Swimming Upstream: Why It’s So Hard to “Get Healthy”

Spoiler alert: It’s not your fault that it’s hard.

I bet that most of my friends and acquaintances don’t want to be unhealthy. Nobody signs up to be pre-diabetic or chronically ill. Nobody signs up for food intolerances, gut problems, or immune system dysfunction. Nobody is dying to become depressed or anxious.

If I told you there’s a possible, potential way to heal yourself of these things through diet and lifestyle, you might say – wait, really!? If you were really struggling and ready for change, you might even try changing something one day. Maybe for a week. Maybe even for a month.

But let me tell you, all of us that are trying to be healthy are swimming upstream.

Salmon literally run themselves ragged trying to get upstream, and all they have to do when they get there is spawn and die. Being healthy is an uphill, upstream swim with no real destination and no end in sight.

Here’s a few reasons why:

We evolved in an environment of “food scarcity.”

As hunter-gatherers and cavemen, eating relied on finding food, trapping it or catching it, and cooking it – all in the great outdoors. It seems obvious that there was no “UberPrey” delivering us fresh kills for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We had to walk everywhere (and be very lucky) to find food in the first place, let alone be skilled enough to catch it. So, sometimes we went without food. It was never on-demand exactly what we wanted.

That part is obvious, but what may be less obvious is what that did to our bodies.

In my exposure to the world of nutrition, one very common piece of information I’ve picked up is that our bodies are designed to seek and binge high-reward foods. This means dense carbs (bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, pizza, etc.) and sugar (candy, ice cream, cookies, cakes, etc.), both of which were very scarce in our primal diet.

We probably almost never had access to these things in our caveman years. Dense carbs and sugars were like the dopamine hit of the year when they appeared. As a result, when we saw an apple, we would be biologically compelled to grab it and eat the whole thing. And because they were so rare, many of the mechanisms in our body are designed to store away the nutrients in these things – as fat.

Yep, they both turn into fat.

Actually, in caveman days they probably didn’t. They probably instead got used up in the highly ambulatory lifestyle of our ancestors. The occasional packet of glucose (apple), not to mention the stored fat, was probably essential and critical for survival.

So here’s our problem:

Now, at least in the city, we have UberEats. We have AmazonFresh. We have fast food restaurants, we have grocery stores with everything we could possibly want. Food scarcity is completely not a thing.*

Not only that, but we have food scientists, hired by companies to make sure that food optimally targets alllll our reward pathways. They understand that the brain is wired to seek and crave and binge certain flavors, and they use this to mix new things that leave us bingeing and craving and spending more and more $$$ to get our fix.

TL;DR: We are literally genetically programmed to crave and binge on these high-reward foods, and food companies take advantage of this to sell products

In order for our bodies to be adequately able to digest things like pizza, we would have to have a significant change in our mechanisms for digesting and metabolizing nutrients. Our bodies would have to become smarter waste-disposal systems to adequately filter out all of the non-nutritious (and sometimes poisonous) crap that is in our food to make it taste good and make us want more. That change simply is not going to happen unless we have another 1,000 years to evolve over generations – simply to catch up to the food environment we have today, and that’s if nothing changes in the food industry.

So, Reason #1 that it’s not our fault that it’s hard to get healthy:

Our bodies weren’t designed for the amount and types of food that we now have at our disposal. We are programmed to become slaves to high-reward foods and the people who are making them know and exploit this fact. 

It’s not your fault, it’s an unfortunate combination of social norms, capitalism, and genetics. If you’re trying to avoid these foods, you are barraged with advertisements, pizza smells lurk around every corner, and getting happy hour with friends becomes a battle of wits with the menu and the servers to find out what the heck is in your food.

I know because I’ve been there. It sucks. It’s hard.

Other things that suck and are hard: being chronically sick. Being depressed and anxious. Having no energy.

I chose the first one simply because I was so tired of feeling ill. And you have to be extremely motivated to make changes like this happen, given all the forces working against you. For everyone who just is lethargic sometimes, who has a few skin issues, who sometimes gets an upset stomach – it may feel like more work to do the food thing than it’s worth. I feel that. If you aren’t sick, why do it?

But what if you do really want to be healthier?

My future posts are going to contain things you can do that make it less hard. It’s been almost a year now since I overhauled my diet and lifestyle, and this anniversary has me reflecting on what’s been working and what’s still not where I want it to be.

I just want to acknowledge to everyone that anyone who does anything (yes, really any little thing) to be more healthy is a hero and a champion and kudos, because it’s really hard. You’re battling social norms, misinformation, capitalism, evil food scientists, your own body – even your friends and family.

I’m with you, superhero.

 

* This is disregarding socioeconomics, location, and systemic issues – food as an access/social justice issue is a beast for a different post.

Swimming Upstream: Why It’s So Hard to “Get Healthy”

Optimization

That title actually made me think of something completely different than what I’m going to write about. Or is it different? One of the Roman emperors, in legitimizing his supreme authority, called himself “Optimus Augustus,” which basically means the BEST Augustus of all the Augustuses (“Augustus” being a title of a Roman emperor in the late Empire).

