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Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to explain nutrition to children

You see, your body and your brain are being built right now. Your body is like a house; you will live in it for the rest of your life. So you want to build it properly.

If you choose the right building materials (like healthy foods), your body will be strong. If you pick the wrong ones (like unhealthy foods), it won't be as sturdy.

If most of what you eat is junk, your body will become like the house of the first little piggy: as soon as someone blows on it, it will collapse. You will get sick more often, and it will last longer. You will also have less energy, and probably more cavities.

If you eat a little bit better, your body will be like the house of the second little piggy: somewhat solid, but still  vulnerable to bigger blows.

If you eat mostly good foods, then your body will be like the brick house of the third little piggy: it will be able to resist anything! It might still get sick once in a while, but it will be better equipped to bounce back quickly. Plus, you will be giving the right fuel to all your body parts, including your brain, and that means you will probably do better in school.

Now eat your carrots!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

But what about self-discipline?

My stories run up and bite me on the leg - I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off. (Ray Bradbury)

This quote sums up how my writing happens. It basically... just happens. I don't decide that I'm gonna write a post. It's the post that imposes itself on me. As I said to D, this afternoon, before disappearing in the office: "Gotta go on the computer. My blog wants to be written."

When I ignore the inspiration, it either fades away (and then I'm frustrated that I lost the idea) or it snowballs in my mind until I feel so overwhelmed I have no choice but sit down and write. The fact is, most people who write on a regular basis will tell you they don't necessarily want to; but they have to.

So writing often/a lot is easy (that is, as long as you are afflicted with a writing addiction... which seems to be my case. I pity those people who, across times, have decided to exchange letters or emails with me. Soon enough they ended up drowned in pages and pages of my soliloquy).

But what about healthy habits, like exercising and eating clean? What if  "the need to eat spinach" or "the need to run 10K" never bites us on the leg?

Quite a few people have reacted to my posts about healthy lifestyle, and one of the most common questions I have been asked is "But what about discipline? What if I have no willpower? How do you do it?"

My spontaneous response would have been "But I don't have more willpower than anyone else!"; unfortunately, most people won't take that for an answer. They will point to all the writing/running/eating clean I have been doing and argue that those are proof that I am very disciplined.

Nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to discipline and willpower, I am incredibly lacking. Just bring chocolate ice cream, cookies and pastries to my house, leave, and come back 48 hours later. You won't need any further demonstration. Or just give me a simple assignment without a clear deadline. Come back 2 years later (yep, still won't be done).

I don't quite know where this lack of discipline comes from, but lord, has it got me in trouble. In school it seemed like everyone was always on time with their homework... while I was the queen of last minute. Still nowadays, with official documents, bills and mail... I am allowed to look (and read), but not to touch... because most times I was left in charge of such important papers, I misplaced them or simply forgot to pay.

But clearly the area where my complete lack of willpower has hurt the most is my relationship to food. I have always had a sweet tooth; in fact, I think my whole mouth is filled with sweet teeth, plus a sweet tongue, a sweet palate, and sweet lips. What I mean is I cannot resist sweets. I have eaten enough of them to last me a few lifetimes already. Innumerable times I gave myself a sore tummy or a headache. I'm telling you. No self-control. At all.

Regarding exercise. I will admit that I truly enjoy exercising... most of the time. But do you really think I ever feel like getting up at 5 am to go for a run in (pick an answer) a) the dark b) the rain c) the snow d) the middle of a pack of coyotes or bears e) all of the above. Seriously? Who in their right mind would pick an early workout over sleeping or even eating a leisurely breakfast? No one. Yet I do it: I get up and go.

So what's the trick?

The trick, to put it simply, is to stop wishing for discipline and willpower. No one has them. The trick is to equip yourself with tools. They might not be the same for everyone, but here are a few suggestions:

1) Think in terms of habit

The law of inertia doesn't lie: if you've been doing things a certain way for years, you will keep doing them the same way... unless a significant (and usually painful) effort is put in. Did you know that the best predictor of future behavior is... past behavior? You cannot simply decide that you're gonna change, and hope for the best. You have to be ready to suffer a little bit. Moreover, you have to commit to making the habit permanent. Otherwise, you're just wasting your time. How many people do you know have been on diets repeatedly, only to remain at the same exact weight for years on? Clearly, short-term solutions don't work.

As for exercise, it is demanding in its own way. First of all, it's tiresome. Second of all, it's time-consuming. Most of us are already tired and busy. How do you fit exercise in all that? The facts are there, though: all kinds of extremely busy people find time to exercise. How do they do it? Do they feel like it more than ordinary mortals? Probably not. When they first started they probably didn't feel like it at all. But they put it in their schedule, and they did not allow themselves to depart from it. I, for example, have decided that early Sunday mornings for the rest of my life, I will be at the gym. It's a simple commitment. It works. I leave when everyone else is still asleep. When I come back, exercised and showered, everyone else's day is just beginning.

