Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: Good Calories, Bad Calories

When I first planned to write this review, I have to admit I took it too lightly.  I thought that it would be a simple matter of "liked this; didn't like that" and that would be it.  As it turns out, there's a lot more to consider.

About the author: 
First, let's get to the elephant in the room: the author.  Gary Taubes is a controversial name in nutrition.  Some go so far as to say "utterly discredited".  But why?  There are all kinds of flat-out crazy assertions in diet and nutrition books out there and they don't carry the kind of stigma that Mr. Taubes does.  It would seem that he fell victim to his own enthusiasm (Gary, I can sympathize).

Set the way-back machine to July 2002 and Gary Taubes wrote an 8,000 word editorial titled "What if it was all a big fat lie?" in the New York Times.  Clever play on words, as his assertion was that long-demonized dietary fat may not be at the heart of the obesity epidemic or the threat to heart health that it was made out to be.  The problem is, he cited some experts he interviewed about his premise, but "curtailed" their quotes in a way that supported his theme, but not their actual feelings on the matter.  The result was a thorough blasting that eclipsed the substance of his argument.

This book, published in 2007, appears to be his way of redeeming himself from the aftermath of "... Big Fat Lie."  It is a tome, nearly 700 pages, loaded with research, citations, and footnotes.  It's probably the single most complete compilation of the story of how our thinking has evolved surrounding nutrition over the last 100+ years.  This alone makes the book, in my opinion, essential to anyone studying nutrition and weight loss.  Taubes actually published a "Reader's Digest Version" of this work, titled "Why we Get Fat".  The shorter read promotes the same thesis, but in a much more condensed format.

About the book:
Taubes is unabashed in promoting his theory (one which I generally share) that refined carbohydrates in excess are a significant factor in today's obesity epidemic and seemingly spiraling growth of Type II Diabetes.  By contrast, he asserts how dietary fat has been wrongly accused of being the culprit.  On that score, this is a mixed bag for the inquisitive reader.  It's great that you know exactly what Taubes' point of view is, but it is far from a balanced presentation of the merits of both arguments.

But that's not what makes this book interesting or unique.  Regardless of whether you agree with Taubes or not, this book is a must-read. Read it because it is, in fact, a three-way cautionary tale.  Through his tireless pursuit of historical data and anecdotes to make his case, you see clearly how confirmation bias, cults of personality, and even a little class warfare have shaped the message and, therefore the attitudes of pretty much the entire Western World.  Moreover, he shows clearly the risks involved when public policy makers dispense sweeping medical advice (something we have come to accept and expect, thanks to groups like the American Heart Association and others), that ought to be left to physicians and their individual patients.

Finally - Taubes clearly exposes the danger of taking studies and their findings at face value, particularly when you don't understand the mechanics and controls behind the study.  In many ways, these scientific studies have taken the place of our own observations of reality, much the same way over-relying on a GPS seems to rob people of their ability to navigate on their own.  Think of this: it's a statistical fact that obesity is on the rise.  It's generally accepted across the board that 80-95% of "diets" fail to produce any meaningful weight loss.  Yet we are still devoted to the same methods that have been failing for the last 30-40 years. Definition of insanity, anyone?

Taubes shows how, too often, researchers have relied on data of convenience, rather than those data points that are most meaningful, to support their pre-existing assertion.  This is, in part, because a truly meaningful nutrition / weight loss trial is virtually impossible unless you govern every single aspect of their behavior and measure it meticulously and with precision.  Any variation in intake or expenditure can cast the results in complete doubt.  It is also in part due to the duration required to really determine whether an approach "worked," "initially worked," "looked like it worked, but turned out later not to," or just plain "didn't work".  Trials like that take years.  And people tend to prefer not to have every single meal and activity governed for such a duration.  

And what is "worked?" exactly?  Most of the dietary trials were trying to assess whether manipulating a single variable, fat, for instance, would measurably improve a person's incidence of heart disease and, ultimately, death from it.  This sort of trial is the methodology employed by the field of epidemiology to prevent the spread of infectious disease.  The trials' ultimate finding is not about whether a treatment is 100% effective or 100% ineffective, but rather how many people need to be treated in order for one person to be positively affected.  Think: flu shots here.  We know it isn't going to work for everybody, and the majority aren't at risk to begin with, but the "relative harm" is considered negligible for the "relative benefit."  So - flu shots, issued as broadly as possible, are considered an effective epidemiological practice.  Since no one at the time was looking at Diabetes, but instead at heart disease, the "relative harm" of trading benign carbohydrates in favor of fat seemed like an altogether simple recommendation.

In these recommendations, obesity was always assumed to be the proximate cause of heart disease and not a related outcome from some other condition, so the results, time and again read: "X makes you fat, which makes you susceptible to heart disease."  And, by and large, it was also accepted that the proximate cause of obesity had to be gluttony.

It was a revelation to me, personally, to realize just how disconnected fields of expertise in health and nutrition have become.  Impacts to inter-related systems, upstream and down, are not necessarily considered if those systems reside outside the specialist's purview.  

