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Habits: The Secret to Everything

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote in 1892.

My husband thinks I’m obsessed with self-development. I think the word “obsessed” is a bit strong, but I’ll admit I’m fascinated with all things related to human behavior: why we do the things we do, why we don’t do other things (even when we know dang well they’re “good” for us), and what it takes to develop habits that will drive us toward excellence – or even just contentment. How are some people able to magically harness time and practices that help them consistently achieve their goals and dreams, whereas other people struggle to establish basic habits like picking up after themselves?

My bookshelves are filled with the likes of Brene Brown, Debbie Ford, and Stephen Covey, authors who dive into the mysterious workings of human beings. As a health coach I’m essentially in the business of change-making, so learning what makes us tick and how to foster growth is obviously relevant to my work, but beyond that I simply love exploring the topic of self-development for myself. I want to keep learning and improving.

Recently I took a mini road trip to St. Peter, a little town about an hour south of me, and while driving I was lucky enough to catch a panel of doctors, personal trainers, and psychologists on NPR discussing the latest exercise recommendations released by the Department of Health and Human Services the day before: (For those of you who are curious – 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week and strength training twice a week.)

The conversation quickly moved from the recommendations themselves to dissecting the mystery around why more Americans don’t exercise. The majority of Americans don’t come anywhere close to meeting those modest recommendations even though everyone knows by now that exercise is important for our health. So why don’t we do it? Once we wade through all of the earnest excuses people offer (with the valid exceptions of injuries and other physical limitations), the only real and true answer left is that most people haven’t built the habit of exercising. At this point in the conversation one of the physicians referred to an “outstanding” book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I ordered the book that afternoon and dug into it as soon as it arrived.

Here are some direct, intriguing excerpts I couldn’t wait to share with you:

“Habits are technically defined as ‘the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.’ At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office and how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.

Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decision, but habits.

The habit process within our brains – or the “habit loop “ as it’s commonly referred to – is a three-step process. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine reward – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, a habit is born.”

The reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines, the pattern will unfold automatically.”

Aha! That last paragraph you just read was illuminating for me. “The brain stops fully participating in decision making. So unless you deliberately fight a habit, the pattern will unfold automatically.” The author goes on to explain how necessary and beneficial habit loops are to us – without them our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. I had never thought about habits through this lens before. I realized this is probably why most human beings thrive on structure (it saves brain power). It’s why I usually take the same routes home, and it’s why I get ready for bed in the same order each night (brush my teeth, then wash my face, etc.). But it’s also why I automatically reach for that square of dark chocolate at the end of my meal even when I’m full, and why I start singing the same song every evening when I walk into my kitchen. I’m also pretty sure it’s why traveling wears me out even though I love it; everything is new so I can’t rely on most of my daily habits while traveling. My brain has to be more engaged than usual.

It’s important to note that according to the author and his research, habits cannot simply be eradicated; they must be changed or replaced. But simply understanding how habits work – learning the structure of the habit loop – makes them easier to control and rewire. Once you break a habit into its components – cue, routine, reward – you can “fiddle with the gears.” If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. It also helps significantly if we find some support from others along the way. Duhigg writes:

“The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.”

Here’s an example of a habit I’m working on changing in my own life. Recently I’ve committed to reducing the time I spend zoning out on social media (and also the time spent on my phone, in general). When I started examining this very non-productive habit, I realized I don’t think twice about Facebook or Instagram during the day when I feel purposeful and productive. It’s only at night, when I’m all sleepy and tucked into bed, that the temptation to pull up one of these mind-numbing apps creeps in on me:

Cue: tucking into bed

Routine: zone out on Facebook

Reward: relaxation; little dopamine hits

So my job was to brainstorm ways I could tweak my routine to achieve the same reward (relaxation, dopamine hits). I zeroed in on reading, one of my primary loves, or doing a crossword puzzle, which I also find relaxing and satisfying. Lastly, I reminded myself that I could just turn out the lights and go to sleep (revolutionary idea, I know). After all, the only reason I was defaulting to Facebook was because I was tired.

To increase my chances of succeeding, I check in with my friend Maggie and let her know how it’s going. If I’m even tempted to go there, I text her and share what’s happening. Magically, this alone usually stops the old habit, but if it doesn’t I simply come clean and tell her I fell into my old pattern.

Exercise: Take a minute now to consider something in your life you’d like to either quit or establish. Review the cue, routine, reward loop and brainstorm some ways you could tweak the routine piece.

I’ll conclude this section with this comment from Duhigg about weight, something many people struggle with:

“If you want to lose weight, study your habits to determine why you really leave your desk for a snack each day, and then find someone else to take a walk with you, to gossip with at their desk rather than in the cafeteria, a group that tracks weight-loss goals together, or someone who also wants to keep a stock of apples, rather than chips, nearby.”

All great ideas, and notice how they’re all rather simple ideas too.

Keystone Habits

Once the book establishes the basics around habits, Duhigg dives into the notion of “keystone habits,” or habits I’ve come to think of as “ripple effect” habits. These habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through your life, like dominoes lined up just right. He writes, “Keystone habits, in other words, matter more than others in re-making lives (and businesses and organizations). They can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

“Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers. Where should a would-be habit master start? Understanding keystone habits holds the answer to that question: The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

I find idea this reassuring and intriguing and congruent with what I already know to be true. Trying to make a 180 degree shift in our lives – or what I call the “all or nothing approach” to change – rarely works. It simply demands too much of most of us. We might be able to stick with the radical changes for a few weeks, but then we cave, revert to old habits, and end up feeling badly about ourselves. But finding one key thing to tackle – that’s a game changer. I’ve seen the positive cascade it creates time and time again. Duhigg writes. “If you start by focusing on one thing, chances are it will be enough of a disruption to your life to initiate change throughout the rest of your life.”

