Sunday, July 15, 2012

Learning to Want, Part IV

In Part III of this series, I talked about some of the steps I took to improve the environmental influences that contributed to my consumption driven lifestyle. As I said there, just the awareness of how much advertising and social pressures affected me was an incredibly powerful skill to develop. While on this journey, I also learned some other lessons that helped me address some of the internal barriers to implementing my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Sometime in my late 20s, somebody recommended that I read Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D. I wasn't battling with depression or anything like that, but I was caught up in some negative thought patterns that had me stuck in a rut. While I don't even recall much of the book today, I did find it very helpful at the time and one phrase that still resonates with me was this:

Only your thoughts can upset you.

While obviously this principle has some limitations like severe physical pain or when a real tragedy has occurred, there are really very few situations in my life where this principle doesn't apply. Let me take driving in traffic as an example. I used to get furious when people cut me off or did something rude or even thoughtless. I'd lay on the horn, throw out a string of expletives or simply wish them an early, gruesome death. I've been a passenger with enough other people over the years to assume that I wasn't at all unlike the majority of people.

Other than the one time that I was actually hit by another driver, none of those people had ever done me any harm. I realized that the anger and frustration I felt on the road was ultimately my choice. While I can't necessarily control my initial thought response when someone cuts me off, any further thoughts are my choice. While I still occasionally allow myself a cathartic minute of wishing eternal agony on some jackass, I've learned that I'm much happier breaking out of that train of thought immediately because ultimately, it is my thoughts, not their behavior, that make me upset. So to put the lesson in a slightly different way:

It is my thoughts that cause my feelings, not my feelings that cause my thoughts.

This wasn't an easy lesson to learn or to apply. When you're in the moment, there is such a strong feedback loop between the two that it is very difficult to take that mental step back from the situation and break out of it. For me, it was like learning to be a third party observer over my own thoughts and feelings. Initially I could only learn what went wrong by doing honest assessments after the fact. As I took the effort to do this on a consistent basis, I eventually learned to break negative thought patterns before they caused negative feelings.

I won't claim to be some absolute Zen Master over my every thought and feeling, but having developed a general mindfulness has proved very useful overall. If I'm feeling the urge to buy something new or snack on some "off plan" foods, I can usually deconstruct the thought patterns that would have driven me to succumb to the temptation in the past. Heck, I don't even see such things as temptations anymore, they're just choices which I make consciously. Sometimes I do indulge myself and when I do, I do so without guilt.

I'll close this part of the series with this final lesson:

Contentment is a choice.

I'm a lucky human who happens to live in a state of luxury our ancestors could never have dreamed of. I'm surrounded by advanced technologies that provide me with endless comfort, convenience and entertainment. To spend any of my time dissatisfied with the things I have just because other things exist is irrational, foolish and self-defeating. It's my choice if I want to be drawn into the never-ending cycle of consumerism that keeps everyone around me wishing they had the latest and greatest. It's my choice if I want to spend my time being unhappy about how unfair it is when others do. It's beyond my power to change any of that but it is not beyond my power to change my thoughts.

I'm certainly not perfect and I still get aggravated about things I know are pointless to be upset about. Sometimes it feels good to rant for a while but I do so with an awareness of what I'm doing and a new ability to let go of it. It feels much better in the long run to know when to stop and choose to be content again.

Looking back, none of this was a highly disciplined or difficult process. It was a growing awareness of how my environment and thoughts influenced my feelings and my behavior. That awareness coupled with a willingness to make different choices was all it took to make some significant changes in my life. It's a subtle, yet powerfully different thing when you change your behavior by modifying your underlying impulses rather than trying to exert your willpower to thwart them.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Lessons Learned from an Intentional Plateau

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had dropped below 190 lbs. at the end of April and decided to maintain for a while. The question I had was whether I could make faster strength gains while maintaining my weight compared to while I was losing weight. After more than two months of increasing my calories every week, I have made some strength gains but they haven't been any faster than before.

As you can see, I never actually got back to 190. I'm sure that I could eventually get there if I continued ratcheting up the calories and continued this experiment for another month but I'm calling it quits. Here's why:

1) It is becoming unpleasant

I'm increasingly beginning to feel like the subject in an overfeeding study. Breakfast is the worst. I'm generally not that hungry in the morning and I've had to make this meal bigger just to work in all the calories. My breakfast lately has been four eggs, two strips of bacon, 4 oz. of roasted potatoes and a 4 oz. burger. It looks like a deconstructed Denny's Breakfast Skillet without the cheese and as much as those used to be one of my favorite indulgences, eating this every morning leaves me feeling stuffed well past lunch time, at which point I need to work in an other meal. Then dinner time rolls along and I'm still feeling bloated. As much as I've gained and lost weight in the past, I'm shocked that overeating is actually unpleasant now.

2) I'm having to resort to added fats to get all the calories in

Just the thought of more meat and starches is becoming too much to take and jacking up the added fats has been the only way to make it more bearable. As much as I love some good Homemade Mayonnaise, it is becoming the only way I'm able squeeze in the extra calories and I dislike resorting to added fats just to get in the calories.

3) I'm not seeing the strength gains I expected

Well, that speaks for itself. Why overfeed when it's unpleasant and it isn't yielding any positive results?

Even though I didn't see the results I wanted, I did learn a few interesting lessons:

1) My maintenance calories are much higher than I thought they would be

From the whole Calories In/Calories Out theory, it should only have taken 200-400 calories per day extra to get to maintenance. At the end, I was eating 900 calories per day extra. That surprised me. It feels like my metabolism picked up quite a bit when I started adding calories in and that's a good sign.

2) Real food is satiating

Looking back at the times I easily gained significant amounts of weight, I never recall feeling overfed. Those periods usually were filled with plenty of pizza, ice cream, chips and lots of fast food. I might have felt stuffed after a single meal, but never for days on end. Trying to overfeed with meat and starch, home cooked from scratch is entirely different. It's encouraging to know that not only can I feel full eating real food, I know I can feel overfull from eating too much of it.

3) I feel like I have greater control over my weight

I have never actually tried to maintain my weight before. I have always either dieted to lose weight or abandoned a diet and regained. This is the first time I have actually picked a weight and tried to hold it. I wish I would have tried it before. It made me feel like maintenance will be even easier than losing. Rather than constantly trying to lose weight, working in periods to maintain may have metabolic advantages and give psychological relief and encouragement.