About the premise:
As I said, Taubes' argument is that refined carbohydrates, consumed in excess, are both uniquely fattening and uniquely harmful to the human body.  He presents a series of arguments, both against the "fat hypothesis" and for the "carbohydrate hypothesis".  

The most compelling support for his position is, in fact, the oldest.  He spends a good amount of time walking us through how missionary doctors in very remote populations never had to deal with "western diseases" such as diabetes and cancer. How it was only after introducing highly refined carbohydrates into their newly-westernized diets (they had to be highly refined in order to survive the long transport), that these populations began to exhibit these conditions.  He provides numerous examples of this pattern across the world.  Since we, in the western world, only recall dealing with Diabetes and heart disease in terms of increasing or reducing their occurrence, we've never had the luxury of considering the posibility of their absence.  These missionary doctors had the unique opportunity to examine their own "patient zero" at the time the conditions manifested, to and directly observe the changes in environment and lifestyle that may have contributed to or caused them.

And here is where Taubes' assertions differ so drastically from the conventional wisdom of energy balance and the First Law of Thermodynamics.  Taubes treats obesity as an outcome to the metabolic damage caused by constantly elevated insulin levels.  He explains (often in terms you'll have to read through more than once) the biochemical processes from system to system, from intake to storage and consumption, and does something nobody else does: connect the dots.  The energy balance group doesn't have to connect anything, because at the end of the day, all they're looking for is a zero sum, and the rest is fat.  But hormone imbalances, the impact to the liver and pancreas, the mechanics of fat metabolism itself, are all laid bare in the pages of "Good Calories, Bad Calories".

Despite his passion for his position, Taubes does take care to repeatedly state that his evidence is equivocal.  That we still have to infer much of what leads him to the carbohydrate conclusion.  Again,  whether you agree with him or not, one has to admire his commitment: Taubes has long been an active practitioner of the Atkins Method, and he is currently partnered with Dr. Peter Attia, a ketogenic diet proponent and practitioner, in an organization called the Nutritional Science Initiative (NuSI.org).  NuSI is advocating for the best possible nutritional trials and studies to finally deliver some definitive answers to the full picture of human nutrition and how our eating affects the quality and longevity of our lives.

The Bottom Line:
Good Calories, Bad Calories is absolutely worth the read.  For me, it appeals as a student of public policy and history, as an analyst, and as someone who has sought to further my understanding of nutrition, health, and the function of the human body.  Whether your interest is in only one, two, or all of these areas, you will find it enlightening and engaging - if you start it off with an open, but skeptical, mind.  And, with it, you'll have a virtual catalog of studies, pro and con, to further your own understanding.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Guest Post: Three Ghosts, Four Injuries, Five Adaptations (Part 1)

One of the unexpected benefits of our fitness journey has been all of the incredible people we have gotten to know along the way. Doctors, nutritionists, and trainers have all shared their knowledge and support. But the most inspirational, by far, have been fellow "lay fitness" people that have come even farther and made even greater transformations than we have.

One of our favorites is, David, a man who dubs himself "Watchnerd" on Fitocracy. David lives in

the San Francisco Bay Area, works for a software company, did some sports in high school and college, was pretty sedentary in his 30s, and decided to get serious about his health again in his 40's. He's also one of the pithiest writers I've had the pleasure of reading in some time. Today, David shares the first part of the story of his own transformation in a series I know you're going to find both entertaining and inspiring.

"NEW RULE #9 • Everyone is injured. But not every injury hurts." 
Lou Schuler, "The New Rules of Lifting for Life." 


DOCTOR Z: "So you went to the emergency room on Thursday? Tell me what happened."
ME: "Shall I give the whole narrative?"
DOCTOR Z: "Yes please."

ME: "I injured myself on Saturday. I was deadlifting and --"
DOCTOR Z: "Wait, what? You were what?"
ME: "Deadlifting, a weightlifting exercise you do with a barbell, starting on the floor. Looks like this." [show motion]

DOCTOR Z: "How much were you lifting?"
ME: "135 lbs"
DOCTOR Z: "That sounds like a lot!"
ME: "It's not, really. Not among people who lift. You could probably do it with some practice."

DOCTOR Z: "So what happened?"

ME: "I was generally tired that day and had just done of bunch of exercises before the deadlift. It was last on my list. I got sloppy, started using bad form. Lifted ugly. And strained or pulled something. My initial assessment based on my symptoms was strained hip flexors on my left side. It hurts when I go through the act of standing up from a chair, but not once standing, or sitting, or lying down. It was pretty excruciating up through Monday, but it's getting better now."

DOCTOR Z: "But you didn't go to ER right away, you waited until Thursday. Why?"

ME: "After I used the toilet on Thursday, I had pretty severe pain in the affected area, but also back pain and tingling and numbness in my extremities. It was enough to make me concerned that my initial self-diagnosis was wrong and that I might have a hernia, instead. So I went to the ER."

DOCTOR Z: "Says here the ER doc checked you for hernia, didn't find any symptoms. Suspects strained abdominals or hip flexors lead to muscle spasm or splinting in the lumbar region, which might have caused tingling extremities."

