Sugar Conspiracy

sugar conspiracyI’m in my fourth month of time-restricted intermittent fasting – primarily eating in a six-hour window between 2 and 8 p.m. Along the way, I’ve been getting my cholesterol tested (results forthcoming). In addition to intermittent fasting, I’ve instituted three different diet phases. After the initial whatever/whenever diet (not so good for my cholesterol or weight), I began with a month and a half of intermittent fasting without any restrictions on what I ate: the whatever/not whenever diet. Then I did about a month where I kept my carbohydrate intake to about 200g per day. And I’m currently in the final phase, wherein I’m limiting my carbs to an average of 100g per day.

I’ve briefly discussed the benefits of fasting and intermittent fasting, and there is growing evidence that intermittent fasting could have a number of positive health benefits. I’ll delve into this more deeply once my study of one is done. I’ve also discussed the benefits of eating fewer carbs. Thus far on the intermittent fasting diet, I’ve lost over ten pounds, and my genetically shitty cholesterol numbers have been moving in a positive direction.

Obesity is up there with tobacco as one of the predominant killers in the United States (obesity and tobacco laugh in the face of those puny, ineffectual terrorists). These scourges kill hundreds of thousands of people a year. And, just as with tobacco, it turns out there were people pulling the trigger of the big fat obesity gun. Way back in the 60s, the sugar lobby (then the Sugar Research Foundation, now the Sugar Association) paid some Harvard scientists to promote the idea that saturated fats were the primary culprit in heart disease, and to downplay the role of sugar. These ideas were published in no less than the New England Journal of Medicine. One of the shills (er, scientists), D. Mark Hegsted, went on to become the head of nutrition at the USDA, and helped draft what would become the U.S. dietary guidelines, which, surprise, promoted the low-fat diet (i.e. high carb, high sugar, highly processed).

This information was recently brought to light in JAMA Internal Medicine, another well-respected medical journal. The researchers found evidence that the sugar industry had conspired with scientists to get sugar off the hook for its role in heart disease. There is a lot of smoke coming from this gun, but presumably that gun was fired numerous times before and after. In fact, as recently as last year, Coca Cola was hitting us with a nuclear blast of bullshit about how we don’t really need to worry about what we eat, just about how much exercise we get. Poor health, obesity, heart disease, early death: Coke Is It!

The good news is that we are finally starting to realize that sugars (simple carbs, high glycemic foods) are much more pernicious than we were led to believe. Those scientists who would sell their souls for a few bucks (Hegsted and two others received the equivalent of about $50,000 for that one incident) do a huge disservice for truth and science.

But, of course there will always be people willing to sell out, and as long as big money is allowed to infiltrate research, the outcomes will be questionable. There may be more transparency when it comes to disclosing research funding than there was in the 60s, but, because public funding for research has waned, industry funding has filled that gap with a vengeance. Journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and JAMA publish research that has largely been funded by big pharma, big ag, and big medical. And our health guidelines continue to be written by many folks who are on the boards of these giant special-interest corporations. Which isn’t to say that all the science is bad, only that it’s less good than it could or should be.

In the case of the promotion of the low-fat diet, the result has been devastating: hundreds of millions of people have had their health compromised, and millions of people have died prematurely.

Me, I’m slightly hangry at the moment, given that it’s 11 a.m. and I still have three hours before breakfast. I won’t be eating much in the way of sugars, but I will have a teaspoon of honey in my decaf. I do loves me some sugar, though, so as soon as this intermittent fasting dealio is done, I’ll permit myself a few instances of excess. Ultimately, though, all of my wacky dieting and monitoring has taught me that I would do best to moderate my excess when it comes to sugars.

I’ll leave you with this little tidbit; after all, sugar’s really only bad for our teeth, right?

 

More Reading On This Subject
“How the sugar industry shifted blame to fat” by Anahad O’Connor. The New York Times article that precipitated this post.

Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine by John Abramson, M.D. A highly informative book about how American medicine has been compromised by big business.

“Coke and Pepsi Give Millions to Public Health, Then Lobby Against It” by Anahad O’Connor. What better way to get organizations to drop opposition to things like soda taxes than to give them a few million dollars?

“The shady history of Big Sugar” by David Singerman. Another Times article that exposes a long history of the sugar industry working against our well-being.

 

Intentional Encumbrance

scottish bridgeThe last time I wrote a post, I was getting ready to embark on an 11-day trip to Scotland to film a movie with my brother and a friend. As it turns out, shooting a feature-length film in 11 days in a foreign land is challenging. But it was also an incredible experience, which I’ll document in greater detail in a future post. Now we can look forward to months of post-production – hopefully we’ll have a viewable film sometime in 2016.

Meanwhile, back in Longmont, the casket and painting businesses, along with a plethora of other projects and ventures, have kept me busy. At the moment, I feel like I’ve got a few too many plates spinning, on top of all those irons that are overheating in the fire – maybe I can’t see because of the various hats adorning my noggin.

