Mindful awareness

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Sweet Life

I’m encouraged that most people I know are trying to make healthy food choices for themselves and their families. But as I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, because the food industry is motivated to sell products, even people with the best intentions can be misinformed. One clear example is with added sweeteners. I’ve heard friends say that they select agave nectar, honey, or stevia rather than table sugar because these are “natural and healthy” alternatives. I’d prefer that they make choices based on preferred taste after learning more about these products.

Food can be naturally sweet or it can be sweetened by either “natural” or “artificial” additives. Sugars, particularly glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar - composed of half glucose and half fructose), are the compounds that sweeten foods. Cells function using glucose as energy and we get this source through foods. As with any food, moderation is always important and our bodies work hard to moderate glucose levels by producing insulin. Table sugar has become victimized as processed and high caloric. Sugar grows naturally as cane and the final product is processed and contains approximately 16 calories per teaspoon. Both people with diabetes and people trying to reduce their weight are advised to limit refined table sugar. But which alternative to select is not quite as simple as it might seem.

Artificial sweeteners (such as Aspartame – Equal and NutraSweet and Saccharin – SugarTwin and Sweet'N Low) are synthetic compounds that neither add calories to the diet nor increase blood glucose levels , so they might be healthier options to table sugar for people with diabetes. Although these sweeteners are without calories, there is evidence that people that consume a lot of artificial sweeteners in the form of diet soda and other processed foods still gain weight. The reason for weight gain is still unclear, but it may be because people are encouraged to increase calorie count in other forms to balance the “calorie savings” from diet soft drinks. Artificial sweeteners are common in processed foods that don’t contain nutritional benefits, so overall calorie count is usually higher in people that select this form of sugar substitute.

Another benefit of artificial sweeteners is that they do not cause dental cavities. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence that any artificial sweetener approved by the FDA causes serious health problems, including cancer. They are synthetic compounds but without health risk.

That leads us to people convinced that “natural” sweeteners are better for them. Unfortunately, most of these “natural” sweeteners are highly processed. Stevia is often used as a natural substitute to the artificial sweeteners because it, too, has no calories and does not increase blood glucose level. However, stevia is a highly processed product originally from a plant (just as table sugar is a processed plant product). So although stevia has no calories, it cannot be considered “natural”. The FDA has approved stevia moderate doses but still with reservations. It is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breast feeding and should be limited to no more than two servings per day.

“Natural” sweeteners that are promoted as healthier sugar substitutes are often more processed and refined than expected (except raw honey which is in fact not processed). Furthermore, these compounds are not very different from sucrose (table sugar). These include date sugar, grape juice concentrate, honey, maple sugar and syrup, molasses, and agave nectar. Food manufacturers are not dishonest when they report that their foods contain added “natural” sugar. But consumers should not be misled by the term “natural”. The methods to process agave nectar are similar to creating high-fructose corn syrup and the outcome is a product with the same proportion (approximately 70%) of fructose as HFCS. These additives offer no nutrient or health benefit beyond table sugar. They are nutritionally similar, are broken down into glucose and fructose in the body, raise blood glucose level, and contribute to dental cavities. Natural sweeteners contribute to caloric intake at the same rate as refined table sugar. People with diabetes and people trying to lose weight will not benefit from these sugar substitutions. This is true of agave nectar. This especially popular sugar substitute does cause blood sugar spikes.

These natural sweeteners are safe on their own but selecting them rather than sugar provides no health benefit. People may actually increase their sugar and caloric intake by mistakenly adding these products to their diets thinking they are healthy choices. As with any added sugar, natural sweeteners such as honey and agave nectar can contribute to weight gain, tooth decay, and poor nutrition. (I’m not certain how to classify Sucralose (Splenda). It is a no-calorie, artificial product but it is derived from the naturally-occurring sucrose.)

In summary, there is nothing wrong with the choice to not use refined sugar. However, choosing a substitute needs to be considered with a lot of thought. “Natural” does not mean better. Diabetics are better off selecting artificial sweeteners to any natural ones. Selecting agave nectar might be a preference for taste but is no less refined, natural, or calorie free than refined table sugar. Stivia has no calories but cannot be considered natural.

The best choices are always whole foods. Berries, mangos, and other fruits offer plenty of natural flavor and can be selected as sweet snacks. Unlike any added sweetener, these whole foods add nutrients to the diet. Processed foods, even those marketed as diet or natural, will add calories without the same nutrition that whole foods offer. A product marketed as “natural” or “organic” isn’t necessarily healthy. Added sugar is added sugar, of any kind. Why not avoid sugars, processed foods, cakes and cookies except to celebrate a special occasion.

Life already is sweet – as demonstrated by the strawberries in the farmers markets this week – without additives.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Comfort Balanced with Effort

Yoga practice is based on philosophy outlined in the Yoga Sutras, organized as poetic verses written in the 2nd century CE. Only a few of the 196 verses refer to the physical practice of asanas (poses) even though most Americans consider that the poses define the practice. Sutra number 2.46 does refer specifically to asanas, and even this message extends beyond the mat into our lives in the real world. This sutra has been translated to mean “It is essential that the posture be steady and comfortable”.  Any pose, then, should be performed in a manner that is challenging, yet relaxed in some way.

