Activating my nuts and other failures

This whole healthy living business is a bit of a two-steps forward and one-step back process for me – and I think for lots of people. It’s lovely to imagine that you can turn over a new leaf one day, lose your appetite for the ‘bad’ things in life and turn into a zen-yoga goddess, who not only prepares beautiful, nutritious food, but does it all in a spirit of gratitude and happiness.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, you’re desperate for a proper drink on a Friday night, totally sick of cooking and as far as relaxation goes, a box-set binge on the sofa (Narcos S3 here I come…) sounds just the ticket. So, in the absence of a personality transplant, you just have to do the best you can. For me, it’s a case of trying things out, and then I tend to stick with what makes me feel better. In the spirit of honesty, I thought that I’d fess up to a few failures and highlight some of what’s been working recently.

Failures

  1. The activated nuts investment. Firstly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with activated nuts, they’re lovely. Along with legumes and grains, nuts contain various substances, termed ‘anti-nutrients’ that are designed to keep them viable until the conditions are right for them to actually grow but which can interfere with mineral absorption and may make them hard to digest. ‘Activating’ them, gets rid of these. Another important fact about activated nuts is that they are really frigging expensive (like over £50 per kilo…). So, in a burst of enthusiasm, I decided that I would activate my own nuts which involves soaking them in salty water and then dehydrating them – simple.

    Active, inactive, who knows…

    All was well, until I discovered that my oven doesn’t go low enough to dehydrate them without also roasting them (delicious, but not right!). So…I decided to buy a food dehydrator (marketed as being useful for preppers, so now might be a good time to buy one) which did, after about 24 hours of irritating humming on my benchtop, dry out the activated nuts. It was all a bit of a faff and I confess that the dehydrator is gathering dust in the cupboard, and all recent nut consumption remains sadly of the inactive variety (which apparently is not a problem, especially if you are eating nuts as a snack away from other food).

  2. The aspirational ingredient purchases. These are the ones that seemed like a really good idea at the time (in those moments when I believed I COULD be a zen-yoga goddess of my kitchen), but have not yet made it into actual food. A brief rummage through my pantry reveals goodies such as chick-pea flour, coconut flour, buckwheat (I did actually try this, I even bloody sprouted it to try to make it taste nice!) a MASSIVE tin of brewer’s yeast (am feeding to Hector; his coat looks beautiful), and some dried out seaweed. Now, because I am stubborn, I will at some point do something with these foods, but really, I could manage perfectly well without them lurking on the shelves, reminding me of their presence.

    Hector and his lovely, brewer’s yeast enriched coat.
  3. The occasional longing for a cigarette. I was never a massive smoker, certainly not after the kids arrived, but there are times, generally involving wine, when I absolutely crave a cigarette. I’d say that it’s about every 3 months when I crack and actually have one (or two…). The thing that annoys me the most is the strength of the desire and the fact that I have been unable to get on top of it completely. I absolutely take my hat off to everyone who has kicked the habit for good.

    Intention vs reality. Sums up my approach to smoking.
  4. My inability to come up with healthy snacks that my kids actually like. I think that the basic problem here is that in a fit of eagerness, I make something overly worthy, involving vast quantities of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, which they initially pretend to like and then beg me not to give them again. I then get pissed off because of the waste of effort and resort to bags of popcorn and Babybels. Really, if I just made something not ridiculously ‘right-on’ but homemade with normal ingredients, I suspect that everyone would be a winner.

Successes

  1. The 12 hour eating window. It’s taken over a year of hearing about how this is a really good idea for me to actually put it into practise. The idea is that you need to give your digestion and metabolism at least 12 hours a day without food in order for these systems to work at their best. There’s a good summary of time restricted eating here. My tactic has been just to not eat anything after 7pm which I thought would be hard, but actually, once I decided not to, has been surprisingly easy. One concern was that I’d feel weak at my 6am fitness class without eating a bedtime snack the night before, but in fact I can do a couple of exercises in the circuit for much longer than usual. I know that’s a classic piece of anecdata and largely meaningless, but I’m totally going to stick with this new habit.

