Learning to dance

I don’t dance. I am trying to remember when I last danced. I guess it might the time I drank a couple of strong aguardientes in Colombia and danced for a few minutes at Andres Carne de Res with a couple colleagues. Now that I have given up alcohol, I can’t see myself repeating that. I needed to be a bit sauced for it. I danced a bit in high school, to those stupid pop songs where people just move around to the music. I guess that really cannot be called dancing. I certainly never thought of myself as good as it. And I was way too self-conscious about my body to do more of it.

Latin danceHow’s that for defying a Latina stereotype?

I have rhythm, so that’s not the problem. When I was a little girl my Dad would put earphones on my head and I would start swaying my head. He thought it was adorable. My family is very musical, as I discovered when I went back to Mexico 3.5 years ago to visit.

I played the flute in middle and high school, and the saxophone in high school. I was also in the choir for all of high school. I know music, and I certainly love music. But I don’t dance.

One of my favorite songs by Lady Gaga is the tune Just Dance. Ironic, no? I am a runner, and it is part of my running mix. When I hear it, I think of my run as a “dance” – just move, just keep going, even though things are hard (or so my interpretation goes…).

My favorite yoga teacher also teaches a Zumba dance class. She is a former professional dancer, and she is always so graceful in the way she moves. I keep wishing I were brave enough to go to her Zumba class. But I am not there yet.

Half fanaticsMy husband and I have this aspect of our lives in common. We met while we were pursuing relatively crazy running goals nearly 8 years ago. He was trying to become a “marathon maniac” and that year (2010) I became a “half fanatic.” To become a maniac, you need to run 2 marathons within 16 days or 3 marathons within 90 days. The fanatics had similar qualifiers.

I have always been more comfortable with numbers and measurable goals rather than artistic pursuits. It is why I went into the sciences rather than the humanities, perhaps.

U2
Taken at U2 concert – September 2017

Lately I have been noticing a desire to learn to dance. It is just the hint of a desire, not a compelling desire. My husband likes to tease me about my lack of dancing ability, my “white girl dance”, even though he is as self-conscious about dancing as I am. He took me to a U-2 concert last September and I moved to the music, but I wouldn’t call it dancing.

About 5 years ago, one of the team-building events my team did together was in Argentina. They took a tango lesson together, but I managed to get out of it. That was before I was the leader of the group, so I did not choose the activity. I was pretty determined not to humiliate myself in front of my colleagues.

I realize that my mental dialogue about dance is very much a product of my own insecurities. It is about how I silly I feel moving my hips in a way that probably is not “loose” and comfortable, like so many women. It is about how I think people expect me to be, as a Latina. Surely I cannot be a “beginner” at age 43?!?

yoga dancer
Photo credit link

Why is it that the beginner’s mindset in yoga or meditation is so much easier for me? I guess because others do not judge my meditation or yoga. I think my desire to dance is related to a desire for freedom. It is about not caring what other people think, and I want to get there someday. I realize I still harbor body shame, after many years of trying to lose weight, and not being okay with my body size or shape.

Dance is play. To dance is to be vulnerable. To dance is to use our bodies to express something that cannot be said in words. This is what dance represents to me. I am not sure yet when or how I will explore this desire. But in 2018, I will learn to dance.

 

 

 

 

 

Fat rocks! Yes, more butter please

Really, it does! One of the most important discoveries I have made in the past 14 months that has led to a sustained 18 pound weight loss is that eating more healthy fats in my diet keeps me feeling more energetic, more calm, less distracted and less anxious. I grew up drinking skim milk and clinging to a low-fat diet notion that was in vogue at the time, based on dietary guidelines set in 1970’s that were based on an untested ideas devoid of scientific research. I thought it was really fascinating to read about the evolution of this understanding in Dr. Jason Fung’s book The Obesity Code, a well-researched look at how obesity is driven by our hormones, not by how many calories we eat.

The low-fat, low-calorie diet has already been proven to fail. This is the cruel hoax. Eating less does not result in lasting weight loss. It. Just. Does. Not. Work.

