Saturated fats may or may not kill us all

I am daunted by stuff like this recent article in Paleo Magazine: Does Coconut Oil Really Cause Heart Attacks? which makes the case that polyunsaturated vegetable oil is dangerous stuff to eat, and that the statistical associations that seemed to suggest that it was safer than saturated fat were an artifact of other dietary changes going on at the same time that the public was being pushed to switch to vegetable oils:

Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.

It is annoying that the research studies done to date do not seem to have been constructed to resolve this question, leaving us stuck trying to figure out statistical correlations and hypothesize about cause and effect based on how different fatty acids are metabolized in the body.

Lacking the skills with either statistics on the one hand and biochemistry on the other, I can’t figure this out for myself. And yet, it is literally a matter of life or death.

However, there is another way to get at the question, the strategy suggested by Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food. There are many traditional diets that have been eaten all over the world by millions of people for thousands of years, and the people who have eaten them have thrived.

There are also diets that were eaten by people who did not thrive—the standard American diet for one, but also many others. (In particular, it seems that many early agricultural societies go through a period when agriculture starts producing enough calories through a single staple crop to push the population high enough that it’s not possible to get the full range of necessary nutrients from other available foods. In the archeological record you see people shrinking and signs of various degenerative diseases not present in other populations.)

By looking at the vast range of diets that lead to thriving, I am convinced that it’s not that hard to eat a healthy diet, and that simply going for whole foods gets one most of the way there.

I am convinced enough that, despite being a picky eater from way back, I have been expanding the range of things I eat more and more, trying to add whole foods and delete processed foods. I give a nod to paleo eating—speculating about what cavemen ate and how they prepared it is at least fun and may even offer some useful guidance on how to eat, especially for people who have dietary issues that they’ve been unable to resolve with simpler strategies—but I have not given up dairy or grains or legumes.

Trying to eat whole foods has significantly increased the amount of saturated fat in my diet. I just about don’t use polyunsaturated vegetable oil in my own cooking—it is, after all, a quintessentially processed food—and I eat very little food cooked by other people (except Jackie).

I suppose the fats I do eat and cook with—olive oil, butter, and lard—are all “processed,” but those processes (pressing, churning, rendering) are processes that people have been using for a very long time indeed. The number of people who have eaten those fats and thrived over the past 5000 years (that we know of, and probably a multiple of that in fact) is large enough to give me some confidence that these foods are safe to eat.

So far that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.

Feeling good versus feeling young

A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”

It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.

It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.

A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.

Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.

But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?

Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.

They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.

As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.

The Ultimate Army Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants | The Art of Manliness

If you’re interested in foraging, your best source of information is going to be a local forager who knows what’s available in your area at different times of year. You next best would be a book by a local forager. Third best, but better than nothing, would be FM 21-76 the (not copyrighted, because it’s a U.S. government publication) Army Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants.

Original opulence via simple living

Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.

Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.

As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.

I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.

Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.

I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.

Tomato soup has high fructose corn syrup?

I was eating my lunchtime salad, and on a whim (because it was a chill, blustery day) decided that I’d really like some soup. So I grabbed a can from the cupboard and heated up some Campbell’s tomato soup. I didn’t check the label, because, you know, tomato soup. What would be in it? Tomatoes, broth, maybe some onion, and salt, right?

One sip, and I was shocked to find it tasted sweet.

My first thought was that eating low carb had sensitized me to the taste of sweet, and I guess it has (I’d always perceived Campbell’s tomato soup as salty in the past) but it’s not just that.

After that one spoonful, I looked at the label. A 1/2 cup serving of soup has an astonishing 20 g of carbs, 12 of them from sugar. The number two ingredient is high fructose corn syrup!

I know I shouldn’t find this as surprising as I did. If it’s processed food, of course it’s going to have high fructose corn syrup. I just hadn’t thought of it, because even a week and a half into eating low-carb, I hadn’t needed to get into the habit of checking labels.

Jackie cooks almost all our meals (although I’m cooking a good share of mine, while I’m doing the low-carb thing). We rarely eat processed food, but we keep some on hand so we can satisfy just this sort of sudden urge.

The upshot is that I haven’t had to get in the habit of checking the nutrition labels, because most of what we eat scarcely has labels—because we eat food, not industrially manufactured food-like substances.

I ended up eating about three tablespoons of the soup, and then putting it in the fridge. Maybe we can make some use of it, putting the odd spoonful here and there into some dish that needs a little tomato and little salt—and a little sugar.

Valentine’s day feast

When I thought about what Jackie and I might do for Valentine’s day, the idea of going out to a restaurant didn’t appeal. Fixing her something special seemed like a better idea. After pondering for a while, I came up with a plan for a collaborative feast, which seemed even better.

