Monday, July 30, 2012

Sourcing High Quality Food

Sustainable Balance can now be found at:

This will be my last post about food for a while as I have a whole array of other topics to talk about.  Next will be sleep, but I wanted to finish this series on food I’ve been doing.

Are all foods created equal?  Does it matter?  Is organic better?  Is it worth stressing about?  I know fat is good, but what kind of fats?  Let us begin:


Go to farmer’s markets (when they’re in season) for the freshest seasonal stuff.  If it’s local, it’s much more likely to have been fresh picked and not sitting on a truck and then a fridge for days/weeks.  It’s going to have highest nutrient value, and most importantly, it’s going to taste the best.  Even better: grow your own!  At least to some degree, why not? 

Grocery stores are just fine though, and there are different options there.  Organic is good, but it doesn’t HAVE to be organic.  From the studies I’ve seen, organic is typically more nutritious, but not always by enough to justify being neurotically religious about it.  Just wash your veggies/fruits, and conventional produce is still produce (ie: WAY better than donuts).  Your best bet is to find places that sell “natural”, so you know that it’s only mildly contaminated with chemicals, and you’re not paying the premium for the “organic” label (specific produce stores are good for this).  Sometimes the organic stuff is incredible, but sometimes it’s a bit of a rip-off.  Just get fresh stuff and wash it. 

Frozen stuff is a great compromise.  They’re usually frozen at their peak of ripeness, and retain most of their nutrition.  Fresh tastes better, but having some frozen veggies/berries around is super handy and still pretty good.  Frozen berries in smoothies are fantastic.  See my last post for a dynamite smoothie recipe.

Include variety.  The more veggies/fruits you try and learn to enjoy, the more options you’ll have.  That way, whatever is in season and cheapest becomes your selection. 

Nuts are expensive, but are typically cheaper if you buy them in bulk.  I don’t recommend eating TONS of nuts and seeds (unless properly soaked/sprouted, which is a pain) since they do contain a dose of anti-nutrients, and are high in poly-unsaturated fatty acids (see below).  A handful or two is great as a satisfying protein-and-fat packed snack, but that’s all they should ever be (or maybe a topping on a dessert).  Macadamias are my favourite!  Coincidentally, they are usually the most expensive.  I was in Australia where they are native (and thus somewhat cheaper), and holy crap they were addictive.


This is probably more important.  You’re going to start getting a lot more of your calories from animal products since you are NO LONGER AFRAID OF FAT.  As an aside: don’t fear cholesterol either.  If you don’t eat cholesterol, your liver will produce it for you, keeping the total amount of it relatively constant.  Cholesterol is very important, and is necessary for our survival.  Cholesterol turns into plaque and can cause obstruction only where there is chronic inflammation, so control your inflammation (with proper diet and stress control), and don’t fear your friend cholesterol.  For more info, read this.

I’ll start this off by saying that FACTORY FARMS SUCK.  They’re gross.  Stressed out animals are all crammed in together eating unnatural foods (for them), and are loaded up with antibiotics (because they’re SICK) and growth hormones.  Not only does this negatively effect the surrounding environment, but this also results in lower-quality and somewhat toxin-ridden food for us.  As meat-eaters in modern society, it’s hard to avoid this stuff completely.  At most restaurants this is what you’re getting (definitely at fast food joints, and even at “fancier” ones).  This is why I typically try not to go to restaurants much, but will compromise and go sometimes for social and convenience reasons (like a “normal” person, as they say).  Another reason I avoid restaurants is that a lot of them use liberal amounts of the industrial seed oils for cooking (canola, soy, corn, etc).  Especially in the deep fryer (it should be beef fat! Or coconut oil).  Gross.  I do find myself eating (and enjoying…) this stuff when there isn’t a better choice though.  The world ain’t perfect, but we can try our damndest to support the good guys more.  There are ways to responsibly eat animals.

