The Balance of Creating A Great Vacation

I just got back from an amazing vacation. I feel relaxed, rejuvenated, and energized to be productive and throw myself anew into personal and career goals. It’s rare I feel this way after a vacation, so when I do, I ask myself: what made it feel so great? Over the years, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that even though everyone has a different definition of what a “great vacation” is, all great vacations fulfill (and balance) a number of different desires: rest, adventure, productivity/new experiences, nature and intimacy.

I came from a family where a “great” vacation was one where my parents could get away from us kids for an extended amount of time and where my brother and I could also be separately participating in activities we enjoyed (sometimes I think we have entirely different genetic makeup). We were lucky enough to go to Club Med a couple times, where there were supervised sports for my brother and theater/circus performance participation for me (adventure). My parents laid on the beach reading most of the time (nature and rest), but my dad also learned how to hang on the trapeze and we all snorkeled together and rode donkeys through the small villages of Dominican Republic, where my brother and I witnessed what “poor” really meant (productivity/new experiences). We spent evenings eating dinner as a family and were often accompanied by interesting people from all over the world, who were more than happy to tell us their stories (intimacy). We never looked at a clock, as there were no clocks on premises. It is something I’ve kept in mind for future vacations- to enjoy and be in the moment, not think about the future or the past (rest).

 

We warmed up our hands by hiking hard, then beginning climbs while not being able to feel the rock and midway thawing out (adventure). We climbed on new rock with new routes, experienced our first New England fall foliage, ate dinners at local restaurants, and met a whole bunch of people from all over the US and even Canada (productivity/new experiences)! It may not be the ideal vacation for most people, but it was one we will never forget and learned a lot from.

Don't sleep away your vacation, but let your body and mind relax while you have the time!
Don’t sleep away your vacation, but let your body and mind relax while you have the time!

Rest- Like I said before, all “great vacations” look different to everyone. Rest to you may be defined as sleeping in, catching up on some good reads, or getting up early but taking a nap in the middle of the day. Some people may even identify a long walk or yoga as rest. Rest is whatever your mind and body need to replenish its reserves from the more hectic and stressful experiences of your day-to-day life. It is a getaway, a restoration to re-connect you to your family, your friends, nature, and/or yourself. Just make sure not to sleep away all of your vacation, as rest is not the part of a great vacation that makes you feel restored entirely.

Adventure allows us to put everything else in life in perspective.
Adventure allows us to put everything else in life in perspective.

Adventure- Adventure is definitely a matter of degree. For some people, adventure is rolled into new experiences and for others, it’s taking a short hike or backpacking into a desert, climbing hundreds of feet up a rock, or hiking up Everest. Whatever adventure is to you, its significance in vacations is important- it allows your brain to put day-to-day concerns into perspective and it provides you with feelings of accomplishment and energy to face future challenges (related or unrelated to this adventure). So the next time you just want to lounge on the beach on vacation, consider finding something outside your comfort zone to experience as part of the trip too.

It was my first time feeling comfortable on lead outdoors this trip, something I've been working towards for over a year now.
It was my first time feeling comfortable on lead outdoors this trip, something I’ve been working towards for over a year now.

Productivity/New Experiences- The only reason I roll productivity and new experiences together is that sometimes challenging yourself to experience something new is productive on its own. And sometimes it requires productivity like planning in order to have the best new experiences. For instance, before every vacation, I make what I call an “itinerary,” but it’s really not a real itinerary. It’s a list of all the places and things to do (and food to eat) in the area that look interesting with all the key information about them bulleted such as hours of operation, website, price structure, type of food, etc. There are no times or official schedules of events. When we get to the location, we see how we feel and pick things to do as the time at a location progresses. This way, I’ve done all the research “work” before the trip, but there is no stress to get X, Y, or Z done within the specified amount of time. It has worked out well for my husband and I as a couple, since I am type A and tend to schedule too much and my husband is definitely type B and would tend to lay around not doing anything with himself and regret it later. It’s also worked out well on trips where one or both of us get sick and the original general plans are just not working out for us anymore. Since all the needed information is right in front of us, it’s just a matter of a decision and quick preparation so we are “productive”, but not stressed or feeling overly obligated with our time.

My second 5.9 lead! I was super proud to be confronting my fears this trip!
My second 5.9 lead! I was super proud to be confronting my fears this trip!

Nature- To me, this is the most important aspect of a vacation, and it often satisfies all of the other desires too. Within nature, we can feel intimate- with ourselves, with nature, and/or with whoever our partner in crime is. Within nature, we can be at peace while having an adventure, exploring new places or even just exploring ourselves within the quiet. Nature is unpredictable, beautiful, dangerous, and yielding. Accepting that a vacation within nature will be in part what nature wants you to experience and also a large part how flexible you are to the experience it is providing will bring you to a better understanding of yourself and things around you. Bring a raincoat all the time so you don’t miss the beautiful sounds and smells of a fresh rain. Plan to accomplish something, but ditch the plan as soon as plan A isn’t working out as well as you had hoped. You may find a vacation in the rain is the best one you’ve ever had. (I’m talking from experience—a backpacking trip in the rain on the Appalachian trail pulled me out of my sinking depression quicker than months of talk-therapy did. See picture below.)

Intimacy- I’m not just referring to sexual intimacy, though of course that may be on your agenda too. 😉 Intimacy is not even entirely about personal or significant relationships. Intimacy is about “a close association with or deep understanding of a place, subject, etc.” We can feel intimate with people we just met, who happened to be on the same trail as us. We can feel intimate with the squirrels sharing our space. We can feel intimate with ourselves. And in order to gain intimacy, one needs to quiet all the thoughts we typically we have running through our heads like cars in NASCAR. A peaceful, safe, and beautiful moment must be created to yield deepness and clarity within words, within silence, within touch. And these sometimes brief moments allow us reflection into what holds our world together: connection. It is easy to forget connection when we live our lives within our separate cars and houses and cubicles. And it is this lacking connection that continues to make us feel we need vacations at all. It doesn’t seem society is going to change anytime soon, so vacation is where you can embrace this and rejuvenate your feelings of being part of this world- your significance and insignificance within it.

Wherever you are off to on your next vacation, be sure to balance rest, adventure, productivity/ new experiences, nature, and intimacy into it in order to have a *great* trip.

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Balancing Time

I used to spend hours upon hours online wasting time, playing video games, or watching television. When I had homework, it would take me triple the time to complete it because I was doing three other tasks at the same time. I would constantly say “Who has the time to ____?” and others would nod sadly in agreement and understanding. It took meeting people who made decisions to prioritize their time and create happiness in their life for me to realize that I was in control of every minute of my day. There was truly nothing holding me from anything except me. And now…well, this is my weekly schedule:

4 days a week, I wake up at 5:50AM. On those days, I make breakfast and get my lunch together and take a 30 minute walk with my husband and dog. I work 8AM to 6:30 PM with a half hour commute both ways. 3 days a week, I go climbing for 3-4 hours at the climbing gym after work or on the weekends. 2 days a week, I do a 30 minute climbing gym workout during my lunch break. The other days, I take a 30 minute walk during lunch. When I get home on the days I’m not climbing, I take a walk or hike and work out with my husband. On the day I have out from work during the week, I wake up at 7:30-8, make and eat breakfast, head out on a 2-3 hour hike with the pup, meet up with my grandma for lunch, head to the climbing gym and boulder, come back home and shower and write a blog post, make dinner, eat dinner, meet up with a friend sometimes, take a hike, and stretch for an hour. On the weekend, typical fare is climbing either at a crag a few hours away for the whole weekend or climbing 4-5 hours one day and taking a small hike or hiking all day for 15-20 miles. Sunday night, we cook our meals for the week. We also make homemade oatmeal a few times a week, which lasts a couple of days each. Rinse, repeat. Somewhere sprinkled in there, I go to 2-3 social events per week, often hosting, and trips out-of-town 2-3 times a month.

