Why Do We Eat?

 Yesterday I had nothing to eat for dinner. I left home after lunch to go to work and only when I was far enough to not be able to return, I realized that I forgot to bring my food. As I wouldn’t be home before 22:30 I decided to skip dinner. When I woke up today I decided to not eat until midday to complete a 24 hour fast. Well, it turned out to be 22 hours, because I had to little concentration working. However, there did arise a fundamental question in me. Why do we eat?

Food Culture

In the Netherlands it’s common to eat bread for breakfast, a warm meal for lunch or dinner, and the other meal bread again. In Spain it’s common to eat a light breakfast accompanied by coffee, or sometimes a small glass of beer, lunch will be extensive, and only around 22:00 a light dinner is served. In Italy breakfast is usually a cup of coffee and a sweet pastry and in Brazil breakfast isn’t much either. Everything revolves around the lunch. In Indonesia it’s not uncommon to eat fried rice for breakfast, and for lunch, and for dinner – honestly though, I don’t remember exactly, that was what I preferred at least.

nasi

My point being, that in none of all these countries I visited anybody was eating their food because otherwise the decision to not eat, would be the last one they ever made. It seems to me that eating is more a behavioral pattern than an outright necessity in most of the cases.

Not only habitual factors play a role, but also social factors. When you would otherwise not have eaten, you are going to eat something because your friend asked you to.

From this perspective it makes a lot of sense what I mentioned in my previous blog about your ultimate personal diet guide, that the best way of eating is the one that you can adhere to. As you know now, diet is a behavioral pattern, where eating only is the final step.

So now that we have established that perhaps we mostly eat because it’s time to eat, what do we actually need?

Not Eating

In an article on the Scientific American about not eating there is substantial evidence for people to be able to survive 40 days of starvation, however this all depends with how much muscles or excess body fat you start losing weight. Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike of 21 days when he was already a skinny man, and above 70 years of age. By the same token, there is a remarkable story of a Scotsman named Angus Barbieri that fasted for 382 days. He started when he was carrying around 209kg (!) of bodyweight though, he finally stopped his fast when he weighed 86kg.

Then in Autobiography of a Yogi, a book written by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1946, aimed to enlighten the west with the science of Yoga. In there he provides anecdotal evidence of a yogi that doesn’t eat at all through applying a certain yoga technique, she proved her ability various times by staying in closed quarters and observation for up to 30 days. Nowadays, equally there are people that claim to be living on little to no food as well.

When food is broken down it gets converted into ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), this is essential for cells and our body to function. However, theoretically there seems to be a way to generate ATP without food.

This might make all your bs-sensors to go on red-alert. As this is entirely understandable, to me it shows that as soon as you stop looking at food as something that is preventing you from dying, there is an opportunity to look for different ways to live.

My Fast

As I went into my spontaneous fast of only 22 hours, I quickly realized that my mind started playing tricks on me. What? You are not going to give yourself food? What if you are hungry when you sleep? What if you can’t do it? My mind did what it is good at, trying to stay comfortable.

I ate at midday, and went to bed without feeling hungry. When I was in bed I felt a little hungry, but totally manageable. After falling asleep, I only managed to get around 6 hours of sleep in. When I woke up however, I was more awake than usual. I felt light, and during my morning routine I noticed how little stiffness I experienced as opposed to other days. Later on, I started working on my computer and felt my concentration being slightly reduced. Overtime this increased, together with slight dizziness. After eating I went for a 4km walk which felt very light to begin with, but was quite hard at the end.

unhappy-plate

These are all normal symptoms, and you should take them into consideration before you start a fast. For more information on fasting do your research well, here is an article about the fasting mimicking diet, which might be more accessible for most people. This diet makes your body believe you are fasting, while you are still eating something.

The Science Behind not Eating

Fasting has been shown to reverse age related declines in stem-cell function, by stimulating it’s regenerative capacity. Then, a fasting-like diet, that means eating so little your body perceives it as fasting, combined with chemo-therapy was 50% more effective than chemo-therapy alone. By the same token, fasting 72 hours before chemotherapy reduced the toxicity of the treatment. In a small observational study they found that three man were able to reverse type 2 diabetes by fasting 24 hours every other day.

I believe it’s important to realize through which lens you are viewing the act of eating. Are you comparing it to deeply wired cultural beliefs, all the bogus being thrown at you by the media and social media, or by what your friends think? Probably all play their role in how you eat. Nevertheless, eating is essential to survive, but how much, to what ends, when, how often, and what can totally differ.

It’s important to realize through which lens you are viewing the act of eating.

