A blog about nothing.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

THE PRICE OF PROTEIN

Take a stroll around your local supermarket and you will notice something rather interesting. The price of meat is around the same as the price of produce. In some cases, produce costs more! Eggs are $1.80 a dozen, while you can't buy a small box of berries for under $1.99. Chicken breast at $1 per pound for the price of apples?

How can this be?

Surely it is less costly and time consuming to pick a green out of the ground or a sweet off the tree than it is to raise an animal for slaughter then kill it, skin it, gut it, and chop it up. The latter is a multi-step process that involves hordes of (underpaid) workers in multiple locations, not to mention the hardship on the animal who is forced to be confined to a small space its entire life then be shipped over long distances to be shot in the head and sliced in half. How can the flimsy price of animal protein reflect all the food it takes to feed the beasts, who consume pounds of corn and soy per day during their regrettably brief and miserable lives, while producing equal amounts of manure and methane, which has nowhere to go but in our waters and into the air.

But back to the point: How on Earth can meat be so cheap??? Two words: subsidies, and externalized costs.

If you've been keeping up with the news, you'll know that our elected officials are currently debating the Farm Bill, which among other things addresses how much money is given to farmers to grow/raise the food we consume. Why the government and by extension taxpayers should give farmers anything at all aside from the price of their goods doesn't make sense from a market standpoint and is a throwback to a bygone time. If you've ever taken an economics class you know that consumer demand should dictate price and profit should dictate participation. That's what happens in the case of fruits and vegetables, which receive almost no government aid.

The Farm Bill has been much debated, and delayed. It seems the price of protein is a very contentious issue. One side argues that factory farms - those large-scale productions that account for most of the world's meat, eggs, and dairy - are the safest, most efficient, and most cost-effective way to raise large numbers of animals, and the only way to sell eggs, milk, and body parts at a price that virtually every American can afford.

But critics counter that a grocery-store price tag does not reflect the actual cost of producing a pound of protein. While corporations bank the profits, contract farmers foot the bill for waste disposal. Should anything go wrong - and manure lagoons are known to leak and flood - taxpayers are left to clean up the mess. If factory farms were forced to pay for the management of their own animals’ waste – and for cleaning up after big spills – then food prices would rise dramatically. (The result being that consumers would eat a lot less meat. With the laundry list of diseases associated with meat-eating, how's that a bad thing?)

Everyone who pays income tax is forking over money to keep CAFOs (factory farms) in business, in the form of farm subsidies, which has only helped to perpetuate the animal-factory industry. Sadly, this goes for meat-eaters and vegans/vegetarians alike.

In CAFOs Uncovered, the Union of Concerned Scientists detailed U.S. policies that allowed factory farms to dominate meat and dairy production. Subsidies to grow animal feed, for example, saved CAFOs $35 billion in operating costs between 1997 and 2005. According to the Environmental Working Group, the feds wrote checks for $256 billion in farm subsidies for commodities, crop insurance, and disaster programs, and $39 billion in conservation payments between 1995 and 2012. And the big boys (names like Tyson, Perdue, and Smithfield) get the lion's share of government money. Obama himself said agriculture is agribusiness, with politics and profit being inextricably intertwined with animal protein.

And the price is paid by the planet.

A 2006 UN report showed that global emissions from all livestock operations account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, even more than cars, trucks, and planes. It takes three units of fossil-fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy on average among all agricultural products. But for industrial meat, the ratio can grow as high as thirty-six to one. The modern intensive confinement production systems can be stressful for animals. The crowded quarters; the competition for a small amount of breathing room; and the attendant stress, conflict, and aggression can increase the shedding of pathogenic bacteria.

We as a nation have moved to a model of agriculture that produces cheap meat but risks the health of everyone, and while the CAFO model appears to be efficient, that is only because important costs are not reflected in either the cost of the production system or its products, but are instead paid for by the public in other ways. These external costs include declining property values, the public health costs of pollution, the cost of fighting resistant infections, and the cost of cleanup of spills and other environmental disasters, notes David Kirby in his book, "Animal Factory."

All of these costs are picked up by you, though they are not included in the cost of producing or buying the meat, poultry, eggs, and milk that the modern industrial animal agriculture provides. It is externalization, not efficiency, that makes industrial meat so cheap. CAFOs are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. We can no longer afford to remain blissfully unaware of the cost involved at so many different levels of that ice cream or frozen yogurt, the diner omelet, protein shake, chicken breast sandwich, bacon breakfast, etc. etc. Just because it comes in socially acceptable pretty packages doesn’t mean you should accept it.

