What’s the deal with legumes?

I live in Spain where one of the traditional dishes is a simple lentil soup with vegetables and meat. It’s nothing too fancy, but it’s a very savory and nourishing dish. The typical Spanish way of cooking lentils usually includes a bit of “chorizo”, a kind of cured meat which adds a very special taste. It might also be a small trick parents use to get their children to eat vegetables. In Spain, people have traditionally eaten other kinds of legumes, such as chickpeas and beans.

Legumes are a staple in the diet of many Mediterranean cultures. Lentils, chickpeas and fava beans originally came from regions in the middle east, whereas the common bean, scientifically called Phaseolus vulgaris, was originally cultivated in Central America. From there, it spread north and south, becoming a staple in the diet of many indigenous cultures of the Americas. Different types of common bean include kidney beans, pinto beans and navy beans. Of course, there are also well know types of Asian beans such as mung, soy and adzuki beans.

Recently I’ve been learning about blue zones, small areas on the planet where people tend to live exceptionally long lives. There’s a few all over the world which experts on longevity have identified, such as the island of Sardinia, the peninsula of Nicoya in Costa Rica, and the islands of Okinawa, Japan. One of the things I’ve found interesting is that legumes are one of the fundamental foods in the diet of these cultures.

I wanted to investigate a little more on the nutritional benefits of legumes, so here it goes!

Benefits of legumes

Legumes are widely considered a healthy and nutritious food. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends about three cups a week . Also, the DASH eating plan of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends about four or five half-cup servings a week.

In a nutshell legumes are a great and inexpensive nutrient dense food, containing protein, vitamins, complex carbohydrates and fiber. Two important vitamins many legumes have are vitamin B1 (Thiamine) and vitamin B9 (Folate). They are also rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.

1. Legumes are satiating (and they can help you lose weight)

Eating legumes makes you feel satiated and this can prevent unhealthy snacking. The fiber in legumes slows down digestion, and this may contribute to the feelings of fullness.

All legumes are considered “slow carbs”, which means they are digested slowly and glucose enters the blood at a steadier pace. Instead of getting a spike of energy, as with white pasta or rice, “slow carbs” sustain you for a longer period of time.

All legumes have a low glycemic index, which measures how quickly the body digests carbohydrates (and how much a particular food affects blood sugar). Lentils, for example, have a low glycemic index of 22 on a scale of 100. Anything below 55 is considered a “slow carb”. Because of this, and the fact that they are low in calories, some nutritionists believe legumes and specially lentils are a good choice for losing weight.

2. They promote digestive health

Not all starches are rapidly digested and turned into glucose in the small intestine. There is also “resistant starch”, which was discovered in the 1980’s by two English researchers. Resistant starch passes into the large intestine where it is used as food by healthy bacteria. Surprisingly, almost half the starches in legumes are resistant starches.

Legumes also contain soluble and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber can’t be digested by the body and the gut bacteria can’t brake it down either. It acts as a bulking agent and it reduces constipation. Soluble fiber is broken down by the gastrointestinal fluid, producing a liquid which is then used by gut bacteria. Much of the fluid is converted by bacteria into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which are essential for the health of cells lining the colon.

3. Legumes will help your cardiovascular system

Fiber can also help your cardiovascular system. Researchers believe that fiber binds with certain cholesterol molecules and eliminates them from the body. A meta-analysis of 11 clinical trials found that legumes lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 6% and increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol by 2.6%.

Even more important, legumes are packed with minerals that take care of the cardiovascular system. For example, magnesium and potassium help regulate blood pressure and electrical nerve impulses. Legumes also contain vitamin B9 (folate or folic acid) which, together with vitamins B6 and B12, neutralize harmful homocysteine molecules. A high level of homocysteine molecules is associated with risk of heart disease.

A cohort study which used data from about 9500 people found out that after 19 years, those that consumed legumes 4 times or more a week had 22% less risk of heart disease and 11% less risk of heart attack or stroke.

4. They may help prevent diabetes type 2 and regulate blood sugar

The American Diabetes Association recommends eating beans several times a week. A 2015 report by Rani Polak, from the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, says:

“A diet rich in plant-based foods, including legumes, and lower in refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed meats has been shown to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and, for those who have diabetes, to improve both glycemic and lipid control”

In the report, they cite a couple of studies where legumes were effective in lowering blood sugar levels. However, in an article from Harvard School of Public health, they say it’s not completely clear weather legumes can help prevent diabetes type 2 or lower blood glucose. They cite an older study from 2000, where no difference was noticed in women who ate a lot of legumes and women who ate few.

