Posted on April 24, 2013


Two recent events led me to think about the idea of how we “nourish” ourselves. First I was listening to an interview about Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked. Combined with his other books, I started down the train of thought about how we nourish ourselves physically. Secondly I had been writing with the Reasonable Person Model in mind and I realized I was experiencing some Directed Attention Fatigue. Combined with writing about education and science, that led me to think more about how we nourish ourselves cognitively and in other non-physical environments.

I thought of “nourish” because the standard definition—to provide with substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition—captures for me the “basics” of leading a good life. It is not just about surviving or enriching, but simply to provide the “good stuff” for “good living”.

In saying that, I am keenly aware there are whole media platforms dedicated to “teaching us how to live well”. But at the same many of us struggle with it for one reason or another—or easily forget about it in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.  Other times, we fall prey to ”well-informed futility” or “information/analysis paralysis”—having too much information, thinking about it too much or being overwhelmed by it and doing nothing or feeling helpless.

My intent here is to “simplify and amplify” what it means to nourish ourselves on different levels, with some practical steps—a short combination of “how to” and “why” via how I think about these matters.

I divide this into three general “categories” of Body, Heart, and Mind. Sounds cliché, I know,  but I think it works.  Be mindful that they relate and are interconnected—you cannot really separate them as discrete approaches.


Body—Nourish Physically

For physical nourishment I think about the alimentary needs of the body in terms of food and movement. What we put into our body, and for what purpose has broad effects in how we feel, how we grow and illuminating the state of our health. Many of the challenges in this area, I believe, stem from “caveman adaptations with capitalist abundance”—meaning our adaptive brain wiring for dealing with scarcity and food availability is still catching up with fact that we can access so much of it nowadays, especially in terms of calories. It is something food companies are keenly interested in and have explored to get us to buy more “food-like” products.

  • Grow: Connect yourself to the growing of food, or at least to the understanding of how food comes to be from the earth. Gardening is a practical step for this. You can garden in the backyard or try growing in your windowsill. You can benefit therapeutically from it, but key is that you are providing fresh and healthy options to nourish your body. At the very least maybe visit a community garden or a farm and see what is going on.
  • Cook: Cooking allows you take back another part of the food production process. Industrialization took this part away from the kitchen in the name of efficiency and saving time. But although calorie availability may have increased, nutrition did not necessarily follow suit. Just like “growing”, cooking provides a broad range of benefits, but the key thing is that you are involved in the process of turning food into food, rather than just ingredients into “food-like” things.
  • Eat: This may sound obvious, but the question is about how and why we eat. If we relegate eating to a simple utilitarian event, then it is easy to frame it as “feeding” or “consuming” rather than nourishing. We may eat too fast, not chew properly, not savor it, eat too much, or simply not pay attention that food can nourish us beyond just providing calories. Most importantly is to control your salt and sugar intakes to avoid developing an addiction to them. It is easy to develop one since our brains are adapted to liking it, a trinity of sorts: fat, salt, and sugar—easy to love and eat too much. Take the time to eat, and know what you are eating.
  • Exercise: Also sounds obvious and something we all keep hearing. But maybe instead of thinking of exercise as a task, chore, or regimented program, the idea is to just move. We may not keep up with gym memberships or working out in our garage. But moving is exercise and maybe we do not think about all the ways we can move. At work I take the stairs instead of the elevator. When I can, I bike to work. When I take the train, I walk to the station. When I have been sitting at the computer for so long I take a walk around the block. When I am in a meeting I will stand up and do a lunge. We can go over list after list of the benefits of exercise but a take-away would be to have your body do what it is designed to do: move. Or even better, just play.

Forest Walk

Heart—Nourish Spiritually

I understand that we can argue when delving in the metaphysical realm or dealing with feelings. I also understand that there are many metaphysical aspects that manifest themselves physically or at least at the neurochemical level. We can “feel good” or “be happy” depending on the chemical balance in our brain, or what neuroreceptors and nerve endings are activated. But I want to put that aside for the moment to delve into the “how it feels” at level of the heart and spirit.

Connect: Simply put, put yourself out there. Connect with nature but also connect with people. We are social creatures by design, regardless of our individual preferences. Human touch is important but so is the sense of feeling connected. Think about the last time you hung out with friends, sent an email to your mentor, greeted a stranger, or just laid on the couch with your partner. Even better if you can do that in the outdoors. So go play in the park, as a family, with friends.

Believe and Wonder: Keep your sense of wonder and belief alive. That does not mean be gullible or throw critical thinking out the window. But let some moments “be magical”, whether you connect spiritually to a Creator, to the joy of a child’s smile engaged in joy, or what makes bacon taste amazing (sorry vegetarian friends). Yes, you can come back later and think about the biochemical reactions making it happen—but sometimes it is best to just stare up at a clear night sky, look at all those stars and let your sense of belief and wonder take over.

