Wednesday, December 16, 2009

At the core...

At the big 5's core is the belief that saturated fat is good for you and should make up more of the human diet than it is allowed to do in modern day society. In addition to the paleo principle, here's a great article on the science of the failed hypothesis that saturated fat causes plaque build up in the arteries, higher incidence of heart attack and stroke, death, and other maladies.

Read it. Or skim it. At least understand that the science is not with those who claim that fat is bad for your cardiovascular system.

edit: And here's a short primer on cholesterol for those of you unaware of the "paradox" that higher cholesterol never tends to be an indicator of an increased rate of heart disease, no matter how the "researchers" try to manipulate the data and the studies from one of my favorite recent finds, Free the Animal.

To summarize, I'm operating under the assumptions (which science both predicts and finds when it measures) that you'll be healthier if you eat fewer grains/grasses and more animal fats. This stands at the Big 5's core.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Do another bicep curl, Fatty

I'm a firm and huge believer in the 80/20 rule when it comes to the contribution diet and exercise make to ones physical makeup. (For those unfamiliar, the theory of 80/20 applies to many different disciplines, but it has been claimed that diet is responsible for 80% of your body's composition and exercise for 20%). I'd rather not opine right now on the influence each has on your emotional well-being, but I will just say I believe they're both absolutely crucial to this arena as well.

That being said, the Big 5 is mostly about diet. How to feel better and be better because you eat better. But today I'd like to talk a bit about exercise. I would like to dispel some common misconceptions, poke fun at a few deserving parties, and hopefully get anyone who is looking to me for help on the right track to a program and/or mindset that will help them work out more effectively.

I guess a disclaimer is due here: I'm not a certified personal trainer just like I'm not a registered dietician. My advice is based on the knowledge and opinions I've garnered from my own experiences, research done by others and interpreted by those more qualified than myself, and personal observation. I will try to point to sources when it is necessary to do so. If you want me to cite a reference for any claims, just ask and I'll be happy to either try to point you to a properly executed, peer-reviewed, medical study, some alternative justification for the claim, or admit, in a cheerful manner with a minimum of profanity, that I can't back up what I said.

Okay, so let's get down to the nuts and bolts of this thing. The first piece of cultural mythology I'd like to dispel for you is the idea that bigger is better. I have plenty of friends who are bodybuilders, and they'll be the first to tell you that the way they work out is completely unsuitable for the average Joe. If you want to be a bodybuilder, that's certainly your prerogative. It just doesn't necessarily have anything to do with wellness. If you think this is the picture of health, you're on the wrong track. Or at the very least, the wrong blog.

By contrast, if you want to see what I think of when I visualize healthy, fit people, I found some on flickr with a simple google images search. Just look at the massive guns on those Maasai tribesmen.

You may very well prefer the Ron Coleman look to the svelte Maasai. I don't, personally, but even if you prefer a Lamborghini to a Toyota Camry, it doesn't mean it's going to run as well for as long, or with as little expenditure. There is something to be said for being practical.

Which is why I have to first and foremost tell all the fat people, the soccer moms, and about 98% of the remaining total gym population to stop doing bicep curls. Please. And stop doing triceps pulldowns, and stop doing calf raises. For starters, we've known for decades that it's not possible to spot-reduce fat via any methods other than liposuction surgery. You can't "tone" one part of the body without reducing your overall level of body fat.

Secondly, unless you're going to spend 6+ hours a day in the gym sweating and grunting, you can't afford the time devoted to such tiny groups of muscles. Unless you're an independently wealthy competitive bodybuilder, you don't have the time or energy to devote to the muscles on a 1-by-1 basis that way. You need to hit the big stuff and let the helper muscles do the helping. Accept the fact that your biceps will get used when you do pull-ups, chin-ups, and rows. Accept that your triceps will get used when you do bench press and dips. Compound exercises. That's rule #1. Stop isolating. Pick either a routine that splits the body into halves for the purposes of working out (I like an upper/lower body split), or pick something that treats the body as a whole (full body split). Some days, I achieve a full body split with only 2 exercises, the muscle-up and the dumbbell or kettlebell snatch.

