A Bit About a Bite

While catching up with some news websites yesterday, I stumbled across an article that linked to a two-year-old study about sugar. The TL;DR is that added sugar seems to be bad for one’s health — obesity, diabetes, etc. In fact, there seems to be a growing consensus among researchers (and not the sky-is-falling conspiracy-theorist variety) that high levels of sugar are outright toxic and should be treated like cigarettes: “Sure, one cigarette isn’t going to kill you, but enough of them will, so don’t have the ‘one’ to begin with.”

Fair enough.

Second verse, same as the first, regarding too much alcohol.

References abound, too, to stories about a person’s microbiome, and how the macronutrient profile of what we eat directly affects the flora inside our intestinal tract, which directly affects our overall heath.

Oh, and don’t forget, adequate sleep matters, too. And getting enough exercise, especially cardio.

So the message that some health experts now share is relatively simple: Get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, avoid unnecessary sugar intake, don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess, and get at least a little exercise each week.
Got it? Good. Now gather ’round kiddies, cuz grandpa’s got a story.

Picture it: Grand Rapids, 2018. Since last autumn, as I’ve spent more time at home, I’ve been cooking more. (By more I mean, “I’ve started cooking.”) I’ve also gotten a bit more exercise, smoked fewer cigars, enjoyed comparatively fewer cocktails, and have been paying more attention to my sleep. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Diet matters. In 2005-2006, I lost 110 lbs. through a combination of diet and exercise. But funny thing: My diet in those days focused almost exclusively on calorie restriction, not on macronutrient balance. So I’d eat salads, and lean cuisines, and sometimes a pudding cup or something. I kept it below 1200 calories daily for a long time — but I didn’t change, e.g., my sugar intake. And even though I did, on average, more than 90 minutes of vigorous cardio a day at the time, my weight dropped at a rate of 2.5 lbs./week. Which on one hand is great, but on the other hand, not what it could have been. “I must have a slow metabolism,” I thought. Oh, and at that time, I never drank and never enjoyed a cigar.
Now, however, my diet is much more controlled. I tend to eat the same things, consistently:

  • Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with a light dash of cinnamon and a handful of freshly washed blueberries, plus coffee.
  • Lunch: Spinach salad with a few pinches of an Italian shredded-cheese blend and some shredded, plain chicken breast (the Meijer shredded rotisserie breast boxes, available in the deli, are awesome). Add a tablespoon of light balsamic vinagrette and a glass of low-sodium spicy V8 juice. Plus a Vitamin D3 pill.
  • Dinner: Pan-fried fish (usually salmon, tuna, swordfish or mahi-mahi — stuff that tolerates a cast-iron skillet) and a steamed vegetable, usually broccoli, brussels sprouts or asparagus. Rarely, just once or twice a month, I’ll swap in something like a rare filet. Serve with a tall glass of frosty distilled water.
  • Snacks: Sometimes a 30-gram pack of mixed nuts, sometimes a few tablespoons of 1 percent cottage cheese.

I don’t follow this diet perfectly. And that’s the point: I might go four or five days eating like this, then (as with last Friday) go to a social event where we all eat pizza for dinner and wash it down with chocolate desserts. Increasingly, I feel awful for a day or two after these “splurge” days, because my gut bacteria are adjusting to a better diet.
Remember how I lost 10 pounds a month exercising like a rabid monkey and starving myself? I lost 10 pounds last December by doing almost no exercise and enjoying holiday food, but cutting sugar and alcohol (most of December was dry) and eating well when I ate in. Never felt deprived, not even a little.

Healthy eating isn’t just about one or two lines on the Nutrition Facts label. I am not a nutritionist, so don’t take my word for it, but all of the reading and research I’ve seen in the peer-reviewed literature suggests that a variation on the Mediterranean Diet seems to be optimal. You need a good mix of protein, fats and carbs to thrive; looking just a calories, or just at sodium, or just at carbs, isn’t the right approach. It’s generically recommended that your daily intake include 50 percent carbs, 30 percent fats and 20 percent proteins. Mine is a bit different; I’m at roughly 25 to 30 percent carbs, 35 percent fats and 35 to 40 percent proteins, at between 1,500 and 1,700 calories per day. The point is, I’m looking broadly at all three categories instead of just obsessing about the calorie count. After all, if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet, eating 2,000 calories of donuts every day probably isn’t the best solution. And while it’s true that the only way to lose weight is by burning more calories than you consume — calorie restriction really does matter! — your gut microbiome flourishes when it’s got a good, healthy balance. And with a flourishing microbiome, your risks of cancer, heart disease, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, and a whole host of other problems seems to reduce significantly.

Cut the sugar. Last week, I brought snacks to our writers’ group meeting. Pączki happened to be on sale, so I bought a four-pack of blueberry ones. And I ate one in the office. And I felt awful. I guess I’m recalibrating to a more low-sugar lifestyle; six months ago, I could have put all four away and wished for a fifth. That I can see such an immediate causal relationship between my feeling of well-being based on something as silly as a Polish pastry says a lot, now that I’m less desensitized to it.

