Abhyanga – Ayurvedic Self-Massage

Let’s face it – nothing is ever going to beat lying on a massage couch while someone with skill and healing hands gives you a lovely treatment (looking at you, Lee!)  However, the traditional Indian system of lifestyle and healing, Ayurveda, has a wonderful self-care practice called Abhyanga.

Abhyanga (no, I don’t know how to pronounce it either!) is self-massage with oils.  Because it’s Ayurveda, there are of course different recommendations for oils to use for the different Doshas – sesame or almond for Vata, olive or coconut for Pitta, and sunflower or sesame for Kapha – but at the moment I’m using up a mix of oils left over from closing my Aromatherapy practice a few months ago.  I think there’s fractionated coconut oil (fractionated is treated so that it is liquid at room temperature – it’s a gorgeous, silky oil to use), macadamia and jojoba in there.

If you buy a ready-mixed Dosha massage oil, such as these, they will often have essential oils included in the mix, but you’re going to be bathing or showering immediately after your self-massage so you will really only get the inhalation benefits of these and very little absorption.   It certainly adds to the delight of the treatment to have these beautiful aromas though.

So you’ve got your oil ready, what’s next? First of all, warm it to skin temperature.  I do that by sitting it in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes.  Second, and most important, let everyone else in the house know that you will not be available to meet their needs, requests or demands for the next 20 minutes or so. Then take  yourself into your cosy bathroom, lay a fluffy towel on your toilet seat or a stool, disrobe (love that word!) and have a seat.

Traditionally you start your massage at the top of your head and work down.  So pour a little of your oil into your hand and let it drizzle right onto the crown of your head.  Give your scalp a good old rub, get the finger tips in there and encourage the skin of your scalp to be not quite so stuck to your skull.  Pull your hair as hard or as gently as you like.  If you’ve ever had an Indian Head Massage, you’ll have a good idea what to do.

Then, continuing to add oil as you need to, move on to your face.  You can stroke quite firmly with your finger tips from the centre of your forehead out to the sides, circle gently round your eye sockets, make little circles at your temples, and stroke over your cheekbones and jaw.  Give your ears some attention, inside and out.  Earlobes appreciate a bit of a pull.

Continue to work your way down your body.  You will be able to do quite vigorous, long strokes on your limbs, and circles round your joints.  Go more gently on your torso.  Give your decolletage some love, and oil over and around your breasts – this also allows you to check for lumps at the same time.  Make big, clockwise circles on your abdomen, that’s the way your digestive system is organised (this is great for constipation, by the way).

Get your back done any way you can – I usually slap plenty of oil on my lower back and then use the backs of my hands to work it as high up between my shoulder blades as I can reach.  Don’t forget your hands themselves.  They’re doing all the work, but they will love a bit of attention around the joints and a nice deep circling press into the middle of the palm.

Finishing off with the feet is recommended, but I have to admit that I tend to skip that bit.  I think it’s quite important as the cut-down version of the treatment is head and feet only, however the shower tray gets slippery enough as you wash off the oil without starting off with oily feet.  I’m thinking as I write this that putting a towel down in the shower tray would be one way round that – I will give it a try and report back!

When you’re done, get yourself into a warm (not hot) shower or bath and wash with a mild soap.  The aim is not to remove every scrap of oil, but to keep a very light, moisturising film on the skin.  As I said, the shower tray gets slippery so be very careful!  When you’re finished, to prevent the next person who steps unknowingly into the shower from having an accident, do them a favour and clean it.  I found that out by being the next person in the shower and having an accident!

So, you’re back out of the shower now, toweled dry with an enormous, fluffy white towel (OK, fantasy land – any old towel will do fine – you’d probably just end up with oily marks on your pristine white one anyway) and it’s time to admire your silky soft skin.  No body lotion required!

Ayurveda recommends this as a daily practice, but I generally do it once or twice a week on the days when I have a bit more time before I need to be out the door.  Do give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.  Let me know how you get on ….

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The war-time diet

I’ve always been fascinated by how ordinary people lived in earlier times (and in other parts of the world).  I’m not so interested in History which is often mostly about the politics and the wars, but I’m very interested in Anthropology which tells us about how people lived – what their homes were like, what they wore, what they ate, what kind of work they did, how gender relations worked (or didn’t!).

