Naiha Falkner of Thistle: “Prioritize exercise AND rest”

Prioritize exercise AND rest: It’s important to fit in daily movement and exercise, but people should also aim to get a solid night’s sleep, and work in at least one activity that supports mind-body balance such as meditation or breath work. I find these two go hand-in-hand: I can’t be active if I’m tired and […]

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Prioritize exercise AND rest: It’s important to fit in daily movement and exercise, but people should also aim to get a solid night’s sleep, and work in at least one activity that supports mind-body balance such as meditation or breath work. I find these two go hand-in-hand: I can’t be active if I’m tired and I can’t rest well if I haven’t been active. I also find it helpful to get my daily movement and exercise in doing an activity that is fun and fulfilling which keeps me engaged and making it less of a chore. The gym isn’t for everyone, but even taking long walks or bike rides will do the trick. I’ll take any excuse to have some fun during the day!

As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Naiha Falkner.

As a child, Naiha Falkner transitioned to a meat-free diet out of compassion for animals and looked to cooking as a creative outlet. Raised on a Florida marsh, the values of nature, wildlife, and the appreciation of simplicity curated a wholesome desire to be creative by making a lot with a little. Naiha honed her culinary skills under Executive Chef Bruce Hill at San Francisco’s Bix Restaurant and has since then specialized in plant-forward cooking. She currently serves as Thistle’s Senior Culinary Product Developer, master-minding meals that are as delicious as they are nutritious.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?

My interest in wellness stems from my love of food and my culinary career, which began early in my life. After a family member was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease my family was distraught. We took a conventional approach to overcoming the illness and after a year of dwelling in the unknown, the saving grace was a holistic approach to our family’s diet. I saw my loved one overcome such a painful and cruel disease while bouncing back with life, joy and a commitment to thrive through holistic living. This has inspired me to combine my love for cooking and wellness with my admiration for their perseverance. I’ve always been inspired by my Spanish heritage from my mother and the quality and tradition of Southern cuisine from my father, so when I moved to San Francisco, I immediately sought opportunities to develop my own creativity in the food and wellness space, while staying in touch with my roots, which led me to where I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Working in restaurants is very exciting in and of itself — comradery within the kitchen, early days and late nights, sharing space with people from all over the world, and coming together to celebrate our love for being creative and expressive with cooking. As a young line cook, I worked an early prep shift stationed next to my coworker Louis. I was new and he was tasked with training me. There was a very strong language barrier between us but that didn’t stop us from communicating in other ways. He would communicate to me kinetically without speaking one word and in a matter of time we were laughing, teaching each other new methods, and building a friendship that will forever be cherished in my memory. It’s amazing the impact a person can have on another and I always hope that I’ve had the same positive impact training new cooks as he had on me.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Oof! A hard lesson at the time — humourous now — was making sure to not rush a step of reducing wine. I was tasked at my morning job to make the sunchoke soup for dinner service. Sunchokes are knobby and have a lot of dirty nooks and crannies, making it very labor intensive to prepare. The recipe for the soup involved reducing sherry wine down 80% before adding in the prepared sunchokes and broth to simmer until cooked through. I was in a rush to leave for my night job and instead of being late and reducing the wine fully, I only reduced it about halfway and added in the broth and sunchokes before handing the soup off to the evening shift cook. As I rushed to change out of my uniform in the bathroom I heard my chef yell “NAIHAAA” from the kitchen and with my tail between my legs, I slowly made my way back to the hotline. My chef immediately called me out in-front of all of my peers for rushing that step and imposed that I taste the soup I was passing off. Acidic with a harsh alcohol taste, my soup was unservable. He pointed to the dishwasher, who helped peel the sunchokes, and scolded me for wasting his effort. Chef threw the stock pot in my direction and I cowered in fear. While this is not my managing style, I never again rushed a step of reducing wine!

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

My expertise lies in plant-based eating and holistic nutrition, which is still a growing category. I believe that eating delicious food doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice nutrition or overall health and that certain foods, like ayurvedic or immune-boosting options, can support overall wellness while still being tasty. I’ve committed myself to a plant-based diet for over a decade and have never felt better. I also thrive from living a very active lifestyle by being active every day. Whether it’s going for a bike ride around town, running trails, skateboarding with my friends, or even calling a friend while taking a long walk around the neighborhood, I feel better when I take these actions which is why it is so important to me.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My career and interest in nutrition and wellness really took off when I began working for Executive Chef Bruce Hill at Bix Restaurant. Chef Bruce is by no means plant-based however he showcases fresh, seasonal produce in his cooking that really made me think more creatively about composing new dishes. Each ingredient on his menu held importance and purpose. This helped me appreciate plants on a whole new level. His style of management is to take what I made and make it better, then when you teach someone else, empower them to improve upon your recipe. I’ll never forget when he first gave me the opportunity to make the amuse bouche for dinner service. I was honored for the opportunity and remember being so nervous to present my dish to him. Of course, his feedback was to add a liiiiittle sprinkle of maldon salt. This was one of my first steps to developing my own menu.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

I think one of the main blockages that prevents us from making lifestyle changes is convenience. It seems so much easier to grab a processed, unhealthy snack than it is to create something more nourishing. I have set out to prove that that’s not always the case in my own life by leading by example. I figure if my loved ones see me make time and effort to eat right on top of my other responsibilities, they’ll be able to envision themselves doing the same. Another blockage is commitment — it can be daunting to commit to a whole lifestyle change. I believe in the power of small swaps you can make, from diet to routine, that can make a difference in the long run. Finally, I still think there is a lot of close-mindedness about food in general. There are many ingredients that people are not willing to explore because they seem different, but even if that ingredient might be key to their health.

Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)

  1. Prioritize exercise AND rest: It’s important to fit in daily movement and exercise, but people should also aim to get a solid night’s sleep, and work in at least one activity that supports mind-body balance such as meditation or breath work. I find these two go hand-in-hand: I can’t be active if I’m tired and I can’t rest well if I haven’t been active. I also find it helpful to get my daily movement and exercise in doing an activity that is fun and fulfilling which keeps me engaged and making it less of a chore. The gym isn’t for everyone, but even taking long walks or bike rides will do the trick. I’ll take any excuse to have some fun during the day!
  2. Approach change as a gift: As you make changes in your routine, approach each task or change as a gift instead of a chore. This will create more peace and less stress in your mental space. I like to remind myself the purpose behind each change and how beneficial it will be to my mind and body. I love, respect, and admire my human body and I owe it to myself to nourish it, because I know that I am worth it. That empowers me to make positive changes in my life.
  3. Laugh: Laughter really is the best medicine. I believe shaking the cobwebs out of your mind and giving yourself the joy of belly-shaking laughter can have a huge effect on wellness. Life is full of adversity for everyone, not every day is promised to us and we’re all familiar with plans unprecedentedly going astray. Sometimes just taking a pause to breathe and a moment to let some positivity in will make your next decision more clear and not out of reaction.
  4. Try to make plant-based swaps in your diet: Nutrient-dense meals or snacks with whole foods and plenty of phytonutrient-rich produce, protein, and good fats are a tasty tool to equip the body with a defense against illness. Major changes always start with small steps. A handful of spinach to your stir-fry, fresh fruit with your breakfast, adding some seasonal vegetables to each meal are all great steps to incorporate more plant foods into your diet. The more comfortable you get cooking plants, the easier it will be to swap them in.
  5. Cook at home: Many of us live very busy lives and don’t have the opportunity to cook the lavish meals we daydream of. However, making time to cook at home will not only help you build up your culinary skill and confidence with practice, you’ll also be proud of what you made and have a better relationship with your food. For those short on time, try a plant-based meal delivery service, like Thistle!

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?

When paired with proper nutrition and rest, daily exercise can lead to an increased overall mood, improved rest and ability to get a good night’s rest, as well as an increased likelihood of having a healthier lifestyle overall. When you are exercising regularly, you’re more likely to incorporate healthy activities into all areas of life.

For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?

While there are experts on exercise that can speak to specific exercises, I recommend incorporating meditation or breath work into your daily exercise routine. Start or finish a workout with mindfulness that celebrates the work your body has done or will do. It can make you overall more connected to your workouts. I recommend choosing an exercise that is fulfilling, fun and engaging, making you look forward to the next day.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

“How Not to Die” by Dr. Michael Greger made an enormous impact on me. My family member dealing with the autoimmune disease regularly referenced Dr. Greger’s website for resources on improving her health. Familiar with his name, I picked up his book which validated all my hypotheses on the human body and our resilience to overcome adversity. This book, along with the lived experience of my family member, empowered me to nourish and take care of my body so I can live my best life and be my best self.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that more people eating plant-based can make a huge difference, both on a personal level and on a global level. If more people could start making plant-based swaps in their diet, from small snacking changes to larger swaps at the grocery store for meal preps, we could see our planet begin to heal and experience an overall increase in wellness. Not to mention how empowering it is to make your own food from scratch, knowing exactly what you put in it and the intention behind each ingredient. I think it’s important to provide yourself with that special treatment.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

I worked under sous-chef Devon Ellis who unfortunately has recently passed away. Cooking with him taught me many valuable lessons however, the one that stuck with me the most: never take yourself or your food too seriously. I think about this all the time. It’s good to laugh at yourself, to not take things too seriously, and to look forward to the bigger picture instead of being bogged down by the day-to-day. That is heartwarming and beautiful, not to mention humble.

It also means, it’s okay to make mistakes. Sometimes we judge ourselves too often and too hard and forget that mistakes are inevitable. It also means that you are not perfect and life isn’t about perfection, it is about living. Laugh at the joke called “YOU”. Although, on a more literary note, this quote: “World is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.” — H. P. Lovecraft

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Dr. Michael Greger!! I’ve been trying to join a seminar for years but haven’t had much luck. I would love the opportunity to meet and share a meal with the person behind the research that helped save my loved one’s life, and steer my life’s purpose in the direction of longevity, holistic wellness, and cultivating a life worth sharing.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Thistle has an online blog called Thistle Thoughts that I regularly contribute to and write articles on specialty ingredients, nutrition, lifestyle changes, and insight into what we’re cooking up at Thistle.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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