Social Connection: It’s a Health Goal

“Write about loneliness,” suggested a blog follower and old friend (thank you!).

Loneliness — a feeling that you lack sufficient social support and connection with others — is considered an epidemic these days, with health consequences compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Its negative effects on older adults have been clearly demonstrated. And surveys point to millennials as “the loneliest generation.”

Why? My theory is that people in the 1950s weren’t actually so thrilled to be bowling together (there was a lot of forced conformity going on), and we don’t really want to live in small towns — otherwise we would. But human connection takes extra effort in today’s world, as we move frequently, live in smaller households, and turn away from traditional social structures like church. We like the freedom. But we miss the support.

Nuevo Laredo, 2017: vigorous aqua exercise with Viviana and David, followed by pomegranate tequila in the hot tub

The rise of social media also seems to fuel this feeling — maybe because it takes the place of more valuable in-person contact, or perhaps due to constant (unpleasant) comparisons between ourselves and others.

Falls Church, yesterday: chatting with Viviana and David on WhatsApp before bed 😦

Hmmm, is social media the junk food of human connection? We feel like we’re being nourished by it, but we’re not getting all the vital nutrients we need (warmth, touch, shared activities). A doctor writing on the Harvard medical blog acknowledges that social media can be both helpful and harmful, and he recommends “snack-sized doses.”

During the first 6 to 12 months after moving to a new country (which I’ve done seven times, ugh), I always felt lonely and disconnected, with only virtual/at-home projects and faraway friends. This was true even though I had my spouse and sometimes kids with me, along with the built-in advantage of being more of an introvert, so I truly enjoy solitude and working on my own. I can only imagine what it’s like for an extraverted single person to move abroad.

In two places, Leipzig and Guayaquil, ten years apart, I went through periods of serious depression, which I now recognize were closely related to loneliness. This was both social isolation — actually knowing very few people in my environment — and a lack of close connection with those around me, aside from my family.

During my depressive episodes, I remember seriously thinking that the world, and even my family, would be better off without me. Of course I realize now that that is absurd, but at the time I felt like no one knew me or valued my skills, and I was just filling a generic role of spouse and mother, and doing a lousy job of it.

In both cases, my work and most of my interactions with friends were online (email-based in those days). These surely saved me from an even worse fate (thank you SUNwriters!), but they were not enough.

Back in Leipzig together, celebrating 20 years of friendship

I gradually recovered with the help of very small steps. In Leipzig, I got out of the apartment to swim laps at a local pool, and I volunteered to teach English once a week at my son’s German kindergarten. (We all got into it so enthusiastically that when one boy was tested for first-grade readiness, he shouted out the colors in English rather than German: Bluuue! Greeen!) And most importantly, I grew closer to a rather random group of women who met regularly to speak Spanish. My friendships with two of those women, Martha and Nohemí, forged in dark times for me, are still strong and intimate today.

In Ecuador, on my birthday in February 2009 (after we had moved there the previous summer and my father had passed away in November), nobody outside my family knew or cared what day it was, so I rather desperately invited Tracy, a South African woman I knew from the kids’ school, for lunch at my house. I wasn’t the only one struggling in Guayaquil; frequent carjackings and the recent death of a young American mother because she didn’t get medical care in time had everyone scared and demoralized. Tracy suggested forming an expat support group, the Guayaquil Network, which became a lifeline for many of us. Through it, I met friends I could depend on, like Grace and Aleida, and I found interesting volunteer opportunities, like visiting the sweet, kind residents with Hansen’s disease [leprosy] at Damien House — that’s where I was in the photo from three weeks ago serving soda and ice cream.

I also started inviting a friend, Marce, to work out in my tiny swimming pool, in imitation of the water aerobics classes I used to enjoy in Virginia. Spending time with her and thrashing around together to Trinidadian music lifted my mood all day — and now I can see that this was my first time ever leading someone in exercise (thank you Marce!), a portent of a future that I couldn’t possibly imagine at the time.

And I did resort for a while to medication for depression, anxiety and insomnia in Ecuador (perimenopause was surely no help), which I was fortunately able to discontinue within a year.

Me with Grace at the therapeutic mud baths in San Vicente: you cover yourself with mineral-laden mud from a natural pool and let it dry on your skin. Connection through shared adventure and vulnerability

What helped me the most were small, even silly things. Teaching the names of colors to 5-year-olds. Jogging around in a pool with Marce to “The Bees’ Melody” by Lord Kitchener . But one small step led to another. I gradually felt like I was starting to belong. Opportunities arose to help others and to feel needed.

I dealt with a lack of connection mainly after moving to new countries. But there are so many reasons for experiencing loneliness. Friends have left town or passed away. You’ve retired or lost your job. You’re widowed or divorced, or your life circumstances have changed in other ways. Or maybe you’ve been sailing along enjoying solitude and independence, but you now realize that something is missing.

Enough theorizing and stories about me; let’s get down to some ideas about what to do about all this. The following is from my personal experience, research and the wisdom of awesome clients, friends and podcast hosts 🙂 :

Examine your negative assumptions. Try a “brain dump” — find a quiet moment, think about your social situation and jot down all the thoughts that come up. Your brainstorming mind may come up with great ideas. Or you may discover a bunch of exaggerated, unjustified claims, like “I always mess things up” or “It’s not worth trying to make friends, since it never works.” If you find negative generalizations like this, ask yourself if you would say them to someone you care about who is in a situation similar to yours. If not, they are cognitive distortions — buggy programs that have gotten stuck in your operating system.

Fortunately it is possible and very useful to train ourselves to recognize and debug these distortions — here’s a great website on the topic, and an accessible and helpful book recommended by a psychologist (hi Fran!). I recognize now that I was full of this malware for decades before I did some intensive work on it during my time in Mexico. Now it’s as serene as a Caribbean beach in my head; the discouraging chatter and negative self-talk have quieted. Why don’t we learn this in school?

The inside of my head now: calm with just a few passing clouds

Snack on social media, like the Harvard doctor suggests. Find the right balance for you between online socializing and meeting up with real people (this includes pets, networking contacts, and fellow participants in a yoga class).