A couple of bonus ideas

Big epidemiologic studies can give us an idea of the benefits of a certain food. However, only you know what is best for your body, and that can only be learned with experience. If you usually don’t eat legumes, try including some and see how you feel. Everyone’s body responds in a slightly different way to different foods!

That being said, legumes are a very inexpensive source of nutrients. There are a couple of curious things to keep in mind when it comes to legumes.

A) Combine them with rice for a whole protein

Amino acids are what proteins are made of, and each protein in your body is made of 20 amino acids. 11 of those are produced by the body, but the other 9 your body can’t make, and you must get them from food. The combination of rice and beans is called a whole protein because it provides those other 9 essential amino acids.

Other types of complete proteins are eggs, fish, chicken, beef, pork, dairy and whole sources of soy (tofu, edamame, tempeh, miso)

Combine beans with brown rice for an extra nutritious meal. Brown rice has more fiber and nutrients than white rice. Here’s a simple and tasty recipe.

B) The “soaking” question

Traditionally people soaked beans before cooking to make them more digestible and increase nutrient absorption.

The argument for soaking: legumes contain phytic acid which is considered an anti-nutrient. Soaking them basically gets rid of the phytic acid. The idea is that phytic acid can cause loss of mineral absorption (especially iron and zinc) and also damage the intestinal tract.

However, Dr. Alan Christianson believes there is evidence proving phytic acid can have positive effects. He says there’s been large population studies which show that phytic acid cuts the risk of various types of cancer. In addition, it works as a detoxifier of heavy metals and can lower the risk of diabetes.

He’s arguments on the article that I linked (click on his name) are pretty convincing. However, I wouldn’t completely ignore the fact that traditionally many cultures have soaked beans before cooking them.

So, we’ve got a bit of a problem here haven’t we? I have stopped getting frustrated reading about nutrition. There are so many theories reading studies on food can feel like falling through an endless rabbit hole.

My recommendation: experiment with soaking, but don’t worry too much about it. Find the way you prefer cooking and eating beans the most. For some people soaking makes beans less tasty, so they skip it. Sometimes I just want a quick nutritious meal, and canned beans come in handy.

Longevity blues: learning from people in the world who live the longest

Blue zones are areas on the planet with the highest number of centenarians. People in these areas not only reach and live past 100, but they do it with a surprisingly good quality of health. The stories one hears from people in the blue zones are quite surprising. In Loma Linda, California, Frank Shearer still likes to hop on his water skis once a week. At the time of the picture he was 99. When asked about longevity, he says he has always stayed very active, practicing all kinds of sports year-round.

The first blue zone to be discovered and studied was the island of Sardinia. In the late 90’s, the demographer Gianni Pes noticed how people in the mountains of the island lived to an unusual old age. Together with researcher Michael Poulain they narrowed down the area with the highest longevity to a small cluster of villages (in the mountainous Nuoro province) and coined the term blue zone.

In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and set out to investigate other regions on the planet where people live exceptionally long lives. He worked with a number of experts on longevity, including Pes and Poulain, and they identified 4 new blue zones in the world.

These are the main 5 blue zones:

  • Barbagia region of Sardinia — Here they found the highest proportion of male centenarians on the planet. It is a mountainous region with a very ancient culture going back to the bronze age. There is a culture of treating the elderly with respect and care.
  • Ikaria, Greece — This is a very isolated place, not far from Turkey. Like all blue zones, they grow their own food. It has one of the world’s lowest rates of middle age mortality and one of the lowest rates of dementia.
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica — The area has the lowest rate of middle age mortality in the world. They have a simple diet: corn tortillas, beans and a type of squash. They spend 1/15 the amount the US spends on health care.
  • Seventh Day Adventists — They are concentrated in Loma Linda, California. They practice a 24h “sanctuary in time”, every weekend. During this time they stop everything and focus on their religion and family. They walk in nature a lot and have strong knit communities.
  • Okinawa, Japan — Here the oldest living female population on earth is found. The islands of Okinawa have the longest “disability free” life expectancy in the world. They have a tradition called “Moai”, a group of friends they are born into and with whom they travel through life.

What the blue zones have in common

When Buettner started studying these blue zones he knew that the reason for their longevity resided in their lifestyle and environment.

This idea is based on a famous study, called the Danish Twins study, which established that only about 20% of a person’s longevity is determined by genes, the other 80% being environment and lifestyle. As Buettner likes to remind us, people in these communities are not trying to become centenarians. They don’t turn 50 and decide to start being healthy so they can reach 100. However, their environment and lifestyle is set up in a way that is optimal for longevity. The idea that you can “try to live to 100” is a myth, says Buettner. Only 1 in every 5000 Americans reaches 100. You not only need to win the genetic lottery (the 20%), you also need the right environment to nudge you in the right way (the other 80%). And the way most people live in the western world is quite different than the way people live in the blue zones.

