The Casual Blog

Category: diet

Vegetarian delights, and trying intermittent fasting

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Downtown Raleigh is getting downright vegetarian friendly! I had my first lunch this week at the latest new place catering to those who prefer plant food, Living Kitchen. It’s an entirely organic, entirely plant-based restaurant, and I liked everything about it. It’s airy and lively, with smart, friendly servers, and quite a fine veggie burger. There were many things on the menu I wanted to try, and I’ll definitely going back.

Within just a three or so blocks of my office, along with Living Kitchen, there is interesting and tasty plant-based food at Happy and Hale, B-Good, Buku, Shish Kabob, and Capital Club 16, and excellent juices at Cold Off the Press. A little further is Fiction Kitchen, with a highly creative all veggie menu. I could easily eat too much!
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Indeed, I have. I weigh in every morning on a digital scale, and in recent months have been about five pounds heavier than what I really wanted to be. Maybe my metabolism slowed down a bit.

Anyway, for the usual reasons (health, vanity), I’ve been trying to get rid of the excess, and it hasn’t been easy. I tried upping my daily aerobic activity from 40 to 45 hard minutes, and that didn’t make much of a dent. I looked for potential food intake problems that could be improved, and found few. I’d already cut way down on junk food, sweets, fat, and carbs. I’m used to eating smaller-than-typical portions. It wasn’t obvious what more could be done without leaving civilization and becoming a desert ascetic.

I finally decided to try intermittent fasting. I did some research on various systems for skipping certain meals. The version I settled on was no eating between lunch and breakfast two times a week. It made me a bit grouchy at first, but it got easier. The other significant shift was to cut out alcohol during the work week. Here again, it was a little grim at first, since I very much enjoy some wine with dinner, but the first week was the hardest. This week I finally made it to my weight target.
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Honoring our immigrants, meatlessness and health, and spring redbuds

Charter Square, Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, NC  March 26, 2015

Charter Square, Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, NC March 26, 2015

This week we had a tragic construction accident in Raleigh at Charter Square, a glass-sheathed office building going up a block from where I work. A motorized scaffold collapsed and three workers were killed. The names of the workers were Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41; Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33; and Anderson Almeida, 33. Also seriously injured was Elmer Guevara, 53. My heart goes out to their families.

As you may have noted, the workers’ names look to be Hispanic. This comes as no huge surprise. Observing the active construction sites around Raleigh, I’ve seen that a lot of the workers are of Hispanic origin.

In recognition of this tragedy, I thought it would be good to observe a moment of silence and gratitude for the recent immigrants who are doing the hard and dangerous work of building our buildings, not to mention harvesting, cooking, and serving our food, cleaning our houses, repairing our clothes, and otherwise taking care of our basic needs.

It would be good if we could somehow repay them. But first, we really need to stop demonizing them. It is so peculiar that there’s a mainstream political movement in the U.S. devoted in part to hating the immigrants who are doing the tough jobs. As with the war on terror, it’s another case of our fear getting hysterically out of control, and causing us self-inflicted wounds.

Meat risks. We probably make fewer mistakes in the opposite direction – systematically underestimating risks – but it does happen. I’m thinking particularly of eating meat, which most of us have a hard time recognizing as hazardous.

There’s no shortage of information on this issue, but I was reminded this week by a piece in the NY Times that it still isn’t common knowledge. Dr. Dean Ornish wrote: “Research shows that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.” He cited “a 400 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among heavy consumers of animal protein under the age of 65 — those who got 20 percent or more of their calories from animal protein.”

That’s dramatic. In fact, a strong body of scientific evidence associates meat with our biggest killers: heart disease, cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Ornish doesn’t even mention another disturbing issue, which is the systematic overuse of antibiotics in industrial meat production, which has left us with fewer defenses to infectious bacteria. We just saw a good documentary on this, Resistance, which is available on Netflix.

Ornish said his clinical research had shown success in reversing chronic diseases with a plant-based diet. Here’s how he described his recommended approach: “An optimal diet for preventing disease is a whole-foods, plant-based diet that is naturally low in animal protein, harmful fats and refined carbohydrates. What that means in practice is little or no red meat; mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and soy products in their natural forms; very few simple and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour; and sufficient “good fats” such as fish oil or flax oil, seeds and nuts. A healthful diet should be low in “bad fats,” meaning trans fats, saturated fats and hydrogenated fats. Finally, we need more quality and less quantity.”

