Thursday, May 29, 2014

Keeping the Sabbath: Resting in our Restless Culture

During my recent foray into the world of sugar-free living, I happened upon a memior entitled Year of No Sugar.
The author is a Vermonter who loves maple syrup as much as I, and actually convinced her entire family (consisting of a husband and two daughters old enough to count the cost) to abstain from added fructose for an entire year.

The book is entertaining and interesting. I'm not finished with it yet, and I don't know if I could give it the two-thumbs-up simply because the author seems to have a lot of anxiety about giving up sugar. (I fear some might read it and say, 'this giving up sugar thing is just too hard so I might as well have a cookie.') So the jury's out on the book, but the author is witty and insightful, and for my part, I'm enjoying it. Author Eve Schaub thinks about things. I like people who think about things.

In particular, I'm really enjoying how she details the experience of being counter-cultural. This is probably the main reason I was unwilling to give up something like sugar in the past--simply because sugar is such a huge part of our society. To completely abstain means disconnecting from people on some level. Yes, health is important, but we're all going to die someday (shocking, but true.) I can't see myself, or my children, being the odd-man-out at birthday parties or other opportunities to connect with people in our community simply because sugar is bad for us. When I die, I would rather have people say, 'she engaged with people and loved them well.' Not 'she was really healthy. And now she's dead.'

Swimming against the cultural stream is difficult, and one area where we have struggled is Sabbath-keeping. We are Christians, and as such are called to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Not because it's the law, from which we have been freed, but it's meant for worship, as well as for our blessing and rejuvenation. When I was a child growing up in a blue-law state, nothing was open on Sundays. So we went to church, unlike many (most?) of our neighbors in secular New England, and then we had a nice dinner. And then we hung out.

Over the last 30 years or so, something changed. Now everything's open on Sunday. Everything... but in Massachusetts you still can't buy alcohol on Sundays--which many describe as being a 'wicked pissah.' And somehow I just went with the flow. On the way home from church, I'd stop at the market or pick up the dry cleaning.

That is, until I moved to France.

Oh, the French.... how ironic that the righteously secular, nearly universally unchurched French would be so incredibly good at Sabbath-keeping! It's very easy to take a day of rest on Sundays in France. The boulanger and florist are open for a few hours in the morning so you can get your bread and flowers to take to grandmother's house for the leisurely, three-hour dejuener you will enjoy. But apart from that nothing is open except restaurants. In fact, it is the law in France that nothing else is open on Sundays. It is the national day of rest. Everyone takes naps in the afternoons and goes for walks. It's delightful, and I grew to love it.
Darling Son #1, in the bum-up napping position. 
I don't know how they sleep that way, but they do.

When I returned to America, home of the restless, I tried to recreate that Sabbath experience, but it's been hard. Very hard. Especially since having children. How can you rest as a mother when small children still need to be fed and minded? How do you keep the Sabbath holy when you live in a very secular Boston suburb, when sports games and birthday parties on Sundays are the norm? Do we totally opt out? Do we become so strict that we're weird? Do I mind being weird?

I don't know. But I still try. And this is how:

  • Sabbath keeping requires planning. Years ago I read a wonderful book called The Ladies' Auxiliary, about an orthodox Jewish community. The author detailed all that was required of the women to prepare for the Sabbath, a furious effort that had to be completed by sundown on Friday. 
  • To keep a Sabbath, you need to work the other six days. I try to avoid non-essential chores on Sundays. Shopping and laundry are done beforehand, unless there is some dire emergency for milk or clean clothes.
  • Meals are simple. In nicer weather, the Darling Husband will grill something, or I'll make something the day before that we can just heat up.
  • If we have company, we like to do it on Sundays. Saturdays are for errands and chores. Sundays are for fellowship. Cooking an elaborate dinner and the clean-up it requires is not restful (to me), so we keep it simple. It's about hospitality, visiting, sharing what we have.
  • One person's rest can be another's work. Personally, I will exercise on the Sabbath, because for me, that is joy, rejuvenation and worship. Not that I worship the exercise, but I always find myself thanking my Creator in my lalala bliss that I can move and sweat and breathe. For me, it's restful. It might not be for someone else. 