Anyway, here's a recent picture of me at the gym. I'm happy with how far I've come and how much this way of eating is helping me to regulate my appetite. I'm going to shift back to weight loss mode for a few months and see how I look and feel another 10 or 15 lbs. lighter.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Learning to Want, Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series I explained how I came to the point where I decided to unwind my consumption-driven lifestyle. Now I'll finally get to explaining some of the specifics of what I did that helped me to implement what I call my Principle of Contentment:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Some of these practices were accidental discoveries, and others were ones that I reluctantly adopted out of necessity. The first of these was completely accidental and actually started long before I began making more conscious efforts to reduce my impulse to consume:

I reduced my exposure to advertising.

It all started when I bought a TiVo in the mid 90s so that I could watch my shows on my own schedule. Once I got used to fast-forwarding through all the commercials, advertisements in other media began to be increasingly annoying to me. I eventually went on to cancel cable altogether, and now just about everything I watch is through Netflix Instant (using a Roku), on DVD, or on YouTube. Actually, I don't even watch that much TV anymore nor do I miss it. I've also dropped all my magazine subscriptions, and I have Adblock Plus installed on all of my web browsers.

As I've reduced my ad exposure, I've noticed a significant decline in my interest for "what's new". I have no clue what new movies are playing, whether there's a new iPhone being released or what new flavor of Doritos is going to make my head explode. I am blissfully unaware of all the new and improved, greatest and most exclamatory-adjective-laden products that are now available to make me dissatisfied with what I already own. I don't have a constant stream of professionally engineered sounds and images trying to separate me from money, only to obtain yet another thing they will make certain I am dissatisfied with before I'm even done paying for it.

Corporations spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising. For many products, a great portion of what you spend on it goes to cover the advertisement costs of convincing you to buy it. Practically every TV channel, magazine and radio station is utterly dependent on advertising to stay in business. Those corporations are not financing all that "free" entertainment out of a sense of goodwill or a charitable desire to sponsor the arts. They spend that money because advertising works. Period.

This doesn't mean I never buy new things but I'm rarely even aware of what my options are until I actively seek something out. I only do that when I am ready to buy because the old one broke or no longer meets my needs. It's shocking how much longer the old stuff remains satisfying when you don't even know that new things have been released.

Just a bit of proactive ad avoidance resulted in a significant increase in contentment with the things I already had. It surprised me, especially since I considered myself to be practically immune to advertising. The most insidious aspect of ads is not just that they are intended to promote a specific product, but they seem to stimulate consumption in all aspects of life.

I like to think that I'm a strong, independent thinker and savvy consumer. Even if I am, that doesn't make me immune to advertising and being aware of that:

I became more conscious of environmental influences.

I had heard the conventional wisdom as long as I could remember: If you're trying to stop drinking, don't hang out at the bar. If you're trying to quit smoking, don't hang out at the smoker's bench. If you want to manage your portions, don't go to the all you can eat buffet.

Even though I was familiar with the concept, I didn't really think about it too deeply before. Besides the obvious factor that I was more likely to give in to temptation I'm influenced by peer pressure, there was an other level. Even when I had the discipline to resist those temptations, just being around those environmental influences made me less content with what I had.

This is an ongoing process and I suspect it always will be. My environment changes over time but I try maintain an awareness of how it affects my contentment. I try to minimize the most negative influences. I don't want to become a complete hermit or a social outcast (well, not usually) but I find myself avoiding social situations where I know I'll be tempted by too much food and drink. When I do partake, I accept beforehand that I may indulge, even to excess. I'm learning that there's no need to feel guilty about an occasional indulgence or that it's in any way a reason to abandon all the positive changes I've made. It's a part of my life where I'm still trying to find a balance but I think I'm mentally in a much healthier place than I was before.

I found that these small adjustments to the external influences in my life were very helpful in reducing the all those unconscious impulses to constantly consume. Just being aware of the influences of advertisement and environment was remarkably powerful. Having turned down some of the external noise and pressure, I was able to listen to the internal processes that needed to be addressed. I'll talk a little bit about those in the next part.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Learning to Want, Part II

In Part I, described how in my early thirties I had reached a tough spot in my life. No, I wasn't homeless or destitute, but the easy trajectory of my charmed existence was headed in the wrong direction. My debt load had become excessive and my weight was at an all-time high.

Looking at my family for guidance wasn't very helpful.My parents and my brother were in the same boat. Most of my friends were, too. I didn't have any role models for success. Even my friends who earned significantly more than me were fretting about their finances. The few people I knew who were lean were eating the same crap that I did. There wasn't a template for me to follow to break out of the cycle that I felt trapped in.

This wasn't what I wanted my life to be like. I didn't want to spend the rest of my days struggling to make ends meet while my health slowly declined. I had to figure my way out of it, and the first part of the process was to figure out how I had gotten into it. I had a few tough lessons to learn and the first one was this:

I was living the life I felt I deserved, rather than the one I had earned.

This wasn't an easy lesson but it was an unavoidable truth. I was spending more money than I could earn and I was eating more food than I could burn. I had become one of the out-of-control consumers I was criticizing so many years ago. I had fallen prey to the consumer culture that surrounded me. Even though I was relatively disciplined in some ways, I used that as a rationalization to overindulge in others.

I didn't spend much money on clothes so I felt justified buying a new high end computer every year. As an IT worker, it was easy to give myself the green light on that as it was vaguely work related even though I rarely used it for work. I practiced restraint eating meals during the week but on Friday nights, I would order a large pizza and eat the whole thing on my own. I felt I had earned the indulgence by being good. Many years later, I crunched the numbers on what I was eating and realized that I was barely undereating during the week and overcompensating on the weekends. By far.

Those are just two examples that were easy to identify when I took a step back to evaluate my consumption patterns. It all seems so obvious in retrospect, but it seemed so reasonable at the time. My lifestyle was no more extravagant than the people who surrounded me. I deserved to live it up in little ways just like everyone else did. But just like everyone else, I was getting buried in debt and watching my waistline expand. Then it was time to learn the second tough lesson:

In spite of all that consumption, I still wasn't content with what I had.