This got me wondering what my own keystone habits are, so I spent a couple weeks observing myself and trying to identify which habits I rely on to help everything else fall into place. Here’s a sample of what I’ve come up with:

 

Making the Bed:

I can’t quite explain it, but if I make our bed in the morning (which I do 95% of the time) the rest of our home stays tidy throughout the day. If I don’t make the bed for some reason, our home gets messy: clothes don’t get hung up, my make-up stays littered across the vanity, dishes don’t get done. It’s weird, but it’s consistent so I trust the pattern now even if I don’t understand it.

Batch Cooking on the Weekend:

Batch cooking on the weekend completely changed my life. I urge all of my clients to try batch cooking on the weekend so that delicious, nutritious, grab-and-go food is ready and available throughout the week. With a fridge full of prepared food, my husband and I easily pack our lunches for the day and then come home and eat dinner with no fussing, decision-making, or cooking needed. We never get stuck ordering take-out or settling for last-minute, sub-par food. We just come home from our busy days and eat. We also save a lot of money by eating food we made ourselves.

Go to Bed by 10pm:

There are exceptions to this, of course, but 90% of the time I go to bed by 10pm so I wake up rested and energized. When I’m rested I’m productive, I’m in a good mood, I’m a better coach to my clients, I’m more likely to workout and workout harder, etc. Talk about a positive ripple effect.

Make my “Next Day” List Before I Go To Bed:

I love lists. My hubby teases me about my love of lists, but making a list of everything I want or need to do the following day before I go to bed does two things for me:

  1. Knowing I’ve captured my to-do’s on paper allows my brain to relax before bed, which helps me sleep better. I call this my brain dump.
  2. It helps me jump into action right away the next morning because I know exactly what I need to do and where I need to start. This helps me be productive immediately when I’m most energized.

Are your keystone habits anything like mine?

The New Year is a time when many people set goals or simply give themselves permission to start fresh. This year I wonder what might shift for you if you spent a little time identifying your keystone habits and focusing on a single keystone habit you think could create a positive chain reaction in your life. Then what might happen if you stayed committed to developing that one keystone habit until it actually became a real habit, knowing it’s a process that will take time. Transforming habits isn’t easy or quick, but it is possible. And now we understand how.

Perhaps my husband is right and I am obsessed with self-improvement and human behavior, but honestly – what could be more interesting than figuring out why we are the way we are? And what if, by learning about ourselves (and others), we can develop tools to live a really fantastic life?

Habits aren’t our destiny, but they also aren’t going to change themselves. Change can happen with effort and support. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit smoking. Nail biters can stop chewing their nails. Night owls can become early birds, and couch potatoes can develop fitness routines. It just takes awareness, intention, and the drive to change.

In other words, there’s hope for all of us who have ever felt stuck. Let’s have fun seeing what we can disrupt in ourselves.

Immune Boosting Carrot Ginger Soup

The holidays are barely in our rear view mirror, which means it’s that dicey time of year again when many of us are on the verge of feeling or getting run-down. It’s often just after the holidays that our bodies wilt, finally succumbing to the stress and fatigue brought about by celebration after celebration.

Late nights, alcohol, sugary treats = the perfect recipe for getting sick.

Luckily, there’s a whole lot we can do to boost our immune systems and ward off those wintery colds and flus pressing in around us:

  • Say goodbye to sugar
  • Boost your immune system with supplemental vitamin D
  • Catch up on sleep
  • Increase your vitamin C intake
  • Increase your zinc intake
  • Stay hydrated by sipping warm water throughout the day
  • Eat plenty of leafy green veggies
  • Limit dairy, which is congesting to most people
  • Diffuse lemon and tea tree essential oils around your home
  • And – like mom always preached – keep your hands away from your face and wash them often

There are also some foods you can incorporate into your diet that are downright medicinal. Onions, ginger, and garlic are three of these wonder-foods, and all three are in the Immune Boosting Carrot Ginger Soup I’m sharing with you this week. If you’re feeling rundown, or if you just want to support your immune system, this is a super easy and tasty soup to try.

As always, feel free to unleash your creativity and play with ingredients and amounts. I’ve listed some optional spices you could add at the end of cooking to tweak it to your palate. You can also pour in some coconut milk at the end of cooking if you’re in the mood for a creamier soup. I love recipe templates like this that give you a strong foundation with plenty of room to make it your own. Have fun. :)

Immune Boosting Carrot Ginger Soup

Yields: 4 servings

2 Tablespoons coconut or extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1/3 cup peeled and finely chopped ginger root

3 cloves garlic, minced

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock (I like chicken stock best)

1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks

1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Optional additions, if your taste buds are craving warming spices or you’re dealing with the winter sniffles:

1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 Tablespoon curry powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup coconut milk

Heat olive oil  in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add onion, ginger, and garlic; saute for 5-10 minutes. Add stock and carrots; heat to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered over medium heat until the carrots are very tender, about 30 minutes. Puree soup with an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor. Add salt, pepper, and any additional seasonings you’d like. You can also add some coconut milk at this point, if it sounds good to you. Serve hot.