ME: "Yes, although I may have been leading the witness for the last bit."

DOCTOR Z: "So, um….what would you like me to do? Would you like me to also check you for a hernia?"

ME: "I guess if you want to. But I don't think it's necessary at this point."

DOCTOR Z: "Well, keep an eye on it, let me know if the symptoms worsen, and, you know, take it easy..."

ME: "Thanks, will do…."

And that's when I knew: the process of improving my health, renovating my middle-aged body, buttressing the weak spots, strengthening the foundations, and patching the holes would be pretty much 
- - - - 

It was an epiphany to realize that I was going to have to take on the primary duty of navigating my way through the health issues associated with tackling a serious fitness routine in my 40's. But it really shouldn't have been.

I should have known I didn't fall into any pre-existing medical practice bucket. I'm not a child, so don't need a pediatrician. I'm not yet truly old, so don't need a geriatric specialist. I don't have (thank heavens) a serious condition that would require an oncologist or cardiologist. I don't have diabetes and, thankfully due to diet and exercise, have managed to avoid taking medications for blood pressure or cholesterol.

I didn't fall into one of the buckets that would allow me to say: "I'm sick. Give me a pill or a surgery to fix it." The kind of categorization that our modern medical system is geared towards.

So I had a drink with a college friend, now a doctor. But not MY doctor.

Soft Tissues:

ME: "...so, that's the ER story."
DOCTOR Y: "So that's your third injury in 3 months, right?"
ME: "Well, yeah, but --"
DOCTOR Y: "You need to recognize that you're 'An Old' now."

ME: "What's that supposed to mean? I'm just supposed to throw in the towel and get decrepit?"

DOCTOR Y: "Just accept your limits. Don't push the boundaries and you won't get hurt. You're not 20 any more. You should, you know, act your age."

ME: "Did you hear what you just said? I'm just supposed to give in to creeping atrophy?"

DOCTOR Y: "No, you should definitely be active, we all know the blahblah minutes of daily exercise that the AMA says, et cetera. But you don't have to be THAT active. Just --"

ME: "It's too late, anyway. I'm already doing barbell squats. You're not going to talk me out of it. I use the power rack at my gym more than the 20-somethings. I love it."

DOCTOR Y: "Damn…I uh get winded just doing body weight squats. Heaving my daughter around leaves me winded. I haven't even worn a sports bra since I had a kid."

ME: "Huh, really? You used to be pretty fit."

DOCTOR Y: "Hey, you have a kid, you get married, you -- wait, this is supposed to be about you, not me!"

ME: "Maybe it's really about both of us, doc." [smile smile]

DOCTOR Y: "Ok, look, maybe I have sample selection bias. I just see so many torn labrums and ripped ACLs, and half of them are from guys your age who think that now that erectile drugs can give them the rigidity of a teenager with the staying power of mature guy, that they can just wake up and go Rambo at gym. It's not that simple."

ME: "Was your sample selection bias comment referring to the torn labrums or the erectile drugs?"

DOCTOR Y: "Hush, you! Look, you're not that old yet. You've probably regained strength quickly and your cardio is --"

ME: "Surpassed. I'm stronger now than I was in my 20's. Or at least I'm lifting heavier weights."

DOCTOR Y: "Exactly. And your cardio improved probably even quicker than that. But your joints and soft tissues will lag. And by lag I mean severely lag. Like months behind."

ME: "What do you mean?"

DOCTOR Y: "Think about middle aged athletes. They almost never retire because they've lost skill, strength, or endurance. It's almost always injuries, and often those are joints injuries. And these are among guys who are active for a living. They've got pretty beefed up cartilaginous tissues, so it's usually something major like a tendon or a ligament. In a way, you're lucky."

ME: "How so?"

DOCTOR Y: "Well, no offense, but you're not a pro athlete. Before you ever get to the point of blowing a ligament, you're far more likely to succumb to repetitive strain injuries before you even get to that point."

Which brings us to…

GHOST 1: Osgood–Schlatter disease

Ghosts don’t stay buried. They like to haunt you. Surprise you and scare you.

If you’re like me, you had some physical issues in your (reasonably) athletic youth. Issues that went away when you stopped being so active. Issues that disappeared when you stopped pushing your body’s limits.

You thought you outgrew them. After all, you hadn’t had symptoms in decades. But they’re still there, lurking in the background, waiting to pop out and get you. You know - like that monster-in-the-tv in “The Ring”.

Early teens through high school, I participated in a number of running sports, including soccer, cross country, and middle-distance track (400m & 800m). At the time, I developed Osgood-Schlatter disease, a fairly common knee ailment among teens. According to Wikipedia:

“Osgood–Schlatter disease generally occurs in boys and girls aged 9–16[2] coinciding with periods of growth spurts….symptoms usually resolve with treatment but may recur for 12–24 months before complete resolution at skeletal maturity”

I hadn’t had knee problems in decades. So when I decided to get active again, I did so with gusto.