The home front during the Second World War is probably especially interesting because my parents lived through it.  I don’t remember if Dad had any stories, but Mum certainly has lots and I never tire of hearing them.

Food was rationed during the war because of the obvious difficulties of getting imported food into the country when it was surrounded by U-boats – and prior to the war 70% of food was imported!.  Despite that, it is said that by the war’s end the UK population was healthier than ever.  

Much of the health improvement was down to 4 main factors:

  1. rationing actually gave poorer people better access to nutritious food, particularly protein and vitamins, as all the available food was shared equally, regardless of income bracket or social status
  2. there was an enormous publicity campaign to educate the public about nutrition and how to prepare nutritious meals using what was available
  3. people grew and ate more vegetables (again prompted by a national campaign which encouraged people to ‘dig for victory’ and made sure they knew how) because other foodstuffs were less available
  4. the average person ate less meat, fat and sugar than they had pre-war

People did on average consume more calories than today’s recommended levels but their lifestyles were more active and labour-intensive.  We’ve traded  opportunities to move and give our bodies healthy work for convenience!

So does this diet have anything to teach us today?  Oh I think so!  Here are some of the take-aways:

Lots of veggies!  And as much variety as possible – every colour or the rainbow – carrots, kale, red cabbage, beetroot, spinach, sweet potato, squash …..

More meat-free days – the meat ration was 8oz of bacon and ham per week, plus other meat to the value of 1s 2d (which would have bought you a couple of pork chops).  Excellent excuse to make some tasty, filling and nutritious bean casseroles or lentil dhals – full of fibre, protein, iron, vitamins and other phytonutrients.

Less fat.  This one is slightly more controversial these days, although the official line is definitely still low fat.  I try to get as much of my fats as possible from the unprocessed foods themselves, such as avocados, nuts and seeds, olives and tahini.  I’m also very anti-margarine – I’m leaning more to the plant-based edge at the moment, but in the past I’ve stuck with butter.  Just use less!

Less sugar.  This is a no-brainer.  Sugar is the enemy!  It is reputed to be more addictive than cocaine (according to a study done on rats – which I don’t condone, but there you have it) and has no health benefits whatsoever.  It is linked with obesity, diabetes, alzheimers, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, some cancers and fatty liver. OK, it tastes nice and we want some sweetness in our lives, but when we get our palates used to not having added sugars we can appreciate the sweetness of fruits again.  The war-time ration was 8oz per week, plus 12oz of sweets a month, so an average of 11oz or around 310g.

Local, seasonal and home-cooked (and even better, home-grown) food.  I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s the common denominator of the otherwise very different diets of the populations with the longest healthspans in the world.  Eating local and seasonal fruit and veg is now also thought to support a  healthy gut microbiome.  Add in ‘growing your own’ and now we’ve brought some healthy movement into our day too!

Making sauerkraut

Bacteria.

Did you immediately think about illness and infection?  Those are the nasty guys, but actually, we need billions of beneficial bacteria in our bodies, especially in our gut, for good health.  And in our modern world, these poor little mites can be devastated by antibiotics, stressful and over-busy lives, and poor diet.

However, all is not lost.  Eating fermented or cultured foods has a very long history and is a great, and tasty, way of boosting our gut microbiome both in terms of the numbers of bacteria and the number of strains of bacteria – both of which are really important.  I’ll do a post on the microbiome sometime – it’s a fascinating topic (honest!)

Yoghurt is the cultured food we’re probably most familiar with (make sure it contains live cultures – many don’t), but others include sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha, kefir, sourdough bread, and apple cider vinegar.

All that, just to give the background to my sauerkraut making!  I lived in Germany for a year as a student, and I have to admit that I didn’t like sauerkraut – they eat it hot there, which might have been the problem.  In recent years, I’ve bought sauerkraut because it’s good for me and it’s been OK.  However – home-made …..!  Is any kind of shop-bought food ever as good as the home-made version?

