Pilar Gerasimo, Experience Life Founding Editor

Revolutionary Acts

Experience Life founding editor Pilar Gerasimo shares her renegade perspectives for thriving in a mixed-up world.

Posts by Pilar Gerasimo

Experience Life Magazine

2. Buck Trends

Over my career as a health seeker, I’ve seen a lot of nutrition and fitness trends come and go. Back in the day, it was bran muffins, ankle weights, and Lean Cuisine. This year, it’s oil pulling and green juice (both of which I’m into, by the way). Next year, who knows?

It’s kind of funny how inclined we humans are to seek the novel and interesting and, for better or worse, to hop on various bandwagons as they cruise on by.

Of course, this is also true of fitness fashion. Leg warmers and sweatbands — two phenomena I saw come and go the first time around — are now apparently back in a big way. Cute.

What’s not so funny or cute, though, is the confusion and ennui a lot of us feel as an endless stream of supposedly healthy trends are foisted upon us.

Often, that foisting happens courtesy of the media. Always on the prowl for something new, sensational, and exciting to report, both print and digital media have made an art form of spinning attention-getting (and sometimes misleading) stories out of little or nothing.

Evidently, the headline “What Makes Us Healthy Now Is Pretty Much the Same Stuff as It Has Been for All of Human History” just doesn’t grab a lot of eyeballs.

Still more trend-pushing comes courtesy of commercial interests who benefit from manipulating what we buy and how much of it we consume.

They’ve been known to manufacture skewed studies, infiltrate blogging communities and social networks, buy off or intimidate journalists, and even invade public-school systems in an effort to establish the trends they think will best serve their bottom lines. (If you haven’t read about this in Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat, or John Stauber’s Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, or Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying, please do. And check out our health-media feature “Decoding Health Media“.)

I’ve certainly experienced my share of frustration and bewilderment trying to separate the nifty from the nonsensical over the past 25 years or so. But I’ve also developed a good nose for which trends have merit, and which don’t.

Here, off the top of my head, is a list of just some of the trends I could happily see pass into the great beyond, never to return:

  • Calorie and gram counting
  • Low-fat diets; the pushing of skim milk and reduced-fat cheese and fat-free yogurt as great for health and weight loss
  • Diet soda and zero-calorie drinks sweetened with chemicals
  • Fat-free cookies, muffins, cupcakes, crackers, and chips
  • The proliferation of “healthy” extruded food products made of pastelike  ingredients (refined flours, starches, sugars, industrial oils, and flavorings) formed into puffs, polygons, disks, sticks, Os, clusters, nuggets, and so on.
  • Misleading “heart-healthy!” and “healthy choice!” labels on unhealthy processed foods that happen to contain some “whole grains!”
  • Long, boring treadmill workouts that focus primarily on calorie burning
  • The chasing of thigh gap (don’t get me started)
  • The overprescription of statins, antacids, and other symptom-suppressing meds that can have serious health-undermining side effects

So those are some trends I’ll be happy to see die. On the other hand, there are also plenty of nascent trends I’d like to see gather more steam:

  • Rediscovery of whole, unprocessed foods as the basis of a healthy diet (check out Whole30.com)
  • Re-embracing of healthy fats (including coconut oil and grass-fed butter) for health and pleasure
  • Growth and increased accessibility of organic, biodynamic, local, heirloom, and non-GMO foods
  • Recognition of sugar, flour, and trans fats as primary culprits in heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity
  • Increasing awareness of gluten, dairy, and food-additive sensitivities
  • The redefinition of kale, chard, collards, and other dark greens as staple foods; sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts as comfort foods
  • The return of sustainably and humanely raised pastured meats, eggs, and dairy
  • The rise of super greens and fatty-acid supplements
  • The growth of functional, integrative, and P4 medicine (www.p4mi.org)
  • Emphasis on sleep, rest, and relaxation as key health requirements
  • Appreciation of meditation and mindfulness as tools for body-mind health (check out Headspace.com)
  • Women with real bodies rebelling against idealized-body media obsessions (check out Weirdlyshaped.com)
  • The rise of health coaches
  • People focusing on fitness and strength vs. “skinnyness”
  • Use of elimination diets to identify food intolerances, clear up chronic inflammatory conditions, and break food addictions
  • Activity-based communities (yoga, Zumba, boot camp, circuit-training, cycling, athletic events, etc.) becoming central social gathering places
  • Support for self-powered transport (walk, bike, skate, etc.)
  • Expansion of the definition of “health” to include environmental considerations like air, water, soil, food supply, ecosystems, and climate stability

There are a great many more trends I could list in both categories, of course, but you get the idea.

The challenge, naturally, is sorting the beneficial trends from the pointless and harmful ones. Because while the mere fact that something is trendy doesn’t mean it’s smart or good for you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s stupid or bad for you either.

My advice: Consider whether the trend in question works in sync with or against the natural order of things. Notice whether it appeals to or offends your most basic sensibilities, and whether it makes you happy or angst ridden. Connect with some well-informed resources you can trust to help you parse the confusing stuff.

When in doubt, you can also try out an appealing trend to see whether or not it works for you.

Last time I ate some “healthy” extruded snacks, I found them yummy   (addictively so) — and then felt sick and hungry for hours afterward. And the first time I tried Zumba, I thought I would hate it, but I found it was actually pretty fun. You just never know.

Above all, don’t be afraid to launch a trend of your own. If something is working for you, notice that. Tell the world about it. Recruit some followers. Who knows — you might just start the next Big Thing.

Revolutionary Reading


The Other Drug Problem The prescriptions we take to regulate cholesterol, blood pressure, and stomach acid are supposed to make us healthier. But could they be doing us more harm than good?

6 “Healthy” Eating Choices to Rethink It’s time to investigate whether your current food choices are as wholesome as you’ve been led to believe.

Back to the Future: ’80s Food Trends Debunked Your neon tights, parachute pants, and leg warmers are long gone, so why are you eating like it’s 1985?

A Big Fat Mistake New research shows no causal link between saturated fat and heart disease. Refined carbs and sugars pose a much greater danger.

Pilar Gerasimo is a nationally recognized healthy-living expert, author of A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World, and the creative force behind the 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy. She serves as senior vice president of Healthy Living for Life Time, the Healthy Way of Life Company, and is currently working on a book about the art of being healthy in an unhealthy world. Learn more about Pilar’s work and connect with her via social media at PilarGerasimo.com. 

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Experience Life Magazine

Revolutionary Act 5: Question Authority

When it comes to health and fitness information, authoritative organizations may not be your best source of advice.

As a health journalist, I rely a great deal on expert opinions and authoritative resources. But I’ve also learned to get second and third opinions, to do my own research, to follow the money and to consult my own common sense and experience.

Basically, I’ve learned to question authority (which is No. 50 of the 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy). Because what I’ve discovered is that experts and authorities of all kinds are often mistaken — sometimes about important stuff. And in my experience, they are wrong more often than they will admit to being in doubt.

