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.

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.

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. 

Acting Shellfish

Given my job at Composite, and my fifteen years in the fitness world, I get a lot of questions from friends, family, colleagues, and clients about health and fitness. While the questions run the gamut – from exercise programming and injury rehab to sleep management and environmental toxins – the topic I’m asked about most is nutrition. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m hoping to hit a handful of posts that address some of the most common nutrition questions I receive.

First up, staying healthy as a vegan:

As I’ve blogged about before, I’m actually totally sympathetic to arguments about the ways in which our food system is unforgivably cruel to animals. In my own case, after weighing a lot of factors, I’ve decided that I feel comfortable eating a diet that includes ethically-raised animals, and ethically-farmed eggs and cheese. But I understand that includes tradeoffs that others aren’t willing to make. If you’re eating a vegan diet for moral reasons, I can understand and support that choice.

So, if you’re committed to a vegan diet, what can you do to maximize your health?

On the plus side, vegans tend to eat a lot of whole foods, which is great.

On the minus, they’re also frequently deficient in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine.

Previously, I’ve blogged about some supplements that vegetarians and vegans should strongly consider, to counter those deficiencies.

But it’s B12, in particular, that’s a real issue for vegans. Simply put, while a variety of vegan foods have been held up as good sources of B12 – spirulina, dried nori, barley grass, other seaweeds, raw foods – an avalanche of research has shown that they’re not bioavailable enough for people to actually absorb the vitamin in those foods at meaningful levels. And B12 shots – beyond being a literal pain – use B12 in the form of cyanocobalamin, which steals methyl groups from the body and creates toxic cyanide as it’s processed in the liver.

There is, however, a good alternative: oysters.

I know, I know: oysters are technically animals, and therefore definitely not vegan. But bear with me here.

First, remember that vegans aren’t avoiding animal protein as an end in and of itself. Instead, they’re doing it to inflict the least possible harm to other sentient beings and to the environment.

Fortunately, from an environmental perspective, oysters are actually a net-positive. Farming them doesn’t require bottom-trawling or other destructive forms of fishing; it requires no carbon-emitting supply chain for feed, as the oysters simply eat by filter-feeding plankton in the water around them; and it actually improves the surrounding water quality, through that filter-feeding (enough so that places like NYC have planted oyster beds to help de-pollute their currently toxic waterways).

As for sentience, unlike almost every other animal, oysters don’t feel pain, because they don’t have a central nervous system. As Crook & Walters conclude in a 2011 paper:

[The bivalve] nervous system includes two pairs of nerve cords and three pairs of ganglia. There is no obvious cephalization and the nervous system appears quite simple….to our knowledge there are no published descriptions of behavioral or neurophysiological responses to tissue injury in bivalves.

In other words, oysters have a very simple nervous system, without a brain. Unlike other invertebrates, and even other shellfish, they don’t react to injury (unlike, say, shrimp and lobsters, which groom their antennae after injury), or show the neurotransmitter responses that other animals do when they experience pain.

So eating oysters (and likely mussels, too) doesn’t actually hurt them; they don’t feel it any more than a piece of asparagus does.

A lot of research has shown that the disgust reflex plays a big role in the vegan diet. And I’m sure the idea of eating oysters seems potentially disgusting to a lot of vegans, regardless of the moral, environmental, or health implications.

But as I’ve noted before, the long-term adherence to veganism (and vegetarianism) is terrible – after 18 months, about 85% return to eating meat, which is why the percentage of vegetarians and vegans has held steady at about 5% for the past thirty years.

According to research, some of them give up due to the social sustainability of the diet – and in my next nutrition post, I’m going to talk about behavioral diet sustainability in general.

But an even larger percentage of vegans (more than 50% of those who give up on the diet) due so either due to declining health, or irresistible food urges (which are often driven by a craving for micronutrients in which people are deficient). And oysters just happen to be a great source of every one of the nutrients in which the vegan diet is deficient (again: protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins B12 and D, calcium, iron, zinc, and iodine), enough so that regularly eating oysters is likely to offset both declining health and animal-food cravings.

So, in short, if you’re a vegan, and you’re worried both about your own vitality and your ability to sustain a way of eating that does the most good for the world in the long-term, consider a happy hour trip to grab some oysters. Strange as it may sound, that’s totally in line with the goals of veganism – not hurting animals or the environment – and it will make you both healthier and more likely to stick with it.

