I’m a Fighter, Not a Lover

Music filled the room, but I hardly noticed the beat.  Darkness covered everything in a thick layer of tension, and from behind my eyelids, the world was blackness.  Heartbeats throbbed in my chest and adrenaline thrummed through my veins, but all my senses were focused on him.  He would attack, and I had be ready.  He swept by me, circling close and then backing off, taunting me with whispers and brushing me with his shoulders.  My fists coiled and I bent my knees, ready to strike the moment the threat became real.  Even with my eyes shut, I saw it all- heard his quick steps, moving close and cutting left and sweeping behind me, felt his presence as he stood next to me, smelled his hand as he flicked my hair and whispered his threats.  My whole body was taut, waiting and watching with every sense.  I felt his footsteps as he came closer, and then backed off.  In that moment after he stepped away, there was nothing but stillness, and I knew.  Half a second later, he was on me, arms around my neck and squeezing tighter.  I exploded with every ounce of adrenaline-laced energy and pent-up instinct.  In two seconds and a tangle of limbs, he had me on the ground, but even in the frenzy of striking and scrapping and scrambling, one thought remained clear in my mind.   This is it.  If I wanted to live, I had to fight.  So I fought.  And I didn’t just live – I came alive.

 

You know that saying, “I’m a lover, not a fighter?”

I’m the exact opposite.

I’ve always been feisty and scrappy and physical.  Maybe it’s the Irish in me – I didn’t get the green eyes or freckles, but I got the temper and the fighting spirit.  My dad dragged me to a few judo classes when I was 11 or so, and I hated them because I was painfully shy and absolutely terrified of failure, so trying a new activity in a new place surrounded by new people was agonizing.  But I must have retained a few of the things from those three Saturday classes, because when a catty girl in my 6th grade class shoved me on the playground, I flipped her onto her back with a quick o soto gari…and then ran like hell and locked myself in a bathroom stall when she got up a minute later and came after me, claws out (literally- homegirl had freakishly long fingernails and had scratched other kids on more than one occasion).  When I played recreational soccer at 13, and then again at 18, my best and possibly only skill was my dogged determination to barrel into the players on the other team and leave them on the ground.  I was like a really slow human pinball, zipping around and shoving myself into anything I could find, and I was called by more unrepeatable terms of “endearment” by opposing players than I can count.  But in spite of all that, I never got into more contact sports like rugby, lacrosse, or water polo.  I just kept myself busy in the gym, working out alone and enjoying feeling stronger and knowing I was doing something good for my body, but always feeling like I wasn’t quite there.  It was good and I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and I needed something more.  I felt drawn to a number of other physical endeavors like dance, acrobatics, tumbling, wrestling and any kind of combative sport, really, but never pursued any of them.  I was too old to start it, too fat to have a real shot at it, too weak to be any good at it, or just too damn scared to do it.

Until last night, when I dragged myself and my middle sister to a women’s self-defense class.  I say “dragged,” because neither of us wanted to go, and I had every excuse in the book for why I didn’t want to go.

I was tired after being awake since 3:00.

I wasn’t feeling well.

I could learn this stuff some other time.

I didn’t want to spend the money.

I’m getting my concealed carry permit, and that should be good enough.

The only reason I ended up going was because my mom handed me a check for the entrance fee, and I could hear my dad’s voice telling my sister and me how important it was for us to learn how to defend ourselves.   With my beautiful, sweet, and often far-too-trusting sister heading back to college at the end of the week, I wanted to make sure she was at least a little more equipped to handle any threats that came her way.  So I hauled myself into a sports bra and drove over the hill to West Coast Martial Arts, wanting to just get it over with and get home.  I prayed it wouldn’t be too cheesy and prepared myself to endure what I was sure would be several hours of boredom, at best.

Once we finally found the studio, we headed in, signed some waivers, and headed through to the back room where the class would be held.  Looking out at all the open space, the mats on the floor and the pads and other equipment lining the walls, I was at ease.  Sure, I was still a little nervous with not knowing what would be coming next, but this place was bursting with space and possibility and movement, and with that came a small, strange sense of “home.”  Within a few minutes of the introductory speech, we were partnered up and practicing techniques for escaping a front choke.  From there, we moved into techniques for dealing with a front choke up against a wall, then to rear chokes, and then to defending ourselves from the floor.  Most of the class was striking combatives, with a little bit of grappling (floor work) involved, and it was nothing like what I had expected.

self defense combatives july 28 2014 (1)

self defense combatives july 28 2014 (2)

self defense combatives july 28 2014 (3)

 

“Battle wounds” aside, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the class, and even more so by how easily it seemed to come to me.  The technique was not necessarily natural, but the instincts were.  I’m naturally on the more paranoid/guarded side, and my Army dad has always drilled into my mind the importance of situational awareness (For example, he’ll question me after going out for dinner to see what kinds of details I noticed about the other patrons, the potential threats, the escape routes, etc.).  I’m basically the life of the party  when I go out – not only do I not drink all that much (someone needs to be sober, right?), but I spend the majority of my time scanning the room, analyzing the crowd, picking out threats, and determining escape/defense plans.  My natural tendency is to be guarded, suspicious, and skeptical, and that night – for the first time I can ever remember – someone besides my dad affirmed that instinct.  I was shocked to hear the instructors say things like, “You’ve got good instincts,” “You’re really strong,” or “You’re a natural.”   Hearing that I have a natural ability for something physical is not a common occurrence in my life (I’m about as clumsy as a drunk baby panda), and it was so wild to me to realize that I doing relatively well on my first try at a new physical activity.  Practicing striking and escaping over and over was exhilarating, and I felt alive in a way that I rarely have before.   And more than that, I felt free.  It was as if I had been waiting for that moment, to step on the mat and have space and be given permission to just go, to give in to those instincts and to use my strength.  So often in the fitness community, the focus is on aesthetics.  (Heck, much of life in general is focused on aesthetics.)  Even though we enjoy talking about measuring fitness in terms of performance, it’s still based on something like lifting a heavier weight or running farther or faster.  But for what?  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy training for the challenge it provides, the health benefits it accrues, and the strength it builds, and there is a huge sense of accomplishment that comes with setting PR’s or crushing hard workouts.  But on the mat, I got to put that strength to use.  I’m not quite sure how to describe it other than finding something I’d been searching for without quite knowing what it was, and a feeling of “This is it.” 

The finale was the opportunity to experience a simulated one-on-one attack from one of the instructors.  You stood in the middle of the room with your arms at your sides and eyes closed, then the lights were shut off and music was blasted (to interfere with your ability to sense what might be coming), and you had to wait for the designated instructor to attacked.   At that point, the lights would be turned back on and the music stopped, you could open your eyes and were supposed to use the technique’s you’d just learned to defend yourself and escape.  It was nerve-wracking waiting there in the dark and feeling vulnerable, but it was also thrilling.  And the moment I was attacked, I let go and let my instinct drive me.  It was terrifying before and after to think that if the situation were real, the stakes would be life and death, but in the moment I didn’t think.  I dug in, I defended, and I fought like hell.  This was it.  This was the bottom line, not performance or aesthetics but survival, and I wasn’t giving a damn about anything but escaping.  And the moment I did, I ran like hell to the other side of the room.  Instinct.  I was given the freedom to fight, and I did just that.

