March 31, 2009

Cheeseburgers can cause insomnia?

Note: this is not Another Post Bashing Red Meat. In fact, the phrase "Red Meat" will be used only twice in this post, and you've already passed both usages. It's safe to keep reading.

Do you want to stay up all night?
Photo: linecook

I stole leveraged this picture of a bacon-and-everything cheeseburger because it seemed the epitome of a high-fat meal. A study published in the journal Endocrinology claims that a high-fat diet can be bad for a new reason.

Dr. Oren Froy, and a couple minions white-coated colleagues, studied a circadian rhythm ("adiponectin signaling pathway") that deals with glucose regulation and the oxidation of fatty acids. According to the study, if the test mice fasted, the circadian rhythm was delayed, while eating a high-fat (HF) diet advanced the rhythm. A low-fat diet did not affect the circadian rhythm either way.

(They abbreviated "high-fat" to HF. Not sure why, since they didn't abbreviate any of the other terms. Maybe because it sounded way cool that way?)

Their conclusion? "Changes in the phase and daily rhythm of clock genes and components of adiponectin signaling pathway as a result of HF diet may lead to obesity and may explain the disruption of other clock-controlled output systems, such as blood pressure and sleep/wake cycle, usually associated with metabolic disorders."

I knew that not getting enough sleep causes cortisol levels to rise, and the waist to get thicker, and other not-so-great results. It was new to me that an HF diet (hell, if the cool people in white coats abbrev. stuff, I wanna abbrev. stuff 2. I cool) would mess with the body's cycles such as the ability to go to sleep at night and get up in the morning.

Besides insomnia, I don't like the idea of messing with the circadian rhythms in any case. To quote the blog Psychology, "The disturbance of circadian rhythms can lead to such phenomena as hormone imbalance, obesity, psychological and sleep disorders and cancer."

Eating an HF lunch can cause me to crave the Zzzs during my afternoon meetings, but I thought that was normal. And I thought frequent bouts of insomnia were just my lot in life.

Mmmmmaybe not.

Next time, I'll skip the pizza and take a walk at lunch instead.

Sleepy photos: Ingorrr

March 30, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different

Blame The Blogess. It's all her fault.

(If you're having any trouble seeing it, try this link instead).

Avoiding some unpleasant task and need a distraction? Take it from the Queen of Procrastination. You can go to the xtranormal site and fritter away lots of time making your own dopey cartoons. (And if you do, please leave a link in the comments so I can watch it!)

Oh, um, health news? Well... here's something: don't drink your tea too hot! Apparently drinking hot tea can lead to throat cancer.

Sorry you asked? Here, have a nice dancing bear video. Mondays are hard enough without scary health warnings.

And my apologies to you folks with dial-up connections, as well as to those who have serious jobs and no headphones. Normal posts with actual words instead of videos will resume shortly!

March 27, 2009

Should Restaurant Menus Fess Up To Calories Counts?

Do You Really Want To Know?
Photo: linecook

So it was big news last summer when New York City started requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus. There was much outcry amongst folks who felt such government regulation was intrusive, and cheers from health advocates who argued that such regulation was necessary, given the rising obesity rates, diabetes risks, etc., etc.

Skeptics have said these kind of laws won't help anyway, because people don't want the information and are just going to ignore it.

Now that the requirement has been in place for a while, guess what?

Intrusive or not, these regulations seem to be working. Calorie counts at restaurants are providing consumers with information they didn't know, and even changing the way they behave.

According to a recent survey on how calorie counts affect consumer behavior, 86 percent of restaurant patrons surveyed were surprised by the calorie count information. Eight two percent said it affected what they ordered, and sixty percent said knowing calorie information influenced which restaurants they'd visit. ("Honey, I know "McLardy's Big-Ass BurgerLand" is your favorite place, but have you seen the nutritional information on the Triple Bacon LardBurger SuperMeal? It's 236,047 calories!)

Note: I couldn't find a handy-dandy link to the survey methodology--so it could be an itty bitty survey done by someone's fourth grade class, or a great big survey done by serious scientists. I have to confess that discovering that there is anything that 86% of New Yorkers agree on is a bit of a shock.

Other cities are also enacting or considering such legislation, so we may see more of this in the future. Do you have an opinion on whether restaurants should be legally required to post calorie counts?

I do!

(That's the main reason I like to blog, after all--I've got more opinions than the Biggest Loser has product placements.)

But there are pro's and con's to regulation--and of course I'd love to know what you folks think.

Here's my take on the advantages and disadvantages of making restaurants display calorie information.

Reasons not to require restaurant menu regulation:

1. It's a Free Country! Generally, rather than require business establishments to do something that's good for us, it's nice if you can let the market decide to do the right thing on its own. This is an especially appealing argument if you think individuals are smarter than governments, which a lot of people do.

So in theory, if enough people want restaurants to provide calorie listings, then more people should patronize restaurants that have them. And then the restaurants that serve gargantuan 20,000 calorie dinners without telling anyone how bad they are for you will go out of business! (Tee hee. Giggle giggle. Laugh laugh laugh snort guffaw).

2. Focusing on Just Calories Is Misleading: Our health problems are only partly due to high-calorie/low exercise lifestyles. It's WHAT we eat that gets us in trouble. A big healthy meal full of fruits, vegetables, protein, fiber, and good fats may have more calories than an ice cream cone--but there are folks dumb enough to look at the calorie difference and feel like they're taking the high road by getting ice cream instead of lunch or dinner.

3. Don't F-ck With My Birthday Dinner. Some people dine out only on special occasions, and otherwise eat wisely and moderately. For these folks, having a menu rub one's face in the fact that a "Bloomin’ Onion" appetizer at Outback Steakhouse has over 2,000 calories could totally spoil the mood. There are definitely times when we Don't Want to Know.

4. The Information Is Out There For Those Who Want It. Those of us who actively try to avoid eating high calorie, fat-and-sugar packed Giganto Meals tend to avoid the sort of chain restaurants that are famous for them. But if we do decide to go, we tend to: (a) use common sense, (b) ask if they've got a pamphlet with nutritional information, or (c) look on the web ahead of time to a site like Calorie Lab, which has a huge compilation of nutritional information. (Calorie Lab is also the home of one of our favorite commenters, Dr. J.). People who care enough to educate themselves are less likely to "accidentally" eat a 4,000 calorie dinner.

