Friday, June 25, 2010

The Land of Milk and Honey

            I hope you are well and have begun eliminating those three nasty processed food ingredients. If you have, you’re well on your way to the land of milk and honey. I’m not sure if why I chose that title had to do with keeping the Biblical allusions going, or the fact that I put all-natural peanut butter with honey in my organic skim milk for a protein shake this morning. Either way, life is delicious. Though I spoke at length about those three food ingredients in the last letter, I didn’t dedicate enough to the topic of organic versus industrial food or some of the other physical changes I had to make in order to get where I am currently.
            Would you like to know the biggest reason I try to eat organic food? The taste. While some products do taste roughly the same, there are others (fruits are a great example) that have much more intense flavors. Granted, this may be in my head (literally) because now that I don’t get a lot of refined/processed sugars my taste buds are experiencing a renaissance. Taste buds do get overstimulated. Too much of anything will deaden flavors; even smoking cigarettes greatly reduces the effectiveness of the taste buds. I believe what deters a lot of people from switching to organic foods is the price, which can be a genuine issue for families who are on a specific food budget. This is one reason why obesity is more prevalent among the lower socio-economic demographic. Without having a large enough budget to eat well (I’m just talking basic fruits and veggies, even industrial produced ones), these people are forced to get the most for their money. If you watch those films or read the books I mentioned, you’ll see how the subsidization and commodification of corn then skews the true cost of processed foods. How can these people spend $3 on a few pieces of fruit when they can get a cornucopia of processed junk for the same price? The junk keeps the family belly full , doesn’t it?
But at what cost?
            I won’t get into the reasons why we overproduce food in America, but we do. Again, read those books or watch those films—especially if you have a family. The primary reason that we got into this mess (industrialized food) has to do with World War II. Back during the war, large chemical corporations (Dow, DuPont, etc) were working on chemical agents for biological weapons to be employed in the war effort. With the advent of the H-bomb and the close of the Pacific theater, these companies now had to find a new use for these bio-weapons. Hence, they were re-engineered to be used as pesticides and fertilizers. The world’s first “Green Revolution” took place here in our own backyard in the late 1940s—and with it, the demise of traditional agriculture. Over the years, we’ve used more and more of these chemicals, some of which are known neurotoxins. Additionally, our food scientists also started creating GMOs, which stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Sounds ambiguous, huh? It is. Essentially, the biggest problem with GMOs is that we have no idea how they affect our health (nor the pesticides and fertilizers that are sprayed all over the food). GMOs would make Gregor Mendel proud. They are the result of modifying DNA in an effort to make the plant or animal grow faster, produce more, be more resistant to increasingly potent pesticides/ fertilizers/antibiotics, or whatever else needs to be accomplished. And yet we willingly eat it all.
Ever wonder why people in Europe eat food that is seemingly so unhealthful yet have no problems with obesity? 1) They eat normal sized portions (ideally each meal you eat should NEVER go over 800 calories, 600 is an even better number—some of the basic combo meals at fast food restaurants easily contain 1,200 calories); 2) they don’t have industrial produced food. Europe flat out banned GMO production on the continent and all products containing GMOs that are imported—namely from the United States—must be clearly labeled for the consumer. I know that agribusiness giants here in America would never let this happen, which is why it is all the more necessary for Americans to educate themselves about this issue.
The real question then becomes this: if you know that there are chemicals covering or mixed into your food—chemicals that are potentially hazardous to your health (let alone brain function)—why would you not eat organic food? It’s as if I were to say, you have two doors in front of you: one will have nothing behind it; the other will have the potential to dramatically affect your health adversely. Would really chose the second door? Of course not. Now, I know life is not a thought-experiment. But if you have the means financially to eat organically, you should do so. If you don’t, then you can still make the best choices with what means you have. Try to avoid the three amigos, HFCS, Hydrogenated Oils, and Enriched Flour. I think eliminating those from your diet alone can have massive ramifications for your overall health, fitness, and well-being. Eating organic foods are a bonus. Erin and I simply have made a conscious choice to put our food budget all in one basket. By limiting how much we go out to eat (it’s rare at this point) to restaurants, we have that much more money for our grocery cart. Moreover, it’s not like you have to go to Whole Foods and spend extra money just because it’s the fancy Wal-Mart of organic foods. There are issues with our organic food production that make it no more sustainable than our industrial food chain. Ideally, support local farmers if you can. Even if you were to get your fruits and veggies from a local farmer who uses pesticides and fertilizers, studies have shown they use far less quantities in their application and are subsequently a more healthful alternative to what you’d get in the local supermarket.
Though eating healthful foods certainly helped usher me into the land of milk and honey, there were equally responsible life decisions I made during my exodus that helped get me to where I am today—not the least of which was quitting smoking. If you’re reading this and you’re one of my students, past, present, or future, please don’t smoke. Every other non-smoking adult in this world will tell you the same, which is probably why you’ll want to experiment with cigarettes at some point.   
