12 Days of Health

Oh, the holidays. This special time of year with So. Much. Excess. Parties, family, food, drinks, desserts, travel. While the holidays can mean lots of fun, it can also mean over extending ourselves, getting sick, feeling run down, and losing sight of our own health goals. If this sounds familiar, I encourage you to make this holiday season different! Last year I wrote a Holiday survival guide that covered a few important things to focus on during the holidays to support your health. This year I wanted to give you something more comprehensive - for mind, body and soul - and full of realistic tips and daily doable actions.

Inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, I’ve put together the 12 Days of Health for you this holiday season. These 12 actions will help you avoid illness, feel more energized, and have a happier, healthier holiday.

SHORTCUT: If reading this whole post seems like just one more thing you have to do and you ain’t got time for that, I get it! I’ll be posting one tip a day on social media, so play along and incorporate one action at a time, until you’ve got a whole array of healthy habits to ensure you’re feeling great this holiday season.

12 Days of Health

  

1. Stay Hydrated

This is the simplest and cheapest step you can take toward supporting your health. When we are even mildly dehydrated, we can feel sluggish, achy, and moody, as our body struggles to flush out toxins and stay in balance. Sometimes we think we’re hungry, when really our body just needs water.

I recommend drinking half your weight in ounces of filtered water each day. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs, drink 75 oz. of water. Does that seem like a lot? Start each morning with a full glass of water to rehydrate after sleeping. Try to drink a glass each hour. If you forget, try setting an alert on your computer or phone to remind you, and get a cute reusable water bottle to carry with you. You can add lemon, cucumber, or even drink herbal tea. But, if you drink caffeine, alcohol, or exercise, you’re gonna need to drink an extra glass to compensate.

Try it: Figure out half your weight and aim to drink that many oz. in filtered water today. Use the tips above to help, and if it seems like too much, start with what you can, and each day add an extra glass, until you’ve reached your goal.  

2. Sleep

The effect of sleep on our physical and mental health is really underrated, and is often the first thing we sacrifice when our schedules get full. All those late nights out while still trying to maintain our regular work and daily schedules can really take a toll on our health. Without adequate sleep, our hormones quickly become unbalanced, leading to increased appetite, poor mood, lowered immunity and a decreased ability to respond to stress. Then we often compensate with too much caffeine and sugar, we skip workouts because we’re tired, we get grumpy with family and start to resent the extra obligations that come during the holidays.

Try it: Tonight, block off at least 6 hours to sleep, 8 is even better. Make sure not to have caffeine at least six hours before you go to sleep, even longer if you’re more sensitive. Help yourself wind down at night with a cup of herbal tea, a bubble bath, and make sure to turn off all screens (even your phone!) an hour before you go to sleep.

3. Manage Stress

This one gets personal. The holidays can stir up all kinds of emotions, and not all of them are always pleasant. Anxiety over seeing family, grief over a lost loved one, financial pressure to buy gifts, or simply just the added busyness can stress us out. While those things might be unavoidable, we are in control of how we react to them.

Meditation is a proven method of stress reduction, improving our ability to calm ourselves and live in the present moment. You can try any number of the available meditation apps, free videos online, or check the schedule at your local yoga studio or wellness center for a meditation or restorative yoga class.

If meditation isn’t your thing, there are lots of other options. Make a commitment to take 3 deep breaths when you wake up, before you eat, when you find yourself getting upset, and before you go to bed. Keep a journal, and get out your frustrations on paper, as well as reminding yourself what you’re grateful for. Go for a walk at lunch or after work to clear your head. At some point in your day, take a pause and reset, doing whatever it is that allows you to stay grounded and centered.

Try it: Before bed tonight, set a timer and give yourself 5 minutes to sit quietly and breathe. If you have a favorite meditation method then use that, or if you’re newer to it, simply sit comfortable, and focus on the breath flowing in and out of your body. As thoughts come in, just notice and try to let them go, coming back to breath. Tomorrow, do the same thing as soon as you wake up. Even if it seems difficult, try to stick with it for at least two weeks. Just like anything, it takes practice.

