Wheat Belly by William Davis. Wheat is dessert and should be handled as such.

Wheat is sugar. Dessert. That’s what I’m taking away from Wheat Belly by William Davis.

Wheat is not what it used to be. The first wild wheat to be cultivated was einkorn with 14 chromosomes. Soon after einkorn naturally bred to produce emmer with 28 chromosomes. A few thousand years ago, emmer mated to produce Triticum tauschii, with 42 chromosomes. This sort of breeding between grasses was a relatively rare event. Relatively recently, humans started tinkering with the genetic structure of wheat, breeding it for higher yield and for resistance to disease and drought and heat. Modern strains cannot even survive without chemical support. There are now thousands of offsprings that are thousands of genes apart from the original einkorn.

Modern wheat can do all sorts of baking gymastics that einkorn could not do. Pastries, cakes, you name it. Wheat is yummy just like a Mars bar. A hit of wheat has a higher blood sugar response than white sugar. Besides fattening the belly, the insulin response causes a drop in blood sugar and a two-hour cycle of hunger. Wheat causes hunger. It is a vicious addictive cycle. It explains the carb addiction I have struggled with for years. Indeed, reducing my wheat consumption has helped me kick my habitual snacking. Carbs are not the worst of it. Wheat is about 10-15% protein, about 80% of which is gluten. For some people, gluten causes celiac disease, potentially a very serious immune response. Many people avoid gluten these days but the remaining proteins are also problematic, causing allergic and anaphylactic responses.

Davis recommends a complete elimination of wheat from one’s diet. This may be the right choice for some people, especially if they are suffering from obesity or the many other symptoms he documents in detail. My personal response is more moderate. I accept that wheat is essentially dessert, and I will handle it as such, not as a part of a healthy diet but as an occasional treat.

The Stark Reality of Stretching by Steven Stark. Important for everyday health and athletics.

The Stark Reality of StretchingI am visiting my brother this weekend. He asked if I like mussels. Funny, I said, I am just reading a book on muscles. Yes, I have been that dumb about muscles and stretching. To correct that, I read The Stark Reality of Stretching by Dr. Steven Stark. Good stretching is important for everyday health and prevention of injury. It increases power and prevents injuries for athletes at every level.

The key to understanding muscles is myofilaments, the muscle fibres that contain overlapping proteins called myosin and actin. A stretch is the sliding elongation of these fibres caused by the proteins sliding past each other. A bit tough to visualize, that. Here’s a better description of what happens. One, in a stretch, start from a point of zero tension. Two, load a single muscle or muscle group. The muscle contracts. It shortens. Three, find the point of first awareness of tension, and hold. Less tension is best. Four, the muscle will naturally relax, losing the tension. Five, the relaxation causes the sliding elongation. It stores energy in the muscle that can be used for action.

The book provides very detailed stretch instructions, but only for the weight-bearing muscles of the lower extremity: glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, groin, calves, and hip flexors. Stretching these muscles is vital for preventing chronic ache in the knees and lower back. The principles are the same, I suppose, but I wanted to see the same level of instruction for upper extremity muscle stretches as well: shoulders, back, biceps, triceps, arms, chest, forearms, and sides. I found some nice visual references for the whole body stretches by google-image-searching “stretches”. Stark’s book is still great for understanding how muscles work and inspiring a good stretching routine.

Deadly Harvest by Geoff Bond. Obesity is not a problem of excess but of want for good food.

Deadly HarvestJanuary seems like a good time to write about health and fitness. I have learned more about diet and exercise in the past five years than the 40+ previous years. This learning was prompted by the mid-life observation that I was obese. Yikes. I have turned that around completely and am fitter now than when I was 30. I’d like to share a fundamental lesson — diet is more important than exercise. Maybe this is a mistake only men make, but diet accounts for about 70% when it comes to weight loss. Exercise is important too, I give it 30%, but regular exercise is more for mental than physical health. I learned about diet from many sources and one important book is Geoff Bond’s Deadly Harvest.