Here’s a synopsis of some of the projects and endeavors I’ve been involved with:

  • I sold a rental condo in Fort Collins in July. To complete a 1031 exchange, I had to have a new property picked out by mid-August. A week before the deadline, I found this place:
    atwoodAfter years of neglect, this old house (built in 1890) needs a fair amount of work. The original plan was to do a bit of cosmetic fixing up, but that quickly evolved into rewiring the whole house, replacing the furnace and adding new ducting,* redoing the bathrooms and kitchen, and ripping out a few walls – and that’s just the inside. So it looks like I’ll be busy with this for a few months. I love the place, and I hope to document some of the changes we’re making in a future post.
  • Along with a couple high school friends, I started a t-shirt biz, Cheesy or Die. We’re still in the throes of working on designs, tightening up the website, finding the correct platform for selling our schwag, marketing, and hopefully ensuring we don’t get sued or end up in jail for copyright infringement or slander or counterfeiting.**
  • A year ago, I wrote a post about practicing unhygiene, in which I posited the idea that I might spend some time taking dirt showers. Well, I did just that for a week in September, much to my wife’s chagrin.*** dirt showerAnd, to stamp some officialdom on this project, I took DNA samples of the microbiota of my pits before and after the dirt showers, as well as of the dirt I used – results will be forthcoming in the next year or so (they’re a bit backed up at the gut microbiota lab – speaking of which, my gut microbiota results are in (future post)). Preliminary results: I didn’t stink too much, my hair didn’t get greasy, I didn’t die of some strange amoebic infection or leishmaniasis.
  • In addition to those fun projects and the painting and casket businesses, my old knees are well enough that I’ve begun playing indoor soccer again, as well as helping to coach my son’s team. I’m also working to keep my cricket and mealworm farms alive in the basement for future consumption, and I’m still selling occasional Simple Brew Kits (in fact, I have to get one shipped this morning). Even the old greeting card business brought in an order for 500 cards this week.
  • In addition to this blog and post-production work on the film, I’ve had to move a few other projects to the back burner. I was hoping to get my golf game closer to bogey golf by the end of the year. Well, I haven’t been able to get out very much, and it showed when I busted out something around the mid-100s at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin last weekend (I did a little better at a much easier course in Green Bay). So next year is the year I shoot for bogey golf. I had also hoped to achieve the fairly modest goal of benching 225 by the end of the year. I’m still going to give it a rip, but considering that I haven’t lifted since pre-Scotland, it could be a dicey proposition. Maybe I need to bring the weight bench to the remodel project.

To a certain degree, I’ve fallen victim to one of the pitfalls of eclecticism: the triage protocol is in effect, and this blog was one of the casualties (but maybe a few pounds on the chest can get its heart ticking again).**** I like being busy, but when one suddenly realizes one has forgotten to breathe for a while, one may need to slow it down a bit. Eclectics have a tendency to intentionally encumber ourselves, but it’s important to find some balance in how many projects we take on. Yes, this is absolutely a Rich Person Problem – I’m grateful that I have all these opportunities available to me.

Still, I’d like to have less plates spinning next year. I’d like 2016 to be the year of the rose, where I’ll have enough time to smell those proverbial flowers. Of course, too much time among the flowers can have an opiate effect; there’s still shit to be done, hopefully just less of it. Maybe 2016 can be the year of the rose, and some shit. In 2016, I can tie up some loose ends on the homefront, smell the roses, finish the film project, smell some more roses, write more posts, roses, focus on a few art projects, roses, think a little more globally, and of course spend more time with my family.*****

 

*None of the bedrooms have heat – apparently back in the old days, people shivered themselves to sleep.

**Part of our marketing strategy involved getting a group of Madison East Class of 90 brothers to join us at Lambeau to watch the Packers take on the Rams – we enlisted our fellow Purgolders (yes, I know, it was a pretty lame mascot) to wear our shirts and make it rain by passing out Packer Bucks:
Packer Buck

 

 

 

***I think I’m going to make a post category called “Much To My Wife’s Chagrin.” Then again, pretty much every post would be in it.

****In fact, the blog has been in an induced coma. I’ve still been feeding it new info for future posts – it just hasn’t had any outward signs of life.

*****Speaking of family, it turns out my daughter is a burgeoning eclectic herself. She has projects scattered about the house. And she even wanted to build a playhouse the other day – I told her she couldn’t even put the damn tent together (she left it strewn across the basement for me to clean up), so she’s got some work to do before she’s ready to start building a playhouse. I did teach her how to use the dremel, though, and she’s been busy carving things in wood. She is currently clandestinely filming me writing this post.

Fast and Endurious

fountain of youthA few years ago I embarked on a three-day fast after reading a Harper’s article by Steve Hendricks, Starving your way to vigor (sorry, you have to subscribe to Harper’s to read it), about the many potential health benefits of fasting. I wrote about my experience on the Mr. Money Mustache blog. It was a fun challenge; enough so that I thought I might make it a semi-annual or annual event. Alas, almost three years later, my longest fasts have resulted from skipping breakfast.

Some of the most exciting research cited in Hendricks’s article centered on how fasting affects cancer: cancer may be less likely to develop in fasting individuals, and if one does get cancer, fasting can intensify the positive effects of chemotherapy while reducing the negative effects. This chemo/fasting synergy occurs because, at a certain point during fasting, healthy cells go into a more quiescent, maintenance mode, whereas cancer cells keep on happily trying to reproduce. Thus chemo more effectively targets those rambunctious cancer cells and has less of an impact on healthy cells, resulting in less side effects.

Fasting may also help reduce seizures. Hendricks tells a compelling story about a young child who was having multiple seizures per day. The child’s parents had exhausted most medical options, to no avail, when their research led them to a century-old practice of fasting to alleviate seizures. Under their doctor’s guidance, they tried this, and it had immediate and enduring effects in reducing their child’s seizures, allowing him to lead a normal life.

