There is a striking parallel between the journey toward soil health and the path to personal health. Both involve the hardest of all challenges – the changing of habits. Whether you are striving to break free from a destructive diet, or striking out to boost sustainability on your farm, both endeavours involve dogged determination and they are unsettling. We feel comfortable with the familiar and anxious in the face of the unknown.
Changes on the farm can be more confronting because the anxiety is economically founded. Many of us are walking the fine line between failure and survival in highly leveraged enterprises. We know that our soils are declining, our inputs increasing and that our long term sustainability is questionable. However, in the short term, we also know that we can usually bet on a proven program of NPK and chemicals to deliver enough seasonal revenue to satisfy the bankers.
Our struggle with dietary changes is often more about the devil you know. For example, we can satisfy our carbohydrate and caffeine cravings so simply with cereal, toast and coffee. A green smoothie followed by a couple of free range eggs with fresh picked salad might be a more nutritionally sound breakfast, but it does not tick the addiction boxes and is different enough to generate discomfort. So, how do we move forward on the farm, and with our personal health, in the face of these challenges?
The Anatomy of Habit
The starting point is always to "know thine enemy". How do we become effectively addicted to behaviours that are often not serving us, and how do we break those habits?
It has been estimated that around 40% of our behaviour is actually habit. When we think we are making decisions, we are often actually reverting to habitual behavior. Habits consist of three components – trigger, routine and reward. We commonly revert to routine (the actual habit) when analysing a behaviour, but the secret to breaking free from the unproductive behaviour is to focus upon the trigger and the reward. The second secret is that we need something to replace the habit with, as this will make the change less confronting. It is important to understand that a habit has actually formed a neurological pathway and it takes 21 days to begin forging a new pathway to replace the unproductive behavior. It makes it easier if we realise this time factor, because we can motivate ourselves along the way. Little self-assurances like "eleven days down, just ten to go before the change becomes part of me", can really help.
Let’s look at our first meal of the day as example of breaking habits to achieve a happier, healthier, longer life.
Making Breaking Bad Good
We break our overnight fast with the first and most important meal of the day, and that breakfast is replete with habit. I know how much I struggle when confronted with the host of foreign choices at the Asian hotel breakfast bars. The unfamiliar is disconcerting and yet, if we take a realistic look at a typical Western breakfast, it is clear that we could easily do better.
The processed, nutrient-depleted cereals are jam-packed with destructive sugar. The low-fat, pasteurised, homogenised milk has been stripped of its enzymes, vitamins and beneficial fatty acids. The toast that follows often involves white bread that has been nutritionally depleted to the point that it is technically an anti-nutrient. The process of digestion, fired by specialist enzymes, is actually the most energy-intensive process in our bodies. Considerable nutrition is required to fuel this energy, and white bread is so lacking in nutrients it actually takes more than what it gives during the digestion process.
Then, we coat that bread in margarine – arguably the worst of all man-made foods. This hydrogenated, trans fat abomination has no place in a healthy diet. You can dress it up with olive oil or cholesterol-lowering sterols, but it remains a pitiful shadow of the butter it is designed to replace. The instant coffee with milk and sugar that accompanies this substandard start continues the bastardisation of breakfast, hence the "breaking bad" analogy.
So let’s look at this habitual dietary behavior in terms of the three components of a habit. What triggers this morning routine? Well, we need to kickstart the energy required to face another busy day, and we need to do it quickly in our crazy, time-starved worlds. Refined carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine deliver the desired energy in short shift and we have achieved our goal. The immediate reward for the behavior is that kickstart. The question becomes, can we replace this habit with one that addresses the triggers and rewards that fuel our destructive breakfast behavior?
The early morning energy requirements, which are satisfied by caffeine and a carbo hit, could easily be interchanged with fruit, greens, nuts, coconut oil and a short bout of bellows breathing.
The fruit, greens, nuts and coconut oil are best addressed with a green smoothie. Here, the carbohydrates in the fruit and vegetables are micronised and rendered rapidly available, to deliver sustained energy for several hours. However, they still include the fibre component that ensures a low GI and helps to avoid an unhealthy spike in blood insulin.
The coconut oil is a wonder fat containing super protective lauric acid (the only other source of which is breast milk). It also contains caprylic acid, which helps manage undesirable microbes, like candida. However, the big claim to fame for coconut oil is the fact that it actually sponsors fat loss due to boosted metabolism. This energy boost burns calories, while also energising your day. Coconut oil also feeds starved cells in those of us who have become insulin resistant or diabetic. Insulin carries fatty acids (a principle cellular food) into the cells, with the help of insulin receptors. When these receptors have shut down, as they do in insulin resistant or diabetic situations, regular fatty acids can no longer be delivered into the cells and the subsequent cellular starvation can result in limb loss or blindness. Coconut oil bypasses this process, making it an absolute essential for diabetics.
The very best nut for your green smoothie is the Brazil nut, because it is one of the highest sources of the three minerals that are missing in most of us: selenium, zinc and magnesium. In a green smoothie, we have micronised the nuts to the point that these key minerals are much more easily absorbed. Ideally, the Brazil nuts should be soaked overnight (before addition to your smoothie) to remove the phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. These substances are the only negatives when including more nuts in your diet.
Bellows breathing is a simple, cleansing strategy that is practised on an empty stomach. It takes around the same amount of time as preparing a cup of coffee, and achieves a similar energising and ‘fog-clearing’ response in the waking brain. However, there is none of the acidifying effect and negative impact on production of killer T cells that comes with the cup of coffee. Here's how it is done:
Before breakfast each morning, sit in a comfortable chair with your hands on your thighs and close your eyes.
Breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale fully through your nose, at least three times.
Then begin a series of shorter, more rapid, evenly spaced in-breaths and out-breaths. You should sound like a panting dog, or perhaps, more appropriately, like a set of bellows, forcefully sucking and blowing air at the rate of one full cycle per second.
You must try to breathe from your stomach, so there should be little movement of the head, shoulders and chest.
Begin with ten cycles and then wait 30 seconds before completing twenty cycles. There is a further 30-second space of relaxed, deep breathing before you complete the exercise with thirty in-out cycles. If you feel a little dizzy, you may have to work your way more slowly toward the suggested goal involving a total of sixty cycles at each sitting.
The entire process takes less than five minutes, but you will feel more energised, clear and jitter-free than the coffee counterpart. There is also some evidence that this simple practice can trigger the release of digestive enzymes that will improve the uptake of nutrients from your breakfast.
In the next instalment of this three-part article, we will consider the challenge of making changes on the farm. I will also share a recent story from a couple who attended my four-day course together. They decided that they would begin their changes by adopting just three new things on the farm and three things for their health. I will share the details and their results next week.
Click here to read Part 2 of this article.
Click here to read Part 3 of this article.