That was an even more difficult lesson to learn. It was actually quite depressing to think that I had wasted so much with so little to show for it, but it gave me the one bit of insight I needed to start shifting my thinking. My contentment was not related to obtaining what I wanted. It was such a counter-intuitive concept but I couldn't deny it. Years of chasing more money and consuming more than I earned wasn't working. At one point, I even tried to rationalize the behavior as a motivator to keep earning more. The assumption was that eventually, I would earn enough to consume with wild abandon but I had to stop fooling myself. It wasn't working and I had to finally pay attention to the phrase I had uttered so many years ago:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

In the next part of the series, I'll detail some of the specific methods I found useful to unravel my consumption driven lifestyle and learned to find contentment.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Pork the One You Love

This recipe is shockingly delicious for how easy and inexpensive it is. Everyone I know who has tried it out has raved about how good it is. If you're moaning about how difficult it is to find time to cook, the 20 minutes of prep time this recipe takes to prepare will easily yield 10-15 servings. And it's just as tasty reheated on day 5 as it is on day 1 and freezes up nicely, to boot.

1 pork butt, about 5-7 lbs
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp paprika
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garlic powder

Place the pork butt in the slow cooker and all the dry ingredients in a shaker. If you don't have one, a bowl is fine but a shaker is inexpensive and makes the job a lot easier.

Generously season the pork butt, making sure to work the seasoning into all the nooks and crannies.

Making sure the fat side is up, put the lid on the slow cooker and turn it on Low.

Now walk away for about 10 hours.

After 10 hours, turn off the cooker, cover it with a few towels and let it rest for at least 2 hours.
This is what it should look like when it's done. A big hunk of yumminess swimming in a pool of its own juices.

Transfer the pork to a large baking dish. It will be impossible to do it in a single piece as it'll be falling-apart tender by now. Then use a pair of forks to shred it all.
When you're finished shredding it should look like this. Not bad at all but wait, we're not done, yet.
There will be a lot of juice left behind in the slow cooker and for goodness sakes, don't let that go to waste! Pour it over the pork and mix it up. 
Here it is served on a bed of rice but the possibilities are endless. My wife likes it mixed up with some avocado and grilled veggies.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Rant About Meat and Paleo

One of my friends on the music forum I run brought my attention to this NPR article. The folks over at Music Gourmets are somewhat amused by my Paleo way of eating but most of them aren't really interested in trying it out or listening to my ravings. I have no problem with that, and it's one of the reasons I started this blog. Gotta vent somewhere.

Anyway, the NPR article is written in a concerned and reasoned tone questioning how much red meat is too much in the context of the Paleo diet. While using John Durant as the poster boy for this meat fest, they admit the evolutionary fact that meat consumption was key to our development as a species but question whether it's a good idea in light of current science linking meat consumption with increased risks of heart disease and cancer.

I'll admit that the question is fair, and other than the dubious statement that "few cavemen lived long enough to get heart disease or cancer", the author makes an effort to provide a non-judgmental presentation of the facts. I respect her for that and appreciate any kind of coverage of the Paleo diet that doesn't outright condemn it without consideration.

I think the first problem I have with the article is that most Paleo dieters eating generous portions of meat have done quite a bit more contemplation of the facts than simply thinking, "Cavemen ate lots of meat so I should, too." None of us want heart disease or cancer. It's one of the reasons we've adopted this way of life.

The point that needs to be made is that we're not ignorant of the current science. We're dismissing it because it appears to be flawed. Rather than making some ham-fisted attempt at doing my own rebuttal , I'll defer to Denise Minger's excellent dismantling of one of the recent studies referenced in the article. Ned Kock at Health Correlator also crunched the numbers in the dataset for this study.

The one fact that stood out to me is that the difference in mortality rates between the highest and lowest meat consumption group was 3 in 1,000. And that's over a 20 year period. Considering that fact when the authors of the study claim that red meat consumption "contributes substantially to premature death" makes me somewhat skeptical of the notion that red meat will kill you. The rhetoric appears to be far out of balance with the facts, and if an observational study that 3 in 1,000 over a 20 year period is the best evidence they can put forth for this supposedly "substantial" health risk, I'll gladly dismiss the claim.

My own experience eating a diet that exceeds the recommended amount of meat consumption has also put the claim into question. Over the last six months I've been eating 4 eggs, 2 strips of bacon and up to 1 lb of meat per day. It's the sort of consumption that would make the average meat phobic person cringe in horror and grab their chest imagining my skyrocketing cholesterol levels clogging my arteries. I happened to have done blood work before and after this recent increase in meat consumption and surprisingly (well, not to me) my cholesterol numbers have improved.

Now, that's not to say that my experience should in anyway be generalized to what is best for the population as a whole. An anecdotal data point is not evidence for everybody else, and I'm not suggesting that people should eat exactly like I do because it worked for me. But here's the flipside of the coin: in all of these studies that eke out correlations between consumption of a food group and rates of disease, there's a scatterplot of data points that create an overall trend. While you could reasonably assume that the trend may be used to create predictive models for populations, they don't accurately predict individual responses. Unless the correlation is 100%, you don't know which point of the scatterplot an individual will fall on.

You could be on of the 3 in 1,000 people whose life is shortened by meat, or you could be one of the 997 others who don't suffer the consequences of this supposed hazard. No amount of statistical analysis, clinical studies or overblown rhetoric will tell you which one you are. The best you can do is see if you are a positive or negative responder to any healthy or unhealthy behavior and use whatever tools you have available to test the results. That doesn't mean you should ignore all common sense, start smoking 2 packs a day and guzzling sugary sodas by the gallon, but when it comes to things like eating meat, which has been part of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years, we should feel comfortable questioning the science.

But finally, here's the last issue I have with the article. Even though I'm defensive of meat consumption, there's nothing about the Paleo template that dictates how much meat you need to consume. As far as I'm concerned, you can be a raw vegan and be Paleo. The Paleo template suggests that meat, vegetables, tubers and fruit with minimal processing should be the basis of our diet. From Kitavans to the Inuit, populations have eaten natural whole foods in a wide range of macronutrient ratios and thrived on them. If you're concerned about eating too much meat, then don't eat too much meat. If you're thriving on it, then dig in.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Learning to Want, Part I

Once upon a time I was discussing the rampant consumerism of the modern age with a friend of mine. In a moment of self-imagined Zen mastery I said the following:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

I don't know if I got that from somewhere or if it was a momentary lapse of mediocrity, but the phrase has stuck with me over the years. I call it my Principle of Contentment.