Look for groups, and if you don’t find one, be bold like Tracy in Guayaquil and start one. Yes, it’s awkward to show up at a group meetup for the first time, even if it’s focused on an activity you love. Maybe you can get someone you know to go with you. If the group itself isn’t enjoyable, it can still be a way to find individuals who share your interests. I don’t particularly enjoy chatting in large groups over coffee, but the key friends I met in the Spanish-language group in Leipzig and the Guayaquil Network perhaps literally saved my life. And some of my new close friendships were a surprise: people from different cultures, some of them 20 years older or younger than me.

Maybe you’ll run a 5K in Mexico alongside a Lucha Libre guy! It was only because Ashley was pregnant that I had a chance of keeping up with her 🙂

Do something challenging with others. A shared feeling of accomplishment and mutual support is a great way to build connection, as corporate team-building consultants know. I found this through volunteering, the water exercise with Marce, and even the mud baths.

Be the real you. A longing for connection is a hunger to be seen, to be valued and accepted as we really are. You surely accept other people with their flaws. Let them do the same for you. Your greatest weaknesses are likely closely tied to your greatest strengths: you are a flawed superhero! And that’s the kind of superhero people love — not a fake, perfect plastic toy. Some people might not choose the real you as a close friend, and that’s fine. Chasing their friendship by faking the traits they value will never be satisfying. The people who appreciate the real you are real friends.

Dare to be vulnerable. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, points out that in order to achieve anything (including authentic relationships), we need to be prepared to fail, to admit our mistakes, and to ask for help. Here’s a great article and here’s a TED talk where she explains her ideas.

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

Brené Brown
More vulnerability: couldn’t resist another mud bath photo, I’m second from the right

To work on this, you can gently push your boundaries by opening up in small ways. Of course this is related to being the real you, owning both your strengths and your flaws.

You may wish for big, boisterous groups of friends, or perhaps (like me) just a few people to deeply connect with. Maybe you just want to make the relationships you already have more authentic and honest.

My third year in Mexico: I had to be very vulnerable and real to break through the formality of being “the boss’s wife” to these amazing, beautiful people, and I think I finally succeeded

Like fitness and healthy eating, this is something you can work toward, in small steps, by rooting out your negative self-talk and limiting beliefs, setting yourself challenges (like “have lunch with a different person once a week” or “go to a new meetup each month”) and practicing new habits (like remembering and using people’s names, if you struggle with that like I do). Just like eating a few more servings of vegetables or lean protein each day, or working out for 10 minutes at a time, these small steps may not seem like much, but they can take you to a much healthier place over time.

According to Dr. Emma Seppala, a feeling of social connectedness (whether to a large group or just a few friends) strengthens the immune system, lowers the risk of anxiety and depression, and even increases average longevity.

Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.

Dr. Emma Seppala

Definitely a worthwhile health goal! Please share in the comments what you do to get or stay connected. And see you next week, when I blog about my quest for Real Food on the Road!

Easy Batch-Cooked Vegetables 2: Carrots, Sweet Potatoes, Winter Squash, Beets and Brussels Sprouts

More vegetables — thanks for all the suggestions! Like last week, I’m offering what I think are the simplest ways to prepare vegetables all at once, so you can easily throw them into a range of meals with different flavors.

I have plenty of practice with this because (1) I’ve been eating mainly whole foods since 2014 (sometimes with “10 a day” fruit/veg goals); (2) a big Hungry Harvest box full of rescued produce appears on my doorstep each week (there are smaller sizes, but I’ve been getting the Full Veggie Harvest just for me); and (3) I did a two-month healthy/cheap/quick food challenge earlier this year that forced me to cook from scratch so I could live on $10 a day.

But originally I learned these skills from a brilliant 1982 book, “The Victory Garden Cookbook.” It appears to be out of print but is available used (whoa, some of those copies are expensive, I should sell mine 🙂 but no!).

The book has a chapter for each of 37 vegetables and describes all the basic ways to prepare them, followed by more complex recipes. Of course today we can just ask the internet what to do with kohlrabi, celeriac or parsnips, so you certainly don’t need to buy the copy that’s selling for $89.18 (!), but I still use mine regularly.

Now let’s get my attention away from Amazon.com (too many boxes on the doorstep already) and turn it toward this week’s vegetables.

Carrot Showdown: Steamed vs. Roasted

My son Zack (hi Z!) requested that I include carrots here. I know he’s still thinking about the simple but super-delicious cooked carrots we enjoyed in Germany when we lived there. Here’s a German recipe that has a few more steps than my usual über-simple methods, but really isn’t too complicated. In typical German style, they say this is “the right way” to cook carrots 🙂 :

Scrub or peel and slice your carrots. Sauté them for a few minutes in melted butter in a saucepan. Add salt, a spoonful of honey, and a little water (they say 50 ml to 750g of carrots, in case you happen to have laboratory equipment in your kitchen), cover the pan, and let them cook gently for 10-15 minutes (depending on the thickness of the slices), until you can stick a fork into them but you still feel “light resistance.” If the pan dries out during cooking, add a little more water. Mix in some fresh chopped parsley and serve with the pan liquid. Yum!

That’s relatively simple, but it still may not fit into your day, your week or your eating plan (I’m doing a #whole30 this month, so no butter or honey). So I made a really stripped-down version this week: just carrots and a little water in a large saucepan. Same idea about the fork and the light resistance, and adding more water if needed. Boiling the carrots in deeper water works too, but you might want to save the water for soup (or just drink it!) because some of the nutrients leach into the water.

Carrots. Water. That is all.

While I was cooking half of my sliced carrots on the stovetop, I roasted the other half, to compare the two methods. I added olive oil, salt and pepper to the roasting ones (always an unfair advantage in a vegetable comparison).

The stovetop carrots were ready in about 10 minutes. But I had to test the roasted carrots two more times before they were tender (in total about 30 minutes at 400 degrees). When they cooled they were SO good, I was eating them like candy. They were almost as sweet as baked ripe plantains.

The plain steamed carrots will be great to add to other dishes all week. But for pure easy deliciousness (though a longer time commitment), I vote for the roasted ones.

