either.   I was frustrated, hungry, desperate, yet determined.  I stuck with it and a couple of weeks into it had an epiphany.  I felt great, better than ever.  My energy level was outstanding, which only fueled my desire to exercise.  Plus, unhealthy brain wasn’t quite as loud as before.  A perfect storm of energy had come together for me, and I felt so much better physically and emotionally.  I even a lost a couple of pounds in that short time.

It was a change that I wanted to make permanent in my life so I read as much as I could about what experts in the field considered healthy eating.  The take home message that stuck with me was to have a diet filled with a variety of foods that are processed as little as possible.  It made sense.  Processing strips away nutrients and makes it easier for our bodies to turn food into energy.  Not to mention that it contains all kinds of chemicals that I don’t even want to think about having in my body.  Plus, if a factory does all the processing of my food, my body doesn’t have to expend nearly as much energy to do it itself.  Unfortunately, I think that translates into a lower metabolism, a body deficient in nutrients, and more weight gain because processed foods are filled with empty calories.  I pictured the little food conversion factory inside my body sitting crossed-legged on the couch with the clicker.  Not good.  Empty calories are defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “calories from food that supply energy but are not nutritionally balanced.”

Shopping for food is a whole lot easier now.  Instead of having to walk all of the isles to get what I need, most of my shopping happens in the produce, meat and dairy isles.  I stay away from processed foods, including deli meats.  As for grains, we stick to those that are minimally processed such as whole wheat flour, brown rice and whole grain breads.  We’ve also discovered some amazing whole grains such as quinoa.  I love the stuff.  It makes the best hearty salads and side dishes.  It pretty much goes with anything and is very satisfying. 

For baking and the like, I use stevia, splenda or fruit such as cooked mashed apple or dates.  Instead of having a cookie or cake when I’m in the mood for something sweet, I eat fruit and especially like figs.  Yes, fruit contains sugar.  But, it also contains lots of nutrients and fiber.  Plus, my body does the processing of that sugar instead of a machine in a factory.  I also occasionally use raw honey.  The way I figure it is that anything made by Mother Nature can’t be all that bad for me in moderation.  I also like raw honey because it hasn’t been pasteurized which means the nutrients left behind by the bees are still there when I consume it.

Giving up refined sugar and processed foods was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my health.  I feel great and definitely not deprived.  Good healthy food fuels my body and is still all those wonderful things such as adventure, comfort, fun, sharing, art etc.  The difference now is that I don’t have a problem with seesawing weight and I’ve never felt better.

Finally, even though I’ve discovered the benefits of quality calories, quantity still matters.  But, by increasing my metabolism and getting plenty of exercise, I’m able to consume more calories than before and still maintain a healthy weight.  I eat small portions of healthy balanced foods every two to three hours.  This keeps my energy levels up, and because of it I don’t get hungry.

This has without question worked for me.  My advice remains the same as before though.  Each person needs to be responsible for her own health, and with the help of her health care provider, do the research necessary to understand her body’s nutritional requirements.  It really is something that can mean life or death.  Our bodies are sophisticated machines that need to keep running in tip top shape if we hope to be around for our loved ones for the long term. 

In addition to seeing your health care provider or nutritionist about diet, I recommend looking for books about whole foods diets and healthy eating.  The change was drastic for me and unlike any kind of diet that I’d been on before.  Because of that, I needed a plan in order to succeed.  I familiarized myself with what such a diet would look like in my every day.  I also planned for what we called our “cheat” days.  We still occasionally indulge in things like pasta and bacon, but on a healthy basis and with moderation.  My spouse and I love grilled hamburgers in the summer.  Instead of using bread or a bun, we put our burgers between pieces of iceberg lettuce.  That way we still get to enjoy a big bite with all the accoutrements, but not the bread.  Be careful of those accoutrements though.  Ketchup is loaded with sugar.  Heinz however, sells ketchup sweetened with splenda instead of sugar.  I’ve even made my own in the past when I’ve had the time.  This is what I mean by making a plan.  I looked for ways to substitute the processed foods that we had enjoyed with healthy options that are equally enjoyable.  In fact, our food repertoire is a million times greater that it was before.  There are some amazing fruits, vegetables and grains that we had never tried before such as kohlrabi which is an excellent substitute for mashed potatoes.  We also eat things like chia which makes a great tapioca like pudding.  Course ground flaxseed adds texture and crunch to salads and whole grain cereals.  These are just a few examples. 

