Relationships and Communication

Relationships

As the holidays approach, it means many of us will be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones. Depending on your relationship with these individuals, this togetherness may bring feelings of joy and happiness, but it can also bring sadness, disappointment and even pain. Our social relationships have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, for better or for worse.

Research has shown that individuals who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. It is beneficial to periodically assess the quality of your social relationships and how they are impacting your health and wellbeing.

A few questions to consider as you assess the stability and satisfaction with your current relationships include:

  • Does the relationship contribute to a sense of belonging, security, purpose and/or self-worth?
  • Do you have a variety of social outlets, from casual acquaintances to one or two close friends who can provide support when needed?
  • Do you foster those relationships in which you feel supported and energized? And conversely, do you minimize contact in those relationships that are conflicted and/or drain your energy?

You may also want to think about the impact of your relationships based on the other areas of the Wheel of Health. For example, do you have relationships that can support you in meeting your nutrition and exercise goals? Are your spiritual beliefs and experiences supported, or perhaps challenged, by your relationships? What impact do your close relationships have on your personal growth and development?

Communication

One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy relationships is effective communication. Whether you want to sustain your supportive relationships or improve your difficult ones, improving the way you communicate can be key. Below are three components of effective communication skills you may want to assess personally:

Listening. Think about the last time you thought someone really listened to you. How did it feel to have their complete attention? Most likely, that person demonstrated the following behaviors or characteristics:

  • The listener was not in a rush, paid attention to what you were saying and held space for you to share what was on your mind. S/he was present with you, mentally and physically.
  • The listener did not rush to judge or criticize what you were saying, and refrained from injecting his or her own opinions about what you had to say.
  • The listener let you know you were heard by reflecting or paraphrasing what you said and/or by asking clarifying questions.
  • The listener used non-verbal behaviors, such as consistent eye contact and nodding, to indicate that s/he was present and focused on you.

The next time you want to engage in active listening, select one of the above characteristics and consciously practice it. See if it makes a difference in the relationship to the person to whom you are listening.

Inquiry. True inquiry comes from a place of genuine curiosity about another person. It is not just asking questions for the sake of carrying on a conversation. It can be accomplished using open-ended questions, that are not easily answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically begin with “what” or “how.” For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?,” you might ask “What was the best part about school today?”

If you want to practice the skill of inquiry, consider the use of “I” statements. This approach allows each person to have his or her own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. Some examples include:

“You” statement: “You don’t understand me.”

vs.

“I” statement: “I’m not sure I am making myself clear.”

 

“You” statement: “You are no help at all!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help.”

 

“You” statement: “You are always late!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel anxious when you don’t arrive on time.”

If you are not already using “I” statements, you may want to try this approach and see if doing so has a positive impact on communication with your colleagues, friends and family.

Communication styles. Being aware of your communication style can help you choose the one that best fits the specific circumstance and promotes open and effective communication. There are four basic styles of communicating:

  • Aggressive: Getting what you want at another person’s expense. This style typically involves a loud voice, insults, dominating posture and a lack of listening.

 

  • Passive: Allowing another person to have what they want at your expense, often to avoid conflict. This style usually involves a quiet voice and demeanor, a meek posture and little room to express your own feelings or desires.

 

  • Assertive: Balancing what you want with what another person wants. This style generally involves a firm, moderate tone of voice, and communication that includes both listening and the use of “I” statements.

 

  • Passive Aggressive: Attempting to get what you want in an indirect or calculating way. Communication is often not direct but leading and manipulative. Tone of voice and posture vary depending on what you think will get you what you want with the other person or in that particular moment.

Different situations call for different communication styles. There is benefit in being competent in more than one style, and being able to use the style that the situation calls for. Being aware of what style of communication you are using and choosing intentionally can be beneficial in promoting the kinds of relationships you want to have.

Physical Environment

Some people may be surprised to see physical environment as one of the self-care areas on the Wheel of Health. However, the spaces that we live, work and play in can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing – either positively or negatively. There are three major areas that fall under this category: your community, your workplace and your home. I will explore each of these briefly and invite you to consider those aspects of your environment that you can most easily influence to support and nurture your health.

Community

Think about the town or city where you live. There are a number of factors that can affect your health and wellness. For example, local climate may play a role. If you live in the northern US, you may not get enough sunlight during the winter months to make adequate amounts of Vitamin D. You could also be more prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons. It may also be more difficult to stay active when winter weather hampers your exercise plans.

