Friday, 17 June 2016

Eat & Succeed! The way to the stomach's heart is through happiness!

A healthy lifestyle is one of the most vital enablers for peak performance at work. Senior and mid level professionals have a special responsibility here. Your decisions, actions and mistakes can have far reaching consequences for the organization and your teams. Yawn! All of that is such a no-brainer, right?

With ever-expanding waistlines, pear shaped bodies, drooping shoulders, dry and itchy eyes, frequent headaches, muscular spasms, joint pains, and a sluggish gait, are at least some of our corporate denizens struggling with the challenge? Well, this is a very broad topic. In this article, we’ll look specifically at our relationship with food and nutrition.

Unfortunately, not many people have truly understood the huge impact that nutrition has on our performance and productivity. There is some general understanding for sure, perhaps aided by an overload of information in mass media and internet, and water-cooler chats too. It could be that there is a somewhat excess focus on weight management, disease prevention and this whole business of looking good. The nutrition-productivity angle hasn't received prime-time coverage.

And when it comes to nutrition and productivity, we’ll also need to look beyond sterile diet charts and recommended daily percentage values. It is important to first look at how well placed we are to even absorb these nutrients.

What are those common mistakes we may be doing inadvertently that are leading to poor nutrient absorption? Are there habits that need to be changed, so we don't feel bereft of strength? 
Let’s begin with a few points on food and our emotions. 

What emotions do you experience when thinking about food? 

Some of us imagine that we’re feeling good after skipping or delaying meals on a hectic day. Then there are some who experience a hyper level of excitement at the very thought of those rich and delectable dishes, freshly baked cookies, pastries, chocolate desserts, colas, beverages, steaks, biriyanis, and the like; such a convenient escape from all that drudgery at work, isn't it? For some, it is a kind of fear mixed with guilt at not being able to control portion sizes. Others may actually feel embarrassed, angry and even disgusted at themselves for being too indulgent and reckless, when they ought to worry about deadlines and milestones.

A few among us may actually feel good about food in a positive way, at the risk of being labeled Type-B shirkers!  Then there’s the rest, that large chunk of folks who simply don't care or notice in any case!

Well, the emotions we carry around food aren't limited to this one area of life, our health. If you pause and observe, you'll see remarkable connections and almost symbiotic linkages with whatever is happening in other areas of life. So, it makes sense to pay attention to what our emotions are signaling! And then take actions to change our reality at multiple levels.

The sad fact is that too many of us may have meekly accepted it as fait accompli, that a bad day at office must lead to a less than enjoyable dinner experience. Or go to the other extreme, throw caution to the wind, and compensate for what we’re missing in life by settling for surrogate joys on the food platter. And later, even make a song and dance about it on Instagram and Facebook!

I mean, do we have to take it out on our digestive system just because it is by and large extremely tolerant? Not every bad food choice leads to food poisoning, and a visit to your GP. Off we go and "cook up a storm"! So we can stir the digestive juices with our mood swing vagaries, deadline pressures, and relationships that suck!

Fact is, even after thousands of years of evolution, our digestive system hasn't evolved enough to embrace "snake-oil" fixes like multi-tasking that we use to entertain ourselves with, in our "busy" lives. 

What if we can use a healthy digestive system as a powerful ally in our quest for excellence? To access a more productive state of mind at will, to observe and understand better, stay more alert and focused. To stay unflappable, long after others have wilted and given up?!   

Mindfulness is seen by many as potentially having some answers to this “busyness” crisis. Numerous studies have shown significant benefits like creativity, resilience, superior thinking, cognitive skills and lots more. Well, we're so fortunate that our ancestors have found out some of these answers thousands of years ago. Our experience and relationship with food is a perfect canvas on which we can enjoy and experience mindfulness. Food after all is one of the most complete and holistic experiences with all the senses tuning in together, if only we can let them be! There is a chance to get into this flow and experience mindfulness in every single meal each day. That could mean more than 1000 mindfulness experiences each year, just from your meals! Can you imagine the power that it can unleash into our lives?

So, where do we begin?”

How do we ensure that we can enjoy our food and also absorb the best nutrients to lead a life of health and fulfillment? To develop a relationship with food that lets you take the best out of the experience and also reap sustainable benefits in multiple areas of life?