Sweet Potatoes, Quick and Dirty

Well, just a little dirty — I rub off the dirt with my hands under running water, and cut off any yucky spots, but I don’t scrub them with a brush. Then I put the whole sweet potatoes in the microwave and hit the baked potato setting. Since sweet potatoes can vary in size, think of the size of a typical baked potato and adjust the “number of potatoes” accordingly.

Microwaved sweet potatoes look a little deflated and rubbery after cooling (definitely not elegant), but you can scoop out the insides and save them in a glass container to use during the week. Or refrigerate them in the skin and scoop out the flesh as you need it to add to a meal.

Winter Squash: Another Microwave Trick

I love all kinds of winter squash, like butternut, acorn, kabocha, and pumpkin, but I always used to struggle to cut them up; I was sure I would eventually chop off a finger. But then someone (I forget who, but thanks!) taught me the microwave trick: (1) “Stab” the squash with a long knife a couple of times into the hollow core to prevent it exploding (don’t let this happen to you). (2) Microwave the whole squash for 2-4 minutes, depending on the size. If it’s irregularly shaped, like a butternut, you might cut off the small end after 2 minutes and continue microwaving the big end for 2 more minutes. (3) Let it cool before handling (again, avoid explosion of hot squash innards), then cut up as desired. Roast it, steam it, add it to a fall stew/vegetarian chili, or cook it in an Instant Pot. I like roasting best, similar to the carrots above.

Superlazy butternut squash, baked with skin on — I scooped it out of the skin like baked potato, or if I was eating alone, picked it up and gnawed on it like slices of watermelon

Beets: The Instant Pot Miracle

Thanks to Leah for suggesting beets! If you like beets, with all their health benefits, I would go so far as to suggest that you get an Instant Pot just for their sake. This combined slow cooker/pressure cooker-without-the-fear-factor is my new favorite solution for foods that usually take a long time to cook, like dry beans, stew meat, bone broth, and large whole beets. (I have this one.)

Another good beet solution, if available where you live — precooked and vacuum-packed!

A few weeks ago, three very large beets appeared in my Hungry Harvest box. Besides being very firm and tough, beets stain everything purple when you’re trying to peel and cut them. Easy Batch-Cooking Kitchen wants none of that.

My Instant Pot instruction book says 20 minutes of pressure cooking for large whole beets (rinsed, with skin still on, and 1 cup of water to create steam). After the pressure went down in the pot (about 30 minutes total), I took them out and let them cool. Then it was easy to slip off the skins, and I cut the beets up into chunks. With butter, salt and pepper they were amazing — tender and sweet. My husband, who usually dislikes beets, said they were very good!

Random beet pieces with my meal

If you have smaller beets, they can be wrapped in a double layer of aluminum foil (or an inner layer of baking parchment and outer layer of foil), and roasted in the oven at 400 degrees until you can slip a knife into them. It may take an hour or more.

If your beets come with their greens still on, you can wash and cook those separately (I cut them up and sauté them for about 20 minutes in a little water or broth in a large pan with a lid). My favorite beets-with-greens are the organic golden beets I sometimes find at Whole Foods.

Sprouts from Brussels

My husband is currently working in Brussels, and I can confirm that yes, people there do eat lots of Brussels sprouts (choux de Bruxelles). And plenty of Belgian endive too. Both of these vegetables have great health benefits, so maybe they (along with all the walking in the pedestrian-friendly city) help balance out the effects of the other very popular local products: Belgian chocolate, Belgian beers, Belgian waffles, and French fries (some say they should be called Belgian fries) with interesting sauces.

French fry sauce lineup in Brussels. Sorry, getting off topic 🙂

Brussels sprouts are like mini-cabbages with lots of concentrated nutrients. Like cabbage, they can turn mushy and unpleasant if overcooked. I avoid cooking them in water for this reason. I just cut them in half (removing any damaged outer leaves, and cutting off the stems if they are large and tough), add a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.

These were large Brussels sprouts and some of these stems were quite tough — I should have cut more of them off

The roasted Brussels sprouts can then be microwaved to warm them up as part of your meal (another reason to leave them a bit undercooked while batch cooking). Or you can do all sorts of other creative things with them. Look at the gorgeous photos on this French-language page from Canada about 10 ways to use Brussels sprouts. With bacon and mustard! Swiss cheese! Or peanuts and honey! Most of these recipes start the same way I do: cut them in half, add olive oil, roast at 400 degrees. (It’s not just me 🙂 ). Let me know if you have any great Brussels sprouts discoveries!

I hope you’re now inspired to batch-cook some great fall vegetables and add them to your meals, either just as they are, or in more creative ways (tell me about those!). Next week I’ll write about something completely different: the impact of social connection on health and well-being, which I’m seeing in oddly similar ways in my clients ranging from their 20s to their 80s. See you then!

Batch-Cook Your Veggies: Fast, Easy (Lazy?) Ways to Prepare Cabbage, Eggplant, Peppers, Asparagus and Broccoli

After work, the gym, or driving kids around, you probably don’t feel like washing, chopping and cooking vegetables.

The answer (I think) is batch cooking one or two days a week, after a trip to the grocery store or farmer’s market, or after your box of rescued produce arrives on your doorstep (I get mine from Hungry Harvest ).

I had to master the skill of batch cooking on the food challenge I completed in March and April of this year: living healthily on $10 a day and no more than 30 minutes of food prep time per day. I couldn’t afford convenience foods on my budget, and I had to use the fastest methods to cook my Hungry Harvest haul for the week.

Of course if you don’t mind paying a little extra, it’s great to use pre-washed and cut vegetables to save even more time and work. If these help you get more veggies into your days, go for it! Frozen works too!

I asked on social media which vegetables people would like me to cover here, and the responses included cabbage, eggplant, peppers, asparagus, and broccoli — great lineup!

I use three main easy ways to cook these vegetables. For batch cooking, I’ll have all three going at the same time. (For instance for my Hungry Harvest box shown above, I’d oven roast the eggplant, steam the broccoli and sauté the bok choi all at once.)

