(Weight stigma) science is hard: some thoughts on the newest study on fat shaming

A girl in a white shirt, pondering some molecule diagrams on a blackboard

There’s new study that purports to tell us what we think we already know about weight stigma and physical activity:  when you perceive more weight stigma in your life, you are less likely to engage in physical activity.  The study, in BMJ Open, is here.

Here’s the abstract from the study:

Objective To examine the association between perceived weight discrimination and physical activity in a large population-based sample.

Design Data were from 2423 men and 3057 women aged ≥50 years participating in Wave 5 (2010/11) of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Participants reported experiences of weight discrimination in everyday life and frequency of light, moderate and vigorous physical activities. We used logistic regression to test associations between perceived weight discrimination and physical activity, controlling for age, sex, socioeconomic status and body mass index (BMI).

Results Perceived weight discrimination was associated with almost 60% higher odds of being inactive (OR 1.59, 95% CI 1.05 to 2.40, p=.028) and 30% lower odds of engaging in moderate or vigorous activity at least once a week (OR 0.70, 95% CI 0.53 to 0.94, p=.017).

Conclusions Independent of BMI, individuals who perceive unfair treatment on the basis of their weight are less physically active than those who do not perceive discrimination. This has important implications for the health and well-being of individuals who experience weight-based discrimination, and may also contribute to a cycle of weight gain and further mistreatment.

Okay, this is probably no news to blog readers.  First of all, we hear about fat shaming around physical activity all the time.  One of the most recent episodes was the Twitter kerfuffle around Nike’s recent release of a larger-sized exercise clothing line (well, up to 3X).  There were lots of tweets arguing (no, not arguing, rather declaiming) that manufacturing larger exercise clothing would… I can hardly bring myself to type this…  encourage people to become fatter…. uh, because they now can?

As a philosophy professor who teaches introductory logic, I’m having trouble following the inferential thread here.  Suffice to say, people weighed in against the Nike decision, engaging in all manner of fat-shaming, healthist trolling, and name-calling.  I won’t even link to the discussion; rather, here’s my response to those folks:

Correction guy meme saying "Hold that thought-- forever."

Correction guy meme saying “Hold that thought– forever.”

But let’s get back to the study and my promised thoughts on it.

First of all, a science wonky comment:  there’s a big big big difference between statistically significant differences among groups and clinically significant differences among groups.  Let’s look at the results in bar graphs below:

bar graph of levels of physical activity in perceived weight stigma and no-perceived weight stigma groups

bar graph of levels of physical activity in perceived weight stigma and no-perceived weight stigma groups

Yeah, the print is tiny, but all you need to see here is that the differences in amount of physical activity (divided into inactive, light, moderate and vigorous) are pretty small.  One might expect this in their sample, which was people aged 50 and above.  Why?

First, it’s a big sample that seems pretty heterogeneous, which means the differences will be dampened by other potential factors the researchers aren’t controlling for.  Second, digging into the demographics of the sample, the weight stigma group is predominantly lower-income (no surprise there).  The weight stigma group is also on average heavier than the non-weight-stigma group (duh).

This suggests to me two confounding factors:  1) lower-income people generally have less access to physical activity because of less money and less time; 2) overall physical activity tends to decline with both age and increased weight (especially among women, who are 55% of the sample).

Here’s a study showing relationships between both workplace conditions (for workers in hospitals in Boston) and age with BMI.   What it suggests is that as age increases, so does BMI, regardless of type of job; and, as control over one’s job conditions increases (and this happens with higher-income earners), physical activity increases.

Duh!

One final nitpick (for now):  relative to the sample in the weight stigma study (about 5500 people), the group reporting weight stigma was very small (268).  The researchers thought this group was big enough to get a scientifically acceptable set of results, but this raises questions for me:  1) is there actually much more weight stigma in the group, but people aren’t either willing to report it or experiencing it in a more subtle way?  2) are the incidence or effects (two very different things) of weight stigma lower in people over 50?  In short, this study raises some interesting (to me) questions about weight stigma and physical activity, but it doesn’t answer any.

Which brings me back to the title of this post:  science is hard, and figuring out how to understand relationships between weight stigma and, well, anything else is also hard.

