Saturday, May 30, 2015

Three Years and Counting...

Three years ago around this time, my most burning desire was to be in shape, be fit and physically strong, and have that envious endurance I had seen in my dad and some athletic friends while growing up. Being in top physical form seemed to be the gateway to all other long-cherished dreams and aspirations. Does that resonate with you?

In my case however, it wasn't a capricious pursuit. It had etched its way deeper and deeper ever since I turned into the tumultuous teen years realizing that being heavier than other girls had been an integral part of my identity all along. The sports field was the arena where other kids effortlessly outshone my lackluster talent.

For nearly two decades, my BMI ranged from 24.9 to 26. There was an intrinsic resistance to most physical activities, including walking more than a few blocks. The thought of breaking a sweat was unpleasant and required much self-negotiation, leave alone any vigorous activity that might test my physical limits. Any adventurous sport was beyond consideration.

As a result, most social situations centered around fitness intimidated me to the extent that I subconsciously precluded my involvement. Many shopping trips ended in disappointment when that pretty dress wasn't available in my size or didn't look flattering. The shape I saw in the mirror wasn't what I wanted to see. Loving myself took a lot of effort, at times.

Amid the gamut of things that each one of us inevitably gets to 'deal with', these were the skeletons in my closet.

My normal vegetarian diet -- and packaged boxes of 'healthy' foods -- didn't help. Phases of unwillingly exercising for several weeks didn't tip the scale by an ounce =(. A visit to a nutritionist found me reading calories labels on every food item I bought, but that wouldn't make the cut either. Needless to say, 20 years of being overweight witnessed numerous failed attempts at getting leaner and stronger.

Fast forward to today, my BMI has been ~21.7 for more than 2 years now (that's exactly midway in the normal range)! I am two dress sizes smaller. Forget walking; when I am in the running wave, I run a couple of miles 2-3 times a week. Breaking a sweat makes me feel lighter both physically and mentally. In fact, not sweating every couple of days feels itchy and yucky.

As I lost weight, the desire to get stronger quickly followed. With the help of a personal trainer in the last 18 months, I can now do 3 sets of 15 squats with a 35 pound kettle weight! I'm on my way to bike ~100 miles this month, including pedaling the uphills in my neighborhood. Those biceps, triceps, abs are beginning to peek from underneath layers of fat =). They need more work though.

But where do I stand in the statistics of endurance? About three weeks ago, I dropped in to a core power yoga class -- read fast paced yoga set to music and done with weights. Only 3 out of 8 folks made it to the end of the hour without any major breaks. I was one of them! The other two were omnivores! To my astonishment, I saw the most muscular, regularly working out men take breaks from exhaustion while I kept up with the class. Then I biked back home 4 miles with a 15" laptop strapped to my back...

In those moments, my mind inevitably cycled through those mental images with my childhood classmates when the playgrounds had been ruthless to me. Triumph is too insignificant a word in describing this journey of personal transformation.

Quantifiable accomplishments might feed to conceit; immeasurable ones only bring humility and gratitude.

Beyond the obvious gains in physical health, there have been many others. In the last 3 years, I have fallen sick exactly twice -- ironically both times when I ate something bad. Quite a leap in immunity levels; fingers crossed. I have written about several other benefits throughout this blog.

What would a similar transformation in your life look like? =)

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So what was the catalyst that brought about my metamorphosis?

I changed the way the ate.

I transitioned from eating vegetarian meals and buying boxes of 'healthy' snack to no-animal-product, minimal-to-zero processed food. Who knew this would be much more than a random stumble into the raw vegan world.

Instead of spending my time at the grocery store deciphering 'nutrition' content on boxes of packaged foods, I run around filling my cart with naturally nutritious whole fruits and veggies and nuts and seeds. The time I save at the grocery store is now used towards peeling, chopping, blending, and juicing.

Here's my typical organic purchase from a local grocery store and farmer's market about every 3 weeks. Oils and condiments less frequently, of course.

Grocery cart

$25-ish worth of organic produce from the farmers market.

That nutritionist did her best to guide me; sadly, she didn't know the potential of whole foods plant-based eating. Unfortunately, most folks in the medical and health and fitness realms today don't! That's why educating ourselves is inevitable. This is the cultural change this blog intends to facilitate.

The more I incorporated organic, fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds in my diet, the more my body and taste buds rejected the pervasive highly processed foods -- breakfast cereal, dairy milk, off the shelf juices, butter, cheese, jam, protein bars, cliff bars, microwaveable foods, pre-made salad dressings, yogurt, chips, pizza, pasta, cup noodles, chocolate, muffins, cakes, ice cream, you name it.

Yes, the list of what I have nearly eliminated from my food repertoire is rather exhaustive. To most people, this way of eating probably sounds like a perfect recipe for starvation, emotional erosion, tremendous sacrifice, and an invitation to unnecessary hassle and restriction in their lives. Simply put, it probably sounds undoable. And, perhaps even insane!

The truth is sometimes I can't believe it myself! =) Just a few months before I started eating the raw and vegan way, if someone had told me that I would be eating mostly uncooked, plant foods and would keep at it for 3 years, I would've educated them of my 'healthy' food choices and then pondered the conversation from a safe distance :p. Instead, today, some of my closest friends are those who eat this way! Yes, it's not undoable and we are not insane.

