26 November 2015

Why you should walk more

Everyone knows that walking is good for you. The more you can walk, the better. Step counting wearables like smart watches and health trackers seem to be everywhere, and there are tonnes of signs in public parks and ads on tv telling us to walk as much as we can as often as possible. There are dozens of widely agreed upon and accepted benefits to walking more.  Here is a quick rundown of some of these benefits provided by the Victoria State Government, “Better Health” website:

  1. increased heart and lung fitness
  2. reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
  3. improves management of high blood pressure, joint and muscular pain or stiffness and diabetes
  4. strengthens bones
  5. improves balance and physical dexterity
  6. increases muscle strength and endurance
  7. enhances fat burning

So yes, of course walking is good for you. There aren’t too many that would refute this claim. That being said, there does seem to be a problem with how walking is viewed culturally. Walking is underrated. The value of walking is not as as strongly perceived as it should be. Whether people are trying to lose weight, prevent disease or illness, or reduce pain, or be more active in any way, walking doesn’t normally doesn’t get the same type of respect as the more traditional forms of exercise - weight training, ball sports, running, swimming, and the like. People will often commit to a 3x a week gym plan rather than think about how much, or little, they walk throughout the day.

Primal Blueprint Law #3 is “Move frequently as a slow pace.” This means that when it comes to long-term health, walking is the most important physical activity, and surpassed overall only by nutrition. Light activities like walking come before strength training (Law #4 Lift heavy things) and high intensity workouts (Law #5 Sprint once in awhile). Crafting a balance of these forms of physical activity that fits with personal circumstance is key, but the point still stands regarding which one is first. Not only are is the research regarding the points listed above near unanimous in agreeance, but there is a growing body of contemporary science supporting that light activity as often as possible is more beneficial for overall fitness than the much more strenuous, traditional workouts that people commit to at daily or weekly intervals.

These are the two main reasons walking is so important.

One - Walking provides a platform for calmness and contemplation amidst constant distraction
For many, life has become so busy, and so dominated by technology and digital communication that there are few avenues for simple reflection. Walking is perfect for this. While deliberate forms of mediation may not be comfortable for many, there are few things more accessible and widely enjoyed than a good walk. Whether it's a fast paced exercise, light time to catch up with a friend, quality time with the dog, or solo time to be at peace with one's thoughts, walking is amongst the purest forms of being at peace.

Walking is also the most flexible in most cases. It not only requires little time, money and effort, but how it’s done is near endless in possibilities. Walking can be at a hastened pace with a heart-rate monitor, slow, leisurely and meditative, incorporated with shopping or errands, a social catch-up with a good friend, or quality time with the family - including dogs! Because walking can be done under almost any personal, environmental or social conditions, it can always be approached as an enjoyable, relaxing and/or invigorating - whichever type of boost you may need.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols wrote that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. The ability to stare off into the distance, observe the world go by and the scenery change has been found to stabilise blood pressure, ease muscular tension and ease stressful thinking. It is these physical and psychological conditions that allow for lucid thoughts and clear vision. Walking provides the perfect balance of aimless distraction, and focused attention to critically reflect on one’s life in the hopes of honest, sophisticated learning.

Two - Walking is the easiest way to be physically active in an increasingly sedentary society
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent much of their time involved in light activities such as walking, fishing, hiking, foraging, gathering food, wandering and many other varieties of low-level intensity. Even for those who are skeptical of the “paleo” philosophy of ancestral health, it’s difficult to argue that as humans have become more industrialised, life has become on the whole, sedentary. Imagine how much more physically active one would have to be in order to wash clothes and dishes, mow lawns, and entertain without technology. People spend more time seated in the comfort of their own home than ever before.

As easy, convenient and quick as it is to drive everywhere, ride the elevator, play video games and stream every TV show or movie ever made is, it becomes harder to incorporate regular physical activity into our everyday lives. There isn’t much of a need to get out and do things as much as there once was, and while there are loads of benefits, there are as usual just as many points of concerns that come from long-term sedentary living.