Rest is important. It's how we are healed. It's when muscles repair and minds wind down. It's when we reconnect with our people. We're still working out how to keep the Sabbath in our non-restful culture. As the small people get a little older, new challenges present themselves. Some Sundays feel anything but restful, but we keep trying. We need rest and fellowship. They are as important for health as exercise and, well, rationing maple syrup.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Can You Think Yourself Full? How Our Thoughts Affect Hunger

The day after I published my post about wheat and gluten, the corner of the blogosphere where the health geeks hang out was all a-flutter. A new study came out casting aspersions on the concept of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Celiac disease is well-known and accepted within the medical community, but the notion that people not diagnosed with celiac would have reactions to gluten met with some skepticism. Yet many people have eliminated gluten-containing foods from their diets and report feeling better.

This new study was conducted by the same scientist who first posited gluten as the culprit in irritable bowel syndrome. He was unsatisfied with his original study, and so conducted another more rigorous one in which self-described gluten-intolerant participants were unwittingly fed high-, low-, or no-gluten diets. The researchers found complaints of GI distress were wholly unrelated to the intake of gluten. The study suggests a 'nocebo' effect is at work. People think eliminating gluten will make them feel better, and so it does.

I read several quite snarky articles telling non-celiac gluten avoiders that it's all in their heads and stop being such a whiner and eat some toast. (I'm paraphrasing here.)

However, a friend and reader sent me this article, which explains this study more thoroughly. If you believe you are gluten-sensitive, or are tempted to surreptitiously feed toast to someone who is, please read the article. Unsurprisingly, the gluten study is more nuanced than the reported sound bytes.

All In Their Heads?
The whole thing got me thinking about the mind and how it affects our health... and then I came upon this little gem reported by National Public Radio.

An experiment was conducted by Alia Crum, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Business School. I'll admit I'm kind of amused that Columbia Business School has a clinical psychologist on staff. Is this common? Or is everyone still broken up about Lehman Brothers?

Anyway, Crum has always been interested in the placebo effect. This, of course, is the phenomenon of a physically ineffective 'remedy' becoming effective only because the patient believes it to be so. Crum had a  hunch that how we think about our food might actually affect how we metabolize it. She tested the theory with milkshakes.


Crum made up a batch of milkshakes and poured them into two different cups--one labeled 'indulgence' and '620 calories.' The other was labeled 'Sensishake, zero fat, zero added sugar, 140 calories.' In truth, each shake came in at the same 300 calories.

Half her test subjects had the 'diet' shake, the other half had the 'indulgent' one. Then each participant had blood drawn. Those who drank the one labeled 'indulgence' actually had lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Their belief that the shake was more fattening actually sated them more than the diet shake had its consumers. In fact, they all consumed the same thing, but they believed they were consuming something different, and their hormone levels followed suit.

Here's a video from NPR explaining ghrelin and the study in greater (and amusing) detail:
Of course, this is just one study, and part of me wonders if the indulgent shake drinkers subconsciously were thinking 'oh crap, I just drank 600 calories' and if that had any effect on their ghrelin levels... more research is needed, but it's an interesting starting point, at least.

What does this mean?
Can we think ourselves thin and healthy? Can we convince ourselves that Doritos are nutritious and will that make it so? Well, no. Obviously, our thoughts do not alter the nutritional content of foods, but it does suggest that enjoying our food, thinking of it as satisfying and nourishing and yes--even indulgent--stimulates a physical response.

I'm betting this is part of why eating at the table with our peeps, rather than at our desks or in front of the TV,  is so important. Food, however simple, is much more satisfying when consumed in a relaxing, undistracted, convivial environment. Of course, eating with my children does not often meet these criteria, but I do it anyway, in faith that someday, it will.

This is giving me a lot of food for thought (pun intended.) The Darling Husband just emerged to forage for a post-dinner nummy-num. I directed him to some home-made granola (made with coconut flakes, nuts and fat... but no sugar.) He ate a bit and said, "Boy, if that wasn't like kissing your sister." (Apparently this is an expression, meaning something that should be pleasurable was devoid of pleasure. Should the Darling Sister-in-law be reading this, your brother would like you to know that is not intended as a slight against you--it's an expression, and he's sure you feel the same way.)

Anyway, for all the talk of health and inflammation and nutrient density, this is a good reminder that God meant for our food to be YUMMY. Life-giving, sustaining and YUMMY.

