When we put labels on our diet, we may create unnecessary limitations for ourselves. After many years of defining myself by what kind of diet I was following, I found a sort of liberation in the stripping away of those labels.
I can tell you the precise moment I decided to stop labeling my diet. I was standing in my kitchen near the refrigerator, making a chocolate cake - a recipe of my favorite TV chef. It was December and I had been binge watching her shows, getting some rest on the couch.
She is one of those celebrity chefs who uses every ingredient with wild abandon, without apology. Butter…heavy cream…bacon: all of the foods that had become "evil" in my mind.
But here I was, whisking together white flour and sugar with the butter and cream and feeling something I hadn’t felt in awhile: free.
LETTING GO OF THE LABELS
That moment was pivotal for me. It was in that moment of abandon that I saw how caged I had become in my own dogma around food choices. I realized that I never felt free because I was always judging every ingredient as good or bad, and respectively, myself and my choices around them.
Immersed joyfully in the moment of making a cake, it became clear that all of these self imposed labels were no longer serving me. Having been vegetarian for 12 years, then a carnivore, then South Beach, then a vegan, then vegetarian again, then Paleo for awhile, I was exhausted from trying to fit into a mold.
None of them fit anymore.
The truth is that the label itself rarely kept me within the confines of the diet anyway. I strayed often no matter what particular regime I was following at the moment. In retrospect, this was just another sign that the restrictions weren’t working for me.
The story doesn’t end, unfortunately, with me discovering that I, too, could cook and eat like the uninhibited TV chef without consequences. I gained 8 pounds in the month after that initial liberation.
Luckily there was another profound experience around the corner…..
THE ROLE OF FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE
When you visit a functional medicine doctor, you are signing up to have them look at almost every aspect of your life in their quest to understand your health. They will never give you a pill and send you away.
What sets functional medicine apart from conventional is the belief that all aspects of our lives, as well as all systems of our bodies, are inter connected. Each one influences the other.
So a functional medicine doctor may test your blood, order diagnostic testing like X rays or prescribe a necessary pharmaceutical. But they will also look at your sleep habits, any emotional traumas you may be dealing with, how much exercise you get, food sensitivities and much more.
It is a truly holistic approach to health.
In January I finally got an appointment with one of the country’s renowned functional medicine clinics, after being on a wait list for over a year. Both my daughter and I had been struggling for a few years with a set of strange symptoms that none of our local doctors could diagnose. Between us, we had seen over 20 doctors up to that point.
So aside from taking 14 vials of blood, assigning me a health coach and prescribing various supplements, the functional medicine doctor insisted I do an Elimination Diet as a part of her discovery process.
WHAT IS AN ELIMINATION DIET?
A typical Elimination Diet works like this: you take out the “questionable” foods for a period of time, two weeks or so, and then one by one, you reintroduce each food group. The process takes up to two months because you need space between each reintroduction.
Within the reintroduction phase, you pay careful attention to any symptoms that may come up. Those could be digestive problems, skin breakouts, itchiness all over, brain fog, headaches and so on.
So while we waited for all of the lab tests to come back, I dutifully began the two month diet that restricted the following foods: eggs, dairy, gluten, soy, alcohol, sugar, caffeine, shellfish and corn.
The plan allowed gluten free grains like brown rice; other elimination diets may restrict grains completely.
IT’S NOT EASY….
The first couple of weeks were hell. I was irritable, hungry all the time, not happy. I called my health coach and complained. But around the third week, things started to shift. Weight started to drop off. I felt more alert. I felt less inflamed in my body.
And I completely immersed myself in discovering foods that would make me as happy as the ones I wasn’t eating. Food is my craft; I am not going to eat plain food.
THE ROLE OF INFLAMMATION
Smack in the middle of my elimination diet experience, blood results came back and my daughter and I were both diagnosed with Chronic Lyme Disease with a few little co-infections alongside. Tick born illnesses are bacterial in nature and there is some thought that they dwarf into an autoimmune type syndrome when left untreated.
Following the diagnosis, I began to understand the connection between certain foods and the symptoms I was experiencing.
That connection is inflammation.
In a perfectly healthy body, food sensitivity will also cause an inflammatory response. It is often subtle or it can be pronounced enough that the person can easily identify the connection.
So someone with a sensitivity or intolerance to say, milk, may experience some gastro intestinal issues if they eat it. This may lead to a period of discomfort; but it may be something that is manageable over a lifetime.