 4. Increase Your Nutrient Intake

Make it your mission this month to eat as many nutrient dense foods as you can, as a way to stock up on immune fighting, metabolism boosting, digestion supporting, detoxifying nutrients that help keep you healthy. This means more vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices, beans and lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds and fermented foods. Check out the farmers’ market and see what produce is in season to help get inspired. For example, there’s tons of citrus in season now, which is perfect for increasing vitamin C, an essential nutrient for our immune system and important antioxidant. When your body has nutrient reserves, it can withstand a few late nights, an extra cocktail, or a little extra sugar much better than if it was already depleted.

I know when the days are shorter and the temperature dips, many of us just want carb-laden comfort food. That’s ok! If you’re making pasta, add veggies like broccoli and zucchini, or get extra fiber and protein by adding white beans. Enjoy warm soups and stews with lots of veggies and spices, snack on nuts and fruit instead of leftover pie, and really take advantage of the quiet meals you have at home to nourish yourself.   

Try it: Make this simple soup tonight for dinner. Check out my pinterest boards, browse through past blogs, grab a cookbook, or search online to plan at least 3 home cooked, veggie-filled dinners this week. Bonus if you make extras for lunch! Try to enjoy each meal slowly, sitting down, and without distractions from your phone or other screens. Your brain, and digestion, will thank you!

Kale and White Bean Soup

Vegan and gluten free'

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

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1 small bunch kale (about 6 leaves), any kind you like, de-stemmed and chopped

1 small yellow onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 shallot, minced

3 carrots, chopped

2 large tomatoes, chopped

1/4 tsp. each dried rosemary, oregano and thyme

1 bay leaf

1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

4 cups vegetable broth

sea salt and black pepper

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.

Add onion and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Stir occasionally for about 5 minutes.

Add carrots, garlic, shallot and herbs, cooking for about 5 minutes, lowering the heat or adding a bit more oil if garlic starts to burn.

Stir in the tomatoes and beans, letting the tomatoes cook down for about 5 minutes.

Add the vegetable broth and bay leaf and simmer, stirring occasionally for at least half an hour, until the carrots are tender.

Stir in the kale and turn off the heat, covering for few more minutes, just until the kale softens. Taste and season with salt and pepper as you like.

Top with parsley, green onion or any other fresh herbs, and enjoy!

5. Move Your Body

Ok, we all know exercise is essential to our health, from supporting our heart, to improving mood, to managing a healthy weight. Sure, running, yoga, interval training and other heart pumping exercise is all great and definitely encouraged, but sometimes to help balance out all the energy we put out at this time of year, some calmer movement really does the trick. A walk, yard work, stretching in your living room while watching the Great British Baking Show (yep, guilty!), it all helps. Try to get at least 30 minutes a day of movement, to counteract all the sitting most of us do all day long.

Try it: Decide how you will get your movement in today. Is it a class, a run, a yoga video at home? If you need motivation, call a friend to join you. Look ahead at your week and schedule in at least 30 minutes of movement for 5 days in the next week.

6. Reduce Sugar and Processed Food

We all know sugar is no good for us. It increases inflammation, weakens the immune system, and of course, sabotages our attempts at weight loss. If you are going to eat sweet treats, try to pick one or two you REALLY want. For me, that’s usually something homemade (not necessarily by me), because the packaged stuff is never really that good anyway. Avoid the mindless grazing and be intentional with your choices. Serve yourself a small piece, or slowly savor just a few bites and then put the plate aside. Once you start eating less sugar, you’ll be more sensitive to the taste and the effects, and you’ll crave less of it. Swapping dessert for a flavorful tea or fruit is also a great habit to get into if you’re a chronic sugar eater.

Get in the habit of reading labels. Many of us eat sugar without even realizing it if we’re eating something store-bought. Pre-made food, bars, baked goods, even dressings and sauces often have hidden sugar. If it’s in the first three ingredients listed, pass. Save your sugar intake for when its really worth it, rather than it sneaking into your food unnecessarily. And of course, avoid drinking your sugar in sodas or syrup flavored lattes.

Try it: Think about all the foods you ate yesterday with sugar, either intentionally or hidden in something. Today, try to half that amount. If you turn toward sugar as a pick-me up later in the day, instead try green tea, or a snack with some fat and protein, like an apple with nut butter.