Needless to say, I'll be adding a little sweet to the next batch of granola.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Our Daily Bread: The 411 on Wheat

How many people do you know are gluten-free? It's uber-trendy these days. However, a lot of people don't know what it is, at least, not these poor benighted souls from the streets of LA. Watch this (it's funny):
Lest you find yourself in a similar position (with a mic in your face), here's a little info on gluten.

What is it?
Like Jimmy said, gluten is a family of proteins found in some grains, notably wheat. It's also found in rye, barley and some oats (you can find gluten-free oats, FYI.) Contrary to what the woman in the video said, gluten is not found in rice, and it does not necessarily 'make you fat.'

People suffering from celiac disease and some other auto-immune disorders cannot tolerate gluten. Their bodies interpret gluten as a foreign invader, and consequently mount an attack, resulting in all kinds of horribleness. It is critical for celiac sufferers to avoid gluten entirely, which is hard because gluten is in a lot of things. Happily for them, the trendiness of the 'gluten-free lifestyle' means there are a lot more choices in markets and restaurants, and the presence of gluten is more likely to be clearly marked than it was in years past.

Still, lots of people are shunning gluten, even those who do not have celiac or other severe gluten sensitivities. After giving up gluten, some people find relief from allergies, niggling digestive issues and report greater mental clarity. And they feel cool and trendy. I can dig it.

Years ago, this was unheard of. Of course, wheat has been consumed by humans for a very, very long time. It's in the Bible! So is this just another health food fad? Or is there something to it?

The Problem with Modern Wheat
I'll admit, I've typically rolled my eyes at stuff like this. Really? Wheat?? People have been eating wheat for ages! Five loaves and two fishes! Now all of a sudden we're all allergic to it? Clearly there has to be more to the story, so I did some of my world-famous exhaustive internet

It turns out, the wheat we're consuming today is very different from the kind our grandparents ate.

Ancient wheat varieties were harvested from tall, thin-stalked plants that were vulnerable to weather conditions and crop loss.

Agronomist Norman Borlaug from the University of Minnesota pioneered the development of high-yield semi-dwarf wheat. This plant had shorter, thicker stalks and a larger seed-head. As a result, farmers were able to produce significantly more wheat on less acreage.
Borlaug holding semi-dwarf wheat stalks

This high-yield, semi-dwarf wheat was a particular boon to poor countries like India, Pakistan and China and greatly increased the world's food supply. Borlaug won international praise for his experiments on wheat, including the Noble Peace Prize, and is credited with saving billions of people from starvation. Which is awesome. Truly. (It's worth noting that Wonder Bread, however lamentable it may be, will, in fact, save you from imminent starvation.) 

This high-yield dwarf wheat now makes up nearly all the wheat that is cultivated throughout the entire world. If you were born after 1960, chances are you have never eaten anything but this variety. 

This tinkering with wheat, however, is not without consequences. Modern wheat is much less nutritious than the ancient wheat varieties. Our wheat now contains 19-28% less zinc, copper, iron and magnesium, as well as lower amounts of other minerals. 

Modern wheat has also shown adverse effects on cholesterol levels and more inflammatory markers, and the gluten content is different from ancient wheat varieties. A gluten peptide called glia-α9 is prevalent in modern wheat, and is a major trigger for celiac reaction. This peptide is not common in ancient wheat varieties. This may explain why gluten sensitivity is on the rise.

What does this mean?
The Darling Husband came home from work last night and and I regaled him with all the horrors of modern wheat. He said, "So, does this mean we're going wheat-free AND sugar-free?" I responded, "not yet." 

There are a lot of negative health conditions associated with wheat, but I can't bring myself to give it up entirely. I like bread. But we eat Ezekiel bread, which is made from sprouted grains. 

Another problem with bread these days is the way it's made. Years ago, the grains were soaked, sprouted and fermented, and made with slow-rise yeast. The sprouting process improves the nutrient content of the bread and makes those nutrients more accessible and the bread more easily digestible. In short, you get a lot more from sprouted-grain bread than the commercial breads you find in the supermarket.