This is particularly true in the domain of health. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten lousy health advice from “beyond-reproach” sources like the American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration (to say nothing of the media outlets and health experts that rely on them for information and insight), I’d be a wealthy woman indeed.

But all those dollars would not be worth it — not by far — because if I had followed their advice, I suspect I’d also be sick, overweight and unhappy. I’d be worried about all the wrong things (saturated fats, calories, dietary cholesterol), and I’d be fairly clueless about the things with the greatest chance of slowly killing me (refined flours, undiagnosed gluten and dairy intolerances, sugars, toxic industrial fats, chemical additives and prescription drugs).

I’d be vigilantly counting calories instead of thoughtfully evaluating the quality, character and origin of my food. So I’d be poorly nourished and hungry all the time. I’d be struggling to exercise — and doing it joylessly, mostly to burn calories, instead of challenging my body to build strength, energy, resilience and vitality. And I’d be frustrated that no matter how hard I tried to follow all that dreadful advice, my health and fitness would continue to worsen.

Nutritionally deficient, inflamed and imbalanced, I’d go to the doctor looking for relief. I’d probably be prescribed a slew of medications — for my cholesterol, my stomach acid, my blood pressure, my back pain and my depression — all of which would cost me a fortune and have side effects of their own.

Before long, I’d no longer be the rich woman I’d become by accepting all those dollar bills in exchange for my gullibility. Instead, I’d be a bankrupt, prematurely aged, chronically ill, foggy-brained woman trying to figure out what in the heck went wrong.

I realize this may all sound a little dramatic, but it is precisely what is happening to millions of Americans each and every day. Why? Because a lot of the advice we are getting from the voices of authority is bad, corrupted, half-baked, outdated — and a lot of what we most need to hear (about what really works) just isn’t getting through.

Check out the dietary and lifestyle recommendations at the American Heart Association’s website. Or the American Dietetic Association’s site, or in the literature of any one of a dozen other official-sounding organizations. You’ll see a big emphasis on counting and burning calories, avoiding saturated fats and dietary cholesterol, reducing salt, eating a lot of low-fat or fat-free dairy and eating more so-called whole grains (mostly in the guise of whole-wheat flour products, which are not whole at all).

You’ll see comparatively little emphasis, meanwhile, on reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates (like flours, starches and sugars), industrial vegetable oils and artificial ingredients — the primary ingredients in processed foods.

You’ll also see little on why eating phytonutrient-rich, fiber-rich and whole foods is so important to building vitality and reducing inflammation.

In other words, you’ll get totally backward advice. And when you do get decent advice (like “eat more vegetables”), you’ll get it wrapped in a fat-free, whole-wheat tortilla and served with three side dishes of low-fat dairy.

There are many reasons for this, and plenty of blame for the ag-food-pharma industry, policymakers and the media to share. But the most pernicious dynamic is this: The food industry heavily influences the ADA’s nutritional recommendations. (For more on this dynamic, read Justin Stoneman’s excellent rant). They contribute vast sums of money to the ADA. They sponsor a lot of research, and they determine how and if the results of that research get reported. Then they leverage their preferred study results (along with a whole lot of lobbying money and power) to convince experts and policymakers to support official positions and recommendations that just happen to be advantageous (or at least not damaging) to their most profitable product lines.

By the time those official recommendations and guidelines come out, they often make no sense at all. Still, they get reported en mass by conventional media outlets — many of which have those same industry research-funders and lobbying interests as major advertisers. All this undermined, incomplete advice gets rolled out to the newsstand and airwaves, to public-health resources and to doctors’ offices. And suddenly, that’s “the truth” that everybody knows is true and right. Even if it’s not.

We recently did a piece in Experience Life magazine called “Digesting the New USDA Dietary Guidelines” (September 2011) that offers a nice overview of just how confused and undermined official recommendations like these often are.

We’ve done many other pieces over the years– on saturated fats (“A Big Fat Mistake“); on low-fat dairy (“Skimming the Truth“); on cholesterol (“Cholesterol Myths“); on artificial sweeteners (“Poor Substitutes“); on pharmaceuticals (“The Other Drug Problem“); and on weight loss (“Weight Loss Rules to Rethink“) — that illustrate why failing to question authoritative truths can be so dangerous to your health.

Whenever we are doing the background research for articles like these, I’m amazed at how much decent information is actually out there, but just not breaking through to major media outlets.

Why on earth, I wonder? And then I remember: Follow the money.

A couple of weeks ago I had a really great heart-to-heart conversation with a fellow journalist, an editor at a major lifestyle publication. Over drinks, this editor told me in hushed tones that their editorial staff couldn’t even use the phrase “processed food” in their copy. Their advertisers (processed-food companies) would go nuts. It makes you wonder what else our “authoritative” major media outlets can’t comfortably write or talk about.

So my advice is this: Don’t assume that the “authoritative” sources are necessarily the best sources — particularly when it comes to healthy lifestyle advice. Look for second and third opinions. And be willing to thumb your nose at authority now and then, particularly when your health is at stake. Which it is.
For an ad-free, convention-busting collection of revolutionary healthy-living resources, including “A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World,” and the “101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy,” visit www.RevolutionaryAct.com.

Experience Life Magazine

Revolutionary Act 4: Monitor Your Media Intake

On a recent Sunday night, as I was wrapping up the next day’s work preparations and shutting down my electronics for the evening, I noticed a new email in my inbox.

It was a New York Times News Alert informing me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The brief email offered few details but informed me that President Obama would be appearing on TV imminently with an announcement.

Compelled, I clicked the link to the promised live-video stream and waited, looking at a placeholder screen and this message:

The White House has announced that President Barack Obama will address the American people in the next few minutes. When Mr. Obama begins speaking, his remarks will appear in this live video stream from the White House Web site.

Wow, I thought. Historic moment. I should watch this.

A minute ticked by. As I waited, I began reading the headlines of related articles. I perused the page’s unrelated live Twitter feed about Syria. I reread the placeholder message to see if anything had changed. I started thinking about hitting social media or turning on the radio to see what else was being said about the breaking news of bin Laden’s demise.

And then, I thought better of it.

I reminded myself of a commitment that I’d made almost a decade ago in the wake of another major news event — 9/11. My commitment: to become a more discerning and conscious consumer of media.

To me, that means making thoughtful choices about what I watch, read and listen to. It means noticing how I wind up giving my attention to various media streams, and why. It means being aware of the impact my media habits are having on me, and on those around me.

It especially means noticing when I am getting sucked in by something I hadn’t planned to. And it often means turning off or tuning out media — from TV and radio to books, magazines, Web and social-media content — that I find irrelevant, unhelpful, or inconsistent with what I deem to be the best use of my focus and time.

