Week 1: Motivation (Or How I Survived a Trip to the Fair)

Well, I’m one whole week into my reduced sugar challenge and I have to say it hasn’t been quite as bad as I expected. But that’s probably because it’s only been seven whole days and my motivation is still pretty high. I’m pretty sure that’s what got me through a couple of really big challenges this week, but as I near the end of a stressful week I am starting to crave sugar more and more. We’ll see how I feel around April 21!

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So, what challenges have I encountered, you ask? Let me tell you! First was a trip to the Arizona state fair with my parents while I was visiting them in Yuma. Now, before you say “Well, it’s just a fair, how bad can that be?” Let me remind you that THIS is a common sight (and smell!) at state fairs:

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Also, I should add that at this particular fair the claim to fame is the $5 jumbo cinnamon rolls, for which there was a line that wrapped around the huge warehouse hanger! A 20 minute wait! So….yea. I was a whole two days into the challenge so I was still pretty motivated. So while it was definitely a challenge, it wasn’t a true test-the-mettle challenge. But my experiences at the fair paved the way for me to distill my first lesson from the April challenge:

Lesson One: When you can’t have sugar, fat is your friend.

Yes, fat. Not too much fat, of course, but the right dose of the right fat can help me fend off those powerful sugar cravings. Fat, that precious substance that our bodies need to keep healthy but has been so demonized in our culture in the past few decades, triggers the same kind of satiety response in our brain as sugar. Our bodies crave fat in similar ways as sugar. On this challenge, I’ve learned that a moderate portion of some kind of fatty food is enough to stave sugar cravings for a while. Of course, since I’m trying to opt for whole and minimally processed foods that means that the fat I eat is not derived from potato chips or nachos. But a half avocado can do wonders for my sugar-starved brain.

Of course, there isn’t usually a fresh farm produce stand at most state fairs. So I coped with my time at the fair (and the excruciating time in the cinnamon roll line) by opting for choices that I figured would satisfy my urge without busting my sugar limit. While we were there, I opted for a couple of carne asada tacos, a dill pickle, a locally-made dried beef stick, and the most fabulous ear of roasted corn I’ve ever tasted.

tumblr_mcd171gnbs1rsfae9o1_400After my weekend to the Arizona was over, I came back and settled in for my daily routine sans sugar. Now, before the challenge my typical morning routine entailed making a (sweetened) cup of coffee and eating a (sweetened) cup of yogurt, which packed a whopping 22g of sugar. So this routine obviously had to change, and for the past week I’ve been opting for plain, no sugar added Greek yogurt and coffee with cream but no sweetener. And the result has not been that bad! I’m starting to taste the natural sugar in my yogurt as my tongue and brain get more sensitive. Also, this change in my morning meal has altered another fundamental part of my food habits, leading two the second lesson of the challenge.

Lesson Two: When coffee is not a liquid dessert, it becomes less appealing.

Before starting this challenge I would typically drink 3-4 mugs of coffee in a day. One when I woke up, another around 11am, another around 3pm, and sometimes another around 5pm. I have been under the impression that I’m just a caffeine addict who has built her life on caffeine stilts. But in the past few days I have only had a single morning cup of coffee, and nothing more, leading me to think that maybe my coffee addiction isn’t so much about coffee as it is about all the sweeteners I put into my coffee. Now that I’m not making my coffee into a dessert, I’m not only finding in slightly less satisfying, I’m also craving it less. I sometimes feel a need for a  pick-me-up in the 3pm slump, but I don’t feel beholden to coffee throughout the day as I usually do. But don’t get me wrong, I still love that morning cup of coffee. And I’m also starting to appreciate the taste of coffee as coffee even more.

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A weird development that I’ve noticed is that I am consistently staying under my 30g limit every day. In the past week I’ve clocked in anywhere from 10-15g of added sugar every day, so less than half of what I’m allowing myself. But, I don’t necessarily think this is cause for celebration. Because not only am I allowing myself natural sugar (in moderation) I’ve learned another sneaky lesson.

Lesson Three: What’s the difference between sugar and refined carbs?

I’m pretty sure the answer to that question is not a damn thing! After all, sugar is a simple carbohydrate. And I’m pretty sure that sugar and refined carbs are basically doing the same thing – giving us a big energy spike that sets us up for a big energy deficit. I discovered this lesson when I was having some strong sugar cravings and was stranded on campus without food. I needed to make a decision on what to eat, so I stood in the campus market and picked up an apple, a turkey sandwich, and some sparkling water. And while the sugar craving may have been defeated by just eating something, I noticed that the bread in the turkey sandwich was immensely satisfying. In fact, anytime that I have eaten bread in the past few days it sends little tingles to my brain and, sure enough, eventually I’ll crave bread AND sugar.

So, for me the answer is to just limit refined carbs too, because they make my sugar cravings much MUCH worse. And to be honest, bread just isn’t worth it.

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So, I’m seven days in and three lessons wiser. I’ve also noticed some positive changes too. First and foremost, I actually feel much more energized throughout the day (even without the extra coffee!). This is probably a combination of having stable blood sugar (which means I don’t crash) and opting for water or sparkling water as my go-to beverage. All this daytime energy is also helping me sleep better at night – I’m falling asleep faster and waking up feeling better. This creates a positive energy cycle: The stable blood sugar and water give me more energy, helping me to sleep better at night, helping me to feel more rested and have more energy the next day, and so on it goes.

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I also think I’m noticing positive differences in my skin, but it’s really too early to tell. I’ll know more next week. Also, the past two day have been R-O-U-G-H in the cravings department. I’ve never wanted a gummy bear more badly in my ENTIRE LIFE. So I have a feeling this next week is really going to kick my ass. But, I still have a pretty high level of motivation, so I think it will be okay. I hope!

Also coming up next week: an update on my challenge co-participants! I can’t wait to hear more about how they are coping with the challenge and share that information with you.

Till next week, friends!

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April Challenge: Reducing Sugar

I’m kicking off the second season with a challenge that I have decided for myself (rather than decided for me), and I think it’s going to among the most difficult challenges I’ve ever done! This month, I’ll be reducing the amount of added sugar in my diet down to the recommended level for adults.

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In this post, I’ll share the inspiration for the challenge, the goals and lessons I hope to learn from the challenge, what I anticipate to be the most difficult, and of course – the rules! But before I get to any of that, let me introduce my challenge co-participants! For this challenge I’ll be joined by my mom, Esta, and one of my closest friends, Melissann. They both live hundreds (or thousands) of miles away but will be participating nonetheless. I’m glad to have their support and, so far, they seem excited about joining in. I hope we all can share our challenges and triumphs together.

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Okay, on to the inspiration for this month’s challenge. I’ve been aware for the past few years that the food industry puts a lot of added sugar and salt into foods in order to keep them “low fat” and still palatable. Again, I’ve known this but, obviously, I just didn’t care. When I wanted something sweet – I’d just eat it. OR – I’d opt for the “sugar free” variety of the food, sweetened with sugar substitutes. For the past 2 years, I’ve known that I have been gradually increasing the amount of sugar I eat. But the increase was steady and came along with a more general decision to just stop obsessing over food. Women’s obsession with food and weight is not accidental, my friends (hint: that’s the patriarchy). And for a while I just decided enough was enough.I was going to eat what I wanted and love myself anyway. And I did! But now I’d like to try eating to support my body and its strength, not necessarily eating whatever I crave and definitely not eating in order to shame my body into submission. The first step in that process, for me, is dealing with sugar.

