#living vitally

Clearing up the Whole Omega-3 Confusion

on Apr 27, 2010

Oh my god! It has Omega-3! It must be healthy! Look at all the flax seed! Eat more fish! This whole omega-3 thing is a mess and an unexpected consequence of “broken” food. You’ve probably heard about how we’re supposed to have a not so disproportionate ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and yet we have way too much of the latter, hence creating a business friendly market for the former. Basically, you mostly get these two forms of fatty acids from more green foods for omega-3s and more grain foods for omega-6s. This effect is amplified by eating animal products because what the animals eat matters, A LOT. So much of our livestock, which is naturally inclined to eat greens (especially cows and chicken) are now on grain diets. Oops, factory farming has done it again!

Now you’ve definitely heard that you should eat fish (or fish oil) to get omega-3s and there’s a real simple reason fish are good for it: they eat greens (algae). Oh, except for factory farmed fish where, you guessed it, the omega-3 benefit has vanished. Double oops. The health consequences could be quite substantial. Basically omega-6s cause an inflammatory response in the body while omega-3s do the opposite. Theoretically, the body’s system becomes totally out of whack with an imbalance of fatty acids and we get all sorts of nasty problems, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. And the opposite effect appears for omega-3s, which means food companies are trying to ride this health wave by cramming omega-3s into all sorts of food products. Whether there’s an actual health impact from this is questionable. A better approach, for the wary eater, is to try to keep things balanced. Vegetable oils, found in so many processed foods, are a big culprit (lots of omega-6s). As are factory farmed animal products, including dairy. I’m not saying it’s so bad to have omega-6s; it’s just bad to have so much of it relative to omega-3s. So do try to get more greens in the diet. It’s a big win since green foods (and I mean vegetables) have an incredible array of health benefits.

Trash the Sports Drinks, Stick with Water

on Apr 13, 2010

Is it in you?

Sorry Gatorade, you got the wrong guy. It’s all water here and it costs nearly nothing coming out of the faucet. I don’t need your high fructose corn syrup laden product to perform.

But soon we’re switching to natural sugar.

Sugar is sugar. See my earlier post here.

But what about the electrolytes?

Okay, so you have some potassium and chlorine ions in your product. I replenish my body with proper meals after activities.

But it makes you perform better!

Hmm, I thought my 10 hours of martial arts and 30 miles of skating, every week, fit the definition of performance. Perhaps we should check the dictionary.

Sports drinks are not only unnecessary, but are also processed products, and likely not good for your health. Save your money and your health – drink water. (Note: the above dialog is written by me but based on fact)

Why the Switch from High Fructose Corn Syrup Barely Matters

on Apr 9, 2010

We’re in a seemingly positive health trend where high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become demonized. While it’s great to see that this highly processed crap is on its way out, it will make little difference on people’s health. It comes down to a simple point: sugar is sugar. While high fructose corn syrup is especially processed, its key evil is that it’s an added sugar. Although food companies are ridding their products of HFCS, they’re simply substituting in other forms of sugar. And the fact remains that any sort of added sugar is processed and is pretty harmful to our health. Cane sugar, brown rice syrup, organic sugar, it’s all junk.

The particularly insidious, and dangerous, part is that we are misled to believe otherwise. We’re led to think that if a product doesn’t have HFCS (as so many products now tout on their labels) or is made from some form of organic sugar, it must be okay to have. This is not the case. So take extra care to avoid such products. They are far more consequential on health than you might expect.

This doesn’t mean that all sugar is bad (though all processed sugar likely is). The sugar from whole fruit is okay to have because of all else that comes with it. Fruit is packed full of fiber, and that slows down (as in, regulates) the digestive process and thus allows sugar to be absorbed gently.

I hope that we all come to realize these facts, and instead of food companies playing off the HFCS witch hunt, they’d actually work towards something more meaningful for our health. But there’s no chance of this happening until we step up and express the desire for less processed food.

Getting Down to Eating Well, Some Good Reads

on Mar 30, 2010

In an earlier post, I covered some all around good reads on eating well and food culture. In this post, we’ll focus more on actually practically eating better. Again, we have a book by Michael Pollan. Food Rules, an incredibly short read that you can finish in two hours, presents 64 simple rules to eating better. Most of them have a few paragraphs explaining the rule at hand. Anyone not exposed to Pollan’s mantra: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much” will be blown away by his simplistic, yet wholesome, approach to eating well. And as Pollan states, having just a handful of these anecdotes in your head is plenty to get you eating better. I’ve carefully looked through all the 64 rules and can’t disagree with a single one.

Another interesting, and very unique, book is Food Matters by NYT food writer Mark Bittman. In the first half of this book, Bittman shares his own story on how he began to eat better and the transformation it brought to his health. The story is very telling yet personal. The second half of his book is very special, because Bittman presents a detailed plan on achieving the goal of eating better. Literally. He includes four weeks of daily meal suggestions. Even more incredible: the following 150+ pages are filled with recipes of the very meals he suggests in the meal plans. You’d be hard pressed to find a better all-in-one guide that combines information about the food culture, a real story on the tremendous impact of eating better, and the tools to help you make the same transformation. If you like Bittman’s recipes, he’s got a ton more in his How to Cook Everything books.

