Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Thinking Health and Happiness - a collaborative conversation

(This was one we worked on together with Robin Cook of the Finally Good News. It's been shared recently, so we figured it's a good time to bring it back for a read. This was written as part of a series of collaborating topics. Our first topic was on "Sustainability and Education" and you can read the articles here. Our second topic was on Green Building and Zoning. This round we engaged on the topic of Health and Happiness and the invariable philosophical point we touched upon is the transformative nature of being and becoming--that what we do are not absolute nor are we capable of doing no wrong; the point is to identify our faults, take things in consideration and moderation, and try to live and enjoy each day. For this collaborative work, we asked Robin Cook of the Finally Good News to contribute. We hope you enjoy and think deeply about what we have to say. As always, if you wish to contribute to our work or want to suggest a topic, please contact Lauren at contact@brainboxltd.com.)

1.     Big Thinkers - by Robin Cook

2.     Path of Happiness and the Synthetic Chemical Street - by Lauren Campbell Kong

3.     Humming Along - by Jin  Kong

4.     可口可乐 - by Jin Kong

Big Thinkers:

(Mary Roach & Andrew Weil on Holistic Health and Happiness)

- by Robin Cook  

I'm a dedicated fan of online brands that expand personal horizons. So I confess to my shameless love of, say, TED. I also enjoy Big Think, an online forum with a similar goal but more focused on the short interview. In fact, my attitude is almost, well, religious.

For some religions, there's no such thing as flipping open the sacred text at a random page. What seems like pure chance is actually a teachable moment. You'll never understand how it works. You just need to be receptive to the lesson. So I feel the same away about reading content on the Internet. I felt that when I saw interviews one after the next on Big Think with Mary Roach of popular science-writing fame and positive thinking guru Andrew Weil that there must be a deep reason for the proximity.

Roach's latest book is Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. She has an amazing talent for bringing the reader up close to human processes that we generally take for granted or appreciate their "backstage" presence. Her approach, after all the amazing science is recounted with her signature fun and insight, is that what is best for the body in a holistic diet. She writes that people have a tendency to fixate on the quick fix. That is,

"If I just remove this (gluten, for example) from my diet everything will be fine and I’ll feel good." 

Roach isn't trying to make us neurotic about our digestive tracts. She is simply arguing that eating natural foods across the board is a better strategy than singling out one food item to obsess over. The obvious implication is that with a natural foods based diet one is more relaxed and happier.

The fact that Andrew Weil makes the same case one click away is, like I said, for me kind of a sign. He begins with the unbelievable statistic that depression is an "unprecedented epidemic" in our society. He contrasts the huge numbers of people (even children!) on antidepressant medication with the fact that in agrarian societies depression is more or less non-existent. Obviously, a life of farming can't be without its problems. There's the toil and unpredictability of the weather, for starters. The Romans, or so I was once told, went to war to take a break from farming. But living off the land also has its clear benefits.

The most important advantage to "going agrarian" is the connection to nature. That means a natural sleep cycle, usually a tightly knit community, good exercise, and a natural diet. These factors make the anxiety-filled life of city dwellers seem very artificial by comparison. The connection between holistic living and happiness is easily appreciated from that perspective. We can still be happy and live holistically in cities, but it's a challenge. Considering the increasing number of the world's population moving into urban environments, we need to be ever more inventive in new ways to apply holistic solutions to our lives so that we stay happy and hopeful for the future.

Path of Happiness and the Synthetic Chemical Street

- by Lauren Campbell Kong 

A few months ago I watched the documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead by Joe Cross. In the documentary Joe doesn’t eat anything for 60 days. The only form of food that he consumes is juice from fresh fruits and vegetables (made by using a juicer); needless to say he lost around 80 lbs. In addition to losing weight, he had more energy than before, his skin looked better, his mood was brighter and above all his overall health was better than it had been in 20 years; he also suffered from a rare skin disorder which he had been combating by taking a prescription steroid, during his fast it began clearing up on its own, allowing him to stop taking the medication.

I was hooked.  I wanted a juicer. Jin came home and I was so pumped up about this documentary, juicing, and what it could do for our health; I talked about it to anyone who happened to cross my path.  