But for someone dealing with other health issues, food sensitivities can intensely flame the fire of inflammation the body is already fighting. I realized that certain foods were exacerbating my symptoms. The Elimination Diet helped me discover that.
DISCOVERING THE “ME” DIET
But I also found something else after that two month commitment: the eating routine that works best for me cannot be easily defined or captured in one or two words. In other words, there is no perfect label for my diet.
When you do an Elimination Diet, your biggest obsession becomes: what food will I introduce back into my diet first? This is always the food you miss the most, the one you depend on most in your daily life. (Another valuable piece of information you get from this experience.)
My first food back: eggs. I couldn’t wait. Against the advice of my health coach, I knew that eggs were not causing me harm; but on the other hand, that eggs were a serious source of nutrition for me. And as I cook, I love them as a versatile ingredient.
As the weeks went on and I tested one food after the other, I was learning invaluable things about myself. My body is ok with corn. Great! I can go out for tacos once in a while with friends. My body is ok with shellfish. Great! Shrimp tacos.
I found that my body would have strong cravings for red meat every few months or so; and if I obliged it for a day or two, I would feel more energetic and the cravings would stop and I'd not need it again for awhile.
I found that my body is not ok with dairy, however. I finally understood what made my joints hurt randomly. My body is not ok with soy. Shocking! I had no idea that it was soy making me feel itchy all over and seriously inflamed.
So one food group by one, I crafted my own best diet, for my body, at this time. It doesn't fit into a neat little label. It may not look like someone else's perfect diet. It doesn't require me to pass judgement on myself for choices I may make in the moment. If I choose to have something with soy once in a awhile, no grief. I know my symptoms may flare. And I know that tomorrow is a new day and that soy is not bad and neither am I for enjoying it.
TEMPLATE FOR LIFELONG EXPLORATION
Going through a journey like the Elimination Diet teaches more than just what foods are best for your body, it gives you a template for continual discovery. Once you have learned how to clear out your diet for a period of time, reintroduce a food, pay attention to your body’s reaction and adjust your eating accordingly, this is a process you can use throughout your life.
In fact, the first phase of the Elimination Diet may just be the beginning for you, if you continue to deal with symptoms. You may get through the Elimination Diet and discover one or two sensitivities or none at all, and yet all of your problems may not resolve.
There may still be underlying sensitivities. For example, it was several months after my own journey, that I discovered I have a strange reaction to black pepper.
It is the deeper connection to my body through the Elimination Diet work that allows me to make these discoveries.
Would you like support through your own Elimination Diet experience? Next week I will be introducing a six week coaching program to guide you through the Exploration Diet, my pet name for the therapeutic Elimination Diet. It is truly a journey of discovering food sensitivities, decreasing inflammation and crafting your own personal best way of eating. For more information ahead of time, email me at email@example.com
Hummus has succumbed to the fusion evolution. You may now find hundreds of variations that have not a single ingredient common to the original puree of chic peas, tahini, garlic and lemon.
Hummus is the Arabic word for chic pea. So when someone from the Middle East - where the dish originates - says hummus, they always mean “with chic peas”. (Or garbanzo bean - same thing.) That could mean a dish with the whole legume as an ingredient or it could be the silky puree that has catapulted hummus onto the world stage as some kind of dip.
The transition of hummus to mean any pureed dip, where cooks take great liberties with the ingredients, is far from an unusual phenomenon in the culinary world. Look at curry, for example: it started as a sauce and has spawned an impressive worldwide lineage of variations that are far from its original self.
This is the nature of cuisine and a beautiful thing, if you ask me. Why not allow an accepted idea to morph and evolve through the contribution of innovative ingredients, flavors, techniques? When we approach food, and life, this way, our possibilities are forever expanding.
However, I do believe in maintaining some integrity of the original dish. When I am taking liberties with a traditional recipe, I will always include some key element of the original. So you will never find a hummus recipe from me with neither chic pea nor tahini. The tiny bit of Puritan in me insists.
Otherwise, anything is possible.
Winter squash as well as sweet potatoes make ideal substitutions for chic peas when reinventing hummus. The orange flesh of sweet potatoes, pumpkin or butternut bring a vibrancy that chic peas cannot. I love the sweetness and color they contribute. The rich, bitter silkiness of tahini shares an earthiness that bring the two into a harmony that just makes sense. I prefer these two together to chic pea hummus any day.
