5 Bits of Advice I Wish All My Friends Would Heed

October 26, 2007

I mentioned that I was going to the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference at CIA Greystone (co-sponsored by Harvard Medical School Osher Institute) a couple of weeks ago, and that was the impetus for this post. I’ve long believed that healthy doesn’t have to be ho-hum and delicious doesn’t have to be over-the-top decadent, and I’m inspired anew to see others think the same (as evidenced by so many of your blogs!).

I started out writing about travel, then shifted to food and wine after I moved to California and became smitten with the bounty of my adopted Fivestate. Eventually, though, I began incorporating a health and wellness angle to many of my pieces. Part of this was parallel to my own journey; I had struggled with ongoing health issues since college and had been on and off a laundry list of medicines with no improvement. In the end, it was a healthy diet and a balanced life that made a difference, and I wanted to share what I learned through my writing. Around the dinner table, doling out advice can sound preachy. But, I reasoned, if I wrote articles with the messages I wanted to pass on, my friends (and others, presumably) may read them and reap the same rewards I have.

So here, my friends, are five things I’ve discovered in writing about food, health and life that I wish to pass on to you. I could spin these five things a hundred different ways, but this is what they would all boil down to:

1) Eat More Vegetables.
There’s been quite a bit of talk about this in the pasta realm, as of late, and I’m glad to hear it. Five years ago, I lost twenty pounds and have kept it off (well, between fifteen and twenty at any given time any way), and I can honestly cite this one principle as being a major reason why.

When I was writing an article on how the healthiest cultures on the planet eat, this one kept coming up again and again (vegetable consumption has been proven to lower risk of stroke, heart disease—even more than some of the pills on the market—and some cancers). So I thought it was time to change my paradigm of what my plate should look like. Rather than filling half of it with some sort of meat, a quarter with some type of starch and a quarter with vegetables, I swapped it. Now, half of my plate has veggies on it (really yummy veggies, not the steamed stuff), a quarter has protein, and a quarter some variety of whole grain. With pasta, I simply half the amount of pasta and double the amount of veggies. And you know what? I find after a meal, I’m actually MORE satisfied with the new configuration.

2) Go For Whole Foods.
I’ve gotten reamed on various low-carb sites for stating that carbs are not the enemy, but I continue to stand by that statement. Our bodies need carbohydrates, in the form of vegetables and whole grains. What they don’t need are the huge amounts of refined carbohydrates that are rampant in our modern diet in the form of soda, packaged foods, white bread, rice, pasta—even pretzels. (There’s a whole sub-topic here on glycemic index and glycemic load, but I won’t get into it here)

When we eat whole grains and unprocessed fruits and vegetables (most of them, anyway), our body digests them at a healthy rate, absorbing the myriad nutrients and allowing our systems to remain balanced. But when the layers of fiber are removed from a food, as they are in refined starches, our digestive enzymes delve right in and get to work—too quickly. In this case, our bodies respond with a spike in blood glucose and epinephrine, essentially acting as if they were in danger. You can imagine that putting your body through this several times a day would start to take a toll, and it does. This is one of the reasons type II diabetes is on the rise

I used to be intimidated by cooking whole grains, but lately, I’ve been challenging myself to explore a new whole grain every other week. I’ll buy a bag of bulk quinoa or bulgur or pearled barley and see what I can do with it and, I have to say, it’s quite an education. I find that once I get comfortable cooking a particular grain and incorporate its flavor profile into my repertoire, it opens up new worlds to the question, “what’s for dinner?”

3) Eat the Right Kinds of Fat.
It’s amazing, I’ve been writing about this for over five years now. I’ve spoken to brilliant experts who have proven time and again that fat, in and of itself, does not cause us to gain weight. And yet I still shy away from foods with higher fat content—even the healthy fats.

Here’s the bottom line: fat, like carbs, are not bad. However, like carbs, there are types of fat that are really bad for us, types of fat that aren’t great for us and types of fat that our body needs to thrive. Here’s the bottom line, don’t eat anything with trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils (a label can have partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list yet claim 0 grams trans fats if it contains less than 0.5 grams trans fats . . . which means they can still add up to several grams of trans fats a day). Limit your intake of saturated fats—these can come from dairy or meats. Up your intake of monounsaturated fats (olive oil and canola oil), as long as you’re not going nuts with your total caloric intake (in other words, don’t douse a 14–ounce steak with olive oil and feel like you’re being healthier . . . instead, saute a bunch of kale in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and serve it with a small slice of steak).