My instrument of choice was the elliptical trainer. The latest studies seemed to indicate that I needed to get 45-60 minutes of “steady state cardio” in a day if I wanted to get real improvement, so that’s what I did. Every day. 6-7 days a week.

[I won’t get into why this approach to cardio is wrong-headed just now, but it is common consensus.]

And as I got into better shape, I had to increase the intensity in order to get that addictive runner’s high. I would set the machine to a low resistance, put on some 150 bpm music, and thrash round like the Tasmanian Devil until I got my heart rate above 140 and kept it there for a minimum of 45 min.

Until I woke up one morning and couldn’t walk because my knee was on fire..

INJURY 2: Patellofemoral syndrome.

DOCTOR Z: “Well, it looks like you have patellofemoral syndrome.”

ME: “So nothing acute, that’s good, no torn ACL. I assume that’s a repetitive strain injury?”

DOCTOR Z: “Yes. Treat it with anti-inflammatories and ice. And on this paper are some supplemental exercises you can do to help strengthen your quads, which seems to help.”

ME: [look at sheet] “Wall squats? Seriously? But I’m doing barbell squats.”

DOCTOR Z: “Well maybe you shouldn’t do those for a while.”

ME: “But you said I need to strengthen my quads.”

DOCTOR Z: “Yes, that’s right. Stronger quads help keep your patella in the right place.”

ME: “Right, I get that. But if I’m already doing barbell squats, how are wall squats supposed to make my quads stronger? It won’t be challenging enough to build strength.”

DOCTOR Z: “Well, um…just don’t do them for a couple of days. Then start again if it feels okay, I guess. But you should limit your cardio to something lighter, like maybe 30 min of walking.”

ME: “30 min of walking? I’m already way past that. I’m not an 80 year old healing from a broken hip. That’s going to decrease my cardio performance, not even hold it steady.”

DOCTOR Z: “I understand that, but I’m trying to help you avoid injury.”

ME: “Every sport has injuries. Part of the training process is finding out where the boundaries are between not enough training to produce positive change, and too much that causes injury. I have to go through this discovery process with my own body.”

DOCTOR Z: “We tell people to be more active, then they come back with patellofemoral syndrome. Number one complaint among the recently active.”

ME: “Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t tell people to be more active to improve their health, complain when they get injured and then ask them to stop being active.”

DOCTOR Z: “Hmmm.”

ME: “What do you do for cardio?”
DOCTOR Z: “Treadmill. Easy pace.”
ME: “And does it ever hurt? And what do you do about it?”
DOCTOR Z: “I just stop. Usually after 20 minutes.”

ME: “You took my blood pressure 15 minutes ago. You saw my resting heart rate. We’re similar age. How does it compare to yours?”

DOCTOR Z: …..”yours is better.”

ME: “QED, right?”
DOCTOR Z: “Huh?”
ME: “It’s Latin. Quo Erat Demonstrandum. Used at the end of math proofs. Means ‘it has thus been demonstrated.’”

DOCTOR Z: “You are one of my more….challenging....patients.”

ME: “Hope that’s a good thing! Look, if this is related to RSI and impact, I think I can switch to using a rowing machine. I’ve been playing with it a little bit and from what I can tell it should be even lower impact than the elliptical trainer, but with even greater cardio intensity.”
DOCTOR Z: “Okay…just, you know, take it easy.”

ME: “I’m sure I’ll have to at first. I’m not very good at it yet. And if I have any early RSI symptoms, I’ll treat it with RICE.”

DOCTOR Z: “Huh? Like white rice?”

ME: [silent facepalm] “No, Rest Ice Compression Elevation...”

DOCTOR Z: [sheepish] “Oh…okay, see you later. Don’t push too hard!”

And thus began my transition from the never-ended slog of the elliptical trainers, to…

ADAPTATION 1 - Competitive Indoor Rowing:

What’s low impact, a full body workout, extremely taxing on the cardio system, can be done indoors, burns over 600 calories an hour, has competitive worldwide rankings, and doesn’t involve getting hit in the face?

Indoor rowing! AKA ergometer rowing.

After a few weeks of horrible torture, burning lungs, gassed out muscles, and just slumped over exhaustion, I was finally getting to the point where I could row the standard distances without quitting. My times were getting into the range of “respectable”, although far from competitive.

I was in a groove, tracking every distance, time, 500m split, strokes per minute, and ranking myself against other rowers around the world.

It was so much more satisfying than just punching the clock on the elliptical next to banks of people who didn’t want to be there, either, immersing themselves in magazines and books, anything to take their minds off the goal-less drudgery, the “WHRRRWHRRRWHRRR” droning of endless banks of cardio machines. Like pods in the Matrix filled with human slaves.

And I was making rapid progress. My full-body barbell workouts seemed to carry over nicely for both the lower and upper body pulling strength needed to be a good rower. I was dreaming of competing in the indoor regattas next spring.

But then it all came crashing down with one bad bench press.

[to be continued]

Friday, May 17, 2013

What we eat: Is Eating Clean More Expensive Than the S.A.D.?