If you live in a warmer climate, you need to consider taking precautions against the sun and heat. For example, you may want to use sunscreen when you are outdoors, stay well-hydrated and limit outdoor activity when air quality is poor. The local climate can also impact health issues such as seasonal allergies. There may be certain types of plants or trees that grow in your geographic area that irritate your sinuses. Minor cases are often treatable with medications, but more severe allergies may prompt you to consider moving to a different geographic location to avoid the trigger(s).

There are often different health issues in urban vs. rural areas. City residents may face higher levels of stress due to concerns about crime, violence or traffic congestion. On the other hand, cultural norms in more rural areas may contribute to higher rates of tobacco use or less nutritious diets. Rural residents may also have to travel further to obtain routine or emergency medical care. There are advantages and disadvantages to both settings, so you will want to carefully consider which environment will foster your health and wellbeing.

 Workplace

If you work in an office, it is likely you spend a good portion of your day in that environment. Although we may have limited control over the buildings we work in, our personal work spaces can be created to nurture our wellbeing.  Creating a healthy environment in your office space can have a positive impact on your physical body as well as your emotional satisfaction with going to work every day. There are a few factors to consider such as:

Ergonomics: You want to be sure that your office furniture and equipment supports body mechanics and does not contribute to potential health issues, such as musculoskeletal pain or eye strain. The Human Resources department at your workplace should be able to assess your workstation and assist you with making it as safe and comfortable as possible. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) also has some helpful resources here.

Surroundings: There are several strategies you can use to make your work station or office as pleasant as possible. For example, consider adding green plants to brighten up your space and improve air quality. Play soothing music or purchase a small water fountain to listen to the sound of running water. Decorate your workstation with photos and keepsakes that inspire you. Add a desk lamp to avoid or reduce the need for fluorescent lighting. And finally, do your best to avoid clutter by implementing a file system and/or other organizational tools. Allot some time at the end of each day to tidy up your desk and office space.

Movement/Activity: By now, many of you have probably heard the new mantra that “sitting is the new smoking,” as studies have demonstrated that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality. If you have a job that requires you to sit at a computer most of the day, find ways to build movement into your day. We can all benefit from taking breaks during the work day – whether to stretch, take a short walk or just take a few deep breaths away from our work station. Taking a break allows us to come back to the job at hand with renewed energy and sense of purpose.

Home

No matter what type of dwelling you live in, your home can be a haven for your health, offering support to your body, mind and soul. However, it can also contribute to health problems if we are not careful. There are a few factors to consider when assessing the safety and comfort of your home, including:

Air quality: It is important to have a home that is well ventilated (i.e., one that allows for the exchange of indoor and outdoor air).  Without proper ventilation, an insulated and airtight house may seal in harmful pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, and moisture that can damage a house.  Click here for a helpful guide to home ventilation. There are several reasons to remove your shoes once inside your home, primarily because they can track in dirt, pesticides and other pollutants. When buying new carpet, furniture or paint, consider products with low chemical emissions to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

Water quality: The water available for drinking in your home can contain a variety of contaminants that may adversely impact your health. You can learn about the quality of your community’s tap water by visiting this website and entering your zip code. If you have a private well, contact your city or county government to have it tested regularly for any potential contaminants. There are certified filters that can remove harmful contaminants from your water.

Aesthetics: Although we often can’t control the environment outside our homes, we have more control over the inside of them. Explore what changes you could make so that each room is a more nurturing, supportive place for you. Feel free to experiment with color, material, scent, music or the overall layout of rooms so that these spaces satisfy your senses. Consider assessing how the color impacts your mood, or whether there is adequate lighting and pleasant smells.

There is one other topic related to aesthetics I would like to address and that is clutter. Clearing clutter is first and foremost a safety issue, as it can reduce the risk of falls and help eliminate germs. However, clutter can also have a subtler impact on us mentally and emotionally. Having too much “stuff” in your living space can drag you down, physically and mentally. Common challenges include excess paper, clothing, and “collections” of favorite objects. Here are some helpful strategies for reducing clutter:

  • Follow the “one in, one out” rule – every time a new item comes into your home, a similar item must leave. For example, if you buy a new jacket, donate or sell a used one that you no longer need. Some people even take this a step further and remove two items for every new one that comes in.

 

  • Create a place for everything. Once all items have a home, it will be easier to put things away regularly.

 

  • Schedule time to regularly go through things and purge as needed. This can be daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – whatever timeframe works best for you.