I won't claim that I lived by this principle since I first uttered the phrase. For many years, it was quite the contrary. I spent much of my 20s and early 30s deeply in debt and always felt like I had justifiable rationalizations for my excess spending.

It wasn't until I started to figure out why and how to go about changing my wants that I could actually start applying the Principle of Contentment. But before I get into those, I want to clarify one thing that I had to understand about it:

It was not about learning to settle for mediocrity or giving up on my hopes and dreams. This was about learning to identify the impulsive desires that lead to constant dissatisfaction and over-consumption. I had to learn the hard way that constantly giving in to those impulses was my greatest barrier to realizing my greater dreams.

My life goals have never been exceedingly ambitious or unusual. I wanted a job that paid enough to cover the bills and have a little left over for my hobbies. I wanted to be able to retire with enough invested to maintain my current lifestyle. I wanted to be healthy and look good. That's all pretty run-of-the mill stuff and I never really doubted that it was all achievable. I was always pretty good in school when I applied myself. I usually did well at work. When my weight started to get out of control, I was able to shed most of it as long as I paid attention to my diet and spent more time exercising.

With my focus mainly on my career, I plugged away at building my skills and worked various jobs. I did increasingly well up until my early 30s and then the lucky job streak faltered. I found myself buried in credit card debt, earning half of what I did a few years earlier and pushing 250 lbs.
In a bit of a funk, trying to contemplate how I had gotten into my predicament, that phrase started coming back to me:

"If you learn to want what you have, you'll already have what you want."

Yes, it seems simple and superficial but the problem is that it's so non-specific. Any principle such as the Principle of Contentment has to be non-specific because the application will be unique to the individual. But that doesn't mean I can't expand on it a bit and detail some of the specifics as it applied to me. Hopefully seeing how I applied this principle in my life will be useful to you and provide you with some strategies for identifying and coping with self-defeating impulses.

In the next part of this series, I'll describe some of the impulses I identified as being the most self-destructive along with some of the rationalizations I used to defend them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Gaming the System

Face it. As humans we love gaming the system. It's an impulse as instinctive as scratching an itch or stretching out a stiff back.We're always looking for ways to maximize the reward with the least amount of effort. We're especially ingenious when it comes to figuring out ways to gain an advantage within the set of rules by which we are playing.

Even children will game the system instinctively. They figure out which parent to ask permission for first in order to push the boundaries of their limits.

We could even argue that our pets learn how to game the system. It didn't take long for our dog to learn just the right look to give us to increase her chances of getting a treat or being taken for a walk. It's the product of intelligence and we probably owe a great deal of technological innovation to this impulse.

At some point in our hunter-gatherer ancestry, there must have been the first time one of us fashioned a spear. We're not strong, powerful creatures with claws and fangs. Within the normal rules of prey vs. predator, we shouldn't be able to take down large prey. But with spears and teamwork, we were able to game the system to move up a link on the food chain.

The tricky part about gaming the system is that our impulse to do so is often to our benefit but sometimes it isn't, like when it comes to managing our weight.

Whether or not the Low Carb or Paleo folks like to admit it, most diets work. Whether they are Low Fat, Cabbage Soup, Vegan, Atkins or Weight Watchers, they all work, at least initially. Where most diets fail is that the dieters stop doing it. They abandon the rules that were working.

Low Carb and Paleo tend to have better adherence in the long run, which is why I like them. But the problem we often see is that some people stall out short of their weight loss goals. More often than not, the complaint at this point is that the diet "stopped working" or that their former high carb/junk food diet has left them "metabolically broken."

While there are certainly valid metabolic reasons why some people have issues breaking through a plateau or shedding the final 10 lbs, I think our first step should be to look if we're gaming the system.

Diets are a set of rules by which we eat, and ultimately they work to subvert our impulse to consume more than we need. Just because we are losing weight and like the results we see, doesn't mean that the impulse to over-consume will ever go away. Whether consciously or unconsciously, that impulse drives us to start gaming the system. Given time and experience in the diet, we learn which foods within our set of rules enable us to over-consume and find ways to allow more of them in than we should to reach our goals.

With LC and Paleo, it's easy to get comfortable with the new set of rules, especially since they work so well with so little effort. I think we should always be aware of our impulses. And when we stop making progress, we need to evaluate the rules and be willing to adapt them to keep ourselves from gaming the system.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Homemade Mayonnaise

Making your own mayonnaise is remarkably easy and I believe you can create a much healthier mayo than what is commercially available. Plus, you can experiment with different flavors. My wife has added fresh basil to a batch and I'll be trying to make some chipotle mayo soon. After much experimenting, this method has produced the most consistent results. Give it a shot and try adding your own twist!

2 egg yolks
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 cups light olive oil

Place the egg yolks, mustard and lemon juice in a mixing cup and with an immersion blender, blend it for about 30 seconds until it starts to get creamy.
Start drizzling in the oil very slowly. You want to make sure it gets very well incorporated during the first half cup or so. Make sure that the consistency stays creamy.

About halfway through, it will start to thicken and begin to look like real mayonnaise. At this point, you can start adding the oil much faster. Keep working it in with the blender as you go.

After all the oil has been added, keep blending it until it reaches the consistency you like. The longer you blend, the thicker it will get, but only up to a point. After that it will start to get runny again.

Once done, scrape it all into a container and pop it in the fridge. It will keep for about a week but rarely will it last that long.



Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the emulsion will break down at some point during the process. This will happen to you someday and if the mayo starts to separate, no amount of further blending will fix it. But don't worry, it can be rescued. Stop where you're at in the process, place 2 tbsp of warm water in a bowl and grab a whisk. Add a dab of the broken mayo to the warm water and whisk it until it's creamy. This will get the emulsion started again. Once you've got it started, slowly add the rest of the broken mayo and continue mixing by hand until it's uniform. Then transfer it back to your mixing cup, use the immersion blender to thicken it up and add the remaining oil.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Roasted Potatoes

We have these roasted potatoes several times per week and it is my current favorite side dish. With a dollop of homemade mayonnaise, it's just delicious.What surprised me about this when I crunched the numbers is that 12 oz. of raw potato works out to only 50 grams of carbs and is still a very satisfying portion size.