I’ve found something very interesting happens on the subject of fat in my own psyche. When I’m focusing on sticking to a “low fat” diet, I feel like I’m depriving myself and more often than not will end up “splurging” in an unhealthy way. Yet when I just tell myself to focus on healthy fats—and in fact increase my consumption of good fats—I eat a lot healthier (more veggies, less slip-ups), feel healthier, and generally lose weight. It’s not an easy paradigm to shift; we’ve had the “low fat” message pounded into our heads for decades. But it’s an important—and ultimately enjoyable—one.

4) Eat Local and Organic as Often as Possible.
I’m sure I’ll get push-back on this one, and that’s fine. But I have a couple of reasons for believing this belongs here. First, local farmers and organic producers (for now anyway) are the ones on the front-line protecting our food chain. When lobbyists step in and try to weaken organic standards, or try to sneak a little something under the radar (just a little genetic modification wouldn’t hurt . . .), it’s these people who raise the red flag. And for that reason I believe we should support them.

The other reason is a selfish one—taste. I am sorry, but you cannot tell me that an heirloom tomato bought from the farmers’ market tastes anything like those pale red ones in the supermarket. It just isn’t so. I find it the same for lettuce, carrots, zucchini, beans, not to mention peaches and plums and figs. As a society, we’re only getting a fraction of the vegetables and fruits we’re supposed to be getting (the USDA is now recommending at least nine servings a day), and I’ve often wondered if that isn’t because the vegetables we buy at the supermarket—the cucumbers in February that have come from Ecuador and the asparagus in November that comes from Peru—taste so bland and boring. Grow your own, buy from the farmers’ market, join a CSA—just taste how incredible, and varied, really fresh produce can be.

And in case you were wondering, here’s my own hierarchy of how to buy, in descending order:

  • Buy local and organic and seasonal produce. If I can’t do that then I . . .
  • Buy local or organic seasonal produce (This one is up to you . . . some people feel more passionately that produce be grown closer to them, even if chemicals were used, rather than being grown organically and then shipped to their store.). If I can’t do that then I . . .
  • Buy organic produce (If what I’m buying is out of season and I have the choice of conventional or organic, I’ll choose the organic one). If I can’t do that then I . . .
  • Buy produce

5) Pay Attention and Enjoy.
I make pretty healthy choices about the foods I put in my mouth. Where I slip up is eating too much. When I’m running a million miles an hour and eating in front of my computer, I’ll eat whatever’s in front of me whether I’m full or not and not even really mentally process that I’ve eaten it. And that is the very opposite of mindful eating.

The flipside of that is paying attention to your body, to what you eat, how you eat it and how it makes you feel. New studies are showing that the simple act of being mindful at meals can have a huge impact on our health (I hope to be writing more on that in the very near future . . . stay tuned). No surprise. I find that when I’m more present at a meal, I feel satiated to the core—even if there’s food left on my plate. There’s something sacred involved in sharing food and wine, and when we tune into it, we’re allowing ourselves to be nurtured at a very deep level.

This applies to exercise too. I’ve heard several experts from all over the world say that, over the long haul, making a habit of taking a half hour walk every day will do us much more good than going to the gym in fits and spurts over a couple of decades. Philosophically, I embrace this whole-heartedly—what better way to reduce stress and stay fit than taking a walk with family or friends, noticing the details as each season passes into the next. But in the rush of the day, my daily walks get squeezed out more often than not. I’ll be working on this one.

So there you go. My five nuggets of wisdom that I wanted to share . . . forgive me if it sounded preachy. If it did, I’ll just let you know the next time I’ve got an article to show you . . .


20 Responses to “5 Bits of Advice I Wish All My Friends Would Heed”

  1. Isabelle Says:

    Thank you for all the sound advice. I would add: Listen to your body, it usually knows when something is wrong and with how busy life is, we often don’t! Bon weekend!

  2. I just recently started looking over your blog. Just wanted to say I am most impressed today’s post. I actually live in Peru and can say the asparagus is great this time of year. 🙂
    During my five years here, I have developed a healthier lifestyle, but also one at times that I find waning. Thank you for your reminders that are ever SO important for the physical and emotional health of us all.

  3. lia Says:

    Isabelle . . . great addition! Bon weekend to you too!

    Gretchen Noelle . . . I’m so glad you found me here at swirling notions! I’m jealous of your asparagus (or should I say springtime?), I was just eyeing some at the market the other day and feeling a pang of longing for spring ;-). I guess we can enjoy the opposite seasons vicariously through each other while immersing ourselves in what we have right in front of us.

