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Mark Hyman, MD

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Why Falling Off the Wagon Can Benefit You

Posted: 08/04/2012 8:50 am

If you are like me, summer is a great time to catch up with friends and family, which usually involves a fair amount of travel.

I have always enjoyed travelling, but not until I ventured deeper into healing myself with functional medicine did my body return this affection for the road.

When I first began to heal myself from my own chronic inflammation it was nearly impossible to imagine how I could stay loyal to the dietary and lifestyle principles necessary for my recovery and simultaneously live my life and do the things I desired without feeling depleted or deprived.

From the launch of my journey to heal the root cause of my own imbalance, I learned about the healing power of food to bring real nourishment to my body. If you have been following my work this is old news. But what you may not know is how I grew to understand what Hungarian psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

Living in a state of flow is about finding the perfect balance between challenge and comfort. It's about being so enamored with your present moment that all sense of ego subsides as a more playful yet focused consciousness overcomes and completes you. Have you ever felt this alive and in tune with yourself?

It most likely occurs between May and September. Summer is a great season to play, travel, and break schedules. Most people report feeling a sense of flow during these less-restrictive and scheduled months.

Who doesn't yearn for these longer days fueled by warm air and energy from the sun? The irony in this situation is the monumental conflict our inner free spirit has with our need to maintain our healthy lifestyle goals.

Is it possible to be in a state of flow with our healthy living habits and still be available for the myriad gatherings, events, and summer trips that tempt us to sabotage every effort to live well?

There is! And thankfully you don't have to spend your summer in confinement missing out on all the great moments that make for cherished lifetime memories. If you are following my Blood Sugar Solution or any UltraWellness program, use these tips the next time you fall off the wagon and need to get back into your state of flow.

Get back to basics

Are you one of those people who live for extremes, the all-or-nothing approach? It's very common to hear people rationalize their motives for straying from their diet protocol because something "off limits" slipped in at a family party or event.

Or maybe a stressful morning or afternoon led you to indulge in potentially inflammatory food. The easiest and healthiest way to regain your sense of competence with a lifestyle modification program is to forget about the details and focus on the basics. When you are back in flow you can resume the details. Remember these principles the next time you need to reboot your body:

Eat real, unprocessed, whole foods

  • Make 50 percent of your plate a variety of colorful vegetables, 75 percent if you are on the Advanced Plan of the BSS.
  • Clean up your pantry. Toss all packaged and convenience foods, including anything with trans fats or high fructose corn syrup.
  • Eat a protein-based meal or snack every three to four hours.
  • Focus on making your meal a low-glycemic load. Hint: Remove all refined flours and unnecessary sweeteners, including anything artificial.
  • Avoid all potential food sensitivities and allergens, especially gluten and dairy.


Plan, prep, and proceed

The ultimate way to keep yourself on the wagon or give yourself a boost back on if you have fallen off is to have a plan, account for prep work, and proceed until you see the moment through. If you know you are going to a restaurant and you are not sure of the menu, a simple Google search can help calm you so your company gets more of your attention than the menu.

If you are going on the road, pack an emergency food kit with blood sugar stabilizing foods. When I leave home, I usually bring some of the following:

  • An ice pack and a small cooler
  • Water
  • Almonds or walnuts
  • Can of sardines
  • Hummus, tahini, or cashew butter in a 1-ounce salad dressing container for easy storage
  • Carrots, sugar snap peas, or other stable veggies
  • An apple
  • Dark chocolate, 70 percent or higher


These are my staples, but I would encourage you to find out what works for you. Consider that in any situation the possibility to upgrade your food choice exists, so you can optimize the quality of your nutrition. Yes, you always have choice!

Speaking of choices, don't hesitate to use your voice. You would be surprised at the power we all have as consumers. If you are at a restaurant, remember you are in the driver's seat and it is the restaurant's goal for you to leave happy.

Ask for the gluten-free option, request fresh vegetables with olive oil on the side, and insist on having your meal prepared as you desire. Sometimes labels can be deceiving and ingredients do not match the enticing menu descriptions.

By exercising your right to have a deliciously healthy meal you do more than simply get better quality food; you help trigger a ripple effect of change in our country to have consumers drive the market to a healthier restaurant experience.

Let go of perfectionism -- it's killing you!

I'll fill you in on a little secret of mine: I don't eat perfectly all the time. But then again, what I consider "perfect" means something different than conventional wisdom's understanding of the word. To me, eating well means providing my body with the nutrition it needs so that I can live the quality of life, which keeps me in flow.

Sometimes this means I have to eat something that doesn't quite meet my standards, or in some situations I eat something I normally wouldn't. I like to call this "recreational" eating -- it is more for entertainment, socializing, and amusement than for systemic health.

As long as I know my body is in the appropriate state to handle a treat, I call upon my secret weapon for UltraWellness: the 90:10 Rule. Ninety percent of the time I eat an anti-inflammatory, real, whole foods diet, and 10 percent of the time I leave room for the unexpected. This way, I am not flustered or deprived when I go to events.

And more so, I don't let a good moment pass due to fear, anxiety, or guilt around not being perfect. This negative mindset actually fuels the flames of inflammation as much or more than eating a single, small portion of a recreational food. So when you are on a break, give yourself a break!

Trust the process

At the end of the day our goal is to find happiness. I enjoy guiding people on how to be happy through achieving good health. Sometimes the road to UltraWellness is not linear. The road to healing takes many twists and turns and is often bumpy. Emotional, mental, and physical pain are part of healing, and sometimes we need to fall off the wagon in order to get back on.

If you can remember that your body is innately wired to do the hard work of healing, then you can trust the process. Trusting your body knows what to eat, in the right amounts, and at the right pace, is part of relaxing into your ultimate state of flow.

"Flow happens when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges," Csíkszentmihalyi explains. "If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills."

I hope in the weeks ahead you find your own recipe for living in this abundance of flow, where eating well meets the joys of living well.

Now I'd like to hear from you...

How do you handle a break in schedule where your routine is displaced?

What triggers you to fall off the wagon of healthy living?

What does living in flow mean to you?

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, M.D.

Mark Hyman, M.D. is a practicing physician, founder of The UltraWellness Center, a four-time New York Times bestselling author, and an international leader in the field of Functional Medicine. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, watch his videos on YouTube, become a fan on Facebook, and subscribe to his newsletter.

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