 

  • If you have trouble dealing with clutter on your own, consider hiring a professional organizer. You can click here to find one in your area.

 

As you can see, there are many ways that your physical environment plays a role in your health and wellbeing! I encourage you to take some time to assess how the places you live, work and play are impacting your health.

Spirituality

For many people, spirituality is a central component of how they experience life and view the world. For this reason, considering spirituality in the context of health is critical.

Spirituality is a way to find meaning, hope and inner peace in your life, but it can mean different things to different people. For many, it is tied to the practice or beliefs of an organized religion or faith to which they belong.  For others, it may not be linked to a particular religion or faith, but can be found through music, art, or a connection with nature. Although spirituality is very personal, the role that it plays in our lives can inform – and transform – our health.

The relationship between spirituality and health

There has been a significant increase in interest in the relationship between spirituality and health over the past few decades. Many research studies have demonstrated that spiritual practices are associated with better health and wellbeing for a number of reasons, including:

Contemplative practice is good for you. Many of these practices guide you to direct your attention inward, to quiet the mind or to increase compassion or empathy. These practices may include prayer, meditation, yoga or journaling. Meditation and yoga have both been found to help decrease depression and anxiety, while prayer and journaling may help you find meaning in life’s challenges and become more resilient in the face of obstacles.

A spiritual community can improve your life.  Many of us find community through participation in spiritual activities such as attending religious services or belonging to a meditation group. These communities can be sources of social support, which may provide a sense of connection and security as well as improved health and wellbeing.

Spiritual people make healthier choices. Some spiritual traditions have rules about treating the body with kindness and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Research shows that people who practice a religion or faith tradition are less likely to smoke or drink, commit a crime, or become involved in violent activity. They are also more likely to engage in healthy habits like wearing seatbelts and taking vitamins.

Spirituality may help you live longer. A comprehensive review of research that compared spirituality and religiousness to other health interventions found that people with a strong spiritual life had an 18% reduction in mortality. Although there is not yet consensus about the extent of spirituality’s benefit on health, most researchers agree that there is a positive relationship between religious/spiritual practices and better health outcomes.

(The above information was adapted from the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.  Please visit their site for references, if interested.)

Finding spirituality in every day moments 

As noted earlier, spirituality is very unique and personalized for all of us. There are many ways we can seek and find spiritual experiences – and sometimes they just occur on their own. This happened in a number of ways for me recently.  It began with seeing two living legends in the music world – Marc Cohn opening for Michael McDonald. It was an awesome show – from Marc’s rousing rendition of “Walking in Memphis” to Michael opening with “Yah Mo B There” and closing with an encore (including Marc and his band) belting out Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and of course, The Doobie Brothers’ “Taking it to the Streets” – it was both soul-stirring and soul-soothing. I have loved Michael’s velvety voice for as long as I can remember. And the songs he writes are meaningful, with themes of love and compassion for one another. Seeing him live was on my bucket list and I am grateful I had the chance to do so.

A few days after the show, I traveled to Wilmington to attend a health education conference. Since I don’t get to the coast very often, I was determined to find a little bit of time to walk on the beach. I don’t particularly enjoy the beach in the summer, but I love being by the water in the fall, my favorite season. After sitting almost all day during the conference, I went back to my hotel, grabbed my sneakers and made my way to Wrightsville Beach. I arrived in time to see some surfers making the most of the last hour of sunlight. I walked along the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves and the cool breeze on my face. I laughed at the woman trying to stop her dog from chasing the waves. I smiled at the little sandpipers as they hurried to pick their food from the sand before the water could wash them away. I then took a moment to stop and sit on the sand, taking in the sights and sounds, and silently expressing gratitude for my good fortune to be here, enjoying the splendors of this earth.

And last weekend, I attended Sunday service at the Unitarian Universalist church that is my spiritual home. We have a new minister, and this was only my second time hearing him preach. His sermon was titled “V is for…” and he spoke about the violence and hatred we are seeing across our country and the world, through mass shootings and terrorist attacks. He reminded us of the Golden Rule: to treat others how we want to be treated. He invoked the spirits of Buddha, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their collective messages of non-violent resistance. He reaffirmed that the only way to fight hatred is with love. It was a sobering message, but one that is needed now more than ever.

Three totally different experiences, all spiritual moments for me. I invite you to explore the ways that spirituality presents itself in your life and the impact it has on your health and wellbeing.