The truth is that Mother Nature’s options for healthy food options are nearly limitless.  I’m sticking with Mother Nature any day over factory made food that has been processed into nothing more than addictive unhealthy empty calories.  Please feel free to share your experiences with healthy whole food recipes on this blog.  I’m always on the lookout for something new and happy to share mine.  In fact, given all of the hot weather around the country this summer, here’s a recipe that I’ll leave you with for awesome iced tea.  Start with fruit enhanced tea of your choice.  Add fresh frozen berries such as blueberries or red raspberries instead of ice cubes.  The frozen berries will chill the tea.  Once they’ve thawed, mash them slightly and enjoy.  Peace.        

 

 

 

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My path to a healthy body and happy heart

Just a reminder at the outset, please visit the Caringforkara blog site to bid on the many amazing items being offered to raise money for one of our own who is in need of our help.  http://caringforkara.wordpress.com/  Do what you can to help and I promise Karma will smile down upon you.

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs that I’ll be doing about health and fitness.  The idea for the series came about after I was asked by Andy and the Rev of the Cocktail Hour to join them for a discussion about the topic.  To learn more about the Cocktail Hour please visit them at http://cocktailhour.us/about.  Stay tuned for more on when that will be scheduled. 

Out of the gate, my disclaimer is that this is not an advice blog.  I am in no position to give others advice about how to get healthy and fit.  What I will discuss is my own journey there, including what has worked and not worked for me.  Each person has to be responsible with the help her health care provider to know her own body, its capabilities and needs.

Let’s get started.  I come from a long line of short stocky women who tend to gain weight easily, especially at middle age.  I grew up on a Midwestern diet of meat, potatoes and sugar.  I thank my parents for always making sure that our bellies were full.  They did their very best under the circumstances.  However, my diet now is nothing like the one I grew up on.  I’ll write more about that in another blog about food.  An unhealthy diet was a big part of why I struggled with fluctuating weight during my 20s and 30s.  One year I would be thin and fit, and by the next I’d be carrying 10 to 25lbs more than was healthy for my 4’ 11” frame.  I always kept two sets of clothes.  Ones for when I was thin, and then not so thin.  I could lose weight easily enough, but I could never keep it off for good.  That changed when I changed my view of what it means to be healthy.

When I was thirty nine, I was 25lbs overweight, suffering from the pain associated with having broken my back a number of years prior, and I was a giant ball of stress.  I oscillated between feeling sorry for myself and wanting to be healthy and go back to running.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, I am a runner.   I also had a good friend who died that year of breast cancer.  She was only forty when she lost her battle.  One of the things that touched me most was how hard she fought to keep her body as healthy as possible going through her treatments.  She drastically changed her diet and moved her body as best she could under the weight of cancer and the treatments for it.  She desperately wanted to live, and the way to get there was to be as healthy as she could be.  I don’t know whether the changes that she made gave her any extra time, but I learned from her that life is fleeting and that the health of our bodies is essential to us being around for a long time.    

What clicked for me is that health and fitness have absolutely nothing to do with body image or what others think of you.  It has everything to do with living one’s best life and being comfortable in our own skin.  By the time I reached age forty, I had lost 27 pounds, and at age forty five I am in the best shape of my life despite a bad back and the aging process.  My weight does fluctuate, but only at a rate of 1-3lbs, rather than what it used to.  There have been three essential ingredients to my getting to this place.  The first is to move my body.  The human body was designed to move.  Based on our genetics and history of injury, that means different things for different people.  I know my limitations and capabilities.  I focus on the capabilities and move to the fullest extent possible within them.  The second ingredient is diet.  Changing my diet and how I think about food has made all the difference, and I would never go back to the way that I used to eat.  More than five years into it, I don’t miss a meat, potato and sugar diet at all.  Finally, like most people, stress used to play a huge part in making me unhealthy.  I still have plenty of things that cause stress in my life.  The difference now is how I manage it by meditating and changing how I think about the world.  This change has been the most difficult and requires much effort.  But, I continue to work hard to keep stress at bay which means I have more energy for exercise, motivation to eat healthy and am so much happier and grateful about life.   