I realize my priorities are different from most and that my choices are likely not what you may choose to do and that some people are even more (voluntarily) busy than me. I choose to be busy and very active, and despite that, I still manage to make homemade food most meals of the week, work 40 hours a week, and sleep 7-8 hours a night. I understand I don’t have kids, but I know people with kids who also still find time to climb, make homemade meals, and work too. I even know someone who has three young children and managed a climbing trip to a national park recently with all of them! If that isn’t dedication, I don’t know what is.

The point is that the time is there for you to do those things you keep saying you don’t have time for; your time just needs to be allocated differently, your priorities need to change, and you need to become more efficient with the tasks that need to be done. Here is a good start: the average American watches about 40 hours a week of television. That is like having another full-time job in terms of time allocation! How different would the world be if every person decided to take their TV time and use it for health, for productivity, creativity, and/or charity? Here’s how you can start realizing the benefits of consciously balancing your time:

Do you feel like time is slipping through your fingers? Read on for tips to find more time for what you love.
Do you feel like time is slipping through your fingers? Read on for tips to find more time for what you love.

1) Figure out where your time is going.

Just like a food journal, start a time journal. Draw a line through the middle of a legal pad and on the left side, write down what you are doing with your time every 15 minutes or so and write how much time it took. Include sleep, eating, cooking, driving, and distraction time as well (ex: how much time did you spend checking Facebook instead of working?). Do this for a week or more.

2) Determine what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Look at your time journal and circle the things that were positive or necessary tasks (and make sure they really are necessary!). Highlight (with a dark color) the things you spent time on that were time sinks or unhealthy/negative in your life. Reevaluate things you thought you needed in your life, but may not actually need (and yes, maybe even consider the activities your children are participating in).

3) Make a list of all those things you said you have no time for, but desperately want in your life.

On the same time journal, on the right side, make a list of things you don’t think you have time for but would like to add into your life and put an estimate of how much time you think it would take on a daily or weekly basis to complete. Now take the time from these and compare them to the time of the tasks you highlighted. How much of the time you used on time sinks can now easily be replaced with goal-oriented/productive time?

4) Execute!

There is no better time than now. There will always be reasons (excuses) for why now is not a good time, but now is the only time to change. Every time you find yourself drawn to the television or Facebook, ask yourself what you could be doing that would make you feel better about yourself. And then…do it! That is all there is to it.

5) Get more efficient.

Still finding that the time you were using on time sinks is not enough to account for those desired goal times? It’s time to re-evaluate the amount of time you spend on the necessary tasks like work and home chores. Here are some ideas:

 

 

The first step to organizing clutter is removing the excess.
The first step to organizing clutter is removing the excess.

-Organize.

Organization first begins with getting rid of things you don’t need (read this for more on that). After you’ve narrowed things down (multiple times), you are ready to make it clutter-free. Organization is difficult to teach to someone who is not naturally gifted (or cursed) with the type A personality. It is also highly individual. Binders and tabbed folders work wonders for some people, and some would rather stack things in a methodical way. As long as you can find what you need to without searching through everything you own, you are on the right path. 🙂 The key to organization is that it needs to be an automatic reflex, not something you deal with every week or month. When you get a piece of paper, it needs to be an automatic decision- Can it be thrown away or recycled? Do I need it? If I need it, where does it need to go in order to be with like items? It is also important that you have milestones of when you will get rid of things or things will pile up no matter how organized they are. Milestones should be based on how long certain documents or items are important to keep. Tax documents, for instance, should be kept for 3 years and in some cases seven years. Extremely important documents like marriage certificates, titles to cars or houses, etc. should have a special place in your house not easily accessible by others. Organization also, of course, needs to be applied to other items besides paper, but paper (and electronic files) are what tends to be applicable to work and necessary tasks.

– Multitask.

There are things that require focus and attention and there are things that just don’t. Cleaning, in my opinion, does not. Cooking also does not (if you’re following a recipe or making a staple item you’ve made many times before). Therefore, do multiple things at once. For example, while the water is boiling for some pasta, clean the counters or the dishes. Or make three dishes at once (just don’t get confused!) to limit the amount of cooking and cleaning to an hour or two for the week. Alternatively, cook or clean while doing something you enjoy that doesn’t require an extra modality such as listening to music or the radio or podcasts. Stretch while you watch television. The options are limitless! 🙂

 

Multitasking does not mean you're brain has to be frazzled. Focusing on one thing with some other tasks in the background is how to be most effective.
Multitasking does not mean you’re brain has to be frazzled. Focusing on one thing with some other tasks in the background is how to be most effective.

– Focus.

It may sound like focus is the opposite of multitasking, but I’ve found that focus is actually the key to multitasking effectively. In order to get anything done multitasking, you need to focus on each task at hand as though you aren’t also doing other tasks while keeping in mind in the background that other things are indeed happening. You just need to break every task up as a very small item. Let’s take the example I used above. If the water is not boiling yet, put that out of your mind in the moment and focus on cleaning (knowing in the back of your mind that it will begin boiling in a few minutes). The important thing is that your focus only remains on something for a short time, so it must be a short task that will fill the time. Water boiling takes about 10-15 minutes (depending on altitude), so in that time, you may be able to wipe the countertops down. While a meal is cooking for 20-30 minutes, you have time to wash the pots that were being used while sauteing vegetables for the soup and set the table. This is just an example of course, but using your time in this way will allow you to be done cleaning and cooking at the same time so you can just sit down and enjoy it. Same goes for any other tasks that require waiting before something is complete—fill the waiting with other tasks that need to be done and you’ll be productive like no one’s business!

– Reward yourself for being focused. 

In the day and age where so many people are being diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, I wonder how many people are honestly just bogged down in overstimulation. If you’re watching television while listening to music and doing homework and at the same texting your friend, are you really focusing on anything? Our brains are not evolved for doing similar tasks at once and moreover truly focusing on more than one item at a time. Because our jobs and our world now encourages if not requires us to be scattered in our work and our life, our brains have become scattered too. In order to re-program the brain to enjoy and be effective at focusing again, provide it with rewards. Give yourself half an hour to accomplish a task that usually takes an hour, but really focus. If you really focused, I bet you completed the task in half the time. Give yourself a reward- a half an hour to stretch or meditate, a 10-minute break to look at the news or take a walking break. The more your brain learns that focusing accomplishes more with less time and allows you to have the best of both worlds (productivity and rest), the more it will want to focus and the more productive you become. Don’t forget, the less you want to accomplish something, the bigger the reward for completing it efficiently.