This is consistent with the recent report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. It basically describes how Sally and I eat, but it fails to note an important element: there are many, many delicious non-meat things to eat! The world has so many edible plants, and we keep learning more about how to enjoy them.

I am particularly fortunate that Sally loves to cook, and keeps coming up with new flavorful veggie dishes. Her favorite cookbooks are The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison, Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen, and Quick Vegetarian Pleasures, by Jeanne Lemlinand. She also gets lots of ideas from newspapers and the internet.

Spring photos. It turned cooler this weekend, but I looked about for more close up images of early spring. I was particularly struck by the beauty of the delicate purple blossoms on the small trees that around here we call redbuds.

Find out your fitness age

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Jocelyn came home for a visit on Thursday, and she was glowing. After six months in New York, she’d (1) learned her way around, (2) found good friends, and (3) got a job she really liked. Also, she’d joined a gym and started working out regularly, and gotten focussed on nourishing herself in a healthy way.

This was music to my ears! My messaging on healthy habits, which I realize can be annoying, has not been all in vain. I’m delighted that my beloved offspring (including also Gabe) are taking good care of themselves.

That same day I came across an article in the online NY Times about assessing your “fitness age,” defined with reference to peak oxygen intake, which apparently is a strong predictor of future health. A large-scale Norwegian study examined oxygen intake levels at ages between 20 and 90, and also developed a tool using indicators including resting heart rate, waist size, and activity levels to determine fitness age.

The article had a link to the fitness age calculator. Needless to say, I gave it a shot. My fitness age? 28! Not bad for a guy born in 1955, right? But I soon began considering how I might get it down to 27.
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In our neighborhood, Glenwood South, there’s been a fair bit of construction, and also some destruction. Sally told me that an unattractive building on Glenwood across from the Creamery and catty-corner to the Armadillo Grill that had just been demolished, and I went over to inspect the site on Saturday morning. They’d walled off the site, but I got a good view from the adjacent parking deck. Sure enough, all that was left was rubble. It was overcast, but there was still a nice quality to the light, and I took some other pictures of the neighborhood on my walk over to the gym.

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More eye surgery, healthy habits, a gay marriage revelation, a new veggie restaurant, and the shame of the processed food industry

This week I had eye surgery to repair the effects of scar tissue from my previous eye surgery, with the understanding that there would probably be more surgery needed in future. And so in the space of a few weeks I’ve gone from an adult in remarkably good health with no history of hospitalization to a fairly experienced consumer of modern American medicine. There are, of course, some negatives, such as worry, fear, and pain, but I’m trying to stay positive. It’s a learning experience.

Most of my healthcare team at the Duke Eye Center, including nurses, orderlies, anesthesiologists, and doctors were surprisingly cheerful and supportive. The anesthesia was designed to keep me partially conscious, which it did, and so I was able to listen to the conversations of the team and the music they listened to (vintage rock, unfortunately). I was instructed to let them know if things hurt, and I did speak up a couple of times when it got fairly intense.

The operation involved removing scar tissue from my left retina and eye wall and reattaching the retina to the wall. It was an extremely delicate procedure and took about three hours. When Dr. Mruthyunjaya checked me the next day, he was pleased with the initial results, but noted that it would be some months before we’ll know how much vision I’ll have with that eye. At some point I’ll need cataract surgery as well. But that day I was able to see the top couple of lines of the eye chart, which was an enormous improvement from last check, when I couldn’t make out any letters at all.

Healthy Habits

I was banned from all strenuous exercise for at least a couple of weeks and possibly more. I’m not sure Dr. Mruthyunjaya appreciated that this was a fairly harsh sentence for a person like me, with a big exercise habit. Getting to the gym or other physical activity most every morning is something I just do. It makes me feel better for the rest of the day and is part of the long-term plan of staying healthy and happy. But I don’t think about the pluses and minuses at 5:15 a.m., which would be way too much work. It’s taken a long time to get to the point where exercise is almost automatic, and does not feel like dreary work. I don’t want to lose the habit.

