Monday, 27 October 2014

What is "Flow"? The beauty of being lost in the moment...

Have you ever been so caught up in the moment that you lost all track of time?

It might have happened while you were doing something unpleasant or boring, but the chances are that you were in the middle of something that you found engrossing and enjoyable - perhaps painting, listening to music, walking, writing or making something.

The idea of Flow was proposed by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which I'm told is pronounced "chick-sent-me-high", when he observed artists getting lost in their work.

The phenomenon has existed for much longer, for certain - people often talk about being "in the zone", and it's bound to have happened to everybody at least once - even if you haven't experienced this state since you were a child.

According to researchers, a true "flow" state has six components:

1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Tangy Rhubarb Sauce - perfect with salmon!

Rhubarb is one of those things that normally goes with dessert - rhubarb and custard, rhubarb crumble, rhubarb cheesecake (yum), but when I bought a bunch from my local market I wanted to find out whether I could use it as a savoury dish. 

Rhubarb is thought to have many health benefits - its high levels of Vitamin K, for example, being an important contributor to brain health and can help prevent Alzheimer's, as well as being rich in calcium (good for the bones) and being very low in calories! (Read more here

I did a quick search of the Internet, browsed through a few savoury rhubarb recipes, and decided to try making a simple sauce and spooning it over salmon*, courtesy of Coffee and Quinoa (although she makes it look much prettier that I did!). 

This sauce is very, very easy to make. You'll need:

2 sticks of rhubarb

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Coconut & Sweet Potato Noodle Soup

Vegetables, noodles, and a sweet, coconut and sweet potato soup come together to make a great, filling meal with few ingredients. It's a little bit Thai, especially if you choose to add certain ingredients!

You'll need (serves 3-4):
1 large sweet potato
1 can of coconut milk

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Just 10 Days of a Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Your Mood!

Although Coca-Cola might try convincing you that buying their product will bring happiness, people generally
seem aware that too much processed food is bad for you. But it isn't just your body that can suffer from a bad diet - it's your brain. While plenty of research suggests that certain chemicals and eating patterns can negatively affect your mood there are very few actual control trials that look at the effect of diet on mood and brain power.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Great Books - The New Good Life by John Robbins

How do you define the good life? This is the question that John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America and son of a very successful ice-cream salesman (yes, Mr Robbins, as in Baskin-Robbins), asks in The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less. Growing up surrounded by wealth (and ice-cream), John was more inspired by Henry David Thoreau's ideas of being nearer to the earth than his father's ambitions for him to take over the family business. At 21 years old, John walked away from what could have been his dairy destiny and cut himself off from his father's money.

Paying for his studies with part-time jobs and poker games, John found a pretty sizable plot of land on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Colombia, for only $2000 (this was in 1969, mind you). Here, he and his wife lived in a tiny one-room log cabin for ten years, growing most of their own food, owning only a single set of clothes, spending no more than $500 a year (doubling when their son, Ocean, was born) and feeling, as he puts it, "alive in a way I never had before". They made enough money from teaching yoga and hosting retreats to save around $1000 a year. While many people may shudder to think of this kind of life, they never felt poor - in fact, John looks back on those years as the richest of his life.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Home-made Healthy Butterfinger Bars!

A few weeks ago, my parents-in-law brought us a stash of Butterfinger bars from the States. If you haven't tried them, they're basically peanut butter brittle coated in chocolate and they're delicious. What isn't so good is the list of ingredients on the back....

Corn Syrup, Sugar, Ground Roasted Peanuts, Hydrogenated Palm Kernel Oil, Cocoa, Molasses, and Less than 1% of Whey, Confectioner's Corn Flakes, Nonfat Milk, Salt, Lactic Acid Esters, Soy Lecithin, Soybean Oil, Cornstarch, Artificial Flavours, Citric Acid (Added to Preserve Freshness) E110, E129/ Yellow 5, Red 40.

Mmmm! Here's a link to one of many articles on the dangers of corn syrup, for one thing. I try to operate by the rule that, if the list of ingredients sound like the inside of a chemical lab rather than your grandmother's pantry, it's best to avoid. 

So, I decided to find out whether I could make my own, healthy versions at home, and found this recipe at Detoxinista. Just to test it out for you, and to make the recipe a little easier to follow, I've attempted this a couple of times and I think I've got it down to an art. OK, so they're covered in chocolate rather than coated, but they're so good... and they only require 4 ingredients!


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Czech Potato Soup - Bramboračka

You may not know this, but I lived in Prague for just shy of two years, working as an English teacher. I only left last year, and have visited again once since then. The Czech Republic is a beautiful country, and Prague is an amazing city where you'll have to work hard to find a bad (or expensive) meal! Plus, their beer is wonderful...'s a quick link to my travel blog, with some Czech-based posts.

The Czech wouldn't dream of having lunch without a soup starter, and throughout the week restaurants offer lunchtime specials - usually soup and a main dish for the equivalent of £3-4. As ridiculously filling as these meals are, they're a great introduction to Czech cuisine, and if you look in the right places you can find some great meals. Yes, a great many of them only offer "hovězí vývar" - a watery beef broth that doesn't do much for the taste-buds - but if you can get your hands on bramboračka, or potato soup, give it a try.

After satisfying my craving for it on my last visit to Prague, I started to wonder how to actually make it myself. I was delighted to find that it's easy to make, and due to its simple ingredients it's a good way to get some vegetables into your system!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Art of Savouring and Mindful Eating

How often do you absent-mindedly shovel nuts, crisps or other snacks into your mouth while your focus is on something else, like the TV or the day's events? Do you ever reach the end of the day and realise that you "accidentally" ate far more than you intended to?

