Is your daily coffee habit making you fat, farty, and broke?

A cappuccino in a green cup.

I sat down with the intention of writing a short piece about coffee and the effect it has on our waistlines and wallets. As I started doing some research and looking at various websites on how many calories there are in various coffee beverages, how much coffee is drunk daily in Australia etc.;  it got me thinking.

Where does this coffee come from? How much do we as a nation, spend? What about worldwide? Are there long term health benefits or does it cause health issues? Is it sustainable? All those disposable coffee cups have got to end up somewhere. Can all those corner cafes be supported? Where would you go to meet friends/on a first date if you don’t want to drink coffee and it wasn’t beer o’clock yet? What about tea? Would we solve all/any the issues if we switched to drinking only tea? Is coffee even worth drinking? Now come on, be honest, do you even LIKE the taste of coffee?

My swirling mind became caught in a spiral of ideas worse than being trapped in a Pinterest Vortex! I decided it was way bigger than one post could handle and it needed to be a series of blog posts. This post serves as an introduction and sets the scene. I will follow it up with another 5 posts over the next few months. (It might even grow from that number!)

Part 1 will be about the Waistline Effect: here I will explore the pharmacological, health and dietary effects of caffeine.

Part 2 looks at the economic effects of coffee on a micro (your household budget) and macro (the global economy) scale.

Part 3 investigates the environmental impact: are we burying our cities under a mountain of disposable cups. Are Keep Cups going to save the day? Are we causing rural poverty in those countries that supply our daily fix?

Part 4: What are the cultural differences in coffee drinking. Is Australian the only place you can buy a decent skim cap? I need your help here. Have you ever been able to buy a decent coffee in another country?

Part 5: Tea v Coffee. Does it make a difference? Plus anything else I haven’t been able to fit into the other posts.

I feel like a bit of a coffee expert, not because I drink lots, but because way back in the day when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, I wrote my Honours Thesis on “Caffeine and its Derivatives in Australian Foods and Beverages”.

With nothing more than my trusty portable typewriter and correction tape, I banged out one hundred and thirty pages of meta-analysis and lab results about methylxanthines, the chemical group which includes caffeine and other similar compounds. While some of it is outdated, it remains a good starting point.

On a personal note, I’m a tea drinker. I limit the amount of coffee I buy from a cafe to around 1 – 2 cups a week if that. This decision is based on three factors.

  1. Kilojoule intake. I drink skim milk cappucinos. That’s around 120 kcal or nearly 500 kJ which is approximately 8% of my target daily intake.
  2. Lactose intake – I think I must be a little lactose intolerant because milk-based coffee drinks make my belly grumble unpredictably with embarrassing consequences!
  3. I am stingy. $4 a cup every day that’s nearly $1500 a year!

I hope you’ll enjoy these posts and let me know your favourite cafe in the comments below!

Clever Guts?

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana

If you listen to the health chatter on the TV news, in magazines and on the internet  you will have heard about the importance of gut bacteria to health.  Gut bacteria seem to be responsible for everything from gastrointestinal health to mental health to reducing high blood pressure.  Modern “western” diets which are typically low in fibre and high in processed foods are are being linked to the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes because of the deleterious effect they have on gut bacteria.

I have been researching and thinking about  the microbes in my gut for over a year. I started to read the research, then switched to a mostly plant based diet, deliberately increased the  amounts of probiotic and prebiotic foods that I am eating and generally trying to be nice to my gut bugs.

I bought Michael Mosley’s book – The Clever Guts Diet. I have written several other blog posts about it. (Good Mood Food; Eat Food, mostly plants; not too much; and Go with your Gut)

This time, I have put my body (and dignity) forward in the interests of science and bought a uBiome Test kit to check out what is actually living in my gut. It took 3 weeks to get the package from the US and then another 6 weeks to get the results.

The results are very comprehensive and frankly a bit of science-jargon-babble. I am a scientist and I found the data a bit overwhelming and not easy to interpret. I think they could provide a bit more help in unraveling the numbers.

I made this video about the data and my results.

Gut biome

 

So it would seem I am OK but still have a little way to go to have a gut heaven!

 

 

 

 

Go with your gut!

I have become a bit obsessed with the amazing microbiome that is present in our gut. The billions of microorganisms that live inside us and have the potential to do so much good if we look after them.

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana
Homemade yogurt with blueberries, granola and banana. (The seeds and the fertilisers in one bowl!)

