In the Weeds

[Is gluten intolerance really about pesticides?]

As I’ve said before, I’m not a nutrition dogmatist. While I think an ancestral-based approach is a good starting point for most people, I also strongly believe that differences in genetics, epigenetics, and microbiome cause different people to react very differently to the same foods. So it seems a prudent approach to start by paring down to a healthful dietary core, then test the re-addition of new foods to gauge their individualized effects.

Though wheat isn’t a central part of my own diet, I find that I can easily enjoy a bowl of pasta, say, without issue. But for a number of friends and Composite clients, removing grains has had hugely beneficial health impact.

More than a few of those ‘grain-reactive’ folks, however, have shared with me similar stories: though they feel terrible after eating even organic breads here in the US, while traveling in Italy or France, they decided that the chance to enjoy the local cuisine trumped their usual dietary concerns. But even after eating relatively large amounts of a food that they couldn’t tolerate at home, often for days at a time, they had no problems while abroad.

I’m dubious of claims (at least, health-based ones) against GMO’s, so I’d previously written off those international bread stories as the vagaries of travel – the excitement of being somewhere new, or the masking effects of a circadian rhythm tossed out of whack.

But today, I ended up diving down a rabbit-hole of research papers about glyphosate, an herbicide used as a primary ingredient in Monsanto’s hugely popular pesticide Roundup. Roundup is nearly ubiquitous in the US, where it’s used on 98% of non-organic wheat. And it travels well enough when airborne that it’s found on more than 50% of US organic wheat, too.

Though Roundup was approved as safe for humans back in the 1970’s, deeper research over the last decade has increasingly indicated that glyphosate – especially when combined with other ‘inert’ ingredients in Roundup – may be an extremely potent mitochondrial disruptor, which in turn can cause a broad array of health issues.

In other words, while people are complex, foods are, too. And, indeed, over the next few years, I suspect we’re going to discover that the rise of ‘gluten intolerance’ has less to do with an increase in people reacting negatively to wheat, and more to do with people reacting to the specific ways in which wheat is increasingly raised here in the US.

Our approach to large-scale agribusiness has certainly changed the fundamental economics of how we feed the world. But boy does it seem to come with a lot of second-order costs.

Key to Happiness

As the old adage goes, you only value your health once it’s gone.

That appears to apply to the health of your digital devices, too; I never realized how much I enjoy the left-side shift, control, and command keys on my MacBook until they suddenly gave out earlier today.

Since then, I’ve discovered that I use command- and control-dependent keyboard shortcuts pretty much nonstop, and I capitalize each ‘I,’ and the start of every sentence, using the left shift key by habitual default.

Having popped out and cleaned all three keys to no avail, I’m planning to simply leave the laptop at rest overnight, in the unrealistic hope that the wonky keys somehow miraculously fix themselves. And, barring that, I’ve blocked out all tomorrow morning to camp out at the Apple store, to see if their team of Geniuses can get things fixed relatively quickly in-house.

In the meantime, I’m at least getting to put my iPhone thumb-keyboarding skills to the serious test. As they say, fml.


by Billy Collins

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.

Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.

Spring Cleaning

Composite’s approach to health is largely built around habits. That’s because habits, once built, are easy to maintain. They are, by definition, what you do by default.

For most people, energy, willpower, and commitment to a goal wax and wane over time. You have days when you’re psyched up and ready to go, and others when you’re barely dragging through. That’s why we tend to favor building systems – something you can plan out and implement when you’re at your best, to keep you on the rails when you’re at your worst.

One system that we’ve found extremely effective is the Refrigerator Rule: in short, you’re eventually going to eat anything you keep in your refrigerator or cabinets. So you should probably only keep on hand food that passes muster with your best, most psyched-up, goal-committed self.

When we review food journals with clients, we’ll frequently find that they ate crappy afternoon snacks a few times during the past week. At which point, we always ask the same question: did you eat that cookie / candy bar / entire stack of Pringles because you really wanted it, or because it was there? And, about 95% of the time, people tell us they ate that specific unhealthy snack because it was the easy thing to do.

Life is short, and pleasure is important. If you really want a doughnut, go out and buy one (or three) fresh, and enjoy the hell out of it.

But if you don’t want one badly enough to head to the doughnut shop for it, I’d argue you don’t really want one all that much. You’re just stuffing down the semi-stale Entenmann’s because that’s what’s in your office kitchen.

So, today, on the first day of spring, take a moment and do your health a favor: spring clean the crap – the cookies, candy, chips, crackers, etc. – out of your home and office. Perhaps even go out and pick up some pistachios and walnuts, apples and oranges, beef jerky or string cheese to replace it.

If you want to eat something less healthful at some point, again, you’re an adult; go buy it and enjoy it. But in the meantime, make fitness easy for yourself. Get rid of the tempting garbage that’s just sitting there, and don’t let your future self make bad choices by default.

Just Tell Me

As I’ve mentioned before, over the past year, I’ve been testing out workout programming from a number of sources I respect, to see what good ideas and inspiration I can gather for Composite’s programming. After each stretch of trying someone else’s programming, I then spend a month or so doing programming I lay out for myself, incorporating what I’ve learned.

Looking back at my logs over the past year, a clear pattern emerges: when I’m following someone else’s programming, my compliance is very high, and I make it to the gym with great regularity; when I’m following my own, I start getting lax, taking days off, and routinely need ten or twelve days to cycle through what I’d laid out as workouts for a single week.