Dr. Fung takes apart the studies that have been completed on obesity, most of them focusing on time frames of less and a year. But obesity typically develops over decades, not in one year. He provides a compelling case for the hormonal obesity theory. Basically, obesity is not caused by an excess of calories, but instead by a body set weight that is too high because of a hormonal imbalance within the body. He goes into great depth about how insulin, cortison, leptin and ghrelin are the major chemical messengers that help determine how our body fat is kept regulated by the body. Please consult his book if this interests you; the science behind this is fascinating and he writes at a level that you do not have to be a clinical researcher to understand.

Insulin is a storage hormone. When we eat, the body releases insulin to store excess glucose from the blood stream into the liver as glycogen, where it can easily be accessed for energy. When there is no intake of food, insulin levels fall and the burning of sugar and fat is turned on. It is quite an elegant “homeostatic” mechanism that keeps our body in balance, and our weight stable. Most people’s weight remains relatively stable, and even people who gain weight tend to do so gradually over time, 1-2 pounds per year.

However, our diets, which have moved away from healthy naturally-occurring fats, toward highly refined carbohydrates (sugar and flour) tend to raise insulin levels to an artificially high level. This results in greater fat storage and a long-term propensity for weight gain. Combine this with the stress hormone cortisol, which also raises insulin levels, we begin to see how these factors contribute to a condition known as insulin resistance. There are some disturbing findings reported about how treatments for diabetes type 2 usually require insulin, and how, even though the blood sugars are better, after standard medical treatment the diabetes actually gets worse. I urge you to read The Obesity Code if you struggle with obesity or type 2 diabetes. I am not a health expert, but I found the research to be helpful in understanding nutritional and lifestyle interventions that lead to reversals in insulin resistance and sustainable weight loss.

For this post I will focus on the recommendation to increase consumption of natural and unprocessed fats in our diet. These include olive oil, butter, coconut oil, beef tallow and avocado. Nuts are also a healthy option, and full-fat dairy can be enjoyed without guilt. We must be careful to avoid inflammatory fats (aka “trans” fats) that are processed such as vegetable, canola, peanut oils, or margarine which are high in omega-6 fatty acids and may have detrimental health effects. Basically, we need to eat “real food” that is minimally processed and balanced in terms of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. It is actually simpler than it seems. If we shop mostly on the outside perimeter of grocery stores, typically we can find those vegetables, meats, full-fat dairy products, eggs and other fresh, healthy options.

butter

I realize some readers may be vegetarian, and while I tried to become vegetarian multiple times in my life, I now believe my tendency toward a.d.d. and anxiety probably do not lend themselves to a vegetarian diet in the long term. One positive side effect I have noticed from eating fat more freely is a sense of calm, satiety, focus on a more regular basis. This contrasts with my struggle with moods starting in my teens, and a cycle of being down, anxious, and more emotionally volatile when I was eating more sugar and flour in my diet. Sadly, so many people struggle with mood issues such as depression or anxiety, and healthy fats may be a key to helping our brains regulate and manufacture healthy neurotransmitters.

One helpful resource if you want to learn more is Nutritional Weight and Wellness and their podcast, Dishing Up Nutrition. As registered dietitians and licensed nutritionists, this team stays very up-to-date on the latest research about dietary interventions to help a variety of conditions. They explain in easy terms how to improve your overall health through dietary interventions. While you may also work with your primary care provider, please know that doctors do not receive much training in nutrition in medical school. Unfortunately, so many of the proactive things we can do to help our overall wellness are not a focus of the medical profession, and they often treat the effects rather than the cause of illnesses.

I work with outstanding nurse practitioner, who is open to supporting my personal experiments with nutrition, especially when based on sound research. She ordered blood tests every 6 months as I was making these adjustments and we both found that, contrary to popular belief, my high-fat diet did not lead to higher cholesterol. Actually my blood pressure was lower, my weight was down, triglycerides were normal and other numbers in the normal range.

Obviously, you need to find what works for you, not take my experience as gospel. Please work with professionals who have the experience and expertise to help you optimize your own health and wellness. For example, if you have nutritional deficiencies such as low Vitamin D (which almost all of us in Minnesota experience in fall/winter) or magnesium deficiency, there may be factors that would benefit from more personalized consultation. Also, getting pro-biotic supplement may help fight sugar cravings and balance your gut, making it easier to switch your diet to more healthy options.