The beauty of this is that if you keep a habit for long enough, it will become a second nature. It will feel easier. Pleasant, even. My yoga instructor, L, used to say "If you walk the same route often enough  in a forest, you will eventually create a path". (Something else she said was that exercising, eating clean and doing yoga/meditating should not be seen as a painful chore, but rather as a gift you give yourself. She certainly knew what she was talking about since she was a recovered nicotine and caffeine addict who at some point had had suicidal tendencies. When I met her a few years into her "yoga conversion", she was one of the happiest, healthiest people ever.)

The habit I am the most proud of having formed is the habit of resisting sweets. I can now serve dessert to the kids without drooling all over the table, becoming extremely cranky or starting to hyperventilate! How wonderful is that? It took a good 8 months, but here I am, a sober ex-sweet tooth! If you've known me in my younger years, you know this is nothing short of a miracle. Interestingly, just as I let go of the sugar, I was also able to let go of the regular use of Ibuprofen... hmm... food for thought.

In any case, when you decide to create a new habit, start slow. It's too easy to get carried away and do great... for a week. I am certainly a pro at that. But what about persistence and consistency? Those are the magic words that will bring lasting results. Let's borrow from Chinese philosophy for a moment:

Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult while it is still easy; make something big by starting with it when small. The difficult in the world must of necessity have its beginning in the easy; the big in the world must of necessity have its beginning in the small. Hence it is because the sage never attempts to be great that he succeeds in becoming great. (Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching)

2) Throw excuses to the curb

Lack of time is a common but invalid excuse for not exercising. The people I know who exercise regularly either wake up at 4:30-5 am to do so, or use their lunch time for it, or go in the evening once the kids are in bed. The people I know who don't exercise regularly seem to magically find time for TV or other time wasting activities. To those who say exercise is time-consuming, I respond "yes, and so is sleep, but you sleep anyways!" Exercise is just one of those things you cannot sacrifice. I like what Catherine DeVrye says about it in her book Hot Lemon & Honey:

We seldom think to place a value on our greatest asset - our own health, which can never be replaced. It's something we generally take for granted until, for some reason, we no longer have it. Only then do we fully realize that without good health it's almost impossible to fully enjoy anything else, including the other valuable assets of friends and family.

We're often so busy accumulating physical goods that we feel we're too busy to look after our own physical well-being. People often ask how I find time in my busy travel schedule to fit in exercise. I admit that it's not easy but I know, and remind them, that if we're too busy to look after our own health, we're too busy - period! And, if you don't take care of your physical body, where else do you plan to live?

They ask how I can afford the time to exercise daily. I reply that I can't afford not to take the time. Admittedly, it's sometimes difficult to get up on a cold winter morning and getting started is usually the hardest part. But I also know that I feel so rejuvenated after exercise that I often wonder why it was such a struggle to get going in the first place.

When it comes to a healthy lifestyle, the only acceptable excuses are those you make to do more of what's good for you. For example, I will use a 2 cm snowfall as an excuse to go shovel, even when the forecast calls for rain and it will most likely melt in the next 12 hours, on its own. I also carry less stuff downstairs/upstairs at a time, an excuse to do more "cardio trips" in the house.

3) Get help

From a friend. From a family member. From a professional. I know, it's not easy. It means admitting "I can't do it on my own." It sucks that we would need someone else to accomplish something that seems so basic. But it's just the way it works. I used to work as a copy editor for a smoking cessation campaign, and the first thing that people who registered were asked to do was to find a partner or "mentor". This is someone you can call when you have a craving. Someone who will support you, encourage you, check on you. In brief, someone you will be accountable to. If it works for smoking cessation, it works for any other healthy habit you want to create. I can attest that having a running partner for early morning runs makes a HUGE difference.

I hesitated a very long time before hiring a personal trainer. It seemed so expensive. Plus, I knew what I had to do. I didn't need to pay someone to tell me! Yet I was failing. I was just not reaching my goals. Finally I decided to invest the money. And suddenly the results started to show.

You don't necessarily need a trainer (or a nutritionist, a coach, a psychologist, name it). (Although paying someone might give you the extra motivation to get something accomplished... and usually proves to work faster.) But you need someone. Your social media network could do the trick: I have some friends who regularly post their food or fitness challenges on Facebook. Making it "official" is a great way to force yourself to do it (registering for a race is, too).