And it’s not even difficult.  Here are the steps:

Core and slice your cabbage.  I used half a white cabbage and half a red one, I prefer that combination and it looks so pretty!  Save an outside leaf and a bit of core for later – all will be explained! This was the first time I used the food processor (I only just remembered that it has a slicing blade and it might be an idea to learn how to use it!), but it’s easy enough to do by hand.

 

 

Add salt.  I used about 1 1/2 tablespoons of good sea salt.

 

Massage the salty cabbage.  It takes a few minutes but you’ll feel the texture change, it goes a bit squeaky, and then you’ll start to see the liquid coming out of the cabbage.  Can you see it running over my hand in the photo?  (Believe me, massaging a cabbage with one hand while trying to take a photo with the other is not easy!)  Eventually you’ll see a pool of liquid in the bottom of your bowl.

Spoon it all into a jar and keep pressing it well down as you go.  You want to eliminate all the air.  Pour any remaining liquid in at the end.

Then put the outside leaf over the top and put the core in.  The idea is that you will then need a bit of pressure to close the lid.  This ensures that the cabbage all stays below the liquid and  air-free.

Leave it to sit on your counter for 2-3 weeks to ferment (doesn’t it look pretty?).  It might leak out some liquid, this is not a problem.  Just sit the jar on a plate to catch it.

When it’s sat long enough, have a wee taste.  It should taste tangy so if it still tastes salty, leave it a few more days (you will also be able to see that the texture’s changed and the liquid has all reabsorbed).  When it reaches a taste that you like, tuck in.  Move the jar to the fridge where it will keep for up to 6 months.  You’ll know by the taste if you’ve kept it too long.  If you’ve made more than you think you can use, decant some into smaller jars and share.

And finally, what to eat it with.  No point in making it and then leaving it to molder in the fridge!  It’s nice with any salad, cheeses or (I imagine) cold meats – just a couple of tablespoons on the side.  Enjoy – and don’t forget to let me know if you try it, if you already make it and what you eat it with, or if you have found a better way of doing it!

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January links

 

Can we possibly be at the end of January already – and me a whole month into blogging?  It’s never anyone’s favourite month – cold, dark and frugal – but it is a good month for browsing the web (and trying to understand the wiles of WordPress!) and I have a few links to share with you.

 

First up – a wonderful article about longevity, balance and not taking life too seriously – Life Advice From a 100-Year Old Woman Who Just Gets It

A delicious seasonal recipe – Garden Keeper’s Pie with Beets, Lentils and Creamy Celery Root Mash This is vegan and gluten-free, but don’t let that stop you!  (Celery root is what we call celeriac in the UK, by the way)

Incentive to get your exercise on – Proper exercise can reverse damage from heart aging

Katy Bowman discussing her book Dynamic Aging (read my review here).  The section where she’s talking about her Dad is just so lovely – you can jump straight to that section if you haven’t got time to listen to it all. Stay Golden

Thank you for being with me in the first month  of my blogging adventure!  Let me know if there’s anything you want to see more or less of here, and I’ll do my best to oblige!

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Oshadhi Ayurvedic Massage Oils

You might have been wondering how long it would take the ex-Aromatherapist to do an Aromatherapy post!

About a year before I closed up my practice (due to arthritis in my thumbs – occupational hazard!), I learned how to give a beautiful Ayurvedic Aromatherapy Facial.  Shortly after, at a conference trade show, I came across Oshadhi, a supplier of high quality essential oils, and realised that they have specific Ayurvedic blends which would work very well in that treatment.  They did indeed!

If you are not familiar with Ayurveda, let me just try to do the impossible and sum it up in a nutshell.  It is the ancient Indian system of lifestyle and healing practices (Ayur means life, Veda means science or knowledge) which includes yoga, meditation, diet, cleansing practices and herbal medicine.  One of the foundations of Ayurveda is the idea of Doshas, or constitutional types, of which there are three – Vata, Pitta and Kapha – and everyone falls into one or a combination of these.

These lovely oils are available in Vata, Pitta and Kapha, so if you’re interested in what your Dosha is, the most comprehensive set of questionnaires I’ve come across are here at Joyful Belly.  However, I’ve been using all three as I’m still using up my old stock, and if the Ayurvedic side of things doesn’t interest you, just go for the one you like best!  The smells are not particularly easy to categorise as they’re quite complex blends, but I would say that the Vata oil is a bit citrusy, the Pitta is fresh and kinda spicy, and the Kapha is more woody.