The bottom line is that the experience was a wake up call.  Not in the sense that my eyes were opened to potential threats I’d not yet thought of, and not in the sense that I’m now much better equipped to know how to react should a threat arise (although that is certainly true!).  It was a wake up call in the sense that it made me realize what I’ve been missing.  For all the training I do, I don’t have any real physical outlet that is for the pure sake of enjoyment.  It’s something I’ve wanted (see “Making Fitness Fun”), but never seriously pursued.  I thought I’d found a little bit of that freedom and that joy when I began more seriously practicing yoga.  I know better now.  My first taste of combatives awakened me to the fact that there could be a purpose and joy in my training that did not include “health benefits” or “squatting my bodyweight” or “sculpting an ass that stops traffic.”  In a funny way, it’s for the same reason that dance appeals to me as a physical outlet – the purpose is greater than the performance.  For dance (at least the way I see it), it’s storytelling; for combatives, it’s survival.  It makes sense to me now why I’ve never felt very competitive in sports, or really like an athlete at all.  I was going about it in all the wrong ways.  For me, the way I’m programmed as an individual, I don’t care much whether I can put a ball into/over a net.  It may be entertaining, but it does not feed my soul or give me a sense that I am using my body for what it was intended.  Combatives did that, and it resonated deeply with me. There was joy and purpose and freedom in those movements and on that mat, and I knew clear as day – this is it.

It’s not really that I want to go back for more…It’s that I don’t know how to keep myself away.

**********

self defense combatives july 28 2014 (4)

For any local friends interested in taking a self-defense class (or any martial arts class), I cannot recommend West Coast Martial Arts enough.  The instructors, led by Gary Merlo, were knowledge, passionate, encouraging, and empowering.  The experience was an incredible bargain, and so very much worth the time.  The next women’s self-defense class will be in October sometime, but they offer adult and child martial arts classes year-round.  If you are not local, I would still highly recommend finding a self-defense/combatives class to take (and then follow up with regular refresher classes).  Even if combatives is not your sweet spot, the techniques are critical for everyone to know…after all, when the situation and the threat are real, the stakes are life and death.

self defense combatives group shot july 28 2014

In the meantime, practice staying aware of your surroundings and do not make yourself a target.  I’m collaborating with one of the female martial artists from West Coast Martial Arts on a series of posts on self-defense.  She will be sharing her personal experience with the importance of self-defense, as well as practical tips that you can use to avoid dangerous situations, defend yourself against threats, and prevent yourself from becoming a victim.  If you have any particular questions you would like to have answered in the self-defense series, please let me know either in the comments below or by emailing me at eatprayliftblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Real Secret of the Mediterranean Diet

Last week, I decided to multitask by watching Under the Tuscan Sun while I did my physical therapy work on my ankle.  I’d never seen it, but after stumbling across a quote from the movie that really struck a chord with me and then seeing it pop up on Netflix, it seemed serendipitous.  My conclusion: I want to visit Positano, ride a vespa, find an Italian sugar daddy, and cook a lot of Italian food.  Mostly the food part, and mostly I just want to eat it. (What else is new?)  So I’ve had Mediterranean food on the brain for the past week, which naturally made me want to write about it, because that is my life.  Eat, overshare, repeat.  It’s an art. Mediterranean diets are pretty popular these days (although the Paleo diet seems to have surpassed it in terms of frenzied hype; more on the Paleo diet HERE).  The Mediterranean diet is both easy to explain and difficult to define: You eat what people in traditional Mediterranean cultures eat.  Think Italy, Greece, and the southern/eastern regions of France and Spain.  People have been living in those regions for centuries, and we have plenty of data on what they eat today, as well as what they’ve been eating for generations past.  The tricky part is that the traditional diet varies by region.  Greeks eat differently than the Spaniards, who eat differently than the Italians, and so on.  The common factors between these regional diets forms the basis of what is now known by most as “the Mediterranean diet.” mediterranean diet The diets of those in the Mediterranean is characterized by plentiful produce, grains, legumes, nuts/seeds, red wine, and fresh fish/seafood; a moderate amount of dairy, poultry, eggs, and olive oil; and a small amount of red meat and refined sugar/sweets.  The health of the Mediterranean cultures is renowned for being much better than other westernized nations (see THIS study published in the journal of the American Association for Cancer Research; or THIS link regarding the “Blue Zone” in Ikaria, Greece), and it is typically attributed to their diet, and particularly to the abundance of produce, red wine, fish, and olive oil.  So does that theory hold up? It certainly seems so.  There are enormous health benefits associated with increased plant-food consumption, particularly colorful vegetables and fruits (HERE is a summary of one of the many, many studies that indicate just that).  As I described in my post on the Paleo diet, grains and legumes contain numerous health-protective nutrients (more on that HERE).  The resveratrol in red wine is known to be beneficial for heart health.  Additionally, studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet as a whole can reduce risk of diabetes by 1/3, protect against cancer, and improve heart disease risk.   However, it may not be the particular constituents of Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, red wine, olive oil, etc.) that provides Mediterranean populations with good health, so much as it is the general quality of their diet.  Typically, food is prepared at home with fresh produce which is in season, fish is caught fresh right there in the Mediterranean Sea, and any milk/eggs or meat is from animals raised in much healthier conditions than are typical in the States.  Perhaps of equal importance is the fact that meals are usually taken with family and friends- time is set aside to not only eat but enjoy good company- and there does not seem to be the same kind of “diet culture” surrounding food and eating that we have so prevalent over here. For all its strengths, the Mediterranean diet may not be a panacea for health like we might wish it to be.   It’s certainly an incredible improvement over today’s typical Western diet, but I would not go far as to say it is the best (read more HERE). I love that it encompasses a wide range of foods so that individuals with voluntary or involuntary dietary restrictions (i.e. Paleo, vegan/vegetarian, lactose intolerant, nut allergies, and the like) can apply the principles of the diet to their own eating.  The main forseeable problem would be getting caught up in the specific Mediterranean diet and losing sight of the overarching principles: fresh food, plenty of produce, quality protein, less-processed grains, (all of which are nutritional principles advocated by numerous other diets; see more comparisons HERE) and a lifestyle that emphasizes community, connection, and celebrating the food we are so blessed to have on our tables.  I think the most valuable thing about the Mediterranean diet is the complete lifestyle it represents.  The Roseto community in Pennsylvania is a perfect example of this – they are a community descended from immigrants from Roseto Valfortore (in Foggia, Italy), and they are renowned throughout the medical community for their incredible lack of cardiovascular disease in relation to the rest of the United States.  They enjoyed this freedom from heart disease morbidity in spite of a very high-cholesterol diet, heavy smoking, and a high percentage of overweight/obesity.  The only factor that the befuddled scientists and sociologists could attribute this to was the  remarkable closeness of the Roseto community, their tight social networks, and the strong inter-generational family ties. In other words, this transplanted Mediterranean community was healthy in spite of their diet rather than because of it.  It’s truly a fascinating paradox; Malcolm Gladwell writes about the Rosetans in his book, Outliers, as do Drs. Sinatra and Bowden in The Cholesterol Myth (both of which I would recommend reading!)  You can also see THIS article for a little snippet about the Rosetans’ lifestyle…and yes, it’s a HuffPost link, but the JAMA article I wanted to share requires purchase and I’m figuring most of yall would prefer something a little more free. There’s no doubt that most of us would benefit from adopting most of the principles of the Mediterranean diet.  That being said, I still think that the best approach is not to adopt a particular diet, but to do your own research, listen to your own body, and incorporate the principles that work best for your unique context (more on health-context HERE).  The most valuable lesson we can learn from the Mediterranean diet is likely not the diet itself, but the lifestyle and social habits that traditionally accompany it.  There is no doubt in my mind that everyone’s health will benefit- no exceptions- from cherishing meal times, simplifying the clutter and busyness we’re so quick to bury ourselves in, placing a higher value on community/family ties, and leaning into our (real life, not digital) social networks.   Positano And, you know, that Italian sugar daddy probably wouldn’t hurt.

