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.


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


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


What’s for Breakfast?

I really love snow, and last weekend Northeast Ohio finally got its first real snowstorm of the year. As you might guess, I spent a lot of time last weekend shoveling snow, so I needed a breakfast that provided a lot of fuel. That’s what I want to talk about today. Breakfast. So what’s for breakfast? In a word? Protein. In two words? Nourishing fat. In three words? No stripped carbohydrates. I’m going to share some of my favorite ideas for breakfast, but first I’ll tell you about some of the ways I learned to nourish myself when I was younger and traveling. Continue reading


Just a Few Words About Knife Skills

Lately, I’ve been thinking about knife skills. Not just what they are, but why they are. If you take a cooking class, the chef starts by teaching knife skills, so clearly they are foundational to cooking. But why?

Chef Jim, where I work, taught me once that cutting foods into smaller pieces increases the amount of moisture available for tasting. Moisture serves as a vehicle to carry flavor molecules into your taste buds. The more moisture, the more flavor. And that explains the appeal of my dad’s chopped salad. He chops up lettuce, tomato, onion and other ingredients into very small pieces that markedly increase the amount of flavor (and mix of flavors!) released with every bite. And how does Chef Ira create that magic? With his knife. Continue reading


Black Stockings in Vegas

I presented two talks at a conference on Preventive Medicine in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, and awoke the first morning to discover that my black tights had not made it into the suitcase. This did not jive with my plans to present myself as a black-tights-wearing professional. Ugh. Shortly thereafter, at approximately 6 o’clock in the morning, I left my hotel room in search of a new pair of black tights. Continue reading


Thanksgiving Gratitude

Many years ago, when I was eleven years old, my parents bought a Corning Cooktop stove, a fancy new appliance whose coils remained white when they were hot. You just had to take it on faith — or not. No matter how long I stared at that new stovetop, I could not convince myself that the white coils were hot. And that is why I still remember clearly, so many years later, the perfectly oval burn on the tip of my right index finger. I only touched it once, but that was all it took. I couldn’t take anyone else’s word for it. I needed to see for myself. Continue reading




Eat, Drink, and Be Merry (plus one glorious recipe!)

An article on the obesity epidemic once ran in our local paper with the headline “Eat, drink, and be sorry.” Eat, drink, and be SORRY? The actual quote reads, “Eat, drink, and be merry, so that joy will accompany him in his work all the days of his life.” And herein lies the problem. Continue reading