With this partly in view, I decided to recommence my computer programming studies during the newly freed up early morning. I signed up with Codeacademy for their free online Python course. It should keep me in the habit of getting up early. So far, it’s been interesting and mostly fun, though also frustrating at occasional junctures when I get stuck. I’m thinking of it as a lot like learning Spanish: an exercise that at a minumum serves to stimulate the brain in a healthy way, and could turn into a skill that could come in handy.

Gay Marriage Switcheroo

Speaking of brains, in the news this week was a report that Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, had decided to switch from an opponent to a backer of gay marriage. His reason? His son came out as gay. I had two reactions to this:

1. good
2. you’ve got to be kidding me!

As to 1, I’m happy that Senator Portman has seen the light, and come to view gay people as entitled to the same civil rights as everyone else. But as to 2, coming to this view really shouldn’t depend on having a gay child!

All of us place special weight on the welfare of our loved ones, but that isn’t a very reliable starting place for broader moral reasoning or policy making. Otherwise, those with healthy families would have no concern for the less abled, and those in a majority race would ignore the rights of minorities. This would be a morality with severe myopia. I wonder how much conservative family values blather is accounted for by such myopia.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Senator Portman, who must surely possess more-than-usual courage to take issue with the conventional and rabid views of his party. We could all benefit from exercising our empathy muscles. Here’s a suggestion: what if we all spent five minutes a day imagining that a specific human in a group we generally dislike is our dearly beloved child? Our imaginations could extend the diameter of our circle of caring and feeling. This would be a good thing. I’ll go first, and try to think loving thoughts about a rightwing fringe Republican.

Trying a New Vegetarian Restaurant

Last night Sally and I tried Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh’s new vegetarian restaurant on Dawson Street. It was full when we got there, with a wait time of 45 minutes, which would exceed our usual supply of patience, but we found a place to stand near the bar and had some Chardonnay. The vibe was hip-funky, similar to Poole’s, but with a younger, edgier crowd — think tatoos, grad students, gays and lesbians, interracial couples, and even a few babies. Oh, and one middle-aged guy with a strangely red left eye swollen half-shut. The place hummed with the sound of many conversations.

The food was creative, with an emphasis on local seasonal ingredients. For appetizers, we had the wintery spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce and seasonal fritters, which had NC apples, spices, and bourbon-agave. We split two entrees, the sweet potato sushi rolls with sashimi tofu and braised tempeh with pesto grits. Every bite was tasty.

Shameful Goings on in the Processed Food Industry

It was really cheering to see a new vegetarian business in Raleigh doing so well. As regular readers know, I’m a big proponent of healthy, ethical eating, which is another habit that’s good for humans, and also fun. But there are powerful forces promoting unhealthy food. For evidence, see an op ed piece in today’s NY Times, by Michael Mudd, a former honcho with Kraft Foods, titled How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry.

As a former insider, Mudd seems credible when he characterizes the business of large food processors as “enticing people to consume more and more high-margin, low-nutrition branded products.” He describes how “relentless efforts were made to increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.”

According to Mudd, “Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits. More egregious, it aggressively promoted larger portion sizes, one of the few ways left to increase overall consumption in an otherwise slow-growth market.”

Mudd also describes the food industry’s clever PR efforts to deflect attention and regulation, such as attributing the obesity epidemic to other factors. There are, of course, multiple factors, but none with the same despicable level of conscious intent. At the same time, they contend they are giving the victims “what they want.” These wants, of course, are the product of advertising and food engineering. (There was a very interesting piece in the Times magazine by Michael Moss a couple of weeks ago on the dark art of synthesizing junk foods that are almost irresistible.)

For solutions, Mudd proposes federal and state taxes on sugared beverages and snacks that undermine health, which would generate funds for education programs and subsidize healthy foods for low-income people. He also recommends mandatory federal guidelines for marketing foods to children and better food labeling. This makes sense.