Using research in nutritional anthropology, Bond asserts that humans are still tropical creatures and our diets best suited to that build. The human species emerged in East Africa over a million years ago, homo sapiens 190,000 years ago. It was only 60,000 years ago that we left Africa and migrated to the rest of the world. The Africa savanna was formative in the building of our bodies. Our homeland was savanna — open rolling grasslands, occasional trees and shrubs, many lakes and rivers depending on the season. The temperature was mild to hot with unpredictable rain storms. We shared our home with animals. Evidence for the savanna lifestyle is gathered from the San Bushmen. Women spent considerable time gathering plants and roots, concentrating on 15-20 species that were reliable to find. Men engaged in hunting, usually small game or larger ones with sporadic results. They were healthy and lived long lives. The savanna pattern continued for 2000 generations.

About 11,000 years ago people started farming. Everything changed. Grains and legumes were introduced into our diets. Farming caused us to settle in fixed locations. Housing and property were established. Chemicals and fertilizers were invented. Mechanization and food processing expanded. Food was preserved and transported. Farming led to a diet for which our bodies were not designed and caused poor health, hence the book’s title, Deadly Harvest. Obesity is not a problem of excess but of want for good food.

Bond provides an “Owner’s Manual” for the human body, simple rules that have worked for me:

  • Three-quarters of your diet should be low starch plants and fruits. Think greens and dark berries. My daily lunch is a hearty salad. Many dinners are stir-fry, soup or vegetable stew.
  • One-quarter of your diet should be protein. I cured carb addiction with protein bars.
  • A tenth of your calories should come from specific fats: Omega 3 and Omega 6. I am now pescetarian rather than vegetarian, i.e., I eat fish.
  • Avoid grains, legumes and potatoes. They contain sub-lethal does of poison that our bodies cannot handle. I have greatly reduced my bread consumption, though I still like a hearty whole grain bread with my vegetable soups.
  • Avoid dairy. Antigens attack our immunity.
  • Feel hungry thirty minutes twice per day. Glucagon is the hormone that converts fat to sugar in the bloodstream. Blood sugar must be low to activate it. I allow for that hungry feeling late morning and late afternoon, i.e., no snacks.

I am not purist — I allow occasional indulgences in my diet — but this basic pattern has put me back on track to health. I hope it is of benefit to you.

How to Quit without feeling S**t by Holford, Miller & Braly. The neurochemistry of buddhism.

How to Quit without feeling S**tI quit coffee yesterday. A mighty headache ensued but it passed. Today is much better. I started taking the practical advice in the book I’ve been reading, How to Quit without Feeling S**t (their asterisks) by Holford, Miller and Braly. I’m drinking herb and green tea. Green tea has caffeine but the effects are different. I’m taking Vitamin C and plenty of water for the headaches. I’m getting Omega-3 fats from flax. I could be doing more but I’m a tough guy.

Why quit coffee? I don’t consider it terrible for me, like the cigarettes I smoked for twenty years (and quit seven years ago). It doesn’t especially contribute to fatness or impair my judgment, like the alcohol I stopped drinking completely last year. It’s just that I’ve reached a turning point. I used to consider addiction a mystery and quitting something forced on me to ward off its consequences. But with each addiction I lay down, I am surprised how much my quality of life improves. Energy, both physical and mental. Clarity. An overall increased feeling of well-being. These days I’m trying to find new addictions to quit.

Addiction isn’t such a mystery after all. As Quit without S**t explains, we naturally feel pleasure when we do things that enhance our survival, good functioning, and reproduction. The neurons in our brain are activated by neurotransmitters made from amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Maintained in optimal quantities, our brain purrs like a kitten, rewarding us with good feelings. Addictive substances mimic neurotransmitters, tricking neurons into firing, artificially inducing pleasure, blocking the natural production of neurotransmitters and causing cravings. The pattern is typically progressive. Quitting an addiction causes a temporary period of irritability and anxiety until our brain resumes its natural production of neurotransmitters. The end state is one of gentle but more sustained pleasure. I’ll take it.

Still, I can’t help think there is a mysterious trajectory on this path. It is both eerie and wonderful how we are constructed to feel pleasure, almost as if we are being coached in a particular direction. But where? Quitting an addiction takes more than beating the physical cravings. I compare it to a journey of a thousand miles, beginning with a single step. It is a pilgrimage. Holford explains how the addicted brain develops a sensitivity to things associated with the addictive substance: the package containing the cigarettes, the bar where the drinks are served, the coffee shop where the caffeine is served. Quitting an addiction, all these accessories lose their sex appeal. The illusion is broken. Buddhists talk quite a bit about attachment and illusion. Maybe Quit without S**t explains the neurochemistry of Buddhism.