Being the wonderful husband he is, Jin surprised me on my birthday with a juicer! It was love at first sight and since then juicing has become a part of my daily regiment; it offers an almost Zen like quality while I prepare the fruits and vegetables. Washing and cleaning, the smell of each different piece of produce as it is juiced, the frothy foam on the top;  it tastes delicious (for the most part, I’m not going to lie, there have been a few disasters, the hold your nose and shoot it back kind). It has opened an entirely new world of produce for me; giving me an entirely new area of knowledge. Through juicing, I have been motivated to research different fruits, veggies, and herbs and how they benefit the body, not just what vitamins and minerals they provide, but what medicinal properties they have and how to use produce to treat one’s ailments.

The physical benefits of juicing were noticeable overnight; my teeth were whiter, my eyes were whiter, my skin looked better. I couldn't believe the positive effects and that was from juicing once, maybe twice, a day. 

After a few months of juicing on a regular basis, I worked up the nerve to do a fast. Jin joined me. Detoxing the body is physically and mentally exhausting. And not eating food, well for me, was emotionally exhausting. The first 3 days were really hard: I had headaches, nausea, and I was grumpy. The last two days were better. I had more energy, my mind seemed to work faster, and it was amazing how delicious lettuce was once I could eat.

The purpose of my juice fast was to learn about my relationship with food and how to read my body, learning  the difference between actual hunger and the desire to munch on something. It took more self-control than I thought I had, but I succeeded and in the process learned so much about myself and how I should eat. I no longer crave processed foods; it isn't macaroni and cheese I want, but a fresh slice of watermelon or some carrots and hummus. It has renewed my interest in healthy eating and I have proven to myself that I can control my appetite and food cravings.

After the fast I have started paying more attention to my diet; focusing on eating raw, unprocessed foods and focusing less on calorie content. For years I have been aware of the misleading advertising by the food industry, knowing that ‘all natural’ comes a dime a dozen and is a term used to blind consumers. But, it wasn’t until after my fast that I have really began taking all of this seriously. Detoxing my body, combined with not eating for five days and feeling true hunger, helped me realize how much processed food I do consume and how much my body craves it.

Since the fast, those cravings left and I am amazed how the texture of fresh fruit is so satisfying. The experience motivated me to begin researching processed foods and food addiction; now that I look back on it, I believe that I suffered from this addiction, craving different types of processed foods even though I wasn’t hungry. I also notice a huge difference in how I feel after I eat and how different foods affect me.

I think that we are so entrenched in our food culture that we don’t always stop and think about what this food or that food will do to us; I’m sure there are foods that we consume regularly that we don’t even know what harm it can bring to us.

In the late 90’s, when my brother was diagnosed with ADHD my stepmother banned the ingredient Red 40 from our home. The rumors were just beginning to fly about food ingredients and the adverse effect it can have on children. Presently, there is considerable evidence showing this is the case [1]. It is scary what the rumor mill is churning out presently about food and the effect it has on everything from the development of cancer and autism to early onset of reproductive maturity in young children and even long term sterility.

Finding research on food, especially in the United States, was difficult. I came across a study performed by Professor Gehan Salah El Deen Moram from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. The purpose of the study was to research the toxic effects of synthetic food and food coloring on male rats. Sadly, before I even got through the first three paragraphs I found this regarding a slew of different synthetic food colorants and dyes:

Synthetic dyes are widely used due to their coloring properties, uniformity, stability and low cost. However, many of them become toxic after prolonged use, causing health problems such as indigestion, anemia and allergic reactions as asthma and urticaria, pathological lesions in the brain, kidney, spleen and liver, tumors and cancer, paralysis, mental retardation, abnormalities in offsprings, growth retardation and eye defects resulting in blindness (Ashida et al., 2000;Moutinho et al., 2007).

The study used 100 rats, divided into groups, and fed each group a different combination of synthetic colorants and additives. I will spare you the tedious details, but the outcomes were alarming; some rats gained weight, some loss weight, others showed high levels of liver cells that were destroyed, and still others grew tumors, specifically in the liver and urinary bladder.

The research article ended by stating:

Therefore, it could be concluded that administration of these food colorants with or without food flavor additives resulted in various alterations of the antioxidant systems with a tendency in most instances toward the reduction. Finally, it is advisable to limit the uses of these food colorant and/or food flavor additives especially those used for children.