7. Limit Alcohol

This seems to be one of the toughest ones for many of my clients. “It’s a party, we all want to enjoy a few drinks, what’s the harm?” Aside from the negative health effects of alcohol consumption (which I won’t go into, this is a holiday post and I don’t want to bum you out), drinking also gets in the way of many of the other 11 items here. Think about it: How likely are you to exercise if you’re tired and hungover? Are you really going to have a salad for lunch if you’re craving grease and salt to soak up all the drinks from the night before? And alcohol definitely interrupts your sleep, making the next day just that much more of a struggle to get through.

Aim to give your liver a break by only picking two days a week to drink. But, that doesn’t mean go crazy on those two days. On occasions where you do decide to drink, limit yourself to just a few, drinking slowly and really savoring it, and alternate with water so you stay hydrated and still have something in your hand to sip. I know its not easy, but you’ll be doing yourself a HUGE favor if you commit to this one, I promise.

Try it: Take a look at the calendar and mark off days this month where you won’t drink at all. If you know you’re going to a party tomorrow, skip the red wine at home on the couch tonight. At your next event, decide beforehand - while sober - how many you will have, and stick to it!

8. Be Prepared

I mean this in two ways: The first being specific to holiday gatherings, where you might not have much control over what is being served. Ask your host if you can bring something to share, that way you’ll have at least one healthy dish at the party to eat. If bringing food isn’t an option, eat a small salad or bowl of soup before you go, so you’re not starving and end up having a cheese platter for your dinner. 

Being prepared is also a good idea to implement in your kitchen as well, all year long. We all know that when you’re starving, or running out the door, it’s hard to eat well. The solution is Meal Prep. Spend a few hours shopping, prepping and cooking food one afternoon, and save yourself a TON of time later in the week. My go-to items are a soup or chili, roasted veggies, washed and cut fresh veggies, a grain like brown rice or quinoa, and a dressing or sauce. When you have all the components ready to go, all it takes is a few minutes to put together a healthy, balanced meal.

Try it: Decide which meal you tend to have the most trouble with, do you rush out the door in the morning without a good breakfast? Do you usually eat out for lunch, or is it dinner that seems like too much trouble every night? This week, meal prep at least 3 days, for one of those. Check out my previous post on meal prep for some ideas. Commit to making your own food so you can fill your meals with nourishing, tasty ingredients!

9. Prioritize Yourself

If you were to make a list of the most important things to you, would you be in the top 3? Are you even on it? Many of us take our health for granted, only paying attention to ourselves when something is REALLY wrong. But taking care of yourself, every day, is preventive health, and it can make a big impact. It takes a bit of practice, and sometimes, a mindset shift, but you deserve this.

The holidays are a time where many of us (myself included here) over extend ourselves. But how can you take care of and support those around you, if you are tired, sick and run-down? Nobody can exercise for you, nobody can feed you healthy food, nobody can relax for you. Only you have the ability to know what you need, and take care of yourself. Commit to carving out time every day for yourself. Some days it could be 10 minutes to meditate, or just sit and breathe. Other days it could be time at the gym, a massage, or a bubble bath and a good book. If you really can’t find the time, then it might be time to figure out what else in your day can you say now to? Bump yourself up that list of priorities. Put it in your calendar just like anything else you don’t want to forget, and commit.

Try it: What have you been putting off that you really want to do, just for yourself? Make it happen, today. If you need to schedule it, make that appointment today, write it down, and do not cancel.

10. Get Some Sunlight

As the days get shorter, many of us miss out on the sun. Especially if you work inside, you may miss daylight all together during the winter. Turns out not getting enough sunlight can really effect our health.

  • Vitamin D, which our body produces from UV rays of the sun, is essential in regulating our immune system. 

  • Some evidence shows that our brains produce more serotonin on sunnier days, affecting our mood. Personally, I know I experienced some seasonal depression my first year of college in Seattle during the winter, when it felt like months of gray skies would never let up.

  • Getting natural light exposure during the day will also help you sleep better at night.

Try it: Today (or the next day its sunny where you live), make a point to spend some time outside soaking up some rays. If you’re fair skinned, even just 10 minutes can do the trick. If you don’t burn easily, try 15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen. You can take a walk, tend to the garden, or just sip some tea while feeling the sun on the your skin, knowing its for your health!

11. Get Cozy

Despite the fact that December is often a whirlwind of various holiday events, this time of year is really the time to turn inward, slow down and get cozy. Without the seriousness of meditation, or the effort of exercise, I’m referring to taking care of yourself in a more seasonal way. That might mean curling up under a blanket in your favorite fuzzy socks and reading book. Or inviting a few friends over for a movie night and making popcorn. Really, its up to you to personalize how you like to get warm and snuggly and create a sense of contentment.

