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Posts Tagged ‘health’

The other day at the gym, I was on the elliptical machine. It’s my favorite machine to work out on as it’s low impact but really efficient at burning calories. When I’m on the elliptical, I try to maintain a heart rate of around 150. For someone my age and weight, it’s a good speed. I spend 25 minutes on the machine when I use it and I find that the time usually goes quickly as long as I have some good music to listen to. Last week, I forgot my headphones. Those were the longest 25 minutes I’ve ever spent in the gym. I never knew how much music really contributed to my activity until I no longer had it. Instead, I had to look around the gym for lack of anything interesting to do.

In order to keep my heart rate at around 150, I usually move at about four miles per hour on the machine. This day, I was really pushing myself and was up to 4.3 mph and had sweat pouring off of me. I felt pretty good about myself, my progress and my ability. That’s when The Gym Guy showed up. TGG is a great person, I’m sure. When he goes home, his kids are probably happy to see him. TGG has a good job and he’s good at what he does, he just happens to also be really good at using elliptical machines. Probably because he’s there a lot. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. The Gym Guy steps up to the machine next to me and proceeds to move at a pace I didn’t know the machines were capable of. Because I had nothing else to do, I looked at the readout on his machine. He was going nearly 12 miles per hour! He was sprinting on the elliptical machine while I plodded along at about a third of his rate. I figured he’d slow down eventually but TGG just kept it up. I think he may have gotten faster as he got warmed up. TGG was master of the elliptical machine and I was getting schooled in what they were capable of. TGG was so good at it that he didn’t need to hold the handles I had to use for stability and to monitor my heart rate. TGG just moved while his arms pumped in much the same way as an Olympic runner’s. It was, to say the least, impressive.

The problem with being next to someone like TGG is the inevitability of the comparisons between yourself and him. Without my music to distract me, I couldn’t help watching the show as it unfolded. I had to wonder if it were even possible for me to get the elliptical machine to move that fast. If I did, could I maintain a speed like that? If I could, for how long? TGG didn’t seem to be letting up any time soon. Then, I realized he’d already traveled much farther on his machine than I had on mine, though I’d been there much longer than him. If we were on a track, he would have given me a half mile head start and then passed me without breaking a sweat. TGG was good and I was bad. I’m not stupid, I learned that lesson fast. I learned it as fast as TGG was running on his machine.

That’s when I remembered something: I’m not The Gym Guy and he’s not me. TGG has been working out on these machines for a long time. TGG is in good physical shape. TGG isn’t trying to overcome a lifetime of obesity. TGG is not celebrating every pound lost. TGG is (probably not) monitoring every calorie and making sure it’s the best possible one to ingest at any given moment. TGG is good but I’m good too. I remember the lessons I learn on the meditation bench: the mind makes good, the mind makes bad. With no mind, there is no good and there is no bad. If I were to finish my exercise without a sense of failure, I had to let go of my thinking. Attachment to thoughts and illusions of “goodness” or “badness” had to be put aside. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply for a moment, watched my heart rate drop though I was still moving at 4 mph and let go of my mind. It was time for elliptical meditation.

TGG was still there when I finished my 25 minutes. He was still going strong and his arms and legs moved with speed and purpose. He was doing what his body needed him to do. I had completed doing what mine needed. The last ten minutes of my exercise passed as quickly as if I had my headphones on. Without the burden of thought and the struggle against my mind, time moved forward with ease. My body moved while my mind was still. I was no longer “bad” and he was no longer “good”. We were both two people using the elliptical machines and we both benefited from the experience. I wiped down my machine and felt good for TGG and hoped he would continue to keep his body in good shape and know the joy of having a mind as fit as his body.

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There is a lot that I could write about right now in regards to my life, weight loss and how my Buddhist practice is getting me through some very stressful times but I can’t bring myself to write about that in much detail right now. Instead, I can assure you that I’m exercising, eating healthy and maintaining a vibrant practice that is making some very tough times bearable. Instead, I thought I’d share a few quick thoughts about some of the things I’ve been using lately to help me keep my life on track and my health improving.

As I’ve been actively trying to eat healthy and exercise more in order to lose weight, I’m constantly on the lookout for great vegetarian recipes. For some time, I’ve been aware of a site called Yummly however, I’ve not used it as much as I should. That’s changed recently. Yummly is like a google for recipes and they bill themselves as having the ability to search every recipe in the world. They have a great section of vegetarian recipes available here. I’ve been able to find a lot of different recipes here that have inspired me to create some really tasty meals. The ability to search by ingredient or taste profiles or by category make finding things quick and easy. Regardless of what you like to eat, you’ll be able to find something here to inspire you to make something delicious.

