Saturday, June 15, 2013

Real Virtuality - the importance of community in health

Today, we had the pleasure of participating in a meet-up of friends from our Fitocracy online community here in the Minneapolis area.  It was just a picnic in the park, and rain told us it was time to go home, but it was a fantastic experience.

Interestingly, I had a moment of apprehension before the event.  Would I live up to my online persona? Would people be disappointed that I don't boast a more "impressive" physique?  Would those that had been around longer and participated in previous meet-ups consider me an equal upon arrival?

More importantly, would they like my salsa?

You know what happened?  Nothing.  We all shook hands, introduced ourselves, and proceeded to talk about - well - all the same things we share every day in our online community.  All of my questions and concerns were utterly groundless.

And that struck me...  

How often have I encouraged people who were apprehensive about not being "good enough" or "ready" to step into the gym or the weight room in particular?  Often enough that the words just roll off my fingers onto the keyboard.  And here I was, experiencing just the same thing.  

We all have our self-doubts.  And we stew on them and magnify them until they seem like a tremendous obstacle, a giant zit in the middle of our self-image foreheads that we are just sure will have everybody snickering behind their hand.  The thing is: we're wrong when we get into this mode.  And we are keeping ourselves from enjoying the chances in life that will make for extraordinary experiences.  

The community let me get out of my own head.  We all shared successes, failures, and perspectives that, rather than making me feel out of my league, made me understand that everyone has a story, everyone is on a journey, and everybody has tried and fallen short in much the same way as I have.  And, through their experience, I gained perspective on how to take my own next steps.  Which, for me, includes signing up for a power lifting meet after we are settled down in our new home.  Who cares whether I'm "ready" to place strongly?  It is the experiences we embrace that define us.

You just have to get out of your own way.  Life - a life full of possibilities - is right outside your door. 

What are you waiting for? 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How the Calorie Ruined Nutrition

Okay - that's it - I've had all I can take...

I know we are going to start a storm here, but, day in and day out, we keep seeing the same mythology and misunderstanding being perpetuated around the Internet, the water cooler, and forums across the web.  It's time to try and put it to rest.

The dietary Calorie, a brief history:

The Calorie, in its modern definition, came from  roots in mechanical physics at the time that the steamboat and the steam engine locomotive were the height of technology.  It was, as today, a measure of heat energy to quantify the effects of fuel on a thermal engine.
 In the mid-1800s, this concept became adapted to food consumption, though the measurement was transformed into the more practical Kilo-Calorie (kcal).  The concept was introduced to the public by Atwater in the journal "Century" in a series of articles.  Ironically, even at this early stage, scientists acknowledged that "The potential energy represents only the fuel value of the food, and hence is only an incomplete measure of its whole nutritive value".

As a unit of energy, the calorie has long been surpassed by the joule, but the term Calorie has become so embedded in our nutritional awareness, that it has never been replaced.

The method of determining the caloric value of food is the same as it has always been: a calorimeter, which combusts the food in a laboratory and records the heat energy generated.  Which is great, if you're a pot-bellied stove.

What's wrong with the Calorie?

This obsession with food = calories = energy = balance to be maintained and manipulated is baffling.  Somewhere along the way, we forgot about the difference between energy and matter.  Energy that exists solely as energy can be found in all kinds of places: light, heat, radiation, house music... well, maybe not house music.  Matter, on the other hand, has mass and takes up physical space in the universe.  Which category do you think your chicken breast falls into?

The whole calorie theory rests its ponderous bulk on the First Law of Thermodynamics, that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or converted.  Fine and good, except that, as matter, the things we eat as food also have the laws of physics surrounding them.  As finite quantities of molecules, you can't burn them and build with the same piece.  You have to choose.  

YES, okay, the chicken breast can potentially be used as energy.  And some of it certainly will be.  But some of it, depending on your age, metabolic health, training routine, and other factors, possibly most of it will be applied to replacing worn out tissues and building new ones.  

Think of a steak.  When it is on your plate, you look at it as "X" calories per serving.  But, in the cow, it wasn't energy; it was muscle tissue.  Stored protein that did work and burned energy.  Yes, if the cow were starving, that muscle tissue would eventually be catabolized into energy to keep the cow alive.  But then the cow wouldn't have the muscle anymore.  You can't burn it and build with it.  You have to choose.

Somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn...

Something happened in our advanced society.  Somewhere we lost the ability to think and reason for ourselves.  Worse, some pompous scientists started bashing anybody that disputed the immutable laws of physics when it came to food - completely ignoring the fact that they had skipped a chapter along the way.  I'm not a pot-bellied stove.  The stove isn't going to take any of the wood you throw in it and use it to reinforce the iron base, or replace the stovepipe molecules that have degraded in the heat.  Nope, it's just going to burn stuff.  I'm not a pot-bellied stove.
ourselves.  Grandma used to say "eat your meat and vegetables; they'll make you grow up big and strong."  We used to think of food as nutrients, as building blocks.  In short: matter.  But some knucklehead started slapping the caloric value of every piece of food on a label and we lost our minds.  Calories became everything.