Given that I’m a compulsive self-tracker, that led me to look at other spheres of my life. And, indeed, when it comes to playing the trumpet, for example, I tend to practice more regularly and rigorously if I’m getting assignments from a teacher, rather than laying out (often very similar) sessions for myself.

In large part, I suspect the trumpet teacher effect is due to accountability: if I have to come back and play in front of someone, I don’t want to look like an idiot, so I’m more likely to get down to work. But, interestingly, that same effect holds even if the teacher is virtual, doesn’t know I exist.

When I first picked up the meditation habit, for example, I was using the great Headspace app. Over time, feeling more comfortable with things, I shifted to doing vipasana sessions on my own with a timer. And, there too, I found that my morning meditations were getting shorter, sometimes getting skipped entirely. So I went back to Headspace, and started following one of the app’s thirty-day cycles. Lo and behold, I was suddenly back to longer sessions, and hitting them almost every day.

I’m not sure entirely why that’s the case, though I do have a theory: when someone tells me what to do, I don’t have to think much about the reasoning behind what I’m told; I can simply assume that there’s method to the madness. So, when the time comes, my ‘doing self’ can just focus on the doing. Whereas when I’ve laid the work out for myself, I end up facing it as both my ‘doing self’ and my ‘assigning self.’ While the first is willing to get to it, the second can give me all kinds of reasons why I don’t need to, can rationalize a way out.

So, with that in mind, I’ve been giving new thought to other kinds of ‘bosses’ that might be useful in my life – business coach, relationship coach, financial advisor, etc. In the past, I’ve been dubious of the value that those people might provide, reasoning that I’d often be able to come to the same conclusions myself as they were likely to hand out. But now, I’m beginning to think that the value comes from that handing, rather than the conclusions themselves. I suspect there might be value in finding more people and places where I can have someone outside my own head just tell me what to do.

Dealing with Disaster

I'm a long-standing fan of British time-management guru Mark Forster, and particularly his book Do It Tomorrow.

At the crux of that book is a simple observation: you develop backlogs of work because the amount that comes in each day exceeds what you can get done in that day. Thus, preventing backlogs requires figuring out how to get a day’s worth of work done daily. That usually requires pruning commitments, reducing the flow of incoming work. ‘Time management’ alone won’t fix the problem; if there’s just more work than time allows, you won’t get it all done, regardless of how you prioritize your list.

Forster also recommends starting out by declaring a backlog: taking all tasks, emails, paper piles, etc., and moving them into a separate place – a dedicated to-do list, email folder, stack of papers, etc. You can then start each day by chipping away at the backlog. But, following that, you spend the rest of the day making sure you don’t once again fall behind. (FWIW, more specifically, Forster recommends batching all of today’s incoming work, emails, etc., and completing it tomorrow, so that you can see in its entirety what a full day of inbound commitments entails. Hence the name of the book.)

Recently, I’ve been trying to clean up a bunch of messes I’ve made in life – on the personal and business fronts. And the sheer weight of it all, the number of things I need to make right, has been a bit overwhelming.

Today, however, I realized that those messes are simply a different sort of backlog. So, this morning, I tried to list out everything I want to fix – people to whom I need to apologize or make amends, work that I need to do to feel good about where everything stands. Going forward, then, I’m focused primarily on the day before me: can I live and work today without screwing up anything new?

Sure, my life mess backlog is large. But it’s also finite. It’s a list I can chip away, piece by piece, over time. One that won’t grow any larger so long as I can keep up with living the way I want, day in and day out. And, oddly enough, just by thinking about things in that new way, it suddenly feels like I might be up to the task.

Past Perfect

A lot of Composite’s clients follow a Paleo-inspired approach to eating. And, frequently, they ask us about the impact of occasionally adding some specific food – say, full-fat dairy, like cream or cheese – to what they eat.

Not everyone reacts the same to all foods, so we might gauge how a given client reacts to a class of foods through blood panels at a doctor’s office, or at home with the Coca Pulse Test.

But even for people who do show some reactivity, deciding to include a food or not actually requires zooming out a bit. For a change in diet to have meaningful health impact, it needs to be something you can keep up for the long haul. For many people, regularly enjoying something they particularly love makes their new way of eating far more pleasurable, and therefore much easier to sustain. In practice, it’s the difference between eating healthfully, albeit at 90%, for years, versus eating precisely ‘by the book’ for a few months, and then dropping off entirely.

So, as you look at your way of eating, think about the ideal, but also think about what you’ll be able to enjoy and sustain. And remind yourself: in nutrition, the perfect is pretty often the enemy of the very good. 

Spill the Beans

I admit it: I’m a coffee snob. As I write this, I’m drinking a cup I just made using a Chemex pour-over, from freshly-ground, overpriced Ethiopian beans, like a total douchebag.

But my love of coffee isn’t without reservation. In particular, coffee culture, and the whole third-wave coffee movement, always rubs me the wrong way. As Anthony Bourdain put it, “I don’t want to wait for my coffee. I don’t want some man-bun, Mumford and Son motherfucker to get it for me. I like good coffee but I don’t want to wait for it, and I don’t want it with the cast of Friends. It’s a beverage; it’s not a lifestyle.”

So I couldn’t help but love this McDonalds ad, which takes a playful swipe at the hipster cafe:


Say What?

This will be a plan where you can choose your doctor, and this will be a plan where you can choose your plan. And you know what the plan is. This is the plan. It’s a complicated process, but actually it’s very simple, it’s called good health care.

– Donald Trump, “explaining” the new American Health Care Act.