women eating

women eating

You aren’t what you eat. But you are what your body absorbs. That’s because all of your food isn’t used by your body. And if you don’t absorb the nutrients in your food, they do no good for your cells, muscles, brain, and more.

But how are nutrients absorbed by the body? The simple version of this process has five components:

  1. Chewing and the introduction of enzymes in your mouth
  2. Churning and mixing with acid (gastric juice) in your stomach
  3. Contact and absorption in your small intestine—your nutrient absorption center
  4. Entrance into the bloodstream
  5. Carrier proteins bringing nutrients into your cells

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But the journey is much more interesting and complex. A lot goes on behind the scenes to get the good stuff in your meal to enter the bloodstream.

So, follow along as the vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in your food make their way into your cells. And learn how you can help your body continue healthy nutrient absorption.

Your Digestive Systems Prepares Food for the Small Intestine

To sustain your body, your food needs to be broken down into usable pieces. Carbs, proteins, and fats become glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids, respectively. The vitamins and minerals in food need to be extracted, too.

That’s what your digestive system does. And digestion starts right after the first bite. Teeth tear up food into manageable chunks. The enzymes in your saliva (called salivary amylase) break down the food’s chemical structure.

Digestion continues in the stomach, where powerful acid disassembles food even further. With the help of peristaltic motion (rhythmic digestive movement) the food you consume is stirred and mixed as it prepares to enter the small intestine.

If you’re interested in a deeper dive into digestion, take a trip through your digestive tract.

Small Intestine: Headquarters of Nutrient Absorption

The workings of the small intestine can be complex. But its role can be simply summed up in two words: nutrient absorption. That’s because your small intestine is in charge of pulling glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals out of food to be used by the cells.

This is accomplished by tiny projections called villi. The microscopic, brush-like lining of the small intestine acts like a comb that grabs important nutrients out of the digested food that leaves your stomach.

Villi are great at absorbing nutrients because they increase the surface area of the inside of small intestine. With hundreds of thousands of villi lining your gut, that’s a lot of surface area for nutrient absorption.

Each villus (a single protrusion of the villi) is composed of a meshwork of capillaries and lymphatic vessels (called lacteals) underneath an ultra-thin layer of tissue. This special structure makes it possible to pull macro- and micronutrients out of your meals and send them to the bloodstream.

Water is also essential to this process. The small intestine uses a chemical process called diffusion to extract nutrients. Diffusion moves water and water-soluble compounds across barriers, like the villi in the small intestine. These compounds include:

  • Glucose (simple sugars)
  • Amino acids (parts of proteins)
  • Water-soluble vitamins (B vitamins and vitamin C)
  • Minerals

Once these nutrients are diffused into the villi, it’s a straight shot to the bloodstream. That’s where these nutrients can work in cells to make proteins and create energy.

Fats and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) require a few extra steps to enter the bloodstream.

First, bile acids from the liver mix with fats in the small intestine. This breaks the fats down into their component fatty acids. Then, the fatty acids and other fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed by the villi into lacteals. These lymphatic vessels transport the fat-soluble compounds to the liver. That’s where they are stored and released in the body as needed.

And there’s a lot of use for fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. Cells use the fatty acids to build cell membranes. And vitamins A, D, E, and K are useful in the body to support the health of your eyes, brain, heart, and bones.

Nutrient Distribution into Your Cells

Absorbing nutrients into the bloodstream isn’t the end of the journey. To make energy, move muscles, sense touch, and generally propel your life, the nutrients you eat need to enter your cells.

This is easier said than done.

Surrounding each of your cells—no matter the type—is a cellular membrane made of fatty acids. It protects the cell, and controls what can enter and exit. Some materials, like water, can pass into the cell easily. Others need assistance.

Proteins embedded in the cellular membrane act as ushers. They help carry nutrients from the bloodstream into the cell. Glucose, amino acids, fats, and vitamins use carrier proteins to get inside cells.

Once through the membrane, nutrients play many important roles. Some cells, like muscle fibers, need minerals like calcium to flood the cell in order to move your arms and legs. Others, like nerve cells, need sodium and potassium to be pumped in and out so your brain can pick up sensory information.

Cells use the glucose in your bloodstream to create energy by making ATP, the cellular energy currency. And amino acids are the building blocks for all DNA. When they’re brought into the cell, amino acids help transfer genetic information so cells can replicate.

Nutrients and the Blood Brain Barrier

While the small intestine readily absorbs and distributes nutrients to cells, the brain is more guarded. As a precaution, your brain is selective about the compounds it allows to enter through the bloodstream. This transport of nutrients is managed by a mechanism called the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

The BBB consists of the vessels and capillaries that deliver blood to the brain and surrounding tissue. These vessels are made of tightly packed cells that only allow the smallest molecules to pass through to the brain. Larger molecules can only enter with the help of specialized transport proteins.

Glucose is one of the nutrients that has the easiest time crossing the blood-brain barrier. And with good reason. Glucose is the fuel your brain thrives on, so it’s important that it can freely enter the brain.

Fatty acids also travel across the BBB easily. That’s because your brain’s health relies on them. Omega-3s are especially important for supporting growing brains.

It’s not so easy for amino acids. Carrier molecules attach themselves to amino acids to guide them to the brain. Without the carriers, these protein components wouldn’t be able to do their job in the brain. That includes manufacturing neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood and nervous system.

Other nutrients can enter the brain through the blood-brain barrier. Vitamins B6 and B12 also rely on carrier molecules. But vitamin C can cross the BBB on its own and has been shown to help other helpful compounds make their way to the brain.

3 Tips to Maintain Healthy Nutrient Absorption

Now you understand how nutrients are absorbed by the body. And have a good idea of the importance of this process. But how much of nutrient absorption is within your control?

Quite a bit, actually. Maintaining your digestive health and making smart dietary decisions are two major factors under your control. Here are three simple suggestions to support nutrient absorption. Pick one to work on and see how it makes you feel.

  1. Focus on your good bacteria ratio with a probiotic

Your digestive system is helped by the members of your gut microbiome. That’s why probiotics are great for supporting healthy digestion. They help maintain healthy bacterial diversity, which assists your gut in breaking down some types of food so they can be properly absorbed.

  1. Make healthy fat choices

Remember those fat-soluble vitamins? They rely on fat to get from the small intestine to the rest of your body. Healthy fats are necessary for storing up vitamins A, D, E, and K. Choose healthy fats (plant sources) over saturated or trans fats to help your body absorb these important nutrients. Just another reason to take your supplements with food.

  1. Give your body plenty of nutrients to absorb

This sounds like the most obvious advice, but it’s important to remember. Make a goal to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to optimize the vitamins you’re getting on a daily basis. Start by eating different colored foods. This can help you meet your nutrient goals. Red and orange foods have lots of vitamin A, while green veggies are packed with B vitamins, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Colorful foods also contain phytonutrients that support good health. So, try to fill your plate with different colors to meet your daily needs.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

washing face

washing face

As you go about your everyday life, you are not alone. No need to be paranoid. You aren’t being haunted by ghosts or followed by anyone. But there is a community of nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and mites you constantly tote around with you—on your skin. It’s known as the skin microbiome, and it’s important for the health of your largest organ.

That’s right—what you can’t see in the mirror might be having a huge impact on your skin.

What is the Skin Microbiome?

woman washing face

The billions of microbes living on you are called your skin microbiome. These microorganisms (sometimes called skin flora) are harmless or even beneficial—playing a vital role in your immune system and skin appearance. Evolved over thousands of years, the human microbiome consists of many distinct types of colonies, depending on the location and condition of the microenvironment.

The microbiota survive off of the salt, water, and oil (sebum) your skin releases to keep itself cool and lubricated. And several factors determine the habitat of the various microbiota, like:

  • body temperature
  • skin thickness
  • amount and size of folds
  • skin pH
  • the density of hair follicles and glands

In other words—and not all too surprisingly—the microbiota on your face looks different from the microbiota on your armpits. Areas with higher density of oil glands, like your face, back, and chest, thrive off of the lipids (fats) in your sebum. Warm, humid areas, such as the groin and between the toes, host microorganisms that love a danker environment. Meanwhile, dry, cool patches—like your arms and legs—have far fewer micro-colonies than the rest of your body. In all, the average person carries around two pounds of microbes on their body at all times.

The sheer amount and diversity of skin flora may sound scary. But it’s actually a good and healthy thing. Having a bountiful, well-balanced microbiome plays an important role in your overall health, and the appearance of your skin. The microorganisms help produce vitamins, hormones, and chemicals that affect everything from your mood to metabolism to immune system.

What Skin Flora Do for You

skin microbiome

Most people know the skin is the body’s first line of defense against injury or potential pathogens. But it’s not actually your skin’s cells that act as the front lines of the cavalry. It’s the skin’s microbiome.

Your skin’s inherent environment is rather unfriendly to bad bacteria. It’s cool and dry. The pH is acidic. Even sebum, your skin’s lubricant, is antimicrobial. And, ideally, your skin has a bountiful amount of microbiota to combat all the bad bacteria you come into contact with.

A healthy skin microbiome, which prefers the acidic environment your skin provides, helps your immune system out. This likely starts by skin flora overcrowding pathogen overgrowth. Also, your skin’s immune system and microbiome communicate and respond to one another’s needs.

But your skin could be left vulnerable if your skin’s microbiome has been damaged in one of many ways:

  • soaps
  • incorrect or overuse of antibiotics
  • harsh skincare products
  • environmental factors

Unfortunately, the diversity in many modern societies’ microbiomes is as much as half as diverse as it once was. The culprits of the dwindling number of microbiota? Modern hygiene practices—such as daily showers or baths and the use of aggressive soaps and detergents—along with less healthful diets. Also a lack of interactions with plants, soil, and the microbiomes of livestock and other wildlife, may have an impact.

On the individual level, many factors can shape the diversity of your skin flora. Your job, age, lifestyle, clothing, hygiene habits, and even how much time you spend in the sunlight can all affect the types and amount of microorganisms inhabiting your microbiome.