What’s not hard to figure out is this:  fat shaming is rude and wrong and unhelpful for anyone.  And my non-scientific solution for combating fat shaming is this:

The timeout corner: now sit here and think about what you've done and don't come downstairs until you are ready to apologize)

The timeout corner: now sit here and think about what you’ve done and don’t come downstairs until you are ready to apologize)

 

 

Upside-down mixed-up weather fitness tips

A cartoon of clothing for a week in Boston during the winter of 2017, varying from bathing suit to snow suit

What a silly mixed up winter/spring season we are having here in the northeastern part of the US.  And most everywhere else too, if my Facebook feed is any judge.  Thank goodness I have a wide variety of activity clothing for temperatures ranging from rain forest to subarctic.  And I’ve needed a lot of them in the past few weeks.

First, there’s been lots of heat.   Record temperatures were set in February in Boston:  73 F on February 24.  Some people, however, were undeterred in their insistence on ice skating:

Two girls ice skating on Frog Pond on the Boston common in T shirts and leggings, holding water from the melting ice rink.

Then, a few days ago the March temperatures plunged, setting records and almost-records in New England:

No records were set in Boston on Saturday, as temperatures reached a high of 23 degrees just after midnight. That’s just 1 degree over the record lowest high temperature recorded for March 11, which was 22 degrees set in 1874, according to the weather service.

Worcester, Providence, and Hartford set new minimum high temperature records of 16, 23, and 22 degrees, respectively, breaking longstanding records.

With this confoundingly mixed-up weather, what’s an aspiring-to-be-fit feminist to do?  Here are some strategies that are currently working for me.

1.Take advantage of the the aerobic opportunities that come from schlepping up and down stairs (in my case to basement, but attics will do as well), retrieving previously-stowed winter sports gear and clothing.  Then stowing it again.  Repeat as often as necessary, or until May 1, whichever comes first.

A week or so ago, with a heavy sigh, I finally put my cross country skis, snowshoes and ski clothing away in my basement.  But now, with a nor’easter bearing down on us (bringing who knows how much snow?), I get to go back to my basement, taking multiple trips to find everything I put away.  I’ve been up and down many times, looking for things and putting other things away.  I feel downright productive…

 2. If you find yourself resisting venturing outdoors when it’s super-cold outside (and windy, too, I might add), expose yourself to relentless peer pressure, and you’ll probably give in and go do something active.

Yesterday my friend Janet called, reminding me that I had agreed to go on a walk with her Saturday afternoon.  I demurred, saying that it was too cold (it was something like 14 outside, with 30mph winds and higher gusts).  She refused to take no for an answer, stating that it would be fine outside for a walk.  Note:  it was sooo not fine outside for a walk.  But walk we did, bringing along another friend, Jessica.  I lent Jess a pair of leggings to wear under her cords, as she was on the brink of hypothermia already.

In fact, it was a beautiful day, if windy.  The Fresh Pond reservoir in Cambridge looked more like the Great Lakes, complete with whitecaps:

Fresh Pond reservoir, with dark choppy waves

Fresh Pond reservoir, with dark choppy waves

Alright, maybe they weren’t exactly whitecaps, but there was a lot-a-lot of wind.  We saw interesting icy formations along the banks, made by splashing water, wind, and frigid temps:

A variety of ice formations made by splashing water and wind against branches

We were super-bundled up for our walk.  Janet and I both tend to run warmer than the average person, so we both dress lighter, but not yesterday.  Here’s what she was sporting:

Janet, in sunglasses, a scarf, hat and fluffy white long parka

All our exposed skin (all 10 square inches of it) got red and wind-burned.  However, it was a very fun way to get a little exercise on such a freezing day.

3. Invite relatives from the south to visit just before a snowstorm, guaranteeing lots of sledding, running around in the snow, skiing, tubing, and maybe even snowball fighting.

As I write this, my sister, a friend of hers and four kids are barrelling their way to Boston for a high school debate tournament.  Everyone is pretty excited about the snow (except my sister, who is the designated driver).  The kids have never experienced a nor’easter, so I’m hoping we get at least a foot of snow.  Chances are good this will happen.  This means I get to spend time and energy in lots of frolicking in the snow.  Of course, I will definitely be cross country skiing as soon as I can, but this time I get to expand my winter-fun palate to include sledding and tubing.  Frankly, I can’t wait.