Primary Food

When I made the decision to go to nutrition school, I was embarking on a natural next step in what had been a growing area of interest and passion since my teenage years. I had been reading the likes of Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Christiane Northrup since I was 16 and already fully embraced the holistic health model, which is why I picked the school I attended – they proudly taught “holistic nutrition,” a relatively new concept back then. The word “holistic” still raised eyebrows, as if it meant something subversive and odd, so I was thrilled to find a school stepping outside of traditional nutritional models that touted the superiority of low-fat diets and artificial (chemical) sweeteners without question. Within our “holistic nutrition” education we learned dozens of different dietary theories and the idea that there is no one right diet for everyone (which I firmly believe).

We also learned about Primary Food.

I had never heard of Primary Food, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. Let me explain: We learned that most of what we consider “nutrition” today – vegetables, meats, grains, fruits, beans, nuts, dairy – is really just a secondary source of energy; therefore, we started calling these things “secondary foods.” Don’t get me wrong, food is absolutely a key part of nutrition, but it is easy to place too much emphasis on eating “healthy” foods and then neglect other areas of our lives that need attention. Holistic, or “integrative,” nutrition extends way beyond the realm of food groups, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals to this critical concept we learned in school called “Primary Food.”

“Primary Food” includes vital components of our lives that give us energy and nourishment and contribute to health and vitality. Primary Food doesn’t come on a plate and it is not something we eat, yet primary food feeds us on a very deep, meaningful level and contributes to our overall health in countless, immeasurable ways.

For example, think back to a time when you were newly and passionately in love. Everything was exciting. You felt giddy and energized all day, even if you hadn’t slept much the night before. Thinking about your new relationship and looking forward to seeing your new love again was exhilarating. In fact, you probably forgot about food at times or needed less food at a given meal, yet you felt high on life. Quality relationships are one form of Primary Food.

Or remember a time when you were deeply involved in an exciting project. You believed in what you were doing and felt confident and stimulated. You felt focused, purposeful, and engaged in your mission. You didn’t need to eat. You were shocked when you looked at the clock and realized you had missed lunch. One’s work, service, or purpose in the world is another form of Primary Food.

Consider children who are completely engaged and lost in playing outside with friends. Imagine it is dinnertime, and mom yells out the window, “Time to come in and eat!” If her kids respond at all, they’ll probably respond with something like, “No mom, I’m not hungry! I want to keep playing!” Of course she’ll insist and eventually round everyone up and prod her kids to eat even though they’re probably not particularly interested in food. They’ll gobble down the minimum acceptable amount and rush out to play again. At the end of the day, they come inside, exhausted, and fall asleep without thinking about food at all.

Children live on primary food. The fun, excitement, and love of their lives are what really feeds them, and nutrition from food is secondary.

On the other hand, think of a time you were depressed, bored, or your self-esteem was low; you were starving for primary food. No amount of secondary food would do. You ate as much as you wanted and kept looking around for something else, but you never felt satisfied.

Even on relatively good days, we often come home at night and look into the refrigerator for something to eat, when all we really want is a hug, some time to fully relax, or someone who will listen deeply to us.

Primary foods include things like a spiritual practice you feel connected to, a career or purpose in life that inspires you, physical activity that energizes you and makes you want to move, sleep that restores you, and honest and open relationships that feed your soul and your hunger for living and encourage you to be your best self.

It is my opinion that the more primary food we receive, the less will be our dependence on secondary foods. The opposite is also true. The more we fill ourselves with and hide behind secondary foods, the less we’re open to and able to receive the primary foods of life.

Perhaps this why every spiritual tradition encourages people to fast – to have times during the year where we reduce our intake of secondary foods so that we are more able to be present to the primary foods in our lives.

I encourage you to take 15-20 minutes to explore your primary foods. Thoughtfully consider what you are doing to foster health in each of the Primary Foods I listed above. Then consider your challenges, obstacles, or questions in each area. Record your answers. I’ve found that Primary Food plays an enormous role in one’s journey to health, no matter what your current health concerns are.

Red Lentil & Sweet Potato Stew

I’m not exaggerating when I say that soups and stews are my favorite things to cook AND my favorite things to eat. This recipe for Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew is a great example why – it’s surprisingly simple but still richly flavorful and satisfying. With its warming spices and fresh ginger, this stew is the perfect antidote to a chilly winter day. And it’s a crowd pleaser; I’ve served this recipe to friends, family, and retreat attendees, and I can’t recall anyone ever disliking it.

 

As always, feel free to unleash your creativity and play with ingredients and amounts. I can think of lots of other veggies that could be added (especially greens like kale or collards), and I think some fresh parsley sprinkled in at the end of cooking would be nice. Spicy sausage could also be a tasty addition, though it is nice to have meatless dishes sometimes. You could even pour in some coconut milk at the end of cooking if you’re in the mood for a creamier soup. I love recipe templates like this that give you a strong foundation with plenty of room to make it your own. Have fun. :)

 

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew

Yields: 4 servings

2 Tablespoons coconut or extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 Tablespoon curry powder

1 diced large onion
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 minced cloves garlic
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 peeled and diced sweet potatoes
1 diced (stemmed, seeded) red bell pepper

1 1/2 cups rinsed red lentils
6 cups vegetable or chicken broth
chopped fresh cilantro

 

Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook cumin, turmeric and curry powder until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add onion with a few pinches salt, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add sweet potatoes and bell pepper and cook 1 minute.

Add lentils and broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender, 20-25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Top with cilantro before serving.

Kaizen

A couple years ago a precious little book called The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D. found it’s way into my hands. A client had read the book years ago and decided to revisit it when she began her health coaching program. One day she brought it to our session together and offered to loan it to me.

 

I’m so glad she did. I loved it.

 

Kaizen: The definition of this Japanese word can be summed up with the well-known saying by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”

 

In other words, kaizen is about taking small steps for continual improvement.