Personal and Professional Development

As I discussed in my previous post about the Wheel of Health, your wellbeing encompasses more than just physical health. Today we will explore the importance of personal and professional development on your journey to optimal health. For many people, these two areas are closely related, which is why I have chosen to discuss them together.

Personal and professional endeavors can be a source of enjoyment and energy, or emotional drain and stress. Some individuals have personal lives that are fulfilling with family, friends and hobbies that provide joy and meaning, while others have not yet reached the place of contentment they desire. The same may be true professionally – some people have careers that are meaningful and resonate with their purpose and values in life, whereas others struggle in demanding jobs that provide little personal or professional rewards. There are also many people who struggle to find balance across these two domains. Regardless of where you are personally and professionally, these areas of your life can affect your health either positively or negatively.

Like other areas on the Wheel of Health, Personal and Professional Development is very personal and varies from person to person. In general, we are referring to whatever gives you meaning and purpose in life – those activities that give you a sense of fulfillment and joy. It may be your family or your work (or both!); it may be continuously learning new things or volunteering through your church. It can be relationships with family, friends or colleagues at the office. Personal and professional development means exploring your own values and finding out what brings you joy and meaning.

Personal Development

For some people, personal development may be tied very closely to their professional pursuits. For others, it may be very distinct. For almost all of us, optimal health may best be achieved by balancing the two, which we will explore later in this post.

There are several areas of the Wheel of Health that relate to personal development, such as spirituality, relationships and communication, and mindful awareness.  However, personal development goes beyond the Wheel and can include topics such as music, art, reading, travel, gardening, and other hobbies and intellectual pursuits. Activities that bring us pleasure and satisfaction enhance our sense of contentment, joy and overall wellbeing. These may be “doing” activities such as those mentioned above, but they can also include “being” activities – for example, star-gazing, sitting on the beach, or meditating on a mountaintop. All of these things can be sources of deep personal development.

Professional Development

For many people, being involved in meaningful work can bring a profound sense of satisfaction and joy. You may have heard the saying: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” These individuals have a sense of meaning and purpose, knowing they are contributing to the world in a way that has significant meaning to them and a positive impact on others. However, there are others who find themselves in careers or work that drains them, and it can negatively impact their health. Many times, dealing with stress, dissatisfaction or boredom with one’s work leads individuals to make poor choices around food, alcohol or drugs.  I have worked with several clients who, through exploration of all areas of the Wheel of Health, realized that their job was the root cause of their health problems, such as weight gain or lack of sleep. They chose to focus on finding new work that was less demanding and would allow them to prioritize their health and wellbeing.

Professional development can also entail taking stock of where you are and where you want to go in your professional endeavors. Perhaps it means going back to school for an advanced degree to move up the ladder at work – or shifting roles within your given profession to allow for more time with your family. For others, it may mean a complete change in career focus to better align with their values and goals.

Balancing Personal and Professional Development

Many people find it challenging to balance their personal goals with the demands of their professional endeavors. Finding enough time and energy to focus on both can be stressful. Often times, the demands of full-time work can leave us with little time or energy for family and our personal pursuits. For others who have given up careers to raise a family or pursue other goals, they may find that they miss feeling “productive” or that their skills are going to waste.

Being mindfully aware of how you have structured your life and the impact it is having on your physical, mental and emotional health can help you achieve optimal health. It is helpful to assess where you are with personal, career or life goals, particularly at times of transition or milestones. These may include work-life balance, financial goals, and personal growth that will support optimal wellbeing. Regular assessment of your goals can also reinforce healthy behavior choices.

Below are some questions that can help you develop greater awareness of how your personal and professional endeavors are fostering or hindering your optimal health. Feel free to choose the questions that are most relevant for you. Take time to reflect deeply, perhaps writing down your responses or sharing them with someone you trust.

  • If money and time were no object, what would you love to do that would bring you a profound sense of satisfaction, joy and/or purpose?

 

  • How balanced are your work (what you do to earn a living) and your personal interests? What would you need to do to bring them more into balance?

 

  • If you continue with your current balance of personal and professional development, including time and energy spent on each, how will your life be 5 years from now? 10 years from now?

 

  • Is there a dream that you would like to resurrect and pursue? How are you stopping yourself? What are some first steps you could take to start pursuing that dream?

 

The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

I had the opportunity to attend a program at Duke Integrative Medicine last week focused on Decoding the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Before we move on from the topic of nutrition, I thought I would share a few highlights from this program that may be helpful on your healthy eating journey.