Some studies have shown that fasting can protect the brain and slow aging in mice. Many people promote the idea of caloric restriction as a means to increase lifespan. For me, though, ongoing caloric restriction would feel like an unnecessary deprivation – who cares if I live a few more months if I have to endure a somewhat shittier existence for the next 40 years to achieve it? Likewise, outright fasting can be onerous, and not many people are going to adopt it as part of their lifestyle.

Enter intermittent fasting. A new study has shown that many of the benefits of fasting or caloric restriction may also accrue when one practices caloric restriction for just a few days a month. Mice fed a low-calorie, low-protein diet for two periods of four days per month lived an average of three months longer than mice on a regular diet (three months is a big deal when your lifespan is only 2-3 years – that’s like adding 5-8 years to a human life). The study also looked at humans, and found that just a few months of intermittent calorie restriction (five days per month of eating 725-1090 calories) resulted in reduced blood glucose, less abdominal fat, and lower levels of a protein associated with cardiovascular disease. Additionally, there were higher levels of some stem cells in the blood, suggesting that intermittent calorie restriction may produce some rejuvenating effects.

So is the long search for the Fountain of Youth over? Probably not, but there’s a lot of promising stuff. There’s a followup study underway with more people, and there are a lot of questions to answer. Meanwhile, there’s always the opportunity to do a study of one.*

As an eclectic, intermittency is a pretty appealing thing to me; it’s fun to mix things up. So I like the idea of incorporating some occasional, not very structured, caloric restriction into my regimen. In fact, I might give it a rip for a few days starting today – I could stand to lose a few pounds anyway.

 

*I haven’t read this book, but it looks like The Fast Diet could have some good info on how to set up an intermittent fasting regimen.

 

More Tracking

wearing many hats

This was my camping/fishing/hiking 14ers hat – I lost it and I want a new one

As an eclectic, I wear many hats. So I’ve found it useful to keep track of how much time I put into my many projects in a spreadsheet. Some of these projects make me money and some don’t. It’s nice to have an idea of whether I might be devoting too much time, or not enough, to certain projects, especially if we need a little more dough; in which case, it might behoove me to pick up a painting job for a friend or put a little more into the advertising coffers of the coffin biz.

In 2014 I put about 1400 hours into my tracked projects. Broken down by months, I worked the most in September and June (bracketing my vacation-laden summer). I worked the least in January and February (it was cold). More than half my project time was fairly equally divided among painting (= money), casketry (= money), golf* (= spending money), and, wait for it, Poppa’s Cottage (= no money), all at 250-270 hours. Next up, at around 150 hours, was the new addition to my business portfolio, Simple Brew Kits, a business I started in one day** that didn’t get much action until someone promoted it. Next up, at about 100 hours, was property management of my rental properties (these happen to be my primary source of income at this point). I had about 50 hours putting the finishing touches on the addition to my own home. And rounding things out, I put about 25 hours into wrapping things up with an electric vehicle business (my old business partner, Paul, continues to provide excellent hybrid service), 25 hours into art and photography, 23 hours finishing and getting a research paper published,*** and a mere 7.25 hours on my mostly-dormant greeting card company, Recycled Greeting Cards.

The 2015 spreadsheet is coming along nicely, with a few new businesses and projects in the works. You can download the project spreadsheet here, and of course populate it with your own projects.

 

*I’m tracking this because I want to see how much time I have to put in before I get decent (say, 10-12 handicap – it’s going to be awhile, I’ll get back to you). This was partly inspired by The Dan Plan, partly to disprove the 10,000 hours maxim (I may need 20,000), partly to do something to stay in shape now that my old body can’t take much soccer, but mostly so I don’t look like a complete a-hole when I join my high school buddies for golf on our annual pilgrimage to watch the Packers at Lambeau. And, yes, I’m tracking my golf progress in yet another spreadsheet, which I may share some day if it’s not too embarrassing.

**Post forthcoming.

***More on this in a future post. Entomophagy, or insect eating, will play an increasing role in our food production as we strive to feed 9 billion people in a sustainable way.

Check Yourself

good mood

I’m outside, I’m with my brother, I’m drinking booze, it’s evening: I must be Happy!

2014 was the year of self-tracking for me. I created a mood tracking spreadsheet (download it for free), to which I also added my data from MyFitnessPal. Now the results are in, and what they reveal will shock you (not so much).

The primary purpose of building my mood tracking contraption was to see which variables in my life have the largest effect on my mood, happiness, energy, creativity, stress, grumpiness, day-to-day satisfaction, and life satisfaction (we’ll call these the affects, in the psychological sense). Some of the variables I looked at were food, booze, sleep, activity, time outside, weather, season, money stress, and family time.

There was a time when I used to be able to do some simple statistical analyses, but those days are (thankfully) gone.* So in this case, I plotted some of my variables versus certain affects and looked at the trendlines for simple correlations.

Results
Happiness, day-to-day satisfaction, and mood were strongly correlated, possibly because I didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing between them. Thus, the results were similar for all three, so I lumped them together under “mood” below. Note that all results are correlations, so the variables aren’t necessarily causal – although they could be.