Another new favorite is a blog called The First Mess. Laura, the author of the blog, not only creates amazing recipes but the photographs that accompany the recipes are works of art in their own right. Her commitment to creating fresh and healthy food comes through in each of her posts and the recipes there are all wonderful to read through and look at.

As I’ve said many times here, I’m a person who relies on their smart phone for almost everything. If there’s an app for it, I’ve probably seen it or tried it. One of my new favorite apps is called OurGroceries. It is designed for quick and easy sharing of list data between multiple users and works on the computer, Android, iPhone and Blackberry phones. It makes keeping track of groceries easy and as soon as an item is added to a list, that item shows up across any device that is authorized to see it. Another great feature is the Recipe section. It allows you to specify the ingredients needed for a recipe and quickly add them to a list if you need to get something at the store for something you plan on making soon. When coupled with the recipes I’m finding from Yummly and The First Mess, this app keeps me from missing important items that I’ll need and saves me from making multiple trips to the store.

Speaking of apps, I also recently downloaded an app called allthecooks. It’s for Android and iPhone and also available as a web site. It’s got a lot of nice social features and, while it’s not as nice of an interface as Yummly, it’s a great way to find recipes on the go when all I have is my phone. I’ve found a few really great vegetarian recipes there and a few meals I’ve found on this app have made it to my meal plan for the upcoming week.

I have also been getting a lot of use out of an app called Insight Timer. It’s a meditation timer and on-line community for people who practice meditation of any type. The features and functionality of the app blend seamlessly with the act of meditation and the timers are easy to set and start/stop/pause. You can save multiple timers, quickly switch between them, integrate with Twitter and Facebook and connect with others all over the world. Creating a meditation timer that works for whatever practice you have is quick and easy with this tool and I have found it to be a great way to track my meditation practice and see how I have been progressing.

The last app that I’ve been getting a lot of use out of is called PocketCasts. It’s an Android app for podcasts. Since Google killed the products I used to follow podcasts (google reader and google listen), I had to find something new and I’m glad I did. Finding and listening to podcasts with this app is extremely easy and navigating the user interface is dead simple. It’s intuitive and powerful. I am always up to date getting episodes of Buddhist Geeks, Zencast, as well as my other favorite audio programs like This American Life, The Moth Radio Hour, Science Friday, Snap Judgement and various tech news shows. If you have an Android device, I highly recommend this app for all of your podcasting needs.

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It Contains No Fruit

Edit: I wrote this a few weeks ago and I’m not sure why it didn’t publish. Oh well, better late than never.

I just saw a very sad, yet funny, news story about a new product about to hit store shelves here in the U.S. It’s called FruitWater and is a product of the Coca-Cola corporation. These are the same people who gave us Vitaminwater, a product that is closer to soda than water. I thought the story was funny because of the following piece of information.

Unlike the zero-calorie version of Vitaminwater, which is made with the natural sweetener stevia, Fruitwater will be sweetened with the artificial sweetener sucralose, best known as Splenda. It will not contain any fruit juice but the bottle notes that the drink is “enhanced with nutrients,” a reference to its B vitamins, magnesium and zinc.

Did you catch that? “It will not contain any fruit juice…“. That’s where my brain started to turn itself inside out. They are calling it Fruit Water but not bothering to put fruit in it. Why not call it ToiletWater but not put water from real toilets in it? After all, the logic should work both ways, right? Or, they could call it HeroinWater but not put actual drugs in it. I’m sure that would make it appealing to a certain demographic of young people with disposable incomes. Since being truthful about what you are selling is obviously not important, they should really do whatever they can to sell as many bottles as possible.

The Coca-Cola company creates many products that are among the main causes of obesity in America and across the globe, and now they’re trying to find a way to get people to keep buying their products. Even as those consumers learn the truth about the harmful effects drinking too much soda can really have on their bodies and their quality of life.

I know the answer already, but I have to ask, why is this legal? It’s certainly unethical and unmoral but it is not illegal here in America. The most we can hope for is that people spread the word and let others know that this is a bottle of artificially sweetened swill that contains little to no beneficial ingredients. If you see it in the store, just pass over it and find something that really is a good choice.

Avoid this!

