Sunday, May 27, 2012

10 Things I Gained From Not Eating Sugar

It has been almost a month since I began my journey without sugar. Over 3 weeks ago I made a commitment to cut out all sweets and baking, all processed, sugary things, almost all refined and processed grains. I have partaken on occasion but the no’s have outnumbered the yes’s 100 to 1. I didn’t know I was capable of the level of success I feel I’ve achieved with this. Here are some of the things I have learned:

1. You shouldn’t tell other people when you are restricting what you’re eating. They either try repeatedly to feed you what you’re cutting out or they tell you in great detail when you’re ‘cheating’ without even asking for details on your approach. (Note that I did not cut out dairy and allowed refined grains and some condiments in a very limited fashion – one fruit a day was also welcome but no fruit juice).

2. Without processed sugary things I have to be creative and resourceful when choosing snacks and do whatever I can to plan in advance. I am learning new ways of eating. It is not difficult anymore to say ‘no’, even to be around a vast array of supposed temptations.

3. A small piece of dark chocolate when you haven’t had any in 3 weeks tastes like something that has fallen straight from heaven. And if eaten slowly, it has far more wonder attached to it than eating a whole bag full of chocolates in ten seconds flat. It is worth savouring. It has value. It is noticed.

4. Forcing any food ‘category’ out requires that you become mindful about everything you eat. It means you can’t eat everything off your children’s plates without thinking. It means you start to think about the other things you might be eating without consideration. It makes you aware of how often you might have reached for these things ‘you didn’t have often’.

5. Some of my new favourite snacks? • Tuna inside half of an avocado. • Popcorn made with organic coconut oil on the stove (let’s me honest, this beats the air-popped business by a mile). • Olives • Seeds and nuts mixed and pressed into a nut butter, wheat germ and date paste (keeping dates to a minimum and bulking up on nuts/seeds). • Carrots and cucumbers dipped in homemade hummus. • A small scoop of ice cream made with real cream and peanut butter. Yup – that was my treat – a true unadulterated off-the-wagon treat. I figured any sugar I was going to eat should be coupled with real fats and proteins to assist with the speed that the sugar landslides into my system. • Peanut butter on a spoon. The stuff without sugar in it. • Apples and cheese • Bag of baby greens without dressing (the new chips!)

6. Let me be clear. This is not a cleanse. It is not a diet. I have not lost pounds or inches. There is no way to tell if I have more energy or feel healthier because coincidentally the beginning of this journey coincided with the breaking of my little toe cutting my exercise routine down to a fraction of what it had been. But I do not get heartburn anymore. I feel less puffy. My skin does not break out. And I can think more clearly now that I reach for protein or ‘good fat’ snacks instead of sugar.

7. I never crave the good things I eat in place of sugar. I still only think about reaching for sugar when I feel hunger – probably out of habit. But I feel completely satisfied when I have taken a healthier choice instead. I stop looking for something else when I am done the first thing, no matter what time of the day, how bored or upset I am and what other snacks are within my reach.

8. When I go on a trip with my husband to Montreal for the weekend for our wedding anniversary without children, my commitments are sabotaged. Yet the mindfulness does not leave me and my bad choices are far fewer than they once would have been even when I am ‘letting go’. I notice that the ‘I’m not really feeling better’ is actually a load of hogwash. I am reminded how TERRIBLE I feel when I eat things with sugar and am less careful about what I eat.

9. Cheap decaffeinated coffee is completely awful without massive amounts of cream and sugar. Best to choose the good coffee.

10. Building in flexibility according to circumstances made sure that I did not give up entirely when the ‘rules’ weren’t followed. What I have gained is an approach that I can take well into the rest of my life. With this, I’m going to be able to carry on for decades to come and not just a handful of days I can mark off on a calendar.

Now for the most unexpected thing that I have learned: the power of saying ‘no’ to things that are not good for you goes way out and beyond the bad thing you are eliminating from your life. You build a new template where things you usually let in that are not good for you become unacceptable. You learn how to REALLY take care of yourself by nourishing yourself with positive inputs from all angles.

Finally, without question, I feel empowered. I suddenly find myself easily taking actions that better all areas of my life. I do not reach for empty things that do not give back in a positive way. I feel stronger emotionally. Removing sugar (and consequently most processed foods) as a major source of energy requires replacing these items with real food that has real benefits to the body.

The result? Feeling more full, more fulfilled, and more in control.

I don’t recall getting benefits quite that lofty from a mock-o-late bar in the past. Maybe it isn’t about what I’ve been giving up at all.

And simply about what there is to be gained.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Gift of a Broken Toe

Last month I managed to fit in a different run/hike every week through hilly and mountainous terrain (usually climbing as much as 1000m) over a 13 to 15km distance. That’s a lot of boring numbers, I know. But man, oh, man was I proud of myself! It took me at least 2 hours for each stretch up and down across the hilly trails.

