Thursday, August 22, 2013

CSAs - Bringing the Farm to the 'Burbs

What do you get when you cross a retired child psychologist, a slightly chubby dog, and nine acres of land in the middle of the desert?  You get Tonopah Rob's Community Supported Agriculture farm of course!

Michelle and I have long been fans of farmers' markets and we've been reading up on CSAs for a while now.  With the move to Phoenix, we finally had our chance to check one out in person.  

"What is a CSA farm", you ask?  Of course, how silly of me.  A CSA farm is basically a co-op, but you don't have to get your fingernails dirty.  These small farms grow a variety of local crops in small quantities.  They are funded through the sale of "shares" into the farm.  As a shareholder, you provide the up-front cost for planting and growing and, come harvest, you get your return in the form of fabulous, fresh, local produce.  Each farm operates a little differently when you get into specifics, but that's the idea. 

If you're someone who is concerned about where your food comes from, or even if you're just a "support small business" kind of person, this is a fabulous opportunity.  

On with the story...

We headed out early, since it's August and the Sonoran Desert gets a little - well - sporty after about
10am.  A twenty mile drive out west to Tonopah later and we pulled up to a little house with a farm stand out front.  A sunburned face wearing a straw hat greeted us as we walked up, none other than Tonopah Rob himself.  His dog, Deenie, also formed part of the welcoming committee.  

We introduced ourselves and Rob shook our hand and took us on a tour.  Chickens and turkeys wandered about, altogether disinterested in our presence.  Rob warned us to watch for snakes.  Deenie didn't seem too concerned about them, though, so we walked bravely on. 

As he walked us around, he explained his methods and philosophy toward farming.  You could see the pride beaming in his face as he spoke.  Pairing plants in beds so that scents and oils from one naturally repelled pests from their neighbor.  Keeping bee hives all around the property to promote pollination.  Rotating crops from year to year to replenish nutrients in the soil.  And even innovative ways to conserve water in a challenging environment.  Oh - and his little John Deere tractor he lovingly refers to as "Booger".

Bucolic charm aside, this was one heck of an operation.  After the tour, we happily signed up for our share for the fall/winter growing season.   Many CSAs have a "basket program" where each period you have to come pick up your pre-packaged basket of goods.  Tonopah Rob has a more customer-friendly business model.  We spend our share credit at the stand just like a cash customer.  If you don't use it up, the credit is gone at the end of the season (but seriously, as many veggies as we eat, blowing through $250 in a season isn't going to be a problem).  

So, you get to directly support a local business, procure the freshest local produce, and really see where your food comes from.  Plus, the pre-paid investment is a great way to motivate you to buy and try more veggies if you're one of those who needs a little "encouragement".  Where's the down-side here?

Check out the Local Harvest website and quick search online to see if there is a CSA farm in your area and check it out.  Make it a field trip.  I don't think you'll regret it.  And if you ever find yourself westbound on Interstate 10 west of Phoenix, drop by and visit Rob.  Tell him we sent you.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Obesity's Perfect Storm

There's something going on in the Western World.  And, despite so much attention being focused on it, it's still getting worse.  The average westerner has lost touch with the innate ability to feed and, thereby, care for ourselves.  People are getting heavier and sicker by the day.  We're more educated, have a higher living standard, and medical science is more advanced than ever before.  How are we not getting the message?

It must be something bigger.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist.  But I do believe in complexity.  And the more I learn, the more I see a "perfect storm" of factors that have come together to, quite literally, shape our society.  To peel it all back, let's take each factor one at a time.

Storm front #1: Flawed Science
It really all starts here.  Whether you agree with his "carbs are the real problem" stance or not, in his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes paints a fairly dismal picture of the evolution of medical science with respect to weight and health management.  The foundational focuses are decades old and were based on the limitations of what was known and what could be measured at the time.  These foundations have endured over time and, like a crooked wall, veer ever farther from the original premise.