  1. Oven roasting. Basically you coat the cut vegetables with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast on a nonstick roasting pan, baking parchment or aluminum foil (at 375-450 degrees depending on the vegetable).
  2. Sautéing. This involves a large skillet with a lid on the stovetop, and again a little olive oil, salt and pepper.
  3. Steaming. This can be done in the microwave or stovetop with a little bit of water and a lid.

What I’m aiming at here is to end up with relatively plain vegetables that I can later combine with different foods and seasonings throughout the week. If you’re looking for more specific, interesting recipes for vegetables, that’s great too, and I recommend the recipe library that Hungry Harvest is assembling here .

But meanwhile, here is my quick and easy guide to batch cooking cabbage, eggplant, peppers, asparagus and broccoli …

I love to sauté a whole head of cabbage and use it all week as a rice/pasta substitute.

Organic whole cabbage from Whole Foods (about as upscale as cabbage gets 🙂 ), 2.12 pounds for $2.10. Or 10 ounces of bagged cabbage for $1.99, more than twice as expensive but still cheap, and super-easy!

You’ll need a large, sharp knife to make quick work of a head of cabbage. I use this vegetable knife from IKEA and I finally learned that I actually have to sharpen my knives regularly 🙂 .

I cut out the toughest part of the stem, and then cut it crossways into shreds

Then it goes into the sauté pan with a few spoonfuls of olive oil and generous shakes of salt and pepper, in my case Szechuan Pepper-Salt from Penzeys Spices. I also add a splash of water. As you may have noticed, I’m not into measuring, like my Lithuanian grandmother — extra time-saving!

I sautéed this batch for 15 minutes, stirring twice during the process. I had the lid on in the beginning and then took it off near the end to get a little more of a browning effect. Done.

On to eggplant. My goal is to oven-roast eggplant slices until they’re tender and creamy on the inside, but have a robust, almost meaty texture on the outside. To achieve this, I follow the advice of a master, Yotam Ottolenghi. (Just ignore the part about the anchovy sauce if you find that scary 🙂 )

I cut up the eggplant with my big IKEA knife in slices at least half an inch thick. I’ve often made the mistake of slicing it too thin, with a rather leathery result (but still tasty when revived with a good sauce).

Coat with sea salt and a little olive oil (you can easily overdo it with the olive oil at 120 calories per tablespoon, since the eggplant will soak it up; you just need to coat the slices). Roast on a nonstick pan or baking parchment at 450 degrees for about 35 minutes.

Some of these are too thin. And because they’re overlapping on my smallish pan, they didn’t cook evenly. But this is easy, fast batch cooking — no perfectionism here, just delicious eggplant for the whole week!

I love these with Rao’s pasta sauces (featuring high-quality whole-foods ingredients) and maybe even a little melted cheese for an eggplant parmigiana without the breading or frying :). I think they’re also amazing with ground lamb, fresh mint and Greek yogurt. Or how about a little hoisin sauce and Thai basil?

Moving quickly on (I’m in fast batch-cooking mode!) to peppers. I generally cut them in half, remove the stems/seeds, and roast them in the oven (or in my little convection/toaster oven), on a nonstick roasting pan or aluminum foil. A very thin coating of olive oil is nice, but not even necessary. They go a lot faster than the eggplant: 15 minutes at 400 degrees should do it. Take them out when they start to smell cooked and you can see a browned spot here and there. With batch cooking in general, err on the side of undercooking because you’ll be heating them up again for meals and you don’t want them to get mushy.

Peppers from last week’s batch cooking session. A little bit overdone, oh well! Still good!

Of course I could also have sautéed the peppers along with the onions here. But keeping them separate makes them more versatile as I vary the flavors of my dishes throughout the week. To serve these peppers I just cut them up as needed, with a knife or even with kitchen scissors!

Now to asparagus. The challenge here is that the stem part is tougher than the tips, and it takes longer to cook. Also, overcooked asparagus can be a stringy, mushy mess.

When I was growing up, my mom steamed asparagus standing up in a little water in what I called “the asparagus pot,” since I had no idea it was actually a stovetop coffeepot . It’s effective because the stems are closer to the heat, so they cook faster. If you have a pot like this, it may be worth a try. But I really love oven-roasted asparagus, so that’s what I always do.

Here’s the great IKEA knife! I rinse and cut up the asparagus with the rubber band still on

I cut off the toughest, woody part of the stem, and then cut up the rest. The trick is to roast the stems for a little while at 400 degrees (maybe 10 minutes) before adding the tips and roasting another 10 minutes or so.

I rolled these in a little olive oil as usual
And here they are with the tips added. I still need to work on getting the lengths more even, but again it’s fast and easy cooking, and the friend who came to lunch (hi Amber!!) didn’t complain

These are already a great side dish on their own, with salt and pepper, and maybe a squeeze of lemon. In my case, this is rarely batch cooking, because I tend to eat them all on the same day 🙂

And finally broccoli. This is another vegetable with a woody-stem problem. I attack the stems with a medium-sized knife in a quick-and-dirty way, cutting off the tough outer coating and leaving chunks of the inner stem to cook along with the florets. Or just throw away the stems, or buy the crowns or florets already cut up.

Broccoli can easily be oven roasted. (But cauliflower is even better for oven roasting, in my opinion!) Just be sure to cut it up in pieces that are roughly the same size, or some will be burned or mushy while some are still crunchy. Toss with a little olive oil, salt and pepper as always, then roast at 400 degrees; check it often.

You can also sauté broccoli in a little oil — in this case it’s important to cut it up pretty small, because large chunks will be overcooked where they touch the pan and undercooked on top. Use relatively high heat and stir often or even constantly (stir-fry style).

But I think the most versatile way to batch-cook broccoli is to steam it. This can be done on the stovetop or in a glass dish in the microwave. Either way, cut up your broccoli and add about half an inch of water. Now microwave or boil it (with a lid on the pot) to the level of tenderness you prefer. Watch the pot, or microwave for just a minute or two at a time, because it will only take a few minutes. Notice how it smells, and do a taste test. Stop when it’s slightly less tender than you want it, because it will continue to cook. Or run it quickly under cold water to stop the cooking process.

A steamer basket like this is nice to have but not at all necessary

So now I have a fridge (and freezer) full of batch cooked vegetables, which I can use as foundations or side dishes for meals, throw in salads or soups, or enjoy with fun sauces or dips.