 

Kaizen is relevant to anyone wanting to change something in his or her life, whether that change involves one’s health, relationships, attitude, or skills, to name a few. Unlike dramatic change, which involves taking a jumbo leap to achieve massive results quickly, kaizen is a warm, generous, and subtle approach to change, giving the change-maker permission to take steps so small that, frankly, there are times we feel we are doing nothing at all. The funny thing is, according to Maurer, our chances of success are greatest when the steps are smallest.

 

In order for this to make sense, he spends a significant amount of time explaining the brain and our body’s fight-or-flight response. A quick recap of the fascinating science he presents goes like this: all change, even positive changes, are scary. The fear of change is rooted in the brain’s physiology, and this is why most people fail when they strive for goals that are too radical. We heighten the brain’s fear response, triggering a structure in the midbrain called the amygdala, which is responsible for controlling the fight-or-flight response. You likely already know that the fight-or-flight response is a life-saving response that shuts down rational thinking (among other functions) and sends the body directly into action. Make no mistake, the fight-or-flight response has immense value, but it can also be troublesome, setting off alarm bells unnecessarily when we want to depart from our usual, safe routines. This can prevent creativity, change, and success from unfolding, making us feel stuck and weak.

 

The stealth solutions of kaizen allow your brain to tiptoe past the alarm bells, wandering around the fear toward small, achievable goals. To be clear, when we refer to really small steps, we’re talking about steps that can feel trivial, like:

 

  • flossing a single tooth each night
  • marching in front of the TV for 30 second intervals during commercial breaks
  • thinking one positive thought about a challenging colleague each day
  • complimenting one’s spouse each week
  • cleaning one piece of paper off of a cluttered desk or one file out of an overflowing file cabinet
  • putting a new food on your grocery list

 

He even gives the example of a patient who’s kaizen step involved simply standing on a treadmill everyday for several weeks without even turning the treadmill on! This was the most helpful kaizen step she could take toward regular exercise. I can relate to this. As somebody who still floats in and out of exercising consistently, there are certainly days when I count just getting down onto my yoga mat a success.

 

When we’re making change happen at a level this subtle, we’re flying below our brain’s fight-or-flight radar. Alarm bells in the amygdala stay quiet, and the process of change can snowball, however slowly it’s meant to grow. New neural pathways are built in the brain from doing activities slightly differently, and our mind quietly develop a desire for this new behavior, whether it’s regular exercise, a new way of eating, or spending time with a more loving group of friends.

 

Maurer includes a powerful quote from John Wooden, a successful college basketball coach, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

 

Small steps build lasting change. I learned the same approach in nutrition school, except we used the analogy that building health is like climbing a ladder. If you are committed to climbing the ladder one rung at a time, you will eventually and undoubtedly reach the top. If you try to take too many rungs at once, it is almost certain you will slip and fall. When the change is too big to sustain, even people with admirable levels of discipline and willpower lose enthusiasm, peter out, and “fail.” This failure can be devastating, and the motivation to begin again is lost.

 

I realize many of the changes I ask people to make over time are huge, life-altering moves that are often neither easy nor convenient at first. For instance, when I educate my clients about the value (or necessity, in many cases) of going gluten-free, I understand this is going to change not only what they prepare and eat at home but also what they can eat at restaurants and parties and how friendships may change. This is scary and overwhelming, and it’s almost certainly going to trigger that fear-happy amygdala. So it’s no wonder many clients will go gluten-free for a week, or even a month, and then resort to old patterns and ways of eating. Frankly, it might be inevitable. So what could we do differently, knowing what we now know about kaizen?

 

First of all, be compassionate with yourself. Pick up the book and learn about the brain so you can recognize what’s at play in that noodle of yours. Then rather than beating yourself up next time a “slip” happens, you’ll be able to recognize your fight-or-flight response kicking in. Your next step involves figuring out a teeny, tiny action you can take to tiptoe past that fear response. Small, valuable successes happen this way frequently. A client whom I feel could benefit from homemade chicken broth buys the whole chicken, sticks it in her freezer, then waits a month to prepare the broth. Somebody needs to start moving his body, so he begins by simply buying new shoes. Perfect. Nobody said the changes had to happen overnight.

 

As encouragement, Maurer offers this reminder, “While the steps may be small, what we’re reaching for is not. To commit your life to honoring and maintaining your physical health; to the passion, the risk, and the excellence of a demanding career; to the pursuit of a rewarding relationship with another human being; or the continual upward revision of your personal standards, is to strive for powerful goals, often elusive and at times frightening. But for now, all you need to do is take one small step.”

Exploring Generosity

“Paradoxically but wonderfully, focusing on someone else’s happiness will actually make you happier.” — A.J. Jaobs

 

What does a generous life look like?

How generous could I be if I really set my mind to it?

How much is enough?

 

I’ve spent the last year exploring these questions – both in my own life and in others’ lives – and making some intentional efforts to be more generous with my resources: time, energy, knowledge, and money. Early in 2018 I was gifted with several amazing acts of generosity, and it was life-changing. I guess I wanted to do what I could to pass it on.

 

I have had the great gift of having some mentors in my life whose generosity stuns me sometimes: my dad (and my mom when she was still alive), some dear close friends, also some clients. To see them share their abundance with others – whether that abundance shows up in the form of money, time, mentorship, or energy – has been nothing short of inspirational. They got me wondering, “What would it feel like to be able to give like that?” And also, “What kind of ripple effect could I make in the world if I dug deeper and shared more?” I decided I would practice the art of generosity on my own scale beginning immediately.