Exercise doesn’t matter how you think it does. I used to exercise to aid weight loss. Now, I exercise less than I should (but more than I used to), but I do it for cardiovascular health. You’re not going to lose weight exercising unless you’re doing insane cardio every day and are strictly cutting calories (which, by the way, isn’t a good combination, he says from experience). Hopping on the bike for a few minutes every other day or so isn’t going to shred a pound, but when I go on a hike, I won’t struggle to keep up with the group, either. In fact, I went on a New Years Day hike with the Fortune Bay Expedition Team this year. When the hike, which proceeded over horse trails near Yankee Springs State Recreational Area, concluded roughly six miles later, I was a the head of the class, not the back. And there were two dozen of us out there that day! So I might still look a bit doughy, but I’m in better shape than I look for my age and weight.

Don’t skimp on sleepFor several months now, I’ve been sleeping with my Apple Watch. I use an app that tracks my sleep. It calculates a “sleep deficit” on a rolling seven-day average. And you know what? When I can keep the deficit to 5 percent or less, I feel great. When it gets above 10 percent, I can absolutely tell. I feel awful, I get crabby, I can’t focus as well. When I only get five or six hours of sleep for three or four days in a row, my performance declines markedly. Now that I have data, I better understand the phenomenon.

Moderate your vices. I’ve smoked fewer cigars in the last few months than I have in many years. Not deliberately, per se; with the more intense cold, and me keeping the back porch wide-open for Ziggy d’Cat, it’s just been too unpleasant. So I’ve not enjoyed cocktails while puffing on a stogie. And I’ve been consuming fewer cocktails in general, as well. I like to sip on things when I write and read, but it turns out that ice water works just as well as a 700-calorie martini. I don’t mind having a couple of cigars per week; CDC estimates suggest a negligible overall risk from puffing (not inhaling) at that volume. But moderation.

I’m more aware than I used to be about the signals my body sends me. I guess I’d rather not get to the point where the only signals it sends are of the “Danger, Will Robinson!” variety.

An Autumn's Repose

Nights in West Michigan have grown consistently colder — in the 30s, usually — and most of the leaves have descended from their perches atop the now-barren canopy. Autumn’s full, glorious array reminds us to be prepared for the winter to come. A few weeks ago, I went for a walk in a county park and saw the transition up-close and personal: Bees going after every fading flower, greens turning into reds and yellows, squirrels building their stashes. All the little creatures, it seems, are fortifying themselves against the frigid desolation to come.
On Halloween day, I had my annual biometric screening. Most of the content — blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol, weight, BMI — met my expectations. No surprises. One measure, fasting glucose, caught me off guard. Not bad enough to freak out over, but not what I expected given that by all lights, I’m in better shape today than I was when I had my first assessment a full decade ago.
The thing about autumn is that the beauty of the landscape proves so charming that you aren’t forced to reflect on the clear lessons hidden beneath the surface. Instead, you repose quietly, enjoying the scenery or sipping the cider and relaxing in anticipation of the busy holiday season to come. So too with aging. We change styles and behaviors, but the danger that counts is the one locked deep within — we obsess about which sweater to wear but never think to check our biometric values. Like the parable of the grasshopper and the ant, at some point, the flurries will fly, and only the well-prepared will make it through. Wellness is a beast that requires daily diligence even in the warm summer sun, because if you come up short when a health blizzard hits … well, it is what it is. Now, then — some general updates, in no particular order.

  • Work continues to be busy. I just oriented my first official new hire as a department manager. Went smoothly. Our division is undergoing a significant restructuring, so it’s been “interesting times” around here in the fullest Confucian sense of the term.
  • It’s November, which means National Novel Writing Month. I’m again participating, and again hosting a write-in on Saturday mornings in downtown Grand Rapids. This year’s novel, should it be polished to the point of shopping, is literary fiction — a tale of a young wealthy man from a dog-eat-dog competitive social circle who, after he’s cut off from the family money, must develop his own life goals and set of morals while fending off the predation of his former friends, who now see a turn-about opportunity to further humiliate him. The meta-narrative of the story focuses on the main character’s investigation of the various classic sources of ethical meaning from the perspective of someone who’s working through a mash of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders while drowning in a rich, hypermasculine peer group with similar tendencies. Given the language and very strong adult themes, if I ever publish it, it’ll be under a pseudonym. Probably my porn name, which actually makes a great author name, too.
  • The wrap-up activity after my conference took more out of me than I thought. I had to develop and compile surveys so I could issue continuing-education credits. That work, and the resulting time crunch, contributed to my inability to attend a much-anticipated Halloween party at PPQ’s house. CEs are time-consuming.
  • The election was … interesting. I volunteered a bit this year for the GOP, given my status as an elected precinct delegate. Did some door-to-door campaigning a few weeks ago for the MRP in eastern Kent County then spent seven hours as an election challenger in one of the busiest precincts in the City of Grand Rapids. Good experience, but it highlights how so much of the ground game is being run by very young people with very high self-regard who lack any substantive political experience.
  • The publishing company is humming along. We’re in the edit phase of our anthology and are actively looking toward starting a quarterly literary magazine in 2015. There’s much enthusiasm for that journal by several contributors, so I hold out hope that it’ll launch with sufficient love and nurturing.
  • The boy cat has started tunneling under my blankets at night to curl up next to me. It’s adorable. I get a little ball of fuzzy, purring warmth showing up at unexpected times.
  • Hard to believe, but Tony and I are closing in on our 200th podcast episode next month.