Barring injury, walking is the simplest method of maintaining regular, low-level activity within a busy life, technology-driven life. It requires no money, imposes minimal pain and discomfort on the body, and can occur at any point regardless of time, and still be one of the most beneficial aspects of a healthy life. Unlike strenuous cardio or deliberate weight training sessions, a warm-up, special clothing and equipment, money, time, or any of the other legitimate aspects which tax on people’s professional and personal routines don’t exist.

Again, it’s so easy, and this makes it more important, not less.
It’s easy to walk more and this shouldn’t degrade its value, but enhance it. For those with the strictest of time tables, meetings can be taken, phone calls made and emails responded to on your feet without much disruption. Research even suggests that the brain is more creative and less distracted while undergoing slight levels of physical activity. This is why so many great ideas occur outside of work and away from the desk. In a survey put up on Google+, the vast majority of respondents identified walking as the most important aspects of their exercise regimen. Where walking often takes a back seat to more intense forms of exercise, it really should be embraced as the foundation of physical activity. Opting to take the stairs at work rather than the elevator, parking a bit further away, or taking using one bus stop before or after the closest one can make immense steps in improve health - pardon the pun.

20 November 2015

Why a balanced diet is wrong

“Everything in moderation” is a term that gets thrown around too frequently. It’s not exactly bad advice. The idea that you shouldn’t gorge on any one particular food, nor will a teaspoon of any other food bring about instant death. That being said, it does create an over simplified idea of how to handle nutrition and, worse than that, often comes built with the many erroneous byproducts of the conventional wisdom that has created the obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's epidemics currently under way. Below are a couple of infographics that I’ve come across lately, promoting false information. I thought it may be interesting to pretend I’m a teacher and make the necessary corrections and provide some feedback.

Here is a very traditional diagram of a “balanced diet” that has been floating throughout the internet lately, and have seen many times over the years - I’ve taken the liberty of adding feedback I feel is important - correcting the errors of conventional wisdom and the decades old and flat-out wrong USDA food pyramid.

The reality is that some foods are healthy, some are not and the rest are somewhere in between these two. Further, the sources, production methods and even combinations of foods matter as well. Sugars in local fruits aren’t the same sugars in baked goods. Nutrients in spinach that is eaten as part of a salad don’t equal the same ingredients blended as a drink. You get the idea. Health, especially in regards to nutrition is a complex quantum of factors that react differently in different situations for different people.

Next we have a much more engaging diagram, not only guiding viewers through a balanced diet but also providing insights on somewhat well-known nutrition trending diets such as gluten-free, juicing, and paleo. The delivery is excellent and, as it’s pointed out there are several strong points of truth - but again there’s an overall theme of “everything in moderation” as if the tried and true “eat plenty of complex carbohydrates and cut out as much fat as possible” is throughout the graphic.

The confusion comes in prioritizing healthy food. What does a healthy meal look like? What should there be most of? How often of each type of food should there be? These are the simplest questions to answer and unfortunately, involve the most confusion amongst people. Here is the fairly loose set of proportions we try to live by in our house. I say “loose” in that it’s very much flexible.

The largest portion - vegetables (note: held separate from fruits) - is a large part of every actual meal. In other words, whenever a dish is involved and eating is the main action being taken, there are plenty of colourful vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, capsicum, lettuce, spinach, etc. Visually, there are more of these than anything else for every sit down meal.


Second place - good fats and oils, and meat, fish, fowl and eggs - occupies most real meals as well. We cook with ghee, butter or coconut oil as close to 100% of the time as we can and whenever sauce or dressing is concerned, olive, almond, or macadamia oil are used. As far as animal flesh goes, local, grass-fed and organic takes priority and processed, frozen and imported meats are avoided whenever possible. It’s also important to note that unlike vegetables, meats aren’t always there. Every so often, perhaps once or twice a week, we prepare a meal that is entirely vegetarian. Again it’s not a rule as much as it is something we like to do and want to get better at from a “how good in the kitchen we are” standpoint. We’ve grown to appreciate the skill in preparing delicious animal-free meals and a certain distaste for the the cultural view that “it’s not a meal if there’s no meat” many people have. The important point is just that meat, in any form while incredibly important for a nutritious lifestyle, must take a backseat to vegetables both in health, and psychological perception.