Gut Microbes and Health.

More and more research shows that this microbiome is essential to our physical and mental health and many of the health problems facing those in industrialized economies could be solved by paying closer attention to what bugs are in your gut.

When your bug population get out of balance (dysbiosis) your whole body is in trouble.

The gut biome has been linked to

  • anxiety
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Synthesis of vitamins and amino acids in the gut
  • Digestion of “non-digestible” carbohydrates which therefore affects the amount of energy that is released from some foods
  • Protection from “bad” bacteria
  • Allergies
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
  • Eczema and asthma
  • Appetite regulation

 

Most studies of overweight and obese people show a dysbiosis characterised by a lower diversity[1].

Translation: Obese people have an imbalance of microorganisms with not enough variety present

It’s much better to have a good variety of microorganisms in your gut because:

The association between reduced diversity and disease indicates that a species-rich gut ecosystem is more robust against environmental influences, as functionally related microbes in an intact ecosystem can compensate for the function of other missing species. Consequently, diversity seems to be a generally good indicator of a “healthy gut.”[2]

Translation: Having lots of different species of bacteria makes your body better able to withstand challenges because what one bug can’t do another type can. They can cover all bases by working together.

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Beetroot soup! Full of fibre.

Fibre is the answer!

So how do you get a good mix of bugs in your gut? The key is consuming a goodly amount of dietary fibre and reducing the amounts of highly processed foods that we eat.

The idea is that we need to feed our gut bugs. Highly processed foods are easily digested and absorbed and don’t make it to the large intestine where most of the bug action is happening. By eating foods high in undigestable fibre, we give the bugs a meal as well.

How much is enough? Australia’s CSIRO[3]  recommend between 25 – 35 g per day. Having said that; too much fibre can reduce the diversity of your microbiome and if you suddenly change from a low fibre diet to a high fibre diet you can suffer from abdominal discomfort and flatulence. You should spread fibre consumption throughout the day and drink plenty of water to keep it moving through your intestines.

Types of fibre

There are different types of fibre which have different properties. The main types are insoluble, soluble and resistant starch.

  • Insoluble fibre found in whole grains, legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds provides bulk and can help control blood sugar levels.
  • Soluble fibre found in legumes, veggies and fruits give the bugs something to eat so they stay happy
  • Resistant starch, which is found in cooked, cooled and reheated rice, potato and pasta, as well has whole grains, legumes and under ripe bananas. Resistant starch increases the amounts of butyrate in the gut. Butyrate, a byproduct of microbial metabolism,  is important in keeping the gut walls healthy as well as keeping bad bacteria at bay.
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Cooked and then cooled rice has increased levels of resistant starch. Another excellent reason to each sushi!

What are probiotics and prebiotics?

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living organisms such as yogurt and other fermented foods. Prebiotics on the other hand are foods that help the microorganisms in your body thrive.

A good analogy is that if you think of your gut as a garden, the probiotics are the seeds and the prebiotics the fertiliser.

Porridge with walnuts and banana
Porridge (aka oatmeal) with banana and walnuts. This bowl is full of healthy treats for your gut bugs!

Bug zappers!

Some chemicals and medications will damage your gut bugs.

Antibiotics kill bacteria. That’s their job, so they kill the bacteria in your gut too. You may need to take some extra special care of your gut bugs after antibiotics. There is some evidence that the appendix acts a reservoir for the microbiome and in time will help repopulate the gut with good bugs.

Emulsifiers are added to food to make oily and watery components stay mixed together. If you mix oil and vinegar together, they will after time, separate into layers unless you add an emulsifier. Some artificial emulsifiers have been linked to damaging the gut microbiome because they lead to a thinning of the mucous layer in the gut which in turn leads to leaky gut syndrome. This causes inflammation in many areas of the body. The answer? Prepare your own food from scratch as often as possible and avoid things your grandparents would not have considered as food. Be wary of foods with lots of numbers in the ingredient list and not many recognisable as food.

Omnivore vs vegan?

There does not seem to be much evidence that a well balanced omnivorous diet is any better or worse than a vegan diet. (see The BMJ article referred to below) Michael Mosley and others wholeheartedly recommend a “Mediterranean diet“. This type of diet is mostly plant based but does include meat, eggs, some dairy, healthy oils and nuts.

Further reading on gut microbes and health.

This post is only a very short summary of the growing volume of information available. Here are just a few of the articles you could read to if you want to know more.