Most of the big grocery stores will have “natural”, “hormone and antibiotic free”, and for the big-spenders “organic”.  These are all a step-up from factory farms, but do cost more to produce since it has to be done (currently) on a smaller scale.  For beef specifically, the best for us, for the cattle, and for the environment is fully grass-fed and grass-finished.  Produces the best product: a healthy, natural cow/steer.  It can be tough to find, and you’ll pay big if you buy it one steak at a time.  For this reason, my number one tip for eating all animals is to BUY A FREEZER and ORDER DIRECTLY FROM NATURAL FARMERS.  You get the best products (in taste AND nutrition) at the cheapest prices (down below $5 a pound depending on the animal and provider).  You can find these people at farmer’s markets, or on the internet.  Just google your city and whatever animal you’re looking for.  You can usually get ~20 pound sampler packs, or you can go big and get a quarter/half/whole animal.  You get to learn how to cook all sorts of great animal parts!!!  You usually get an organ or two with your order, and I must say, these are actually the most nutritious parts of the animal!  Look for a good recipe and try them out.  Heart is the easiest to start with as it tastes like meat (wait…it IS meat!).  Liver tastes like…liver.  Liver goes great chopped up real small with ground meat though.  You can make bone broth out of the bones too, which is CRAZY nutritious, and hella good in all sorts of recipes.  Get creative, and don’t be a wuss.

If you don’t want to take that plunge, then find a good grocery store, or my favourite: a great butcher shop!  They might have bulk order packs to save even more money.  The cheapest bet for “normal” meat (aka muscle meat), and what I use a lot of, is ground meats.  You can put this stuff in anything.  I’ll show a couple options below.  Then there’s the tougher whole cuts.  These usually have to be marinated before being good, or slow cooked.  Always Google it to know how to cook it!  The pricey stuff rules, but is pricey.  Save it for special occasions, or just be baller.  It’s up to you.   For chicken, which is pretty cheap, the best thing to do is buy WHOLE CHICKENS.  That’s usually $2-$4 a pound as opposed to up to $12 a pound for boneless/skinless/worthless.  I eat LOTS of ground meats, sausages, and whole chickens due to cheapness.  I have tricks for making it great.  See my meal ideas if you’re interested.

 Fats and Oils:

This stuff is fun.  Since really starting to understand nutrition, I’ve put a lot of time into learning the biochemistry of all the different macronutrients, and most notably that of fat.  I’m planning a more in depth post I’m currently calling “The layman’s guide to fatty-acid chemistry” (I swear this will be interesting…to me), but for now I’ll just briefly discuss the different types of edible fats that are good for human consumption and basically how to use them and where to get them.  All fats contain a mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.  The relative amounts of each type determine a fat’s fatty acid profile.  The fatty acid profiles determine which situation the fats should be used in.

For cooking (heat!):

You want fats that contain mostly saturated fatty acids for situations where you’ll be applying a lot of heat.  These are typically solid at room temperature.  Now, there are “artificially” saturated fats that are usually labeled “hydrogenated vegetable oil” or, at least SOMETHING hydrogenated.  This is the process of taking liquid (at room temperature) fats, and through the chemical process of hydrogenation (yes, hydrogen is involved) turning them solid.  The result is mutant gunk that we should not consume, but most of us unknowingly do.  I hate to shock you bakers out there (actually, I truly enjoy it), but Crisco is exactly that: hydrogenated vegetable oil.  Avoid it.  Use lard like the old days!!!  Or screw baking in general (I’m cool with that, but most people are not…).

So, good cooking oils:

- Butter
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil (sort of like coconut oil, but slightly less saturated)
- Animal fats (lard, bacon fat, beef tallow, duck fat etc.)

Butter can easily be purchased at any grocery store.  The best of the best comes from a grass-fed cow, but that can be tricky to find.  Any good quality butter will do for cooking though.  Coconut oil can now be found at most grocery stores, and certainly at any decent health food store, but it’s expensive (and awesome).  The best bet if you like coconut oil is to buy a gallon off of a distributor like Tropical Traditions.  A gallon lasts me six months, and doesn’t go bad since it’s so stable.  Chemistry!  Same goes for palm oil.  Animal fats can be purchased from butchers, or can be collected yourself!  Leftover bacon fat?  Now it’s cooking fat.  Same goes for fats from all meats (FROM HEALTHY ANIMALS!!!).  Stop trimming it off!  It’s great!

