Beginner’s Mind: The Challenges of Changing Eating Habits and Embracing Minimalist Running—Plus the Benefits of Chia!

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Shunryu Suzuki

You might be surprised to learn that as a nutritionist, my goal is not to help clients lose twenty pounds as quickly as possible. Nor do I strive to lower their cholesterol levels within two weeks, just in time for their next series of blood work. While I want to help them achieve their health goals in a meaningful way, what I have found is that obtaining quick results rarely teaches them anything of value. In fact, fast results may actually be the biggest saboteur to truly adopting a healthy lifestyle.  If I were to put my clients on a restricted “diet” intended to get to a particular goal as quickly as possible, it wouldn’t address and then begin to change the core issue of why they have the problem in the first place: bad habits. Not only bad food habits, but bad mental habits around food.

Our habits in any given area determine our success. If your habits include eating a pint of ice cream at the end of the day or skipping meals, then your dream of getting into top physical shape might seem elusive. Or, if you strive for a good balance between your work and home life but have the habit of spending 15 hours in the office, including weekends, then that dream might forever stay in the realm of illusion.

Then there is the habit of being “on” a diet to only then fall “off” your diet, which seems to be the tendency of many. This frustratingly circuitous routine can make it difficult to truly change your eating habits in a constructive and fundamental way. In order to get to your goal weight or ultimate health, what is required is that you slow down, make an assessment of your habits and then begin the process of deconstructing those behaviors while creating new ones. And if your tendency is to try every gimmicky diet that comes along, and you feel like you have done it all and therefore know it all, your mind will likely be resistant to the slow but certain path to successfully acquiring new habits that is only won by adopting a beginner’s mind.

A beginner’s mind is approaching all things, including that which you think you know much about, like a novice. It is about staying open and eager, suspending everything you think you know in order to truly learn something new. With this mindset you are able to infuse creativity, excitement and enthusiasm to everything you do. If you think you know everything there is to know about losing weight, as an example, then your mind might be full of “diet tips” leaving no room for the larger truth that your weight is a reflection of your habits. Or if you are a runner and think that the pain in your feet or your legs is just because running causes injuries and therefore it is all destined to happen eventually, then you are also not bringing a beginner’s mind to your training as I learned recently while trying to increase my running time.

I took up running a few years ago as a way to keep up my fitness level and connect with my then boyfriend, a fairly avid runner. Past attempts at running had resulted in knee pain, so in anticipation of this, I made sure I got running shoes with the best support for my supinated feet, and began taking Glucosamine and Chondroitin to protect the cartilage in my knees.

But three years in, I began experiencing a bunch of other issues that I would not allow myself to chalk up to age. I walked 105 miles around Mont Blanc, for God’s sake, what was a 60-minute run next to that? But it was unmistakable. After every run, I would experience hip pain that would last for a couple of days and then soon after that, I was getting heel pain as well. I began to think I’d have to hang up my running shoes and find another way to stay fit. But then I was told about the book Born to Run and soon saw that my problem was not my age or the pavement I was running on, but perhaps instead in my cushy, padded running shoes.

Born to Run takes us inside the mysterious and elusive lives of the Tarahumara Tribe that live in the Copper Canyon caves of Mexico, helping us understand their longevity, community and mythical running capabilities. While we train for months in order to finish a 26-mile marathon, the Tarahumara run 26 miles as a matter of course, weekly, sometimes daily. They are the original ultra-marathoners that regularly win 100 mile races in little more than sandals made of old tire tread strapped to their feet with leather ties.

If you’re a runner then there is no doubt that you have seen other runner’s doing laps in their bare feet, or in those hideous toed vibram shoes. Strange though it may seem, running barefoot is the way humans were born to run, at least according to the Tarahumara. Think about it: in a world where survival of the fittest is how we got here in the first place, then we had to have been able to outrun the predators that wanted nothing more than to have us for dinner. We outran them in order to survive. Which means we ran for thousands of years, on all kinds of terrain, for miles at a time without issue. We were also likely running in our bare feet. Yet, if we were indeed born to run, why is it that every runner I know eventually struggles with some sort of running injury? Is running bad for us or is it our shoes?


Looks like it might be our shoes. The modern running shoe has padding on the heels and support for pronated or supinated feet, cushioning the arch in order to make us feel like our feet are safe from the assault of the concrete on a five-mile run. But what I found out from reading Born to Run is that this sort of foot protection makes us strike the ground heel to toe, which is where our problems begin. Apparently, we are not meant to run heel to toe, but instead mostly from mid foot to ball of foot in a rolling motion. If we run in this way, according to the book, we will run faster, longer and with less or no injury.

