Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Adventures in Nutrition

In case you hadn't noticed, it's been awhile.  I've been back in the states since Thanksgiving and it's been quite an adjustment this time.  I'm definitely missing the constant travels and adventures.  But it has occurred to me that, while I'm not seeing new things or exploring new places, I am having other, more subtle adventures.  The marked decrease in external environmental stimuli has forced me to entertain myself in other ways.

One of those has been an increased interest in sewing.  I follow a blogger that takes terrible terrible thrift store finds and, with a bit of snipping and stitching, turns them into awesome contemporary pieces.  Over spring break, I did a bit of thrift store scouring and found a handful of pieces brimming with potential.  I was excited and moving along wonderfully, chopping and pinning and pretending I knew how to sew.  And then the sewing machine, one of the most fickle of modern machinery, decided it was done cooperating, which led to a marked decrease in progress.  As soon as I get that sorted I will have several remakes to share with you, so get excited.  But don't hold your breath.

The other, larger adventure I have been on in these past few months has been a journey in nutrition.  I have generally been a pretty healthy eater since my college Health class behavior modification project actually worked, but lately I've been paying even more attention to some of the health advice that is out there.  Much of it is conflicting and I don't claim to have any answers at all, but lately I've been experimenting with some different eating habits, just to see if they seem to have any validity for me, in terms of how I feel.  It's also a little bit in the interest of hedging my bets.  The amount of research I've seen linking a modern Western diet to various health issues makes me feel like it's worth trying some new things as a just-in-case preventative measure.

My first real experiment was the month of January.  I decided to try a plant-based (vegan) diet that, in addition to meat and dairy, also cut out processed sweeteners and flour and anything with ingredients that I didn't recognize as food.  I think the most surprising thing for me about this diet (a term which I use in its purest sense of 'a way of eating', ignoring its current association with weight loss) was how much sugar has been sneaked into everything we buy at the grocery store.  I have essentially given up on store-bought bread or cereal and many condiments.  Seriously, go look through your fridge/pantry and see how many products include either sugar or corn syrup.  It's pretty ridiculous.

That said, even though cutting out sugar was probably the hardest change to make, it's one that I continue to stick to as much as I can.  I still go out and enjoy dessert or a sweet cocktail here and there, but at least at home the only sweeteners I have been using are raw, local honey and occasionally real maple syrup.  I like raw honey because it is as unprocessed as a sweetener can get and generally has a fairly low glycemic index, so it won't cause a spike in blood sugar.  I think I will begin adding xylitol and maybe a touch of agave back in as well, as they also won't cause large spikes in blood sugar and raw honey isn't always the most practical (it is fairly solid at room temperature).

I have a few reasons for continuing to say no to sugar, the major one being how much I have read about how bad it potentially is for you in the quantities that most Westerners ingest.  I also feel like my skin looks much better and I am not gaining weight the way I would expect to be, given past experience and how little I am exercising lately.  Now, both of those are very very anecdotal reasons with many confounding factors.  It is very likely that other things are contributing, but at this point, I think that abstaining from sugar is at least helping.  I am sure there will be more experimenting over time to tease out some of those confounding variables.

As for the rest of being vegan, I was pretty ready for my month to be over, but maybe not for the reasons you'd expect.  I don't eat a lot of meat or dairy at home, so it wasn't that hard to avoid them, though I did sometimes find it hard to get enough protein, since beans require a bit more preparation than an egg or chicken breast.  The thing that made me crazy is that I have a bit of IBS, which did not appreciate my vegan efforts.  I found that my digestive system was a lot happier as soon as I started having normal milk on my cereal again, so, for me, small amounts of quality meat and dairy will continue to be part of my diet.  I do try to only buy quality, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, etc., etc., meat and dairy products, which functionally means that I don't eat a lot of them because they are expensive and harder to come by.

My other take-aways have been more vegetables in my diet, especially more leafy greens.  I'm also better with beans and have been experimenting will all kinds of new grains.  I am still avoiding most processed foods but starting to find out where it's worth it for me to forego homemade.  In those cases I am slowly finding products that are made only with things I recognize as food and grocery shopping is getting a little easier over time.  I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen and I do think my grocery bill has increased a touch, though nothing extreme.  But I'm ok with that.  I think it's worth a little extra investment in my long-term health and, for me, cooking is fun.  It's a time when I relax and have some personal time or share the fun and enjoy the company of others. It's an area of life that is constantly brimming with possibilities.  There are so many new foods to try and combinations to explore and things to learn, it feeds my drive for novelty, adventure and growth.

I'm sure that what I eat will be an ever-evolving thing and I'm curious to see where it takes me.  For now, this is where I'm at and I'm pretty happy with it.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Silence will fall...

After having got so used to my life in Africa, I was expecting this transition back to American life to be a bit more challenging than previous changes.  They are SUCH different places I thought surely the reverse culture shock would hit me this time.  I was very very wrong.

In retrospect, this shouldn't have surprised me.  I have gotten myself rather used to switching between cultures.  It makes sense that it should get easier and less shocking each time.  I just thought that if any place was going to do it to me, it would be Africa. 

Instead, I feel like I've jumped right back in where I left off.  Mostly, I'm loving the 'normalcy' and comfort of living in a place I know well with customs I fully understand.  That said, there have been just a couple things that I've had to adjust to.

The cold has been the biggest, by far.  After my first day of subbing, my mom came home to find me huddled in bed, up to my chin in down comforters, attempting to convince myself to leave the warmth and run to the grocery store.  I didn't make it that day.  It probably didn't help that we didn't manage to find the space heaters until a couple weeks after I got home and my bedroom is in the basement.  Now that I've been home a few weeks, my body seems to have recovered some ability to regulate its own temperature, but the space heater is still my best friend. 

I'm also finally getting used to the fact that the tap water is potable.  Sometimes I even get crazy and drink a glass of it.  I'm not all the way there yet, though.  I still pause for a second before I remember that it's ok to put the spoon I just rinsed off directly in my mouth and occasionally find myself being careful not to open my mouth when I shower anywhere that isn't my house. Which, really, probably isn't an unwise precaution when I'm at the gym.

The last thing is the quiet.  I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but neighborhoods are so quiet here!  I noticed this right away but it's really been driving me crazy this past week, especially at night.  There are no dogs barking, or babies crying, or cats fighting, or music playing.  You can't hear anything!  I like to sleep with a fan on anyway, just for the white noise, but the other day I stayed with a friend and I actually had to put in earplugs because is was too quiet.  It's eerie.  While I don't miss hearing my neighbor's TV or questionable music choices, I do miss feeling connected to the community.  Everything and everyone is so isolated here. 

I think this is one of the things I really like about living places - seeing what kinds of things I take away, what things stick.  I can never predict what it will be.  When I got back from Shanghai I was in love with the sky for awhile, this time I'm blown away by the silence.  I'm curious to see what other things emerge the longer I'm home.