Start with this comprehensive and easy to read article from the BMJ (British Medical Journal) Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health

These scholarly articles talk about the relationship between the gut microbiome and mental health and health in general.

The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: Implications for Anxiety- and Trauma-Related Disorders.

Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis

The Gut Microbiome, Anxiety and Depression: 6 Steps to Take

Part 1: The Human Gut Microbiome in Health and Disease

Some good books are

Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet.

The CSIRO Healthy Gut Diet.

 

[1] “Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health | The BMJ.” 13 Jun. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

[2] “Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health | The BMJ.” 13 Jun. 2018, https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.

[3] “The CSIRO healthy gut diet / Dr Tony Bird, Dr Michael Conlon and ….” http://nla.gov.au/anbd.bib-an63676915. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018. Page 25-26

 

60 for 60 remix

A sepia photo showing a small lighthouse
The Little Lighthouse – Wollongong

A few weeks ago (60 for 60) I posted a list of activities that I intended on completing between now and my 60th birthday in May 2021. It was free ranging list and included little things like making a souffle right up to travelling to Scotland or Iceland.

I have been transferring the items to index cards which I intend to move from the to do to the done pile as they get done. I also thought it might be a good idea to work out  a rough schedule of when I would do the activity so I could make efficient use of time and money. For instance, I want to see an active volcano and go to Iceland. It would be sensible to see a volcano in Iceland.

P1030771

It was here at this point,  that I saw the flaws in my list. I knew the list was ambitious. I knew it would be expensive. As I tried to fit things loosely into a calendar, I simply ran out of time.  Let’s not even talk about how much I would have to spend! Of course, if I do end up winning the lottery (see this post) it will be fine! I can quit the day job and concentrate on the list full time. Unfortunately, though,  I do have to work full time to pay for my fun.

Photo 18-05-13 13 30 28

I need to regig, remix and reassess the list.  I need more small items that I can do without having to go anywhere or spend a lot on while still giving me a sense of accomplishment. I could replace all the travel with writing, but that takes time too. I want to succeed. I don’t want to set myself up for failure before I start by having unrealistic expectations and at the same time I don’t want to make it too easy either.

So here is the new list. The changes are subtle but they will make a difference.

  • Pay off extra on my current mortgage.
  • Sell some of my writing
  • Make a profit through Old Chook Enterprises
  • Sell some of my photos
  • Hit at least 1000 followers on WordPress (help me out here guys!!)
  • Hit at least 500 followers on Instagram (help needed here too!!) @robynlang3
  • Go to the UK, more specifically, Scotland
  • Go on a another cruise (6 – 10 days)
  • Make a 15-minute documentary that gets some success (define success!)
  • Finish the Buttons story (a sci-fi themed novella I am writing. Four out of 9 chapters done)
  • Write a screenplay
  • Finish the Anca story (another short story/novel idea.)
  • Finish the family history story about Sarah Anne Usher
  • Publish a blog post every week
  • Not to drink alone.
  • Do a woodworking course
  • Spend the weekend in Melbourne for my birthday again (I went in 2013)
  • Use frequent flyer points to pay for an entire international flight.
  • Photograph the Milky Way
  • Will do the southernmost extremity of the Australian mainland when I do a Melbourne road trip for my birthday
  • Paint the interior of my home
  • Get new carpet/floor covering
  • Re-read and do the steps in the Side Hustle Book.
  • Enter works into a photography exhibition – the Scarborough Art Show (October 2019)
  • Go six months without added sugar – I’ve started this one!
  • Road trip to Broken Hill, NSW
  • Fly in a hot air balloon in Australia
  • Write up the interview I did with Tracey and Sue about the Bibbulmun Track
  • Visit at least 15 more lighthouses in Australia. (I like lighthouses and want to see as many Australian ones as I can – there are more than 2000 so it might be a stretch to see them all!) There are 15 close to home (within 300 km) that I haven’t seen yet so this should be do-able.
  • “Day in the life” photography series for at least 4 people – follow 4 people in different occupations and photograph their day
  • Do an “extraordinary man” photographic series. An environmental portrait project.
  • Make a soufflé
  • Donate blood for the first time
  • Do a big >2500 piece jigsaw puzzle
  • Sell most my 2019 calendars (help me out here too!!)
  • Publish a 2020 calendar
  • Do another year of no new things in 2020.
  • Stop dying my hair and embrace the grey!
  • Finish a short course in food photography – Daylesford Victoria
  • Publish a cookbook of family favourites with my own photography
  • Do a short online graphics design course
  • Do some more light painting
  • Do an interview on radio/TV about something to do with Old Chook Enterprises
  • Modify the design and remake the running belt you made. A lycra belt to wear while running that holds my phone/keys and tissues etc. I have already made one but it needs some modifications.
  • Enter at least 10 writing competitions
  • Enter at least 10 photography competitions
  • Go on a writing retreat in 2019 (perhaps as a cruise?)
  • Do another cheese making course
  • Design some fabric to make some cushions for my home and to sell at markets
  • Have a 60th birthday celebration
  • Cut my time for 10km run to less than 56 minutes
  • Learn how to use eyeliner properly
  • Hold a market stall at least twice
  • Learn how to swim properly by getting swimming lessons.
  • Read at least 4 novels a year form the list of “good books”
  • Maintain weight at less than 60kg.
  • Learn how to do boxing style rope jumping and sustain for  at least 5 minutes.