The lack of diversity can become obvious, even to the naked eye. It can lead to dryness, overproduction of sebum, breakouts, redness, or other afflictions. Therefore, keeping the proper balance of microbiota, and maintaining proper pH, can help protect your skin and microbiota from undesirable conditions.

The relationship between your skin’s appearance and microbiome isn’t completely clear. That’s partially because the vast majority of skin flora haven’t been cultured or extensively studied yet. But more research and information is likely coming. That’s because the subject of the skin microbiome has caught the attention of many large beauty and skincare brands. It has even inspired the creation of some startup cosmetic brands who are experimenting with adding microbes to their products.

5 Tips for a Flourishing, Healthy Skin Microbiome

drinking water

Many of the factors that control the makeup of your skin microbiome are out of your control. But there are some things you can do to protect the delicate communities of skin flora. To keep your skin’s microbiome happy, healthy, and thriving, implement these five tips:

Cleanse—and dry—correctly.

There’s a fine balance between having good hygiene and overdoing it. Avoid over-washing or using harsh cleansers. And don’t go crazy with the scrubbing. Too much friction can strip your skin of its healthy microbes, and create micro-tears in the skin at the same time. These tiny tears can be a breeding ground for unhealthy pathogens. When it comes time to dry off, gently pat your skin dry instead of vigorously rubbing yourself with the towel.

Eat well and hydrate.

As with most aspects of your health, your diet plays a vital role in keeping your skin healthy. Eating a diet rich in healthy fats, vegetables, protein, and fiber helps your gut bacteria, which may in turn help your skin microbiome. Also, be sure to drink at least 64 ounces of water per day. Being chronically dehydrated can negatively impact your microbiome. Finally, try to work up a sweat regularly to help feed your skin’s microbiome.

Avoid synthetic fabrics.

Choose natural fibers like cotton over synthetics whenever possible. Man-made fabrics, especially those that are tight or worn closely to the skin, can cause an imbalance in your microbiome. Remember that microbiota thrive on different areas of the body because of their unique environments. If you often wear items that cause your temperature, sebum or sweat  production, or otherwise affect the normal skin conditions, you could create an environment in which good skin flora cannot thrive.

Choose products wisely.

Avoid antibacterial soaps and step away from hand sanitizer. In many cases, they kill the beneficial microbes along with the bad ones. Beyond the antibacterial type, soaps in general are alkaline, which can upset the balance of your acidic skin and actually make you more vulnerable to alkaline-loving potential pathogens. If you want to go the extra mile to ensure your hygiene isn’t damaging your microbiota, try one of the microbiome soaps that are now on the market. When it comes time to moisturize, be aware that many lotions have ingredients that are not microbiome-friendly. Use gentle, water-attracting moisturizers with ingredients like hyaluronic acid.

Embrace Your Skin Microbiome.

While it may go against everything you’ve been taught for decades, not all bacteria or other microbes should be killed or avoided. And, in reality, it would be a futile endeavor. So, instead of being grossed out by the billions of life forms with which you share your body, embrace the little guys that make up your skin microbiome and do your best to protect them as well as they try to protect you.

The human body is an amazing vessel. But it’s not intended to sit still—like in a modern sedentary lifestyle. Your body was meant to move. It’s made up of 360 joints and nearly 700 skeletal muscles. This allows for a range of motions in every direction.

That means running, stretching, jumping, sliding, pushing, pulling, and so much more. Through such actions, your body allows you to more fully experience the world. From the most elementary and overlooked feat—that your body can deliver you from one place to another—to the magnificent: Drinking in beautiful sights beyond your house. Dancing to your favorite song. Experiencing the competition and triumph of sports.

However, humans are—for the most part—doing the opposite. Instead of moving, today, you’re probably remaining largely motionless, settled into a sedentary lifestyle. What exactly is that? Being “sedentary” means engaging in a waking behavior that involves sitting or lying.

So, where people might have once moved, they now sit. Walking has been replaced with driving. Interactive play has given way to streaming TV binges. Talking in person is now rarer because of email and text messages.

“Couch potato” was an accurate description for choosing to relax in front of a screen. But the age of the iPhone now calls for a new definition. After all, if you’re sitting and looking at a screen for hours on end out of obligation—like for work—does “couch potato” really fit?

What happens when being sedentary is no longer a decision to relax? What does it mean for your health when, instead, it’s an obligatory lifestyle? Let’s find out.

Effects of a Sedentary Lifestyle

Whether by choice or duty, a sedentary lifestyle can greatly impact your health. It’s related to health issues both physical and mental in nature. Take a look at the risks involved with sinking into a sedentary lifestyle.

Physical Health

Inactivity requires fewer calories than an active lifestyle. So, the balance of the “calories in vs. calories out” equation shifts. Long, habitual periods of inactivity make it easier to gain weight. And while a few pounds here or there may be relatively harmless, continually being sedentary and gaining weight can lead to more serious issues. That includes impacts on your mobility, flexibility, and heart health.

Risk for cardiovascular problems also increases with more time spent motionless. One study collected self-reported data from a group of men about their time spent riding in a car and watching TV. Researchers compared the amounts of time for each activity separately and combined. Then they analyzed it against data for this group over 20 years later. Researchers found that long hours spent in a sedentary position were associated with declining cardiovascular health.

The ties between sedentary behavior and cardiovascular health extends to your blood pressure. One group of researchers analyzed the results of several studies looking at sedentary lifestyle and blood pressure. Participants self-reported the amount of time they spent sedentary. With each hour increase in a sedentary position, blood pressure increased proportionally. That’s bad news for those trying to maintain healthy, normal blood pressure.

Mental Health

It’s widely understood that exercise and physical activity have a positive effect on mental health. Moving contributes to a state of well-being. Research shows that extended screen time can have a negative impact on mental health for a variety of reasons (lack of interpersonal connection, loss of sleep, etc.). Plus, screen time usually implies sedentary behavior. Taken together, you can start to see the connection between a sedentary lifestyle and poor mental health outcomes.

One group of researchers analyzed several studies looking at adolescent screen time and depressive symptoms, with a special consideration for sedentary behavior. They found that in two out of three studies, prolonged screen time was associated with depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, loneliness, and more.

Bouts of Exercise Do Not Negate Sedentary Behavior

Exercise is not the opposite of sedentary behavior—activity is. Activity requires moving your body, regardless of the end result.

Health guidelines suggest 150 minutes of exercise every week. That does not include time spent moving to combat the dominant sedentary lifestyle. Only five percent of American adults participate in the recommended 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Globally, 60-85 percent of people also lead sedentary lifestyles. Consider how many people are sedentary and how few of them are combating it with general activity. It becomes obvious how far-reaching this issue can be. So, what can be done?

The truth is that you can’t exercise the sedentary behavior away. Sitting for eight hours before hitting the gym for 30 minutes will not cancel out all that inaction. That’s because the harm of a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t come from the lack of sweating and sore muscles. Rather, the danger of being sedentary is much simpler. It’s about ignoring the body’s natural purpose: movement.

Exercising is great for the body. You should do it, as recommended. But you should also remember to move your body so you aren’t occupying the same position for hours at a time. If you need more proof, consider a recent study.

Participants who exceeded the 150 minutes of exercise per week recommendation were no better off than those who reported never exercising. So, there is something to moving throughout the day even if they’re micro-movements. Instead of saving the effort for one session of exercise, consider incorporating these micro-movements throughout your day.

Managing A Sedentary Lifestyle with Micro-Movements 

Many companies have sprung up creating stand-up desks to offer an easy solution to the sedentary office life. And while standing might seem preferable to sitting, it’s still not the magic bullet. Standing might keep you from resting on your backside, but it’s still a rather motionless act. The benefit is in moving from one position to the next. So, consider this mantra: The best posture is the next posture.

A sedentary lifestyle can be broken up by adding in small or subtle actions throughout the day. This could be something as simple as taking a break from sitting to stand and stretch every 15 minutes. That’s a good staring place. Here are a few more ideas:

  • If you have a short commute, consider walking or biking. You can also add in these options to a longer commute. Bike to the train or walk to the bus. If driving is a must, park further away from your destination once you arrive. The extra steps will add up.
  • Take walking meetings. You’ll get your blood pumping, joints moving, and allow you to think more creatively.
  • If you must be at a desk for hours at a time, set a recurring alarm every hour. This will serve as your reminder to stand up for 5-10 minutes. And once you’re up, you might as well move and stretch a bit.
  • Sending interoffice mail or email? Try delivering the message yourself to add in more steps.
  • Skip the elevator and take the stairs. While it may only add one or two minutes of activity, consider how many times this might happen per day and over the course of a week. Remember that combating sedentary behavior happens repeatedly in small bouts throughout a day, not just in one big push.
  • Reframe housework as activity. You might not have considered housework, like gardening, folding laundry, or cleaning, as moving your body. But it keeps you moving and out of a sedentary position. Reframing chores in this way might help them seem more enjoyable—a necessary component of a healthy lifestyle.
  • Find natural breaks in work or play and turn them into an opportunity to move. Perhaps you’re enjoying a movie on TV when a commercial break pops up, or you get put on a long hold while making a call. Find a movement or two to do while you wait for the commercial or hold to end. This could be simple things like shoulder rolls, arm circles, or pacing. You could even challenge yourself and do something with a little more intensity, like calf raises, jumping jacks, or lunges.
  • Make your environment work for you. You don’t need a gym to move your body. If you find a few extra minutes throughout your day, repurpose your environment and its contents to your advantage. Got a heavy water bottle? Imagine it as a dumbbell. Have a sturdy chair? Use it as a box to step on, or a bench for incline push-ups.

Live Your Movement Mantra

The sedentary lifestyle is the default for so many people around the world. You might even get caught in it, too. While it can seem like a beast to tackle, there are so many simple strategies you can employ.