5. Calorie Counts Are Often Wrong. In real-life tests, it's been shown that often restaurants under-report calories of their supposed "healthy' meals. And it's not necessarily just to be Evil. In an interview about the difficulties of enforcing New York's calorie law, an employee at Nathan's said: "My small fries look like medium fries and my medium fries look like large fries... I figure if they're paying $7 for a meal, people want to get their money's worth. I've got extra bacon in the salads, extra everything."

Reasons we should require restaurant menus to post calorie information:

Sorry, this is a shorter list.

1. Because Chain Restaurant Portion Sizes Are INSANE and Most People Are Either Willfully Ignorant, Dumb As Rocks, or In Total Denial About How Stupid Their Choices Are.

That's why I think restaurant patrons need those damn calorie counts staring them in the face, however flawed a measurement of nutritional worth they may be. If we were a fit and healthy nation, my opinion might be totally different. But we're not.

Nanny State? Bring it on! We don't let drug stores sell hard drugs, even though I suspect if we left it to the free market, they'd be a crack cocaine display at every Walgreens. If we, as a population, are going to act like selfish clueless babies and kill ourselves with gratuitous calories, we indeed need Menu Nannies to at least let us know we're being childish.

(And no one is trying to regulate what you order--they just to make the information you need to make healthy choices more available.)

Since I was too lazy to post more than one reason in support of my opinion that hell yes let's make them put nutritional information on the menus, you may want some additional convincing. As it happens, Lynn of Lynn's Weigh has a similar post with a lot more in the way of actual arguments and research on this topic. And over at Thufferin' Thuccotash, POD has a tale of an evening at Marie Callendar's that's quite amusing. And Hungry Girl has one of those shocking roundups of typical chain meals and how much worse for you they are than you thought.

So what do you folks think: should restaurants be required to post calorie counts or other nutritional information? Do you think it would affect your food choices when eating out?

March 26, 2009

Confessions of a weight-lifting wimp

Note: the names have been changed to protect the pusillanimous. Any resemblance between the narrator of this story and the blogger writing this post is absolutely, positively, and in all ways completely and utterly spurious and coincidental, and any insinuations of a putative resemblance will most probably be referred to the Cranky Fitness lawyers, who haven't been fed for awhile and are definitely not vegetarians. So there.

Insert stereotypical lawyer joke here... if you dare...

The "back" story

Where I work, there's a break room with a filtered water dispenser. They call it a "water cooler," though the water's not all that cool. Still, the guy comes and delivers huge clear plastic jugs that weigh ... well, a lot. People wander in to the break room and fill up their tea cups or water bottles and wander off to pretend to work. As the day progresses, the amount of water available gets lower and lower until it's gone. It's like some kind of lottery, to see who's going to be the one faced with the empty water bottle.

If you lose the water cooler lottery, you have to replace the jug of water with a full one. Full ones are heavy. They are also on the floor.

To replace the empty water jug, you have to pick up a full one and then, while holding it at waist level, rotate the heavy jug 180 degrees and place it on a pedestal. I tried doing this once, long ago. The lifting-the-heavy-jug-from-the-floor part went fine. When I tried to rotate the jug, which involves the use of my arms, my back convinced me it was a very bad idea. I figured it was because I was a wimp. So, I played the feminine card, waiting until someone of the male persuasion walked by and batting my eyelashes plaintively until he replaced the water jug for me.

The moment of truth

That worked fine until one day when I was waiting for a handy man to walk past, and this tiny female co-worker walked into the break room. "Oh, is the water out?" she asked, and quickly upended a full jug and put it in place.

Now, not only is this woman several inches shorter than my 5'3, she compounds this offense by being very nice, very thin, very fine-boned and several months pregnant. I was put in my place, but good. (Not by the very nice co-worker, by my conscience.) It was time to find some exercise that would strengthen my back.

Push ups don't strengthen the back

Fast forward a few months. I've completed the 100 push up challenge, albeit in the modified 'girly' form. (Hey, I do what I can do.) And lo, there came a day when the water jug was completely empty, as was the break room. "Hell," I told myself. "I can lift this body 100 times with my arms; I can raise this water jug. So I did. And my back complained for several days afterward.

So what can I do to strengthen my back?

The 200 sit up challenge would strength the muscles around the waist/abdomen area, but what hurts is higher up, above the waist where the ribs start. What challenge would help with that?

The back says "Ow!" right where the polka dots meet the skin :(

I've looked at weight lifting sites. I even looked at the Body for Life book. Got kinda scared. I mean, all the people who take the Body for Life 12 Week challenge do end up fitter by the end, but they also seem inexplicably to become very blond and tan -- to the point of being orange. That scares me. People may laugh, but Tanorexia is becoming prevalent among the celebrity set these days. And where the celebs lead, people follow. I'm expecting next to open a magazine and read that the new trend is... orange babies...

Are there any exercises out there that are specifically designed to strengthen the part of the back that's just above the waist?

If so, could someone share them with me? Without charging $24.99 a month in three easy installments?

March 24, 2009

Helmets, Head Injuries, and Hotness

All The Cool Kids Are Wearing Them!
(OK, So Maybe Not).

Photo: Shay Haas

With the sad news of Natasha Richardson's recent death on the ski slopes, there is now of course much discussion of the Helmet Issue.

Apparently, the general public has pressing questions: could she have survived if she'd been wearing a helmet? Should all people who go skiing wear helmets? And which famous movie stars are mourning Natasha's tragic death and could we see some pictures of them, please?

So I read a CNN article which discussed the pro's and con's of wearing helmets while skiing or snowboarding. As it happens, I already have an opinion on the advisability of wearing helmets while skiing, bicycling, skateboarding, motorcycle riding, rock-climbing, or doing any other activity in which a smashed skull is a possibility. And while this article didn't change my mind, I did learn some very interesting things from reading it!

1. Ski Helmets Reduce Brain Injuries by 75%! (Or, They Don't Help at All).

It depends on whom you ask. One expert cited an unpublished study that showed ski helmets reduced the risk of brain injury by 75 percent. Other studies showed reductions of 50 percent to 80 percent.