The areas that need focus are:
  • Food Types
  • Thoughts, Emotions, the Digestive System & beyond
  • Support Infrastructure
  • Mindful Eating

Know your food types:

In Ayurveda, there is great emphasis on the basic qualities of different food types. This in turn impacts our personality traits and nature due to the effect of food on our emotional states. It is a good idea to keep this in mind while planning your food intake. You can get plenty of details on the Net. I'm sharing a couple of simple rules I've found useful in practice: Avoid Rajasic foods (foods that excite and aggravate a lot with heavy spices for instance) at dinner time. Tamasic overload at lunch time is an open invitation to that embarrassing stupor! The love handles love it too, a lot actually! 

Sattvic foods are good anytime any day! You'll be brimming with wholesome positive energy and a feeling of sprightly goodness. A diet that's loaded with sattvic goodness is perfect for your skin and feels light on your digestive system. You aren't feeling drained that often. You feel more alert and sharp, your thinking and cognitive skills are better too! People like being near Sattvic folks.

Thoughts, Emotions, the Digestive System & beyond:

Research has shown that stress may increase the cortisol levels in your blood stream. While you're digging into that yummy dinner, are you also watching the news and cursing your government and those sick and slimy journos? Or, maybe you're having a tense chat with your partner or kids. Lunch time of course is never complete sans all that yummy boss-bitching camaraderie!

Meanwhile, not sure if you'd have noticed, your heart rate has gone up and so too has the blood pressure! Some chemicals that clot the blood may also get released, just for that extra effect!

News of another terror strike? You know very well that fear may result in stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline to get a bit extra active. Feeling still more stressed? You've just raised your cortisol levels a wee bit more, which by the way can play havoc with your blood sugar levels, thyroid function, and even bone density! Your muscles are tensed up, breathing is disturbed, thereby impacting even blood circulation and oxygen flow. Go ahead, frown a little more. In fact some of the defense mechanisms of your body also get switched on, as it imagines there is imminent danger of some big kind. Yeah, right before bed time that is!

In its wisdom, your body might decide to release more blood sugar so that you can get up and run. Or, as an afterthought, it decides to convert most of your dinner into fat. Your loud snoring has told your body you aren't running away, just yet! You maybe CEO, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer: You see, can’t make out the difference when you snore! It sounds just as bad…That’s the level of confusion the "Nine o' Clock" news and remembrance of the day gone by are creating! In case you're wondering, that surge of adrenalin while watching ESPN sports may not help either. Night after night, this emotional self-abuse (rightly called Emotional Atyachar in Hindi!) continues and becomes endemic.

In the midst of all the hullabaloo, who cares if the food was chewed properly, right? Those big dinner chunks and nuggets are going to add more load on your digestive system. Maybe, some amount of choking is par for the course too?

Meanwhile, your system is constantly spiked with toxins and stress hormones. A nice chemical bath of the malevolent kind awaits your dinner chunks. Your sleep quality suffers and the body’s natural healing mechanisms keep falling over.

Good Morning! You wake up feeling groggy and desperately hope those black coffees will do the trick for you. The traffic snarls aren't helping either. A new day of endless meetings, crazy spreadsheets and all of that rigmarole, over and over again. Wherein you’re supposed to take big risks, motivate people, champion innovation, talk and exude perfection, impress customers and the C-suite folks… Death by Chocolate can be a bit too close for comfort at times, and a sure sign of things to come too! The gut feel isn't that great anymore, actually.

What your body needs at the time of eating is relative peace and calm, so that you can chew and masticate too. That’s the only way food can be processed and broken down properly in the stomach. It allows the body’s natural signaling processes to work well. You can then "figure out" well in time if you've had enough before you start gorging mindlessly on those plus size gilafi kebabs and sin-filled desserts! There is a choice you're making when you cross a certain inflection point. Once you’ve crossed it, nothing matters, as overeating just happens! With less noise around and within, you'll know and you'll notice, just in time.

How can we install more virtuous habits that can reverse the damage? Check out the section on mindful eating.

Develop a Supporting Infrastructure:

When it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, the real big trouble is not lack of awareness or knowledge or specialized help. In fact, quite often there is too much information, options, expert recommendations, and plenty of research findings too (of all hues with hilariously contradictory findings at times).