Being willing to experiment with foods you once thought were forbidden, and realizing that you are actually allowed to enjoy food is a beautiful discovery.  Full-fat dairy added to my coffee in the morning is delicious! Knowing I can put half an avocado in salad, add butter to my vegetables, and be liberal with the olive oil has made all of my meals taste better and led to more satisfaction. I no longer have gnawing hunger between meals, and thus I do not have a tendency to overindulge on junk food or to snack. My sleep quality and quantity has improved as well.

Fat is a beautiful thing. I say that as I happily note the spare tire around my middle has been steadily shrinking and my body fat has been reduced. Since my body is no longer “starved” for this important nutrient, I do not hang onto extra fat, and my brain is so much happier and less anxious. Granted, the meditation, yoga and running do also help. But nutrition cannot be underestimated when it comes to keeping our overall moods balanced and our energy high. It has been life-changing for me to realize this, and I am a big proponent of doing a few experiments and mindfully noting how you feel when you make these changes.

Since everyone’s body is different (some people with a dairy sensitivity for example, should not opt for cream in their coffee), please be mindful and intentional with your personal experiments. Seek help for the any major health issues and have confidence that your body, when regulated normally, has wisdom within it. It will give you signals to help know what is nourishing and what is toxic. That said: enjoy the journey!

 

Weight and body awareness as a path to inner wisdom (part 1)

My journey:

I have had an ongoing struggle with weight and weight loss since about age 11. When I look back on that time, I realize that it was not because I was overweight then. Rather, it was I was entering a time when my body was changing. I gained some weight and the awkwardness of adolescence made me feel uncomfortable, uncoordinated and out-of-control. By that point, I was a bit taller than most of my peers, and beginning to put on some weight,  as preteens do.  I was not sure how to handle the confusing feelings of being aware of boys while at the same time feeling “too big” and like there was too much of me.

Body awareness image

It was the 80’s and the height of the fitness and aerobics craze. It was the “me generation” and a time when Reagan was President, and image became key for our identities. Greed was considered good, and materialism was rewarded. Weight watchers had been founded in 1963 and was catching on, Jane Fonda released her first exercise video in 1982. In 1988 Oprah Winfrey walked onto the stage with 67 pounds of fat in a wagon to illustrate the weight she had lost on a liquid diet.

On a cultural level, women were told that the right way to BE in the world was to be thin. All the women in my family dieted together. Grandma, Mom, my Auntie and just about all the women I knew were always on some type of diet or another. Looking back, I realize I was not only responding to the messages around me, but I was just trying to fit in. Even my Dad had a regular exercise regimen, which I believe was partly stress-relief and partly body consciousness from the opposite framework. He had always been skinny in his youth, and he wanted to be stronger and more muscular.

So I dieted and I exercised. Looking back on it, I am glad that I saw exercise as important, and cultivated it as a habit. Today it remains a very important part of my mental health and stress-relief to run, do yoga, walk, or move in some way to calm my anxiety at times. But if I had to give advice to my young self it would be: accept yourself, and do not worry about what all others are doing. Stop dieting, stop trying to use food to control your anxiety about yourself, and exercise as a punishment for your “bad” overeating behavior.

Avoiding feelings and desires

I realize today that my emotional overeating came from that early attempt to restrict my food, to diet and to reign in those “bad” behaviors that I seemed so prone to repeat. Control of food became a way to deal with the anxiety that I had started to feel that I was “not enough” or “not right” or not the way I was supposed to me. I know that many girls and women can relate to this, and a lot of research shows that girls suffer from a large self-esteem gap during adolescence in comparison with boys.

The cultural messages we receive through movies and other media is that we are supposed to be beautiful and contained, princesses to be rescued by the prince. Also, in families we often we receive the message that we should be helpful and serve others. We do not receive a lot of guidance on how to pay attention to our needs, and to honor our bodies, or even how to embrace our feelings. Our mothers were often taught that their role in the family is to serve, not necessarily to honor their needs and desires. So many of us wanted to be “good girls” and to do the right things, and we were rewarded for this. I know I am not the first woman to confess to this time as being the origin of perfectionism.