But another expert who works for the NSAA, "a trade group that represents ski resorts as well as ski gear manufacturers," said that despite increases in helmet use, deaths on the slopes have remained fairly constant. He contends that the use of helmets did not reduce fatalities.

So, um, which is it? (I personally find it hard to believe that helmets wouldn't help at all in reducing fatalities).

2. More People are Wearing Helmets Than I Thought.

They're Everywhere!
Photo: drakegoodman

According to the NSAA, 43 percent of U.S. skiers and snowboarders were wearing helmets in 2008, up from 25 percent in 2003. Still less than half, but it's a big jump in five years.

3. Ski Slope Deaths Aren't All That Common.

Consider the source on this one, which is the NSAA again (the Ski Industry trade group). But according to them, in 2006 there were 2.07 skiing/snowboarding deaths for every million participants. This is fewer than for bicycling or swimming. They also note that a person is twice as likely to die from being struck by lightning as to die in a skiing or snowboarding accident.

This lightning thing sounds very impressive! That is, until you think about it a little more. Anyone who goes outside can be hit by lightning; but very few people are out skiing at any given time. It appears from the NSAA site that they're comparing total deaths per year from skiing and lightning strikes--which is sort of like comparing apples and oranges, if apples could ski but oranges kept getting hit by lightning. Or something like that.

Anyway, the bottom line is that skiing is not quite as dangerous as it sounds.

4. Helmets Won't Keep You Alive If You Hit Something Hard at High Speed

The NSAA rep said that helmets are most helpful in preventing lesser head injuries, like scalp lacerations or mild concussions. Recreational ski and snowboard helmets are only designed to provide protection at 14 mph or less, whereas most folks ski or snowboard between 25 and 40 mph. "So when you're going at that speed and you hit a fixed object like a tree, whether you're wearing a helmet isn't going to matter." NSAA guy suggests that skiers try not to act like reckless morons just because they are wearing helmets. (Not an exact quote).

Good advice! But, um, rather than just take for granted that recreational helmets aren't designed to do the job, might it not be a good idea to urge manufacturers to make them stronger? Or perhaps we could get recreational users into whatever fancy-ass expensive ski helmet technology is available for professionals, if that's what it takes to protect heads when people go normal skiing speeds. (Note: I'm not a skier, so I have no idea if such high-end technology even exists. But if I were a skier, I'd sure as hell want a helmet designed to actually protect my head).

This Might Not Do The Trick
Photo: furryscaly

5. Helmet or No Helmet, Some People are Just Dumb

The CNN article included an interview with a college student and first-time snowboarder about his choosing not to wear a helmet. He had already fallen and hit his head several times.

"That fall you witnessed was actually the first time I cracked the back of my head. Usually it's the front," he says. "Do I regret not wearing one? No, not really. It's not too bad and I know what a concussion feels like, so I know I'm good so far."

Crabby's Thoughts on The Wearing of Helmets

While I don't ski, I do ride a bike. The safety issues are similar, but there has been a bit more research on bike helmet safety--which of course is conflicting. But the vast majority of studies seem to say: wear a helmet, doofus, or you may die of a brain injury.

I think it's smart to wear a helmet and not-so-smart to ride around without one.

There is a great deal of variation in helmet usage. It depends on who you are and where you ride. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute estimates overall that usage rates are no better than 25%; however, white-collar commuters may reach up to 80%. I know that in our little beach town, where road conditions can be dangerous and hordes of wobbly tourists rent bikes during the summer, probably only 5-10% of riders seem to be wearing helmets.

So why do so many people spurn bike helmets even though they save lives?

Well, duh: helmets aren't Cool. Or at least not until we all decide they are.

Most people don't care about statistics. They know there is a "chance" that something bad could happen, and they know they're a lot less likely to end up brain dead if they have a helmet on. But that "chance" seems small enough to ignore.

Who wants to put an unflattering piece of plastic on their head and smoosh down their hair? Plus, helmets are sometimes uncomfortable. (Not nearly as uncomfortable as head trauma, but that's not something anyone wants to dwell on when going for a pleasant ride to the beach).

For most people, the most important consideration when it comes to helmet usage seems to be: what is "everyone else" doing?

In places like Provincetown, only dorks extremely cautious folks like me wear helmets. And as fetching as I might appear while wearing my helmet, I do not seem to be starting any sort of fashion trend.

(Just pretend there is a picture right here of me looking exceedingly attractive while wearing a bike helmet.)

(OK, pretend a little harder...)

However, if cooler people than me were to start wearing helmets, then maybe we could start a movement! Soon we'd all start feeling more like this:

Photo credit:kwc

And less like this:

Photo: Renon-san

What about you folks, do you wear helmets when skiing, cycling, skating, climbing, or whatever?

Yoga for Dogs?

Doga? Yoga... for dogs?

Put this in the category of Things Merry Doesn't Get. Right up there with taxes and garlic ice cream.

Regular yoga may well be good for you. The jury is still out on that one. (Translation: I really keep meaning to try yoga, really I will, honest.)

But doga?

A trendy-looking yoga place in New York describes it thusly:
"Doga is all about bonding with your pet and giving the dog 45 minutes of undivided attention and praise from their favorite person in the world. The dogs do sun salutations and you’ll learn specific massage techniques to calm your dog and aid both circulation and digestion processes."
But Pookie already knows downward-facing dog!

Maybe I'm biased because my dog would think this a totally bizarre concept. She was raised very strictly, and has Firm Beliefs about how humans and dogs should interact. (She gets upset if I sit next to her on the ground. She'll happily lie at my feet while I'm sitting in a chair, but it's Not Right for humans to sit on the same level as the dog. In other words, she knows her place, and expect me to know mine.) Perhaps that's why I think this is a strange idea.

Instead of yoga with dogs, try picturing yoga with cats. Even the most amenable cat, who doesn't mind being wrapped around your neck like a living fur stole, will look askance if you try wrapping his legs into a meditation pose. He'll probably think you're trying to give him a pill or something suspicious like that. Don't try it. It's not safe.

Loads of people believe that T-touch and giving a dog massage will help the pooch relax. I can see doing these things as therapy. Where I part company with these people is the idea that it is useful to do these yoga poses with your dog as a form of exercise.

One of the many strange things about humans is that we are a species that need to make ourselves exercise. Dogs make it a natural part of their lives.

