Good and bad habits, and discipline

I was busy cooking the other morning when it dawned on me: I must be a really boring person, because I always make the same breakfast (see photo above)!

It seemed, to my not quite fully awake mind, that a not so boring person would find all sorts of ways to make a healthy breakfast, whereas all I do is make the same healthy breakfast every morning. And I don’t need to be fully awake to do it.

Actually, when my mind started working a bit better, I realized that I have formed a breakfast habit: I make pretty much the same breakfast every morning, and it is a healthy breakfast. And since when I’m fully awake I’m pretty much always in “coaching mode,” it made me think of the need to talk about habits in relation to the oft-misunderstood concept of discipline. So here’s a post about that.

You see, when you have habits, you don’t need discipline.

Wait, no, let me re-phrase that a little:

When you have good habits, you don’t need very much discipline.

There, that’s better. But wait, don’t go yet; allow me to explain a little.

Habits

We all have them. There can be no doubt about that. Many, as a matter of fact.

Whether it is the side of the bed you sleep on, the time of day when you read your newspaper, how many hours per day you spend reading Facebook, the road you take to get to work every day, or what you eat on a typical day, these are only some of the habits you likely have.

I can almost hear you say “but, those are just routine things we do,” and you are correct. Because that is exactly what habits become: The routine, automatic things we do without really thinking about them.

It is true of things like breakfast, as I illustrated. Most of us eat the same thing day in, day out. It saves time, and it is efficient.

Many of you are probably tempted to respond that you don’t really have a choice in the matter, perhaps by providing the example of the route to get to work, which is what it is simply because of the origin and destination combination. I must, however, put a red light to that train of thought: If you think about it a little, except in some very specific situations, there is always a way to find alternate means and routes that, at some point, you decided against. Route choices were made at some point in time, and you’ve become comfortable with those decisions.

But you could choose to sleep on the other side of the bed, to not read Facebook at all, to read the newspaper at another moment of the day, to use a roundabout way to get to work. It might not be comfortable, and perhaps it would mean a longer transit time, and less recent information to discuss with colleagues at the water cooler (and in the case of Facebook, a lot more free time for other things), but it is possible.

Hence the inescapable conclusion that our lives are filled with habits that we accept. We simply could not function if we had to make every single decision about every action everyday. So we form habits.

The question is : Are they good habits, or bad habits? You see, the key to fitness and health becomes one of having more good habits than bad one.

Good or bad?

So, if you are still here, the idea is to have more good habits than bad ones.

Because I’m such a helpful kind of guy (that’s what good coaches are), I’m going to give you a few examples:

  • Good: To move regularly, frequently. Every day, if possible, even it it is not very strenuously.
  • Bad: To stay idle for too long, like sitting in a chair at the office.
  • Good: To eat real food; meals made from fresh ingredients without extensive processing by machines.
  • Bad: To drink calories, largely through pops, but also by consuming juices, milk, etc.
  • Good: To get off the couch and do physical work around (and outside) the house on weekends, or just to go outside to play with the kids.
  • Bad: To get on the couch and watch sports on TV on weekends, especially if accompanied by lots of liquid calories and NOT FOOD items.
  • Good: To cook your own meals.
  • Bad: To eat prepared meals, either bought in grocery stores (especially in the frozen aisles) or at restaurants (especially fast food restaurants).
  • Good: To read this blog on a regular basis.
  • Bad: To read Facebook for more than 30 minutes per day.

Ok, I think you are getting the point; even if I add a bit of humour around it, you know this is a serious matter.

But keep in mind that I’m talking about habits here. Once in a while, those “bad” behaviours are not a problem. They become a problem, however, when they are automatic, casual, and frequent actions. When that’s the case, something has to be done.

Discipline, what is it good for?

If you are like most folks, you are a little in awe of elite athletes. At the very least, you probably have some admiration for them, as well as for those who manage to train regularly.