And, for very light sautéing, there is the ever-popular  and easy-to-find olive oil.  This stuff contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids (read: only one unsaturation, so it’s a liquid, but just barely). Don’t get this stuff super hot for a long time, but use for light sautés, as the flavour rules.  More unsaturated fatty acids below.

For dressings/toppings:

Here’s where we step into liquid.  Fats that contain mostly mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids aren’t as resistant to heat (wussies!), but are nutritious nonetheless.  By “less resistant” I mean they "oxidize" and produce a bunch of toxic and inflammatory free-radicals when exposed to lots of heat and/or light.  These include olive oil, avocado oil, all nut/seed oils, fish oils, and the industrial seed oils.   Eliminate the industrial seed oils completely (or as much as possible – no soy, canola, or corn oil), but you can use the others somewhat liberally as they are less processed, and as a result there is WAY less oxidative damage in the form of free-radicals.  Mono-unsaturated fatty acids are fantastic for energy, but too much poly-unsaturated can lead to problems.  This is why nuts shouldn’t be a HUGE part of your diet, but are good and nutritious in moderation (think a few handfuls a week, and occasionally more of a splurge).  

Olive oil is really easy to find (make sure it’s not mixed with canola) almost anywhere, and the others are generally at higher-end grocery stores and good health food stores.  They’re not hugely necessary, but are good enough, and add variety and delicious flavour to foods. 

An aside on fish oils:  these provide certain "omega-3" poly-unsaturated fatty acids that provide tons of health benefits.  I recommend a good fish oil supplement if you don't eat fatty fish on a regular basis.  Nuts provide "omega-6", which is also essential, but we tend to get waaaay too much of it.

As always, Mark Sisson does a better job of talking about fats than I do:

Okay, enough about food!  Next post will be about another huge part (and often sub-prioritized) part of your health: SLEEEEPPPPP!!!!!!!!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Why Create a Regimen?

Sustainable Balance can now be found at:

Before I get into the specifics of learning to design and execute your regimen, the obvious first question to answer is: Why create a regimen for yourself in the first place?  It’s a good question.  To begin, I will admit that a regimen isn’t for everyone.  If you’re the type of person who doesn’t have specific goals (at least, at this time in your life), and you’re happy with the current state of your existence and your productivity (or lack thereof), then there is no point to a regimen.  However, if you do have goals, and these goals are ambitious, and you have other responsibilities to deal with as well, then a regimen can maximize your success.  For that type of person, a regimen will move you towards your goals without neglecting the other things in your life.  It’s simply a plan for how you spend your time to accomplish as much as you can without burning yourself out.  It allows you the freedom to detach from wondering whether you actually will accomplish your goals because you know that you are on the path that you have chosen.  Obviously my goals are very health and fitness oriented, but this type of thinking applies to everything.  I find bringing this philosophy to fitness and health helps me breathe this to everything else in my life.  More on this later. 

To be on a regimen, you don’t have to hold to the plan 100% of the time.  That is impossible anyway.  If circumstances change (as they do) and you miss part of your regimen, you just continue on the path 
as if it didn’t happen.  Now, obviously the point of a regimen is that you try your best to make it happen, but it can become a source of stress if you don’t have contingency plans for when it doesn’t work out.  A regimen must be sustainable in this way.  The regimen being occasionally broken is part of the regimen.  This will allow flexibility, and decrease the likelihood of you resenting your regimen over time and breaking from it.  Also, a good regimen is one that invites occasional change.  As goals and priorities change, so does the regimen.  That isn’t to say that it should be constantly changing.  There should be periods of time where you stick to it in a constant fashion, but its more the practice of having a regimen that is really important in attaining your goals and growing as a person, not the regimen in and of itself (to a point…). 

