Short version: diet makes a huge difference in health, and in an asana practice. Huge.
About ten months ago I started drinking green smoothies (and here is a follow-up post after that one). Green smoothies were something I had heard about and they seemed a lot cheaper and smarter than drinking the green powder drink I had been going with. Victoria Boutenko’s Green For Life was a great read about eating raw greens, the science of them, how Chimpanzees (our closest cousins) eat, Omega-3s, protein, etc. For example, did you know that broccoli has about 10 g of protein per 100 calories, vs. 5 g of protein per 100 calories of beef (about an oz)? Broccoli has twice as much protein as beef, people! And you feel full after eating 100 calories of broccoli, if you can even manage it, whereas 100 calories of beef, forget it, you’re just getting started. Plus broccoli has the fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and Omega-3s that the beef is totally lacking. While the beef gives you cholesterol and saturated fat. Eat your greens!
Anyway, I’ve talked elsewhere about my green smoothies but one of the weirdest things about drinking them was, despite my long standing dislike of greens, the fruit flavored smoothies got around my taste buds and as a result, my taste buds began to change. Greens started tasting good to me. Shocker! And things I had previously thought were yummy, particularly anything packaged like, say, store bought cookies, started tasting awful. I could taste the cardboard flavor of the packaging on them, and the rancid oils, and the stale, old flours. Yuck.
So, without even meaning to, I gradually started moving deeper into better eating. My relationship to food was changing almost on accident.
Wanting to know more, I ran across this guy in my library’s stacks, Brendan Brazier, an Iron Man Triathlete who discovered better performance and shorter recovery times by going vegan. His books are fascinating and talk about things like nutritional stress and what he calls nutrient-dense food. Nutshell: if you eat nutrient-poor food, your body is sort of humping along on bad fuel and gets stressed, which ups your cortisol, which diminishes (among other things) your sleep quality, which lengthens your recovery time. Conversely, if you eat nutrient-dense food, your body gets more for its digestion effort, plus doesn’t have to work so hard to get the goodies, so you have less stress, less inflammation, less cortisol, better sleep, better recovery time, all with energy left over. He says, hey, if calories were all that mattered, the people with the most energy would be the people who ate the most calories—folks coming out of MacDonalds with their triple quarter pounders with cheese would be brimming with vigor. Well, that‘s obviously not the case.
The most nutrient-dense foods? Greens. Veggies. Fruits. Nuts and seeds. Beans. In that order.
Brazier found he could train harder and more frequently on a vegan, mostly-raw, diet. Less inflammation, fewer aches and pains, and deeper sleep = a better athlete. The issue wasn’t over-training, the issue was under-recovering.
(Sidebar: In Thrive Foods, Brazier adds onto the health component by going into larger ramifications of food choices. Did you know that consuming a modest amount of animal products leaves a larger carbon footprint than driving a car?)
I’m just glossing over Mr. Brazier’s work in these few paragraphs. I highly recommend you read his books. I had never thought of food like this, that food itself could cause stress to the body in the breaking down of it, in the dealing with the not useful parts, and in the managing of the downright damaging bits. But it makes sense and explains why eating raw fruits and vegetables gives you so much energy, while you feel like you’re slogging along when you eat cheeseburgers.
Okay, yoga people, I know, I know, yoga is, of course, an inner practice more than an athletic one. What am I doing talking about athletic performance in a post titled diet and yoga? Well, one can’t deny that Ashtanga Yoga includes a vigorous and challenging asana practice at its core. Recovery time between practices, healing quickly from injuries, and having greater energy and less fatigue post-practice—these are all things that affect an ashtangi just as much as an tri-athelete. Everything Brazier talks about with regard to “athletic performance” while not the language I usually use to talk about my yoga practice, I found directly applicable. Who doesn’t want to wake up to their practice feeling bright and bendy, rather than dull, groggy, and achy? We practice every day—the effects of yesterday’s practice are still with me as I start today’s practice. Dimishing the body’s recovery time between practices results in fewer injuries and a more enjoyable time on the mat. More on my experiences with this in a bit.