Jason's 10 Rules for Staying Healthy, Happy & Sane

A recent conversation with a friend about encouraging better health choices prompted me to reflect on the advice I’d give to people about the best way to live a long and healthy life. Although I’m not a licensed clinician, I’ve worked in various clinical quality improvement roles in the health care industry for more than a decade. You learn some stuff along the way by reading the literature, interviewing the docs and diving into public-health data.
Anyway, here’s my list of rules:

  1. Watch what you eat. Forget the special diets like South Beach, Paleo, etc. The one and only surefire way to manage your weight is to assess your current resting basal metabolic rate and adjust your daily net calorie intake accordingly. If you need 3,500 calories each day to maintain, and you want to lose one pound per week, then aim for net calorie intake of 3,000 per day. A deficit or surplus of 3,500 calories equals one pound of weight. You adjust your weight not by exercising, but by moderating calorie intake. So although you should aim for the obvious — don’t overdo sodium, avoid saturated fats, get fiber through veggies, etc. — the best bet is to eat a variety of foods from the various food groups and keep careful eye on your calories.
  2. Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. Do your steps. Run or cycle a bit. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Just move.
  3. Eliminate your stressors. Stress raises your blood pressure and encourages you to splurge on comfort foods. Stress is a subtle fiend; it attacks your resolve and prompts you to act defensively without really thinking. Find out what’s gnawing at you from within, then squash it without mercy.
  4. Track your biometrics. Every week, record your blood pressure and weight. If you’re diabetic or closing in on pre-diabetes, track your fasting blood glucose. Get your labs done annually — cholesterol, etc. Look for things in your family history; if thyroid disorders run in the family, for example, get your TSH tested with every lab draw. Know what’s going on inside so you can make changes before things get out of hand.
  5. Beware the latest fad. Lots of people publish research or findings that simply cannot be validated by other researchers. A new drug trial, a special diet plan, a new surgical procedure — things get hyped and then cannot be demonstrated in peer-reviewed literature to actually have a statistically significant benefit. Diet and supplements are the worst of the lot; overwhelmingly, claims aren’t supported by valid, double-blind research trials. So if you see some new innovation that sounds great, hold your horses. Give the industry time to catch up. Even things like the barefoot running craze have seen some significant reversals and re-reversals in the clinical trials. The folks who produce documentaries about food are often the worst offenders at presenting misleading information about the benefit or organic or local or “sustainable” food choices, relying on emotional tugging instead of hard science, so think twice before you make changes based on the propaganda pieces of professional activists.
  6. See your providers regularly. Visit your doctor annually for a physical with labs. See your dentist twice per year. See your eye doctor annually. If you need a specialist, keep up with your recommended appointment schedule. Just do it.
  7. Develop a life goal and a support network. People who have a sense of purpose and a support network to help them during difficult times are more likely to self-manage chronic disease more effectively and recover from injury or illness faster. Plus, they’re significantly less likely to develop depression, a comorbid condition that’s truly a silent killer. So get a plan, get a group, and get going.
  8. Drink enough water. A majority of Americans are chronically dehydrated, leading to lower immune response, less restful sleep and more difficult kidney function. Just drinking adequate amounts of water — so you urinate roughly every three hours, at very pale color — helps with appetite control and feelings of energy.
  9. Get enough sleep. A majority of Americans also consistently fail to get adequate rest. Adults, usually, need 7 or 8 hours of restful sleep per night. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to lower immune response, reduced impulse control, slower mental reactions and irritability. Ensure you get a restful slumber, and remember — shut off the glowing screens an hour or more before hitting the sack. Exposure to bright lights can disrupt your sleep cycles.
  10. Moderate your vices. Don’t drink alcohol to excess. Don’t pig out on truffles every day. If you smoke, consider e-cigs or nicotine patches to step down the habit. Don’t spend all day watching porn or playing video games. In short: If you indulge, indulge responsibly.

It’s not hard to stay healthy, really. There are no secrets or tricks. Just exert the daily effort to maintain and grow. Anyone who tries to sell you on a magic formula or secret shortcut isn’t doing you any favors. Health is a choice, not a product. Choose wisely.