Beans in My Smoothie and Other Life-Saving Habits

Beans_in_My_Smoothie“How can I add beans to this?” Dr. Michael Greger asks himself at every meal. This is just one of several simple tweaks I have adopted since reading his new book, How Not to Die.

I cannot overstate the value of this book and its companion app, Daily Dozen. Information about both is available at www.nutritionfacts.org. I absolutely loved the book and, although it was long, I was sad to see it end. This is a book that will stay with me for the long haul, however, because I have incorporated the lessons into my daily life.

I have eaten a generally healthful diet for a long time, but HNTD gave me so many good ideas for easy, evidence-based tweaks. Since January 1, 2016, I have further optimized my nutrition with the very handy, free Daily Dozen app, available through Google Play Store and the App Store.

Dr. Greger has dedicated his career to promoting health and wellness through nutrition. He introduces the book with the inspirational story of his grandma who was sent home in a wheelchair to die of heart disease when he was a child. She saw a 60 Minutes segment featuring Nathan Pritkin’s then-new lifestyle medicine center and traveled across the country to give herself one last chance by checking into it. After adopting Pritkin’s plant-based diet and beginning to exercise, she left death’s doorstep at age 65 to live a rich, full life, until she died at 96. Dr. Greger was so moved by his grandma’s amazing recovery that he vowed to become a physician and help people transform their own lives through the way they lived them.

This wonderful book is the most well-researched, comprehensive nutrition and lifestyle book I have ever read . . . and I have read quite a few.

Part One is a fascinating, detailed presentation of solid scientific evidence for using nutrition and lifestyle to prevent, fight and even reverse 15 leading causes of death: heart disease, lung disease, brain disease, digestive cancers, infection, diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, blood cancer, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and iatrogenic (caused by medical care) causes. Chapter by chapter, Dr. Greger highlights scientific studies in each of these areas and presents evidence illuminating the most health-promoting foods, as well as the riskiest ones, for each health condition.

Then, in Part 2, Dr. Greger introduces his Daily Dozen, from which the app was born, and explains chapter by chapter why he strives to include each component in his day. I love this app and am using it every day. I truly believe that the adjustments I have made to achieve the Daily Dozen goals have taken my largely whole-food, completely vegan, diet to a new level of wholesomeness and quality. I am not perfect, but I do my best to set myself up to achieve each Daily Dozen objective.

The components of his Daily Dozen are these:

Beans: Dr. Greger makes a compelling case for consuming three daily servings of beans (including tempeh or tofu, which are soy foods). Toward this end, I have adopted the practice of adding some variety of bean to my morning smoothie. I put so many good things in there anyway, and beans add a wonderful creaminess. I also have simplified the lunches I pack for work: a variety of bean, a large serving of greens (heated together at work) and guacamole. It may sound boring, but it is wonderful . . . and simple.

Berries: A daily serving of berries is easy and delicious to include in a smoothie or as a snack. They are so full of antioxidants and fiber that they are widely recognized as a “super food.”

Other Fruits: Dr. Greger cites studies indicating that increased fruit consumption is correlated with better weight management. This is just one of many reasons he recommends three additional fruit servings per day.

Cruciferous Vegetables: Sulforaphane is the component in cruciferous vegetables that earns them a separate category in the Daily Dozen. Dr. Greger presents persuasive evidence that sulforaphane is a cancer-fighter.  It has been shown to have potential benefits for vision, nasal allergies, type 2 diabetes and autism. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, bok choy and Brussels sprouts are just some of the tasty routes to accomplishing the daily cruciferous vegetable serving goal.

Greens: I have added greens to my smoothies for years, and Dr. Greger presents many strong reasons to incorporate at least two servings of raw or cooked greens into our diets each day, on top of whatever cruciferous vegetable we are eating. I firmly believe, and Dr. Greger presents corroborating evidence, that these are some of the most healthful foods we can eat.

Other Vegetables: Besides a serving of cruciferous vegetables and two servings of greens, eating two more vegetable servings each day will add a variety of other valuable nutrients to our dietary profile. Most of us have heard the recommendation to “eat a rainbow.” Dr. Greger explains that richness of color matters not just in greens, but in other fruits and vegetables, too. For instance, red onions have more phytonutrients than white onions, and sweet potatoes are more nutritious than white potatoes.