24 oz. peeled russet potatoes
1 tsp. rosemary
1/4 tsp. fine salt
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 1/2 oz. bacon grease
1/2 tsp coarse salt

I usually start with about 30 oz. of potatoes. If you're just going to eyeball it, this is about the quantity you would start with for two servings.

Once the potatoes are peeled, keep them under water. This will help stop them from turning brown.
Cut each potato in half lengthwise, and then each of those halves lengthwise again. Then cut across three to four times to end up with nice, evenly sized cubes.

Give the potatoes a good rinse, place them back in a bowl and pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels.

At this point, set your oven to 350F to preheat it.
Add 1 1/2 oz. of bacon grease and microwave on high for 2 minutes. I've used olive oil instead of bacon grease before and it works fine, too.

Once heated, give it a good stir to evenly coat all the pieces with the oil
Add the fine salt, garlic powder and rosemary and mix well to season all the pieces.

Spread out the potatoes out in a single layer on baking sheets. Place them in the middle of your oven at 350F for 45 minutes.
After the 45 minutes are up, set the oven to broil and leave them in for an additional 3-10 minutes. How quickly they get golden brown will vary wildly by oven and how close they are to the top element. After the first few minutes, WATCH IT LIKE A HAWK, especially the first few times. It doesn't take long to go from undercooked to perfect to scorched.

Once you've pulled them out of the oven, drop them into a bowl and toss them with some coarse salt. Himalayan Pink Salt will work nicely.

And here's the final product, served up with some Liver McNuggets and homemade mayonnaise.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Inadvertently Reached a Milestone

I vaguely remember stepping on the scale in my early twenties and being unhappy about being 220 lbs. It was a solid 60 lbs. more than I was when I graduated from high school just a few years before. For the last 19 years, that has been an oscillating point of sorts. Occasionally I'd try to lose weight and get down to the low 200s and it was like hitting a brick wall. I just couldn't break through. Usually the target was 185 lbs. I always thought that would be a nice round number that would look good for me. Not too frail for my 6'2" frame but not too pudgy, either.

Once I had hit that brick wall, I would just give up. I'd be feeling frustrated with not being able to break through and tired of depriving myself of all of my favorite foods. Sometimes I would try to keep moderating my intake but I'd always end up back at 220 or more. Once I even peaked at 246 and it really scared me into yet another year of feeling hungry all the time and trying to burn off calories on my bicycle.

In March of 2011 I was approaching 220 again and decided to give this Low Carb/Paleo thing a try. By November I was approaching that 200 lb. mark again but unlike previous attempts, it had been remarkably easy. The weight coming off effortlessly and I hadn't done a lick of exercise. I was happily surprised when i dropped straight down to 199 in mid November.

I had regained a little bit by mid December but I wasn't too concerned. It was becoming less and less about the numbers and more about overall health. I was feeling really good. The only problem was that I felt restless. Energy levels had been creeping up over the previous nine months and I felt like my body was yearning for a challenge. It was a completely foreign concept to me. I've never craved exercise in my life but I found myself trying to do dips in my office chair, just to feel the resistance. Sometimes I would jump, trying to see if I could tap the EXIT sign in the hallway at work. I hadn't done anything like that since I was a kid.

So at the end of December, I joined East Valley Crossfit, where my wife had been going for over a year, and signed up for Weight Lifting. I just wanted to burn off some of that energy, gain some strength and put on a little muscle. As a guy who is pushing 40, it seems to be the best strategy for staying fit and healthy as I approach middle age. For the last 6 months, that has been my primary focus. I adjusted my calories to maintain a weight loss rate of no more than 2 lbs per month. I figured that would be slow enough to allow me to make some strength gains and it worked like a champ. Right down to 190 lbs. at the end of April.

I was satisfied with that weight but my strength gains were not progressing as quickly as I wanted so I decided that I should try to maintain at 190 lbs. It's a fine weight for me and it's hard to gain strength when while losing weight so I started increasing my calories every week for over a month.

This is what happened:

I dropped over 4 lbs. in one month (twice my previous rate) and I finally hit that 185 lb. mark. It didn't even dawn on me until halfway through the day that I had been trying to hit that milestone for almost 20 years. I've been actively trying not to lose weight this month! Oh, well. I'm not complaining. This is a very nice surprise and I'll keep upping the calories until I hit 190 again... from the other side. It's quite a nice problem to have for a change and I'm very encouraged that my metabolism appears to be picking up a bit.

But what's cooler than all these silly numbers is how I'm feeling. I'm energized by the workouts and motivated to put a little more muscle on this atrophied frame. I never feel deprived. Heck, the day before I hit 185 lbs. I ate scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast, prime rib with a baked potato smothered in butter and sour cream for lunch and shredded pork over white rice for dinner. That's not deprivation, that's sheer indulgence. Best of all, I don't feel like I've finally slogged my way through to some arbitrary milestone, I feel like I'm just getting started.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cherry-Picking Statistics

Dr. Eenfeldt shared this image on his blog yesterday in a post called The Sugar Empire Strikes Back. It's a comparison between per capita soda consumption and the adult diabetes rate. Most low carbers see this as confirmation of their argument that sugar is harmful.

Eenfeldt first referenced it in a post called Soda and Diabetes – a Coincidence? and says that it came from this lecture by Dr. Robert Lustig.

I did a little digging around and it looks like Lustig pulled these maps from the the USDA Food Environment Atlas. It's actually a pretty nifty site and it's worth checking out.

Well, I found another map that also shows a pretty strong correlation with diabetes:

Hmmm... I wonder what it could be... Proximity to fast food restaurants? Food deserts? Snack consumption?

No. It's Meat & Poultry. Oops! Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to start throwing these epidemiological statistics behind our arguments. A correlation is not proof of causation and shouldn't be used to argue the veracity of a claim. While I agree with Lustig that soda is very unhealthy, I think it would serve his case better by sticking to actual evidence rather than hype.