Depression, perfectionism and insecurity

In college I struggled with some binge eating (though I was not into the purging part, which would have made that bulimia) when I would face periods of intense insecurity about my ability to succeed at a very challenging college, surrounded my peers who were very smart. In high school where I graduated salutatorian of my class, I had always known I was a “smart girl” and it had become part of my identity. I was rewarded for being “in my head” and not necessarily paying attention to my body.

When I went to college, my identity was no longer as the smart girl, while surrounded by so many talented people, so I felt a bit lost. Senior year, I went through depression as I struggled to figure out who I was, and what I wanted. I had a scary period of time in which I felt like there was a “fog” in my brain, and a Dean that I consulted to figure out what was wrong told me, “it’s not as if you’ve been struck stupid!” Actually, that’s exactly what it felt like, my cognition was disrupted and I literally was not able to think or use my brain the way I always had. Fortunately I had studied enough psychology to realize I needed help, and I found a kind an wonderful counselor, who helped me navigate this intense period of growth and change in my life.

In my early 20’s after college and after years of yo-yo weight struggles, I gave up on dieting, and focused instead on running, biking and trying to do things that made me feel good generally. I had moved to California after 4 years of living in Pennsylvania and graduating from Swarthmore College, and I was done (for a while) with trying to achieve academic success trying to earn high grades. One thing I realized was that my body seemed to be a barometer for how my life was going. When I relaxed and enjoyed my life, my weight and body seemed to normalize. I was never “skinny” but I did not struggle with my weight very much for a period of years.

Running to manage anxiety

From about 2007, when I joined my current company, I started running more regularly and doing yoga, which was offered on lunch hours at the onsite gym. I had been running off and on since I was 15 or so when I entered my first 5k. Running was a way to control my weight, but also manage feelings of anxiety and restless (and manage A.D.D. which I did not realize I suffered from until 2006 while trying to finish a master’s thesis, which is a story for another day). Off and one I had suffered injuries whenever I increased my running mileage too much, and it was not until I discovered yoga and figured out how to balance out both sides of my body, that I really was able to run longer distances than 10k without getting injured.

Coming home to the body – yoga and meditation

Yoga helped me become more balanced on both sides of the body and to become more aware. Practicing it 1-2 times a week helped me become more aware of my core and more balanced in my fitness, which is more difficult with running, since it is more about the lower half of the body.

About a year ago I realized that I was putting on some weight that was not coming off. Typically my weight tended to fluctuate 6-8 pounds up or down in a given year, depending on whether it was outdoor running season or winter, when I typically get less activity because I prefer to run outside, though I was using treadmills somewhat, because a sedentary lifestyle has never allowed me to manage my brain chemicals.

The weight struggle was starting to rear its ugly head again as I was promoted to a managerial role at work, and I was expected to show up in meetings, and be responsible for clinical operations for Latin America. I had wanted this role, and campaigned for it, and the new responsibilities and leadership really forced me to confront some personal challenges, and grow personally in my understanding of myself.

Compassion for myself, my body

I realized that I had begun using food and alcohol to avoid uncomfortable feelings, and that I had lost touch with my body. I had used running as a coping mechanism for my chronic anxiety but the problem was that I was not aware of what was causing that anxiety. I had blamed my circumstances: a micro-managing boss, a workplace with a workaholic culture, my own lack of focus and self-control.

While all of those may have contributed, I had not realized that my own thoughts were the cause of much of my bad feelings. When I began meditating and becoming aware of my “thought stream” I realized that that was a lot of negativity and self-blame occurring just below the level of my consciousness.

When I began to understand that I had been using food to calm my discomfort, and to push away those negative feelings, I realized I had a lot of work to do. But fortunately, the mindfulness practices, yoga and meditation were all beginning to start to integrate for me. With the help of a therapist who was kindly working with me on various relationship issues, and the practice of yoga with a favorite teacher Ruth Silva, and my growing regular practice of meditation, I began to gradually realize some changes I wanted to make in my daily practices. Geneen Roth’s book Women Food and God (I have the audio version), and also the podcast The Lifecoach School with Brooke Castillo.

This post is already becoming a bit longer than intended, so there will be a part 2 (and maybe even a part 3) for this exploration where I continue to tell my story and distill down some of the lessons I have learned on body awareness and compassion. Stay tuned for that on Thursday as I realize I need to wrap up and head to my “day job” now. Cheers! 🙂