Buettner puts it this way: longevity is a product of the environment, the kind of environment that “makes the healthy choice the easy choice” on a daily basis.

This isn’t meant to discourage anybody. In fact, Buettner’s work is also about helping people live healthier lives. He works with communities showing them how they can adopt a healthier lifestyle. The average capacity for the human body is about 90 years, and the average life of a US citizen is around 78 years. So here we have a margin of 12 years! Many people could add them by following some of the lifestyle lessons of blue zones.

These are the common denominators of all the blue zones:

1. Natural movement

In Okinawa, people don’t really exercise the way we do. They don’t join gyms, pump iron or run marathons (at least traditionally), but their lifestyle is set up in a way so that they are constantly moving. They sit on the floor and they stand up many times a day. They walk almost everywhere, have few machines for housework and many of them garden. Movement and exercise are done is small bursts throughout the day.

2. Purpose

Having a clear sense of purpose adds years to your life. In these cultures, they don’t make a big separation between work and retirement. Their whole life has a sense of usefulness, of purpose, even though it may change with time. The Okinawans have a specific word, “ikigai”, to define one’s life purpose. The people of Nicoya in Costa Rica call it “plan de vida”, which means “life plan”.

3. Relaxation

They have rituals and practices that relax them and allow them to unwind. The people of Ikaria, in Greece, do the very Mediterranean act of napping. The 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda disconnect from all work related stress for a good 24h, focusing on family and prayer. The Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors. And the people of Barbagia, Sardinia, do something a bit more fun: enjoy a good glass of wine!

4. 80% rule

People in the blue zones don’t eat until they are completely full. They have little strategies to keep them from overeating. They eat from small plates and eat fewer calories. Instead of eating family style with big servings at the table, they serve at the counter and then put the food away.

There’s an old saying in Okinawa called “Hara hachi bu”, an idea that comes from Confucius. It reminds them to stop eating when their stomachs are 80% full. It takes about half hour for the feeling of being full to travel from your belly to the brain, so stopping at 80% is very useful.

5. Natural, plant based diet

This is where Dan Buettner’s work arouses passions. Native Americans ate a diet heavy on meats and fats and surprised Europeans with their great health and endurance. There’s so many theories about nutrition today, and all kinds of systems seem to work for different people. I think what is most compelling about Buettner’s work is the fact that food is only a small piece of the puzzle. Actually enjoying and living is very likely to be the greatest tonic.

People in the blue zones eat natural foods that they themselves grow. Until recently, almost all blue zones where isolated and didn’t have access to a lot of meat. Because of this, it was eaten a few times month and not a lot more. The basics of their diet are whole grains and garden vegetables. Legumes, for example, are often used in blue zones. They don’t eat processed foods and they have the habit of eating small portions.

6. Moderate consumption of alcohol

The key is moderation. In Okinawa they drink a daily glass of sake with friends, and in Sardinia they drink a glass of red wine with each meal. In general, more than a glass or two a day has a negative effect on the body.

Much has been said about the health risks of drinking alcohol. Some decades ago the idea spread that alcohol in moderation could improve heart health. People observed how in France, despite ample consumption of cheese and other fatty foods, people had lower risks of heart disease. This is known as the French Paradox. One theory is that wine has a kind of polyphenol called resveratrol which has an anti-inflammatory effect on the cardiovascular system. Sardinians, for example, drink a type of wine called Cannonau which is very high in polyphenols.

However, there isn’t a lot of scientific evidence to support the claim that wine improves heart health.

7. Belong

All centenarians in blue zones belong to a religious or spiritual community. There was a study by the Journal of Health and Social Behavior which looked at 3617 people for 7 and a half years and found out that those who attended religious services at least once a month reduced their risk of death by 1/3. There’s different possible explanations. People who have faith might be more likely to take care of themselves and avoid things like smoking, drugs, and drinking and driving. Belonging to a spiritual community offers a way of socializing and meeting new people. And finally, spirituality related practices offer a way for people to destress, reflect and focus on appreciation.

8. Family

This is probably one of the most important points. In all blue zones people keep their loved one’s close. Younger generations and older generations tend to share the same home. This is important because, as Buettner says, “studies have that elders who live with their children are less susceptible to disease, eat healthier diets, have lower levels of stress, and have a much lower incidence of serious accidents”. In blue zones, there is also a sense of reverence for old people, for the wisdom and experience they carry.