Image Sources:

Wants Versus Needs

Even in a country where the vast majority of homes/families now have at least one computer, television, cell phone, a dishwasher, a stove, a fridge, a washing machine, a dryer, and numerous other items people even some decades ago would have thought was a huge luxury, we still hear people saying “I/we need ___.” I catch myself saying it too, and when I do, I think “Really? There is no way you need that.” It used to be that I really did think I needed __ when I said I did. The reality, though, is that all we truly need can be fit into a backpack.

The first time I set out to backpack with my husband with our brand new packs from our wedding registry, the first many steps away from the car were difficult. I felt I was leaving everything stable behind me. As I walked away from “safety,” I thought about everything I was leaving behind- no air conditioning, no heater, no refrigerator, no stores, no water from a spout, no toilets, no Internet, no locking doors, etc. But after the first night of sleeping under the stars in complete remoteness (or as remote as I had been) and stillness and being snuggled in a sleeping bag, listening to the rise and fall of my husband’s breath next to me, I realized there were a lot of things I was more than happy to give up for this. Moreover, none of those things I was leaving behind were really “needs” to begin with. While backpacking, there are no jobs, no concerns beyond surviving, no limitations in where you can set up shelter or make food. That is freeing.

Shelter, food, potable water, and clothes- that's about all we truly need.
Shelter, food, potable water, and clothes- that’s about all we truly need.

At that point, I started to reconsider what my needs really were. If I could pack everything I needed to survive for X many days in a pack on my back, then were these other possessions in my life really something I “needed” at all, or were they just objects weighing me down? Everything in my life was up for re-evaluation. And what I found was that most of my possessions (and actions) were the latter. Furthermore, most of my possessions were not even useful to me! So I began the process of shedding the excess….and most of it was excess!

    Shedding the excess

I’ve always been the kind of person who holds onto mementos, sentimental items, and even papers thinking I “might need this someday.” Sound like a familiar thought? As I went through each item that used to be so significant to me, I found the significance had weakened dramatically. I couldn’t even remember the sentimentality of some of the items at all. Heck, I couldn’t even remember most of the people who had signed my sentimental shirts from plays I had been involved in. For the items I did remember the significance of but the item was not useful, I took a picture and put it in the “donate” or “sell” pile depending on how much its actual monetary value was. I had also kept old class notes and tests and other assignments. Now that I’m at the end of my career path (read: as far as I’m going to get in my studies), I realized not only did I not need to keep these because I hadn’t referenced a single paper once in all these years, but they had been taking up space for that many years as well and had been carried along to every apartment too! It felt like such a waste.

For items like pictures, I made scrapbooks, and for the numerous letters and cards I had received since birth, I scanned them into a “memories” folder in my computer organized by event (i.e. birthdays, graduation, etc). Don’t get me wrong, it took a long time. But memories mean a lot to me, and I know that having words from people I love will be especially meaningful when they are gone. I also know that the amount of physical space this stuff was taking up was not acceptable to me.

What else did I scrap/donate/sell? Well, for one, I found that so much of my technology had been replaced by new technology or was just not being used. A lot of the old redundant technology was something other people still wanted and would be willing to pay good money for, so I sold a lot of it on craigslist. I kept only a printer, one laptop, and a monitor for when I wanted two screens. We got rid of or sold every TV we owned because instead we use our laptop connected to an LCD projector for entertainment desires. We now use free Hulu accounts for TV and scrapped the cable subscription. In addition to saving money, we found that without the urge to have the TV on and watch something (even something totally uninteresting), we watch a LOT less of it (read: 1-2 hours a week. seriously). We’re considering getting rid of the projector too.

I ditched the vast majority of my books and continue to read and then donate books as I go through the ones I’m still interested in reading. I buy digital copies of books now or go to the library. I kept about 50 books that are either informational hiking/backpacking/climbing guides or are books I have read multiple times and will read again. All of these fit in one small bookshelf with my husbands books he loves as well. I trashed the PC game CD’s that are totally outdated and unusable at this point and saved some of these as ISO files on my harddrive if they were still useable. I also donated all the DVD’s I own and copied some to an external harddrive if I liked them enough as well as the VHS tapes because, really, who has a VCR anymore anyway?

My husband and I had collected a number of pictures of us that we had blown up to put on our walls, but found that over the years, we would put up less and less of those as we moved. They looked cheap or the picture was very old or because it seemed too weird to just have pictures of us up in the house. Tastes change; it makes sense. But why keep things that don’t fit us anymore (in the physical or emotional sense)? If you haven’t used it/put it up/looked at it over the last year or even better if it still in the box from your last move, you cannot argue you need this thing. The only exception might be medical items, but even medical items have expiration dates and those need to be bought again at some point as well.

Clothes. I’ve found most of us have a small amount of clothes we actually wear compared to the vast clothes collection we have sitting in our closet. Our clothes stop fitting, they stop fitting our mood, they make us uncomfortable, they don’t look like they did in the store mirror, or we never really liked them to begin with- whatever the reason, we all have clothes that are not being worn and when we’re serious with ourselves will never be again. There are other people in the world who would be most appreciative to have your clothes, to have any clothes. Give them away to people who could use them.

Are these gifts or weights in your life?
Are these gifts or weights in your life?

Do you have a relative who likes to buy you little useless trinkets for decoration? I did too. And I kept holding onto them and justified keeping them by saying “Well, they’re from this person and it would hurt them to not see this out at my place.” or “Oh, they are good decoration.” But what I realized is that 1) If you keep something out that you don’t have a use for or like, then that person will think you want more of it. That defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it? They are spending money on something they think you will like, but you don’t and you are keeping it because you feel obligated. Is that really a gift or a weight? 2) Honestly, do these trinkets make your house look more homey, or it does it make your house look cluttered and messy? When I looked at my collection of trinkets, I determined the latter. I took a picture of all the trinkets together and sold or donated them. And this person stopped buying me trinkets! *If you think your trinkets/collectibles make your house look better, then make sure to organize them in a fashion that people will notice them as though they are actually furnishing your house. You are proud of them- let others see that.

Which brings me to my next point. I told this person and everyone in my life who might buy me a gift to stop buying me gifts. I appreciated the sentiment, but the reality is that the vast majority of the time, people’s gifts just sit in your place wasting space and not being used. Most people think they know people better than they think they do. I can count the gifts on one hand that both meant a lot to me and were used in my life regularly. I tell people that their sentiments mean more to me- write me a letter. Donate money to a good cause. If you feel so inclined, give me a check to use on things I have found the need for. But no. more. stuff. please. and thank you.

Needs versus wants

    Maintaining the Simplicity

This leads me to the most important step in all of this. I decided to STOP BUYING THINGS unless I deemed it TOTALLY NECESSARY or if buying X would allow me to get rid of more than a couple of other things because it had multiple purposes (like a Vitamix- I’ll write about that later). At this point, I think the only things I would deem totally necessary are basics like toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, food, etc and also recreational items I will use in climbing/hiking/backpacking that will allow me to do the things I want to do safely. Even then, though, there is a long process of considering whether it really is something I need to climb/hike/backpack and also to finding the best value and most efficient product for me specifically. If it is going to be a redundant purchase (ex: I already have a harness, but I want a better one), I either need to get rid of the first item or find a purpose for keeping it (ex: having an extra harness is good for bringing new people to climb without them having to rent gear).