The Body as a System of Balance

I see the body as a system of balance where there is a lot more going on than food or calories in, and exercise or calories out. Sleep, water intake, stress, beliefs, the people with whom you eat, and the way you cook all play their role. At the same time, when you eat your body needs to digest and has no (less) time to take care of regenerative processes, like regenerating damage related to aging or cleaning up cancerous cells.

The bottom line is, that we usually eat because it’s time to eat. If we eat because of what we need, a totally different equation evolves.

Underneath a video by Wim “The Iceman” Hof, explaining why he eats only one time a day. If he eats at the same time every day, he fasts for 24 hours, always.

How To Tweak Your Environment To Live Longer and Healthier

The critical information derived from studying the Blue Zones is that not one of the people living in these places was actively trying to get old. It is their environment that provokes a lifestyle that has amazing longevity as a consequence. However, you, me and the rest of the 99.9% of the world population, do not live there.

According to statistics published by the United Nations in 2015, 54% of the world population lives in an urban environment. In more developed regions this is actually 78.3%. This means that your habitat most likely consists of concrete, noise, pollution, and hopefully a park a couple of blocks away.

At the same time, the current state of affairs about health revolve around signing up for

rowingmachine
90% of the people have quit 3 years after joining a gym

a gym membership and starting a new diet. According to health trends, that is what a healthy lifestyle consists of. Nevertheless, none of these work in the long term. In the United States 90% of the people starting a diet will have quit after 7 months tops. Similarly, of all the people that signed up for a gym membership, 90% quit within three years.

Interestingly we tend to look for a solution with the same means that we have created the problem initially. First, we construct buildings, chairs, and cubicles to sit in. Then, when problems occur, we solve them not by getting rid of the chairs and buildings, but by designating another building to move the body.

Another example of this phenomenon is the rise in traffic. Every year there are cheaper cars available. Therefore, an increasing amount of people buy one. Between the years 2000 and 2014 almost 55 million cars were sold worldwide. Then in 2017 alone, 79 million cars were sold worldwide. Consequently, the roads are ever fuller with more people stuck in traffic. The solution for this problem? Build more roads.

Both in the case of going to the gym to solve the sedentary lifestyle, and the problems occurring from increased car possession, there is nobody questioning the presence of buildings, cubicles, chairs, and cars by itself. We are so far down the rabbit hole that our biases, the entangled economic interests, and governmental policies keep us there.

I believe that roads are not the solution for our traffic issues, just like gym memberships are not a fix for our sedentary lifestyle.

Now we know that we cannot necessarily trust our urban, work, and home environment by itself to be provocative of a healthy lifestyle. It is up to you however, to make changes within and around that will induce positive lifestyle choices. As learned from the Blue Zones, one habit will not do the trick, however a variety of habits together will.

Underneath I sum up tips that I have given to my clients as well as incorporated in my own life. I divide them as follows; internal environment (mindset, physical capacity), external environment (home, work), and social environment (family, friends).

External Environment

balconyplants
Add more plants to your home

  • Park further from work, get off the bus earlier, and use the toilet farthest away from you
  • Reorganize your house for it to be more inviting to move; hang a bar in the living room (to hang on), lay out an exercise mat, or put a fitness ball in sight. Once it’s there it is more likely you will use it
  • Put more plants in your house
  • Buy more fruits and vegetables, once they are there it is more likely you will eat them
Internal Environment
  • Sleep longer (sleep around 8 hours)
  • Take 15 minutes of quite time every day (without phone, laptop etc.)
  • Drink sufficient water
Social Environment
  • If you are ready to change something about yourself, talk about it, this way friends and family can support you

    stairs
    The stairs I walk down/hang every day
  • Join an online community for support in your lifestyle change, a strength training forum, a runners forum, or track your activities with myfitnesspal, Strava, or something equal, and exchange

Above is a list of mostly minor and little glamorous interventions. However, these basics will positively influence your life. The most recent ones I incorporated myself are: 20 minute daily meditation, hanging from the stairs I walk down, walk everything within 1 kilometer from my house, and I revalued the way the living room was furnished. There seemed to be space to do yoga after all.

How To Live Long and Free From Disease

In these places, people do headstands, walk large distances in mountainous terrain, take care of their gardens, drive cars, do yoga, herd sheep, fish daily, take care of their farms, and assist with heart surgery. All at the age of 90, or sometimes even over 100 years old.

In his book “The Blue Zones”, Dan Buettner describes the areas in the world where people live the longest and free of disease. So far there have been 5 locations identified as Blue Zones: Okinawa (Japan), Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), the Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), and Loma Linda (US).

