Spring recharge

We take for granted that our phones and other devices have to be recharged every day or every week. If we don’t do it, we lose the ability to communicate or do our work. The same is true of our minds and bodies, but because we don’t totally shut down, we don’t sense the same urgency to recharge.

April is coming to a close and it’s starting to feel like spring. What can we do to refresh ourselves? The weather teases us, with a few warm days followed by a really cold one; the pollen is challenging some of us to keep our heads clear; flowers are blooming, yet we’re still wearing winter jackets; kids are getting restless in school, but they have two months to go – we can answer that uncertainty and unsettledness by learning what serves us well and making changes in our routines.

Here’s what my spring recharge looks like:

Rediscovering nature – Sustainability is a buzzword all year long, but Earth Day still serves as an opportunity to get people outdoors. A few days ago, I went on a Nature Conservancy hike at Great Falls Park in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac Gorge. As many times as I have been there, I never fail to be awestruck when I see the falls with all their power and beauty. Vultures, cormorants and herons were soaring over the gorge as the river rushed over the rocks. In the park we saw the first spring wildflowers, and I learned that the flowers of redbud trees are edible (salad garnish!) It doesn’t take a whole day to do something in nature: in the May issue of Yoga Journal, there are ideas for connecting with nature in a minute, an hour, a day or a week.Great Falls NP_1

Fresher, lighter food – The warm, comforting foods of winter will soon be a memory. Florida fruit is starting to appear in my grocery store, and I love tracking the progress of the blueberries for sale: first Florida, then Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and later in summer, Michigan. Spring and summer will mean more local food, more raw or lightly-cooked food, more fruits and vegetables. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a book about the best basic foods including best fruit (guava, watermelon and kiwi), best vegetables (kale, spinach and collard greens) and best beans (soybeans, pinto beans and chickpeas). Think of the combinations!photo

Cleaner spaces – Our homes suffer over the winter too. They’re closed up with stale air; dirt and toxins have accumulated; and closets are cluttered with heavy coats, sweaters and boots. Last week I cleaned out my coat closet, and I can’t stop admiring its organization and empty space. (We’ll see how long that lasts!)

A clearer head — Working on mind clutter is valuable too. Could you possibly let go of activities that are draining you and wearing you out? Sometimes I realize that just the process by which I’m doing something is too complicated, that there is a simpler way that uses less energy. Often it’s because I’m trying to control something too much. But by letting go of some control, the process becomes easier, and I am freer in a way. Recommitting to a meditative practice helps me figure this out.

Reuniting with friends and family – Feeling other people’s energy can be a great way to recharge. Spring is the perfect time to connect with people who stimulate and challenge you, support you and nourish you. It’s the time when we start planning family reunions and summer picnics. Maybe it’s a time to commit to putting out more love, and less fear and judgment; to look for the beauty in people that mirrors springtime’s beauty.

Great Falls NP ChickweedI don’t think there is any season that nourishes the spirit, or gives us more reason to feel hope and optimism as spring does. As the writer and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote, “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.

An antidote to TMI

Do you know anyone who wants a more complicated life? Probably not. In spite of all our time-saving gadgets, and the ease of getting information, most people I talk to crave more simplicity in their lives.

We have at least two major magazines, over a thousand books, and almost 60 million search-engine hits that promise to help us simplify. We have smart-phone apps that promise to make it easy to find your friends, share your photos, keep track of calories and exercise better. Our new cars make it easier and safer to back up, change lanes and keep track of service. So why do we still feel so overwhelmed?

Some people think it has to do with information overload, multi-tasking and a sense of false urgency created by 24/7 access to news, email and texts. A recent Northwestern University study, however, showed that people felt “empowered and enthusiastic” about having so many sources of information at their fingertips. So what gives?

Maybe there are times when we want and need a lot of information, and having it makes us feel better. But there are also occasions when we really don’t want to know every detail, and we just want an easy way to make a decision. Each person is different in the amount and complexity of information they want, and when they want it.

A good example is food nutrition labeling. For some it is incredibly empowering to know the number of calories, and the specific percentages of each nutrient, in an item of food. For many, though, nutrition labels are confusing and don’t help them make better choices. Research on some restaurant labeling laws, in places such as New York City, has shown that most people do not change their ordering behavior even when calories are posted.

A lot of talk in prevention circles has been around “making the healthy choice the easy choice”. Bon Appetit Management, a food service company serving many colleges, may have just come one step closer to that goal. It is piloting its own “well-being” score that aims to cut through all the confusion around food labeling, and just make it simpler to tell the difference between one option and another on a menu.  It’s a simple arrow, with more or less green, depending on how healthy the item is.

