Thursday, 18 December 2014

Eat to a plan

One of my most potent weapons in my fight against refined sugar is to eat to a plan - the same plan every day. The theory is that eating to a plan takes the effort out of sticking to a healthy diet. You don’t have to think about food. You don’t have to decide what to eat next. You don't have to engage at every meal in that exhausting battle between your conscience proposing salad and your desire to ice cream instead.

There are four keys to my eating plan working:

1. Every meal in the plan is delicious

A plan to eat plain lentils with steamed broccoli for dinner would make me vulnerable to temptation. If there is a tasty vegetable curry to look forward to, I’m less susceptible.

Making sure meals are delicious isn’t necessary or desirable for everyone. Some people report being very happy eating plain meals, at least some of the time. Timothy Ferriss’s popular slow-carb diet includes one cheat day a week with as much unhealthy food as you like, but for the rest of the week each meal is a simple combination of eggs or meat with a legume and vegetables. Leo Babauta of Zenhabits has experimented with eating plain food.

2. The plan is easy

If I’m hungry and the alternatives available to me are to spend the next half hour preparing a healthy meal, or to pop a couple of pieces of bread in the toaster and eat peanut butter on toast, then I’m likely to reach for the bread.

To make my plan easy, I prepare a salad for lunch while I eat my breakfast. This means that when I get hungry in the late morning after I’ve been working for a couple of hours, the easiest, quickest way to satisfy my hunger is to eat the salad. I’ve been doing this almost every day for a couple of years now; it’s definitely one of my healthiest habits. If my eating plan goes off the rails after that, at least I’ve had a healthy breakfast and one super-healthy raw-vegetable meal. (Occasionally my plan goes off the rails earlier in the day despite the salad sitting in the fridge.)

Another step I take to make my plan easy is to have pre-made healthy vegetable dinners in the freezer and pantry to fall back on when I don’t have time to cook. My three main fallbacks are:

  1. Vegetable curry or stew, which I cook in large quantities and freeze in single portions.
  2. Chopped vegetables with beans/lentils/chickpeas, brown rice and pesto. If I have the time and energy, I’ll steam-fry fresh vegetables; more often I use frozen vegetables from a packet. The pesto is a vegan pesto that I make with herbs from my garden and freeze in single portions.
  3. Packaged soups. Even selecting only the healthiest I can find at the supermarket, these contain more salt and sugar than I would choose, but they still meet my somewhat arbitrary criteria for a healthy meal eaten once in a while.

3. The plan covers what to do about unhealthy food

Abstain or limit? Limit in what way? What kinds of unhealthy food are a problem? These need to be decided so that having a treat doesn't trigger abandonment of the plan. I haven’t yet worked out the best arrangement for me; I’m still experimenting. I know it suits me best to put off treats till later in the day: the earlier in the day I start eating unhealthy food, the more of it I eat. I don't especially like fast food or takeaways; they aren't a problem for me. I sometimes eat unhealthy quantities of potato chips. My real problem food is refined sugar: ice cream, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, etc.

Gretchen Rubin contends that abstaining is easier than limiting unhealthy food. Some of my happiest and healthiest months in recent years have been (virtually) refined-sugar free, but after a month or so abstaining I start to crave my favourite unhealthy foods.

4. Variety is built into the plan

Like deliciousness, variety isn’t important to everyone. And those of us who like variety seek it in different ways. Leo Babauta describes eating pretty much the same meals almost every day for a period of months, then when he’s had enough he switches to something new and eats that for the next few months.

My dinner meals are all based on vegetables, a legume and a grain, but otherwise they vary: one night might be Mexican-style beans and vegetables on quinoa, another night an Italian-style tomato and vegetable dish with lentils, on brown rice. My plan includes fruit with most meals but I don’t decide in advance what kind of fruit - I eat whatever I feel like at the time.

I don’t like variety in everything. I might as well confess that “raw nuts” in my plan below means precisely one Brazil nut, two almonds, two hazel nuts and four cashews, eaten in that order every time.