Find a supportive friend or family member, and tell them about your goal. It works for long term, medium term, and even short term goals. For example: I had been planning to do a big cleanup of my office for several weeks. It was not happening. So one morning I woke up and told D: today I'm cleaning up my office. Please make sure I do it. By the end of the day, the office was completely done, and D didn't even have to say anything. The single fact that I knew that he knew forced me to do it. I was accountable.

Another example: A client recently sent me a massive translation contract with a blurry deadline. The first few days I procrastinated and basically did not get much done. Exasperated at myself, I wrote to the client, and announced that from now on, I was planning to send them 1000 words a day of translated text (I can do more but I have other clients), with a final complete delivery on a specified date. After that I had no choice; I had made a commitment, and I had to honor it. (The client was delighted.)

4) Prepare coping strategies

Changing a habit will not be a smooth ride. Forget it. It won't. What are you gonna do when you get a crazy craving? (I got so many of those I stopped counting them.) Or when you're placed in an extremely tempting situation? For the former (cravings), I bought chocolate-flavored whey protein bars. When I crave carbs, I grab one. The only carbs it contains are mostly fiber, and the rest is protein. For the latter (temptations), I make sure I plan in advance. For example, there was a birthday party today. I knew there would be chips, pizza, pop/juice and cake. I decided beforehand that I would have one slice of pizza and either chips or cake (small portion), not both. Since drinks have a way of ruining an otherwise healthy diet, I brought my own bottle of water (with a wedge of lemon in it). Coming prepared was the only way I was gonna be able to do this right. And I did.

Similarly, you can lay out your workout clothes in advance, prepare your meals and snacks in advance, write a food/exercise journal, use smaller plates, etc. Strategies abound, it's up to you to select a few that make a difference in your life.

5) Have your own personalized plan

Some tricks and ideas I have shared here will work for you. Some won't. You will have to test and try. Once you've identified a winning strategy, stick to it!

6) If you have kids... teach them self-discipline

Children do not magically learn self-discipline overnight. They do not suddenly wake up one morning a new, mature person. This is something that is learned on an everyday basis. Help your kids develop this ever-important skill... today.

I am worried that the new generation is being overprotected more than it is being raised. Do we want our children to experience no annoyances now, or do we want them to grow into mentally sturdy adults? How are they gonna fend for themselves once we're not around to monitor, supervise and "kiss and make it better" ? That time will come sooner than we think! A mother I was talking to yesterday said to me that whenever she or her husband feel like "babying" their daughter, they remind themselves that they are creating "the adult of tomorrow". Will this adult be equipped to deal with life's difficulties, or will s/he have been so sheltered that the smallest challenge will seem insurmountable?

Doing things you don't like when you don't feel like it, taking responsibility for your own actions (as long it doesn't pose a threat to your psychological or physical integrity) while you're still a kid prepares you for "real life". I am very thankful that my parents never prepared a separate meal for me, and always asked me to at least try, and try again, new foods/foods I didn't like. They didn't feed me "kid food". They served me food... period. Including Brussel sprouts and other weird tasting stuff. I will admit that it wasn't always pleasant. But today, as an adult, I can eat pretty much anything, and I am always willing to try new flavors. When I see how complicated and painful eating can be for adult picky eaters, I feel deep gratitude. Really.

(If we fed the children "grown-up food" instead of "kid food", we might be very surprised by the results. When we were little, some of the foods my brother and I loved included blue cheese, sour kraut and raw oysters. Nowadays, my own kids ask for seconds of bok choy. I once heard myself tell R "Finish your chocolate cake if you want more fruit" and "Will you please leave some broccoli for the others!" We should never assume that children will only appreciate bland foods.)

At the end of the day, none of us should feel helpless, slave to a bad habit. All of us deserve to take good care of ourselves. You can do it! Starting now!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fuel up!

About eight months into my "new approach to food" (with the invaluable help from my trainer and this website). The results are there, in so many ways. In fact, I am getting so used to "my new life" that I forget how bad overeating (or eating the wrong foods) can make you feel.

I got a strong reminder last weekend after indulging in a full burger+fries+drink combo from a popular junk food restaurant. How did I feel while I was eating it? Okay. How did I feel after I ate it? In one word... AWFUL. All of my body's resources were needed to digest this unbelievable amount of fat, salt and calories. I was pretty much unable to do anything else but veg out for the next few hours.

Then I went to the gym for my workout. Let me tell you this: it was the worst workout I had ever had. I felt like I was 90 years old. An out of shape 90-year-old. How could a fit woman in her mid-thirties all of a sudden have so much difficulty doing her regular exercise? The answer lies in the food I ate, for sure. I had filled myself with the wrong fuel (try putting diesel in your regular car and see what happens!) and was now paying the price.