My go-to solution in the past has been to choose the low calorie but still sweet versions of food – the low fat yogurts and the carob chips and whatnot. These are foods that I can feel less “guilty” about (again, that’s the patriarchy) but are still sweet. But its time for me to just accept that artificial sugars are not the answer. When artificial sugars deliver sweetness on the tongue, it signals an oncoming sugar rush to the brain. But when the rush doesn’t come the brain craves sugar with a vengeance. For me, those powerful cravings can lead to sugar binges so derailing because my brain is going to get that sugar, dammit. The binges don’t happen right away, they might build up over the course of a day or a week. But when binges happen, they are often the result of a perfect storm: ongoing sugar craving + stress/feeling overwhelmed + opportunity = BINGE.

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That’s been my sugar formula for as long as I can remember, and my continued reliance on artificial sweeteners has only made the problem worse. So by the time I watched the awesome documentary, Fed Up, co-produced by the amazingly amazing Katie Couric, I wasn’t hearing anything I didn’t already know. But watching that documentary made me entertain a new possibility – maybe I am addicted to sugar?

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Now, I don’t make light of addiction nor do I throw that word around carelessly. Addiction is real and scary and an actual issue in our families, communities, and society. But, I think it is possible that sugar makes us behave in ways strikingly similar to addiction, but we as a society don’t see it as a problem because, well, it’s just sugar. But maybe it’s not just sugar? While there might not ever be conclusive evidence that sugar is the sole culprit in causing certain health problems, I think there is enough evidence to conclude that it’s probably a significant factor.

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So, when I watched Fed Up just a week after deciding to bring back the blog, I knew I had found a stellar premiere challenge for season two. Whether I’m addicted to sugar or not, I can’t say. But what I can say is that I’m tired of that binge-and-bust cycle of sugar, and I have been wanting to do something about it (and my overuse of artificial sweetener) for a while. Plus, I figure this challenge will be a good opportunity to be more aware of the kinds of foods I eat and how they make me feel, keeping in line with my general life goal of eating well for my body. So my goals for this challenge are:

  1. Maintain more stable levels of sugar day to day, rather than the peaks and valleys that come with binges and busts.
  2. Cut out artificial sweeteners and see if that makes a difference in my cravings and/or behavior.
  3. Keep myself from retreating to sugar when I feel stressed and/or overwhelmed. In other words, try not use sugar as a crutch for feeling better.
  4. Generally improve my awareness of my nutrition and food choices.

Now, here the rules. For the month of April, I will:

  1. Consume no more than 30 grams of added sugar daily
    • Sugar that occurs naturally in food is okay because that sugar is often accompanied by enough fiber and other nutrients to slow digestion and keep blood sugar from spiking too high
    • Therefore, fruits are allowed and won’t count toward the 30g ceiling
  2. Whole fruits are okay, but dried fruit and fruit juice are not
    • Again, the idea is to avoid high sugar spikes, so fruit needs to come along with fiber
  3. I don’t want to end up sugar-binging on fruit, so no more than 4 servings of fruit in a day.
  4. As much as possible, choose natural and minimally-processed foods, if only because food manufacturers don’t distinguish between natural and added sugars on food labels, making it difficult to track my 30g of added sugar.
  5. No “rolling over” of unused daily sugar grams into a weekly total. I can see myself starving for sugar all week so that I can have a “legitimate” binge on the weekend. Doing that is maintaining the binge and bust cycle, not challenging it.
  6. No artificial sweeteners. If I want a sugar substitute, I will use honey.

These are the rules I’ve decided for myself. I think they are doable. I hope they are doable.

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Over the past week, I’ve been paying attention to how much sugar I eat and where the biggest sources of sugar come from. For the past seven days, I’ve had an average of 50-60g of sugar a day, which doesn’t include the number of servings of artificial sweeteners I have in things like coffee and yogurt. So I’m going to be cutting sugar in half, and cutting sweets even more since I won’t have artificial sweeteners as a substitute.

And while I’m on the subject of coffee and yogurt, holy sugar batman! My typical yogurt choice (Dannon Light & Fit Greek and/or Greek Crunch yogurt) has anywhere from 7g to 12g (!) of sugar in one tiny cup! That’s almost half of my daily amount! And it gets WORSE! My typical coffee creamer (Coffee-mate Natural Bliss Vanilla) has 5g of sugar in every TABLESPOON! So that means that if I put two tablespoons of creamer in my coffee and couple it with a container of my usual yogurt – I’ve just downed up to 22g of sugar before noon. From my beloved coffee and yogurt! Noooooo!!!

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Well, the buck stops here. Everything I’ve read in preparation for this challenge has warned that when you cut sugar the first five days are the hardest. Especially if you’re used to having a lot of sugar, then in those first few days your brain will be going through withdrawal. The various sources I’ve read say to be patient with yourself as you’re likely to be more irritable and annoyed for the first few days. So, dearest friends, please be patient with me too.

I’ll check in next week to tell you all how it’s going. I’ll also try to get my co-participants to check in and maybe write a guest post. You’ll be hearing from us – wish us luck!

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Back At It Again: More Challenges Ahead!

Hi there! Welcome (back)! As many of you know, in 2014-2015, I started a series of monthly challenges and blogged about my experiences and lessons here. The challenges, given to me by my friends and family, varied from eating whole foods and meditating everyday to giving up make-up and disabling my iPhone. Each month posed a new challenge, both literally and metaphorically, but month by month I learned a little something more about myself and usually picked up some good habits along the way. It was pretty awesome.

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After taking a long break from the blog and the challenges, I’m ready to get back at it. I miss trying something new every month and reflecting upon/sharing my experiences. So I’m bringing back the blog and opening up my willingness to be a human guinea pig once again, taking your suggestions for a challenge and trying them out. I can’t wait to see what great ideas you all come up with. Bring it on!

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The rules this time will mostly remain the same. I’ll get a challenge and the issuer and I will sit down and decide the goals, rules, and purpose behind the challenge. I will then follow those rules for a month, sharing what I learn along the way, and conclude at the end of each challenge if the intended goal was met.

However, this time around I’d also like to share the love. With each new challenge, I will send out a message to my friends, family, and social network to see if anyone else wants to participate with me. If you’re up for it, you can participate at any level you want – from chatting/texting every so often, to writing a guest post on the blog if you’re so inclined! I think adding this social component is great because not only will it add to my own motivation, it can get others to experience new lessons and discoveries for themselves. I’ve always found that there’s strength in numbers.

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The second season of Thirty Day Endeavors will kick off in April.  I’ve decided the inaugural challenge will be one of the hardest yet – reducing SUGAR.

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In April, I’ll be joined by my mom as we both try to reduce our daily consumption of added sugar down to the recommended intake (about 30 grams per day). Over the next week, I am going to track how much sugar I eat normally and finalize the rules for April. I’m also probably going to have to avoid going on an anticipatory sugar rampage!

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So stay tuned, my friends! Start firing up your imaginations to come up with some challenges, and start reflecting on a challenge that you might like to join. 

Oh, and welcome to Season 2!

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The Early Bird Gets the….Coffee?

Hi there! For the month of March, I decided to challenge myself to wake up before 7:00am everyday (yes, even on the weekends). I know for some of you that seems like no big deal (I mean, babies and children amirite?). But for me it will be pretty difficult. I tend to wake up around 8:00am on most days, and I probably go to sleep somewhere between 11:00pm and midnight. But I really want to try on being an early bird for a little while. I think I would actually like it a lot. Still, I’ve never tried to make a habit out of waking up early.