Nuts and seeds, next on the list of the priorities, obviously aren’t major portions of any particular meal. Perhaps this is a good time to point out that the above pie-chart, even though is in the shape of a plate, does not represent one visually. It is not a matter of 15% of your plate should be almonds, but rather, that nuts and seeds, in various forms and portions should be a regular part of your diet. For us, these comes through handfuls in zip lock bags and small containers for snacks while watching TV or on the desk at work - instead of muffins, cookies, cereals, chocolate and other typical sugary or highly processed high carb high sugar snackfoods. We also find opportunities to mix them in as many meals as we can. Chia seeds, pine nuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts and Brazil nuts add a nice crunch to salads and stir-fries we’ve come to love.

The last two - dairy and fruits - are treated more as indulgences and personal needs rather than health staples. I enjoy a black coffee from time to time, but full cream frothy milk in my morning and afternoon coffee is probably one of my favourite things in the world. Milk also makes eggs better, and cheese makes everything better. While we have dairy frequently, it's in small amounts such as these rather than built into the majority of what we eat.

Fruit is handled the same way. We love local, fresh and seasonal fruit whether it’s blueberries, bananas or apples. The key is to be mindful of how high in sugar fruit can be. Of course they come with plenty of nutritional value, but the high level of carbs can throw off energy levels and create a dependency on sugar which gets in the way of the body’s best and most preferred source for energy - fat. Unlike vegetables, fruit is a treat - something to enjoy when the season is right and when something sweet is desired.

Healthy food priorities. The pie chart above is more used as a visual aid rather than based on any measurements. Truth be told, it’s not even clear what these portions are based on. They’re not based on calories or even volume. It's mostly a holistic approach to importance and frequency. How often we incorporate each food into our daily and weekly eating.

At the end of the day this doesn’t at all mean that there are no rules worth pursuing and paths worth taking. “Everything in moderation” is a superficial way of saying that you can eat whatever you want and as long as you don’t go overboard with any of it you’ll be fine. Of course this isn’t wholly true. There are some things you should eat more of, and some things you shouldn’t. This is similar to other common phrases that point out that “you gotta die sometime”. As profound as a thought this may be, this also doesn’t mean that because we’re all mortal, and that navigating through all the noise in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is a complicated mix of misinformation, conflicting research, corporate interests and subjective opinion, that there’s no point in trying to seek out modifications to one’s lifestyle for the goal of a healthier, longer more comfortable, and less painful life.

13 November 2015

Health benefits of red meat

A little while ago, the World Health Organization made occupied many major news feeds when it published a study linking processed meat and red meat to cancer risk. While the research behind this, and the findings published are entirely valid, much of the mainstream media ran with it is without truly understanding the piece. The key takeaways of the study were written about previously, but in short, the WHO is not recommending cutting red eat from a healthy diet, but instead acknowledging slight, yet distinct contributions to specific variations of cancer when red meat is heavily processed and cooked under harsh conditions. As always, it’s important to understand that health and well-being should not be taking as an absolute plus/minus formula, but a very complex quantum of correlated factors of contributions. In simpler terms, health, including cancer prevention is a fine and delicate balance and there are very few instances where doing as much as possible, or as little as possible, will absolutely lead to greater long-term well-being.

In regards to red meat consumption, this means it's important to understand the benefits as well as the dangers and decide for yourself. Below are the most significant, evidence-based health benefits that come with eating red meat.

One - red meat is a strong provider of protein and healthy fats
Protein doesn’t need much explanation in terms of benefits. Hair, nails, muscles, bones, and other essential components of the human body require protein to grow, strengthen and repair. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids and it is without any doubt that animals are the richest sources of protein and contain all of the amino acids we need. Non animal sources such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and seeds lack the same variety and wealth of these amino acids.

