Going Nuts!

Nuts in the shell (almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts) and walnut halves with a nutcracker

When I was a child, one of the first signs the Christmas holidays were coming soon was the bowl of nuts in the shell my mother put out on Thanksgiving Day. Walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts were there for the taking, as long as we could extract their riches with a nutcracker and a pick.

Many years later, those nuts are still one of my favorite things about winter. But nuts can be a great benefit to health year round. They’re packed with protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

It’s not surprising that people who eat more nuts are less likely to suffer from many chronic illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, and colon cancer. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 showed that eating nuts was linked to a longer, healthier life.

Beyond helping us live longer, nuts may help us live better. A recent study showed that nut consumption strengthens brainwave patterns asociated with better learning, memory, and sleep.

Many people worry about that nuts are high in calories. The participants in those studies who ate nuts regularly were leaner than those who did not. But don’t go nuts with nuts. One to one and a half ounces of nuts a day is likely to enhance your health without increasing your weight. Also, limit the amount of added salt and sugar. A few peanuts don’t make a Snickers bar a health food.

The research on nuts suggests that all the tree nuts and peanuts have similar health benefits. But each nut has its special nutritional virtues. Variety is great. Try some you rarely eat and enjoy the ones you like most.

Nuts make a wonderful snack, but they can also be a valuable ingredient in all sorts of recipes. If you’d like ideas on how to use them in cooking, check out these recipes from Eating Well.

Beyond Thanksgiving

gratitude - dictionary definition under a magnifyin glassThis time of year, we hear a lot about the importance of gratitude. It plays an important role in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other religious traditions. It’s also been recommended by philosophers from Cicero to Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

More recently, it has attracted the attention of psychologists. Their research shows being more grateful can make us happier and more optimistic, improve our physical and mental health, strengthen our relationships, and even make us more successful at work.

This week in the U.S., we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday intended for us to give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. But for many of us, it’s more of a stressful event than a day of gratitude.

Picture this: it’s early on Thanksgiving morning, and you discover the turkey still hasn’t thawed. Once you finally wrestle it into the oven, you forget about the onions and celery you were sautéing until the smoke alarm goes off. Then you realize you didn’t buy the crystallized ginger you need to make the cranberry relish Grandma served every year. And you still have to deal with the mashed potatoes, the gravy, the green beans, the rolls… and on and on.

roast turkey still in the pan - Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

Hours later, the food is ready and the table is set, but Aunt Cindy still hasn’t arrived. She’s stuck in traffic again, and she’s bringing the pumpkin pies. You hear Uncle John and your sister Ann drowning out the Thanksgiving Day parade on TV with a vociferous argument about politics. You check your watch. Aunt Cindy is over an hour late. The food is getting cold, and the football game will start in less than an hour. Maybe you should start dinner without her. She’ll be here in time for dessert, won’t she?

Your Thanksgiving celebration will probably go more smoothly. But even when everything runs like clockwork and all the guests get along, it’s difficult to focus on what we’re thankful for. If you can’t think of anything, you can always try what my father said each Thanksgiving. He was thankful he wasn’t the turkey.

Your Thanksgiving day list may be much longer than that, but just being grateful one day a year doesn’t accomplish much. To receive the many benefits of gratitude, it needs to be woven into our daily lives. Telling people to be more grateful rarely accomplishes much, but there are many ways we can cultivate gratitude.

Mindfulness brings us into the present moment and helps us notice things we would otherwise miss, including many things that inspire gratitude. Savoring some of those positive things, even small things like a child’s smile, is a great gratitude booster. Bring all your attention to that smile and fully absorb those good feelings.

The religious traditions often use prayers, such as a grace before meals. Many non-religious people find value in secular graces and rituals. Keeping a gratitude journal has been proven to be effective in increasing gratitude and its many benefits. Neuroscientists have shown that writing a gratitude letter not only makes people more grateful; it changes brain activity up to three months later.

Like everything else, gratitude can be misused. Sometimes it’s tempting to use gratitude to avoid dealing with a serious problem. Barbara Ehrenreich argued in a piece in the New York Times that gratitude is often selfish.