Trail running is my absolute favourite. Sometimes I feel as though I could go forever. Yet as I’m getting older it does cross my mind that one day I might not be able to anymore. But while I can, I will. Because the happiness it brings breezing alongside the trees, rocks, the deer, the tiny plants pushing out from the leaves while the sun pushes through the canopy, periodically shining on my face. It can’t be beat.

Last week I dropped a Thomas the Train flashlight from neck height straight onto my foot (it fell out of an armful of toys I was cleaning up, the flashlight literally tucked under my chin). Hours later my son dropped a metal truck on the other foot. Somewhere in there my 80 pound dog jumped up to lick my face and landed funny on my toe. Then I went to play a tough game of squash which involves forcefully lunging oneself across a court for 40 minutes.

The result? One very sore foot. I wasn’t quite sure which event caused what or what had happened to my toe. I also had a plan to do a hike with a friend I was really looking forward to. So on I pushed. Many kilometers later I began to limp a bit and then finally a lot through the final few kilometers. Not smart? You bet. Would I do it again? Um, probably.

You see that month was coming close to being the best shape I’ve been in since I had my babies. All of my life I have been able to integrate fitness into my day out of the sheer enjoyment of it. Somehow farming, and then babies managed to take priority over something that made me who I was. Built me and held me together, in fact. How I could have lost sight of this in those years, I’ll never know.

One thing I’ve never been able to do is limit the amount of food I ate. My general method of staying lean was to eat a mountain of food and burn it off in the mountains. All fine and good until I ran out of time, will and creativity for getting myself in motion once children were in the picture.

Ironically, before I even realized the extent to which I had damaged my poor wee toe, I had committed to go without sugar in my diet for 5 weeks. That included anything that contained sugar and anything that metabolically resembled sugar (eg. white bread, white pasta etc.) 8 days in and I am AMAZED that I have made it this far.

Oh, I’ve had a few moments of weakness. Moments where the deprivation was heading towards an all out landslide in a way that a small bowl of real ice cream was willing to act as the finger in the dam. Mother’s Day brunch with the family likely won’t look very clean but I’ve decided to fare it without deserts, added syrups or jams and cope with the odd pancake that can’t possibly take my resolve away for the future. When I began this I knew I had to be realistic about living my life alongside the commitment.

So here is the thing. Right when I changed my diet in a restricted way for the first time in, well, a century it seems, I have been unable to exercise. Not in the way that I was exercising.

And as these things go, a light has come on. I have done some modified yoga for the first time in months. I have done more stretching, more holding, more careful bending, some lifting, but in all ways move slowly, more intentionally, always quietly. I found my 5:30am time slot again.

It has become clear to me that I had fallen into a pattern of feeding two addictions. One was sugar. And one was long trail runs. Nothing wrong with long trail runs. But the manner in which I was approaching them was getting obsessive. I was pushing through pain. I wasn't listening to my body anymore.

And now I spend my evenings with Arnica, foots stools and ice. I have worn nothing but flipflops as I have had to tape my fractured toe to its neighbour, having it act as a splint. At one point I had a band of duct tape wrapped around my whole foot to take the pressure off my little toe. It worked but it didn’t look pretty.

A week later my foot is feeling a lot better. And one week without sugar and I feel as though I have far more power than any distance or mountain could provide me. I’m certain my health is better – I feel lighter and less as though I’m on a mood roller coaster.

The greatest feeling is knowing that I can trust myself. That I am making the effort to take care of myself. Knowing that I can commit to something and see it through. There is nothing more debilitating than letting yourself down after making a commitment. There is nothing more empowering than following through on what you say you’re going to do.

The broken toe has given me kindness again. The ability to give my body what it needs. The opportunity to recognize the strength in stillness. In knowing when to take a break, slow down, do things differently as needed.

I do miss my trails. I have plans to do a certain trail end to end in the fall. We’ll see where my toe takes me. It will have to be about the journey this time and not the destination.

But for now, I feel as though I’ve climbed the biggest mountain of my life. I’ve kicked that sugar thing off the edge of my world. 4 more weeks. A nice round number. Care to join in?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fencing Out Beauty

The Fence
The last decade of my life I have prioritized things with form: development, growth, structure, stability: with our family, our animals, our homestead, our farm business, our careers. It has taken far too long to notice what has been missing in this time.

Beauty. The beauty hasn’t been missing - just my ability to notice it.

How easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind of feeding, cleaning, building and beginning. Somewhere in there I lost the ability to appreciate the beauty in my life. The beauty we can see, but also what we feel, hear, smell or taste.

What drew us to settle in the place we now live was the view one could see from the little log cabin perched on a hill. Framing the gently sloped valley of arable land was a hillside splashed with autumn colours, a golden September sky and a rainbow arching across the horizon. A friendly black dog that we would soon call our own wiggled and nudged against me while I took in the scene. I had found my heaven. As it turned out, it was our heaven.

