Hodge Podge: Eating (Or Not)

I promised I wasn’t going to read more books about health and fitness. So I only read five more. In last weekend’s newsletter, I wrote about needing to give up some genres for a while so that I can focus my reading more productively. This is another genre that is going to the back of the line for the time being. For real, this time. So, if you’re in need of some diet/nutrition reading, consider this 2017’s last gasp on that topic!

Bright Line Eating – I had heard Susan Peirce Thompson’s video series and was familiar with her premise: as a scientist, she is interested in how people’s brains respond to food. Her hypothesis is that many people are susceptible to food addition and most of us are negatively impacted by the addictive nature of sugar and flour whether we tend towards extremes or not. Her plan draws on the legal concept of bright lines—hard and fast rules you must not cross under any circumstances—and will resonate particularly well with abstainers.

I have some disagreements with SPT on nutritional grounds. She’s about breaking the addiction and her research is not primarily concerned with trendy food topics like low-carb/paleo/keto/whatever. This means that her diet is strictly no sugar, no flour, but otherwise low-fat and low-calorie—but she does allow for differences in opinion or preference as long as you define your rules up front. I do like the idea of bright lines because I’m the sort of person who needs things like that, and yet I find adhering to SPT’s plan as written leaves me hangry (hungry + angry). A nursing mama of five who is working and homeschooling does not have time for that. So I’m experimenting with an amended version of the diet that allows more vegetables (the diet already calls for about two pounds of produce a day), cuts the grain and fruit, and adds a little more fat. I do value what I learned from the book, and have put several of the suggestions in place in my life, apart from the diet.

Perfect Health Diet – While this book had some good information about circadian rhythms and how to get your minerals and whatnot into balance, I have to admit it sort of threw me that the authors allow starch when eating high fat. Pretty much, for me anyway, when I’m eating high fat I can’t eat starch without dire consequences. But I really like sweet potatoes… And I love rice. Love, love, love it. So I took their advice and added rice back into my diet and promptly regained the 10 pounds I had lost this year plus five extra. Egads. As with most nutrition information, you sort of have to take what works for you and be prepared to personalize if it doesn’t. Read at your own risk.

Bulletproof Diet – This book is by the guy who invented Bulletproof Coffee. And he is selling something. Always. I do think the intermittent fasting idea is interesting, so I tried Bulletproof coffee for a couple of months and used the ideas in the book to skew my diet more ketogenic. After the first week, when I spent a lot of time having blood sugar crashes and nearly passing out (not kidding), I managed to get through the morning with only the coffee. Except I was always starving. The entire time. Even while eating lots of fat. I did not ever get past it. Then I read that sometimes women can’t hack intermittent fasting. At that point, the whole thing was overwhelming me and the intense salesiness of the Bulletproof Media Machine also got to me, so I stopped. But I do like the switch to only grass-fed Kerrygold butter, so we stuck with that.

Head Strong – I read Head Strong because if you pre-ordered it on Kindle you got $25 in free Bulletproof credit, which I used to buy the MCT oil they sell, and that wound up being a good deal. Plus their customer service department was OUTSTANDING when I had an ordering issue. So I don’t regret the purchase, although the book has a major bro science feel. I decided that I really can’t stand Asprey’s writing style, plus I was reading the book on my phone. So…maybe it was me. Anyway, the book is all about mitochondria. Lots of people are into mitochondria these days, and it’s all been said on many podcasts and in lots of blog posts. If you follow many health and fitness people, you probably already know this stuff. Or could get it from other sources.

Fat For Fuel – Not one to be left out of the party, Dr. Mercola wrote a book on the whole ketogenic thing, too. And he also included everything there is to know about…wait for it…MITOCHONDRIA. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I skimmed the first part of the book. However, the second part would be helpful if you want to go all-in with the ketogenic diet. Mercola recommends WICKED low carbs and also low protein. Like, as low as five grams per day, but possibly up to 45 grams of protein IF you are breast-feeding. Honestly, after 12 years of being pregnant and/or nursing, I am not used to eating that little protein. It’s actually really hard to keep protein that low if you’re eating a whole food diet and don’t eat legumes. But it was interesting to consider.

After all this, I really keep coming back to Jonathan Baylor’s simplicity about eating lots of vegetables, moderate protein, and whole food fats. And I think the key for me might be bright lines (although a lower-carb, slightly higher fat version). Because, as Susan points out, when I spend my life thinking about food and diet and when/if I’m going to taste/eat/try/read about some food/diet/hack or not, I’m living enslaved to food. And it’s better to be free.

