Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Trail

I first started running 21 years ago at the tender age of 16. In desperate need to shed some weight, running seemed like the best form of exercise to undertake. In conjunction with a couple of hours of bike riding (both stationary and 18-speed) per day, I I managed to shed 60 pounds that spring and early summer.

I've been running ever since, even as I gained back (and lost and gained and lost and gained and lost) the weight. The thing is, until about six years ago I never ran more than a few miles without stopping or walking. As a teenager I would walk the two and a half miles to the park, then start my running - one loop around the park at around 1.25 miles, plus the distance back. For most of my twenties when I ran it was usually a long combination of running and walking. It wasn't until Super Bowl Sunday, 2008 (the Giants shock the undefeated Patriots) that I finally ran more than five miles uninterrupted.

Since that day I've consistently been able to run without more than cursory walk stops, although there have been a few 90+ degree days after which I realized I shouldn't be out on the trail. By the end of 2008 I was running five times a week, and capped it off by running a half marathon length on the trail. The marathon was next.

And then kids happened. They say husbands often gain sympathy weight during pregnancy. I didn't - but did afterwards. My running became more sporadic. I was still able to run 7 or even 8 miles when I could find the time, but finding such time was becoming rarer and rarer. Finally, after the birth of our third child, I resolved to stop making excuses. I spent the winter shedding most of the weight I had gained back since the birth of our first child, and then vowed that I would get into marathon shape.

And so here I am, almost halfway through 18-weeks of semi-rigorous training. I decided to follow Hal Higdon's Novice 2 training schedule. It's geared for people like me who have never run a marathon but who have experience running. At this point in the training I am running not quite 30 miles a week, which is not stupendously rigorous. This past Saturday I ran 15 miles, which is the longest I have run at any point in my life, and there are longer runs ahead.

The only thing I have sacrificed is sleep. My alarm gets me out of bed by 5:30 most mornings, and thus far I have managed to stifle those internal voices telling me to just hit snooze and forget about working out. It hasn't been that difficult to rouse myself, as I frankly look forward to running and sort of resent my non-running days (which are three days out of the week).

Only once in the nine weeks so far have I thought to myself, "Why the hell am I doing this?" It came in the middle of a particularly 12-mile run, and I imagine it will cross my mind again as the long runs get longer. But as long as I have some good tunes and a peaceful trail at my disposal, I'm feeling good.

At any rate, nine weeks from this Saturday I will be running the Baltimore Marathon. If I finish the thing in under five hours I'd be pretty happy, and I'd be ecstatic with 4.5 hours. Then again, as long as I finish the damned thing, I think I will feel some sense of accomplishment.

Almost there.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Basic Tenets of BBQism

Sorry for the very extended delay. I've found that once you let a blog go for a few days, it is hard to get back in the game. Hopefully now that I am fully in the middle of a marathon training (more in a future post) I will have some more things to share.

This post is a random assortment of observations and pet peeves that will hopefully serve as some kind of guidance.

1.  Enough with the no-fat nonsense.
I was corrected on Facebook for particularly focusing on yogurt as there may be some practical reasons for the existence for non-fat yogurt, but in general non-fat stuff is simply crap. Not only does non-fat food usually taste significantly worse than full-fat food, it's not any healthier. Calories are what counts, not necessarily where the calories are from, and non-fat stuff is usually loaded up with sugar. In the end, you are consuming just about the same amount of calories. What's more, fat tends to fill you up more than sugar, so you are likely to get hungrier quicker if you go with the non-fat option. Finally, who wants to taste a dry, 90% lean burger when you can have a glorious 80% or even 75% lean one?

2. Dieting isn't what you think it is.
This is connected to the first point. You might think that in order to lose weight you need to stop eating things like bacon and eggs and replace these items with "healthy" alternatives. In some cases you may have to, but that is rarely the case. People overestimate how many calories are in things like bacon and eggs and underestimate how much are in other products. Four slices of bacon add up to approximately 200-250 calories, depending on the cut. Two whole eggs are about 150 calories total, and less than half than that if you only eat the whites (which is frankly where a lot of the nutrition is). So a breakfast of bacon and eggs will be anywhere between 300-500 calories, depending on how you prepare it. That "healthy" muffin might contain as many calories if not more, and it will not fill you up or keep you as full as the alternative. Even a fruit smoothie will probably contain as many, if not more calories. Now, there are other reasons to go with the fruit smoothie (like the vitamins), but calories shouldn't be why.

Long story short, the key to dieting is keeping careful track of what you eat. If you need to write down what you eat, especially at the beginning, in order to track your calories, that's all well and good. The main thing is that you at least don't intake more calories than you burn if you're goal is weight maintenance, and to burn more calories than you consume if your goal is weight loss. It doesn't exactly matter what you eat, which brings me to point number three.