Notice something about the bottle? It looks very much like a vitaminwater package, just a different shape to the container. I guess the psychologists that Coca-Cola employs to make sure that you want to buy their products really like this design. The heavy emphasis on the word “fruit” and a design meant to highlight an appealing color while attempting to look almost like a medical product are all carefully crafted components in what, I’m sure, will be a resounding success. I think I’m just going to stick to regular water. It doesn’t contain fruit either but at least I know what’s in it.

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I just finished reading a very interesting and infuriating article that I highly recommend you read. It is by Michael Moss and is an adaptation of his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The article focuses on the way that food companies design and market foods to appeal to the consumer and to make sure they eat as much as possible as frequently as possible. It examines the way that the food companies intentionally manipulate their recipes to ensure that their customers can’t help but come back for more. In other words, how they design their products just like a drug. As someone for whom junk food has been a nearly constant companion for 35+ years, I can assure you that, yes, these foods are addictive and that breaking that addiction is incredibly hard. I’ll let the article speak for itself and encourage you to check it out. There are a few things that did strike me as interesting and I thought were worth commenting on from the perspective of a Buddhist and as someone who has suffered because of the way these foods are carefully crafted to encourage a consumer to eat more.

One of the food scientists that Mr. Moss interviewed is Howard Moskowitz. He was responsible for revolutionizing things like spaghetti sauce, Dr. Pepper and the MRE’s that are served to members of the Army. His approach is thoroughly grounded in research and experimentation. His models plot hundreds of data points in order to identify a range of configurations for these foods that people will enjoy and want more of. His work has influenced the entire processed food industry and it changed the way that the food companies formulate and package their products. When confronted with the negative impact that his research has had on the lives of millions of people, he had a very interesting defense.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

When I read this line, I had to stop for a few moments and take a few deep breaths. I have to ask, when did being a moral creature become a luxury? I understand the pain of struggling to survive. I grew up in a home that, while not in poverty, was certainly not affluent. Free lunches and food stamps were a part of my life growing up and I have struggled as an adult to provide for my family. It is hard to do, but at no time did I ever consider maintaining my morals to be a luxury. Two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Action  and Right Livelihood. These two components encourage us to end suffering in ourselves and in others by acting in a way that will not harm others and by choosing a profession that does not bring harm to another being. Mr. Moskowitz did not approach his career or work with this kind of mindset and, in so doing, millions of people have suffered from obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke and early death or been effected by a loved one who did. Here we see the way that the actions of one person have had long term negative ramifications for more people than one could hope to count. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stark example of just how important living according to the principles of the Eightfold Path are in relieving or preventing of suffering.

Frito-Lay spent $30 million a year to develop snacks that would appeal to changes in consumer tastes. According to the article, Frito-Lay learned that

Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks.

In response, they developed snacks that would be more appealing as meal replacements. They worked with scientists, marketers and psychologists to design new snacks to appeal to consumers who were in a hurry. New flavors added to current product lines were designed to maximize “bliss” so that eating these new snacks would become a regular thing rather than an occasional thing. They created products that encouraged people to forget about regular meals and, as has been examined in other places (herehere and here) encouraged the decline in cooking and food preparation skills.

In this case, I believe that a lack of right mindfulness, right effort and right concentration on the part of our society as a whole allowed the food companies to replace cooking with convenience. We have lost the aptitude to take time for making simple things in exchange for constant movement and stimulation. Having foods that are easy to heat and serve or to open up and dig into make the effort of cooking superfluous.  Why make spaghetti sauce when you can open a jar and heat it up? I’m at the top of the “guilty” list for this kind of behavior and I have the physique to prove it. I went to culinary school and I find great enjoyment in cooking and preparing food but I still reach for the box or the jar or the can in order to save time. Here’s a basic recipe that I have used before to make tomato sauce. It’s very low in sugar because of the natural sweetness of the carrots and considerably lower in sodium than any pre-made sauce you can buy. The tomato paste is the closest thing to a prepared food item in the list and it is not really necessary and (at 1 teaspoon) is really just a flavoring agent and not a significant source of salt or fat. I prefer to use fresh parsley, basil and garlic but, if you are working on a time crunch, those ingredients can be found in “convenience” versions (pre-chopped, dried, etc.). This sauce takes 45 minutes to make, assuming that chopping the onion, carrot and celery takes you a long time. It’s possible to make this in large batches and set it aside in the freezer for future use. It’s also a fairly simple sauce and is the base sauce for a lot of other really delicious and nutritious options. The foods we eat don’t have to be from cans or boxes or bags, but we have to be willing to put forth the right effort to make sure we are not falling prey to the food giants any longer.

INGREDIENTS
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
1 small stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

METHOD
1 Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and parsley. Stir to coat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

2 Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook for garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shred them with your fingers if you are using canned whole tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency.