What did we keep besides a small amount of clothes, books, technology and basics (toilet paper, etc)? Day-to-day items like kitchen supplies (the least we needed to cook with), dog supplies, organization tools for those things we kept so everything is as tidy as possible, and fridge/stove/washer/dryer, bed, couch. Oh yeah, and recreational gear (I think this probably comprises the majority of our stuff at this point). And this feels like a luxury- I am willing to up and leave most of that behind to live in a trailer traveling the rest of my life if that becomes a possibility.
We definitely don’t live as minimal as some, but compared to most Americans, we live with a small amount of items and the vast majority of those items are used on a daily basis. The other aspect of wanting/needing less items is that I save 100% of my paycheck and a large portion of my husband’s every month despite the fact that we travel two to three weekends every month to climb with friends or backpack, own a large dog, buy food for the week at Whole Foods, and eat out a couple times a week. When we travel, we either camp at a cheap site or stay at a friend’s (or friend’s relative’s house), we travel in one car with many people sharing gas, we bring our own food or eat out at cheap places, and we do free activities (climbing, backpacking, hiking) unless there is a day pass fee and most of the time there isn’t. Our luxuries involve every so often celebrating at a nicer restaurant than $8 a meal and taking a vacation to a place requiring a plane ticket. Even so, we are traveling to Colorado soon and plan on car camping the majority of that time. Our dog is being taken care of by a friend instead of at a dog daycare. In other words, though my husband and I could easily afford more stuff, more luxuries, we don’t indulge in many. We want to retire early. That is our goal, and because we know that, we work towards it. We know it is worth avoiding immediate gratification for long-term success (however you define that for yourself).

American media and society encourages us to buy, buy, buy and want, want, want. It is the initial excitement about buying that makes us continue to do this. But when you look at the results in your life- the clutter, the disorganization, the money you sacrifice and thus the time you sacrifice at your job for that money and that stuff- are you really excited or happy? By wanting less, by acknowledging you “need” next to nothing and find a balance between wants and needs, you will find your life is simpler and your financial and long-term goals come into focus and come to you easier and more effectively.

    Extending the Concept

The concept of balancing wants and needs can be applied in every avenue of life, not just financially. Here are some examples. My husband replaced gaming with rock climbing. Why? Because he wanted to keep gaming, but he realized it was an unhealthy addiction. He realized his life needed more healthy habits and so he sacrificed immediate desires for long-term health and ultimately happiness. Similarly, if I gave in to my desire to eat Kraft mac and cheese and chai tea for every meal, I would be nutritionally deficient and constantly strung out on caffeine and sugar (not to mention more than a few pounds heavier). I indulge every so often, but generally find healthier alternatives that don’t taste as good to my taste buds, but are what my body needs to stay healthy and happy. Additionally, I found a job that balances my desire for stability and variety. It has pros and cons like any other job and I still sit at a desk all day, but I make a point to walk or climb during my hour lunch break to satisfy my need for activity and movement.

The list could go on and on. Look at your life and find areas where you are allowing excess rule and not balancing wants and needs as you would like to ideally. I promise your life will be simpler and more fulfilling.

Sources for Pictures:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thenext28days/9401264203/
http://www.flickr.com/photos/87310047@N05/9423098109/in/photolist-fmFQLM-bUwu3d-d7QRxh-9BRsvG-au4b5X-8hNL3P-8fFRvV-afSQxg-daFg95-carbQW-ctAVu9-9jWoWQ-afVA6A-fmWoxm-ePc2b9-ehPdhg-eaB6E1-ehWtGy-ehRzDk-f87Kpk-d4S7PW-9PjH49-eCYBZd-eiqmkE-8mGqLT-8sqZph-aJ8hrP-dEWce7-85xnSr-fKJ5RR-fxLfA1-bvp1z5-fpoRJY-9PT5QX-a6mwXW-fmVXCA-fp3VN5-7CMsEY-f6MojQ-7ECz77-9E56kR-7EBTQo-a9nNXH-b1pbze-8xXKoR-91JEpD-acrY2i
http://www.flickr.com/photos/86838704@N00/3933387503/in/photolist-6ZzD4V-7bNnmu-7m5JSq-7mhbd6-7mkyp5-7nNwya-f8yDux-bFcYy8-hgzA2X-fGXeu1-9wjPd3-9wjPLo-9wjPy5-9wgNUp-eihLqE-f8y2hV-c73whC-cwRpM5-bpKt7B-aCfh3i-aS3SRe-djLQhB-8i1Le6-fGXiwj-fGXhiE-fGEDcB-d5j4Es-dRPg5d-8MugCV-dNazWo-bVzhx8-bicR8n-eaJvEb-c73yzL-9UhyMT-9Ukn3y-9Ukn8b-85J4cv-eDX9kQ-eDX9m7-dX6ZCi-dXcDnY-9f9z2w-dDaMJb-f8NKDG-89A3EB-7LwttS-fiC2yT-93uVZD-aS3SHr-du7HWs

13 Foods You Probably Haven’t Heard Of Or Cooked With But Are Great For Your Health

Part of my goal for balance involves eating a wider variety of food and making healthy meals with more balanced nutrition. I aim to make at least one new meal a week and try at least one new food item a month. In that vein, I’ll introduce you to some foods I’ve learned about along the way.

Quinoa- the protein powerhouse!
Quinoa- the protein powerhouse!

Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”)

The Incans ate quinoa as their staple food and considered it to be sacred and call it the “mother seed.” It was made illegal for Native Americans to grow when the Spanish conquistadors came into the picture and was rediscovered by Americans and started being grown in Colorado in the 1980’s.

Quinoa is an often overlooked protein powerhouse. It has more protein than rice, millet, or wheat. A single cup of cooked quinoa contains 8.14g of protein. It is also a great source of iron (15% of RDI- Recommended Daily Intake- in 1 cup), fiber (5g per cup), potassium, magnesium (118mg per cooked cup), and many other nutrients. Quinoa also consists of riboflavin, a vitamin that helps to reduce the frequency of attacks in migraine sufferers by improving the energy metabolism within the brain and muscle cells. Quinoa is also a low-calorie food (172 calories per 1/4 cup dry) and gluten-free! Though it is a carbohydrate, it has a low glycemic index- great for people with diabetes and also helps in weight management. And last but not least, it only takes 10-15 minutes to cook! (great for bringing on the trail/camping!)

How to add quinoa into your diet: Quinoa is extremely versatile and can be placed in most any dish, as it provides texture but not a very strong taste. It can easily be used as a rice replacement or added into salads, smoothies, cookies, breakfast “oat”meal, or “granola” bars. It can even be popped like popcorn. *Make sure to rinse quinoa before cooking, as it is coated with a toxic chemical called saponin, which is actually used as detergent in South America for washing clothes.

Recipes:

Quinoa cookies

My own personal quinoa salad recipe (in any proportions that sound good to you):
Cooked quinoa
Parmesan or fake parmesan (recipe here)
Spinach
Blueberries
Walnuts
Sunflower Seeds
Dried Cranberries

Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/diana-herrington/7-benefits-of-quinoa_b_3363619.html
http://vegetarian.about.com/od/healthnutrition/qt/Quinoa-Nutrition-Facts.htmhttp://www.organicgardening.com/cook/11-healthiest-whole-grains?page=0,10
http://www.today.com/food/guide-healthy-grains-how-use-farro-quinoa-more-1C9002485
www.sweetonveg.com/2010/07/blueberry-maple-quinoa/ (picture credit)

Wheat Berries

Wheat berries- the origins of wheat!
Wheat berries- the origins of wheat!

