Lifestyle Literacy

My colleague, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn uses the phrase “lifestyle literacy” when he talks about inspiring people to take better care of themselves. Wow! Lifestyle literacy! I like that. I especially like the fact that this makes it into a project that gives you the opportunity to improve.

Literacy, like reading, is something you can learn. There are other kinds of literacy, too, like cultural, environmental, geographic, academic, language, financial, music, technical, athletic/kinesthetic, computer, and emotional, to name a few. Naturally, we tend to gravitate toward ones for which we have an affinity, which makes sense. It feels good to succeed. We like to imagine that the best kid on the baseball team is a “natural” even though he practices throwing for half an hour with his dad every single night after dinner. But to call him a natural doesn’t tell the whole story. He has a goal, and he has support. In this way, good gets better, and better becomes best.

A tiny sign hangs by the piano in my house: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. —Aristotle 

But what about the kinds of literacy that don’t come naturally? What if your parents discover that the reason you are struggling in school is that you have a lot of difficulty matching sounds to symbols, which makes it impossible to read like the rest of your classmates? What if your music teacher told you to mouth the words because you never could sing on key? Or maybe you were always the last kid picked by the team captains in gym or at recess. These are common problems with real solutions. By breaking down tasks into small, explicit steps, people can sometimes develop tools to learn what might otherwise be an insurmountable task.

Children with dyslexia are making enormous strides with “Wilson-based” programs, a kind of reading instruction that assumes no intuitive leaps and provides concrete instruction for each and every possible vowel sound, consonant, and combination that a student might encounter. Who knew that there are actually three different kinds of the letter “r” in English?

A close friend of mine from a musical family used to consider himself tone deaf, and the way he sang certainly provided ample evidence of the fact. At some point, though, he got tired of his inability to sing along with the radio, and he got himself a teacher to sing tones into his ear so he might learn to match pitches. She taught him about musical intervals, and she used nursery rhymes to help him understand. With impressive perseverance, he actually learned to sing along. This is a true story.

In my own case, after many years of being a mediocre dancer (at best), I was convinced to step out of my comfort zone and sign up for a Jazzercise class. The relative simplicity of the steps, coupled with repetition, repetition, and more repetition, flipped some kind of switch in my brain and, after a time, I found myself experimenting with new steps, relaxing, enjoying myself, and, generally, dancing with abandon. I never thought I’d say it, but I can dance now.

Of course my friend will never sing like Andrea Bocelli. And I will never dance like Alvin Ailey. But that’s not the point. The point is that we developed our skills to a serviceable degree, one that meets our own needs, whether emotional, or physical, or both. Not only is dancing good for me, but it makes me happy, and that’s probably the best endorsement I could offer.

Lifestyle literacy means that there is hope for all of us, including people who don’t come by it naturally. Remember that perfection is the enemy of progress. The goal, at least initially, is to adjust your choices just enough to be healthier tomorrow than  today. It’s okay if you don’t train like Jack LaLanne, because that’s not your goal. Your goal is to train like you. Most importantly, if it doesn’t come “naturally,” you can learn lifestyle literacy. You can and will get better at it, and there are people out there to help. 

I know plenty of people who have dedicated their careers to teaching others how to stay out of the aisles at the grocery store, increase their activity levels, relax more, sleep better, and quit smoking. If you need their help, you can find those people, too.


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Haminados (Eggs) for Passover

Haminados are one of my all-time favorite Passover recipes! Simple, sublime and delicious, they have been a staple at the Passover tables of Mediterranean Jewish communities for millennia! Check out this recipe and you’ll see why. Whether you make this dish in your crockpot or oven, it takes just a few minutes to toss it together and get things cooking.

12 whole eggs, with shells intact
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. Kosher salt
4 whole onions, including their skins
1 tsp. olive oil
1-2 quarts cool water

Slice the whole onions, skins and all, into quarters. Pack the eggs and onions into a crock pot or a medium-sized, tightly covered dish. Add salt, pepper and olive oil. Pour in cool water to cover the eggs completely, and turn heat to low (crockpot) or 200 F (oven). Cook at least 8 hours, or up to 12 hours if you’re busy. Check the water periodically to make sure it stays at or close to the top of the eggs. When you’re ready, drain, rinse and peel the eggs you’re planning to eat right away, and refrigerate the rest for later. Discard the onions, or toss them into your compost pile if you’ve got one!


Avoid HFCS, Make Your Own Ketchup

My dad is on a mission to get people to eat less ketchup, but it’s not because of the tomatoes, or the ketchup. It’s 100% because of the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). He can’t stand the fact that most national brands of ketchup have so much HFCS, and that it’s usually first or second in the ingredient list. So he asked if I would post an entry about this. Okay, Dad, yes, here it is!