As the Pew Commission report notes, industrial animal farms seemed to bless the world with tremendous increases in short-term farm efficiency and affordable food, but the boom has not come without serious unintended consequences and questions about its long-term sustainability. Ill-advised policies created CAFOs, which did not evolve naturally through agricultural progress or from rational planning or market forces but were a product of short-term thinking to feed a rapidly growing population by satisfying the ever-increasing appetite for flesh. Factory farms now produce most of the animal protein in our diets. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the overuse of antibiotics; air quality problems; the contamination of rivers, streams, and coastal waters with concentrated animal waste are all realities that won't just go away on their own. It will take new policies to replace them with more sustainable, environmentally friendly production methods, but as we are seeing with the debacle that the Farm Bill has become, these changes are not likely to happen anytime soon.

Government protects the prevailing system, the status quo. Misguided federal farm policies have encouraged the growth of massive confined animal feeding operations by shifting billions of dollars in environmental, health, and economic costs to taxpayers and communities. And the forces that be profit considerably by maintaining things as they are. It is up to you as a consumer. Supply will match demand, and until demand for meat and eggs and dairy falls to zero, supply will still exist, at the cost of the taxpayer’s money, environment, health, and the future.

It is said that food - like sex, politics, and religion - is an intensely personal, emotional, and complicated subject. Thus the phrase "there's no accounting for taste." Well, it is intensely personal, emotional, and complicated, for the animal that is killed! And when the production of food comes at so great an expense, it needs to be addressed.

The power lies with you. Each time you visit the market or sit down at the table, you make a vote. Vote plants.

* We'd like to thank author David Kirby, whose book "Animal Factory" provided much of the fodder for this post. Buy it today!

Friday, July 12, 2013

SITTING KILLS


Sitting is the new smoking. That's the gist of an article in this month's Runner's World magazine. All the hours spent parked on one's rear - whether it be on the computer, in the car, on the couch, or at the table - are implicated in an array of diseases, from heart disease and stroke to diabetes, cancer, depression, even early death. And get this: the risks associated with sitting are the same for everyone, regardless of activity level.

And so we ask you, how many hours a week do you spend on your behind? You're likely sitting as you read this, but how much time do you estimate you spend planted on your ass in a given week?

If you are like the average American, you sit an average of 64 hours per week, or 9 hours a day. And this does not include the 7 or 8 hours of nightly sleep (which puts the total at closer to 20 hours per day). And active people (regular exercisers who log the recommended 2.5 hours of weekly exercise) are just as sedentary. In fact, fitness buffs are actually more inactive when not training, either because of increased fatigue after a workout which reduces movement, or from that feeling of complacency that comes after a gym session, which says I just broke my sweat for the day, now give me my (insert postworkout high calorie reward of your choice here) and let me just chill. In fact, on days you exercise you are likely 30 percent less active than on days you don't.

And spending so much time sitting down is really bad for you. Common sense would seem to support this, and an increasing body of scientific literature does as well. Women increase their risk for diabetes with every 2 hours they sit, and men who spend 6 hours sitting down are more likely to die of heart disease or diabetes than men who sit for half as long.

Which is why experts are calling it the "sitting disease" and comparing it to smoking, which is bad for you no matter how many hours you spend running, riding, or lifting weights.

What's so bad about sitting? A lot, it turns out. When you sit for prolonged periods (call it 20 minutes or more), blood pools in your lower extremities, reducing the flow to your brain of important chemicals, including those involved in mood. Sitting also turns off an important gene that prevents blood clotting and inflammation. What's more, the static position - back hunched, hips and knees flexed, head bent - is a postural nightmare that puts excessive stress on many major muscle groups, including your hip flexors, causes muscle imbalances in the glutes, hamstrings, and iliotibial band, and increases laxity in the ligaments of the spine, which can set you up for back pain.