Maybe sometimes all we want is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. We can only hold limited information in our working memories at any given time. After that, our ability to integrate ideas and to reason well declines. Trying to juggle too much at one time taxes our brains and makes performance suffer. Maybe for some college students, this new food score will be an opportunity to give their brains a rest, at least at mealtime.

There will always be many important occasions when we need to know everything, when we need to sift through reams of information before making a decision. Sometimes, though, we can choose to give up the micro-management of the choice, and rely on a trusted source or our own instincts. Knowing the difference might take trial and error, but at least we’ll be taking baby steps toward that simpler life.

Waste in abundance

How much food will you throw away today? Will you even notice it?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a new report, estimates that we throw away 40% of our food supply in America every year. Food is wasted at every step in the supply chain, starting at the farm and ending in our kitchens and trash cans. Food now represents the biggest part of the solid waste in our landfills.

Last night, I was congratulating myself on the nice meal I made from ingredients I happened to have on hand – some leftover tomato, farro and onions from my pantry, basil from my garden, and a chunk of Parmigiano that I bought a couple of weeks ago. No waste!

But today I took stock of the food in my refrigerator that I will have to throw away. There is the cantaloupe I bought because my son has recently discovered he likes it – but then he didn’t eat it. There’s the fennel I bought because I needed some of the fronds for a recipe – but I didn’t have a use for the rest of it. There’s the apple someone bought and no one ate – because the summer fruits like peaches and berries are so much better!

As it turns out, fresh produce is the worst food group for waste.

When we personally throw away food, we may only think about the money that we wasted on it. But in reality, the waste is much broader. The NRDC is concerned with the other resources wasted, such as the water and energy to grow and transport it and the pollution caused by its production. They calculate that just a 15% reduction in waste could feed 25 million people a year.

While the issue of food waste is a big one that will require big solutions by government, the agriculture industry, food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants, there are steps that we as individuals can take to reduce our waste.

  • Don’t buy more food than you realistically will eat. People have a tendency to load up their shopping carts because of the bargains offered at warehouse stores, the relatively low cost of food in the U.S., and the convenience of shopping less frequently. But we may have to re-think our ways of shopping to reduce our waste.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. As portion sizes have increased in recent years, so has food waste (a 50% increase since the 1970s). Ordering smaller restaurant portions or taking home the leftovers will reduce waste there. Then don’t forget to eat the leftovers so they don’t end up in the trash at home!
  • Consider composting if you have a yard. At my house, all of our fruit and vegetable scraps go into our compost bin (along with leaves and grass). Although our county frowns on this because they say the food attracts animals, it is not a problem as long as you don’t put any animal products in the compost. We benefit by reducing our trash volume, and by having rich compost to add to our garden.
  • Get involved with a gleaning group. To glean means going in after a crop has been harvested and gathering the small amounts of fruit or vegetables that remain. Farmers will often invite charitable groups to come in for gleaning after the profitable part of the harvest is over. The produce is then donated to groups that feed the needy.
  • The next time you look in the refrigerator and say “There’s nothing to eat”, challenge yourself to make a meal using what you have on hand, instead of going out to buy more that might just be thrown away.

Finally, eat with mindfulness and appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “When we sit down to dinner and look at our plate filled with fragrant and appetizing food, we can nourish our awareness of the bitter pain of people who suffer from hunger…Doing so will help us maintain mindfulness of our good fortune, and perhaps one day we will find ways to do something to help change the system of injustice that exists in the world.”

Learning to feed ourselves

Chances are that unless you are at least 40, “Home Economics” class didn’t even exist when you were in school, but could it make a comeback?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Helen Zoe Veit, a history professor at Michigan State University, argued that we should bring Home Ec back to the schools as a weapon in the fight against obesity and chronic disease. She believes that teaching children to cook, and giving them information about nutrition, can empower them to take control of the food they eat.

As someone who loved Home Ec (my siblings called me “Suzy Homemaker”), I agree wholeheartedly. Here are the lessons I learned in home ec that I still use on a regular basis:

  • How to operate kitchen appliances, large and small
  • How to read a recipe
  • The proper way to measure ingredients (level!)
  • How to sew on a button

Those might sound like simple things, but I know many people who cannot do them, or more importantly, think they can’t. The most lasting lesson I learned was that I could do those things and do them competently.

Somewhere along the way, as our focus turned outside our homes, and our society became more technology-driven, we forgot how to take care of ourselves. These days, we abdicate feeding ourselves to restaurants, fast food chains and supermarket kitchens; we give our buttons to the tailor or dry cleaner to sew; and we often hire others to clean our houses, mow our lawns and rake our leaves. Would we be healthier if we took some of that back?