Animal fat however has had bad reputation for a few decades, but the research is coming through and people are beginning to understand that despite popular believe, red meat’s fatty profile is actually its strongest attribute. Animal fat, which is largely saturated fat is an excellent source of caloric energy, contribute to critical metabolic function and protects against oxidative damage. Unlike most cooking oils (seed and vegetable), animal fats found in the likes of coconut and palm oil, ghee, lard and butter hold up in extremely high temperatures and thus are resistant to oxidative damage making them optimal for cooking.

Two - red meat is a rich source of iron, zinc and B vitamins
Beef, lamb, goat and pork (which is counted as red meat here just to separate it from fish and poultry) are rich in necessary iron, zinc, vitamin D and numerous B vitamin levels. This much is relatively well known. What isn’t as widely aware is that red meat has significantly more b12, iron and zinc, and a much more beneficial fatty acid profile compared to fish and poultry. Where white meat like poultry and fish is generally a leaner source of protein with less fat, the vitamin, mineral and healthy saturated and monounsaturated fats indicate optimal nutrition involve both when sources locally, fresh, and free of chemicals, preservatives and hormones. Gentler cooking methods with minimal burning is advised as well.

Three - red meat is delicious and satiating
This last point may not seem as important as the other two, but it absolutely is - despite its subjectivity (not everyone likes red meat, which is totally fine). Due to the minimal carbohydrate and sugar content of red meat, as well as the high protein and healthy fats, all animal products, when produced locally, fresh and free of all things mass-agricultural, is more satisfying to the appetite than most other food sources. Regardless of personal tastes and preferences, meat is more likely to keep one fuller for longer, than fruits, vegetables, grains and sugars - even natural healthy sources.

Locally sourced, chemical and hormone free and Grass-fed is the way to go
Anecdotally, it’s more reasonable to someone to pound away inexplicable amounts of rice, pasta, carrots, cereals, or grapes than it is steak. Rarely would someone fill themselves up on strawberries or garden salad - yet even the best of people can imagine reaching a sleepy maximum at a slow-cooked rib festival. And, despite conventional wisdom, the reality that some foods satiate more than others is a part of the nutritional benefit those foods have. Life is dynamic, sporadic and sometimes even chaotic. The pursuit of having a similarly portioned, pre-planned meal every 2-3 hours may not be sustainable for the long term for most people. So, if opting for a fatty lamb chop rather than lean chicken breast, keep hunger off of your mind, throughout the day, than that, plus all of the other nutritional benefits that come with it, is a huge win. So the next time you’re enjoying a nice medium rare cut of grass-fed beef, don’t worry about cutting away that fatty strip, remember that not only is it delicious, but it may be the healthiest part of the meal. Enjoy. 

07 November 2015

What to do after a cheat meal

This whole week  has involved researching “benefits of red meat” pieces to build on for the next article. The goal is to prove a simple, up-to-date reminder for those that may be confused by the the cancer study published by the World Health Organization. It’s still in the pipeline, but yesterday ended up being a pretty bad day in terms of nutrition, one of the first in a good number of weeks, which means there is more subject matter to cover.

Further, there’s a fantastic blog post by Mark Sisson of Mark's Daily Apple outlining 5 things you’ll learn as a Primal lifer. The first two, “Indulgences won’t kill you” and “you don’t really need the” speak directly to this. If you’re wondering what an “indulgence” may be, you may want to call it a full-on cheat day consisting of numerous party style sandwich quarters, sausage rolls, spaghetti bolognese and a Big Mac Meal with a McFlurry for dessert. In any case, it’s always good to take stock of everything after eating bad meals. It’s important to listen to your body and how it feels. This awareness of the immediate after effects usually allows for not just a quick refocus, but also dissipates any guilt there may be. There’s a distinct piece of mind that can come with knowing that you wanted to eat garbage, knowing why, knowing what would happen, and knowing that won't be a big deal. In reality, the term “cheat-meal” itself has a over dramatic connotation. It makes it seem like it’s deliberately built into your lifestyle (it shouldn’t), and that you should feel bad about it (you shouldn't). Regardless, here’s a simple run down of the typical thoughts and feelings the morning after a cheat day.