An eye exam, a veggie burger, and a new ballet

It was a busy week at work, with many new issues popping up as I tried to address the existing backlog. I also made a visit to the Duke Eye Center for an exam in preparation for my eye surgery next week. My ophthalmologist, Dr. Prithvi Mruthyunjaya, seems both brilliant and humane, but his patients have to spend an awfully long time in the waiting room. This was also true of Drs. Denny and Casey. Is this a retinological tradition? Are damaged retina patients more-than-usually patient? Dr. M. described my prognosis as “guarded.” At a number of levels, I felt not so great.

On Friday Sally and I did dinner and a ballet. For dinner, we made our first visit to Chuck’s, a new place on Wilmington Street that features in gourmet hamburgers. We quit eating cows many years ago, and so initially assumed Chuck’s was not for us, but then were told on good authority that they made the best veggie burger in town. It was, in fact, really good. It had flavor and pleasing, chewy consistency. And it didn’t fall to pieces.

The Carolina Ballet led off with a new work called A Street Symphony by Zalman Raffael. It was set to hip hop music, which, as almost everyone knows, is music emphasizing pulsing polyrhythms and rhyming gritty lyrics, and deemphasizing melody and harmony. I developed a taste for hip hop a few years back, when I found the Sirius radio hip hop channels, and found it to be good music for driving a sports car. I liked the raw immediacy and experimental transgressiveness. It is also, of course, good dancing music, but hip hop dancing seems worlds away from the ballet tradition.

Combining radically different movement vocabularies could be a banal experiment or a disaster, but Raffael succeeded brilliantly. His work Rhapsody in Blue, presented earlier this season, was soundly designed and had some marvelous flashes, but seemed more the work of a skilled apprentice than a master. With A Street Symphony, he has arrived, with a strong sense of architecture and humor.

The work is made up of seven songs, with the dancers arrayed in solos, couples, and ensembles. The set and costumes are minimalist, with the women wearing gauzy tutus of various colors pulled above their tights. In the beginning, the pounding rhythm is unsettling, and the first piece, Clockwork, uses a robotics theme that is fairly familiar. But Alicia Fabry’s replicant is both energized and vulnerable, with limbs shooting about at amazing speeds and a startled doe-eyed gaze.

I also really liked Jan Burkhard and Yevgeny Shlapko in Best of Me. Jan is a dancer with an sensual quality, and here she was fearless. Classical dance walks a fine line with respect to sex: it candidly reveals dancers’ bodies and deals with intimate subject matter, but almost never references the act itself, and is careful not to push the red button. But hip hop is sexy, and Jan embraced it. So did Eugene, who had a rangey freedom that recalled the hood.

Lindsay Purrington was really touching and beautiful in Cry Me a River. She did various transformations, including a streetwise tough and a Swan Lake swan. At one point her tutu started to fall to pieces, which added an unplanned degree of tension to the performance, but she dealt with the issue with grace, eventually ditching the thing stage right, and strutting boldly forward. Adam Crawford Chavis lifted her magnificently overhead.

This was unquestionably ballet, with pointe shoes and the traditional vocabulary, but augmented with exciting movements from urban street culture. The most successful dancers seemed to personalize their roles, though some stuck close to the familiar classical lines. For one, Margaret Severin-Hansen, who is a fantastic classical technician, was sharp and intriguing, but seemed to me to hold back a bit from the street. On the other hand, I thought Sokvannara Sar, Nikolai Smirnov, and Cecilia Ilieusiu all found interesting individual ways of combining the upmarket and downmarket.

Anyhow, I really liked A Street Symphony, and also Robert Weiss’s new work Idyll, set to Richard Wagner’s lovely Siegfried Idyll. It featured three couples and flowing lines. I was looking forward to The Rite of Spring, but it came after the second intermission, and I was just too tired to take it all in. Sally thought it too was wonderful.

It’s time to subscribe to next year’s ballet season. We’ve been going on Friday nights for fourteen years and have excellent front-center orchestra seats, but I think we’ll switch to Saturdays. On Fridays I often find myself tired after a busy week that includes 5:30 a.m. workouts, and not always able to hang in there intently for a full evening of beautiful performances. Our NC Symphony subscription has been on Saturdays, and so we’ll have to manage some conflicts, but it seems worth it.