In order to reduce his own consumption of HCFS, one strategy my dad employs is to use mustard on the rare hamburger and fries, and I said I would include that recommendation, too. I agree that Golden mustard on french fries is truly delicious, though of course you don’t want to go crazy with fries. And some people put vinegar on their fries (called chips in England), a British custom that is very properly appealing. 

Another strategy for avoiding HFCS is to buy a costly organic ketchup that is sweetened with sugar instead of HFCS. Is sugar is better than HFCS? Well maybe just a little, or maybe not much, but those fancy ketchups do have less sugar per serving, which is one good thing about them. It’s hard to recommend such an expensive product, though. 

I have another idea — to teach you to make your own ketchup. I hope that doesn’t make you groan. Yes, these recipes contain sugar (brown sugar is sugar), but the total amount is substantially less than in commercial brands. And though it does take some planning (mainly your shopping list), it does not take much time to throw it together, at least the first recipe. 

So here are two recipes for making your own ketchup. Notice that the main ingredient in both recipes is, as it should be, tomatoes. Dad, are you listening?

The first recipe is from Hillbilly Housewife, and contains just 60 cents worth of ingredients. With a fork, mix together one 6-oz. can of tomato paste, 1/3 cup water, 2 Tbsp. vinegar, ¼ tsp. dry mustard, ¼ tsp. cinnamon, ¼ tsp. salt, 1/3 cup brown sugar, and 1 pinch each of cloves, allspice, and cayenne pepper. Transfer the mixture to a container, cover tightly, refrigerate, and use it up within 3 weeks. 

The second recipe is from Kiss my Spatula. Start by preparing a spice bundle with 1 bay leaf, 1 stick cinnamon, ¼ teaspoon celery seed, ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, ¼ teaspoon whole allspice. Fold the spices into a square of cheesecloth, and knot it with a string. Place the bundle in a 4-quart saucepan along with 2 pounds roughly chopped tomatoes, 1½ teaspoons Kosher salt, ½ cup cider vinegar, 5 tablespoons brown sugar, 1 medium chopped onion, 1 smashed garlic clove, and 1 chopped Anaheim chili. Cook on medium-high heat for 40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion and chili are very soft. Remove and discard the spice bundle, and purée the sauce in a blender until smooth. Strain the sauce through a mesh strainer and return to the saucepan, stirring occasionally over medium heat for 30 minutes, until thickened. Transfer to a container, allow to cool, cover tightly, refrigerate, and use within 3 weeks. 


Insulin: Like Money in the Bank

Have you ever considered that the amount of insulin you are capable of making over your lifetime is limited? Maybe your pancreas can make, let’s just call it 1000 pounds worth of insulin, and after that it starts to have trouble keeping up with the demand? What would happen if you used up most of your supply by the time you were 40 or 50? Then what? Then your blood sugars would probably start to rise dramatically, and you would need to start taking medicine, whether to make your remaining insulin work more efficiently, to get your pancreas to make more, or to augment your existing supplies. Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Avgolemono (Lemon-Egg Soup)

Avgolemono (ahhv-go-LEH-mo-no; avgo is egg, and lemono is lemon) is Greek chicken soup, but you don’t need chicken to make it! Its simple combination of a few basic ingredients creates a deep well of comfort to satisfy your senses and soothe your soul. Even though avgolemono is about as simple as it gets, it’s an elegant recipe whose brilliance comes as much from the technique as the ingredients. As usual, the better the quality of the ingredients, the better the finished product. Also, you don’t have to use arborio rice, but it does confer a particular creamy texture that other kinds of rice do not. Continue reading




YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Judith’s Tabouli

Here is the best tabouli recipe you’ll ever eat. It comes from my friend Judith, who got it from her mom, who got it from her mom, who got it from her mom, which makes my friend Judith one very lucky daughter, granddaughter, cook. I’ve posted Judith’s recipes in these pages on occasion, and that makes you very lucky, too. Pick up what you need the next time you go shopping so you can make this whenever you’re ready! Continue reading


Practice Makes Progress

Let’s lose the never-enough mindset.

It’s okay if you don’t walk as far as you wish you had.
It’s okay if you don’t stretch for as long as you wish you had.
It’s okay if you ate a bag of chips all by yourself last night.
It’s okay if you didn’t keep a promise you made to yourself.

You tried. And that is always good enough for me. Continue reading


YOUR HEALTHY PLATE: Beans, Beans, They’re Good for Your Heart!

Many years ago, my vegetarian sister had a boyfriend whose mother served her “bean loaf” when she went to their home. Its dreadful, unappetizing name was nothing like its wonderful flavor, so my sister and I renamed it “chickpea pie.” The chickpea pie recipe stuck around for much longer than the vegetarianism (and the boyfriend). I sure wish I could find that recipe again. Chickpeas, like peanuts and lentils and edamame (soybeans), are a type of bean. Continue reading