Inflammation: acute vs. chronic

 You’ve probably heard or read about eating a diet that reduces chronic inflammation in the body, but why is this so important? As you may know, there are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the immune system’s natural response to heal an injury or fight an infection – and it’s a good thing. It’s meant to be short-term and stop after the injury or infection is gone. However, research has shown that many of us are now subject to chronic, or ongoing, inflammation that is linked to several preventable chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. One example of how this works: if you have fat build up in the walls of your heart’s arteries, the body responds by sending inflammatory chemicals, as it sees this as an “injury” to the heart. This ongoing inflammatory response could trigger a blood clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.

Why diet matters

You may be wondering what food has to do with inflammation and chronic diseases. We now know that diet plays a critical role –  the types of food you eat affect how much inflammation you have.  There are some foods that can cause this inflammatory response (“prooxidants”) and some foods that help prevent it (“antioxidants”). The recommendations are probably not surprising, and my goal is to offer an overview of the general recommendations about what foods to eat and which to avoid if you want to reduce chronic inflammation in your body.

Basic recommendations of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

  • Eat whole foods which are minimally processed before purchase. Once again, we are back to the advice that if it comes in a box or bag and has more than five or so ingredients on the label, it’s best to put it back on the shelf and keep shopping. Keep reading to learn more about which whole foods are best for reducing chronic inflammation in the body.

 

  • Choose a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. You have probably heard the expression “eat the rainbow” meaning select fruits and veggies from all the color families, from red to violet (don’t forget white too). The reason behind this approach is each color provides particular nutrients that help your body function at its best. For example, orange-hued fruits and veggies offer plenty of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, plus vitamin A and often vitamin C. These nutrients help with eyesight, immune function and healthy skin. Choices include butternut squash, oranges, carrots, mangoes, pumpkins, sweet potato, and cantaloupe. Click here for more examples of how to eat the rainbow.

 

  • Choose whole grains over refined grains, including non-wheat grains. This may be one of the most challenging changes for most people as it means limiting foods made with refined grains such as white bread, white rice, cookies and cakes, and replacing them with healthier options such as whole wheat bread and brown rice. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants, B vitamins and they are high in fiber, which is great for digestion and regularity. There are many choices when it comes to whole grains, so if you cannot or prefer not to eat wheat or gluten, you can select grains such as quinoa, millet, whole oats, or buckwheat.

 

  • Rethink your protein sources. If you choose to eat meat, opt for fatty fish such as Wild Alaskan salmon; organic, grass-fed lean meats; or skinless poultry from organic, cage-free chickens. If you eat eggs, choose omega-3-enriched eggs or organic eggs from free-range chickens. However, not all protein has to come from animal sources. Consider replacing some meat options with plant-based proteins including beans, nuts and seeds. Some examples include black beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lentils (note: you can use canned versions, just drain and rinse them before use). Beans are rich in folic acid, magnesium, potassium and soluble fiber. You can eat them either whole or pureed into spreads like hummus.

 

  • Eat foods rich in essential fatty acids. Did you know there are certain fatty acids, needed for cell membrane integrity and chemical transport, that your body cannot make on its own? These include the omega-3 and omega-6 dietary fats. Each of these has a number of health benefits for your body. However, it’s important to get the right balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet as an imbalance may contribute to a number of chronic diseases. Although omega-6 fatty acids have many helpful benefits, they also have some prooxidant or pro-inflammatory effects; thus, the need to limit them in our diet. The recommended ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet is 4:1 or less. However, for most of us that ratio is between 10:1 and 50:1, so we need to try to reduce our omega-6 intake and increase our omega-3 intake. Below are some examples of each:

 

  • The best source of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. If you cannot or prefer not to eat fish, alternative sources include chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseeds – or you can take a fish oil supplement.

 

  • The most common sources of omega-6 fats are refined vegetable oils, such as soybean and corn, and foods cooked in those vegetable oils. In addition, these fats are found in foods like mayonnaise, walnuts, sunflower seeds, almonds and cashew nuts. You may now see why the standard American diet contains more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids.

 

Before moving on from fats, let’s take a moment to discuss the “bad” fats that you want to reduce or preferably eliminate from your diet due to their harmful effects. There are two types of fat that should be eaten sparingly: saturated and trans fatty acids (or trans fats). Both can raise cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart disease.  Saturated fats are found in animal products (e.g., meat, poultry skin, butter, and eggs) and in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as coconut and palm oils. Trans fats are used extensively in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn, and some margarines. Bottom line: you want to reduce your intake of these two types of fat as much as possible in favor of the healthier fats discussed above.