The Pitfalls of the Paleo Diet

I mentioned the Paleo diet in last week’s post about the ethical conflicts and health considerations surrounding meat and other animal foods.  (If you missed that post, check it out HERE.  I’d love to hear your input!)  Paleo is an extremely trendy diet right now, so I’d like to expound upon that a bit for any of yall who may be currently “eating Paleo” or considering doing so in the future.  As I’ve said before, I eat what I want and don’t follow a particular diet plan (nor do I practice the “If It Fits Your Macros”/”IIFYM” style of eating, but that’s a topic for another day), so I’m not a Paleo devotee.  I actually have some serious concerns about the diet, although I can see a few benefits it would provide as well.  I will outline the basics of the diet for those who are unfamiliar, and then give a brief explanation of the major pitfalls of Paleo, as well as the handful of redeeming qualities I see in it.  More importantly, I’ve linked to all kinds of resources, most of them articles authored by folks far more eloquent than I, so that you can read in more detail about the specific details/problems in which you find yourself most interested.  If you are interested in giving the Paleo diet a go and I can’t deter you, there are links below that will take you to resources that will help you to try the Paleo diet in what I hope will be a safe, healthy, and open-minded personal experiment.

paleo

First, let’s talk about what the Paleo diet entails.

The Paleo diet has its roots in evolutionary theory, and is based on the idea that the diet that humans or their predecessors consumed during the Paleolithic era (thus, the name “Paleo”) is ideal for human health.  Therefore, the foods that are included in the Paleo diet are:

  • meats
  • fish and other seafood
  • eggs
  • green/colored vegetables
  • fruits (many sources recommend limited servings)
  • nuts and seeds (many sources recommend limited servings)
  • unsweetened dairy products (technically, a diet that includes dairy is considered “Primal,” but for all intents and purposes, the diets are otherwise identical)
  • coconut oil and olive oil (depending on who you ask, butter and ghee are also acceptable)

Not only that, but foods that came about in/after the Neolithic era (i.e. after the dawn of agriculture) are thought to be detractors of health, for the reason that the human species has not yet had sufficient time, in scheme of the macro-evolution timeline, to adjust to these Neolithic foods.  The Paleo logic states that the human body is therefore not capable of properly digesting, utilizing, and benefiting from the following types of food:

  • grains (all varieties)
  • legumes
  • refined sugars
  • soy (all forms)
  • dairy (except for those in the “Primal” camp)
  • refined vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, etc.)
  • tubers and other starchy vegetables are a grey area – some Paleo “gurus” strictly prohibit them, others deem them acceptable in certain contexts (such as for athletes who are currently in season), and others such as the Whole9 team are now claiming they are a perfectly healthful food so long as they are not deep fried.
  • alcohol (this can also be a grey area depending on who you ask and what’s in the drink…a margarita is clearly not Paleo, but what about absinthe?)

If you’d like more information on the details of the Paleo diet, I’d suggest checking out Mark Sisson’s website, starting with THIS explanation of the diet. Sisson leans Primal – he is the author of The Primal Blueprint, after all – but his site encompasses all of the Paleo tenets plus the addition of those Primal-specific modifications (like the inclusion of high-quality dairy products).  Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, is considered by many to be one of the best Paleo authorities; you can see a brief description of his take on the Paleo diet HERE.  Lastly, Jason Seib and Sarah Fragoso of the Everyday Paleo website have made Paleo easy to understand and practical to implement with their website, free podcasts, and individual books (The Paleo Coach and Everyday Paleo, respectively).  The Whole9 website also has a good deal of information and is the source of the every-popular “Whole 30″ Paleo challenge.  Keep in mind that these are all very pro-Paleo sources, so be sure to read the rest of this post (and as many of the linked articles from the other point of view as possible) before deciding that you want to jump into the Paleo waters with both feet.

So, what are the pitfalls of the Paleo diet?

To start, it doesn’t include sourdough bread or whiskey sours.  That’s obviously a deal breaker.

In all seriousness, though, the main problem I have with the Paleo diet is the logical fallacy.  There is no single Paleolithic diet.  As you’ll see in THIS excellent article from Precision Nutrition, the diets of paleolithic people’s varied by location.  The archaeological evidence reveals enormous discrepancies in the amounts of various plant and animal foods that were consumed in each geographic location.  This leads me to the next major problem, which is that the Paleo diet is based on speculation.  The first speculation is the theory of macro-evolution; while treated as gospel, it is a theory, just like Creationism, intelligent design, and the like are theories.  While archaeologists may be able to find evidence that certain foods are likely to have been consumed more than others, or that humans from a certain era most likely lived out a certain average lifespan, we have no hard evidence to give a definitive answer as to what the Paleolithic people ate, their quality of life, or how that might have been different had they had other options available (i.e. Neolithic/agricultural foods).  Another problem, if the goal is to mimic the diet of Paleolithic man, would be the difference in food quality.  There is no way that the Tyson chicken breasts you picked up from Safeway or Kroger on the way home from work are of the same nutritional quality (for better or worse) as the wild buffalo that our hypothetical thriving Paleolithic man hunted down with nothing but a spear and maybe a loincloth.

Another big concern I have with the Paleo diet is the tendency towards restricting carbohydrates.  A Paleo diet does not outright imply limited carbohydrates, but check any of the Paleo authorities listed above and you’ll see that they recommending limiting total carbohydrate intake, on top of already limiting acceptable sources of carbohydrate.  Low carbohydrate diets have their own host of problems, including impaired thyroid function, lowered immunity, hormone disruption, loss of muscle mass, insulin resistance, decreased glycogen stores, and poor athletic performance.  (See THIS article for more details.) Additionally, restricting carbohydrates after already restricting carbohydrate sources can also breed fear and anxiety regarding food, which can lead to disordered habits and thought patterns surrounding eating and diet.  There are also a number of carbohydrate foods that provide immense nutritional benefit, but which are excluded from the Paleo diet.  Nutrients such as B-vitamins, dietary fiber, phytonutrients, magnesium, selenium, and other trace minerals are plentiful in legumes and grains (in their whole form, as opposed to the refined grains in commercial bread and packaged snacks), but legumes and grains are not considered acceptable in a Paleo diet regardless of who you ask.  (If you’re interested, THIS is a great article from Whole Health Source regarding the role of legumes in a Paleo diet.)

Does the Paleo diet get anything right?

In spite of all the glaring pitfalls, there are a couple of benefits to the Paleo approach to eating.  The emphasis on antioxidant-rich vegetables, in all their colorful glory, is something that would benefit just about everyone.  Protein is also a cornerstone of the Paleo diet, and while I may still be conflicted about protein sources, there is no denying that higher quality protein, often in a relatively-higher quantity, will benefit the health of most individuals.  Although it is not necessarily an official component of the Paleo diet, most Paleo advocates will strongly urge individuals to choose animal proteins that are of the highest possible quality – grass-fed/pastured beef and milk, wild fish, free-range chicken and eggs, etc.  The high quality of these animal protein sources is typically indicative of a high quality of life for the animals and ethical living conditions and slaughter process.  In my eyes, this is hugely important.

I also really appreciate the more holistic approach that many proponents of the Paleo diet advocate, taking the entire context of an individual’s lifestyle into consideration with the diet.  Many Paleo proponents fiercely promote a fitness regime based on strength training (almost always with equal emphasis on proper rest and recovery), for the purpose of building lean mass, increasing bone density, and all-around improving health, longevity, and quality of life.  This obviously warrants a big fat stamp of approval from yours truly.

What’s the bottom line?

While the Paleo diet is not something that I would recommend cut and dry, I know that there are more than a few folks out there who have experienced greatly improved health by eating the Paleo way.  My suggestion would be to look at the Paleo diet and take any constructive practices from it and apply them to your own diet.  Each individual is living in their own unique health-context, which is affected by their occupation, sleep, training, non-exercise activity, recreation, social network and family support, diet, nicotine/alcohol/drug use, and physical/non-physical stress.  The variations in these factors mean that certain individuals will benefit from more or less of certain foods/nutrients, where as others will benefit from more or less of a different food/nutrient.  Individual responsibility is key: do your own research, listen to your own body, and consult the experts in your corner (doctor, nutrition coach, personal trainer, etc).  Chris Kresser has a fabulous article about this subject; you can read it HERE.   Make the wisest choices you can, observe the results, and adjust as necessary to best suit your body in whatever context you’re living.  Life is not linear, and neither are dietary recommendations.