A bit of history: Just a few days after we started dating, Jackie said that she was tired and thought she’d go home early and spend an evening resting. I didn’t want risk letting her get away, so I proposed that she could come home with me and take a nap, and that I’d prepare dinner while she slept.

She was dubious but agreeable, and that’s what we did.

I don’t really remember what I fixed. Mainly what I remember is that Jackie was astonished—and remarked on it more than once to other women—that I actually succeeded in producing a meal entirely on my own: “I just slept!” she said. Which always seemed odd to me, because I’d been a bachelor for close to ten years at that point; it didn’t seem so remarkable to me that I could manage to cook a meal.

As best I’ve been able to reconstruct what I must have served, I think it would have been Rock Cornish game hens with Uncle Ben’s wild rice on the side. They were both staple items that I kept in my kitchen. The hens were purchased frozen, and could be quickly thawed in the microwave. Uncle Ben’s was also something I often had a box of on hand.

So, for Valentine’s day, I thought we’d recreate that meal, with some adjustments for the way our eating has evolved over the years.

I searched on the web for some recipes that were supposed to be like Uncle Ben’s, then used them as a model to create a recipe that I thought would be as much like the original as I’d actually want to eat. (I call it Uncle Phil’s long grain and wild rice.) We went to the grocery store and bought a rock Cornish game hen. (We got a fresh one, rather than frozen; because it was larger, we just one one rather than two.)

Jackie made us salads. (I don’t remember, but I probably served salads that first time as well. I was eating a lot of salads right then.) She also made stuffing for the bird. (I’m pretty sure I didn’t stuff the birds that first time. I didn’t know how to make my own stuffing, and not having store-bought stuffing on hand is probably why I served Uncle Ben’s as the starch course.)

I stuffed the bird and roasted it, prepared the rice, and made gravy.

It was a wonderful feast.

After we’d eaten our fill, we finished butchering the hen, then boiled up the carcass for soup.

Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement

I have always found “deconstructionist” models appealing. For example, I liked the idea that you could “figure out” all the nutrients that you need and then build up a diet that provides the right mix of carbs, proteins, fats (with proper mix between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids), the right amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and so on.

Then Michael Pollan came along and (in his book In Defense of Food) completely destroyed that idea. First of all, it’s an impossible problem to solve—the different nutrients interact in the body (and biome) in ways that are intractably complex, plus there are so many micro-nutrients as to make it computationally infeasible (even if we knew what all of them were, which we don’t). More to the point, though, it’s a completely unnecessary problem to solve: our bodies solve it for us, as long as we eat a diet of diverse foods and minimize our consumption of manufactured food-like substances.

I’m not saying this is new news. In fact, this is common knowledge—everybody said this, right from the start. What I’m saying is that, for reasons no doubt having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, I liked the deconstructionist model for analyzing and then constructing a plan for what to eat, despite what everybody said. For some reason, again having to do with my personality and psychological makeup, Michael Pollan’s explanation of how the whole deconstructionist model of designing a plan for eating was fundamentally flawed suddenly made it clear to me (in a way that any number of people—including my third grade health teacher and both my parents—had not managed to do).

All that seems relevant because—I recently realized—for years now I’ve been making the exact same mistake with movement. I’ve been trying to “figure out” an exercise regime that would keep me fit. If you click on the Fitness category over in the sidebar, or the “exercise” tag on this post, you’ll be linked to a long list of my posts on the topic, many of which describe my latest attempt to find the right mix of walking, running, bicycling, lifting, stretching, and taiji to build and maintain optimal levels of aerobic capacity, strength, and flexibility.

Then I ran into the work of Katy Bowman, whose explanations of why exercise is no substitute for movement clicked for me in just the same way, and for roughly the same reason: The problem is intractably complex, and anyway our bodies solve the problem for us—as long as we engage in an ample amount of diverse movement and minimize things like sitting in chairs and wearing bad shoes. (See her book Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement.)

Again, this is not really new news; I’m just late to the party because I like the idea of designing an exercise regime that covers all the necessary categories.

However, I think I have come around. Appealing as it is to me to design the perfect exercise regime and then tick off each box as I reach my target for the week, I pretty much have to admit that the whole thing is a fool’s errand. I’d be much better off spending that time walking, stretching, hanging, squatting, climbing, balancing, jumping, throwing, catching, and so on.