A pose as simple as sukhasana (easy sitting pose) has components of comfort and effort. One doesn’t sit rigidly in this pose as they begin a sequence or transition and rest between poses. There is more ease and comfort than rigidity. At the same time, the pose isn’t slouchy. The spine is erect and the spine is energized. The person in this pose is awake and alert.

The same duality applies to physically challenging poses such as natarajasana (dancer pose). This pose requires the person stand on one foot while holding the other leg behind the back with one arm and pressing into a bow shape with the back. This is challenging for balance, flexibility, and strength but it is also challenging to find comfort amidst all the effort. So many muscles must generate force to practice this pose. But many other muscles do not need to work. The jaw doesn’t need to lock and the teeth don’t need to clench. It is actually easier to balance if the toes don’t claw. Pulling the leg up too strongly will hike the pelvis and change the pose. So with all the effort of the pose, there will still be some ease and comfort.

This delicate balance between being alert yet relaxed occurs in our daily lives just as it does in asanas. We need to stay alert when we drive (and not use a phone – even with a hands-free device but I’ll save that lecture for another time) but we also need to have a certain amount of ease so that we can respond to unexpected obstacles and change course quickly if necessary. It requires some effort and control to chop vegetables yet there too, we need some ease as we do; we don’t use every arm muscle to dice a carrot. This balance extends to our relationships where we learn how much we need to give and how much to take in each one just as we learn which “battles to choose” with employees, spouses, and children.

More and more I find my life off my mat reflecting my yoga practice. I look to balance effort with comfort. I remind myself to back off when I push hard or to push when someone is taking advantage of me. This is just how a beautiful life should be lived: steady, comfortably, and in balance.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Protein Facts

Proteins are important to a healthy diet but most people eat more protein than is recommended and often choose less healthy sources of protein. Personally I have chosen to eat a vegan diet for nearly 30 years. It makes me feel great and I create a smaller carbon footprint, contributing to my own health and the health of the environment. But I do not try to influence everyone else to become vegan. I would like to get people to stop making two assumptions, though, to help them select their own proteins more wisely. First people tend to ask “How do you get enough protein in your diet?” and the second assumption is invariably “So you must eat a lot of tofu.” Whether you choose to eat a plant-based diet or to eat animal proteins, you might want to learn a little more about recommended protein intake.
Every cell in the body is made of proteins that are constantly being broken down and replaced. Amino acids gleaned from dietary proteins are the source of our cellular protein. Proteins are absolutely necessary parts of the diet, however the “average American diet” tends to include twice the recommended dietary allowance for protein. Anyone in America eating a healthy diet from a variety of foods will get enough protein without having to supplement or pay special attention to what he eats. The best diet includes a variety of wholesome foods rather than focusing on any one type of nutrient. The right amount of protein depends on one’s weight, but the guideline is to keep a diet in which 10-30% of the calories come from protein. More specifically, recommended dietary allowance is 0.80 grams of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight. That means that a diet for a 150-pound adult should include 54 grams of protein a day.
Yes, protein does come from tofu but also from many other sources. A vegan diet like mine gets most of the protein from nuts, seeds, beans, and peas. Grains (particularly quinoa), fruits and vegetables (particularly spinach and broccoli) contain protein, but not as much as the other sources and cannot be the sole source of protein. People that eat animal proteins get them from dairy, fish, poultry, and red meat. One cup of cooked beans has 6 grams of protein, raw almonds have 30 grams, asparagus and broccoli have 7 grams, spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes have 5 grams. A cup of milk has 8 grams of protein and an 8-oz container of yogurt has 11 grams. A 3-oz portion of meat contains about 21 grams of protein.
People are not very likely to experience serious health issues if they eat more than 0.80 grams of protein per kilogram of weight a day. The problem is that animal sources of protein tend to be higher in calories and saturated fat (associated with cholesterol) than plant-based foods. So the person that eats more than the recommended dietary allowance of protein each day is most at risk of experiencing the health risks associated with too many calories and saturated fats (heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancers, etc). By association, cutting back on animal-based proteins is a fairly easy dietary change can result in desired weight loss. (People with kidney disease need to reduce protein intake to help the kidneys function properly, but I refer here to people without kidney disease.)
Americans have become used to including meat and dairy at each meal now that food production has reduced the cost of animals as a food source. Including meat as a complement to plants for the evening meal rather than meat as the primary focus of the meal will have the effect of weight loss. Consider lean beef or chicken stir fried with fresh vegetables over a bed of brown rice rather than a larger-than-recommended portion of steak or chicken with a small portion of string beans and mashed potatoes. Replacing sausage at breakfast with an egg white omelet tossed with mushrooms and tomatoes will still provide animal-based protein but with fewer unwanted calories. Other ways to select healthier proteins include using black or pinto beans rather than or as a supplement to less hamburger meat in chili and sauces, selecting low-fat dairy products, choosing lean meats, and using egg whites without the yolks.
So, in answer to the questions I always get when someone learns my diet excludes animal products: I get plenty of protein using beans and nuts as my primary source. And although an ounce of tofu offers about 20 grams of protein, I probably eat it once or twice a month.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grateful for Backbends

A student requested that we work on backbends this week. She has tended to neglect those poses in her yoga practice out of concern out of not doing them correctly. I’m glad that she was aware enough to know that backbends done without correct alignment could create pain. The worst part is that experiencing injury in a pose or in any exercise might make anyone hesitant to continue a yoga practice or exercise routine.