You might be telling yourself something like “Wow! I wish I were that disciplined myself…”

At this point, you should begin to understand that training regularly is more a matter of having good habits than of having a strong self-discipline. With good habits, the behaviours that impress us the most are actually easy, because that are automatic!

But don’t get me wrong : This is not to say those athletes (and everyday athletes) we admire don’t have any discipline. They do. It is just that their discipline is used sparingly, and put to work where it works best.

If you try to apply discipline to make yourself do your training sessions, or eat better, you will run out of steam before very long. And you will fail. The good habits you seek will not be created.

You must first set your lifestyle, your daily and weekly routine, so as to make the good habits possible, instead of trying to wedge good behaviours into a routine that is not built to accommodate them. You must have a Purpose, and align your activities accordingly. Discipline comes a distant second, or even third if you include a good dose of motivation, towards building good habits that will serve your purpose.

Then, and only then, do you use discipline to eliminate bad habits. And to make sure you don’t go overboard in your training, like doing too much, too soon.

What does discipline at work look like?

You are tempted to read Facebook? Get up and go for a short walk. You feel like having yet another large coffee with lots of sugar and cream? Take a tall glass of water instead (and for crying out loud, don’t take it out of a plastic bottle!).

Simply put: Say “no” to the bad habit. You know how to recognize it when you see it…

If you use discipline to limit the behaviours you wish to do away with anyway, while you have set the stage for good habits to form, you stand a better chance of succeeding. At least, according to my life, and coaching, experience.

Saying “no” to the “free” pop with a meal or during a meeting at work, not picking up a fast food meal on your way home after work, or refraining from doing “just a few more kilometres” when in fact your training session is completed, that’s what discipline is good for.

The heavy lifting is done by establishing good habits, by being mindful of what your Purpose is, and setting the stage correctly. That Purpose might be something like “To be healthy and fit so as to live a long, active life” or it could be something else; what matters is that it must be explicit.

Choose your own, and be clear about it. Then set the stage for the good habits that will support your Purpose. And only then, when you really need it (and not all that often), use discipline to stay on course…

Photo credits: Sacha Veillette

10 Things to stop believing RIGHT NOW about fitness and health

 In no particular order, here are a few things I feel strongly about. It is not about being right or wrong; my purpose here is to bring to your attention the fact that holding erroneous beliefs can, and does, influence our daily actions.

If given half a chance to think, most of us would say they don’t hold most of the erroneous beliefs on this list. But our actions reveal that, somehow, a lot of those ideas still have a hold on us. Otherwise, both our bodies and our planet would be in much better shape.

1) Exercise is something only athletes do; the rest of us should just watch sports on TV.

Our bodies are supposed to move in order to function optimally. That’s just the way biological entities such as ourselves work. Not like mechanical devices that get damaged and used up the more you use them. Within reason, we must submit our bodies to physical stressors (i.e. exercise) for all systems to do what they are supposed to do. So move. And move some more.

2) Humans are something different from other animals; outside of, or “beyond” nature.

We are animals. We have a lot in common with other animals. We live, we exist, on the only planet we know of that is capable of harboring life. What sustains life is the intricate inter-connection of all living things, the web of relationships that constitute all the ecosystems and, at the largest scale we know of, the biosphere of planet Earth. What we do has an effect on everything else alive on this planet. While there are variations in the details, all life on this planet functions essentially the same way. I could go on about the implications, but at least you should keep this in mind: We cannot exist without nature, or outside of it, and we often delude ourselves into thinking that we understand everything there is to understand about our bodies and its interactions with the environment. We don’t.

3) Information about health and fitness found on the Internet can be trusted.

This blog being one of the notable exceptions, keep in mind that just because it is on the Web, it does not mean it comes from someone that should be trusted. There have been plenty of fads and outright frauds over the last few years, so be careful. Always ask yourself: Is someone profiting from this “advice” I’m reading? (In the case of this blog, by way, the answer is “no.” Just thought it was worth repeating.)

