• My Evolving Thoughts on Food

    Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.  ~Hippocrates, ~400 BC

    Only eat things that nourish your body and make you feel wholesome – you are what you eat.  That is my latest and hopefully forever philosophy about food.  But it’s hard when there is so much confusion about what is actually good for my body.   Since I put a number of recipes on here and talk about food a lot, I wanted a post about how I feel about food to help frame where I’m coming from.  My thoughts on nutrition have always been evolving, as I document in this post.  I like to think I have landed at a place I will no longer waver since I am now using what I feel is common sense, but I’m not naïve enough to think I have figured it all out.

    My thoughts on food have pretty followed much the same path as American society over the last 30 years.  I’m lucky not to have any allergies or digestive problems.  I have never yo-yo dieted.  In fact, I find it pretty ridiculous to follow a “diet” with the objective to lose weight because what happens when you go off the diet?  Why not just commit to eating better food as a way of life?  I have tried things for the occasional month, just to gather empirical data.  I am a scientist by nature and profession so I’m often curious to see what happens to my body and psyche by adding or eliminating certain foods.  I remember my seventh grade science project involving cholesterol tracking of my best friend and I.  I read a lot of books on the science of nutrition, both the hyped stuff and the tried and true stuff.  The book that best matches my own thoughts is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, which I highly recommend.

    The origin of my food journey was Fargo, ND in the eighties.  It was a good place to ease in to the whole food thing.  My childhood was meat and potatoes-centric.  One of my absolute favorite meals was mashed potatoes and Jennie-O “turkeyloaf.”  To this day, I’m not really sure what turkeyloaf is and I think I am better off not knowing the details.  Generally, the questions to answer about dinner were 1) which meat, 2) which potato, 3) which type of bread, 4) what type of boiled vegetable and 5) which type of Jell-O or Jell-O pudding for dessert?  Some nights all these things were combined in to one in a “hotdish” or “casserole” (minus the Jell-O!).  Tater Tot Hotdish was one of the best!  On a lucky night, I might get my favorite – Orange Fluff.  If there was a salad, it was either Ranch or French dressing  from the bottle on iceberg lettuce.  It was a very typical Midwestern diet and my family was great about putting dinner on the table and catering to my favorites and trying to feed me a well-balanced diet.

    As I graduated high school and began college, I decided to do an experimental cleanse/fast.  It was the infamous Cabbage Soup Diet.  By the fourth day of it, I was sweating this interesting vegetable smell and felt like I was on a high.  This high was more than likely due to dizziness as a result of starvation, but I deduced that it was from the elimination of meat for four days so after the cleanse, I swore off meat.  That lasted for about four years and I have dabbled in different forms of vegetarianism since.

    Those four years occurred during the height of the low-fat phase. I shudder to think I ever thought there was some sort of scientific evidence to back this!  The idea was that eating fat of any kind made you fat.  I remember dutifully scanning the nutrition information on the back of packages and filling up my backpack with boxes of macaroni and cheese and non-fat sugary yogurt, and low-fat cheese with bread, bagels and fat-free cream cheese, and Popsicles.  I didn’t have a car so had to fit all my low-fat selections in to a backpack I could bike with.  This phase culminated with a bang.  Literally.  Explosive farts and anal leakage caused by Olestra in fat-free Dorito’s.  I began to re-think whether or not fat-free was good for one’s body.

    It was about this same time that I met my former husband who introduced me to a whole new world that a girl from Fargo had never experienced…Indian food, shellfish with shells on them, and sauces made with ingredients that didn’t come from a can.  We ate absolutely everything that tasted good to us and I slowly began to add meat back in to my diet.  Peppered with the occasional healthy meals were copious amounts of Ruby Red Squirt, Tostito’s nacho cheese sauce (which we thoughtfully added fresh jalapenos and tomatoes to), marinara with Italian sausage, jars of Alfredo sauce poured over noodles, and pizza (also with fresh jalapenos), biscuits and gravy.

    The chubbies happened slowly enough not to notice the transformation.   I was in grad school at the time and writing a thesis all night and showing up to crush rocks in a lab didn’t really require tailored clothes.  Upon moving to Houston, I realized we were looking a little pudgy.  The timing of this realization was coincident with the discovery of gourmet health food stores in the big city.  We slowly began transforming our eating style focusing on fairly lean meats and, following the carb phase that everyone was going through, began to limit our carbs and got back to a less puffy weight.

