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Tips For Transitioning Into Fall, Part 2: Nutrition

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

The last post was about improving sleep through a very powerful strategy involving light. You can read that post here:

Taming The Honey Badger

Logan, at 5 years old, was out of control. Watching him play was like watching a honey badger go berserk in a China shop. He had an imaginary superhero alter-ego named Fire Super, whose main power appeared to be demolishing living rooms, classrooms, or really any room that he happened to be in. This did not go over well in school. By the time Logan was 6 years old he was behind his classmates academically, on Adderall and going to a different school.

The next time I saw Logan he was 8 years old and like a different kid. Fire Super had retired to planet Zebulon. Logan could focus and was off Adderall. He was rapidly catching up to his grade level in reading and math and was even thriving in his role as a classroom helper. When I asked his mom what had brought about this miracle, she said one word: "salad." She expounded on this by saying that, at wits end, she made the decision to get all the junk food and sugar out of the house and replace it with, well, actual food.

Now I'm not saying that every kid should immediately drop their medications and hit the salad bar, but in Logan's case better nutrition turned out to be the keystone habit that changed his behavior and his trajectory.

But Aren't You A Physical Therapist, Not A Nutritionist?

To be fair I'm a professionally trained expert on movement, not nutrition. That being said, it's impossible to learn about physical health without learning about nutrition. Though I'm not an expert, I've done a lot of research, sought out the opinions of experts, and experimented a lot. I've made mistakes and learned from them. I also understand nutrition is a tough topic. People vary in preferences, genetics, and beliefs and will defend these beliefs passionately. Just so you know that I'm not up on a high horse or soap box here are some clearly suboptimal nutritional practices I used to engage in when I was younger:

  • Food was handed to me through a car window about 5 times a week. This was my idea of 'sit-down dining.'

  • In high school and college, I used to drink Mountain Dew by the Double Gulp, without ice because ice takes up valuable cup volume.

  • I used to eat chocolate oatmeal for breakfast. It was basically cookie dough. I'd have a big bowl before school and before you think to yourself "aw high school kids can get away with that," understand that this was grad school, folks.

Lest you think the pendulum only swings one way, here are some of the "healthy" dietary strategies that I've experimented with:

  • 'Paleo' diet was all the rage when I was doing CrossFit. I would bet everything I have that no aboriginal culture ate as much bacon as I did while calling it 'healthy'

  • I tried a raw food diet for a couple of months back before I went to grad school. I quit when I got winded walking over to pick up a frisbee and realized I was feeling about as athletic as Mr. Burns from The Simpsons.

  • I tried the 'keto diet' for a couple of months about 5 years ago. Though I believe it could be beneficial for certain individuals, I failed to thrive on it.

What Have I Learned?

I think author Michael Pollan had it pretty close to correct when he said:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
  • I like this quote because it is simple and elegant and covers the bases while allowing a lot of room to individualize. Try to make sure it's actual food with minimal processing

  • Admittedly, the 'mostly plants' is a bit of a challenge for me. The key is finding plant-based things that I like and keeping them around my house

  • Don't forget this includes beans, nuts, tubers and other things besides kale

I can leverage habit friction and my own laziness to work for me

  • I don't really have a rule about not eating junk food, I just try not to have it easily accessible. I allow myself a donut WHENEVER I want. But since I have to get in the car and go to the bakery, I don't regularly eat donuts. Habit friction in action

  • I hate brushing and flossing. Don't get me wrong I do it daily, but it is not something I enjoy. If I brush and floss immediately after dinner, just the thought of having to redo that tedious chore will keep me from eating a tempting dessert. Laziness for the win!

  • I decrease healthy habit friction by keeping berries, apples, bananas and peanut butter around and easily accessible. I know peanut butter is high calorie, but it increases the odds of me reaching for fruit as a snack.

I feel a lot better not eating refined sugar and eating foods that are as unprocessed as possible

  • I decided to quit refined sugar for a while this spring. I substituted eating fruit, quite often with peanut butter, because I really like apples and bananas with peanut butter

  • Within a couple of weeks my taste buds had recharged and now ordinary things like fruit and peanut butter or fruit and plain yogurt tasted downright indulgent

  • It's been surprisingly easy to maintain because I don't feel deprived. Will I ever have cake or donuts again? Of course! But they both will probably at a special social occasion.

It is shockingly hard to find scientific consensus on almost anything related to diet

  • There seems to be expert consensus that we should eat dark leafy greens and fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants. That's about it.

  • Good luck finding out if animal protein is good for human beings. You will find evidence on both sides as well as zealous levels of passion from 'experts'. Stick to less divisive subjects like national politics.

Diet has to be easy and enjoyable for the long haul

  • There is more to dietary health than macro and micronutrients. Eating is social as well and sometimes it is more important to have a piece of pizza at a birthday party than it is to rigidly adhere to a 'perfect' diet

  • Willpower can only take you so far, you have to enjoy the food you eat. Form good habits and employ habit friction by keeping good natural food around

  • If you fail to thrive on a dietary approach you may feel (and other adherents may tell you) that you were 'doing it wrong'. In my experience, it's more likely that it just wasn't the right approach for you. This is eating, folks, it shouldn't feel like rocket surgery

Happy Honey Badgers

Even if you don't find yourself habitually destroying rooms during sugar fueled, hyperactive bouts of imagination play, diet is one of the key elements in being a healthy person. The fundamental elements I zero in on in my job as a physical therapist, are movement, sleep, nutrition, and stress management. Notice how they are all interconnected. At some point if you want to improve in one area, you're going to come face to face with another. The good news is gains in one area can facilitate gains in another, just like the rising tide that raises all boats. These little wins add up and can be life-changing. Just ask Logan.

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