Already done!

  • Buy a dymo labeller
  • Set up a saving fund for my grandson
  • Set up a worm farm
  • Pitch an article to a real magazine/publication (see point 49)
  • Create a passwords spreadsheet
  • Get a new phone
  • Make a will

110-1031_IMG

Whats gone?

  • Learn enough Italian to have a short conversation
  • Enter some photos in the Royal Easter Show (a big fair in Sydney, Australia)
  • Try being an AirBnB host
  • Write a children’s picture book
  • See an active volcano (I could do this in Iceland)
  • Go to Broome, Western Australia.
  • Get my first paid article published. I had this twice.
  • Tidy my garage -hmmm not really a life goal.
  • Get a new job – to get everything done I think I need stability in my day job!
  • Go on a really long walk like the Bibbulmun Track in Western Australia
  • Meet someone very famous.

 

Wish me luck! I will publish updates at 6 monthly intervals. I’d love to hear what you would have in your list. Please add your ideas in the comments below.

A ten kilometre run

I took up running seriously a little over a year ago. I have written a bit about this in a few posts (here and here). I run to get some higher intensity exercise, and because once it’s over I feel like a bad-assed grandma! DAMN! I think to myself, I just ran a LONGGGGGG way! And I’m old! (ish!)

A faux-watercolour of a bike against a fence. The ocean is in the background.
One of the views on my run at around 4km

I am not super fit and I am a long way off breaking world records. The only person I am keen on competing against is my past-self.  My present-self sometimes needs a kick in that bad-ass to get it moving! My goal is to do 10km in 55 minutes. It’s not unrealistic. I can do 5km in 27 minutes so I should be able to do 10 in 55.

….Should…..

I try and train 6 days a week. Monday, Wednesday and Saturday are running days. Five km on Monday with sprints or hill runs; 7 – 8 km on Wednesday. Tuesdays and Thursdays are gym days for crossfit or cardio boxing, Fridays are yoga and Sunday is a rest day. I sometimes switch the rest day depending on my schedule and other commitments.

JFDI!

As I haul myself out of bed at 5:30 AM, I grumble that I should cut myself some slack, but I repeat to myself JFDI!!! (Just f@#$ do it!!)  A great mantra!  The self satisfaction I feel when I do get up and exercise lasts me all day. When I am travelling or it’s school holidays I am not nearly as disciplined.

My standard Saturday run is 10km. My best time so far is 56:05.

A man in a red bathing cap floating in teh ocean
The Towradgi Sea Pool offers a great view

I run on a nicely made bike path that hugs the coast. I can see and hear the ocean. I join the early morning bike riders, walkers and runners who share the path. Running gives me plenty of time to  think. I can live in my own head and burble out a stream of consciousness. Typically, my run sounds like this.