4) Everything we see offered on grocery shelves and in restaurants is food.

NOT! Definitely NOT! As a matter of fact, a lot of it is NOT FOOD, and should be treated accordingly. We all need to make better choices on a daily basis, while not going overboard about it… So, think twice before putting some things in your mouth. (Need to be reminded of what NOT FOOD is? You can find quite a bit on this blog about it.)

5) Food, real food that is, will cure any disease we suffer from.

Nope. Sorry. Good nutrition, by which I mean eating real food, not too much, and mostly from plants, will set the stage for your body to function well. And that helps prevent some diseases. But if you are very sick from something, even if the initial damage was done by eating very badly, chances are the damage is already done, and can’t easily be reversed. If that is your situation, seek real medical attention! Refer back to items 3 and 4 above if still necessary. 

6) Nevertheless, there are so-called “superfoods” that will cure any disease we suffer from.

Look, we all want to believe in silver bullets, miracle cures, and the Easter Bunny (among other things). That doesn’t make them real. Real food is good for you. It is part of ensuring your body has a fair chance of remaining healthy. But no single food will reverse years of neglect, abuse, or injury. Eating well, like being physically fit, requires some effort. There are no free lunches in this world, so to speak.

7) Running is bad for you and/or will cause you problems with your knees.

Done correctly, in moderation (and moderation still allows for a lot of running!), regular exercise like running actually makes our bodies (muscles, joints, internal organs) get stronger and function better. It is true that some people get injured, and that some people have gotten into trouble with their knees, but be careful of jumping to conclusions. Seek advice about technique, don’t try to do too much too soon, and you’ll find that running is probably the best, cheapest, and most easily accessible form or exercise around. See the next point for a kind of continuation of this.

8) In order to get fitter, we need to follow the latest training regimen, or buy the latest toy.

Definitely not. Exercise, and training if you go at it a bit more seriously, is not complicated. And it does not require much in terms of equipment. Those exercise crazes and newfangled regimens you read or hear about are no better than what simple advice a real coach can give you. They typically only serve the purpose of getting participants all hyped up and motivated for a short while. And make lots of money for their promoters. Remember the bit about questionning who profits? It applies here.

9) Devices like escalators and door openers help us conserve our energy and should be used by everyone.

Just because a device exists and is readily available, doesn’t mean we should all use it. I’m always amazed (to put it politely) to watch perfectly capable people press the door opener button at the entrance of a building, or take the escalator (or elevator) to go up one floor (or two or three, for that matter). There are people with limited mobility for whom those devices were installed, and that is great. But the rest of us can, and should do more with our own bodies! Similarly with some power tools and gardening implements, by the way.

10) The water coming out of the tap is not good.

Please, please, please, stop drinking bottled water. The plastic is choking our oceans and wrecking the food chain. Ok, this is a pet peeve of mine, but we mindlessly adhere to the notion that our water supply is not good and we must drink bottled water. This is pure propaganda, er, I mean, marketing. Guess what? Except in some very specific situations, our tap water is by and large excellent. Heck, some bottled water companies fill their bottles from tap water. So drink water. Just plain water, by the way; that’s what you need. Use a re-fillable bottle. Drink out of a glass. Anything but buying (buying! something that’s free already in all of our homes!). By the way, please also try to use fewer plastic straws. But that’s another battle…

11) There are only 10 Things that people erroneously believe about fitness and health.

This one is a bonus, and speaks for itself. But I think I’ve listed the biggest elephants in the room. Let me know what you think.

Photo credits: Sophie Tremblay-Paquet

This is NOT a detox

Food, detox, nutrition, health

An ordinary meal, provided you take the time to prepare it.

Nor is it a mixture of “super foods” designed to prevent cancer.

It is also not an extraordinary meal that requires hours of work to prepare.

Nope.

All it is, is a meal made at home from basic ingredients.

(Note also that it is not a carefully planned photo shoot: The pictures were taken at meal time, because that’s when I realized it might be worth talking about it in this blog.)