Beyonce’s Pepsi cluelessness, and a note on foam rolling

Rita, ready for her closeup

Rita, ready for her closeup

I’ve got nothing against Beyoncé, and in fact have for her the sort of warm feelings one has for overwhelmingly beautiful females one is unlikely ever to meet. Thus I was a little sorry to see her attacked in the press for her rich new deal to lend more of her celebrity to the cause of getting people to drink more Pepsi. Her critics noted that Pepsi and similar sweet fizzy drinks are a major cause of the obesity epidemic and related diseases such as diabetes. Why would a smart,creative, caring person with no desperate need for cash do such an awful thing?

Though a little sorry, I was also cheered that this issue was raised in mainstream publications. Of all the ways we might choose to make ourselves ill, drinking lots of Pepsi and similar drinks is surely one of the silliest. Just as with cigarettes, we’ve come over time to understand that the risks are serious, but even with that understanding, the evil brilliance of Madison Avenue advertising overwhelms logic. Beautiful celebrities can do a lot of damage along this line.

This all seems fairly obvious, but it was one of those things that, as recently as last week prior to the Beyoncé brouhaha, it was hard to say without seeming like a fanatical kook. The ad campaigns, pursued over generations now with increasing sophistication, have really worked — they’ve taken over our brains. Countless millions believe they need and enjoy their sodas, and the same goes for chips. Suggestions to the contrary can excite hostility. Recently I suggested to a friend that it would be a good idea to label salty crunchy fried products with some sort of warning — say, a skull and crossbones. He looked at me like I must have completely lost my mind!

Breaking the junk food and drink habit is not easy. The products have been formulated to satisfy some primal urge to slurp and crunch. If that weren’t enough, the endless advertisements overwhelm all logic and lots of attempts at self-control. Plus, the stuff is pervasive. Entire aisles of stores, and even entire stores (where you buy gas) are devoted to purveying junk food, sodas, and tobacco. And everywhere are people apparently enjoying it. We are social animals, and we enjoy doing as others do. So how can we resist?

It can be done. There are some hints in Charles Duhigg’s book dealing with breaking bad habits, which I wrote about recently. In a nutshell, you substitute good habits for bad ones. You identify the cue for the behavior, the routine, and the reward. If the cue is thirst, experiment with another routine, like having a glass of filtered water or a cup of green tea instead of a soda. If it’s wanting to be close to Beyoncé, watch her on YouTube.

On the subject of trying to live healthier, Larissa Lotz, my personal trainer, suggested recently that my thoracic spine could use some help, and recommended massage therapy with Brian Hagan. He’s the MT for the Carolina Hurricanes, who no doubt need a strong dose of massage therapy now and again. I got in to see him this week.

Brian was friendly, and seemed knowledgeable and skilled, and also really enthusiastic about the health benefits of massage. In addition to working on my T-spine, he give me an extensive lesson on foam rolling. He predicted it would be transformative in loosening muscles and increasing flexibility. I thought that sounded good, and agreed to give it a shot.

Left to right:  Phoebe, Foam Roller, Isabelle

Left to right: Phoebe, Foam Roller, Isabelle

New resolutions and my latest green smoothie

I have a soft spot for New Year’s resolutions. It’s generally a good thing from time to time to think about where we are versus where we want to go. Few, if any, of us that are fully optimized. At the same time, there’s never any shortage of small feasible steps we could take to make our lives better.

But personal self-improvement resolutions usually don’t get the job done. A prime example is our most visible, common, and serious public health problem: obesity. There’s no great mystery what needs to be done (eat less and exercise more), and most of us who aren’t naturally optimized for body mass know that much perfectly well. Nevertheless, each year the incidence of obesity is about the same or worse, and the over all trend in the last thirty years is worse and worse.

Plainly this is not a simple problem with an easy solution, or we would have solved it. But part of the reason we can’t successfully address obesity and other serious behavioral problems is our poor understanding about how our own minds work — that is, our own impulses and motivations. As regular readers know, I’ve been learning more about this in the last couple of years from reading Daniel Kahneman, Michael Gazziniga, Jonathan Haidt, John Brooks, and Edward O. Wilson, and I’m currently reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. In addition to being inherently fascinating, these books have provided insights into life’s persistent problems, like over eating.