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Since I started writing this blog, I have never hidden the fact that one reason I overeat is because of depression. I have blogged about depression many times (at least sixteen according to my tag list) and I still find new ways to say something about it. For me, getting my depression treated is the single best tool to combat my weight and ensure that I live a healthy lifestyle. Obviously, it is not the only thing I focus on in order to live a healthy life, but without dealing with the depression, nothing else I do will be effective. In fact, if I don’t deal with the depression, I’m not willing to do anything else.

Learning to recognize depression when it hits has been one of the hardest things I have done in learning to live differently. Depression is not just a feeling of sadness or feeling “down”. Feelings like that happen to everyone, it’s a part of life. There is a lot more to depression than just feelings—it’s a collection of issues that range from mild to severe. Any one of them, on their own, aren’t enough to equal depression, but if you have a number of them, it should be a matter of concern and be addressed, preferably with the assistance of a professional.

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook—nothing will ever get better and there’s nothing you can do to improve your situation. I have personally felt this one very strongly. When I start to feel this way, I immediately begin to look for other signs. On a side note, the Buddhist idea of impermanence has really helped me combat this feeling.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities. If you have little or no interest in things you used to enjoy doing, this is another symptom. In my case, I find myself doing things that I used to enjoy except they feel empty or unfulfilling. I spin my wheels doing things over and over without a reaction.
  • Appetite or weight changes. Significant weight loss or weight gain—a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month—is another red flag. Obviously, this is one that I deal with a lot. I sometimes wish I had the problem of not eating when depressed but, in all honesty, it’s just as unhealthy as eating too much.
  • Sleep changes. Not being able to sleep or oversleeping are both symptoms to watch out for. In my case, sleep is always an option when I am depressed. I know other people who lie awake at night staring at the ceiling and feeling miserable.
  • Anger or irritability. Feeling agitated, restless, or even violent. Your threshold of frustration is low, your temper is short, and everything and everyone gets on your nerves. I’ve been fortunate that this hasn’t been too bad for me. I do tend to get more irritable when I’m dealing with depression but I’m so cynical that it’s not much of a difference from when I’m not depressed.
  • Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. When small tasks become exhausting or take longer to complete, it is matter for concern. Especially if you experience other issues on this list. I know that for me, this seems to tie in to the ability to sleep for extended periods of time.
  • Self-loathing. Strong feelings of worthlessness or guilt: you harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes. This is another one that I suffer from to an extreme. When coupled with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, it is a recipe for disaster. Struggling with just those two items from this list should be all the reason you need to seek help from someone.
  • Concentration problems. Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things. Obviously, this is more than just the occasional feeling of being scatterbrained or forgetful.

Another thing I notice about myself when I’m depressed is an overwhelming desire to eat. For me, this is the precursor to the appetite or weight changes. The last time I was dealing with depression, I had a dream that I went to New York City and ate every bit of food from every restaurant there. For those of you keeping score, that’s over 3500 restaurants worth of food. It was an interesting dream to say the least.

The interplay of all of the various components that make up depression have interested me since I started to think about them. As I think of how I feel and how those feelings give rise to other thoughts and actions, I notice just how easy it is to get stuck in a downward spiral of depression and despair. These feelings feed off one another and each gains strength from the others. Feelings of helplessness feed feelings of self loathing. My brain tries to compensate by craving food to make me happy. However, a loss of ability to derive pleasure from things prevents this from working and this amplifies my feelings of frustration and irritability. I eat more and, while it doesn’t make me feel better, it does make me tired and my energy levels plummet. All this feeds back into a feeling of hopelessness and I’m left wondering if the merry-go-round will ever stop.

It has taken me a lot of time to see all of this and learn how depression effects me. There have been hours spent in meditation where I have had nothing other than my mind to keep me company. Through meditation, I have learned how my mind works and I have grown to understand what makes it tick. Meditation is one way that I have found to combat the effects of depression on my thoughts. This, for me, is a side benefit of meditation and, while I do not sit with a goal of fighting depression in mind, I’m not going to dismiss if it happens.

The other thing I have done to combat depression is to go on an anti-depressant medication. Finding the right one can be a delicate balancing act and is a decision to be made between a patient and a doctor but, if you feel you may be suffering from depression, I would recommend talking to someone about the possibility of a course of medical therapy to augment dealing with depression and its effects.