So, the three things that I’ll be talking about over the series of blogs on health are (1) diet (2) exercise and (3) finding a happy heart.  I hope you’ll join me by posting comments on what works for you as well.  I view this as an opportunity for us to learn from and help each other find our paths to our own best health.   Peace.

   

 

     

Lessons learned living at the edge of a meadow.

When we built our house on a hill at the edge of the woods several years ago, we had the idea of creating a meadow instead of a lawn over the two acre area that spread out below.  Neither of us like to mow, and in my profession, I’ve learned how important certain types of rare habitats are to a variety of animal and plant species.  Early successional habitat, in particular, is scarce in New England.  It’s an area abundant in bushes, grasses and saplings, and we had a great opportunity to create one.  If you’re interested in learning more about early successional habitats and why they are so important, check out this article by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs143_022190.pdf.

What started out more as a science project turned into a labor of love that has taught us volumes about nature around us that’s all too easy to take for granted.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have predicted that I’d fall in love with and learn so much from a place. 

We got started by having the land cleared and the soil turned over.   We purchased wildflower seed from American Meadows and spread it heavily over the area in early spring.  I highly recommend their products.  We’ve had great success with the American Meadows seeds and bulbs.  http://www.americanmeadows.com/wildflower-seeds.  We also planted a number of fruit trees including apples, peaches, pears, high and low blueberry bushes, grape vines and a large vegetable garden.  Wild blackberry, raspberry and strawberries have made appearances in our meadow all on their own.  Sumac and thistle are also naturally abundant. 

Remember the famous quote from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come?”  That quote comes to mind often and slightly modified when gazing out at our field of dreams.  “If you create it, they will come.”  And they did.  A procession of mammals, amphibians, wildflowers, birds, butterflies, dragon flies, fire flies, lady bugs, honey bees and the like have graced us with their lives.  A variety of Mother Nature’s creatures thrive in the little piece of heaven that we’ve created together.  The reality is that my spouse and I only got things started.  The wild ones did the rest.  All of them have been necessary players in the making of our nirvana.  That is the first big lesson that they’ve taught us.  A healthy robust environment is built on diversity.  Every creature has its role to play in maintaining that perfect harmonious balance.  Here are just a few of the other things we’ve learned from our meadow friends.

Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.  “Mama G” is a ground hog who made her appearance the first summer of our meadow.  She lives in a big pile of boulders in the field.  Like humans, ground hogs love to sun themselves.  I know when spring has arrived because she’ll come out of her winter slumber and lie on a big boulder belly up toward the sun, no doubt contemplating all the yummy tender plants about to emerge through the surface of the soil.  The other thing that I’m sure she’s considering is what obstacles she’ll face trying to get into our vegetable garden that particular year.  Mama G’s cleverness is maddening.  There have been years in which she has completely decimated our garden.  When she manages to breach the garden perimeter, she’s not happy with only  a squash or two.  She likes to take a bite out of each squash until she finds the one that’s just right.  It’s in those moments that I seriously consider my neighbor’s offer to make Mama G “disappear.”  But, I can’t do it.  She’s merely making her way in the world and my spouse and I aren’t going to starve if she eats our entire garden.  Instead, I think of it as a chess match.  She’s a clever one.  We just have to figure out how to be more clever.  Some years we win, and some years we lose.  At least the fight is fair.  Besides, there is a huge soft spot in my heart for her.  She brings me comfort knowing that as soon as I see her emerge from her slumber under the boulders that spring has arrived in all of its glory.

Sometimes all we need is a little help crossing the road.  The other beautiful thing that comes with the passing of winter into spring is the emergence of amphibians.  As soon as things start to thaw, their little body clocks turn on and compel them to move in the direction of their breeding areas.  There is a large upland vernal pool in our woods that is the spring home for blue spotted salamanders, among others.  Each year, there is what we call the great migration when the blue spots move in mass toward their breeding pools.  Unfortunately, many of them have to cross the several dirt roads in our neighborhood to get where they are going.  Salamanders are slow movers as they unthaw from the winter cold.  They do the best they can to get from point A to point B, but sometimes a little help goes a long way.  On those days when the critters are on the move, we set out with our neighbors to help them cross the road.  It feels good to lend a hand to Mother Nature’s creatures, especially since it’s us humans who put the roads in their way.