Ezekiel bread is not gluten-free, and it's expensive. A loaf is twice the price of supermarket sandwich breads, and it never seems to go on sale. There are no coupons to be found in the Sunday paper and no buy-one-get-one-free deals. Bummer. But I've actually grown to like it, especially the English muffins. AND--it has no added sugar. And there's a Bible verse on it, which is always nice.

Give it Up?
I actually gave up gluten for a couple of weeks back in January 2011. I felt fine once I started eating it again, but I have been told you really need to give it up for at least 30 days to get it out of your system. So maybe I'll try it again one of these days and see how it goes. 

If you decide to give up gluten (or anything else, for that matter), here are a few tips:
  1. Know why you're doing it. Gluten (and sugar) is in a lot of things and understanding what you're doing will help you stay the course. It's going to be much harder to pass up a chocolate croissant in a weak moment if all you have behind you is a Russian friend who read a book about gluten. Just sayin'.
  2. Don't expect substitutes to taste like the real thing. Gluten-free bread doesn't taste like the bread you're used to. (Neither does Ezekiel bread.) Soy bacon doesn't taste like real bacon. You just might find yourself frustrated and disappointed.
  3. Treat it as an adventure! I actually really enjoyed my gluten-free fortnight. I tried all sorts of new recipes and different things I'd never had before. That's when I fell in love with quinoa, a protein-rich seed which is now a staple in our home.
  4. After about a month, reintroduce gluten-containing foods and see how you feel. It's worth mentioning that plenty of people can tolerate gluten just fine. If you turn out to be one of those people, yay! Now you can have your (preferably sprouted) wheat and eat it, too! And you've hopefully added a few more recipes to your regular rotation. It's win-win.
Even if you're not prepared to give up wheat entirely, it's not a bad idea to consider limiting consumption. There are so many exciting foods to be tried! Variety is the spice of life.

So that's all I have to say about gluten and wheat, for now anyway. Before I go, however, I would like to say one more thing--if you like the blog, please share it! Follow me on Twitter (@stephaniehsiang) and Instagram (@momsatthebarre)! Then maybe someday I'll get a book deal and I'll be able to afford Ezekiel bread.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

What I Learned from a Pen

I think I've mentioned before that Darling Son #2 is visually impaired, among other quirks like being obsessed with elevators. Because of his vision, we are hooked in with the wonderful Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. Perkins hosts a conference annually for families with children under age 7. We attended for the first time two years ago. The conference features workshops on many topics, including fostering independent living skills and making multi-sensory toys to stimulate your child-with-visual-impairments-and-other-disabilities (people-first language! No matter how annoyingly cumbersome it may be!)

The first year we went, the conference was titled 'Taking Care of Our Children, Taking Care of Ourselves.' They gave us a pen:

I came home all fired up, filled with ideas on how to better mother my child-with-low-vision-and-other-disabilities-who-is-obsessed-with-elevators (because you need to talk about your child as more than having disabilities. I'm told this is very important.) I decided I needed to let him fall down more and made him a rattle out of an old plastic bubble container and whole cloves. I was going to be a great mother. I was going to use our spice rack to help him reach new heights. Yay!

Meanwhile, I was a mess. I hadn't slept in years. I was so bad at sleeping I didn't even want to go to bed, so I stayed up pfaffing around on the internet. I drank too much coffee, I binged on cookies. I still exercised, but I was so tired I didn't enjoy it and I ached. I hadn't been to any doctor (including the dentist) in years, except for the obstetrician. In fact, I didn't even have a doctor.

One day, I looked at the pen. Taking care of our children; taking care of ourselves. I had the first part down. My children were thriving! Growing like weeds! I even taught Darling Son #1 to read at the tender age of 3! The second part? Not so much, and as a result, I was long on tasks and short on patience. Yes, they were fully-immunized, hale and hearty, and one was even literate, but I was snippy with them. For all the tasks, I was falling short with the most important things. I felt bitter and resentful and put-upon. I was self-care deficient, and in the end, it trickled down to them.