  • my mood (and happiness and day-to-day satisfaction) gets slightly worse the more I weigh (I fluctuated from the low 160s to the low 180s), with more tv, and with more driving
  • my mood is worse with more sleep and more stress (go figure)
  • my mood is not changed with strength training, on vacation, and with different forms of work
  • my mood improves slightly with more family time, new activities, and more booze
  • my mood improves with more cardio exercise, golf, more time outside, and more food
  • my mood gets better as the day goes on
  • my mood is best in the spring and fall, and worst in the winter
  • my creativity decreases with booze, time spent outside, more driving time, and more tv time
  • my creativity increases slightly with more sleep and more calories
  • I’m most creative in the winter
  • I have slightly less energy with more calories
  • I have less energy the more I weigh and the more tv I watch (or, more likely, I watch more tv when I have less energy)
  • I have more energy in the spring and fall
  • I had 10 moments of feeling bliss/euphoria over the course of the year
  • My life satisfaction was very steady

The design of my mood tracking spreadsheet is pretty rudimentary, and there are endless areas for improvement (go ahead and add your own tweaks to make it better, and share it with the group). Nonetheless, it was a good tool for me to learn more about how I operate.

Over the years, in conjunction with less valleys, the peaks in my mood aren’t as lofty, kind of like an attenuating sine wave:

attenuating sine wave

 

 

 

 

Maybe in exchange for more stability, one sacrifices the intensity of one’s moods, both on the down- and upsides. Maybe in my more volatile days I felt a greater sense of relief after being in those deeper valleys, resulting in a more intense joy and excitement about having left the valley.

Lessons
So what did I learn from The Year of Tracking?

  1. Tracking oneself is onerous. Overmonitoring and spending too much time trying to be perfect can also cause stress. It’s been a few months since I stopped tracking stuff, and now that I’m just L-I-V-I-N,** I generally feel more relaxed and, well, happy – albeit fatter…
  2. Tracking my food intake does help me lose weight. Tracking can help one be more disciplined.
  3. Tracking teaches one certain things that can be carried beyond tracking. Because I’m more attuned to many of the variables that affect my mood, I probably do a better job now of avoiding negative actions and doing more positive things (without obsessing about them).
  4. Overmonitoring oneself and obsessing about one’s every action can be somewhat self-centered. Worrying about tiny fluctuations in one’s mood is a Rich Person Problem. Self-improvement is fine, as long as it’s a vehicle for virtue.
  5. Stress can be a good thing. Some of the day-to-day stress I experience (solving a difficult work problem, putting in a physically exhausting day, cleaning roots and shit out of a tenant’s backed up sewer, writing a time-consuming post) leads to highly rewarding feelings (and higher peaks on the old sine curve).
  6. Although not having enough food or sleep affects my mood, stressors like money, conflict, and other real-life issues ultimately have a more pronounced and lasting impact on my mood.***

In fact, a 2010 paper by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton indicates that the less one’s household income is, below about $75,000/year, the more money stress exacerbates other issues, and affects one’s happiness (or emotional well-being, as the authors call it). Above the $75,000 threshold, people generally don’t experience greater happiness. But people’s life evaluation (similar to what I call life satisfaction here and fulfillment in other posts), continues to rise with household incomes above $75,000. Certainly this varies with different circumstances in different households, but it’s an indication that money woes may be one of the primary issues affecting people’s happiness.

So it’s as simple as making $75,000 a year to be happy, right? Or maybe it’s about learning to live a more frugal and less consumer lifestyle to avoid the stress associated with living on less than $75,000 (this guy did it on $7000 a year). Probably it’s some of both: paying people a living wage while simultaneously working toward a less consumerist society.

Beyond the obvious stresses associated with money, doing a little tracking to figure out which variables most affect your mood can be a growth exercise. Download the spreadsheet, tweak it to fit your needs, and let us know what you come up with.

 

*If there’s somebody out there who loves to play around with SAS and wants to do a real analysis of my data, let me know.

**This is Wooderson’s sage advice, coming from a twentysomething-year-old guy who still hangs out with high schoolers (“I get older, they stay the same age”). If the sequel to Dazed and ConfusedDallas Buyers Club, is any indication, Wooderson’s advice didn’t pan out too well (Leto’s really good as Slater, though).

***And of course genetics plays a role in our moods, too.

Soil Yourself

As visitors to the Cottage are aware, we like to get dirty. Another thing we like is the potential that crowdsourced science has to rapidly improve our knowledge. Here’s an opportunity to combine the two. The Natural Products Discovery Group is offering free soil collection kits, which they will then analyze for fungal compounds that may have medical uses.

Wouldn’t it be great if these guys were also looking at all the bacteria and other microbes in the soil samples? A database like this could help elucidate many of the ecosystem functions that soil microorganisms serve (with agricultural and climate change implications), as well as many potential non-medical uses for millions of unstudied compounds. But, hey, it’s a start.

I got mine – get yours!

2015 Resolutions

Poppa's Basement

Basement Before: A 2015 Project

For eclectics, the new year is generally an uplifting time. It’s an excuse to take stock of one’s life and reset the switch. Eclectics revel in change and new things, so a whole new year holds a lot of promise and potential energy. Many of us use the new year to resolve to make certain things better in our lives.

For over a decade, in addition to more serious initiatives, I’ve been setting at least one quirky New Year Goal for myself, often but not always fitness related. Although somewhat frivolous on the surface, most of these goals serve a broader function of teaching me something new or improving my overall health. I spend most of the year not doing anything about the goal, until I realize it’s crunch time, whereupon a quixotic series of events unfolds as I try to realize my goal. The result, in most cases, is that I succeed in reaching some semblance of my original goal, albeit in quarter-assed fashion.

Here are a few of my more memorable endeavors:

1999 – This may have been my very first quixotic resolution. The goal was to run up Boulder Canyon from Boulder to Nederland. I was a somewhat spry 27-year-old then and I didn’t see any reason I couldn’t just jog as far as I wanted. This is about a 16 mile route, with almost 3000 feet of elevation gain. The average Boulderite does this run a couple times a day, with a backpack full of rocks, but I’m not really a runner.

