Archive for January, 2009

Connection to our food

Add comment January 24th, 2009

Cornucopia of veggies

(CC) Creative Commons.

Growing up in a restaurant family, I’ve always been surrounded by good food and good cooks.  Even after I left the restaurant life to pursue my education, food has been an important theme in my life.  I’ve always felt it important to eat well and that food plays a pivotal role in our lives.  We must eat regularly to nourish our bodies and thrive. What food we eat determines what nutrition we receive and how well we can maintain our health.

You are what you eat

We obtain the nutrients we need to live from the food we eat; food is an integral part of our being.  Our health and well being is intimately tied to the food we eat.  Unfortunately, what we choose to eat sometimes (perhaps too often) only loosely qualifies as food.

The hectic pace of modern life has made fast, convenience, and junk foods a fixture in our lives.  Unfortunately, these industrialized foods are not designed for providing the highest quality and most nutritious foods.  Rather, they are geared towards minimizing costs and maximizing profits.  Achieving those goals means sacrificing flavor and nutrition in favor of transportability, shelf life, and lower cost (i.e. lower quality) ingredients.

The industrialization of our food has been a mixed blessing.  Our food is now cheaper and more readily available.  On the other hand, our food choices are now often less nutrient dense, higher in calories, more homogeneous tasting, contain artificial additives, and less like actual food.  We do less food preparation ourselves than our parents and grandparents, and have become disconnected from our food.  We have instead come to rely on the black box of large scale commercial, agri-industrial production for our dietary needs.  This has given us a host of undesirable consequences:

  • the prevalence of highly processed products full of high fructose corn syrup and all manner of industrial ingredients (preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, partially hydogenated oils, etc.).  These “food” products are calorific and shelf stable, but otherwise nutritionally void.
  • grain fed, antibiotic pumped meat unnaturally high in saturated fat and low in several nutrients (omega-3, vitamins, and various antioxidants).
  • hormone injected dairy cows producing high estrogen content milk.  Commercial dairy products are implicated in disrupting normal endocrine function and promoting cancer.
  • industrially farmed and imported produce which is unripe, insipid, less nutritious, and more monocultured than locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Combine suboptimal dietary choices with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and it’s unsurprising that health problems are rising.  We’re seeing high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and food sensitivities among other disorders.

Healing power of food

Fortunately, positive changes in diet can be readily implemented and effect significant health improvements.  Just as eating poorly throws a wrench into your system’s gears, eating well returns your body to the well oiled machine it was meant to be.  Properly fueled, the human body has an amazing ability to heal itself.

Many of the diseases we suffer in the modern developed world are preventable with simple lifestyle choices–most notably diet and exercise.  Just eating well has positive effects on digestive tract health, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, bone health, body weight, immune system function, mental alertness, and energy levels.

How do we go about eating well?  There is already a cornucopia of available material on the subject, but I think a quote from Michael Pollan summarizes the general strategy nicely: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Eat food

Home cooked meal

(CC) Creative Commons.

Minimally processed whole foods are superior to the cardboard and plastic packaged convenience food.  Finding these foods means shopping on the perimeter of a grocery store where the fresh foods are instead of towards the center where the processed, prepackaged, and artificial stuff usually is.  If possible, it is even better to shop at a local farmers’ markets or grow some of your own food.  With real food in hand, do as much meal preparation yourself as you can.  By reconnecting yourself to the creation of your food, you will enjoy healthier, more nutritious, and more flavorful meals.

Not too much

Fast and prepackaged foods are designed for parting consumers with their money.  They are nutrient sparse and designed to encourage overeating.  They do not fully sate you or adequately nourish you, but they addict you to eating them; consequently, you become programmed to crave and eat more.  That’s wonderful for corporate bottom lines, but not so great for your bottom (or midsection as the case may be).

In contrast, eating high quality, nutrient dense foods satisfies your body’s needs, requiring less consumption for satiety.  After a few weeks of eating a nutritious diet of fresh, whole foods, portion control becomes more natural as you deprogram the commercial food cravings and truly satisfy your body’s nutritional needs.

Mostly plants

Humans are omnivores with an amazing digestive tract that can derive our nutrition from a multitude of flora and fauna.  However, we still need to remember to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; just because we can survive on a carnivorous diet doesn’t mean that we should.  The human digestive tract works optimally with plant food sources (e.g. fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, etc) and can be supplemented by animal sources (e.g. meat and dairy).  A diet rich in plant foods provides essentials like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants which help us stay healthy and thrive.