Then again, maybe we have the causality all mixed up and it's really Meat & Poultry consumption that causes consumption of soda. Gotta wash down those burgers and fried chicken with something.

Apparently being a Californian or a Texan has a protective effect on that causal chain, though. ;)

The thing we should be concerned about is that if Lustig succeeds in using such tactics in convincing politicians that laws should be put in place to limit sugar consumption, it's only a matter of time before meat consumption succumbs to the same fate. Both sides of the debate can play this epidemiology game and I wouldn't be surprised if a map detailing butter consumption looked similar, too.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

No Essential Firewood

I've been eating a low carb diet for over a year now. Throughout this time I have been following dozens of low carb and paleo blogs and podcasts. I appreciate all the work these advocates do as I'm constantly learning more about the science and I'm never lacking inspiration or food for thought.

As time goes on, there are a few oft-repeated truisms that I find myself questioning more and more. Today, the one I want to question is the statement that there is "no essential carbohydrate".

While this may be technically true from a strictly nutritional standpoint, I wouldn't like to tell that to my red blood cells or my brain. Low carb advocates are quick to respond that the liver can create all the glucose those organs need via gluconeogenesis and that's usually where the discussion ends.

Advocates for the consumption of safe starches point out that this isn't necessarily a desirable state to be in. To be honest, that's usually where the science starts to go over my head but the following thought experiment convinced me to try upping the carbs just a bit.

Let's imagine you have a house in a cold region and you need to keep it heated. Most of the rooms in this house can switch between using the gas central heating system or burning wood in a fireplace. While there appear to be benefits to using the central heating, there are a few rooms in the house that don't have the ducting needed to take advantage of the gas. Their only choice is to burn wood.

"Well", argues the gas burning advocate, "it may be true that you need to burn wood in those few rooms, but every house comes with an axe that is more than capable of creating all the firewood those rooms need." "How so?", questions the novice. "Well, you just use the axe to chop up bits of the framing of the house or pieces of furniture. You can use it to create all the firewood you need!"

Well, you can see where I'm going with this. Just because your body can make do without something, that doesn't mean it's necessarily advantageous for it to do so. The raw materials for creating glucose have to come from somewhere and I can't help but think that the cost of repurposing other nutrients is kind of like taking your chair and using it as firewood.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Liver McNuggets

This recipe has become a weekly Thursday night tradition at my house. I pretty much cobbled this together from various Google searches for liver recipes and the first time my wife tried it she said, "Ooh! Yummy! It's like Liver McNuggets!"

Liver was one of those items that I knew I should be incorporating into my diet but like most, I never found it terribly appealing. Now I find myself craving it by the time Thursdays roll around. So try it out, add your own twist and let me know what you think.

1 lb beef liver
1/2 cup potato flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 cup bacon grease

Give the liver a quick rinse and drain off the water. Don't be tempted to rinse it too much as it is pretty delicate at this point.
Gently lay down the slices between layers of paper towels. Cut the slices in to smaller pieces. I usually aim for 5-6 pieces per slice. More is fine but it's a bit more work.

I know, I know. So far this doesn't look appetizing at all and I usually have to grit my teeth to get through this part. 

Mix together the potato flour, salt and pepper in a bowl. Then lay each piece in the bowl, one at a time, and give it a shake until it is completely coated. Then fish it out and set it on a plate.

Don't make the mistake of trying to throw several pieces in in at once. They'll glue together into a big, sticky mess. Trust me, I tried.

 At this point, your fingertips will probably be covered in a sticky paste that will take some intense scrubbing to remove. Don't worry, the worst part is over with now.

Here's the whole batch, coated in potato flour. See, it's beginning to look better already.
Heat enough bacon grease in a skillet to cover the bottom with a thin layer. You're not trying to drown the pieces but you want to have enough in the pan to make sure it's not running dry.

Work in small batches and sear the liver for 2 minutes per side. Keep a very close eye on the temperature. You do not want it to be smoking hot or spattering like crazy. You're aiming for a gentle sizzle. This is usually between 3 and 4 on my electric range.

Here's the finished product, served up with some roasted potatoes and homemade mayonnaise.

I'll admit that this may not be the optimum, healthiest way of preparing liver but I'm willing to bet that it's far more nutritious than a serving of Chicken McNuggets.


But I didn't want to offend them.

I hear this a lot from people who are trying to watch what they eat. It usually runs along the lines of, "I didn't want to offend them" or "I didn't want to hurt their feelings". This often happens around holidays but it can happen on just about any occasion. Maybe a friend or relative made a special treat for dessert or a buddy made some home brewed beer. The variations are endless but the end result is usually the same: overindulgence in an "off plan" treat. I'm not being judgmental here, I've done it often enough myself during various diet phases.

I'm calling BS on the rationalization behind this excuse. It's a cop-out and people should recognize it as such.

First of all, a host, friend or family member will rarely be truly offended if you pass on an indulgent item. The vast majority of people are understanding of others who are trying to watch what they eat. It doesn't matter if it's Weight Watchers and you're out of points or you're trying to do a strict paleo program for a month. People understand. Even if the offering party jokingly tries to push it on you, they'll generally feel a sense of respect for those who choose not to give in to a temptation.

Secondly, you always have the option to take a small portion or a single bite. Such small portions rarely have an adverse affect on you in the long run unless you have a severe intolerance (in which case you have a legitimate excuse to give to the host). For some people, it may be the kind of item where just a small taste of a "trigger food" is too much handle and in that case, this wouldn't be an option. My guess is that for most people this would be a fine choice and may even be a good way to prove to yourself that you won't revert to bad habits after just one bite.

Finally, just because someone is conscious of their food choices on a regular basis doesn't mean that dogmatic adherence is absolutely necessary. If you're doing well and getting the results you want, an occasional indulgence can be a nice treat. There's nothing wrong with that and realize that it is your choice. Don't give a cop-out rationalization that you didn't want to offend someone. Own the decision and be OK with it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Does Exercise Make You Fat?