On about December 20, 1999, it dawned on me that I should probably start training for my goal. I happened to be on a cruise ship in the Caribbean with my extended family. In between hanging out with the family, beers, blackjack, and mousse-filled chocolate tulips, I was able to get a mile or so in on the top deck track. I had a few days to go when we arrived back in Colorado.

On December 31, my cousin Jacob (who had also been on the cruise) and I set out to do our run. We had revised the plan, opting instead to jog up Lefthand Canyon from the Greenbriar restaurant to Ward. Boulder Canyon was too busy, and the new route, while about the same distance, would actually add 1000 feet in elevation gain. About two miles in I remembered that my IT band would really tighten up when I was road jogging – we were moving along at the tortoise-like pace of 12-minute miles. By about mile ten, the IT band was screaming at me and I had to walk. Jacob, meanwhile, was like a little puppy, running up ahead and then running back to check on me (he peed a little bit when I scratched behind his ears). For the next six or so miles, we walked, with occasional short stretches of jogging. When we came around the corner and saw that first abandoned vehicle on the side of the road, we knew Ward was at hand – this could be the first time anybody’s felt such relief at arriving in Ward. Result: Mission (Kind Of) Accomplished

2000 – As a kid in Madison, Wisconsin, we lived near the Eagles Club, which had an old bowling alley. My dad would take us there occasionally. In high school I continued to bowl a few times a year – I never got very good, but I probably averaged in the 150s, with a high score in the 180s. After high school I bowled about once a year on average. In 2000, my goal was to bowl over 200.

I bowled a few times during the year (without coming close to a 200), but it wasn’t until I returned to Madison for the holidays that I got serious. A few days before Christmas, I went out with some friends and bowled a few games but couldn’t break 200. So after Christmas, I enlisted my brother Zac to join me and we drove out to the fancy new Bowl-A-Vard. I was putting strikes together and finishing spares, but I’d end up leaving a crucial pin standing in some of the middle frames. Five games in and I was getting a little discouraged, but I felt like I was still dialing it in. Zac, being a good sport, acquiesced to playing a sixth game. I didn’t put together a lot of strikes, but I think I only left one or two pins standing that game, to finish with a 208. Result: Success

(Zac bowled over 200 a few weeks later.)

2002 – What would you do if you were stuck in the cold in the wild without any matches? I would simply make a little bow and start my own fire.* In 2002, I decided it was important to learn this critical skill. In keeping with my usual procrastinatory schedule, I set out to accomplish my goal on December 31. Once again I was in Madison for the holidays, and once again I enlisted Zac to help me out (he already knew how to do this). With my wife reluctantly in tow, we found a hardware store that was still open and bought the necessary ingredients (I know, there generally aren’t hardware stores available when you’re lost in the wild).

It was cold outside, so we went down to Zac’s basement. I made a little bow with some string and a dowel, whittled a wispy pile of shavings, looped the string around another dowel, and used the bow to spin it back and forth on another piece of wood. Within minutes, voilà… well, nothing really, except a few puffs of smoke. Twenty minutes later, my wife migrated upstairs. Another fifteen minutes and Zac decided to head up, leaving me with a few words of encouragement. Sometime in the next hour or so I saw the light – literally, as a small flame burst forth from our little pile of shavings. I let it go long enough to smoke up the basement and probably alarm the neighbors, doused it, and walked triumphantly upstairs. As silly as my attempt at this goal was, there’s something viscerally enlightening about making fire. Result: Pseudosuccess

2013 – Somewhere in the last decade I may have gained a little more discipline. I had been kind of working out for a couple years, and had gone from one to two pull ups to over ten. In 2013, I resolved to do 20 pull ups. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to magically do 20 pull ups on December 31, so in addition to my irregular workout schedule, I began dieting and doing extra pull up sessions sometime in the fall. I figured that less weight around my belly would make it easier to do more pull ups, and I ended up dropping about 15 pounds in three months.

In the last couple weeks before the new year, I started working on max reps. Sixteen, then 17, then, I realized, it wasn’t going to happen. So, in keeping with tradition, I revised my goal to make it more accessible. I would now shoot for 20 chin ups, which are easier for me. On December 29, with considerable expenditure, I did 18-and-maybe-a-half chin ups. The cost was that I couldn’t attempt it again that day, and I decided to take the next day off, too, to give myself the best chance. On December 31 (again), I woke up in the morning, skipped breakfast (excess weight), stripped to my underwear (maybe I should’ve taken that off, too), and proceeded, with superhuman effort, to get 19 1/2 chin ups – I couldn’t even hold the bar at the end, try as I might. That was it, I had failed, but I immediately began equivocating – I had given it the old college try.