One of my main takeaways from these psychologists, biologists, and critics is that our reasoning processes, which seem at times so powerful and impressive, will get us only so far, and if we want to change behavior and minimize bad decisions we need other tools and tricks. Charles Duhigg’s book on habits and how to change them, which I wrote about recently, is a good signpost on this. If we understand our behavior in terms of the interaction of our emotional needs and our environment, we can experiment with changes.

But we may as well admit that eating is especially complicated. I’ve long been convinced that what we eat is a major component of how healthy we are and can expect in future to be. I try to keep up with current thinking about nutrition. Over the course of several years, I’ve developed a repertoire of habits that help me avoid most unhealthy foods and consume mostly things that have nutritional value.

But even so, I managed to pick up five pounds over the holidays. How did this happen? It was little things. Christmas parties and more restaurant meals, colleagues bringing to work delicious cookies that had to be sampled, and old friends sending gift baskets of treats. The combination of sweet things and childhood Christmas memories overwhelms all the circuits, and extra food is inserted in mouth, chewed, and swallowed. Of course, it was momentarily delightful, but it is so much harder to take the lbs off than to put them on.

Each year around January 2 we leave the land of the sweets and other excesses and things return to normal. New resolutions are made. Regarding eating, I’m trying some new ingredients in my breakfast green smoothies (pictured here and previously described here), including in various blendings, along with greens and fruit, hemp protein powder, marine phytoplankton, cacao nibs, and goji berries. It’s fun to mix a superdrink (as in superhero), and rewarding to be able to do something fabulously good for the body. I try to make it a point each day to be grateful for such good fortune.

What do we do? Good and bad habits

Periodically I get the bug to improve my Spanish, which has been stuck for a while at the low intermediate level. Rosetta Stone’s relentless marketing finally overcame my defenses, and I found myself signing up for its web-based offering on an all-you-can-eat-in-one-year basis. I like it.

It’s all in Spanish (no translations), with photographs to guide you toward basic vocabulary, and is broken into little bite-size challenges. It works well on my tablet device. Part of the genius is that it constantly quizzes you, asking you to think and make your best guess as to each new bit of vocabulary, and gives a small musical reward (a harp arpeggio) for a correct answer. (Wrong answers are punished with a less pleasing sound.)

When you’re a beginner at Spanish, or anything else, you have to exert a lot of conscious effort to accomplish anything. This “beginner’s mind” (see Zen) is fun, in a way. It’s involving. But eventually, if you keep at it, you advance, and you are no longer a beginner. Conscious incompetence changes gradually to unconscious competence — a habit. You can communicate more successfully, but without any particular feeling of accomplishment. Then you’re ready to begin German, or whatever. Education is, in part, the accretion of useful habits.

I wrote a bit last week about developing the habit of exercise, and have been thinking more about the significance of habits. A few moths back I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. It has the air of one of those airport bookshop books that’s more like a padded-out magazine article, but it has a few worthwhile ideas.

According to Duhigg, hundreds of our everyday activities are just chunks of behavior that require no conscious thought. We may think that our days are spent considering and deciding on our actions, but typically we spend lots of time on autopilot. Think of getting up, showering, eating, brushing teeth, walking, driving, saying good morning, turning on your computer, web surfing & etc.

This is not in itself a bad thing, because it’s energy efficient. Once we’ve learned to drive and gotten to be experienced drivers, we don’t need to think about driving our daily commute, which frees up energy for other things — like texting. Just kidding! Kids, please don’t text while driving. But seriously, as much as I think conscious thinking is a worthwhile thing, life as we know it would be impossible without a large repertoire of behaviors that require no conscious thought.

Habits, like bacteria, get a bad rap because we forget about the good ones and mostly notice the bad ones. And we should give attention to those bad ones. Over and over, we do things that we know very well are bad for us, and it doesn’t help that we know it. Some bad habits just waste time, but others, like smoking or overeating, can take years off your life. What to do?

