New Year’s Resolutions

For writing this article, I decided to do some research on Americans’ most common New Year’s resolutions. I discovered that, without exception, they were all health–related. Some of them more explicitly so, for example: exercising more; losing weight; eating better; quitting smoking; quitting drinking. Others were: spending more time with family and friends; getting out of debt; reducing stress. These latter are health related because, when not followed, they take a toll on a person’s energy, happiness, and even strength against disease.

These are all excellent resolutions. It’s commendable for anyone to have goals like the above, which have clear positive ramifications for yourself and for those around you. But there’s more to the story. Most of these resolutions do not last. We joke about how quickly we go back to our old habits, and resolve to try again next year. Laziness, or lack of willpower, is often seen as the culprit. Sometimes, no matter how earnest the resolution, we simply don’t see the way to make it happen.

I think that most of these resolutions are resolutions in the first place because they are difficult — otherwise, we’d just do them! They are difficult because there’s something about our current way of life, which we say we’d like to change, that we nevertheless can’t afford to give up. Whether it’s smoking, working too much, eating a lot of sugar, or whatever, each of these “bad habits” has its advantages. That’s why so many of the solutions offered by companies are designed to help you change without giving up the advantages. They come out with foods that are healthier but nevertheless taste as deliciously unhealthy as the sugar– or fat–laden food you’re trying to quit. There’s something about that taste that we need. Or, in terms of spending more time with the family, maybe we don’t have the option of working less. Maybe we don’t even know what it would mean for us if we “exercised more.” We’re a little too quick to blame ourselves for failing at our resolutions, without thinking about just why we’re struggling.

I know that for me, and for clients I’ve helped, eating healthy food, to take an example, is no longer something we have to “resolve” every year. That’s not because we’ve finally conquered our stubborn resistance and can force ourselves to do it. Once you have a little practice cooking, and get to try eating better for a while, the body’s cravings change. You want brown rice instead of white rice, and you miss the flavor and peaceful feeling it gives you when you don’t eat it for a while. Eating junk food becomes something done out of habit more than out of real desire. But this sort change can only happen when the healthy diet is well–rounded and balanced enough to give the body everything it needs.

My philosophy of cravings is that a behavior like smoking, drinking, or unhealthy eating is not the problem, but rather our attempt to find a solution to different problem. Most people I know who eat too much sugar (including me) eat it during a time of stress. If there wasn’t the sugar, what would we do about the stress? It probably wouldn’t be very pleasant to watch. Sometimes the first step towards changing those bad habits is to ask yourself: how is this bad habit helping me? Maybe the original problem isn’t even there anymore, but the addictive quality of the substance keeps us on it regardless.

I think we make these resolutions because we know in the end they will make us feel good, live longer, and be happier. But we can’t just ignore what got us into these bad habits in the first place. Through a superhuman effort someone may be able to cram regular exercise into an already busy life; but they might be better off wondering why they are so busy in the first place and what in life they can get rid of. Sometimes it’s scary to start addressing the real source of your cravings. Actually, it’s almost always scary, and that’s not necessarily bad. The thing I would suggest is to talk to someone about it. One of the best steps you can take is find someone to support your desire to change and improve your life. Don’t talk to people who discourage you (and these sorts are everywhere); find someone who thinks what you’re doing is great. Broken New Year’s resolutions aren’t a sign of personal weakness; it may just be a sign that it’s time to look more deeply into what’s getting in your way.

As a health counselor it’s my job to support people who wish to make many of the changes listed above. If you feel that it’s a good time to review your health goals and look into new strategies for making them attainable, call me and I will be happy to do a free consultation with you. Any time is a good time to start getting happier and healthier. Wouldn’t it be great to say that this was the year you kept all your new year’s resolutions and never felt better in your life?

Animal Products

One of my recommendations for winter weather was to eat more fat and protein. For a non–vegetarian, animal products are among the best sources of these macronutrients. They are filling and strengthening, and possess plenty of iron and B vitamins. Good quality animal food also contains omega-3 fatty acids. Very active people benefit especially from animal foods and so do those who spend a lot of time in the cold. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of rightly deserved controversy surrounding the consumption of meat and other animal products. It’s been said that these foods are inherently unhealthy and lead to fatal diseases such as heart disease and cancer, as well as to related problems such as high cholesterol, strokes, and osteoporosis (see the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as an example). It’s also been said that there’s nothing wrong with animal products themselves, in fact, that they ard a traditional and integral part of a healthy diet, but that factory farming and other industrial techniques severely diminish the quality of the animal foods, as well as being responsible for animal cruelty and environmental waste (for a corresponding example, see the Weston A. Price Foundation). So what is the reality?