 

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Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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Memorable Mottos and Words of the Year

img_6455As I read, I often latch on to a phrase that sticks with me and comes to stand for a trait, habit, or aspiration that I want to remember. I keep these in little notes on my desk and taped to my mirror and on the wall in my office. Last year, I tied my goals to them.

Some people call these mottos (Mystie has good ones for her kids, and Heather has beautifully calligraphed selections for her family), others call them rules to live by (such as Gretchen Rubin’s Personal Commandments). I suppose mine are a little of both. And, yeah, mine are a little weirder than what the links include, but at least they are memorable.

This year, I again tied my goals to my mottos (different goals, but in the same categories of aspiration) and I also selected one for my phrase of the year. Thanks to the idea from Mystie and Heather (links above) I am also applying the mottos to my kids, and plan to develop kid-type applications for all of the mottos over the course of the year.

Love is the horse.

You may recognize this year’s motto from the weekly newsletter–it’s taken from a quote by George Vaillant: “But who could have foreseen…that he would die a happy, giving, and beloved man? Only those who understand that happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.”

My natural bent is to prioritize efficiency and productivity. This, I’ve slowly and painfully come to realize, makes relationships…a challenge. But since a fair part of my life’s work is parenting and educating five children, I need to find ways to work to my strengths AND grow in my weaknesses.

When I read the Vaillant quote this fall in The Sweet Spot, I started seeing all of the ways that I push on problems to solve them with speed and efficiency rather than pausing to apply love and grace.  And often my way winds up exacerbating the issue or making it take even longer to solve. What if, I asked myself, love is the horse that could pull all of these things forward better than I can push them?

I need to learn this now. My kids do, too. Whatever seems important in the moment–getting something done, getting out the door, solving a dispute, cleaning up a mess–an attitude of love will probably get better results than a hasty, sharp hustle. And by “probably” I think I mean “definitely.” When I’m 80, my relationships will matter. Whether or not we got to the Post Office before it closed will not.

In case you wondered, here are my other mottos. Bonus points if you can remember the book each one came from!

  • Love is the horse.
  • Be the Band-Aid.
  • Ride Icelandic ponies.
  • Throw candy.
  • Don’t hug the cactus.
  • Fence the table (for the kids, who are Wingfeather fans, this one became, “Fence the Spookies.” Ask Sarah for her rendition. It’s priceless.)
  • Light a candle.
  • Bring your basket.
  • Sharpen the sword.

Do you do mottos or words of the year? What did you choose for 2017?

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Hodge-podge: Books for Kids and Adults

This weekend, I surveyed the double layer of books on my To Read shelf and elected to thin the herd. It felt great to lift some of that pressure, self-inflicted though it is! Although I’m preferring the topical round-up style reviews lately, I thought I’d throw out a hodge-podge in case it helps anyone clear out an overfull shelf, or gives some ideas for kids books to add to your audio queue for upcoming over-the-river-and-through-the-woods jaunts.

First, a few kids books of note:

Alice In WonderlandAlice in WonderlandThis classic is probably worth owning in print if you don’t already, and it’s also quite inexpensive on Audible. We listened to the audio version through our library’s Overdrive app and enjoyed it. It’s a great mix of silly and bizarre and rhymy so it works for all ages. It’s also a lot shorter than I remember.

The Island of Dr. LibrisThe Island of Dr. LibrisI expected to like this book more than I did, given the premise of kids encountering book characters coming to life. But often I just wondered, why these books? Why these characters? Some seemed normal for kids, while others seemed needlessly linked to grown-up books, so it’s not like the kids who read Dr. Libris would then go out and read the adult books. It just could have been better. It was fine as an audio book for the car, but nothing extraordinary.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid LindgrenPippi Longstocking – Although it’s obviously a classic, do yourself a favor and get your kids the paper version rather than subjecting yourselves to the audio book. From a parent’s perspective, Pippi is just so annoying. I could not wait for the book to be over. It’s a little odd, since I remember liking the book as a kid, and my own kids have read and liked the book. I guess it’s just one of those things, like how adults read Little House in the Big Woods and can’t get over how much work Ma had to do, when kids are only thinking about wanting a pig bladder balloon. Anyway.

Stone-Fox-John-GardinerStone FoxThis short book packs in a great story of adventure and sacrifice, with some good topics for conversation. It also has a shocking ending (at least it was shocking to us) so be forewarned. It was a great audio book to listen to, but would be a good one to own as well.

 

mrs_piggle_wiggles-farmMrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm – You really can’t go wrong with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. We’ve enjoyed all of the series (at least the ones we’ve found so far) both in audio and paper versions. This volume is no exception to the pattern: kids with bad habits or character issues are taken to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who gives them some natural consequences or otherwise helps them to figure out how to change their habit. I like the emphasis on the child having to do the work to change, but the adult being there to help.