Engage in Meaningful Action: This one comes straight from the Reasonable Person Model. Do things that matter, but you may also want to do things that directly affect someone else in a positive way. Even better if you can see or feel the effects of your work. But if you cannot, at the very least keep in mind how what you are doing is helping. This helps with feelings of helplessness but also contributes to feelings of being needed, participating, being heard, and doing something that needs doing. At the very least it helps with self-esteem. Pick up trash in your neighborhood, go read to kids at the library, or go help with a book drive. Think about the last time you felt you engaged in meaningful action—and if you have not recently, why that is the case.

Mexico Dec 2010 451

Mind—Nourish Mentally and Cognitively

Your brain is an organ much like other organs in your body, though of course a special organ. Yet I tend to think of it as a muscle, figuratively speaking, to frame that it needs exercise to stay healthy and grow. To mix another metaphor, our brain also needs regular “housecleaning” and “tune ups”.  At the same time, I think there are some “capitalist abundance” issues here too—we are bombarded by information and have access to so much that can demand our attention. By taxing our directed attention, we open ourselves to being unhealthy mentally.

  • Sleep: Sounds obvious, we all need sleep and yet it seems many of us do not get enough of it. Why we need sleep can be a mystery. See this fun Radio Lab episode to explore the issue more. But a good takeaway is that while provides our body rest, it provides our brain an opportunity to “defrag” and organize so that learning can cement—your brain is cleaning up and tuning up to prepare of the next day.
  • Think: What do you think of when one says think? I am sure there can be many opinions, but I am using it to mean having a deliberate thought process. In particular to consider various options, and specifically to weigh opposing viewpoints against each other. Why this matters is because we can always find opinions that affirm our viewpoint, but it is valuable and critical for an informed society to consider opposing viewpoints honestly. Mind you, it is hard when there is much disinformation and “silliness” out there. But before you go in cynical, think about what the various arguments mean and see what makes sense to you, and what other information or data may be missing. No one really likes to be wrong, but I think it is a sign of a healthy mind when admitting one is incorrect or to change an opinion based on an informed discussion. It also helps to focus on the issue, not the person. As we say in conflict resolution “soft on the people, hard on the problem”.
  • Notice: How often do you just pause and notice? You can do it to practice some science skills while taking a walk in the woods, or you can simply admire all the things you overlook on a daily basis—especially things that have intricate beauty or make you think: what is that or how does that work? Most of the times you are doing things like this you are engaging with fascination, which does not tax your directed attention like other things (getting office work done). It helps with mental clarity and restoration. When was the last time you took time to notice?
  • Learn: What do we mean by learn? There is a phrase I use with students: “fire and wire”. It is related to neurons. The “firing” is providing opportunities that “light up” your neurons with a new or novel experience—you are curious and interested. The “wiring” is doing activities that establish longer-term connections between your neurons, and reinforcing newly-created connections—you are learning, creating pathways on which you will rely later on, building your cognitive map. If that is not done, it is lost information as your brain tosses it out since you were not using it anyways. But just because you learned something once does not mean it is fixed forever. It depends how often you use those connections. But to create new ones, you need to take the time to learn—not just experience new things, but do something with them.
  • Process: Take the time to meditate. It is like sleeping, but while awake. Slow down, think about what you have done in the day or will do. Look at the connections; go from little details to big picture. At the end of the day you may want to debrief with yourself and clear out extraneous thoughts that have cluttered your mind for the day and taxed your directed attention. You may want to just focus on a simple moment and reply it, noticing the joy and beauty of it. At the beginning of the day you may want to do a quick checklist of things to be done—you may want to put things that need to be done in the context of the day, week, or year—with a focus on what really matters.


Oh, and an important one: Practice satisficity, knowing when “it’s good enough”. There is no need for perfection, for it all to be right. You do not need to be completely fulfilled—you just need to be satisfied.

I do not share this as some guru of “good living”—much like everyone else, I make many a mistake. You can also choose to question my “credentials” or what makes me an expert. But what I have found is that taking the time to know, think, and reflect on this provides a helpful frame for making decisions for good living and feeling nourished.

Lastly, you may notice that many of these can be pointed out to be some form of “first world problems”, but I think as the engine of globalization continues, and as we do need to deal with the “First World” being a source of many problems, these are the things we need to consider—and that fact that different societies and communities already do this regardless of their socioeconomic status.

You may mention that some communities do not have the luxury of fresh produce or of having enough food. All fair enough. But as an educator working with a diverse set of students in a socio-economically stressed community once said to me “you can say ‘it is what it is’ or ‘it’s whatever’ but you can also say ‘it’s not whatever’, we have to change the thinking because our lives depend on it”. You can be defined by what you interpret as normal, or you can define what is normal.  Go nourish yourself.


To steal Michael Pollan’s style maybe I can say it this way:

Grow and cook food, play, hang out with friends and loved ones, do it outside, do good, sleep, and think.


Have thoughts and comments? Post below! Share how you nourish.

Posted in: Wellness