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There were several things that influenced my self-challenge this month. When I force myself to wake up early, I’m much more likely to get up and get going more quickly. There’s something about being up early that triggers my brain to get a move on. When I sleep in, I am very slow to get going. There are days when I wake up at 9:00am and don’t manage to actually get out of bed until 10:00am (I can manage that because I’m a grad student – yay for me!) But with the slow morning also comes the tendency to go to bed later….and you know what that means: Later bed time, later wake up time, later bed time, and so on.

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Also, I find that I am more productive when I wake up early. Maybe it’s because I’m quick to get up and get ready, but when I am up at an early hour I start doing productive things earlier and sustain that enhanced productivity throughout the day.

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Finally, I tend to be in a better mood when wake up earlier. There’s something about the morning sunlight that makes me happy. I’m sure there’s some kind of scientific reason for that, right?

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So it’s time to try waking up early on for size. I want to see if I can make it a habit so that I can sustain it after the month is over. Here are the rules: I need to wake up and physically get out of bed before 7:00am, everyday, until April 1. Shouldn’t be that hard, right??

March 1st:

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Okay so my first lesson of the month is that getting up early is completely unsustainable when you go to bed late. Seems pretty intuitive. Lesson learned. I suppose a sub-challenge in this challenge will be to force myself to go to bed earlier. That won’t always be easy, but I’ll have to do it to prevent myself from becoming a sleep-deprived psychopath.

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For the past few days I have been on a trip with my family. We’ve been staying in a hotel, staying up too late, and having long days. The trip itself is so much fun, but waking up at 6:30am, hours before everyone else, is pretty awful. Although I will say that I have gotten in some very restorative “me time” in the morning while everyone else is still sleeping, so that’s a plus. But still, the late bedtimes plus the poor sleep that comes from being in a hotel room has made for a pretty difficult morning today.

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But on I go! I’m 8 days into the challenge and so far I’m pretty happy with it. Will my observations that inspired the challenge sustain for the whole month? Will I be more animated, happy, and productive after waking up early for a month? We will have to wait and see!

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What happened?!?! TV, Holidays, and Happiness

Hi there everyone! I know I haven’t posted since the beginning of November’s video blackout challenge. This is for two reasons:

  1. The November challenge is STILL happening (though, in a modified way)
  2. The December challenge made it very difficult to post updates

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Wait, wait, what do you mean the November challenge is still happening?!?!

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Let me explain. Remember way back in November, how I explained some of the ways I was preparing myself for the video blackout challenge (putting parental controls on the TV, blocking websites on my computers, and the like)? Well, I found some of those to be so helpful that I decided to keep them.

As you all know by now, I’ve struggled with my relationship with television for a long time. Part of that struggle, I’ve learned, are my own internalized beliefs about television that elicit feelings of guilt whenever I feel like I watch “too much” (though, admittedly, that threshold is fuzzy at best). But my own warped sense of television notwithstanding, I still feel like I watch(ed) more than was helpful for me or normal for most people. In November, I unplugged in a very serious way – no video media whatsoever all month.

I ended up listening to A LOT of podcasts and audio books. I also started and finished 4 books in November. I seriously stepped up my crafting game (more on this later) and spent more quality time with my friends. I realized that there were so many activities I enjoyed doing that had nothing to do with watching TV, in fact where TV actually got in the way of those things. Though there were plenty of times where I felt bored or lonely, there were also plenty of times when I felt perfectly happy and fulfilled.

This led me to a greater realization – watching TV (like all behaviors) meets many kinds of needs for me. It is an easy way to pass the time especially when I’m alone, hence why the two most common negative experiences of the challenge were feeling bored and lonely. However, TV isn’t the only thing that can meet those needs – so can going out with friends, talking on the phone, starting a project, getting lost in a good book, going to the gym, cooking an elaborate meal, learning a new craft, working, and the list goes on and on! By far the biggest challenge of November was not necessarily going without TV, but in identifying the needs that TV usually meets for me, and in confronting them during intense moments when I most wanted/needed TV as an immediate balm but couldn’t actually have it. In those moments, I really had to dig in and really think about what I needed rather than brainstorm ways to break through my own TV firewall.

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And that brings me to now. After November was over, I was sure that I wanted to keep giving the challenge a try, but to modify it so that I could watch some TV at certain times. What I ended up doing is relaxing the site blocking software on my computer so that I could watch online shows and movies during certain times of the day, but maintaining the parental controls on our television so that I wasn’t tempted to sit on the couch and veg out in front of the TV for hours. So far, I’m very happy with that choice. I think this will be more than a month-long challenge – but hopefully I’ll reach a point where I can meet my needs through other means so that the desire to watch television all but fades from my mind.

Now, on to December’s un-postable challenge!

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December’s challenge was given to me several (I mean it, SEVERAL) months ago by my long-time friend, Paul.

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Paul is one of those people who are just so cool, without even trying.

Back in the summer, I was chatting with Paul on the phone and telling him all about the blog and my latest challenge. His idea for a challenge was far away, but so very cool (as per usual, amirite?). He wanted December’s challenge to be about the holidays, more specifically, he wanted the challenge to be about simplifying the holidays and making them less commercially motivated. He recalled how, in prior eras, Christmas gifts were not about buying cheap things that someone didn’t really need. They were about showing care and gratitude. For most people, gifts were probably modest as well – just a couple carefully made or purchased items for loved ones.

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Paul wanted my holiday gift-giving to be motivated by the same spirit that came before the days of shopping malls and globalization – one or two home-crafted gifts worth only a modest amount of money (we settled on no more than $15 per gift) but worth much more in my time and effort. The idea behind the challenge was to make the act of gift-giving a slower, more careful and deliberate experience.  With this challenge, I couldn’t spend one afternoon at the mall and get a gift for everyone on my list. I needed to think ahead of time about what I would be able to make, what my loved ones would like to receive, and what supplies I would need. I needed to give myself plenty of time to make all the gifts (and re-make them in the event that I messed up). I had to invest more thought, care, and time into each individual gift than I otherwise would have. Since I was given this challenge in the summer, I had plenty of time to figure it out. By October, I began making all my gifts.

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Hence why I couldn’t post updates from the December challenge – I couldn’t post pictures of the gifts I was making because my family and friends would see what they were getting!

But the wait is over. Here are (most of) the gifts I made for December’s “Slow Down the Holidays” challenge, in no particular order:

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All in all, I am pretty proud of these gifts. I really tried to step up my crafting game for these, and not being distracted by TV in November was a powerful motivator. As I was working on each of the gifts, I thought about the person who was getting them. I thought about how much I hoped they would like them and silently feared that they wouldn’t appreciate them. It was so nice spending that time reflecting on my family members and friends, thinking about all the joy they bring to me, then trying to transfer that love into a homemade gift for them.

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So, as December winds down, I can’t help but think about what a great year it’s been, and how for the last 6 months these challenges have been the source of so much personal growth for me, even if only in the form of knowing that, no matter how ‘small’ the challenge is, I still learn something about myself and the world.

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In the new year, I’ll give you a re-cap of past challenges and what lessons/habits I’ve kept up as a result of those prior challenges. I’ll also tell you all about January’s challenge – daily acts of kindness.

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See you all in 2015!

November: An All-Video Blackout!!

Hi there everyone! Sorry for the delay in telling you about November’s challenge, I know you all get super depressed when I don’t keep you updated.

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November’s challenge is going to be really tough and, hopefully, very refreshing. This month’s challenge comes from my friend Norman. (I purposely wanted Norman to pick this month’s challenge just for the cool alliteration in “Norman’s November Challenge.” Yes, I’m nerdy like that.)