We later hiked this mountain – our mountain – to discover rocky outcrops and small caves, mosses, fungi

Shelf Fungi
Lichens blanketing the trees, the rocks, the fallen logs, a stream, a very old beaver pond.
My Favourite Place on the Farm
We found out that we could see the Ottawa river from the height of the land.

How blessed were we to be able to call this home? How exciting it all was to have the ability to make life here. Plant and animal, furry, feathered, fronded and podded…and then human. The place was a Mecca for creation.

Plows upturned dirt, nails were hammered, boards were cut, chicks were hatched, foals were born, pastures were fenced, seeds were planted, weeds were pulled, fruits were harvested, straw was forked, manure was piled, children were born, fences were made, puppies were acquired, more fences were made.

Soon life became a series of fences and jobs.

Last week we took down a welded wire fence that surrounded our house. A fence that had kept our children safe from the road, and eventually our dogs as well. These dogs would go on to use the yard for their waste, chew and kill the apple tree we planted on our wedding day, dig up the hollyhocks, trample the lupines, break off the lilac branches, prematurely prune the raspberry canes and dig massive holes throughout the lawn. Soon we found ourselves avoiding the space around our house as it was no longer a pleasant place to be.

The Easter Egg Hunt

The children were too little to unlatch the gates themselves, nor were they allowed, as an open gate would have sent the dogs running off down the road. The kids were trapped inside the yard. Or worse yet, trapped outside of it unable to come back in. I began to feel trapped as well. Our children have finally reached an age where they understand where they are not to go.

Down came the fence. The grass has now been mowed where the fence had once been. The vast expanse of our lawn has now reappeared. Paths to the barn, the greenhouse, the field, the play structures are all easy and direct. The dogs now have their own fenced yard at a rarely used area in the back of the house.

A Dog's Yard

The children run freely in the new expanded space.

Something has shifted. Suddenly I can see the sun going down again with all of the hues of purple, pink, red and orange. I see the green all around promising new growth. The trees are one year older. I can visit my Jersey girl who is about to give birth any day now. The flowers are starting to grow, unthreatened by dogs.

I no longer see all of the work that has to be done when I walk out my door and shimmy awkwardly through that gate, keeping dogs in, letting children out, carrying buckets or wagons or wheelbarrows through. I no longer focus on the piles of barn boards rotting alongside the greenhouse. I do not see the cow fence alongside the road that is in desperate need of repair.

I see the space where my hollyhocks once grew and cherish the opportunity to plant the seeds again. I see a new apple tree, a pear tree and a plum as well that have taken the place of the wedding tree. We have a bench that I can place somewhere that will hopefully look out at the rainbow when it appears over the mountain one day soon.

I do love those dogs that have replaced the one we bought that day (who I always said came with a farm). I take my badly behaved black bundles of fur up to the gravesite where the original canine owner is now buried. I tell them about her. There also lies a horse there that we lost far earlier than we should have. Another dog. A cat or two. Sadness there, but still beauty in all that they brought to our lives when they were here.

Spring does this, I know. It brings new life. A better view. But something more has happened this spring. Our world has reopened. I suppose the children have grown and can now be trusted to wander with far less supervision. Taking down the fence that divided our yard and our farm has symbolized something for me. The beginning of a new era.

We will never stop building and growing things around here. But perhaps just now, just there now, I’ve reached a pinnacle where I can finally look out on all that we have earned in this space and take a seat on my bench and appreciate it. We worked hard to get here. The job isn’t anywhere near over. But it is time to take a moment, or many, to appreciate what we have.

We have committed to a year of tying up loose ends instead of taking on large, new projects – like barns, like babies, like businesses. Slowly we are reclaiming the rooms, the fields, the places that have gotten away on us. One space at a time we are taking them back from the fray.

Our lives are often surrounded by fences that we build ourselves. Fences that confine us in areas that don’t allow us to wander and expand anymore. Fences that keep us from seeing the leaves changing colour or feeling the breeze or watching the growing flowers. Fences that hold our children out, or keep us from walking freely to the places that we love.

Somewhere along the way I fenced myself away from the beauty of where we live. I lost sight of it. Right in the middle of it, I couldn’t see anymore.

And then I took down a fence. It seems to me now that it is every bit as beautiful here as the first time I laid eyes on the place. But someone must have come along in the meantime and made some changes around here. I think that someone was us.

I can’t say I was present for it every moment along the way. But I can tell you, I do see it now. I am going to make sure I set up a seat to get a better view. Because I plan on gawking a whole lot more in the future.