It’s true that almost all traditional societies have had some animal foods in their diets. From the Eskimos to the Celts to various African tribes and South Sea islanders, practically everyone ate meat or fish in some form or other. The animal foods they ate have been credited with helping them build muscle and develop proper bone and facial structure (including perfect teeth — there was no need for modern dental techniques until the 20 th century, and this is attributed to the end of the traditional consumption of raw animal fat). Animal foods also gave people enough stored protein and fat to survive periods of famine, helped them absorb vitamins and minerals, and enabled them to remain both warm and nourished in the winter. However, these people consumed these foods very differently hundreds or thousands of years ago from the way we do now. All the animals were organic, free–range, grass– and insect–fed, and were never given hormones or antibiotics. The most highly prized and sought after parts of the animals were not the muscle tissues that we eat now, but the organs that held all the vitamins and minerals. The liver, the heart, the kidneys, even the blood were essential parts of the diet. Eating the healthy organs of the animal nourished these organs in the person, making them much stronger against heart disease, liver failure, kidney stones, etc. Some of this tradition has come down to us in the practice of taking cod liver oil medicinally, even though this too has fallen out of favor.

Meat not being as readily available as it is now, people also ate smaller and fewer servings. People in warmer regions especially, with less active lives, needed to eat a lot less meat. The Eskimos could get away with eating tons of fatty animal foods, but, of course, they also lived in freezing cold igloos. The main problem with eating animal products the same way today, though, is that most animals are raised in factory farms where they live very brief, very unhealthy, very unhappy lives. Their organs are filled with toxins from the pesticides and chemicals in the food they eat, which includes not just a ton of corn and soy (common allergens for a good reason), but leftover ground up animal products from the unused parts of other animals. There are antibiotics to keep them alive in cramped living conditions that would otherwise kill them off, and hormones to make them constantly grow bigger and fatter. I don’t think I would want to eat a liver that has to process all that stuff, let alone a raw liver! No wonder they warn you to cook the meat to death — you’re cooking some unhealthy bacteria to death too. Even the muscle meat of these animals is nutritionally far poorer because of the diet that they are fed. Cows are meant to eat grass, which has vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Cows that eat nutritionally empty food are correspondingly nutritionally empty on your plate. Finally, I don’t approve of eating animals that have been subject to needlessly cruel treatment, in which they are mutilated or artificially inseminated without any thought to the way they are naturally meant to live. I would not be surprised if there are additional health ramifications for eating an animal that led an unhappy life, or if there turns out to be a connection between the depression that afflicts so many Americans and the depression that exists in the animals they eat.

So, are animal foods healthy and good for you? I think they certainly can be, but you can see it depends on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is whether the animal itself was healthy and happy, and on a healthy diet of its own. Given that the meat, milk, eggs, or cheese did come from a health animal, we should also take into account how much we eat, whether we balance it with enough vegetables and other foods, and whether we’re just eating a lot of steaks or occasionally trying something like the liver. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of heart attacks out there went significantly down if people switched to organic, grass–fed, free–range meat with omega-3 fatty acids, which act like antifreeze in your arteries, and therefore balance out the saturated fat of the animal.

Some organic meat is available from health food stores and supermarkets like Whole Foods. However, I think it’s best if you can find a local farmer. The website www.localharvest.org has a national database of farmers selling their own locally grown animal products from family farms. The Weston A. Price Foundation has a section on their website where they list local providers of high–quality animal food: go tohttp://www.westonaprice.org/localchapters/index.html.

Sometimes it may seem like organic animal products are very expensive compared to their conventional counterparts. However, for conventional animal products, there is a “cost” of selling so cheaply: that cost is the practice of factory farming and all its flaws. The difference in price between the two is made up in the overcrowding of the conventional animals, the poor quality feed, the environmental waste, and the animal cruelty. These are practices that the manufacturers of the meat industry (they really do seem like manufacturers, not farmers at all) implemented in order to beat the competition and sell their meat at an artificially low price. What I recommend is eating fewer animal products but buying higher quality. I would also note that if you go out to a restaurant and order a steak, it’s not going to be organic, but you still pay about as much for that steak as you would for an organic steak at the supermarket that’s twice as big. Plus, at most restaurants they probably overcook it. One last advantage to point out with organic, free–range meat: because it’s been raised in healthier, disease–free conditions, cooking it a little more on the rare, juicy side isn’t cause for worry — just for pleasure.

The Virtues of January

The post–holiday, post–solstice time is when many people begin to feel low energy, depression and tiredness. The weather is colder, the days are short, we’re exhausted from our parties, and spring seems like a long way away. Colds and coughing are widespread. It’s that time of year when people get sick. Millions of Americans are said to suffer from “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” a phenomenon where we feel generally unhappy for no obvious reason.