Flaxseeds: Omega-3 fatty acids and lignans have been shown to be protective against cancer and to promote heart and brain health. Dr. Greger recommends a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds per day. I already made sure to include an Omega-3 source in my daily smoothie—flax, chia, hemp or walnuts—and now I include flax and possibly one of the others, but always flax, at minimum.

Nuts and Seeds: Sure, nuts and seeds have a high fat content, but it is health-promoting monounsaturated fat. Because these foods are satiating, one serving a day can nourish us with healthful fat and protein, while lessening the chance of overeating less healthful foods.

Herbs and Spices: Specifically, Dr. Greger recommends ¼ teaspoon daily of turmeric because of its documented ameliorative benefits for a host of conditions ranging from pulmonary disease to rheumatoid arthritis. This is easy to incorporate into my daily smoothie, if I am not going to be eating other foods that lend themselves to turmeric flavoring. Dr. Greger encourages the liberal use of most herbs and spices to add a range of phytonutrients, while minimizing the need for salt.

Whole Grains: Dr. Greger promotes the consumption of three servings daily of whole grains because of evidence that they are associated with reduced risk for stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. There are so many from which to choose, and Dr. Greger recommends eating a variety of different grains.

Beverages: Water is high on Dr. Greger’s list, but he also presents evidence for drinking green, white, black and herbal teas. Green tea has particularly healing benefits. Dr. Greger acknowledges that hydration needs are quite individual and even vary within a given person, depending on weather and exercise conditions. However, he recommends five servings as a minimum each day.

Exercise: Although not a food, exercise is part of Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen because of its well-documented benefits for physical and mental health. Rather than sell the public short with his recommendation, he prefers to provide evidence for a relatively high dose of exercise daily. Especially during the cold, dark off-season from cycling, it is difficult for me to meet Dr. Greger’s exercise recommendations every day, but I give it my best effort, within the confines of real life. I remember the mantra from my graduate Exercise Science program, “Any exercise is better than no exercise, and, to a point, more is better than less.” I have lived this for a long time. Even if I can’t go for a bike ride every day, I exercise daily, and I love (often to my son’s frustration) to build in opportunities for exercise, like parking as far as possible from a store, taking the long way to or from the bathroom at work or walking, instead of driving, to a basketball game here in my small town. It all adds up.

Besides his Daily Dozen, Dr. Greger promotes eating according to a “traffic light” system. Foods that get the green light—unprocessed plant foods—should be emphasized. Yellow-light foods are processed plant foods and unprocessed animal products. These foods should be minimized. Processed animal products and ultra-processed plant foods comprise the red-light category. These should be avoided completely.

Dr. Greger defines “unprocessed” as “nothing bad added, nothing good taken away.” Ultra-processed plant foods have no redeeming nutritional value.

His simple model is an easy way to make choices on a daily basis. He sees room for yellow-light foods to the extent that they promote consumption of more green-light foods. His example is his fondness for hot sauce that contains added salt. He eats more greens because he likes them with this hot sauce, so it has a place in his diet. While I have long emphasized unprocessed plant foods, I have taken that to a higher level after reading HNTD. For example, I am using dates in place of agave nectar or maple syrup when my smoothies need a sweetener. Dates are whole and unprocessed, while agave nectar and maple syrup are processed. Vegan yogurt (Daiya cherry!) is a treat for me. I eat more whole-grains and berries, as well as nuts and cacao nibs, when I eat it, so I have continued to eat it as an occasional treat, although it is a yellow-light food, since it is processed. The bulk of my daily food is unprocessed plant-based goodness, though, and this feels wonderful.

Dr. Greger states that he is not promoting a vegan diet, so much as he is promoting an “evidence-based” diet. It just so happens that the diet that promotes health and minimizes sickness is also one that increases compassion in our world. He entered the plant-based world because of its demonstrated health benefits, but he has become a strong supporter of the ethics behind veganism over the years.

I respected Dr. Greger’s work before reading HNTD, but I am a true fan now—so much so that I plan to become a regular donor to his foundation because it aligns with all of my most important core values: compassion, excellence, integrity and fitness.

I will end this post with the quote that Dr. Greger used to conclude his book. Dr. Kim Williams, upon assuming the post of president of the American College of Cardiology in 2015, explained his rationale for eating a completely plant-based diet this way, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want it to be my fault.” I love that. We all have so much power to maximize our chances for a long, healthy life. Yet, so many of us abdicate our responsibility for our own well-being, relinquishing this power to genetics or chance or fate. Yes, things happen. Yes, we will all die of something. Yes, sometimes people who lead apparently very healthful lives die prematurely of cancer or heart disease or stroke. These things are all true, but it is also true that many more deaths and so much suffering could be prevented if we all took the steps Dr. Greger recommends in How Not to Die. His book is a tremendous gift in an immensely readable and highly accessible package. Please read it, adopt this lifestyle and save yourself, the animals and the planet in the process.