My plan

Breakfast Wholegrain rolled oats with soy milk, fruit (boysenberries/kiwifruit/feijoas/strawberries), nuts or seeds (walnuts/almonds/pumpkin seeds), ground linseed, and cinnamon.
Early lunch Salad.
Mid-afternoon tea Raw nuts.
Ryvita crackers topped with hummus, tomato, avocado, cucumber, alfalfa sprouts, and lettuce or spinach.
Dinner Vegetable meal with a legume and grain.
Supper Raw nuts.
Sweet treat if I feel like it.
Slice of toast with hummus/tomato/avocado, or home-made fries baked in a little olive oil.

This is the basic plan. I don’t always need all the meals; often I skip one. Sometimes I swap them around to fit in with outings. Occasionally we eat out. I often drink a smoothie (frozen banana, soy milk, ginger) during my rock climbing workouts. If I go for a run first thing, then I have First Breakfast (tiny serving of porridge with blueberries) before I go, and Second Breakfast when I return (because if I run on an empty stomach I get a stitch).

Monday, 8 December 2014

Stepping a little outside the comfort zone

I have been feeling unconfident about taking up new work since my last job (as a homeschooling parent) came to an end this year with my children’s graduation to tertiary study. Feeling unqualified and ill-equipped to “join the workforce” caught me by surprise! I had told myself throughout my 19 years of full-time parenting that I was building transferable skills, character strengths and knowledge. I still believe this, but my confidence plummeted nonetheless in the face of change.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that I feel unsure of myself: doing something new and different requires stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

Exhortations to break out of our comfort zone abound, promising huge gains in learning and improvement. What much of this advice misses (and which I picked up from Arno Ilgner’s writing on fear management for climbers) is that learning takes place at the edge of the comfort zone, not in outer realms far beyond the borders of the comfort zone. Learning expands the comfort zone by building competence. Pushing ourselves too far can have the opposite effect, inflating fear, causing the comfort zone to contract.

The prospect of a starting a new occupation was intimidating enough to shrink my comfort zone. But, fortunately, I’ve had time this year to explore and prepare. I’ve scoured job listings and university and polytechnic websites. I’ve read textbooks. Completed my first MOOC (business writing). Attended a presentation (plain language). Talked to friends. Talked to strangers suggested by friends. Written a résumé.

Gradually I’ve become excited about the possibilities ahead, recognizing two pathways, both of which would involve stepping outside my comfort zone, but not by too much (at least at first). I could seek an entry-level administrative position in an organization doing work I’d like to learn to do - training on the job; or I could take up formal study.

Formal study appealed to me from the start. It was concern about the expense of study - doubt about whether it would be worth the cost - that drove me to examine other options. Doing so, however, has affirmed and strengthened my desire to study. There are a number of university papers that look fascinating to me. I think the rigour of university study and the feedback from experts will help me build competence and all-important confidence, readying me for further challenges.

I have applied to enrol in communication papers and an introduction to computer programming next year! Nervous doubts still intrude - I’m currently working through Codecademy’s Python course in preparation for the intro to computer programming paper I’ll be doing, and it is really hard (there have been tears). But most of the time I feel like I’m on an adventure - on my terms, travelling at my pace

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Think about something else

I recently biked the six kilometres to our local mall in the rain. The journey was a delight - speed, beautiful gardens, birdsong mingling with the Nine to Noon podcast I was listening to, the invigorating effects of exercise and being outdoors. I had as much fun as I always do when I go by bike. Yet, I very nearly didn’t. Twice that morning I decided to take the car. It took a ridiculous amount of self talk to convince myself to bike. It’s not that I like driving especially. It’s just that driving is easier.

I don’t know why we are disinclined to do an activity, even though we know from past experience we will be glad we did, if the activity requires effort. I do know, for me it helps to have routines and rules, and not to let myself rethink them in the moment. Our immediate comfort pulls us to reconsider our intentions constantly: stay in bed just a little longer, eat a muffin instead of a salad, go by car instead of by bike.

Roy Baumeister and John Tierney explain in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, that willpower can be strengthened with practice but is also, paradoxically, depleted by use. Deliberating on decisions diminishes our willpower through sapping our mental energy, leaving us less and less capable of withstanding temptation as the day progresses.

To restore our willpower, we must replenish our energy reserves either with sleep or with glucose to the bloodstream (preferably from eating unrefined carbohydrates with proteins and healthy fats so that the glucose doesn’t spike and dip but enters the bloodstream gradually).