Here are some of the many ways I add great flavor to my batch-cooked vegetables
And here’s my lunch today! Ground bison on a bed of cabbage, with peppers, onions, sweet potato (previously microwaved and scooped out of the skin), grapes, and some great Trader Joe’s sauces. Yum! See you later!

It’s noon, time for lunch! Hope you found this useful — let me know! And see you next week!

It’s Not You, It’s the Food

Put 20 people in a lab, feed them tasty meals that they enjoy, and let them eat until they’re satisfied.

If they’re eating whole, unprocessed foods, they lose weight. If they’re eating highly processed foods, they gain weight. Switch the groups and the same thing happens.

This hilarious but rather disturbing food is a “cake sandwich” with white bread, ham salad, pimento cheese, and cream cheese frosting (Nuevo Laredo, Mexico)

Of course this single, small-scale (although highly controlled) study, which I wrote about last week, can’t provide definitive answers. But I think it points to something important.

As soft drinks, packaged snacks and other processed foods spread around the world, displacing traditional ways of eating, we have seen a steady rise in overweight and obesity across regions (most frighteningly in children and adolescents).

Soft drinks are everywhere, even in the middle of nowhere on Ecuador’s Pacific coast

It’s unlikely that humanity, across cultures and continents, has suddenly experienced a mass failure of self-control or undergone a genetic shift. It’s the environment that has changed, not the people.

Of course many other factors must be involved in this development, such as sedentary lifestyles, more affordable food, more time spent looking at screens, fewer meals cooked at home, larger portion sizes, hormone disruption, and changes in our gut bacteria.

But clearly, something negative happens when people move away from traditional ways of eating, such as the Mediterranean diet, whose health-promoting benefits are consistently shown by research. (Many other ancestral diets surely have similar benefits, it’s just that the Mediterranean diet has been studied more closely.)

Pretty close to traditional food in Ecuador: local fish, beans, fried plantains, fresh salad, small amount of white rice.

Here’s an interactive website showing the dramatic increases in overweight and obesity around the world. You can drag the sliders at the bottom of each graphic and see how the situation has changed since 1975.

Mexico City street cart: sugar, corn flour, vegetable oil and artificial colors
Ice cream, sodas, and me, 2011

I draw three conclusions from all this.

First, we shouldn’t blame or shame individuals (including ourselves) for being overweight. For the first time ever, the world is now seeing significant numbers of obese children, as well as adolescents with type 2 diabetes. Something in our food/cultural/physical environment is making this happen.

Anyway, there is abundant evidence that shame does NOT lead to positive changes in health: quite the opposite. When I was overweight, even well-meaning “reminders” from others just brought up feelings of helplessness, and since food was a stress-management strategy for me at the time, I was even more likely to turn to a bag of jalapeño pretzel bits for comfort.

Second, a key strategy (and the one I followed to get healthier) is to consume more whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods from nature — the foods our bodies evolved to eat. This could be a Mediterranean diet, a “paleo” type plan, or simply adding more of your favorite vegetables and fruits to your current lifestyle, letting them drive out less nutritious foods.

Fresh cactus in the magnificent produce section of the Nuevo Laredo HEB supermarket

Third, “intuitive eating” (a concept which I love and am learning more about) seems best suited to more natural foods. We can eat until we’re satisfied, without counting calories or measuring portions, and we aren’t tempted to overdo it with the salmon or sneak into the kitchen for more cauliflower. However, it seems that many of us, including the randomly selected people in the study I’ve been talking about, have trouble relying on our natural “stop” signals with highly processed foods. (More on this in future blog posts!)

The modern environment is not designed to promote our highest level of well-being. Snack foods and social media are both literally engineered to be “cravable.” And our workplaces and neighborhoods are designed around chairs and cars, not natural movement.

To live healthily, I think we have to push back (without blaming ourselves for how we’ve lived up to now), set boundaries (without becoming overly rigid, which brings its own set of problems) and take on the positive, life-affirming challenge of incorporating more movement, self-care, in-person social time, and delicious natural foods into our lives.

Hmm, that sounds a bit complicated. But I’ve found with myself and others that discovering the right formula — regular physical activity you truly enjoy, natural foods you love, physical/emotional/mental self-care, and the social support you need — brings freedom and joy, as well as health benefits. Certainly not deprivation and drudgery, which is how so many people think about “diet” and “exercise.”

That’s why I’m never going back to my inactive, low-self-esteem, comfort-food lifestyle, and that’s why I’m talking about this to anyone who will listen :). Thanks for reading this, and see you next week!

They Enjoyed the Real-Food Buffet, Ate Until Satisfied, Lost Two Pounds

I was so excited to see this study published earlier this year, because it fits in so well with my own experience, and nothing like it had been done before in such a well-controlled manner.

Hummus with a rainbow of vegetables instead of pita chips, yum!

Most of us suspect that industrial/processed/junk foods lead to unhealthy weight gain. One proposed reason is that they tend to contain more sugar and fat than “natural” foods.

The researchers in this study wanted to test that theory, and they designed a very clever and scientifically rigorous experiment.

They created two menu plans, one built around highly processed foods and the other featuring more natural, minimally processed foods. However, the two plans were carefully matched to have equal proportions of fat, carbohydrates, protein and fiber.

Then they convinced 20 randomly selected adults to move into a National Institutes of Health laboratory for a month (!), eating all of their food there (and exercising 20 minutes three times a day on a stationary bike). They were split into two groups: one ate the highly processed food plan for two weeks, while the other group ate the minimally processed foods. Then the two groups were switched and ate the opposite diet for two weeks.

This excellent summary gives more details about how it worked:

All participants received three daily meals and were free to eat as much or as little as desired within 1 hour. Meals were designed to be well matched across diets for total calories, energy density, macronutrients, fiber, sugars, and sodium, but differed widely in the percentage of calories derived from ultra-processed vs unprocessed foods.

As an example, an ultra-processed breakfast might consist of a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon, whereas the minimally processed breakfast was oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk.