0 – 1 km OMG I can’t breath! I am so unfit! Why did I even think this was a good idea. Come on lungs get it together!
1- 2 km Oh there you go! My memory brings backs the good old days in the biochem lectures were I learnt about the anaerobic energy system. That’s right….it takes a little while to kick in.
2 – 4 km I’m hit a steady rhythm; my breathing is not laboured. I should probably go a bit faster. The beat of the music is urging me along. I match my stride to the music.  I start to get onto the flow…. I could do this forever! …. Marathon? Yeah, no worries! Easy!
4 – 5 km When is that bloody running app going to tell me I’m half way so I can turn around. These shoes need replacing! Are they actually any good?  I wonder about whether I’m hot or cold… I wonder about whether or not I’m breathing properly… my hip starts to give me a bit of a twinge. Great, I’ll be needing a hip replacement next!
5km Veronica (the voice on my GPS) tells me my current speed and distance every kilometre. But 5 km is the turning point – literally. If I am under 30 minutes I know I have  a good chance of reaching that elusive 55 minutes goal. If not, I may as well take it slowly.
6 – 7 km My gait has settled back into a good rhythm. Kenny Loggins’ Footloose is almost perfect for my stride (I know I know….) and I  pound my feet against the pavement with satisfying synchronised beats. I drift back into the flow and come up with all sorts of good ideas for stories.
7 – 8 km Veronica breaks into my train of thought unexpectedly…and sends me into a flurry of calculation…can I do it? Should I sprint to the end? No wait… I can’t sprint 3 km!
8 – 9 km Push it just a little bit harder, old chook. No pain, no gain! Oh no… here’s that little hill that’s always so welcome on the way out but not now that it’s facing up.
9 – 10 km I can see the car parked off in the distance! Come on! Come on! You can do it!

YOU DID IT!!!

I DID IT!

Darn: 57 minutes and 48 seconds. I begin the self-justification… don’t forget you stopped to do your shoelace up twice, you slowed down to blow your nose at least three times…that should take;  what; at least 30 seconds off the time…it’s really 57:18

I feel elated as I stretch on the grass. Not bad for an Old Chook!

I might have 2 minutes to cut off my time. I might need to increase my speed by a full kilometre per hour to average 11kph not 10.

But it’s not impossible.

It’s my goal and it’s just an few weeks away.

Be invincible. Not invisible!

Man fishing in a creek
Early morning runs means getting up before the sea breeze.

Eat food, mostly plants – not too much.

Sishi rolls

My sister found this pamphlet when she was going through a box of old papers with my mum a few weeks ago. It’s from a c1950 Westinghouse Refrigerator User Manual.

Fridge

The part that particularly grabbed my attention was last sentence – the bit about brown vs white sugar! It points out to me that poor dietary advice has been around forever!

What is a healthy diet?

When it comes to diets just exactly who should we believe? There’s such a variety with the claims often contradicting each other. We could try:

Vegan – strictly only plants

Vegetarian- plants but also sometimes honey, eggs and dairy

Paleo – the food Ugg the cave man would be able to source back in the day – like 40,000 + years ago and way before McDonalds.

Whole 30 – beware this one has lots of rules! Whole30 program website

FODMAP – designed to help those with irritable bowel syndrome

Mediterranean – rich in veggies, olive oil, and fish like the food traditionally eaten in Italy and Greece

Ketogenic – when I was at Uni ketosis was a BAD thing. This diet has no carbs, just lots of protein and fat. 

5:2 diet – based on intermittent fasting. Fast for two days then eat what you like the other days. Developed by Dr Michael Mosley

The Clever Guts diet – another from Dr Mosley

No sugar

No cabs after 5

Atkins – only Generation X’ers and before will remember this one!

There are so many variations on how to eat healthily!  The array of information available these days is overwhelming. Even with my background in food science I find it hard to keep up.

Porridge with walnuts and banana
Porridge (aka oatmeal) with banana and walnuts

Food as more than fuel

A healthy buffet selection
A healthy buffet selection from the Grand Hyatt, Incheon.

In my late teens and in my early 20’s, I was anorexic and for a short time bulimic. I ate very little. I weighed about 47 kg and got annoyed if I went over 50kg. My BMI was less than 17. (A Healthy BMI is between 19 an 24) I exercised hard and stayed very fit but perhaps not healthy. I used to replay the words from the Ford Pills Diet ad over and over in my head. It was on TV when I was only 7 but it obviously had left its mark!

Are you too fat, too fat,  too fat to fit in the Ford Pill Figure?

Before intermittent fasting was a “thing”, I used to fast all day Saturday, with the idea I could eat what I liked on Sunday. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, dizzy and light headed. I had frequent hypoglycaemic events not because I was diabetic but because I didn’t eat often enough. I was an absolute pain in the neck when it came to eating out!