Now, on to the books for grown-ups:

nature-anatomy-coverNature Anatomy – We used this book as a read-aloud for nature study, but I thought it could just as easily be something an adult would want to pick up to peruse. The author did a lovely job of hand-drawing bits of nature from rocks to birds, animals to plants, and then hand-lettered in interesting facts and scientific names, with some typeset information and grouping by category. This is what a nature notebook could look like if you were an artist and naturalist for real. We found it inspiring and quite informative.

strong-and-weak-andy-crouchStrong and Weak – I wanted to like this book more since I did really enjoy the author’s previous book, Culture Making, and named it as one of my favorites from 2009. But this one just didn’t really stand out for me. It was fine, but I didn’t come away from it feeling particularly challenged or inspired or with new ideas about flourishing. I think your response might depend on how much culture-shaping type literature you’ve read.

becoming-brilliantBecoming Brilliant – Having received an advance copy of this book, I was somewhat sad to find that I’m really not the target audience and I honestly didn’t enjoy the book. For one thing, I felt that the authors’ views on issues like giftedness, the point of education, and educational methods ran counter to what I have read, researched, and experienced, both as a student and as a teacher. For another, the information is presented in fairly dry book report fashion rather than as dynamic new ideas, and I’ve read most of the information in other sources before. Not all of the ideas were really all that supported by research (for example, the actual outcomes from learning via screens). The good ideas also tend to be geared toward classroom teachers, rather than towards parents or homeschoolers–involved parents and homeschoolers are almost certainly already doing the things the authors describe to ensure their kids develop well. In thinking about who should read this book, I decided that it would be good for policymakers in government who have no background in educational issues, but who find themselves needing to get up to speed fast. If that’s not you, skip this one.

games-for-writingGames for Writing – I have a child who is a reluctant writer. It’s not that said child CAN’T write, because said child enjoys attempting intricate calligraphy and keeping notebooks full of random facts about various topics. However, said child LOATHES writing assignments. I have tried Oh So Many Things. What is working for now is reminding myself to take a deep breath because this is only elementary school and there are plenty of years in which to tackle the sort of writing required in college. Meanwhile, I’ve been using many of the writing prompt ideas from Brave Writer, and also several I found in this little book.Games for Writing is geared toward early elementary, but I’ve been beefing it up a little bit so that I can use it with all of my big kids (2nd, 4th, and 5th grades) together. In general, I still think the copywork to written narration to analytical essay path is correct, but sometimes it does help to get there via a meandering path rather than a straight blaze. If you’re in the same boat, maybe this will help.

What’s been in your hodge-podge lately? Have you cleared anything of note (good or bad!) from your To Read shelf lately?

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A perfect book for graduates, 30-somethings, and probably retirees, too

perfectgraduationgiftMaybe this is how selecting graduation presents goes at your house too.

Me: We need to get a graduation gift for so-and-so.

Josh: OK.

Me: I was thinking…something like…a journal?

Josh: Oh geez, a journal? That’s like the boring tie of graduation gifts. Get something they need.

But what do college students/grad students/young professionals really need? Cheapo Target decor? Caffeinated water? Their heads screwed on straight?

Since there’s really no way to predict where a person’s tastes run when it comes to spangled wall hangings and inflatable couches, and we trust that the aforementioned young person can source their own stimulants, maybe a tool for clear thinking would be in order.

And that is why I think from now on we will gift graduates with a copy of Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book, Just Do Something. I love the alternate title too, “Or: How To Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing In the Sky, Etc.”

As you might guess from the alternate title, Just Do Something is funny and wry. But it’s also incredibly solid, Biblical advice for a culture where a surfeit of possibilities and a deficit of responsibility inclines us to falsely spiritualize indecision.

Yep, I said “us.”

Because, when I first began reading I immediately thought the book would be perfect for graduates, but after a couple of chapters I realized that I was under conviction as a 37-year-old too. And really, the mirror DeYoung holds up in Just Do Something reflects our entire milieu, not just millennials, my nameless generation, Gen X, Baby Boomers, or whatever we’re calling ourselves.

We want to know God’s will, DeYoung says, for all the wrong reasons. We want to know what’s coming next so that we won’t be out of control or uncomfortable. We are obsessed with what house to buy, what job to take, who to marry, and so forth because we think those things are going to make or break us, but the Bible says God is after our sanctification. Instead of being frozen in indecision, DeYoung asks if we’re living 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

“Are you joyful always? Are you praying continually? Are you giving thanks in all circumstances? You ought to be. For this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.”

