Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Marshmallow Test of Life: A Lesson in Willpower and Self-Control

Back in the 1960s, Dr. Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments that have since become fundamental to our understanding of developmental psychology and the implications of self-control.  The results of Mischel’s famous “Stanford Marshmallow Test” have provided insight into the link between delayed gratification (i.e. self-control) and “success” later in life.  In the experiments, a treat (often a marshmallow or cookie) was given to a child on the condition that if they could wait 15 minutes to eat it, they would be given two treats.  The tempting treats were placed on a plate in front of the children and the experimenters left the room.  The children were left alone in the room, with no distractions or advice from outsiders. As you might guess, the majority of children ate the marshmallow before the 15 minutes were up. 

Fast forward. Researchers followed up with the children who are now teenagers.  They found the same participants who exhibited greater self-control when they were children (those who waited long enough to receive the second marshmallow) were now more “successful” as teenagers, as defined by several metrics. The kids who chose delayed gratification in the marshmallow test overall, had higher SAT scores and were described by their parents as being more competent.  Again, researchers followed up with same participants who were now adults, in their 40s and found that those with more willpower as children, now displayed the same increased amount of self-control as adults.  Additionally, when presented with alluring temptations, adults with more self-control showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (the region of the brain that controls decision making), than those with lower self-control.  Those with less self-control exhibited more activity in the ventral striatum region of the brain, which is a region of the brain thought to be associated with desires and rewards.   

A lesson in self-control/delayed gratification taught to us by children, but the implications reach much further than that. As adults, we are faced with our own version of the marshmallow experiment all day, every day.  Our devices beg us to stop what we’re doing and devote our attention to them instead.  How often do we complete a task without checking our phone, Facebook, or email at least once?  Our devices are a new form of the ever so tempting marshmallow. 

Further, while some things change, some remain the same. As adults, not only are we tempted by our electronic devices and constant, “always on” information feeds, we are still faced with the similar temptations as the children in Mischel’s experiment.  Unhealthy foods are more available and abundant than ever.  Fighting the urge to give in to temptation is a daily battle we face at almost every corner of our environment, including the grocery store, our work environments, and social settings. And, the more we are exposed to these enticing temptations, the more likely we are to give in to them.  Although it differs from person to person, willpower does have its limits. 

However, where there is a will, there is a way, as they say. If we can harness our inner discipline and coach ourselves to wait for the delayed, but equally as good, reward…then we are more likely to accomplish our goals.  Here’s a few thoughts on what we can do:       

  • Assess the situation.  Do you have trouble going longer than 5 minutes without checking your phone or email? How often do find yourself indulging in foods that you know are unhealthy? Are you constantly distracted by social media? These are all good questions to consider when evaluating your lifestyle.  Acknowledging that you are struggling with such distractions is the first step in problem solving. 
  • Make things easier for yourself.  Set guidelines and limits that you think are reasonable to start with and do your best to follow them. As you accomplish your goals, you may want to create more challenging goals over time if you think they would benefit your productivity and health. For example, if seeing your phone on your desk is a constant reminder to use it, then try placing your phone in a drawer. The same goes for social media. If social media is reducing your productivity, then make a point to disable your phone notifications and don’t open the webpage on your computer browser, except for at regular intervals you may set for yourself. Thus, the “always on” feature becomes an “at your will” feature.  
  • Develop a healthy relationship with your mind and body.  We are our own greatest work in progress. By focusing on the foundations of a healthy lifestyle (healthy diet, exercise, and sleep), we are more focused and less tempted to seek out the immediate gratification that also serves as a great distraction.  Think about it, we are more likely to make unhealthy food choices when we are low on sleep, preoccupied with something (e.g. constant incoming information), and in a hurry. Take the time to prioritize your health and wellbeing, set some general guidelines for yourself, and you’ll be amazed at your own progress.     