My 3 R’s

According to Wikipedia, the concept of the “3 R’s” as the foundation of a solid education probably originated in a 1795 speech by Sir William Curtis. The 3 R’s generally refer to “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic,” although arithmetic may have been “reckoning” in the past, as that was the term commonly used for math during the era when the catchphrase was popularized. The mnemonic has been borrowed by a number of other sectors outside of education, such as the environmental movement’s familiar 3 R’s of solid waste: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

While on a bike ride a while back, it occurred to me that I have my own personal 3 R’s: Reading, ‘riting and Riding (or I could call them my 3 B’s: Bikes, Books and Blogging—with “Blogging” standing in for writing, in general). I think all of us need to determine those things that are foundational for us, those things that are central to our identities and to how we navigate the world. There may be more or fewer than three, and they may not lend themselves to such neat alliteration, but we all have activities without which we would be very different people. I think these are passions, but also habits—those things we regularly do that shape our days and our thoughts.

It takes time to determine what these key activities are, and they may change over time as we grow with life experience. Recognizing the importance of our 3R equivalents is valuable because doing so allows us the opportunity to emphasize them in our lives, enabling them to anchor us and advance our evolution.

I have loved to read since I was very young, and I have always read a lot. After years of reading primarily textbooks, journal articles and other assigned works, I can still remember the amazing feeling, after completing my first Master’s degree, when I realized suddenly, “I can read whatever I want!” Once I adjusted to that freedom, I happily undertook a fervent and intentional lifelong learning journey, fueled primarily through reading nonfiction books across a wide range of genres.

When my brother gave me a Kindle for Christmas several years ago, I wasn’t sure if it would appeal to me because I was an avid user of the public library. Now, Kindle has become my primary reading medium. The downside is that I spend more money on books because I have generally found library Kindle offerings to differ from my preferences. The convenience offered by Kindle has made the cost worthwhile for me. Instead of struggling to find time in my full schedule to get to the library, now, when I learn about a book I want to read, I can have it on my electronic book shelf within a minute. When I travel, I can easily take multiple books with me. I always have my Kindle in my bag when I leave the house. Reading calms me and prevents my mind from going places I don’t want it to go. It allows me to learn about virtually any subject. It helps me grow personally and develop professionally. Reading generates ideas within me that I can then process through my other two R’s.

I have loved to write since my time in Catholic schools. Sr. Boniface introduced me to diagramming sentences in the fourth grade, spawning an enduring passion for grammar and language and a recognition of the power in understanding how to structure sentences and arrange them in compelling ways. I started college as an English major because I loved English in high school and felt relatively competent in my use of language. Although my major changed, my love for writing didn’t. I have always been grateful for my strong early foundation in writing skills.

My relationship with writing has fluctuated throughout adulthood. Sometimes, I have written only for myself, in my journal. Writing was one of the aspects of my undergraduate and graduate programs that I most enjoyed. I have often felt that I am able to articulate my ideas more capably in writing than in conversation. The urge to do something more with writing has nagged me sporadically, sometimes strongly. For years, despite bursts of ambition, I tucked away my desire to expose my writing to scrutiny from a broader audience than the academic, professional and voluntary settings in which I had written. Finally, late last summer, the pull became strong enough that I was moved to start this blog. It felt like a risk to put my writing out there and make it public, but it also felt like something I needed to do. Taking steps to expand my writing gives me hope beyond feelings of constraint and pushes me to pursue a larger vision.

And then there is riding, my third (but certainly not tertiary) R. Before there was cycling, there was running and other exercise for me, but cycling has been my true athletic passion for many years now. I am still awed by the distance that can be covered on a bike. My bike is the place where what I read is often masticated, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, and digested into what I write. My time on the bike clarifies my ideas about the things I am reading, the stressors I am facing or the puzzles I am pondering. Several of my blog posts have been written largely in my head, while on my bike. The same is true for previous presentations and strategic plans.

Of course, I love the physical challenge and benefits of cycling, but the mental and emotional boosts are what make it so foundational for me. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. . . .  The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I have certainly found this to be true. My thinking is so much clearer, and I feel energized for hours after a ride where I have pushed hard.