Why do I know this, you wonder? I’ve been taking Ancient Roman History this summer for funzies, and also for my new job as Latin teacher (which starts Monday!). I just finished up that class and another which I was teaching, and I’m officially on summer vacation….for two more days.

Anyway, the best of the best Augustuses, Optimus Augustus, relates to my post because I was going to write about this interesting tendency I’ve noticed in myself: the need to optimize.

I guess it’s both a larger societal trend and a pervasive social and cultural pressure in our nation of individualistic entrepreneurs. I mean, we are constantly under pressure to compete for the coolest “Insta”posts, the best vacations, the hottest body, the best job…you name it, we want to optimize it. I guess I knew this, but I’ve been realizing that I also do it in my head, to myself. I want to be a better person, a better teacher, set new goals and challenges for myself, succeed in new and different ways. I think this drive is super important for my future success. And yet…

Sometimes, I think there should be more said for accepting people, places, and things for what they are. The problem with wanting to improve everything is that the already-great things don’t get enough appreciation or credit for how great they are. I don’t get to enjoy the small moments of gratitude for what I have, if I’m focused on where I’m going next. I don’t get to appreciate what’s in my life for what it is, if I’m thinking of how it could be better.

Furthermore, who’s to say that there will ever be an Optima Anne, the best of the best, with the best life and the best people in it. I don’t even like to think that there’s an end to self-betterment, because that makes it a linear, rigid process. With that mentality, I guess I won’t be the best until I’m nearly dead…

So in the meantime, here’s to celebrating all of the journey – meaningful or not, pleasant or not, optimal or not. It’s all worth learning.

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Optimization

An Ode to the Body

Why are so many of us so ashamed of and negative about our bodies?

Earlier this month I was sick, unable to leave my bed, for about twelve days. I had to cancel a trip to Central Europe with friends because I wouldn’t have been able to rough it to the necessary extent. I was disappointed and frustrated, and for a while I was angry at my body for not allowing me to go.

Being sick does something to my mentality: I become totally apathetic about how I look, because all that really matters is how I feel. The sick days were a blur: hours and hours of Mad Men, sick episodes and intense pain, the dire need to take care of myself and get better, and treat my body well to do so.

The weirdest thing about inhabiting a body is that nobody really knows how it feels to be in that body. In that way, emotions are easier: we can imagine similar situations, we can conjure up and remember and articulate similar feelings to someone else’s. Don’t get me wrong, we can’t ever know how someone feels, either. But I think there’s a better chance of approximation.

Even more relevantly, emotions are totally internal. It’s a choice to externalize them, and we choose what to externalize. Bodies are external whether we like it or not. We can’t erase or change or manipulate or re-articulate them like we like to think we can do with feelings. We can’t filter them, and we can’t hide them. We try.

We look at skinny, beautiful supermodels and think they must feel skinny and slender. We look at fat and ugly people and think they must feel fat and ugly. But these are not feelings. These are labels. Labels are cultural constructs, imposed by a long tradition of thinking that fat = ugly and skinny = beautiful. Guess what! In the middle ages, fat = beautiful and skinny = ugly. Pale = beautiful and tan = ugly. Tan & skinny used to mean poor and working class, now it means beach babe. Labels are what “other people” (who have been influenced by these cultural constructs) think. We have also been influenced by these same cultural constructs, and we have been influenced by what people think and say about us. Double whammy.

But here’s what I think: What other people think means nothing about how someone actually feels in their own skin. 

I have had beautiful friends tell me that they feel: bloated, pale, insecure about such and such body part, like every day is a bad hair day, that they wish they had this instead of that body type, etc. etc. etc. I have friends with chronic illnesses, with sensitive stomachs, with other health issues that affect everyday life in their body. I have had all of the above, and my concept of myself changes all the time.

My new personal rules for my treatment of my body are these:

1) Do what feels good. If it feels good to stretch, do it. If it feels good to go outside and run around, do it. If it feels like something hurts, don’t irritate it more. If it feels hungry, feed it. If it feels tired, rest it. And the most important first step to this is to pay attention to what it wants in the first place!

2) Respect and appreciate it for what is special about it, and what it can do. My personal challenge to myself is to notice one thing I love about my body every day. I write it down, as often as I can. Some days, I like my freckles. Some days, I love the way my freshly-polished fingernails look on my keyboard. Other days I appreciate my soft stomach, on still others it’s my red hair and the way it’s nearly orange in the sunlight. Every person’s body deserves a whole lot of respect for what it can do and is, not negativity for what it can’t do or isn’t.

3) Even if you push it, push it lovingly. Parents love you and want you to be your best self because they care so much, so they push you out of your comfort zone sometimes; be a loving parent to your body. When I push my body, it’s because I want it to feel like it is its best self. Exercise is a privilege, not a punishment. When it does something awesome that exceeds expectations, take a moment and appreciate that!