Having a wisely planned regimen will also provide measurable results and progress that you can incorporate into your plan.  By keeping track of your results and progress (as part of the regimen…) you can methodically move forward and closer to your goal.  This way you won’t hack away doing the same thing over and over, but will increase the difficulty of productivity of your regimen.  I must stress that more time doesn’t necessarily have to be put into your particular goals (though, this is sometimes true), but you do have to progress forward in terms of what you do with that set amount of time.   No wasted time if you do this right!  Another important part of the regimen is when you are engaged in a part of it, you bring as much of your consciousness as you can into it.  If you’re working – work!  If you’re at the gym – lift!  If you’re cooking – cook!  A good trick to stay focused is to accept that it’s actually impossible (unless you are SUPER passionate about something – good for you if this is true).  I have accepted this for some things, and a trick I use is to “gap out” for five minutes every 20-30 minutes.  Allow your mind to wander for a full five minutes every so often, but BRING BACK THE FOCUS, and the regimen continues…you don’t have to do this, but it works for me.

So, creating a regimen (for me) is for attaining all your goals efficiently.  A goal can be anything:  Getting in shape (a great one!), learning a skill, working more effectively, spending more time with family/friends, holding to a budget, etc.  The structure of the regimen is based on a few factors.  The first is responsibilities that you can’t control.  Say you have a 9-5 job (already a regimen of sorts, but not one you’ve created yourself).  It is obviously ridiculous to schedule your cello practice during this time.  This type of schedule (a very common one) is at least fairly predictable, so why not bang away at that cello three times a week after work for an hour?  Make it happen.  That’s only three hours a week.  Maybe some weeks it’s two, and maybe some weeks it’s four.  Maybe sometimes you get up early to do it instead!  Make it happen (if playing the cello well is your goal, of course).  I find these predictable schedules actually work best with regimens, but even with a more flexible schedule you can be fairly regimented.  Other responsibilities could include taking care of people (kids?  I wouldn’t know, haha), or helping others, or working additional jobs.  Priorities also dictate the structure of the regimen.  If there really is no time, then goals will have to be prioritized.  Some goals have to be put on the backburner until you have either accomplished the first goal, or now have the time to pursue another one (part of an “over-arching” regimen, if you will).  During the last year of grad school, I had to scale back on several hobbies (music and sports) and the amount of free time I had to finish my thesis within the time frame I had given myself (priorities!).  The only hobby I kept was fitness and health (though, even that was reduced, no gains, maintenance only), which I believe helped power me through.   Now that school is over, I’m really making an effort to bring them all back into my life.

Some people might say that having a regimen sucks the passion out of life.  It reduces spontaneity and creates robotic individuals.  I understand this viewpoint, but I disagree.  I think an integral part of any regimen is scheduling in “fuckaround” time.  This time is there to do with whatever feels right in the moment.  There can be a little bit every day, or a whole day devoted to it, or a combination of that!  It’s a refreshing change from being focused so often, and brings that spontaneity back!  Anything goes during that time….It’s all part of creating a regimen that you enjoy (for the most part), so that ironically it actually doesn’t feel like a regimen, but just a very effective, productive, and successful lifestyle. It sounds a little less than fun, but its actually quite effective.  I like to call it “planned spontaneity”.   You can also, once in a while, blow off a planned practice for a good reason (a friend came to town, the weather is too nice to pass up, your wife is in labour, etc), but make sure it’s a good reason.  Don’t lie to yourself.

So, those are my reasons for why I like to create a regimen for myself, and suggest to others to do the same.  As I said before, fitness and health is the core of my regimen.  It brings together everything else, and gives me the strength and stamina to accomplish so much more.  I just moved to a new city (Vancouver), and am in a transition, so the regimen is in flux, but the goals haven’t changed.  Here are my goals around which I’ve been creating my regimen: 