It does not necessarily mean always looking away from things that I find disturbing, surprising or provocative, but it does mean evaluating whether I am being catalyzed to grow and respond constructively, or merely being bombarded in a way that leaves me feeling helpless, hopeless and disempowered.

Over the course of the past decade, I’ve found that this approach to monitoring my media intake has served me well, and it has saved me countless hours of frustration and distraction.

Contrary to some of my early fears, I have not ceased to be a reasonably well-informed individual. Nor have I lost all touch with civilized society. What I’ve done instead is reserve my media time and bandwidth for information that matters to me; experiences that sync with my values and priorities; amusements that entertain, inspire and delight me; inquiries that inform my perspectives; and explorations that empower me to better understand and contribute to my world.

In the scheme of everything else I want to do and experience in my lifetime, I have limited time and focus even for media that meets these high standards. And so it happened that on this particular evening, presented with this particular media option, I considered my commitment and made my decision: I turned off the computer and went to bed.

Here are some of the factors that influenced my choice that night — and that figure into a lot of my media decisions these days:

1. Triggers and appetite: What is enticing or tempting me to tune in to this particular stream of media now, and how do I feel about that?

Although I initially felt that I “should” watch (presumably so that I’d be up to date on a matter of national importance), in truth, I think the offer of the televised announcement mostly appealed to my prurient curiosity and reflexive instincts. It was the media equivalent of an unconscious, impulsive food binge. Did I really want or need to watch this? Would any good likely come of my watching it now? No.

2. Timing and flow: What is going on in my world that makes this an appropriate, potentially rewarding media choice — or conversely, a conflicted and potentially disruptive one?

I was on my way to bed when I got the News Alert email, and I was glad to have received it. I realized a few moments into my investigation, though, that if I chose to wait up for the president’s live address, I might wind up waiting for quite a while — and that every moment I spent on the edge of my seat would only enhance my sense of keyed-up investment in needing to know as much as possible as quickly as possible. That vibe would likely interfere with my other real-life priorities and intentions — like spending time with my husband and getting some much-needed rest.

3. Consequences/alternatives: What is the likely outcome of my decision to tune in to — or out of — this media option at this time? How is it affecting me?

Although this was certainly a unique, once-in-a-lifetime media event, I surmised that I was unlikely to learn much of great importance from the late-night televised address that I wouldn’t just as quickly learn the next morning (when I’d probably also get more complete, thoughtful reporting, and a more layered sense of background). If I chose to wait and watch, there was also a good chance that I’d be sucked into all kinds of pre- and post-event media chatter that I hadn’t planned on consuming and that really wasn’t terribly relevant to me at this moment. Getting wrapped up in it would not likely provoke me to do anything helpful and would probably leave me feeling overstimulated, distracted and upset.

4. Significance/value: Does this material have real importance, relevance or value to me personally?

Although I certainly considered the information to be significant, I already knew the most essential and relevant piece of it, which was that bin Laden was dead. Part of me was already struggling to digest and make sense of that bit of data. Piling more data on top of it — presumably things like circumstances, nature and timing of the raid — was not likely to help me integrate my thoughts and feelings, only to distract me from them.

Ultimately, based on all these factors and more, I decided that rather than waiting for the streaming video or surfing the Web in search of more info, I was better off observing a moment of silence, taking stock of my own internal reaction to the news I already had, and then getting some sleep so that I could wake up ready to process the next day’s inevitable media onslaught from a more centered place.

If this sounds like an awful lot of thought to put into a single media decision, well, it is. Learning to consume media this way does not necessarily come naturally, particularly in this culture, where media, like food, is everywhere, all the time.

That’s why learning to be conscious of one’s media consumption is a valuable skill, a personal practice that — much like learning how to eat consciously and healthfully — is essential to living well. (It’s also why “Consume Media Wisely” is honored as No. 74 of my 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy.)

The good news: With time and practice, the process of making conscious decisions about media becomes increasingly quick and instinctive.

Just to clarify, I am not suggesting that the specific reflections and choices I made in this case were the only good or right ones. Nor am I recommending them to everybody in every situation. But I do think we can all benefit from being more discerning about our media intake — particularly if we value our physical, emotional and mental health, to say nothing of our time.

Why? Because as many health-and-happiness experts have pointed out, just like the food we eat, the media we consume have a direct impact on our energy, attitude and well-being. Whether or not we are aware of it, what we watch, read and listen to can profoundly affect the way we think, feel and respond to people and situations in our own lives.

For more on this body of research and the value of rethinking your own media intake, check out the article “Media Diet Makeover,” which originally appeared in Experience Life magazine in 2006.

Meanwhile, if you’ve never embarked on a “media diet” before, it’s the one kind of diet I’d encourage you to think about trying. A period of consciously limiting one’s media intake, or just being especially thoughtful about the TV/video/film, radio/audio, Internet/Web and reading one chooses to partake of can be incredibly insight-provoking.

Be forewarned, though: The choices are not always simple. On the evening in question, there was a part of me that felt disoriented by the news of bin Laden’s death, and I felt what I imagine is a natural urge to re-tether to a common reality by hooking into the mass-media stream.

There was another part of me, though — I think a wiser part — that was urging me to just sit with my own thoughts and feelings and then go to bed as I had planned.

As I noted, I began reconsidering my media habits during the aftermath of 9/11 — a time during which, out of our sense of helplessness, outrage and horror, millions of us were glued continuously to the television for days at a time.

We watched an endless, repeating barrage of appalling images and listening to disjointed, almost content-less reporting — as if somehow, by sheer repetition and our willingness to take it in, we could glean a fuller understanding of what had befallen our country.

We did this, I think, in part out of some sense of civic duty — a well-meaning desire to show solidarity by willingly co-experiencing the disaster and sharing in the collective dismay. But instead, I think a great many of us wound up overwhelmed, freaked out and mired in dramatic details — to the point that we were no good to anyone, including our own families, friends, neighbors and children, much less community causes and charity.

And meanwhile, even as millions of media hours were being compulsively consumed, an alarming percentage of our citizenry somehow missed the news that the 9/11 attacks had nothing at all to do with Iraq or Saddam Hussein. Even a media decade later, a great many of us aren’t much better informed about the political, social and economic issues that gave rise to those tragic events, much less to ongoing wars that have followed.

It’s with all this in mind that, ever since 9/11, I’ve taken the opportunity to put conscious media choices into practice for myself.

I now follow these same general principles not only in times of high-drama news, but whenever I’m presented with media that’s just “there” — streaming from the omnipresent TVs in waiting rooms, diners, bars and airports; flashing across digital billboards; beckoning from magazine racks and newsstands; and blaring from media-equipped fuel pumps, bathroom stalls and taxi cabs.

In all these situations, I make it my goal not to allow random media streams to wash over me, but, rather, to choose — to really decide — what, when and how much I watch, read and listen to, and to remember that my choices have a real influence not just on my knowledge base, but also on my health, happiness and quality of life.