We weren't meant to sit as long as we do, but society seems structured around the fat ass. Don't let that be you. Get up off your butt and move around. Make an effort every 20 minutes to stand up for at least a minute. But don't just stand there! Prolonged standing strains the legs and feet and is of no benefit to your circulation. The trick is to move. Walk around, do some squats or calf raises, do a hand stand. Heck, even lying on the floor beside your desk will help to move blood back to your heart and head and straighten and align your spine. Move as much as you can. Your body will thank you for it by keeping you around.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

GLUTEN OR GMO: THAT'S THE REAL QUESTION

Gluten-free is one of the more recent buzzwords going around the health community and food industry. Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, among them wheat, barley, and rye, and it appears by pseudonyms in a variety of packaged, processed foods. In fact, gluten is pretty ubiquitous and can be found in your favorite items listed as modified starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, emulsifiers, caramel color, mixed tocopherols, the nonspecific "flavoring," non-dairy creamer, stabilizers, vegetable gum, and many others. What's all the fuss? Yes, gluten intolerance, or celiac disease, which is characterized by the body's inability to digest this protein, can cause diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition. Celiac disease involves damage to the portion of the digestive tract known as the small intestine, and it can set up sufferers for cancer down the road.

But celiac disease is relatively rare. Only about 1 in 135 Americans have this condition, and yet take a spin around the aisles of your local health food store and the proportion of people reflexively grabbing for foods labeled gluten-free is usually much higher, like maybe 1 in 2. Yes, we think it is a good idea to avoid gluten. Wheat and other grains are just not nutritious enough to warrant their consumption. Take it a step further and avoid packaged foods altogether. By buying whole, unprocessed foods you avoid what is arguably the biggest potential threat to your health: genetically modified foods.

GMOs have undergone DNA modification to alter their genes, usually to confer pesticide resistance so large manufacturers can grow more of them. But the consequences of eating these foods on humans has not been adequately explored, since to date no human studies have been conducted. Or more accurately, the American population is currently being subjected to any potential hazards involved with eating these foods every time we go to the market and purchase them. But studies in animals abound, and the findings are unsettling. The Institute of Responsible Technology reports numerous animal studies which showed associations between eating GMO plants and death, low birth rate, failure to thrive, testicular dysfunction, infertility, immune dysfunction, allergies, and precancer.

The most common GMO? Corn. Corn derivatives are commonly found in packaged goods, including chips, cereals, breads and pastries. Foods containing corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup include many soft drinks, jams, jellies, ice cream and ketchup. And corn is as tricky to detect in food as wheat, since it goes by many names including: dextrose, hydrolized protein, maltose, maltodextrin and modified food starch.

What to do? Read labels carefully is what conventional wisdom advises, since as of yet foods do not need to be labeled GMO-free. And remember that soy is another genetically-modified food featuring prominently in ingredients lists.

But if reading labels is time-consuming and frustrating, take it a step further and buy whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, dried beans, seeds. That way you know exactly what you get. Very few fresh fruits and vegetables are genetically modified. Exceptions include some zucchini, squash, and sweet corn. The only commercialized GM fruit is papaya from Hawaii. But the non-GMO Shopping Guide tells us that even if the fruit or vegetable is non-GMO, if it is packaged, frozen, or canned, there may be GM additives, so buy fresh as often as possible, and then take these delicious products home and cook them yourself.

Be with your food every step of the way, from market to meal (and if you have a green thumb, start with the seed), because the proteins, carbs, and other nutrients your food provides will be with you till the end. As they say, you are what you eat.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

THE TWO PERCENT

The term "One Percent," in its most common definition, refers to the wealthiest Americans. Individuals who control nearly 50 percent of total financial wealth. The term is considered derogatory by most people, which is understandable: ninety-nine people in a hundred are excluded from this elite group. Issues of wealth stratification, social class, the questionable merit of most jobs and the inanity of the monetary system aside, we'd like to briefly discuss another exclusive group, one not based on the size of your bank account but on the scope of your awareness, one you can easily be a part of. Who knows, perhaps you already are.

An article featured in Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine discussed the new trend among CEOs, many of whom have tossed the bacon, eggs, steak, chicken breast, milk, ice cream, and all else animal, and replaced these foods with plant-based fare. And the list is long. Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, real estate tycoon Mort Zuckerman, business magnate Russell Simmons, and former commander-in-chief Bill Clinton are now exercising their chompers on plant ruffage. Other power people who have dropped the steak knife in favor of the salad include Ford executive Bill Ford, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, venture capitalist Joi Ito, and Whole Foods Market CEO, John Mackey. Oh, and Mike Tyson, Alec Baldwin, and a host of other celebrities.

