Dr. Madalyn Otto
The sun is out longer, the birds have resumed their chorus and the temperature outside is ticking up. We are all in excitement-mode as we make plans for all the wonderful ways we will enjoy the spring and summer. I love this time of year for all of the reasons above. One of the ways that I encourage everyone to infuse health into his or her life this spring and summer is to be conscious of how you choose to celebrate and socialize. Specifically, I recommend diversifying your fun and social activities away from centering around the act of eating.
Over the ages, sharing meals/food together has been a staple of human culture and connection. And for good reason. Food has historically been hard to come by and required a lot of time and labor to collect and prepare. Ancient humans have long acclimated to periods of famine as well as periods of relative feasting without the technology to save the surplus of food for later use. This resulted in a culture of sharing food with others lacking when you had enough, expecting that the act would be reciprocated when roles were reversed. It also meant sharing and feasting with neighbors during times of abundance so as not to let food go to waste. As civilizations have progressed through time, much of the sense of community around food and mealtimes has continued, and that is a lovely thing. However, as our human circumstances in modern times have evolved, so must our ways of connecting to each other to preserve our health and quality of life. We now live in a world of easy access to too much food (much of which is processed) and we live overwhelmingly sedentary lives. Even modern Americans who dedicate 30-60 minutes per day to deliberate exercise are technically nowhere near as active as our ancestors. Furthermore, we tend to spend too much time thinking about food despite these modern changes to food access. The result is a lop-sided use of our recreational time, over-consumption of food (and food-like substances) and poor quality of health as we age.
I provide this brief historical context because I think it’s important in inspiring us to pursue habit change. But making the choice to spend quality time with others and enjoying the warm seasons through activities that don’t involve eating isn’t all about avoiding disease. It’s also about the joys that come with exercising your body and your brain. We experience immense benefits from intellectual stimulation, from learning new things and from physical exercise – from the endorphin rush (happy hormones) and nootropic (blood flow to the brain) effects of exercise, to the reduced stress, increased sense of strength, resilience, purpose and meaning we get from volunteering, learning a new skill or being in nature. My prompt for every one of our patients at Whole Health Concord is to consider ways to enjoy the spring and summer this year in ways that capitalize on these benefits and re-balance the way we spend our recreational time.
Instead of reaching out to a friend to meet for lunch, dinner or drinks, consider meeting for a walk in the woods instead. Instead of taking a day-trip to an event where the focus is on the food trucks or snack fare on-offer, take a day trip to a view of the mountains, a waterfall, the beach. Instead of sitting at a picnic table to eat once you get there, bring a frisbee to toss, a bathing suit for swimming, a shovel to make a sand castle. Let those be the main activities. Attend a museum or art gallery exhibit with a friend and instead of meeting for a meal after, consider instead sitting down for a cup of tea and share your opinions about what you saw. Take a painting class, or join a walking/hiking club. Peruse a small town’s eclectic boutiques and antique shops with a friend, enjoy outdoor music equipped with a ball, frisbee or other game to play whilst you listen. Take a dance class, volunteer for a local organization, spend a morning hitting that weekend’s garage sales in the neighborhood and see what buried treasures you can find.
But won’t there be food and alcohol available at these activities? Don’t you need something else to do when you’re there, so might as well eat? Don’t we have to eat at some point anyway? Often, not really, and certainly. It’s true that if you go to a gallery exhibit, there may be alcohol and/or appetizers provided. If you’re attending an outdoor concert, picnicking is considered the norm. And if you’re going to an event for eight hours, you likely will need to eat at some point. All of these things are true. My point is not about not eating at all, rather it’s to let the focus be on engaging in non-eating activities for their own sake rather than focusing on what’s going to be served. Often we make plans like “let’s bring a picnic to the baseball game” or “let’s go to the fair, because they’ve got great fried dough and corndogs”, “let’s meet for dinner and then go for drinks after” or “let’s go to the beach; I’ll bring snacks”. The focus becomes on food, and there’s less engagement on the underlying activity and even less about other things you can be sharing and experiencing while you’re there other than the food you brought to share. If you go to an outdoor concert and bring a pack of cards with you to play during the show, your shared experience becomes about those two things. Food becomes an afterthought. If you know you are easily tempted to overeat or eat un-healthfully at places where such things are available, consider leaving your money and credit cards at home. I always carry an emergency 20$ on me that is probably the same 20$ bill I’ve carried the past two years “just in case” I run out of gas or am out longer than I expected. I recommend that everyone bring home-prepared food with you to any event or day trip so that you have an obvious alternative to unhealthy food options for-purchase. But limiting the money with which you can make purchases (obviously tailor the amount to your situation) is my recommendation for anyone who struggles to make reasonable choices when out and about.
All patients at Whole Health know we also love to provide healthy recipes to eat and share with others, and I very much hope that you will make those to bring to the graduation party or backyard BBQ along with the frisbee, corn hole set, dodgeball. And when you go to the concert and sit on the picnic blanket playing the card game, I hope you have a backpack with water, apples, hummus and carrots because at some point you will get hungry and need wholesome food to fuel your body in order to continue the experience. See what I mean? The emphasis has shifted. We are now eating nutritious food for fuel to allow us to spend time being active with friends and family, sharing quality time with them, and learning new skills. Our lives become less lop-sided, and more about true quality of life which is about doing and not just about eating.
What are three activities you were thinking about doing this spring and summer that could be modified to incorporate more physical activity and mental stimulation and become less about food? What are three activities you weren’t thinking about doing that might be fun to try? I hope you all enjoy a fantastic spring and summer filled with new sights, epiphanies and creative ideas.