I realize a statement like that calls for people to write in and leave comments like "My dog Lazybones sits on the couch all day watching t.v." Your dog might be the original couch potato, but if you offered to take Lazybones to the beach, or to a park, or for a good walk, would he say no?

Dogs get overweight because of humans. Dogs don't get out and run around because of humans. Left to their own devices, dogs would do the dog yoga moves when they felt like it, not because exercising daily is a responsibility. Stretching is instinctive. Why should they do it because someone else wants them to?

Humans can be a bit stiff, even wooden.

It strikes me as absurd is that doga is trying to get the dog to conform to this human "hafta" paradigm. What we should be doing instead is trying to adapt to the dog's approach toward exercise: it's spontaneous, it's fun, it's play.

Pookie contemplates playing with Woodrow

Not that we should imitate dogs in all ways -- I wouldn't mind lazing around all day while someone else brings home the bacon, but I'm not that keen on chasing cats, and the rolling-around-in-something-that-smells-disgusting part is right out thank you very much.

Pookie wrestles with the temptation to roll...

Trying to share your exercise session and use it as a way to bond with your dog is laudable. Because of the constraints and compromises we have to enforce on dogs so they can share their lives with us, they spend most of their time behaving according to our rules. For once, let the dog be a dog and let your hair down and frolic with Fido.

Photo credit: jere-me

As I said, I haven't tried this with my dog. I'm basing my opinion on what I know about dogs, especially mine. Has anyone tried doing yoga with their dog? Was it good exercise for you or for the dog?

(Anyone out there ever contemplated trying yoga with their cat?)

March 23, 2009

Portion Control, Pizza, and Peanut Butter

But It's Just One Slice!
Photo credit: Brocha

(This was supposed to be a back-from-vacation, well-researched, educational post incorporating the latest breaking health and fitness news available on the web! Instead, it’s a post about pizza and peanut butter. Sorry—we got delayed on the last leg of our trip and spent a couple extra days without internet. Good for the soul! Not so good for the blogging. But we're back home now--thanks for your patience!)

I’ve know I’ve written about Portion Control before. But the subject intrigues me: controlling the size of our meals and snacks seems like it should be simple and straightforward. But it’s not! Instead it’s a complex psychological battle. How does the sensible part of our brain remain in control when the childish, greedy part of us always wants “more, more, more?”

(And note: by "portion control," I don’t mean limiting one's intake of healthy food when one is actually hungry. I’m not a fan of any diet, eating plan, or lifestyle that requires ignoring true hunger signals on an ongoing basis. The kind of “portion control” I’m referring to is the kind that’s meant to combat the consumption of unholy amounts of food simply because it tastes good.)

Of course one tactic in the portion control battle is the use of logic, reason, and self-discipline. Which works great when I'm feeling all logical, reasonable, and self-disciplined. That occasionally happens, I swear! But most of the time? I need to resort to Stealth and Trickery.

What is A Serving Size?

Years ago, when I was actively dieting (though I didn't call it that--I called it going on a "thing" because I didn't like the word diet), portion control was psychologically simpler. I knew what kind of foods I should eat and what I should avoid; I knew how many calories I could eat per day; I looked up the calorie counts of everything I ate; I weighed and measured and tallied and kept a detailed food diary. It worked! I lost weight. But it was tedious and restrictive and a royal pain in the ass.

Now I don't weigh and measure and tally anymore--but I would really like to keep those sneaky pounds from creeping back on as the years go by. So I have to try to keep to "reasonable" serving sizes, despite being quite greedy when it comes to tasty food. How do I manage to feel like I've gotten "enough" without totally scarfing up everything in the kitchen? It's tricky!

In the previous portion control post, I noted that it helps than I'm an idiot. I'm as easy to fool as a toddler when it comes to portion size. So by employing simple tricks like changing from a short fat glass to a tall skinny one, or using a smaller plate or bowl, I can believe I'm actually eating more than I am. Hooray for stupidity!

But it's an ongoing battle, and I continue to find new challenges and dumb-ass solutions. My latest battles, as the title suggests, involve pizza and peanut butter sandwiches. (Also cereal and dinners at friends’ houses). I’m hoping some of you have tips for other foods and situations too—unless of course you are all driven solely by logic and reason and self-discipline?

Pizza is Easy—At Home!

Pizza is a great example of what a nitwit I am. I have discovered I can be satisfied with much less pizza if I first fill 90% of my plate with salad, and then take a single piece of reasonably healthy whole wheat pizza and cut that single slice into 3 or 4 skinny, skinny, slices.

By doing this, I now miraculously have more pizza!

(This necessitates starting with a regular sized slice, not a giant one like the cute kid above is holding--or it sort of defeats the portion control goal).

And I know the pizza slicing trick works, at least for me. Because when I am in a social setting, I generally do not make an ass of myself by dissecting my pizza into tiny pieces. Instead I end up eating several full-sized slices of pizza. One slice, no matter how big, is just not "enough."

Don’t Invite Me Over to Your House

Speaking of social situations… why am I totally unable to limit myself to a reasonable portion of food when someone else cooks dinner for me? Of course it’s nice to be polite and make sure my hosts know how much I appreciate their efforts. But I could do that by eating a normal amount of food and expressing my pleasure about the food with words.

For some reason though, words feel inadequate! I seem to believe it requires second or third or fourth helpings to get the sincerity of my message across.

So I am trying to train myself to take smaller initial portions, since I know darn well I will be heaping more on my plate as soon as I can. I say "trying" because, well, I'm not all that good at it yet.

Peanut Butter Sandwiches

Lately I’ve resurrected a childhood favorite: the peanut butter sandwich. (As a kid, I had peanut butter and jelly; now I seem to prefer my peanut butter with honey and banana slices. And sometimes I use almond butter instead of peanut butter. But it’s essentially the same deliciousness.) This is a source of great pleasure, but also involves major Portion Control Angst!

Here’s the problem: Take two slices of whole wheat bread, enough peanut butter, honey, and bananas for a proper, proportionate filling; a big glass of milk (mandatory), plus the rest of the banana (because every meal needs to have at least one fruit or vegetable) and it all adds up to more calories than I need to eat at one sitting. (Unless I’ve just hiked 20 miles. Which I rarely have done by lunchtime on a typical weekday.)