I thought "No wonder people complain of having no energy!" (be it physical, mental or emotional). How could your body and your brain function well when you give them the wrong fuel (and often too much of it)? If you feel slow, heavy, yucky, tired, down, and generally unwell... search no more! Chances are it comes from what you put in your mouth.

To me, the relationship between food and overall wellness is obvious. On a "good food day", I feel like I could run up the Everest without oxygen bottles. On days when I get off track (and have junk or simply too much sweets), I just want to lie down and doze off. Oftentimes I will also struggle with a headache. Other people will get digestive discomfort. Either way, the answer is clear: eat clean, you will feel great. Eat unclean, and you will feel so-so... at best.

And I'm not even speaking of hydration, which also makes a huge difference. On the occasional day I don't drink enough water, I get side cramps while running. Otherwise... it never happens.

People have been asking what I eat on a typical day. Here I'm going to make a list (portion size included) of those staple foods. This could help you plan your grocery list and your meals (and snacks).

Before we start, a few important notes:

- All the food for one day is split rather equally between 6 small meals/big snacks (For a medium-sized woman who is very active, they are around 300 calories each. Adjust to your own situation.)

- Each of those 6 meals contains both a source of protein and a portion of fruit or vegetable

- Each of those 6 meals comes with a tall glass of water. 2 more glasses of water will be had at other moments during the day, and at least 1 more for each hour you exercise.

- Notice there are no liquid calories of any sort (no pop, no alcohol, no cream or sugar in hot drinks. Not even fruit juice, which is not necessary in a balanced diet) - the only exception being skim milk. I have found that even healthy smoothies don't satisfy me, but it might be different for you.

- There are also no foods that contain more bad than good (like junk, desserts, chips, etc.)

- There is no heavy seasoning, thick sauces, etc. A little bit of olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, herbs and spices... goes a long way.

- I do allow myself a little bit of those less healthy foods/drinks occasionally. The idea is not to be a food extremist, but to eat clean about 90 % of the time, leaving just enough wiggle room for a small treat once or twice a week. (E.g.: a dish that doesn't really fit the healthy food requirements - moderate portion! - or a small serving of dessert or unhealthy snack, or a small serving of alcohol). Nothing is taboo, but everything in moderation. And if you don't want to eat something, don't buy it.

- If you're going to improve the way you eat, go at it gradually. Tackle one goal at a time. Focus on one thing solely for at least 2 weeks. For ex, you could spend 2 weeks monitoring your hydration, OR your caloric input, OR your sugar consumption, OR your protein consumption. Once you feel comfortable with the change, go on to the next one. I cannot say this enough. I have to admit it: with my trainer's plan, I thought we were going way too slow (I lost about 2 pounds per month - along with about 1% body fat per month, which didn't seem like much at first). But in the long run it worked, it added up, and most importantly I know I have created habits that will stay with me for life!

- It does get better. At first I thought my cravings were gonna get the best of me. They did, sometimes. But the longer you get your body used to eating clean, the less it craves junk. You will get off track (I regularly did, but the results still came in). You will feel frustrated (oh yeah. Might wanna warn your significant other). Give it some time. Don't expect perfection from yourself.

- Finally, if this all seems a little extreme to you, remember that this is what your body was created for: natural, wholesome, healthy foods in small quantities. This is what we naturally thrive on. The rest is just an artificial creation that makes us develop cravings/addictions... and see what it is doing to North America!

The list of daily foods

(Prepare them in advance as much as possible - makes your life so much easier!)

1) water: 8-10 cups a day
e.g. herbal teas, decaf tea, water with a few drops of lemon juice, etc. to make it more interesting. I also have flavored coffee that contains no calories or sugar, but that tastes like vanilla or chocolate! Yum.

2) raw green, leafy vegetable: 1 to 2 cups a day
e.g. romaine lettuce, mixed greens, spinach, etc.

3) cooked vegetable: 1 cup a day
e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, bok choy, green beans, etc. Can also be a homemade vegetable soup.

4) raw veggies: 1 cup (mixed) a day
e.g. celery, carrot, cucumber, bell pepper, mushroom, tomato, avocado, etc.

5) "tasty" vegetables: to taste
e.g. onion, fresh garlic, leeks, etc.

6) whole fruit: 1 medium, 2 small or ½ big a day
e.g. 1 apple, pear, orange, peach OR 2 kiwis, clementines OR ½ grapefruit, banana (because bananas have so much sugar), etc.

7) small or cut up fruit: ½ cup a day
e.g. berries, grapes, cherries, pineapple, mango, melon, etc.