Now I need to go to the store and get milk and bread.

Two women frolicking in the snow holding milk and bread

Two women frolicking in the snow holding milk and bread

This week in diet fallacies: appeal to Oprah

Oprah in a tiara, jewels, and a white beaded gown

This week in my introductory logic class I was teaching informal fallacies.  These are, in brief, bad arguments– that is, they are groups of sentences which purport to provide evidence for some claim, but in fact provide no evidence at all.  And they tend to reflect some flaw or vulnerability in our capacities for reasoning.  So we would do well to avoid them.  However, they are taught in part because we see them everywhere, all the time.

I try to use good and timely examples of fallacies in class to help the students better understand how they work and also how bad their effects can be on us.  Of course, politics provides us with a bounteous and 24/7 supply of fresh fallacies, which I have been making use of.

But I just read an article called “The Big Problem with Oprah and Other Celebs Who Tout Diets”, and was struck by how handy the dieting business and dieting approach to health is just chock-full of fallacies.  We of course know these, but in the interests of combining my love of fallacies with my hatred of all things diet-ish, I thought I’d put a prominent one out there:  Appeal to Authority.

What is Appeal to authority?  This fallacy happens when we accept some claim just because some putative authority says so.  Who remembers Oprah coming out on her show, hauling a wagon of fat to demonstrate how much weight she has lost (and of course how disgusting fat is, and how disgusting we who still have the fat are, and how she’s not disgusting anymore because she got rid of the fat– I could go on…)?

Oprah on her show, with a wagon full of fat, demonstrating her recent weight loss

Now, Oprah has a new cookbook out called Food, Health and Happiness, featuring what looks like a thinner version of herself, and a softer message for everyone who yearns for… what?  A more ideal version of themselves?  A slower, more idyllic life that includes time to massage kale, make spelt bread, and gather apples from their own trees out back?  Oprah says you can have this.  Just click here.

front cover of Oprah's new Food Health and Happiness cookbook

In the article I mentioned above, the author points out a few problems with even this kinder and gentler approach to the d-word.  Here they are:

1. Celebrities Don’t Look Like They Do Because Of Their Diets

Stars look like stars because they’re either genetically blessed with high metabolisms and lean bodies, driven to perfection, or both. What’s more, actresses, models, celebrity yoga instructors and the like get paid the big bucks to look fantastic. And a good thing, because it costs a pretty penny to employ an entourage of experts to keep up appearances.

2. Diets Don’t Work

Diets reliably promote weight gain, not loss, thereby increasing the very weight-related health risks they aim to decrease. It’s cruel but statistically true: A five-year study of 2,500 teens showed dieting is an important predictor of both obesity and new eating disorders.

3. Celebrity Diets Are Even Less Likely to Work

Celebrity diets backfire big-time for all the same reasons and more. Diets of the rich and famous tend to be expensive, costing dieters time and money they don’t necessarily have. Some go to wacky extremes, eliminating such an idiosyncratic list of foods that social occasions become stressful events. What’s a restaurant-goer to order on Gwyneth’s 10-day detox, which excludes gluten, soy, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, white rice, shellfish, raw fish, peanuts, tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, corn… ?

Celebrity diets are beyond doomed because of the toxic mix of negative comparisons, shame and self-criticism they inspire. As inspiring as it might be to watch your favorite celebrities diet down to size, the airbrushed photos of celebrity dieters looking like they’re doing better than you tend to make you feel worse and exacerbate the very eating issues their diets are meant to alleviate.

All of these reasons reveal the ways that we fall for the appeal to celebrity authority.  We see in minute detail the path that celebrities take to go from X pounds to X-Y pounds.  We see the splashy photo shoots, the results of the labors of an army of hair, makeup, wardrobe and Photoshop staff. In Oprah’s case, there’s more documentation of her weight gains and losses than probably any other celebrity.

Appeal to authority celebrity diet claims also help us see how diets don’t work– that is, if the goal of a diet is to lose and maintain weight loss over time, Oprah (who arguably has more money than God) is living proof that it’s just not possible for everyone to meet that goal.