Some of you may be wondering where dairy products fit into this diet. We discussed some dairy products such as eggs and butter. In general, the recommendation is to limit whole-fat dairy products, and choose high-quality natural cheeses, such as Swiss or Parmesan, and yogurt (just be careful of products with high sugar content). When it comes to dairy products, this is one area where you may want to listen to your body and how it handles dairy products. For some, dairy can have inflammatory effects particularly in the gastrointestinal area and/or in the sinuses. If that is the case, consider dairy alternatives such as milk and cheeses made with soy, or almond.

I hope this information helps take some of the mystery out of the anti-inflammatory diet. If you believe your current diet needs improvement based on these recommendations, just remember that you can succeed by taking small steps, one at a time. You don’t have to completely revamp your entire diet overnight. Start with one recommendation and choose one small change you can make this week. Good luck!

Nutrition – Part 2 – How to Eat

In the last post about nutrition, I discussed some of the general recommendations around what kinds of foods to eat to promote or maintain good health. Today we are going to look at the topic of nutrition from another angle, one that I believe is equally as important – how to eat to maintain a healthy weight and stay healthy.

Weight loss/weight management is a heavily debated topic, and one that is also very popular based on the number of books, websites, and programs that exist to help individuals on this journey. Again, my goal with this post is to provide general guidelines that are supported by sound research that can help if you are struggling to maintain a healthy weight. As some of the latest science has revealed, there are several surprising factors that play into whether someone can lose weight and keep it off. There is no “one size fits all” approach and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The researchers also concluded that it can take multiple tries to figure out what works for you. My hope is that you’ll find one or two solid strategies that fit your needs and lead to success.

 The Dieting Paradox

 It is probably no longer a shocking fact to hear that 71% of American adults are overweight. A 2017 study found that obesity now drives more early preventable deaths in the U.S. than smoking. This has fueled a weight-loss industry worth $66.3 billion, selling everything from diet pills to meal plans to fancy gym memberships. And yet more and more research is demonstrating that traditional dieting, such as cutting calories or restricting certain kinds of foods, DOES NOT WORK.

There is a body of research dating back to World War II around dieting and the ensuing cycle of losing weight and regaining weight (sometimes more than was lost). The impact of this “yo-yo dieting” is to ratchet up the baseline weight even higher, beyond the individual’s original weight. Researchers at UCLA conducted a meta-analysis of 31 long-term studies on the effectiveness of dieting. They concluded that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain – up to 2/3rds of people regained more weight than they lost. So yes, dieting can actually put you at risk of gaining weight. Let that sink in for a minute.

There are neurological, hormonal and metabolic changes that occur when you engage in dieting behaviors and/or lose weight. For example, your metabolism slows down when you lose weight, but researchers have found that if you gain some or all of that weight back, your metabolism does not increase accordingly. So, the bottom line is, unfortunately, that biology is working against you when you diet.

A mindful approach – changing your relationship with food

So, what is the good news, you ask? There is another way! It is a slower, but more sustainable approach to weight management. You’ve probably heard the advice that in order to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off, you can’t succeed with short-term fixes – you have to make lifestyle changes that are sustainable over time. This is solid advice and the basis for what many have now coined “mindful eating.” This approach is not about making external changes such as restricting calories, but rather adopting an inner-oriented process where you tune into your mind and body for cues about hunger and eating.

Changing eating behavior is difficult because it is an automatic behavior that we’ve been doing for decades. How many of you have experienced eating on “autopilot” – when you intend to just have a handful of chips and next thing you know, the bag is empty? And you can’t remember eating them all? Mindful eating is about disengaging this autopilot and bringing awareness and intention to the act of eating. It takes time and practice to be mindful, but by learning to tune into your body, noticing hunger and fullness signals and the way food really tastes, you can radically change your experience of eating.

Some helpful tips, tools and resources

 As you have probably figured out, mindful eating is rooted in the practice of mindfulness. I touched upon mindfulness in my post highlighting the various areas of the Wheel of Health, and we will explore it further in a future post. Mindfulness is about paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and without judgment. Building a mindfulness practice in general will help you eat more mindfully. For now, we will focus on some basic strategies you can explore and adopt to help move you along your path to mindful eating.