Everyone knows what wheat is, but few know where it comes from. It comes from these high protein, nutty-tasting nutrient powerhouses! 🙂 Wheat berries are the least processed form of wheat and come in a few forms: hard or soft, winter or spring, and red or white. Wheat berries are full of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein and numerous vitamins and minerals (B1, B3, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, and selenium). 1/2 cup of cooked wheat berries yields 6g of fiber, 1g of fat, 35.5g of carbs and 6.5g of protein. The B-vitamins, fiber, and minerals in wheat berries aid in energy metabolism, blood pressure regulation, creating strong, healthy bones, forming RNA and DNA and connective tissue, digestion, and immune function. The carbohydrates in wheat berries makes these a great source of energy for before and after exercise! These are not, however, a gluten-free food.

How to Add Them Into Your Diet:

Wheat berries can be sprouted for most nutrition value, cooked as a grain or side dish, or ground into flours to be used in baked goods, pancakes, or bread. For easiest preparation, wheat berries do need to be soaked in water overnight to become soft enough to cook with. They can also be cooked on high on the stovetop for at least 90 minutes if you forget to soak them. 🙂

Recipes:

Sprouted Wheat Berry Crackers (kid friendly)
Wheat Berry Pancakes: I highly recommend the recipe from Vegan With a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (the whole book is great!) and replace the flour with wheat berry flour (made with a Vitamix) or a combination of wheat berry and buckwheat flour


Flax seed- a small seed with a whammy of nutrients!
Flax seed- a small seed with a whammy of nutrients!

Flaxseed

You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids, but did you know it’s not just found in fish? A tablespoon of flaxseed yields 1.8 grams of omega-3’s too! Additionally, flaxseeds contain 75 to 800 times more lignans (a plant estrogen) than other plant foods and is packed full of fiber. Recent studies have even shown flaxseed may be protective against breast, prostate, and colon cancer because they can inhibit tumor incidence in growth (in animal studies at least). The omega-3’s in flaxseed also aid in anti-inflammatory action and cardiovascular health by reducing plaque buildup in the arteries by up to 75%, helping to maintain a normal heart rhythm, and lowering cholesterol levels (specifically LDL or “bad cholesterol”). Flaxseed has even been shown to be beneficial in improving blood sugar for diabetics and reducing hot flashes in menopausal women as well as protecting skin tissue from damaging radiation! As with all food with lots of fiber, flax seeds also help with digestion. It’s amazing such a small seed can be so filled with so much good stuff!

How to add them into your diet:

 

Flaxseed can be bought in two forms: ground or whole. In order to get the most nutritional whammy for your body, it’s best to eat flaxseed in ground form. Whole seeds take longer to go bad, however. Whether you buy them ground or grind them yourself is up to you. Eating flaxseeds whole may prevent absorption of nutrients, since the whole seeds can pass right through your digestive system. Per the Flax Council of Canada, one to two tablespoons of flaxseed a day is suggested.

 

 

Recipes:

 

Because flaxseed provides a slightly nutty flavor but you don’t need much of it for nutritional benefits, you can add up to a tablespoon or two of flaxseed into things you already eat such as smoothies, pancakes, casseroles, oatmeal, desserts, sandwiches.

See some examples here
 
Picture credit here
Farro
Farro

Farro (also called emmer wheat)

 

Sound foreign? It is! Farro originates from an ancient version of wheat from the Fertile Crescent in Asia, and can now be found farmed in Italy and even America at Washington’s Bluebird Grain Farm. Farro consists of loads of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium and carbohydrates. Farro also contains cyanogenic glucosides, which stimulate your immune system and lower cholesterol.

 

How to add it into your diet:

 

It has a nutty flavor and is quite chewy, and thus can be added to soups, risottos, pilafs, and salads. It is a great alternative to pasta. I can be found pearled or semi-pearled. Semi-pearled has more fiber and nutrients. Farro is also found in long, medium, or cracked grain lengths. For most freshness, buy the long or medium grain length and crack it yourself in a coffee grinder or blender.

Recipes:

Farro with Balsamic Cherries (*consider replacing the butter with olive oil; see why here):
 

 

The amazing chia seed! Even better than chia pets! :-)
The amazing chia seed! Even better than chia pets! 🙂

Chia Seeds

If you immediately think of Chia pets when you hear “chia,” you probably haven’t tried these wonderful seeds before. Chia seeds are native to Mexico and Guatemala and were considered a staple in Aztec and Mayan culture. “Chia” actually comes from the Mayan word “strength” and they considered chia seeds to be almost magical. Studies have indeed suggested chia seeds boost energy, stabilize blood sugar and blood pressure in diabetics, aid digestion, and lower cholesterol in addition to containing lots of nutrients like calcium (18% RDI in one serving), manganese, phosphorus (27% RDI in one serving), and yes even omega-3-fatty acids too (5g per 1oz of seeds)! Like most of the other foods on this list, they are also packed with fiber (11g in 28g of seeds, to be exact- a whopping 1/3 of the RDI for adults) and protein (10% RDI in 28g of seeds) as well. An amino acid most people associate with eating lots of turkey on Thanksgiving is also in chia seeds; it’s called tryptophan and it helps to regulate appetite, sleep, and improve mood.

How to add them to your diet:

Chia seeds are tasteless, and once added to a liquid get large and gelatinous. Similar to flaxseed, you can add them to most anything to increase nutritional value. Some suggestions: topping salads, oatmeal or cereal, toast or ice cream or mixing into smoothies,yogurt, fruit juice, water, pudding, or even vegetables. Chia seeds can also be sprouted and added to salads, sandwiches, and other dishes.

Recipes:


Millet- not just for the birds!
Millet- not just for the birds!

Millet

 

You might attract birds with millet, but it is great for people too! Millet originated in Africa and is also regularly consumed in Asia, India, and Eastern European countries. Millet is actually the umbrella name for a large variety of grains including couscous and they provide a super amount of nutrients not widely seen in other foods like manganese, tryptophan, magnesium (19% RDI), and phosphorus (17% RDI). It has been shown to have heart-protective properties, reduce blood pressure and also risk of heart attack, reduce high cholesterol, reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, prevent gallstones and are protective against breast cancer in women and childhood asthma, and reduce risk of colon cancer.
 

How to add millet to your diet:

Millet can have a rice texture or a creamier, mashed potato-like texture depending on how you cook it. Therefore, you can use it in breakfast porridge or can be ground to be added to baked goods or even tossed into salads as well as a replacement for rice or potatoes.

 

Recipes:

 
Bulgur- a Middle Eastern Staple!
Bulgur- a Middle Eastern Staple!

Bulgur

 

You may have had bulgur in a Middle Eastern restaurant, as it is a staple in this kind of cuisine. It is used to make tabbouleh salad, for instance. It is a great source of iron, magnesium, fiber (75% RDI in a cup!) and protein (25% RDI in a cup). The huge amount of fiber in this dish means it is great for your colon! Even better, it can be cooked in only a few minutes and will keep for months in an airtight container.

How to add bulgur to your diet:

Similar to quinoa, bulgur has a mild taste but provides lots of texture. It is often used in salads, soups, pilafs, and breakfasts and if you’re getting creative can also be added into desserts.