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The one-and-only Norman

I asked Norman to give me a challenge when he came to San Diego to help me with the August “Losing Control” challenge. After we zip-lined over rhinos, I was in a pretty adventurous mood. So that might not have been the best mindset to talk to Norman about his challenge. His initial ideas didn’t really take flight – such as pulling a prank every day or changing someone’s life. But then he suggested going a month without any music and I nearly had a heart attack; music is a huge part of my life (I’m one of those ‘playlist for every possible occasion’ people). So then I countered with, “How about no television instead?” Norman seemed to like the idea, but then he raised the stakes: “How about no videos at all? No TV, movies, videos, nothing.” Because I was feeling particularly adventurous at the time (after all, I had just conquered the zipline), I wholeheartedly agreed, under the condition that I could still use online videos for research and teaching. We shook on it and the challenge was set.

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Bring it on. 

I was feeling pretty confident about the challenge right up until the last week in October. I was finishing up the food challenge and hadn’t given much thought to November. When I remembered what I was in for, I immediately started to regret being so cavalier with the whole “No Videos at All for a Whole Month” idea. To understand why the idea was so daunting, I need to explain to you my own love/hate relationship with television (and, by extension, movies).

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Love and Hate

I sometimes wish “TV” counted as a socially acceptable hobby. Maybe it does and I’m not really aware of it. But I am aware that, in my particular social circle, saying that you really love watching TV is akin to saying you really love skipping through a field of weeds and dead flowers: weird and probably a waste of time. I really like TV, but I also loathe it. I like what TV does for me, but I also hate what it does to me. Let me elaborate…

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Things I love about TV:

  • Fun fictional stories that I like to follow
  • Being able to ‘shut off’ my brain and relax
  • Having something to do if I’m bored or don’t feel like working
  • Keeps me company when I’m alone with nothing to do
  • Involves little energy expenditure (physically and mentally)
  • Keeps me up-to-date with things happening in the world
  • (Sometimes) connects me to others who watch the same things

I like TV for the same reasons that everyone else does – it’s a fun way to tune out the world and watch the shows you like, you can do it by yourself without feeling like a hermit or a weirdo, it requires little energy so it can be very relaxing, you can watch it at any time of day (or night), you can get all kinds of information from it, and you can watch things alongside other people that have a similar interest. When I think about TV like that, what’s not to like? But, oddly enough, most of the same things I love about TV, those things that it does for me, are also the things I hate about TV because of what it does to me.

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Things I hate about TV:

  • Feeling trapped by silly fictional stories that literally mean nothing to me yet rope me in week after week
  • Becoming zombie-like and mindless from ‘shutting off’ my brain, therefore making it difficult to turn off the TV and turn my brain back on again
  • The ease of using TV to procrastinate if I don’t feel like working or feel bored
  • Feeling silently resigned to watch TV instead of finding something social to do because it is just less work that way (an semi-introvert’s dilemma), and the ensuing guilt that follows
  • Becoming a couch potato because I don’t need to expend any energy, and the ensuing guilt that follows
  • Being reminded of all the other things going on in the world while I’m binge-watching episodes of New Girl, and the ensuing guilt that follows

The same things that I like about TV also morph into the things I hate about it. Mostly, I hate the way that TV makes me feel mindless and “off in space.” That feeling, despite being bad for my health and productivity, does ultimately feel good. So its hard for me to detach from it sometimes, especially if I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, bored, lonely, or tired. Therefore, I have a difficult time turning my brain back on once I’ve turned it off to watch TV. When I do manage to turn it back on, I am reminded of the fact that I don’t actually care about the people in the shows I’m watching. I don’t actually care about how this story develops because I am not actually interested in it, rather it is just something to watch – a way to pass the time. Sometimes, when this happens, I have the presence of mind to stop watching, stop DVRing, and generally stop following the show. I’ve done this with many shows over the past couple of years, and I have been proud of myself. But I still feel trapped following more shows that I’d like, and I hope this challenge will help me cut the chord in that respect.

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All things in moderation?

I have, on more than a few occasions, wondered if I am addicted to television, or at least predisposed to becoming addicted to television. At times, I have actually confessed to myself: I am a compulsive over-user/abuser of television. Those dark moments usually come at the tail end of spending most of an entire weekday watching TV because I was too overwhelmed or unmotivated to work on my research and writing (a scenario that used to occur with an alarming frequency). Though I have tried to put a stop to those “TV Days,” I’d be lying if I said they never happen. This kind of procrastination is just so easy when you don’t have a boss expecting you to be at work and all of your deadlines are months (and years) into the future.

Over the past couple of years, I have tried to alter my environment and my mental state to manage my tendency to abuse television. Television has always been a staple in my life, especially as a child. But as an adult, I’ve had to actively work on adjusting my life so that it includes less TV. I have set up software programs on all of my computers that block certain websites like Hulu and Netflix, disabled automatic sign-in to these sites, and try to set up goals and consequences with my friends and support network to keep me accountable. I’ve tried keeping a TV journal, but never seem to make a habit of it. Managing TV was much easier when I didn’t actually own a TV and thus could only rely on online television. But since moving into an apartment with a TV and an active cable subscription, I have had to work even harder to keep myself from going into the living room in the morning, turning on the TV, and staying there until the afternoon in a state of mindless stupor. My relationship with TV has required, embarrassingly, almost constant work.

Even though I have been working on my TV habit, I’m still not entirely happy with it. I still feel like I watch too much, too often, and at the expense of other activities I want or have to do. Despite all my efforts, when I turn on the television, I am still easily overcome by inertia and run the risk of staying in front of the television for hours. Watching TV also signals unhealthy “Behavioral Links” which I talked about in a previous post. I guess all of this leads me to admit Step 1: I’m Erica, and I’m addicted to television.

This is all pretty embarrassing to admit, especially admitting it to the internet and my friends and family who read this blog. But in order to give you a sense of why this challenge will be so difficult, you need to understand where I am coming from. This month’s challenge will not only force me to get a divorce with  TV, it will also prevent me from rebounding with non-TV alternatives that essentially do the same thing: movies and online videos. In my life, I can’t remember a time that I have ever gone completely without TV (or TV surrogates) for such a long period of time. And while a month isn’t that long, it will still be quite a challenge.

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Making Preparations

In preparing for this challenge, I had to enlist the cooperation of my roommate, Elisa, who is, by now, a celebrity on this blog. I had to set up our TV with so many parental controls that it would basically block every single channel all the time. The only way to watch any TV is to input a 4-digit pin, which only Elisa knows. I also stopped all scheduled recordings of TV shows that I watch. I completely blocked Hulu, Netflix, and all other online television sites from all of my computers. I set a 15-minute limit for YouTube, meaning I can only spend 15 minutes on YouTube before my software blocks the site (remember, I can still use short videos for research and teaching). I unfollowed Buzzfeed Video and similar pages on Facebook, and altered my Facebook settings to prevent videos from playing automatically.

I also prepared a list of non-TV alternatives for myself. I found five fiction books that I haven’t read and put them all in my bedroom in plain sight. I watched instructional videos on knitting and other crafts in October so that I could work on them if I felt bored. I figured out what I am making everyone for Christmas so that I could work on those projects rather than watching TV. Other things on my TV alternatives list include: going to the gym, taking a walk, reading at a coffee shop, going to brunch, riding my bike, discovering a new place/neighborhood in San Diego, various home improvement projects (gardening, de-tangling the wires behind the entertainment center), and purposefully reaching out to and spending time with my friends. I think that if I elected to do all of these things regularly, I simply wouldn’t have time to watch TV.