I recommend including a cup of tea, tonic or latte to bump up the coziness. Tea contains a high number of antioxidants, some of the highest are in green or white tea, but herbal tea like rooibos, oolong or chamomile each have wonderful benefits as well. You can also use spices and adaptogens, (plants that have special affects on the nervous and endocrine system to help the body adapt to stress), to amp up the health factor.

Try it: Snuggle up and try this anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant rich Turmeric Cocoa tonight.

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            Turmeric Cocoa

Ingredients

half a cup of hot water

half a cup of almond milk (or preferred nut milk)

¼ tsp. dried turmeric

¼ tsp. raw cacao powder (not cocoa)

1/8 tsp. dried ginger

1/8 tsp. cinnamon

A pinch of black pepper (helps the turmeric absorption)

1/2 tsp. coconut butter or 1/4 tsp. coconut oil

½ tsp. honey (a little more if you need it sweeter, or swap for maple syrup if you’re vegan)

In a small saucepan, warm the water and milk. Add each of the ingredients, saving the honey for last and whisk for a few minutes on low. Once the mixture is warm and dissolved, whisk in the honey and pour into your favorite mug.  

Serves 1

12. Enjoy

Have fun this holiday season! Being healthy doesn’t mean depriving yourself of things you enjoy. When it comes to your health, try to stick to the 80 /20 rule. Stay on track, making healthy choices 80% of the time, and 20% of the time allow yourself to do something just because you want to, whether it’s a brownie, staying out late because you’re having SO much fun, or having fries instead of salad. The trick is not letting those indulgences throw you off entirely. Rather than thinking, “Well I blew my diet, might as well go crazy and try again tomorrow”, think “ooh, that treat was great and totally worth it, I’ll be able to balance it out by having a veggie filled dinner.” If you’re worried about knowing what 20% looks like, keep a diet journal. Writing your food down will help you keep track of your choices and keep you honest.  

This is a time of joy and celebration! When you allow yourself some treats and indulgences, you’re more likely to stick to your healthy habits long term than if you deprived yourself entirely. And most importantly, don’t waste time feeling guilty or ashamed if you’re not “perfect”. If you’re gonna eat the brownie, ENJOY the brownie and move on with your life!

Follow me on instagram and Facebook for daily reminders of all 12 tips and details about how to incorporate each action into your daily life. If you want extra help meal planning, plant-based recipes, specific nutrient recommendations just for you, or need some motivation and accountability, I’m here to help. And I love to hearing from you! Let me know how these actions go, and if you’ve got any of your own secrets for keeping the holidays healthy!

Happy Holidays!

Never Make a Boring Salad Again

When I was growing up, my dad did all of the cooking. My mom's contribution was to make a salad to go along with dinner every night. She meant well. Adding a side salad to your meal increases your fiber intake (most Americans don’t get enough), vitamins and antioxidants to your meal. But often these salads were the same three or four ingredients, along with a few different options of store bought dressing to chose from. It got pretty boring to be honest, (sorry, Mom), and I think that's why salads have a bad rep. Remember the episode of the Simpson's when Lisa becomes a vegetarian? Here, I'll refresh your memory. 

 
 

 

Poor Lisa, I can relate. A bowl of veggies usually just isn't as popular as other more flavorful (but probably unhealthy) food. Most people think having a salad as a meal won't be filling enough, worry they won't feel satisfied, and they just want something heartier and more, well, interesting. If you go to a restaurant, the solution to this is to add a protein, usually meat or fish, occasionally tofu at the more vegetarian friendly places. And while that's always an option to help your salads be more filling, there's so much more we can do to actually get us excited about having all those veggies we know we should be eating!

Whether your goal is to eat more vegetables, bring your own lunches to school or work, cut down on processed food or just get out of your food rut, this post is for you. I want you on Team Salad! For people who don’t like to cook or don’t have a lot of time, salads are the quickest and easiest way to get more servings of veggies into their day. My hope is that by mixing it up a bit and adding more variety, you'll not only boost the nutrients in your diet, but also get inspired to play a bit in the kitchen, and actually be happy to eat a salad. Let's prove Homer Simpson wrong, shall we?