I realized I needed to take care of myself as well as I took care of them. And so I made a list of things I didn't hesitate to do for them:

  1. I feed them reasonable portions of whole, healthy food.
  2. I don't let them binge on cookies.
  3. I put them to bed at a reasonable hour.
  4. I make sure they get outside and run around everyday. Which, by the way, was *play,* not a forced march.
  5. I take them to the doctor for regular check-ups, and I make sure they're up-to-date on immunizations.
  6. I make sure they have social time with their little friends.
  7. I read to them everyday, including Bible stories.
Why didn't I do these things for myself? Partly because I was lazy. Partly because I had bought into the idea that mother = martyr. But taking care of ourselves is not selfish. I've talked about this before. We can't give from an empty cup. A friend of mine, a mother of three young boys, celebrated her birthday recently. Her husband wrote on her Facebook page, 'Happy birthday to my lovely wife. You hold this whole thing together.' How true--that's what we do, isn't it? We hold it together, but we can't do that if we fall apart in the process.

Little by little, I started implementing these disciplines into my own life. I also listed intangibles, like wanting to be more patient, modeling appropriate reactions, keeping my temper in check, and the like. Those became significantly easier once I tended to my own physical, social and spiritual needs.

Are you a person-who-is-self-care-deficient? Whether or not you're a woman, whether or not you have children, would you mother yourself? Would you like to borrow my pen as a reminder?

Friday, May 2, 2014

Goldilocks and the Three Bras

Recently we enjoyed a visit from a friend I call my sister wife. Of course, she is not actually my sister wife. That is not how roll here at Chez Hsiang, but we love her so much that if we were the plural marrying kind, she'd be the one. (Of course, I might not like her so much if she were 'married' to the Darling Husband, but none of us really like to think out the particulars of that scenario.)

Anyway, Darling Sister Wife has recently discovered the delights of fashion. She's getting all into clothes and make-up and other girlie stuff. I think I've mentioned before that I'm not super girlie. When you have only brothers and sons, the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em mentality kicks in. If I were a Spice Girl, I would definitely be Sporty. No doubt about it.

But DSW just kept nattering on about clothes and style. She even sat me down to watch What Not to Wear. Oh dear. I could do a nice spicy rant on that show and maybe someday I will, but I'll admit it did get me thinking. Apart from cute workout-wear (of which I have a LOT), I really don't have any sense of style.

So this week, I purged my closet. I'm donating just about everything. The vast majority were at least ten years old, vestiges of my pre-kids/working/exciting urban-Euro life. It all still fits (barre! no sugar!), but it's a little passe. So I'm starting afresh. And it kind of freaks me out, because I despise shopping and I really don't know what I'm doing, so I've been watching more What Not to Wear. Gah.

From this, I have been reminded of a key fashion essential: the bra. I'm going to try to remain calm.


The thing I'm finding really shocking is how many women are apparently roaming the earth not wearing bras. Are you kidding me?? People, please--for the love of God and all that is holy, WEAR A BRA. Bras are an essential foundational garment.

One sweet WNTW victim, God bless her, was wearing low-cut tops without a bra. The only thing keeping her from a total wardrobe malfunction was--wait for it--DOUBLE-STICK TAPE!!!

And don't just wear 'a' bra, wear one that FITS. Here is a most excellent tutorial on bras from Trinny and Susannah, the UK version of What Not to Wear (just watch the first five minutes):

If you kept watching, you learned what to do about arms. Well, I can tell you what to do about arms--exercise. There is a lot exercise can do for your arms. But boobs? No. Boobs are glands. There is nothing you can do for boobs. Some people will tell you working the pectoral muscles will help, but it's lie. You need a bra.

So I did a little research on bra-fitting. Here are a few things to keep in mind about bra-fitting. Follow these tips and hopefully no one will point and stare at you with their mouths agape, like so:

  • Does your bra ride up your back? If so, the band size is too big. Either adjust the hooks, or it's time to go down a size.
  • Do the cups pucker or gap? Again, it's too big. Go down a cup size.
  • Do your breasts spill over the cup? Or do the straps dig into your shoulders, even after you've adjusted them? Then the cup size is too small.
  • When shopping for bras, the band should fit firmly on the LAST hook. Why? Because bras stretch out over time, thus you can pull it tighter using the other hooks as it begins to lose some of it's elasticity. This little nugget was a revelation to me. I never knew exactly where to hook it when trying on, but now I know. Yay for exhaustive internet researchtm
If you fill out the cups nicely, and the band remains parallel to the floor, and your boobs sit mid-way between your elbow and shoulder, then your bra fits just right! And of course, there should be no need for double-stick tape.

I'm filing this one under 'Public Service Announcements.'