Start by always remembering that the best posture is the next posture. Give your body what it craves—frequent movement throughout each day. It doesn’t have to be big, wild, or intense. You just have to change: from sitting to standing, standing to stretching, stretching to walking, and eventually sedentary to active.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

Parenting isn’t easy. It’s hard enough just making sure your child eats healthy, gets enough sleep, takes baths, and that he or she is physically safe. These are all basic needs parents must meet. This gets harder as children grow because they become more emotionally complex and their needs change. But you can’t hold their hands forever. There will come a day when a child must face life’s challenges alone. Raising healthy children means raising resilient kids—teaching them how to overcome adversity.

Resiliency is the ability to deal with these difficulties and recover in an appropriate amount of time. Everyone faces difficulties in life. But being resilient means those difficulties don’t define you. Call it grit, fortitude, tenacity, or whatever you’d like. But resiliency is about trying and failing, and then getting up and trying again.

This is easier said than done though. Building resilience in kids often means not rescuing them from uncomfortable (but not actually dangerous) situations. As parents, your instincts are to protect your kids at all times. And when you see them struggling, it’s hard to resist the urge to step in.

What follows are reasons why, and advice on how, to raise resilient kids.

How the Brain Deals with Stress

Let’s start with the basics about uncomfortable, stressful situations. The brain and body deal with stress and adversity differently than they handle normal situations.

Your heart rate and blood pressure go up. Cortisol, a stress hormone, floods the body. Adrenaline gets pumped into the blood. These are all evolutionary holdovers from your ancestors, when stressful situations could literally mean life or death. But this fight-or-flight response was only meant to last a short amount of time. When these chemicals are continuously released, detrimental effects can take place.

It starts in the amygdala—the part of your brain responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The amygdala responds to the stressful stimuli by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends a message to the autonomic nervous system that signals a messaging cascade that triggers the release of a chemical cocktail (including adrenaline and cortisol). This response often impairs the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions. That includes problem solving, attention, impulse control, and emotional regulation.

In the short term, this is an extremely powerful survival mechanism. There are times when you can’t think about what happens next, and you don’t need any check on your ability to act quickly. Long term, you want your prefrontal cortex running smoothly.

If you were to define resilience on the physiological level, you would say it’s the ability to activate the prefrontal cortex following adverse situations. This also means stemming the release of the chemical cocktail. If this occurs, an individual can increase their ability to recover from or adapt to stressful situations and adversity.

How to Model Good Communication and Coping Strategies for Kids

There are many ways to build resilience in children, but it starts with you. Your children are always watching. And they’re constantly absorbing information during their developmental years. It doesn’t make much sense to preach to children about dealing with difficult emotions if you struggle with them yourself.

Everyone makes mistakes. Having a level head when plans go off the rails can show kids how to handle failure. And if you don’t handle something the way you wish you could have, own up to it. It’s OK to admit a mistake, and in doing so, subconsciously give your child permission to do the same. Have a conversation about it. You can say something like, “I’m sorry I got so angry earlier. I made a mistake. Next time, I will try to be more patient.”

Communication and support are key to coping with stress and raising resilient kids. It’s not necessarily rugged individualism that builds independence in kids. Instead, it’s the unconditional love and support of an adult in their lives.

Relationships are the single most important thing in a child’s life for emotional development. If your kid is having trouble, they have to know they can come to you for help.

So, ditch the phone and spend some quality time with your child. When you’re home together, make it a priority to focus on them. Talk about the issues kids are facing. And let them know it’s OK to ask for help. Also, don’t be afraid to show them your stress coping strategies when you’re going through tough situations.

Raising Resilient Children Means Honoring Their Emotions

Before you had children, you may have had a rosy outlook on parenthood. The media is quick to sell the joys of parenting. And your friends post pictures of magical days at the beach and park where everyone is happy and smiling.

That’s not always reality. It’s hard to prepare for epic meltdowns, temper tantrums, and the refusal to sleep. But these are all a normal part of growing up, and are NOT the exception.

Sometimes parents view these difficulties as problems that need to be fixed. Maybe you chastise your kids, send them to their room, or blame them for simply feeling an intense emotion. Whatever your reaction, it can be easy to teach your kids that sadness, frustration, or anger are not tolerated.

Being resilient means understanding that some emotions, particularly those often tagged as negative—like heartbreak, despair, and anger—are all very human. These aren’t emotions you should run away from, or try to stuff down because they’re too tough to deal with. Rather, try to honor the emotions, and understand why you’re feeling a certain way. Teaching kids to feel and understand these emotions in a healthy way is paramount to children’s mental health.

Labeling emotions can be a useful way to develop emotional intelligence and resilience. Let kids know it’s all right to feel anxious, afraid, or sad. Although they can be powerful in the moment, these emotions usually pass—especially if you can talk about them with someone you love.

Establish Reasonable Boundaries with Empathy

You’ve probably heard the term “boundaries” in relation to parenting. And you may have had a difficult time dealing with what happens when your child crosses them. What’s important is that boundaries exist in the first place.

A predictable routine and a firm set of rules in the household creates a structure children can rely on. Whether it’s around bedtimes, eating dinner, homework, or screen time, structure reduces uncertainty and can help reduce anxiety. You can’t hope to be an effective parent without boundaries. But establishing these guardrails doesn’t mean you can just ignore how your child is feeling.

Kids tend to learn quickly what behaviors get them what they want. So, when the inevitable happens, and your child tries to see how far she can push, you have to hold the line. But that doesn’t mean you can’t approach those moments with compassion.

You can still be there for your child and listen to how they’re feeling, while continuing to say “no.” Talk about the feelings both of you are having, and explain why having the boundary is important. This can go a long way towards teaching emotional intelligence and strengthening your relationship.

Let Kids Skin Their Knees

When your children first start to walk, you tend to never stray too far from their side. It can be hard to let go of this instinct as they grow older. You might follow them around the playground, making sure they don’t fall off the ladder or be there to catch them every time they go down the slide.

In the short term, this is great. And it can’t be emphasized enough how important being there for your child is when he or she is facing a serious crisis. Sometimes you need to help your child stand back up.

The trick is to not do it every time. Learning early on to deal with pain and discomfort that doesn’t have dire consequences makes kids more likely to develop the ability to handle more serious difficulties later in life. A study from Cornell University in 2017 even suggested that early exposure to manageable stress can increase activity in the prefrontal cortex.

Mitigate, But Don’t Eliminate Risk

Dealing with fear is one of the most difficult and empowering skills you have. As a parent, you want to keep your kid safe, but not at the expense of exposing them to new—and, therefore, potentially frightening—experiences.

It can be hard to resist the urge to hover over your children, and offer up solutions to all of their problems. You want to protect your children from feeling pain, even if pain has much to teach. A scary experience can make your child nervous about risks he or she may face in the future. But most failures aren’t life threatening. If kids approach risk with cautious optimism, often they will find themselves better prepared for challenging situations that may arise.

Sometimes children will take risks and experience a negative outcome. Maybe they fall off the ladder on the playground, or crash their bike. They learn that skinned knees and bruises can hurt, but the pain doesn’t last a long time. As a result, resilient kids dust themselves off and try again. Scrapes and bruises don’t become a roadblock for learning a new skill and having fun. The anxiety children might have felt before becomes manageable.

Without this exposure to risk, even small fears can paralyze children. Sure, it might be fear of physical pain at first, but it can easily expand to anxiety around school, social issues, and money when a child grows up. By facing risk and the consequences associated with it, children learn the coping mechanisms needed to confidently and rationally manage risk.

They might have a hard time differentiating something that is dangerous from something that is simply unknown. Kids may never see how truly strong, confident, and resilient they’re capable of being. So, let the kid ride a bike, and take off the training wheels when he’s ready—even if it means falling down and getting angry. Just make sure he wears a helmet.

Develop Kids Executive Functioning Skills

As children grow older, their prefrontal cortex develops more and more. As this happens, kids learn to control their behavior and feelings. They also develop new ways of dealing with adversity. It is possible to jumpstart this process and set them on the path to being a happy, healthy young adult.

Exercise is one of the most important components in developing executive functioning skills. This helps develop the brain and supports growing cognitive functions. During exercise, the brain releases neurochemicals that can help calm anxiety in times of stress. Getting kids outside and moving is always a good idea, especially when it will contribute to their problem-solving skills.

Playing board games is also a great way to develop the prefrontal cortex. Board games require patience, strategy, memory, and mental dexterity. It’s also a great way to bond with your kids. Just make sure to let them win every once in a while—and make losses teachable moments.

Find opportunities where kids can make their own decisions and exhibit leadership. Maybe one night they choose what the family has for dinner, and even help cook! Have children choose and plan a weekend activity. Let them choose what instrument or sport they want to play. Even give them input in the classes they take. The possibilities are endless. Just make sure that once kids make a decision, stick with it.

Encourage children to think independently. This doesn’t mean encouraging arguments with you all the time. But make sure to welcome a discussion when you may have a different opinion than your child. Occupying a position where kids have to think critically is a wonderful exercise for executive functioning. As long as they’re being respectful, it is OK for children to question authority and offer up different points of view.

Always Stay in Their Corner

Raising resilient kids can be just as challenging for the parent as it is for the child. You will both fail. That’s OK! But no matter what happens, love your kids unconditionally, and always be there to support them whatever happens. Taking a step back and letting them find their own way can be difficult. But in the long run, this will lead to a more resilient, confident, capable, and fearless young adult.

The year is 1665. The Taj Mahal in India was completed 12 years ago. In a little over a year, Isaac Newton will witness an apple falling from a tree, sparking an idea. And somewhere in London, the architect and natural philosopher Robert Hooke places a thin slice of cork into the specimen holder of a microscope. When he looks through the eyepiece, he sees a strange structure.

“I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a honeycomb, but that the pores of it were not regular,” he writes. “These pores, or cells … were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this.”

Hooke has discovered the cell. Plant cells to be specific. He actually coins the term, writing that they remind him of the cells occupied by Christian monks in a monastery he once visited. These cells are dead though, and his microscope is not powerful enough to see inside the cell. It’s not until 13 years later that someone would see a living cell up close.

Using a more powerful microscope of his own design, Dutch businessman and scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek would first observe bacteria and protozoa. He called these single celled organisms animalcules, Latin for “little animals.”