-           1.  Continue to get physically stronger in a time-efficient and healthy manner (yes, physique is a part of the goal for this, but this is also for physical and mental wellbeing along with overall athleticism)
       2.  Continue a healthy diet based on whole foods (Primal!  Mostly…) that I procure and cook almost entirely myself
       3.  Get adequate sleep almost every night (note: almost!  Sometimes you gotta work late, and sometimes you gotta PARTY!  Partying is also part of my regimen – its gotta happen!)
       4.  Be as productive as possible during the workday to make time for other goals (work is in flux right now, but networking to find a job IS a job!  Plus I’m trying to get my grad school researched published – been time consuming!)
             5.  Though I’m finished with university, continue to learn more and more about science!  I WILL figure out quantum field theory some day!  And general relativity!  And biochemistry!  Computer programming!  And…and…the list is endless there.  Oh yeah, and by December I'll be writing engineering exams to get my professional registration in order.  
      6.  Teach science to others (I’m currently tutoring high school math, physics, and chemistry until I find a job, though I think I will continue tutoring as its been very rewarding, but maybe for free if I find the right outlet)
            7.  Improve at the guitar and piano (and the ukulele!), and make sure I sing as loud as I can on a regular basis.  Music in general.
      8.  Spend “fuckaround” time with people that are important to me
         9.  Spend “fuckaround” time alone to recharge (I can be introverted…I need time alone to have energy for others)
        10.  Start new positive relationships at every opportunity
        11.  Write for this blog at least once a month

      Those are my goals, responsibilities are currently low, but will eventually (hopefully!) include a full-time job with a commute.  

NEXT POST:  What my current regimen looks like, and why.  Starting with fitness and nutrition, and moving forward with the rest of the goals.  

Hint:  Its based on the “week” schedule, but not every week looks the same.  

Friday, February 10, 2012

Okay, I'm starting again...

Sustainable Balance can now be found at:

Well, although I told myself I would put up a few posts over the past year or so, grad school got the better of me and I never got around to it. I'm now going to finish the story from where I left off: Discovering evolutionary health and fitness ideas, and beginning to incorporate them.

I met some people during this time who also suffered from what I was starting to call "IBS" (irritable bowel syndrome), and the concept of gluten-free diets was introduced to me. Gluten - basically a protein present in some grains - was apparently quite allergenic to some people (celiacs) and resulted in several different symptoms ranging from an IBS symptoms to migraines to arthritis. Being something of a scientist, I wanted to test my own sensitivity to gluten. On the blog "Mark's Daily Apple" (by my now-hero, Mark Sisson), I found a post called "Why Grains are Unhealthy". It blew my mind that something so ingrained (ugh) and encouraged in our society could actually be causing health problems. I'll let you read the link for the details, but essentially the gluten, lectins, and phytates present in ALL grains (ESPECIALLY WHOLE GRAINS) makes them essentially pointless to consume. The only thing they're good for is providing your body with a smash of glucose along with allergens and anti-nutrients. Awesome. Mark also created a graph called the "Carbohydrate Curve", which was fairly in-line with what I already thought about carbohydrates: if you're going to limit one macronutrient, this is the one (my thoughts on this have changed somewhat as I don't think it applies to everyone uniformly, but for me it still pretty much does). Obviously, hefty portions of protein were part of his prescription. Mark also encouraged the consumption of natural fats for most of your energy, and the idea of becoming a "fat burner" (having a dominantly fat burning metabolism) as opposed to getting hooked on blasts of sugar every 2-3 hours. He also encouraged the consumption of heat-stable saturated fatty acids, and recommended limiting your polyunsaturated fat intake due to their propensity for becoming oxidized by relatively small amounts of heat and light (oxidized fats = bad). Industrial vegetable oils were thus eliminated as well (canola, corn, soybean, etc.) as he explained that they were responsible for a lot of body inflammation, and their introduction into indigenous cultures worldwide always preceded a rise in heart disease and obesity (along with the introduction of refined foods, of course).