Finally, the celebrity diets that are put out there can be expensive, time-consuming and  hard to prepare– all features that make them poor choices for someone who is looking to change their eating habits.  A quick look at the Amazon page for Oprah’s cookbook yielded these comments:

Beautiful book, but the recipes are too time consuming for this working mom and many ingredients are hard to find.

This cookbook is for the rich or for the chefs of the rich, not your everyday housewife or working mom. It is … more a picture of Oprah’s extravagant, pampered lifestyle. If you like recipes with like 25 ingredients, many of which you’ve never heard of, and recipes with like 2 pages of directions, then this is the cookbook for you.

Why are there no serving sizes?

I admit that I love cookbooks– they are aspirational, inspirational, and good (for me) at pulling me out of a cooking rut.  But I’m under no illusions that a celebrity (or any) cookbook will be a sure-fire way to catapult me into a different pattern of eating.

Readers, do you rely on cookbooks to help you with changes you want to make in your eating?  Have you relied on some and been pleased?  Disappointed?  I’d love to hear from you.

 

Beginner’s mind– hauling it from the mat to the boat

pink rock with inscription "have a beginner's mind"

This weekend was all about being a beginner again.  Which is supposed to be a good thing, if the story about the beginner’s mind is to be believed.

In yoga and meditation, teachers often talk about “embracing the beginner’s mind”.  This means something like cultivating increased awareness of many of the features of your current experience (including features we tend to ignore or take for granted), in order to learn and grow.  It also teaches us that life is in a constant state of change, and accepting, even incorporating this acceptance into our practice (of yoga, meditation– anything really) will enrich it for us.  Here’s what The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Wellness says about beginner’s mind:

In yoga, we’re often told to approach poses with beginner’s mind—to seek spaciousness or find the nuances that allow us to discover more about a pose and our relationship to it. [It’s easy to lose] sight of that and focus… simply on completing the flow, hitting a pose, or making it to Savasana. That’s when yoga becomes less about “skillfulness in action” and more about calisthenics.

Beginner’s mind is tough enough in yoga class, let alone embracing it off the mat. An open state of inquiry can be no match for the larger voices of our everyday expectations and demands…

Steven [Leonard, meditation teacher] says, “To truly embrace beginner’s mind, we must soften around our tendency to assume. We’re always assuming what our experiences will be, assuming we know what we like and dislike, assuming our view is the same as it was yesterday. To assume that anything stays the same is to be caught in delusion.” When freed from the fetters of assumption and judgment, our experiences become truer reflections of what is. And what is in one moment is not exactly the same in another. The space between is where learning and growth occur.

Okay, got it.  Let go of assumptions, take what comes.  This plan went really well in my Saturday morning yoga class with Cathleen, my favorite yoga teacher at my favorite yoga studio, Artemis Yoga (please forgive my plugging this place, but I have a soft spot for small business owners at places I love).  She uses fun and funny metaphors (often involving us driving our own car, parking, traffic, etc.) which help us disengage from judgment, in part because we are smiling or laughing.  And in her beginner classes (this was one such), everyone gets  a chance to rediscover beginner’s mind through the gentle pace of the class, variations on basic poses, and holding basic poses longer (if we want).  I was able to reconnect with downward facing dog in a new way on Saturday– using blocks under our hands, I sank into the pose much more, with heels on the floor (which doesn’t happen usually for me).  It reintroduced me to the pose, made it fresh.  I felt reinvigorated, ready to face the world with a new perspective.

Until I arrived at my second activity of the day:  kayak rolling class.  This is taught in a local YMCA pool by the marvelous Kevin of Rock Paddle Surf in Salem, MA (yeah yeah– I’m doing the small business booster thing again) and his marvelous wife Gillian.  I took one rolling class last year, but for me it’s going to take a whole bunch of instruction to get close to rolling a sea kayak (FYI– they’re looong; like 16ish feet long, okay?).

So my beginner’s mind and I pulled up to the parking lot, where everyone else was unloading their boats.  The session is for instruction for noobs like me, and also for folks to practice their rolls and rescues in their own boats.  And of course there was the one guy who tried to paddle standing up in the cockpit.  He went splash!  a lot.