 

20 ingredients to help jazz up your salads, make them more satisfying, and maybe even win some friends. 

  1. Roasted veggies like sweet potatoes, beets or cauliflower (Pro tip: Meal prep these to have them ready to go anytime you want.)

  2. Sauerkraut

  3. Kimchi

  4. Beans, like garbanzo, white beans or kidney

  5. Lentils

  6. Avocado

  7. Hard boiled egg

  8. Nuts, like walnuts, almonds or pecans

  9. Seeds, like sunflower, hemp or pumpkin

  10. Fresh herbs like parsley, basil or cilantro

  11. Olives

  12. Artichoke hearts

  13. Sun-dried tomatoes

  14. Hearts of palm

  15. Grilled corn

  16. Change up your greens, adding massaged kale, arugula, or spinach instead of using only lettuce.

  17. Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)

  18. Falafel : homemade, or I like the frozen ones from Eat Gud.

  19. Veggie patty : homemade, or with quality ingredients like Hilary's Eat Well.

  20. Leftover quinoa or brown rice

 

 
salad.jpg

Never make a boring salad again.

 

Now, let's talk dressing. I think we all know that if we're trying to be healthy by eating a salad, but then drown it in Ranch dressing, it pretty much defeats the purpose. My go-to homemade dressing are a simple vinaigrette and a tahini dressing. Both are simple and delicious, and taste good on a variety of salads. Make a batch and store for a week in the fridge, so they're ready to go when you need them. 

 

 

Tahini Dressing

1/2 cup tahini

1/4 cup warm water, more if needed to attain desired thickness

juice of half a lemon

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/4 tsp. turmeric

1 small pinch of sea salt

 

 

Herbed Vinaigrette

1/4 cup organic, extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. dijon mustard

2 tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. red wine vinegar

1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1 tbsp. chopped fresh herbs, such as dill, basil, thyme or chives

Small pinch of sea salt

 

If you've got some other favorite salad fixings, I'd love to hear! And as always, if you're curious about specific foods that might help support your personal health, please send me a message and let's talk!

 
 

Ok, one last time. It’s just so catchy.

 

Holiday Survival Guide

Oh man, the holiday season is almost here!  Are you ready? Ugly sweater parties, cookies, cocktails, office parties, dinners, shopping, family parties, baking, wine, and did I mention parties? Many of us have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. It's great getting together with friends and family to celebrate, but it can also be really stressful, physically exhausting and emotionally draining. For those of us that are trying to eat healthy, it can seem almost impossible to stay on track. I hear people say things like, "Well I'm giving up now, but I'll get back on track after Christmas", or "There's too much going on, I can't commit to eating well until after the New Year".  It doesn't have to be like that - why let the holidays derail you and your health?

Going crazy with indulgences one month will only make it harder to change the next. Wouldn't you prefer to feel energized, looking and feeling great throughout the holidays, rather than falling into bad habits, fighting fatigue and gaining 5 pounds in cookie weight by the time New Year's Eve rolls around? Eating well and taking care of yourself will also keep your immune system strong, helping to avoid those winter colds and flu that often go around at this time of year. So give yourself the gift of health this holiday season (sorry, couldn't resist the cheesiness) and end 2017 feeling good!

How to Stay Healthy Throughout the Holidays 

1. Get Sleep

OK, I know you want to stay up all night partying with your friends, but sleep is really a lifesaver. Without sufficient sleep, our hormones become imbalanced, leading to an increase in appetite, stress and even depression. The last things we need more of during the holidays, right? The next day we turn to caffeine and sugar to keep up our energy, which throws off our blood sugar regulation, and the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and stimulants often continues. Personally, exercise often goes out the window if I'm tired, I'm way less likely to make that morning yoga class if I didn't get enough sleep the night before. Commit to getting at least 6 hours of sleep a night, even if it means leaving a little bit earlier than others, or not scheduling anything early the next morning. And on the nights you can get more, sleep up to 8. If you feel like you need a nap, aim for either 20 minutes, or 90 minutes to avoid waking in the middle of a sleep cycle, which could leave you feeling even more groggy. 