 

When I set the intention to be more generous, I wasn’t sure what it would look like. My husband and I can certainly support ourselves, but we also aren’t dripping in wealth (at least by U.S. standards). It does help that we’re both happy living pretty simply. We forgo luxuries like cable, and my hubby is one of the 5% of Americans who still doesn’t have a cell phone and thus avoids that nasty bill. We also avoid buying junk that has a high likelihood of ending up in a landfill anytime soon. All of that said, once we’d met our savings goal I wasn’t sure how much “extra” there would be to give away. Would I be willing to give away what didn’t feel like “extra?” I also wasn’t sure how much time and energy I was willing to give away since I take great pains not to overbook myself.

 

I was, however, committed to exploring what was possible.

 

Here’s what I learned on my exploration into generosity:

 

  1. I had more money to give than I thought I would. This was a fun realization. It helped that I sort of made it into a game. My brain started reframing potential purchases in terms of, “I could buy that adorable pair of boyfriend jeans, or I could save that $89 for part of the next donation to _______.” Framing it that way, the answer always became clear quickly. After all, however adorable they were, I don’t really need another pair of jeans. Do you? Get this: before I knew it, I had $500 ready to donate to a favorite charity simply because I stopped myself from buying about five new pieces of clothes. That felt both significant and easy. I was able to do this several times throughout the year, and I enjoyed seeing it add up.
  2. Time is as valuable as money. We hear it all the time, but I’m not sure we truly value time as money’s equal. Here’s the truth: We are all going to die, which means time is perhaps our most finite resource. To give our time away in the form of volunteering or mentoring others means we’re giving that person or organization part of our life. Wow. Talk about generous. I decided I could easily give away 2-4 hours of my time every month without feeling overbooked. That adds up to 24-48 hours over the course of a year.
  3. It’s impossible to be generous without being in a place of gratitude. Have you ever noticed how stingy people tend to complain more and not seem particularly grateful for what they have? Yes, that’s a gross generalization, but we’ve all known people who stink of that familiar and toxic attitude of, “I don’t have enough so I’m not going to share.” Generosity simply cannot exist without gratitude. This got me thinking that the first step to being generous is most likely practicing gratitude (which has also been shown over and over to be awesome for our health).
  4. Small gestures make a big impact. Being generous doesn’t have to bankrupt you. Sending a spontaneous greeting card, giving a tiny gift, even giving someone a used book you’ve already read but know they’ll enjoy: these small actions make a difference. People feel loved when you think of them.
  5. Giving people “the benefit of the doubt” is another form of generosity. Exploring this angle of generosity was profound: how can I be more generous in my attitudes and assumptions? At one time or another most of us have probably heard the sage advice telling us to assume others are always doing the best they can in any given moment. That can be a hard practice, but I found that I saved myself from some useless ruminating when I decided to simply give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Examples:
    1. When a friend said something I found to be hurtful, I assumed she didn’t mean it and let it go. It was out of character for her. Heck, we all say things we don’t mean sometimes.
    2. When someone I was counting on professionally didn’t follow through on a deadline – screwing up my schedule big-time – I listened patiently and believed her reasons for not being able to deliver on schedule. She’s trustworthy and has a lot on her plate. End of story.

 

In fact, there are a million small acts we can do as we move through life that I now consider generous: Allowing a car the space to merge in front of us easily (even if it’s not technically their turn), giving an extra pair of mittens to the homeless person standing on the corner, inviting a friend over for a delicious, home-cooked meal, babysitting a relative’s kids, even just offering someone who’s going through a tough time a friendly, non-judgmental ear.

 

Beware: once you start, it’s a bit catching.

 

Over the course of the year I also stretched the limits of my comfort zone and invited other people in my life opportunities to be generous, whether that meant donating their skills, products, or money to a cause, joining me at a benefit, or just straight up asking for something. It was all very low pressure, but it was still uncomfortable. It’s hard for me to ask people for things. Some people took me up on the invitation, others didn’t. It’s all okay. The ripple effect is rippling-on.

 

Since Thanksgiving is a time when many of us are inclined to count our blessings and share what we’re grateful for, I thought this seemed like the right time to share a bit about my journey with generosity, which is still in its infancy. I look forward to seeing where it takes me in the coming years when I’m able to drop my training wheels.

 

This post is dedicated to Dad, Alice, Catherine, and Mary. xoxo.

Thanksgiving: My Favorite Squash Soup

If foods could be our friends, then squash would be my best friend. For the record, I don’t actually believe foods are our friends – they can’t love us back, and they’re no substitute for real human connection. Foods are just foods. But again, IF they could be our friends, then squash would be my Bestie. I enjoy everything about this beautiful food – the natural sweetness, the complex and varied flavors from squash to squash, the vibrant, cheerful color, its versatility. I’m salivating just writing about it.

 

So it’s no surprise that every year for Thanksgiving I make some version of squash soup as one of our side dishes, but I give a wide berth to the common, overly sweet versions that include apples, maple syrup, or sugar and leave my taste buds feeling manic. In my (humble) opinion, those versions usually do a disservice to the natural sweetness squashes like Kabocha, Butternut, and Delicata have to offer, leaving nothing but the taste of sugar behind. Instead, why not allow the sweet, rich flavors of squash to reveal themselves naturally, whispering themselves into our taste buds instead of shouting at us?

 

The recipe below does just that. I can’t remember where I got the original version of this one, but I’ve tweaked it plenty over the years. Add more peppers or curry paste if you want more heat, less coconut milk if you want it more squashy, more basil if you love it, or use a different squash besides Kabocha (although a traditional acorn squash would probably fall a bit flat). Honestly, there’s not much you can do to ruin this soup unless you add too much fish sauce or lime juice. It’s a delicious twist on a fall classic. Have fun playing!