    I don’t still follow a “low carb” diet but am very conscious of the proportion of carbs I eat relative to the rest of my diet and am quite choosy about which ones I eat.  I resisted the movement that began to happen which starred gluten as the devil as well as the paleo-type diet.  I felt that perhaps our bodies should have learned to evolve with the crops we had learned to grow.  It seemed counter-intuitive to me that our smart species was destined to remain listless wanderers, killing mammoths and plucking fruit and seeds off trees forever.

    I have reconsidered my thoughts on gluten and eating more of a paleo type diet as of late and think it’s a great philosophy though it’s hard for me to adhere to it at all times.  Really, I think any type of special way of eating is hard because it often makes social gatherings where food is consumed feel odd.  You don’t want to feel high maintenance or left out.

    I started to reconsider based on a book I read recently called Wheat Belly, which had quite an impact on me.  The idea is that wheat has been completely bastardized since the original crop.  Back in the 1960’s a new variety of wheat was invented to help combat the problem of world hunger.  This wheat was basically a Frankenstein wheat that was more of a dwarf plant bred to increase yield.  Because of its heartiness for harvesting, nearly all our planet’s wheat that is being grown has been transformed to this type.  Its effects on humans were never tested though.  It has lately been accused of producing very detrimental effects due to inflammation and interactions it has on brain chemistry and is being blamed for everything from heart disease to arthritis to high cholesterol to diabetes.  And then, of course, the ADA’s recommendation to all people with these conditions is to eat more “healthy whole grains” which most of the population consumes in the form of wheat, so this further exacerbates the problem.

    I hate to be a conspiracy theorist worried about what the government is allowing in regards to the food we eat.  But there is a lot of information available regarding how many of these people are in bed with the large pharmaceutical companies and government nutrition agencies.  It’s hard to trust that there is no self-serving relationships among all these organizations and companies.

    Along these same lines we now have GMO’s or Genetically Modified Organisms and the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, etc. (non-organic food) to deal with.  This is such a huge problem in our society and I can’t even begin to express how worried it makes me here.  I find it very scary though that we really have no control over this food, that it is not regulated and that we all may be consuming it inadvertently.  I feel it has the potential to have a seriously bad impact on the health of our people and our planet and the biodiversity it supports.  It bothers me that so much of our population is either unaware of these issues or can’t afford to eat organic food.  It just doesn’t seem right this food is not regulated or not available to everyone.

    I have also had major struggles with how I feel about the consumption of animal products.  I consider myself an animal lover but have tried vegan and I feel like I am doing something negative to my body.  I don’t feel or look healthy and I don’t feel balanced.  It’s also difficult socially.  So I try to be very choosy about which animal products I eat.  It’s important to me that I know where it came from and I try to really limit my meat consumption.  I don’t eat factory-farmed meat and I am trying to be very careful about the type of dairy I consume as well.  I’ll put in some posts later about local family farms I visit to find meat and animal products.  In a perfect world, I’d raise all my own animals or a friend would hunt meat for me.

    I also think westerners are just deluded about how much meat we need.  I think a little bit of meat once or twice a week is quite sufficient and a great way to reduce our impact on the globe and to allow for better animal welfare.  I don’t think we need to be killing 10 billion animals per year to feed our population of 300 million.  When each of us feels it’s necessary to consume up to a pound of meat every single day, there is no chance for reforming the welfare of these exploited beasts because of the sheer number that must be slaughtered to support this unhealthy habit.  I actually shed tears at times thinking about these animals.

    So in all this wandering, this subscribing to new philosophies and discarding others, I feel like many of us are back where we started, as we are in so many things in life.  I’m going back to the way of my great-grandparents.   I try to eat a well-balanced diet with no refining, processing, extra sugar, or artificial additives.  I try not to eat too much of any one food group (except vegetables).  I eat limited amounts meat from ethical and sustainable sources and try to use all the parts in stocks, etc. I try not to eat anything that has been altered or produced in a factory from ingredients that aren’t food.  I consume mostly organic and local, when possible (I know I’m spoiled for living in a place where fresh food is grown all year round).  If I’m going to indulge in something like milk, cheese, etc. I go for the full fat satisfying stuff instead of the stuff that has been altered and processed.

