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.

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: Chocolate-Pecan Bars (df, gf, vegan, no bake)

My friend Lia brought these to book club a couple weeks ago. OMG. You should make them. Technically they are meant to be dessert, but they would be great for breakfast, too. I would bring them to folks young and old. A reunion of friends. A picnic. A gathering of neighbors. A special meal. An ordinary one.

Food like this creates all kinds of moments, like moments in time and moments of gratitude. It’s a personal reminder that food is meant to nourish not just the body, but the heart and soul as well. And the best is when our food does all three at the same time. Thank you, Lia.

Date-Pecan Layer

  • ½ cup unsalted, natural almond butter
  • 1 ½ cups unsalted pecan halves, divided
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 5-7 pitted Medjool dates (1/2 cup packed)

Chocolate Layer

  • ½ cup vegan chocolate chips
  • 1/4 cup PLUS 1 Tbsp. natural almond butter, unsalted


  • ¼ cup pecans, chopped


  1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, greased foil, or wax paper. Set aside.
  2. To prepare the date-pecan layer, add dates and almond butter to a food processor. Blend approx. one minute until sticky and crumbly, like chunks of wet sand or dough. Scrape down the sides of the processor intermittently, as needed, between processing.
  3. Add 1 cup pecans, vanilla, and salt to food processor. Blend continuously until pecans are fully incorporated and mixture is soft and crumbly. When the mixture holds together when pinched, it’s ready. Add remaining pecans, and pulse only a few times until pecans are just barely incorporated, with medium-small pieces still visible.
  4. Pour the contents into the prepared baking pan. Press gently with a spatula, and smooth into an even, tightly-packed layer.
  5. To prepare the chocolate mixture, add chocolate chips and (¼ cup plus 1 Tbsp.) of almond butter to the top of a double boiler, or heat in a microwave (in a microwave-safe bowl) in 20-second increments until soft and melted. Stir until smooth.
  6. Pour chocolate mixture over date-pecan layer. Smooth into an even layer using a rubber spatula. Sprinkle evenly with chopped pecans, and press gently into the chocolate.
  7. Freeze for 20-30 minutes. Remove from freezer and slice into 16 generous bars or 20 bite-size pieces.

Thank you to Beaming Baker for a prior version of this recipe.

Making Synergy: Health & Wellness

A special synergy comes from investing in three different kinds of activities that combine to improve your health and wellness: eating patterns, activity patterns, and rest & relaxation patterns. Activities that combine more than one at the same time — like gardening, picnics, or yoga, to name just a few — bring an extra special benefit. Here are a few examples of ways I have found to mix and match eating, moving, and relaxing. Continue reading

Nourish Your Heart and Soul with Real Food

Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about “real” food. What is “real” food? It’s food that has not been processed, refined, stripped, polished, fortified, enriched or otherwise modified. It’s basically fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, fish, eggs, dairy products, and meats, like poultry, beef, and game, and including all the wonderful variations of these things that our brains are capable of inventing. If it’s not food, then it’s manufactured calories. This post is designed to help you figure out how to tell the difference.  Continue reading

Body Maps: Do You Know What Yours Looks Like?

Early one morning, decades ago, I looked down a long hallway and saw two obese women walking toward me. Backlit by the rising sun, the two women appeared in outline; all I could see of them was the dark shapes of two bodies, surrounded by golden rays. I stood, transfixed, watching their movements as they walked, their arms swinging far out from their shoulders like ribbons on a maypole. Instead of moving easily, to and fro, with each step, their arms flew back and forth like propeller blades. The force of these arm rotations supplied energy to fling their hips and torsos forward, while their legs, stiff and straight, worked to catch up with each step. Frankly, it looked like hard work. I looked away. Continue reading

Go For a Walk!

This week we’re going to talk about taking a walk. Here’s what I tell my patients: “I’ll pay any price to keep you mobile.” I consider mobility a goal of the highest priority. There is only one other goal about which I feel this way; I also want patients to know that I will pay any price to keep their blood sugars normal. When our kids were much younger, and they got stuck in a complaining mode (I’m cranky; I don’t feel well; I’m bored; I have too much homework), I would always say, “Go for a walk!” It got to be a joke in our house. They took it to the next level. Fever? Go for a walk! Migraine? Take a hike!  Broken leg? Walk it off! Appendicitis? “Very funny,” I said. Continue reading