 

Red Curry Kabocha Soup

Yields: 8 servings

1 medium Kabocha squash

4 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 cup yellow onion, diced

1 Tablespoon red curry paste, or to taste

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 lime, juiced

½ cup fresh basil, torn into pieces

2 Tablespoons lemongrass, finely chopped

2 small jalapeno peppers, diced

6 cups chicken stock

14 ounces coconut milk (whole or reduced fat, whichever you prefer)

salt, to taste

toasted coconut flakes for garnish (optional)

 

Heat oven to 375º F. Slice squash in half and scoop out seeds and stringy guts. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil and put face down in a roasting pan. Rub peeled garlic with a little oil and toss into pan along with ½ cup water. Cover and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until squash is tender and garlic is caramel-colored. When cool enough to handle but still warm, scoop out squash flesh and toss squash shell.

 

In a large soup pot, heat remaining 2 Tablespoons oil. Add onion; reduce heat to low. Cover and sweat onion until translucent, about 7-10 minutes.

 

Whisk together curry paste, fish sauce, lime juice, basil, and lemongrass. Add mixture to large soup pot along with roasted squash, garlic, and stock. Stir in diced peppers. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

 

Simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in coconut milk and heat through. Puree soup in a blender or food processor. Adjust seasonings, if necessary, and top with toasted coconut, if desired.

Dairy: To Eat or Not To Eat?

Beginning in childhood, most of us were taught that dairy was good for us. We drank milk daily and freely snacked on cheese sticks and yogurt so we’d have strong bones and teeth. The USDA Food Pyramid recommended 2-3 servings of dairy daily throughout the 80’s and 90’s, which means we were encouraged to have some form of dairy at nearly every meal. After all, these foods are rich in calcium and protein; therefore, they must be critical for good health, right?

 

The discussion of dairy can become complex quickly. Yes, dairy can be a healthful food for some people, but it’s not healthful for everyone. In fact, it’s one of the top three most common food sensitivities, along with gluten and nuts. Negative reactions to it can range widely, including acne, eczema, rashes, asthma or other breathing problems, a persistent cough, seasonal allergies, headaches, digestive distress (stomachaches, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas), and more. Dr. Walter Willett, MD, PhD and chair of nutrition at Harvard, estimates that 75% of the world’s population is genetically unable to properly digest dairy products. That’s a staggering statistic! In addition to those of us who are sensitive to dairy there are also lots of folks who have a full-blown allergy and can’t ingest it at all without having a dramatic, life-threatening reaction (often involving anaphylaxis).

 

While it’s becoming more widely known that dairy may have some pitfalls, the revelation that a food group long touted as healthy could be at the root of someone’s health concerns can still feel confusing at first if you, too, were taught that dairy was unequivocally good for you. Dairy is a prime example of how every individual walking this planet is unique and why we simply can’t make blanket statements about how certain foods are “good” or “bad.” As the saying goes, “One person’s food is another person’s poison.”

 

Dairy can be troublesome for a few reasons. Some people don’t have an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose (milk sugar) present in dairy (lactose intolerance). Other people react to casein, the main protein present in milk. Other people yet notice they don’t do well with the antibiotics, pesticide residues, and effects of homogenization and pasteurization found in conventionally-raised dairy but seem to tolerate organic, pasture-raised products better. And lastly, there are numerous exceptions and nuances within the big category of “dairy.” For example: Some people can handle yogurt, which is fermented and contains beneficial bacteria for our gut ecosysem, but can’t eat cheese. Other people can enjoy hard cheeses like Parmesan and Peccorino Romano, which have enzymes present that help our body digest that food, but can’t touch softer cheeses like cheddar or Swiss without feeling rotten. Some individuals can sauté things in butter and feel fine, but they can’t drink a glass of milk without getting sick.

 

Additionally, cow dairy is different from goat or sheep dairy. Many people who can’t handle cow dairy do just fine with goat or sheep products. One shouldn’t assume that all of these foods will produce a similar reaction. Yes, it can all feel a bit confusing and muddy.

 

If it seems that your body tolerates dairy and you decide to continue consuming it, please seek out quality sources. Your body deserves the best! Check out a farmers market or neighborhood coop and find out who’s offering quality dairy in your area. In Minnesota, we have a couple favorite sources, small farmers who take great pride and exceptional care of their animals, products, and land. They don’t give their animals antibiotics unless absolutely necessary (and then that milk is discarded until free of the antibiotic residue), and their animals enjoy roaming and eating outside in an environment natural to them:

 

Stony Creek Dairy

PastureLand Cooperative

 

Both of these farms produces 100% grass-fed dairy, which means their products are more nutrient-rich than conventional dairy. Specifically, they will be richer in vitamin D and omega 3 essential fatty acids.

 

If it doesn’t look like anybody in your area is producing pastured dairy yet, Organic Valley is a nationwide company with a good reputation for providing quality products.

 

Foods are just foods. They are not inherently good or bad, and we’re not going to learn whether or not our body likes a certain food by reading an article about it. If you’re feeling confused about whether to eat dairy, the only surefire way to learn whether a certain food is healthful to our unique body is to take a break from it, experiment with it by reintroducing it, and then listen – and respect – our body’s messages after we eat that food. If you’ve had a nagging, persistent health concern that feels mysterious and seems to evade a firm diagnosis, a food sensitivity is often the root. Dairy can’t be labeled a bad food, but it does lead the pack of potential suspects.