    So, that’s where I’m at.  I know this is a long post but I wanted my philosophies somewhere on this blog.  Chief feels the same way I do, though he is much more of a meat eater but I think my habits rub off on him a little.  As his do on mine – he is even better about avoiding anything “convenience” or packaged.  We want our family growing up appreciating the culinary tradition, understanding where food comes from and how to cook it.  We recognize humans preparing and sharing food together is one of the greatest and most ancient pleasures and where a sense of community evolves.  Feeding a family healthfully is a way of showing love.  So I hope all our recipes and experiments in here continue to adhere to these philosophies.

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #10

    Abandon your ego.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    One of the hardest things to get used to in yoga is that, unlike other physical activities, it’s not about coming to win, or to get the best time, or to stand out among the other students.  When we are on our mats, we are trying to look within, to focus our gaze, or drishti, on ourselves and improve from the inside out.  Sometimes the studio has mirrors to help you with your alignment but we aren’t using these mirrors to see how good we look (or don’t look) or how the other students are doing.  In fact, often times we’re instructed to focus only on ourselves and to respect the privacy of others.

    In some ways, it reminds of a concept in the historical fiction book, Shogun by James Clavell.  In that book (which is one of my favorite fiction books of all time), European sailors are shipwrecked in Japan around 1600.  They go through all kinds of transitions adjusting to the culture there and one of the things they have to get used are the thin rice paper walls and how the Japanese do not allow themselves to listen to the conversations they can audibly hear.  Learning to turn attention elsewhere like this brings great power of focus (it’s great for ADHD) and teaches us humility.

    Part of the reason we focus so hard on not focusing on anything in yoga is that the real work is going on inside of us.  As I mentioned in the other posts, you are learning to strengthen your weak parts and you are transforming yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally.  It’s not a competition because we can’t always see or measure the million little ways in which we might be setting ourselves up for success.

    The other important thing about abandoning the ego is that no pose should ever hurt, as I mention in the previous post on listening to your body.  Injuries can occur when people become irresponsible by ignoring their body’s messages because they don’t want to appear like a weakling.

    Learning to abandon your ego can be a humbling experience in life.  Are there times you kept fighting in an argument even once you realized you were in the wrong because you didn’t want to lose face?  Are there things you could apologize for that your pride didn’t allow you to?  Or how many times have you hurt yourself or hurt others because you were trying to prove something?

    Every day, every breath could simply be bringing us to a better place.  We don’t need to do something medal-worthy to find this success.  We can prove it by way of the fluidity and lightness that honoring ourselves and respecting others brings us.

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga: #9

    Listen to your body.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    In yoga we want to push ourselves every time we show up but we never want to do it to the point of pain.  There are a lot of poses you might see other people doing that look easy enough.  But if you try to twist right in to them, you risk damaging your body.  The people that are able to get in to those poses have probably been doing them for years, trying to perfect it day after day.  Chances are the first time they tried it, it wasn’t as easy as they’re making it look now.

    As I talked about before, yoga requires a combination of strength, flexibility, and balance of both the body and mind.  Sometimes the poses, or asanas, can be deceiving in that the things that look like they require flexibility actually require balance.  Or those that look like they require strength of the body actually require strength of the mind.  It takes a long time to summon what exactly the body needs to do to accommodate these poses.

    If you are taking your first yoga class, the instructor should tell you not to do anything that hurts.  Yes, sometimes we tremble trying to hold a pose ten seconds longer than is comfortable.  Sometimes we approach our edge and these are the ways that we grow mentally tenacious and strengthen whichever muscle we’re working, but that is different from overt pain.

    It is like this in life too.  There are so many times we don’t listen to our body, when we try to prove to ourselves or to the world how hardcore we are and we ignore our body’s message that we are pushing too far before we were ready.

    How may times have you ignored the crawly feeling a particular person gives you only to be hurt or disappointed by them later?  How often have you said yes to something, even knowing you were biting off more than you could chew?  How many times have you tried to prove how strong you were by staying up late to get everything done and look like a superstar only to find yourself absolutely exhausted the next day or completely burned out?  How many times have you tolerated a situation or lifestyle that gave you anxiety and ignored the warning signals when the life you want has started to veer off its tracks?

    Yoga has taught me that our body sends us messages and we shouldn’t ignore them.  Sometimes getting everything right takes years of interpreting just how to coordinate strength, flexibility and balance of body and mind to get everything how we want it.

    Namaste

     

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #6

    Don’t forget to breathe.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    One of the main components of yoga is the breath.  If you show up to a class and can’t do a single pose, you get a lot of the benefits by just breathing as instructed.  During yoga we employ an ujjayi breath, which is a deep rhythmic breath that engages the diaphragm.  We inhale through the nose with the mouth closed and held almost in a smile and then exhale by constricting the throat and breathing out through the nose. When the throat is constricted, we build energy as we exhale and control the breath and it makes a sound like the ocean.