Is it supposed to be this way? I don’t think so. This is a time of year that we can look forward to and celebrate just as much as any other. It’s true that in the harsh and cold season of winter our bodies and minds are more vulnerable than at other times. We’re likely to have eaten more junk because of the holidays and we’re not getting as much time outside in the sun. So if you tend to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, this is when your body will start to say “I’ve had enough.” In my opinion, “SAD” is often nothing more than the above. To avoid getting sick or depressed, we must make more of an effort to really take care of ourselves during the winter months. The body is meant to always function well with proper care. If you’ve been under a lot of stress, and have been eating a lot of sugar or other unhealthy food (two things that often happen around the holidays), your body will probably take this time to get sick and eliminate the excess toxins created by the stress and the food. This is a natural, healthy process of the body. Fevers, coughing, and other symptoms of sickness are signs of the body trying to clean you out. Unfortunately, not all of us have the leisure to let ourselves go through this process, and end up medicating ourselves in order to postpone the healing process. I recommend taking time off if you get sick, relaxing, and letting your body heal itself as much as you can. But if this isn’t easy for you, the best plan is to try and stay healthy in the first place.

A good way to look for clues to what it means to be healthy in the winter is to think about what’s going on in nature. Animals are hibernating; seeds are staying warm deep underground. This is a time for planning and preparing, and protecting your energy. Sleeping more and scheduling less is a good idea. Keeping as warm as possible is also important. Exercising will get your blood flowing and help you save on heat bills. Taking an alternating hot and cold shower in the morning does the same thing. Don’t forget to wear plenty of layers when you go outside.

In terms of cooking, warm foods and drinks are the best. I would not recommend eating a lot of raw, uncooked food and fruit at this time of year. Making soup is an excellent idea; so is roasting or baking your food in the oven. I also drink a lot of herbal tea with warming spices such as ginger. It’s common to eat more protein and fat at this time, such as meat, grains with beans, roasted nuts, and fried foods; but make sure you eat plenty of vegetables, especially root vegetables: onions, beets, carrots, radishes, burdock root, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, and winter squashes, so that you get enough vitamins and minerals.

The organs to nourish at this time of year are the kidneys and the bladder. To keep them healthy, always have a source of clean drinking water around you at work, home, or when traveling. You may want more salt on your food in the winter, but try to use sea salt, because sea salt still has natural minerals in it. A moderate amount of salt nourishes the kidneys, but too much can stress them out. I also recommend taking this time to try cooking some sea vegetables. They are available at the health food store, and the companies who sell them always think to include some recipes on the package. Sea vegetables survive in very cold conditions in the ocean; they will help you fight off the winter cold. The main ones are kombu, arame, hijiki, dulse, nori, and wakame. They come dried and, except nori, should be soaked before being eaten, but after that, they go wonderfully well with beans, in soups, stirfries, or as condiments.

Some people have been known to feel less depressed in the winter by sitting in front of light boxes that simulate sunlight. In my opinion, best of all is to try and get half an hour of sunlight every day. We don’t spend much time in the sun even during the rest of the year, so when the days get shorter such that we’re inside for all the daylight hours, we get no sun at all. This is probably one of the reasons why the winter season is associated with depression. Try to sit out in the sun during lunchtime or whenever else you have a free moment during the day, and your mood will probably improve regardless of how happy you are normally. This is less expensive than a light–box, comes with fresh air, and you know it’s authentic sunlight.

The time of year we’re in now can be just as pleasant and special, in its own way, as any other. I look forward to the changes in lifestyle and diet that come with January, and I enjoy hibernating as much as I can. Quiet, internal activity is the order of the day. You may want to start planting some ideas for the future. Most importantly, though, get some rest, and do things you enjoy.

If you do get sick, I recommend a ginger compress. The compress facilitates and speeds the healing process, rather than fighting against it. Making one is very simple.

Ginger Compress
This recipe is from Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking. The compress stimulates blood and body circulation, helps loosen and dissolve stagnated toxic matter, and soothes and relieves various internal organs, aches, and pains. Especially good for the kidneys, stomach, and intestines. Place a handful of fresh grated ginger in a cheesecloth and squeeze the ginger juice into a pot containing 1 gallon of very hot water. Keep the water below boiling or the power of the ginger will be diminished. Let simmer for about 5 minutes. Then dip the middle part of a cotton hand towel into the ginger water by holding both ends. Wring the towel to squeeze out the excess water and apply, very hot but not uncomfortably hot, to the area of the body needing treatment (such as the kidneys). A second, dry towel can be placed on top of the wet towel to reduce heat loss. When the wet towel cools, remove and replace with a fresh hot towel. Repeat this every few minutes for about twenty minutes, or until the skin becomes very red.