I was very nervous about this class.  In my last rolling class I didn’t feel settled in my boat, and kept worrying about being able to get back in it (getting out of it just happens spontaneously, which is fine).  I tried to remember what I’d learned earlier in the day:

rocks with inscription "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”

Frankly, I wasn’t sure how to translate this bit of wisdom into my current situation.  I figured that embracing my current state without judgment might help calm my waves of panic, but on the other hand, sometimes my current state was underwater, which provoked the perfectly reasonable judgment “Whoa! Time to get out of here!”

Except I was wrong.  Turns out,  beginner’s mind is EXACTLY what you need when you’re in the water, upside down in the cockpit of your boat, holding your paddle and trying to figure out how to do that hip snap to get you topside again.  Luckily for me, I don’t mind being underwater in a kayak– it’s actually kind of interesting.  But I kept trying to analyze the situation and make some decision about which way to move my hip (and which hip to move) while down there.  It was very confusing, and I kept moving the wrong way.  Of course, either Kevin or Gillian was right there to haul me back up, so I wasn’t scared.  But I was frustrated.

I’ve got two more rolling class sessions scheduled for March, and then a weekend-long kayak workshop in Charleston, SC in April.  Maybe I’ll get the roll, maybe I won’t.  I don’t have to have one in order to be a sea kayaker (although it comes in handy).  But I want one.

It’s clear to me now that I’ll need to leave judgment and assumptions and expectations (with their accompanying fears) behind in order to be in a proper state to hear what my body, my boat, Kevin, and Gillian are telling me.  After all, kayaking is like life.  Sometimes, we’re right side up, looking to the horizon.  And sometimes, we’re here.

person in a sea kayak underwater in a pool, sweeping a paddle to come back up

The Challenging Challenge of Challenges

person leaping off cliff into water below

Let me just say it: I hate challenges. 30-day challenges, 100-day challenges, Do X-number-of-such-and-such challenges, etc.– I hate them all.

And yet.

There’s something seductive, promising, even magical about the challenge. All I have to do is start with 2 pushups, and soon I’ll be doing 384 of them a day. Or all I have to do is eat only grapefruit for 30 days and I’ll fit into that outfit. Or all I have to do is roll out my yoga mat now, and soon I’ll be able to hold a plank for 170 minutes. Apart from the sheer pain of the thing, who has the time to hold a plank that long? I’m joking, of course, but there’s definitely an appeal to the idea that the challenge promises us a goal beyond what we could imagine doing in our real lives.

Now, before you get annoyed with my tarring all challenges with the same brush, I know that there are lots of other challenges that are about process, not product. They help establish supposedly modest behavior change through repetition.  One such recent challenge was the the Runner’s World Run Streak challenge.

Runner's World 39 days of Awesome challenge: Thanksgiving to New Year's run 1 mile a day, every day

A bunch of FFI bloggers and friends decided to take on this challenge.  I chimed in, saying that I would walk a mile a day (my knees don’t let me run).  I even volunteered to do a group post on the results.

Why did I do this?  I was nearing the busiest, most hectic part of my fall term, a term in which I was the most overburdened with work that I’d been in some time.  I say this with full awareness that I have a job and life filled with privileges, for which I am lucky and grateful.  Still, my experience of being me last fall was not fun.

And yet.

The siren song of the challenge was irresistible.  I wanted it to be true that somehow I would transform into a person who took better care of herself– who took the time to stop what she was doing, get outside, stretch her legs, clear the cobwebs, and do something good for her body every day.  And honestly, walking a mile only takes 15–20 minutes, plus a few (like 5?) minutes for getting ready.  So surely I could manage this.

Well, no. Of course not. Hoping against hope that somehow my life would become different, that I would become different just by saying “I’m in!” is not an effective technique for completing a task like this.  I had none of the tools I needed.

I was stressed out from overwork, from being behind on a bunch of work tasks, from swimming in a sea of ungraded papers and exams.

I was in a state of suppressed (and sometimes non-suppressed) panic about my lack of fitness and failure to activate myself into a person working on fitness.

I was dying to feel and be like the other people doing the challenge, who (from my perspective) were fitter and happily ensconced in comfortable  and rock-solid physical activity patterns.

I was ashamed of my failure to meet my own physical activity goals.

I was ashamed of my body: how it looked, how it performed, how it felt inhabiting it.

So I did the only thing I could.  I said “I’m in!” and hoped for the best.