If food is just a collection of calories and calories are interchangeable, then why do some people get fat and some get muscular?  Why is there any variation in body composition between two people that eat the same thing?  Why can some people lose weight on 1800 kCal a day and others feel the need to plummet to 1000?  

And it gets even more ridiculous!

Since people abandoned their own experience for the wisdom of a food label, they have gone to unbelievable lengths to create the "perfect equation" of energy balance.  From measuring calories in, to Basal Metabolic Rate, to calories burned in exercise, we have heaps of calculators and tools to show us how to strike the magical energy balance.  And none of them, no matter how complex, are right.  

Futility, Part 1 - Calories in.

Calorie counters read those labels religiously. They add them all up, weigh, measure, and portion so exactly right.  But - there is so much variation between those labels and the actual content of food, sometimes as much as 50% above or below, that, from the outset you're doomed to arrive at any meaningful number.  Add to that the variation in cooking techniques and, well, you get the idea.  

What's more (and I'm going out a scientific limb here) many of the so-called "foods" we eat in a modern society are either barely digestible at all or so refined the body sucks it up at alarming rates.  The best documented example of this is baby formula.  Scientific studies have conclusively proven that much less of the processed and artificial nutrients used to simulate breast milk are not absorbed into the body, but passed straight into the stool.  Their solution, multiply these ingredients by the inefficiency of absorption to "force" sufficient nutrient into the baby's system.  But what happens to the rest of it?  How does it impact the digestive tract?  Anybody who has changed diapers of both breast-fed and formula babies will tell you.  

Paleo practitioners, on this score, have it right.  Though the specifics of "what" are still in dispute, there is no doubt our body was constructed and equipped to digest and process certain molecules better than others.

Futility, Part 2 - Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). 

Apparently there is an app for that...
The next piece in the calorie-counting nightmare is calculating BMR.  There are all sorts of Theory of Relativity-rivaling calculators out there that estimate your activity level, adjust for the Thermic Effect of Food, and factor in other components like age and gender.  These calculators are supposed to spit out the amount of energy you burn just existing.  

But again, every person is unique in their combination of body composition, metabolic health, hormone levels, perceived level of activity, and even the efficiency (conditioning) with which their body operates.  Conditions such as stress, fatigue, and even the weather add further variables to your actual daily energy expenditure.  

So we start with a calculator based on estimates and subjective factors, leave out individuality and variation, and yet, somehow, spit out a number that we are supposed to consider "valid".

Futility, Part 3 - Calories Out. 

C'mon, would he lie to you?
This part may be the least controversial assertion I make, but still people cling to it.  "Calories burned" calculators are models that estimate the amount of energy you converted in your body through oxygen consumption.  Oxygen consumption is estimated by measuring your heart rate.  Most calculators include a body weight factor and some an age factor as well.  These factors are supposed to increase or decrease the base number built into the heart rate model.  

Once again, these factors entirely leave out individuality.  Conditioning, training style, and body composition all drastically effect the level of effort you put forth in any activity.  Furthermore, your body is the ultimate master of efficiency and adaptation.  That means, as you improve your conditioning in a specific activity, you will expend less energy as you continue to perform it over time.  Yet the calculator will read out the same number again and again.  

And no calculator effectively measures the expenditure of energy through anaerobic activity, such as lifting weights.  Yet every single contraction of a muscle consumes sugar, generates heat, and stimulates hormonal reactions that stimulate energy-burning growth.  And, as with aerobic activity, our body's become more efficient at performing the same workload over time, so you burn less energy each time you repeat the same activity at the same load.  

So, once again, we start with estimates, toss in generic factors, and leave out the actuals, while completely ignoring an entire class of activity.

Futility, a recap. 

So - you cannot count on the precision of the calories you're taking in, you have little hope of producing a realistic number of your BMR, and calorie monitors for exercise are next to worthless.  So why are you still doing it?

Why is the Calorie still around?

Calorie zombies? We may be onto something...
Here's the deal.  The Calorie is a well-established scientific measure, defended by the medical and scientific community for over 150 years.  And there is a very strong statistical relationship (in real food) between caloric content and nutritional density.  So strong, in fact, that at times, it's truly difficult to tell the difference.  No matter how strong the relationship is, you simply can't get around the fact that this is correlation and not causality.  

Note: It is precisely because of this strong correlation that calorie counting can prove useful to practitioners who understand and adjust for all the variability and use the relationship to achieve weight loss.  

But, in the age of ultra-processed ingredients, we have stripped away nutrition, leaving only the energy (in refined carbohydrates) behind.  To counter this, we stripped away even more of the original ingredients (like fat) and replaced them with lower-calorie substitutes like sugars and gluten.  This has created a bizarre imbalance in our perception of healthy food.  