For better or worse, just as the foods we put into our bodies become the raw materials from which our energy is generated and our bodily tissues are repaired, the media we consume become part of the neurological substrate that informs our mindset, moods, belief systems, relationships — our very sense of identity.

A body of emerging neurological, psychological and immunity-focused research suggests that our media intake can powerfully affect both our mental priming (see Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D.’s work on positivity and its response to media intake) and our physical vitality (see David C. McClelland, Ph.D. and Carol Kirshnit, Ph.D.’s work on immune changes in response to watching two different films).

That’s a little scary, because if we gave even a little attention to the quality of television, movies, video, radio, reading, gaming and Internet fodder that we take in on any given day, I suspect a lot of us would find that we are mindlessly munching on the equivalent of junk food, or worse.

So if you haven’t reflected on your media choices lately, I hope you will. And if you’ve already decided to upgrade your media diet, I congratulate you. You’ll be getting a whole body-mind-life upgrade in the bargain.

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Experience Life Magazine

Revolutionary Act 3: Reclaim Your Mornings

Start the day on your own terms, and change your life for the better.

Every day, millions wake with a sense of urgency. Jerked from sleep by an alarm, we lurch directly to the coffeemaker, to our e-mail, to the day’s news headlines, or some other up-and-at-’em directive.

One way or another, we abruptly press the day’s “on” switch, and before we’re entirely conscious, long before our brains and bodies have nudged themselves into first gear, we’ve thrown them into overdrive.

As a result, we may wind up feeling frenzied, reactive — and taking that energy into the rest of our day, infusing it into all our interactions and projects.

We also miss out on a lot of insights and creative impulses available to us during the brief “twilight state” of theta brainwave activity that exists almost exclusively between sleep and waking awareness. What a waste!

So I’m making a case for reclaiming our mornings — or even some small part of our mornings — as an act of defiance against the less-than-satisfying status quo, and as a delightful and potentially transformative act of self-care.

My sister, Andrea, has this down to a sacred science. She gets up before anyone else in her house, lights a candle and a stick of incense, then puts on relaxing music. She unrolls her yoga mat, sits, and — at minimum — takes three long, centering breaths.

Generally, those three deep breaths lead her into a gentle yoga practice that may last anywhere from five to 30 minutes. At the end of her practice, she meditates for a few moments, sending loving thoughts to her friends and family, and setting some key intentions for the day.

When her mat-based practice is complete, she makes tea, has breakfast, and only then does she turn on her phone, consult her calendar and begin the active portion of her day.

Understand, this is not some idealized nice-when-it-happens thing for my sister. It’s a rock solid deal. She’s missed maybe half a dozen days in the past several years. That’s because she has a very simple, default-minimum commitment: Unroll the mat, sit, take three breaths. That’s it. The rest is negotiable.

Sometimes, things come up, of course, and when a longer practice isn’t possible, Andrea adjusts the program accordingly. But she never gives up on unrolling her mat, centering and taking those three deep breaths.

If she can get that far, she says, she almost always finds the time and willingness to do a little more. And she says these few high-value moments she devotes entirely to herself help establish a conscious tone and rhythm that carries through her entire day — and by extension, her life in general.

Then there’s my friend Brian Johnson, founder of PhilosophersNotes (insightful six-page summaries of books on optimal living, the reading of which make for a great morning practice in and of themselves). Brian starts his day with a whole series of what he calls “blissiplines” — daily disciplines he’s found to be fundamental in creating the conditions for his best, most blissful life.

Brian’s blissiplines (which he describes at about 6:50 in this fun video) include about a half an hour of meditation and movement, followed by time spent journaling and reading. Like my sister, Brian says he’s found these practices so essential for optimizing his productivity, creativity and happiness that he can no longer imagine going without them.

Of course, it does take a certain amount of willingness and discipline to establish a morning ritual, particularly if your current a.m. routine is so dull and drudging that you’ve never paused to consider it.

Happily, you don’t have to devote hours to a morning ritual in order to benefit. You just have to have a ritual and do it consistently — ideally, even (and perhaps especially) when you don’t feel like it.

I suggest keeping your ritual short, easy and very doable to start with, knowing that you can always expand it if and when you like.

When I first started doing my own morning practice (about eight years ago) it simply consisted of having a cup of coffee out on the porch, listening to the birds chirp, and pulling a wisdom card to help me start the day on a calm, conscious note. Total time: five minutes, max.

I’ve had more leisurely rituals, too. They’ve involved everything from candlelight journaling and guided visualizations to guitar playing.

Every year or so, I like to tinker with my ritual, working in various meditations and creative practices, gentle exercise, music, time outdoors, wisdom literature, poetry, or whatever appeals to me at the time.

Lately, I’ve gotten into following my sister’s example and doing morning yoga. My current minimum commitment is five minutes, but like her, I often wind up doing a bit more.

Maybe it’s the track of the Tibetan meditation music I play during my practice (it runs for about seven minutes, and it’s so mesmerizing, I can’t bear to pull away from my reverie before it ends). Or maybe it’s just that I really dig the mellow vibe I’ve created for myself by choosing to be before I do.

Whatever the case, I’ve come to love this Revolutionary Act (“Maintain a Morning Practice” is No. 52 of “101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy“) and I highly recommend it to anyone hungry for a little more centering and a little less stress in his or her life.

You can learn more about why the very first (and last) moments of our days count for so much, and get ideas for how to develop calming rituals in your own life by reading these articles:


The Things We Remember

The Morning Rush

Meanwhile, is there a small step you can take toward reclaiming your own mornings, starting now?

Do you already have a favorite morning practice of your own? If so, please share your ideas in the comments section below.

The more of us who choose to start our days on our own terms, the less frenzied this world of ours will feel. And the more opportunity we’ll all have to make the best and most conscious use of the waking hours at our disposal.

Experience Life Magazine

Revolutionary Act 2: Want to Reduce Stress? Eliminate Annoyances

This January, in honor of my 44th birthday, I resolved to fix, change, organize, replace or otherwise deal with anything that had been driving me bonkers.

This is what the late Thomas J. Leonard (widely considered the father of life coaching) referred to as “eliminating tolerations.” And let me tell you, when it comes to life-changing revolutionary acts, this practice is a doozie.

I consider tackling tolerations a revolutionary act because at any given time, most of us are putting up with hundreds of these energy-drainers — everything from niggling little distractions to sources of frustration so oppressive and so entrenched that we’ve become practically inured to them.

Lugging the burden of our tolerations everywhere we go affects our attitude, our self-perception, the way we interact, our physical well-being — practically everything.

That’s why I included No. 77, “Eliminate Annoyances,” in the “101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy” at RevolutionaryAct.com.” Irritations aren’t just crazy-making; the stress they produce also leads to inflammation, and inflammation leads to illness and misery.

The tricky thing about tolerations, though, is that they tend to accumulate over time. Gradually, insidiously, like a slew of tiny leeches clinging to your backside, they suck away at your lifeblood — or, at the very least, your pleasure in living.