I love any recipe that calls for roasted squash or sweet potatoes. There are few easier tasks in the kitchen than throwing one of these onto a baking sheet and into the oven to be forgotten for a bit. (And no peeling required!) Roasting either of these two winter vegetables with the end goal of pureeing means an almost irreverence to the kitchen timer. Let them go awhile (up to an hour) until they’re so soft inside their skins, your job is mostly done for you. Let them cool to the touch, then scoop out the glossy flesh. Discard the skins.
Below is a recipe that simply uses sweet potatoes as a replacement for chic peas. Otherwise the tahini, garlic and lemon juice are standard. A little salt, of course. And a bit of cumin.
A further suggestion is given for taking the sweet potato hummus to the next level of exotic: a Persian incarnation. I’ll go this extra step when I am trying to impress someone. Pomegranate seeds are little jewels, anyway; so they alone make a huge impact. And they’re in season now.
Preheat oven to 350
On a baking sheet, place:
3 pounds sweet potatoes or any kind of sweet winter squash, like butternut
You can leave the sweet potatoes whole. Squash will need to be cut in half and baked cut side down. A little spray of olive oil on the pan will keep it from sticking.
Bake for 1 hour or so, until a fork pierces the skin easily.
Let the sweet potatoes cool slightly and then scoop out the flesh into a food processor or high speed blender.
¾ cup Tahini
2 cloves Garlic
Juice of 2 Lemons
2 ½ teaspoons Salt
½ teaspoon Cumin ground
Process until smooth. Taste and add more of any of the seasonings to your liking.
You could stop here and enjoy this version of the sweet potato hummus with a little olive oil on top, or swirl in some pesto.
Or to add the Persian influence, process the following with the ingredients above:
½ Roasted red pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
And then garnish with any combination of the following:
Drizzle of pomegranate molasses
Fresh mint, chopped or whole
Recipe copyright Rhona Bowles Kamar 2018
What is prana, people often ask me when they see the name of my website. I’ve found it best, most of the time anyway, to give the short answer: energy. Prana is energy.
To go deeper though, prana is the Sanskrit word for vital life force energy. The Chinese call it Chi - same thing. It is the energy that flows through all life. I came to see it as the same divine intelligence that causes a flower to bloom, the source of innate wisdom we all possess.
We don’t have to do anything to make this energy be there. We were born with it. But there are many practices that can increase the quality of that energy and our connection to it. Every action is either enhancing the quality of our energy, or creating a block to its healthy flow. And when we become more aware of ways to enrich our prana, we become more connected to our own bodies as well as our own spirit.
Through the healing journey I have been on the past five years, I began to collect a set of practices I now call my Prana Practices. All of these things served to connect me in a more conscious way to the energy in my body, which I believe has allowed me to learn to thrive despite a chronic illness.
THE BACK STORY….
When I became sick five years ago, and even as I struggled for years for a diagnosis, I did not know that I was already on a healing journey. I did not realize that as the illness took hold, the healing had begun.
That is because the healing actually lives in the practices I’ve had to cultivate to be able to thrive despite the illness. The most powerful part of this whole experience for me is becoming highly aware of the role energy plays in my life.
Before getting sick, I had already begun to have a few experiences that connected me to the beautiful energy that is present in all life. The summer before the tick bite that took me down in the fall, I was walking daily under a huge canopy of 100-year-old trees in a nearby park. I began to feel their presence in a new way.
The walks became about more than just physical exercise. I began to feel a connection to the energy in these trees. I imagined myself taking in the chlorophyll from these giant oaks and maples, with sun dabbling through their leaves, and felt that somehow, I was absorbing a share of their energy. Woo woo, I know; but true.
As a food obsessed person, I became interested in how certain kinds of food contain more live energy and how focusing on those foods in my diet could increase the quality of energy in my body. I experimented with eating more raw foods and drinking green juice every day. And I saw my energy levels soar.
That summer I also spent a solid four days resting in the sun at the beach and returned home filled with incredible energy and vitality. It was the first time I understood why people love the ocean so much. I felt so alive.
Then in November, I got sick.
When you’re struck with an illness, you don’t realize you are starting a journey. Every day you think you will get better, that this is temporary. But as time goes on and symptoms continue, you settle into an acceptance of your new normal and begin to find ways to have a better life today, in this moment, as you continue to move towards complete healing.
Aside from seeking help from over 20 doctors, taking various supplements, sleeping A LOT, and some of the usual things we do when we get sick, here are some of the things I started to do that have made all of the difference in my health today. These did not occur in any sort of linear fashion and I can’t really say one is more important than another.