What happened?  Well, I have no idea what happened with the rest of the bloggers.  I was in fact too ashamed even to contact anyone to see how things went and organize a group blog post.  As for me, I did some walking on some days.  I did some documenting of the walking I did.  I did not walk 39 days in a row.  And I felt bad about that.

Okay, lesson learned:  don’t sign up for a challenge when just getting through your work day is a challenge.  Got it.

And yet.

The notion of the challenge, as much as I hate it, is still calling me.  Last weekend I was cross country skiing with my friend Janet, and talking about my fitness goals:  be able to ride bikes with my friends, learn more kayak techniques and get increased stamina to be able to paddle with folks over the summer, lower my levels of anxiety about partaking in physical activity with others and also on my own, and develop a rhythm of regular and fun activity.

That’s a lot.  There are a bunch of challenges in those goals.  Meeting them requires commitment to regular bike training (on the trainer and outside when possible), kayak classes and training and trips, anxiety-reduction through self-care, meditation, yoga, etc. starting to go on group rides with folks, and developing trust within myself and with my friends as I work toward fitness for me in this stage of my life.

So this is what I am doing now to meet these challenges:

I’m documenting my food intake– every meal, every snack, every day.  I want to eat in a way that feels healthy-to-me, that supports my body and helps me feel good and strong.  Knowledge is power, so looking at how I’m actually eating is a big step toward making any changes that I decide I want for myself.

I created a somewhat aspirational but not entirely unrealistic activity weekly schedule.  It includes walking, riding the trainer (which I don’t love but know will help me with my riding goals) and Friday–Sunday longer outside activities.  I also added daily yoga– sometimes a class (my local studio, Artemis Yoga in Watertown, MA,  is fantastic and very near my house), and other times a 20-minute yoga DVD.  I have the DVD cued up and ready to go, and my mat and blocks are in the living room.  I want to at least play the DVD while doing something-or-other on my mat to help me de-stress, stretch my body and relax.

I’m documenting all of my activity every day.  I printed out a calendar, tacked it to my bedroom door, placed a pen next to it, and am writing up what I’ve done each day.  In 4 weeks I’ll look at it and then devise another 4-week plan.  By then, the time will have changed (YAY!) so there will be more light later in the day to work with, opening up the possibility of rides after work.

This is my challenge: going on record with myself about what I want for my body.  Documenting what I am actually doing.  Reflecting on that information. Making adjustments.  And above all, being accepting, nay, kind to myself, remembering that challenges are, well, challenging.

 

Self care, world care: hoping it’s not either/or

Yesterday my friend Janet and I went cross country skiing at Foss Farm west of Boston.  It was a picture-perfect snowy day in the woods.

The woods at Foss Farm, ski tracks in the middle and trees all around.

On the way back home, we stopped at Trader Joe’s to pick up a few things.  I ran into a fellow feminist philosopher (hi, Naomi!) in the produce section.  I noted my ski clothing and said what a wonderful day it was to be outside.  She replied that she had been at a demonstration in Cambridge to protest the Dakota access pipeline, and pointed out her very warm clothing.  We parted, planning to get together for a snowy walk soon.

It’s funny (interesting, not haha) that I should run into a friend who had been protesting instead of skiing that day.  Talking with Janet while enjoying the woods, I mentioned that I was really interested in going to the March for Science in Washington, scheduled for April 22.  But I can’t, because I had already scheduled to go to the East Coast Paddlesports kayak symposium in Charleston, SC.  I’ll be doing 3 days of on and off-water kayaking classes in warm water.  It should be great, and I am/was really looking forward to it.

Was? Why was?

Maybe it’s bad luck/timing, but I now count three times that I’ve missed chances to join others in public protest against political conditions that I consider dangerous for my country, the environment, and human rights.  The third miss-out was when I was at a cooking course at the Kripalu center in western Massachusetts on the weekend of the Women’s Marches.  I had scheduled that trip weeks before the election– who knew this would happen?

