The Fragility of Good Habits

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I wrote a post recently about Michael Caulfield’s book on health and fitness and mentioned that his ideas on physical fitness, particularly on the need to push yourself, had changed my own exercise routine.  Instead of going on my 3 1/2-mile walk, which I really enjoy, I switched over to do more intense sessions on our exercise bike.  After a week or so of this routine I realized that my knees were killing​ me.  I was going up the stairs like an old lady.  (Nothing against old ladies–I’m going to be one myself someday!)

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Common Sense Is the Key

book cover for The Cure For Everything, showing an apple

The Cure for Everything:  Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness by Timothy Caulfield, Beacon Press, 2012, available in several formats.

​If you have time to read only one book on health this year, I would strongly suggest that it be this one.  Were you to be prone to spend money on dietary supplements, cleanses, homeopathy, or acupuncture (to name a few currently popular fad items), you’d make back the money you spend on this book with all the money you’d save by cutting out your expenses on those totally needless items.

A dear friend from a number of years ago (and in a different state from where we live now) said to me about some nostrum or other, “It totally changes the way your body works.”  Whoa! Do we actually want to do that?  Sounds pretty dangerous to me.  (She was safe in taking whatever-it-was, of course, as it did nothing of the kind.  Cleaned out her wallet, but that’s about it.) Caulfield actually tries out every item he criticizes, so he puts his money where his mouth is.  There’s a hilarious section . . .

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A Sobering Book that May Make You Happier

Book cover for Salt, Sugar, FatSalt Sugar Fat:  How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, Random House, 2013.  Available through Amazon in several formats.  See the author’s website for more information.

​One of the ways we can live a happier life is to live a healthier one.  Bad health can be a constant drain, a chronic darkener of mood.  Good health doesn’t necessarily make us happier, but it removes the drain.  Does that make sense?  Having good health is like having enough money:  You’re freed to think about something else.

Readers of this blog will be seeing regular posts from now on about healthy eating.  (It really should be “healthful eating,” but I just can’t bring myself to use that term.  It sounds so pretentious.)  I have cut out sweets from my diet pretty much completely, as I talked about in this post about personality types.

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So What Am I Going to Eat?

Cover for My Organic LifeWell, I had a very spiritual book picked out for this week, and I definitely plan to write about it soon.  But . . . have you heard the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher appears”?  (I think that’s a koan, but I’m not sure.)  So there I was at the library a few days ago, looking at the new books display at the top of the stairs as I always do, and here was this one.  I love books about chefs.  (Although I found Blood, Bones and Butter to be supremely put-down-able.)  The organic part doesn’t interest me all that much, I’m not too sorry to say, but I was intrigued by the author because we used to live right outside Washington D.C. and I’d heard of her restaurant there.  Not that we ever went–it’s pretty pricey.  But I thought it might be fun to read at least some of it.  Well, I was hooked right away.  It says that she has a “with” author, so I guess Nora herself can’t take all the credit for the beautiful vivid writing, but it’s really a great read.

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What’s Your Type?

flooded roadwayHere’s the list of (some of) my types:

1.  Obliger.

2.  Abstainer.

3.  Type 1.5 Diabetic.  (Probable.)

I’ve discussed #1 a number of times, most recently in A Flash of Insight. . .

Because I know that I’m this personality type, I also know that it does very little good for me to just make resolutions; some kind of exterior accountability almost always needs to be put in place or I won’t do what I resolved.

 

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Do You Follow Your Own Rules?

PictureI write in chapter two of my book, “How Our Emotions Work” (see sidebar for ordering information), that one source of happiness/unhappiness is how well we keep our promises to ourselves. If we cave in and break a promise to someone else there are often consequences, but what happens when we don’t keep our word to ourselves? We are diminished in our own eyes.  We feel bad. We berate ourselves:  “Why did I do that?”  Our blood sugar levels go up. Whatever.

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My Abstainer Tendencies Get Me into Trouble

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin.  I’ve read her three books on happiness and habits numerous times, and I hear my voice in my head as I do so.  One of her key insights, especially relevant when it comes to healthy eating habits, is the divide between what she calls “moderators” and “abstainers.”  (She and her sister have started doing a weekly podcast called “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” and I was tickled that today’s episode includes a segment about whether or not to keep ice cream in the freezer which centers around this very divide.)  I am mostly an abstainer, just like the listener who called in with the ice cream question, which means that I do better at controlling bad habits when I just abstain entirely, or almost entirely, from them.  I do find it possible to eat just one chocolate truffle, as I mentioned yesterday in the freezer tour.  And my little “eat only one dessert a week” mantra also works pretty well.  BUT . . . if I overstep those bounds very much at all then I plunge into trouble.  I can’t break the rules just a little bit; I break them a lot.