It often comes up among our friends and acquaintances who are trying to lose weight that it is too expensive to eat "clean".  While, for us, the investment is a worthy one that we would gladly make even if it meant sacrificing somewhere else, we realize that there are some folks that simply have no wiggle room.  

We decided to (literally) put our money where our mouths are and track, as closely as possible, how much we invest in our food and how far it goes.

As it happens, we are home for exactly one week between two trips and we had pretty much cleared out our refrigerator prior to the first.  So we had to buy pretty much everything we needed to eat for the week all at once.  We spent $155 on the items above.  Will it be enough to cover our meal plan?

Prep Cooking:

Preparation is key!  We bulk cook in advance to ensure food is ready quickly and to prevent impulse eating choices.   Our standard prep (this week and every week) is:
  • Steel cut oats (apples and cinnamon)
  • Egg salad (6 eggs)
  • Fresh salsa (a major cooking ingredient)
  • Seasoned chicken breast, sliced to tenders size
  • Roasted garbanzo beans
  • Whole wheat bread (in our bread machine)
This spread represents a two-hour investment of time, usually on Sunday, and pays us back in the form of time and nutrition throughout the week.  You'll see exactly where we use these items in our meal log.

Our Meals:

You'll notice that we list protein shakes with whey protein in the meal log.  That is not calculated into our food cost experiment because it is a supplement to support our weightlifting training.  Not to worry, there are still three solid meals, plus snacks every day to make this a fair trial.  Also - our beverages are typically coffee, unsweet tea, and water throughout the day.  They're not listed (but in the food cost).

Dinner was the first meal post-shopping, so that's where we begin.
  • 1 1/2 Hormel Naturals boneless pork chops (pan grilled in a little olive oil)
  • 1/4 large sweet potato, diced, tossed in olive oil and seasoned, oven baked

  • Pre-workout: whey protein shake with a scoop of plain yoghurt and 6 raspberries
  • Post-workout: 1 1/2 cups of steel cut oats with apples and cinnamon (from prep day)
  • Lunch: Greek wrap (using chicken from prep day), 1/2 cup of cottage cheese
  • Snack: (me) Protein shake with peanut butter and yoghurt. (Michelle) She likes to "graze", having small portions of a variety of things: garbanzo beans, some chips and salsa, fresh veggies, a little scoop of peanut butter (or two)... You get the idea.
  • Dinner: Quinoa pasta with spicy Italian sausage and pesto
  • Pre-workout: whey protein shake with a scoop of plain yoghurt and 6 raspberries
  • Post-workout: 1 1/2 cups of steel cut oats with apples and cinnamon (from prep day)
  • Lunch: Egg salad sandwich (egg salad and bread from prep day) with fresh spinach, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese.
  • Snack: (me) the usual protein shake. (Michelle) "Grazing"
  • Dinner: Chef style salad with chicken (from prep day) and boiled egg.  Rest of the salad went into a green bag for later meals
  • Late snack: Plate of Triscuits and an assortment of cheeses.
  • Pre-workout: whey protein shake with a scoop of plain yoghurt and 6 raspberries
  • Post-workout: 1 1/2 cups of steel cut oats with apples and cinnamon (from prep day)
  • Lunch: 1/4 pound of barbecue pulled pork (from the local butcher shop) on zucchini slices, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese.
  • Snack: (me) the usual protein shake. (Michelle) "Grazing"
  • Dinner: Pot roast (made in the crock pot, leftover servings are saved for later meals), veggie stir fry 
  • Pre-workout: whey protein shake with a scoop of plain yoghurt and 6 raspberries
  • Post-workout: (me) Slice of toast (bread from prep day) with peanut butter. (Michelle) 3/4 cup of Greek yoghurt with blueberries and a sprinkle of granola
  • Lunch: Mexican-style chicken (from prep day) wrap, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese.
  • Snack: (me) the usual protein shake. (Michelle) "Grazing"
  • Dinner: Fiesta-style roast beef over 1/2 cup of quinoa.
Captain's log: supplemental:  Had to make a run to the store this afternoon.  We were (gasp!) OUT... OF... PEANUT BUTTER!!  This shall not stand!  Plus a couple other items.  Added $22 to the total for the week.

  • Pre-workout: whey protein shake with a scoop of plain yoghurt and 6 raspberries
  • Post-workout: 1 1/2 cups of steel cut oats with apples and cinnamon (from prep day)
  • Lunch: Egg salad sandwich (egg salad and bread from prep day) with fresh spinach, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese.
  • Snack: (me) the usual protein shake. (Michelle) Garbanzo beans and bell pepper slices
  • Dinner: 1/2 a ribeye steak, pan grilled with a side salad (from Monday's bag).
  • Pre-workout: whey protein shake with a scoop of plain yoghurt and 1/4 cup blueberries
  • Post-workout: 1 1/2 cups of steel cut oats with apples and cinnamon (from prep day)
  • Lunch: (me) leftover quinoa pasta with sausage, (Michelle) Egg salad sandwich (egg salad and bread from prep day) with fresh spinach, 1/2 cup of cottage cheese.
  • Snack: (me) the usual protein shake. (Michelle) Garbanzo beans and bell pepper slices
  • Dinner: 1/4 lb hamburger (with a hot Italian sausage mixed into the meat) with cheddar on fresh spinach (no bread here) and a 1-cup side of Ore Ida french fries, oven baked.
Saturday (rest day - projected menu, but you can count on it)
  • Breakfast: 2 1/2 eggs scrambled with grilled onions, peppers, and shredded cheddar, 3 strips of bacon
  • Lunch: Chef-style salad (from the bag) with chicken (from prep day) and a boiled egg
  • Dinner: "Mixed grill" (using leftover pot roast and chicken from prep day), seasoned Asian-style with grilled mixed vegetables.
Transparency Note:  We used a couple of items that were already in our cupboard this week:  Mission wraps and a box of Ancient Harvest quinoa pasta.  Since most of us have some rollover from week to week, I don't think of this as a budget issue, but wanted to be totally open.