2. Bring Something Healthy

Of course, check with the host first, but most people are happy for you to contribute food to their event. That way, you know you have at least one healthy option. I usually bring a big seasonal salad, maybe with roasted veggies or quinoa to make it more filling.  Or maybe its a gluten free or low-sugar banana bread for a healthier desert option. If it's not an event you're able to bring food to, don't despair. Just eat a small amount of healthy food before you go. Having a small bowl of veggie soup, a salad, or a hard-boiled egg beforehand means you're way less likely to over eat the unhealthy party food options. 

3. Boost the Nutrients

Let's be honest, you're not eating party food and drinking cocktails for every meal this month. So for all those meals you do have control over, choose extra healthy options! Load up on veggies of all colors, healthy fats like avocado and raw nuts and seeds, and clean protein. Avoid packaged and processed food. Maybe even take a probiotic or multi-vitamin. Do not let Sunday's cookie exchange extravaganza be an excuse to eat crap all day Monday. Get back into your healthy eating groove right away, and take advantage of all the times you do have healthy options. Cooking meals at home is the best way to ensure you're getting the healthiest ingredients. If you're looking for convenient ideas, check out this information on meal prepping

4. Stay Hydrated (watch the alcohol)

Most of you are probably saying, "Ha, yeah right". I know it's the holidays, and booze is everywhere. Aside from the dangers of excess alcohol consumption, drinking negatively affects our sleep and appetite, so the effects last longer than just that one party. Imagine how you'd feel this month without any hangovers? Amazing, right? So my suggestion is simply to drink less alcohol and drink more water. After every glass of alcohol (wine, beer, spirits, whatever), have a glass of water. This will keep you hydrated, reduce hangovers, and ultimately reduce your total alcohol consumption. Instead of spending the day post-party on the couch eating potato chips, you'll have the energy to stick to your exercise routine, be productive and make healthy food choices. 

5. Don't Deprive Yourself

Let's be real, you're going to have some less than healthy food this season. And that's OK! Just don't overdo it. Be selective about what you choose, indulging in the things you really want, not just the things that happen to be in front of you. Cut yourself a small piece of pie. Try the best looking cookie, not all of them. Remember you don't have to eat everything on your plate. You'll feel a lot happier if you allow yourself to have just a little bit of the "bad" stuff instead of completely missing out.

6. Exercise & Practice Self Care

Exercise reduces stress, increases our good mood hormones, and helps us avoid gaining extra holiday weight. As your calendar fills up with parties and events this season, be sure to schedule in time to exercise as well. Maybe take that friend who's in town visiting to a workout class with you instead of going to the bar? Or suggest a walk or hike with your family, instead of another dinner? As things get busy, commit to making time for this, otherwise it probably won't happen. This really holds true of all types of self care - make sure you're saving a little time for yourself, to do whatever it is that recharges your batteries. It's totally normal for the holidays to bring up feelings of loneliness or depression, so practices like journaling or meditation can be really helpful.  If you're feeling depleted or overwhelmed give yourself permission to decline an invitation and spend a quiet evening drinking tea and taking a bath.  

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I hope you find this list helpful and realistic, so you can set attainable goals this holiday season. Try these suggestions out and let me know how it goes! If you've got a specific challenge coming up, or a question about your health, shoot me a message, I'd love to help! 

Happy (and healthy) Holidays! 

Mindful Eating

I think we can all agree that eating well is important to our health. Extremely important. But sometimes just as important as what you eat, is how you eat. Most of us don't put a lot of thought into it, we just get the food in our body and move on. However a lot of digestive complaints, and subsequent health issues, stem from improper digestion caused by the way we eat. 

Our bodies do a lot of work when we consume food. They release hormones, secrete enzymes, move muscles, and communicate to other cells to digest the food, assimilate nutrients, and store energy from our meal. All of this happens without any conscious participation from us. This happens thanks to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS has three branches, enteric, sympathetic, and parasympathetic. We won't get into the enteric nervous system now, but its also really important for digestion.

Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for reacting to real or perceived stress. That’s right: whether you’re running from a cheetah, or getting yelled at by your boss, your body has many of the same responses. Mainly, your blood gets pumped to your extremities (and away from organs like your stomach) in case you need the extra energy to run. It also releases cortisol and excitatory hormones and neurotransmitters. The take away message for today is: it slows down any processes not necessary for immediate survival, in other words, digestion. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is also known as “feed and breed”. It handles those other activities we need to survive in the long term, once that cheetah has gone away. This is the state we want when we are eating and digesting.