Strength Training for Increased Metabolic Rate & Fat Loss

Somewhat recently, I’ve resumed a focused strength training journey. Those close to me know that exercise, in general, isn’t my favorite thing to do. I’m pretty transparent about the fact that exercise will easily fall off my to-do list if I give it an ounce of wiggle-room. Cook a nutritious meal? Check. Meditate? Check. Exercise? Fine, I suppose.

There are a few exceptions: dance, yoga, walks with my husband, and Pilates are activities I look forward to, and now I’m realizing I can add strength training to that short list, which delights me to no end. After just a couple of months of focused strength training – twice a week at most and once a week when my schedule gets more hectic – I’m already noticing feeling stronger and leaner. Some jeans that had become pretty tight around my hips are fitting again and I’m feeling more comfortable overall.

So I thought I’d share a few things I’m learning and reinforcing about metabolic rate and fat loss as I travel this strength training path myself:

 

  1. The variability in your Resting Metabolic Rate or “Basal Metabolic Rate” (the number of calories required to support normal bodily functions and the number of calories you expend each day when you aren’t physically active or exercising) is attributed largely to the amount of muscle tissue on your body. The decline in your metabolic rate that occurs as you age is usually blamed in large part to a wasting away (atrophy) of muscle. If you strength train and regain or retain your muscle tissue, your metabolic rate should improve.

 

  1. Strength training has a positive, acute effect on metabolic rate. When you strength train, your metabolic rate is elevated between 7-11% for the next three days (I like that fact a lot!). This effect exists for beginners or experienced exercisers alike.

 

  1. Strength training has positive, chronic effect on metabolic rate. When we add muscle tissue to any part of our body, we burn more calories constantly to support that new muscle.

 

Additional Thoughts

The information above has been adapted slightly from an informational card I received from my trainers at Discover Strength. The workouts at Discover Strength focus exclusively on strength training, which I believe in wholeheartedly – especially as we age. I often recommend strength training to my clients and friends because I believe it’s helpful for just about everyone, whereas other forms of exercising – like intense or prolonged cardio – can be devastating for people with compromised adrenal function, hormonal imbalances, or heart conditions. Even if you have an injury, there are usually ways you can continue strength training while protecting your injury.

 

I do, however, disagree with some of the philosophies that I’ll call “black and white thinking” about strength training and its correlation to weight loss, many of which are routinely promoted by gyms and well-meaning (and well-educated) trainers. Here are some other points I want to emphasize:

 

  1. Strength training is not the end-all-be all when it comes to “exercise” (as many trainers would have you believe). Don’t strength train twice a week (the recommended amount) and then just sit on your petudie for the other five days. Our body needs consistent movement. Yes, I recommend strength training, but I also hope you’ll continue to strive for 10,000 steps a day and find other activities you enjoy to keep you moving. Yoga? Dance? Team sports? Biking? Move it or lose it. (And remember, this is coming from someone who would rather sit on her petudie, if given the option.)

 

  1. Weight loss is not as simple as calories in, calories out, as many personal trainers tell you and want you to believe. A conversation my trainer and I were having about this very notion started getting a little heated (just a little) when he very earnestly tried to tell me that as long as you’re increasing your muscle mass and maintaining a caloric deficit you’ll lose weight. (He even dared to say that ‘hormones don’t matter’ when it comes to weight loss. You can imagine how I reacted to that.) Yes, the “calories-in-calories-out approach” works for some people, but not for everyone. Hormones play a profound role in how your body burns calories and how willing your body is to surrender and burn stored fat. So do food sensitivities and some medications. I’ve worked with many clients who severely restricted their calorie intake to 1000-1200 calories a day in an effort to lose weight. Guess what: their weight didn’t budge. Until you balance hormones, heal the thyroid, balance blood sugar, or uncover pesky food sensitivities, that weight is likely going to hang on like a death grip.

 

  1. Strength training doesn’t make women bulky. If you’re a woman, it’s going to be very difficult to bulk up, even once you’re lifting heavy weights. Women usually become more lean through strength training. Men are the ones who bulk up thanks to their higher levels of testosterone. I’ve talked with many women who are afraid to lift weights because they don’t want to bulk up. You can let that fear go.

 

If you haven’t lifted weights before, I encourage you to give it a shot and to begin your journey with a personal trainer until you get the hang of it. Just as with any exercise, it is possible to injure yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing. Trainers will make sure you have the correct posture and are lifting a weight that’s appropriate for you. These two things are important not only for safety but also for achieving the results you want.

 

Conclusion: Physical Strength = Mental Strength

On a final note, many years ago a gym-owner friend said something that lodged itself in my brain and never left me alone. She said, “Increased physical strength breeds mental strength.” I’ve thought about that idea a lot since she mentioned it and especially since embarking on a more disciplined strength training regimen myself. I’m starting to see what she meant when she said that. Strength training pushes your limits. There are times you’re faced with lifting a weight heavier than you once could have imagined yourself lifting. Sometimes you can actually feel your muscles tearing as you near the end of your rep sequence (not to scare you), and you want nothing more than to drop the weight right then. Sometimes you have a day when your body can’t lift as much as it did three days earlier, and that feels frustrating. But it’s all part of the journey. Just like everything in life, there are days when we feel like a warrior, and there are days when we aren’t sure we can accomplish even simple tasks. Strength training teaches us that as long as we continue to show up, we’ll figure out a way to handle whatever task is in front of us and hopefully do a little bit better than last time. It’s all about showing up and giving it your best, which is exactly what the mentally strong do over and over.