Cup cakes
Definitely a sometimes food! (Molly’s Cupcakes, New York)

I did a Food Technology degree at University and on reflection, this was no doubt my way of becoming a “food expert” and validating what I was doing. After Uni, I went on to work in the food manufacturing industry for a few years before moving into laboratory equipment sales. It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to work with food in one form or another[1]. Apart from my day job I had a side hustle – being a fitness instructor. More reasons to exercise and stay thin.

Once I was married, I would cook hugely elaborate meals. My husband also enjoyed cooking and we would often spend almost the entire weekend planning, shopping, preparing and cooking fabulous menus which I didn’t eat much of. Food was always on the agenda as a hobby, and as a fuel.

I am pleased to say that as I have gotten older I have become more sensible with my diet although it is still a balancing act of energy in vs energy out.

A bowl of yogurt with blueberries and banana
Homemade yogurt with blueberries, granola and banana.

I still enjoy cooking and now that I am cooking only for myself (and I’m past the wine and wedges phase) I make it an intentional act to cook a decent meal a few times a week. There are always leftovers, so I have enough for those nights when I have less time.  I plan my weekly meals (let’s say that again:  I aim to plan my weekly meals because sometimes I don’t!!) – mainly because it means I don’t waste so much food or have to face the decision of what to cook each night.

I remain interested in nutrition and have considered returning to study in this field. When I was doing my first degree, issues like antioxidants and gut bacteria weren’t even on the horizon. Coconut oil was a BAD thing!

Nowadays, I also look out for foods that will have a protective factor against the diseases of older age.  There is some talk (but little evidence) that turmeric will reduce the inflammation that contributes to arthritis and dementia. I am now taking turmeric tablets. It can’t hurt, and it might help. In a previous post I spoke about good mood food,  food that feeds your gut bacteria and is thought to contribute to positive physical and mental health.

Snapseed 13

Finding the right food balance.

In the end I think we all know that no fad diet will work. There is no magic bullet. If you want to lose weight you need to use more energy than you consume. If you want to be healthy you need variety. You need to be flexible and not place any unnecessary restrictions on what you can and can’t eat. Get your advice from reputable sources that don’t have a vested interest and are not trying to sell you something. I have not fact checked any of the websites I have linked to in the above list – so do your own research. I think you need to be careful if someone is making money out of selling you a fad diet.

The best dietary advice I have heard recently is summed up in seven words from Michael Pollan:

“eat food, mostly plants – not too much”

The eat food part is the trickiest part to decipher. By this he means eat real food, not processed; food your great grandma would recognise as food.

[1] https://patient.info/health/eating-disorders/features/working-with-food-when-you-have-an-eating-disorder

The little imaginary fellow on my other shoulder keeps telling me how bourgeois this line of reasoning is.  A great many people on our Earth will find this concern about he best way to eat to stay healthy ridiculous because they have NO food.. We should be grateful we have the food in the first place and do our best not to waste it and distribute it more equitably – but that’s a whole other topic for a different blog post!

Is childhood anxiety on the rise?

A closeup shot of a leaf with dark and light green stripes

Childhood in the 1960s

Growing up in the 60s, I would describe my childhood as free range. By this I mean that while I was well cared for, I did not have much close supervision. This was not unusual for the times.  Provided we told our parents where we were going and what we were doing they just let us go and do it. We would stay outside all day, in all seasons. In wet weather, we would play inside and dress up our dolls and build whole new worlds.  We played under the house building mud pies in the dirt with little regard for the spiders that hung from the joists above our heads. We were happy and active.

I don’t remember our parents organising any of our activities. We worked it out for ourselves, although we had to ask for permission to watch TV or when we wanted a sleepover.

Water fall shot with a slow shutter.

We’d play on the street with all the neighbourhood kids. Someone would yell out “CAR” and we’d scamper aside and let the traffic pass and then continue with the game of cricket or soccer. Once again, I don’t remember any parents around to tell us to be careful or to watch out. There was a mix of ages from Will and Micky who were the oldest right down to pipsqueaks like me who were five years younger.

I obviously survived, although I did have a few near misses[1]. Once when my brother and I were playing at the beach and I got caught in a rip. Some fellow scooped me out of the surf and took me back to my mother who was sleeping on the sand. In her defence, we weren’t supposed to be swimming!

I remember slicing my foot from toe to heel on a  rusty water tank we were using as a slippery dip. The most vivid part of this memory being the bloody little foot prints I left on the road as I limped home.