Yet, we as consumers aren’t given this information up front. Our food isn’t labeled. How many people out there are consuming these chemicals daily with no way of knowing to what they are exposing themselves and their children?

Many food industry giants have funneled millions, if not billions, of dollars into manipulating and processing food so that it affects consumers psychologically, neurologically, and emotionally. Food addiction is being increasingly studied and has been a form of contention in the medical and psychological fields; which blows my mind considering how much effort goes into manipulating food so that consumers cannot stop eating it. Creating food people can’t stop eating, but denying that food addiction is real is a little oxymoranic in my opinion.

In a New York Times article that I recently came across, author Michael Moss discusses in great detail how far food manufacturers will go to get consumers hooked. Moss shares four stories from individuals in the industry and how their choices impacted millions of people.

So many of these large corporate food enterprises are only concerned with profit that long term thinking regarding the health and the well-being of their consumers is not even on their radar. Devising ways to keep their consumers returning for more and more is the game they play and it is amazing the science that goes into accomplishing just that. Take Cheetos for example, Moss quotes Steven Witherly, a food scientist and author:

This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it . . . you can just keep eating it forever.”

The hoops and loops available for the food industry to jump through also contribute negatively to our health. When scrutinized for too much salt, sugar, fat, etc. companies create new ingredients to cut out whatever we want out, but then use a new chemical to supplement and to keep us coming back for more, in the business these are called ‘designer foods;’ designer salt, designer sugar, designer gluten. These new ingredients meet the ‘low sodium, low sugar, gluten free,’ requirements, but still are not good for long-term consumption and are typically used to get around road blocks. In the article, this was cited as an example to get around the growing concern about the types of food in our schools.  Moss writes about Al Carey, the CEO of Frito-Lay.

The company was concerned with diminishing sales of chips because of a ‘low-sodium’ trend.

The prospects for lower-salt snacks were so amazing, he added, that the company had set its sights on using the designer salt to conquer the toughest market of all for snacks: schools. He cited, for example, the school-food initiative championed by Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, which is seeking to improve the nutrition of school food by limiting its load of salt, sugar and fat. “Imagine this,” Carey said. “A potato chip that tastes great and qualifies for the Clinton-A.H.A. alliance for schools . . . . We think we have ways to do all of this on a potato chip, and imagine getting that product into schools, where children can have this product and grow up with it and feel good about eating it.

Feeling good about eating it?!?!? Guilt-free eating made possible through chemical construction; count me out. With the growing obesity epidemic, which contributes to a myriad of other health issues: depression, type 2 diabetes, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, etc., one would think that statements surrounding the happiness of consumers would go deeper than a 'guilt-free, low sodium' potato chip. 

Learning to be happy with ourselves has been daily fight for most people, myself included, but it begins with what you put into your body. If we as consumers begin using our consuming power to purchase fresh produce and fresh lean meat, we should be able to win the war on processed food. If we begin reading the ingredient list, truly reading it in detail, we can make educated choices in what we purchase and what we eat; leading ourselves and others down a longer path of happiness, one not muddled with Doritos and Cheetos, where rivers of soda do not run along side with us, or where hormone injected and antibiotic laden chicken is not our only choice. I want a path of happiness lined with fresh fruit and veggies I can pick from the Earth and where pastures of grass-fed cows and free ranged (actual free ranged, not the 'it's on the label, so it must be true') chicken can be seen in the distance. 

That's the happy path I want to take.

[1] Gehan Salah El-Deen Moram and Hanan Mohamed Fathy Abd El-Wahab. Toxic effects of some synthetic food colorants and/or flavor additives on males rats. Toxicology and Industrial Health, 2012.

Humming Along 
                                                   - by Jin

Here we are. In the only world we’ve ever known;
in the one and only precious life we were given to exist in this world.

This one is for the people.

Scientists, doctors, psychologists, and experts; 
everyone wants to tell me what makes me healthy, 
what makes me happy. 
Everyone shakes the trees and waiting for the fruit to fall; 
everyone has a stake in the matter and 
everyone has their two cents in the story told. 
Everyone including me has a mind of our own, 

but where do we think we have original thoughts?