9. Tribe

It’s hard to live the way you want when your not part of the right tribe. As Buettner emphasizes, longevity isn’t about applying specific behaviors, but about lifestyle and environment. Be it because of isolation, or in the case of Adventists strict adherence to a spiritual practice, people in blue zones tend to associate with one another. This makes living a healthy life easy because it’s just part of the environment and lifestyle of your social group. In Spain we have a very old saying, “dime con quién andas, y te diré quien eres”, which means, “tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are”.

Strong and lasting friendships is one of the fundamental traits of blue zone cultures. In Okinawa, the tradition of a “moai”, originally created for financial reasons, helps people have a supportive group of friends until a very old age. And in the mountainous region of Barbagia, Sardinia, friends gather at the local bar after a day of work. Robert Butler, pulitzer-prize winner and longevity expert, believed this is one of the reasons why women tend to live longer than men. They tend to have better social networks, they actively engage and help each other and are more willing to open up about difficult emotions.

For further learning and enjoying:

Dan Buettner, Blue Zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest, National Geographic, 2008.

Reflections on longevity

Since 2004, journalist and explorer Dan Buettner has been studying the longest lived populations in the world. These people live in areas called “blue zones”. These are places where people tend to live exceptionally long lives, many living past 100. They also enjoy impressive health and vitality until a ripe old age.

The stories of the individuals that Buettner has met through his travels are surprising and inspiring. There’s Frank Shearer, who water skis at the age of 99, or Marge Jetton, who at 100 begins every single day with a good dose of exercise. A few of the blue zones are the islands of Okinawa, in Japan, and the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. In the US, there’s the 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda, California.

The oldest person in my family is my grandmother Jane. She is 91 and lives with my aunt Deb in a beautiful house near Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Growing up as a city kid in Barcelona, Spain, one of my favorite things was our yearly family trip to Ohio, usually in august. I know you must be thinking “Barcelona! That sounds a lot more interesting than Ohio!”. But modernist architecture, gothic churches and Mediterranean cuisine aren’t super exciting for a 10 year old.

“Bella Vista” (the name my grandparents gave their home), is a lovely wooden house surrounded by lush green forest. I couldn’t have phrased it this way back then, but I think for me and my brothers, it offered such a wonderful sense of space, freedom and connection with nature. We loved playing outside in the garden, and nature is so full of life there. Some mornings, we would look out the window and be greeted by a deer in the back yard. There were also groundhogs, foxes, moles and squirrels. And all kinds of beautiful birds too: blue jaysnorthern cardinals, as well as woodpeckers, chickadees and an occasional owl.

Through the years, we have kept visiting my grandmother at “Bella Vista”. We love it because it’s a place where we can just relax and unwind for a couple of weeks. We joke that it is our family’s “health and wellness resort”. Perhaps we should start calling it our family’s blue zone. We always leave refreshed, full of energy and plans. I’ve also come to see my grandmother Jane as an example of how to live a healthy life.

The average life for an American today is around 78 years. At 91, my grandmother is still in fairly good health. Her legs aren’t working that well anymore, so she can’t walk very far. But she still drives downtown to the local grocery shop. Her mind is clear and sharp: she reads a lot and most importantly, she keeps a positive and cheerful attitude about things. In her mid 80’s you could have said she had the energy of some 65 year old’s. Cooking, reading, going to church, driving out to restaurants, visiting friends and relatives, concerts and jazz clubs, were all part of her routine.

My grandmother never really ran, cycled, did keto, or went to the gym. Although she gardened for many years and until the pandemic was very socially active. Since there seemed to be a kind of mystery here, I always thought living close to nature was one of the reasons for her good health. It seemed common sense to me that living in a natural environment (where we slowly evolved for millions of years), would have a positive influence on one’s health. And there is in fact growing evidence that nature has a tremendous effect on our brain and health. (Look up Florence Williams).

study done in Japan measured how the levels of a kind of immune cell that kills disease agents (called NK), responded to time spent in nature. They took a group of middle aged Tokyo business men into the mountains and they hiked for a couple of hours each morning. After the 3 days the blood tests showed a 40% increase in NK cells. A month later they still had 15% more than before the experiment.

However, according to Buettner’s research, nature is one piece of a much larger puzzle. All the people in the blue zones live close to nature and eat their own natural foods. Until recently, they were quite isolated so processed foods weren’t common. But they don’t think of nutrition and health as we do. They’re not taking tons of supplements, obsessing about their diet and keeping up with the latest trends. As Buettner likes to remind his audiences, they are not even trying to live long lives. When it comes to longevity, Buettner likes to put the emphasis on an active life, a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships.

People in these areas have lives where movement and moderate exercise are integrated on a daily basis. They are constantly exercising in small ways. For example, in Okinawa, people sit on the floor, so they sit cross-legged and stand up many times a day. Many of them garden and they don’t have a lot of machines for housework. In the mountainous region of Barbagia, Sardinia, people have traditionally been shepherds. They are very used to walking up and down the hills and mountains of the region.