Duhigg proposes a simple approach to changing bad habits. Researchers have found that all habits have three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. For example, you feel bored and fidgety (the cue), you go to the snack station and grab a candy bar (the routine), and devour the sweet gooey thing and feel a moment of bliss (the reward). Then you feel unhappy that you ate something against your better judgment.

According to Duhigg, the trick to changing a bad habit is recognizing the routine, and experimenting with substituting a new routine that gives the same reward. He gives the example of his own snacking, which he thought was a function of hunger, but realized had more to do with needing social interaction. So instead of having a cookie, he started having a chat with a colleague, which yielded the same psychic reward.

This seems like a reasonable approach. Good intentions and raw willpower are usually not enough to dislodge entrenched bad habits. A bit of playful experimentation is worth a try.

How to eat and sleep better, and a brief report on my golfing

Sally and I stayed up late sipping wine with friends on Saturday night, and I overslept and almost missed my golf game at Raleigh Country Club on Sunday morning. I normally like to get to the course early and warm up before a round, but that didn’t work out. The day was sunny and mild, though breezy.

I walked the course with my push cart. My first drive was weak, and the succeeding drives were mostly shorter than my average.The rough was so thick that three balls disappeared never to be found, and those I found were difficult to liberate. These misfortunes and others caused several triple bogies and a disappointing net score of 103. Yet I hit some gorgeous approach shots. I sank three long putts (20-30 feet). But I missed three or four short ones (three to four feet). Golf is a beautiful but frustrating game.

Back in my New York days, everyone I knew read the Sunday New York Times. You had to read it too if you wanted to know what people were talking about and join in the conversation. I’ve kept the habit, though the original reason for it has largely gone by the wayside. Inasmuch as some of my best informed friends no longer read the Times, I will note two articles published today worth reading.

1. How to improve your health with food. An article by Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, provides clinical support for the kind of eating I’ve been doing in the last few years. Ornish says “patients who ate mostly plant-based meals, with dishes like black bean vegetarian chili and whole wheat penne pasta with roasted vegetables, achieved reversal of even severe coronary artery disease. . . . The program [which included moderate exercise and stress management techniques] also led to improved blood flow and significantly less inflammation” and lowered risk of various types of cancer. The program also resulted in sustained weight loss.

According to Ornish, “Your diet needs to be high in healthful carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products in natural, unrefined forms and some fish, like salmon. There are hundreds of thousands of health-enhancing substances in these foods. And what’s good for you is good for the planet.” In contrast, he cites and large Harvard study that shows that consumption of red meat “is associated with an increased risk of premature death as well as greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.”

“About 75 percent of the 2.8 trillion in annual heath care costs in the United States is from chronic diseases that can often be reversed or prevented altogether by a healthy lifestyle. If we put money and effort into helping people make better food and exercise choices, we could improve our health and reduce the cost of health care.”

Ornish doesn’t say this, so I’ll say it: a vegetarian diet results in increased happiness. At least it does for me. There are so many delicious things to eat that also make you feel good. I mean physically and mentally, leaving aside the ethical dimension. But to be clear, the diet needs to include the kinds of foods noted above (though I take exception to the inclusion of fish on the list).

2. Rethinking Sleep. This article by David K Randall calls into question the standard wisdom that we all should be getting eight straight hours of sleep a night. It notes that much of the world today sleeps in other ways, such as millions of Chinese workers who stop for after-lunch naps. It also notes historical references to alternate sleep cycles, including from Chaucer, separating “firste sleep” and subsequent sleep. The article cites a current study in which a common pattern was for patients to wake up a little after midnight, stay up a couple of hours, and then go back to sleep.

This was of particular interest to me, because this happens to me a lot: I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I usually read something, and sometimes write. I enjoy the quiet time. But based on the received wisdom regarding how much sleep is generally needed, I’ve thought of it as sort of a health problem, and worried about it a bit. Now I’m wondering if the eight-hour sleep prescription is yet another instance of folk wisdom masquerading as medical science.

It’s reasonably clear that sleep serves some important functions for brain health, and that getting too little sleep can impair performance. But there’s evidence that power napping works well for some people. I’m hoping it gets to be more socially acceptable.