 

Let’s discuss:

What are your thoughts on the Paleo diet?  

What kind of diet do you think best facilitates overall health?

Great Ball of Fire: Can Sun Exposure Actually REDUCE Cancer Risk?

One of the perks of being “ethnic” is that I tan easily but rarely ever burn.  And I mean I get tanned really, really easily.   I’m talking going for a 20 minute jog at 9:00 in mid-June and coming back with sports-bra tan-lines.  Being the neurotic hypochondriac health-geek that I am,  this convinced me early on that I was going to get skin cancer by age 20.  After all, everyone knows that getting tan is a sign of skin damage, right? Between the none-too-few beach days from my childhood when sunscreen was forgotten (or the times my mother would grease us up with baby oil before sending us out to play in the backyard during the summer) and a family history of skin cancer from my Irish/Scandinavian side, I might not have been that far off base.  I spend much of high school and college slathering myself with sunblock before heading to school at 7:00, even in the winter, and avoiding as much sun exposure as possible in the spring and summer.  These days, I’ve lightened up quite a bit with the sun-phobia, and as a result I’m enjoy a bit more of a tan.

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See, it turns out that not all sun exposure is bad.  In fact, sun exposure can actually be good for you.  Exposure to the sun is what stimulates our bodies’ vitamin D production, which is crucial because vitamin D deficiency is a precursor to many diseases (including cancer).  Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is pretty widespread (see more on symptoms and effects HERE), particularly in cultures where sun avoidance and extreme measures of sun protection (Who hasn’t at least considered upgrading their sunscreen from SPF 30 to the new SPF 90 formulations?) are deeply ingrained.  In addition to facilitating vitamin D production, proper sun exposure can:

  • increase your immunity
  • improve your hormone regulation and endocrine function
  • decrease inflammation
  • benefit mental health by increasing seretonin production

Chris Kresser covers all these benefits HERE, in his article on how sun exposure can lengthen your lifespan.

In addition, the right amount of sun exposure can help prevent skin cancer by improving your melanin production, increasing your protection against future sun burns (skin damage), and improving the repair capabilities of your DNA.  Skin cancer results from cellular damage inflicted upon DNA, such as that resulting from repeated sunburns or prolonged use of tanning beds.  Your body’s best defense against this cellular damage is melanin synthesis and DNA repair (see THIS study for more details), both of which are improved with moderate sun exposure.  The key, as described by Mark Sisson HERE, seems to be getting adequate sun exposure without incurring skin damage.  What constitutes adequate exposure will vary for each individual depending on their natural amount of melanin (the darker your skin, the more time you will need in the sun to stimulate vitamin D production and incur most of the other benefits).  No matter how much sun exposure you need, these general guidelines will apply:

  • Do not wear sunblock when you are trying to get some healthy sun exposure.  Wearing sunblock will prevent your body from taking any of the benefits of the sunlight.  Not only that, but many sunblock formulations are surprisingly ineffective at preventing cancer (see more on that HERE).  Most commercial sunblocks include ingredients that are potentially harmful, or even carcinogenic.  For a list of better-quality sunblock formulations, check THIS website (don’t forget to still check the ingredient lists and make sure they hold up).
  • Building up sun exposure should be gradual and intermittent.  If you are typically indoors all day long, don’t go sit in direct sunlight for an hour on a summer afternoon.  10 minutes of strolling, sunblock-free, in the morning, would be a good start.  After a couple weeks, you might add in a late-afternoon stroll.
  • When you begin to feel your skin becoming hot or starting to become pink (i.e. flushed but not burned), it’s time to head inside, or at least into some good shade).  Do not let your skin burn, or even tan significantly.
  • Gentler sunlight is best for most folks.  The afternoon is still the time when the sun is strongest and most damage can be incurred.  The risk:reward ratio is much better in the morning or late afternoon/early evening…not to mention, the temperature is typically more enjoyable at that time, too. If you must be out in the sun during the late morning or mid-afternoon, wear protective clothing (a hat, well-ventilated long sleeves/pants, etc.), and consider using a high-quality sunblock.  Again, the goal is gradual and intermittent sun exposure, not an all out UVB-ray binge-fest.  The most damaging effects of the sun are had when people who do not normally get exposure (i.e. office workers who conscientiously cover their exposed face/neck/etc. in sunblock each day) are suddenly subjected to a sudden and strong amount of sun exposure.
  • To maximize the benefits of your sun exposure, pair it with other health-promoting activities – go for a hike, weed your garden, take a swim, enjoy a picnic dinner (just be sure to invite me),  build something, walk your dog, read a book, etc.

Remember, the goal here is to let your skin become acclimated to gradual, intermittent sun exposure.  You still shouldn’t be laying out slathered in tanning oil, but you also don’t need to have a panic attack if you find yourself taking a stroll on a cloudy day without SPF 50 on every inch of exposed skin.  I’ve personally found that I feel better now that I am intentional about getting moderate sun exposure.  One of the best benefits, in my case, has been the absence of stress over making sure I’m coated in a thick layer of sunscreen whenever I’m out.  I’ve been paddleboarding twice in the past two weeks, and neither time did I wear sunblock.  I’ve got a couple little tan lines and an itch to get back out on the lake ASAP, but no regrets!  If you typically avoid sun exposure at all costs, I would highly recommend thinking about gradually increasing the amount of moderate sun exposure you get each week.

Let’s discuss:

How much sun exposure do you typically get?

Do you typically wear sunblock whenever you’re outdoors?

Do you feel differently when you have had some time in the sun vs. times when you have been primarily indoors?

What You See vs. What You Don’t [Instagram Edition]

My friend sent me a link to THIS blog post the other day, and I loved it.  The blogger talks about how social media is a highlight reel of our lives.  It’s the rose-colored montage at the end of a 90’s TV special rather than the .  And even if everything you post on social media is authentic, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  (And often, that’s a good thing.  Discretion and privacy are underrated these days.)  For better or worse, social media posts can only give you a glimpse into the lives of others, not a panorama.

But today, I thought it would be fun to widen the lens and give a bit of a more realistic look at my Instagram feed.  I do my best to be pretty authentic on social media – my captions are fairly blunt (if not bordering on oversharing), and I post more than my fair share of “no makeup” and “no filter” photos (although I typically don’t tag them as such because 1) it makes me feel like a major douchenozzle, and 2) you probably don’t need a caption to realize there’s no eyeliner or lipstick on my squinty little face).  Even so, the blog post that inspired this was too good not to replicate my own version.  So lest my Instagram activity give anyone the impression that my life consists solely of fabulous workouts, delicious food, and big hair (ok, the last one is true), here’s a little peek at the panorama behind the pictures.

Before 2

What you see: We are excitedly getting ready to run a 5K-that-turned-into-a-10K (full story on that HERE), because we’re athletic and we’re patriotic and we live in America and that’s just what we do on Memorial Day.  I also have a really rachet-but-effective phone case made out of a sock shoved in my sports bra (more on that HERE).

What you don’t: My grey leggings that most definitely do not hide the crotch-sweat action that would start happening approximately 5 minutes into the race. It’s 93°F and rising at 9:00 and I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to plan the race course in the middle of a mostly-shadeless wildlife preserve.  You also don’t see all the really inspirational people running, like the man who was a triple-amputee and raced in his wheelchair…and he finished before us, which means he’s clearly a badass and I’m clearly more pathetic than you thought.