  4. Katiez Says:

    Here’s the part I find rather amazing – Doesn’t everybody know this? Actually, on thinking, everyone probably does know this on an intellectual level, just not on a practical level (except the low-carb and/or no fat folks, but I won’t go there).
    So on that note – nicely stated!
    Chocolate IS a vegetable, right? It comes from beans…

  5. jo Says:

    Great advice. I started eating uber healthy about three years ago due to my arthritis (it flares up if I have wheat, anything refined, or red wine) and I am enjoying it so much more. I always cooked but now I’m far more adventurous. And I love my carbs (though it’s rye bread for me and spelt or corn pasta).

  6. Elisabeth Says:

    Lia, this was a great post for me to read today. Eating healthily, mindfully, locally, and organically as much as possible really DOES make such a difference in how I feel and my overall quality of life. Even though I know this, it’s sometimes hard to make it a priority in the bustle of day-to-day life. Thanks for reminding me so eloquently!

  7. izzy's mama Says:

    I certainly agree and you know we try!

  8. lia Says:

    Katiez . . . I totally hear you. It all seems so self-evident. And yes, chocolate IS a vegetable . . . carrot cake too ;-).

    Jo . . . Isn’t it amazing how enjoyable healthy eating and living becomes? Good for you!

    Elisabeth . . . I’m so glad this inspired you. And I think you bring up a good point–how much different you FEEL when you eat healthy, mindfully, locally and organically. Not just if you lose weight or lower your blood pressure or get sick less often (although all of those will probably happen too). You just FEEL better in the skin–and the life–you’re in.

    izzy’s mama . . . What can I say, I’m making cupcakes for my daughter’s first birthday because of you (leaning towards pumpkin spice with a caramel-cream cheese frosting). You’re an inspiration to me!

  9. izzy's mama Says:

    When is the party? Those sound lovely..Has she been exposed to those flavors yet? I would start doing that beforehand since they can be intense and of course you want her to love the cake!

  10. jo Says:

    Lia, just to let you know that Jessica Fox Wilson is setting up a new online literary journal at http://www.asphaltsky.com which will feature art, poetry and prose — submissions for the first issue (out next year) will be accepted up until 31 December.


  11. lia Says:

    izzy’s mama . . . Very good point. She loves butterut squash and sweet potato, and I’ve gotten some cinnamon and other spices into other dishes she likes, so I’m hoping she’ll warm to these! Ironically, she hasn’t really had any sweets, other than fruit. So we’ll see what she thinks of the cake!

    Jo . . . Thanks so much for letting me know! I’ll see what I can come up with. And I’ll very much look forward to seeing your work in there.

  12. Great piece, Lia, full of wonderful, sensible advice. I love the thing about regular walks being better than sporadic gym visits.

  13. lia Says:

    And oh so much more enjoyable, eh? Especially at this time of year . . .

  14. Very good advice, we always support small local shops, the Farmers market and a local organic farm. Organic local tomatoes and mushrooms taste so much better than any others.

    When it comes to exercise, I always think natural exercise (eg walking, cycling, running outdoors) is just so much better than anything done in the gym. Plus it can be integrated into your life and becomes part of what you are rather than feeling the trips to the gym are a chore or risk them becoming an addiction.

  15. lia Says:

    Amen, Crafty Green Poet! A few years back, when I was really struggling physically, I shifted my “fitness goals” after some serious soul searching. Rather than focusing on a certain weight or physique, I decided I’d shoot for being in good enough shape to hike when and where I wanted to without being sore; to be strong enough to enjoy a day of gardening without feeling like I couldn’t move the next day; to be limber enough to play with kiddos like a kiddo without feeling strain (this one has become especially relevant since having one of my own!). The irony is, even though those “goals” sound so much less daunting and hard-core than my earlier ones, in general, they’ve motivated me to stay in better shape–consistently–than I ever have before. Because, as you say, they’ve become a part of who I AM, rather than just being something I DO.

    Thanks for your thoughts — good to have you here!

  16. Amy Says:

    I’m bookmarking this post as inspiration. I could not agree more. I grew up back east where veggies were from a frozen bag. Now living in California for the past 8+years has shown me how good local veggies are. My favorite food are great veggies and salads now. When I think of how its a bit more expensive, I think of my dollar as a vote for sustainable agriculture and hope more people start to feel the same. Love your blog.

  17. lia Says:

    Amy . . . I love your take on paying a premium for local and/or organic veggies. What a great way to feel empowered in supporting something important to you (by voting with your dollars), rather than becoming embittered by “the system.” Thanks for sharing. Glad to have you here!

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