There’s nothing magical about it, no silver bullet for anything in it; moreover, it requires a bit of time and energy to put together.

Nothing miraculous about the ingredients either:

  • Small potatoes,
  • fresh beets (3-4, not from a can),
  • celery (one whole “heart,” sliced thinly),
  • peppers (one red, one yellow, for colour variety),
  • green onions (3, I seem to recall chopping in there),
  • a few cashew nuts to add crunchiness,
  • a bit of coconut powder/flakes (because my wife insisted).

These ingredients don’t come from our garden (not yet), but some (the beets and green onions) were purchased at a local farmers’ market. We are lucky to now live fairly close to one, and of having the free time to go buy stuff there.

Actually, come to think of it, it is not a matter of having the free time to go: It is the desire to take the time to go. It is about resolving not to let easier ways, and the illusion of being short on time, take control of our lives. That’s the real message of this post. And it is a topic I’ll re-visit in the future.

Final ingredient? Home-made mayo. That’s a habit we have taken recently, and it is highly satisfying. We know exactly what we put in our mayo. But if you are not sure about making mayo, you can always use ordinary olive oil and a bit of balsamic vinegar. We happen to think that such a “potato and beet salad” goes better with mayo, and because it is meant to be mostly made from scratch, it should be home-made mayo.

As a matter of fact, even the home-made mayo only requires a few minutes to make. Really. Therein lies the drama of our modern existence: We are told, and we tend to think, that making food from scratch requires a lot of time. It takes time, but not that much.

Instead of reading the paper, or watching TV, or worse, reading silly stuff on Facebook or the Web about what “famous people” have been up to lately, we can find better uses for our time.

Before I forget, you have to steam the potatoes and beets before using them in the salad. I use a little steamer, and that pretty much dictates the quantity of potatoes I put in, once the beets are cubed and in the steamer. Let them cool down before mixing them in with the rest of the ingredients; you can steam them a day or more in advance, while doing something else, or use the cooling-down time to chop the rest of the veggies. The mayo can be made while the potatoes and beets are being steamed, or hours or even days in advance.

I think my wife added a few spices (some salt, hot pepper flakes) while my back was turned. That’s to taste (and I never question hers).

Nutrition, Food, detox, Health

Go ahead, take some more. It’s all good.

So, this is not an extraordinary meal, and this post is not a recipe. Not quite. But it is good food, so you are welcome to seconds, and you don’t even need to think about the calories.

And even though this mix of vegetables and home-made mayo is not a detox meal, I can guarantee that it is a very effective way of measuring the time it takes food to transit through your digestive system. (This is very useful, because we hear a lot of weird statements about food that “get stuck” in our intestines, etc. We tend to associate some feelings like bloating and heaviness to food consumed a few minutes prior, or many hours earlier, without really knowing our own normal transit time. Well, eat this salad, and you’ll have real data to use in the future…)

Because when it goes through “the other end” after anywhere between 12 and 36 hours, you will notice.

Try it, and let me know how it “goes”…

Photo credits: Sacha Veillette

Same old, same old… if you want to get old in good shape

Exercise, Everyday, Health, Fitness, Training

Go ahead, make a move! Make it over and over again…

I know, I said I would write about physiology next. But that will have to wait just a little longer.

Today’s post will sound like I’m repeating myself, and of course it is a little the case.

In my defense, it is a well-known fact of communication that in order for your message to get through, and for it to be believed, it must be repeated many times. (Preferably by more than one independent “sources,” though that never stopped anyone. Just think of the persuasion success the American leadership had a few years ago about weapons of mass destruction…)

So while I continue learning about physiology (I’m taking an online course, among other things) and clarifying my thinking about how to get that message across effectively, today I’m inviting you to review some recent news items about the importance of fitness for long-term health.