In short, the One Percent has become...the Two Percent. That's how many vegans there are in the United States, according to a recent Gallup poll. Yes, veganism is an exclusive club. Partly because it is thought of as expensive and time consuming. It is true that specialty items containing highly processed soy derivatives can cost as much as meat if not more. (But this has to do with issues of subsidization, a topic known as the Farm Bill which politicians are debating as you read this.)

As with everything else, veganism is how you go about it, and if you don't have a wallet that's as thick as newly-minted vegan Rupert Murdoch's (net worth 11.2 billion) pinching pennies may be in your favor, as far as your health is concerned. Because unprocessed or minimally processed foods - that is, whole foods in their natural state (fruits and vegetables and beans and seeds especially) - are easy on your budget and top shelf as far as nutrition is concerned. In fact, you can easily purchase food for a week for $100 or less, which is a very doable $15 a day, as I discuss in my book, The Paradigm Diet.

As for the motives America's wealthiest have for becoming vegan, who's to say. Some may do it for the environment, others to combat meat-induced heart disease, while some did it because their sweetheart did it first, as was the case with former head of Viacom, Tom Freston. But one thing is certain: The richest Americans know how to make money, and many do it by spotting trends. With veganism they've found a trend with benefits - longevity, vibrancy, and youthfulness - and it's here to stay.

So join the club. The vegan club. If enough opt in, it won't be so exclusive, and that (like wealth, which would be of greater benefit if more widely distributed) is better for us all.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

AVOCADOS

We've all heard the term "healthy fats," which is used to describe overt lipids whose benefits outweigh the risks associated with their consumption. Saturated fats, found in animal products and in some plant foods (coconut, cocao) don't need to be eaten since your body can produce them from other fats. The same goes for cholesterol, which your liver makes in quantities sufficient to fulfill all the needs of metabolism. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats provide health benefits and would seem to deserve the term "healthy fats," but because research has shown an association between high fat diets and Alzheimer's disease, too much of any fat may make the term "healthy fat" a contradiction.

Besides, even within the mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, which consist mainly of vegetable foods, major differences in their nutritional profiles exist and not all of these foods should be accorded equal preference in the diet.

Take olive oil. A so-called staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has been associated with health benefits. But are Mediterraneans healthier because of or despite their widely publicized love affair with this empty calorie, which is what olive oil really is? Consider: two tablespoons contain 240 calories, all of it from fat (27 g), and most of it in the form of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil even provides a little vitamin E. But divorced as it is from its whole food source (olives), it provides no additional nutrition, and is devoid of fiber.

Now take an avocado. One large California avocado (black skin) provides 275 calories, and 25 grams of fat, most of it of the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties, in addition to about 20% of the RDA for vitamin E, making it comparable to the above serving of olive oil. But what olive oil lacks, and avocado has, in sum cases in abundance, are the following essential nutrients:  vitamin A, thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6, phosphorus, vitamin C, iron, riboflavin, manganese, copper, magnesium, potassium and zinc. One avocado also provides nearly 12 grams of fiber, half the RDA for women. It is truly packed with nutrition. And one beefy avocado dwarfs 2 measly tbsp. of olive oil, so you get more for your mouthful.


To sum up: When choosing dietary fats, opt for whole-food, plant-based varieties, which offer a plentitude of vitamins, minerals, water and fiber in addition to the hefty source of lipids they provide.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

FIGS


It's summertime, and the warm weather brings the opportunity to enjoy exotic fruits not otherwise available. Like the fig. Fat-free, sodium-free, cholesterol-free. Figs can be part of any diet, including diabetic diets, and their high fiber content makes them ideal for weight loss and maintenance. Their unique satiny texture and seeds provides a satisfying feel and crunch. They are among the oldest fruits consumed, and historically have been viewed as aphrodisiacal due to their resemblance to the testicle.

One serving of figs is 40 grams, or about 1/4 cup. This is about 3 Calimyrna figs (green) or 4-5 Mission figs (black). Per serving figs provide about 30 grams of carbohydrates in the form of glucose and fructose, along with 5 grams of fiber - more dietary fiber per serving than most other common fresh fruits. Their mineral content is highest among most common fruits - with potassium, calcium, and iron featured prominently. Enjoy a meal of figs by eating all 12-24 that come in a standard package. You will be amazed by their ease of digestibility and the overall enjoyment you derive from making figs a summer staple. And visit the California Fig Advisory Board for more information.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

IDEAL WEIGHT

Weight is a touchy subject, just like food preference and taste in men (or women). But this does not mean a discussion should be avoided, and because your body weight, not to mention your body fat percentage, is such a strong predictor of your health and longevity, it's a good idea to know how much you should tip the scale. What's your ideal? The Metropolitan Life Insurance company came out with a table (most recently in 1999) indicating weights (for various heights and body frames and specific for each gender) at which mortality was lowest. It would seem from this table that one's ideal body mass index is around 23. Met Life never used the word "ideal" but living a long life, in other words not dying prematurely from heart attack, cancer, stroke, and other major killers, would seem like a good thing, we dare say an ideal thing, for most. (You can calculate your own BMI here.)

