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.