    The reason breathing is so important during yoga is because it brings fresh oxygenated air to every cell in the body.  It is essentially a way to nourish and rejuvenate the body and to fuel it for the hard work we’re doing.

    The other reason we focus heavily on the breath is because breath is always in our life.  If we aren’t breathing, we are dead.  It’s something we can always call on during moments of stress or pain and remember the technique of how we turned our attention to our breath in yoga during a difficult pose.  The other thing about breath is that it is always NOW.  When we show up to yoga class, the purpose is to honor our body and to go in to kind of a meditative state.  It’s not to solve problems by thinking about the future or berating ourselves for past mistakes.

    The tendency in yoga class is to start with the breath and then, as we move in to harder and harder poses, we might sometimes realize we are holding it or breathing shallowly.  This same thing often happens in life.  Just when we need the breath to energize us most, we forget to use it.  It’s like how we might adhere to our good habits without really thinking about them and then, when a really hard part comes, we start giving up our usual mechanisms for staying alive and thriving.

    Have you ever had a panicky call from someone who is stuck in traffic and late?  What about someone who is in the middle of the worst part of a divorce or other life-altering event?  What about a child who is on the verge of getting a time out?  Often times we look at or talk to these people and the first things we do are to hold their arm, look in to their eyes and tell them to take a deep breath.

    It’s amazing how we can sometimes go minutes or even years during which we barely remember to maintain a deep constant breath in order to nourish ourselves to get through the difficult part.  In fact, these are the times we especially need it.

    Take a deep breath.  There…

    Namaste

  • Life Lessons from Yoga #5

    Wiping sweat only makes you sweat more.

    Part of my August series on life philosophies learned from yoga.

    I have tried all different types of yoga and while my favorite is a good warm vinyasa (or flow) class, I have done a fair bit of Bikram yoga too.  This is the type of yoga people are often referring to when they talk about hot yoga.   It consists of the exact same series of 26 poses repeated in a specific sequence (which lasts 90 minutes) in a room heated to at least 105 degrees F and 40% humidity.  I spent a lot of time disliking this type of yoga but after doing it as my workday default since there is a studio right by my building, I began to recognize some really special things about it.

    One thing that characterizes Bikram is the strict obedience it requires.  In other types of yoga, you’re somewhat free to do your interpretation of a pose, to move however your body needs.  In other words, Bikram is sort of like military school whereas flow class is a little bit more like Montessori school. For that reason, it’s a great sequence for people who suffer from concentration and focus issues.  Bikram requires all of the class to move at the exact same time, and to look the exact same place in each pose.  There is only one water break suggested (though you can drink as necessary) and standing idly and toweling off the sweat that is pouring down your face and making your entire body slippery is discouraged.

    When you first start Bikram, the inability to constantly wipe away your sweat is one of the hardest things to get used to (just behind the heat).  At first, I didn’t understand why the instruction to be still instead of toweling off existed.  But then I came to realize it was for our own well-being.  Wiping away the sweat is pointless.  New droplets immediately appear within seconds of wiping so all that you’ve accomplished is taking your concentration and focus away from the present moment and expended energy you could have used in the pose.

    If you look up the reasoning behind heated yoga, most of it will refer to the physical reasons why it is so hot.  While these are valid reasons, I believe the real utility is something less obvious.  It’s a metaphor for life in that conditions are never ideal.  When you are in the studio for that 90 minutes, highly discouraged from leaving for any reason except extreme illness, you have to find ways to cope with the heat as the sweat pools around you and to continue to manipulate your body and maintain your focus.

    Are conditions ever ideal in life?  How many times do we say, “I’m going to start working toward that goal when…or “I’m going to have the talk with her when …” or “I’m going to settle down/get married/have kids when…” or “I’m going to pursue this dream when…”  When we do this, sometimes that perfect moment, that “when,” never comes.

    What if we worked at accomplishing the difficult task when the sweat was pouring down our face, stinging our eyes, and turning us bright red instead of expending the energy wiping away the sweat for a momentary reprieve? After the wipe, it is almost instantly borderline unbearable again.  How may “wipes” do we take in life?  What if we saved up the energy of ten wipes and just put it toward the task at hand in less-than-ideal conditions and completed it?

    Namaste