Next comes the science. The China Study, a twenty-year study on 6500 native Chinese people’s diets and health by Dr. Colin Campbell, is a powerhouse of a book that kind of blows everything else out of the water, . As I read it I kept gasping and calling out to the yurt, “you’ve got to hear this part…” Did you know, in repeatable studies, they found they could turn cancer growth on and off by increasing or decreasing the amount of milk protein being consumed? No I am not kidding. Those “Got Milk” ads are LYING.
In China, at the time the data used in the study was collected, people tended to live and die in the same town they were born in. Regional differences in diet could thus be correlated to regional health or illness. For example a certain kind of cancer might be 100 times more likely to occur in one town than another and that could be correlated with the dietary differences found in that town. Boiled down, Campbell and his team found that the more a town’s diet included animal protein, the more heart disease and cancer those townsfolk got. Conversely, the closer the amount of animal protein in a town’s diet fell to zero, the closer the occurrence of heart disease and cancer also fell to zero.
There is a ton of stuff in this book, like the massive power of the meat and dairy lobbies in this country and how they keep correct nutritional information vague, confusing and out of the hands of the masses (the four food group thing, for example). It’s way more than I can cover here. Suffice it to say, this book had a big effect on my relationship to food and I highly recommend it if you want science, not pseudo-science or anecdotal infomercials with a product attached.
Along this scientific vein, but a bit more accessible, is Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Dr. Fuhrman is Joe Cross’s doctor in Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, the juice fasting documentary that I’ve mentioned several times on the blog, so of course I had to pick up Dr. Fuhrman’s book to see what he had to say. LOTS of evidence (including mentions of the China Study) for the health-promoting properties of nutrient-dense foods—there’s that term again—over the nutrient-poor foods such as white flour, sugar, oils, and animal foods. Eat to Live is written with a strong slant towards losing weight, which isn’t my concern, but it also gets in lots of science about cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and a million other horrible things you don’t want, plus how diets high in raw vegetables and fruits protect against those horrible things in concrete ways. And by “high in raw vegetables,” he means really high. Not a couple servings a day, but like PILES of veggies, bigger than your head, and close to zero animal protein (although he isn’t a vegan-all-the-way-guy). It isn’t just not eating animal products, or white flour, or sugar. It’s eating tons of veggies and fruits. In other words, don’t be a sick vegan who doesn’t like veggies, or a “healthy eating” person who avoids fat. That isn’t the answer.
Let me just say, its hard to read The China Study and Eat to Live and not immediately want to change your eating. It makes me feel stupid for not doing all of this sooner. 70% of illnesses are preventable! You probably don’t have to get these stupid horrible sickness that so many people take for granted as part of aging! Eat your greens!
A little yoga now, plus two more books.
So, as I said, about six months ago I started doing all this veggie eating and I felt better. As in, my allergies went away. No more sneeze-attacks. No more runny nose. I had more energy—something I noticed on this particular hill that Henry The Dog I face every day on our walks. Going up that hill became oddly easy. Getting up in the morning was easier, too. No more groggy stumbling, even without coffee. It was…weird.
But the biggest place I noticed the difference was in my yoga practice. Eating 95% fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and beans, mostly raw (not the beans because that would be gross), made the Primary Series feel light and bendy most days. I didn’t feel exhausted afterwards. Plus, doing it again the next day felt good. Just like Brazier said, shorter recovery time. It was cool.
But I didn’t really notice how cool. It kind of sneaked up on me.
Because I kind of forgot how I had felt before. I was doing what we all do—taking my good health for granted. And then it was so easy to say just a little of this cheese wouldn’t matter, just a few of those potato chips wouldn’t hurt anything. It is SLIPPERY SLOPE my friend. I didn’t want to be a hard ass about eating, okay? I didn’t want labels or making a stand or being one of those obnoxious people who seem so judgmental about what’s on your plate. I don’t want to be all up-tight about food. On the other hand, in some ways, it’s a lot easier to just go cold turkey than to leave that doorway open to little bits of this and that. Little bits so easily become the Whole Hog. You don’t even notice it happening. I didn’t.
So a month ago-ish, I realized I was back, pretty much where I started with my eating. Not quite but almost. And the sneezing and runny nose had returned. The slog up that hill with Henry was back. The groggy feeling in the morning that made me want my coffee had returned. Crap.
And the big one: that heavy, weak feeling during yoga practice had come back, too. Vinyasa like trying to shift bags of cement blocks—you know, that feeling. GAH. I hate that feeling! I had forgotten that feeling!