Hooke is long gone now, buried somewhere in the City of London Cemetery. He took the first steps towards what is now refer to as cell theory. This is the understanding that every living organism on the planet is composed of one or more cells.

Cells are the integral unit of structure and function in all living organisms. Every cell that has ever existed came from pre-existing cells that have divided, and divided, and divided, all the way to the 37.2 trillion cells that make your body.

The Two Different Types of Cells

Cells can be split into two main types—prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

Prokaryotic cells do not have a nucleus. Those “little animals” that Leeuwenhoek witnessed were prokaryotic cells. Bacteria, and another family of cell called archaea, are classified as prokaryotic.

The cells that exist in plants and animals are called eukaryotes. This type can be either single-celled or multicellular.

Approaching the Cell

But what makes up a eukaryotic animal cell? If you could shrink down to the size of the cell, and even smaller, what would you see?

Imagine you’re getting smaller and smaller. The world around you gets larger and larger, eventually blurring out of view. As you shrink, you start to focus in on a group of structures, like the little cages that Hooke witnessed long ago.

Soon enough you come to one cell in particular. Now, some cells are more complex on the outside and have accessories other cells lack. Microvilli are one such feature.

Microvilli extend like fingers from the surface of the cell, and are important in the absorption of nutrients. They also greatly increase the surface area of the cell without affecting its overall size.

Cilia extend even further than microvilli, and can actually push different substances along the surface of the cell.

Then there is the flagellum, which is a thin, tail-like structure that can actually propel an entire cell, enabling it to swim!

The Plasma Membrane

All cells rely on the all-important plasma membrane. This acts like a fence, keeping the contents of the cell together while also letting food and nutrients pass through.

The plasma membrane is made up of a double layer of fatty acids called phospholipids. These fatty acid molecules have a head and a tail. The head is what is called ‘hydrophilic,’ meaning it’s attracted to water. The tail, meanwhile, is hydrophobic—repelled by water. This combination of head and tail is what makes the structure and function of the cell membrane possible.

As you get smaller, you pass through the plasma membrane, and journey into the cell. Briefly, you can see the double layer of phospholipids, like a zipper held fast by the chemical attractions of their hydrophobic tails.

Cytoplasm and Cytoskeleton

Once fully inside the cell, you encounter a medium called the cytoplasm. It contains a substance rich in amino acids and potassium, called cytosol. This solution is also referred to as intracellular fluid.

You can also make out a network of what looks like webs or scaffolding. This is the cytoskeleton. It provides structural support and allows the movement of materials inside the cell. The cytoskeleton is made up of three different types of protein fibers called microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules.

Microfilaments are the smallest of the three, made of twisted strands of proteins that can be pulled together to shorten the cell. This occurs often in muscle cells, and aids in their ability to contract.

Intermediate filaments are twisted strands of proteins that mainly provide framework for the cell and help hold it together.

Microtubules have a spiral shape. When put together, they form a hollow cylinder. These cylinders help maintain cell shape and move organelles (another name for cell parts) within the cell.

They form what is called the centrosome. The centrosome is made up of structures called centrioles which organize microtubules and provide an additional framework for the cell. They also aid in the separation process during cell division.

Between the cytoplasm and the cytoskeleton, you can see the primary support framework of the cell. You can also see several strange-looking structures. These are the organelles. These important cell parts all have specific functions they carry out.

The Endoplasmic Reticulum

The first structure you can see looks like a collection of several long, thin caverns. These are the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). There two different types of ERs.

The first is the rough ER, which extends from the nucleus and has ribosomes attached to the outside of its membrane, giving it a rough appearance. These ribosomes produce what are called polypeptide chains. That’s just a fancy way to say proteins. The proteins created by ribosomes are released into the ER, where they are processed and prepared for release into the cell. When released, the proteins are transported inside enclosed membrane sacks called transport vesicles that pinch off from the rough ER.

It’s important to note that ribosomes are not organelles. They are vital to cells, though. That’s because they’re the protein-producing factories. They can either be floating in cytosol en route to somewhere else in the cell, or attached to the rough ER. Ribosomes are comprised of two components called the small and large subunits. The small subunits read the ribonucleic acid (RNA), which contain instructions on how to assemble the amino acids into polypeptide chains. The large subunit does the heavy lifting of actually assembling the polypeptide chains.

Next you see the smooth ER. This is another organelle with a membrane, but it doesn’t have ribosomes, hence the “smooth” moniker. The smooth ER contains enzymes that alter polypeptides, produce lipids and carbohydrates, and destroy toxins. Most of the lipids and cholesterol that make up cell membranes are made in the smooth ER.

The Golgi Apparatus

Shifting your focus, you encounter the Golgi apparatus, definitely the coolest name of all the organelles. The Golgi apparatus is another membranous organelle that modifies, packages, and stores proteins.

It looks like a group of larger and larger cisterns expanding out from its center. Transport vesicles deliver proteins to the Golgi apparatus from the ER. As the proteins move throughout the cisterns of the Golgi, they are modified. This can happen by adding or rearranging molecules with different enzymes. Sometimes carbohydrates are added to form what are called glycoproteins.

After moving through the last cistern, proteins are cordoned off in a different vesicle called the secretory vesicle. Most of these proteins are directed toward the plasma membrane. They either become part of the membrane, or are released outside of the cell.


The Golgi is fundamental in the production of lysosomes. These are vesicles that pinch off from the Golgi apparatus and function as the garbage trucks of the cell. Lysosomes are enclosed by a membrane and contain digestive enzymes that pick up cellular waste or defective organelles to be recycled or converted to waste. They are also vital in protecting the cell from bacteria and viruses.


Passing out of the Golgi apparatus, you come across the proteasomes. These organelles manage the existing proteins in the cell. They are found throughout the cytoplasm. Proteasomes break down abnormal or misfolded proteins and normal proteins the cell doesn’t need anymore.

Another protein called ubiquitin is placed on the proteins marked for recycling by enzymes in the cytoplasm. The targeted proteins are then pulled into the proteasomes and broken down by a process called proteolysis. In this process, the peptide bonds of the proteins are broken. The leftover peptide chains and amino acids are then released into the cell to be recycled.


Moving on, you come across a curious structure called a peroxisome. While not technically an organelle, and not technically an enzyme, peroxisomes can best be described as protein complexes.

They have a membrane, and are also pinched off from the ER. Peroxisomes are responsible for breaking down long-chain fatty acids and amino acids. In this process, they can produce the byproduct hydrogen peroxide, which can be dangerous to the cell because it can react with many substances. Because of this, peroxisomes also carry an enzyme that converts hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Talk about cleaning up after yourself!


Once past the peroxisomes, you spot a baked-bean-shaped organelle called a mitochondrion (when there are many, they’re called mitochondria). These are the hyper-efficient power plants of the cell. They take food particles brought into the cell and convert it to a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. This is known as the “currency” of the cell. ATP is capable of storing and transferring energy to other parts of the cell.

Mitochondria have both an inner and outer membrane, and their numbers can vary depending on the type of cell. Typically, the more active a cell is, the more mitochondrion it will contain. Liver cells, for example, contain thousands of mitochondria. In the cells that make up your muscles, aerobic activity can actually increase the number of mitochondria. No wonder you have more energy when you exercise frequently.

The Nucleus

Finally, you arrive at the nucleus. The largest of all the structures in the cell, the nucleus has two membranes forming what is called the nuclear envelope.

Along with small pores on the surface of the membrane, this envelope encloses the nucleoplasm. While the nuclear envelope functions as a wall, the pores act as a gate that lets certain molecules in and out of the nucleus. Nucleoplasm is similar to the cytoplasm of the cell. It is a syrupy substance that suspends the structures contained within the nuclear membrane.

Suspended in the nucleoplasm is the nucleolus. It is comprised of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), RNA, and protein. The nucleolus is the birthplace of ribosomes, which, remember, make proteins vital to the functioning of healthy cells.

As you get smaller, you can start to make out the twisted double-helix structure of the cell’s DNA. You reach out, trying to touch it, closer and closer, smaller and smaller. And finally, you make contact. In a flash, you return to your previous size, not sure whether or not you actually touched what you were reaching for.

Somewhere in the grassy fields of the City of London cemetery, the first light of a brand-new day strikes a freshly germinated seed of grass. The cells of that seed, enriched by the good earth and sun, divide and divide, sending forth a tiny shoot into the cool morning air.

You’re driving along the road on autopilot, hardly paying attention, and then a nearly perceptible swerve. HONK! HONK! Your neck jerks. Your eyes snap to alert. And your hands grip the wheel. Another driver had laid into their horn, bringing you back to reality.

Whether you’re behind the wheel or in the passenger seat, the scene is scary. But it’s all too familiar.

Learning to drive involves a slew of safety tips, routines, and considerations. But perhaps the most impactful tidbit is limiting or avoiding all distractions.

And what’s true on the road is also true at home. Just like fiddling with controls and music in the car can jeopardize safety, distractions during quality family time can be just as costly at home. Instead of connecting meaningfully, you might crash and burn.

Spending quality time to connect with family and loved ones is enjoyable. But the new norm of constant interaction with technological devices puts those personal connections at risk. When you don’t make intentional choices to take breaks from your screens, your familial (and other) relationships can suffer.

So, before discussing technology’s role in the crash, let’s take a closer look at family relationships and the quality time required to maintain them. 

Quality Family Time: Curating Connections with Your Clan

When each person is fully present and offers their undivided attention to others, that’s quality family time. Going back to the driving analogy, quality family time is what ensures a smooth, safe, and enjoyable ride.

But it might be hard to achieve with the blur of busy schedules and technology. Tackling the dual threat of busyness and distraction is tough. So, first let’s focus on the variable of time.

You probably have family or close friends with whom you want to become or stay close. Conflicting schedules and shrinking free time are challenges embedded in that endeavor. Parents and partners might have busy, full-time work schedules. And if you have kids, they’re likely busy with school, extracurricular activities, friends, and hobbies. It can be difficult to find where you and your loved ones’ schedules align.