This petite woman who lasted that yoga sculpt class is in an equally sound mental health ;)

Yet, amid a culture drowned in processed foods and in the shimmer of their plastic packaging, commitment to eating natural foods can sound more overwhelming than a second full time job. So why keep doing it and go to great lengths to find that intricate choreography in my daily routine to balance this pursuit among all others?

Because feeling good in one's own mind and body trumps all other considerations of convenience, superficial emotional fulfillment, and social fitting in. It is a gateway to all other long-cherished dreams and aspirations, remember?

Of what use is convenience when that sugary snack bar only provides you with empty calories? Can you be a good sport in social situations when you're tired and feeling crappy because you ate something your body doesn't approve of? When you have some time at hand, aren't you naturally drawn to work on projects from your bucket list? But what does it feel like when you don't have the energy or motivation for them?

This is what has been fueling my commitment for 3 years.

* * *

Now, let's talk about some minutiae of this lifestyle. One of the big differences since last year has been in the way I portion and space my meals. Up until around two years ago, I still ate mostly 3 square meals a day -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a mid afternoon snack.

But now, my meals are usually smaller in portion and more frequent -- at 3 to 4 hours. This way, I don't overstuff myself in one meal and don't get starving hungry by the time for next meal.

One of the time proven ways of sustained healthy and mindful eating is not waiting to eat until you're starving. When we are starving, the urge to satisfy the pangs of hunger with the first thing that we can lay our hands on is hard to curb.

On the other hand, when we grab a meal while being reasonably hungry -- but not starving -- we have the time and energy to make a more informed and healthy choice. Overtime, this can make a day and night difference between wishfully aiming to eat healthy and actually eating healthy.

Another big change for me has been around re-weighing the different meals in a day. Overtime, lunch has become my biggest meal of the day and dinner, the smallest. When you think about it, we're most active during the day, so a major concentration of calories ought be to taken during day time.

Further, since cooked food is generally richer in carbs and fats, it's easier to eat a cooked meal at lunch time with coworkers and partake in the social experience at the same time.

Dinner is meant to conclude a long day and provide the body with just enough energy to rest and rebuild for the night until next morning hits and it's time for a break the 8-10 hour long fast.

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Introducing the green juice dinner

In my second anniversary post, I wrote extensively about the benefits of green juices. Little did I know that green juices would become my elixir for life. Last fall, I began to break up my lunch into two parts and replaced an early dinner with a late green juice.

That is, half of the lunch around 12:30 pm, remaining around 4 pm and a 32-40 oz fresh, homemade green juice around 8pm. Boy, did I sleep well? =) I slept like a baby and woke up with unprecedented freshness and clarity of mind the next morning.

Some of the other changes include bringing seasonal fruits to work and snacking on them throughout the day. Keeping a jar of mixed raw nuts and seeds at my desk is another way of avoiding those roasted, salted cashews and pistachios.

Fruit and herb infused water is another way of sipping small amounts of natural sugars and nutrients all day and feeling satiated. Lemon water is quite cleansing as well, actually.

All in all, as you've probably concluded from my yearly posts, it takes time and patience for old habits to be unlearned. Big changes are best initiated in small steps. As new routines begin to set their roots, finer adjustments play an integral role in sustaining a major lifestyle change such as this one.

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The rise of the activist in me

When I first went raw and vegan, I was vegan by the way of being raw. About a year and half into this lifestyle, I stumbled upon the heinous practices employed by the poultry and dairy industries to maximize their profit to cost ratio while meeting the tremendous demand for animal foods. Not to mention the strain this puts on the environment and our health care system.

I will refrain from making this port graphic by providing links to these practices. But being unable to condone them gave birth to the vegan activist in me.

If you've been following me on Facebook, you probably know how some of this activism has manifested itself in spreading awareness about the multi-faceted consequences of an omnivorous diet. Today, I'm proud to say that I am raw and vegan in equal parts and I eat vegan even when I don't eat raw. =)

Make every single calorie you eat count towards nutrition, satiety, and strength, and you will thrive on a plant-based diet. Recently, I customized this recipe for a yet new breakfast option.

Raw vegan muesli.

Key ingredients: rolled oats, pumpkin, sunflower, and chia seeds, coconut shreds, goji, mul-, and golden berries, almonds, walnuts, and chopped dates, all soaked and refrigerated overnight in homemade raw almond milk.

Taste test? Creamy, sweet, rich, delicious, and colorful. Find me a brand that can beat this breakfast in nutrition or flavor or calorie density. Too bad, no brand would sell this to us because it's perishable and can't be manufactured in a factory hundreds of miles away.

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I hope this write-up inspires you to give a serious thought to what you've been eating and start out with making very small changes.

Think of it this way, if your body doesn't feel and perform at its best, where will your heart and brain reside? We first live in our bodies before living in a house in a community somewhere on this Earth.

Treat your body like you would treat your God's temple. If you are a non-believer, well, this body still carries your heart, brain, and mind. Where would you go if this vessel of yours began to rust and leak sooner than it ought to?

Wishing you a lifetime of radiant health and spiritual awareness.