Basically, DeYoung boils seeking God’s will and looking for your purpose (which he discusses in very helpful detail) down to knowing God, praying for wisdom, and then, as long as our options aren’t unbiblical, just taking the leap so that we don’t waste our lives.

“If we had done something—almost anything, really—faithfully and humbly and for God’s glory for all that time, we could have made quite an impact.”

Because I’m a product of my culture and milieu just like everyone else, I really needed to read this book. I wish I had read it when I was 18/22/28/32 too. So I’ll be buying Just Do Something for graduation presents, but I’d highly recommend it for just about anyone on your list, and for yourself.

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Brains, brawn, and bodyweight

books about brains, brawn, and bodyweightAlong with reading about sleep, I read a lot this summer about health. Although much of what I read tracks with what I already knew, I did wind up making some fairly significant changes in my routine. If you don’t have time to read about all six books reviewed in this post, the one I recommend most highly is last, so feel free to scroll. I added in headers so you can pause on books that make sense for you.

Bigger Leaner Stronger – if you want to know about lifting heavy weights

biggerFirst, I read Bigger Leaner Stronger after seeing a good review from Crystal at Money Saving Mom. It probably seemed funny to GoodReads followers that I was reading a book subtitled “…building the ultimate male body.” No, gentle readers, I was not going all Frankenstein 101 on my husband. It’s just that our library doesn’t carry the Michael Matthews book for women, and I figured I could get the gist from the guy book.

This was the first book I read extolling the fitness virtues of jettisoning endless cardio and “high weights low reps” workouts in favor of slow heavy lifts. I was skeptical, but gave it a shot. Instead of my usual Jillian workouts, I picked up some (for me anyway) really heavy weights. And it actually made a pretty solid difference. For one thing, I really enjoy the weights workouts. It takes about the same amount of time, and I’m still working hard, but I like it more and feel better afterward than I did doing fitness videos.

Does it matter if you get Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger? I’m not sure. From reviews it sounds like the difference is more about diet, but if you’re fairly well versed in nutrition and math, you could probably figure out your BMI and protein needs and so on using the same framework Matthews suggests whether you’re male or female.

One aside on tone: my husband thinks Matthews “sounds like a tool” (although he didn’t fault him on information) so if you are sensitive to that, be forewarned. 🙂

The Hormone Reset Diet – if you are a moderator and don’t like lots of explanation

hormone-reset-dietNext, I read The Hormone Reset Diet. If you’re a moderator and can’t stand cold turkey approaches, you might really like this book. The author’s premise is that hormones are involved in our ability (or inability) to lose weight, and so she suggests that you target seven of these critical hormones with what winds up as a cumulative elimination diet.

As an abstainer who is also a questioner, I had a hard time with this. If I need to eliminate dairy, why would I wait until Day 16 to eliminate it? If I need to eat more alkaline foods, shouldn’t I start adding lemon to my water and eating more greens on Day 1? Unable to answer these questions satisfactorily, I went ahead and cut everything she suggests in the whole book from Day 1.

Well, almost everything. What I did not do was cut caffeine. Gottfried’s approach to caffeine may strike you as completely nuts if, like me, you are a person who is highly affected by caffeine. In my experience, cutting caffeine means a 3 week headache and near inability to do anything. I do not have time for that at this point in my life. But Gottfried says you’ll eliminate all withdrawal if you cut caffeine in half on Day 1, cut to only 1 cup of coffee on Day 4, cut to 1 teacup of tea on Day 7, and cut caffeine entirely on Day 10. I did cut my coffee intake from 3 teacups of 3/4 strength coffee to 2 teacups of the same (roughly one mug’s worth) and suffered a headache for one week. After that I decided I was ok with that 2 teacup consumption level and elected not to undergo any further painful reductions.

I also freely admit that I did not follow the plan perfectly for 21 days. I took a couple of detours, such as our family Saturday movie nights when we have a fancy cheese plate supper. I also never stopped eating butter because I hate eggs cooked in coconut oil. Still,I did lose seven pounds, which may have been from this diet, or may have been the weight lifting, or may have been because of other tweaks I made based on other diet books I read the same month. Sorry I was hasty and thus can’t give a completely scientific review; I was essentially cobbling together my own diet plan for the summer.

Overall, I would say that The Hormone Reset Diet had good points (eat a ton of vegetables, get protein in every meal, cut sugar and carbs and eat more greens, etc), but was vague at times and probably would only work if you like the idea of a phased approach and don’t require a whole lot of explanation before making changes to your diet.