I’ve been using them as facial oils at night.  I wouldn’t have been able to do that as a youngster as I always had oily skin which didn’t really tolerate any extra oil, but now that my skin is drier these are such a treat to use a few times a week.  I would recommend using them on evenings you are able to put them on early (you know, the ‘put your feet up in front of Outlander’ type of evenings – surely that’s not just me?) so that they’ve worked their way in before you go to bed.  Your pillowcase will thank you, that’s all I’m sayin’.

Oshadhi have a whole range of other facial oils which I haven’t tried (yet!), so if you have or do, or if you try these Ayurvedic ones, please come back and let us know what you think of them.

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Healthcare – conventional or alternative?

Where do you stand on conventional v complementary/alternative medicine?

I know plenty of people who think along the lines of: the doctor’s always right; CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) doesn’t work at best and is a con at worst; and would rather take a pill than make lifestyle changes.  Likewise, having been part of the CAM world for a long time, I know plenty of people who only visit the doctor to get a diagnosis, always use CAM therapies and avoid any kind of over-the-counter or prescribed medication even in the face of very serious medical conditions.

My own philosophy is to start with any recommended lifestyle changes – such as eat more green vegetables, do these remedial exercises, get more rest, eat less salt etc – and then move on to CAM therapies.  In French these are called ‘medecine douce’.  I’ve always  loved that term – gentle medicine!

Different things work for different people, and some things work better for particular conditions than others, but if you can find something that works for your given ailment or condition you may well find that it’s much gentler on your system and less likely to have side-effects than conventional treatment, although it will probably take a bit longer to work so don’t give up too soon.  I’ve personally had successful treatments with Medical Herbalism, Acupuncture, Homeopathy, Bach Flower Remedies, Reiki, Massage Therapy, Osteopathy, Chiropractic and Physiotherapy, and of course, self-treatment with Aromatherapy.

The main downside with CAM therapies is, however, the cost, particularly if you have to try a few things before you find the right therapy for you and your particular condition.  It saddens me that this puts it out of reach for many people – not, of course, the fault of the therapists who invest heavily on an ongoing basis in their own training, and have overheads and a living to make – but it is also true that some people who could afford to pay just choose not to spend money on their own health.  Perhaps here in the UK that’s a side-effect of having a National Health Service and feeling that we’ve already paid enough through our taxes, and/or not being used to having to pay at the point of delivery.  And of course, if you don’t believe that CAM therapies are effective at all you will think the main downside is that they don’t even work!  I can only say that that hasn’t been my experience, either for myself or for many friends and former clients who have used them successfully.

However, once I’ve made any lifestyle changes and tried my CAM therapies, I am then quite prepared to go down the conventional route if needs be.  I remember once having a chest infection that kept recurring and the doctor saying to me ‘I don’t suppose you’ll take antibiotics’ – she had obviously come across CAM therapists before! – but I was quite happy to take them at that point, having not succeeded in sorting it out by other means.  I was subsequently able to avoid the prescription for a steroid inhaler using steam inhalations with essential oils to clear up the last of the cough.

I do try not to cover up pain too much – if your body doesn’t want you to move a certain part so that it has a chance to heal, it’s not a bad idea to listen to it! However if I’ve given myself a sore neck washing all the windows in the house (when will I learn?) but need to concentrate on something at work, I will pop that pill.  Most of us don’t have the luxury of just going for a lie-down till it passes! Likewise I don’t mind taking cold remedies at night so that I can sleep and be more able to cope with the next day.

As I said earlier, CAM therapies generally take longer to work than pharmaceuticals, so conventional medicine might be a first choice for acute conditions, but they  can be especially helpful for chronic, long-term conditions.  That’s a generalisation, of course, (some treatments work really quickly) but another useful way of approaching it.

So my conclusion is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other – both have their strengths and weaknesses.  My dream for us all would be Functional and Integrated/Integrative Medicine on the NHS (or on your insurance plan if you’re not in the UK)- the best of both worlds.