The good news? Despite jam-packed days, you can maximize the free time you do have.

Some researchers argue it’s not quantity of time with friends and family that matters. Quality is the goal. This means it’s more impactful to spend a focused hour with a loved one rather than several hours without fully engaging.

Consider reading and discussing a book with a family member, only for an hour. While it may seem short, it’s efficient. Like a bullet train, this approach is a smooth, enjoyable ride with no traffic jams, stoplights, or distractions.

Such an activity carries more weight than the alternative: sitting next to one another, in silence, watching movies. In this instance, the activity is longer, but the connection is lacking. Instead of a short, smooth ride, it’s more like a long road trip down a bumpy road. You’re there with someone you love, but the ride can wear on all the passengers.

The destination in both cases is the same: time spent with family. But the route to get there can look different. Route planning is worth it, and your connections will deepen because of your effort.

Tips for Creating More Quality Family Time

You’re ready to hop on the quality-time train, but don’t know where to start. The thing is: there’s no right way to do it. You can get creative. Quality family time doesn’t have to be serious or complex. Simple activities and just catching up can do the trick.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • When conversing, pay attention by being an active listener. Active listening isn’t just about hearing. It also involves eye contact, body language, and reflection. Eye contact lets the speaker know you’re present. Body language can show you’re intentional and a willing participant. This could be as simple as leaning in, squaring your hips toward the speaker, or keeping your arms relaxed rather than crossed. Lastly, use reflection in your responses. Reflection can be a simple paraphrase of what you’ve heard the speaker say. This lets them know you’ve heard and understood, what they’ve said. It can deepen the connection and invite further conversation.
  • Build a playlist together and have a listening party. This is an especially fun idea if you do it with someone who’s much older or younger than you. Crossing over into the culture of another generation can be fun and help you better understand one another.
  • Establish your own family traditions. You can set aside time each week or month to dedicate to a family activity you do consistently. This could be board games, cooking competition nights, days at the museum, or other family outings like bike rides or hikes.
  • Work as a team. Assign every family member a chore (parents included!) so everyone lends a helping hand. Holding everyone accountable to their tasks will help build a sense of responsibility and pride.
  • Schedule alone time with each child or family member. That’s because conversations flow more easily with fewer competing voices in the room. Also, put phones and devices away to make room for deeper conversations. Taking interest in what your child says builds trust and shows you’re invested in their well-being. This trust builds the likeliness they will turn to you when times get tough and they need support.

Technology’s Impact on Quality Family Time

Now let’s focus on the distractions—those things that pull your eyes and attention away from the road, endangering everyone in the car with you. Or with family, these distractors steal your presence and pull your attention away from your loved ones, possibly harming relationships.

Most of today’s distractions involve technology: phones, laptops, TVs, etc. The technology is useful and entertaining, but these devices can have major downsides.

Screen time steals your attention, taking you out of the conversation or activity at hand. Let’s say you only pull out your phone to check it quickly, but do so repeatedly. For those few moments, you miss major aspects of active listening mentioned above: eye contact and body language.

It’s also important to understand how constant technology use can affect the user. There’s plenty of research on the topic.

One study examined a large, random sample of data (over 40,000 respondents) representing how young children and adolescents (ages 2-17) interact with screens. They also looked at the resulting effects of technology on the respondents’ psychological well-being. Screens included cell phones, computers, gaming systems, and others.

Researchers found one hour of use per day was not problematic. In fact, an hour a day seemed to be a “sweet spot.” Those who used screens for about an hour each day experienced the same measure of well-being as those who didn’t use screens. In other words, minimal use barely constitutes a major distraction. Instead, light screen usage can be likened to the necessary adjustments needed to make a car ride more enjoyable—a quick adjustment of the AC or the radio volume.

The drop-off in psychological well-being only occurred after the one-hour mark was passed. With more than an hour of use per day, respondents reported feeling less curious, more distracted, and less emotionally stable. They also reported having a hard time making new friends.

In those 14-17 years old, specifically, heavy screen users (seven-plus hours per day vs. one hour per day) were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety in the previous year. Back in the car, this type of prolonged distraction would result in a white-knuckle ride or even a car wreck.

Now consider these adolescents in the context of their families. If the teens are battling technology-induced anxiety and depression, their ability to fully show up and be present for quality family time is impaired, too. And if their family members are also turning to their screens, the support system the teens need isn’t accessible when they need it most.

Adults’ usage should also be put under the microscope. As journalist Erika Christakis puts it, “More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.” Over the years, parents have increased the amount of time they spend with their kids. However, as you learned before, that time is not necessarily quality time.

Linda Stone is a researcher who coined the term “continuous partial attention” (or CPA). It’s an appropriate descriptor of technology’s effect on the attention of both parents and children. Stone says operating in this way allows individuals to always be “on”—always available and accessible.

While this can be good in some circumstances (being alert and aware), it can also be detrimental. If you’re always “on,” you can experience high amounts of stress and anxiety. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. And being in that state can make it difficult to connect meaningfully with your family and loved ones.

So, what can undo the harmful effects of unlimited screen time? David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work,” suggests taking a break from technology—completely disconnecting. He argues that going offline can help improve your concentration. One study found that constantly checking devices (to monitor emails, social media feeds, and text messages) is associated with elevated stress levels. Taking a break from your devices and disconnecting may help lower your stress levels. And when you’re less stressed, you’re more likely to pursue and enjoy quality family time.

Finding Family and Overall Well-Being

So why does all of this matter? Research shows familial relationships are extremely influential to an individual family member’s well-being across their lifespan. This goes in both directions. If the family environment is toxic, family members’ well-being is negatively impacted. Conversely, if the family ties are strong and supportive, then each person will experience a boost in their well-being.

This is largely because family is key to social health and provides resources for each of its members. Family or close friends act as a wellness hub. They can offer emotional support, lend physical assistance if needed, or provide referrals to other caregivers. It may also come in the form of support through life’s stressors or encouragement to engage in healthier behaviors. Not having access to a family network can minimize the number of resources available to you.

Imagine the driving metaphor again. You’re back in the car and you want to make it to your destination safely. The best way to do this is to buckle up and limit distractions. You can equate positive family relationships to the safety belt: it can ensure you maintain your health (social, emotional, and physical). And limiting distractions—screen time and other technology—allows you to focus on the road ahead: pursuing quality family time to sustain each of your family members day-to-day.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

Turns out watching your tongue should apply to more than just your words. There’s a lot that doctors—and you—can tell about your overall health just by looking at the color, size, and texture of your mouth’s unsung hero.

You already know that your tongue is essential for tasting and digesting food and for articulating speech. But because your tongue is such an integral part of several important bodily functions, paying attention to its appearance and changes can help alert you to larger health issues early. This is one reason your doctor has you stick out your tongue during annual physical exams. And why your dentist may inquire about your hydration or hygiene after one glance at your tongue.

In general, a healthy tongue is dark pink, moist, firm, and covered in small bumps called papillae. If your tongue’s appearance deviates at all from this norm, consider the following five concerns your tongue might be trying to warn you about.

1. Dehydration

When your body is dehydrated—meaning it doesn’t have enough fluid to function optimally—one of the earliest symptoms is a dry tongue and mouth. This is because your body decreases the amount of saliva it’s producing in an effort to conserve fluids. In addition to experiencing a dry mouth, lack of adequate saliva can also affect your ability to break down any foods you may eat. And it can lower your ability to keep teeth healthy, too.

The immediate solution to dehydration is obvious: drink more water. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (a U.S. organization) recommends that men consume 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluid per day and women should aim for 11.5 cups (2.7 liters). Keep in mind that these numbers include all daily fluid intake, from both food and liquids. Also consider that circumstances like hot weather or exercise will require you to consume more fluids to stay hydrated.

Most healthy people can stay hydrated simply by drinking fluids when they feel thirsty. Neurons located in the brain are involved in monitoring food and beverage intake and blood levels to regulate thirst by sending hormonal messages that induce drinking. And taste buds send messages back to the brain about the ingested fluids before they reach the bloodstream to signal that thirst has been quenched.

In some cases, though, simply drinking more liquids may not do the trick for solving the dry mouth issue. Dehydration, while a common cause, isn’t the only condition that can trigger dry mouth. Certain medications, medical treatments, or health conditions may also be responsible for making your tongue feels like it’s been marooned in a desert.

2. Changes in Your Oral Microbiome

There’s bacteria and all manner of microbes in your mouth—and your tongue certainly isn’t exempt. At first, that might seem gross. But you have to get used to it, because your oral microbiome is an important part of a healthy mouth.

And if you’re wondering how the balance of your oral microbiome is doing, take a look at your tongue. If your tongue appears normal, it’s a good sign, pointing towards a healthy balance of microbes making their home in your mouth.

When your tongue looks like it has a white coating, it might be time to spend some energy on your oral microbiome. That probably means taking more care with your oral hygiene. (And checking out the tips for a healthy tongue you’ll see below.)

3. Immune System Alert

So many parts of your body play a direct or supporting role in maintaining immune health. Your tongue has a tangential tie to immune health through its role in digestion. But it also can be a red (or white) flag.

If your immune system is struggling—from any variety of normal, occasional lifestyle factors—your tongue will tell you. Some of the signs are similar to those mentioned in the oral microbiome section above.

Normally, your immune system doesn’t just let too much of anything set up camp on your tongue. Yeast is a great example of this. There’s probably always some of these tiny foreign invaders in your mouth and on your tongue. But your body’s defense system is set up to prevent too much yeast from living in your mouth and on your tongue.

When your tongue is coated in white, that could be an indication your oral microbiome is out of balance. And it’s a good idea to support it with immune-helping habits.

Your doctor can also tell, just from looking at your tongue, if you have a couple of different issues going on. So, if you notice your tongue being really red, have a health-care provider take a look. (Unless you’ve just consumed some red food or drink—in that case, you’ll be OK.)

4. Nutritional Deficiencies

Your tongue helps you taste, enjoy, and even properly digest your food. But if you aren’t eating enough of certain nutrients, your tongue could tell on you.