The second major issue I have to call people out on right away is intensity. If you want to change your body's composition, you have to sort of take it by the throat and let it know it will be required to perform tasks it's not currently conditioned to handle. Or it will remain in its current form. If you sit at a bunch of machines and do 10 reps a few times with a weight that you could easily lift 25 times, you're not getting anywhere. If you run on a treadmill for a half hour at a speed that allows you to talk or text on your cell phone the whole time, save yourself the gym membership and stay home. You have to work out past the point of comfort if you want to see any results at all.

If you're going to belong to a gym, I suggest you do a little bit of research on reps and sets, compound vs. isolation exercises, the different muscle groups, recovery time (maybe the most under-contemplated aspect of getting in shape) and how each of these relates to your specific goals. I'd recommend starting out with a quick google search of the term "Stronglifts 5x5" and move on from there.

But, once you achieve a bit of strength, you have to determine whether you use it to build mass, or to amass more strength. The question becomes: Do you want to be massive, like this guy, or would you prefer to have the strength, power, flexibility and mobility, and athleticism of this guy?

Which brings me to my next point. The local gym isn't necessarily tailored to everyday people who want to get in shape. If you aren't knowledgeable or comfortable enough to make the gym work out for you (see what I did there?), why not find an activity where your intense physical effort is the means rather than the end? I personally enjoy training and competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Submission Grappling, and MMA, but there are truly athletic sports for the less combat-inclined as well. I even have a couple ideas for sports that will make you do High Intensity Interval Training without realizing it. Skip the darts, bowling, and over 40's softball and join a competitive soccer or basketball league. If you live somewhere that the climate is conducive, take up surfing or join a beach volleyball league. If you find it enjoyable (I certainly wouldn't!), sign up for a triathlon a few months from now, or a race that sounds longer than you think you could run, and commit yourself to completing it. Or join a swim team. Have you ever seen a fat competitive swimmer? I haven't.

I'm not against moving around at low to moderate levels of intensity. In fact, I think people should probably spend the majority of their non-napping time during the day doing just that. I'm just against pretending that it's a workout regimen. Walking your dog or your girlfriend around the block after dinner is nice, but it won't make you look or move like this guy when you're his age (currently 53 if my math is right, minus a few years since this video was made).

So if you're at the gym, do big lifts (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead barbell press, barbell cleans, rows, pull- and chin-ups, and dips should all probably be included, at the very minimum), with heavy weights for few reps and get yourself strong. Make sure you learn proper form and don't hurt yourself and all that jazz, but don't bother doing an "easy" or "moderate" workout.

If not, make sure you're doing an activity where you will be alternatively moving at your highest possible intensity and pretty/very low intensity. Put down the golf clubs. I'm sick of men who are entirely capable of intense exercise telling me how good a workout it is walking 18 holes. Maybe if they ran from shot to shot and did 20 burpees on every green. I may be onto something here. If they can turn make a fake/"cardio" version of kickboxing, why not golf. Anybody out there a copyright lawyer?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Vegetarianism: A genuine offense

Okay, just to be clear, I'm going to promise not to let this post turn into a hilarious Maddoxesque haranguing of vegetarians and/or vegans. In fact, the word "veganazi" will not even appear in this post. Starting now.

Attacking vegetarianism has achieved the same taboo status as religion. I am of the Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens school of thought where when someone acts based on preposterous views that it's my duty and my right to call them out. And that's what I intend to do with this post.

I am aware of really only 2 different claims of justification for the ridiculous behavior that is vegetarianism. The first is easily dismissed, so I'd like to deal with it first and get it out of the way. The claim that it's somehow healthier not to eat other animals is such a biologically unlikely hypothesis, given what we know about man's history on earth that it hardly need be addressed to be dismissed. It's like claiming that it would be healthier for people to live nocturnal lives and sleep during the day. It's not how we evolved, you see. The likelihood of us evolving as largely meat-eating omnivores for 3 million years but somehow coincidentally being more adapted to an all-plant diet is about on the magnitude of a hurricane blowing through a scrap metal yard and assembling a 747. (Let's not quibble over the date. That's a largely accepted estimate for the birthdate of the genus homo, but even if you want to use 1 million years, the point still stands).

Of course, I can point any detractors to gobs and gobs of research confirming this point. Talk to a local vegan and see what kind of hoops they jump through to get vital nutrients (B12 and iron, to name a few) without animal food sources in their diet. That alone negates the idea that eating vegetables and fungi only is a more healthful choice for humans. Not to mention the mounting evidence that saturated fat is good for you and a necessary major component of a proper diet.