So I read, I listened, I sang the songs
                           I don’t know
                                               because this one is for the people.

I try to live in healthy ways,
following the sage advice printed freely
on pages so cheap that cost children their lives.
I live happily, ignorant of the facts to be sold.

But the experts still can’t tell me how to save my soul, 
how to ignore the savages in villages, 
how to mask the living images of ribs of the little kids and dead body turn cold.

I held my breath, my lips turned blue;
I hold my pulse, my heart grows old.

I eat what the two dollar nutrition books tell me is good;
trickster bastards,

I drink water polluted with plastic bottles.
I breathe the air from smoke stacks so build for the florescence lights in my home.
I sank my feet into the ground so saturated with GMOs.

I smile because anything else would be so uncivilized.

I follow instruction booklets and I build my life in pieces like an IKEA purchase;
where do these screws go?

I dream, I fear,
                       I enjoy what precious time I was given at the beginning of this journey.

I found where I’ve started will be where I will be in the end
                                       a life is a life given and taken,
                                       a life taken is a life granted with opportunity to seek
                                                   these songs that cannot be sold.

I held bodies that turned cold;
I held souls from which warmth cannot be described.
I grow old, my patience grows young.
I live across lands, on different continents,
discovering that we are all the same,
all the wiser if we so chose.

“This goes to all the wisdom and knowledge seekers of the World

Sabali, Patience.”

Cheers 可口可乐 

                                    - by Jin

The first time I had a Coke-Cola I was at the zoo with my mom and grandparents. I was young, it was the mid 1980’s; China was changing. My mom and I had just moved to Beijing, I believe my grandparents came for a visit to see how we were doing. My dad was in the U.S., writing us letters with pictures of his reflections. He looked happy, I did not think much of it then.

We had gone to the zoo that day. It might have been a Sunday or a Tuesday, I don’t remember; it was cold and early, but that wasn’t important. My surroundings were no longer just barren lands and sandstorms, I now lived in Beijing—where I thought everyone wanted to live and learn. My grandparents had come for a visit; together with my surroundings we were strolling through the places where tigers and bears claimed their existence. I was happy, curious, and adventurous. I was indulging in my environment as if everything was perfection.

And I saw the strange markings on an hourglass shaped bottle at the concession stand, with dark contents far from the bright colored soda I was accustomed. I was immediately pinched by the mysteries of this thing I knew then was foreign . . .

. . . this thing called 可口可乐 (“Kěkǒu Kělè”).

Had I seen these strange letters on the pages from my father?

I must have a try at this.

I begged the sympathy of my grandparents: oh look at the poor Jin-jin who had traveled all this way to Beijing now living away from home; he should be rewarded for his troubles with this thing that is so deliciously and happily named. (可口可乐 literally means ‘both approved by the mouth and by your happiness’; but you can imagine the lost of emotional meaning in such dry and literal translation.)

Why not? Mom and I had suffered the push-and-shove of two of the busiest train stations in China with most of our belongings dragged, lugged, pushed through for days on our own. I was a big man then, almost five; I had helped by managing to not get lost in the massive crowd the entire way; a Coke was just the trophy I deserved.

Yes, I was a spoiled little brat back then; (still am if you ask my wife).

My mom reluctantly forked over what seemed like a large sum for the bottle. I could’ve had five or six of the domestic orange-soda at that price. But I happily watched my first of the mysterious dark liquid pop and fizzle open.

I couldn’t wait, took it in my hand, and just as I would a bottle of the sweet orange soda I chugged the thing.

I don’t remember how my first mouthful of Coke-Cola tasted or how it went down; foam swelled from the dark liquid and a sticky foul sensation still vividly reminiscent on my hand. I remember vomiting, I remember mom cussing for wasting money, grandma trying to wipe me clean, and my grandpa with his arms crossed, half annoyed and half smiling.

I don’t drink much Coke these days for health reasons, maybe once in a blue moon; but that shouldn’t stop you from the intrinsic enjoyments of having one yourself. I’ve always said everything in moderation and it’s your free will to do with what you judge to be reasonable.