So, as I was pretty low-carb already, I bought right into ditching grains entirely. I don't even know why I was hanging on (tastiness of some things, probably). Out went the toast, pizza, wraps, pitas, pasta, oatmeal, granola bars, cereal, corn products...and as it turned out: almost anything processed at all. My intake of meat, eggs, nuts, veggies, and fruits was already pretty high, but I increased the overall fat content by cooking in butter and my new favourite: coconut oil. I was slathering that stuff on! Then...interesting things started to happen. The first thing I noticed is that I started to sleep more soundly. I would sleep through the night (amazing for me), and wake up easily feeling pretty good. I would eat a big breakfast of bacon and eggs with veggies (no toast...maybe a bit of fruit), and then, to my amazement (after a while) EASILY MAKE IT TO LUNCH WITH NO HUNGER! At first I kept cramming down my mid-morning snacks (nuts and fruits) out of habit, before I realized I just didn't want it anymore! By lunch, I would be...hungry, but not starving. It was a light hunger, with no accompanying irritability or weakness, and it typically didn't happen for 4-5 hours after breakfast (breakfast at 7, hungry around noon). Then it was usually a salad with meat of some kind, and I would cruise until 4-5 pm, maybe have some nuts, then eat dinner at 6-7 (meat and veggies in coconut oil or butter). No more late-night snacking necessary, I was fine! My appetite was totally in control. I added up the calories (I now realize this is mostly pointless) and was well under maintenance calories, but felt no real hunger! I leaned out bigtime on this, all while not even working out that much (I was super busy with school, and pretty sick of working out at this time in my life). I felt great! Mark had written some posts about "intermittent fasting" (infrequent, short fasts usually not lasting longer than 24 hours) and their potential health benefits, so I decided to give it a shot.

I'm not going to go into detail on intermittent fasting, since its already been done by several more reputable authors, so I'll just provide a few links: 1. The Myriad Benefits of Intermittent Fasting, by Mark Sisson 2. Eat, Stop, Eat, by Brad Pilon (amazing book for the scientifically minded, and for the layman), and 3. Martin Berkhan's entire blog, Leangains. These guys basically all recommend a simple prescription for optimal health: Lots of good food, strength training, and the occasional short-term fast.

With my new-found energy, I wanted to get back into strength training, but balked at the idea of spending up to 10 hours a week in the gym, and being exhausted and starving all the time. Luckily, Mark Sisson also had some ideas for fitness training. His "Fitness Pyramid" involved a base of TONS of low-intensity exercise (this was exercise? Walking, light biking...exercise?), with a bit of QUALITY strength training, and at the top was the all-out effort that comes with sprint sets. So - I set up my new fitness "regimen" - two or three (third was optional!) total body strength training sessions (lasting about 40 mins each), and one "sprint day", where instead of traditional sprint sets, I played ultimate frisbee and sprinted my ass off.

Within 2 months, I was breaking all my old strength records (while weighing about 25 lbs less than before), running faster and jumping higher while playing ultimate, and almost never feeling overly exhausted or hungry. I felt and looked fantastic. I've been tinkering with the fitness routine for a couple of years now, and have it pretty minimalistic, but highly effective. I'm training about 2 hours a week now (training HARD, but not super often), and getting lots of light aerobic activity (I LOVE HIKING). Eating mostly fat for energy, lots of plants and animals, and little-to no grains or sugar (I'm pretty healed up now, so the odd bit doesn't kill me). I basically follow Martin Berkan's Leangains protocol (training fasted, eating in a somewhat flexible 8-hour window), am very strong for my weight, and keep seeing gains. Training doesn't take over my life anymore, and either does food. Granted, I train HARD and eat LOTS, but I feel very in control now. I listen to my body, and I know when I need to eat, or back off, or give 110%. And when I fall off the rails (ditch workouts, eat some crap) its so easy to get right back on. CLICK! I barely even think about it anymore...its natural. What I love about this is feeling as though my body is as optimized as I can get it without devoting all my free time. This allows me to stay fit and strong and healthy while having the time to explore more interesting topics such as science, psychology, philosophy,

There's more to this lifestyle. Optimizing sleep is important, as is getting sufficient sunlight (a lot of unfiltered too - no sunglasses or sunscreen). Its all part of the "primal/paleo" way of life. This isn't JUST a diet, its realizing that our bodies aren't designed for chronic stress (stress = too much exercise, shitty food, low-quality sleep, overwork), but for ACUTE stress followed by recovery periods. Now, in the modern world (where I'm something of a workaholic) this isn't always possible, so I have some methods of dealing with chronic stress that I've been using to stay somewhat primal in the modern world. I got through an intense graduate degree in engineering while holding to these principles, and feeling pretty good the whole time while working TONS under stressful deadlines.

That's the next post! Designing your regime. No excuses.