Then a New Year’s Eve miracle occurred. I had just settled down to a long winter’s nap, when inside my brain I felt a thunderous clap. So I sprang from my chair with a flash, and jumped on the pull up bar with a crash. Up and down I went, 20 times, and one more for good measure – 21 chin ups. Did I cheat a little by not fully extending on a few of those, and by kicking my knees up on the last five or so? Yes, yes I did. Result: Failure (but it felt pretty good)

Last year I had a pretty wimpy handstand goal that I sort of achieved (on December 31, of course), as well as a golf goal that I didn’t quite meet. In 2015, my fitness-y goals are to bench 225, get my golf handicap to 15, and, more vaguely, limit the amount of junk I ingest or imbibe (I know, these are kind of boring compared to some of my previous goals – maybe I should try to rip a license plate in half or pull a Boeing 747 with my teeth). Artistically, I plan to make a movie with Zac in Scotland, I have an illustrated book I want to finish and self-publish, and I’d like to be able to play the first part of Fur Elise on the keyboard with some semblance of competence (now this is a quixotic goal, since my musical ability is nil). Vocationally, I hope to increase sales for a couple of my businesses and start a new business with a couple friends. On the home front, I plan to dig out part of our basement and make it into a fitness area/mad science lab (video forthcoming), and I want to grow some good veggies. Acting locally, I want to do more exciting projects with my wife, kids, family, friends, and community. Thinking globally, I want to follow up on some work I’ve done looking at hunger and get more involved in climate change mitigation efforts.

I’ll give you a full report in a year. What are your 2015 goals?

 

*Actually I’d probably die of hypothermia in a Jack Londonesque comedy of errors.

 

 

Unscientific Americans

Is he looking disdainfully at us?

Is he looking disdainfully at us?

Which statement most closely describes how you feel:

1. I care about all people (even if they’re from another country), the environment, and the future of our planet.
2. I care about people (especially people from my country and people like me), the environment (especially my environment), and my kids.
3. I care about middle class Americans and the environment (as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with the fossil fuel industry).
4. Meh
5. I care about the wealthiest and whitest American men and big corporations, and there is no such thing as the environment.
6. I care about my gun, myself, and my family (in that order). I like to shoot kittens.
7. Fuck You

This is of course a completely unbiased and accurate representation of the political spectrum (no straw men here). Where do you lie on the spectrum? Most of us are probably (hopefully?) in the 1-2 range. But where are our political representatives? I recently spoke with a good friend about the 2014 elections and he believes that the idea of caring about people (all people) is a radical idea in mainstream American politics. When’s the last time you heard a national politician (aside from Bernie Sanders) talk about the plight of the poor in the U.S.? When’s the last time you heard a national politician (including Bernie Sanders) talk about the plight of the poor in the rest of the world? When’s the last time you heard a Christian politician talk about the plight of the poor, other than to blame them for being a drain on the system? Seems to me Jesus had a slightly different take. Is believing that we all have a right to food, clothing, shelter, and health care really such a radical idea?

When did bleeding heart become a bad thing? “Hey, you care about people and things – you’re an asshole!” If we’ve learned anything here at the Cottage, it’s that caring is essential to our own happiness. Of course, we have to infuse pragmatism into our caring to come up with effective policies. Which is where science comes in. Sadly, in some parts of the political world, science too is seen as radical. Rise up, nerds!

I’m not going to sit here and say politicians are somehow misaligned with the interests and ideals of the American people… wait, that’s exactly what I’m going to say. A recent study examined the long-held belief that Americans tend to be more centrist* than the politicians who represent us. In fact, when the researchers looked at a number of individual issues, Americans usually took positions further left or right than the national parties’ standard positions. More often, according to this study, it’s to the left: of the twelve issues they looked at, by my count, more respondents tended to be left of the national party platform on seven, right on two, and were equally left and right on three.**

If these results are any indication of American sentiment, the national parties aren’t very representative. Compassion may get short shrift among our parties, but it’s still alive among us, the people. So why do we keep voting for politiopaths? One reason is systemic. We don’t have much of a choice because money is so entrenched in politics (thank you, Citizens United and, earlier, Buckley v. Valeo). Taking a quick look at OpenSecrets, almost $4 billion was spent on the 2014 elections, and guess whose money that was? Not yours. If politicians need money to win elections, and it’s not your money they need, do they care as much about what you care about? Only inasmuch as they can still get you to vote for them.

That’s where the second reason comes in: you suck. Or rather, we suck. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” As humans, we suck at accurately assimilating information and seeing the bigger picture. If you toss a coin and heads comes up four times in a row, what are the odds that heads will come up on the fifth toss (this is not a trick coin)? Hopefully more than 50% of you got this right. But many people don’t – this is the gambler’s fallacy.*** We’re not intuitively good at statistics – in fact, our intuition often leads us astray. Maybe this is because many modern situations were not common as we evolved, so we don’t have great mechanisms for understanding them. We are anecdotal animals, and this, in contrast to scientific evidence, leads us down many false paths. It also makes us susceptible to dupability. Guess who exploits that? People and groups with a shitload of money, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and all their corporate funders), the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, George Soros. They influence politics because they can influence politics.

Not to get too grandiose on you, but what do we really want for this country, for the world? If we’re not on the “fuck you” end of the spectrum above, we can start by better equipping ourselves to see through some of the garbage that is constantly slung our way by a largely beholden media. Part of seeing is understanding our own biases and fallibilities, opening up to new ideas, and gathering information. After honing our critical thinking skills, we will naturally want to do something effective.

If we really want a sea-change in American politics, it starts with following the money, then stamping it out. Campaign finance reform ought to be the number one issue for all Americans, because once we refocus our politicians’ beholdenness to us over special interests, we will make faster headway on the rest of the issues that matter to us. Something like 90% of Americans believe that money is too influential in politics, but a similar percentage feel that there’s not much we can do about it. One thing the last decade has shown us, though, is that, at least for some issues, we can effect change fairly rapidly (good job, gay people and marijuana!). Start by watching Lawrence Lessig’s Ted Talk. Then tell Obama we’re ready for some of that hope and change, in the form of an executive order that all government contractors must disclose their campaign contributions. Get involved or contribute to organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics, which promotes more transparency in politics. Get involved or contribute to organizations like Public Campaign or Issue One or Public Citizen, which aim to reduce money’s influence in politics.  Support bills like the Fair Elections Now Act, the American Anti-Corruption Act, and the Grassroots Democracy Act. Stop shooting kittens.