And we can conserve our willpower by avoiding mulling over decisions. As soon as I entertained the possibility of taking the car instead of my bike, I made it harder for myself to stick to my plan to go by bike. To make it easier to stick to my own good intentions, I need to catch myself revisiting a decision and I need to redirect my thinking - think about something else!

I’ve made a habit of this which helps me get up in the morning. If I catch myself wondering whether to stay in bed a little longer or get up immediately, my response is now automatic: “Don’t think about it,” I tell myself as I roll over and sit up. It doesn’t feel as if I decided to get up or made myself get up; it’s as if I avoided the decision. (I still waver occasionally - most often on cold days.)

Next time, I’ll bat away rogue thoughts about taking the car by directing my focus to something specific, like what I need to do next to get ready to go by bike.

Monday, 3 November 2014

How (and why) I started climbing

I took up rock climbing because New Zealand climber Zac Orme defied the laws of physics. I’d been taking the kids (Josiah, then 11, and Tessa, then 9) to our local climbing gym increasingly regularly, and I’d made a few attempts at climbing myself, feeling pretty smug when I could get to the top of a wall. But it wasn’t until Josiah entered his first national competition and we stayed on after his event to watch the Under 18 category that I first witnessed experts climbing. Geoff and I were captivated by the precision and control of the climbers. Their passage up the wall was a dance. And then Zac moved up a 45-degree overhang holding on only to a small pinch. It looked impossible. Hooked, we returned to the gym a couple of days later.

Progress in the early days was slow but fun. I remember doing twistlocks all the way up a strenuous, slightly overhanging route. When I returned to the ground, my belayer, a more experienced climber, suggested I might find the route easier if I tried twistlocks. Our friend Doug taught us to lead belay. Bob showed us how to grip footholds by curling our toes like fingers around the hold. We bought books on how to climb, grilled other climbers for advice, and began to develop some rudimentary technique.

The summer brought a new challenge: climbing outdoors on rock. We purchased more books, this time on the mechanics of keeping safe while climbing cliffs and getting back down off them. We purchased slings and carabiners, made cowstails and prusiks, and once again grilled more-experienced friends. All four of us practised in the gym, with the auto-belayer as back-up, leading a route, making ourselves safe at the top, and abseiling down.

Popular report said Paynes Ford was the place to go. I wasn’t sure if we were ready: in the first intimation of my evolution into New Zealand’s Scaredest Climber, I warned the family that if we had any doubts once we saw the set-up for ourselves, we would postpone climbing outdoors till we could arrange a trip with an experienced climber.

Tessa working Knicknack Paddywack, 18, Paynes Ford
Photo: friendly climber we met at the campground
A friendly guide at Paynes Ford recommended two brand new, super easy routes at Globe Wall “closely bolted for kids learning to lead”. The routes were perfect. We could see the top anchors from the ground and the climbing looked so straightforward that Geoff and I granted ten-year-old Tessa’s request to go first. Away she went, placing the draws on our family’s first ever outdoor route climb.

Tessa was my chief climbing partner at Paynes in the early years. Our second summer, she led and I seconded almost all our routes, as I was loath to lead with only a small eleven-year-old on the end of my rope. Unfazed, Tessa led us up most of Paynes Ford’s easier climbs, and conceived the exhausting challenge, “9 on the 9th” - nine routes on 9 January - which was superceded the following summer by “11 on the 11th”! I was shaky on my legs at the end of those two days and not altogether surprised a few years later when Tessa and a group of climbing friends challenged themselves at the gym to climb as many routes as they could in one evening (20!).

Lisia climbing Terror Incognita, 18, Froggatt Edge
Eight years on, I’m more hooked than ever. I love climbing’s complexity. At every level, climbing offers engrossing challenges - routes and moves that feel unattainable on the first attempt, but whose solution is brought gradually closer, sometimes by discovering subtle changes in body position or focus, other times by finding an entirely different sequence, or by unlocking hitherto unknown depths of determination, or simply by climbing faster so as to reach the top before exhausted muscles fail. Improving technique and strength can be just as rewarding for recreational climbers as for the experts who inspire us.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Improving people skills

People are most interested in themselves, according to Alan and Barbara Pease (Easy Peasey: People Skills for Life), and therefore in social situations we should focus comments on the person we are talking to, and ask open-ended questions, talking about ourselves only in response to questions.