When your tongue is deep red, it might be time to adjust your diet. So, take a look at your intake of two vitamins (B12 and folic acid) and one mineral (iron). All these essential nutrients are readily available in a healthy diet.

Vitamin B12 can be found in seafood, beef, and eggs. Folic acid (also known as vitamin B9) is in legumes, broccoli, and spinach. And if you’re looking to add iron to your diet, go with poultry, organ meats, beans, and nuts.

5. Excessive Stress

Turns out stress wreaks havoc throughout your body. And your tongue can’t escape the ravages of stress, either.

Tongue redness is one hallmark of stress. Canker sores and stress ulcers on your tongue could be a sign that you’re stressed. If your tongue is scalloped around the edges, that could mean you’re consistently biting your tongue in reaction to stress.

And your taste buds aren’t immune from the strain of life. Researchers suggest your taste buds are impacted by stress, as well.

So, practice self-care to help alleviate some of the stress in your life. Your mind, body, and mouth will all benefit.

Don’t Forget About Proper Hygiene

Aside from good nutrition, adequate hydration, and not smoking, the best thing you can do for your tongue is to practice good oral hygiene habits. Try these tips to help keep your tongue happy and healthy.


You already know you need to brush your teeth at least twice a day (bonus points for brushing after every meal). While you’re at the sink, why not add the quick extra step of scraping your tongue? Use an inexpensive plastic or metal tongue scraper to swipe one or two times per area down the length of your tongue. Go from back to front, being sure to wipe or rinse off any debris in between each scrape. In addition to removing bad-breath-inducing bacteria, research suggests scraping your tongue twice a day might also improve your sense of taste.


Does the thought (or actual action) of scraping your tongue make you gag? You can get some bacteria-killing action by making your toothbrush multitask. Brush your tongue vigorously in multiple directions after you’ve given your teeth a good scrub. Just don’t get too crazy—you don’t want to damage your delicate taste buds or the mucosa (that’s the pink tissue that covers your tongue).

Oil Pulling

A few small studies have found that an ancient practice of swishing oil around in your mouth for up to 20 minutes once per day can reduce odor- and certain decay-causing bacteria, when done consistently as part of a complete oral hygiene routine. Oil pulling, as it’s known in Ayurveda, is typically done using cold-pressed oils like sunflower, sesame, and coconut. Oil pulling can help keep your tongue healthy by eliminating bad bacteria, but it can also help symptoms of dry mouth and chapped lips. If you’re someone who experiences discomfort when using alcohol-based or other full-strength mouthwashes, oil pulling might be a gentler alternative for you to try. When you’re done swishing, spit the oil into a lined trash can (don’t spit oil down your sink!) and rinse your mouth with water. (There is no scientific evidence the practice whitens teeth, pulls toxins out of the body, or treats any disease.)

Listen to Your Tongue

The tongue is more than just the muscular organ that lives in your mouth. It can also be an invaluable prognosticator when it comes to other health issues. In order to heed any warnings your tongue might be sending you, though, you need to pay attention to it and take good care of it.

Stick your tongue out and examine in the mirror its color, shape, size, and texture frequently and alert you doctor if you detect any unusual changes. And don’t forget your tongue during your oral hygiene routine! Because it’s an instrumental tool for your digestive system and speech, giving it a little extra love is well worth the effort.

Healthy family habits are key to raising healthy kids. Children look up to their parents as role models. So, it’s important to give them an example of a healthy lifestyle to follow.

Healthy eating and exercise are two habits lots of individuals focus on. And while personal health goals are great, getting your family on board is even better. Also, broadening your family’s scope of healthy habits to include all aspects of your lives is a good idea. Include habits like brushing your teeth, wearing a helmet, and washing your hands.

As kids get older, it can be challenging for them to reverse the habits they’ve already acquired. So, don’t wait another second to work on healthy habits with your kids. They’ll pick the good habits up fast and have a lifetime to practice.

Flip through the slideshow to find 19 ideas to work on as a family. Pat yourselves on the back for the work you’re already doing. Make a note of the suggestions you want to tackle together.

  1. Make Your Bed

This simple task often gets overlooked, but it’s a great habit to get into. A freshly made bed helps you and your kids start the day on a positive note. And it makes for a neat and relaxing bedroom at the end of a long day.

Track how often you each make your bed on a chart for your whole family to see. You can have fun making this a habit by having bed-making races or competitions. Showing your kids your well-made bed will help them understand how important this daily ritual is to you.

  1. Wash Your Hands

Hand washing is perhaps the most important habit for your health. By washing your hands after using the bathroom and before every meal, you keep germs at bay. So, it’s important to teach your family how important hand washing is for staying healthy.

Parents should remind kids often throughout the day to wash their hands. Little kids who have trouble washing their hands on their own may need a stool to help them reach the faucet. Also, show your children how to properly wash their hands by scrubbing with soap and rinsing with warm water for at least 20 seconds. Germs can spread from person to person and they can make people sick. Teaching this important habit can help stop the spread of unhealthy germs to help families and communities stay healthier.

  1. Eat Breakfast Every Day

Your family can start every day with a healthy habit by always eating breakfast. The morning meal is often the first thing to go when a busy day looms. Take a stand for healthy habits and make sure your family eats breakfast every day.

This is one of the best ways to combat overeating throughout the day. Breakfast fills you up early and delivers sustaining energy until lunch. If you need quick breakfast ideas to help get you in the habit, try hard-boiled eggs, a piece of fruit, or a slice of whole wheat toast with nut butter.

  1. Brush Your Teeth

Little kids might have a hard time remembering to brush their teeth twice a day. But this habit is critical for maintaining good dental health.

That’s because brushing your teeth whisks away plaque and bacteria deposits. Not allowing this build up on your teeth helps you maintain your oral health.

So, make it a habit to brush your teeth twice a day to keep your teeth and gums in shape. Two minutes per brushing session is the recommended amount of time. Try placing a timer in the bathroom to help your kids hit the two-minute mark. You can also sing a song or playing music to make brushing more fun for everyone.

  1. Tidy Up

Keeping your living space neat and orderly is a healthy habit everyone in your family can take part in. Spending time at home is always more pleasant when all your belongings are in the right place. And having a clean house can help take your focus off clutter and put it towards your loved ones and healthy living.

Show your little ones where their toys, books, clothes, and shoes can be put away. Help kids get in the habit of returning items when they’re finished. Cleaning up is also a great way to teach responsibility and respect for your belongings.

You can tidy as a team by setting a timer and cleaning for 10 minutes. Race to see how fast you can get your house in order. Give kids different jobs each day so they can learn to sweep, wipe, and dust. They’ll thank you when they’re on their own and know how to keep their homes clean.

  1. Turn Off the TV

Watching television can use up a lot of your family’s free time. Lounging can be relaxing in short sessions, but long spells can stall your productivity. It’s hard to be active and work on healthy living when the TV is on.

So, limit your TV time to an hour a day. Turn off the TV and find better ways to unwind as a family. Board games are just as fun and engage each family member. Plus they help kids build reasoning and problem-solving skills. Be a good example to your kids by suggesting you play together when they’ve had enough TV for the day.

You might even notice your sleep improve when you cut down on television. Spending time away from screens lets your eyes relax, keeps you from blue-light exposure, and helps you fall asleep easier, too.

  1. Get Moving

Speaking of ways to relax and play as a family—exercise checks both boxes. Having a regular exercise routine is a great habit to work on together. Instilling a love for exercise in their youth can set your kids up for good, lifelong physical fitness.

The movement doesn’t have to be complicated to get the benefits of regular exercise. That can be a driveway basketball game or dancing to your favorite songs. You can spend time together and get fit when you move as a family.

Shoot for 30 minutes of activity every day. If your schedules are tight you can sneak exercise in by walking to school or riding your bike to work. Brainstorm ideas as a family that’ll help you get in the habit of exercising daily.

  1. Find Adventure Together

Families that play together stay healthy together. Going on family-friendly adventures can make exercise a bonding experience for you and your loved ones.

Recreating in nature is a fun way to check out local scenery and spend time as a family. Hiking, biking, fishing, and rock climbing are a few outdoor adventures your family can embark on.

  1. Wear Protective Gear

Safety is part of healthy exercise habits. Demonstrate the safe way to play by wearing protective gear when appropriate. If your kids see you gearing up for a bike ride, they’ll want to do the same.

Make it a habit to put on your helmet, shin guards, or elbow pads before you go out to play. It’ll save you from getting injured and show your kids how to stay safe.

  1. Stay Protected From the Sun

Sunscreen is the best way to protect your skin from sun damage. Kids and adults alike need sunscreen before playing outside. Make applying it automatic.

Show your kids how to put on their own sunscreen. You can find kid-friendly, mineral-based sunscreens that are gentle on their delicate skin. Remind each other to reapply every two hours when you’re outside. And get in the habit of wearing a hat to stay protected from the sun.

  1. Eat the Rainbow

Healthy eating is an excellent habit to work on as a family. You eat together often, so start focusing on healthy foods as a team.

Looking at the color of your food is a great way to make sure to get the nutrients your family needs. Whole foods are vibrant. Bright reds, deep purples, and dark greens make food interesting to look at and good for you.

The color of your fruits and veggies tell you what kinds of vitamins they can add to your diet. Yellow-colored foods are great sources of vitamin C. Vitamins A and E live in red and orange foods. Green foods pack calcium, iron, and other important phytonutrients.

Work together to put many different colors on the dinner table. A salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, avocado, red onion, yellow peppers, and cucumbers hits lots of colors on the spectrum and is nutritious to boot.

  1. Skip Soda, Choose Water

This is a great, simple healthy habit to start with. That’s because healthier choices are readily available and easy for adults and kids to understand.

You already know soda and sugary drinks ruin your teeth and diet. So, make the switch to water (or milk for kids) as a family. To help this habit stick, keep soda out of the house. Order water with your meal (and milk for kids) when you eat out. Show your kids you mean business by staying clear of soda and providing healthier options that support growing kids.