We cannot remain unaware of the source of our food, how it is grown and processed, and how it is prepared.  To disconnect ourselves from the creation of our food means paying a hefty long term nutrtitional and health price.  We must instead strive to be mindful of our food choices.  Paying attention to our food reconnects us to the vital process of nourishing ourselves building strong, healthy bodies.

Reflecting on the Essence of Happiness

Add comment January 7th, 2009

Happy Buddha, Longhua Temple, Shanghai China (CC).

Happy Buddha, Longhua Temple, Shanghai China (CC).

The past several months have been an unpleasant blur. I didn’t have a terrible car accident, lose my home, or anything most people would consider all that traumatic. The unpleasantness arose from my work. A few months ago, I moved and started a new job. The job was on paper a good job, but the practical reality of the situation was a starkly different. There were long hours stuck in front of a computer with no breaks, with the only human interaction coming from a boss who’s idea of being nice was letting you have lunch. The job was slowly but surely sucking away all my joy in life.

Despite the sluggish economy and fear of an unknown employment future, I left the job.  Some people might argue that leaving a decent paying job in the midst of a down economy and bad job market is a terrible idea.  But the rational person would counter that money isn’t everything.  While my job was paying the bills and leaving me some discretionary cash, it was also the primary reason I was unable to spend quality time with my wife, develop ties to my community, interact with friends and family, exercise regularly, or even eat regular meals.

Many people willingly make these sacrifices everyday for their work.  But is it a wise choice to substitute work for other aspects of our lives?  The studies on what brings people happiness tell us that we derive fulfillment from a number of factors.  Some people are driven to succeed and derive their fulfillment from work accomplishments, but others only derive their joy from endeavors outside of their professional lives.  Plenty of people associate money with success and happiness.  Money and happiness are correlated, but only up to a certain point.  Money buys a lot of joy when it brings someone out of poverty and provides the basics to a comfortable life (housing, food, healthcare, etc).  However, after the basics are met, the returns in happiness for greater income quickly level off.  The results on work and money bringing happiness are mixed.

There are other factors affecting happiness which are not in dispute: health, family, and friends.  Our parents (and grandparents) were right when they told us to pay attention to our health.  Without a healthy mind and body, our ability to fully live life becomes hampered.  Pursuits which hamper our ability to nurture ourselves and preserve our health only set us on a destructive path to self-injury.  Willingly sacrificing health is a questionable choice since it accomplishes nothing of value and has pretty significant downsides.  Actively staying healthy is the more fruitful endeavor; our health plays a significant role in our contentment, and preserving health in the present is much more effective than trying to regain health later.

Equally important to our feeling of fulfillment is our connection to others.  Though we can survive as solitary beings, we thrive when we have positive interactions with family and friends.  Humans are essentially social creatures.  People are happier when they have strong family bonds, close friends, and ties to the community.  In surveys by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, 40% of married people described themselves as “very happy” vs. 25% for the perpetual singles.  People with 5 or more close friends are 50% more likely than those with fewer close friends to say they were “very happy.”  Close bonds with our fellow humans effects our happiness; however, our interactions do not merely have to be with a close circle of friends and family.  Research shows that even happiness from total strangers can rub off and boost your mood.  The key element lies in enjoying the company of other people.

Over the past few months, both the basics of nurturing my health and building interpersonal relationships were notably missing from my life.  It was no surprise that I was miserable; my job was actively depriving me of the fundamental elements which bring joy into my life.  The New Year has brought the opportunity for a fresh start without the baggage of the less than pleasant past.  Though the future is nebulous and just a bit scary, I am not fretting (yet).  I’m enjoying the moments of contentment from rejuvenating my mind and body and reforging my connection with others.

Other Happiness Articles:

  1. Can money buy happiness? – Money Magazine
  2. Maybe money does buy happiness after all – New York Times
  3. Can money buy happiness? – The American
  4. Holding on to happiness in hard times – The Week
  5. Road to happiness lies in health, family and friends – The Age
  6. Your happiness could be contagious – MSNBC
  7. The only guide to happiness you’ll ever need – Zen Habits