  • Be present at meals – stop and focus on eating when you eat. Turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, book or phone, sit down at the table. Slowing down and being present while eating can prevent overeating, eating unhealthy foods, and help you tune into your body’s hunger and fullness signals. This may be a challenge if you are used to eating on the run or multitasking while you eat. If so, start small – try it for one meal and notice how it feels when you give yourself permission to simply be present and eat.

 

  • Stop judging – judgment plays a powerful role for people trying to change their eating habits and/or lose weight. We often turn a simple fact (“I ate the whole pint of ice cream in one sitting!”) into a condemnation of ourselves (“I have no willpower and will never lose weight”).  Being mindful can help break through this “all or nothing” thinking and the failure-shame-avoidance spiral that is common in weight loss (“I pigged out at the buffet. I have no willpower – it’s useless, I’ll never be able to lose weight so I might as well quit trying.”)  Rest assured, this is not about letting yourself off the hook or making excuses for less than optimal choices. As you increase awareness and cease to judge, you will learn to shift course before or while engaging in the unhealthy choice or habit; it actually allows for accountability.

 

  • Be kind to yourself – compassion will get you further than punishment. Think about a baby learning to walk. He is bound to stumble and fall, but do his parents judge or criticize him and tell him he’ll never learn to walk? No, they respond with love and encouragement to keep trying. We need to do the same for ourselves. This can be difficult as our society tends to favor finding the problem and focusing on what needs fixing. This works sometimes but not always. We also find it easier to treat others with compassion but not ourselves. If you had a friend struggling to lose weight and she shared her difficulties and setbacks, you most likely would empathize and encourage her to keep working toward her goal. Why not extend that same kindness to yourself?

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, it may help to start by trying a simple tool that you can use anytime, anywhere. It is called the Hunger-Fullness Scale and it helps you tune into your body’s natural signals around the need to eat or stop eating. Here is one example that you can use.

hunger-fullness-scale-e1506543610976.png
Sample Hunger-Fullness Scale

Before you eat, pause for a moment to assess where you are on the scale in terms of hunger or fullness. The recommendation is to eat when you are moderately hungry (around a 2-2.5 on the scale) and to stop eating at the first sign or signal of moderate fullness (around a 5-5.5). As you may be aware, it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you are full or starting to get full. Thus, slowing your pace of eating can also help you tune into signals of fullness, as will using this scale after you begin eating and when you finish your meal.

If you are interested in learning more about mindful eating, there are a number of excellent resources available on the topic. Two of my favorite books are “The Mindful Diet” by Ruth Q. Wolever and Beth Reardon and “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life” by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung. In addition, there is an excellent website called The Center for Mindful Eating.

Learning to eat mindfully is a process and a journey, but I believe you will find it is worth the effort. Start small, explore and see what works best for you – one bite at a time.

 

 

Nutrition – Part 1: What to eat

Ahh, nutrition – probably one of the most debated areas on the Wheel of Health. There is so much that can be written about eating a “healthy diet” but given that the recommendations seem to change daily, where does one start? Eggs are bad for you. Whoops, now they’re good for you! Eat low fat foods. Nope, now you need healthy fats. No wonder so many people are confused and frustrated – and therefore, reach for the quickest, most convenient thing they can eat regardless of its nutritional value. Who has time to figure it out, right?

Let me start by stating that I do not have a degree in nutrition and I am not a registered or licensed dietician so I will not be dispensing any specific dietary advice. My goal with this post is to help weed through much of the conflicting information out there and present some basic guidelines that most of the experts do agree on when it comes to the food we put in our bodies. I am of the firm belief that everybody – and every BODY – is unique and thus, what works for one person will not work for someone else. The bottom line is choosing foods that nourish and strengthen your body and mind.

What the experts say

It’s probably no surprise that even the experts can’t agree on what specific diet is best for us. However, in a review of the health benefits of many popular diets (think low fat, low carb, vegan, Mediterranean, paleo and so on), there were a few general patterns that rose to the top. In a nutshell, they include:

  • Eat minimally processed foods direct from nature
  • Eat mostly plants
  • If eating animal foods, choose ones that were raised on plant foods

(Of note, the authors point out that these dietary guidelines are beneficial not just to humans, but other species as well as the environment around us. A win-win-win if you are equally concerned about animal welfare as well as the impact of farming on the earth.) The well-known author/journalist Michael Pollan wasn’t too far off when he summed it up in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” And to clarify, he meant eat real food like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and lean meat. Or as he so simply states it: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Some small steps to get started

I know what you’re probably thinking – easier said than done, especially if you work full-time, have a family to take care of and don’t want to (or can’t) spend hours focused on planning and preparing healthy meals! The good news is that it does not have to be hard. There is a plethora of resources available for anyone who is looking for a little help in this arena. I have listed a few of my personal favorites near the bottom of this post, but here are a few simple guidelines to help you get started:

  • Reduce the amount of processed foods you eat, which is pretty much anything that comes in a box or package with a food label on it. And if that food label has more than 5 ingredients or a bunch of ingredients you can’t pronounce, put it back on the shelf.