 

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What you see: I’m doing yoga in my office, because I’m cool and zen and yoga-y like that.  #namastebitches

What you don’t:  Me scurrying to the window between poses to make sure my boss isn’t walking into the building about to catch me getting my asana on.  You also don’t see me checking twitter and reading PubMed for 20 minutes before deciding to do a little crow pose and some handstand practice because OMGi’msoboredandthisjobsucksthelifeoutofmyverysoul.  So glad I don’t work there anymore.  Otherwise I might have turned into Voldemort by now, from the whole soul-got-sucked-out-thing.

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 What you see: My cute dress and my 12-pack of bro-beer.  I’m just one of the guys, but I’ve still got that cute girl-next-door vibe going on.

What you don’t: My makeup-less face, air-dried hair, and unpainted toes.  Also, the fact that I did not end up drinking any of this beer – I was bringing it to my dad (per the request of my mother, who seems to think all males speak the same love language called “booze and nicotine”…she’s not too far off base, I’d say).  Also, the fact that I had to take four different shots to get one where my hand didn’t look like an old-man-hand clinging to the case of frat boy juice.

 

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What you see: Look at all my goodies for recovery day! I have a foam roller and a yoga DVD and a yoga mat and a croquet ball and a whole book on trigger points and self-myofascial release techniques…I’m recovering so hard, because I’m, like, an athlete or something.

What you don’t: I’m scooching around on that croquet ball like a paraplegic walrus, and swearing like a sailor the whole time.  That sh*t hurts.  Plus, I didn’t even get to the yoga DVD that day.  I did about 10 sun salutations before I got hungry and decided breakfast sounded better than bhujangasana.

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What you see: I’m balancing on my head and forearms like the graceful human that I am, with my toes pointed and legs quite artfully splayed out.

What you don’t:  It took my sister about 2 straight minutes to get a decent photo that wasn’t horribly backlit, didn’t have my dog running through it, and actually caught me doing something that looked like yoga.  My face was redder than a tomato from the bloodrush of being upside down for that long.  Also, I still have a bunch of outtakes on my phone that look like this:

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Moving on…

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What you see: I have big hair, and I clearly like big buns.  And this moment deserved documentation because I was all decked out and actually wearing eyeliner.  Look who’s a grown-up now!

What you don’t:  The enormous fuzzball of hair that I had coerced into a somewhat-spherical shape a few minutes earlier, and the enormous fuzzball of hair that would erupt when I took my hair down later that night.  Also, the part where my hair permanently smells like coffee now.  It’s really cute.

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What you see:  My fake-pregnant belly. No baby inside, just bloat.  This one’s pretty real.  A little too real, according to some.  Yes, beans do make me look fat.

What you don’t:  I was still semi-bloated like on the right for two days after that…and during those next 48 hours, I wore those yoga pants every second I was not at work.  No shame.  (Just another reason yoga pants are man’s best friend!)

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What you see:  I’m up in the (garage) gym just working on my fitness.

What you don’t:  My ghetto attempts to keep my yoga mat wrapped around the bar while I get it up on my hips, or the part where I made the mistake of sitting all the way down with the bar still in my lap.  It took me a full minute to unpin myself from under the bar.  You also don’t see the bruises on my hip bones from where the yoga mat was clearly insufficient padding for such a heavy weight.  Or maybe I’m just hip thrusting too enthusiastically.  I don’t know.  Now this is getting weird (sorry, Dad, if you’re reading this…).

Sorry for the douchenozzle selfie, but this is just for full-disclosure.  Definitely not a bikini model, but I feel damn good in a bikini.  (And at a buffet.)

What you see: My tired little eyeballs blinking under the florescent lighting at 4:00 while I stand there in my skivvies.  Also, serious bedhead that I was too tired to fix, but I’m assuming that’s a forgivable offense.

What you don’t:  I tried about 5 times to get a photo where my hands didn’t look like raccoon claws, and nothing worked.  I gave up and counted myself lucky that this was not a close-up photo, so at least no one will see the pillow lines on my face.  But still, why do I have such large claw-like paws?? This is such an issue for me.

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What you see: A kitchen full of delicious, healthy food for the week, because I am clearly a domestic wizard.  Think Gandalf in an apron, without the beard (or, sadly, the robe), but a bit more sassy.

What you don’t: All the panic beforehand as I tried to decide what I would be eating, and subsequently, pre-cooking, that week.  You also don’t see the sink full of dirty dishes that I would dread cleaning, like always, until I actually started…at which point I would find myself, as always, belting out Broadway tunes and thoroughly enjoying myself.

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What you see: I’m going on vacation and I have bikinis and a boarding pass and even a little straw hat, because I’m just cool like that.  But whatever, it’s no big deal, I travel all the time.  Isn’t everyone this sophisticated?

What you don’t:  The usual panic attack I have anytime I have to pack for more than a weekend.  Trying to cram everything I’d need for 9 days into one medium-sized suitcase was like some kind of high-stakes game of Tetris. My saving grace was that I banked on not wearing more than a bikini most days, and decided to be a carefree hippie and not obsessively pack food for the trip so I’d be guaranteed to have something “healthy.”  This was a good thing because those dinners of chips + salsa + margaritas were pretty wonderful.  Or the part where I had to wear that damn hat through the airport and on the plane so that it wouldn’t get smushed.

 

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What you see: We’re at a Padre’s game because we’re the kind of broads who are into sports.  You can also see that I have weird little hobbit feet that are pretty much like 2×4’s stuck on the ends of my legs, but that’s beside the point.

What you don’t:  I have no idea what’s going on.  How many touchdowns do we have? Where are the cheerleaders? Why the fraaack does a little box of trail mix cost SEVEN DOLLARS?  What good are baseball pants if I can’t even see them from up here? (To be fair, we had good seats, I just had not brought my glasses.)

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What you see:  I have this glorious view and the whole pool to myself.  Luxury is my middle name.  I am like an upper-middle-class land-mermaid.

What you don’t:  My sad attempts at lap swimming.  It was more like lap dog-paddling.  For all my extra fluffiness, I’m surprisingly un-buoyant.  Also, this is not my pool.  It’s the private community pool in my aunt and uncle’s neighborhood (they had generously let us stay two nights at their house).  And also, because I didn’t have a key, I had to hop the fence to get in after I walked out the gate and realized I’d left my sandals behind.

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What you see: Look at this green juice I’m drinking because I’m healthy. Doesn’t it look delicious?  Am I not a cool kid for jumping on the juicing train?  Also look at my cute dress (ignore the goosebumps on my knees, because I’m not the kind of peasant who gets cold from drinking a cold juice in February), let’s pretend I’m fashionable.

What you don’t: My dad treated me to that juice. I’m not one to shell out FIVE BUCKS for a 10 oz. cup of liquefied kale.  Mostly because I don’t have that kind of cash (sidenote: now accepting sugar-daddy applications…), but also it just feels wrong to spend that kind of cash on drinkable vegetables when it could be spend on something like…oh, I don’t know…gas? sports bras? Lindt chocolate? ridiculously expensive German power-steering fluid for my ridiculous German car?  And don’t worry, the cute dress was balanced out by the bright yellow sweater I was wearing on top.  I looked like the lovechild of Mr. Rogers and Big Bird.

 

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What you see: My very clean and very wet hair.  I’m like a shampoo-scented mermaid.  With legs.  And I can’t really sing.  And sadly, I don’t know any talking crabs, drug-using seagulls (what, you really think Scuttle was sober?), sinister gender-flexibile octopi, or dashing princes named Eric.  So mostly you just see that my hair is clean, and, as my caption says, this is the first time in 5 days that it’s been so.