8) skim milk: 1 cup a day

9) greek, plain, nonfat yogurt: ½ cup a day
(Add some fruit for taste. Occasionally I will put 2 tablespoons of flavored yogurt in it, or 1 teaspoon of jelly, honey or maple syrup. But not every time. You get used to a less sweet taste.)

10) 1% cottage cheese: ½ cup a day

11) cheese: 1 portion (the size of 2 fingers or 1 cubic inch) a day

12) "good carbs": ¼ to ½ cup (measure it!) a day
e.g. brown rice, quinoa, bulghur, whole wheat pasta, mashed sweet potatoes, bran buds, plain oats, etc.

13) bread product: 2 portions a day
e.g. 1 slice whole wheat bread or ½ bagel or 1 medium homemade muffin or a handful of crackers, etc.

14) protein: 2 portions of the size of a deck of cards a day
e.g. fatty fish, white fish, chicken breast, turkey breast, seafood, egg+egg white, lentils/legumes, etc. Less often: pork, beef, veal, etc.

15) seeds: 2 tablespoons a day
e.g.  sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, flax, etc. Wheat germ goes in that category too.

16) nuts: about 10 small or 5 big a day
e.g. almonds, tree nuts, etc.

17) fat: 3 teaspoons a day
e.g. olive oil, butter, margarine (check ingredients), nut or peanut butter, etc.

18) protein supplements (especially if you work out a lot or don't consume much protein otherwise. They help curb cravings): 1-2 portions a day
e.g. whey protein powder, whey protein bar. Look for a short list of ingredients, and as little carbs as possible. I try to avoid sucralose as well (stevia and lo han guo are ok). The powder can be used to flavor your oatmeal. Half a protein bar cut in small pieces will add flavor to your greek yogurt.

19) herbs and spices: to taste
e.g: basil, thyme, oregano, pepper, turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. Easy on the salt! 1 tablespoon of salsa or low fat mayo or 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard or lemon juice can enhance many things.

Bon appétit!

(Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions!)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

And now for the resolutions

Happy New Year everyone!

I thought about this year's resolutions for a little while, and came up with this: My resolution for this new year will stem from marathon wisdom: I will learn to pace myself.

I tend to live life as one plays a hockey game: in short intense bursts followed by periods of full rest. I think it is inherent to who I am, and I accept it as a trait of my personality, but it nonetheless creates feelings of dissatisfaction more often than it should.

Some days I put way too much on my plate, race from dusk to dawn, and end up both exhausted and frustrated (because my "to do" list was so long I barely made my way through half of it). Other days I give a whole new meaning to the concept of "chilling", and do practically nothing else than surf the net with no specific purpose. I end up not relaxed, but rather disappointed at myself.

Can we find some kind of balance here? This is made particularly challenging by the fact that I work from home and am my own boss; I do deliver excellent quality work within the deadlines, and my clients are very satisfied, but I am tired of  feeling disheveled. Enough is enough! Can I do a little bit less on hectic days, and a little bit more on quiet days, so that I keep a more stable level of overall activity? This is what I will strive for this year.

More specifically:

On busy days, I will avoid multitasking, and instead will give all my undivided attention to the task at hand. That means less emailing and less social media. (And less getting up to perform all kinds of less important/less urgent tasks.) You can't constantly zap from one thing to another without suffering a decrease in efficiency. Plus, it is time-consuming. I will (re)learn to focus, starting small and increasing gradually, so that my attention span gets used to longer periods of concentrating on the same thing.

I might use a timer to monitor my improvement.

On quiet days, I will avoid over thinking, and instead I will channel my energy into action. I have a tendency to over organize and over analyze everything, which has made me somewhat lucid, but it would benefit me - and potentially others - if this translated into concrete action more often. It is reassuring to contemplate, to ponder, to carefully plan and evaluate. But comes the day when you have to take a leap - even if you're scared (or simply "not quite in the mood"). This applies to everything from cleaning the friggin' oven to submitting a manuscript to a publisher.

I might ask people to kick me in the rear end to help me overcome my inertia.

Of course, New Year resolutions are nothing without an acknowledgement of last year's achievements. I want to make sure I keep doing the things I already do well:

- I will keep exercising regularly and eating "clean"
- I will keep nurturing my social network
- I will keep my professional, goal-oriented attitude at work
- I will keep my firm yet loving approach with the children
- I will keep teaching and learning from the people around me
- I will keep respecting my budget and putting money aside
- I will keep devouring books (please take a look at my Reading list on the right for inescapable titles - and I will regularly add new ones to it)

What about you? What do you want to maintain, and what do you want to work on?