Still, as Leonard noted, tolerations aren’t all bad. Often, they have a lot to teach us. If handled properly, they can act as “a grain of sand in your oyster” — the kind that creates a pearl.

Indeed, the irritations that tolerations produce eventually become so maddening that they trigger us to face our areas of challenge or unconsciousness, to create positive change, and thus, to grow. We can achieve this if we pause to notice how a particular toleration got there in the first place and why we’ve been agreeing to endure it until now.

Tolerations can include people, places, things, situations, feelings — just about anything. Once you start looking, you will probably find them everywhere. And I promise you, if you first carefully explore and then uproot a single toleration, you’ll get excited about the possibility of eliminating many more.

So, back to my list. About a week before my birthday, I began jotting down my tolerations as they occurred to me — mostly small, niggling annoyances. They included, among other things:

  • Broken coffee grinder
  • Slow kitchen faucet
  • Dried up pens
  • Clutter pile on counter
  • Cordless phones that say, “Reconnect to Base,” and then go dead when you answer them

Seeing as the broken coffee grinder was something I was having to deal with first thing every day (prior to my first cup of coffee), I decided to tackle it straight away.

The switch on that grinder had been broken for a long time — since I’d dropped it and broken off a tiny plastic part that, when depressed, turned the grinder on. Because the grinder worked fine otherwise, I couldn’t justify tossing it, so for more than five years, I’d been using the sharp end of a chopstick to depress the little mechanism while holding the cap on.

Of course, this clever maneuver involved finding said chopstick, which was usually in one of three spots — depending on whether it was my husband or me who had made the coffee the previous morning and depending on who had cleaned up (or not) afterward.

If the prior day’s coffee duty had fallen to me, the chopstick would most likely be in the urn that holds frequently used utensils. If it had fallen to my husband, the chopstick might be in the urn — or it might be in the drawer. Anywhere in the drawer. Then again, if neither one of us had cleaned up, the chopstick might still be sitting on the counter, in which case it might also have rolled out of sight somewhere on the surface. And thus, chances were good as not that on a given morning, the making of coffee would involve a groping, clattering, bleary-eyed chopstick hunt.

I tell you all this because it illustrates something characteristic about tolerations: One small vexation very often leads to a bigger vexation, so that a whole series of tolerations wind up nested or linked in some way.

And so it would happen that before I’d even managed to make coffee each morning, I’d typically encountered a cluster of minor annoyances — with the grinder, the chopstick, myself, my husband or all of the above — annoyances that ever so slightly dampened my mood, and ever so slightly increased the chances of my feeling inadvertently exasperated with my otherwise wonderful life.

So, why had I tolerated that busted grinder for five long years, and why did I not get around to replacing it until a few weeks ago? Well, initially I thought it was the right and low-impact thing to do. After all, it was just a tiny bit of plastic that had broken off; the rest of the grinder was perfectly good, so I didn’t want to send it to the landfill and then run to the store to purchase another one if I didn’t have to.

And interestingly, while I was living alone (until I got married a couple of years ago), the whole ritual with the chopstick hadn’t bothered me; in fact, it gave me a virtuous feeling of thrift, eco-friendliness and ingenuity. I always knew where the chopstick would be, and so it wasn’t a toleration, it was just a puttering little Zen practice.

Which is another interesting thing about tolerations: Whether or not they qualify as tolerations is all in how you perceive and react to them. And that, of course, is largely up to you.

When I investigated my coffee-grinder toleration, for example, I had a whole slew of interesting insights — about the nature of my adjustment to co-habitation, about the tension my eco-friendly values and my convenience-seeking priorities, about my tendency to argue with reality (Thank you, Byron Katie) and so on.

This process of self-inquiry is an essential component of the toleration-elimination process. Unless you perceive the growth opportunities it represents for you, the tolerations you’re banishing tend to return with a vengeance.

So I did some personal exploration. I had some big insights. And then, with a peaceful heart, I replaced the grinder.

The best part? I didn’t have to toss the old one after all. It’s been dedicated to grinding flax and sesame seeds (which I do only occasionally), so now every time I reach for the chopstick, I have an opportunity to reflect with gratitude on how happy I am not to need it every morning.

Having similarly dispatched the rest of my tolerations list (I had some broken stuff repaired, established a clutter-reduction system for the kitchen counter and so on), I must say, the result has been a series of revelations. My mornings have been transformed, and my mood and energy are much improved.

So, what’s on your tolerations list? What are you energized to tackle first? How long have you been tolerating these things, and with what effect? And what insights might your tolerations have to impart before they go?

If you want to read a little deeper on the subject, check out “Tolerate Less,” an article we featured in Experience Life magazine a while back. Or, read Thomas J. Leonard’s terrific book, The Portable Coach: 28 Surefire Strategies for Business and Personal Success (Scribner, 1998).”

In the meantime, happy toleration-tackling, and may you do wonderful, gratifying things with the energy you reclaim!

Experience Life Magazine

Revolutionary Act No. 1: Exchange Willpower for Willingness

We’ve been taught that following through on new year’s resolutions is all about willpower. But it turns out that willingness may be a far more valuable ally.

One popular characterization of insanity describes it as “doing the same thing over and over, expecting to get a different result.” And at no time of the year is that particular brand of insanity more evident than right now — the dreaded resolutions season.

Every January, there’s a lot of talk about the right and wrong ways to go about making change. Techniques and strategies abound (another serving of S.M.A.R.T. goals, anyone?), but most of them share a common underlying assumption: That changing your life is an act of will.

We Americans love the idea of willpower. It’s forceful, bold, intrepid. It reeks of individual determination, and it suggests just enough stalwart endurance to satisfy our stoic sensibilities.

The will speaks in a commanding voice: Go forth! Make it so! And there’s some kick-start value in that. But I would argue that the real key to creating positive change over time is not so much will as it is willingness.

Unlike the will, which is all the rage this time of year, willingness doesn’t get a lot of airtime in our culture. It comes across as too passive, perhaps, too cooperative, too eager to please, too… feminine. But I’d argue that when it comes to shifting personal behavior and establishing new habits, willingness is actually a much better and more reliable partner.

The problem with the will is that it’s one hard-driving taskmaster — but it tends to cement itself to a static idea of success and, thus, to constant reminders of the potential for failure.

The will tends to think it has all the answers and it doesn’t relish asking for directions.

Willingness, on the other hand, is full of open-minded inquiries, like: How might I go about getting started on this project? What would happen if I tried this? What would be most helpful now?

Where the will never says die, willingness is continually reborn — and it gets smarter and stronger each time around.

That’s why, this year, as my first official Revolutionary Act (a series of convention-busting experiments in changing my life for the better, and the basis for this blog), I’m putting willingness in charge of my new year’s resolutions. Currently, these include: 1) being on time more often; 2) getting outside daily; and 3) never sitting for more than two hours at a stretch. (For a busy magazine editor, all three are tougher than they sound.)