Rather, it boils down to the ease with which you can maintain the discipline of sticking to your health commitments and resolutions. It isn't that tough to create a customized diet chart, is it? The lack of a pragmatic support infrastructure to implement the plan is where things start to flounder.


A fundamental rule is to ensure you don't stay hungry for too long. Large gaps between meals can throw your metabolism cycles out of gear. And when you finally get some time, you’re already so tired and feeling worn out. Not the best state for happy eating. It’s tougher now to absorb the right level and quality of nutrients.

Access & Availability:  

Wholesome meals and healthy snacking options can help to a large extent to give you the nutrients that your brain needs for extra processing power. Office canteens and caterers are obviously not too bothered about your relationship with food, and such fluff! Well, off late some of them have added health menus based on recommendations by nutritionists. There’s still more ground to cover. So, it makes sense to plan and ensure that it isn't a case of out of sight and out of mind when it comes to healthy food options.

Make sure that your shopping list is prepared thoughtfully, and the kitchen is well stocked with the best food options. Ensure that you carry your meals and snacks to your workplace too. Spouses can support each other in preparing and packing; This can also be a time for some light banter! You’re also setting a good example to the next generation, if you’ve got kids in the family.

As an aside:
Since many couples are leading extremely hectic lives, this is also an opportunity for the extended support system to rally around. Hiring a cook may not be the only option.

I was quite fascinated by a  wonderful initiative by the erstwhile spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, His Holiness The Late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. Concerned by the fact that many women in the community were spending too much time in the kitchen, he had initiated a community kitchen practice to supply freshly cooked, nutritious meals to homes of the faithful in Mumbai. Women, especially home makers found this liberating, as they now had time to focus on their professional interests. Many home makers now have time to start small businesses. The idea has spread to many cities and towns where the Bohra community has a good presence. The scheme is also giving a source of livelihood for many. Isn't this an amazing idea that more communities and groups can adopt?

Talk to your friends, colleagues and find out creative ways in which you can delegate the cooking & preparation to trustworthy passionate folks in the local community, if paucity of time is a big issue. You'll reap a lot of benefits and goodwill too! Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Practice Mindful Eating

We’ve seen earlier how crazy thoughts and mental/emotional states can wreck your digestive system, and thereby your effectiveness at work. It’s obvious that many of these thoughts come unannounced and automatically. The simplest solution is to stop standing in their way!

Yes, switch off the television and smartphone for a while. Also, make an intention to yourself:  "Right now, I am just gonna enjoy my food and totally stay with it. Problems and worries can take a break". Giving explicit commands to your mind is a good start. It will slowly realize that the real Boss is taking charge!

Give a break to the Boss-Bitching too at lunch time. Avoid discussing controversial topics, and anything that may disturb you and others.

Silence is indeed the best companion you can befriend to develop a wonderful relationship with food and the process of eating. Practise noticing the sight, taste, smell, texture and even the sounds as you chew your food slowly and deliberately.

Swami Sivananda, the renowned Indian seer used to talk about "Mitahara" (wholesome food). Rujuta Diwekar (famous Indian nutritionist) has written about the process of consuming mitahara with a sense of total focus and devotion.

A few extremely simple tips from my own practice:
  • Chewing each morsel of food at least twenty times, allowing the digestive juices to work just right
  • Devoting complete focus to the experience of eating, engaging all the five senses
  • Not more than a few sips of water while eating.
  • “Listening” carefully for the internal signal of when “enough is enough”. Stopping right there
  • Developing a sense of gratitude for the entire experience (Remember, 1000 rounds of mindfulness can be transformational)

The greatest benefit is the highly evolved communication process that you develop with your digestive system. This can be critical for people wanting to stay healthy, stay at optimal weight, enjoy fitness and stamina, and look and feel good too. Note that even the healthiest food can turn into poison in the body if you subject it to toxic chemical baths caused by weird thinking habits and unmitigated stress.

And once you train yourself on mindful eating three times a day (or at least once to start with), take this formula into other areas of life. Listen mindfully to your colleagues for instance. It can work wonders. I’ll share more tips in later articles.

For NOW, let us celebrate this slowdown!
Eat, Love and Live!
Enjoy your Mita Ahara :)

Bring more happiness into your food experience, & Celebrate life, RIGHT NOW!

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