I was intrigued, but not sold. So before I went out and dropped $100 on minimalist running shoes, I first took a few runs in a pair of old Keds that are flat with no support whatsoever, making it feel almost like running barefoot.

Starting out, I had read and been told that I should go for a few minutes at a time to acclimate my feet, and particularly my calves to the new style. Running mid-foot to ball of foot really works your calf muscles and it can feel very intense and painful the first few days after adopting this new technique. But I was eager, and believing I was fit enough to handle it, I ran 20 minutes my first time out. Heck, I usually do 40 to 60 minutes, so to me, 20 minutes seemed like a good compromise. But boy was I wrong! While the actual running was great, the recovery was not. For days after I felt like my calves had turned to stone. Yet, despite this, three days later, when I was able to run again, I went for 15 minutes. And again, I was in agony for days. I struggled with the near constant temptation to go back to my cushioned running shoe just so I could get out there for a substantial run, but I knew if I did I would suffer for it. And the good news was, my hips were fine, I was absolutely running faster and getting far less winded, which I knew were very good signs. But in order to build to where I wanted to be, I knew I had to slow down, stay patient and open and adopt a beginner’s mind.

In a world where everything seem to move at lightening speed, it can be challenging to slow down in order to become masterful at a practice that is of value but whose worth shows up over time. We want results for our efforts in the time it takes to send an email, or schedule an appointment with a nutritionist or read a book that promises to help improve our running time. But these things are merely the first step towards getting to your goal. After you have the information you need to transform your habits, you must engage in the daily practice of turning them into routine. This is the hard part and it requires tenacity, focus and daily intention. Some days will be easier than others and there will certainly be days that you do abysmally, but as with any practice that brings value to your life, if you really want to grow and become better, you continue to engage the behavior until there are more good days than bad. Soon after that, results will begin to show and from there, motivation and confidence that you are on the right path, will make it easier for you to continue and perhaps even adopt other new habits that will lead you to your ultimate success.

So I ask you: Is there an area in your life that you would like to change? Have you tried to change it before? And would your intention for change benefit from adopting a beginner’s mind, in order to slow you down and help you deconstruct your bad habits in order to create new ones?

If the answer is yes then I challenge you: Pick one healthy habit that you can commit to implementing daily that can bring you a step closer to your goal. Whether that goal is to get a handle on your eating once and for all, or finding more balance in your life, or even, to run more efficiently, pick just one thing to work on and then start the process. You have 48 hours from now to put it into play. After that, any motivation you might have felt from this post will have faded and you will be unlikely to make the change then. Think about what it is you want to change today and tomorrow put it into practice. It can be starting your day with a healthy breakfast or working out every day. It can also be including a salad into your daily routine or making it home in time for dinner with your family in order to connect with them in a more intentional way while avoiding take-out. Whatever it is, decide what it will be for you and start practicing it with an open mind, a beginners enthusiasm and determination and then watch as that one habit begins to transform your life.

The Benefits of Chia

Organic Dry Chia SeedsOne of the staples of the Tarahumara diet, considered to be the nutritional powerhouse behind their mythic running capabilities is a beverage called Iskiate, made with chia seeds. Chia, of the ch-ch-ch-chia plant, are tiny seeds packed with nutrition. Considered to be an even better source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids than Flax, Chia are also a great source of protein, packing over four grams of protein per ounce. In addition, they are rich in antioxidants which allows them to be stored for long periods of time without becoming rancid, and also contain calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

When placed in a glass of water, chia seeds soon begin to develop a gelatinous consistency which facilitates digestion and slows the breakdown of carbohydrates into sugar, thereby stabilizing the insulin response and allowing glycogen to be stored more efficiently in the muscles and liver. This may be a clue as to how they so well nourish the Tarahumara on their long runs. There appears to be a lot of magic inside this one little seed.

If you want to begin including chia in your diet then you can easily add to oatmeal, homemade granola, salads or even perhaps try making some Iskiate. I have included a recipe for it below…. Enjoy!

Iskiati Recipe

  • 10 ounces of water
  • 1 Tbsp chia seeds
  • Juice of half a lime (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon Raw honey (or to taste)

Stir ingredients together and allow to sit for up to half an hour. The longer it sits, the more gelatinous it becomes. It’s a consistency issue… if you don’t like a gelatin consistency then let it sit for less.