But falling off the wagon, feeling bad again in all those familiar ways, turned out to be a good thing, because it became perfectly clear to me: what I eat makes a huge difference in my day-to-day asana practice. Full stop.
Thunk palm to foreheard. DOH.
Which brings us to the present juice fast experiment. Which I will report on in a few days when we’re done (yes, we’re still on it, Paul and I, day nine).
You want a better yoga practice? Clean up your diet.
But wait! Yoga and diet, where is the spiritual component? Yogis are traditionally vegetarian, sure, but how can I say this post is about yoga and diet and not mention ahimsa (non-violence) and all of that?
Okay. This part gets a little heavy for my little blog, but I’m putting it in because it really is part of what changed my entire relationship to food. I mean, there it is in the post title, and now that I’ve typed it, I feel like I have to deliver. How can we change our entire relationship to food?
So. At some point in the middle of that six months, I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. This book will change your life, or at least, it did mine. And Sophie’s. When she asked me to, I read a little to her (leaving out all the worse bits) and she chose to become a vegetarian on the spot, something she has not wavered from since. Just the section on fish, yes fish, and the fishing industry’s systematic destruction of the oceans is worth the price of admission and has changed my relationship to seafood, permanently. Foer may be better known as the author of several novels such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Everything is Illuminated, but he has also written this non-fiction book, part memoir, part, philosophical examination, part research project about why we eat what we eat and how we go about it. It is honest, clear eyed, not written in a sensationalized style, which I appreciated. Foer just sets out to examine what we tell ourselves about what we eat, positive and negative, social, political, and economical, including the many lies we use to cover up the brutality of modern farming methods. But listen: you cannot be made aware of the tremendous violence in the meat and dairy industry without wanting to never participate in such violence ever again. Ahimsa and common decency demands it. Bottom line: I will not eat any more tortured animals. There’s some yoga for you.
One more book that I won’t recommend exactly, because I haven’t read it, is The World Peace Diet. The reason I mention it is because I heard the author, Will Tuttle, speak last Thanksgiving weekend, and his talk really affected me. He spoke about how we blind ourselves to other people and animal’s suffering, partly because its what everyone does, its what we’re trained to do as little kids when everyone sits down to eat together. He talked about making visible what is invisible in our culture, that animal suffering, and how hard it is to see it because we’re so trained to ignore it. He talked about the history of agriculture. He talked about numbing ourselves to compassion for other creatures. I don’t know, I don’t want to sound too woo woo here, but he moved me. And I don’t know if the book does the same, but if it does, it will change your relationship to food, no doubt about it. He changed mine. It was a very yogic talk.
Summary. There is a question in my post-title: my entire relationship to food has changed in the last six months, how did I get here?
Answer: reading these books, and trying it out.
(You can pry my chocolate from my cold, dead, fingers.)
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coming next: The Lucidity EffectLucidity is now with the editor, woo hoo!
today's yoga practice
upcoming book releases
a few greatest hits
- crafts for karma
- the emotional insanity of writing
- the source of my power
- diggers watch tv, too
- the 13 year visitation of the demon red-eyed cicada
- triple chocolate pudding goop, or, this way lies madness
- welcome to mayaland's virtual macabre crawfish feast of death!
- unexpected benefit of living in a round house #27
- cool felt picture fun for kiddos
- the incredible hulk invades the yurt
- the way of the bento
- bikini power vs. the ratty sweater
- 2 stories, 1 joke, and a song
- recycling other people's junk
- going all erin brockovich on your ass
- spike and buffy got screwed--now with proof! (part 1)
- go, go, godzilla!
- the yip-yips do not cause childhood obesity
- writing without pencil sharpening
- yurts: the downside
- "Dusi's Wings" April, 2003. . . . "One thing fantasy can do for us is to give shape to the mysterious in the world; another is to make emotional yearning concrete. The early sections of "Dusi's Wings" do just that...there was a strong grasping towards the spiritual in fantasy here that was very promising, and I look forward to reading more by Lassiter." --review, Tangent Online.
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- Frances@Lila on ashtanga injuries: toe edition. (In a word, gross. Don’t even read this post. Seriously.)
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- Shannon on strawberry fest 2013!
- maya on strawberry fest 2013!