Effectively, my revolutionary shift here is asking, “What I’m willing to do differently in the service of these goals?” — rather than insisting, “I am going to do these things, no matter what it takes.”

I’m also cultivating my willingness to notice when I do and don’t succeed in these endeavors, and to pay attention to how I do or do not go about accomplishing them on a day-to-day basis. Because as Zen teacher Cheri Huber likes to remind us: “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

The great thing about seeing my resolutions as an experiment in willingness is that even if I “fail” at something on any given day, I still “succeed” in learning something valuable that empowers me to succeed the next day.

One thing I’ve already noticed, for example, is that my tendency toward chronic lateness (15 minutes, notoriously) has a lot to do with my believing I should/must/need to always do “just one more thing” before I leave the house.

Am I willing to change that? Yes, and: I’m also aware that it yanks at a stubborn, semi-conscious belief I hold about my value coming from what I accomplish, rather than who I am.

That’s a belief worth examining more closely, because it’s probably at the core of some other self-sabotaging tendencies, too. (For deeper insights on the value of challenging limiting beliefs, check out the terrific book, Immunity to Change [Harvard Business School Press, Feb. 2009] by Robert Kegan, Ph.D., and Lisa Lahey, Ph.D.)

So, am I willing to challenge that belief about my value being tied to my frenzied (and often counterproductive) productivity? Yes.

Does the idea of moving beyond my chronic lateness become more energizing and potentially powerful when I think of it in this context? And does it make me more willing to experiment with not doing one more thing? Yes, indeed! Thank you, willingness.

I am choosing to engage willingness because, in my experience, my will has not always been my best ally in creating positive change. In fact, leaning too heavily on my will often brings out the most negative and self-critical in me. And research suggests that this is true for many of us (for more on that, read this fascinating article from Scientific American on “The Willpower Paradox.”

It turns out that the will talks a tough game, but it hates losing — so much so that it is prone to walking away in a huff just as things are getting interesting. Willingness, meanwhile, sees every lost round as an opportunity to sharpen skills, strategy and awareness.

Willingness, in short, is all about learning and growing. And that’s why I’m making it the centerpiece of my Revolutionary Acts project, which is all about experiments in creating a healthier, happier, more satisfying life by doing things a little (or a lot) differently. Differently than we’ve been taught. Differently than we’ve been told. Differently than “that’s just the way things are done.”

Many of my experiments will involve challenging the dominant norms, patterns and assumptions of our society. Others will involve challenging my own comfort zones and beliefs.

I’ll be sharing my experiences in this blog and also in my regular column at Experience Life, the healthy-living magazine I’ve been editing for the past decade.

My goal with this blog, as with the magazine, is to share insights and resources that can help more of us make the most of our time and energy, enhance our well-being, and increase our satisfaction in living. Because I believe that for us to address the biggest challenges we are facing — individually and collectively — we are going to need to be at our strongest, most energized and resilient best.

I hope you’ll share your own revolutionary experiences — of challenging limiting norms and assumptions, of rejecting stale conventions, and of reinventing yourself and your life however you see fit.

Which reminds me: If you’re working on any healthy-living goals this year, you might enjoy visiting www.RevolutionaryAct.com, a site powered by Experience Life and stocked with wisdom from some of our favorite experts. You’ll find a variety of Revolutionary Resources there, including my “Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed Up World” and “101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy.”

Here’s to an all-new 2011! And may we all summon the willingness to make it great.

Experience Life Magazine

Fitness-Buddy Transformations

MyPicture-1.jpgFor the past couple of years, I’ve been doing the fitness-buddy thing with my niece, Xanthi, now 19. It started with me giving her some basic pointers on heart-rate training and running form, but it rapidly evolved into a full-fledged mutual support system — and then into something of a transformation story.

Over the course of the past two years, Xanthi has lost a ton of weight. But more important, she also became an all-around fitness fiend, AND turned into a serious athlete (recently, she was named the University of Wisconsin-Stout Women’s Rugby Team’s Rookie of the Year, and this summer, she made the Wisconsin Women’s All-Star team).

I interviewed Xanthi last week about her experience (you can listen to the podcast here), and during the course of that conversation I realized something: Having a partner in crime — whether a buddy, a mentor, a trainer or a coach — may be the single most powerful advantage both in getting satisfying results from the start, and in maintaining a training program over time.

The accountability factor is huge, of course (most of us are far less likely to skip a workout if we know someone is waiting for us), but I think there’s also something to be said for having a constant companion and witness for the process, and for the transformations that inevitably take place.

Some of those transformations are physical (see the videos and pictures, below). Others are more subtle, and in some ways more profound.

Xanthi, fall 2008, prior to our fitness-buddy pact

Video: Our first fitness-buddy training session, December 2008


Xanthi and me after our first 5K, spring 2008 — Xanthi had already lost about 25 pounds.


Xanthi (and rugby teammate), summer 2010 – now super-fit and 65 pounds lighter than when we began.

For example, one of the things Xanthi shared with me during her reflections on our experience together was how dramatically her sense of identity shifted as she grew stronger, more confident and more in touch with her athletic side.

What I got out of this experience was pretty transformative, too. For one thing, at some point I realized that Xanthi had come to see me as something of a fitness mentor — something I would never have predicted was possible.

I’ve always considered myself a bookish, not terribly athletic person. And from my point of view, all I did was show Xanthi how to strap on a heart-rate monitor and point her in the right direction.

But working out with Xanthi over the course of a couple of years, encouraging her, helping her take stock of her amazing progress, sharing with her the bits and pieces of fitness and nutrition wisdom I’d picked up during my years editing Experience Life and that I felt might be helpful to her — all of that shifted my own sense of identity, too.

For one thing, it really drove home for me that the simple act of maintaining a relatively regular exercise schedule, of eating well and taking care of myself over the course of the past decade had made me — at least in Xanthi’s eyes — someone to look up to, a role model of sorts.

And that made me see myself in a new light. It made me want to stay my course, to stay true to my own health-and-fitness commitments, and maybe even ratchet them up a notch.

It also made me keenly aware, in a way I hadn’t really taken stock of before, that the commitment I’ve made to being healthy has been transformative not just to me and Xanthi, but ultimately to everyone around me.

It’s helped me be present, energetic and level-headed at work. It’s helped me show up for the people I love. It’s given me the strength and focus and optimism to keep driving toward the bigger goals that matter so much to me.

And that, of course, is the whole idea behind the magazine’s new tagline: Being Healthy Is a Revolutionary Act. (I’ll write at greater length about that soon, but you can read the basics in my Thoughts From the Editor column, if you like.)

Anyway, I have loved every minute of my fitness-buddy experience with Xanthi — well, except for a few of those final kettlebell reps and a couple of killer sprints. And I look forward to many more years of being goaded by this beastly child into working far harder than I otherwise would. (When she’s outrunning me, I take comfort in reminding myself that she IS more than 20 years my junior.)