I’ll still run (because I enjoy it, probably due to the endocannabinoids, and because being able to run is useful), but I’ll spend a lot less time on things like figuring out how much I can safely add to my weekly mileage. I’ll just run as much as I feel like—while being careful to do so mindfully, and to pay attention to my body, so that enjoying running doesn’t entice me to run more than should.

Still not new news.

I no longer much care about food labels

News today about a proposal to change food labeling rules reminds me of a long-ago peeve of mine.

More than 20 years ago, I got word from my doctor that my cholesterol was elevated. I responded by changing my diet to reduce my fat consumption. That led to reading a lot of food labels, which led to observing that a lot of manufacturers were gaming the system by manipulating portion sizes.

The specific example that served as patient-zero for my peeve was a brand of sliced cold cuts that advertised itself as “fat-free.” Their justification for that was slicing their smoked chicken and turkey into slices so small they had less than half a gram of fat, which they could then round to zero—and then calling one paper-thin slice a serving. With “zero” grams of fat per “serving,” they were “fat-free.”

Now, I was a bit torn. I mean, portion control is a legitimate part of eating a good diet, and I was willing to accept the idea that one thin slice—perhaps torn up on top of a chef’s salad—might be a serving. I was totally down with supporting, even encouraging, people to make that choice.

On the other hand, when I used that lunch meat to make a sandwich, I used 8 or 10 slices—and had no idea how much fat I was eating. I could assume it was pretty close to 5 grams, but I would have really liked to have a more accurate figure.

My own preferred solution would have been to put the total fat content of the whole package on the label. Then if I used half or a third of the package to make a sandwich, I’d just have to divide by two or three to get a reasonably accurate figure.

That idea never seemed to get much consideration. Finally now the new rules move us some ways toward that, at least in categories where everybody knows that people consume a whole package. For example, soda companies will no longer be able to pretend that a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains two and a half 8-ounce servings.

What surprised me about the whole thing is that, although I remember caring deeply about this 20 years ago, I’m over it. I scarcely even look at food labels any more.

Part of the reason is that I’ve outsourced the label-checking to Jackie, but probably the bigger part is that a whole lot less of what I eat even has a label any more, because I eat a lot less in the way of manufactured edible products. (Strangely, food often doesn’t come with a food label. It’s the food-like products that get the food labels.)

Still, it’s good that people are paying attention to this. My label-based efforts to reduce fat consumption were effective: I brought my cholesterol down, and have kept it down for 20 years. It would have been a lot harder without the labels. Better labels would have helped more.

Even now I make use of the labels, although not so much the content of the label. Now that I’ve observed that food tends not to have labels, the presence of a label is a good, quick way to spot that I’m dealing with a manufactured food-like substance. (And I do eat them, I just try to make them a small part of my diet.)

Made candy

easy karo candyToday would have been a good day to stay in, but I was obliged to teach my taiji class (and four or five students actually braved the weather to show up, so I was glad I’d made it in).

The weather that needed braving was an hour or two of pretty heavy snow, followed by freezing rain.

On paths that had been cleared, the result was about an eighth of an inch of ice. But since the freezing rain followed hard on the snow, most paths had not been cleared. The result was a thick layer of crunchy crystalline mush—not runny like slush, but otherwise kind of similar.

The weird consistency of the stuff reminded me of a failed effort at fudge or frosting—like a thick paste full of huge crystals, instead of tiny ones.

By the time I’d finished driving home in the stuff, I had an irresistible urge to make candy.

I’d have made fudge, but Jackie was doubtful about us having chocolate on hand, but we did have karo syrup and confectioner’s sugar—which, together with butter and vanilla, is all it takes to make Easy Karo Candy.

So, that’s what I made.

My mom used to make me Easy Karo Candy when I was a kid, so it brought back memories. (Even though it was pretty different, because we had dark Karo syrup instead of the light stuff, so it was kind of like Easy Karo Caramel Candy.)

I felt moved to post this because long ago I learned something from making Easy Karo Candy: I learned what candy is. This stuff is basically platonic candy. It contains fat, sugar, and a little flavoring. What makes it candy is the process—cooking it and then stirring in a bunch of confectioner’s sugar—which prompts the formation of the tiny sugar crystals that give things like fudge their distinctive texture. Basically any (non-hard) candy is the same stuff, just with a different flavoring. (A realization that prepared me for the realization that salad dressing is very similar: fat, vinegar, and a little flavoring.)

As a very picky eater, it was cool to figure this out. I vastly broadened the salad dressings I was willing to try, once I realized that they were really all the same. (I tend still to be pretty picky as far as candies go: Fancy candies are all sneaky, with non-candy stuff hidden in a candy layer. But that’s okay. I don’t see any great need to broaden the range of candies I eat.)