Other people, things, projects and work are important to me, but these 3 R’s center and focus me, help me regain equilibrium when I am thrown off balance by life and help me remember who I am.

As I have worked on this blog over the last four months, I have realized that, while cycling was and remains, the primary inspiration for this blog, there are other aspects of my life that intersect with my time on the bike to round out the bigger picture of the story I want to convey. So, for 2016, I have updated my blog purpose to: celebrate my passion for cycling and books, while sharing the lessons I learn and the insight I glean through the intersection of cycling, reading and writing in my life. My 3 R’s.

What are those things that are foundational for you? Central to who you are and how you process life? While yours are likely different than mine, I believe we all have them, and they are vital keys to a rich life. Paying attention to the things that make us feel most alive and allow us to find Csikszentmihalyi’s flow enables us to reap rich rewards and further our personal evolution.

Reflections on #100HAPPYDAYS

When I started my #100HAPPYDAYS journey, I did not take time to calculate when it would conclude. Although just a happy coincidence, as I drew closer to completing my quest and realized that it would culminate along with 2015, I thought there must be some symbolism to that—or at least I could assign significance to it.

I could let this be an ending, or I could turn it into another beginning.

Concluding at the end of the year, it felt appropriate to reflect on what the project had meant to me and how I had changed by participating in it. The number-one influence that the #100HAPPYDAYS project had on my daily life was inspiring a proactive daily search for the positive. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have a daily practice of writing in my journal each night about “3 things that have gone well today.” This practice allows me to recognize and appreciate something encouraging, even on very difficult days.

Rather than retroactively reflecting on the positive bits that I could tease out of my day, #100HAPPYDAYS required me to look for, think about where I might find, or sometimes even create, happy moments that could be captured in a photograph. This was beneficial to my overall outlook because it empowered and challenged me to insert happiness into each day.

This was easier or more obvious on some days than on others. I found myself at the end of rough days, in a less than stellar mood, thinking, “What (the heck) am I going to photograph today for my #100HAPPYDAYS?” On those days purposefully looking around reminded me of the good fortune that that has permeated my life as a whole—a photo of my much-loved grandma, a box painted by a special friend, the mischievous smile on my active little boy’s face. This was an effective way of “counting my blessings,” even on days that were characterized more by stress than by bliss. Our lives are generally dominated by mundane tasks and obligations, rather than by dramatic highs (or, thankfully, lows). So, this habit of noticing the good on an ordinary day was a healthy one.

On some days, it would have been easier not to post, and there were times that I worried that my Facebook friends must be sick of seeing pictures from my life or that I would look like I was seeking attention. The bottom line, though, is that I value keeping the commitments I make to myself. I am what Gretchen Rubin calls an “Upholder,” someone who “responds readily to inner and outer expectations.” If I set a goal, especially one with a clear finish line and specific parameters, I am generally determined to meet it—whether it is posting for 100 straight days about something that makes me happy, training for and completing a marathon or finishing an 82-mile bike ride in torrential rain and 45-mph wind. This perseverance is what makes Kenny call me stubborn (among other adjectives), but it is something I consider a strength and a characteristic for which I am grateful.

I decided that finishing #100HAPPYDAYS on the last day of the year meant that I should begin the new year with a fresh quest. It seemed the perfect segue to a kickoff of the pursuit of what I am calling Vision 2016—my two primary goals for 2016. I am not ready to go public with what those two goals are, but I have adapted the #100HAPPYDAYS format to a strategy to track my progress toward those goals. Rather than posting photos on Facebook, I have created a spreadsheet where I will track my daily activities related to my dual-pronged Vision 2016. This will work for me because I am self-motivated and self-directed and do not necessarily need to make a goal public in order to feel accountable to it. I feel excited at the prospect of this new challenge and am grateful for a structure within which to frame my goal pursuit.

I appreciate my experience with #100HAPPYDAYS and am grateful for my friend Andrea, whose Facebook post introduced me to the idea. I would say that my overall mental health and happiness have tipped a little farther toward the positive. While this emotional uptick is not solely because of this project, I do believe that #100HAPPYDAYS contributed. Even though I won’t necessarily be sharing something positive every day, I hope that I will be able to keep alive the spirit of proactively spotting joy amidst the mundane moments that characterize human daily existence.

Wishing all, human and non-human, a peaceful and happy 2016!