Get Down

When it comes to health and fitness, people want simple solutions: sitting is bad, so get a standing desk instead. Problem solved.

Except that the human body is complex, so most simple solutions don’t actually work in the real world. Prolonged periods of standing in a single position often create nearly as many problems as prolonged sitting in a single position.

To understand this better, consider nutrition: kale is healthful, but a diet of just kale isn’t. Instead, to optimize your diet, you need to ‘eat a rainbow,’ trying to get a variety of different foods of every color, because different colored foods contain different vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals: lycopene in red foods, anthocyanin in purple/blue, carotenoids like betacarotene in orange/yellow, etc. You need them all, and so your diet needs to be sufficiently varied.

So, too, with movement. Thus, the answer isn’t just a standing desk, or any other tool or gadget. Instead, it’s making sure that you sit and move in the broadest number of ways that you can.

Perhaps you’re at a traditional desk. Sure, you can sit in your chair. But you can also do a stretch of work kneeling on the seat.

Or perhaps you’re at a standing (or, even better, convertible) desk. There, you can spend part of your time with one foot on the floor and the other up on a chair, and then, after a bit, you can switch feet.

And, either way, you can also do some work (say, taking a call) seated on the floor. That’s a great way to watch TV, too: planted on the carpet in front of your couch. Try sitting in different ways – cross-legged, side-saddle, legs in front of you. With any of those, you also practice getting down to and back up from the ground, a skill that’s highly associated with decreased all-causes mortality.

You can try eating a meal with your family on the floor, as a picnic on the carpet. You can read a book while laying on the ground on your stomach, or your side. You can even flout good manners in the name of health, and climb up on your desk or table.

But across all those possibilities, the underlying strategy remains: get creative, and explore as many ways to sit and stand and move as you possibly can. Each will challenge your strength, mobility, balance, and posture, and expand your body’s ability to perform in and handle the stresses of the world.

The Backup Plan

Each Sunday, I chart out a carefully considered set of workouts for the week, following a periodized, balanced approach to strength, conditioning, mobility, and recovery. All in, it’s about an hour worth of stuff each day.

Some weeks, I manage to stick to the plan precisely.

Others, everything more or less goes to shit.

In the past month, I’ve had unexpected work developments dump huge piles of urgent work on my desk. I’ve had a death in the family rearrange my schedule around a funeral and sitting shiva. I’ve even jumped in for a few afternoons of nephew-wrangling when my brother’s nanny called in sick.

On those days, I just don’t have the time – or the mental bandwidth – to commit to hitting the gym.

In the past, when days like that happened, I just wouldn’t work out at all. The perfect – following my program precisely – became the enemy of the good – doing something rather than nothing.

But more recently, I’ve started to use a simple, standard fallback workout: I pull a 24kg kettlebell from my closet and do a single set of 50-75 swings.

That’s it. All in, it takes about two minutes, but it’s still a serious kick in the lungs, and a great way to train the muscles of my grip and my entire posterior chain – from my upper back down through my glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Because I’ve made that one workout the default, I can hop right in, even when I don’t have the energy to think about what to do. And, though it’s short, it’s enough to make a meaningful contribution to my overall health.

Even more importantly, it’s also enough for me to be able to chalk the day up as a fitness success.

I’ve written before about aiming to never miss twice, and I think that’s still an excellent mantra – it’s the surest way to avoid letting one skipped workout become a whole month down the tubes.

But in crazy times, a short, simple, no-thought-required fallback plan also makes it much, much easier to make sure your day doesn’t become a ‘miss’ in the first place.

Process, Results

With February just around the corner, we’re about to hit The Big Resolutioner Fall-Off in gyms the world over. Statistics show that, after a month, more than 50% of people have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions, and by the first week in February, gym attendance drops precipitously from its January peak to the lower leves seen through the balance of the year.

Obviously, people give up on their resolutions – and their fitness resolutions in particular – for a slew of reasons. In most cases, however, there’s a single, over-arching cause: after a month of full-bore effort, most people don’t feel like they’re getting results that justify the effort.