Longevity hotspots
Longevity hot spots around the world

Blue Zones were named by demographers initially collecting data from the Barbagian region in Sardinia. In a previous blog I already mentioned them, and my fascination for the knowledge derived from studying these communities. So much, that I decided to name a category on this blog after them. To me it seems that the key to health and happiness lies in what a lot of these places express. At the same time, there is a connection with everything I find interesting about health, body, mind and behavior. What is most appealing of all however, is that the factors that seem to contribute to longevity, are far from rocket science.

Even tough, these Blue Zones are located thousands of kilometers apart from each other, they have nine distinct features in common:

1. Move

I played soccer until the age of 18, than I went to the gym 4 to 5 times a week. After, I started rock climbing weekly while doing yoga, hiking and running in between. Nowadays, I have less opportunities to climb, but still I run, go to the gym and do yoga.

What do Blue Zoners do? They just move, they usually do not go to the gym or play tennis. Rather, their physical activity is inherent to their daily lives. They walk during their work, to friends, or to get groceries. Sometimes they cover distances of more than 5 kilometers by foot, just to get to a market. Because of this, they burn up to 5 times as many calories in non-exercise based activity, and seem to live 7-10 years longer than average.

This reminds me of when I started working. My life changed from a medium sedentary (student) lifestyle, to walking, standing and showing exercises to clients all day. The result? I lost 3 kilos of body weight without even being aware of it.

2. Purpose

Do you know your purpose? Do you know why you are waking up every morning? What gives you energy, regardless of the amount of effort you have to put in?

It seems that the Blue Zoners know this. It might be fishing, taking care of their loved ones, or training for a sports event. More over, these people are able to tell you what their purpose is. To be able to both live purposefully, and express it, increases life expectancy with 7 years more, than somebody who cannot.

3. Stress management

Concluding my last period of travelling I wrote down a couple of things I wanted to change in my life. One of them was introducing a moment in the day where I would take time to do nothing. It evolved in to 20 minutes of meditation after I wake up. Sometimes I manage to take a moment in the afternoon as well.

During this time there is space to reflect, relax, and breath deeply. The Blue Zoners have their own versions of this. It may be enjoying a happy hour with friends, taking a daily nap in the case of the Ikarians, or taking a moment to remember their ancestors in the case of the Okinawans.

4. Eat plants

Almost a year ago, I changed my diet to be entirely plant-based. I do not find any hardship maintaining it, and feel great and cannot recommend it enough.

Vegetables and Fruits

However, statistics show that diets don’t work. 90% of the people that start a new diet have quit before the 7 month mark.

Why did my change last? I believe that I was quickly able to adapt this new lifestyle. Blue Zoners eat a largely plant based diet as well. Not because they feel like it is better than eating another diet, it is just inherent to their lifestyle. The majority of their calories come from vegetables, nuts, and legumes. These foods are rich in antioxidants that help reduce the aging process going on in all of us.

5. Alcohol in moderation

I quit alcohol a while ago, every now and then I would have a glass of wine. I would mostly notice it’s effects soon. Usually though, I would feel bad right away.

The Blue Zoners nevertheless, seem to be going well on a glass or two per day. Being it wine or sake. The advantage the Sardinians for exam[ple, have over me, is that their wine is made from the grapes that grow in their own garden. Where what is available to me, is highly industrialized. On the other hand there are the 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda that abstain entirely from alcohol for religious reasons.

6. Eat in moderation

How I love my plates stacked over the top with food. Oats, loaded with fruits, nuts and seeds, or a plate of rices with beans and vegetables so high I cannot see the wall in front

Plant based meal
I like my plate full

of me.

It seems this is not what I should do if I want to make it to a hundred. The so called 80% rule, seems the way to go. Okinawans even have an adage for it (something they say before they start to eat their meal)

hara hachi bu (eat until you are 80% full)

7. Put your loved ones first

Here I am, for a couple of years already at least a 1000km away from my family and best friends. If that wasn’t enough, there is now over 14000km between us. This does not mean however, that I do not feel connected to them. Nevertheless, Blue Zoners tend to this subject a little different.

They usually live in communities with most of their family around, and take care of each other, regardless of the physical condition. Nursing homes, senior center, and assisted living facilities, hold little meaning in their societies.

8. Stay connected

Are you running from home, to the bus, to work, and back again. Day in day out only with the occasional stop at the supermarket, a restaurant, or a sports club?

It looks like there are more efficient ways to getting old and avoiding disease. Staying connected both physically and spiritually seems to do great things. The Blue Zoners are generally part of a faith-based community. People who take this seriously and engage 4 times a month, seem to live between 4 and 14 years longer.