Recipes:

Sources:

Buckwheat/Kasha
Buckwheat/Kasha

Buckwheat/Kasha

 

I was raised on kasha varnishke, a Jewish dish (recipe below), and I actually never knew that when it is raw, it is called buckwheat. Oh the things you learn while writing blog posts! 🙂
Kasha is primarily eaten in East Europe and Russia. Though it can be made into flour and added to noodles and pancakes, eaten in their raw form leads to a lower glycemic index (and leads to a reduced risk of diabetes). Buckwheat is high in a flavenoid called rutin which protects against disease strengthening capillaries and preventing blood clots (great if you are prone to excess clotting!). Buckwheat also lowers blood pressure with its high levels of magnesium (20% RDI in a cup) as well as reducing LDL and increased HDL as well as lower total cholesterol. Buckwheat has also been shown to prevent gallstones, protect against childhood asthma and breast cancer in women like other whole grains. It can be kept in the fridge for three months or in the freezer for six and is totally gluten-free.

How kasha/buckwheat can be added to your diet:

Kasha has a very nutty flavor and chewy texture and thus it best replaces rice and dishes with chewy textures such as porridges.

Recipes:
Kasha Varnishkes (*add cranberry sauce as a side for best results)

Sources:

Lychee- as unique tasting as they look!
Lychee- as unique tasting as they look!

Lychee (pronounced “lee-chee”)

 

I was first introduced to lychee by a friend of mine in elementary school whose parents grew lychee in their backyard. I couldn’t determine whether I liked it or not with the strange grape-like texture and the smell that always reminded me of nail polish remover, and of course the bumpy rind. It grew on me, though, and I think it will grow on you too…especially when you hear how great it is for you! 🙂

Lychee is well known in China, India and Indonesia and was considered to be a symbol of romance and love. Two studies have concluded that lychee prevents the growth of cancer, especially breast cancer. It also contains vitamin C and a chemical called oligonol, which has been proven to help the immune system and those suffering from viral illness as well as act as an antioxidant. It can even relieve pain and shrink swollen glands say the Chinese. Phosphorus, potassium, copper calcium, magnesium, and protein can be found in lychee fruit as well, which aid in controlling heart rate and blood pressure and production of red blood cells.

 

How to add them to your diet:

 

As you can imagine, this exotic fruit is not one you can find at just any grocery store. Asian supermarkets, however, will have lychee fresh (usually from June-October), in cans, dried, or in jelly sauces. Lychee are great on their own, but can also be added to fruit salads, juices, and jams, jellies, sorbet, sauces, and syrups.

 

Recipes:

More lychee recipes than you could ever make here
Goji berries- as good as they look!
Goji berries- as good as they look!

Goji Berries (also called the wolfberry)

Goji berries are also native to China and have been rumored to increase lifespan and be a miracle health remedy. What is known is goji berries’ antioxidant properties, specifically astaxanthin, which is known to help reverse and protect from sun damage and in general reduces free radicals in the body (as all antioxidants do). Gojis also contain more beta-carotene than carrots, which reduces inflammation and encourages new skin cell growth. Within a goji are 20 different vitamins and minerals and 18 different amino acids- holy moly!

How to add them to your diet:

You can use them like you would any other dried fruit. Eat them plain, add them to yogurt or cereal, smoothies, granola or trailmix, and baked goods. You can buy them online here or at specialty stores like Whole Foods.

Recipes:

Popped amaranth- like popcorn, but healthier!
Popped amaranth- like popcorn, but healthier!

Amaranth

The word amaranth comes from the Greek amaranths meaning “one that does not wither.” It is a native crop in Peru and the Aztecs consumed it and used it in religious ceremonies. And for good reason! Amaranth is high in calcium (as in three time the average amount), iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium in addition to 13-14% of one’s RDI complete protein (because it contains lysine). The minerals and nutrients in this grain keep anemia and osteoporosis at bay. Studies have also shown that amaranth “is among the highest in nutritive quality of vegetable origin and close to those of animal origin products” (Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama at Guatemala, 1993). Another plus- like whole grains, amaranth lowers total and LDL cholesterol. It’s also gluten-free and as has anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing properties.

How to add amaranth into your diet:

Unlike whole grains, amaranth does not lose its crunch, so it’s not great as a pilaf. However, it can be popped like corn and is used in South American breakfast porridges and desserts. It can also be dried and then sprinkled on top of salads as well as added to baked goods. Amaranth thickens any food item a LOT because it is very starchy, so be liberal with the water to avoid a goopy texture (suggestion: at least 6 cups of water for every 1 cup of amaranth).

Recipes:

Amaranth-Ginger Muffins (*consider substituting eggs and milk as discussed here)
Amaranth Banana Walnut Bread (*consider substituting eggs as discussed in the link here)

Sources:

Homemade kamut bread
Homemade kamut bread

Kamut (pronounced ka-moot)

Kamut is just as ancient as it sounds, originally cultivated by the Egyptians in 8,000 BCE. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing for you though! It is surprisingly high in protein (6g in 1/2 cup), fiber (5g in 1/2 cup), and selenium (>100% RDI in 1/2 cup). The fiber in kamut helps to reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, helps with digestive health, and lowers cholesterol. Selenium is essential to maintaining a healthy immune system and supposedly protects against cancer (especially lung, stomach, skin and esophageal). Kamut is also relatively high in fat, with 1g per half cup.

How to add kamut into your diet:

Like most good-for-you whole grains, kamut has a mild nutty flavor and can replace rice or flour in baked goods or added to salads or soups or breakfasts. It pairs well with dried fruits (especially apricots), toasted nuts (especially pecans), citrus fruits (especially oranges) and other bitter foods like kale, lemon or vinaigrette.

Recipes:

Kamut, Lentil, and Chickpea Soup (*consider replacing chicken broth with vegetable broth)
Kamut Bread with Teff and Black Quinoa (*This dish is made with an African grain called teff.)
 

Sources:

Variety of spelt products!
Variety of spelt products!

Spelt

Spelt is a distant cousin to wheat native to Iran and Southeast Europe. Spelt is actually mentioned in the Bible as one of the first known grains to make bread with. It was also a grain used as a gift to the pagan gods of agriculture to encourage harvest and fertility in ancient Greece and Rome. It is rich in manganese, niacin, and other micronutrients such as copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, and phosphorus. Spelt is also easier to digest for those with wheat intolerance because it has a higher water solubility, which also helps in lowering blood cholesterol and regulating blood sugar levels. Like other good-to-eat whole grains, spelt also reduces cardiovascular risks and protects against cancer and childhood asthma

How to add spelt to your diet:

 

Spelt can be cooked and added to soups or grain-based salads or used like rice. It can also be used as rolled or flake spelt in hot breakfast cereals or added into baked goods as flour. It’s nutty, but slightly sweet.

Recipes:

Spelt crackers

Chickpea, Tomato, and Spelt Soup (*consider replacing chicken broth with vegetable broth)

Sources:

My Cooking Substitutions To Balance Taste and Health

Most people will agree that eating awesome food feels great in the moment, but may feel plain awful after finishing. My stomach has never agreed with my food choices, and so after years of treating it poorly and paying for it dearly, I gave in and started cooking better to avoid nights in the bathroom. Before I go into logistics of how I substitute in recipes to cook healthier, I want to explain something for clarification’s sake:
  • A vegetarian (also called lacto-ovo or ovo-lacto vegetarian) is one who does not eat meat: no fish, no chicken, no beef, no pork, etc. They do eat dairy and eggs.
  • A pescatarian eats fish but no other types of meat.
  • A vegan is one who does not eat meat AND also does not eat any animal products: no eggs, no milk, no honey, no nothing with any piece or product of any animal.