  1. Try New Foods

If your family’s go-to meals are getting stale, try expanding your palette. It’s hard to keep up healthy eating when you have the same foods over and over. Fatigue sets in. Luckily there are lots of ways to change it up and keep healthy eating interesting.

Adding spice to your food will change the flavor dramatically, without altering its health benefits. Garlic, cumin, pepper, and paprika add a little spice to vegetables like sweet potatoes. Turmeric, parsley, or cilantro in brown rice amp up the flavor.

You can also try preparing some of your favorites in a different way. For instance, oatmeal is a great option for breakfast. But during warmer months you might not feel like chowing down on a bowl of hot food. Rather than abandoning healthy oats for a donut or pastry, try overnight oats instead.

To make overnight oats, mix a handful of oats with yogurt, milk, chia seeds, and a drop of honey. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. When it’s time for breakfast, you have a cooler option. You can even slice bananas or chop berries to add to your oatmeal parfait.

  1. Plan and Prepare Meals Together

When your family has a meal plan, you’re more likely to stick to eating healthy. Life gets busy and things come up. But don’t let convenience overwhelm your healthy eating habits. Try prepping food in advance so you have a quick, healthy option on hand.

Kids can help by choosing what meals they’d like to have for dinner. Encourage them to come up with meals that include a lean protein, veggies, and whole grains. Write your dinner plans down on a calendar in plain view. That way everyone is aware of what meal they’ll be enjoying that day.

You can also meal prep as a family. Cooking protein in bulk is a great way to speed up the dinner-making process. Your kids will love being included in the kitchen. Show them how to wash vegetables and season proteins like chicken or fish. They’ll relish the responsibility of helping make dinner and enjoy their food even more.

  1. Learn to Read Labels

It’s tricky to understand what the labels on your food tells you. So, sit down with your family and figure it out together. When you learn how to read the nutrition labels on your favorite snacks, it’s easier to choose healthy options.

Take a box of breakfast cereal, for example. The calorie content is usually at the top of the label and tells you how many calories (energy currency) are in each serving. Note that a serving doesn’t always mean a huge bowlful. Demonstrate to your kids how much a serving of cereal is by measuring it with a measuring cup or food scale.

The macronutrients listed below the calorie information tell you how many grams of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are in the food you eat. Examine how many of those carbs come from added sugars. And stay clear of foods with high amounts of added sugar.

Fats are usually broken down into different classes. Some foods have saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats. Look at the label and see what fats you can find. Avoid foods with trans fats. And monitor your saturated fat intake.

Protein can be all over the food spectrum. Turkey, chicken, lean red meat, eggs, flax seeds, chia seeds, and nuts all are great sources. Show your family how to find the amount of protein in each serving of packaged food. Challenge yourselves to eat foods with at least six grams of protein per serving.

The added vitamins and mineral and list of ingredients are found at the bottom of the food label. Nutrients like iron, zinc, and folate are added to help you meet your daily recommendations.

When you look at the ingredients, check out what’s at the top of the list. The higher the position on the list of ingredients, the greater the amount is in the food. With foods like bread, granola bars, and pasta, make sure whole grains are at the top. Lots of whole grains are going to keep you full for longer.

  1. Practice Money Mindfulness

Kids shouldn’t be in charge of the checkbook, but they can play an important role in your family finances. Helping your children have a healthy relationship with money is one of the best life lessons you can teach them. Get kids in the habit of tracking their spending. And help them see the importance of saving money.

Show your kids how to create a simple budget for your household needs. Let them see where money comes from and what your family spends it on. You can have them read the bills that come in each month and keep track of grocery receipts. Your kids will feel proud of helping out and better understand the value of money.

  1. Sleep Well

Bedtimes aren’t just for kids. As a family, work on getting your recommended eight hours of sleep each night. Going to bed at a decent hour will help kids and parents get that done.

Remind your family (and yourself) that your body needs a good amount of sleep to be productive during the day. Talk about how recharged you feel after getting the rest you need. You can set an example of healthy sleep habits by winding down early and waking up on time.

It can be tempting to get up and watch TV when you can’t sleep. When your kids see you do this, they’re probably wondering if they can, too. Instead of watching movies on the couch when you’re feeling restless, try reading or meditating. It’ll help your mind settle down and get you to sleep in no time.

  1. Reward with Praise

When you notice your family members doing a great job, talk it up. Let your kids know you see their effort by praising their healthy behaviors. Words of encouragement and affirmation reinforce the healthy family habits.

Try not to reward healthy living by “breaking” your newly developed habits. By scrapping your hard work for an afternoon of binge eating and laying around, you can wind up undoing your efforts.

Instead, recognize attempts to keep healthy habits with praise. Tell your kids you are proud of them for making their health a priority. And encourage them to keep up the good work.

  1. Practice What You Preach with Parental Role Modeling

It’s a team effort to get healthy family habits off the ground. When your kids see you making changes, too, they’ll be more likely to follow suit. You can’t expect children to work on maintaining healthy habits when you don’t do your part.

Give your kids permission to respectfully correct your actions. If they suggest you get off the couch and go out for a walk with them, lace up your shoes and hit the pavement. If they remind you to make your bed, go make it.

Leading your family in healthy habits requires your participation. Show your kids how much these healthy family habits mean to you by practicing them. You’ll have more success at meeting your health goals as a family when you work as a team.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

Blame your parents for your hairline. A lack of dimples? Your parents’ fault. The way your ear lobes connect to your head (or don’t) are also the responsibility of your parents. And, of course, there’s more you can’t see in the mirror. Your family health history is embedded in you because that’s what your parents passed down. It encompasses the health issues of your blood relatives. The shared genes, and, in some cases, environment and habits, make health outcomes similar throughout a family.

And this history provides insights you and your doctor can use to help you maintain your health. The knowledge you acquire creates potential roadmaps for your future. That’s the biggest reason your family health history is more important than the few lines on a form at the doctor’s office.

So, don’t wait for your next appointment to think about your family health history. The guide below will help you start gathering this important information for your health.

Guide to Gathering Your Family Health History

Obviously, this part could take some time. And, depending on how you feel about talking to your family, some energy. But don’t worry. This step-by-step guide will help you get through the process as painlessly as possible.

  1. Decide who you need to talk to: The general rule is three generations of blood-related family (on your mother’s and father’s side) make up a complete history. That includes:
    • Grandparents
    • Parents
    • Aunts and uncles
    • Siblings
    • First Cousins
    • Your children

That seems like a lot of people whose health history you need. But remember, you only need to do this for blood relatives. No step-siblings or stepparents. Nobody who married into your family. Hopefully that simplifies the process and trims the number of potentially intense conversations you need to have.

  1. Focus on the information you need most: You don’t need to talk to your grandma about how much she weighed at 25. And put the tape measure away because you don’t need to check your sister’s height.

The more you know, the better. But you don’t need to collect spreadsheets—plural—of data.  Don’t track your family’s personal measurables (height, weight, speed) like a sports team sifting through potential players. Focus on these questions to collect the most critical information:

    • What significant medical issues have they faced? (This includes diseases and even major injuries.)
    • At what age did these issues start? (Knowing when they were diagnosed with an issue tells a lot about what you can expect and whether something is hereditary.)
    • For relatives who have passed, what was the cause of death?
    • What’s your family’s ethnic background? (Some issues are specific to an ethnicity or carry increased risks in certain populations.)
    • How has the environment they lived in impacted their health?
    • What mental health issues have they dealt with? (This includes everything from addiction to anxiety and depression.)
    • Is there a history of complications with pregnancy? If so, what were they?
    • What lifestyle habits have they participated in? (Heavy drinking, smoking, drug use, or healthy habits, like marathon running, can shed some light.)
  1. Decide the best place or way to talk to your family members. Use family events, like reunions, to talk about health history or set up times to call or email about it in the future. Talking face-to-face is always a good option. But sometimes the impersonal nature of email provides enough removal to allow honest conversation.
  2. Approach each conversation by explaining why you want this information. There’s a reason why health privacy laws exist. Discussing health issues is delicate and intensely private. Not everybody wants people to know they dealt with a medical issue or experienced mental-health problems. Letting your family members know how important it is to know this information is a good start.

If you can get everybody onboard, it’s also possible to share your collected information with your family. That way you aren’t just doing the family health history for you, but completing some of the work for others, too. But don’t share any information with others unless you have explicit permission to do so.

  1. Be a good, respectful listener. Make the conversations as simple or expansive as the family member wants. Sometimes that means asking to-the-point questions and getting simple answers. Other times you might have a longer discussion where your relative opens up a lot. Listen. Be supportive. And thank them for their time after you’ve wrapped up the conversation.
  2. Keep an easily updated electronic record. There are forms and tools to help simplify the process of gathering and tracking your family health history. Seek them out and use them. Most are free. And they offer a fill-in-the-blanks approach that makes it easy. Once you have a document of your own, remember to update it regularly.
  3. Don’t get discouraged by obstacles. This process, like life, isn’t likely to be perfectly smooth. But there are usually still ways to get what you need. Here’s some common obstacles and how to get around them:
    • Deceased relatives: If nobody in your family knows the health history of someone who has passed, public records can help. Death certificates are typically available to the public. Obituaries can shed light on the circumstances of a person’s death. Some family medical records could be acquired, too.
    • Adoption: If the adoption is open and the person is in contact with the biological parents, a conversation will suffice. But if that’s not the case, adoption records or the adoption agency might be the best resources available.
    • Estrangement: Use the family members you have connection with to reach out to those who you don’t. If your doctor will send out questionnaires, that is an option to explore. And turning to available records is another way to get what you need.

Remind Yourself Why Health Knowledge is Power

Following the steps above will guide your process. But knowing what to do and having the motivation to do it are two very different things.

Sometimes it’s hard to get in contact. Or your relatives may not be as forthcoming as you’d like. During those times, give yourself a reminder of why you’re collecting the family health history.

It all comes down to building the biggest base of knowledge possible. The bigger the data set, the better the predictive capabilities. But even the most extensive health history will not tell your future.