Buettner talks about how in Okinawa, people are born into a “moai”, which is basically a group of close friends for life. They also cultivate a strong sense of purpose and have a specific word for it, “ikigai”. Their purpose can be simple, but it’s always clear and tangible. Families in the blue zones are often very close to each other, so there is a “sense of tribe” and people feel supported.

At least in terms of longevity, I think I might have been over romanticizing the connection between nature and health (things like fresh air, sunlight, natural foods and rhythms, etc.). Of course, they are important, but our sense of purpose and belonging also plays a role. My grandmother Jane has indeed spent much of her life surrounded by forests, but she also has been very active and involved with her friends, family, and community. At the same time, she has always cultivated a youthful and positive attitude about life. Actually living and enjoying, after all, might be the best source of good health.

Buettner tells the fascinating story of Stamatis Moraitis, a hardworking man from the island of Ikaria, Greece (Ikaria is one of the blue zones). At age 66 he became very sick and was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was told he had six months to live.

He was living in the US at the time, and decided to move back with his parents in Ikaria. Once there he started reconnecting with his friends and his faith. He enjoyed drinking the wine and eating the local foods. He also began work on a grape vine, in hopes of leaving it to his wife. 34 years later, when Buettner asked him, “What is your secret to longevity?”, he said “I don’t know, I guess I just forgot to die”.

For more learning and enjoying:

Dan Buettner, Blue Zones: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived the longest, National Geographic, 2008.

Walking the path back to health

One of my favorite things to do is to take a walk in nature. There is something about moving through a forest, breathing the fresh air and listening to the sound of birds and trees. By focusing on the outside environment, our senses start to awaken. We notice a beautiful flower by the side of the path, the fresh morning air, or the twisted shape of the trunk of a tree, bending like the torso of a dancer.

These days, on my morning walks, I have been admiring the beautiful flowers of almond trees, which have just bloomed all around the Collserola mountain, right next to Barcelona. The almond tree is one of the earliest to bloom, usually around february. They act as a kind of prelude of spring.

Walking in nature is an excellent and simple way of giving to yourself. It is an exercise with great health benefits, although it is usually underestimated. In the past decades, running has probably become the most popular form of aerobic exercise. Because it seems intense and rewarding, usually people decide to run instead of taking walks. There is also the wide spread idea in fitness of “no pain, no gain”. This is true for athletic performance but not necessarily for overall health and longevity. Gentler practices such as gardening, Tai Chi and Qi Gong have proven beneficial for people’s health all around the world, as is the case with walking.

In the book “Taming the tiger within: meditations on transforming difficult emotions”, the Zen monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh recommends walks in nature, practicing awareness of our breathing and body as a great way of dealing with anger. His whole life he taught a simple walking meditation to reconnect with one’s inner peace and joy.

More and more people who are completely burned out from work and stress are discovering how beneficial nature walks are for the mind. The recent book by Florence Williams “The nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative” has inspired many people to take up the trails into forests and mountains once again. Walking in nature not only allows us to reconnect back with ourselves, it also gives our overtaxed nervous systems a rest from phones, the internet and social media. 

For a lot of people, it seems very clear that walking and nature are an excellent combination for health. But, what exactly are the physical and mental benefits of walking? Let’s dive in.

1. Walking improves heart health and circulation

Walking is a kind of cardiovascular activity that increases the heart rate and improves blood flow. There’s plenty of evidence that walkers have healthy hearts. A group of researchers did an analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials and arrived at the conclusion that walking increases the aerobic capacity of the heart, lowers blood pressure and reduces body fat.  Look up the study here

The traditional idea is that to have a healthy heart you need to do some kind of high-intensity aerobic exercise, like running and cycling. However, research has shown that walking is also effective. A large study that compared runners and walkers for 6 years, found that when using the same mount of energy, both kinds of exercise were similarly beneficial in lowering high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as reducing the risk of diabetes. Walking for exercise should be done at a bit of a faster pace than usual. 

There is also evidence that walking can greatly reduce the risk of stroke. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who walk at least 30 minutes everyday can reduce the risk of stroke by 20%, and by 40% when they walk faster.

If you would like to learn more about the physical benefits of walking for exercise the Harvard School of Public Health has a very comprehensive article.


2. Walking can help you live longer

There are areas of the planet in which people live much longer than usual. They also reach old age with admirable health and vitality. These areas are called Blue Zones, and they have been studied in recent years to understand more about longevity. They include, among others, the islands of Okinawa and the island of Sardinia, in the Mediterranean sea. 