So, you’ll see a picture here of a pulled-pork sandwich slathered with barbecue sauce.  Although it’s not an actual picture of the sandwiches I served at the Cherry Creek Chorale picnic Sunday evening, it’s a pretty close representation.   Barbecue sauce has a lot of sugar in it.  I’ve had quite a few pork sandwiches since Sunday (to use up the leftovers–don’t want to be wasteful!), so I’ve been ingesting quite a bit of sugar just from that.  Plus, for the past week or so I’ve been using some leftover cubes of frozen eggnog in my coffee in the mornings.  (That’s a guilty confession in the freezer video.)  So my coffee’s been much sweeter than usual.  PLUS, I just felt that I had to sample the two kinds of chocolate cupcakes I made for the picnic and have one of Gideon’s unbelievable lemon bars. (I would have been sorely tempted to eat more than one of those, but they all got eaten up.)  There were a few cupcakes left over, and instead of putting them in the freezer I’ve been nibbling away at them.  And finally, I’ve been eating fabulous Colorado peaches with half-and-half and some brown sugar for breakfast several mornings straight this week, so there’s even more sugar.  The peaches are great, the brown sugar not so much.  To top it off, today I broke down and bought a package of peanut M&M’s at JoAnn’s Fabrics and gulped them down in the car as I drove out of the parking lot.  My powers of resistance seemed to have disappeared.  I’ve been going around for months thinking of candy as disgusting, but today it seemed irresistible.

To me, as I look back at the last week or so, this whole sequence of events is at least some evidence of the idea that sugar is addictive.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the movie Fed Up and its message that sugar is driving our obesity and diabetes epidemic.  Although I point out what I see as some flaws in the film, they are probably correct about sugar’s power to create cravings: the more you eat, the more you want.  I’ve realized this afternoon that the draggy feeling I’ve been fighting since Sunday probably isn’t due so much to post-party letdown as to a massive (for me) intake of sugar.

So, as I often say, all you can do is what you can do.  There are still a few cupcakes left, but they’re going into the freezer.  (Or maybe the trash–they’re getting pretty stale.)  Tomorrow morning I’ll be back to the plain half-and-half in my coffee.  And probably eggs for breakfast.  There will never be a time when I can say, “No problem.  I can overdo it some and still handle it” for my eating habits. Probably just as well.  Hey, guess what?  There’s a larger lesson here.  I can never say, “No problem” about any temptation.  Something about that pesky sin nature we’re all born with, no?


Who’s Your Sugar?


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Fed Up, a documentary produced by Laurie David (who also produced An Inconvenient Truth), directed by Stephanie Soechtig, and narrated by Katie Couric.  Available through Amazon, YouTube, and Netflix.  All of these links are to paid services.  You can watch a trailer here on YouTube.     

I owe my viewing of this documentary to the fact that I got bored watching an episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and started browsing.  Since Netflix knows all, the documentaries I was presented with mostly had to do with food, and this one sounded interesting.  I started watching and was completely captivated; about a week later I re-watched it, this time with Jim and Gideon.

Now, if you’re not a fan of An Inconvenient Truth the fact that this film has the same producer as that may give you pause.  I’d say, watch it on its own merits, which are considerable although not flawless. At the very least you will be forced to do some re-thinking about the processed, junk, fast, snack foods you eat.  

The real stars of the film are the overweight teens who do webcam posts, allow the cameras to follow them at home and school, and share their frustrations over their inability to lose weight.  There’s a 12-year-old girl who weighs around 180 even though she swims, rows, and walks; a 16-year-old boy who is articulate and aware about what’s going on in his home.  As he says, “If you were an alcoholic, you wouldn’t be able to keep from drinking if you had a bottle of gin sitting next to you.”   There’s a truly horrifying shot of the cart his mother fills up at the grocery store.  Although that family makes a short-lived attempt to stop eating processed food and they all lose weight, their efforts don’t last long. Pretty soon the weight comes back.  There’s a 13-year-old boy whose concerned but misguided mother buys him low-fat Hot Pockets instead of regular ones.  The most tragic case is that of a 14-year-old boy whose weight is heading towards 400 pounds.  The situation is so desperate that he actually undergoes gastric bypass surgery.  He loses quite a bit of weight, but we’re told, ominously, that 30% of all bypass patients manage to overcome the effects of the surgery within the first 24 months or so afterwards. 