Scientific studies can do as much harm as good.  This is no critique (necessarily) of the researchers themselves, but more of the instant-gratification, dumb-it-down media to immediately take things out of context and beyond the scope of the study.

These days, the focus is on "curing" obesity.  It was even recently designated a disease.  Open the door for "there's a pill for everything" medicine.  Family practitioners are not up to speed on nutritional science breatkthroughs, and are also less likely to explore lifestyle treatment, like meaningful physical exercise.  The lifestyle mantras are quoted chapter and verse by doctors across the world: get 30 minutes of cardio, 2-3 times a week and eat less fat.  But there is little expectation that patients will follow this advice, so very little emphasis is put on the importance of lifestyle and health.

Specialization also takes a toll here.  Diabetologists and endocrinologists are on the front lines of the impacts of obesity.  But those specialists come into the picture after things are well out of control, and "downward" communication to your family doctor isn't happening the way it should.  Instead, the entire focus has been put on calories in vs calories out, rather than on how to nourish and power our bodies.

Storm front #2: "Big Fitness"
The fitness industry, from big box gyms to "as seen on TV" wonder DVDs and gadgets, to the purveyors of miracle supplements and shakes, is a mult-billion dollar industry.  And its customer base is growing.  There is no incentive for the fitness industry to actually get you into shape.  In fact, they'd rather make you dependent on their products and keep you coming back as a return customer.   If you buy a gym membership and never go, the gym still gets your money and the equipment you would be using remains vacant for yet another member.  It's a win/win for the fitness center.  And nothing you buy from TV is ever going to deliver the results promised.  They even tell you that, right on the screen: "results not typical".

Storm front #3: "Lifestyle Marketing"
Can I have a side of Diabetes with that?
I'm in the marketing industry myself.  Everybody is looking for that fundamental emotional connection to make with their customer.  Lifestyle marketing is when you tie your product to a way of life, a feeling of prosperity, happiness, and success.  The tactics are incredibly successful.  Now think about the last restaurant commercial you saw.  Was it really about the food?  Or were there images of attractive people having a great time while eating food?  If you want to have a good time with friends, what is the first thing that comes to mind?  A meal out somewhere?  Where did that come from?

Now think about the advertising for "convenience foods" that pepper the television.  What are the underlying messages there?  Cooking is hard and you don't have time.  Your family will love you for serving this dish.  Plus: hey! added fiber / reduced fat / naturally sweetened - you name it.  Bottom line: this is better than what you could possibly pull off on your own.  Nonsense, I know.  But we, as a society, are completely in the thrall of the convenience food message.  

Storm front #4: "Addictive Flavors"
On the first three points, we are talking about information that is widely available and completely up to the reader to make an informed decision.  Let the buyer beware, right?  But, when it comes to addictive flavors, this is the one topic where I will point a finger at a malignant source.  

Food companies consult with flavor labs to create the perfect balance between a distinctive flavor and a very limited finish.  When the food is in your mouth, the texture and flavor are extremely pleasing, but, in these engineered flavors, the moment you swallow, you need a "boost" to get the flavor back.  It literally keeps you coming back for more.  

We haven't been eating clean for that long: just over a year.  I still remember foods that I loved.  They were my go-tos week after week.  We recently drove across the country and hit some pretty austere territory in the process.  Our choices were limited.  I literally had McDonalds for the first time in 13 months.  It tasted like - nothing.  Nothing at all.  Place after place we stopped, it was the same story.  Safe to say, we were sort of stunned.  When you're used to real food.  The stuff you used to think of as craveable is just a pale shadow of flavor.  And that's the way they design it.  

Storm front #5: "Pop Media"
Have you noticed that when you flip through five different news broadcasts, they're all on the same stories?  That's because they all take their information off the same news wire.  We are obsessed with the sound bite and the news feeds us exactly what we want.  When a study that took five years to conduct and comes with four hundred pages of findings is reduced to a two-minute blurb read by a talking head from a teleprompter, it's fairly safe to say that you aren't getting the nuances.  