In kindergarten, I was walking home from school on a rainy day splashing in puddles when I got stuck in a big open drain with the water rising around me. And the nearest miss, when I was at my best friend’s cousins’ place swimming in their pool and one of the older kids bombed me. I had to be dragged to the surface after someone realised I hadn’t come up yet.

A bee forages for pollen on a bright yellow aloe flower

Modern parents are more involved but at what price?

More recently, parents and carers are more involved in directing the activities of their children. Dance lessons, after school tutoring, training for sports, pre-organised play dates. All structured time. I guess this is mostly because many parents and particularly, mums, work away of home and scheduling is necessary. You can no longer pop next door and know that someone will be home.

Is adolescent anxiety on the rise?

If you ask me if anxiety and depression and other mental illnesses have increased in the 26 years years I have been teaching I would give an emphatic YES.   Is my perception backed by evidence?  I notice it more and more but is that because as a school leader, I am more involved in that aspect of schooling? Today alone I spoke to three families about their anxious and school-refusing children.  The quick research I did in preparation for this post, indicates my perception can not be supported evidence.

Some articles say there has been no increase in the prevalence of anxiety disorders, while others refer to an “epidemic” and crisis of mental health issues. The problem is that data collection relating to childhood anxiety has only started in the last 10 – 15 years. We don’t have a clear picture on the anxiety levels of past generations because it wasn’t measured or reported  so we cannot accurately compare. We simply don’t know. We have no good base line data. Anxiety levels might be higher or they could even be lower.

Round ball like seeds pods against a bright blue sky

 

While my hunch is not supported by hard evidence, I have first hand observational data – even if the sample size is very small –  that some kids, especially girls around 14 – 16 can not be separated from their phones. I have had girls crying and begging to be suspended from school rather than hand in their phone after using it inappropriately in class time. Their fear of losing that point of contact is palpable. They quiver and become faint.

Is there a link between the use of smart phones and the apparent increase in anxiety?

Probably?

Has the shift in care practices made a difference to childhood happiness and health?

Maybe…

The practices of 50 years ago may be seen as neglectful these days.  At school we often discuss helicopter parents – those who hover constantly over their children and the more notorious lawn mower parents who sweep ahead and mow down any obstacles in their children’s path. Of course, all parents want their children to be safe and not be hurt, teased or bullied but has the pendulum swung too far? Are today’s parents stopping their children learning valuable lessons and denying them opportunities to  be resilient and self reliant? Are they creating anxious kids by accident?

I think so.

The Australian Government report into childhood anxiety does state the following:

It might be tempting to blame increased screen time [for anxiety] and access to information via the internet that didn’t exist in previous generations….

The presence of screens is not necessarily something that’s going to create anxiety. Social media, unfortunately, is a huge factor. Particularly in primary school.[2]

Further, parents of anxious children can exacerbate the issue by protecting their children too much. When I am dealing with anxious kids I usually find an anxious parent not too far behind.

If a child is worried about going on a school camp, for example, it can be tempting for parents to accommodate their wishes….[and let them stay at home]

‘What keeps anxiety going is avoidance,’ … ‘If you stay away from situations you’re nervous about, the child will never learn that she can handle it, and that actually camp can be fun.[3]

Once again it would seem like the middle ground is the place to be. We have to keep children safe, but not so safe they are scared to stretch their wings.

More information on childhood anxiety

There are some good articles available on the topic if you’d care to read more.

This one about teens and social media from Harvard is an easy and informative read.

https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/17/12/social-media-and-teen-anxiety

For a very in-depth look at the situation in Australia – have a look at this 2015 Australian Government report. (You will need to click on the link that is on that page to download the PDF)

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-pubs-m-child2

And the Young Minds Matter website – in particular, have a look at the Snapshot of Findings Video.

https://youngmindsmatter.telethonkids.org.au/


 

The images are meant to be calming, natural scenes to help keep you rested!

[1] My mum will kill me when she reads this! Of course, it’s from my stand point and with my version of events! Artistic licence DLT!

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/childhood-anxiety-australia-report/7214886

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/childhood-anxiety-australia-report/7214886

Getting richer!

A blurry image of grass blowing in the ewind

You all know by now that I am no spring chicken and I  joyfully refer to myself as an Old Chook. I categorise Old Chooks as women over 55. That is, women like me. I want to be a fabulous Old Chook!  I want to stay healthy. I want to be productive and fulfilled and I want to make a difference. As I get older, I worry about the health issues that will raise their ugly heads – those diseases or problems where just being old is a risk factor.