The Wild Diet – if you are really into bio-hacking

wild diet

If tone trips you up, you might also want to watch out for Abel James. The Wild Diet was a helpful book in many respects but I had a hard time with the writing. There was a lot of “Big Food is after you!” rhetoric, including reference to “the guys with the $400 haircuts.” Um, wait, is this an issue of food quality or class envy? Especially coming from an author who does not hesitate to tell us that after he graduated from Dartmouth he was a consultant and had a million dollar house and a Porsche and whatnot.

Anyway, once you get past all that, I do think the book is solid. James follows similar lift-heavy-do-HIIT exercise prescriptions to what I was hearing from other sources, and also advocates eating a ton of vegetables and enough protein. His main distinction seems to be his advocacy for fat fasting, which was never super clearly explained but seems to involve eating fat in the morning and through the day until you mostly load up on vegetables and protein in the late afternoon and evening. I tried it because you know I LOVE TO TINKER and I was grouchy and exhausted. Could be because I’m nursing, but James notes that fasting doesn’t always work as well for women so who knows.

However, I did shift how I do mornings after reading this book, in that I’m having a teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee with a green smoothie, then after my workout I have protein.

The Wild Diet contains a lot of recipes–some of which turned out great like the AMAZING cucumber basil green smoothie–and a lengthy discourse on how to feed your pets a wild diet, if you are into that sort of thing.

Don’t Just Sit There – if you need to integrate more movement into your whole day

Dont-Just-Sit-There

Katy Bowman’s short book Don’t Just Sit There provides an excellent resource not only for transitioning to a standing workstation, but really for integrating movement into your whole day. Bowman says that it’s not really sitting that’s the whole problem, it’s lack of movement generally. So you could get a fantastic expensive standing desk and still have issues if you stand in the same position  all the time.

Instead, Bowman advocates a dynamic work habit. Sometimes you sit, sometimes you stand, sometimes you walk around, sometimes you sit on the floor leaning forward propped up on your elbows…but you change it up.

Bowman provides lots of suggestions and exercises, but the simple motivation of the book was most helpful. After reading it, I brought a tray into my office that lets me type while standing, and I also started doing more of our school day from a standing/walking position rather than sitting. I also do a lot of work with my laptop on the kitchen island, so one way or another I’m standing and moving a lot more than before thanks to this helpful book.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life – if you are considering contact sports or don’t have kids or need a reference for who to see for serious brain issues

change your brainDiet and exercise also play a huge role in brain health. With Alzheimer’s disease in my family, I am pretty interested in how to keep our brains going strong. So when I heard Daniel Amen on a podcast talking about the connection between physical health and brain health, I thought I would check out his book.

This was probably a mistake.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life does have some really fascinating points. I love finding out how things work, and the visuals of brain scans were quite interesting. I learned some fascinating facts. For example, letting your kid play high school football is roughly as terrible for his brain as letting him do cocaine. Amen works with loads of ex-NFL players, and makes no bones about how wrong he thinks it is to let your children play contact sports. After looking at the brain scan pictures, I’m not going to disagree with him. Some people walk away from football just fine, but some people smoke and don’t get lung cancer and some people are functional cocaine users. Still not behaviors one would want to recommend.

The main reason I am hesitant about Change Your Brain is that, as a parent, I found it very distressing. I had a really hard time not feeling terrible about all of the times my kids have hit their heads. All of them have fallen down stairs, Jack once got a concussion when another kid slammed him into a concrete floor, etc. The book does have some hopeful points about how to rehabilitate your brain, but I found that it gave me a lot of anxiety about my children as I read it.

And, as it turned out, the diet and exercise aspect was really, really light. It basically boils down to: eat vegetables and high quality protein, eliminate sugar and most carbs, and do HIIT exercise. The suggestions for specific changes to make for problems in different areas of the brain were likewise simple–take Omega 3 supplements, drink green tea, some basic behavior modifications, and otherwise you need a specialist.

Overall, I felt like the book was mostly an advertisement for Amen’s clinics. And that’s fine–if you need brain help, definitely go to the experts who are actually studying brains rather than prescribing you medications without looking at your brain at all. But if you’re a (mostly) normal layperson, I’m not sure Change Your Brain is the best use of your reading time.

The Calorie Myth – if you only have time for one book on nutrition and fitness

the-calorie-mythI think the most helpful book I read in this entire array was The Calorie Myth. Again, this really goes back to temperament. In this book, author Jonathan Bailor cites tons of studies and research findings, quotes experts, and gives thorough reasons for what he claims. People like me need that. And despite the volume of information, Bailor also maintains a readable tone and doesn’t indulge in too much name calling, even as he clearly points out where government recommendations are based on bad science (or, more often, no science) and he’s up front about where food lobbies are financing policies.