Take the recent story on Omega-3 fatty acids.  The study took participants who had prostate cancer and examined their blood chemistry to see if there were any trends.  They found that some of these participants had elevated levels of Omega-3 DHA.  There was a correlation between these participants, all of whom had cancer, and blood levels of this fatty acid.  Of course, people at risk for prostate cancer (men over 50) have been bombarded with messages about supplements that will reduce their risk or the severity of the cancer.  Did they have elevated levels because they were fighting cancer, or was the cancer a result of the Omega-3?  Or... was some other element of body chemistry out of whack that contributed to both the cancer and the blood lipid levels?  The study confessed not to know.  But the news story said "Taking fish oil is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer."  Period.  

Beyond the news, you run into an endless stream of "talk" shows that are, at best, the blind leading the blind, and at worst, a serious conflict of interest.  People who profit from the endorsement of a product on their forum should be regarded with skepticism, especially when it comes to your health.

Storm front #6: "Urban Myths"
The Internet is a fabulous thing, isn't it?  I mean, you're enjoying our fabulous content right now thanks to the "information superhighway".  But the Internet is a peculiar paradox.  On one hand, it has nutured our craving for instant gratification.  There is always something new to grab your attention.  On the other, it is a vast repository of things that just won't die.  In my military life, when you got a new regulation or new set of orders, they would always tell you that the previous version was obsolete and you should get rid of it.  That was nice.  It was clean and simple.  The new guidance is the only guidance.  

Not so in our modern world.  Everything gets mixed up.  This will save you, that will kill you.  Then tomorrow the whole thing is reversed.  The result is that people hold on to whatever piece of information struck them first or resonated the most, with a healthy dose of skepticism for anything that conflicts with what they perceive to be the truth.  And, with the Internet, they can perpetuate it through a host of different channels, continually re-muddying the waters.  

People mean well.  They believe that their information is the right information.  But there is very little to help you, the reader, from separating established fact from outdated convention from plain ol' poppycock.  

Superstorm: Obesity
By themselves, none of these "storm fronts" would do much damage.  But the way they've coalesced into a combined power, it has colored our perception in a profound way.  Look at how these look when they're strung together into one set of attitudes about food and fitness:

     "I'm overweight, and I know I need cardio exercise three times a week to burn fat, plus I have to watch my fats and cholesterol.  Fiber's great though, so I should eat more grain.  Plus, I drink green tea every day, since it's a fat-burner.  I have a membership at a great gym; they have all these cool classes and tons of treadmills and elliptical machines, plus I bought that "Turbo Jam" DVD, so I can tone and shape my muscles.  It really makes me sweat."  

     "I eat pretty healthy; I only buy low-fat and low-calorie foods. Except on weekends, because that's when I go out with my friends.  Dinner, drinks and dessert are such a great way to unwind and I deserve a little reward.  I'll just work out twice as long on Monday.  When I'm hungry, I usually have an extra bowl of Special K, because it's heart healthy and "they" say the studies show women who eat this weigh less.  Besides, it's delicious! I could eat a whole box of that stuff every day."  

     "I'm not sure why I'm not losing weight.  I don't eat eggs, cheese, or meat hardly ever; I only drink diet soda now, and I've been taking Hydroxycut for months.  I only eat 1200 calories a day (when I don't cheat).  I'm just so tired all the time.  I have no time or energy to go to the gym, let alone cook a lot of crazy food.  I feel bad, because I've paid for the membership, but I'll get back in there soon.  Guess I'll microwave dinner; it's Healthy Choice at least."

Do these sound like anybody you know?  Do you see the subtle influences of the six "storm fronts" across them all?  

How about this one?

     "I love food!  It seems like I'm eating all the time.  Steak, cheese, and full-fat Caesar dressing?  Bring It!  I can't remember the last time I had a bowl of cereal.  I have a vague idea of how many calories I'm eating, but I don't count and don't really care.  I  never jog or hit the elliptical.  The best thing is all the great flavors I get to eat: Mexican, Greek, Chinese, and Italian.  Besides, I save a ton of money by eating at home."