Now, on to frying bigger fish. The second justification for veganism and its watered down forms (like lacto-ovo-vegetarianism) is that it's morally superior to eating animals. First and foremost, this is an act of overt kingdomism. To suggest that it's somehow more evil to eat a kangaroo than a stalk of broccoli is simply baseless and stems from an anthropocentric view of the world. There is nothing inherently superior about either life form. Both have found a niche over the course of millions of years that they can fulfill better than any of their competitors (for the moment, anyway).

But broccoli doesn't suffer, you might say. I think this is why we get all namby-pamby when it comes to putting our foot down and declaring vegetarianism a form of lunacy. But here's where the logic falls short: If a cheetah catches a gazelle, the gazelle suffers, but the cheetah gets his need satisfied. If the gazelle escapes, the cheetah suffers. He goes hungry. Over the course of the cheetah's life, many gazelles will suffer so that he doesn't. But we don't outlaw meat-eating in the jungle because we realize that's the way life works, and it's beyond our control.

So the self-righteous vegan chooses to suffer in the lamb's stead. It sounds noble, on the face of it. But it's truly more pretentious than anything. The vegan is saying "I know better than the laws of nature what the order of things should be." He's basically trying to lay claim to a kind of knowledge he is incapable of possessing. It's like when a sportscaster describes a basketball player as "defying gravity." We all know he's just saying that the player is so athletic that he appears to be able to defy gravity. He is, by jumping, by pushing off the earth, working 100% within the law of gravity. We all know this without it having to be explained. We know this as surely as we know that members of the genus homo eat a diet that largely consists of animal fat and muscle tissue.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I am personally offended by vegetarianism. Because by choosing to forgo meat, the vegetarian is saying that he intellectually knows better how to be a human than the DNA that makes me one. I'm made to want certain things. Among those things are meat, sex, and a human support structure. To apologize for these facts, to propose that you can and do know better than biology is truly an affront to humanity. And we should all be offended.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The big no-no's

One of the foundation principles of The Big 5 is that it's not a diet. Nothing is prohibited for you to eat or drink. The Big 5 simply suggests you replace as much non-Big 5 food with Big 5 food. There are just a few things that are more beneficial to sacrifice than others. And without getting into any kind of scientific argument (I'll point to articles as they come into my range of vision, which is relatively wide on the subject), I wanted to provide a bit of guidance on this point.

I have to say my biggest dietary no-no is high fructose corn syrup. I'm not a huge fan of sugars in general, especially fructose. The reason this is cheaper for U.S. companies than cane sugar is because we don't allow Cuba to send cane sugar here and we put a tax on the Brazilian product. If there's one source of sugar we have in abundance here in the U.S., it's corn. Plotting the usage of HFCS in the U.S. vs. the incidence of type 2 diabetes is shocking. If you want to cut 1 thing out of your diet completely, HFCS gets my vote.

And speaking of corn, if you thought it belonged in the Big 5 as a fresh vegetable, you were mistaken. Corn is a grain. My second choice for food to avoid is grasses. Call them Grass, call them grains, call them cereal, the group that includes wheat (whole or otherwise), barley, rye, rice, and yes, corn gets my second vote as a food to avoid. We're back to that good old Paleo principle again here folks. Humans became the way we're built by living in the savannah, eating mostly what we could hit with a spear. with whatever we could pick off a bush or tree or vine as accoutrements. To suggest that we would be best served to get the majority, or even a significant component of our dietary intake is tantamount to suggesting that we'd be better served sleeping during the day and working/playing/grocery shopping in the pitch black of night. It's simply not how we're built because it's simply not how we were built.

Third are starchy root sorts of things, like potatoes and yams. The Big 5 isn't about calculating macronutrient ratios, but trust me that they'll come out more how I'd suggest if you eat an extra piece of steak or buttered cheese omelet rather than a baked potato.

Honorable mention goes to alcohol and unrefined sugars. They only receive honorable mention because we already know these are to be used sparingly for best results. And basically, anything that's not in The Big 5 is in the "use sparingly" column anyway.

Now, to mention a few things that probably don't need to be used as sparingly as the aforementioned:

Processed meats. Of course real, whole, natural, native-diet fed meats are the most nutritious and have the least bad stuff in them, but contrary to what you've been told for however many decades, I think you're better off eating 4 slices of bacon than one piece of toast. And a life without bacon is hard for even me to contemplate, and I follow a far stricter regimen than what this blog proposes for sane and rational people.