I loved the simplicity of the guidelines Bailor draws out from his research.

  • Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (at least 10 servings per day)
  • Eat 100-200 grams of high quality protein per day depending on your size
  • Eat 3-6 servings of good quality fats per day (but don’t go crazy)
  • Eat 0-3 servings of low sugar fruits per day, depending on whether you’re trying to lose weight and how you feel.
  • Eat good quality seafood daily for Omega 3s.
  • Drink a ton of water and green tea, plain coffee if you need it, and don’t get calories from liquids otherwise.

I also really got good results from Bailor’s discussion of weight lifting. He takes the whole lift-heavy thing farther by talking about different types of muscle fibers and how to get at the ones that really make a difference (Type 2B). Basically, you want to focus on very, very slow lowering of the weight, rather than letting it just drop. There’s more to it than that, but I got wildly improved workouts when I implemented his suggestions. To be fair, this may have also been in the Matthews book and maybe I was just too new to it to absorb that, but could synthesize it in Bailor’s book after reading so much about it.

And so, to boil down a 2000 word post into one recommendation–I’d say The Calorie Myth is the best, most helpful book in this bunch. If you’re still interested in the topic after that, I’d suggest Why We Get Fat, which is an excellent nutrition book along these lines, although it doesn’t get into fitness.

Have you made any changes in your life based on what you’ve read recently?
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Ordering the rhythms of our tables, calendars, and hearts

a-spirited-mind-1We live in a time in which we are fortunate to have lots of options. You can eat strawberries in November and wear sweaters in July. From where we live to how we eat, even to how we observe or ignore the weather, we pretty much get to chart our own course.

Because we have this freedom, it’s even more important that we pay attention to the underlying framework that drives our choices. I’ve recently been reading and thinking about this in light of seasons and rhythms.

I’m not against the convenience of modern life. I’m writing this post in my air conditioned office while it’s 94 degrees outside. I’ll be putting a can of tomatoes in tonight’s dinner, and I buy everything from books to pajamas to eyeliner on Amazon. But I do see a difference between using modern conveniences as tools and being blindly co-opted by our consumer culture.

As I read I began articulating some impressions of unease I’ve had about how (or if) my life reflects my beliefs on a number of fronts. I’ve made some steps to change our rhythms with things like moving to a term schedule for school (generally six weeks on, one week off), and we’ve always done a Jesse Tree for Advent. Still, in reading thinkers like James K. A. Smith and others, I’ve found myself examining our life looking for the liturgy embedded therein–we all live a liturgy, Smith says, it’s just a matter of what we base it on.

circle of seasonsIn a roundabout fashion this brought me to Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s excellent book The Circle of Seasons. Ireton didn’t grow up in a high church tradition, so her study of the church year as an adult gives her a valuable outsider perspective. Ireton avoids the temptation to create or uphold empty ritual, and digs into the value and symbolism of various church traditions.

For example, in looking at Advent as a season of waiting and preparation for Christ’s birth followed by a twelve day feast of Christmas, Ireton ties in ways Christians can move beyond the commercial Christmas to enjoy a season of peace and then extend joy and love when everyone else is tapped out and suffering a post-holiday slump. What if we had a Christmas party the week after Christmas? What if we invited people over for a Christmas dinner on December 28? How would that impact our family’s ability to enjoy Christmas and be a blessing to others?

Likewise, Lent offers a chance to think about the true purpose of fasting–not self-denial or being absorbed in yourself, but creating space for God to work in and through us.

I appreciated how Ireton thoughtfully examined ways that the church calendar can break us out of our tendency to passively trudge through life, and make us more mindful of our days.

irrational seasonI’ve already mentioned The Irrational Season, but it bears repeating here because in the book Madeleine L’Engle writes her reflections on the year in a way that is informed by and immersed in the church year.

L’Engle did a masterful job of showing how being aware of the church calendar can direct our thoughts and contemplation. Thinking about Jesus’ coming birth during Advent leads to being watchful for His return. Considering the events of our lives in light of Epiphany, Easter, or the Trinity helps us to understand them in a truer light, and orient our own experiences in light of a bigger story.

Reading The Irrational Season won’t be so much a practical primer on how to celebrate the church year as an inspiration for how being aware of seasons and traditions can be a rich avenue for study and contemplation. I’m thinking about this a lot as I structure our school terms for next year.

feastOne of the e-books in a bundle I bought recently turned out to be an interesting resource on the Christian year. Feast! is full of practical tips and recipes for aligning your family culture with church culture.