The Free and Clear

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Breaking Up with Sugar

Everyone knows you can’t control who you fall in love with. All you can do is hope that the stars align and you end up with someone fantastic and inspiring who is good for you and treats you with respect and lets you grow in all the right ways. I have been blessed with a life partner who gives me plenty of room to grow and encourages me to be the best I can be. And he isn’t hard on me when I grow too much, width-wise I mean. Thank goodness. I have known the other kind who criticize and suggest and attempt to control every morsel eaten and the length and intensity of activities taken.

But here I want to talk about a different kind of love affair. The kind I have with the food I eat. This is not love. Let us be clear what it really is. An addiction. One where I seek validation from the outside, I go running back to the familiar, uncomfortable feelings in hopes that they will change. This time, maybe, it will be different. But it never is. I eat too much sugar, I feel grumpy, tired and bloated. I feed a craving and the blood sugar roller coaster begins, the cycle of abuse goes around again. I partake as though I am a fugitive, secretly hoarding the forbidden fruit. More accurately, I do it all mindlessly, continuously, openly.

I was so incredibly thrilled this morning to hear from a friend who is doing a Candida cleanse for a month (no dairy, no sugars or refined grains, no caffeine, no starchy veg). I have known many who have done cleanses. The Master Cleanse (syrup, lemon, cayenne and water..?), the vegan route, nothing but organic, or cutting out dairy, or sugar or wheat, nothing but juiced veggies.

A good cleanse in my mind pushes you towards nutritionally dense foods and away from those that are harmful or difficult to digest in some way or another. This is not rocket science. Yet we receive so many conflicting messages about what healthy really means. What I love best about my friend’s story so far is that after nearly two weeks she FEELs better. She has more energy, needs less sleep, still takes her body on long runs.

I have been blown away by her diligence and determination. I think because this particular friend is in my camp. She gets the value of home grown, home-made food. But like me, she takes advantage of the convenience of processed stuff once in a while. Limiting sugar and dairy would be especially tricky for me. There are days I give myself nothing but kale and beans and homemade condiments and grass-fed beef, and raw, unhomogenized dairy, and spinach and whole, healthy grains and omega-rich fats and perfect proteins. And other days…well…maybe all of that plus three Cadbury Easter cream eggs.

Don’t wince. It is true that I am an organic farmer who values nutrition and unprocessed food and food grown without chemicals and fresh, clean air and all of that. But I have a vice and this is it. Some days the vice visits and stays unwelcome for days and days. Other days it stays away for weeks at a time. I don’t drink alcohol very often. I don’t smoke. I exercise intensely at least 3-4 hours a week. I get my sleep. I take time to breathe. And every now and again, I eat a mountain of sugar that would make your head spin.

When I was younger I could get away with just about anything and still manage to walk around looking like a beanpole. As the decades pass, I find more and more that my secret behaviour (not really so much secret anymore is it?) is starting to show. Not just on my waist but in my moods, my skin, my energy levels, my ability to sleep or cope. And it takes a lot more work to keep the extra pounds at bay.

Now I don’t think this is the worst addiction in the world. You could argue that the only person I’m hurting is myself (if you keep the health care argument out of it and perhaps longevity and quality of life as it relates to time with my children). I’ve also met folks so addicted to their exercise regimes or their diet plans that they are downright nasty to other people who don’t do what they do or get in the way of their obsessions. I’ve been there too. Addicted to movement. Compulsive about nutrition.

Now it is absolutely essential to me that any changes I make are done with kindness. Kindness to others, to myself, and to the planet. I want to approach my health with love and not criticism. With acceptance, not rejection. Because fundamentally it is way too much of a paradox to reject your own body. You can’t hate it. You can try. And I bet at times you do try. But at the end of the day exactly who is hating whom???

So I’m breaking up with refined sugars. I no longer wish to lean on something that gives me so little in return. This particular love of my life is abusive. It acts as though it is a saviour, the knight in shining armour, the healing potion, the quick fix to any problem. In the end it leaves me stranded and needing more of the same. Selling off my valuables to find money to get more. Seeking it out in the dark of night. It brings me bad days - it does not take them away.

No more corn syrups, sugary beverages, cakes, pies, pastries, squares, cookies, chocolate bars, Easter cream eggs, candies, sugary condiments, wines, beer, fruit juices… Maybe I’ll be brave enough to cut back on white flours. I don’t care for refined flour but I like to mix it in with the grainier, nuttier flours to get a lighter texture and consistency. White pasta, white rice, white bread, white tortillas… Am I ready to go the whole mile?

While I’m at it I should probably drop dairy too. But lets be honest. I don’t want to take the whole tower down at one time. Lets do this one addiction at a time.

Lover, you aren’t good for me anymore. I’m not sure you ever have been. If you love me, please let me go. Can one get a restraining order on a food? Oh, is that simply called restraint? I shall give that a go.

Care to join me? 5 weeks. Starting now. See you on the other side.