So what’s the solution?  Here’s where the film forsakes any kind of nuanced answer for a simplistic and top-down one:  sugar is the villain, so we have to stop eating it, and our government needs  to make the big food companies stop adding it to their products so that we will stop eating it.  An explicit comparison is made between the big processed food companies of today and the big tobacco companies of the past.  We took them down (sort of), the rationale goes, so we should be able to take down Big Food.  And we’ll all go back to eating the way we did 100 years ago.  Guess what?  It ain’t gonna happen.  

What we should not do is develop the attitude that if we cut down drastically on sugar and other processed foods that we’re depriving ourselves, making a sacrifice.  Thinking that way means that sooner or later we give in to temptation, and there we are, swigging down the gin.  Voluntary deprivation can only last so long before we cave in.  Instead, we have to change our minds before we can change our actions.  I now cringe whenever I see the candy displays that are in every single store. Why on earth do I need to be given the opportunity to buy candy at Home Depot, or Walgreen’s, or Office Max, or JoAnn’s?  Why do I need a package of M&M’s with my box of printer paper or my fabric?  The stores sell these items because they make huge profits on them.  They’re all JUST FLAVORED SUGAR.  Just as soft drinks are JUST FLAVORED SUGAR WATER.  (The next time you’re tempted to buy any kind of soft drink at a restaurant, just remember that the drink costs the merchant about two cents an ounce, including the cup and the ice.  So why are you paying $1.70 for it? Because that’s what the traffic will bear.)

The Fed Up website has an extremely ill-advised section:  the Fed Up Challenge:  Sugar Free for 10 Days.  Now I ask you:  What earthly good is it going to do for you to go without sugar for 10 days and then immediately go back to eating the way you did before?  There is absolutely no reason to even bother.  I know what they’re trying to accomplish here:  the hope is that if you stick it out for 10 days, maybe lose a few pounds, and feel better, you’ll be inspired to keep going.  But the whole idea has been put into the framework of a temporary, short-term fix, not a long-term, enjoyable commitment.  It’s no better than a fad diet, and will have no more effect.

Cooking and eating real, nutritious food takes time.  Even I, as someone who loves to plan menus and cook, will say sometimes when I’m really busy that I wish there were a pill I could just take instead of having to stop and prepare a meal.  My heart goes out to struggling low-income families, with both parents working long hours, who feel that they can’t do any better than swing by Taco Bell on the way to work and get everyone a Dorito Burrito. They feel trapped.  It will take some real plotting and planning for those families to manage to shop, cook and eat decent meals.  All of us have to set the right priorities, and all of us have to make individual choices.  Yes, it would help greatly to have foods clearly labeled as to how much of the recommended daily allowance of added sugars is in them, something that is not now required.  Yes, grocery stores are going to have to be willing to open branches in so-called “food deserts.”  Yes, the U.S. government should stop subsidizing corn and let market forces prevail.  (I say that as someone whose cousins are farmers, and I know what that would mean to them.  But we just can’t keep doing it.)  Yes, yes, yes.  But none of those actions will relieve us, the individual consumer, of our responsibility to know what we should do and then to do it.

Well, I guess I’ve ranted and raved enough for one post.  I would say that we had an excellent meal this evening, salmon with herbed crust, good ol’ microwaved potatoes, and cucumber salad.  The salmon was on sale for $7.99 a pound, not all that cheap when you can get boneless chicken breasts for $2.99, but a nice treat.  I’m going to say that the three of us ate a little over a pound total.  We ate about half of an 89-cent cucumber and several potatoes from a 10-pound Costco bag.  The herbs were from the garden, the mayonnaise from an almost-finished jar, and the sour cream on the cucumbers from another item in the fridge that I’m trying to use up.  (Yes, full-fat mayonnaise and sour cream.)  So I’d say that the cost of the meal was about $4.00 per person.  If I’d had less time I could have just broiled the salmon and served it with a sour cream/mayonnaise/lemon juice topping that would have taken about 30 seconds to throw together.  It was delicious, healthy, and no deprivation.  I’m very satisfied as I sit here finishing up this post.  I guess I’d better go brush my teeth so I won’t be tempted to eat anything more, but I really feel no such temptation at the moment.  


Hunger Is the Best Sauce