3. Fad diets will fail.
If you're on a diet that requires you to stop eating entire categories of food, it almost certainly will not work in the long run. I am sympathetic to some of the specialized diets that are out there, especially the paleo diet. There are definitely foods that do pack more nutritional punches than others, and if you are on a strict calorie count you need to economize on the foods you eat, so it is wise to avoid those sugar-laden, processed foods. But are you going to tell me that potatoes and legumes are completely out? Please. You shouldn't have to walk around with a list in order to decide whether or not you can eat something. Not only is it going to prevent you from eating relatively healthy foods, but it will eventually simply drive you mad, until you crack, eat the forbidden food, and despair that you have blown your diet.

Even worse than ditching food categories are ditching food elements, which leads me to item four . . .

4. Stop it with the gluten free stuff already.
Unless you are gluten sensitive or have celiac disease, knock it off with the gluten free madness. First of all, half the stuff that gets labelled "gluten free" couldn't possibly have gluten. Oh, you went to Whole Foods and spent an extra five bucks for that "gluten free" steak. Good for you, now here's a smack for being an idiot. More importantly, gluten is just a protein. The thing itself has no adverse impact on your diet, unless of course you are in the aforementioned categories. Maybe it's the entire loaf of bread that you ate that's causing you indigestion, not the gluten that's in it.

5. Stop listening to fraudulent experts.
This one's dangerous because here I am giving you advice, and I have no scientific or health background, but at least I'm not pretending to be an expert. But when a business major who goes around calling herself the "Food Babe" declares that certain foods are dangerous because they contain chemicals she's never heard of, somehow millions of people listen. Yeah, we better look out that dihydrogen monoxide, it sure looks suspicious.

Folks like the Food Babe have led efforts to warn people about the supposed dangers of genetically modified foods. Of course these people pose as experts despite lacking any relevant expertise, meanwhile they get rich by ripping off dupes getting people to buy their organic and "wholesome" products.

Let's settle this now - there is no credible evidence indicating that GMO products are a greater health risk than organic food. Now if you want to spend double buying organic because it soothes your conscience, that's on you, just don't manipulate people into thinking they are improving their health or frankly that the food tastes significantly better. And please don't brainwash people into thinking that something that literally feeds millions more people than traditional methods is somehow evil.

6. Don't obsess.
The worst thing you can do about food, dieting and health is to stress about it, because stress itself is bad for your health and bad for your diet. There is a lot of information out there, and a lot of different resources telling you completely contradictory things. What you need to do is find out what works for you, and stick to your program. That's it.

Now as my grandmother would say, MANGIA!

Friday, March 21, 2014

I Have Found My New Training Regimen

Memories, in the corner of my mind.
You better believe that little nine-year old Paulie was training, taking his vitamins, and saying his prayers.

Somewhere in my mother's house there is still a pair of blue, 3-pound barbells.

Say It Isn't So

I am shocked - SHOCKED! - that the results of a new study have challenged a long held health-related assumption. That so very rarely happens nowadays. At any rate, the latest news is that saturated fat may not be so bad for you after all.
Many of us have long been told that saturated fat, the type found in meat, butter and cheese, causes heart disease. But a large and exhaustive new analysis by a team of international scientists found no evidence that eating saturated fat increased heart attacks and other cardiac events.
The new findings are part of a growing body of research that has challenged the accepted wisdom that saturated fat is inherently bad for you and will continue the debate about what foods are best to eat.
Naturally this should be taken with a grain of salt (which, incidentally, has also been found to not be so deleterious to your health). Nor is the green light being given to eat cheesebugers morning, noon, and night. 
But Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the findings should not be taken as “a green light” to eat more steak, butter and other foods rich in saturated fat. He said that looking at individual fats and other nutrient groups in isolation could be misleading, because when people cut down on fats they tend to eat more bread, cold cereal and other refined carbohydrates that can also be bad for cardiovascular health.
“The single macronutrient approach is outdated,” said Dr. Hu, who was not involved in the study. “I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients.”
He said people should try to eat foods that are typical of the Mediterranean diet, like nuts, fish, avocado, high-fiber grains and olive oil. A large clinical trial last year,which was not included in the current analysis, found that a Mediterranean diet with more nuts and extra virgin olive oil reduced heart attacks and strokes when compared with a lower fat diet with more starches.
Here's an idea: Eat what you want, but don't eat too much of any single thing. That works pretty well for most people.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Breakfast of Champions


On Sunday I finally hit my goal weight. No, this was not my ultimate goal weight, but rather the weight at which it was now okay to once again eat donuts. So I grabbed my very excited five year old daughter* and headed to Dunkin' Donuts.