In the first Mindfulness class that I attended, each of us were given a raisin and asked to focus on it; the feel
 of the raisin in our hand, the ridges we could feel when we ran our finger over it, its squishiness between our fingers. Then, we brought it up to our noses and focused on the smell, before slowly popping it on our tongues. We took a moment to appreciate the gentle sweetness on the tip of our tongues, and noticed the texture of its ridges inside our mouths. Finally, slowly, we bit into it, focusing on the flavours and textures, on how our teeth and tongues knew just what to do, before allowing ourselves to swallow it.

Approaching food with the "raisin mind" might seem like teasing yourself when you just want to devour the thing, but the practice exists to draw our attention to things that we would not normally notice and to bring our awareness to physical sensations, as mindfulness often does. As well as making the raisin taste a hundred times better, it made me appreciate it so much more than I normally would have.

You don't have to practice mindfulness to pay attention to what you eat. When we don't fully notice what we're eating, we're more likely to eat junk food, gain weight (as we don't remember what we've eaten) and less likely to appreciate not only food, but life. Stopping and savouring positive experiences increases our enjoyment of life and can reduce the number of negative emotions we feel (Hurley & Kwon, 2012).

Psychologically speaking, "savouring" (Bryant & Veroff, 2007) involves making the most of positive experiences. This can mean being more "present" while good things are happening, such as focusing on a beautiful piece of music, sipping a cup of coffee slowly while appreciating its aroma, or taking in a sunset. It can also involve savouring precious memories of the past, through visualising them or using photographs or stories to relive them.

As part of our Masters in Applied Positive Psychology course, we had to try a few "positive interventions" on ourselves and see whether they made us feel happier, more satisfied with life or enhanced our sense of meaning. I decided to try savouring, so I made a point of walking to work while focusing on the flowers and tress that I saw and listening to the birds, rather than my usual practice of over-thinking possible future scenarios and replaying memories. Savouring has a lot in common with mindfulness; it's about being present in the moment, about paying attention to the input from your sensory organs, rather than letting thoughts rule you and grey your experience or experiencing life on auto-pilot.

I have to admit that I often eat while watching TV (in my defense, we're talking quality TV like Doctor Who, Arrow or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), which can take a lot of the experience away from the food itself. That's why I made a concerted effort to eat at least one meal per week at the table with no distractions, honing in my focus onto the smell, the texture, the flavours, and appreciating how each individual ingredient had found its way into my kitchen somehow.

Dalen et al. (2010) found that "mindful eating" helped with weight-loss, self control and reduced negative emotions. It makes sense - if you are truly mindful of what you consume, you reduce the chance of "secret eating" - where you shovel food into your mouth without it even registering consciously - and feeling more in control of your life will reduce those feelings of guilt that we so often get when we realise we just ate another donut (but someone brought them into work and left them in the office, damnit!). I even started to realise that I didn't like some of the things I was eating, but rather was eating them due to habit.

So, here are some tips for increasing your awareness and enjoyment of what you eat:

  • Keep a food diary and show it to a friend (or your online community) so that you are accountable for what you eat.
  • Try, with at least one item of food or drink a day, to inhale the smell, to slowly place it on your tongue and focus on the texture and the flavours that reach your mouth, to feel it travelling down into your belly. If you can touch the food - e.g. a raisin, not so much soup - focus on the feel of it against your fingers, too.
  • Take a moment to think about the origins of your food - think of every ingredient that was used, where it came from, and all the people who had to work together to grow, harvest and transport that food to the shop where you purchased it, and mentally thank each individual person for contributing to your meal. Gratitude also contributes to our well-being and might increase your sense of connectedness to the world and the people around you.

    Of course, savouring isn't just about food - it's something you can do for any pleasant experience; however, I find that eating is something we all enjoy, and so is an easy one to start with! References:

Bryant, F. B., & Veroff, J. (2007). Savoring: A New Model Of Positive Experience. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Dalen, J., Smith, B. W., Shelley, B. M., Sloan, A. L., Leahigh, L., & Begay, D. (2010). Pilot Study: Mindful Eating And Living (MEAL): Weight, Eating Behavior, And Psychological Outcomes Associated With A Mindfulness-Based Intervention For People With Obesity. Complementary Therapies In Medicine, 18(6), 260-264.

Hurley, D. B., & Kwon, P. (2012). Results Of A Study To Increase Savoring The Moment: Differential Impact On Positive And Negative Outcomes. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 13(4), 579-588.
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Saturday, 4 October 2014

Recipe - Beetroot and Pepper Salad

Fancy a healthy, easy salad for lunch? This quick creation does ideally require a food processor, but it's a refreshing way to start your day (or any meal) - juicy, crunchy beet(root), healthy greens and a bit of yellow pepper for added flavour (and, OK, they made it look better). 

To make the beetroot mixture (this serves 2):

2 tbsp olive oil
Two beets/beetroots (yes, you can use packaged/pickled ones if you wish!)
The juice of a whole lemon
A handful of parsley
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1. Cut the roots off the beets - you can actually cook and eat these, too, so save them for later. Peel the beets - this can be very messy, of course! Cut them into cubes and throw into a food processor with the other ingredients. Blend.

2. Wash your messy red hands. Slice up some lettuce, adding any other leafy greens of your choice - rocket, mizuna, spinach, whatever you've got - plus some nice slices of pepper. Put in a bowl and scoop on the beet mix!

Optional: Take pretty pictures of it in the sun before eating! Those are some of my pak choi growing in the background... 

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