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Superfood Series: Part 3

Spinach and Kale

We couldn’t decide which one to choose because they are both so comparably amazing!  These two are probably two of the biggest super food all-stars in the whole series!

Nutritionally, they are both rock stars.  Taste wise, they differ greatly.  Kale has a more distinctive taste that some people find bitter. The texture is also thicker and tougher than spinach. The denser texture is perfect for baking kale chips or making salads ahead of time. Kale salad won’t get soggy like most other greens when you add dressing. 

With a more subtle taste and a softer crunch, spinach is often the choice for fresh salads, steaming, and dressing sandwiches.  Spinach is a tried and true health food that has stood the test of time.  Kale is newer to the scene, but we think it’s here to stay.  Now, on to the facts.  

*RDA= Recommended Daily Allowance

  1. Vitamin A.  Both kale and spinach are a great source of this fat soluble vitamin (98.3 % RDA kale; 105% RDA spinach) which plays a role in the anti-inflammatory process.  One form, beta-carotene, functions as an antioxidant which helps protect cells from the damaging and sometimes cancer causing free radicals. Vitamin A also plays a crucial role in eye health, particularly the ability to see in low light. 
  2. Happy Brain.  We need vitamin C (71% RDA kale; 24% RDA spinach) to convert the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is related to depression.  Out of balance serotonin levels can affect mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior.
  3. Bone Strength. Vitamin K (1,180% RDA kale; 987% RDA spinach) plays a vital role in bone health.  The body uses vitamin K to regulate calcium.  Therefore, low levels of vitamin K have been linked to low levels of calcium in bones.  This condition can lead to osteoporosis and/or a buildup of calcium in the arteries, which can lead to coronary heart disease. 
  4. Digestion.  One serving of spinach or kale provides 1 gram and 3 grams of fiber, respectively. When you take into the consideration the caloric content of these superfoods (23 kcal and 49 kcal, respectively), that’s a lot of fiber for a few calories.  Insoluble fiber found in both spinach and kale aids in digestion because it is not fully digested by the body.  As it passes through the digestive tract it acts as a sort of scrub brush of the intestines, helping to push food through the system on its way out and therefore aiding with regular bowel movements.
  5. Weight Loss. Spinach and kale are both low in calories which can be helpful for those trying to lose weight.  One serving of spinach has only 23 calories, but 3 grams of protein.  One cup of kale has only 49 calories but 4 grams of protein. Their high fiber content will leave you feeling fuller, longer.  Don’t forget they are chock full of many other vitamins and minerals.  Whether in a salad or steamed, fresh or frozen, these two salad greens are a great component of any weight loss or maintenance plan.
  6. Diabetes. Kale and spinach both contain an antioxidant known as alpha-lipoic acid, which has been shown to lower glucose levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and prevent oxidative stress-induced changes in patients with diabetes. Studies on alpha-lipoic acid have also shown decreases in peripheral neuropathy and/or autonomic neuropathy in people with diabetes. Not to mention their high fiber and protein content per serving means they cause a slow and steady rise in blood sugar which is ideal for people with diabetes.  
  7. Prenatal and Pregnancy.  Folate (49% RDA spinach; 24% RDA kale) helps prevent neural tube deficiencies such as incomplete development of the brain and spinal cord.  Their high vitamin A content also supports healthy embryonic growth such as development of the heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, and bones, and the circulatory, respiratory, and central nervous systems.  Vitamin A is particularly essential for women who are about to give birth, because it helps with postpartum tissue repair.
  8. Heart Disease.  Both kale and spinach contain omega-3 fatty acids which can help fight heart disease and chronic illness.  They are both also a moderate source of potassium which has been shown to help prevent heart disease and reduce blood pressure, especially as part of a diet rich in calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein.  One cup provides around 15% of the RDA for potassium for both kale and spinach; and as we’ve already learned, on a calorie-by-calorie basis, both kale and spinach are also a good source of fiber and protein. 



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