All of these things I’ve been doing or am planning are part of my efforts at increased self-care these days.  I’ve written about struggling with eating in healthy-to-me ways,  and also with physical activities that I love but in which I am  less adept/fast/comfortable/fit than I used to be.  So I made the conscious decision to shift my focus a bit.  I am teaching less (fewer overload courses, which means less money), going to fewer conferences, saying no to new projects (this is in itself a work in progress!), and doing more focused service at work and in my community (i.e. not saying yes to every shiny new opportunity).  I’m also trying (really, I am) to space out my social events– I love love love seeing friends and really hate to miss out on dinners, parties, etc.  In fact I’m going to try to go to both a lasagne dinner and a karaoke party next Saturday.  We’ll see how that goes…

Back to the conflict at hand.  Our time is limited, our energy is limited, our personal needs are real, and the needs of the world are wide and deep.  Lately it’s feeling like saying “yes” to myself results in my saying “no” to the world.  And maybe vice versa.  What to do about it?  How to find that seductive and elusive karmic balance in life?  I guess that’s what I’m asking.  At times like these it feels as mythical a goal as this:

 

an elephant balancing on a beach ball on the beach!

It’s funny I’m writing about the difficulty of balance, because I’ve always been good at balancing.  I skate (ice and roller), I ski (downhill in past, cross country from now until I expire), and I used to dance ( ballet, tap, modern) and still do recreationally when I get a chance.  I’m venturing into new realms of balancing– edging a kayak is an exercise in balancing yourself and the boat to optimize on the physics of forward motion and turning.  And yoga?  Yeah.  Don’t get me started on all the balancing that we’re supposed to do there.  Like this one:

Woman doing a forward arm balance on a yoga mat

Seriously, that is not happening.  But I found out just yesterday that I’m rather better than I used to be at this one:

Two children doing tree balance pose on a yoga mat

What I wish and hope is that getting stronger and caring for ourselves will open up new energy for caring for the world, which really needs our attention.  I’ve recently gotten involved in several teaching projects for minority STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students at my university.  It feels stimulating to develop two new courses (philosophy courses on race and racism, and also a science and values course).  Maybe I’ll figure out how to make time for protests.  Or maybe protests won’t be the route for me– there’s lots of work to do to forward the causes of justice (however we see it).

Readers, how have recent world events shaped your time and energy and balance?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

 

Stretches for my taste buds and exercises for my palate

the 6 tastes of ayurveda: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent and astringent

Two weeks ago, when so many people were at hundreds of Women’s Marches all over the US and the world, I was at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Wellness with my friend Norah. While she was doing a yoga nidra and deep relaxation workshop, I was busy in the Kripalu demo kitchen, learning and chopping and observing and smelling and stirring and tasting.   The course was called “5 ingredients, no time”. How could anyone resist such a title?

Since my relationship ended about a year and a half ago, I’ve been cooking on my own. I enjoy cooking, and often have people over for dinner or host parties with nibblies and cocktails. However, cooking for myself day in and day out proved difficult. Getting used to cooking for one most of the time was hard, and a reminder of my changed status. I see cooking as a form of self-care, and my self-care skills were not in great shape for some time. Plus, I tend to gravitate toward carbs for comfort in times of distress. In short, I was not eating in ways that felt healthy-to-me or caring-for-me.

Over time, the shadows of post-relationship sadness have lifted. Hallelujah! Happiness is once more my default state (more or less). I told my therapist recently that I didn’t think I was depressed anymore; I found myself singing songs in the morning. Of course, not like this:

Cinderella singing to birds and mice

But I have felt more of a spring in my step, and I guess also a song in my heart these days. Go me!

However, a change in emotional state does not automatically or effortlessly result in a seamless transition to new and healthy-to-me habits. I know this from past history. I started my current job in fall of 2001. I had been unhappy in my previous job, and in fact got denied tenure. However, I was very lucky to find another faculty position, and in the very city where I most wanted to live. Again, Hallelujah! Let all the people say Amen!

Yellow and black graphic of choir members with arms raised in joy

But it took some time to shift my habits of coping during periods of unhappiness and stress to new habits once the stress had eased.

Back to the present: I had gone to Kripalu in May to do a course on mindful eating, which was helpful. But I was feeling a bit stalled and bored about what I was eating.

Enter the Kripalu weekend cooking course.

I already know my way around a kitchen, and in fact fancy myself a pretty knowledgeable cook. The course went over knife skills and also organizing techniques for efficiency and good time management. Yeah, already knew that too.