So, with the proper preparations made, I went fiercely (and fearfully) into November’s “Video Blackout” challenge.

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10 Days Later….

I’m bored! I’m insanely productive! I’m tired! I’m energized! I’ve already read 2 books and listened to 2/3 of an audiobook! I have barely even touched my craft projects! Eating alone is SUPER boring so I have to listen to a podcast otherwise I get sad! I miss The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in a way that I can’t even describe! I don’t like being alone in my apartment because I can no longer use the TV as a surrogate friend! I love my actual human friends and that I’m spending more time with them!  I have to quarantine myself in my room when Elisa is home and wants to watch TV (which isn’t that often)! Thursday night was the worst because I absolutely love Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder! I think my left eye is about to spasm!

BUT….

I’m happy. I feel rested. I don’t feel like I’m going crazy. I miss TV, but I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. I missed TV the most on Friday morning (when I usually watch Thursday night shows), but managed to get over it. I feel confident that I can do this. And I hope by the time December rolls around I feel a sense of ownership over my TV habit, rather than the other way around.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

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Till next time, stay tuned! (Pun intended)

Personal Struggles in a Political Minefield

In my last post, I left you with some of the things I have been struggling with during this challenge. Beyond the expected (but still significant) issues of cravings and impatience, what struck me most is that this challenge has had overwhelming political implications. I’ve struggled with these, because I feel like I’m straddling the line between two political camps, and each can be quite hostile toward (and dismissive of) the other. Yet here I am, participating in a challenge that is partially by choice, and partially not by choice, trying to make sense of the conflict. At the heart of my own struggle with this “in between” space is the uncertainty of how this challenge will affect my eating habits in the long term, and a desire not to let anyone down or come under even more intense scrutiny for those choices. So in this post, I’d like to seriously share with you some of my experiences in making sense of food politics and my place in them.

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(I’m the rope in this scenario)

A sketch of both sides of the issue.

I want to quickly sketch some of the contours of this conflict that I have gathered by doing my own research, reading blogs and articles on the subject, and talking with many people. This is, by no means, a full and comprehensive discussion of both sides of the conflict. But for the purposes of this post, it is worthwhile to make sure that we are all on the same, only-partially-complete page.

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The “Real Food” Proponents are hyper-critical of the industrialized food system. Their main critique is that industrialized “food products,” in the process of being ‘made’, lose many nutrients that later need to be added back in and/or become laced with chemical food additives or processes that change the structure of the food away from its ‘natural’ state. Though the critique is focused on food and the industrialized system from which it comes, most of their critique settles on the American food system, which is often regarded as corrupted by the influence of large food business and ineffective regulations and officials.

Many in this camp focus their critique on the very real and problematic environmental and public health consequences of breeding agricultural monocultures, widespread use of pesticides, keeping meat/dairy animals confined in close quarters and subjecting them to prophylactic antibiotics, and letting animal and agricultural waste run into water/soil supplies. A compelling number of people in this camp are anti-GMO, either because they disagree with the corporate practices of Monsanto or because they believe that GMOs have detrimental health effects (even though there is not enough science to verify these negative health effects, they believe science will eventually catch up and GMOs will be banned). There is a significant (and rather unfortunate) overlap between the “real foodies” and anti-vaxers, who do not vaccinate themselves or their children because they believe vaccinations damage our natural immunity and cause negative health effects.

Most of these people advocate for widespread changes in the food system, but are skeptical that it will ever happen. Instead, they focus their efforts on reforming how individual people eat – advocating all natural, organic, and minimally processed food. They thoroughly believe that processed food, especially cheap “junk” food, is either nutritionally vacuous or altogether corrupted and should be avoided at all costs. Their message is not framed as a suggestion, it is often framed as a moral discussion about what we “should” be eating and how we “should” be feeding our children. There is very little discussion of the various kinds of resources required to make their lifestyle work in the long term.

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The “Real Food” Opponents are critical of the “real food” advocates’ misappropriation of scientific evidence and narrow mindedness surrounding “acceptable” food. They take  issue with the narrow attack on any and all “processed” food, stating that processed food can be made nutritionally and responsibly. They also advocate a more even-handed approach to food – that all food is eaten in the context of daily, weekly, and monthly food habits. They would concede that only eating Doritos for a month will probably affect a person’s health negatively, but would argue that so too would eating only organic apples for a month. These opponents take issue with lumping all food into two or three categories then systematically vilifying an entire category – nothing is that simple.

I think many people on this side of the issue would share similar concern over pesticides, farming and animal practices, and building large monocultures that can be completely decimated by evolving pests. However, they are quick to point out that while these things could be reformed, the incredible efficiency of this system has completely eliminated the prospect of massive food shortages and famines. Today, global hunger and food scarcity are not caused by a short food supply (which was the case in the past), they are caused by economic inequality and unfair trade/ownership practices. But the food system itself can surely feed everyone, a fact that has only become realized with the advent of industrialized food. The opponents are also critical of dismissing GMOs out of hand, stating that there is a reason science has not verified any detrimental health effects of GMOs, and that genetically modifying an organism in a laboratory essentially mirrors the same process that decades of cross-pollinating and hybridizing would achieve “naturally,” just in a faster and more efficient fashion. They argue that waging an ill-informed and one-sided war on all GMOs is creating an unnecessary fear among people. Because of the unfortunate association with anti-vaxers, many opponents unfairly dismiss the “real foodies” as, at best, uninformed or unrealistic about science, and, at worst, science-deniers that are too stubborn to let go of their narrow views.

The opponents of the “real foodies” also take issue with framing food choices as a kind of moral critique – who are they to tell anyone what they “should” be eating? The very use of the word “real” implies that everyone else is eating “fake” food or “crap” food. They also point out that the individuals who advocate for “real food” the loudest are usually the same people who are privileged with a number of resources.

Food Choices: Everyone Has an Opinion

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When I first started the challenge this month, I thought my biggest struggle would be having to make all my own food all the time. But I quickly learned that, while that is a struggle, the biggest challenge overall has been listening to everyone’s opinion of this month’s challenge. Some have been very critical of the challenge’s premise that these food choices are inherently “better” or “healthier” while others accept that as gospel (and stick to it!). Some assumed that all “real” food is healthy food and applauded the challenge, while others thought that “real” food is less healthy because it is so calorie dense, while still others were skeptical of any singular association between “real” food and health. Everyone seemed a bit curious about what I was eating, and everyone expressed some kind of concern that I would judge what they were eating.

I think this last point speaks to a very real truth about our collective relationship with food and why everyone I speak to seems to have an opinion on the challenge this month. For most of us, food is personal. We have particular tastes, habits, and preferences. We also have unique constraints that are outside our control: available income, access to stores that carry food, free time, allergies, and health problems. Most of us give some thought to our food and our health/life goals – whether that’s to feel healthy, lose weight, eat the “right” food in a particular social context, learn to cook, avoid cooking as much as possible, etc. When we listen to someone talk about food, we translate what they’re saying into our own personal food language – their relationship with food is translated by our relationship with food. I think this is one reason why talking about the challenge has elicited so many thoughts and reactions about food choices in general. Even though our experience with food is personal, talking about food is social – and we all bring our own cards to the table.

Food isn’t just social, it’s political.