If you are fortunate enough to not deal with depression, I hope that reading the above offering provides some insight into what depression is like and how it impacts those who suffer from it. If you do suffer from depression, I hope that reading the above will help you see that things are not hopeless but that they can be better. Depression is not a permanent state. The entire concept of “permanent” is an illusion but a powerful one. When one is stuck in the midst of depression, it feels as if there is no other alternative and the fact that others don’t feel the same way feels like a lie.

If you identified with the list above and you are not being treated for depression, I would urge you to speak to a professional who understands depression to get further evaluation to see if you may be effected by it. Getting out of the rut that depression puts us in is the first, and truthfully hardest, step. Once you overcome that initial obstacle, it does get easier. Additionally, I would suggest finding a sangha or a meditation cushion and start to allow your mind to learn to be calm and clear. Depression muddies the water of our thoughts and meditation is a wonderful tool for allowing it to settle back to clarity. It has worked wonders for me.

 

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2012, I would like to say goodbye. We had a lot of ups and downs and I’ll always remember you and not always fondly. Some of the highest highs and lowest lows in one twelve month package, tied together like a nightmarish set of stacking dolls. The five skandhas might be empty but I feel each of them, heaped on me, their weight adding to my own. We may not have had the best relationship, but it’s over now and there’s nothing left but to pick up the pieces and move on. And so, I move on to 2013, no promise the next twelve months will be different—but still, strangely, full of hope. I will remember the good of the past and put the rest behind me, each scar a lesson of the pitfalls that might be ahead.

I accomplished what was, at your beginning, an unthinkable task: 70,000 words written across 200 pages in just 2 months. The work on the book is not complete but it is close.

My weight reached a level I had never seen, but I overcame it. Thirty five pounds in six months is a good start, and I will always remember what I saw on your final cold and snowy day: the only day of the year this scale started with a 2.

New Year Scale

I faced my demons and, in your closing, gained valuable insight into the ways they conspire to hold me down and keep me away from my best interests. I enter 2013 with the hope to conquer them before its close.

The future does not exist, the past is lost and the present moment is fleeting. There are an infinite number of present moments in 2013 and I strive to be aware of them all. It’s an impossible goal, but sometimes the goal isn’t what’s important: it’s the striving that matters.

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Last week I was in a candy store. A really big candy store at the beach. Every type of candy you can imagine plus some that you haven’t. They had about 20 different types of fudge that they make in their shop. Free samples! So many flavors of jelly beans and a wall of nostalgic candies. It was a candy lover’s dream come true. This was not a good place for me to find myself but, due to matters beyond my control, there I was.

I walked out of the store 15 minutes later with nothing purchased or consumed other than an extremely small sample piece of fudge. It was a small miracle to say the least.

Last night I had a craving. A serious, powerful and overwhelming craving. I wanted a Big Mac. I wanted one so badly I could taste it. My brain was screaming at me for one. I’d just spent 45 minutes mowing the lawn and burned over 600 calories so I could justify one burger from McDonald’s. Instead, I ate carrots. Another small miracle.

However, when you look at the bigger picture, you see that these weren’t miracles. The miraculous is something that happens without explanation or reason. I know exactly what happened when I was facing temptation. I was able to avoid the candy and the burger is because I had a friend who was there to listen to me (as I whined via text message that I wanted a Big Mac) or by being there to physically hit me in the head if I were to purchase anything at the candy store. I didn’t have to rely on my strength alone to resist temptation because I have a friend who wants the best for me.

Later, I found out that this friend of mine has made positive choices on their own because they committed to help me make good choices. This person isn’t trying to lose 100 pounds like I am but has had a lot of success recently in losing weight and wants the same for me. The fact that we are working together means we are both making decisions that have a positive impact on both our lives.

If you are trying to do something, it helps if you have someone to work with. In this case, I want to lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle. I have been successful in the past because of friends who are pulling for me and I am succeeding again because I have others who are helping me along the path.

Working with others is so important that being a part of the community, or Sangha, is a critical component of a Buddhist practice. In Buddhism, there is something called The Three Jewels. They are, The Buddha, The Dharma and The Sangha and it is no surprise why they go together. The first is fairly obvious if you think about it: after all, it’s called  Buddhism for a reason. The second is also pretty easy to understand; if you’re going to follow someone’s teachings, you follow their lessons (in this case, Dharma). The third is the one that is often hardest to understand. Without a group to share a practice, to encourage and walk with, the practice can wane. The same is true with weight loss.

Do you have someone to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle? Do you have someone to exercise with? If you are trying to achieve a goal, do you have a confidant and someone to help you on the way? If you want your path to be as easy as possible, it helps to have friends.

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