Occasionally Lauren will also crave a can of Coke and I would convince her to share it (my wife does my spoiling these days). I don’t throw-up any more, I have actually come to enjoy the taste of cola. I have nothing against Coke the company; and up until recently, I’ve kept a distant irreverence for its brand because I’ve been one of those 'Pepsi guys', mostly for Pepsi’s track record on sustainability performance.

Recently, I’ve gained new found respect for my once vomitous adversary. For some years now, Coke had been disinterested in sustainable developments. More recent pressures from cause marketing and consumer awareness campaigns, and Pepsi taking the lead in the sustainability movement, Coke had to take notice and had to take action. With the recent negative publicity and a petition effort against its ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Coke pulled its support from the ALEC.

Coke-Cola cited human rights issues amongst its top reasons for disentangling the relationship. The most controversial are ALEC’s political support for voter ID legislation that has the effect of suppressing minority, student, and senior voters and its influence on Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” (“license to kill”) law. In between the lines, ALEC is also a player in lobbying to discredit climate change and limit sustainable development. Coke, with its signature water stewardship efforts at the core of its sustainability efforts, must’ve considered the conflict of interests between its environmental missions and public responsibilities against the ALEC’s political ideologies.

I have been noticing more rapid corporate cultural shifts toward sustainability in recent months. The movement has been slow at times, but there are more frequent milestones lately. Others have also observed this increasing optimism and hope this new decision by Coke will further push the collective shift towards a self-regulated socially responsible economy:

Just last week, GM announced that it would no longer provide funding to the lobbying organization The Heartland Institute, which is notorious for its role in delaying effective federal action on climate change. GM, maker of the electric-gas hybrid Chevy Volt, has recently seen sales of its award-winning car soar despite a two-year smear campaign spearheaded by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

In the past few years the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also taken hits from a growing roster of major companies that have either distanced themselves from the Chamber’s denialist position on climate change or have quit the organization outright. That includes Apple, U.S. energy giant Exelon and other utilities, Nike, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft among others.

Tina Casey, Coke Pulls the Plug on Anti-Climate Change ALEC Lobby

I have seen that China's younger consumers are more carbon conscious when it comes to buying. This is a tremendous transformation from the days when I first tried capitalism at its best and vomited in a memorable public place for all the bears and tigers to see.

Back then, the Chinese were just emerging from the anxious Cultural Revolution. For the first time in modern Chinese history (1911 going forward) people were somewhat at ease. Movie theaters then began to show action flicks; rap and Elvis had entered into the little circle of friends I had in Beijing. By the late 80’s and early 90’s, I had owned my first mixed tape of Chinese hip-hop, went on a date with a girl I really liked to a movie I don't remember, and had my first pair of American tennis shoes that made me an inch taller.

But those days were more about getting rich and buying more stuff. Commerce was picking up pace, things like supermarkets and Coke-Cola were novelties. People were not worried about hunger but instead had time to enjoy life. The first McDonald’s and KFC were established in China a few years later; a couple of decades after the Golden Arch and Colonel Sanders invasion, I found China’s big cities transformed into something completely new, something beyond enjoyment and into indulgence.

But then, when I had my first Coke-Cola, I had no idea of my revulsion for the taste would lead me from Beijing to Cincinnati, to Mosul, to Indianapolis, and finally to relive my first mouthful of indulgence happily with my wife who is equally repulsed by things unsustainable.

I wonder if today's spoiled Beijing kids still vomit at their first taste of Coke, or have they gotten used to indulging in things foreign? I wonder when my wife and I eventually spend time living in China again, will our kids have the same reaction to their first mystery of the dark liquid? Will we consume a little less of the colas for the enjoyment of it and not just out of habit? Will the sky be blue or gray? Will the air be fresh or taint? Will we have a zoo or will the animals have left us to our barren lands and sandstorms?    

Suddenly my revulsion not so prevalent; my once vomitous adversary now is something I contemplate with confidence. There are things beyond the moment and I see it in the hands of conglomerate corporations that hold the fate of our planet, but their prosperity is in our hands. The vivid foul sensation would transcend itself, the dark liquid so mysterious would be explained and eventually enjoyed in a healthy moderation; fizzles and pops with our cheers. I would have the final say in how I remember our first steps into a modern transformation.

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