One - You don’t feel like slept particularly well
It may 6:30 in the morning or 4 hours later, but whichever it is, you don’t feel rested. There’s a definite haziness and you may not actually be sure when you woke up and how long you laid in bed before climbing out - it could’ve been 10 minutes, but it but it could be more like an hour. You’ve had those excellent sleeping sessions where you shut off the alarm and stayed curled under the covers until your body was naturally ready to go - this isn’t that. You’re awake, but not because you slept enough. As a result you don’t have the usual alertness or readiness for the day. If you don’t have to work today, you’re especially grateful, because if you did, it’s definitely be a tough one.

Two - There’s a brick in your stomach
This one is obvious, but still worth the noting mentally. You may feel like everything you ate yesterday is now densely compacts and squeezing through your gut. You can sense that a big bathroom session may be in order, but it at the same time just isn’t happening. If it did work for you, oddly enough the brick is still there and you don’t feel any more relieved.

Three - Your mind hasn’t recharged
Where normally, you wake up partially forgetting about whatever you were doing or thinking about yesterday, this morning it’s all still fresh in your mind. It’s almost as if you haven’t set at all. The stress at work, personal problems or whatever unpleasantness life is throwing at you is still there and you’re still acutely aware of it. Linked to not having a good sleep, if mornings are usually calm and relaxing time to yourself, or a furious mix of chaos and efficiency as you feed, bathe, clothe, and transport three kids to school on your way to work, this morning is neither of those.

It's more important to take stock than it is to exercise
While most may say the best thing to do after a bad day is sweat everything out, it's not. Food is much more important to long-term health and with that, comes food awareness. Also, by associating a cheat day with a punishing workout afterwards could easily culminate in further guilt and anxiety the morning after. Not being up for intense workouts, leading to more bad eating is the cycle manifested.

Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of how you feel after a day of eating garbage, it’s important to be acutely aware of what your mind and body tell you. Do you feel extended motivated to go to the gym and work off all those extra calories, carbs, bad oils, preservatives and sugars? Do you feel guilt for falling off the wagon and now are at risk of turning a cheat day into a cheat week? However it is, it’s important to take stock of this process, not to beat yourself up about it, but so you can remember it. Remember what the days after are like for you can be the best motivation there is to maintaining your focus and dispelling the urge. It also empowers you with ownership of the choices you’ve made. You knew it’s been a tough week, and you just couldn’t be bothered to do anything harder than grab food you wanted out of a drive through window. You also know that as bad as it may make you feel, it won’t lead to you writing off the rest of 2015 and start planning for a fresh and fit New Year. It won’t kill you, and you don’t need it. You just wanted it, had it, and will ironically forget about it. Full awareness no guilt.

Full Awareness, No Guilt: Why I don't like "cheat meals"

When following any diet, fitness plan or overall “healthy way of life”, one thing that is inevitable is to meet instances where the opportunity to eat bad food is metaphorically and literally “on the table”. Whether it’s a matter of judgement, willpower, time, social tact, convenience or motivation, there will always be times where we feel like a big slice of lasagne, a bowl of ice cream or grabbing fast food on the way home from work. This is reality.

Ice cream.JPG
This is not the enemy

01 November 2015

World Health Organisation processed meat and red meat cancer link: Key points

The World Health Organization made major news last week by publishing a summary of findings from a study linking cancerous carcinogens to processed meat and read meat consumption. While this significant, and generally reliable report has sparked much debate, there is always a level of concern when mainstream media outlets decide to run on issues so close to people's personal lives and their health and well-being. It's so easy to prey on people's fears and therefore push extreme conclusions. Best case scenario, nutrition, cancer and overall health, are so complex that it's far too easy to form rash opinions based on limited understanding of complicated issues. Worst case scenario, a fear-mongering “Beef is linked to smoking and will give you cancer” is a surefire way to get your publication some traffic, especially if it can (partially and superficially) make reference to something like  the World Health Organization.