So I need to make this meal smaller. But wait a minute... I can't! I used to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a big glass of milk as an after-school snack when I was a kid. And then I’d go on to finish dinner without a problem. So how could it be possible I don't get a whole sandwich for an entire meal as an adult? I'm entitled to one! A whole sandwich is the “official” serving size, everyone knows that.

I seem to by physically unable to fix half a peanut butter sandwich. I may intend to when I get out the bread, but after I take out the first slice something mysterious happens and all of sudden the second slice is out there too and peanut butter is being smeared liberally and the little honey bear is drizzling honey and there are banana slices everywhere. I have no control over the peanut butter sandwich situation.

But finally, a solution occurred to me: I go ahead and take out two slices of bread, but I cut off the crusts, generously. This cuts down the size of the sandwich, but it still makes it seem like a whole sandwich. Less surface area means less peanut butter, honey, bananas, and milk to wash it down with. But I haven't had to compromise with a measly half-sandwich.

Cereal Silliness

The final Dumb Trick involves cereal. Have you ever noticed how small the recommended serving size of cereal looks in a bowl? If you don't measure it out, it's easy to eat two or three serving sizes and still feel like you're not getting "enough."

The obvious solution is to use a smaller bowl. But here's another technique that's weirdly effective: do you put fruit on your cereal? If so, put the fruit in first, then sprinkle cereal on top. Magically, it takes much less cereal to feel like a "full" bowl when the fruit sits underneath rather than on top!

Is anyone else this easy to fool? Got any good tricks for making less food "feel" like more?

March 20, 2009

Almost Home!

This is not an actual post but a big THANK YOU to everyone who stopped by while I was slowly wandering my way cross-country. And also a big THANK YOU to Merry and all the guest posters who kept things health-and-fitness related while I was posting silly vacation pictures!

We've got a few more long days of driving and a few more nights of Wal-Mart parking lots and I'm not anticipating much wireless. If I get a chance to write a real post then you won't be reading this. But since you are... it means we're somewhere on I-95 heading north trying very hard to jump around at rest stops and eat healthy snacks like fruit. Or what the heck, perhaps we're sitting on our butts all day and stopping at McDonald's for those damn 99 cent hot fudge sundays--towards the end of a trip we are more likely to say the hell with it, we'll be good again when we get home.

It's been a great trip! But come Monday, I hope to be rested and ready to resume normal health blogging operations. Your patience has been much appreciated and I look forward to catching up with everyone.

See Y'all Soon!

March 19, 2009

The Biggest Loser: from reality show to reality?

Okay, I'm wearing the Cranky pants today. (They're always a size too small, hence the crankiness.)

This is the tale of a woman who watched The Biggest Loser and decided to apply it to her own life.

Note: this post is not intended to criticize the Biggest Loser. I have been told, at great length, that a lot of people watch the Biggest Loser and find it inspirational. However, I don't think most people apply it this literally to their lives.

This tale is about a woman who got married, as many women do, settled down, and found herself trying to balance work, family, and a healthy lifestyle. Well, two out of the three, anyway. The weight began creeping up.

(This part I can certainly relate to. The weight creeps up on you like the invasive ivy that your neighbor thought would look really nice planted on their side of the fence. Eventually, you notice it's there and go on an extreme argument with the friggin' neighbor makeover.)

As a regular watcher of The Biggest Loser, she decided to follow their lead. For a full month she lived apart from her family. Aside from her job, her focus was on losing weight.

The husband, and stepson, went to live with his father down the street, and she devoted herself to a rigorous schedule of diet and exercise. Without a recalcitrant teenager it was easier to stock the fridge with healthy foods, and without spending time hanging out with her husband, she had time to concentrate on exercising.

(That part, I don't get. Surely husbands can be trained, with sufficient patience, to exercise? Or at least watch TV while their wives work out? Couldn't she set up the treadmill or weights in the room where they watched TV, and work out while watching reality shows?)

I can't believe Jillian just said that to Tara!

The results, like the results on the Biggest Loser, were impressive. She lost over 13 pounds, and with the increased muscle tone from working out, the overall impression was of a loss closer to 25 pounds. That's pretty good going for 30 days of diet and exercising.

It was great that she lost the fat and gained the muscle. My problem with this is that it was a lot of work for a short-term improvement. Without retraining the people she lives with, the problems that caused the weight gain have not changed. So what's to stop the weight from creeping back? Nothing, so far as I can see.

I can see a wife and mother fantasizing about having the house to herself for a month. But it doesn't seem right to model your behavior after reality shows. They're not really connected to reality.

It's tempting to get all the distractions out of your life and concentrate on what you really want to achieve. But since she clearly has no desire to oust her family permanently (understandably), seems like she put in a lot of effort for a little temporary weight loss.

Can you imagine people imitating the extreme behavior exemplified by reality shows? Survivor as a business model: Can't decide who to layoff? Simple! Strand the whole group on a desert island and come back in a couple weeks to see who's been voted off.

Pick your friends based on how well they dance when paired with real professional dancers!
Look at me, I'm dancing with Tattoo Man!
Photo credit: Tobes501

Want to get a promotion and a raise and fame and fortune? Go into your boss's office and impress him with your tremendous singing ability! This will also have the added side effect of combining promotion with layoffs if you don't sing quite as well as your co-workers.

Your co-workers seem really enthused... about your leaving...
Photo credit: kwalk268

Then again, there's always the Donald Trump approach -- wait, that's not a reality show, is it? Seems like plain reality to me.

Photo credit: w00kie

Um... am I going to get flamed for this post?

Quick disclaimer: I understand that the show The Biggest Loser inspires (some) people to eat healthy and workout regularly. But I think it's most effective when it brings family members on the show to work together at losing the weight. While isolating yourself from the problems that led to the weight gain can help you lose weight, it's not going to do bupkis about helping you maintain the weight loss.

Re-training yourself -- and your family, if necessary -- works.
Extreme makeovers are showy, but don't address the basic problems.

If you don't change the underlying behavior, the weight is just going to creep up again. What's the point?

March 18, 2009

Can't Seem to Focus? Take This Quiz!

Presbyopia is a funny-sounding word, isn’t it? If you're familiar with myopia (near-sightedness) you might recognize that it has something to do with messed-up vision. But it’s the age-related kind -- basically, as you get older your lenses lose elasticity, and you can’t focus on close objects. Age-related farsightedness starts hitting people in their forties; by 65, pretty much everyone has it.