I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t tell you, with absolute certainty, that not everyone can eat this way. As much as the ‘real foodies’ advocate changing your individual food choices, I am here to tell you that the substantial amount of resources required to eat this way is, without a doubt, exclusionary. More than anything, this food is expensive. I’ve already spent two times the amount of money on food for this challenge than I would in an entire month before this challenge, and I’m only 2/3 of the way through the month. Though the good-humored “real foodies” put out a lot of “budget-friendly” meal plans and ideas for stretching your dollars, it just doesn’t work if you make very little income (as grad students typically do) and live in a large southern California city (like San Diego). EVERYTHING is more expensive than the real foodies account for in their Midwestern budget meal plans. The only way I’ve managed to keep up with this level of spending is to deny almost everything else that costs money.

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But let’s talk other resources required for this lifestyle. The next biggest resource suck is time. Everything about this lifestyle requires so much time. It takes longer to walk through a farmers market getting what you need than running in and out of the grocery store. It takes longer to chop and dice fresh produce than heat a package of frozen veggies. Whole grain rice takes longer to cook than minute rice, and basically everything takes longer than putting a pre-made entree in the microwave. But the important thing to remember here is that just because it takes longer doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. There’s a lot of emphasis on ‘home cooking’ in this lifestyle because its assumed to be healthier, but there is very little emphasis on the fact that the only people who could reasonably achieve this are blessed with time – either because they don’t work (like many of the suburban moms who double as real food blog writers), have a high-income regular-hour job (unlike anyone who is working two jobs struggling to make ends meet), or because they do not have other significant time constraints (like me – a single, childless person with a relatively introverted social life).

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And what of the question of access? A significant proportion of the population lives in a food desert – a neighborhood where there are not stores that carry fresh produce. Most of the stores in these neighborhoods only carry processed foods (that, again, can vary in nutritional quality). It should go as little surprise that most of these neighborhoods are low income and nonwhite. So, from the benefit of economic and race privilege, I get to take for granted that the only thing standing between me and an organic, locally farmed apple is a quick walk to my car (another resource!) and a drive to a farmers market – in San Diego there is always at least one farmers market operating within a 40 mile radius.

Forging a Treaty in the Food Wars

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As I enter into the final days of this challenge, I propose a treaty between the two camps – I no longer want to straddle between the two sides. Instead, I offer to you my own way of dealing with this conflict, a personal way that makes the most sense to me. You can disagree or agree with it as much as you like.

  • Real foodies, please stop telling people how to eat. Stick with your own food choices and be done with it. You don’t need to proselytize your habits – you’re not saving anyone.
  • Opponents of real foodies, please stop dismissing real foodies as science deniers and fear mongers. There are many reasons to ‘eat organic’ that have nothing to do with the science behind food.
  • Everyone, realize that food is personal, social and political. Your food does not exist in a vacuum, and neither do your food habits.
  • Dispense with the phrase “real” food and other words that imply a moral critique, like: better, healthier, junk, crap, etc. All words have power, all words convey a meaning. Be careful with that meaning. For me, I am going to favor the terms “Whole, minimally processed” to describe what I’m eating this month.
  • I am going to avoid artificial foods,  not because they have been definitively proven to be bad for health, but because what I can get as an artificial food I can probably get as a non-artificial food. And since I’m not an artificial person, I think I want food that isn’t artificial either.
  • I think we don’t know definitively whether GMOs are harmful or not. I’m not convinced we should dismiss them out of hand as dangerous, and I’m not convinced that more longitudinal studies will reveal that GMO’s don’t have any negative health effects. The only thing I do know is that I don’t know. And because I’m just not sure (also because I’m not a huge fan of Monsanto’s legal and labor practices), I’ll err on the side of caution. To that end, it would be nice to have a label on foods with GMOs. However, I don’t think that label should be a warning label akin to what is put on cigarettes and alcohol.
  • Check your privilege. Always. Forever.

Thanks for reading! I’ll continue to send you updates about this months “Whole, Minimally-Processed Food” challenge!

Lessons from the First Week: What am I Eating?!?!

I have been sticking with the real food challenge for twelve days! As you know, this month’s challenge is to eat “real” food that is minimally processed, local and organic as much as possible, and containing absolutely nothing artificial. A good way to think about the challenge, I’ve learned, is to ask myself “did they have this in the 1700s?” If the answer is yes, I can probably eat it. This question is pretty easy when I think about processed food – “Did they have Cheese-Its in the 1700s – NO.” That’s pretty easy. But it isn’t always easy; the answer gets infinitely more complicated when I think about the conditions under which my food was grown/raised. For example, say I’d like to have some corn. They definitely had that in the 1700s, so it gets the green light, right? But wait, they didn’t have genetically-modified corn in the 1700s. So therein lies the complication. As I mentioned in my previous post, the spirit of the challenge is not just thinking about what I’m eating, but also where my food comes from and the kind of food/nutrients my food eats. But I’m learning that being aware of not just what you’re eating, where it comes from, AND the process of how it got to you is incredibly complicated. We have engineered a food system that is more opaque than transparent. As you can imagine, my food choices can get very complicated, very quickly. But I’ve managed the best I can over the last twelve days, and I’m quite proud of myself for sticking with it.

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Pretty accurate…

When starting the challenge, I first needed to take stock of what I already had in the way of food and decide what was and wasn’t going to work. Most of the produce in my fridge wasn’t organic, so I gave it to my roommate. About half of my non-refrigerated food was okay, and everything else I had to set aside so that I won’t eat it this month. Take a look:

Before Food

Top right are the okay foods…

After clearing out my food, I took a trip to the farmers market then to Sprouts to get what I thought would be a week’s worth of food….

 Haul

This is not a week’s worth of food…

I know my haul looks pretty impressive, but it is not a week’s worth of food. What it is missing is any coherent plan for MEALS; there are beautiful fruits and veggies here, but it lacks any plan for what I’ll be eating, day in and day out, for a week. I found myself needing to go back to the market a few days later. This brings me to Lesson #1 of October’s challenge: 

Always, always, ALWAYS have a meal plan.

Having a meal plan is not only necessary for avoiding repetitive trips to the market, it’s also very practical. When you’re unable to eat out because you cannot verify the ingredients in your meals, it makes grabbing a quick bite on the fly extremely difficult. Everything I eat needs to be made at home, including all my snacks. In addition, the need for a meal plan makes economic sense. Let’s face it, this food is expensive – and I don’t want any of it going to waste. In order to squeeze every last penny out of my food, I need to make a plan to be sure I eat all of it and not buy more (or less) than I need. So, what has my meal plan looked like? Let me give you a breakdown:

Breakfast: Fruit and Yogurt (often blended into a smoothie). This is such a staple. It’s easy, convenient, and if I blend it up, portable! I’ll usually add some flax meal to my smoothies for some added fiber and protein. Last week, I felt a bit more adventurous, so I boiled some farm fresh eggs, chopped them up, and placed them atop some local, all natural bread – both ingredients I bought at the farmers market. Yum!

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Lunch: As fresh as possible, with minimal cooking, has been my motto. Over the last twelve days, I’ve usually opted for a salad or another mostly cold veggie lunch. For a few days, I made some “Zesty Zucchini” which is basically just zucchini slices tossed with lime juice, cilantro, chili powder, and cumin. I paired the zucchini with organic pinto beans, tomatoes, and avocados. Quite delicious! I’ve also delighted in making new and interesting salads. For one salad I took leftover tofu and added it to some baby spinach, tomatoes, and avocado. I also got a bit creative and made a kale salad with carrots, red cabbage, home-roasted almonds, barley, and tomatoes. For the salad dressing, I use a sauce that I buy at the farmers market that is so phenomenal it is LITERALLY called “Bitchin’ Sauce.”