Dan Buettner is one of the main speakers and writers who is fascinated by how people live in the blue zones. One of the main things he found is that people integrate movement and moderate exercise everyday. They walk almost everywhere, many garden, and they don’t have a lot of machines for housework. According to Buettner the secret these communities have is a constellation of small things, but daily moderate exercise that is integrated with daily life is one of the keys. 

3. Walking improves mental health

There is growing research that walking can improve mental health. Psychologist Robert Thayer has focused his research on human moods and the role they play in everyday life. He says going out for a short 10 minute walk at a brisk pace is a great way of navigating our daily moods. It can quickly change our feeling of being tense and tired to feeling calmer and more energetic. 

There is also growing evidence that “nature walks” have a deep and positive effect on metal health. A Japanese study from 2018 showed that walking through forests as opposed to walking in cities improved mood and vigor, as well as reduced depression, anxiety, tension and anger. In Japan there are close to 48 ” forest therapy” trails, paths woven into forests where people can practice Shinrin-Yoku, the art of “forest bathing”. The Japanese government has spent close to $4 million in in forest-bathing research since 2003. 

In a Stanford study, people who walked 90 minutes in nature as opposed to an urban area showed decreased activity in a region of the brain which plays a role in depression. Specifically, the study found positive changes in the area of the prefrontal cortex associated with rumination and repetitive negative thinking.

4. Free flowing creativity

Countless writers, artists and thinkers have said walks are one of the best things for unlocking creativity. What’s more, many used walks as a way to spark inspiration and ideas. Beethoven took long walks through the forests near Vienna with a pencil and some sheets of paper. Nikola Tesla walked daily in a city park and claimed many of his ideas formed during those walks. 

A study from 2014 by Stanford University looked into the connection between walking and creativity. They gave 176 students problems that are designed to gauge creativity. They compared how the students did when walking on a treadmill, sitting indoors, walking outdoors and being pushed on a wheelchair outdoors. What they found was that walking greatly improved the students creativity and helped them do better on the problems they were given. 

However, they were surprised by the fact that being outdoors or indoors didn’t seem to matter much. Those students who had worked on the problems while walking on a treadmill and staring at a blank wall also produced strong results. Perhaps the study indicates that walking and creativity are somehow hard-wired in our brains. 

What can honey do for you?

Until recently I didn’t give honey much importance and I didn’t know much about it. I grew up and currently live in Spain, but when I was a kid my family and I would spend some time at my grandmother’s house in Ohio, where my father is from. When we were sick my grandmother used to give me and my brothers apple cider vinegar and honey as a remedy, so I was aware on some level of its health benefits.

About a year ago I was walking back home and I saw a man from outside Barcelona who was selling jars of honey on the street. I saw some kinds I had never tried, such as oak and heather honey, so I bought a couple. I was intrigued by the beautiful dark colors. One of them was crystallized, which I thought was strange at first, but later learned that it only happens to very good and natural honey. Natural raw honey will crystallize over time because the percentage of carbohydrates is much higher than that of water. It does not damage the honey in any way. When I tried them at home I absolutely loved them and I bought other kinds, such as thyme and rosemary honey. Now I use honey almost everyday, either in my oatmeal or a hot beverage.

What is honey?

Honey is a substance made by bees from the nectar of flowers and plants. Many kinds of bees make honey, but only one species, the Apis Mellifera, lives in big enough colonies that can make enough honey for humans to profit from.

The way this works is that plants require pollination to reproduce. To do this they need to exchange their pollen with other plants of the same species. Some plants rely on the wind for this purpose, but others use pollinators such as bees to carry their pollen around. To attract pollinators, plants offer nectar. Bees suck the nectar and put into a pouch they have in their bodies, separate from their stomach. And long story short, this nectar will be refined by the bees into honey.

Honey is one of the wonders of nature. Think about all the work that goes into a jar of honey. Even though the main two substances in honey are sugar and water, studies have found up to 180 different compounds in honey, such as amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and antioxidants. Scientists have also discovered that honeybees work as a kind of superorganism. Every single bee is always doing something for the hive, either collecting nectar, defending the hive or feeding their larvae. A honeybee will have a life of around 40 days, and 30 of those will be spent collecting nectar from hundreds of flowers, in addition to resinous sap and pollen.

Honey and its health properties

Honey has been used by humans for a very long time. There is an interesting cave painting in Spain dating back about 8000 years, which depicts a woman carrying a basket or gourd, climbing on to a tree with what seem to be ropes or maybe a ladder, and gathering honey from hive. Close to the middle east, in Georgia, archaeologists have found remains of honey on clay vessels in an ancient tomb dating back around 5000 years.