Nuts and seeds. These have great nutritive value, and if I weren't trying to keep the Big 5 simple, they'd go in some sort of "eat regularly, but not in too great a quantity" column. Peanuts can be considered part of this column, despite the fact that they're legumes, but they're not nearly as desirable to your body as almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds (the raw, unsalted kind), flax seeds, and other nuts.

Peanut butter. Because I can't live without it and I wouldn't ask anyone else to. Realize, however, that it takes more time for your stomach to feel full than it takes to eat an entire jar of peanut butter (for me, anyway). Also realize that peanut butter is extremely calorie-dense and relatively high in carbohydrate content. So don't eat 14 spoonfuls in 5 minutes, because you'll have a tummy ache in half an hour, and you will have probably given your body most or all of the calories it needs for an entire day.

Next post: The offensiveness of vegetarianism. A reasoned discourse on this everyday affront to humanity.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Amazing feets

This article recently reminded me that one of the first things I pledged to write about when I started this blog and haven't gotten around to yet are my Vibram Fivefingers.

I remember reading about Vibram Fivefingers in an article about MovNat and Erwan LeCorre in Men's Journal about a year ago and thinking that it was an interesting concept. The idea behind MovNat, to paraphrase, is that the human body will benefit most from performing the motions and exercises it was built for. Running and climbing in jungles and on beaches, with weight resistance coming from unstable things, swimming, and other exercises that come natural to humans. This follows the idea(s) that I have previously referred to as the "Paleo Principle."

More recently, through my research on athletic conditioning and all things performance-related, I have become aware of movements small and large of people who train barefoot, run barefoot, lift barefoot, and love it. I found studies and books supporting the idea that being barefoot was better for our posture, our joints, our muscular development.

So, a few weeks before I started this blog, I received my Vibram Fivefingers Flows. Contrary to other peoples' experiences, I got the size right on the first try using the sizing chart on their website.

I wore them to walk around for a few days before I had a chance to hit the gym for a serious lower body workout. It was that first workout that convinced me beyond doubt of the rightness of working out barefoot. I remember thinking I'd never felt as good after lifting so heavy.

The next day, when I had to put my regular shoes back on, I felt awkwardly pitched forward, artificially supported, awkward and uncomfortable immediately. I still can't wait to get out of a pair of "regular" shoes and into my Vibram Fivefingers every day. I wear them out shopping, to the gym, and anywhere else that it's not appropriate to be barefoot.

The Big 5 isn't just about your diet. It's about being well and feeling well. It's about "rightness." Being barefoot is something humans undoubtedly did for millions of years.

The human foot is not designed to support your entire body's weight throughout a variety of activities with the help of a pair of super-cushioned arch-supported composite fancy running sneakers. Nor is the human hip or knee. It's designed to strike the ground forefoot-first when running. The toes are designed to splay and grip and propel their owner forward. The ankle is designed for free dorsiflexion and landing on a variety of surface shapes.

I have to honestly report that you couldn't pay me enough to switch back to a traditional running/cross-training/hiking shoe. And I'm not currently being compensated in any way by the Vibram people, but I can't promise to turn down any checks that show up in my mailbox (hint, hint).

Friday, December 4, 2009

If you eat carbs, you're retarded

Okay, perhaps the title is a bit of a stretch, but try to follow the logic here. I do find it compelling.

I got the idea for this post a while ago, when I read this news piece about abdominal fat increasing the probability of dementia in women. I admit to not having found or read the actual study, much less scrutinizing the data and methodology (this is the advantage of admitting to being a dilettante in the description of my blog).

The other piece to the logical puzzle is that ever-present news story about refined carbohydrates causing you to store a greater percentage of your fat in the abdominal region. This is one of those not-news stories your favorite macro-periodical recycles every few months in its health section.

Obviously, I'm not a proponent of whole grains. I'm a proponent of eating the things that eat grains, and getting any carbohydrates from fresh fruits and vegetables. But the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if I can convince you that refined grains make you retarded today, maybe I can convince you to replace some or all of those calories with saturated fat. And when you feel better and sleep better and your body makes it evident that this is the right diet for you as a member of the genus homo, maybe you'll tell your cardiologist where he can stick his statins.

Next up, your feet were made for walking. And running and climbing..