What you don’t see:  What my hair looks like 8 hours later, air dried and finger-combed a bit as I tried to fling it out of my face.  The bangs might be grown out, but my hair is apparently still trying to channel Catherine Hicks circa 1998. Really, it’s like I have panda fur growing out my head.

air dried hair panda fur

 

Well, it’s all in the open now.  Go ahead and judge me.  But let’s still be friends, ok?

 

For more snapshots without the gory details, find me on Instagram (or Twitter)!

 

Oatmeal Cookie Dough Smoothie

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that like cookie dough and cake batter, and those that don’t.  I am strongly encamped in the former category.  I would much prefer to lick cake batter out of a mixing bowl, like the elegant broad that I’m known to be, that sit down to a piece of cake.  Therefore, if you someone who prefers the actual baked good itself, we probably should not be baking buddies…because when I inevitably get food poisoning from the raw eggs in the cake batter/brownie batter/cookie dough that I’ve continually sampled, I’ll need someone to hold my hair back while I’m hurling all day long, and you’ll still be mad that I kept dunking my spoon finger in the mixing bowl.  The fact that I think about these things is probably a sign that I should be committed, so let’s move on.

I realized around age 7 that full-on drinking cake batter would never be a good idea.  (This was also about the time I learned about salmonella.)  The dream never died, though, and this morning, I brought that dream to fruition.  Well, kind of.  I made a smoothie that tastes like oatmeal cookie dough.  It’s not cake batter, but it’s drinkable and it’s definitely a very good idea.  Plus, no raw eggs means no risk of salmonella.  So if you’re like me and looking into a bowl of cookie dough is pretty much a spiritual experience, you should probably make this right away.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

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Oatmeal Cookie Dough Smoothie

(Remember, I tend to work “intuitively” in the kitchen, so I did not actually measure anything while making this.  These are my estimations of the ratios I used, and you should adjust them to fit your preferences!)

Ingredients:

  • frozen banana/s  (Maybe 1 or 1.5? I cut up my bananas before I freeze them, so I’m just threw in a handful of frozen chunks and called it good.)
  • small handful raisins, soaked in equal amount of water for at least 1 hour
  • lots of cinnamon, or at least 1/2 tsp (I vote more.  Lots more.)
  • splash (1/2 tsp?) of vanilla extract
  • smaller splash (1/4 tsp?) of almond extract
  • spoonful (1-2 Tbs?) sunflower seed butter (I bet you could also use almond butter, etc., but I haven’t tried it with anything else.)
  • healthy sprinkle (3 Tbs?) of dry oatmeal
  • vanilla protein powder (I didn’t use this because I don’t have any, but I know it would be an excellent addition.)
  • Toppings: quick-cooking oatmeal (dry), chopped walnuts/almonds, chocolate chips (this should be obvious), chopped dates, etc.

Directions:

  • Blend everything up.  This should take only a few seconds if you have a high-speed blender like my beloved Ninja.  (Seriously, though, the Ninja has proven to be the best gift I’ve ever received.  If you are in the market for a new blender/food processor, I highly recommend it.)
  • Slam some toppings on that bad boy.
  • Drink it or dunk your finger/spoon/face in there. I don’t care. Go wild.

I just hope this empowers you to make your childhood dreams come true.  And if you didn’t dream about cookie dough as a child, then I don’t know what to say besides “I’m sorry,” or maybe “So what was it like growing up in Soviet Russia?”

Kettlebell Workouts

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Kettlebell training is fun.  Part of it is the novelty of using something that’s not a dumbbell or a barbell, and part of it is the fact that many kettlebell exercises feel like (literal) child’s play – swinging and heaving those things every which way.  Of course, if you want to go the more traditional route, you can use kettlebells for most conventional dumbbell/barbell exercises, too.  I enjoy kettlebell training as a fun addition to my usual routine (lifting, bodyweight circuits, a little yoga, and hobbling running when I’m not broken), and wanted to share a couple quick kettlebell workouts in case any of yall have been wanting to give kettlebells a shot.  The first one is a strength focused workout, and the second is more conditioning/cardio focused, but they’ll both give you an quality workout that ends with a puddle of sweat and a big smile. Don’t be intimidated by those funny looking orbs-with-handles – kettlebells pack a surprising punch (and they are often deceptively heavy!), but they make for some truly fun workouts.  Choose a kettlebell that is heavy enough to make the exercises challenging by the final reps of each set, but not so heavy that you risk dropping it on your face during the overhead press/hold portions.  Let me know how you like these workouts!

 

**Before you start, make sure you know how to do a basic kettlebell swing properly.  Jen Sinkler, one of my favorite trainers, has an excellent explanation (includes video) of how to perfect your swing.  She even explains that you have to basically “make it look dirty” to do it right, which is pretty much a great way to get me to do any exercise ever…but really, she’s right.  So get dirty and get swingin’, yall!**

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Kettlebell Strength Circuit

4 Rounds:

  • 20 Kettlebell Swings
  • 10 Kettlebell Goblet Squats (hold kettlebell right in front of your chest)
  • 10 Bent-over Kettlebell Rows (each side)
  • 10 Sit-Ups (hold kettlebell for resistance)
  • 10 Kettlebell Overhead Lunges (each side; hold kettlebell overhead on same side as back leg)
  • 10 Kettlebell Clean + Press (each side)
  • 10 Kneeling Wood Choppers (each side; hold kettlebell for resistance)
  • Rest 2-3 minutes, repeat for 4 rounds total.

 

Kettlebell Conditioning Intervals

Grab your kettlebell.  Set a timer for 20 minutes.  Every minute on the minute, do 15 kettlebell swings.  Once you’ve done those 15, you have the remainder of that minute to rest.  As soon as the next minute hits, start swinging.  Repeat for the full 20 minutes.  To make this more challenging, you can graduate to a heavier kettlebell or increase the number of swings per minute.  Swing hard and swing fast – as long as you can do it with proper form - but make sure that you don’t exceed a 1:1 ratio of work:rest (so you’ll be swining that ‘bell for 30 seconds each minute at most).  As you get stronger and faster, you’ll find you’re able to do more swings in those 30 seconds!  You can also extend the time to make it a 30 minute workout, but I prefer to keep this shorter and sweeter sweatier, and really bust my ass for those 20 minutes.

 

Now go swing some kettlebells around..and don’t forget to make it dirty!

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Do you work out with kettlebells? 

Do you have any favorite kettlebell exercises or workouts?  (Link up in the comments so everyone can join in the fun!)

DIY: Protein “Gummies”

Recently, I kind of “got into” gelatin…as in, I decided I wanted to incorporate more of it into my diet, and not necessarily in the form of those Jello “jigglers” I remember being served in daycare back in my heydey ’93.  But seriously, gelatin has a ton of health benefits.  It’s a fabulous source of dietary collagen, which is necessary to keep your skin and joints healthy (and, coincidentally, your collagen levels can start decreasing as early as age 20), as well as protein.  In particular, gelatin provides an abundance of the amino acids proline and glycine, which are much less plentiful in most other protein sources. Between the glycine and the collagen, gelatin can be a great help in recovering from both typical training (exercise) as well as acute or chronic injuries. You can read more about the benefits of gelatin HERE and HERE.

 

I decided to that I wanted to ride the gelatin train because I needed more protein.  My training had been starting to decline, not for lack of motivation or enthusiasm, but because I wasn’t recovering as quickly as I should have been.  It wasn’t hard to look at what I was eating (remember, I’m generally on the “Eat What I Frackin’ Want” diet), and realize that I wasn’t getting enough protein.  My natural preference is to favor plant foods over animal foods, just because I prefer the taste.  But with the dietary considerations that I take for health reasons (lactose intolerance, soy intolerance, and beans and legumes make me pregnant sick), I was having a really hard time getting enough protein without relying on protein powder supplements or mainlining meat and eggs.  Neither of those options appealed to me, so I decided to give gelatin a shot.  (Obviously, gelatin is not my main source of protein, but it has been a great way to get an extra serving or two of protein without having to choke down chicken breasts or tilapia.)