Paying attention to all of the negative thoughts and feelings is the first step. Learning to transform them is the second. Cultivating unconditional love for my body will be a process that will have its ups and downs for my entire life, because it will constantly be changing. But I think loving it unconditionally is the most important way to improve my quality of life; life is best when I feel super awesome in my own skin. And, since having a body is one of the most basic things we all have in common, everyone can help each other have less shame instead of more!

An Ode to the Body

A Mathematical Analysis of Experience

I’ve come up with a simple formula for life.

life = choices + circumstances

People disagree on what kind of ratio of choices to circumstances there should be in this equation. I think it’s all about balance, and that the difference comes out of people’s attitudes about agency.

Some people think it’s all about circumstance: nothing is ultimately under our control, all things are circumstantial, life happens to us and there’s zip to do about it.

Other people would argue that it’s all a matter of choice. I tend to be this way more than the other, because I think we all have agency in our lives. However, I’m learning that sometimes it’s equally dangerous to take too much responsibility as it is to take too little. Some circumstances, in fact, are insurmountable.

This first few months, I’ve encountered many an insurmountable circumstance. That’s arguably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from living abroad — shit happens, sometimes all you can do is make the best of it.

Some other times, there isn’t even a “best” of it. There was nothing positive about my ex-neighbor waking up and waking me up every morning at 3:30 AM. There’s nothing positive about having long, drawn out gaps in my teaching schedule during which I can’t go home. There isn’t anything good about confronting innumerable bureaucratic hurdles every time I want to do anything “official” here.

In light of this, it’s time for me to revisit one of my favorite quotes/ideas:

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The most consistently positive times of my life have been characterized not by extreme highs or unparalleled excitement, but by a constant feeling of profound contentment. Peace. Feeling stable and secure.

What I’m reminding myself of now, as I’m feeling unsettled and upset and uprooted, is that I can’t always control WHAT I experience, but I can control HOW I experience it. I can’t control what I feel, but I can control my response to my feelings. In short, I can control how well I take care of my internal sanctuary so that I can better weather the entirely circumstantial woes.

inner peace = self-care + perspective

Why do I need an internal sanctuary? Because my internal world is the only consistent world there is. How I see the world is how the world is for me. A lot of times I think we cling so hard to objective “reality” that we forget how much power our subjective view of the world has to shape our reality.

If I think life is always going to be fun, or always going to be hard, it will be. If I have “peace in my heart,” there will be peace in my life.

A Mathematical Analysis of Experience

New Year, New Home!

I’m sorry the adventure stories (TFH 1-4) are over…but not as sorry as I am that the adventures are over. The first week back (la rentrée) has been a little bluesy. I’ve heard tell that January is the hardest month to be abroad if you’re away for a year, and I can sort of maybe see why already?

However, one great thing about coming back is that I moved!

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Here are some shots of my room, which is nice, plus I also have a kitchen, a living room, and two lovely housemates! IMG_0663

Essentially, the friend who had my room decided to move to Lille, and I seized the opportunity to get out of my tiny, moldy, noisy apartment-room and into this beautiful house with two of my favorite people!

I’m happy that I moved but also happy that I waited until the perfect situation arose. I think had I moved into a colocation (housemate situation) at the beginning, it would’ve been more risky because i wouldn’t have known my housemates first! In this case, it was a no-brainer considering how much time I spent at their place anyways. I am also convinced that my old place was bad for my health. There was actually black mold on the window, and the two nights I spent there when I got back gave me a cold…

My advice to future TAPIFers: if you want to move mid-year, do it! It’s not nearly as difficult as the first time, and 4 months is a long time. I’ve got more time left in France than I’ve already spent here!

Oh, and one more update — I’ve been accepted to a month-long intensive training program to become a certified TEFL teacher (teaching English as a foreign language), so I will be living in Toulouse for a month after my contract ends. I’m excited to experience life in yet another part of France, even if it’s only for a short time!

Bonne année à tous!

New Year, New Home!

Mornings are my favorite.

In an effort to curb some end of the year anxiety, I took one of my friend/mentor’s suggestions and have been waking up early every morning. This gives me an excuse to go to bed really early (LOTS of sleep is another of my favorites), and it also means that I wake up with the sun! And doing this has reaffirmed my staunch morning-personness.

My wise professor once said that mornings are the best time to write, because it’s the time of day when no one else’s voice has interfered with mine. I write a lot of letters, and I’ve recently been reflecting on my voice in letters, and how it’s totally different depending on who I’m writing to. Not just in content, but in style – it’s a reflection of how much I match people’s talking styles in communicating with them. In the morning, I’m the only one in my head.

Sometimes I spend my two extra morning hours journaling, or doing some homework, or writing the thank-you notes for the project I’ve undertaken of thanking influential people at Whitman for their influence. But, whatever I’m doing, my focusing powers are superhero-status. Focuswoman, that’s me!

But above all, the joy and inner peace that come from driving into the sunrise at 7 AM in search of solitude and my morning coffee…it’s the best.

Mornings are my favorite.