(Added note: I know most bloggers would have split this up in 2 or 3 topics. I’m not most bloggers because I prefer to see things as they fit together, not apart. And I think most people are capable of taking a bit of extra time to read a slightly longer post, instead of three short ones. Like my coaching, my blogging is about quality, not quantity…)

In the News

There has not been anything ground-breaking in the news lately; the artificial conflict between maintaining (or returning to) a healthy weight through diet alone versus exercising more (while being careful what we eat) has been raging. Because most folks on the “food only” side are clearly peddling books and special diets, I’m not even going to talk about what ridiculous stuff has been said on that side of the “debate.”

Instead, you should keep in mind that the best way to increase the odds of being healthy for a long time is through exercising a lot, and being careful about the food (not too much, mostly from plants) we ingest. That’s the “same old, same old” part of my message.

In support of that, you should read an interesting article about how many of the health problems of aging are due to inactivity, not “just” getting old. This is exactly what I mean when writing about muscles being extremely important, not just for metabolic reasons, but to keep bones and brains healthy.

Basically, to be healthy and active well into old age, you need to use your muscles more. The thing is, as one of my favorite authors on the subject has recently added, you don’t even need to do a whole lot in order to reap the benefits. That’s a key point about the approach I embrace and promote: balance is more healthy than excess.

Exercise, Health, Fitness, Training, Marathon

Running the New York Marathon in 2013.

For instance, while I say that we should all move a lot more than we currently do, there are some who say that we should all be training like professional triathletes, 25 or more hours per week. And others say we should not move at all, and instead restrict what we eat in a radical way.

I’m clearly not on the side of diet restrictions without any exercise, and I’ve run ultra-marathons and I do an ironman distance triathlon each year “just to stay in shape,” but even I would not pretend that such a level of training is sustainable for everyone. Although not sustainable, it may be something to shoot for, or, at least, going well beyond the “standard” recommendations of some 150 minutes per week of exercise, remains a very good idea.

Which brings me (finally) to a third tidbit of news about those who have been clamoring that doing marathons and intense training for more than 150 minutes per week were actually causing damage instead of doing good for their health. In light of new research, it seems they are admitting that our bodies can really benefit from a lot more exercise than they previously allowed for.

Moving More, Up to A Point

But keep in mind that, based on the research, there is a diminishing return to be had from increasing the activity level. And at some point, while it may not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer (which is what the study was concerned with), you up the risk of injury, which is not really taken into consideration from what I’ve read so far.

As reported in Runner’s World:

When mortality rates were adjusted for exercise levels, the researchers found the lowest rate among those who exercised about three to five times the amount recommended by federal guidelines (i.e., 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running). However, the increased benefit of working out three to five times more than the guidelines was modest, the researchers wrote.

More importantly to serious runners, there was no evidence of harm at ten or more times the recommended minimum.

At three to five times the federal guidelines, you are in marathon and short-distance triathlon training territory. Maybe up to a decent half-ironman. Nothing crazy. And sustainable, if part of a lifestyle choice that features living a long and healthy life as its Purpose.

And you can go well beyond that, if you are careful.

Same Old Advice (Summary)

In summary, allow me to repeat what little wisdom I can impart, based on what I’ve learned and what more knowledgeable people have said before me:

  1. Move, a lot, because our bodies are at their best when they do.
  2. Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants.
  3. Obtain, and follow, the advice of a coach (especially if you are going to train seriously for something like a marathon or triathlon (or any endurance- or speed- or strength-focused sport).
  4. Steer clear of excess and obsession; strive for balance in all things.

Oh, and I should probably have added “stay tuned.”

Because I’m bound to come back to this subject, and provide more specific advice over time.

After all, much like with training, repetition is what eventually gets the message through… and turns it into a no-brainer.

Running, Marathon, Fitness, Health, Training, Exercise

A bunch of superheroes with their capes, or tired marathon runners done running?

Photos by the author at various events.