Sometimes I find I need one more than the others for a while. They all live in a sort of toolbox, from where I can grab help at any given moment.
Almost three years into the illness, with little improvement, I moved into a new home with a back yard that is surrounded by huge trees. Having lived in the middle of a busy business district for years before, I had no idea what an impact the quiet of my new back yard was going to make on my health.
There were days when I could barely function, but I would drag myself outside to sit in the sun. I would close my eyes, and with the sun on my face, I would practice just listening to the sounds of the birds, the insects, the movement of the trees. I could feel the breeze on me. And every cell in my body seemed to take a big sigh.
I learned later that this practice is called Shinrin-Yoku in Japan, where doctors prescribe time in nature as a part of a healing protocol. The term means “forest bathing” and its power rests in engaging all of our senses to reconnect to nature.
An Aboriginal tribe in Australia calls this Dadirri, or deep listening to nature.
“From a physiological perspective, significant empirical research findings point to a reduction in human heart rate and blood pressure and an increase in relaxation for participants exposed to natural (green spaces).” This was the conclusion of an August 2017 study on Shinrin-yoku and other nature therapy practices by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“Psychologically and spiritually speaking, humans intuitively know the relaxing, soothing and “awe” effects of being in or viewing forests, plants, flowers, urban green spaces, parks and natural wooden materials.”
We don’t need huge amounts of time to experience the benefits of connecting with nature. Anytime I find myself in the presence of a beautiful sunset, or parked under an old tree in the city, or driving by the Ohio River on my way downtown, I can pause to acknowledge that beauty and feel a similar impact on my well being.
Read more about the powerful affects of spending time in nature here.
Although sunlight is an integral part of the practice of spending time in nature, it deserves its own category. I am in love with sunlight. And I find that paying attention to it on a daily basis is a practice of remembering how incredible this source of energy is to our lives.
Maybe it’s the photographer in me, but I find incredible joy in witnessing the sun as it falls across my kitchen counters late afternoon. Or when I find my dog napping in a sliver of sunlight falling on the living room floor. He is always seeking the warmth of the sunlight. I have countless photos to prove it.
Sunlight is considered one of the main sources of prana in the ancient belief systems that encourage daily short periods of time in the sun. When I take walks in the sun I pay attention to how good it feels on my face. In the midst of my worry or not feeling well, I am able to feel my connection to something bigger than myself.
The sun, wherever I encounter it, has become a huge source of comfort to me.
There is an underlying theme through all of these practices: mindfulness. Any practice we undertake that allows us to become completely absorbed in the present moment can have incredible healing affects. It is when we are in this state of mind that our parasympathetic nervous system can relax, slowing down our heart rate, reducing cortisol and inflammatory responses. (Interesting study here.) True healing cannot take place when the body is in a constant state of heightened anxiety.
Listening to music as a form of meditation was a new experience for me. I mostly choose genres with sounds like ocean waves with Tibetan gongs or crystal bowls in the background. Maybe you prefer classical, or jazz or a thousand other possibilities.
The key is to pay attention to how your body is responding to the music you choose. The practice is done in a chair or lying down, making sure the body is completely comfortable. And headphones are a must. Once you settle in and choose your music, pay attention to your heart rate, your sense of calm.
If the music creates any sense of anxiety or stimulation, then simply select something else. I switch up my music frequently.
During the time that I was very sick, this practice became a source of comfort. I would settle into my bed and check that every part of my body felt supported, and tune in to every chord of the music. I found a greater ability to completely surrender when I listened to sounds of nature, like the ocean waves or forest sounds. (Sensing a theme here?)
This new connection to the power of music led to another practice that continues to be of great support to me: dancing.
As I explored the affects of music on my body to relax, I discovered that certain types of music inspired my body to move, something I wasn’t doing a lot of when I was very sick. When you don’t feel well, movement falls way low on the priority list.
Drum music - especially African, Middle Eastern, Native American - and the slow rhythmic beat that mimics your relaxed heart beat allow you to reconnect to your sensual self, which isn’t always easy when you don’t feel well. Alone in your room, at your own pace, dancing can be a powerful grounding practice. It reminds you that you are alive.
Energy from others
One of the most beautiful aspects of our humanity is our connection to others. And not just in relationship to those we love. As we go about our lives every day, interacting with loved ones and strangers alike, we bring our energy to those interactions. And we are constantly absorbing the energy of others.