Becky McCall, Highly Processed Food Intake Leads to Overeating and Weight Gain, Medscape Medical News, May 20, 2019
Today’s “blue plate special”: real food!

So what happened? Fascinating and (I think) very encouraging things:

  • Both groups ate all they wanted of the foods offered to them, and they both reported enjoying the food and feeling satisfied.
  • When people ate as much highly processed food as they wanted, they consumed about 500 more calories per day than the whole-foods group, and they also ate more rapidly.
  • The processed food group gained about 2 pounds in two weeks, and the whole foods group lost about 2 pounds.
  • When the groups were switched to the other kind of food, they had the same results of gaining or losing 2 pounds. Clearly it wasn’t the people, it was the food!

Most headlines about the study emphasized the weight gain with processed foods. But the exciting part for me was the seemingly automatic fat loss among the participants eating minimally processed foods.

When I resolved to get healthier, inspired by the book Younger Next Year, I decided to eat only “real food.” Actually, as my 2014 food diary shows, I made plenty of exceptions, as I’ll explain below. But I didn’t limit the quantity of whole, natural foods; I enjoyed them until I was satisfied — and I consistently lost about a pound of excess body fat, week after week, while feeling healthier and more energetic.

“Mean Green” ingredients ready for my juicer (on the bottom left is fresh turmeric as well as ginger, extra bonus)

News headlines about this study referred to “ultra-processed foods,” so you might imagine a menu packed with Cheese Whiz, Cool Whip and Lucky Charms (yuck!). No … it was basically typically American food, such as Cheerios, muffins, quesadillas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The kinds of foods I used to eat, and then (mostly) stopped.

If you download this document, you can see all of the actual menus, complete with color photos of the meals!

Here’s a sample lunch menu for the processed-food group: Hot dog on bun with ketchup and yellow mustard, baked potato chips, cranberry juice with NutriSource fiber, blueberry yogurt with NutriSource fiber (you can see they were struggling a bit to match the diets on fiber content!).

And here’s an unprocessed lunch: Spinach salad with chicken breast; apple slices; bulgur; sunflower seeds and grapes; vinaigrette made with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, ground mustard seed, black pepper and salt (yes, yes, yes!).

If you’re interested, I hope you’ll take the time to download the document and compare the photos of the two types of meals. The beautiful unprocessed meals, featuring a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, start on page 25.

Both groups enjoyed their food, and they ate all they wanted. The researchers found no significant differences in “pleasantness” or “familiarity” between the two diets. Likewise, scores for “hunger, fullness, satisfaction and capacity to eat” were similar. The people eating the unprocessed food felt full and satisfied. And they lost excess body fat.

That’s what happened to me too. And I didn’t even have to be 100% strict, as I can see when I review my 2014 food diary. I regularly used commercial protein shakes as meal replacements or boosters (my favorite was CalNaturale ). At events, I’d eat half a piece of cake or a bite of a donut. I enjoyed a small glass of beer or wine on occasion. But day after day, I mainly focused on enjoying all I wanted of a generous rainbow of vegetables, plenty of fruit, and meat, fish, nuts and seeds.

From my 2014 food diary. I ate on the road at McDonald’s and loaded up on fruits and vegetables at the Wood Grill buffet (visiting my son at college). Rosé wine sample and “1 inch of beer” the day before. Down to 139 pounds on August 10, from 173 in January. Coffee and Zumba kept my energy up 🙂

What I rigorously cut out were flour-based foods, which I realized are often only “carriers” (the bun carrying the hamburger, the pasta carrying the pesto, the pita chips carrying the hummus). Hence the lettuce wraps, the McDonald’s jalapeño double with no bun, and the yummy “not-chos” pictured below:

So delicious, especially with poblano peppers; I’m never going back to chips!

The question remains: if it wasn’t excess sugar and fat, why did the study participants eat more of the processed foods and gain weight? The main difference found by the researchers was that the people consuming highly processed food consistently ate it faster (about 17 calories more per minute). The highly processed food just seemed to go down more easily.

This points to eating slowly, and mindful eating, as an important strategy to avoid taking in more calories than our bodies need. I’ve never worked on this myself … hmm, time to start!

But of course feeding our bodies is not just about calories (or calories per minute). There are many other great reasons to nourish ourselves with a wide variety of the unprocessed whole foods our bodies evolved to enjoy. Whole plant foods are full of substances that researchers are just starting to understand, substances that feed good gut bacteria, help prevent cancer, and so much more. Losing excess body fat is just a wonderful bonus.

$10 and 30 Minutes a Day: My Healthy Food Challenge

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I’m still catching up from the spring (!). So here is my report on my healthy food challenge during March and April 2019 …

People often tell me that they would like to eat healthier food, but it’s too expensive and takes too long to prepare. Of course that is generally very true (and a big part of our food/health problem today). But I know there are also cheap, healthy foods that are easy to prepare (beans, oatmeal, canned tuna, frozen peas!), and so I said to myself: I’ll accept the challenge and explore what is possible.

My quest: for two months, March and April, I would eat healthily on a budget of only $70 per week and an average of no more than 30 minutes of prep time a day. (I’m currently living alone in Virginia while my husband works in Brussels, so it was extra easy for me to take on this kind of experiment — only my food in the house!)

My healthy food rules:

  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables (at least 5 servings per day).
  • At least 60 grams of protein per day (1 gram per kg of my bodyweight, which I’ve calculated is a minimum for me as I try to maintain/build my muscle mass as I age).
  • Few or no processed foods/additives.
  • No factory-farmed animal products.

Avoiding factory-farmed animal products while insisting on plenty of protein was a tough challenge on this budget. But besides the obvious ethical issues with factory farming, I think it’s an important health principle to avoid added hormones and antibiotics, and there’s strong evidence that healthy animals provide more nutritious meat (with more omega-3 fats, for instance).

To start, I cleared out my pantry, boxing up longer-lasting items to hide in the basement. (Such a psychological difference simply not to have it in the pantry!) I quickly realized that I would be in awful shape starting from absolutely nothing, so I cheated just a bit, “borrowing back” a couple of key spices along with a little olive oil and apple cider vinegar, reasoning that I could “return” them later on my budget.