It started the same way for me as I’m sure it does for most teenagers—it’s taboo. Forbidden. And of course, this makes the allure of smoking all that more irresistible. I started smoking for cliché reasons and kept on doing it for the wrong ones. I felt independent. Self-assured. I was my own person. No one could tell me what to do. I didn’t know in my youth, perhaps even couldn’t know, that what I was doing wasn’t an exercise of will power but a capitulation to weakness. I thought it made me cool. All it did was deaden my tastebuds, stink up my clothes, hair and breath, yellow my teeth, and lessen my capacity to oxygenate my cardiovascular system that operates the rest of this complex machine that we call a body.
But smoking is no joke. Nicotine is addictive stuff. Luckily for me, I was never a tremendously heavy smoker. On average, I smoked about half a pack a day. On my days off when I drove around a lot, perhaps a whole pack. This lasted from age 18 until I was about 21. That was the first serious attempt at quitting. I told myself that I would go cold turkey and only smoke on special occasions. My friend Grant also made this promise—he’s the one who brought me into the fold, ironically. About a week into it, the both of us along with some other friends went out to dinner. Before we had sat down at our booth, my friend went into the bar and lit up a cigarette. I was dying for one and I asked him, “what’s the occasion?” He smiled as he took a drag through crinkled eyes and smoke and said, “It’s gotta be somebody’s birthday.” I gave in.
The next earnest attempt that I made was the day I bought my bike and began this entire journey. But I learned the first time that going cold turkey was too difficult for me. So I did the next best thing. Baby steps. Instead of trying to quit smoking, I first quit buying them. This alone was a good exercise in will power because it was relatively easy. I would try my best to abstain from them as well, even when offered to me. Sometimes I could, and sometimes I couldn’t. That was probably the most difficult step: going from social smoker to non-smoker. That phase of my life, in fact, lasted much longer than I wanted. But I was also young and still learning about life and coming to terms with it. For the better part of the last decade, I’ve been tobacco/nicotine free. My one relapse, however, was on 12/22/2003.  I only had one that I bummed off  someone in my excitement. The next morning I was upset because up to that point it had been a little more than a year. And so the counting began again. As of today, it’s been 2377 consecutive days since I’ve had a cigarette.
Alcohol was an entirely different matter. I’m 34 years old. I’ve done my share of drinking, but I would never consider myself “a drinker” by any standard. Especially since turning 30, I’ve noticed that my body doesn’t handle alcohol well, regardless of the quantity. Though I never drank a lot in any one sitting, once I began teaching I noticed that the frequency with which I imbibed spirits increased. It became regular for me to have a beer or glass of wine with dinner, perhaps another afterward too. Sometimes it was a cocktail. It never went beyond two on any given night, but I began to feel that it was affecting my health.
Two summers ago—just before this new/current phase of my life emerged—I was speaking with my uncle who, like myself, was never a big drinker. He had told me that he quit drinking because it was affecting his sleep and it made his body too achy the next day. Curious to see if this would do the same for me, I decided to stop drinking. Within a few days, I was waking up more refreshed than ever before. There are manifold reasons why I think drinking should be eliminated from your diet if you want to make the best of the vehicle for your consciousness, but here are the most important two: 1) alcohol is poison, literally. When you drink, your brain prioritizes getting rid of the poison from your system. Therefore, the calories that will be burned immediately for energy will be the ones in alcohol. Alcohol is no slouch, either. It takes 7 calories to burn off one gram of alcohol, whereas protein and carbohydrates only need 4 calories to process (fat takes 9 per gr). Meanwhile, any food that you eat will be automatically converted to sugar and stored as fat because the body is working off the alcohol; 2) alcohol severely reduces the quality of your sleep. I know there will always be people who tell you “I can have several drinks and fall right asleep” (sometimes you hear the same thing about caffeinated beverages), but while they may fall asleep they are not getting quality rest. And rest, like any other piece of the puzzle, must be in place in order to maximize the potential we can harness from our bodies.
I know this sounds like a lot. It is. This has been a beautiful, amazing last couple of years for me, but it took 11 years of trial and error to get here. I’m only putting all of this out there so that you, Nobody in Particular, can do something with your life if you want to. There is no reason to not be satisfied with the life you have. If you don’t like something about it, change it! I think too many times people get caught up in that culture of victimhood. It’s always something beyond your control, always someone else’s fault. Been there, done that. Not doing it any more. Whether it is eating more healthful foods, quitting smoking, or giving up alcohol—take your time. It’s just like I mentioned in “Top Ten Secrets,” all you have to do is keep chipping away. Every day is a new day and every single one matters. Use it to your advantage to take that extra little step. Have one less cigarette, drink one less Mountain Dew. In time you’ll find that your will power becomes honed and ready to buttress you in situations you never before dared to assert yourself. As your will grows stronger, you’ll be surprised how the once insurmountable obstacles seem so insignificant in light of your newfound strength. Keep nourishing it and soon you’ll feel as if you’ve reached your own personal land of milk and honey too.
- Ryan

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