At a recent party, I put this advice to the test with mixed results. On the positive side, I enjoyed myself more than I usually do at parties. I think this was because the conversations I had were more interesting: instead of conversing on autopilot, I listened actively to what people said to me and I asked questions that interested me. Paradoxically, conversation was less work than usual.

On the downside, I wondered afterwards if two of my guinea pigs felt interrogated. By responding to comments with open-ended questions, and avoiding talking about myself except in response to questions, I pushed others to dominate the conversation. I don’t think people like to feel they are dominating. I created an interaction that was more like an interview by a journalist than a conversation between equal partners.

In another recent conversational encounter, I took a more equal share. An old friend came to stay for a few days during which we talked pretty much non stop. I was deeply interested to hear her thoughts and stories and she encouraged me to share mine. We both asked questions and both volunteered information. Of course, this natural, deep interaction is hard to replicate with someone I don’t know well, but I think I can apply aspects of it to other conversations.

Next time I’m at a party I’m going to tone down my approach. My plan is once again to work on listening actively and asking questions in response that interest me. And, as Alan and Barbara advise, I’ll be enthusiastic and I’ll avoid jumping in on other people’s stories whenever something they say triggers in my mind a story of my own. But I will volunteer my thoughts and stories unasked when it seems appropriate, and I’ll put more effort into elaborating on my answers when people ask me questions.

I’d be interested to hear what others have found works and doesn’t work to improve the quality and enjoyment of different interactions.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Public-funded provision of food

In the year leading up to the recent general election, each of the parties I was choosing between came out in support of taxpayer-funded lunches in schools - to my dismay.

I lack faith in the ability of any of them to identify and provide healthy food. If you’ve ever endured a stay in a New Zealand public hospital, you’ll have sampled the type of fare I anticipate: predominantly refined-carbs (lots of low-quality bread, white rice, pasta), doused in salt, greasy, vegetables overcooked, any raw vegetables or fruit old and limp, high-sugar drinks such as fruit juice, high-sugar dessert and snacks. Hospital administrators don’t seem to have heard dieticians’ advice to restrict sugary treats to no more than once a week. Their menu could be designed to slow patient recovery and develop unhealthy habits.

Any hope that the government might do better when serving school children is extinguished by a look at the Year 6-7 Food Technology curriculum. Almost every child in the country completes this cooking course. What an opportunity to introduce a captive young audience to delicious, healthy meals! But at my local intermediate school, which otherwise offers an outstanding Technicraft programme, almost every recipe is based on white flour usually accompanied by sugar: scones, biscuits, cake, cheese straws, bread, macaroni cheese, hamburgers in buns, fruit and marshmallow kebabs, pancakes, sweetened muesli.

I suggest cleaning up our hospital menus, Food Technology curriculum and breakfast-in-schools menus before expanding public food provision to school lunches. While the government continues to fund unhealthy, processed food, the government is part of the problem. It may even be negatively influencing the diet that citizens choose to eat at home: children and adults who haven’t studied nutrition might reasonably assume that food provided by a hospital or school is a healthy template to follow.

Let’s offer healthy food, as defined by evidence-based science: menus dominated by fresh vegetables and fruits, with legumes, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds. Bread included as an occasional side dish rather than a staple, and made from wholemeal flours with added whole or kibbled grains and without additives. Conspicuous in their absence: refined sugar and drinks other than water.

My appeal to political parties aiming to improve children’s nutrition is to let evidence of benefit direct spending. This may mean lunches in schools is moved off the agenda altogether, perhaps replaced by school and community gardens or the discontinuance of GST.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Spotty’s life as we know it

Spotty wearing headphones

We first met Spotty in a local church hall on a Friday night about twelve years ago. Tessa and I were dropping off a box of clothes we didn’t want anymore to the leaders of Tessa’s Girls’ Brigade, who were setting up for their annual church fair. I would be returning in search of bargains the next day, but Tessa had something else on. So when she saw a box of pre-loved soft toys she asked me to spend her savings (a coin given to her the week before by her grandmother) on one of the animals in the box - preferably a cat, preferably this one. I duly purchased the small snow leopard the next day and he came home to live with us.