So how do we attain this? Doesn’t our body just do it naturally? Not necessarily. Our body is constantly taking in information from our environment that will dictate how it reacts. Without getting too much into the physiology of it all, we basically have to create an environment where the body can relax and fully focus on the task at hand, in this case, eating and digesting. Because if we’re running from a cheetah, our body isn’t worried about digesting that meal you just ate. Remember how I said our bodies respond the same to real or perceived stress? Well, guess what. If you’re feeling stressed or upset about something while you eat, your body won’t be focused on digesting your meal either. So when eating right after an argument, while worrying about your loved ones, or even feeling sad or mad about the state of the world, you won’t be optimally digesting your food either.

So, why does all this matter? Just about every client I work with at some point or another complains of some digestive issues, like bloating, gas, constipation, or stomach pains. Certainly food sensitivities, imbalanced gut bacteria, and a variety of other things can cause these symptoms. But how you are eating should be first on the checklist when trying to improve your digestion. It's the easiest to change really, and doesn't even involve a trip to the grocery store or a fancy supplement. 

Mindful eating is the solution. It is simply a way of being aware not only of what, but of how you’re eating. Here are some techniques you can try to set yourself up for optimum digestion and assimilation of your food and nutrients. 

1.     Chew Your Food – Seems so obvious, right? In reality, most people don’t chew their food enough. Chewing mixes the food with digestive enzymes in the saliva and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Different types of food require different amounts of chewing of course, but try to chew until the food is all soft and blended, no small bits left. You can start by counting your normal amount of chews on the first bite, and then add 5 more on the next, and so on until your food is liquid before swallowing. 

2.     Pay Attention – So many of us eat distractedly. We eat at the computer, watching TV, while driving texting or doing 17 other things at the same time. While this might seem efficient in terms of saving time, it is totally inefficient for your digestion. When your brain is focused on other things, it can’t fully focus on all of the actions necessary for digestion. The result? Undigested food that can cause bloating, gas, and decrease nutrient absorption. Instead, try to pay attention to your meal. Enjoy the smell of your food, savor the flavors, notice the colors and textures. 

3.     Be Grateful, Calm and Present - Avoid eating when feeling upset or stressed out. I often suggest to clients to take 3 deep breaths when they first sit down for a meal. Deep breathing helps to calm down the nervous system and relax us. Whether you say grace before or a meal or not, taking a moment to be thankful for even having food in the first place, can help bring yourself into the present moment and allow other worries to fall away. Try to let go of anything nagging you from the past or concerns about the future, and focus on the present moment while you enjoy your meal.

4.     Eat Slowly – This is key not only for optimum digestion, but for weight loss as well. It takes 20 minutes for the body to register it is full. The fast food revolution has done as no favors, and certainly normalizing quick meals is one of its drawbacks. Food is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated. If you’re a fast eater, try putting your fork down every 3 bites. If you’re with other people, take time to converse during your meal, taking breaks between bites. Once you start chewing your food more and eating without distraction, meals naturally take longer. But if you’re curious, eat your next meal in typical fashion and time it. Then, try to make the meal after that last 5 minutes longer.

5.     Stop Before You’re Full – In Okinawa, Japan, one of the world’s Blue Zones, where its citizens live longer than most, many people practice Hara Hachi Bu. This ancient teaching says to eat until you are 80% full. When you eat slowly enough to notice signs of fullness before you’ve overdone it, not only will you feel better and avoid that uncomfortably full feeling, but you’ll avoid overeating and weight gain from oversized portions.

 
This beautiful and healthful bowl of food is from  Palette food and juice . hard not to appreciate and slow down when eating a meal like this!

This beautiful and healthful bowl of food is from Palette food and juice. hard not to appreciate and slow down when eating a meal like this!

 

Becoming more aware of how we're eating really can have profound effects on our health.  Give these suggestions a try, and notice how you feel. It may not happen right away, but over time you'll train yourself to eat in a more relaxed, mindful state. You may notice you feel less discomfort after meals, have more energy, or even lose a few pounds. You may also be more aware of how the meal you've had makes you feel, a great tool for eating the foods that are right for your body. 

As always, I love hearing feedback from you, so leave a comment! If mindful eating seems impossible, contact me for more support.

Happy eating!