Saturday, November 29, 2008

Pizza Versus CrossFit

By Diana Hsieh

Here's an all-too-telling CrossFit story from Kirez. (The original post has a great picture.) Kirez writes:

Early Sunday morning we setup our gym at Starbucks. I laid out 360 square feet of rubber flooring, setup the squat rack, three barbells, about 450 pounds of Olympic bumper plates, 5 Dynamax med balls and 8 kettlebells. We took a Concept 2 rower and whiteboards.

Starbucks donated free drinks for people who won the hourly workout contests. Alicia got a free drink for her 5:27 performance on: 4 rounds for time, 15-12-9-6 reps, Wall ball shots (10 lb. ball), pull-ups. Michelle had an amazing workout, too. Her time was 6:32 for: 5 rounds for time, 5 x 115 lb. Deadlift, 10 burpees. Jim did a workout of 500 m row & wall ball shots, Dean and Kirez worked on Snatches, we demonstrated a lot of kettlebell exercises and taught some Olympic lifting, and had a great time.

The proprietor of the pizza place next door swore that Sunday was her best day for walk-ins and nobody was walking in if there was something fitness oriented next to her store. "They'll feel too guilty buying pizza if they see your fitness setup outside!" — direct quote, I kid you not. So... next Sunday, we'll be on the other side of Starbucks.
And pizza is pretty healthy according to the Standard American Diet! Perhaps people know -- even if only implicitly, based on the way they feel -- that stuffing themselves with pizza is not compatible with the kind of high-intensity workout that Kirez and company were doing.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Close But No Cigar

By Diana Hsieh

While I sometimes disagree with Mark Sisson, I found his recent blog posts criticizing "The Zone Diet" (of Barry Sears) and "The Paleo Diet" (of Loren Cordain) to mirror my own thoughts. You can read his posts here:

Note that "The Paleo Diet" in this case refers to the specific diet developed by Loren Cordain, not the broad category of what I (and others) refer to as "paleo" diets, of which Mark Sisson's primal eating plan is just one type.

Also, while I'm not so familiar with The Paleo Diet, I do know The Zone -- and Mark's criticisms are spot-on. You can find more in this post by Richard Nikoley. As I said in the comments on that post:
The Zone was my first introduction to "paleo"-type diets about ten years ago. It definitely helped me get my blood sugar under some control: mostly by eating more protein, I stopped crashing and burning as I had been doing on a regular basis. So in that respect, it was good.

However, the allowed calories from carbs was simply way too high -- such it was easy to eat "in the Zone" while still eating tons of processed carbs, including sugars and grains. So I maintained my quasi-addiction to carbs on the diet. As a result, I achieved nothing like the results I've gotten over the past few months.

It's frustrating to think that Sears understands so much, yet ultimately misses the boat so completely.
And that's just one problem among many.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Migraines Versus Topamax

By Diana Hsieh

Hooray! I seem to be past my recent two-and-half week spell of daily migraines. (Yes, that means I had a migraine every day for about 17 days.) From the outset, I knew the cause of my troubles: I'd recently stopped taking the birth control pill after about 15 years of nearly consistent use, so my hormones were totally out of whack. (No, Paul and I are not having children; we've just changed birth control methods.)

I'd hoped that the situation would resolve itself, but no such luck. By the second week, the migraines were becoming harder to control with my drug of choice, Excedrin. Even Maxalt, my stronger prescription triptan derivative, wasn't always effective. Frustratingly, even when I wasn't in pain, I was often suffering from a kind of "migraine hangover" that left me unable to think clearly. It was debilitating. And, by gosh by golly, I have a dissertation to write.

Normally, to break this kind of migraine run, I go on beta-blockers for a few weeks. They work, albeit with some unpleasant side effects. By lowering my heart rate and blood pressure, any kind of physical exertion -- including the simple act of climbing a set of stairs -- becomes an exhausting chore. However, since the beta-blockers in my medicine cabinet expired in 2005 (that's an indication of just how long it has been since my last run of migraines) I made an appointment to see my doctor for this past Thursday.

And wowee, I'm glad that I did. My doctor offered me a different medication to prevent migraines: Topamax. Now, three days later, my migraines are gone. I felt fantastic all day today -- nary a hint of a migraine, nor even any of the common side effects of the medication. Today I even lifted weights without any fatigue. (My good results may not be representative, of course; in general, my migraines are pretty responsive to medication.)