So what about you? Do you have a fitness buddy? Do you wish you had one? If so, what’s keeping you from buddying up? I think there’s an article in this, so send on your stories and thoughts, please!

P.S. For those of you who go way back and may remember my writing about my earlier fitness-buddy experiences with my dad, now 80, you’ll be happy to know he’s still working out — three to four times a week with two different trainers for strength and balance — and he’s in terrific shape. He’s made an excellent recovery since his accident, and although he now has to cope with a slight limp, we still take walks together on a regular basis.

Experience Life Magazine

From My Mom to BP: You Can’t Do Just One Thing

Jun10_MomBP_LastWord.jpgMy mother, commenting on the unintended consequences of various ill-fated or shortsighted actions, has often remarked, “Well, you can’t do just one thing.”

You go to make bread, in my mom’s case, and you first have to deal with the fact that some mice have taken up residency in your pantry. In dealing with the mice, you are obligated to take everything off the shelves and vacuum. In vacuuming, you accidentally knock over a vase. In cleaning up the vase, you wind up cutting yourself. In bandaging the cut, you drip blood on your blouse. All you wanted to do was make some bread, and you end up with chaos and carnage.

OK, it’s not always that bad. But it does seem that, often, when we set out to accomplish one priority or solve one problem, we unwittingly find ourselves dealing with all kinds of additional steps, side-effects or disasters that come about as the result of our original effort.

And, sometimes, those disasters are far worse than we might have imagined.

The BP Oil Spill brings all kinds of particularly sad and maddening examples to mind. You go to collect some oil from beneath the ocean, and end up creating the worst environmental catastrophe in the earth’s history, simultaneously crippling the economy of an entire region. You try to make things better with “dispersants” and “top kills” and end up inadvertently creating a whole variety of new problems.

Foresight is not a great human strength, and the lack of it is most certainly a common corporate weakness — particularly when it comes to natural systems, which are complex indeed.

Yesterday, with the oil still gushing in the Gulf, I was listening to an oil-expert fellow from North Dakota talk on the radio about how the now-evident danger of offshore drilling makes onshore drilling in areas like the Bakken shale field look very easy and appealing by comparison.

You just drill down a couple of miles, and over a couple of miles, then stick a straw in the ground, pump in a bunch of high-pressure water, bust all that formerly solid shale to pieces (it’s not serving any real purpose, right?) and — voilà! — the oil drops down to where we can suck it out, he explained.

No problem! Easy peasy. Nothing to be concerned about. Except what you might reasonably expect to encounter with drilling into the earth, pumping high-pressure water where it doesn’t belong, breaking up a rocky infrastructure that’s been there since the dawn of time, and causing oil to go where it has not apparently been inclined to go until now.

Plus, of course, the vast array of things you might not reasonably expect at all.

I dunno. I’m not an expert at this stuff. But I think my mom is right about the fact that, generally speaking, “You can’t do just one thing.”

I also think John Muir was right when he said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

So let us all be careful about what we seize, and gentle in
what we do. Let us act thoughtfully — with gratitude for what we receive, with
caution about all we can’t possibly predict, and with humility about what we
don’t yet understand.

PS: The image above was featured in Last Word from April 2005 and includes the John Muir quote that I mentioned. If you’re interested, you can download the PDF here.

Experience Life Magazine

So Long, Dear Habit

I was blown away by the many comments folks posted (from positive to downright peeved) in response to my previous blog, “Why I Do Not Dig Diet Soda.” Thank you for those!

One comment that especially moved me was from Annette, who wrote:

“But how do you stop something you have been doing for decades? I drink at least six to eight diet cokes a day. If I don’t have any in the fridge, I panic. I have extreme depression. I’m sorry but water is a very poor substitute for caffeine, even though I try.”

Annette, because I sense you speak for many (I’m guessing many millions), I’m going to respond to you here.

Obviously, it’s not a short or simple answer, but there are a few suggestions I’ll offer up . . .

First, realize that there are two different aspects to this challenge: One is dealing with the physical habit — an addiction to the caffeine, for example. The other is dealing with the psycho-emotional habit, which is no less intense and can provoke all kinds of very real secondary biochemical and neurological reactions.

For example, there’s the anxiety you describe, which can be accompanied by rushes of adrenaline and cortisol. And after decades of drinking diet soda on a daily basis, there are probably also some very well-worn synaptic patterns in your brain that make it hard for you to stop thinking about and wanting soda at various points in your day.

And then there are the feelings — sadness or depression at letting go of something that has been a daily companion of sorts (and probably a source of comfort or pleasure) for a long time.

If you do decide to cut back on your diet soda intake, or cut it out entirely, you’ll have to deal with all these bad boys. The good news is, you can absolutely do it if you choose to, particularly if you give yourself some good support for that choice — and you’ll probably make all kinds of interesting discoveries and harvest all kinds of new and exciting energy in the process.

The key, I think, is seeing the habit as an opportunity for personal exploration, not as a “bad thing” that you need to fix. It can also help to see the habits as a symptom (of an imbalance, say, or an unexamined challenge or unmet need) and not the root problem.

I remember a time, in my early 20s, when I had a weird fast-food habit going: Chicken sandwich, fries and diet soda from the drive-through.

I didn’t eat it every day, but I ate it several times a week, and I only liked eating it at home in front of the TV. It was a total numb-out strategy, and it worked — but it left me feeling rotten about myself and kind of disgusted. I knew it was awful for me, and at some point, I decided I really wanted to stop.

Breaking that habit involved making a number of adjustments, including exploring what I was trying to numb (anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty about what I wanted to do with my life) and noticing my triggers (being stressed or bored; being on the verge of doing something scary/exciting; seeing advertisements for fast food, etc.).

It also involved finding other places to put my nervous, unsettled energy (taking walks; decluttering my closet and drawers; putting my papers in order), and doing some journaling about how I wanted to live and be.

Most important, perhaps, it involved adopting an experimental mindset:

  • What if I go get fast food, but instead of driving through and bringing it home, I eat it at the restaurant? (I had a horror of that, it turned out, and realizing it wasn’t something I wanted to do in public or around other people made me realize just how “off” it really was for me, which gave me more motivation to change.)
  • What if I just refuse to watch TV for a week? (OMG, the feelings that came up! Pain, bargaining, anger — the whole nine yards.)
  • What if I watch TV but don’t eat? (Still numbing, but a totally different effect — left me more aware of what a waste of time it was.)
  • What if, when I feel a craving come on, I eat something healthy — like a salad, or an orange I slowly peel and section? (This usually satisfied me and left me feeling empowered and good about myself, leading me to turn off the TV and go do something else.)
  • What if I just sit here with my feelings (scary, but surprisingly transformative — I ended up journaling about it a lot and reading a lot of self-help books), or if I channel my energy into doing something I’m a little scared to do, like make job-search phone calls? (Eek! I realized I was terrified I might get an actual interview and that I was hiding out in a big way.)
  • What, if I were living my ideal life, would I be doing instead of sitting here watching TV and eating fast food, both of which make me feel lousy? And what’s preventing me from doing that?