Sure, there are more or less effective ways to improve your fitness. But body recomposition (losing fat and gaining muscle) is slow going in even the best of circumstances; research by the CDC and others has shown that people who sustain weight loss (rather than just yo-yoing back up) are those that lose about a pound a week. And as most people who take up exercise again after a break initially add muscle as well as losing fat, it’s pretty common to see scale weight only drop a pound or two over the course of a first month, even with strong, consistent effort.

When most people set goals (like New Year’s resolutions), they think in terms of results: “I want x to happen by time y.” For project goals – starting a company, buying a home, etc. – that makes sense, as you can then break those goals down into a series of sub-goals along the way, and chart your progress by seeing how well you knock off those projects. But losing weight (like, say, learning a language) is more of a process goal; it doesn’t break down well into smaller goals, but is instead just about doing the same thing, consistently, for an extended period of time. Worse, process goals rarely achieve linear results; instead, progress usually fluctuates up and down, like prices on the stock market, even while the overall trend moves in the right direction over time.

So evaluating process goals by their short-term results is a fast track to feeling demoralized and giving up. Instead, people who succeed tend to be those who make the process itself the goal: they evaluate their success not based on how much weight they lose, but on the percentage of their weekly meals they eat according to plan, or the number of times they work out in a given week. The always-insightful Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) talks about this as the difference between ‘systems’ and ‘goals’ – the goal being weight loss, but the system being eating healthfully and working out.

In my experience, that kind of system-focused thinking is far more effective, because it’s much more self-reinforcing. If you’re solely focused on results, in a given day, you’re unlikely to see enough physical change to feel good about yourself; but if you’re focused on process, on executing your system, every healthy meal, every trip to the gym is something about which you can pat yourself on the back.

So, if you’ve been pushing hard through January, but are feeling a dit demoralized, and on the brink of giving up, I’d strongly suggest you switch your thinking to a systems / process approach instead. Ask yourself which habits you could sustain at an 80% level or better over the balance of 2017 would make a real difference. Maybe it’s walking 10,000 steps daily, cutting out refined carbs, or hitting a gym class three times a week. Then start evaluating yourself, day by day, just on how well you hit those habits. Maybe even buy a calendar, and draw in a smiley face for each day you pull them off.

In all honesty, that still won’t move you faster along the slow path to weight loss, fitness, or health; but it will hugely increase the odds that you keep going throughout the balance of the year, in a way that will allow you, one cumulative step at a time, to actually reach those goals in the end.

Cold as Ice

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but I’m a fan of them, especially in water bottles.

I’m always surprised to see how few people bring water with them to the gym in the first place, given how crucial hydration is to performance. Most athletes know that dehydration can reduce their endurance in longer-duration events. But the effect on shorter duration exercise, like sets of weightlifting or CrossFit WODs, is just as impressive: in one study, athletes who were only 2% dehydrated saw their high-intensity exercise performance drop by 45%.

Even fewer people know that the temperature of the water you drink matters, too. Studies have repeatedly shown that drinking colder water helps athletes go longer before reaching exhaustion, at higher mean power output, and improves performance on everything from the bench press to the broad jump.

So, in short, if you’re working out, you should probably be drinking plenty of water, and drinking plenty of cold water, along the way.

That’s where the vacuum comes in. Something like the insulated Kleen Kanteen (my go-to, and The Wirecutter’s top choice) will let you tote 20 ounces of ice cold water to the gym – even if you have to fill it hours and hours in advance (say, filling it with ice water in the morning and then hitting the gym post-work.)

If you’re picking up a Klean Kanteen, I’d suggest you go with the Cafe Cap 2.0 lid. You can sip through it, without needing to unscrew each time you drink, so you’ll drink more frequently. And, as a bonus, you’ll also be less likely to imitate my signature post-workout move: inadvertently pouring the first sip of water from an uncapped bottle down the front of your shirt.

Krauts

Over the past few years, research has increasingly highlighted the importance of the gut micro-biome. The bacteria inside us, it appears, play a large role in everything from obesity to cancer, from creativity and intelligence to autism and depression.

At this point, gut bacteria research is still in its early days; there’s much more that we don’t yet know than we do. But, at very least, it’s clear that having healthy, diverse gut bacteria is broadly important in a healthy life.

As eating probiotic foods aligns well with ancestral health practices (one of the ‘check-sums’ we use in Composite’s approach – if generations of pre-industrial health wisdom aligns with new science, it’s usually a good sign), we regularly recommend our clients eat a variety of probiotic (and pre-biotic) foods.