I’d love to know where you lie on the spectrum of conventional to CAM, and what your experiences of both have been.  Leave me a comment below ….

 

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My best (and worst!) health habits

I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours!

I’m going to start with my top 3 best health habits so you’ll think I’m great for a couple of minues, before I totally disillusion you with the bottom 3!

#1 I walk

I walk the dog at least one a day; when I’m going to work I park the car at the far side of a little wood and walk from there; I usually sneak out for a walk instead of a coffee break; and I park at the farthest end of the supermarket.  In my spare time, I quite like to go for a walk ….

Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

#2 I floss

I confess that I used to be an occasional flosser (usually when I had something stuck in my teeth!), but one time after a hygienist appointment I decided to see if flossing every day would keep ‘that dentist-clean feeling’.  It pretty much did.  Then after reading Younger by Sara Gottried I was convinced that I needed to get into the habit of flossing twice a day (I’ll write more about why another day).  So now I do, unless I’m really tired or in a big rush – lets keep it real here – and I’m in and out of the hygienist’s office in record time.  Result!  Who wants to have their teeth poked for half an hour?

#3 I hydrate

Fancy way of saying that I drink plenty.  I start the day with a pint of water and a dash of lemon juice, and end the day with a big glass of water swigged throughout the evening.  And of course water and green or herb tea throughout the day (and a couple of coffees too).  It’s a wonder I don’t spring a leak!  Read more about keeping hydrated at work here.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

 

That was the easy bit, now for the ones I find a bit more ‘challenging’!

#1 I don’t move enough of myself

I certainly do lots of walking, but I don’t do enough of other types of movement – the ones that build strength and flexibility.  I love yoga, but have got a bit out of the habit with having back and wrist issues this past year.  I keep hearing that strength training is really important as you get older, to counteract muscle loss and speed up metabolism, but I’m a bit scared of it and think maybe I need a personal trainer to get me started (this is called procrastination and making excuses!).

#2 Sugar

I’m not sure why I didn’t make this #1 – actually it could have been #1, #2 and #3!  I’m a sugar monster.  Mostly sweets and chocolate, I was never too bothered about biscuits and cakes.  Chocolate shows me who’s boss on a regular basis.  In the last couple of years I’ve done a few sugar fasts, usually for a month or so, and sometimes the momentum keeps me going for several more months and sometimes I end the month with a chocolate feast and I’m back to square one.

#3 Stress

This might surprise those of you who know me in real time.  People comment on how calm I am on a regular basis but I actually don’t  cope with stress very well and this has shown up health-wise for me at different times in my life as tension headaches, high blood pressure, digestive problems and eczema. I put it down to an over-developed perfectionist streak. Having a regular meditation practice has certainly helped me to identify that – now I just need to get my chill out on!

 

So, anyone brave enough to share some of their victories and challenges?  Tell you what, I’ll let you choose whether to share a good habit or one that needs a bit of work!  We’re all friends here ….

 

PS – thank you so much for positive response to my blog launch last week!  For those who asked for a subscribe button (and even if you didn’t!) there is now one on the Blog page.  If all has gone well, you should also see a Bloglovin link at the bottom of the post.

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New Year’s Resolutions

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, we need to talk.  How many years have we been making and breaking New Year’s Resolutions?  I’m going to hazard a guess at this formula: your current age minus approx 10 (I’m hoping that we didn’t start getting so dissatisfied with ourselves before the age of 10!)

So what’s the problem with New Year’s Resolutions?  Probably lots of things, but let’s start with January – cold, dark, the hard part of the winter when Christmas is behind us and Spring still seems a long way off (yes, I’m talking Scotland here).  And we really think that’s a good time to get ourselves motivated?

I get it, it’s the Clean Slate principle. It’s a new year, we can start again from scratch – but personally I find the time of the year that actually has the right energy for that is the end of summer/start of Autumn.  Back to school time.  Anyone else got happy memories of new pencils in the pencil case signaling a fresh start?