 

*But what does centrist mean? Is it the position between those of the two major parties? If 58% of Americans take a position to the left of both national parties (as respondents did on social security), where’s the center?

**See results on page 22 of the study. Also check out the questions in the appendix of the study. There seems to be lots of potential for bias in how the questions were formulated. Where do you align?

***I’m a mediocre card counter at blackjack. I’ve sat at tables from Colorado to Costa Rica, New Orleans to New Zealand, and I rarely see people who correctly play basic strategy (which would push their odds of winning just over 49%). While most dealers have a pretty good handle on basic strategy, many of them don’t even have it down.

 

Practice Unhygiene

A note from Poppa: I currently have 31 tabs open in my Google Chrome browser, and another few in Safari. A plurality of these are articles from Science Magazine – when I come across something interesting, or when I’m doing research, I’ll keep the tab open until I can incorporate it into a post or otherwise use it. Well, my wife is disturbed by all this browser chaos and, truth be told, all these open tabs add clutter and stress to my life. So in the interest of good computer housekeeping, I’ve decided to create a new post category, wherein I can dispense with open tabs more quickly. Welcome to the first Mini Post, an ongoing series of declutterification, focusing on interesting links and ideas.

If you’ve read enough posts at Poppa’s Cottage, you understand the significance of our microbiota. In addition to antibiotics, the all-American obsession with “hygiene” has certainly done a number on our surficial microbial communities. It’s safe to say that our ancestors weren’t busting out the Kohler Awaken shower head – with its advanced spray engine powering three signature sprays – on a daily basis. Nor were they slathering their bodies with a plethora of manufactured chemicals. Might some of our skin issues and smells be exacerbated by all this bathing and slathering? Yes, according to this New York Times article, and some cosmetics companies have recognized that real hygiene may be found in the dirt. AOBiome is working on a product called AO+, which is basically a solution containing Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacterium commonly found in the soil. Before the age of lathering, human skin likely contained a much more diverse array of microbes, possibly including organisms like N. eutropha. And the job of these bacteria was to help our skin, keep us smelling normal, ward off bad microbes, and generally improve our overall health.

My friend Mr. Money Mustache had a post about a year ago about the benefits of doing less house and human cleaning. It created a bit of a stir, and apparently blew the mind of one irate commenter, who said, “Crawling between the sheets when you’re covered in sweat, bacteria and even just body oils on a daily basis, and washing them on the same infrequent schedule as your bath towels is UNSANITARY.” This person seems to be ignorant of the fact that 90% of the cells in and on our bodies are bacterial. Maybe if this guy scrubs hard enough, he can get all 100 trillion microbes off his body, whereupon he will quickly become a corpse, albeit a SANITARY one.

For my part, I have some skin issues like seborrheic dermatitis (aka dandruff) and smelly pits,* so I shower pretty regularly. But what if I’m actually exacerbating these issues by washing off good bacteria? I just looked into buying some AO+, but it’s pretty spendy at $99 for a month’s supply (and, hey, one bacteria species does not a community make). Maybe I’ll have to go the low-budget route and try smearing some dirt on my body. I’ll keep you posted on the results of The Unhygiene Experiment. If it works, I will be selling bags of dirt for $99 (we’ll call the product “Dirtbags”).

 

*Incidentally, in another Study of One I have going, I’ve noticed that not only does a low-carb diet significantly decrease the smelliness of my pits, the effect remains for months after I go back to regularly eating carbs. I’m hypothesizing that this is the result of a change to my microbial community that takes awhile to reverse. My dermatitis also seems diminished with fewer carbs in the diet.

You Are an Ecosystem

gut microbiotaYou are not yourself today. In fact, you are not yourself any day. Neither am I. We are collectives of trillions of selves, and most of these selves are not our selves: of the 130 trillion or so cells that make up our bodies, about 30 trillion are human and the other 100 trillion are bacteria, archaea, fungal, and other single-celled microbes.* Collectively, these are our microbiota.

Each of us is an ecosystem, one that has evolved over millions of years** to maintain some semblance of balance amid the vagaries of the outside world. Now we are screwing this balance up, with numerous unintended consequences for our health. What took millions of years to assemble is being rapidly undone in a matter of decades. The main culprit is antibiotics, which generally kill all bacteria indiscriminately, including the thousands of good species in our gut, mouth, nose, ears, skin, and nether regions. Of course, antibiotics have also saved millions of lives since their use became widespread in the 1940s. No one is suggesting that we stop using antibiotics, only that we use them more wisely.

Over the past couple years I’ve been annoying my friends by ascribing every ailment to problems with our microbiota. “The obesity epidemic is caused in part by changes to our gut microbiota.” “Oh, your friend’s son has autism – have you heard that gut microbiota might play a role?” “Broke your leg? Must be problems with your microbiota.” OK, not so much the last one (but who knows, maybe some of those little suckers help us incorporate calcium more efficiently). In short, I am a grotesque when it comes to the panacean influence of our microbiota. I believe we have just begun to understand our microbiota’s significance to our health and well-being.