The first two sections–on Advent and Christmas–were particularly helpful. I liked the ideas for ways to build up to Christmas and make that our focus, but without seeming Scroogey or anti-Christmas. A lot of the tips were ideas that would help to keep December less frantic by spreading out all the things we love about the season into a longer and more relaxed celebration. I’ve always felt that Christmas was this weird abrupt stop after a couple of weeks trying to cram too much in. I really like the idea of a more restful Advent and then a great fun long Christmas with plenty of time to listen to music, make gingerbread houses, and read Christmas books rather than putting everything away. The authors suggest adding to your Jesse Tree until Epiphany, which I remember my mom trying to do for us some years. The Stewarts suggest adding the names of God or attributes of Jesus for those extra twelve ornaments. I have this on my list to try.

I will say that after the Easter ideas the book wasn’t as applicable for me. The authors are Catholic and so they have special saints days they celebrate at different times, which isn’t something we do. But there was enough good food for thought in the other sections to make Feast a worthwhile read for me.

life giving home

Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-giving Home is arranged around the year too, although I didn’t take as many notes on practical things to do in January versus May or anything like that.  Those ideas are there, but I found the book to be more helpful to me in giving me a stronger vision for the way that my home and life can better express the truth and beauty I believe in, versus specific decorating or menu ideas.

I love the point the Clarkson’s make about how our homes and family cultures are ways to engage with the broader culture and a means to tell the story of what is most important to us. This is true no matter what we believe, and certainly worth serious thought. Are our lives–from our time to our traditions to our decorating aesthetic–telling the story we want them to? Are they restorative and life-giving for our families and friends and neighbors?

jameskasmith-youarewhatyoulove

If you want to dig more deeply into how our lives tell a story of what we love and reveal our vision of the good life, you should certainly check out James K. A. Smith’s latest work, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This book is powerfully insightful and profoundly challenging.

Smith talks about the way that our worship must incorporate not just our minds, but also our hearts. If we fail to capture and reorder our hearts, our head knowledge will not be enough. “You are what you love,” Smith writes, “because you live toward what you want.”  When we have misdirected loves it’s not because we have bad ideas, but because “our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices not propaganda.”

So if we are formed by liturgies whether we admit it or not, we ought to devote careful consideration to what those liturgies are. As a parent and teacher, this gives me a lot to think about. Of course we want to give our children truth and sound ideas, but are we going beyond that to capture their hearts with truth and beauty? Does our worship and our family culture give them a vision for what it means to flourish, or are we giving them second-rate music and sappy stories and then wondering why their palates incline them to cartoons and the mall?

This has so many implications for how we structure our time, our family culture, our schools, our work…while the book may seem the odd one out in this post, it really forms the basis for why and how we follow (or don’t) seasons, rhythms, and traditions–Christian or otherwise.

There is so much in You Are What You Love that I can’t begin to touch on all of it, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in habits, virtue, the good life, spiritual life…well, really I’d recommend it for anyone.

I haven’t finished thinking all of this through yet, so can’t give you my conclusions, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve considered these things and, if so, how you shape your family’s calendar or traditions as a result?

 
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Smarter Faster Better

smatter faster better-500x500Smarter Faster Better looks at productivity and how really effective people actually achieve more. The author looks beyond the busy churn to identify powerful habits for being effective, regardless of your sphere of life.

Duhigg makes an important distinction between looking productive and actually being productive.  He writes:

There are some people who pretend at productivity, whose resumes appear impressive until you realize their greatest talent is self marketing.

And there’s so much of modern online life in a nutshell, hm?

So we have to be sure that we aren’t using our To Do list as “mood repair” but rather that we are doing the right things in the first place.

How do we do this? Duhigg identifies several important habits for being truly productive:

  • Paying attention. Duhigg suggests managing your focus and attention by narrating your life as you go. Can he have been reading Charlotte Mason, or is that just a coincidence? 🙂
  • Self-motivation. People who realize that they have agency and can make choices are more effective than people who let life happen to them.
  • Wisely allocating energy. Effectiveness isn’t about doing something with every second of every day. It’s about doing the right things at the right time with the right energy.
  • Performing scenario analysis. In my pre-kids job, I did a lot of this sort of exercise: given what we know, what might happen in the future? Considering a worst case, best case, and middle ground possibility helps people make better choices and be more mindful of subtle changes to the status quo. Rather than making the false binary choices that our brains naturally like (you can have this OR this), envisioning alternate outcomes allows you to see situations more clearly.

I thought this book was helpful and a good reminder, although it used examples and conclusions that I have–for the most part–read elsewhere. It’s good to read information from different angles. So I’d recommend Smarter Faster Better if you like the habits/goals/life purpose genre, although I wouldn’t say it was life-changing on its own.