Another major problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they are in the plural.  So we’re not just going to lose a couple of pounds, we’re going to eat healthy all the time, exercise every day, start a meditation practice, get organised, keep the house clean, get off social media ……… Yeh, right!  All the habit change experts recommend focusing on one change at a time, but no, we’re convinced that this year our sheer strength of will is going to turn our entire lifetime of habits around for the better.

So I’m going to suggest being gentle with ourselves this New Year.  Instead of focusing on all the things we want to change about ourselves, let’s use the New Year to reflect on how far we’ve come, celebrate the good habits we did (even partially) keep going over the crazy festive season, and maybe set a teensy-weensy intention in the right direction for that one habit we’re going to work on in January.

Let me know which one you choose!

Book review – Dynamic Aging

Full disclosure here – I’m a huge Katy Bowman fan.  She’s written a number of books and I’m slowly working my way through them.  She’s a Biomechanist (I had to look it up – do we have them in the UK?) and her premise is that much of what we think of as age-related degeneration is actually caused by lack of use and repeated poorly-aligned us of our bodies due to our sedentary culture.

Even if we are ‘exercisers’, most of us are sedentary most of the day.  So Dynamic Aging is based around how we can move more of the parts of ourselves more often.

One of the things I really like about this book is that it is is properly aimed at older people.  One book I read recently had, as a measure of health, how quickly you could run a mile – excuse me??? Of course there are people in mid-life and beyond who are still running, but for the majority of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s, this may (or may not …) be something to aim for rather than a starting point!

Cue Dynamic Aging, which is written in well spaced large print, gives modifications for hip replacements, and assumes that getting up off the floor or walking that mile might be difficult.  It contains really helpful stuff for older people such as strengthening the muscles that will help you to continue being able to get out of the chair, improving your twisting so you can still check over your shoulder when you’re driving, and learning how to ramp your head to minimise the risk of swallowing and choking difficulties.

That may make it sound as if you don’t need this book until you’re in your 80s or 90s, but don’t be fooled.  The movement programme in the book will ensure that it will be a long time before we struggle to get off the floor and might well prevent us from needing that hip replacement or prolapse operation.  I’ve been using it recently when problems with my pelvic stability, coupled with wrist and hand issues, have made it difficult for me to do my usual yoga.

I can’t believe I’ve got this far without mentioning Katy’s inspirational co-writers – Joan Virginia Allen, Shelah M Wilgus, Lora Woods and Joyce Faber – four ladies in their late 70s/early 80s who learned, and then became teachers of Katy’s Nutritious Movement programme.  The book is peppered with their real-life anecdotes, and they have also recently joined the blogosphere – check them out here: DynamicAging4Life.

 

 

Should v Could

When we’re trying to adopt healthier lifestyle habits, we tend to really get going with the ‘shoulds’.  I should do some yoga every day, I should eat a bowl of soup instead of a donut, I should relax more ….. ring any bells?

The trouble with ‘should’ is that it gives us something to push back against.  Our little (or large!) inner rebel gets activated.  ‘Oh, I should, should I?  We’ll see about that.’

‘Could’, on the other hand, opens up possibilities.  ‘I could do some yoga today’ leads the mind into figuring out when and for how long, whilst little rebel slumbers on.

‘Could’ also lets us modify the spartan demands we’ve made on ourselves.  We may have decided yesterday that today we’ll do an hour of yoga.  However, we didn’t sleep well, our energy level is not great and on top of that, the morning has somehow run away with us.  So instead of ditching the plan altogether, we can ask ourselves how much or little we ‘could’ do and go with that.

I’ve done that often with my meditation practice.  I used to just skip it altogether if I didn’t think I had time in the morning to do my regular amount of practice.  Then one missed day would lead to several and I’d have a struggle to get back into it.  Once I realised that the most important thing was to keep the habit going, I was able to ask myself how long I ‘could’ sit for, and that’s what I would do – even if it was just a couple of minutes.

My last plea on behalf of ‘could’ is that it gives us a choice, and ‘choosing’ to do something rather than ‘having’ to do it is much more empowering.  If I choose the donut over the soup, I accept the consequences of that choice.  If I choose soup over the donut, I’m doing so because I want the pay-off of eating more healthily.

So let’s stop ‘shoulding’ on ourselves and take charge of our choices!