This person is obviously unconcerned about his or her health.  A walking time-bomb, right?  Well, the truth is, this is a declaration that Michelle and I have both made more than once.  In fact, though it is only part of the story, it is a big part of our attitude toward nutrition now.  It flies in the face of everything you know about eating healthy, right?  How could we possibly lose weight with such a bizarre approach to nutrition?  

I'll repeat what I said at the beginning: something is wrong - something bigger than "eat less, move more".  We believe that we have found a winning approach to nutrition and fitness.  I won't say "right" because your goals may be different.  But if you want to lose fat, be stronger, have more energy, and feel great about how you feel and look, then you've come to the right place.  You've got to shed the conventional wisdom, choose a nutrition plan (not a diet) and a training plan (not exercise) that will deliver the results you want.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are Your Genes Making You Fat?

A friend and reader challenged us recently with an article from Science Daily.  This one's for you "TrapezeBear".

I say "challenged" because the subject of the article was on a field of science research known as "epigenetics".  Now Michelle is the brains of the outfit, but neither one of us are geneticists, and we sure as heck aren't "epi-geneticists".  I know enough to know this:  it's complicated.  

But I like a challenge and it's an area we really haven't put much emphasis on until now.  So what follows is more of an editorial breakdown with citations.  Here's hoping it sparks a very lively conversation.  

Let's start with the premise: Obesity and related conditions are genetic.  

He's just not that into outliers.
My first line of thinking here is statistical.  One of the most fundamental truths of any population is the
bell curve.  And Mr. Bell Curve tells us that 65% of a population falls around the middle of the curve.  About 4% (two on the high end and two at the low) fall into the extreme ends.  Are there people who are truly genetically predisposed to be overweight, no matter what?  Of course.  Just like there are some that will remain lean under almost any dietary / lifestyle conditions.  But these are the two-percenters.  Might you be one of them?  Maybe.  But very probably not.  

And that's the point of view we are writing from: "You are not the exception; you are the rule."

That said, genetics obviously play a central role in our body composition and function.  So, what do we know about the interplay of genetics and environment (or "nature vs nurture")?  Quite a bit, actually.    
And some of the most interesting data comes from a series of studies on identical twins.

We know that genetics play a significant role in where and how each of us fatten.  
Got a gut?  Hips?  Those under-arm things?  Yep, that's genetics.  Unfortunately there is nothing we can do to change the way fat accumulates in our bodies.

And here's where we take the first u-turn in our exploration of genetics:  Even though your DNA is identical in every cell in your body, how that genetic material functions does differ throughout the body.  Think about it:  Liver cells do - well - liver stuff.  Muscle cells - they have their thing.  Fat cells - you get the idea.  Even though the genetic material is the same, collections of cells in parts of the body have different attributes "switched on".  For example, in skin graft patients, if you take skin from an area of the body that is prone to fattening, that tissue will continue to fatten easily in its new location, even if that area is normally lean.  So, it's all the same stuff, but can behave quite differently.  

Exploring the Obesity Gene.

In recent years, scientists have isolated a gene that they believe is strongly associated with obesity.  It has a charming little name: FTO.  Actually, we all have the FTO gene, but a particular variant (or allelle) of the gene has been noted to be associated with increased weight.  Now, before you say "That's what I got!  That's why I can't lose weight!", let's break down the numbers.

About half of those of European or African descent are estimated to have the gene variant, while about 14% of those of Asian descent have it.  Among those that do, studies indicate an average of 2-7 pound difference (less if you have one instance of the variant, more if you have two instances).  So we're not talking about an insurmountable amount of weight difference here.  So, the average American has a 50-50 chance of having a gene combination that may cause them to weigh five-ish pounds more than a similar person who doesn't.  

It's sounding like a little less of a big deal isn't it?

Additionally, a series of the studies on the FTO gene indicated that it was associated with increased appetite / energy intake, but did not result in a reduced ability to expend energy.  In short, the gene doesn't make it physically more difficult for a person to lose weight, but seems to indicate a person more prone to gaining it.  