About the Meal Plan:

We refer to our eating approach as "clean eating", but I'm sure you've noticed that it doesn't completely eschew some common mass-marketed products.  We like Jif peanut butter - it isn't strictly "clean", but it's the one we like the best.  Mission brand wraps just happen to work the best of any we've tried in terms of flavor and usability.  The point is, you don't have to be militant about your choices.  You can "work in" some things that you'd just prefer not to live without.

We aren't currently in a weight-loss mode.  At the moment, our diet is about maintaining current body fat and gradually increasing muscle.  Though we ate many of the same things here when we were dropping fat, we certainly ate less of it.  And snacks were primarily vegetables.  I just didn't want any weight-loss readers following the exact plan and blasting us for not dropping the pounds.

The Results:

For 44 meals (two people, three times a day, plus snacks), we spent a total of $177.  That works out to $4.02 a plate.  We did our shopping at Target, not the cheapest way to go, nor the most expensive.  We didn't use coupons or sales, and we also didn't buy organic or grass-fed products, which are, of course, more expensive.  In short, this is a very "middle of the road" budget number for anybody to work with.  Especially considering we're pretty much "free feeding" at the moment as we seek additional muscle gain.

Outside of our prep day, we didn't spend more than 20-25 minutes preparing any meal.  And we used our pre-prepared or leftover ingredients in 16 of the 44 meals (over 1/3).  

For comparison, a standard combo meal at McDonald's is anywhere from $6 to $9.  A meal at Chipotle, probably a better comparison for general quality, is over $10.  We almost never eat out, unless it is a special occasion.

So - is it more expensive to eat clean than to rely on processed, packaged convenience foods?  Possibly.  Is it out of reach for the average family?  Not if you plan ahead, cook ahead, and make the most of your ingredients. And this meal plan is more rounded, more nutritionally dense, and extremely satisfying, compared to processed or "diet" foods.  Hopefully we showed you some practical ways to make it possible.

Were you surprised?  How does this compare with your own weekly food cost?  We'd love to hear the results of your own experiments.  And come back in a week or two and we will have many of the items on the food log linked to our personal recipes as part of a new tab on the site.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Ten Tips: Eating Healthy on the Road

We humans are creatures of habit.  We all have our routines and rituals that keep us sane and anchor our habits (good and bad).  For people who are concerned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, a major (or even minor) disruption in this routine can wreak havok on our goals.  Or - so our over-active worrisome imaginations tell us.

What do you do to maintain some semblance of normalcy when your routine is broken?  Or do you just throw up your hands?  My brother-in-law travels for work all around the state all week long, and food choices are a real challenge. 

Taking in the sights in San Antonio on business.
In the course of three months, Michelle and I will spend a total of four weeks traveling out of state, under a wide variety of conditions.  Some celebratory, like our wedding and honeymoon.  Some business travel.  And even one of the touchiest ones of all - visiting family.  I won't say we got it perfect.  I don't think there's any such thing.  But I do think we managed to recognize and tackle many of the issues that threaten to derail the conscientious eater.  

Depending on the nature of your travel, you can "mix and match" these helpful hints as they work for you.

1.  Bring a bit of home with you.  
Everyone has their "go-to" snacks.  We generally make a practice of loading up snack baggies when we are traveling.  Trail mix, roasted garbanzo beans, and usually a couple of Atkins protein meal bars are loaded in the backpack.  On long flights and layovers, these have been a godsend.  

2.  Strategically plan your hotel location.

The folks at GNC were great! 40g of protein.
This one is obviously dependent on how flexible your travel plans are.  Most people, given a choice, will compare prices and in-hotel amenities.  But what about facilities outside the hotel?  On a business trip, we chose a hotel that was 1/2 mile from a GNC, a mile or so from a good grocery store, and across the street from a Golds Gym.  Not to mention an assortment of restaurants that fit our nutrition needs, all within a five-minute drive.

3.  Choose a hotel with a kitchen.  
Extended stay type hotels, like those that Marriott offers, have kitchenettes and full-sized refrigerators.  This allows you to stock up on good veggies, cheeses, meats, and other perishables that make up the center of a clean eater's diet.  You'll also save a ton on eating out costs.