The problem was, I wasn’t exactly sure what the heck to do with it…until I remembered a recipe I’d seen about a year ago.  This was a recipe for “Homemade Healthy Fruit Snacks” from Wellness Mama.  I already have an ardent affection for “gummy” snacks, so these were a great choice.  If nothing else, it was bound to be better than my small drug problem…aka my addiction to gummy vitamins.  (If someone tells you they actually stick to the suggested dose of 2 “gummies,” they’re lying.  It’s physically impossible to eat just 2.  Trust me, I’ve tested the theory many times.)

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So last week I let my granola freak-flag fly and gave those bad boys a whirl.  In all honesty, the first batch sucked.  I used crappy flavorless frozen blueberries and pineapple juice and not enough honey and didn’t stir fast enough, and it was a mostly-bland pan of jiggly purple protein with lots of chunks of undissolved gelatin sprinkled throughout.  Don’t worry, I gave it another go, and this time they worked out swimmingly.  I did the math, and this recipe filled an 8×8 inch pan (the “gummy” mixture was about 1 inch deep), and the whole deal has about 77 grams of protein (11 packets of gelatin with 7 grams of protein in each packet).  Maybe it’s just me, but it’s not really hard to eat 1/5 of that pan, so to get 15 grams of protein from a little snack like that? Not shabby!

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My best tips would be:

  • If you use a whisk, all the gelatin will clump up inside the wires and you’ll be doomed.  (Not an exaggeration). This isn’t the time to break out your emerald-encrusted rose gold Williams and Sonoma whisk that you bought for the price of a used car.   Just use a spoon like any normal peasant.
  • Don’t skimp on the honey.  This is the time to channel your inner Winnie-the-Pooh and pour that golden goodness in there like it’s going out of style.  If you don’t like honey, then I would suggest using a simple syrup, maple syrup, or some stevia…because trust me, bland gelatin is pretty repulsive.
  • Choose good fruit for the puree.  By good I mean sweet.  I used frozen dark cherries – defrosted and then pureed- this go-round, and it made a big difference over those nasty little blue balls of sadness.  (Just so we’re on the same page, that’s a reference to the blueberries.)
  • Use a juice that is sweet.  Possibly make it extra sweet.  I used half a cup of apple juice concentrate mixed with half a cup of water.  It was like superjuice, and it was way better than the pineapple juice in my first attempt.  I want to say that you could use flavored Smirnoff and make these “grown up gummies,” but I have no idea if that would work or not…but if you give it a shot (see what I did there?), let me know how it goes!
  • You really do have to move quickly for this to turn out.  Have everything measured, poured, and ready to go before you begin mixing the gelatin into the water.
  • The combo that I had success with was cherries + diluted apple juice concentrate + honey.  I think cherries + diluted grape juice concentrate + stevia would work well, too, as would strawberries + cranberry juice + honey.
  • It’s entirely acceptable to simply leave the whole thing in the pan and cut pieces out as you go.  We’re peasants that use spoons instead of whisks, so what else would you expect?

Check out the recipe HERE and let me know how it goes for you.  These truly are tasty, and I’ve found it’s a really handy way to get some extra protein and enjoy something sweet (and you don’t have to cook or even heat anything!).

Now go “get jiggy” with it!

Animal or Vegetable?

Vegetarianism is something that has weighed on my mind for many years.  My dad was vegetarian during my early years, and I have vivid memories of seeing our freezer stocked with boxes upon boxes of Boca Burger meatless “burger” patties.  I had my fair share of them, and for a long time, convinced myself that they were actually tasty.  (Turns out they’re not, I just really enjoy them as a vehicle by which to consume excessive barbeque sauce.)  Over the years, I’ve been vegetarian for various seasons, vegan for others, and happily omnivorous the rest of the time.  I have yet to “label” myself as a vegetarian (or a vegan) because I don’t like the idea of closing myself off to research that may, in fact, show that such a diet is not optimal.  In other words, it’s a complicated issue.  On the basis of taste, it’s simple – I prefer plants.  I was never a big fan of meat as a kid, and was often grossed out by it, and I still get the willies when I have to touch a package of chicken at the grocery store. red meat But aside from my personal palate preferences, there are two main reasons I find vegetarianism/veganism compelling:

  • Health
  • Ethics

Health

The Paleo diet is a huge trend these days, and in many ways, it is the antithesis of a vegetarian/vegan diet.  There is no denying that huge numbers of people have experienced great health improvements by eating according to the parameters of a Paleo diet.  Additionally, there are certainly plenty of benefits to be had in eating a Paleo diet when compared to what most Westerners are currently eating.  That being said, the scientific literature from the past 70 years has consistently shown strong negative correlations between dietary intake of meat (and animal foods) and overall health (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, all-cause mortality, and so on).  In other words, vegetarians have consistently been shown to be healthier than meat-eaters.  This does not, of course, mean that they are healthier because they eat a vegetarian diet – someone who is vegetarian is likely taking many other measures to benefit their health, including exercise, regular doctor visits, stress management, abstaining from smoking/excessive drinking, etc.  The correlation remains convicting nonetheless.  I won’t bore you with all the epidemiological studies I’ve scoured, but the bottom line seems to be that among the people and cultures with the best health, there is a trend toward a more plant-based diet (although there are no populations that I know of that exist fully and exclusively on plant foods).  You can read The China Study by Dr. Colin Campbell for more information – it is a book that lays out the results of the China-Cornell-Oxford Project (a 20 year-long epidemiological study, on of the most thorough of the time), which is widely considered to be the most compelling argument for a plant-based diet.  You could also watch Forks Over Knives, the documentary based on The China Study.  I would, as always, suggest doing your own additional research and taking into account some of the equally-compelling criticisms of The China Study, such as that of Denise Minger. For all the weight of the research pointing to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, there are also some highly-convicting scientific reasons to include animal products in the diet.  Vitamin B12 deficiency is nearly an epidemic among vegetarians/vegans (this is a big problem because B12 is absolutely crucial neurological health and cognitive function, among so many other things; see THIS article if you are interested in learning more), and the sufficiency of plant-based B12 supplements remains questionable at best.  Iron, calcium, and fat-soluble vitamins also tend to be lacking in plant-based diets, and they are all vital for good health.  There are many who claim that plants can provide ample amounts of these nutrients, which is true, but they leave out the fact that consuming such nutrients solely from plant sources frequently inhibits the body from properly absorbing the full amount of said nutrients.  It’s actually quite fascinating, and if you’re interested in reading more, I’d suggest THIS article from Chris Kresser.  There is also the issue of protein – although the exact amount of protein that each individual requires is still debated by doctors and nutritionists and scientists alike, my personal experience has shown me that I feel, look, and perform much better with plenty of protein in my diet.  It’s entirely possible to eat a high protein diet without animal foods (not common or necessarily practical, but is you Google “vegan bodybuilders,” you’ll see that it is certainly possible), but with the dietary restrictions I have to make for my health (no dairy, no soy, and no legumes), I have a hard time even meeting the most conservative protein intake guidelines.  So while I see many, many potential health benefits in a vegetarian or vegan diet, I have not yet figured out a way to make a fully plant-based diet work for me in the long-term. fresh vegetables farmers market Ethics