Genetics alone aren't a prescription for obesity, lifestyle is.

As I mentioned, some of the most revealing studies about obesity and genetics involve identical twins.  One study examined twin pairs where one was obese and the other wasn't.  The two were, of course, genetically identical, as well as having the same upbringing, access to activity, and, presumptively, attitudes about food.  Yet one was overweight and the other wasn't.  In itself, the existence of these pairs refutes the theory that genetics are the central cause of fattening.  

The study conducted detailed blood analyses of the pairs.  The results are very much worth noting.  
Each pair's blood work was in a somewhat different range.  But the difference between the obese twin and the leaner one was a pattern that repeated again and again.  The obese twin always had higher insulin resistance, higher fasting blood glucose, higher triglycerides, and lower HDL cholesterol. There were also increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the lipid profiles of the obese twins.  

But my father was fat, and my grandfather too...

We derive our attitudes, behaviors, mannerisms, and habits through the imprint of those around us in our formative years.  Many of the conditions that have traditionally been considered to "run in families" turn out to be primarily lifestyle-related.  If you do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, Einstein says that's insane.  Heredity may be a factor, but odds are, inhereted behaviors are the more likely culprit.

Genetic disorders that lead to obesity

Energy regulation comes down to hormones.  The two most common hormonal conditions that likely have a strong genetic component are hypothyroidism (Hashimoto's Disease) and Type I Diabetes.  Both are autoimmune disorders that prevent the body from producing sufficient hormones to properly regulate energy and frequently lead to obesity.  Both are noted to "run in families" but genetic association does not guarantee the condition (in twins where one of them is Type I, the other is only 30-50% likely to have it as well), nor does the lack of a family history guarantee immunity.  So it is likely a combination of factors.  A genetic susceptibility, triggered by environmental factors, possibly en utero, come together to trigger the full-blown condition.  

You can't change your genes anyway... or can you?

Which brings us back to the beginning and epigenetics.  Epigenetics is an evolving science - even the definition of the word itself is somewhat in dispute.  But, in general, it has to do with things that influence and impact our genetic functions.  Remember earlier that I mentioned how different cells have different attributes "switched" on or off, based on their function.  That switching is at the heart of epigenetics.  

A recent study discovered a form of micro-RNA that has the ability to switch off the FTO gene variant in our fat cells through exercise.  What exactly causes this switching activity is not clear, but unrelated studies do show that fit people show some "immunity" to the effects of overfeeding.  It opens up some interesting possibilities.  Maybe "nature" and "nurture" aren't mutually exclusive after all.  

IF you are one of those that has the FTO variant, and IF the micro-RNA switching is, as the study appears to indicate, directly influenced by exercise and weight loss, then, as those switched-off cells reproduce, you develop an ever increasing number of FTO-inactive cells throughout your body, which could, over time, result in a person becoming like those in the non-FTO population.  It seems like a lot of conditions just to capture a five-pound advantage, though, doesn't it?

Boiling it all down

For the vast majority of us, genetics play a role in where and how our bodies fatten, and, in the case of
carriers of the FTO "fat gene" variant, may predispose people to overeating to a degree - but not a huge degree.  Twins identical in all aspects but weight showed the key differences are in factors primarily affected by nutrition, not bodily function.  And those nutritional factors are reflective of people overwhelmed by high-glycemic index foods in their diet (insulin resistance, high fasting glucose, and high triglycerides/low HDL cholesterol).  

We're all born with the bodies we've got and will reside in the rest of our lives.  Each one is unique in its natural strengths and weaknesses.  But, for most of us, we can minimize or overcome weaknesses and maximize strengths through a planful application of nutrition and meaningful exercise. 

What is true is that, whatever path a person is on, fattening or getting leaner, there is a cascade effect of either negative or positive outcomes, which continue and multiply their impact to the body. That can make it feel like the kind of uphill battle that must mean your body is working against you.  To break the cycle, the best bet is to break it in multiple places at the same time.