A report a few years ago on the prevalence of presbyopia said that more than 1 billion people worldwide suffer from it. Sadly, 517 million of these folks had uncorrected vision—most of those in poorer parts of the world, where presumably reading glasses were unavailable or unaffordable. (This would be a nice place to mention an eyeglasses-related charity; unfortunately, the ones I stumbled across were either local or not recommended--so if anyone knows of a good one, please drop a note in the comments).

But there is another subset of middle-aged people with crappy close-up vision that remains uncorrected. This sadly avoidable vision problem, Stubbornopia, affects tens of millions of victims! (Or whatever. I totally made that up, but it sounds likely doesn't it?)

Could you or someone you love suffer from this debilitating condition?

Here’s a handy quiz to find out!

Official Presbyopia/Stubbornopia Assesment Tool

1. When looking at a dinner menu at restaurant:

a. I can read the menu just fine.

b. I put on my reading glasses and have no trouble reading the entire menu.

c. I can make out a little of it but have to borrow someone’s glasses if I want to know the details. But my eyes are just fine! They just never have adequate lighting at restaurants anymore. (Atmosphere shmatmosphere, a tiny candle is not enough to read by!)

2. When working on the computer:

a. I can read the typeface just fine.

b. I put on my reading glasses and have no trouble reading the text.

c. I see just fine once I pump up the computers default setting on the font size. (And if you have Firefox, "Control-plus-plus" is a very handy key combination!) There’s nothing wrong with my eyes, the stupid computer makers just use a default size that’s WAY too small.

3. When looking on the back of a medication or supplement bottle to check the recommended dosage:

a. I have no trouble reading what it says.

b. I just put on my reading glasses and I can read the directions clearly.

c. Why the hell do they make the print so small? NO ONE could possibly read that!!!

4. When performing personal grooming tasks that involve hair removal, like, for example, eyebrow plucking:

a. I can see stray hairs just fine.

b. I use a magnifying mirror since it’s hard to tweeze around reading glasses.

c. What stray hairs? I used to have them but for some reason I don’t anymore.

5. If I reached an age when many of my contemporaries were starting to wear reading glasses, this would suggest to me that:

a. I suppose if that happened, I might need some soon too--but no one I know wears reading glasses yet.

b. My friends have discovered, as I already have, that it is much easier to read and perform other tasks with properly corrected vision!

c. My friends must be aging! Too bad for them! Alas, they aren’t invincible like I am and immune from the normal aging process.

Got mostly A's? Lucky you, you're still a young person!

Mostly B's? You have Presbyopia, and are coping with it in a sensible manner.

Are you like me and have a bunch of C’s? You too may be suffering from Stubbornopia.

(I’ve finally admitted it: I need reading glasses. And you know what? They’ve got ‘em at the drug store for like ten bucks! And they enable you to work on the computer, read restaurant menus, and see all that tiny print out there just like you could when you were younger!)

(And if you're not a fan of glasses, you can get contact lenses for presbyopia now too! And thanks to the friendly folks at 1 800 Contacts for reminding me.)

Anyone else in denial about reading glasses or are you all too youthful and eagle-eyed to need them yet? Any other vision issues you find frustrating?

Jogging On to Fitness Through Laziness

This next guest post is written by Sarah Scrafford, who regularly contributes to a website on pharmacy technician certification.

I’m pretty proud of myself for being a health nut – I try and exercise as regularly as I can (everyday if possible), I get a good workout at the racquetball court five days a week, and I tend to eat healthy while avoiding snacks and junk food most of the time. Believe me, it’s pretty hard sticking to this schedule when you’re up to your neck in work and also have a home and family to take care of. But I manage, because it’s important that I do, by waking up at 5 am and going to bed by 10 pm (I try to, but it stretches to 11 most of the time).

But every now and then a crisis comes along and my routine goes awry.

Sometimes I’m suddenly called away on overnight or all-day trips for work that absolutely requires my attention, and when I get back home, if it’s too late in the night or early in the morning, I tend to skip going to the gym. And when this happens continuously so that I miss gym four or five days in a row, it’s hard to summon up the energy to get out of bed at the crack of dawn when the weekend comes around.

I know myself pretty well, which is why I realize the danger in goofing off even for a day or two. It took a lot of effort on my part to establish a routine that not only made me fitter, but also gave me more then enough energy to get me through the day. And though I enjoyed my lie-ins, I feel a lethargy creeping over me on the days I don’t stop by the gym. So it’s important to me that I start my day with a few warm-up routines, a jog on the treadmill and a spell on the cycle.

The next thing to do would be to ensure that I do get up with the birds everyday, and to help me do this, I enlisted the help of a friend, someone who’s more of a fitness freak than I am. Now the two of us are gym buddies, and I hardly ever make any excuses not to go, because I’m responsible for his fitness too these days. I’m the one who has to pick him up on the way to the gym and drop him back after we’re done, so my conscience prods me to jump out of bed and jumpstart my day with a cup of coffee.

So remember this, the next time you’re too lazy to exercise, set a routine that makes someone else dependent on you and your willpower. When you are responsible for another person’s fitness, there’s no way you’re going to neglect your own.

March 17, 2009

Pole dancing? Czech please!

We've all met the occasional fanatic.

They come up to you with a fanatical glitter in their eye, grab you by the elbow, and proceed to enthuse at great length about some great book they've just read, or movie they've just seen, or exercise routine they've just started -- and you've simply got to see it!

In vain do you try to wriggle away, plead a headache, terminal disease, or other futile excuse. No, that won't do. You've simply got to see this.

With a name like Merry, I'm supposed to be the cheerful one around here. Even so, their very enthusiasm is so excessive that it turns me against them; for some reason they put the F.U. into effusive. Lately, I've been encountering fanatical pole dancers. Yikes!

I have no doubt that pole dancing is a great way to work the arms and core muscles. Just watching people spin around the pole upside down shows that. And sure, if it gets people working out, pole dancing classes sound fine.

[Text for the video-impaired: pole dancing fitness class.]