4.  Eat local.  
The local regional flavors of your travel destination are much more likely to be made from fresh ingredients.  "Mom and Pop" places with made-from-scratch menu choices are going to be a superior nutritional (and taste) choice. 

5.  Eat Breakfast (anytime).
If you're traveling in the US, you can find "all-day breakfast" restaurants pretty much anywhere.  Eggs and bacon or sausage ALWAYS fit my macros!  Plus - it's pretty hard to screw up eggs.

6.  Offer to cook.
Peach cobbler at County Line Barbecue, San Antonio.
When you're visiting family, often times they're not on the same page when it comes to meal planning. Rather than declining what they offer, try creating some excitement by sharing some of your own recipes.  Shop together; cook together.  Use it as an opportunity to talk about how important nutrition is to you and for anyone who wants to lead a healthy life.

7.  Accept less than perfection.
I'm not saying throw it all out the window here.  But the very nature of traveling means you're giving up some control over your environment.  Make the best choices you can, but don't beat yourself up for compromising either.  You are not going to erase all your hard work with a few less-than-perfect meals.

Food and friends.  Isn't that what life's about?
8.  Have fun with it.  
If you're traveling for vacation or some other celebration, don't forget to smell the culinary roses.  Eating just for the sake of enjoyment is perfectly fine, even on a fairly strict nutrition plan.  Enjoy the company, enjoy the food, and step out of your comfort zone if the opportunity presents itself.  

9.  Remember your macros.
When it comes down to it, you've got a pretty simple guide to follow: protein first, veggies always, other complex carbs and fats in moderation.  When you're reading the menu or hitting the local supermarket, pick the selection that matches your macros.

10.  And finally: you don't HAVE to make a "happy plate".  
Lots of restaurants over-portion.  And they love to throw on the breads, pasta, and rice side dishes (these are cheap on restaurant food cost).  Don't feel remotely guilty about "wasting" food you don't need.  Don't forget to ask if they will make a substitution.  Extra meat or extra vegetables instead of the white stuff will always work better to fill you up without the accompanying "food coma".

These tips may not seem all that revolutionary, and, honestly, they're probably not.  But if your nutrition is a priority, plan ahead a little and apply them to your next trip. Hopefully you'll find eating a little less stressful.  Which means the rest of the trip should be that much more enjoyable.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Guest Post: 40 is the new 40

...A Blueprint for Keeping Your Muscle and Staying Strong

Michelle and I are on the road this week, but we have a special treat for you.

I'd like to introduce personal trainer and fellow Fitocrat Darren Moroney from Melbourne, Australia. Darren is new to blogging, but a veteran of the fitness industry, having been a personal trainer for a decade. Since turning 40 himself, Darren has come to notice (as we have) that the over-40 set is woefully underserved with specific and relevant fitness information. Enter: Fit as a Mallee Bull, Darren's new project.

He got our attention as a reader and commenter that turned into a conversation and now a partnership to get the message out to our fellow quadragenarians. We're pleased to be able to promote his work.

Without further adieu, Darren:

Just The Facts Ma'am

Here is a fact to consider as you pass the big 40.

You will lose about 1% of your muscle mass each year after 40 if you do nothing about it. The technical term for this natural process is Sarcopenia. I know it doesn't sound like much but think of the compounding effect over the next 10 to 20 years. This loss of tissue will slow down your metabolism which leads to weight gain. Basic everyday tasks will become more difficult. Even the look of your body will change as you become soft and flabby.

That doesn't have to be you.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that being 40 means that your body is resistant to change. Start a program that has the best exercises and you'll reduce the impact of the aging process.

Where To Now?

It's time to arm you with knowledge to select the best exercises to give you the results you want.

Compound Lifts

These exercises form the foundation of any effective exercise program.

A compound lift is any movement that involves multiple joints.

For example a squat involves the hip, knee and ankle joints.


Six of The Best

1. Squat. Often referred to as the king of exercises because of the number of muscles used when done properly.

2. Deadlift. Second only to the squat in its effectiveness for the lower body and hips.

3. Bench Press. Probably the most well known upper body exercise and performed religiously on a Monday in gyms worldwide.

4. Barbell/Dumbbell Row. An essential exercise to build a strong back and improve posture.

5. Pull ups/Chin ups. The greatest test of upper body pulling strength. Has the added benefit of building your arms also.

6. Overhead Press/Military Press. Another effective upper body exercise. A word of caution though if you've had shoulder injuries or problems, overhead pressing may not be a suitable exercise.

When starting any new exercise program a slightly conservative approach to begin with is best to gauge your starting point.

Recovery, Recovery, Recovery

You must accept the fact that your body does not spring back the way it used to. But that doesn't mean you can't challenge yourself. The harder a workout the longer the recovery time.

Don't beat yourself up for having a day off after a workout, rest is essential to stay on track.

Use some light exercise on recovery days to stay active and get the benefits of other types of exercise.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition, Rep...

The number of times you move the weight or the rep range will decide the results you get from it. A good range to work within is 6-10, this will build strength and maintain/build muscle.