This is a nice video by Abel James from Fat-Burning Man showing the different results he got when training for a marathon versus doing sprints a few times a week:

While we need to be careful about taking what is suggested in this anecdote to an extreme and denouncing all endurance exercise as worthless or harmful, I think it's important to get the message out that weight loss and fitness do not require heroic levels of exercise. It's one of most frustrating myths perpetuated by shows like The Biggest Loser which is itself a reflection of the conventional wisdom.

There's a false notion that it takes hours upon hours of grueling exercise to change your body. That you need to do endless stretches of cardio to burn off fat. That you need to do extraordinary amounts of weight lifting to build muscles. That "No Pain, No Gain" is a self-evident truth.

It isn't true. Any kind of exercise is better than none and while I would never discourage anyone from doing endurance exercise if that's what they truly enjoy, I would encourage anyone who isn't active to take up some form of resistance training. At the end of last year I started doing Olympic weight lifting once or twice a week at East Valley Crossfit. It has been so much fun and I've felt so energized that a few weeks ago I picked up a set of dumbbells to get in a couple more workouts at home.

While I don't quite have the physique that Abel has, this has definitely yielded me measurable gains. Here are graphs of my weight and body fat percentage over the last 3 months:

What isn't obvious from just glancing at the graphs is that while I lost 8.8 lbs. of weight, I lost 9.3 lbs. of fat. Who said you couldn't lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? That's doing a few hours of low intensity weight lifting 1-2 times a week with plenty of rest between sets and never getting winded. Besides those lifting sessions, I rarely do anything more strenuous than leisurely walking the dog.

Perhaps I could make faster gains with higher intensity training or more aggressive calorie restriction. I'm sure some young buck with great genetics could blow away my rate of progress but for a guy who's pushing 40, I'm trending towards better health while most people my age are slowly losing theirs. I'm in no rush to reach my goals and I'm developing sustainable habits I can maintain for the rest of my life. This is an exercise routine that I genuinely enjoy and could see myself doing for many years to come. In the end I think that will make all the difference.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Mat Lalonde on The Science Behind the Paleolithic Diet

I stumbled across this video a few days ago and thought it was superb:

Mat explains why many of the arguments used by paleo advocates are false and then provides real scientific explanations why the paleo diet is a useful tool for constructing a healthy diet. He also addresses common misconceptions about macronutrient ratios. I like that after beating us over the head with some heavy science, he concludes with one of the most succinct, practical ways I've heard of starting a paleo diet: "Eat meat, vegetables and tubers." I wish Mat had more material available on the web. His deep knowledge gives the paleo world a much needed reality check that is sorely needed to maintain credibility.

Driving By Surprise

We've all experienced it before. We're driving along and suddenly, a car cuts across three lanes of traffic to make a turn. Sometimes they don't even make the turn and cut back across three lanes to make a U-turn to catch that exit they missed. Heck, some of us might even admit to doing the same thing ourselves.

I call it driving by surprise. It's a lack of mindfulness of where we're going. Perhaps we're getting distracted by the scenery, too involved in a conversation with a passenger or singing along to a song playing on the radio. Whatever the reason, it's a dangerous habit and when you're not paying attention, it's easy for the twists and turns to take you by surprise.

Having a route planned out and getting ready to make turns ahead of time is all part of being a responsible driver and staying accident free. If we're making routine trips like the daily commute to work and back, less planning is required than when you're going somewhere you've never gone before but either way, to get where you want to go, you need to have a destination, a route and the mindfulness to make the right turns at the right time. Depending on how important it is to arrive on time, you may even plan for alternate routes and backup plans in case of traffic jams or accidents.

It seems like most people eat by surprise. I've certainly been guilty of this most of my life. My trip through the day would rarely include a plan for what I would eat. Poor planning left me with nothing to pack for lunch and not enough time to whip something together. Then I'd engage the cruise control through the morning until somebody asked if I was hungry and what I was in the mood for. A poor choice for lunch would be followed by an equally poor choice for dinner: either some junk in a box nuked for a few minutes or another trip out.

It took me many months to develop new habits, but one of the best aspects of the paleo ideal is to make all your meals from scratch. I started one meal at a time. I transitioned from toast with peanut butter for breakfast to bacon and eggs. At first it took a lot more time to prepare, but I found that I could cook up big batches of bacon at once, store it in the fridge and reheat a few strips in the skillet while I'm preheating it to cook the eggs. Then I learned that I could cook up big batches of food over the weekend and assemble lunch while I'm fixing up breakfast. Now this 30 minute routine in the morning can set me up with all the meals I need to get me through a workday.

It was just a matter of mapping a route to a new destination, planning ahead and sticking to a decision to stop eating by surprise. A little bit of effort put into making some time yields tremendous rewards. I certainly waste far less money on food now that I'm not eating out all the time and even though I'm no culinary genius, my homemade food is infinitely tastier than anything served out of a box or through a window. Best of all, once the routine was established it was easy and I can't imagine going back to feeling hungry and agonizing over deciding what I'm in the mood for.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Why I Still Count Calories

During the first six months of shifting to a paleo/low carb lifestyle, I didn't bother much with counting calories. The natural spontaneous calorie reduction that tends to accompany low carb was enough for me to shed 10 lbs. in 3-4 months. Granted, that's not an impressive weight loss rate, but during this same time frame I started working graveyard shifts and took up a more sedentary job role. Both of those tend to lead to significant weight gain and I was pleased to manage any kind of loss, especially considering that I had been gaining 1-2 lbs per month during the preceding year.

Once I plateaued, at about 206 which has always been a tough point for me to break through, I was curious what my calorie intake was like so I started tracking my food. Based on that, I created a slight caloric deficit to maintain a weight loss rate of 2 lbs. per month until I reached 190 lbs. At that point, I adjusted calories to hold my weight constant. At no point during the weight loss phase was I chronically hungry. In fact, there have been more times that I felt I was eating more than my hunger dictated than when I have felt genuinely hungry.

Even so, the calorie counting practice bothered me a little. Isn't the whole point of paleo and low carb to restore natural appetite regulation? It seemed a bit at odds until one afternoon, I woke up and stumbled into the kitchen. Next to the sink I saw my wife had left a plate with a single bite of hamburger left over.

To give a little background, my wife is one of those people who has always been relatively lean. At her heaviest, she was just barely in the overweight range on the BMI charts and as long as she isn't eating garbage food, she's usually in middle of the normal range.