Let me preface this with the fact that I find nothing unethical about humans eating animals or animal products. The ethical dilemma lies in how the animals are treated.  I’ve done my research into the subject from sources on both sides, and it comes down to this: Most animals raised for food are subjected to treatment that is, in my estimation, genuinely inhumane.  For a glimpse into what I’m talking about, read Johnathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals or watch Food Inc., or just do a quick Google search on “CAFOs” (Confined Animal Feeding Operations, where the majority of animals raised for food spend most of their days).  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not exactly an “animal lover” – I love dogs, but I don’t talk to animals in baby voices or get too upset when I see a dead bird on the sidewalk or something.  Actually, I hate birds, so that sort of tells you something.  I find human life and welfare (i.e. abortion, slavery, sex trafficking, child abuse, and so on) to be far more concerning than animal rights.  But at the same time, I look at God’s command in Genesis 1:28 for mankind to “…fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on earth,” and I understand that humanity has been tasked with stewardship of creation.  Stewardship entails not just using and maximizing the resources of the natural world, but judiciously caring for it.  The outright cruelty that most agricultural animals are subjected to is not stewardship, it’s abuse, and it’s something I find impossible to reconcile with my conscience. I understand that there are some farms and ranches that raise their animals well, with care for their health during their life and respect for their comfort when the time comes for slaughter.   These are places where cattle are allowed to graze on pastures rather than at a trough full of soy-based feed, and they are not pumped full of hormones and antibiotics daily.  These are places where chickens are not bound in giant henhouses where they are quite literally packed wing-to-wing and sitting in their own filth and the carcasses of those unfortunate ones who have fallen ill or been trampled underfoot by the others.  These are places where animal life is stewarded well, where animals are healthy and cared for, and where slaughtering the animals is something that is accomplished with in a human way that minimizes the animals’ pain and fear.  These are also the places that require quite a bit more money to maintain, which results in products that carry a much higher price than conventionally-raised meat, milk, eggs, and the like.  At the end of the day, those foods agree with my conscience (and often with my body) but not necessarily with my paycheck.  I suppose that’s where things get tricky – if a significant percentage of the animal foods I consume is conventionally raised/grown/produced, will the benefits of those foods be outweighed by the negative effects conferred by conventional agriculture and farming practices?  Additionally, how much benefit would I need to receive from those foods in order to make the trade-off something that sits well with my conscience?  Questions like these make me realize that dietary choices can be incredibly intricate and profoundly personal. I’m still wrestling with these challenges, so I would love to hear what yall think about this.

Are you, or have you been, vegetarian/vegan?  What about Paleo?

Do you prefer a plant-based diet or one that includes plenty of animal foods?

What do you think about the ethical implications of eating animal foods?

Have you read The China Study or any similar works? Do you think the research truly supports a fully plant-based diet?

Making Fitness Fun

My cousin shared a link on twitter yesterday, which led to a short feature on Kacy Catanzaro, the first female to complete the final course of American Ninja Warrior.  ANJ is a reality television show in which contestants attempt to complete challenging obstacle courses – “attempt” is the operative word here, as many do not even finish the course in the qualifying round – for the best time.  I would say that I was impressed by Catanzaro, but that would be an understatement.  Her performance knocked my socks off and lit a fire under me.

If you’re like me, and typically don’t watch video clips (reading is faster and more efficient, right??), do yourself a favor and watch this one.  There’s no question that this girl is strong, but it was not just her strength (and agility and stamina and so on) that left an impression on me, but her determination to finish the course and her clear delight in the process.  Fitness should make life more fulfilling.  Training is meant to have a purpose, not to be done to merely to “tone up” or “slim down” or atone for dietary indulgences.  [Sidenote: Exercise is wonderful, everyone should do it often and in whatever capacities they're able to, but the benefits of exercise go far beyond weight maintenance.  Furthermore, exercise is not a panacea for weight loss.  That's a topic I plan to cover in its own post soon, but in the meantime, check out any of these  articles for further reading.] The point is, Catanzaro was clearly having fun.  She was competing, sure, but there was a spirit of joy in the whole process.  And that made me think about my own training and how much fun I have with it.  Working around an injury these days has made things a little frustrating at times, but even before that I was at a point where something needed to change.  I was doing too much of everything and not having nearly enough fun with any of it.  I was lifting, but not training for a strongman competition or in prep for a bikini/figure contest (God knows I’m not cut out for that life!).  I was running, but not training for any races (which may be why the race I did without training ended so disappointingly).  I was doing yoga (ok, I still am), but not practicing at a studio or really progressing much.  So I got to thinking about how to make my training something that I truly delight in…kind of a fitness-bucket-list, if you will…because life is way to short to do anything half-assed.

Here are a few things from my list:

  • Complete an obstacle race.  I volunteered at a Tough Mudder in the San Bernadino mountains two summers ago when my brother and one of my best friends were doing it, and it looked incredibly fun.  Hard, but fun.  The Warrior Dash looks like a greater starter-race (it’s a 5K plus obstacles and mud and, God willing, some shirtless firefighters…although that might just be wishful thinking), and the Spartan Race is supposed to be incredibly tough.  The Alpha Warrior looks incredible, and it’s different because there is no running.  It’s purely an obstacle course, and it looks pretty damn fun. (Sadly, the website doesn’t have any upcoming event dates listed, so it may not exist anymore.)
  • Run in a RAGNAR relay.  I heard about RAGNAR relays about a year ago, but it wasn’t until a month ago that I actually figured out what it is – an overnight relay race of roughly 200 miles.  You do it in teams of 12, so each person runs 3 legs of the relay, and each leg is 3-8 miles long.  It sounds like a big sweaty nomadic sleepover, filled with lots of endorphins and spandex and Gatorade.  The locations are amazing, as well.  I’d love to do the Northwest Passage (goes from inland Washington all the way to the coast), the Washington DC (you go by the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial), or the Colorado (you run across the Rockies!) course.
  • Try my hand at strongman.  Tara, the blogger at Sweat Like a Pig, is the first person who made me think  training for strongman.  She’s a total stud and has fallen in love with the sport, and reading about her training and competitions has me itching to give it a shot.  Admittedly, a big part of this might just be my desire to find out if I can successfully flip a tire or do a log press.  I would love to take a strongman training class and dip my toes in the water!
  • Take an aerial silks class.  I fully admit that I have fantasies of being a Cirque de Soliel performer, which have their roots in my childhood fascination with trapeze artists.  It was practically a spiritual experience when I first saw P!nk’s performance from the 2010 Grammy’s (watch it HERE), and I still get chills every time I watch it.  If I can’t sing and dance like her, then you can damn well bet that I’ll just swing myself around in some silk wraps and pretend.  It may end up looking like 50 Shades of Gray-meets-The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar, but all art comes with a price.
  • Climb Mount Whitney.  It’s the highest point in the lower 48 states, and the elevation increases by more than 6,000 feet in 10 miles.  Some people might not consider hiking to be as much fitness related as it is outdoorsy/adventure-y, but this is a big climb that would require plenty of physical preparation and training.  Also, it sounds like an amazing adventure that does not involve jumping off of/out of a bridge or airplane (I get hives at the mere thought or skydiving or bungee jumping), but would require the mental fitness to get over my irrational fear of bears, mountain lions, and various other creatures that might want to eat me.  I’ve already made plans to pre-game by hiking Mount Shasta with my dad within the year.
  • Learn to dance.  I only took a couple years of dance lessons as a kid, but I wish I had enjoyed it enough to stick with it.  At the time, I just found it patronizing that they made us 6 year-olds skip around the room in circles for most of ballet class.  I wanted to be learning how to do a grand jete, for Pete’s sake.  Anyway, once I was in high school, I started to wish I could pick up dance once again, but I was convinced that I was “too fat” and “not fit enough” to dance.  These days IDGAF if I’m a littlesquishier than the stereotypical dancer, and I know that my strength would be an asset in my practice.  Dance combines so many things I love – art and storytelling and movement – into one form, and I would love to find a studio to take classes in tap, contemporary, hip hop, and whatever else I can get my paws on.

Discuss:

Do you have fun with your training?

What’s on your fitness bucket list?

Who wants to join me for the Warrior Dash/RAGNAR/aerial class/any of the above???