Coping with pollen, trying Pilates, and news on how to eat to reduce cancer risks

Spring is definitely here, greener and greener and blossoms everywhere. Also here is a cloud of heavy yellow pine pollen settling on cars, including mine. The pollen surprises me every year. Last year it arrived the day after I got Clara detailed, and the pollen turned the beautiful dark blue car yellow. This year, I resolved to get the big spring car cleaning done well in advance of pine pollination, and got the full treatment from Dave of A to Z Auto Detailing. She looked great, until the pollen arrived, two days later. Pine trees, stop trying to impregnate Clara!

It was a homey week — no travel — and I got up early each day and had a work out done by 7:00 or 7:30. On Monday, I did intervals on the elliptical machine on the roof and then some weights and stretching. Tuesday I did forty minutes on the elliptical machine first, then went across the street to early bird yoga at Blue Lotus. Wednesday I went to Pullen Park pool and swam intervals and then stretched. A lifeguard complimented my stretch routine (though not, I noted, my swimming).

Friday I went to O2 gym at Seaboard Station for an hour-long RPM spinning class. Spinning means riding an exercise bike to loud music at the intensity the teacher directs, and it is much more demanding than it sounds. The teacher Friday was a substitute who was six months pregnant. At the start, I felt fairly confident that I could keep up with her, but in fact she kicked my butt. I predict her baby will be a champion.

Backing up, Thursday I had my third Pilates lesson at Evolve with Julee. What is Pilates? My friend Chuck and others had recommended it, but I found it hard to get a clear description. But I felt ready to try some new type of exercising. It’s good to shake things up from time to time. Meredith, my wonderful massage therapist, turned out to be a big Pilates fan, and she recommended Julee, whom she regarded as highly gifted.

Pilates is named for its inventor, a German named Joseph Pilates, who came up with his system early in the twentieth century. It involves various contraptions that he invented. It entails a particular way of breathing, of focusing on the core area, and of contracting various muscles. Yes, it could be yet another nutty exercise fad, but there seems to be more to it. I say this based on (1) my very limited experience trying it and (2) observing that Pilates students are exceptionally fit looking.

It seems to involve a sophisticated understanding of human biology, and as an experience it nicely balances the physical and the mental. As Julee has introduced me to the various exercises, I’ve found myself focusing hard on just one thing: the movements. I’m just starting to get my bearings on the system, but so far it seems stimulating in a healthy, fun way.

In other health news, there was an interesting news story this week on the health effects of aspirin. Two significant new British studies found that a daily dose of aspirin was associated with large reductions in cancer. One study found a 46% reduction in colon, lung, and prostate cancer, and both found large reductions in other common cancers. That’s huge!

I’d taken a baby aspirin for some time to reduce the risk of a heart attack, but quit after a recent study indicated that for healthy patients the heart benefits may not outweigh the risks. I was sufficiently impressed by the new studies to dig out my aspirin bottle and start taking the little pill again.

Also noteworthy is a NY Times report of a new study that eating red meat is associated with death from heart disease and cancer, with the risk increasing with increased consumption of meat. The study involved 121,342 men and women and data from 1980 to 2006. Each increase of meat consumption by three ounces increased the risk of death from cancer by 10 percent and death from cardiovascular disease by 16 percent. It sounds like, if the norm is six ounces of meat a day, eating no meat would reduce your cancer risk by 20 percent and cardiovascular disease by 32 percent. That’s also huge!

For some reason, the Times did not put this on the front page, or even as the lead item in the health section, but rather buried it deep in general news section. A new drug that dramatically reduced cancer and heart disease would surely have been treated as a major news event. I’d think this new study would be something most people would want to think about.

Of course, people generally don’t like hearing that their ingrained habits are unhealthy, and tune out news that causes dissonance, so I will leave the subject for now. On a more cheerful note, I will just mention that I greatly enjoyed listening to some Haydn symphonies on my iPod touch while exercising and doing other activities this week. I had sort of forgotten how wonderful they are. I was listening to numbers 100, 101, 103, and 104. Here’s the second movement of number 100. My recording, which I prefer, is by Christopher Hogwood directing the Academy of Ancient Music (on period instruments).