Interestingly, Topamax used to be used to prevent seizures, but it's now more commonly used to prevent migraines. And:

It is not entirely clear how this medication works for epilepsy or migraines. An epileptic seizure occurs as the result of abnormal electrical signals in the brain. Topamax slows down those signals, helping to prevent seizures. The medication also works similarly for migraine headaches. It is thought that migraines may be triggered by nerve cells in the brain that are too easily excited. Topamax helps calm the nerve cells, working to prevent a migraine from ever starting
Notably, migraines used to be thought of as a vascular disorder, but that's been proven false in recent years. More recent research shows that their origins are "neurological, related to a wave of nerve cell activity that sweeps across the brain."

I will have to wean myself off the Topamax carefully in a month or so. If I stop cold turkey rather than follow my doctor's instructions about tapering off, I might cause a seizure. That wouldn't be good, obviously. Of course, I'll have to see whether I develop any of the various common side effects of this new drug. However, for the moment, I'm absolutely thrilled with it in comparison to beta-blockers. I feel like I have my life back, at the cost of a few measly bucks.

So... THANK YOU, BIG PHARMA!

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When Raw Means Not Raw

By Diana Hsieh

Recently, Liriodendron pointed me to this May 2008 post by Stephan of Whole Health Source on the pasteurization of almonds. He writes:

I bought about a pound of almonds yesterday for a backpacking trip I'll be doing this weekend. I like to soak raw almonds, then lightly toast them. It sweetens them and breaks down some of their anti-nutrients.

When I arrived at the grocery store, the only raw almonds they had were from California. I prefer to buy domestic products when I can, but in case you haven't heard, "raw" almonds from California are no longer raw. They are required to be sterilized using steam or antiseptic gases, despite their relative safety as a raw food.

The worst part is that they are not required to label them as pasteurized; they can still be labeled as raw. The Almond Board's argument is that there's no difference in quality and pasteurized almonds are safer. I find this highly offensive and deceptive. It flies in the face of common sense. If you walked up to someone in the street and asked them what the phrase "raw milk" means, would they say "oh yeah, that means pasteurized"? A raw seed can sprout. A pasteurized seed can't. Remember all those enzymes that break down anti-nutrients when you soak beans, grains and nuts? Denatured by heat.

I tried soaking them like I would regular raw almonds. I covered them in water overnight. In the morning, I noticed that the soaking water was milky and had an unpleasant smell. The outer layer of the almonds (the most cooked part) was falling apart into the water. They also didn't have the crisp texture of soaked raw almonds.

Tonight, I toasted them lightly. They definitely taste "off", and the texture isn't as good. There's no doubt about it, pasteurized California almonds are inferior. Despite my preference for domestic products, I'll be buying Spanish almonds the next time around. If enough of us do the same, we'll hit the Almond Board in the only place that counts: its wallet.
Here's what Wikipedia says about the change:
Because of cases of Salmonella traced to almonds in 2001 and 2004, in 2006 the Almond Board of California proposed rules regarding pasteurization of almonds available to the public, and the USDA approved them. Since 1 September 2007, raw almonds have technically not been available in the United States. Controversially, almonds labeled as "raw" are required to be steam pasteurised or chemically treated with propylene oxide. This does not apply to imported almonds.
According to this blog post, organic almonds are pasteurized with steam, whereas non-organic almonds may be treated with propylene oxide.

Some months ago, I noticed that the whole, raw almonds I occasionally bought at the grocery store had a chemical taste to them -- almost gasoline-like. They were inedible. I thought perhaps that I'd just gotten a bad batch, but when I tried them again a few weeks later, the taste was the same. Now I wonder whether that taste is some kind of residue from the propylene oxide.

Since then, I've switched to buying my whole almonds at Whole Foods. They're organic, and they taste fine. However, I'm pretty sure that, contrary to their label, they're not raw but instead pasteurized with steam. I'll have to ask a manager whether the "raw almonds" are actually raw or not. If not, I'll probably order some unpasteurized almonds direct from the farm. Or perhaps I can find a local grocer who stocks imported almonds. I want my raw foods to be raw, with all their enzymes intact, dammit. Is that really too much to ask?