But what really surprised me was this: I got reintroduced to taste. I mean all kinds of tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, pungent, and astringent. Kripalu does a lot of menu planning and cooking based on the six tastes of Ayurvedic cooking.

Spices representing six tastes of Ayurveda

Chef Jeremy Rock Smith put together a variety of tastes in combinations that reflected different cooking traditions (e.g. Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Asian). And he created simple recipes that featured these tastes using vegetables, proteins, and salads. He recommended the book The Flavor Bible for anyone interested in exploring flavor combos in more sophisticated ways. I have already ordered it.

The book The Flavor Bible

For proteins, Chef Jeremy offered recipes that would work for tofu, chicken, fish, and other meats. For the most part we cooked with tofu and fish, but did a few chicken dishes as well. One of my favorite new-to-me tastes is courtesy of Za’atar, a Middle Eastern combination of spices that can be used mixed with oil and used as a dipping sauce, used on vegetables, or (as we did in our course) coated on protein for pan sautéing. Here’s a yummy and easy recipe:

Za’atar-crusted tofu/chicken/tempeh with pomegranate molasses

Za’atar spice (you can order it or buy it at spice shops or fancy grocery stores)

Olive oil

3 Tsp pomegranate molasses (same as above)

Dust protein with Za’atar generously (no need to coat it with anything, just dredge it as is). Heat pan, then add olive (or other) oil. Saute protein for 3—5 minutes on each side (more if it’s chicken, less if tofu or tempeh). Remove from pan and let sit for a couple of minutes. Then drizzle with 2 tsp of pomegranate molasses over each piece of protein (slab of tofu or tempeh, breast of chicken, etc.)

The Za’atar plus pomegranate molasses provided a wow combination of flavors that really woke up my palate. I found myself intrigued, and was looking forward to more taste exercises.

I wasn’t disappointed. My taste buds got a real workout over the weekend! Here are some of the dishes we made and sampled:

  • Creamed leeks with coconut milk and shredded coconut—oh man, they were soooo good. This could be a nice sauce accompaniment for fish or tofu, too.

 

  • Braised fennel with orange/yogurt sauce—I didn’t even think I liked fennel very much, and the orange yogurt thing seemed like a weird idea. But it was a taste sensation. We served it with white fish, which was yummy.

 

  • Brussels sprouts with ginger and (wait for it) kimchi—Whoa! Who would’ve thought this was a thing?   Not me. But it was an explosion of flavor—in a good way.

 

Since I’ve been back, I’ve done a bit of cooking, but I really got a chance to try out some of the recipes and techniques on friends Friday night after yoga class. I made grilled tofu with adobo sauce and sautéed sweet potatoes and onions with coconut milk. Both were a big hit. (I overdid both the spice and green chilis on the black bean dish—that’s what happens when I go off-script with new recipes, but 2 out of 3 ain’t bad).

So I’m feeling newly energized and equipped to head back into the kitchen with more excitement and purpose, armed with new knowledge and a wider array of flavors to try and enjoy.

So what’s the big deal? Why are a handful of new recipes so important for self-care?

For me, with respect to both eating and physical activity, novelty and variety are important. This isn’t true of everyone, but it is for me. I always have and always will love cycling and water sports, but I like to shake it up and try new things. I want new physical experiences and to tackle new challenges. Ropes yoga is a current novel activity for me (I blogged about my first class here). I’m also starting kayak rolling classes at the end of February, hoping to bring my boat skills to a new level in preparation for a weekend on-the-water course in April.

Why should eating be any different? Yes, I love oranges and avocados and eggs and bacon and tomatoes and arugula and sourdough bread, etc. And I have a bunch of recipes that I enjoy doing—my chicken fricassee is a classic that I love. But I’ve been yearning for something to, well, reward me for healthier-to-me eating that I’ve been trying (but not succeeding) in doing.

The wow-effect of new flavors may just be the reward I’ve been looking for. It requires a little investment of time, of restocking my kitchen with some new things, but it’s gotten me out of my eating rut. It is a source of pleasure, and a lovely act of self-care.

Let me know if you try any of these or if you have alternative ways of doing super-yummy flavorful recipes. If you’re interested I can put recipes in the comments section. And I’d love it if you shared some of your favorite recipes in the comments too!

graphic of bon appetit