I am a vegetarian/ovo-lacto vegetarian. But to muddy the waters, I avoid egg since I have a mild allergy to it and I generally cook vegan except for the occasional cheese. My substitutions in food are generally to alter a recipe towards being more vegan and more heart-healthy. By more heart healthy, I am referring to reducing cholesterol and saturated and trans fats. I’ll explain why I make each substitution in regards to health below.

Seeking the balance- butter or olive oil?
Seeking the balance- butter or olive oil?

1) Butter– If a recipe calls for butter, I use olive oil instead in the same proportions. To convert, use this measurement: a stick of butter is equivalent to half a cup of butter and thus I would use half a cup of olive oil instead. I also don’t hesitate to decrease the amount of oil from the conversion if I think the item I’m making honestly does not need that much fat to keep its consistency and general taste.

A note about oil: Many people think that oil is inherently unhealthy. But it really all just depends on what you call “healthy” and what oil you are using. Oil is fat inherently. However, the fat from olive oil (specifically extra-virgin) and many other oils is mainly monounsaturated fats, meaning there is one double bond and there are less hydrogen molecules attached and this actually decreases LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and increases HDL (“good cholesterol”). Monounsaturated fats also normalize blood clotting factors and benefit blood glucose and insulin levels, which reduces one’s chances of acquiring type 2 diabetes. In these ways, unsaturated fatty acids are good for your health. One point to note, however, is that all oils have a temperature at which they smoke, and when this happens, it becomes trans fat. Trans fat does the opposite for your health- it increases your LDL and decreases your HDL. Therefore, it is important that when you are cooking meals at high temperatures that you take into account an oil’s smoke point. For instance, olive oil’s smoke point is about 375 degrees Fahrenheit, while grapeseed oil’s is 420 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, it would be healthier to use grapeseed oil over olive oil to saute food if you are planning on frying, baking, or sauteing over 375 degrees.

Why extra-virgin olive oil is better than butter: Olive oil contains 33% saturated fat, while butter contains 66% saturated fat. Saturated fat increases LDL and total cholesterol. Also, olive oil has no cholesterol in it, whereas butter has 33mg of cholesterol for each serving. Higher levels of total cholesterol and LDL and lower levels of HDL all increase the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the leading cause of heart attacks, stroke, and vascular disease. Therefore, replacing butter with olive oil drastically reduces one’s risk of heart disease.
Seeking the balance- eggs or not?
Seeking the balance- eggs or not?

2) Eggs- Eggs are a little trickier to find a replacement for, as they provide meals with fluffy textures. I vary my substitutions of eggs based on what kind of food I am preparing.

Sweet Baked Good: If I’m making sweet baked goods like muffins or cake that don’t depend on egg for textures (unlike quiche or pies for example), simply replace each egg asked for with either 1/2 of a banana mashed or 1/4 cup applesauce.
Savory Meal: If I’m making a savory meal asking for one or two eggs, I mix 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed with 3 tbsps of water and let it gelatinize before adding it to the meal.

Recipe requiring more than 2 eggs: Food that demands eggs for the majority of its texture like quiche or pies need something like silken tofu or Ener-G Egg Replacer. The egg replacer will have explanations on its packaging of conversions for each egg. If using tofu to replace egg, it is better to have a recipe that is already using tofu within its recipe as a replacement.

You can read more about egg substitutions here and here.

Why replace eggs? Honestly, there is a lot of controversy about whether the cholesterol in egg yolks increases one’s blood cholesterol and thus one’s risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Some studies say eating eggs is worse than smoking for your health (examples include this and this) and others recommend eating three eggs a day for the sake of your health (click here)! Whether or not you are sold on the cholesterol debate about eggs, you might be convinced that eating eggs is indirectly associated with animal cruelty (from this) or at the very least that they are one major avenue of salmonella transmission and are also not great for the environment.
With all the different types of milk, why choose cow's?
With all the different types of milk, why choose cow’s?

3) Milk and Milk Products- Milk is one of the easiest substitutions to make. Just replace the required milk from the recipe with the same amount of almond, rice, soy, or hemp milk. Enjoy! The only exception is whole milk, which is more fatty and thus needs a milk with more substance. It can easily be replaced with low or high fat coconut milk.

Cream is also often a very important ingredient in thickening up food. Though some people may argue that alternative milks (almond, rice, soy, or hemp) will work just as well taste-wise, I find that most of the time I am disappointed in the texture. The best replacement for the texture of cream in my opinion is either high fat coconut milk (Thai Kitchen has some good high fat ones; the “lite” version will not be thick enough to give you the right consistency) or coconut oil or yogurt (or a combination of them).

Cheese is honestly the most difficult to emulate in my opinion. Cheeses mixed into food are easily replaced with recipes involving tofu such as these for a replacement ricotta: here, here, or here. These recipes will work well for recipes needing ricotta such as stuffed shells. What I’ve found is that the key to fake cheese is blended cashews and nutritional yeast. The “nacho cheaze” from this recipe is also pretty good. In general, fake cheeses don’t tend to be a dead ringer, so keep this in mind before you take your first bite. There are also commercially produced “cheeses;” my favorite brand is Daiya.
Why ditch the cow’s milk? Did you know that humans needed to evolve mutations (genetic changes) in order to become lactose tolerant? It’s true! Being able to drink another species’ milk is actually NOT normal. Even now, only 35% of people with European ancestry can digest lactose. Other populations have much much lower rates of tolerance. That means the vast majority of people get sick drinking milk or consuming other food with lactose in it. If that is not a good enough reason to ditch the cow milk, then the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol per serving might. Cow’s milk may also increase one’s risk of prostate and ovarian cancers (see this article). Alternative milks are lower in calories, more nutritionally dense, and do not contain lactose, gluten, or casein (Note: If you want to know more about the negatives of casein, reference The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.). If you are still touting your doctor’s advice to drink milk for healthy bones, think again. You can acquire plenty of calcium through almonds, beans, tofu, dark leafy greens, and calcium-fortified alternative milks, none of which have the negatives of cow’s milk (reference here). Calcium is also not the only factor in developing strong bones. Vitamin D is an essential vitamin for absorption of calcium and weight-bearing exercise is also a key to strong healthy bones.
To eat meat or not- that is the question.
To eat meat or not- that is the question.

4) Meat- When I first became vegetarian, I used fake meat products like GimmeLean and Field Roast to replace meat in recipes a lot of the time. However, as I ventured into cooking healthier and trying new vegetables and new ways of preparing them, I found not only did I feel like I needed “meat” flavoring less, but I also liked the taste of it less. Although you can obviously find numerous fake meat products to replace meat in recipes, I usually just replace meat with sautéed mushrooms (especially Portobello), black/kidney beans, or marinated and baked or sautéed tofu. As far as meat “stock” for soups, I just use vegetarian stock or vegetarian/vegan bouillon. I’m not the biggest fan of seitan, tempeh, or TVP but those are great options for getting similar taste and texture to meat in meals as well.