If you read the book–or if you have thoughts on productivity outside Duhigg’s examples–I’d be interested to know which habits you think characterize truly effective people?

 

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A Few Books on Faith

sufferingI have a hard time identifying with the term suffering, because the word seems loaded with comparison. Even when we do feel like we are suffering, it can be hard to talk about it or admit it to others because it seems a little lame compared to the far worse things others deal with.

That’s why I loved Elisabeth Elliot’s book A Path Through Suffering.  She doesn’t mess with platitudes about being glad that at least you aren’t as bad off as so-and-so.  Rather, she defines suffering as “having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have.”  Even mild trouble ought to be handled the same way as debilitating and tragic loss, because “if we don’t learn to refer the little thing to God, how shall we learn to refer the big ones?”

The book is simply chock full of convicting, encouraging words on dealing with the discomforts of life in a godly way. There is so much wisdom on how to navigate day-to-day living.  I took copious notes and am using them as I work on my goals for next year.

I may choose A Path Through Suffering as one of my top books of this year.  Highly, highly recommended.

disciplineIn Discipline: The Glad Surrender, Elisabeth Elliot offers an interesting perspective on several disciplines of life.  While she touches on some that probably come to mind, the book tackles these subjects from a different perspective than you usually find.  Rather than prescribing a set of rules, Elliot gets into heart attitudes on topics like controlling your thoughts, being disciplined with your time, and not letting your feelings run away with you.  I found all of the topics extremely helpful and thought-provoking, and would also recommend this volume.  I’m finding it helpful in setting priorities for next year, but it would be a rich resource any time.

savorFor my Bible study in November I worked through Savor & Establish, a study on Philippians with a focus on thankfulness. I thought it was perfect for the month, especially as I feel like I have more than the usual things to be grateful for this season. I’m not sure how long this will be available, but for the time being you can get a copy of the study free when you subscribe to MacKenzie Monroe’s website. It’s well worth it!

worldTheologian R.C. Sproul has a series of short books dealing with critical questions of faith, all of which are free on Kindle. I read How Should I Live in This World?, which is an application of biblical frameworks to popular ethical quandaries.  Sproul succinctly describes how to apply principles from the Bible to these questions, without being blinded by our culture or time period.

The book is very short for the topic it covers.  If you’re interested in really deep exegesis and detailed philosophical application, this might not be the book for you.  But if you just want a quick hit I think it’s a fairly solid choice.

LoveComesNear_8.5x11-Cover-232x300I am so glad I purchased Jenni Keller’s latest book Love Comes Near: An Advent Bible Study. I’ve gotten a lot out of her previous studies, and although this one is structured differently I am really, really enjoying it.

Unlike Keller’s previous work, Love Comes Near doesn’t cover one book of the Bible.  Instead, Keller selected Advent-related passages for each day.  I’m appreciating the reminder to keep my focus on Advent.

But the best part of the study is Keller’s inclusion of a shorter version of each day’s study geared towards kids.  I love this!  It’s a perfect way to get my three big kids more practice looking up Bible passages, plus good kid-level discussion questions, and a passage to copy out each day (sneaky copywork/handwriting practice!!!).  I wish I could find more studies like this for us to do throughout the year.

What books or studies on faith have you enjoyed lately?

 

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Are You Fully Charged?

fully chargedIn his short but helpful book Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, Tom Rath helps readers change perspective and refocus their efforts toward a more meaningful life.

Drawing on a substantial body of research, Rath concludes that happiness is the wrong pursuit.  People who go through life prioritizing their own happiness actually tend to have lower overall life satisfaction and greater overall stress than people who may report less happiness in a given moment, but who gear their lives towards meaning.

The key, Rath says, is reframing your work, personal relationships, and daily choices around three goals:

  • Meaning
  • Interactions
  • Energy

If you can find meaning in your daily activities–the work you do for your job, caring for your family, serving others–prioritize positive interactions and change your thinking about negative ones, and make mental and physical choices that increase your energy, you’ll go a long way toward building a life that you can look back on with satisfaction.

Expanding on this theory, Rath offers concrete examples of how to change your perspective, shift your thinking, and make solid daily choices.  Some of these are things you probably know but don’t necessarily do.  Others may be brand new to you.  All were, at the very least, good reminders for me.

This time of year I’m looking for ways to get geared up and re-evaluate processes, in work, school, and life.  If you are too, or if the idea of a meaningful and more energized approach to life just appeals to you any time, I’d recommend Are You Fully Charged? as a practical, helpful, motivational resource.

 

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