Friday, November 16, 2012

Secret 49: Avoid the SAD - the Standard American Diet

For being such an incredibly affluent country, the quality of nutrition in the U.S. is shockingly poor. Carbonated syrupy drinks (concocted according to secret recipes), sugary treats, processed, fast-food meals, junk food - you name it and it is available for purchase - is often cheaper than real food.  This is evidenced by the state of health of the average American citizen, especially the health of the next generation - the American children. According to U.S. government statistics, nearly one in three children in the United States is obese or overweight. Over the past three decades, the incidence of childhood obesity has tripled. In the U.S. in the 90ies many schools stopped offering physical education classes. Doctors are diagnosing illnesses in children that previously have only been found in the adult population: high blood pressure and type II diabetes. Over $150 billion a year is spent in the U.S. to treat obesity-related health conditions. The U.S. economy is impacted by the substandard nutrition of American employees through absenteeism and lower productivity. Even U.S. national security is affected by the nutrient-poor, high-calorie diet of its citizens! Military leaders report that one of the main disqualifiers from military service is obesity. According to a Lieutenant General Hertling at Fort Jackson, the main recruiting center for the Army in the U.S. *:
  • among the roughly 130,000 applicants to the U.S. Army every year, more than 40% are obese or overweight
  • more than one quarter of all 17 to 24 year olds in the U.S. are too obese to enlist
  • over 60% of soldiers need significant dental work before they can be deployed. To solve this problem, the Army has had to recruit more dentists ($$$)
  • in 2004 about 6% of recruits (males 4%, females 10%) were not able to pass the Army's Entry Physical Fitness Test. The test consists of one minute push-ups, one minute sit-ups, and a one mile run. By 2010, this number had exploded to a staggering 40%+ (males 47%, females 55%).** 
  • due to a poor nutritional foundation, during basic training, young soldiers suffer more bone (stress fractures) and deep muscle injuries than ever before. Medical costs have increased by millions of dollars
  • while the Army can whip a soldier into shape, how do you educate the soldier's family and children about the importance of physical exercise and healthy eating? If you don't, where will you find the next generation of recruits?
Who is to blame? 90% of your typical grocery store consists of synthetically produced 'food' spiked with unpronounceable artificial flavorings, colorings and preservatives. Just the cereal (aka processed grains stripped of nutrients and 're-fortified' with synthetic vitamins) aisle in supermarkets stretches from wall to wall. Strip away those cereals which contain trans fats, are unnaturally high in sugar or salt, or contain chemicals, then most of that aisle will be empty. The majority of restaurants are chains or fast-food places that serve at least partially processed foods and use the cheapest cooking oil to prepare it. And the head of the Food and Drug Administration is a former executive of Monsanto, the GMO seed company that paid $8 million to defeat the proposition on the California ballot in the recent U.S. election to start mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. So how is this country ever going to ensure the transparency necessary for consumers to start making smart choices about food? Kudos to the Board of Health in New York for the courage and foresight to pass a ban on the use of trans fats in all restaurants in New York city by July 2008.  And luckily, in the U.S., ingredients have to be listed. Is this undesirable government intervention in a country that so prides itself on self-reliance and independence or is this necessary government regulation to improve general health and reduce public health care costs?

not SAD material
In fact, these apples had been lying on the ground in our neighborhood for weeks, ignored by humans (but enjoyed by coyotes). We gathered more than 20 lbs. or over 100 apples and made the most delicious apple juice, apple sauce and apple pie (OK, apple pie is not that healthy but I did make it from scratch)
So have a look at your diet. How closely does it mimic the Standard American diet? Is it high in processed foods, fast foods, hydrogenated fats (trans fats), salt, stress and calories? Do you drink carbonated sugary drinks? Does a large proportion of your carbohydrate intake consist of cookies, cakes, sweets and white flour? Is your diet low in fiber, low in fresh. local seasonal fruit and vegetables, and low in nutrients?  Or is your daily food intake a rich source of naturally occurring minerals and vitamins? Do you exercise daily for at least 30 minutes? SADs adherents are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and degenerative diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and clogged arteries. If you do not provide your body with the right set of ingredients i.e. a balanced tray of nutrient-rich, fresh foods, how is your body supposed to successfully maintain and heal itself throughout your lifetime?