But like with many healthy eating recommendations, adding probiotics to your diet can come at a premium. Because probiotic bacteria are only effective if they’re still alive when you ingest them, manufacturers have to carefully monitor production and control temperatures during distribution and display, which quickly jacks up prices.

The probiotic supplement VSL #3, for example, has been well studied, and clinically validated in treatment of conditions like IBS and ulcerative colitis. But taking VSL at the dosage used in most of those studies runs about $4000 a year, well beyond what most people can spend as just one piece of optimizing their health.

Fortunately, there’s an equally effective, and far less expensive, alternative: make sauerkraut at home.

An ounce of sauerkraut contains the same count of probiotic bacteria as clinical doses of VSL #3, and far more than what you’d find in less expensive store brands of probiotic capsules. A recent lab analysis of homemade sauerkraut concluded that one 16-ounce batch contained the same amount of probiotics as eight 100-capsule bottles of probiotics.

I realize that making sauerkraut at home is slightly intimidating. But it’s incredibly easy, and very safe. (The FDA recently declined to add regulations around sauerkraut, noting that there had been no recorded cases of illness caused by sauerkraut and similarly pickled foods.)

Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A big head of cabbage;
  2. Some salt;
  3. A food scale;
  4. A knife;
  5. A big bowl;
  6. A quart jar, or a similar container to hold the kraut as it ferments.

And here’s what to do:

  1. Slice the cabbage into thin strips.
  2. Weigh the cabbage strips, then weigh out 1/50th as much salt. (e.g., if you have 500g of cabbage, you need 10g of salt.)
  3. Put the cabbage and salt in the bowl, then knead it with your hands for about 10 minutes, until the cabbage starts to feel limp.
  4. Press the salted cabbage down into the bottom of the jar.

Voila. That’s the whole thing. Now all you need to do is wait.

Leave the jar somewhere room-temperature (i.e., out of direct sunlight). Over the course of the first day or so, liquid will leach out of the cabbage, creating a brine. You want the cabbage to be completely submerged in that brine (as cabbage that peeks out can mold rather than ferment), so you might want to place something like a glass filled with water into the mouth of the jar as weight on top of the cabbage to keep it pushed down.

After about a week, taste the sauerkraut. It will still be pretty sharp-tasting, though it will continue mellowing (and becoming more-probiotic rich) over time. You can safely leave the sauerkraut pickling for well over a month, though I tend to find two to three weeks is about right for me. Once you hit a point you like, put the whole thing in the fridge, which will grind further fermentation to a halt.

You can use the kraut as a condiment, though it’s also pretty delicious eaten straight. (For some reason, this sounds intimidating to a lot of people, though most people will happily eat kosher pickles straight from the jar. Good news: this is exactly the same thing, with the same taste, just with cabbage rather than cucumber.)

Again, a forkful a day vastly exceeds the probiotic value of even a big handful of probiotic pills. And at just a couple of bucks a batch, you certainly can’t beat the price.

Catching Up

About a year back, I blogged about the interesting relationship between science and practice in the health, fitness, and wellness worlds. On the one hand, a lot of what passes for ‘best practices’ in the trenches – from professional athletic teams’ weight rooms to your local Gold’s Gym – is completely unscientific garbage. But on the other, there’s also a long history of well-executed journal research simply lagging behind new and effective innovations that have already gained traction in the real world.

So it was particularly interesting to stand in the middle of that process, when a recently published meta-analysis of 27 weight-loss studies fully endorsed several of Composite’s key ideas that we’ve been developing over the past year and a half.

As the name implies, Composite is built on a multi-faceted approach; in building fitness, we think that the parts of your life that happen outside of the gym – things like nutrition, movement throughout the day, and lifestyle – are just as important as what happens in class.

We also think that coaches – the highly-trained leaders of those classes – have a role beyond teaching and guidance, as accountability points for those outside-of-class factors.

And we know that the community we build in classes can similarly reach beyond the gym, to provide support, encouragement, and motivation that helps people build and sustain healthy habits over the long term.

So it’s no surprise to us that the paper’s authors conclude precisely the same thing:

“Programs supervising attendance, offering social support, and focusing on dietary and lifestyle modification have better adherence than interventions not supervising attendance, not offering social support, and focusing exclusively on exercise.”

As I said, that’s not a surprise. Even so, it’s nice to be right.