Why stop eating meat? This calls for a whole new post. Read more on this here.

For more information about other healthy substitutions, click here or here.

Sources:

Why I Climb

I am the last person anyone in my high school would have predicted would be a climber. Honestly, rock climbing is such an “out there” sport as it stands that I doubt anyone from high school would have predicted any of us would be climbers. Beside the point.

The point is that I used to be a sick person- mentally and physically. A heart defect, depression, and anxiety prevented me from being the person I wanted to be.

You can read more about that here (blog posts I wrote on my friend’s blog about climbing as therapy):

Part 1: http://climbingjourney.com/exotic-caribbean-journeys/its-not-just-how-high-you-climb-but-how-high-climbing-makes-you-feel/
Part 2: http://climbingjourney.com/exotic-caribbean-journeys/if-i-can-you-can-too/
Part 3: http://climbingjourney.com/exotic-caribbean-journeys/what-are-you-really-afraid-of/
Part 4: http://climbingjourney.com/exotic-caribbean-journeys/steps-to-overcoming-your-fears/

The point is that climbing saved me and continues to save me. It has provided me with confidence, self-esteem, an amazing built-in friend group, fear and anxiety reduction, and ultimately happiness. Climbing has been the most incredible avenue for self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-work.

This weekend, I took my first climbing trip without my husband. For me, this was kind of a big deal. D and I have grown up in climbing together and we’ve been climbing partners since day one. I climb with other people, but going outdoor climbing with others is always admittedly more or less “officiated” by D. I’ve never been nearly as confident in systems, rope work, etc. D has never had any issues with confidence in the realm of logic (at least not while I’ve known him). And so until this weekend, I did what my natural tendency is, which is to go “Ok, you’re better at this- you handle it.” A certain amount of this comes with the territory in marriage- I’m better at cooking, so I generally cook more and he is better at cleaning the tub and so he cleans the tub (as examples). Chores are easier when divided. However, when it comes to climbing, the reality is that what prevents me from taking on responsibility is my fear of the outcome in my lack of confidence.

So when I received the offer from an experienced climber friend to come out with her for a weekend, my initial emotion was fear. The offer was appealing and I knew deep down I wanted to go and should go (how many opportunities would come up like this after all?). After too much hmming and hawing, I said yes. My own expectations of myself were high. I knew this friend was pretty picky about who she climbs with, so asking me was a compliment in itself. It meant I passed the initial test of obvious belaying/climbing skills at the gym. It meant she had at least enough faith that I wouldn’t kill her and I would be able to climb the routes she planned on leading. Given that I had little faith in myself doing either of those things, I knew I had to be at the top of my game- refresh my memory on all the skills I let D control otherwise, focus, calm down, and most of all not freak out.

I doubt my friend realized how important this trip was to me, how much I didn’t want to screw up with her. I doubt she realized that at the many times during the climb I knew I would have freaked out in the company of D and my typical climbing crew, I said to myself “You’re scared. That’s fine. But you have to get up this pitch and not embarrass yourself. Just effing do it.” So I did. Without hesitation. I came out of the weekend a more confident climber and with a few new experiences under my belt. It was an amazing feeling to will myself to be who I know I am strong enough to be….and just be that. I am immensely grateful to my friend for the opportunity to climb together and to show me that I don’t need to hide behind others or fear myself. I am imperfect like everyone else, but I am worth putting faith and trust in.

Above and beyond these revelations, I realized that climbing is one of the few (if any) sports where friendships are strengthened through depending on each other (literally- our lives are in each others’ hands), participating in the same experience together, needing to communicate very effectively, encouraging each other in one anothers’ successes, supporting each other in one anothers’ “failures,” and having to revert to some tough love when the going gets tough. When we climb with others, we are there to witness them at their best and their most vulnerable. These moments where fear creeps in, we see who people really are- their rawness, their emotions. There is no time or energy to falsify, create a mask. Accepting someone in their most raw and exposed state is the most loving acceptance there is. And thus, climbing friends are something more than just “friends.” They are unconditionally loving family.

I suppose that is where the saying comes from- “Friends who climb together, stay together.” 🙂

Why “Seeking the Balance?”

This picture reminds me that nature already has the perfect balance. This picture reminds me that nature has already attained the perfect balance.

 

Seeking The Balance has been a project in the making for a few years now. The title is in reference to an acknowledgment that life is difficult, that every single one of us has more dreams inside us than we could possibly accomplish in a lifetime and finding time to manage a job, a family, a living residence, and tackle our passion(s) is sometimes extremely overwhelming. The balance of these goals has always been the most trying task for me and I have noticed one of the the most discussed item with friends, coworkers, and family. Many people, it seems, have even entirely given up on their passions in light of this dilemma.

 

This blog will be a place to share the lessons I’ve learned so far (and continue to learn) about striving towards my ideal balance. I will write about all areas of life in which there is need for balance including but not limited to emotional and mental stamina, mental focus, diet and one’s relationship with food, physical health and exercise, social relationships, work, and pets. Though I understand that my personal idea of balance may not fit with your idea of balance, my hope is that we can all learn something from each other and find inspiration in all of our unique journeys and lessons. I am open to words of advice and featured stories and hope that comments can remain constructive and helpful as well as optimistic as we all strive for our ideal personal balance.

 

For the purpose of full disclosure, I am a female who tries her best to balance a full-time job, a loving husband, a beautiful and rambunctious Siberian husky, family and numerous friends and my passions for writing, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, traveling, and photography. This list comprises the main focuses of my life, but my interests could really continue for many pages, as I attempt to live without regrets and as fully as I possibly can.

 

My emphasis on general “wellness” and “balance” has evolved from and for the above passions. In order to fit 15-20 hours of exercise, 3-4 social engagements, traveling on an almost weekly basis, and all the other “stuff” expected of me outside of a 40-hour work week into every week, I needed to make changes in my life and strive for balance. Ironically, 5 years ago, my balance was much less complicated and yet I was more stressed by it. Despite being an introvert, I have become anxiety-free organizing and participating in social events. Despite being a natural homebody, I have become content with finding my mental “home” while traveling with friends. Despite finding appreciation of routine and ritual, I have developed excitement for spontaneity and constant change. I suppose what it comes down to is that I have become comfortable with discomfort. And *that* has made all the difference. But I am still growing (hence the “seeking” part). 🙂

 

What brought me to seek the balance? I would like to say it was a spiritual awakening or enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. The real motivating factor, though, was when I found myself at the lowest of lows and unbalanced of times that I finally committed my entire being to doing what should have been done long ago. I suppose the main question I’ve asked myself in my steps toward this goal which may also help you in your journey is: “What are my real priorities?” This has been a wonderful guide to discovering what amount of time and energy I want to devote to X, Y, or Z and where that will lead me 5, 10, 15 years from now. It may be that you have forgotten where are you going and where you have been and need a reminder that every day is more than just another day we are closer to death—it is also another day we have been offered to live and we only get so many. So live every day as one you can look back on and feel accomplished and satisfied that were you to die, you lived a damn good life!

 

As the quote goes: Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways – Chardonnay in one hand – chocolate in the other – body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming “WOO HOO, What a Ride!”

 

Here’s to hoping this blog can motivate you to this place where you feel that you are meeting your goal of personal balance and are achieving your dreams while also continuing to be at peace with the necessary and unfortunate burdens life throws your way.