The blogger Rachel From North London defends pole dancing as a form of exercise. "Why? Have we been brainwashed and turned into Barbie? Not really, I say, it's just that it is completely excellent fun. Especially compared to the humourless, soul-less gym. We warm up, we practise ballet, yoga, strength-training moves. Then we get to access our inner showgirl. We swing on poles and kick our legs and toss our hair and feel gorgeous and go slightly bonkers whilst the Rolling Stones pound in the background."

I don't have a problem with that. What I find annoying is people who want me to watch pole dancing. For some reason, it's immensely popular. It's even being featured on shows like "America's Got Talent" and such.

I don't think that this sort of thing is half as much fun to watch as it is to do. I've never tried pole dancing, but it looks like the people doing the pole dancing really enjoy it. I have no doubt it's a great way to work the core muscles, but unless you're in a sleazy bar taking off your clothes while you're doing it, I don't think other people -- people who don't practice this form of exercise themselves -- really want to watch.

All right, so it's mildly amusing to watch pole dancing bloopers:

[Text for the video-impaired: what not to do when learning pole dance. Hint: next time, leave the mattress on the floor rather than propped up against the wall.]

On the plus side, there is some "pole dancing" that I can approve of.

[Text for the video-impaired: A Russian trio display an act that's a cross between dancing on a trampoline and on a balance beam. Very impressive.]

Am I being unduly critical of pole dancing? I don't think so. There are some forms of exercise that I would willingly watch -- ballet comes to mind -- but to me, pole dancing is not Art. It may be fun, it may provide a great workout, I'll take your word for it. Just don't ask me to watch it.

March 16, 2009

"Rest" Stops

No, we didn't stop and exercise here.
I think it's actually a hotel or something.

So when we’re on a road trip, exercise gets tricky. No familiar gyms or running routes—plus, I can never figure out why sitting on my ass all day watching stuff out the window makes me so tired and unmotivated. (The Lobster does most of the driving, so I can’t even claim it’s the driving that makes me weary).

Nonetheless, I get extra cranky if I don’t find a way do something. So I have to at least try...

Exercise usually comes in the form of:

1. Hiking if trails are available. This is my favorite. Hooray for pretty trails!

2. Visits to local gyms. (Bonus for campers: nicer showers than you find at campgrounds!)

3. Running outside (but not on pavement; due to crappy knees. So dirt paths or sandy beaches must be located.)

4. Wandering the aisles of unfamiliar grocery stores in search of suddenly scarce items (what, no natural peanut butter, just Jiff and Skippy??!!)

5. Walking around malls and parking lots (it takes a LOT of laps to get in a few miles.)

6. Trying to avoid tripping over the cat (great for balance!)

One of her favorite spots--right in front of the bathroom.

and finally,

7. Rest stop calisthenics.

The new wrinkle for this trip? Since we bought a few toys to try to do more “functional fitness,” we’ve been doing a bit more of the last one, rest stop calisthenics. Just five or ten minutes here and there; not a complete workout, but enough activity to get the blood pumping and cross a few exercises off our list.

Some observations:

1. There is no reason that exercising at rest stops should feel weird. It’s HEALTHY. But no one else seems to do it.

2. You can somewhat reduce the Dork Factor if you bring along a few items of “equipment.” Note: everyone else may still think you’re a dork, but internally, you feel more “official.” We’ve got stretchy bands and a jump rope and a kettlebell. Why does this reduce subjective dorkitude? No idea, but it does! I used to just do push-ups and jumping jacks and would feel awfully self-conscious.

3. Having someone else to exercise with also makes you feel less like a weirdo.

4. A pair of gardening gloves comes in handy for push-ups or burpees in parking lots.

5. I’ve apparently been mispronouncing “calisthenics” my entire life! Spell-check informs me there’s no “t” in front of “ics.” I always thought it was cal-i-sthen-Tics, not cal-i-sthen-Nics. I find this news quite disturbing.

6. I totally suck at jumping rope. Little kids jump rope all the time, how hard could it be? But dang, I’m totally lame at it and it’s frustrating!

One, two, three..

Oh crap, not again!

(Alert readers may notice I jump rope so badly I can make an entire lakes flee in disgust.)

Does anyone else feel silly exercising out of context? Have any tips for exercising while traveling?

March 13, 2009

What Supplements Should I Take?

This next guest post is from Drew of Diet Tired. Drew is "an exercise and nutrition physiologist, entrepreneur, and advocate of diet free weight loss." Crabby is still trying to figure out the Magical Combination of supplements that will give her excellent health, eternal life, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. However, until she does, she will leave it to others to advise you about the confusing question of which supplements to take. Here's one man's opinion, what do you guys think? Thanks, Drew!

There is much debate over what supplements you should take. For every recommendation there are even more opinions.

The fact is that supplement companies and the stores and practitioners selling supplements are far more likely to lean on the side of over recommending supplements and those who are on the medical and scientific side will argue that there just isn’t proof that most supplements do anything.

Despite a lack of clear evidence, our appetite for supplements is growing. This is because anecdotal evidence (testimonials and sales pitches) is far more persuasive to the general public than scientific studies. Add to this the small part in all of us that ‘wants to believe’ that these little pills work like magic and it is little wonder that supplement sales are in the billions.

This combination of persuasion, hope and often desperation can cause even the brightest of us to make decisions reminiscent of Jack, from Jack and The Bean Stock.

So are there any magical beans worth trading your cow for?

Magical, no. Potentially helpful, yes. I’ll get to these shortly.

It is important to recognize that if you eat an otherwise healthy diet you should have little problem getting all the nutrients that you need. In fact, when it comes to the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) as a nation we are over nourished. That said, sometimes it is nice to have some insurance and there are certainly some health conditions or circumstances that warrant vitamin and mineral supplementation.

People may claim that today’s foods do not have near the nutrients that they had years ago, but this claim is not substantiated. This claim often comes from those selling supplements of course.

In fact, foods today are shipped faster and under safer conditions and food safety guidelines are far superior compared to what they use to be.

So how do you decide? I recommend following what the Tiger Woods of nutrition does.

Who is this nutrition all-star? He is Professor Walter Willet, Chairman, Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health. He takes a multivitamin and vitamin D tablet daily.

In true scientist form, Willett suggests waiting for the final verdict before jumping on other supplement band wagons.