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Zesty Zucchini with Pinto Beans, Avocado, and Tomatoes

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Salad #1

Lunch

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Dinner: This has been my least-developed meal because I usually only make dinner on Mondays and eat leftovers for the rest of the week. Also, there were a couple of nights that I made my own organic popcorn and ate that for dinner (don’t judge me!). Also, I went to visit my family in Arizona for a few days and my dad was in charge of the cooking; I picked all the ingredients and my dad cooked them to perfection. Last week, I made dinner on Monday (10/6) that lasted me throughout the week. I added free pastured-chicken to southwest style veggies and cilantro and topped the whole thing with THE BEST smoked cheddar I have ever tasted in my life. YUM!

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I might make this again, super easy and tasty!

I also made a birthday dinner for my friend tonight but forgot to take a picture. I bought handmade linguini at the farmers market and added it to a bunch of veggies that I also got at the farmers market today. I made pasta primavera with a very tasty white wine butter sauce made from organic butter. I didn’t take a picture, but I have leftovers! I’ll take a picture of my leftovers along with my other dinners this week – I plan on getting a bit more creative!

Snacks: Almost always a piece of fruit just for the convenience of it. But I also made some awesome snacks of my own: home-roasted almonds and roasted chickpeas. For the almonds, I tossed a bunch of raw almonds with olive oil and some seasoning and baked in the oven for about 25 minutes. For the chickpeas, I rinsed a can of organic beans and let them dry completely. I baked those at 400 degrees for over an hour to make sure they were nice and crunchy. I then tossed the roasted chickpeas in some olive oil and spices. Two delicious snacks made with not too much effort (the oven does most of the work!).

 Snacks

As I mentioned previously, last weekend I visited my family in Arizona, which is lucky for my food challenge because my dad could probably barbecue an old shoe and make it taste good. While I was there, I had my dad take me fishing so that I could follow my dinner up the food chain and try one of Pollan’s suggestions in In Defense of Food, which is to eat wild food as much as you can. After spending the day fishing with my dad, I learned Lesson #2 of the October challenge: 

Honor thy food.

This is serious business. When I was living in China, it was very clear to me that most people there are much more in touch with their food. When you order fish in a restaurant, the waiter brings out a bucket of live fish and you choose the one you want. You can order a whole chicken from a market and the chicken you get will still have some feathers attached. Especially when it comes to meat, the message that I got in China was clear: this food was once alive. But in the United States, most of us buy our food in neatly packaged plastic containers, freed of most reminders that this thing was once alive. We can let meat spoil without realizing that something had to die just to be thrown away. We can let produce go bad without realizing that that plant had to die just to be thrown out. Now, to be clear, I’m not making an argument for vegetarianism necessarily (been there, done that). What I’m saying is that it is possible to neglect that our food, even our plant-based food, exists. Our food, whether plant- or animal-based, was alive, from organisms as alive as you or me. When you bite into a plum or cut into a piece of meat, you are eating an organism that was in the process of surviving on this earth, and now that organism has become part of your survival. To eat mindlessly, without a consciousness and a gratitude for your food, is just arrogant.

I learned this lesson very acutely after spending the day fishing with my dad. The day started out nicely – I was convinced we were going to catch a ton of fish.

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“I’m on a boat!”

We had just dropped anchor and set up the fishing poles when, just like that, we caught a fish! Well, actually, my dad was the one that set up the poles and reeled in the fish, but I was there for moral support!

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Go Dad!

I thought that was a great sign – we caught a fish and we were barely even trying! Surely we would catch more and we would all have a delicious fish dinner! But four hours later, we had still only caught one fish.

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You win some, you lose some….

After a long and rather uneventful day on the river, we packed up and headed home. I was grateful that we caught something, and that we weren’t dependent on fishing for survival. By the lottery of birth, we managed to be members of a society where we didn’t have to be dependence fishermen, so I knew that, even though we only caught one fish, we wouldn’t go hungry. But that is certainly not true for everyone in this world.

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Our little fish…

We took our fish home and my dad taught me how to fillet it properly. As it turns out, filleting a fish well is not something you know how to do automatically. But I managed, and while I was cutting the flesh I thanked the fish for being my dinner. My dad noticed that the fish didn’t have anything in its stomach, and that it must have been hungry when it caught the bait and got reeled in. That small fact made me feel so badly – this poor little guy was just looking for some food when all of a sudden he was caught and pulled to the surface. I thanked the fish again and silently apologized for tricking it into thinking it had found a meal when, really, I had found a meal. Then I handed my fish over to my dad to cook. I paid attention to how he cooked it, knowing full well that I could never make it taste as good as he could. And that night, I ate my little fish and thanked it once more.

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My fish along with some wild dove my dad had hunted previously and some veggies

All of your food, from the meat to the plants, was once alive. It had to die so that you could eat it. When you eat food, you’re eating something that once lived so that you can go on living. I have learned that all my food deserves for me to honor it by making sure it doesn’t get wasted (cue lesson #1 about a meal plan) and being aware of the life that it gives me.

I have other lessons that I’d like to share with you, but this post is already getting rather long. This weekend, I had a lot of really intense cravings and felt a bit impatient about needing to constantly prepare food, and I’d like to share some of my strategies and struggles with getting over those. I have also realized over the past twelve days that this lifestyle is fraught with political problems and questions of privilege and access, and I would feel fraudulent if I didn’t let you know how I’m thinking about and dealing with those issues. In addition, I want to clear up some of the misconceptions a lot of people have about these kinds of food choices. Believe it or not, “real” food does not equal “healthy” food. I’ve also noticed that everyone I talk to seems to have an opinion about this challenge that is good, bad, and everywhere in between. I’d like to unpack that a little.

All those lessons, and more, are soon to come in my next post. Until then, bon appetit!

October’s Challenge: Real Food

This month’s challenge comes from my dashing and daring older sister, Jessica.

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Jessica is a bit of a stickler when it comes to feeding herself and her family. She insists on buying organic as much as possible, avoiding food additives (such as artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives), and she categorically rejects foods made with GMOs, hormones, steroids, and excessive antibiotics. She’s really passionate about her food habits – I’ve seen her school people about food on more than one occasion – but she’s not necessarily dogmatic about them – I’ve also seen her eat Cheetos from time to time – but as a general rule of thumb, she tries to keep her food as clean and natural as possible.

So, when I asked my sister to think of a challenge for me, it came as little surprise that her challenge would be about food. But even more specifically, her challenge is about REAL food – meaning food that is (at some point) alive, close to the earth, minimally processed, non-artificial, and…well…real. Basically, if people were able to eat it in the 1700s, it’s probably a real food. So for the month of October, I can ONLY eat REAL FOODS.

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The Rules

(translation: what can’t you eat?)

Before I get into what I can’t eat, let’s talk about what I can eat. Throughout the challenge I’ll be using a cool blog for inspiration and clarification: 100 Days of Real Food. They have a really handy infographic on what real food is, which I’ve reproduced here.

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essica wants me to follow these guidelines, but she also wants me to step it up a notch. She wants me to make all my food organic as much as possible and keep in mind where my food is coming from so that I can try to eat as locally as possible. She said to me, “The challenge is not just about you learning more about your food and what kinds of food you’re eating, it’s also about seeing how your food affects the environment and trying to be as green as possible with your eating.” The local part is going to be difficult – especially when it comes to meet and dairy. But luckily, I live in San Diego, which is a veritable mecca of farmers’ markets! So for the challenge, I’ll be shopping at Farmers’ Markets as much as possible, noting where my food comes from as much as possible, and stopping by a local butcher. Yikes!