Friendly neighbor helping clear out the fridge
This is what I allowed myself to start with 🙂

Rescued-produce boxes delivered to my doorstep once a week from Hungry Harvest were a key part of my plan. In fact, this is what actually gave me the confidence to take on my challenge. (A million thanks to my friend Jan for signing me up!) I got the “Super Harvest” just for me, at $35.00 a week, which I calculated would give me seven fruit or vegetable servings per day if I ate it by myself! So this was the centerpiece of my healthy eating plan, and it didn’t even involve any shopping time (except for logging into my account and sometimes adding on extra items).

Hungry Harvest for the first week of March — the birch water was a free add-on they offered

To plan for the rest of my food needs, I went to Trader Joe’s and Aldi (recently opened near me!) and checked prices. I was very pleased to find grass-fed cheddar cheese at $2.99, a jar of Kalamata olives at $1.99, and Winking Owl wine at $2.89 a bottle!

Aldi shopping cart. Checked the internet before buying: Pacific Whiting is considered a sustainable wild-caught fish, and it’s also cheap, nice!!
Photo from March 8. These were the groceries I stocked up on for the month (in addition to my Hungry Harvest boxes and Polyface Farm order)
Calculating the protein in my breakfast
All of the food in my pantry/fridge/freezer on March 14. The most sorely missing thing here: Tabasco.

I was also searching for local, affordable (?) sources of free-range animal products. I posted this question on Nextdoor.com and discovered to my delight and amazement that Polyface Farm, familiar to me as an example of healthy farming from the documentary Food, Inc., delivers eggs and frozen meats to Northern Virginia once a month (the pickup spot is actually right in my neighborhood!).

My first Polyface order: eggs, ground pork, (beef) soup bones and a whole chicken, $44.48, not cheap, but outstanding quality
Mushroom omelet, avocado toast, mango, wine: I was not suffering!
Calculating, crossing things off (peanut butter, yogurt and oats crossed off then added back)
New delights every week from Hungry Harvest

At my local Giant Food, I discovered dried beans on sale for $1.00 each, definitely the best protein value I found. But don’t dried beans take a lot of time and effort to cook?

These were my keys to minimizing my cooking time:

  • The Instant Pot! Within one hour I could start with dried beans and end up with the fully cooked “Bean of the Week” while batch-cooking other foods at the same time. I also learned to make bone broth and other slow-cooked foods from my cheaper Polyface meat cuts.
  • Oven-roasting. No time for fancy vegetable recipes, but nearly all of my vegetables were excellent roasted in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. I also oven-roasted frozen wild-caught whiting from Aldi, with mustard smeared on it for flavor. It was not gourmet fare, but definitely edible.
  • Gloriously messy soups and salads. I tossed whatever I had with some beans and/or greens and seasoned it with olive oil, olives and spices.
  • Batch cooking. On one day of the week, I washed, cut and cooked nearly all of my Hungry Harvest vegetables, made the Bean of the Week, roasted some frozen fish, and made a canned fish salad (with olive oil, mustard and onions). This took a total of about 1.5 hours, but then for several days I could simply microwave and assemble my meals.
My three key batch cooking tools: Instant Pot, oven roasting pan, big sauté pan, all going at once (electric plug arrangement by Homer Simpson 🙂 )
Typical “everything soup” meal
At a conference on April 5. Couldn’t afford to buy lunch or even coffee at the conference. Took my messy to-go containers: salmon, salads and fruit.

Yes I can go out for coffee! (as I spend my last $2.00 on peanut butter)

Early in March, it hit me as I drove through town that I wouldn’t be able to go to a restaurant or get any takeout food until May. I couldn’t even stop for coffee, I thought. But then I realized … actually, I can go out for coffee!

Most of my March funds were rapidly committed to my weekly Hungry Harvest fruit and vegetable boxes, my Polyface Farm order, and some basic supplies from Aldi. So as I walked through Giant and Trader Joe’s to spend my last few dollars (enjoying the free coffee and happily eating whatever samples they offered, including some kind of colorful round kids’ breakfast cereal I would usually never eat!), I knew I couldn’t afford basically anything I saw. Of course this was nothing like truly living with poverty, but it gave me some new insights and additional healthy psychological distance between “that looks good” and “I must have that.”

Batch Cooking Fridge: kind of a good feeling, actually, life simplified!
700 ml in a bottle = 100 ml per day for a week, a nicely moderate serving. And no internal wrestling: “Should I have another glass, or not?”

The most enjoyable meals during my food challenge were those where I invited a friend to my house and had to come up with something tasty, or at least acceptable, from my limited foods with only about 15 minutes of prep time. My friends Melissa, Joanna and Tina and my beloved now-daughter-in-law Lauren were totally game, and Tina even filmed me racing around the kitchen throwing unevenly chopped vegetables into a sauté pan, microwaving batch-cooked lentils and greens, and roasting the usual frozen whiting fillets with mustard. We even got 100 milliliters each of Winking Owl wine! And Hungry Harvest fruit for dessert.

Dinner for me and a friend: red cabbage, lentils and roasted Pacific whiting
Another nice dinner for two! Note fancy fruit parfait in Mexican glasses. And the pink things are watermelon radishes from Hungry Harvest, new and fun!

Of course I was relieved to finish my challenge on May 1 and shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Paycheck Foods for products I’d longed for (like Primal Kitchen chipotle lime mayo, which would have been SO amazing with the cheap fish!).

But I learned something important about myself on this 2-month journey: I actually enjoy restrictive challenges like this, because they feel like a game. Games (of any kind) have rules, and the point is to test your skills within the constraints of those rules.

Can I eat healthy food on $10 and 30 minutes a day? It involves rescued produce, the Bean of the Week and a lot of canned and frozen fish, but yes I can. Clearly I haven’t suddenly found the ideal solution for everyone, but I did uncover some interesting finds that I will continue to write about here.

This is what I bought on May 3 at Trader Joe’s after my challenge ended. Just looking at this again makes me want to eat blister peanuts … excuse me while I run downstairs and get some …

And I will continue setting fun challenges for myself, in a playful spirit. I’ve found that they don’t make me feel restricted or deprived, but creative, empowered and in control. I know that wouldn’t be true for everyone, but I’m glad it is for me. And I appreciate things more after restricting them for a while, like the hummus and mixed nuts I could suddenly afford again.