*If you want to get a child to get dressed and otherwise behave, promising donuts is the way to go. At least with my child.

So after four months I finally bit into a donut - a Vanilla Cream, followed by a Boston Cream. Hey, after four months, I was going to get my money's worth.

And I gotta sey: eh. Maybe I've lost the taste, but it now seems to me that there are better ways to spend 800 calories.

As for the John Belushi skit above, I indeed did run off all donut calories later that morning. So, at least for one day, donuts were on my training table.

Friday, February 28, 2014

It's Time to Explode Some Dieting Myths

Let's face it, we're fed a lot of bull-oney about dieting and proper nutrition. Not all of the myths perpetuated about dieting stem from malicious intent. Scientists conduct studies that seem to indicate one thing, and then later studies which are based on advances in technology and/or understanding contradict those earlier findings. What is infuriating is the refusal to let go of ways of thinking that have been proven to be wrong.

One prime example of this is the Body Mass Index, or BMI. BMI has been used for decades as a way of gauging whether or not a person is overweight or even - SHUDDER - obese. It has the advantage of being a fairly straightforward measure that makes some sense as it is arrived at by dividing a person's height in inches by their weight. A score between .18 and .25 is considered good. If you are between .25 and .30 you are considered overweight, and anything over .30 is considered obese.

Unfortunately real-life experience reveals the faults of this measurement. For instance, according to BMI I would be considered obese. I do happen to possess what is commonly referred to as a mirror, and I am fairly confident that, pudgy though I might remain even after losing 30 pounds, I am not obese. In fact I don't even think I would have qualified as obese pre-weight loss, but that might be a matter of conjecture.

Indeed BMI is just not a very useful tool when applied with people who have large frames or who are athletes. In fact, it is pretty much acknowledged to be - and I'm being charitable here - an incomplete measure of health and fitness. Just google "problems with BMI" and you'll get a ton of articles and links detailing all the faults with BMI. And yet doctors insist on relying on this fairly outdated measure when discussing your diet.

Enter Nir Krakauer who, with his father Jesse, has devised an alternative measurement called ABSI, which stands for A Body Shape Index. The background paper can be found at this link, and the actual calculator here. What they've done is tweak BMI, but in a way that intuitively makes sense, by adding waist circumference to the calculation. According to this measure I am now merely in the overweight category, and actually am above average (or I guess below avaerage, as it were) for my age group. Now I'm not promoting this just because it happens to put me in a better light, but rather because it makes intuitive sense and is backed up by reality. Now I'm sure that even this has its problems and faults, but it does seem to be an improvement over the traditional BMI.

On a slightly different note, it is clearly one of the missions of this blog to show that you don't have to just eat leafy greens in order to lose weight, and that meat is a perfectly healthy and acceptable part of any diet, granted that you eat in relative moderation. So I am pleased to link to this Business Insider article exploding 8 ridiculous myths about meat. The article is just wonderful, and this might just be the best part:

Quality meat is pretty close to being the perfect food for humans. It contains most of the nutrients we need. There is even a study in the literature where two guys ate nothing but meat and organs for a year and remained in excellent health (37).
All I can say to that is:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Barbecuers Delight

I realize that I haven't lived up to the barbecue portion of the blog's title, so I'm gonna make up for that with a double treat: barbecued chicken and bacon.

All right, it's not bacon wrapped chicken, but rather me knocking out two glorious treats at once.

I've discussed smoked bacon before, but here is a visual to go along with it. In this particular case I rubbed sea salt, pink salt, and sugar on the pork belly a week before smoking. Then when it was time to put it in the smoker, I took it out of the fridge and rubbed a bit more salt and brown sugar on the belly. It's hard to see it in this picture, but the brown sugar becomes nicely carmelized as it smokes.

It took a little longer than usual to bring the pork belly up to the right temperature (around 150), but after two hours it was just right. And it was indeed spectacular.

The chicken recipe comes from the book Smoke and Spice. This has been my go-to guide for smoking since I began doing it a couple of years ago, and almost all of the recipes have been great. For the chicken, I applied a spice rub consisting of paprika, salt, pepper, sugar and a bunch of other spices the night before on both chickens. First, I melted some butter and Worcestershire sauce and rubbed it on the chicken, on and under the skin, and then applied the rub.

When the chicken was ready for the smoker, I re-rubbed a bit of the spice. I also cut up chunks of onions and lemon and inserted them into the cavities of each chicken. Once in the smoker, I applied a lemon-butter mop that includes melted butter, chicken stock, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and the last bit of the rub.

After three and a half hours the chickens hadn't quite come up to temperature, so I put them in the oven to finish them off. I made some black sauce (Worcestershire sauce and vinegar) to go with them. In the end, they came out almost perfectly.