 

  • One way to help reduce the amount of processed foods you eat is to avoid the middle aisles at the grocery store as that is where most processed foods are found. You may already be familiar with the advice to shop the perimeter of the store, where most of the fresh foods are located (e.g., produce, fresh meats). Good advice and a great place to start.

 

  • Many of us could benefit from increasing our fruit and vegetable intake. Both the USDA MyPlate and the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate recommend that half your plate at meals consist of healthy fruits and vegetables (unfortunately, potatoes and French fries don’t count). There are so many choices when it comes to produce – experiment and find what works best for you, whether it is munching on raw veggies as a snack, drinking a fruit smoothie for breakfast, or adding a salad of leafy dark greens as a mainstay of your lunch and dinner. Even the pickiest of eaters can find a few fruits and veggies that they like.

Resources to help you take a deeper dive

As someone who is responsible for the bulk of meal planning and grocery shopping for my family, I understand that it may feel daunting to figure out how to put these recommendations into action. Thus, I have compiled a few resources that have really helped me in this arena. As I mentioned earlier, everyone is different so these may or may not work for you, but I pass them along as food for thought (pun intended).

There are many books and websites out there related to the “real food” movement, but one of my favorites is 100 Days of Real Food by Lisa Leake (the website and the related cookbooks). The reason it resonates with me is because it is a real family that made a pledge to reduce – or actually, eliminate – the amount of processed foods they ate and they were successful, even with two young children. My family has not yet taken the plunge to completely eliminate processed foods, but we have been inspired to reduce the processed foods in our diet and cook and eat more real, whole foods. I have one of Lisa’s cookbooks, which has many simple, healthy recipes (a key for me as I am not all that confident in the kitchen). Her website is also chock full of healthy recipes and meal plans for those who need a little extra help in the kitchen.

Given that my family’s quest to eat a truly healthy diet is still a work in progress, and we stumble from time to time with less than optimal choices, I have found comfort in the “good-better-best” approach when it comes to decisions about what to eat. I am not sure who gets credit for this principle, but I found a neat infographic on the Weed ‘Em and Reap website. In essence, this approach is about “doing the best you can with what you have” – which is all we can really ask, right? Maybe you’ll never live in the “best” column, but if you can make some small changes that bump you from bad to good or good to better in a couple of the food areas, that is reason to celebrate. Every little bit helps.

Finally, if you feel overwhelmed by the time and effort you think it might take to implement changes in your diet and seek a supportive community to help you on this journey, you may want to look into The New School Kitchen, or NSK as we members like to call it. The New School Kitchen is an interactive, video-based monthly membership program designed to help you “rock your cooking and eating without hating your family or life” as owner/creator Ryanna Battiste describes it. I have been a member since NSK was launched in August 2016 and it has been a huge help with meal planning and meal preparation centered around eating tasty, healthy real food. Members have access to everything from meal planning tips to healthy recipes to cooking demonstration videos. There is also a private Facebook group where members can ask questions, share resources and support one another along this real food journey. Most recently, the NSK has added the option of working with a health coach either individually or as a group. The beauty of the NSK is that it is self-paced – you determine when and how to engage and work at whatever pace suits your needs. Membership is only $21/month and you can cancel your subscription at any time.

(Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, Ryanna is a fellow Certified Integrative Health Coach – we did our training together at Duke Integrative Medicine. However, I am not getting compensated to promote NSK – in fact, she doesn’t even know that I am mentioning her business in this blog post. I hired Ryanna as my coach a couple of years ago when I decided to work on reducing dairy in my diet after years of suspecting that I had an intolerance. I can personally vouch for her integrity, wisdom and professionalism as a health coach. She is an amazing woman and to me, has created one of the most innovative approaches to healthy eating with The New School Kitchen. She is also just a ton of fun to watch in her videos as she’s not afraid to be real and share the ups and downs of her own real food journey.)

Whew, that was a lot to cover! Next time, we’ll move beyond what to eat and focus on how to eat – mindful eating, one of my favorite subjects!