In ancient Egypt it was used for religious and medicinal practices, as well as in cooking to sweeten cakes and biscuits. In the Smith papyrus, one of the oldest Egyptian medical texts dating back around 2600 and 2200 BC, the recipe for a basic wound salve is made from a mixture of grease, honey and fiber. In ancient Greece honey was also held in high esteem for its medicinal uses. The Greek physician Hippocrates often used honey as part of his prescriptions for a variety of troubles. And in the Indian ayurvedic tradition, honey is seen to possess many therapeutic qualities as well. To sum up, honey has a long history of therapeutic use in many cultures around the world.

In the past decades researchers have been inquiring a bit into the healing qualities of this sticky substance. The most important quality of honey scientists have discovered is its antibacterial activity. In one of my favorite cook books, The longevity Kitchen by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson, they say “honey’s reputation for fighting infection is so robust that some hospitals use it to combat staph bacteria in their wards”. This is why grandmas have been giving honey as a cure for sore throats for centuries. Just recently in 2020, a study from the university of Oxford proved that honey is more effective in treating “upper respiratory tract infections”, like coughs and sore throats, than antibiotics or over-the- counter medicines. In addition to its antibacterial properties, there is evidence of its antiviral and anti-inflamatory properties.

Partly because of it’s antibacterial activity, honey is one of the oldest wound-healing substances known to man. Some researchers have been looking into this and have confirmed that honey can help heal acute wounds and mild skin burns. It not only helps clean the wound, but it also accelerates the regeneration of tissue. However, from what I’ve learned most doctors and researchers believe a larger body of evidence is needed. Further research into honey might take a while. Since it’s not something that can be patented by pharmaceutical companies, there isn’t a lot of incentive to investigate.

What is certain is that when you have a cough or a sore throat, honey will help your body recover. But you don’t need to wait until you get sick, including honey as part of your routine will strengthen your immune system. I like to have it almost everyday because I find it absolutely delicious. As with everything, don’t over do it, honey is still mostly made of sugar and water, even though it is much healthier than artificial sweeteners.

How to find great natural honey

Finding great honey is quite simple. You can do an online search for natural unprocessed honey in your area and see who is making it. Another way would be to go to your local farmer’s market and see if anybody is selling honey. Most likely someone will. The honey I’m using now is from a family run business north of Barcelona. I met them at one of the Sunday markets in my neighborhood.

When we buy everything from big supermarkets, we don’t really know how and where anything has been produced. Of course, there are certain standards and rules, so we see a product comes from such and such a place, or if it’s marked as organic we have some idea about how it has been produced. But we really don’t have any connection to the food itself. I would say it’s important to have a stronger emotional connection with some of the foods we eat. It adds extra sweetness and joy to our daily lives, and honey is great way to do it! Moreover, it gives you a sense of belonging to your own land and people.

You will notice unprocessed natural honey has a much thicker consistency than the processed one. The thickness of natural honey makes me think of Winnie-the-pooh, and how he would get his hands very sticky and messy or get his head stuck in honey jars all the time.

So make a connection with a local farmer or business and buy natural honey. When you open the jar in the morning, smell the honey and think of all the bees that put in hard work to produce it. A honeybee will produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon during its lifetime. So on average it takes the life of twelve bees to make a single teaspoon. Think of all the flowers they extracted the nectar from, how they had to fly hear and there collecting it. And now you can have it whatever way you like most!

Simple ideas for improving mental health

Today there a plenty of expensive supplements, products and trends to improve mental health, but what simple, free and effective things can we do?

Any kind of mental health issue can be complex and usually it requires that we tackle it from a variety of angles. However, sometimes the simplest things are very powerful and beneficial for our health.

These tips are easy to implement, which doesn’t mean they will change you in a day. They require a bit of patience and perseverance for them to work. It’s as if you were introducing these subtle but deep changes in your body, and overtime, the benefits add up. These tips will help almost anybody who is willing to work on their well-being. 

Drink your food, chew your water

For years I was told by people “You eat so fast!”, or “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone eat that fast!”. I used to gulp my food down like some kind of prehistoric bird. Chew you food until it melts away in your mouth. The enzymes in your saliva will start breaking down food and your digestive system will have a much easier time absorbing the nutrients that will be carried to the cells in your body.

When you chew your food slowly, your body relaxes, and when you relax your parasympathetic nervous system turns on, which among other things, takes care of digestion.

The nervous system in your body is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response, when it gets activated it drives blood to the extremities so you can put up a good fight or run really fast. It doesn’t really care about digestion at all, its purpose is to keep you alive in a dangerous situation. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system takes care of the rest and repair of the body. It slows down the heart rate and increases digestion.