When my wife came home that evening, I asked her about it:

"I noticed you left a single bite of burger on your plate."
"I was full."
"But it was just one bite. Didn't you like it?"
"It was delicious and I really liked it."
"But you left a single bite."
"I wasn't hungry anymore."
"I don't understand. It was just one bite."

Never in my life would it have dawned on me to leave just one bite of something I liked uneaten. I mean, it's just one bite and it tastes good. Why on earth wouldn't I want to enjoy that one last bite?

That's when it struck me. The satiety mechanisms my wife has is actually working properly. For whatever reason, mine is broken. My best guess is that some of it has to do with the rate at which I eat. We'll sit down for dinner together and I'll wolf down my plate of food in about 5 minutes flat. 30 minutes later, she'll still be chewing away, savoring every bite. This isn't an exaggeration, either. She's one of the slowest eaters I've ever met and I'm one of the fastest that I know.

During the 5 minutes that follow my sprint to finish my plate, I'm usually left hankering for some more. I could easily chow down another serving or move on to dessert. But I don't. I measure out my portion before I sit down to eat and when the plate is clean, that's it for that meal. After about 5 minutes, I feel perfectly satisfied and I can cruise through until my next meal. Other than those few minutes after wolfing down the food, I never feel inappropriately hungry.

For some, the practice of counting calories and weighing and measuring portions is uncomfortable, neurotic and intrusive. I can understand that. My wife tries it on occasion and hates it. For me, it's kind of the opposite. I don't have to worry about overeating when I already know how much I'm going to eat. I don't have to try and monitor my satiety and wonder if I'm second guessing myself over getting too much or too little food. Having the right amount of food planned out for the day before I even step into the kitchen sets me free to enjoy an appropriate portion without worrying about it.

This is why I no longer beat myself up about counting calories. It's my substitute for a broken or subverted satiety mechanism. I'm sure I could work on slowing down when I eat but I enjoy eating fast. To me, most food has about a 3 minute window when it's at the perfect temperature and I like to eat it before it gets cold. So, instead of adjusting my eating style, I use the scale in the kitchen to serve myself an appropriate portion and I use the scale in the bathroom to determine how big that portion should be. Right or wrong, it works for me and could be useful for some, especially if they are hitting a plateau. I know many in the paleo community shun the practice but I think that in certain situations, it can be a useful tool that shouldn't be ignored just because our ancestors didn't weigh and measure their food.

While paleo may go a long way to restoring proper satiety signals, we still live in an environment where food is ridiculously easy to obtain and overeat and I don't see anything wrong with using some modern tools to make sure our portion sizes are sensible.

Jimmy Moore: From Carboholic to Lipoholic

About 6 months ago I stumbled across the The Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show with Jimmy Moore. At that point in time I was a several months into my low carb journey and doing well with it. Since I have a lot of time working nights to listen to podcasts, I decided to go back to Episode 1 and listen to them all sequentially.

Other than the odd missing episode, I've listened to all of them up through episode 515 and I'm slowly catching up on the rest. For those who don't know his story, he started at over 400 lbs. and lost over 180 lbs. after adopting the Atkins diet. It's an impressive story and I won't claim to understand what it is like to be that obese nor what it's like to lose that much weight.

Jimmy has been open with his struggle to keep the weight off during the last few years and as of his Safe Starch Experiment post on April 15th, he is pushing 300. I feel for him because I understand how frustrating it is to regain weight when you're doing "everything right".

Having listened to so many years of his podcasts in such a compressed time frame, I've noticed a distinct transition in his personality. Before he went low carb, he was undoubtedly a carboholic, guzzling 24 cans of soda in a day and downing boxes of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. While I've never gorged on sweet foods, the period of most rapid weight gain in my life was when I was chugging 12 cans of soda per day. I think it's one of the primary reasons I have struggled with weight loss ever since.

During the first few years of the LLVLC (Livin' La Vida Low-Carb) podcast, Jimmy regularly speaks about the evils of carbohydrates. This is still his core message but there has been a subtle shift to an obsession with fat. What started off as a defense of fat as not being evil, he now rarely lets an interview go by without trying to eke out a statement from the interviewee that fat is healthy and how much satiating power it has. This is often accompanied with comments that LLVLC and Atkins really aren't high protein diets but "moderate protein and high fat".

Round about the time that I started noticing this shift in Jimmy's attitude, the whole "safe starches" debate had exploded. Intrigued by Paul Jaminet's arguments on the Perfect Health Diet blog, I started adding potatoes and white rice to my diet. Up until then, I had been eating VLC (very low carb, under 25 grams per day) and I shifted to what I now consider just plain LC (low carb, about 100 grams per day). My shift from VLC to LC while I was listening to the episodes where Jimmy's attitude started shifting made it even more noticeable.

Anyway, back to Safe Starch Experiment and he's adding 3 tablespoons of butter to 1/2 of a baked sweet potato. It's like the fat is supposed to be a magical force field to protect him from the evil starches. It's like he's afraid that he'll be hungry if he doesn't get enough fat to satisfy his cravings. And to top it off, he seems to live in fear of experiencing hunger. It really is sad. I want him to be successful but I don't think he will be until he realizes that his former obsession with sugar has been replaced by an obsession with fat. If fat really was so satiating, then Jimmy Moore wouldn't be 300 lbs.

Besides the crazy high fat content, he seems to be preaching this "moderate protein" notion espoused by the likes of Nora Gedgaudas and Ron Rosedale. While I like much of what they have to say and limiting protein may have benefits in terms of longevity, it's not going to make up for the problems associated with being obese. If there's any single macronutrient that is almost universally accepted by diet experts as satiating, it's protein.

While I won't presume to be a diet guru or know how to fix Jimmy Moore, the high fat, moderate protein approach doesn't appear to be working. I tried going down that route and it didn't take long to notice that my satiety was lacking. I probably noticed this because I count my calories and shifted the macronutrients around in an isocaloric fashion. When I up the protein and leave out the added fats, my satiety is better and my body composition improves. Again, I'm no guru but drenching half a sweet potato in three tablespoons of butter and calling it an experiment in safe starches doesn't make sense to me.