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.

Recently in Healthy Eating/Drinking Category

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.

Experience Life Magazine

Cup of Dreams

I’ve been driven bonkers for years now by how hard it is — outside of San Francisco, Seattle or Portland — to find a coffee shop that offers a latté made with organic milk. I hardly ever drink milk, so if I’m going to indulge in a latté, I want the real, unadulterated thing. And the real, unadulterated thing is surprisingly tough to come by.

Once upon a time, for a brief moment, some Starbucks locations stocked perma-keep, aseptically packed organic milk for picky drinkers like me, but then they stopped. (I believe this was about the same time they expanded their hideous selection of pale, low-fat pastries — perhaps they ran short of shelf space).

Anyway, with the crazy hope that my inquiries will contribute to some kind of critical-mass consumer demand, I’ve just kept on asking every barista I encounter: “Do you have organic milk?” Typically, the bewildered person behind the counter asks me to repeat the question. Sometimes they say “Sorry, no.” But more often, they reply with something ambiguous like, “Um … we have soy?”

Sigh.

Well, thanks to the wonderful word-of-mouth chain at work (one of our editors, Anjula, told another of our editors, Courtney, and Courtney told me), I yesterday discovered a coffee shop I had hitherto only dared dream of: Kopplin’s (www.kopplinscoffee.com) in St. Paul.

KopplinsCoffee_Cropped.jpg

On the first day of spring weather, my dad, Jerry Gerasimo, and
Experience Life senior editor Courtney Helgoe soaked up sun and superb
coffee outside Kopplin’s (Hamline and Randolph, St. Paul).

Not only do they offer organic milk, it’s the only milk they serve. And it’s not just organic: It’s whole organic — from local, pasture-fed cows grazed on organic grass — and it’s packed in glass bottles.

But wait, it gets better. Kopplin’s also serves fair-trade coffee — divine espresso drinks and a beautiful array of made-fresh-by-the-cup drip brews — prepared to perfection. Seriously, best latté I’ve had inside the U.S., and quite possibly the best latté I’ve had ever.

Anyway, for all these reasons and more (no skim, no decaf, lots of thought behind all their decisions and aesthetics — visit their FAQ page for more info), Kopplin’s is my new favorite coffee shop.

The crazy part is, they’ve been there for years, right in the ‘hood — I just didn’t know about them.

I figure if THIS wild hope of mine can come true, it means that dozens of others can, too. Walking and biking paths everywhere! Kids learning how their brains and digestive systems work in grade school! Family farmers making a living doing what they love! Hurrah!

Somewhere(s), right now, I know all these and many more wonderful things are happening, and I trust that they — like the Kopplin’s coffee shops of the world –will just continue to flourish. In the meantime, any time I get discouraged about the state of the world, I’m going to Kopplin’s for a whole-milk latté. I’ll just take my seat on the sidewalk and sip until my hope is nudged from its slumber.