Not only will this strategy save you money (taking a multivitamin and vitamin D supplement costs only pennies a day) but save your sanity in trying to figure out which beans are truly magical.

Road Trip Quiz!

No prizes, sorry, this is just another excuse to put up road trip pictures. Regular health blogging will resume eventually, I promise!

1. Who is this is a picture of?

a. Lobster, Fran, Moo,

b. Mizfit, Lobster, Tornado

c. Crab, Mizfit, Fran,

d. Lobster, Crab, Fran

2. The picture above was taken on Monday. Where do you think the Crab is today? Here's a hint. We went by here:

3. Where did we see this giant bird?

4. Speaking of Giant things, here's a question for Sports Fans: the Lobster saw this guy at spring training. Who is he?

5. While in Bisbee, Arizona, we purchased something arguably impractical, but we couldn't resist and it seemed reasonably priced! What do you think we bought?

a. A hot fudge sundae from an Ice Cream parlor (as opposed to a McDonald's) for only $1.99!

b. Two packages of Christmas tree lights that look like hot peppers, marked down to $3.50 each, even though many years we don't even buy a Christmas tree.

c. An original movie poster of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" for $14.99 even though we've only ever seen the TV show and didn't even know it was once a movie.

d. A statue of a cat that looks just like our cat marked down from $45 to $20 for our garden, even though it was too big to fit in any of the van storage compartments and who the hell needs a cat statue?

7. What in the world is this orange thingy used for?

OK, sorry, not much of a quiz! Will post answers in the comments later the next time I have internet. I really just wanted to say hi again from the road!

Miss everyone and looking forward to getting back to blogging "for real."

March 12, 2009

Seeing red: a meaty topic

I don't want to make anybody see red -- I know this is a topic that has some people gnashing their teeth -- but I have two studies that Made Me Think.

This post is in three parts:

The first is a study quoted by my doc-crush, Dr. Mirkin. (Oh, get a hospital room already, Merry! ) The second was a fairly large study that was published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal.

And the third is a rant -- me sounding off proactively at people who might disagree with my conclusions re study #1 and study #2. (Why? Because I have a headache.)

Headaches make me cranky. You got a problem with that?

The reason I think people might not like these studies is that both of them offer different reasons why we shouldn't eat red meat.

Sudden stampede of all the meat-lovers heading for the door...

Okay, Dr. Mirkin's study first.

There's a molecule called Neu5Gc. Professor Ajit Varki, of the University of California, San Diego discovered that this molecule appears in the tissues of every mammal except humans (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 29, 2003).

To quote Dr. Mirkin verbatim:
"Since humans cannot make Neu5Gc, any amount found in human cells come from the mammals that they have eaten. Neu5Gc is found in high levels in tumors, with the highest levels in metastasizing tumors. In our food supply, Dr. Varki found very high levels of Neu5Gc in beef, pork, lamb and goat, and moderately high amounts in milk and cheese. Low levels are found in turkey, duck, chicken and eggs; and negligible amounts occur in plants and seafood."

My summary: red meat = not good for humans.

The second study was a fairly large study -- 4680 adults aged 40-59 -- published by a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. For the researchers to flatly state, at the end of their abstract, that "An unfavorable effect of red meat on blood pressure was observed" -- that's a strong statement. I have to say that I'm impressed by this study.

Yeah, that's really interesting news, Merry. Ain't going to stop me from ordering prime rib next time I eat out though. So why should I care?

Humans are omnivores; we can eat all kinds of food stuffs that herbivores can't handle. We can take it.

Yeah, those skinny model types just love to eat 1000 calorie hamburgers...
Photo credit: Kate Raynes-Goldie

The proactive rant

Humans are omnivores, we can take it. Indeed, as you can verify by standing outside any Burger King at lunchtime, humans quite frequently do take it. To go. We eat meat. (I am making the assumption that the hordes of people darkening the doors of BK aren't going there for a salad -- at least, not the majority of them.) Then again, humans can also inhale tobacco smoke. Because we can do something does not seem to me to be a sufficient argument to say that it's an intelligent or healthy choice.

I have a feeling that I'm going to get people mad at me by saying red meat is something to maybe possibly consider avoiding. I don't want to get the Primal people going postal on me -- I really do like the Mark's Daily Apple blog and enjoy reading his blog regularly.

I agree that yes, Grok the caveman probably did hit up the local Mammoth King, i.e. he ate meat when he could catch it. I don't think that means he ate meat every day, or that he ate only meat, or that he skipped the veggies because he'd already had a snack on the way home. If your meat meal is still standing on its legs and doesn't really fancy being eaten, sometimes you're going to go without. Ask any lion pack. (From a safe distance. A hungry lion isn't really going to feel like having a debate.) I'm going to go out on a primeval limb and claim that cavemen ate any food was easiest to catch and in most seasons of the year, in most climates of the globe, that would have been fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Unless you're out on your own trying to reenact Survivor, you've got it fairly easy. You don't have to catch the meat, you don't have to gather the nuts or vegetables. You can walk into a convenient store and pick up a package that's already slaughtered, sliced and diced. Just heat and serve. Try to do all the hunting & gathering, curing & cooking on your own and you might well end up like the guy in the book Into the Wild , who died up in Alaska after trying to live off the land. There's debate over what exactly killed him, but the autopsy results showed a man who was well on his way to starvation anyway.

Mark's Daily Apple does not advocate eating the food without walking the workout, but even so I worry that some people will adopt the caveman diet while keeping the modern, sedentary lifestyle. (The guy behind this blog comes from the perspective of someone who could knock of a few triathalons before breakfast, fer pete's sake.)

Anyway -- the point of my rant? The studies that impressed me so much both suggest that humans should not eat red meat. I do not think these studies contradict the basic message of primitive diets such as advocated by certain cool blogs, because a real primitive lifestyle would involve eating all kinds of protein: fish, fowl, or even duck-billed platypus if that was what was available locally.

I grew up firmly believing that I needed the occasional meat meal to survive, so I understand if people don't want to agree with these studies.

Tell me if you think they're wrong.

Or if you think I'm wrong.

Or if you think posting pictures of Paris Hilton pretending to chow down on a burger is wrong. (Anybody seriously believe she actually ate the burger? Really? Cool! Listen, I've got this prime location swampland in Florida that you're just going to looooove. Let me tell you all about it...)