9. Surround yourself with the right people

I have been lucky to have been supported by my friends and family in countless ways. Most of that I only realized after it happened. The fact they did however, allowed me to stay strong when it came to making lifestyle changes, or pursuing my dreams.

Longevity seems to be better achievable as well, when you are not alone. Surrounding yourself with people that engage in similar behavior makes it easier for you to do the same. At the same time, securing strong relationships in times of hardship.

And then?

You can tie any of these factors to longevity and build an interesting story around each one. That’s what the $20 billion diet industry and $21 billion health club industry do in their effort to convince us that if we take the right pill, eat the right food, or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight, and live longer. But these strategies don’t work.

…The big aha for me is how the agents of longevity reinforce each other for the long therm.

Dan Buettner

What I find most fascinating about the knowledge derived from these Blue Zones, is that none of the people living there were trying to implement them in to their life. They usually had, or were still living hard lives. They do not necessarily have access to vitamin pills, gyms, and nutrition coaches. Rather, they are just living according to the opportunities and limitations of their environment.

However, in our work hard, play hard society nowadays there seems little space for moderation, enjoying the moment, and being with loved ones. Nevertheless, these things all seem to be key in living long and healthy.

Now if you, like me, and most of the people live in cities, where the air quality is bad, where there are always cars racing around you, where the greenest thing is the plant in your windowsill, and the sky counts 3 stars because there is so much light pollution. What do you do?

Hit the subscribe button down below, and stay tuned for more content on how to use this, and other knowledge part of your lifestyle. Regardless of where you live.

 

Further reading:
Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (p. 293). National Geographic Society.
Dan Buettner @ TedMed 2011

 

There Is Nothing Wrong With Your Body

I have recently been reflecting a lot on how I view body, mind and soul. And most of all, what is considered normal and what is not in this regard. Consecutively, I started reflecting on how I come to my decision in any health-related situation. The main thing I do, I realized, is that I always look for the why? behind my current state of mind and body. This thought process always evaluates how I felt the days before, what I ate, how I exercised, how I slept and what kind of stress is influencing me at this moment. Answering all these questions often lead me to seeing why I feel a certain way and make it easier to (not) respond accordingly after.

Most importantly though, by answering all these questions for myself I come to a logical conclusion. Therefore, the way I am feeling is reasonable and normal given the circumstances. When I drink too little during the day, the headache at night is a reasonable consequence. When I drink enough during the day, but I slept too little the night before, a headache at night is also reasonable. The origin and consequence here are quite easy to find.

However, when I increase the time span and the factors in play it gets harder to see the origin and consequence of how I am feeling. For example, I am 50 years old, I sat the majority of my life working a desk-job with medium to high stress levels, and I eat a lot of low quality processed food. After, I get diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease, is this reasonable? Or, when I play 3 soccer matches in one week and I tear one of my calf muscles, is this normal?

Yes, I believe this is all normal. Put any given person in the same situation with the same life and history and their bodies will most likely respond the same. So when I fracture my upper leg, when I have a headache, when I sub luxate my shoulder or when I get diagnosed Type 2 Diabetes, Heat Disease or COPD is there anything wrong with my body?

No, nothing is wrong with my body. My body is responding in a logical and reasonable way to how I treat it. The moment I should be worried though, is when I can hold my hand in a fire without hurting it or when I can run for 40 hours at sprint speed. In any case, the awareness of this interaction is probably also why, I realized, I have such little problems with experiencing pain (I wrote about this here). Seeing these connections makes me aware of which behavior led to which feeling, and it allows me to accept and deal with the situation without feeling lost. Above all, viewing things this way, means that when I change the way I treat my body for the better, it will respond appropriately.

There are times though, when it gets really hard to see how things are connected. There might be too many things going on in my life and too many thoughts in my head. Recently, I experienced a severe headache unrelated to dehydration or sleep. Also, I had recently been sick but I had been feeling better a lot already. More over, there were other physical and mental factors at play that made me confused and unable to find the reason for my headache.

In these cases, it is great there is a healthcare system at most people’s disposal to aid in circumstances like these. The problem is though, that the most sought after health care professional generally treats symptoms, not origins. Next to that, to look for the why? behind any given problem is not a common thing. In this process we tend to be afraid when something is wrong and we want it fixed as soon as possible. Luckily, in this situation there is always a doctor willing to prescribe medication. Nevertheless, is this the solution for our problem?