Regardless of how it's being presented, health enthusiasts from all angles are chiming in (as am I of course). Is this the strongest reason yet to move toward veganism, or another product of the wheat farming propaganda machine? What does this mean for paleo people, surely red meat has always existed as a staple part of our ancestral diet and responsible for much of our evolution over millions of years.

As usual, the truth sits somewhere between all of these extremes. There's a lot of value to be found in this study, and it definitely should influence your decisions and habits if you've never put meat consumption into consideration before. That being said, it's equally important to approach this news with care and and a clear mind. Here are the main takeaways from the WHO study on processed and red meat.

One - The idea that processed meat is bad for your should be nothing new.

Hot dogs and frozen packs of bacon should never be thought of as healthy. Heavily packaged and processed food, meat included is loaded with chemicals chemicals and prepared in a way to make food as cheap as possible. In doing so meat is transformed into indestructible compounds that are impervious to all nutrients and natural systems such as normal metabolic digestion. Food that comes frozen, in weird shapes, canned, and almost never goes bad will increase your risks of cancer, Alzheimer's and dementia (for the oldies) autism (for the youngins), obesity, diabetes, and pretty much every other ailment or illness there is.

Two - Percentages of risk are trickier than they seem.

The WHO organises degree of risk into 3 categories according to the strength of evidence as opposed to the level of risk. There’s Group 1 which includes compounds confirmed to increase risk by at least 2% beyond any possible doubt. Processed meat, like tobacco and asbestos, is classed as Group 1, easily leading people to believe that this means that the WHO is stating unequivocally that the three pose the same risk of leading to cancer. In truth, the evidence linking processed meat to cancer is equally as strong as that of tobacco and asbestos, but the WHO indicates outright that this does not say anything about the assessed level of respective risk. Here is the clip from the actual Q&A:

As far as the actual level of risk, the full paper states that each additionally consumed 100g of red meat, which was not classed in Group 1 meaning that evidence is probable but not definitive, was associated with a 17% increase in colorectal cancer risk. 17% sounds emphatic, but it’s important to understand that risk percentages are mathematically relative. In other words, “17% increase relative to what?” is a question that must be asked.

According to US National Library of Medicine, the average lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is 1.8%. This is the base figure of this type of cancer. For those with one relative with colorectal cancer, the risk almost doubles to 3.4% which mathematically is an increase of 88%. So yes, there is validity in a 17% increase factor, but given the original likelihood is so small that it comes nowhere near the leading causes of death, its significance in health policy and decision making is minimal.

Three - The WHO is not recommending cutting red meat from your diet.

A day or so after news hit the wire, many media outlets wrote the story as if the WHO was claiming on-balance that processed meat and red meat were cancerous and especially, as cancerous as tobacco. While few had issue with processed meat being the target, the perceived condemnation of red meat gained extra attention. In response to this, the WHO published a Q&A to provide greater clarity around red meat, risk grouping and various other complexities had with their initial summary. The point was made that the WHO is not advising against red meat, but instead pointing to a small level of risk which should be taken seriously, but not in a vacuum.

At the end of the day, it must be known that any one study rarely trumps all others, so rather than take this study as an absolute, approach it with care and work the information that works for you in with what you already know. The Q&A also indicates that there is little evidence supporting vegetarianism as the optimal plan for nutrition as the consumption of red meat and fish and poultry come with complex sets of positive and negative risk factors. There are many evidence-based benefits of red meat consumption, so reducing  intake drastically is not the automatic answer. 

If you are concerned, perhaps because there are additional risk factors per your personal situation (i.e., family connection), remember that cutting out red meat is not what’s being suggested. The WHO supports that risk increases are mostly associated with harsher cooking methods where meat is in contact with direct heat such as barbecuing or pan frying. These harsher methods, as well as the affinity to well-done and burnt meat is what creates the carcinogens in question. A move toward gentler methods such as slow-cooking, steaming or braising avoids these harmful processes. Also, learn to love rare, local and butcher prepared cuts. Aside from being healthier, they taste better too.

How do you feel about the WHO report? Are you concerned about your meat consumption and planning to make changes? I’d love to hear your story, you can find me on Google+ and Twitter