If I had to pick one of these practices as the most impactful on my overall well-being, it would be the practice of recognizing how other people’s energy affects my own. If someone has very frenetic energy, I will start to feel anxious. When someone is in a negative state of mind, I might find myself mimicking that feeling, when moments before I was fine.
The practice here is in the recognition of what is happening in your body in the presence of others. It is not a judgment, because all of us have our moments. It is not to say that we can only be around people who are always positive and upbeat. It is simply another mindfulness practice: how is this person making me feel in this moment?
As you become more aware of how you are being affected by another, you can start to make choices that protect your energy. Perhaps by walking away, taking a time out. If it is a persistent problem, you can decide to limit your interaction with that person. And you can decide to spend more time with the people who make you feel good, whose energy is soothing to you.
As a part of my healing, learning to tune in the affect of others’ energy helps me to preserve my much-needed energy.
Meditation + Visualization
I learned to meditate in college. I was drawn to various Eastern religions, so a curiosity around meditation naturally followed. Sitting on a cushion in a little make shift Buddhist temple a few miles from campus, I was fidgety and embarrassed.
But I kept at the practice and over the years, it has saved my life a hundred times. Learning to use the sound of my breath to completely quiet my mind means I can completely relax my body. A relaxed mind/body is fertile ground for healing.
There are countless ways to meditate. There’s the formal practice of sitting on a cushion, cross-legged, palms facing up. That’s one way. But a meditation practice can be as impactful sitting propped up in a chair, or lying flat on your back in bed.
It is ok to put yourself in a position where you feel comfortable, so your mind has one less thing to obsess over. Then you can focus on your breathing, so your mind can become completely still. And in that stillness, all kinds of wisdom can come to the surface.
The act of focused, exaggerated breathing has powerful calming affects on the nervous system. And it is something you can access anytime, anywhere.
Visualization is a fun and empowering extension of meditation, where we have cleared the riff raff of thoughts and intentionally replace them with visions of what we desire for our lives.
“Hold a vision of yourself aglow with energy and vitality, act in harmony with that vision, and you will grow to embody it,” said James Allen, author of As A ManThinketh.
Working with tahini is an act of faith and perseverance. You must be able to hold fast to your conviction that everything will turn out fine.
When it's fresh, sesame seed butter is smooth and a bit runny. That can deceive you into believing that making a sauce with it will be a breeze. (Not-so fresh tahini can be dry and clumpy, like the last bit of peanut butter at the bottom of the jar. It will require extra patience.)
Jumping into the process of working with tahini will teach you things about yourself. Are you willing to keep going towards your destination or will you throw up your hands, give up? Will you cry and perceive yourself as a failure? Or will you declare yourself as capable as centuries of cooks who have made it through, and persevere?
Tahini is bitter on its own; so most recipes are going to call for the addition of water, citrus juice or oil. But when tahini meets liquid, it typically seizes up... appears to break.... becomes something scary, nothing like the lusciousness it was moments before.
Heed my advice: keep whisking. Don't take no for an answer.
Add a bit more of your liquid. Whisk some more. And watch the clumpy mess return to its former smooth self.
When working with tahini, always take the liberty to add more water or other liquid than the recipe calls for, but go slowly. Add a little at a time and then whisk. You get to decide how thin you want the sauce to be.
Arab-inspired Prana Bowl
The recipe below is a traditional Arabic tahini sauce that is often added to a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes or cooked chic peas. It can also be used to dress greens on a salad; like the Prana lunch bowl pictured below. To assemble the Prana Bowl: smear some hummus on the plate and throw in some cooked chic peas, dried figs or dates, cucumbers and tomatoes. Toss the creamy lemon mint dressing with fresh kale and/ or lettuce and pile the dressed greens in the middle. Some toasted pine nuts and zatar or sumac sprinkled on top would elevate the Middle Eastern vibe.
Serves 4 to 6
1 cup tahini
1 cup warm water
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (mint, cilantro etc )
In a medium sized mixing bowl, add the tahini. Slowly whisk in the water, continually whisking until the tahini has returned to a smooth consistency. Whisk in the other ingredients. Taste and adjust any of the seasonings as you like.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days.
Product recommendation: organic tahini
prana is the common thread running through everything i love....the sun on my face...the sunlight through my camera.... breathing the ocean air... the sound of my breath...laughing with family + friends.