In the final paragraph of his blog post, Stephan notes:
One of the most irritating things is that the new rule is designed to edge out small producers. I can't see any other reason for it. Raw almonds are a safe food. Far safer than lettuce. Should we pasteurize lettuce? Pasteurization requires specialized, expensive equipment that will be prohibitive for the little guys. I'm sure the bigger producers will generously offer to fill the production gap.
Sadly, large food producers often seem eager to use the power of the government to prevent their smaller competitors from providing consumers with much-wanted goods. It's very frustrating -- and very wrong.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Fitness: Get Off That Treadmill and Kick Your Own Ass

By Diana Hsieh

For the past few years, I've exercised regularly. That was something of a feat for me, as I've never much liked plain old exercise. Paul and I made ourselves a nice little "exercise room" in the cool recesses of our basement -- with a treadmill, water rower, and elliptical trainer. We put a decent television and dvd player in the room, so that we could watch dvds while exercising -- mostly mostly television shows, but also movies on occasion. The distraction of television was a necessity because I was doing the standard routine of 40 minutes of moderate cardio per day. On occasion, I lifted weights, albeit just 5 to 10 pound dumbells.

This spring, I was growing somewhat frustrated with that exercise routine. It was keeping me in reasonably good shape, but I wasn't going anywhere with it. Plus, I was still struggling with my weight. All those hours of doing cardio hadn't helped me lose a pound. (Heck, I even gained a few!) At the time, I wanted to lose about ten pounds; now that I've lost that, I think have I another ten pounds to go. (That misjudgment isn't surprising, for reasons explained recently by Dr. Eades.)

I was forced to change my routine this spring when I developed serious problems in the ball of my right foot: I had a morton's neuroma (enlarged nerve) and capsulitis (irritated ligament) within a half inch of each other. They were quite painful, preventing me from doing any kind of running, ellipticizing, or even hiking.

Rowing wasn't a problem, thankfully, so I decided alternate that with some more serious weight lifting. I added a TRX suspension trainer to the exercise room. I bought a set of kettlebells, up to 30 pounds. I began rowing in 30 second intervals -- 30 seconds normal pace, 30 seconds kicking ass pace -- usually for no more than two miles. I liked doing the more intense workouts, and once I tried tabata front squats, I was hooked on the more intense CrossFit-type workouts.

In August and September, I worked out pretty intensely, alternating between interval rowing and weight training. Instead of working isolated muscle groups, I focused on large body movements, including swings. I varied my workouts as much as possible. That kept them fresh -- and difficult. I usually worked out in the mornings, before eating anything. (Hello ketosis!) And I never worked out for more than 20 minutes.

During this time, I experienced major gains in speed, power, and balance. I put on quite a bit of muscle. And I was spending half the time that I used to working out. It was awesome.

To my frustration, however, I seemed unable to lose much fat on this intense training regime. I suspected that I needed to ease off a bit -- to switch my body from bulking to cutting. So since late September, I've moderated my weight training -- focusing on maintaining not building strength. That has worked; I've lost weight slowly but steadily since then. (When I work out too hard, I get ravenously hungry.) However, once I lose a few more pounds of fat, I'll be eager to switch back into the more intense exercise.

Here are some videos for the kinds of large-body exercises I do. Most don't require an expensive gym membership -- or expensive equipment. Many require nothing but your own body, as in this prison workout. Yet they will kick you ass, in very short order.

NOTE: Please do be careful in trying any of these exercises, particularly if you're out-of-shape!

Tabata Squats:



I can't do them that fast. Sometimes I'll add a small jump at the top if I'm feeling particularly energetic. (That kills!) Sometimes I'll do them while holding a kettlebell, usually 15 to 25 pounds.

Kettlebell Swings:



Kettlebell Basics:



Also, Mark has a nice introduction to the kettlebell.

Burpees:



Slosh Tube:



And:



Mark has the very simple instructions for building your own slosh tube. I'm going to do that as soon as I can get to the hardware store.

Prone Hold:


Prone Hold Variations from Lauren B on Vimeo.

You'll find more instructions here. A 30 second prone hold makes 50 situps seem like a cakewalk.

Box Jumps:



Box Jumps with Sandbag Throws:



In addition to the above, more traditional exercises like wind sprints, push-ups, and pull-ups can be very demanding. For more ideas, you can also check out the CrossFit web site's huge list of exercises, with videos.

When I have some time, I'm going to head over to CrossFit Denver for some personal training, as I have much to learn. (Don't expect to go to your regular gym for CrossFit training. Look for a specialized CrossFit gym instead. Happily, they're becoming more common.) I also expect to learn much more simply by being observant about my own experiences.

Overall, I'm very pleased with my new method of high-intensity exercise. I've experienced noticeable gains, and I'm spending less time working out. Best of all, I have more fun!

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