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Here’s what’s off-limits: refined grains (such as white/enriched flour), refined sugars (white sugar/corn syrup), artificial sweeteners (duh!), nothing out of a package that has more than 5 ingredients, no fast food, no fried food. In addition, Jessica wants me to be sure that I don’t consume GMO products, which means avoiding foods containing corn and soy (and their various derivatives) unless they are certified organic.

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In addition to these general rules, I’ll be using Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food as my guiding compass throughout the challenge. His motto for healthy eating is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Throughout the book, Pollan stresses that our food system is intricately connected to the Earth as well as all of our social customs surrounding what eating is and how it should occur. The farther our food gets from it’s natural connection to the Earth, the less nutritious and more hazardous it becomes. And, of course, we cannot change our food habits unless we also interrogate the social contexts surrounding our food habits. Pollan sets out some useful guidelines that he argues can equip a person to change their food habits while in the midst of a social food system that is incompatible with eating healthfully and naturally. Here are his suggestions that can apply to me during this month:

  • Don’t eat food that your great grandmother (or great great grandmother) wouldn’t recognize as food
  • Avoid food products (this means anything that isn’t a whole, natural food) that have ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Difficult to Pronounce
    • More than 5 in number
    • That include high fructose corn syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket, stay out of the middle
  • Shop at farmers’ markets as much as possible
  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
    • Meaning, it’s not just enough to avoid corn and soybeans if I want to avoid GMOs, I also need to look at the food that my food eats. Were the cows and chickens that supply my meat, eggs, and dairy fed corn (which they can’t digest and thus makes them more likely to get sick, thus the need for preventative antibiotics)? Are the plants I’m eating raised in synthetic fertilizers full of nitrates or sprayed with pesticides? Since all food is part of a system, I need to see my food as connected in a chain. I need to not only pay attention to the food, but also the earlier links in the chain!
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Eat as if you come from a traditional food culture (like French, Italians, Japanese, rural Chinese, etc)
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner (woo-hoo!!)
  • Be willing to pay more for quality food
  • Eat meals
  • Eat all your meals at a table
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does (i.e. no gas station food!)
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook and prepare your own food

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I know, it’s a lot.

This is all a bit overwhelming. But, I have confidence that I’ll be able to do it. I’ve been eating real food for 5 days now, and I’ve already learned a lot of lessons, like:

  • Shopping for groceries takes forever when you are reading every single label.
  • This lifestyle is NOT cheap (more on this later).
  • This lifestyle takes a lot of time and patience.
  • This is HARD – there are so many things in the grocery store that are NOT food!
  • Eating out is basically impossible.
  • When eating only real food, I’m eating less sugar overall.

I’ll get into these lessons, as well as my meal and snack strategies, in the next few days. I’m only 5 days into this challenge, and already it is quite difficult. But, I know it will be worth it at the end of the month. Stay tuned! 

Lessons from September’s Mindfulness Challenge

I’m late to update you all on the lessons I learned in September by practicing mindfulness. September was a busy work month for me. I spent most days writing, so I had little motivation to write for fun.

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I finished up the challenge by spending the last weekend in September without clocks. I took down or covered up all the clocks around me, including on my phone! I spent Friday evening through Sunday totally time-free.

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The point of going all weekend without being able to tell the time was to be more in touch with myself: sleep when tired, eat when hungry, etc. What I found after doing this was that I really did feel more in touch with myself, and allowing myself to operate according to my own body’s schedule kind of took some of the pressure off. I felt a general sense of easiness – like I didn’t have to do anything but check in with myself and act accordingly. That was nice. But it was also helpful that I didn’t have much going on that weekend, and I wonder if someone who has an active social life or kids would find the experiment to be rejuvenating or stressful. I personally liked it. I couldn’t make it into a lifestyle, especially because scheduling anything with anyone is virtually impossible if you can’t set a specific time, but as an occasional break, I think I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

In general – here are some of the overall lessons I’m taking away from September’s challenge:

#1: Life is full of noise. 

We are surrounded by noise! I learned this every time I had to meditate during September. I would settle myself down and begin to meditate, but would always be astounded by how incredibly noisy everywhere was. Even if it’s relatively silent there is still noise – planes flying overhead, the sound of traffic, the sound of birds, people walking by, someone in the house watching TV. This is something that, eventually, became so overwhelming to me. In my quest for silence, I could never really find it. Even during my moment in nature, it was still noisy. Now, I’ll take the noise of birds and breeze over the noise of a dump truck any day of the week, but I longed for the absence of sound. At one point, I actually put in ear plugs during my meditation so that all I could hear was my breath going in and out. Even then, I would hear the ringing in my ears. Everywhere, at every moment, there was sound!

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#2: Meditation can quiet the noise.

I eventually found that, as noisy as the world is, I could eventually drive it out during meditation. Not only would I quiet down my noisy mind, I eventually quieted the noisy world. By focusing on my breath and trying to calm everything down, eventually things got quieter. There were still noises, but I didn’t really register them. In other words, I couldn’t find the absence of sound, but I could find silence.

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I know, right?

#3: Yoga is okay, I guess.

I’ve never been a huge fan of yoga, which I briefly explain in this previous post. But I’ve been doing yoga more and more over the past couple of months, and it can be really nice as a form of meditation and a way to quiet the world. I don’t think I’ll start up yoga as a form of working out, but doing it to get in touch with my breath and my body has been quite nice. I’m going to take a yoga class over the next couple of weeks to keep up with the meditation aspect. But I don’t think I’ll become a yogi anytime soon.

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All things in moderation

#4: Habits are hard to break. 

In my last post I wrote about behavioral links – behaviors that, through the force of habit, I tend to do together. Well, even after a month of consistently challenging those links, I am still struggling with them. I suppose they took a while to get cemented, and cement breaks down really slowly. I know that my habits will take a long time to break down, and that I’ll have to continue using these mindfulness tools to make that happen.

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This is totally a metaphor for my life…

#5: When I feel the least able is when I need mindfulness the most.

There were so many moments in September when I didn’t want to meditate or when I was getting so utterly tired of not being able to multitask. I mentioned earlier that September was a busy work month for me, filled with lots and lots and lots of writing and intellectual theorizing. I wanted so many times to just veg out with some popcorn in front of the TV, and I would get so irked that I couldn’t do it. But then the challenged forced me to interrogate what I was really after: relaxation and turning off my brain (and a snack!). By forcing myself to ask, “What am I really seeking in this moment?” I was better able to give myself what I needed in a conscious, deliberate way. Likewise, there were moments when I really, REALLY wanted to multitask. I often wanted to check my email while riding the bus. I would think, “Ugh, it would be so much more efficient if I could get that out of the way!” But, again, I had to reflect on myself and my state of mind in those moments. I had to ask myself why I wanted that kind of efficiency, if there was something stressing me out that made me resent the few minutes I had to sit on the bus listening to music. I could usually find the motivation that was causing me that stress, then I could meditate on it. I would imagine it was a tight, knotted ball of string somewhere in my body, then I would breathe and imagine that with every out-breath the knots slowly loosened. That was enough to help me get through a frustrating moment, but the same stressful feeling would return again the next day (or a few hours later!). Each time something like that happened, when I started to resent the challenge, is when I knew I needed the challenge the most. When working through each of those moments, I knew I was doing myself a favor.

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That’s it for September’s challenge!

Thank you to Julia for thinking of such a great challenge for me.

Stay tuned, I’ll be posting about October’s challenge later tonight!