But researchers like psychologist Robert Emmons point out grateful people are more helpful, compassionate and generous. Brother David Steindl-Rast believes not only can gratitude enhance our lives, it can transform our world.

One simple way you can act on your gratitude today (and many other days) is to Share the Meal. With a tap on your smartphone, you can share a meal with a hungry child in places like Haiti or Bangladesh. And I’ll be grateful if you share your thoughts in the comments below.

Creating Your Vision of Optimal Health

The word vision spelled out with Scrabble pieces

What does optimal health look like for you? Each of us will have a different answer. Taking some time to find your answer is the first step in creating a more healthy and fulfilling life.

Find a quiet place where you can relax and won’t be disturbed. Take a few slow, easy breaths to help you put other concerns aside for a while and focus on your vision.

Choose a time frame to work with. You might want to look ahead a few months or let your imagination travel years into the future. Ask yourself how you’ll feel, how you’ll look, and what you’ll be doing. Looking at the Wheel of Health may bring to mind important areas you might otherwise forget.

Guided imagery can be a valuable tool to help you relax and let your mind visit the healthy future you hope to create. Using all of your senses can make that vision more useful and real. I’ve created a guided imagery recording for this:

For those of us who like to put our thoughts into words, journaling can be a great tool. Getting our thoughts out of our heads and on paper (or into an electronic format) helps us to explore them more thoroughly. It also gives us something to refer to weeks or months from now. For others, drawing or painting serves that function. Or we might include both in an art journal.

Mind mapping is great for those of us whose ideas refuse to follow a simple linear pattern. Mind maps can be simple or elaborate and may include photos, drawings, and more. They can be sketched on paper or done using software. Here’s a simple one I did using XMind:

Mind map - central topic, many branches

In recent years, vision boards (also known as dream boards), have become a popular tool. You can make them on paper or online. Pinterest has many examples that may inspire you. Here’s an example of one I created with an online tool at DreamItAlive.

Vision board with 12 photos representing exercise, learning, nutrition, etc.

Your vision of your optimal health will be as unique as you are and may surprise you. This video shows an unexpected vision and how it transformed the lives of the people who shared it:

Once you have a clear sense of your vision, consider what makes that vision important to you. If you connect your vision to your values, it will have much more power to move you toward the health you desire. If those connections aren’t already in your journal or mind map or vision board, make a place for them.

Having a vision of your optimal health is a great first step, but without action, it will accomplish nothing. Research shows that just imagining a positive future, without taking action, makes you even less likely to succeed. But finding your vision, crafting a realistic plan, and then taking action can dramatically increase your chances of success. As you learn and grow and your life changes, your vision of optimal health will also change. Remember to revisit and refresh it at least once a year.

If you’d like to share your vision, please leave a comment.

The Wheel of Health

Potter using a wheel to create a pot

“Sitting kills.” “You should eat more vegetables.” “Sleep more.” “Get up at the same time every morning.” “Stop smoking.” “Spend more time with your children.” “Everyone should get a dog.” “Floss your teeth every day.” “Take these pills.” “Ask your doctor…” And on and on and on…

We are bombarded by health advice from family, friends, television, magazines, the Internet, doctors, dentists, and more every day.  Some of it good, some of it not. Even if we can sort that out, how do we make sense of how all the good advice could possibly fit together and make sense in our lives?

One tool we can use is the Wheel of Health  developed by Duke Integrative Medicine.concentric circles centered on you, with mindful awareness, self-care and professional care

The wheel is centered on you and your mindful awareness of yourself and your life. That informs your self-care, not only in the obvious areas like exercise and nutrition, but also in areas we may not consider as often such as our physical environment, our work, and our spirituality. All of those are vital to our health and well being.

Beyond that, we have professional care, including preventive care like dental check-ups and immunizations, and treatment for health problems that need something more than self-care. That care might be conventional (like flu shots) or complementary (like acupuncture).

When I was introduced to the Wheel of Health during my integrative health coach training at Duke, it didn’t make everything suddenly fall into place, but it gave me a useful framework to consider the many things that affect health and how to bring them into balance.

We’ll be discussing all these areas over the next several weeks. I’d be delighted to see your thoughts in the comments below.