Like most kiwi kids of her generation, Tessa has had numerous soft toys over the years. The first were gifts from her parents’ friends when she was born. The next arrivals were exotic, handmade creations brought home by her grandparents from overseas trips. Later came rag dolls, then cute puppies and teddy bears Tessa couldn’t resist buying or that her friends gave her as birthday presents. I didn’t know, when Spotty first joined the fray, that he was special.

But within a few months it was always Spotty who accompanied Tessa on sleepovers and camping trips. And Spotty who held pride of place in Tessa’s bedroom: either perched decoratively in front of her pillow on days when the bed was made, or, more often, and equally demonstrating Tessa’s preference for him over other cuddle mates, lying on his shoulder on the floor, legs in the air, where he’d fallen out of bed when Tessa rolled over in the night.

Given how important Spotty was to Tessa, I always worried he might get lost when out in the world. His closest call and greatest adventure so far came on a tramp up Mt Holdsworth in the Tararuas when Tessa was seven. Camped near the summit, we sat on the hillside in the evening as I read aloud to the children, Spotty tucked under Tessa’s arm, where I’ve seen him so many times. Somehow, afterwards, perhaps in the novelty of brushing teeth outdoors, Spotty was left on the hillside alone. By the time we realised he was missing, it was dark outside and a howling gale was blowing. Convinced that Spotty was gone forever, I tried comforting Tessa with elaborate descriptions of Spotty’s new life as the beloved nest-mate of a family of forest birds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this had the opposite effect to what I intended, so that between the noise of the wind and Tessa’s sobs and the wall of the tent blowing onto us, no one got much sleep that night. The next morning, Tessa was off and away in search of her friend as soon as it was light. I was astonished when she returned, only moments later, with Spotty once again tucked under her arm, a smile lighting her face. I still marvel at how Spotty clung to that hillside through the gale, while our tent poles acquired a new bend that remains today.

Spotty looking out the window

Over the years, Spotty’s whiskers have been loved off him and his tail doesn’t stand as straight as it once did, but he looks after Tessa as well as ever, and their exploits continue. Spotty’s first taste of international travel was a trip to Australia for the Oceania Climbing Championship. Head poking out of the top of Tessa’s backpack, he seemed to look with interest on the scenery of New South Wales as we drove north from Sydney to the competition. His next overseas jaunt was to Fiji, Tessa's companion as always, and with her grandparents in train on this trip.

The summer before last, Tessa and Spotty went to Canada on a three month student exchange, experiencing life in the snow. This year, they’ve been living in a student hostel. Was it just a symptom of haphazard packing methods or was it a sign of changing priorities when Spotty lay forgotten on the bed after a weekend home that finished in a rush to catch the train back to campus? Apparently unruffled, Spotty waited the three weeks till Tessa’s next visit home, and travelled back to campus squashed in a by-now-familiar suitcase.

Spotty, Tessa and Lisia

After they're done with study, who knows? Perhaps Spotty will be Tessa’s partner on her next journeys, or perhaps the sacrifices a budding international backpacker makes in order to travel light will mean that Spotty is left behind, and he and I will wait together for our beautiful girl to return to us.

Monday, 13 October 2014


I love to figure things out by writing about them. I’m fascinated by happiness - my own and other people’s - and by ideas that help me to apply my values day-to-day instead of rushing along on autopilot focussed on Getting Stuff Done.

I am a parent of two young adults. We homeschooled together for most of their childhood and teen years. Both are now branching out on their own. No longer a full-time parent, I’m beginning to explore new adventures.

I am a rock climber. I enjoy running and dancing. I love learning about fitness, health and nutrition. I eat a mostly whole-foods, plant-based diet with lots of great raw fruit and vegetables, but I struggle with an addiction to refined sugar.

I am interested in the environment, in particular finding ways for my family, living in suburbia, to reduce our negative impact on the planet.

I am a somewhat reluctant gardener. It takes more time than I would like to keep our small yard from dispersing noxious weeds around the neighbourhood. But I do appreciate having a reason to be outside focussing on details of nature I wouldn’t otherwise notice. And it’s very satisfying to grow some of our own food.

I love to read. Great books are a major source of fun and learning for me.