Please Pass the Protein

Protein, protein, protein. There’s no doubt about it, protein is the macronutrient du jour. People everywhere are following high-protein diets and singing its praises, such as increased muscle mass and weight loss, which has landed this macronutrient squarely in the spotlight. But do we really know what we’re talking about when it comes to protein? And is there such a thing as consuming too much protein? Let’s explore this macronutrient a little and try to carve out some clarity.

 

Besides contributing to weight loss and preserving muscle mass, protein makes up the building blocks of your hair, nails, hormones, and blood — the cells of which break down and rebuild themselves all day, every day. It also helps to build and repair muscles, organs, tissues, and bones, and it plays an important role regulating blood sugar. In other words, it’s super important! Yes, most everyone should include quality protein at each meal.

 

The recommended daily intake (RDI) for protein is 46 grams for sedentary women and 56 grams for sedentary men. A more specific recommendation is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight (0.36 x body weight = recommended grams of protein per day), but this still doesn’t take into account your activity level and what your goals for your health are. Do you want to gain weight? Lose weight? Build more lean muscle? Depending on how active you are and who you ask, many people believe the recommended daily intake for protein is far too low; personal trainers in particular may suggest up to 100 grams of protein per day for a really active individual with some serious fitness goals (note: NOT somebody sitting in front of a computer all day). So you can see there’s lots of wiggle room within “expert recommendations.” As always, the question of how much protein your own body needs is going to be unique to you, and it will likely take some experimentation to discover what amount is ideal for you.

 

Protein Sources

While most of us immediately think of meat when we hear the word “protein,” there are actually lots of different protein-rich foods. While meat might be the most common protein-source in the United States and widely promoted as the most useable form of protein for our bodies, there’s also protein in eggs, fish, dairy, whole grains, beans, soy, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and in things like protein bars and protein powders.

 

Here’s a short list of protein content for some common foods you may already be eating. If you briefly reviewed what you ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the last couple days right now, you could probably do a quick tally of your average protein intake for each day:

 

½ cup oats = 13 grams protein

1 cup quinoa = 8 grams protein

1 large egg = 6 grams protein

½ cup lentils = 9 grams protein

1 cup black beans = 39 grams protein

3 oz salmon = 21 grams protein

3 oz chicken = 23 grams protein

1 chicken breast = 53 grams protein

¼ cup almonds = 6 grams protein

1 cup whole milk = 8 grams protein

6 oz Greek yogurt = 17 grams protein

1 cup cottage cheese = 27 grams protein

2 Tbsp chia seeds = 4 grams protein

1 oz pumpkin seeds = 5 grams protein

1 cup broccoli = 3 grams protein

½ cup tofu = 10 grams protein

protein shakes = 20-35 grams protein per shake, varying widely depending on the brand and protein source – check the label for accuracy.

 

As you can see, it’s not very hard for most of us to consume enough protein.

 

In fact, it’s important to know you can consume too much protein, just like you can eat too much fat and too many carbohydrates. Excess protein in the body is related to several health concerns, such as constipation, bad breath, low blood sugar, dehydration, and kidney damage, especially if you follow a high-protein diet for an extended period of time. It can also lead to weight gain, which can feel puzzling to people since protein is promoted almost exclusively as a weight loss tool. But yes, excess protein is usually stored as fat, just as all excessive calories we consume will be stored as fat.

 

Speaking of excessive consumption, it’s worth noting that even though nuts are a protein source they are primarily a fat, and they are extremely dense in calories. Yes, they can be a healthful food, but they can also cause weight gain if we allow ourselves to go too “nuts on nuts.” If weight loss is one of your goals, be sure to become familiar with portion sizes for nuts.

 

Quality

Protein is not just about quantity; it’s also about quality. I am especially passionate about the quality of animal protein people consume. I promote organic, pasture-raised, 100% grassfed meat, poultry, and other animal products free of added growth hormones and antibiotics. I also promote wild-caught fish. Believe me, I know these foods are more expensive, but the benefits to our health and the health of the animals and our environment are more than worth it.

 

If you choose to buy animal products from farmers who raised their animals organically on pasture, you can rest assured that those animals enjoyed good health and the nutrients in that product will translate to your own health. You can also know that the production of that food is part of a system that builds healthy soil for generations to come and contributes to a healthy planet and food system. Everybody wins.

 

If you choose to buy products that come from animals who were raised in a conventional or factory farm environment, it’s important to know those animals consumed antibiotics in their feed for the duration of their lifetime to keep them from constantly being sick, which you will then ingest when you eat that product. (In fact, 80% of the antibiotics that humans consume in their lifetimes come from the meat they eat.) You will also be ingesting added growth hormones, which were used to help that animal grow larger, and unfortunately, you will be consuming meat that is lower in nutrition because that animal was raised on a diet in an environment (inside) that is completely unnatural to that animal.

 

To be clear, the protein content remains the same no matter which product you choose, but the quality and nutrient density of that protein varies widely, and that has a profound difference on your health.

 

Conclusion

I’m committed to sharing information about both plant-based protein and animal protein. I will simply encourage you to experiment with different proteins to discover what works best for your body at this time in your life. If you are a heavy meat eater and have been for a while, I encourage you to experiment with more plant-based sources for a couple months and see how you feel, especially if you are overweight. Honestly, most people I work with could use more plant-based foods in their diets. On the other hand, if you are underweight or have been a vegetarian for a while and you’re noticing some trends with your health that concern you, it may be time to experiment with small amounts of animal protein or different types of protein in your diet. I know this is easier said than done, and I respect everyone’s feelings about meat. I trust that through experimentation you will be able to successfully guide yourself in finding the right life-affirming, energy-producing protein sources for you.