    Me with the big ropes in the gym after my time restricted eating experiment.
  2. A return to daily meditation. Today will be the 30th day in a row that I’ve managed to meditate for 15 minutes and I am so pleased! Before I started up again, I’d been having weird anxiety-like symptoms, despite not having anything to be anxious about and feeling generally pretty good. These have now gone, and after each session, I think ‘I am so glad that I did this’. I do have to pick the right time as there are some times of day, like 9am and 3pm where I just fall straight asleep and find myself drooling in a rather un-zen-yoga goddess fashion, but most of the time it goes really well. I’ve looked into a couple of other online mindfulness/happiness programs like 10%happier and happify but still feel like Headspace is the best tool for me. 
  3. More experiments in fermenting stuff. As I write, I have some big jars of kombucha, which is fermented sweet black tea, doing their thing in the cupboard. A lovely colleague on my course gave me the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast – yum!) which works the magic, and if there is anyone local who would like a bit, or some kefir grains to start their own kefir, just let me know because these things multiply and I hate throwing them away. The reason that I enjoy the faffing of the fermented foods is because I associate them with a big boost in my energy and overall wellbeing, so in cost/benefit terms, they are totally worth it.
I can totally make my kombucha look as pretty as this.

So there we have it. I’d love to know if you have any tips for using up my ‘aspirational’ ingredients, what your successes are, and if there’s anything wellness related that you struggle with. Drop me some comments!

Recipe

Okay, I know that this is not the healthiest recipe in the world, and it does involve my kids’ nemeses – pumpkin and sunflower seeds, but….in the spirit of better options than shop-bought, it’s a goodie. It’s a Nigella recipe, and say what you like about Nigella, her recipes ALWAYS work… The sugar content is admittedly high, however, there’s some protein in the nuts to slow down the glucose spike, plenty of fibre and decent mineral content from the seeds.

Breakfast Bars – from Nigella Express

  • 1 can (397g) condensed milk
  • 250g rolled (not instant) oats
  • 75g shredded coconut
  • 100g dried cranberries
  • 125 g mixed seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame)
  • 125g natural unsalted peanuts (or other nuts chopped to ½ a peanut size)

Prep: Heat the oven to 130℃ and oil a baking tin 23 x 33 cms.

Method:

  1. Warm the condensed milk in a large pan.
  2. Mix together all other ingredients, then add them to the warmed condensed milk, stirring well.
  3. Spread the mixture in the tin, pressing it down well with a spatula or back of a big spoon until it’s even.
  4. Bake for 1 hour then remove from the oven. Let cool for 15 minutes, then cut into bars.

    What they should look like…

Stressing less

The whole concept of ‘stress’ and how it fits into a healthy life is tricky. We’re increasingly told about how harmful it is, but when you’re already on the ropes, the fact that you’re not finding your inner-zen is just another stick to beat yourself with. As it seems to be such an essential part of good health, finding a bit more calmness is near the top of my current to-do list. 

There’s definitely some calmness to be found here.

What’s so bad about stress?

Basically, our bodies are designed to handle stress if it comes in the form of an immediate danger, like getting chased by a bear. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released, sugar gets pumped into our blood, the heart starts to pound, blood pressure increases and our immune system gets primed for action. This is fine and dandy presuming it’s an occasional occurrence, and can be a good thing, with nerves before a presentation or exam giving us a sharper mind.

How often do you make this face?

Problems arise when we feel constantly stressed and cortisol/adrenaline are released across the whole day for weeks or months or even years on end. In this scenario, the ‘rest and digest’ mode of our nervous system is overridden in favour of ‘fight or flight’ mode and the background activities that keep our bodies ticking along nicely, like absorbing nutrients, detoxifying our blood, repairing cell damage and making our reproductive and thyroid hormones are put on the back burner.  Chronic inflammation and elevated blood sugar can also result and contribute to major health problems. So unfortunately, even if you are doing everything else right (which you probably aren’t), if you’re suffering from chronic stress, good health is going to be hard to achieve.


But isn’t it just part of life?

It is, so we can’t expect to avoid stress altogether, but can try to improve the way that we respond to those situations that give us that blood-rushing, chest-tightening feeling. For some people, the circumstances that they find themselves in are so difficult that they need to make big changes like leaving their job (or partner…) or moving house-  but for me, just trying to maximise my ‘rest and digest’ time and changing my mindset are the goals. Here’s a list of what’s been helping.

  1. Get enough sleep. My lovely window of child-free time in the evenings has been getting tinier and tinier, so my cunning work-around was just to stay up later. Bad move. The world seems much more horrible when you’re tired and even though I find early nights extremely boring, they’ve got to happen. If you are already chronically stressed, sleep probably won’t be as easy as just going to bed early but there are some great tips here
  2. Enjoy the great outdoors. As a dog owner, getting outside is non-optional and in fact a great bonus to having him around. Lots of studies have shown the benefits of connecting with nature and the other morning after I was lucky enough to watch dolphins leaping around in the bay I really felt on top of the world.   Hanging out with Hector is also (mostly)  relaxing just by itself, so if you don’t have a dog, maybe you know someone who would be happy to share theirs now and again?  