All the food left over at the end of my challenge! Lauren brought me the delicious organic oats from the UK; I fed her lots of vegetables in exchange 🙂

Body Positivity, Body Neutrality

What if you truly loved your body just as it is right now, celebrating what it can do, like a three-year-old joyfully running through a lawn sprinkler?

What if you had no judgmental thoughts when you looked in a mirror, viewing your own wrinkles (for instance) as you would lovingly gaze at your grandmother’s face, and any excess fat in the same way you would view your beloved cat’s belly which happens to be hanging a bit low?

Would you stop washing your clothes and brushing your teeth, because you “don’t care how you look”?

Or would you be energized and liberated, free of endless cycles of shame and negative thoughts? And might you put some of that new energy and enthusiasm into taking great care of yourself, so you can stay as active and strong as possible for many years to come, regardless of your size, shape or limitations?

I’ve been working on this since 2013, and I’ve come a LONG way.

I know, my case is truly a very mild one, and it’s easy for me to say “I care about being strong and healthy, not how I look in the mirror.” I don’t know what it feels like to have grade 3 obesity or a significant disability (although I was once covered with blistering burns for weeks after foolishly dropping a block of frozen hash browns into hot oil, provoking shocked and horrified reactions from customers at the dry cleaning business where I worked).

These feet have bunions and varicose veins, but they carry me everywhere!

I’m just a flawed person in the average range: I’ve lost most of the excess body fat that plagued me, but I still have loose skin, a big red nose, age spots, scars, bunions, bulging veins and various other imperfections.

But during the past five years, I’ve made great progress in learning to love my amazing body that can dance, jump, ride a bike, swim, run (when my knees don’t hurt), throw big sticks during my Saturday morning forest workout, grasp my elbows behind my back (newly regained skill), carry IKEA furniture into the house, and even keep my wobbly balance on a glowing stand-up paddleboard.

My amazing body didn’t fall in the river, and neither did anyone else in the diverse (age, size, ability) Airbnb Experience group in Austin, Texas

And as a wise client mentioned today, the simple facts of human biology are miraculous. Every day we extract oxygen from the air and nutrients from food and turn them into movement and emotions and thoughts, incredible!

The body-positive philosophy says that we should love and respect our own and each other’s bodies, no matter their shape, size, color, age, or limitations. What a liberating, refreshing idea, although clearly we still have a long way to go. (For a while in the 1990s, it seemed like the internet would be an equal playing field for those of any age/size/gender/ability/species , but today’s proliferation of carefully composed photos may sadly be taking us in the other direction.)

Recently, some thinkers have pointed out that it can seem like asking too much to expect people to “love” their bodies (implying a kind of failure if they don’t). Would it have been fair to expect Stephen Hawking to love his paralyzed body? How about my transgender colleague who described her physical transition to me as “running out of a burning building”? Or a person with agonizing chronic pain?

A suggested alternative is “body neutrality.” The idea is simply to make peace with the fact that our bodies are not perfect — maybe very far from it — and turn our attention to more important things. Our talents, values and relationships. Our brilliant original work in physics and cosmology (if we are Stephen Hawking). Our intrinsic worth as human beings.

But “accepting” our bodies brings up a strong objection for many people, including some of my clients. If we accept ourselves as we are, won’t we lose our motivation to improve?

Shame and self-loathing seem like they should be strong motivators for change, but the evidence shows they are not. My personal experience agrees with this. When I felt shamed for being overweight (by my own internal voice or by other people), I felt discouraged and stuck. This feeling could even make things worse, since I was using food for comfort at the time (these days I resort to Zumba classes, audiobooks, Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine and streaming restorative yoga from YogaGlo).

“THE CURIOUS PARADOX IS THAT WHEN I ACCEPT MYSELF JUST AS I AM, THEN I CHANGE.”

– Carl Rogers
Aloe vera!

I can “accept” the fact that I have a sunburn, for instance, and not let it affect my self-worth in any way, even though I don’t think having a sunburn is actually a desirable thing. Beating myself up for my carelessness will just make me more miserable. It might even make me less likely to protect my skin more effectively next time, or to take the trouble to cut spiky pieces off the aloe plant in my kitchen and rub my skin with the healing gel.

Accepting some other things, like my cringe-worthy mistakes from the past, rather than futilely raging against them, is an ongoing journey for me. The best kind of acceptance involves taking a clear-eyed, compassionate view of reality, absorbing any lessons to be learned, and taking action to reduce suffering in the future (doing our best while realizing that we will still often make mistakes or be driven off course by circumstances), while staying calm and cheerful. Yes, I’m describing the Dalai Lama, or Marcus Aurelius, and certainly not myself!

So what are some methods that can help us move closer to body positivity, body neutrality, and acceptance in general? Here are three that have helped me:

  1. Loving-kindness meditation. From Buddhist tradition, the idea of this meditation is to help cultivate compassion. Traditionally, meditators repeated blessings for themselves (such as May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain), next for loved ones, then for people more difficult to love, and finally for all beings. If you find yourself/your body difficult to love, you can start with easier targets and work up to yourself. Here’s a guided loving-kindness meditation along with others that help cultivate self-compassion.
  2. Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique, EFT). This may seem a little unusual, but it’s simple to try on your own. Basically, you tap your fingers on a specific circuit of positions on your face and upper body, while talking to yourself about an issue in your life. The tapping helps ground you in your body and give you a feeling of safety while you process the difficult topic. For example, you might say to yourself at each tapping point: “Even though I’m carrying excess weight, I love and accept myself.” You can repeat the same statement or vary it based on what comes up in your mind. Here’s a great short introduction by Jessica Ortner.
  3. Stepping back and being a friend to myself. It’s so easy to see beyond the superficial flaws of a friend, family member or someone you admire. Catch yourself at self-critical moments and imagine how you would think and feel instead about someone you love.

Have you been struggling to love or even to accept your body? If so, I hope these ideas will help you find peace and new confidence. May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain.

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