That last question helped me get clear about a lot of things, some of which eventually led me to develop far healthier behaviors, get some counseling, take some risks, explore some beliefs, set some boundaries, establish a vision and goals for myself, and connect to a deeper sense of hope and spiritual faith, all of which, collectively, led me to what I’m doing today.

I still remember that vaguely desperate feeling, though, of knowing I was doing something that wasn’t right for me and wondering, “How will I change this?”

It’s a feeling I’ve encountered in plenty of other situations over the past 20 years, and I imagine it’s a feeling I’ll continue to encounter, at intervals, for the rest of my life.

Today, though, I see that question as exhilarating, not terrifying. I tend to hear it as an invitation to a better life, a better part of myself — another round of experiments that will help me more fully discover who I am and what I’m here to do.

Anyway, I don’t know if any of that helps or makes any sense to you. Every person’s change challenge is different, of course. And at the same time, they also have a lot in common.

If you want some help wrapping your head around the whole change-challenge conundrum, you might listen to my interview with Chip Heath, PhD, coauthor of the new bestseller Switch: How to Make Change When Change Is Hard (available free in our podcast section). Or pick up the book, which is terrific (we’ll be featuring an excerpt in our July issue).

In my next blog post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions for how you might apply the “Switch” methodology to a soda habit (and really, any kind of habit). In the meantime, thank you so much for your question, Annette. If you do decide to cut back on soda, let us know how it goes!

And to all the folks who have been through the kind of change challenge Annette describes, I’d love to know what worked for you.

Experience Life Magazine

Why I Do Not Dig Diet Soda

DietSoda.jpgOK, I am not going to rant. But I need to get this out of my system: I think diet soda is awful. I think all soda is awful, actually (yes, I know there are no “bad” foods, but I hold soda in approximately the same regard as those puffy orange Circus Peanuts — these are not really “foods,” per se). Diet soda, in my view, is especially insidious.

Here are my top 10 reasons:

1. There is absolutely no proof that diet soda helps people lose weight. The calorie-reduction argument is total bunk, and zero studies have shown a positive correlation between drinking diet soda and weight loss. On the contrary, there’s significant evidence that diet sodas and other noncaloric, artificially sweetened drinks actually lead — quite powerfully — to weight gain. (See “6 ‘Healthy’ Food Choices to Rethink” for more on that.

2. Diet sodas are billed as being good for type 2 diabetics and other blood-sugar- challenged types, but they aren’t. Because of something called the “cephalic phase response,” your body tastes the sweetness, and even though there are no calories to shuttle, the brain triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas and also a “Sugar is coming! Stop-burning fat” response from the liver. The result is the usual array of insulin-related problems (increased urge to eat, increased tendency toward fat storage, pro-inflammatory biochemical cascade), plus an arrest of healthy protein-and-starch production, and a confusion of the body’s built-in caloric monitoring systems, all of which compel you to plump up and eat even more unhealthy stuff later. (For more on this dynamic, read the article, “Poor Substitutes.”)

3. The act of drinking diet soda — and of seeing it in your fridge — sends your psyche a slew of negative, demoralizing, less-than-healthy mental messages (I am afraid of getting fat; I don’t trust my body to crave the right things; I need to be on a diet; I am compelled to drink sweet stuff, even though I know it’s not good for me; I’m being “good” now so I can be “bad” later), all of which tend to drive other unhealthy eating behaviors even as they trigger disempowering feelings of self-denial and self-indulgence. (For more on this dynamic, see my Thoughts From the Editor column, “View to a Fridge.”)

4. Diet soda contains all kinds of icky chemicals that add to your body’s toxic burden, lowering your immunity, contributing to inflammation and reducing your body’s ability to deal effectively with other, less easily avoided toxins like those pervasive in our food, water, body-care products and environment.

5. Diet sodas and the chemically derived artificial sweeteners they contain (especially aspartame) may act as neurotoxins and have been linked to headaches, memory problems, anxiety, brain fog, depression, skin irritations, menstrual problems, fibromyalgia, joint pain and more. (You can read up on the scientific debate about this both in the aforementioned “Poor Substitutes” and in our article “Excitotoxins.”)

6. Artificial sweeteners and artificial colors tend to drive cravings for more sweet and hyper-flavored foods (more diet soda, please!) and reduce your ability to properly taste more subtle flavors or natural foods, perverting your palate and dissuading you from making other healthy changes to your diet because nothing natural tastes the way it ought to.

7. Frequent sipping or gulping of diet soda blunts your thirst, reducing your intake of pure water, which is a much better choice for hydration and helps to clear toxins from your system (vs. further polluting it). Regular imbibing of soda may also interfere with your body’s healthy hunger signals and thus dissuade you from eating healthy snacks that would support good nutrition, metabolism, energy and mental function throughout the day.

8. The acids in diet soda (and regular soda, for that matter) eat away at the enamel on your teeth. They also are acidifying to your entire system, and thus disruptive to your general health, including the good flora in your gut, where about 60 percent of your immune system resides.

9. Diet soda (like regular soda) is generally bottled or canned, and its aficionados tend to drink it by the case, multi-liter twin pack and so on — day in, day out, year after year after year. Habitually imbibing packaged drinks creates all kinds of nonbiodegradeable garbage, and every aspect of soda production (from manufacturing and packaging to transport — and even its recycling) is an unnecessarily wasteful use of fossil fuels. Drinking any soda is also incredibly expensive, an important point for anyone who protests that they can’t afford high-quality food or decent nutritional supplements.

10. Despite all its amalgamated cruddiness, diet sodas somehow get a pass in practically all weight-loss plans, and are actually promoted by many dietitians as “free” foods or “good” treats despite the fact that they are categorically lousy for people. They are aggressively advertised as being “better choices” for health- and weight-conscious people, and as a result, many kids and teenagers make them a habit early in life. Every time I see this pro-diet-soda dynamic in action, it just chaps my hide and makes me dislike the stuff even more.

OK, I wound up ranting a little. Sorry. I know that many people who adore diet soda and have been sold on its wonderfulness may take issue with my demonization of these beverages. To which I say: Let’s agree to disagree. If drinking it makes you happy enough, or is an occasional enough dalliance that none of the above matters, drink away!

And to those who find themselves addicted to diet soda, I can only say take heart: Thousands before you have broken the addiction and found themselves astonished by how much better they feel.

My recommendation: For a week, start each day with a big bottle full of pure water with a slice of cucumber or orange or lemon floating in it. Sip away, avoid the soda aisles and vending machines, and just see if you don’t start feeling better yourself.

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