Maybe we’re at the beginning of a paradigm shift in medicine. Michael Pollan seems to think so. “The drive for absolute control leads to unanticipated forms of disorder,” he says, referring to medicine’s efforts to control (destroy mostly) our microbiota and sterilize our environment. Microbiota testing will become more important in determining the cause of many ailments, and cures will often involve replacing missing microbiota. As it stands, when it comes to microbiota, most doctors don’t know shit about shit.

One who does is Martin Blaser, who has been working with human microbes for years. His book Missing Microbes is a convincing argument that we need to reduce antibiotic use where it’s unnecessary, create more antibiotics that target specific bacteria, and do more research on how our microbiota affect our health. From the book:

  • Up to 15% of calories in our food are extracted by bacteria in our colon
  • Nearly all chemicals in our blood come from microbial activity
  • 99% of the unique genes in humans are bacterial
  • The function of 30-40% of our microbial genes is unknown
  • Children in the U.S. receive about 17 courses of antibiotics before they’re 20
  • Children in the U.S. receive about three courses of antibiotics before they’re two
  • Babies born through cesarian section do not receive the natural complement of bacteria that babies born vaginally do
  • 258 million courses of antibiotics were prescribed in the U.S. in 2010
  • Antibiotics only work on bacteria, but they are often prescribed without knowing whether a sickness is caused by bacteria
  • Livestock in the U.S. are given 70-80% of all antibiotics to increase feed conversion ratios (making them fatter quicker), not primarily to prevent disease
  • Overuse of antibiotics has increased the resistance of many dangerous pathogens
  • Antibiotic resistance, combined with our compromised microbiota, increase the likelihood of a pandemic
  • The European Union banned antibiotics in animal feed in 1999
  • A remote Venezuelan tribe had more than 100 unique species of bacteria not found in a group of people in the U.S.
  • Aside from a long-forgotten study in the 19th century, it was believed that our stomachs harbored no bacteria until 1979
  • Some microbes are amphibiotic, meaning that they can be beneficial under some circumstances and pathogenic in others
  • There is evidence that Type I diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, asthma, allergies, eczema, obesity, autism, and some forms of cancer increase as a result of antibiotic use
  • Fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) – transferring poop from a healthy person to a sick person – is already being used with much success for treating certain ailments, and may become more common for treating things such as obesity, autism, and bowel infections

We use antibiotics to make our livestock fat – what’s to make us think that antibiotics aren’t also having an effect on our own waistlines? There are about 80 million obese people in the United States, and obesity is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Our diets certainly have something to do with this, but according to Blaser, diet alone doesn’t explain the rapid rise in obesity over the past few decades. One study found that captive animals (lab and zoo animals), generally fed very strict diets, are also getting fatter – might we have changed their gut microbiota as well?

We have many studies linking our microbiota to our health, but we need much more information. With that purpose, the National Institutes of Health began the Human Microbiome Project in 2007. With our relatively recent ability to quickly and easily assay DNA, we are exponentially increasing our knowledge of what our microbiomes (the genes of our microbiota) consist of. Armed with this information, we should see some major changes in the next few years in how we look at many modern diseases.

I’ve been happily playing with my diet and exercise regime over the past few years, and tracking some health and well-being outcomes. In another Study of One, I plan to get my microbiome assayed soon. I’ll post the results here. Following are a few links to some studies and projects looking at our microbiota:

  • The Promise of Poop. This Science article outlines how fecal transplants have been quite successful for treating C. difficile infections and are being tested for other ailments.
  • This article implicates a certain gut bacteria in the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Because this is an autoimmune disease, it leads to the hypothesis that gut microbiota may play a role in other autoimmune diseases.
  • This study indicates that Crohn’s disease, another autoimmune disease, is “marked by dramatic changes in gut bacteria,” and early courses of antibiotics may make things worse.
  • A brief history of antibiotic use to make farm animals grow faster and how this might have implications for people.
  • This study showed that mice given gut microbiota from fat and thin twin humans became fat or thin themselves, and that, when living together, the fat mice (who happen to eat some of the droppings of their thin brethren) eventually developed similar gut microbiota to the thin mice, and subsequently lost weight (but not vice versa).
  • Our friend Martin Blaser has another study indicating that early use of antibiotics may lead to obesity.
  • Some microbiota in obese people’s guts may even cause cancer, by increasing certain types of acid.
  • How autism may be affected by gut microbiota.
  • Gut microbiota may even affect our mood and behavior. What are the implications for mental illness and depression?
  • Summary of new findings in 2013.
  • Some gut microbiota can be quickly altered.
  • This is tangential, but some bacteria not normally associated with humans may be used to combat cancer tumors.
  • Gut bacteria turn cocoa into an anti-inflammatory.
  • Gut bacteria in the Hadza.
  • This guy’s trying to see if he can change his gut microbiome to be more like the pygmies.
  • And, this just in: Antibiotic use is correlated with the development of allergies. This study suggests that peanut allergies may be alleviated by the introduction of Clostridia bacteria. How about a few carefully tailored probiotics to get rid of your allergies? Might be a couple years out, but it will be a reality soon.

 

*Not to mention the trillions of viruses that are also part of our microbiota.

**Modern humans are about 250,000 years old, but we are part of an evolutionary tree that goes back over a billion years, and guts evolved in animals several hundred million years ago.

***Mice sure do get the shit kicked out of them in our health research. I’m not quite sure where I stand on this – is it better to kill a chicken for a few meals or kill a mouse for useful knowledge that may save lives? I guess it depends on how useful that knowledge is and how necessary a certain protocol is – it seems like much of the information we gather from animal studies could be amassed in humane human studies and trials.