Don’t let “the future” turn into “too late”

Exercise, Brain, Daily, Purpose, Future You

The forward march of evolution? Perhaps we missed a fork in the road…

Yes, we’ve come a long way. And despite the difficulty to perceive it, we are still evolving as a species. Though perhaps not as fast as our capabilities to harvest (exploit) the natural world around us. Or the structure of our society.

But it is not all bad, because our brains are also quite capable of adapting when our bodies have not yet done so. It is not all gloom and doom. Really.

Which is not to say our brains don’t need all the help they can get. Signposts, so to speak, on the evolutionary road.

A short while ago, I talked about how a big part of what’s holding a lot of us back from exercising regularly is that, despite all the evidence we have, we tend to discount the future too much for our own good.

In that post, I ended up suggesting a strategy for reducing the strength of that effect, to help our brains deal with it: Having frequent good looks at ourselves. Not in a mirror, because it is not about how we look today; instead, we need to look at what some refer to as the “Future Self,” the person you want to be when you get old(er).

Even that, however, does not always suffice. Because there are strong forces aligned against our regular exercising.

No, there is no great conspiracy or big money interests in fattening us up. Just plain human nature: Mainly, a tendency to want to make money (a proxy for controlling reproductive resources), which drives most business activities, including the food industry; also, a propensity to not understand just how optimistic we tend to be about the future.

It is this latter part that I want to talk about today.

The Lure of the Future

Perhaps you’ve had a chance to watch the talk I mentioned in that previous post. If so, then what I’m about to say will already be familiar. If not, I still urge you to watch it, even though I’m about to give you another big chunk of knowledge I gleaned from it.

At the same time as we discount the future benefits of being active and healthy, we tend to overestimate how much more willing to exercise we will be tomorrow. Like last time, I have a few pictures, also shamelessly lifted from the excellent talk by Dr. Whatshername, to bring the point home…

Exercise, Daily, Everyday

The present eventually turns into the future. But is it the future we had anticipated?

In a nutshell, today you might say “I’m tired, and I have a lot to do, so I’ll rest today and exercise tomorrow.” (Note: This can be quite alright, given that it is the exception, and that you do, in fact, regularly exercise. Rest is often a good idea, and listening to your body when it asks for it is always in good order.)

But what happens the next day? And the day after that? Without a strong commitment device (a Purpose, ideally, or perhaps some other mechanisms to help us in the short term), many of us simply overestimate how willing they will be to exercise in the future, and mainly fail to do it in the present.

It is called the “Present Bias,” but it could also be called “Procrastination.” I like to think of it as boundless optimism about the future, because what it comes down to is precisely that: An optimism about how much more willing and capable to exercise we will be tomorrow.

Admit it, you’ve felt that way. I sure have, all too often.

What’s wrong with that?

Exercise, Fitness, Health, Everyday

Today is the day. Everyday.

Well, when tomorrow comes, it is no longer “tomorrow,” but again “today.” And guess what? “Today” we feel just like we did on the “today” which was “yesterday.”

Confused yet?

Don’t think about it too much. Just keep this in mind: Today is the only time you have to make the right choices.

And there is a strategy to help your brain with that as well.

No-brainer Decisions

Yup, you guessed it (probably): The trick is to not think about making that decision, and just do what you know you need to do.

Don’t consider what you feel like doing tomorrow. Consider that exercising is the right thing to do today.

That’s a big part of the reason why I chose “No-brainer Fitness” as the name for this blog. I recognized a long time ago that many of the decisions we agonize over should not be agonized over. They need to become automatic. No-brainers. Because that is a good way to follow one’s Purpose on a daily basis.

By the way, the same applies to food as well. In everything I wrote about exercise, in this post and the previous one, you can substitute “eating right” and get the same result:

Diet, Exercise, Daily, Everyday, Health, Fitness

Exercise and diet, diet and exercise; two parts of the same future discounting and present bias.

It all comes down to the choices we make on a daily basis.

Those choices are the signposts of your own personal evolution towards fitness and a long, active life.