Just in the area of how we eat, here are some sobering facts:

  • Fifty percent of our meals were eaten away from home in 2010.
  • We consume 50% more calories, fat and sodium when we eat out.
  • The daily calorie intake of children is significantly affected by where they eat, and where their food comes from. The percent of calories from fast food is now greater for them than the percent of calories they get from school foods.
  • When families eat together, they eat more fruits and vegetables, fewer fried foods, and less soda. (For tips on making family dinners easier, see WebMD.)
  • Kids who have regular meals with their parents tend to do better in every area of wellness – they get better grades, have healthier relationships, don’t get into trouble as much, and engage less often in risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking.

Some middle schools and high schools do still teach cooking. In my local middle school, there are courses in “Family & Consumer Science” and “Foods & Nutrition”. The high school offers “Food Trends & Technology”. The problem is that these courses are electives, and with the pressure for academic achievement and improved test scores, I don’t think it’s very likely that they are going to become mandatory courses any time soon.

The time and place to start is elementary school, and there seems to be some momentum there:

  •  School gardens are popping up in lots of districts, with California seeming to lead the way (for example, Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard project).
  • Grants for school gardens are available from the Whole Kids charitable foundation.
  • The Slow Food in Schools Project offers many examples on their website of how to integrate food into the curriculum.

Perhaps the most visible advocate for better food and healthier kids is Jamie Oliver. He has brought together a number of organizations for his Food Revolution campaign. He has said, “The only message I keep hearing is that you believe your kids need better food, and that you want help to keep cooking skills alive.”

Another way of putting it: “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”

Food for thought

The latest report on obesity rates across the nation was issued last week, and it is pretty sobering. Sixteen states saw their obesity rates go up over the past year, and none went down. In 12 states, more than 30% of the population is obese, and Colorado is the only state with an obesity rate below 20%.

Obesity rates are also higher in racial and ethnic minorities, those with less education, and those with lower incomes.

Why is this happening, and what can we do about it? It is a complex problem with no easy answers. Certainly environmental factors play a big role. Think about the societal changes during the past generation – 24/7 availability of food, acceptability of eating and drinking almost anywhere, huge increases in the number of meals eaten away from home, significant increases in portion sizes, and the difficulty in obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables in certain neighborhoods.

But we also have to consider our susceptibility to becoming “addicted” to the high fat, high sugar diets that are so prevalent. In his 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler (former head of the Food and Drug Administration) cites research that shows that these “highly palatable foods” actually are addictive for some people. When we eat them, and eventually when we even see or think about them, dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable experiences. In addiction, dopamine actually changes the brain, sending the message to repeat the action that leads to pleasure.

Eating should be a pleasurable sensory experience. But why do some people become unable to stop themselves from indulging in the high fat/high sugar/high salt foods, while others (about 15% of the population, according to Kessler) can just say “no”?

Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician who has treated addiction and written about it, believes that all of us are on the addiction spectrum somewhere (not necessarily just with drugs or alcohol). Everyone wants that endorphin rush. Identified addicts are just further along the spectrum because (he believes) they have suffered more, usually from abuse in childhood.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who overeats was abused as a child; but I do think we have to consider the emotional reasons that people become “addicted” to food. After all, the term “comfort food” came from somewhere! What are we lacking? Soren Gordamer says, in Wisdom 2.0, that “Our relationship to eating is often less about nourishing our body or how the food tastes and more about satisfying our desire system…What we crave is not the food, but the satisfaction of getting what we want, of having our desires filled.”

Gordamer suggests mindful eating practices to bring more consciousness to our eating. Kessler says that it is necessary to create a different reward system for yourself, and to structure your environment in order to avoid the cues that lead to overeating. Dr. Mate believes that it is never too late to get the nurturing and compassion that we need in order to change the conditioning of our brains.

So where do we go from here?

    • We need to hold food manufacturers and restaurants responsible for giving us the information we need to make good decisions about the food we eat. Some have a history of combining sugar, fat and salt in calculated ways that are designed to keep people coming back for more.
    • Our society must change perceptions around food and eating. Dr. Kessler says we need a cognitive shift about unhealthy food like the one we had one about smoking. It used to be viewed as sexy, and now mostly it is thought to be nasty and unhealthy.
    • Have some structure around meals. Sit down at the table with family or friends. When you eat, just eat.
    • What are your triggers for unhealthy eating? How can you avoid them? Maybe it means giving up some TV so you don’t see the commercials; or changing your route to work so you don’t see a certain restaurant.
    • Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. Avoid situations that might trigger negative emotions, something Buddhists refer to as “guarding the gateway of the senses”.
    • Practice self-compassion. Change starts with acceptance of who you are now.