    Some nature.
  3. Mindfulness/Meditation. I felt really calm last year using the Headspace app, but then got lazy and thought that I’d just bin it and go freestyle as required. This hasn’t worked out so it’s time to renew my subscription and start again. You can try Headspace free for a few sessions which I highly recommend if you are interested in mindfulness and would like a well-supported introduction.
  4. Exercise. At the moment I’m doing a couple of high-intensity gym classes each week which I love. There’s something about battering a punchbag that’s extremely cathartic. Exercise is well known to be great for stress reduction, but if you really feel on the edge of burnout, I’d be focusing more on gentle, restorative things like yoga.
  5. Learn to let it go. Trying to live up to unrealistic expectations from other people or the media stresses me out, so these days I just try to disengage.  Happily, this seems to become easier as you get older!

    Example of a healthy mindset.
  6. Epsom Salt Baths. The magnesium in the Epsom Salts helps your muscles to relax and if you haven’t taken a bath for a while, these just feel amazing. You need a good couple of cupfuls of Epsom Salts in each bath and the best place to get them in bulk is amazon
  7. Get into something that isn’t your smartphone. My name is Ellen and I’m a smartphone addict… I can feel it making me restless and squirrely and even though browsing through social media feels like it’s what I want to do when I try to relax, it makes me totally unrelaxed! I love reading so the new goal is to always have a book on the go, and if I start one and don’t like it enough to want to pick it up again, it gets abandoned in favour of one that I’ll actually read. Have just started The Goldfinch which I am loving. For other people perhaps it’s music they can get lost in, or something crafty, the important thing is to focus on something that takes you out of the daily grind. 

    Step away from the smartphone…
  8. Laughing. Whether it’s with friends, at a show, or on tv, it’s the best. I’ve heard a few health-advocate types say that you can’t relax and beat stress by watching tv, but Curb Your Enthusiasm works for me… (also, haven’t they watched GBBO? – it’s televisual prozac).
  9. Going easy on the booze and coffee. Whilst I’m oh so tempted to deal with a stressful day by launching myself at a glass of red, knowing that it’s rarely just the one, and that I’m just making things worse for myself the next day means that I’ve greatly increased my AFDs (that’s Alcohol Free Days…). With each coffee, you are kickstarting your stress hormones and even though I’ve cut down, I am considering a coffee-free experiment just to see if it has a noticeable effect.

How do you chill out and where do you carve out time in the day for it?

Recipe: Pumpkin and Smoked Paprika Soup. For me, making soup is totally relaxing; there’s just something about it that give me the warm and fuzzies, especially now that the Autumn chill has arrived here in Scotland. This makes loads, so there’s hopefully some left over for the freezer but if you prefer to just halve it, it will still work.

The magic ingredient that makes everything taste good.
  • 1 butternut squash.
  • 2 sweet potatoes.
  • 1 white potato chopped into small cubes.
  • 2 onions chopped.
  • 2 large carrots chopped.
  • 1 courgette/zucchini chopped.
  • 2 sticks celery chopped.
  • 500g punnet of mushrooms chopped.
  • 2.5 litres of good chicken or vegetable stock (or bone broth if you have it).
  • 150g quinoa.
  • 2 tbsp butter.
  • 2.5 tsp smoked paprika.
  • Salt and pepper.
  1. Cut the pumpkin and sweet potatoes lengthwise into 4 and deseed the pumpkin. Brush with olive oil and cook in the oven at 170C for 40 minutes.
  2. Melt the butter on a low/moderate heat and sweat the vegetables starting with the onions. Take your time with this and if the mushrooms release lots of juice, wait until this has evaporated before adding the stock.
  3. Add the stock to the pot and simmer for 45 mins. Skin the cooled roasted pumpkin and sweet potato and add these for the last few minutes.
  4. Take the pot off the heat and let it cool slightly before blitzing with a stick blender to get a smooth texture.
  5. Finally, lob in the quinoa and smoked paprika, give a good stir and season to taste with salt and pepper. Put back on the heat and bring back to a simmer just until the quinoa is done (no more than 10 mins). If you love the paprika, just add more to taste.

Listening recommendation: If you’re not familiar with Desert Island Discs, it’s a BBC radio series in which a famous person has to choose what songs they would take with them if they were abandoned on a desert island. There is a huge archive on the BBC website, and if you are trying to escape stress you could do a lot worse than setting yourself up with an episode whilst taking an Epsom Salts Bath. Heaven.