Being able to imagine the future, thinking about Future You, is a powerful tool. But too much optimism about the future, only just a day away, is also a dangerous procrastination device. It is not called a “double-edged” sword for nothing.

Hence my recommendation: Keep Future You in mind as you go through each day, and don’t consider what you might do tomorrow. Decide, each day, to work towards that Future You.

Perhaps more importantly, don’t even make the decision. Just exercise. It’s a no-brainer! Or it has to become one…

_____________

Image credits: All images in this post were shamelessly lifted from an excellent lecture given by Michele Belot, Professor of Economics and Director of the Behavioural Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh (BLUE), as the third lecture in the 2014 Our Changing World series, entitled “Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours“. It is a really good lecture, about which I have spoken in a previous post.

The secret to a bright and yummy morning

Food, Eating, Health, NOT FOOD

Look at those colours!

Wanna know the secret?

Here it is: There is no secret.

Just like for healthy eating, the kind of eating that allows your body to optimally do what it evolved to do. There is no secret that will make you healthy.

There are just a bunch of things we tend to forget in the hectic pace of our modern lives.

So this morning, as I was reminding myself of some of them, I thought I might as well write them down.

No, there won’t be a recipe. See below to figure-out why.

The things we forget about eating in a way that allows our bodies to be healthy

Don’t worry, it’s actually a short list. And it should look familiar.

  1. Cook food at home. Meals you actually prepare, not eat at a restaurant or order in, or take out of a box to pop in the microwave oven. (Nothing wrong with the microwave oven, by the way.) And while you are at it, make some extra to take to work as your lunch the next day, instead of hitting the food court. (That’s where the microwave oven comes in.)
  2. Start from real, whole ingredients, that have not been processed into some barely recognizable version of something that grows or moves of its own volition. Mix and match as you feel, letting the natural flavours do the job.
  3. It is not the specific ingredients that matter. For instance, good stuff like what I had for breakfast this morning (eggs, kale, onions, garlic, turmeric, red peppers, coconut oil) are just that: good stuff. No magic involved, no super food.
  4. Take the time to sit down and eat. It is when we rush that we make the most eating mistakes. Lack of time means bad decisions like food that has been processed, but as well an added stress to our entire bodies, making it harder to process the food properly.
  5. Minimize the NOT FOOD part of your daily intake. That’s just common sense, but the problem is that we often mindlessly put stuff (and by “stuff” I really meaning things that just take space without providing nutritional value) into our mouths.

That’s it. If you keep this in mind, you’ll let your body do its job with minimal impediment.

And you’ll be having a lot of bright and yummy mornings as well. Especially if you exercise regularly, either before or after breakfast. Enjoy!

IMG_1065P.S.: In case you were wondering, there is no recipe in this post. This is not a blog about food.

Photos by me. This morning.

Getting to the gut of the problem

I’m really trying not to talk about food anymore.

Food, Diet, NOT FOOD, Everyday

Bacteria (and archaea) are your friends. Feed them well.

But I keep being drawn back to it, somehow.

Here are the reasons, I suspect:

1) Exercising more is very simple, and you can find all the advice you can possibly need elsewhere on my blog. So without going into highly specialized training regimen, which I don’t advocate anyway, there are only so many things that can be said about moving everyday. It is simple, but it requires effort. Everyday.

2) Food is fascinating, pleasant, and something we do effortlessly multiple times per day. So fixating on it comes easily. Also, the entire process from the food we eat to the energy we have to spend is so complex that, depending on your intentions, you can fool a lot of people some of the time, or try to enlighten one person at a time, with the same amount of energy.

So, because I’d rather enlighten a single person (I’m that kind of person), and I’ve talked about how to move more aplenty, and because more people want to read about food, let’s talk about food.

Actually, let’s talk about food that feeds the many, on top of feeding the one person who eats it. In so doing, we will get to what some have come to consider the “gut of the problem.”

Let’s talk about the food that feeds the bacteria and archaea that live in our guts.