(Note: Quit without S**t is not about Buddhism; that’s my take on the subject.)

The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon. Strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness”.

The 100-Mile Diet“It was the kind of meal that, when the plates were clean, led some to dark corners to sleep with the hushing of the wind, and others to drink mulled wine until our voices had climbed an octave and finally deepened, in the small hours, into whispers.” (pg. 3)

The 100-Mile Diet begins in a cottage with no light, fridge, car or hot water; the kind of place I dream of when too immersed in the hectic daily business of life. Most of us would starve out there, or so we believe. After an inspired meal gathered only from the wild, Alisa and James launched a year-long diet of food only found within 100 miles of their home. They found themselves returning from their cottage not starving, but with armfuls more food than they arrived with.

Why would anyone limit themselves to eating locally? How does that help anyone? Doesn’t it deprive third-world farmers and truckers of their livelihoods? There are a number of persuasive reasons. Local foods have fewer pesticides and more nutrition. Seasonal variety is good for developing immunity. Unprocessed foods represent a real solution to the obesity problem. Distant foods are only affordable through cheap oil, arguably enforced politically. Sparing the miles reduces the carbon emissions that cause global warming. And about those third-world farmers: when the 1994 free trade agreement was signed, subsidized corn from America overwhelmed Mexico’s two million small farmers and their 5000 varieties of corn. The collapse of a local industry due to economic deals (or a train derailment spilling ten thousand gallons of caustic soda into the river and killing half a million fish) is merely one disaster in a global economy in which we can always go elsewhere. In a local economy, we are reminded that such events are a catastrophe.

Works for me. But how does one go about eating locally? And can it be done without a “depression style diet of beets, cabbage and potatoes” (pg. 24)? Alisa and James started simply, eating seasonally from the farmer’s markets. It is not tough to find these in your area, e.g., Ontario. They sensibly used up supplies like salt that were already in their cupboards, but when they ran out they improvised, e.g., refining salt from the ocean. They used honey instead of sugar; I have got to get me some of that pumpkin honey. The great revelation from local eating is the immense variety of tastes that can be found. It reminds me of my half-dozen batches of home-brewing I did a couple years ago. I started with simple recipes but then discovered real flavour by adding freshly rolled grains and hops.

I went grocery shopping when I was reading their book. I read the source of each product on its label. Local apple juice replaced California grapefruit juice, and blueberries replaced my sultan raisins from Iran. I had no idea that carbonated water came all the way from Italy or Germany; dropped that. I have not replaced coffee yet but I am thinking about herbal tea. I am sure olive oil can be exchanged for a healthy local vegetable oil. And local vegetables frozen when fresh are always a good choice.

Turning over a local leaf can get quite philosophical. Their diet was not vegetarian, and this raised the question of whether the animals had been fed locally. They lived near the US border; should they break the law by taking local foods across it? Inevitably, you have to ask yourself if you are doing this because you believe the world is falling apart. When Alisa and James were shucking corn in their apartment they felt like part of some apocalyptic cult. While it is hard not to wonder at times if our fast global culture can sustain itself, I have to count myself with them among the non-believers. Instead, I see progress as something that is not always linear; sometimes we have to take a few steps back to pick up something we missed. A few weeks ago I read an objection to slow food on the grounds that women would likely have to do most of the work (see comments in this Metafilter post). Both Alisa and James worked hard, but James did most of the cooking. Perhaps we had to step away from slow food for awhile to advance women’s rights, but now may be a time to return to it for our health and that of the planet.

Alisa and James are journalists by trade but they sure know how to have fun with language; they “scuffed over to the farmer’s stand” (pg. 53) and ate strawberries “superlatively sun-sweetened to the brink of sweet booziness” (pg. 54). The edge in their relationship was of no more interest to me than it appeared to be to James as they alternated narration by chapter; I wondered if Alisa was simply missing some nutrient in her diet. I much preferred the drama of their quest for wheat: the disappointment at the ruined bag, the discovery that wheat had been grown locally in 1890, and Alisa’s delight when she declared, “I found a wheat farmer” (pg. 184). With a little effort, everything was possible.