It’s not like glancing into a crystal ball. Health is a complex web. Lots of factors are involved in every health outcome. So, just because your family has a history of an issue, that doesn’t doom you. And you aren’t free and clear because you don’t see a problem on your family health history.

But knowing what has happened allows you and your doctor to monitor, test, and adjust your lifestyle. It can help you understand what risks you might be dealing with. That knowledge can shape a life that does everything to reduce the potential of encountering the same issues.

Some genetic disorders may require testing at specific intervals. There could be situations where early detection of a condition is easier and plays a big role in treatment options. The effectiveness of some drugs is even tied to genetics. And it’s important to know what you may pass to your children.

Your family health history also draws your doctor’s attention to important places. If more than one blood relative has a condition, that’s a place to focus medical or lifestyle interventions.

Use Your Family Health History to Fuel Action in Your Present

Information is nothing without intervention. That’s the action that makes the information so valuable.

This action takes different forms. Some will lead to tests for diseases that can be inherited. Others could be dietary, nutritional, or fitness-related.

For example, if you have a family history of heart problems, it’s even more important for you to monitor your blood pressure, heart rate, blood composition, and live a heart-healthy lifestyle. This information might make it easier for you to opt for the side salad instead of fries. It might even push you to hop on the bike or go for a walk.

The most important thing is to use what you know. Your healthcare provider can help you know how to act on your family health history. But you have to put in the effort.

While you stare in the mirror at the nose your parents stuck you with, remember the other things they passed on. And start doing something about them. Because—outside of costly, painful measures—there’s nothing you can do about your nose. But there’s plenty you can do about your health.

Habits take a long time to form, and aren’t easily altered overnight. Why should intelligent eating be any different? Food cravings are powerful! Even if you start to eat healthier, how can you actually enjoy healthier foods?

Like any life change, it’s a process. You need to not only change your diet, but your thinking around how to love eating healthy. And that doesn’t just mean what’s going on in your head. You need to start thinking of your stomach as a second brain—and feed it wisely.

You’re probably aware eating healthy has numerous health benefits. Increased energy, maintaining a healthy weight, a healthy heart, and having the building blocks for your whole body. The problem isn’t in knowing the benefits of eating healthy. It’s learning how to make yourself like healthy food. You can figure out how to love eating healthy by answering a few questions.

How Can I Practice Intelligent Eating When It’s So Hard?

Alright, so going cold turkey isn’t always the best approach to quitting something. You can’t just give up fried chicken, burgers, and pizza every night and expect to jump into a plate of kale. You would most likely fail. You also can’t expect to ease into a new habit without a plan to adjust your tastes and habits.

Changing your preferences to healthier options has a few roadblocks. Some are a function of the busyness of modern life. A trip to the grocery store or farmers market won’t mean much after work when you’re tired and stressed out. The fast-food drive-through can just be too tempting.

Other roadblocks come built into the human body. Example: Your taste buds are often subject to a process called neophobia. This is a fear of trying new or different things.

Like a lot of hang ups around food, there’s an evolutionary component to this process. Our ancestors didn’t always know which foods were healthy, and which foods might kill them. Once they found a food source wasn’t harmful, our ancestors would develop a taste for it. Eventually they might even enjoy it.

Most people aren’t foraging for food these days. So, you don’t have to worry about consuming something mysterious and potentially poisonous. But, the evolutionary defense mechanism remains.

There’s good news, though. First, eating spinach won’t kill you. And second, the more you eat a certain type of food, the more you acquire a taste for it. Even to the point of enjoyment.

You can also pair new foods with your old favorites. Maybe even replacing an unhealthy food with ingredients that are better for you. Instead of mayonnaise on your next sandwich, try spreading avocado. Instead of getting the meat lover’s pizza, try the vegetarian. If you start eating healthier foods with favorites you already enjoy, you’ll find that the new, healthy foods might start being tasty by association.

What Exactly is a Healthy Diet?

Whether or not you are actually on a strict diet, you need to eat a mix of healthy, nutrient-rich foods. Start with whole fruits and vegetables. Half of what you eat should be made up of these nutritious plants. And vegetables should take up the larger share. Whole grains and lean protein should make up the other half, with grains taking up the larger portion. This is followed by a side of dairy like cheese, milk, or yogurt. If you follow this general outline every day, you should receive a foundation of necessary nutrients.

More important than nailing the ratios of healthy food groups though, is to control your portions and limit your intake of overly processed foods. Chips, cookies, soda, frozen dinners, fast food, and the like can all contain unhealthy amounts of sugar, fat, and salt.

A diet high in fat and rich in sugar is harder for your body to process on many levels. Sugar tastes great, but doesn’t do much to curb hunger. So, it takes an awful lot of sugary, processed foods to make you feel full. Fat and sugar also trigger the pleasure receptors in the brain.

For many of our distant ancestors, it was rare to come across calorie-dense foods. Those they found would provide much needed sustenance, and any calories the body didn’t convert to quick energy was stored as fat for future use. Gorging on sweets and fats whenever they were available gave humans an evolutionary advantage.

Now, this process works against us. Foods high in sugar and fat are everywhere, and, instead of feasting, the challenge now is to limit your intake. That means paying attention to those ingredient labels!

Better yet, try to eat whole and fresh foods as often as possible. You don’t have to search an ingredient label when you buy fresh produce, meat, and fish in the store. That’s because there are no added ingredients. When it comes to grains, try to stick with whole grains like whole wheat, oatmeal, and brown rice.

How Do Healthy Foods and the Gut-Brain Axis Combine to Create Intelligent Eating?

A remarkable amount of research has recently expanded on the links between the brain and microbiome. There isn’t just evidence a healthy microbiome can influence weight and help deal with occasional stress. It may play a role in regulating mood and maintaining overall health.

There is a vast network of millions of nerves and chemical interactions that connect the gut to the brain. This is commonly referred to as the gut-brain axis.

The vagus nerve is one of the biggest nerves connecting your gut and brain. Signals travel in both directions along this pathway, from the gut to the brain and back. Research has shown these signals can be impacted by hormones and by what’s happening in your gut. That includes what kind of bacteria you’re cultivating with your diet. Since changing your diet changes the type of bacteria in your gut, you can help maintain the efficiency and health of this important connection.

Here’s an example of how diet can impact your gut-brain axis.

Some of the chemicals produced in your gut are called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). Among the most important for the gut-brain axis are butyrate and propionate. These SCFAs (and many others) are the product of gut bacteria fermenting fiber. So, by eating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, it can help your body make SCFAs.

And that’s a good thing because these short-chain fatty acids help provide energy to the cells of your colon. There’s also evidence that butyrate helps in forming the blood brain barrier. Some studies have even shown butyrate to have a role in maintaining neurological health.

Meanwhile, an increase in propionate in the gut has been shown to lower the amount of activity in the pleasure centers of the brain when exposed to high energy, unhealthy food. Scientists detected considerably weaker electrical impulse activity in the nervous systems of test subjects that had higher fiber diets. Because there was less of a reward response in the brain, they literally found the unhealthy food less appealing!

Reducing your enjoyment of junk food isn’t the only way supporting your gut-brain axis with diet could help you manage your weight. The flora in your gut can also play a large role.

There are literally trillions of microbes in your gut. Two of the most important are Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes. Studies have shown that these two play a significant role when it comes to managing weight.

Consuming high amounts of fat and sugar tends to boost the levels of Firmicutes, while limiting the presence of Bacteroidetes. With that dietary pattern, it might not be surprising that higher levels of Firmicutes have been detected in the microbiomes of obese people.

But the gut microbiome isn’t fixed. When obese people ate diets lower in fat and sugar, they lost weight. And, sure enough, samples of their microbiomes would reveal a decrease in Firmicutes and an increase in Bacteroidetes.

What are Some Tips for Learning How to Love Eating Healthy?

Your best bet is to start small, slow, and to have a plan. Here are six tips to get you started.

  1. Once or twice a week, plan a meal with a healthy vegetable you’ve never tried before, and experiment with how you prepare it. Sure, you may not like steamed broccoli. But what if it’s sautéed in a bit of olive oil, and tossed with sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and lemon juice? Swiss chard may not be your thing, but use sautéed leaves for a filling in enchiladas, or even raw in a smoothie? You might make a delicious discovery. And, remember, cooking at home is always better (for your health and for your wallet) than going out to eat.
  2. Next time you have a salad, try making a simple vinaigrette. Mix up olive oil, vinegar, and whole-grain mustard—three parts oil to one part vinegar with a dab of mustard works best. You’ll be skipping the bottled salad dressing that most likely has a lot of extra sugar and calories.
  3. Instead of buying sweetened cereal or yogurt, simply add your own fresh fruit. You’ll find it’s just as tasty, and you’ll feel good about the choice.
  4. Feed your microbiome. Some of the best foods for increasing healthy gut bacteria are high in fiber and those rich in omega-3 fatty acids like fish and eggs. Maybe skip the processed smoked salmon or lox, and try grilling salmon with olive oil and fresh herbs on top.
  5. Try introducing probiotics into your diet. Probiotics are foods that contain active microorganisms. When you consume these foods, you introduce healthy bacteria into your gut that can help maintain a healthy balance of microbes to support gut health. Common probiotic foods include yogurt, kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and sourdough bread.
  6. Grow a garden. Nothing quite beats the taste of a fresh-off-the-vine heirloom tomato you watched grow all summer. It’s not really fair to compare homemade pesto to the store-bought version either. You can get a real sense of accomplishment that comes with growing your own food, too. And kids might be more likely to sample the literal fruits of their labor. If you don’t have the yard space for a garden, you can grow some plants and herbs in smaller pots and containers. If that doesn’t work, try hitting the farmers market, or signing up for community garden.

So, now you’ve learned tips about how to love eating healthy. It’s not easy to switch your food cravings to healthier options, and it takes repetition and commitment. Luckily, the steps aren’t complex. It all comes down to making newer food palatable for you.

But you can only figure out what you enjoy if you keep trying new things. The internet is your friend here. For every type of new food, there are a hundred different recipes to explore. Pick one and start your intelligent eating journey today.