The problem when we are constantly anxious or stressed is that we sit at the table to eat and we are not relaxed, so our stomach is not “turning on” and the digestive juices are not flowing properly.

Chewing your food is one of the simplest things you can do to improve digestion, which is so essential that an improvement there will have an effect on overall health.

Spend time in nature

This one might seem plain common sense to you, and if it doesn’t, there is growing scientific research that a walk in nature can do wonders for your body and mind. It relaxes you, you produce some vitamin D thanks to the sun, intake much needed fresh air, and walking is a very healthy form of exercise. Think about when you were a kid, didn’t you love running around in the green grass, or playing hide and seek in a forest with your friends? When we are children we intuitively love playing in nature.

One example of the influence of nature on the brain is the effect it has on children with ADHD. A 2004 study by Frances E. Kuo, an associate professor at the university of Illinois, found out playing and doing activities in nature helps reduce the symptoms of kids with ADHD. Her study tracked 452 kids from ages 5 to 18 across different income and geographical backgrounds, as well as across severity of diagnosis.

A much wider study with adults from 2020, conducted by Matthew White of the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, found out that people who spent 2 hours a week in green spaces (parks or natural environments) were more likely to enjoy good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. This study tracked 20.000 people and it was done across different occupations, ethnic groups, income backgrounds and health conditions.

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Try to make it a habit to spend time in natural environments almost everyday. Do whatever you can, if you can only spend 15 minutes at a city park, then that’s better than nothing. If near your house there is a small hill or mountain, use it as a way of getting fresh and clean air, in addition to a bit of exercise. If you start including nature as part of your routine, you will notice the benefits pretty soon.

Natural Breathing

We need to breathe to live, right? It’s probably the most important activity of our body but we pay little attention to it. Most people breathe using the muscles in their chest and shoulders. This is actually not a very effective way to breathe.

The way the natural breath works is from the diaphragm. The diaphragm expands slightly making the belly rise. The air comes in filling the lower part of the lungs first and then the rest. According to the Vietnamese Zen monk Thic Nhat Hanh, in ancient times, people spoke of the breath starting at the navel and finishing at the nostrils.

To see what kind of breather you are put a hand on your chest and the other one on your belly or close below the diaphragm. The diaphragm is right under your rib cage, it is actually connected to the bottom of your lungs. Now breathe naturally. What part of your body moves more? Does your chest move or does your belly move? Don’t try to force it, just breathe naturally to see what muscles you are using. If you use the chest and shoulders, you could improve the way you breath.

The reason why this breathing is so good for your mental health is that it relaxes the whole body and nervous system. It creates a kind of wave and subtle movement in your body massaging your internal organs. If you develop a habit of breathing in a relaxed, deep way, you will also bring in much more oxygen and this will make a big difference in how you feel.

Don’t get discouraged, it’s not so easy to change the way we breathe, because the muscles in our chest have become used to our current way of breathing. In many cases, shallow breathing has gone on for so long that the chest and lungs have become smaller. The body will get used to using less air and it will adapt to just getting by. If you practice deep breathing exercises, you should ease into it, without forcing your body. The body is flexible and with time it will adjust to a new kind of movement.

Try to practice natural breathing for 5 or 10 minutes everyday. Simply sit with your back straight or lie down on a mat. Notice how your body and breath feels. Breathe deeply and notice how focusing on your breath slowly relaxes you. Put a hand on the belly and notice how it rises and falls. Try to breathe in a way that your belly is moving a bit, pushed by the movement of the diaphragm.

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Practice relaxation

Making time for practicing relaxation can help with all kinds of problems. Today we think we know how to relax but we really don’t. Whenever we have some free time we anxiously reach for our phones or turn on the TV. We are slowly losing the ability to simply do nothing. Try making time for just being with yourself and actually relaxing completely, without distractions. You can do this wherever you want, but a quiet room at home will make it easier at first.

You can lie down on a mat or couch, or make yourself comfortable anyway that you prefer. Breathe easily and gently. Focus gently on your breath going in and out and you will start relaxing. Slowly start by relaxing the arms and legs, then relax the chest and stomach, then shoulders, the neck and the head. This is very simple but very effective, and the more you practice the more you will be able to relax. You will also develop more awareness of your body and you will learn to identify what is going on, what areas are tense, or feel strange.

Relaxing is not being lazy. It’s taking the time to take care of yourself. In fact, try it, after working hard for a couple of hours, lie down and relax for just five minutes. You fill find that you feel more energized and can accomplish more later.

There is one technique which is very useful in creating relaxation. It’s called progressive relaxation. It was developed by a man called Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. You tense muscles in your body and then relax them. This moves blood out and brings it in, it energizes the area and awakens the nerves. Here’s an example you can try at home.