So we worked on loads of backbends, from eka pada rajakapotasana (one leg king pigeon pose from low lunge) and bhujangasana (cobra pose) to urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog pose) and ustrasasna (camel pose). We practiced many variations of salambhasana (locust pose) and both dhanurasana (bow pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).

The safety precaution we took in each of the poses is to generate length through the spine even before lifting into the back bend. Imagining the crown of the head reaching forward and the toes reaching backward helps to energize the muscles through the back and strengthen the space between the vertebral bodies, giving a foundation from which to bend. The back bend should truly be from the entire spine, not just the lumbar portion of the spine (low back).

We also worked to stretch the hips and shoulders before going into deeper backbends. These joints need to be flexible even more than the spine does to achieve a pain free backbend. Students also are surprised at how much leg strength is needed in a backbend. So we worked on strengthening the quadriceps muscles (front of the thigh) because these need to contract to find deeper expressions of dhanurasana, urdhva dhanurasana, and ustrasana. Injuries are more likely to happen if people take backbends without preparing the shoulders, hips, and quadriceps.

The intention we set throughout the practice was to experience gratitude. Moving into backbends opens our hearts up to the sky, a great way to breathe gratitude into the heart center. However deep our pose was on the mat during that class, our bodies were working hard to coordinate flexibility in the front of the hips and shoulders, strength in the front of the thighs and strength in the muscles along the spine to create the expression of the pose we found at that moment. Our bodies are amazing and always give us so much for which to be grateful. Even in days we are ill or injured, even when seasonal allergies are acting up, for the most part we need to find gratitude for all our bodies do for us.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Benefits of Awareness and 100% Effort

My philosophy is that if I’m going to make time, whether it is 20 minutes or 90 minutes, to be on my mat then I’m going to make the most of it. I like intensity and focus that I put into my practice and my gym workout. Maintaining my attention on my body keeps my mind from drifting into crazy chatter that it does the rest of the day and that break is nice. But full effort also affords me all the benefits from the practice (or workout).

I can sort-of-kind-of be in virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2 pose). You know what this looks like, a little wishy-washy. My front knee can be bent a little and my arms could be out to the sides but be soft and hanging limply because I’m not really aware of what I’m doing. Or I can choose to be in the pose completely with intention. This way my front thigh is parallel with the floor, my legs are working hard as I press them away from each other, and my arms are alive with activity. I’m not rigid, but all of my body is working completely, in the present moment, with all the effort that I can give. I’m going to be there for five breaths anyway, why not be aware, give it all I’ve got, and get the most out of it.

When I do manage 100% effort I’m more likely to have my muscles and joints aligned the way they should be. That alignment makes my muscles more efficient. If I want to develop muscle strength, mental focus, flexibility, balance, or any other benefit from practice then I’m most likely to get to those benefits if I’m completely aware and putting full effort into the pose.

Full effort also keeps me from injuring myself in the pose. It is when we are really thinking about something else that we get hurt. That is because we let the front knee cave in toward the inside of the foot and stretch the ligaments beyond what they should be. Or we can create cervical discomfort if the shoulder blades are riding high instead of anchored down on the back as they should be.

This intense mindful movement is important in the gym as well as on the mat. It is the moment I begin to think about the grocery list that I bang my leg with a dumbbell and bruise my shin (true story – happened last week). If I’m not thinking of alignment while I’m doing a set of flies then I’m likely to stress my shoulder ligaments and feel pain in the front of my shoulder. The ache might last a little while or it could end up being a serious injury, particularly if my inattention is habitual and I continually stretch the same ligaments. Injuries aren’t a badge of honor in the gym or on the mat. They mean that we didn’t do something right; we didn’t maintain awareness or we didn’t honor our body’s limitation that day.

Maintaining awareness for 100% effort on my mat and in the gym also helps me remain focused when I step into the real world. I get more from my relationships when I listen completely to what my friend is telling me. The intensity on my mat also helps me to stay focused when I’m doing anything else so that I am more likely to do it right the first time without errors. That happened last week, too. I breezed through the supermarket thinking about the yoga sequence I was planning to teach that evening and I left the store without a critical item.

No, I’m not able to put in 100% effort every single moment. But I do try. I’ve asked my yoga students this week to set the intention to put in 100% effort throughout the class. One woman learned that she compensates for weak abdominal muscles by using her shoulders in several poses. She realized that is why her shoulders are tight. Her devoted awareness during yesterday’s practice taught her a lot about how she uses her body and will help her get much more out of the time she already is committing to her practice. As long as she is on the mat, she might as well be there completely, 100%.