Like arthritis and dementia.

A woman with a red bag and shoes walking toward a very grand chateau in Chambord, France
Dementia can be a lonely journey.

Dementia, in particular, has  been on my mind lately because I have been noticing a few changes in my cognitive patterns that are a bit scary. For instance when I am typing, and especially when I am trying to type quickly, I will get homonyms mixed up.  For instance, I will be thinking “sure thing” but look up at the screen and see that I have typed “shore thing”. Once, I was just a bad typist but now I have begun to select the entirely wrong word. It’s OK, because I realise immediately it’s incorrect when I read it back over. Still, I am interested in the process of why my fingers are not doing what my brain is telling it to.

a brown coloured leaf surrounded by black and white leaves.

I thought I would do a bit of study about dementia, its causes and its prevention. I recently completed a MOOC (a massive open online course) run by the University of Tasmania.  (You can see details for that course here Wicking Institute )

In VERY simple terms dementia is a progressive disorder that leads to cognitive decline. Loss of memory is only part of the problem. There is currently no cure for dementia. The biggest risk factor is age. If you live long enough you will end up with some form of dementia. There are, however, some modifiable risk factors. That is, if you modify the factor you can change the risk.  The trouble is, like with most health issues, you need to start doing the modification WAY before you are going to see the benefits.

You need to live well in your early life to ensure you have a good older life!

Risk factors for dementia

The modifiable risk factors for vascular dementia (a common form of dementia)  are:

  1. Midlife hypertension (high blood pressure)
  2. Midlife obesity
  3. Diabetes
  4. Physical activity (lack thereof)
  5. Smoking
  6. Diet
  7. Alcohol. Although with this one there is a caveat.  It seems that low to moderate consumption of alcohol may have a protective effect. Whereas high consumption will have a negative effect.

A glass of red wine with a veil of white light made with a torch and slow shutter speed

Looking at this list you might think it’s identical to a list you would see for heart disease – and it is.

Some non-modifiable factors include

  1. Age
  2. Brain injury
  3. Genetic predisposition
a group of intergenrational photos on a wall in a house. Light shines across the frames
Dementia has a genetic component

Some other factors which can affect your risk include things like

  1. Social isolation. Isolated people are more likely to develop dementia
  2. Vision and hearing loss will lead to greater risk – possibly because they can increase social isolation.
  3. Higher education will lead to reduced risk. This is thought to be because of the potential for cognitive reserves. People who have had more education have more in reserve. They have more ways to solve problems. Crudely, if they forget how to do it one way they will work out another.
  4. Depression – successive bouts of depression over your lifetime will increase your risk.
  5. Living a rich cognitive lifestyle will decrease your risk.

 

A woman in a black and white top sitting on the sand facing away fromt he camera. It is very early morning and the sun has not yet risen. The waves are in the background.
Morning musings. Low tide, late sunrise.

Don’t you like the sound of that?! A rich cognitive lifestyle!

A rich cognitive lifestyle is one where you are learning new things all the time. The learning should be sustained, complex and preferably include a physical and social aspect as well. Learning a new language, for instance, is a great activity.

I am thinking writing a weekly blog post and traipsing around the countryside taking photos is also contributing to my cognitive lifestyle! I sure hope it’s making my brain rich!

A woman sitting on a park bench. The photo is blacka nd white excpet for the woman's red jumper and dress. It is a dark and desolate scene with the sea in the backgrond.
Social isolation is a big risk factor.

This post, of course, does not constitute medical advice in any way shape or form and you should see your own doctor if you are worried. There are plenty of places to get good information on dementia  like here, Dementia Australia and I would recommend the course mentioned above

These images don’t have much to do with dementia per se but are simply here to break up the text!

 

 

A run in the Park.

The “Park Run” is a free event that happens in lots of different places world-wide on Saturday mornings. It’s a 5km timed run/walk organised by volunteers. There are three park runs near where I live in Wollongong, but strangely there wasn’t one in New York.

This weekend I am in Old Bar on the Mid North Coast of NSW, Australia for a 40th School Reunion. That in itself is a scary concept which I will write more about later for my regular Friday post.

In the meantime here is a little CHOOKUMENTARY about the Park Run in Taree. Today I ran the course in just over 27 minutes. The course is relatively flat and follows along a footpath on the foreshore of the Manning River.

Check out Park Run’s Website for more information. This link is for their Australian chapter but there are others in other countries. Park Run Australia