Beauty of a smile is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to wildflowers.  In our field, we have established a healthy population of daisies, lupine, coreopsis, and black eyed Susan’s.  Every year since we spread seed over the soil, these flowers have emerged and continue to proliferate.  There is nothing like looking out and seeing a field of brilliant color.  I can’t help but smile when I see them because to me, a flower looks like a smile.  Even though they come in all colors, shapes and sizes they are all a smile just the same.  That’s why I’ve come to appreciate all flowers, not just the ones I’ve planted by seed.  There is a wooden sign hanging above the entry way to our kitchen with the mantra, “May all Your Weeds be Wildflowers.”  Because I’m not in the business of farming and my field was created as habitat, I have the luxury of getting to appreciate all of the interesting things that pop up in our field.  Things like thistle and milkweed have beautiful flowers that birds and butterflies such as gold finches and monarchs thrive on.  One of my favorite underappreciated “weeds” is the hawkweed that comes in lovely little orange and yellow daisy like flowers.  Trust me, the next time you see a “weed” in bloom on the side of the road or in your garden, check it out.  I promise that you’ll see a beautiful smile if you look closely enough. 

Patience is a virtue.  But, the early bird does get the worm.  We have been blessed with very healthy and prolific berry bushes.  Our blueberry and wild black and red raspberry bushes produce loads of fruit each year.  I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have enough left over to freeze for use in the winter.  We aren’t the only ones who love them though.  Mama G, deer, foxes, chippies and birds all wait patiently for those delectable little berries to ripen into perfection.  Here’s the thing, while one has to be patient for that perfect moment of ripeness, one better not be late to the party or there won’t be anything left.  Mother Nature expects hard work and vigilance in exchange for the gifts of summer.  I’m just glad that there’s enough to go around.  The wild ones get some and so do we so long as we get our butts out there to harvest our share.  The simple lesson is that if there’s something one really wants in life, go out and get it.

Life is beautiful, but fleeting.  Enjoy every second while you can and be sure to leave something positive behind.  One can learn a lot about life from birds.  They are fierce, loyal, smart, beautiful and sing the loveliest songs.  Our meadow is filled with all kinds of them throughout the year.  The bird that has most touched me is the one we refer to as “Mama Phoebe,” an olive green bird who wags her tail and lets you know she’s there with her distinctive call of phoe-be, phoe-be.   She arrived about four years ago by building a nest on a board underneath our upstairs porch.  Every morning, she’d hang around on the porch flying to and fro chirping and looking for insects.  She was a constant companion who would show up every spring, mate and raise her babies and then head off someplace south for the winter.  She wouldn’t hesitate to battle to protect her babies and she was always the doting mother.  I found such joy in her company and couldn’t wait for her to return to us each spring.  This year, like always, she came home to us, refurbished her nest and got busy with the business of having her babies.  I loved hearing her song, and looked forward to her presence as I sat in my sun room with the windows open in the early morning.  Until recently, she always managed to avoid the Cooper ’s hawk that also frequents our field in search of birds to eat.  I don’t know for sure that it was the Cooper ’s hawk that silenced her voice, but I suspect it did.  I saw it hanging around in the time shortly before she stopped singing.  I miss her terribly, but am comforted when I paddle my kayak along the shore of the lake.  The sounds of Eastern Phoebes fill the air.  Mama Phoebe may have left us, but I have no doubt that her legacy lives on in the many babies she raised who now live because of her.

This meadow that we are so fortunate to share with the wild ones is a sacred place.  It fills our hearts and minds with more lessons than I could ever begin to articulate.  Sometimes those lessons are filled with laughter, and sometimes tears.  But like the seasons and night and day,  laughter and tears are integral to the cycle of our lives.  I’m so grateful that our eyes, ears and souls have been opened by our place of wildness.  Peace.