But food isn't just energy.  And you are not a pot-bellied stove. You need to rebuild and replace your body every single day with amino acids and fatty acids.  You need to fuel your activity with glucose from quality carbohydrates.  You need to put things into your body that it was designed and equipped to consume to perform these functions.  Nutrition is about incorporating the right amounts of the right components to continue these activities.  Grams of protein, grams of fat, grams of carbohydrate, all with the essential vitamins and minerals they provide.  Anything else is malnutrition, pure and simple.  

Now, eat your meat and vegetables so you can grow up big and strong!

Monday, June 3, 2013

What does hunger have in common with breathing?

I love analogies and metaphors.  Sometimes they don't work out so well, but often I find them the best way to make a (seemingly) complex point simple to understand.I've been trying to find a clean and concise way to explain the concepts the underpin our approach to nutrition for some time now.  And, let's face it, the biology lessons get a little - well - dry.  I mean, who wants to muddle through this:

Clear as mud, right?
But recently, it occurred to me that we can learn a lot about hunger and nutrition from another set of organs frequently focused on in training and exercise: the lungs.  

Everybody knows that exertion causes us to breathe more deeply and heavily.  So much so, that being out of breath is often associated with a "good workout".  But why, really, do we breathe hard during activity that crosses the aerobic threshold?

Soldier, do you even HIIT?
Extended exertion relies on the body's ability to get oxygen to working cells and transport away the CO2 generated in the process.  Oxygen is free-flowing through your arteries at all times (remember red arteries and blue veins from middle school biology?)  But, when the existing stream isn't enough, your cells are "starved" for the needed oxygen to continue the energy-supplying reaction.  Like the AT&T commercial, "you want more, you want more!"  The call goes out.

The central nervous system signals "more oxygen please" and, in response, your breathing rate and depth increases.  In short, you don't breathe harder because your lungs are empty, or even because your lungs asked for more; you breathe harder because your cells demand it and put the call out to your brain.  The lungs are the supplier in the system - not the driver.

Now your breathing is an autonomic reaction.  You can't very well stop it.  And nobody accuses you of poor willpower because you can't choose to reduce your oxygen intake.  

With me so far?  Let's look at how this relates to nutrition.

The same kind of processes go on with regards to replenishing your body with nutrition.  Cells need amino acids, fatty acids, and energy to continue their daily activity, and even more if you're stressing them through strenuous activity.  Instead of the lungs, our digestive system is the supplier for nutrients and energy the body demands.  When things get low, the brain signals "more nutrients please" and you get hungry - biologically, truly hungry.

The problem with us as humans is, we've convinced ourselves that the stomach is the driver of hunger, that "full" and "empty" are simply based on the contents of our gut.  We've stopped listening to our brain about when more is needed.  Obviously, the act of eating is voluntary, in contrast to breathing, and that gets us into trouble.

Another parallel: people perform "cardio" exercise in order to improve the capacity and efficiency of their oxygen processing system.  But how many of us work to "optimize our gut efficiency"?  We wouldn't consider breathing "junk air", because it just wouldn't give our body what it needs.  But food?  Nutritional density, quality, availability, and efficiency just aren't given a thought.  We know a growing number of people have sensitivities involving gluten - especially in excess.  And the skyrocketing popularity of probiotics would seem to indicate that gut problems are fairly wide-spread.  Our go-to foods contain preservatives and chemicals, foods so refined that they last a year on the shelf.  What do they do to our digestive process?  

Okay, so now what?

If you've hung around this long, you might be saying "I see your point, Mike, but what am I supposed to do about it?  Well, we need to change our relationship with food.  Our culture is so centered on food for everything but nutrition.  Whether it's for celebration, rewards, or commiseration, the messages around food are powerfully ingrained from childhood, marketing, and peer pressure.  We all have to wrestle with that in our own way.  But at the end of the day, food is fuel: building material and energy.  To have a healthy relationship with food, you have to put that thought at the forefront.

Next, try to figure out what your real hunger signals are.  For Michelle and I, we slow down a bit, our minds don't work quite as fast, and - if allowed to go on too long - we get shaky and "hangry" (a compound word of our own design, combining hungry & angry).  The problem is, these signs come on very gradually and aren't always easy to notice.  They are also signs of the fact that you're already at a deficit.  To me, this is probably the best case for, like breathing, eating a small, steady stream throughout the day.  You don't get especially hungry at any point, you don't get especially full either.  You're basically doing "healthy grazing".  From pre-workout through dinner, our meals are, at most, three hours apart.  

Finally, make sure that the food you have available and choose to provide your body is of high nutritional quality.  It's simpler, more satisfying, tastes better, and not that expensive, if you plan right.  

So, if you're struggling with your nutrition, dealing with hunger and cravings, just remember: it's as easy as breathing.