The good news is that any dietary pounding you may have subjected onto your body - whether by choice or because trying to locate healthy, nutritious food in this wealthiest of countries can be challenging - is reversible. Another piece of good news is that you do not suddenly have to subsist on string beans and tofu to save yourself. The body is such a strong and dynamic creation that it suffices for you to start with minuscule changes. Thousand tiny steps will eventually get you closer to that summit of peak health and performance. And you get to choose which path you would like to take. Since many paths lead up the mountain, choose the one that is most fun/scenic/pleasurable for you.  Here's a start:

  • park your car a little further from your destination (you'll be less stressed about fighting for that last spot near the entrance)
  • take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator
  • take a brisk 10 minute walk at lunch
  • read the ingredients of the items you chose to put in your shopping basket. If you can't pronounce them, do you really want to put these in your body?
  • add a salad to your meal
  • replace a cookie with a piece of fruit
  • buy a juicer and use it for your favorite vegetables and fruit
  • take a smaller portion of that luscious chocolate cake (and eat it with more awareness so that you squeeze every last bit of pleasure out of every bite).....or take a disgustingly LARGE piece but then DO NOT TAKE SECONDS!
  • try growing some vegetables. Garlic is great for beginning gardeners.
  • do not combine mindless eating with staring at a screen
The options are limitless and are fueled by your creativity. Above all, be mindful of every little decision you make regarding food choices. In the long run, you and your family and future generations will benefit from each and every bite you choose to take today.

* American Grown, Crown Publishers, 2012

** Luckily modern warfare relies more on technology than actual bodies on the ground. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Secret 48: Invite A Friend

Make new friends
But keep the old
The new are silver
The old are gold

As social beings, we derive much happiness from interacting with fellow humans who are kind to us. We exchange valuable information, give reassurance, offer a shoulder to cry on, and gather to celebrate:

A shared grief is half as painful
A shared joy twice as delicious
 -     Chinese proverb

If you are a person who places value on nutritious eating, do not neglect the additional benefit of sharing your healthy meal with good friends. When we have friends over for dinner, I always marvel at the invisible, yet incredibly soothing good vibes that linger long after our friends have left. Although not visible, the laughter and the animated conversation continue to fill our home. Even the day after, when the pots have been washed and the dishes have been put away, the positive energy generated by the gathering of friends continues to nourish and sustain me.  

Many studies confirm the importance of sharing meals as a family. 'A family that plays together, stays together.' The word 'plays' can easily be substituted by 'eats'. A family that eats together, stays together. Modern electronics can be extraordinarily divisive - mom is texting, the children are playing video games or watching a movie, and dad is checking e-mails. Turn off those electronic love-robbers, and give each other your full attention. To appreciate the work the cook has put into preparing that meal you just might want to wolf down, help out in the kitchen before (and after) the meal. The social ritual of eating is a wonderful opportunity to gather together with the common goal of replenishing everyone's physical and mental energy. 

While the first step towards healthy eating is to create occasions to eat together, the next one would be to linger. Take time to eat and enjoy the company. In work cafeterias the food is often 'inhaled' and the diners rush back to their desks. Even worse, workers eat at their desk while surfing the Internet.  Be present. Bring your awareness to the taste and texture of your food. Chew (this was addressed in blog 30: Chew). And find some company with whom to enjoy the food.

Friendship is not only invaluable around the dinner table, it is a welcome respite from daily routine and the constant challenges thrown across the paths of our lives. Make the time to meet a friend for sports - for a round of ping pong, some time on the basketball court, to catch a wave, or to go for a walk. Some of the best conversations I have had occurred spontaneously while walking. My friends and I have figured out how to better parent, put never-ending gender strife to rest, and we have even managed to solve a few world problems while walking the dog. Or meet over a cup of tea. Listen, and share. Or plan on attending a comedy show, the theater, or a movie, with one or more friends. Even if you and your friends just sit side by side in the dark, you can share the emotions that are elicited by the performance. Laughing together is sweeter than laughing alone. 

One caveat to friendship: choose your friends wisely. In a lifetime filled with obligations, duties and chores, you only have a limited amount of time. Not everyone is suitable friend material.You are too precious to waste your personal time with people who are inconsiderate, selfish, demeaning or stressful. You spend enough time at work with people that you do not chose to associate with. Even when you are careful about who you befriend, not every moment spent with a friend will be enjoyable. Sometimes friends go through hard times. During these times they will need to vent and will not be the most charming company. Likewise, there will be times when you will need your friends' support and commiseration. A friend in need is a friend indeed! But this is not a permanent situation. Friendships are reciprocal and dynamic. At times you lean on your friends, at other times, they need to be able to lean on you, yet most of the time, you can just enjoy each other's company and walk side by side and laugh and play and face life together. 

Studies have shown that people with close, supportive circles of friends enjoy better health and live longer. Friendship is a vital nutrient for your heart and soul. Vitamin 'F' may not be available in bottles, but is just as essential as vitamins found in fresh fruit and vegetables. The long-living people described in Sally Beare's book - the Symi in Greece, the Campodimele in Italy, the Okinawans in Japan, the Hunzas in Pakistan and the Bama in China - all live in supportive communities that watch out for each other and play together. In your ideal neighborhood, the doors would always be open, friends would drop by spontaneously, and help would always be at hand. A community built on the foundation of friendship strengthens and soothes. The opposite of friendship is loneliness. Which one would you like to have in excess - friends or loneliness? So get out there. Find a club or organize a group of friends who share your interests - play bridge, go skiing, biking, hiking, discuss a book or whatever this may be - and then go out and have fun together.  Your health will thank you for it.