A summary of recent research published in Scientific American spells it out quite nicely. You should really read it.

To save you time, however, here are the main facts, and what they hint at for optimal health:

  • Fact 1: Our digestive system is home to millions of other living beings. It is an ecosystem for them, and there is an interaction between their living, and our absorption of nutrients from food. It is what we refer to as the “gut microbiome” or “gut microbiota.” Or just “microbes” if you prefer.
  • Fact 2: Who says “ecosystem” also says “food chain,” “competition,” “natural selection,” etc. For instance, there’s a constant battle between “good” and “bad” bacteria; between those that help us (by helping our digestion not causing diseases) and those that can hinder us (by causing inflammation, diseases, etc.).
  • Fact 3: The gut microbiome didn’t just appear out of the blue this week; it has evolved along with us (co-evolved is the term). Different species have different gut microbiota. In each case, the gut microbiota has evolved and adapted to thrive off of what the host species typically eat.

Hint 1: Just like our own body should be fed the kind of food it is capable of handling (i.e. food, not too much, mostly plants), so too the bacteria and archaea that live inside us. Basically, the “good” ones strive on a diet that is precisely the kind of diet we should eat. And when the “good” ones don’t strive, then the “bad” ones do, and that can lead to problems for us.

Hint 2: One aspect of the research focused on fiber. We’ve known that fiber is important, and that we don’t have enough in our modern diet, but it seems a big part of the reason is that, without fiber, those “good” bacteria and archaea don’t fare so well.

Hint 3: Moreover, in the absence of enough fiber in our diet, a part of the gut microbes to the next best thing for them: the mucus that lines the walls of our digestive tract, particularly in the large intestine. But we need that mucus for the digestive system to work correctly and for the protection of the rest of our bodies, so when bacteria and archaea eat it, we get ulcers, inflammation, and a slew of other problems.

The article talks about positive results from adding fiber, even just a little, to the diet. It seems to help.

So, go ahead, add fiber to your diet. But not just any fiber.

Real food contains fiber. NOT FOOD that claims to contain fiber often contains the wrong kind of fiber. What I might call NOT FIBER, were it not for the fact that it is, in fact, fiber. Just not the kind that our gut microbiota can be expected to eat.

So we are back to the food we eat. What are we to do?

The same that we’ve known all along: Lots of veggies and fruit. And stay away from NOT FOOD.

No surprise there. Have we learned anything new today?

Yes, I think we have. Or at least this story serves as a reminder.

Nutrition is more complex than “calories in,” and just a count of carbs, proteins, and lipids. What you eat does not end up directly in your blood stream and then inside your cells. It goes through many steps of processing, natural processing, by our guts and the multitude that live in it.

Our own enzymes and guts mechanically and chemically disassemble the food we eat into its basic constituents (glucids, lipids, amino acids, various micro-nutrients) which can then enter the blood stream. What’s left behind is then further processed by gut microbes, and that can sometimes provide more nutrients for us as well.

By further (and co-processing) food, the gut microbiota play an essential role. They help make the whole machinery run smoothly. Provided they get benefits from it as well. Those benefits come from having a relatively safe place to call home and lots of food.

If we create the wrong kind of home for them, or if we provide food that the rowdy relatives prefer, then the “home” becomes less peaceful, and everybody suffers.

Sure, I’m simplifying by using such an analogy, but it is closer to the truth than a lot of the advice out there. (And much better than a car analogy.) Basically, feed your gut bacteria well, by feeding yourself real food (not too much, and mostly from plants), and you’ll improve your digestion.

So next time someone tries to sell you a super food, supplement, or miracle cure for what they claim ails you (but probably doesn’t), simply grab a veggie or a fruit, and chew on that. Everybody involved will feel better…

*****

See the article “Fiber-Famished Gut Microbes Linked to Poor Health” in Scientific American, March 23, 2015, by Katherine Harmon Courage.

Image from Pixabay.