Anything lower than this generally involves more weight which can place more stress on the joints.

Looking after your joints while still lifting a challenging weight will keep you on the road to long term health.

Not a Bodybuilder? Don't Train Like One.

Programs that utilize a full body or upper/lower split will give you the best results.

The benefits of this style of training allow you to hit muscle groups more than once a week while maximizing recovery.

For example a Mon/Wed/Fri split allows for a full day of recovery between workouts and you can cycle between different programs.

No one can claim to have the perfect routine. But when you take into account personal preferences, your body's response and time available you'll be we'll on your way to achieving your goals.

Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it. ~Plato

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Five Reasons You Shouldn't Listen To Us

(And one why maybe you should)

We've been doing this for a few months now and the response has been really humbling and enriching for us both. But recently it occurred to me: "why are you listening to us at all?". Well - I'm a big believer in "buyer beware," so I figured, in the spirit of total transparency, I'd give you all the chance to turn tail and run.

So (deep breath) here goes nothing.

1. We're not doctors, nutritionists, or professional trainers

Michelle and I have no particular qualifications to dispense advice on the subjects of health, nutrition, or fitness. We're veterans, world travelers, expert planners, and experienced leaders. But not health professionals. Health professionals, through decades of modern medical science will tell you all about "heart healthy diets" and being active 20-30 minutes a day, three times a week. They went to school for years to build a vast arsenal of health knowledge. And, clearly, it is working. The obesity epidemic is on the decline; the science is settled and incontrovertible, and can be applied with predictable results for nearly any healthy human.

2. We don't subscribe to mainstream diet and exercise recommendations

Dr Oz knows precisely zip! about achieving body recomposition in a person. There, I said it. It feels so good to get that off my chest. We don't count calories. We eat whole eggs, bacon, and steak with relish. We put full fat dressing on our (sizable) salad, and don't skimp on the cheese either. Nothing in our house is "low fat" or "lite", and a cheeseburger (without the bun) is not considered a cheat meal in this house.

Nothing in our nutrition or training regime is branded, trademarked, or published. We don't own a single diet book or workout video.

We don't do three days of cardio a week. We don't jog or cycle or hop on an elliptical machine at all. In fact, you know what? I have absolutely no idea how many calories we burned in today's workout, last week, or last month. I'm like a kid running around with scissors.

My God, people, we don't even own a scale!

3. We haven't achieved all of our health and fitness goals

Nope. Not there yet. Call me fickle, but when we started, I just wanted to be able to achieve the "not a wimp" goal of benching my body weight. Then, I hoped to see 200 someday. Now, I'm hunting for 225 (there's just something about piling on 45 pound plates). And Michelle has more than doubled her starting weight on the bench press. In fact, most weeks, her stats for total pounds lifted beat mine. (Seriously, she's a machine!)

We can't make up our minds what we want. Have more energy? Feel good in our clothes? Feel good out of our clothes? Lose weight, gain weight? Swing on a trapeze? Seriously - no focus whatsoever. Progress makes us giddy. Every day and every milestone open up a new vista of potential. Why on earth would we declare "mission accomplished"?

4. Nothing we write is new knowledge

There are probably thousands of blog and reference sites out there. Between Michelle and I, we probably subscribe to forty of them. We haven't conducted any controlled studies. We haven't conducted caloric analysis of the kumquat versus the mango. We certainly don't have the chops of Mark Rippetoe, et al. All we have done is read, researched, filtered, and applied everything we could to try and produce the results we were looking for.

Virtually everything you read on these pages can be found, backed up, validated (and in many cases refuted) elsewhere on the 'net. Albeit without the unique charm of our delivery.

5. We aren't promising you results

Any reputable service gives you some kind of guarantee, right? What kind of "bait and switch" operation are we running here?

The simple fact is that the human condition, physical, emotional, and psychological, is a complicated one. Everyone is different. I do believe that we represent what the "average" person can accomplish, but I don't know what will work for you personally to achieve your goals. But, if like so many of us, you've tried other approaches without success, what do you have to lose?


After forty years of being unsuccessful in applying mainstream thinking of diet and exercise, we decided to yield to Einstein's definition of insanity and to try something different. And it worked! And, even more bizarre, we're having fun doing it. I swear, I would have laughed out loud a year ago if anyone had described either one of us as a "gym rat".

Since starting in July 2012, we have each lost pounds, cut our body fat by 65%, gained muscle mass, gained strength, gotten faster, and look and feel better than any point in our lives. The results are undeniable.

We don't have anything to gain by doing this. We aren't selling anything and most of you will never meet us in person. But this is important. People are unhappy and unhealthy. And the vast majority of standard guidance out there isn't getting them anywhere.

We are passionate about getting the word out, especially to those of our generation, that you can actually be in control of your body and uncover possibilities you only dreamed of before. It's simple. It's not easy, but it is simple. (Props to Fito Derrick for that last little gem).  Just start!

So, if you haven't given up hope on us yet after baring our souls here, let us know.  Tell us what kinds of posts you want to see in the future.  And please, if you know someone who might be ready to make a change, share our message with them.