Instead of prescribing medication, asking a couple of times why? will go a long way. Usually the origin of any given problem is quite obvious once there is somebody helping you putting your behavior in to perspective. Still, from my point of view, it is more the way our healthcare system is set up, what leads to the inefficient way of treating problems, than it is how the individual healthcare provider works. However, I believe that regardless of whatever healthcare system I am subject to, my independence is key. I know what is best for my body, as soon as I become aware of it.

Therefore, to be the director in everything regarding my body is important. We should not blindly belief anybody that makes decisions about our health. Rather, we should put everything to the test, educate ourselves, practice awareness and always ask for multiple opinions. In the meantime, always keeping the two core beliefs in mind. Being that the way I take care of my body has logical consequences, and these consequences are therefore normal. After all, nobody but me has to live with my body all my life.

The Thing About Pain

In the previous two blog posts I wrote about living a “Fear-based life” (click here for part 1, and here for part 2). There, I spoke about how fear corrupts and undermines our life and the decisions we make in non-lifethreatening situations. Our natural response is to steer clear of these fear inducing situations. We tend to respond likewise when we experience pain. In general, we do not want to experience pain, and we tend to stay away from positions, situations and relationships that provoke such feelings.

Pain on a physical level is usually a sign of tissue damage. However, it still is a subjective experience, subject to what we believe, what our environment believes and what the consequence of the pain might mean to our current life. Nevertheless, pain does not necessarily need to be provoked by something physical. Also, non-physical traumas might provoke pain. Divorce, the death of a closed one or the memory of a car accident all might provoke pain. This experience both of physical and non-physical origin, can be experienced alike. Whereas, the origin of the pain might be different, the remedy is usually the same. This means, to get away as far as possible by either blocking it out or by using medication.

Personally, I have been in a variety of situations where I would be around people, both familiar and unfamiliar to me, when I was in pain. Often, the first response I would get after saying that “I am hurting” is; do you want pain medication? Hereafter, I usually gape like a high donkey for a couple of seconds. And I wonder, how did these two things get connected so well together? Does feeling pain mean I need to take pain medication? I am not experiencing pain in the first place, because I forgot to take my pain medication, right?

From my point of view, we have stigmatized pain so much, that the majority of people try to avoid it as soon as they feel it. Nowadays, there is a whole industry capitalizing on this idea. The pharmaceutical industry earns billions, just because we do not want and get to see the value of pain. Instead, we are made to believe that we need pain medication to solve this.

However, in reality pain is a beacon to let us know where action is required. Therefore, it is actually one of the most valuable guides to aid in recovery, both after physical and non-physical traumas. After a physical trauma, it tells you exactly when you are doing too much or maybe too little to recover your body. When the origin is non-physical, it informs you of the importance of this traumatic experience. Take the death of a closed one for example. The experience of pain and loss is natural and will usually be experienced by everybody. Still, there are a lot of people that do not want to experience these feelings, just because they are considered as not nice. Thereafter, we are trying to push the pain out of our life instead of processing this loss.

Accepting that we are feeling pain though, might be the best pain medication. Signals coming from our body and mind that we ignore, tend to become stronger. Apparently the message was not clear enough to make us behave accordingly. At the same time, avoiding it we give the sense of pain such a high value of dislike, that afterwards we have to deal with this sensation as well. In the meantime, we end up behaving tense and nervous because we made part of our human experience off limits.

However, when we are able to revalue the pain experience we directly let go of the tense behavior as well. After, we can look for a way to solve the origin of the pain. After a physical trauma, this means making the right decisions to enhance tissue repair. After a non-physical trauma though this means dealing with the origin of the trauma head-on. Feeling the pain, talking about it and trying to give it the right value. This way the memory attached to the trauma can be accessed without fear, and experienced without destabilizing us later on.

Also, by accepting the pain experience I noticed that it becomes a lot more bearable. It still can be an intense feeling but after seeing it for what it is, a message, the whole thought process of dislike and the energy spend on it, is gone. Where in the beginning, the pain might also create a feeling of being overwhelmed, overtime you notice that this goes away. By listening to your pain it’s intensity can be reduced and a healing process can take place. The nice thing is, that without taking pain medication you can trust that when the pain declines, you are doing the right thing. However, when you took pain medication, it is impossible to know if what you are feeling is reality.

In conclusion, from my perspective the stigmatization of pain is not serving us in any way. Rather, it is holding us back from dealing with its origin head-on. As soon as we accept the feeling of pain, we can revalue it and act accordingly. Instead of being traumatized by the feeling, we actually solved the trauma and can continue our life with another valuable experience in our pocket.