Now there have been research studies like this one published in JAMA whose conclusion has come to be called the obesity paradox, which hints that being overweight may give some advantage as far as longevity is concerned, but don't be swayed by this finding, which is "complete rubbish," according to Harvard MD Walter Willet, who is head of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

But like politicians, scientists love to disagree, so let's let the talking heads do what they do best and talk while we avail ourselves of our God-given powers of observation and analysis, which we are born with and despite the efforts of education to take common sense away, still persist into adulthood, at least in most people. So, who to observe?

Athletes are the modern day demigods as far as fitness is concerned. And athletes tend to achieve weights that allow for the best performance in their given sport. Much variance can be found in the "ideal weight." It depends on the sport. Obviously a shot putter, who relies on short bursts of brute strength, will weigh a lot more and have a lot more muscle than a marathon runner, who may look like a walking (or running) skeleton with hardly anything but skin clinging to the bones.


If your goal is to run 26.2 miles, then too much muscle is a liability, as it means more of a load to carry. But life does not call solely for the brute strength of the shot putter nor the sheer stamina of the long distance runner; often it calls for both strength and endurance. Therefore your ideal weight should include enough muscle to add strength while being light enough for you to compete in and excel in the journey that is life.

What sport prepares a person for this journey, and is therefore a metaphor for life? Triathlon is pretty close.
Triathletes move their lithe bodies through the ocean and land in a variety of disciplines calling for upper body strength (swimming), lower body strength (biking) and quickness (running), as well as agility and coordination. The body of a triathlete tends to be larger than a strict runner's, with larger upper bodies and bulkier legs that its disciplines require, and many carry more body fat than other athletes like sprinters for the added energy over the long haul it provides. Imagine moving your body over 70 plus miles in a given event. Soccer players are said to cover 5 or 10. That blows this distance out of the water (or into the water). And we are not even talking about the ironman distance, which is twice 70 miles. Wowzers.

So how much does your average competitive triathlete weigh? We took a look at the top triathletes, male and female, guys like Javier Gomez and Craig Alexander, gals like Anne Haug and Felicity Abram, and we averaged their heights and weights. Here's what we found:

Male triathletes (averaged): 5 feet 11 1/2 inches; 148.5 lbs
Female triathletes (averaged): 5 feet 7 inches; 125 lbs

What's that in BMI? For guys it's 20.4. For women, it's 19.6. Wow, that's low. A normal BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, so triathletes of both sexes fall on the low end of normal, which seems to be the high end for fitness. Variations exist for frame, a few pounds up or down, and triathletes like other athletes are human and can gain 10 or so pounds in the off-season, but the conclusion is pretty simple: if you want to be both strong and fast and cover long distances, the fewer the lbs you pack, the better off you are.

Now you may argue that you are not a triathlete, have no intention of being one, and couldn't sacrifice the 10 or 15 or 20 or more weekly hours which these exceptional individuals devote to training. Your life is sedentary, a succession of switched seats (from the bed to the table, to the car and then to the desk, and back), your longest journey being across the parking lot or up a flight of stairs. That may be your version of real for now, but that shouldn't stop you from striving towards your ideal.

Now we know our definition of ideal says little about longevity. Athletes may perform at their highest level then keel over and die at 50, like the dearly-missed James Gandolfini. We'll leave that for the talking heads to discuss. But if you want to live life at the highest level for as long as your days are granted you, then use this simple formula to calculate your ideal weight and make efforts to stick as close to it as possible.

For men: 100 pounds for the first 5 feet of height, add 5 lbs for every inch above that.
For women: 95 pounds for the first 5 feet of height, add 4 lbs for every inch thereafter.

And if you eat a plant-based diet loaded with sweets, greens, beans, and seeds, you won't have to work out like a maniac. Your body will naturally reach its set point weight.