Enjoy the reads, guys. They really get down and dirty with eating better. And if you have your own suggestions, surely let me know.

The Misleading Meaning of ‘Enriched’ Flour

on Mar 20, 2010

In many food products you’ll see the term enriched flour. This applies to grains such as wheat, corn, and rice. You’ll also see the addition of reduced ironniacin, and other B vitamins. This is all very misleading but, ironically, a good indication that the food has been processed.

When a grain is processed, it loses quite a lot of its nutritional value. When food companies first did this with grains, people became very sick and developed diseases. It was quickly noticed that processed grain was nutritionally deficient. The government stepped in and stated that food companies were to add back the missing nutrients. Hence they were enriched. While the quick-to-occur diseases were halted, there was no determination on the long term effects of processed grains. Decades later, we have a society afflicted with widespread obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

The fact remains that in processing grains, the food is broken. Even returning specific nutrients to the food can’t account for all that was lost. The mechanics of food and health is a complicated thing on the level of nutrients. So next time you’re shopping for grains, avoid the enriched stuff. Go for the whole grain. It’ll make a mountain of difference in your health and wellbeing. If you don’t find whole grains palatable, slowly introduce it into your diet and you will adjust to it and even come to enjoy it.

Live “Longer” Through Time Dilation

on Mar 16, 2010

An article regarding time dilation states that the phenomenon is actually an illusion of memory. That moments seems longer based on the number of things we remember from it. While the article discusses experiences of fear, I’ll often experience time dilation when I have a lot of different things going on throughout the week, as well as a lot of different things going in in my head. By the time the next week rolls around, the previous week seems like it was ages ago and that I’d grown so much since then. Those weeks certainly feel very productive and satisfying. And yet it all happened in a mere seven days. Could this be a way to enhance our lives? To make life more rich and full? To get the most out of our time alive? Wouldn’t life be better?

Conflicts of Interest Explain the Mess of the Healthcare Industry

on Mar 14, 2010

The American healthcare system is messy, inefficient, and expensive. The problem lies  in the lack of the unified goal of providing good patient care. Rather, every party involved in our healthcare industry must act to allow themselves to survive, often to the detriment of this goal. This is apparent when we consider the interests of each party and compare them to that of the other parties:

Patients want to maintain their health and make it affordable

  • they are marketed to constantly by other players in the healthcare system
  • they often want quick fixes and to want to minimize effort (making them reluctant to adopt lifestyle changes)
  • their insurance policies put little importance on promoting healthy lifestyle
  • they must deal with the difficulty in getting insurance and have treatments covered

Doctors and other Medical Personalwant to deliver the best care and be properly reimbursed for their work

  • they had to work very hard for many years and pay a lot of money to get to where they are
  • they have to overtreat to avoid lawsuits
  • they have to use expensive  medical equipment more often to cover those costs (more overtreatment)
  • they have to see more patients to cover their costs
  • they need to maintain good reputations (which means catering to reward systems that raise the cost of medicine yet don’t do the patient good; one example is not admitting mistakes; another is prescribing more drugs or procedures instead of suggesting lifestyle changes)

Insurance Companieswant to offer the best coverage and minimize their costs

  • they must avoid risky high-cost clients and maintain many low-cost clients, or business will be infeasible
  • they need to cover what their clients want to maintain their clientele
  • they need to deal with the high prices set my the medical industry in order to stay in business

Drug Companies and Medical Equipment Makerswant to offer the best medical advancements and minimize their costs

  • they must compete in a very aggressive industries
  • they have very high research costs
  • they must continually create new products
  • they must advertise heavily to remain in business
  • they lobby to create favorable government policy
  • by nature, they encourage overtreatment

Hospitalswant to offer the best care and cover their costs

  • they lose a lot of money when providing care in emergency departments (especially with patients without insurance)
  • they must cover this discrepancy by building and advertising high-yielding departments (such as cancer treatment and heart treatment)
  • they must heavily use expensive medical equipment to cover those costs
  • they must maintain good reputation

Government / Politicians / Policy Makerswant to create policies that better the health of people and they want to maintain their political power

  • they must please the patients and cater to what patients think is best for health (even if it isn’t)
  • they must deal with lobbying and funding from other players in the health care industry (critical to getting elected)

As you can see, every player involved in our healthcare system has well intentioned and even commendable goals (as indicated in italic). But at the same time, they’re working in a system that requires them to fulfill the second goal (survival) at the expense of the first goal (genuine health care). If we are to improve our healthcare system, and our lives, we must address the conflicting interests between these parties. We must align their interests and incentives with the greater unified goal of providing the good medical care. And this includes [potential] patients acting in kind.

Make Physical Activity Social

on Mar 9, 2010

Doing physical activity can be immensely more enjoyable in the company of others. We humans are social creatures and are built to respond strongly to social influence. Why not use it to our benefit? A recent NYT article discussed how many people have leveraged this fact so strongly that the prime motivating factor is the social event, and that the exercise itself is a secondary benefit. Hey, it works! And as I’ve stated before, it makes exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun activity. You’ll certainly train better and be more committed, not to mention have others call you out on when you’re not.

There’s plenty of ways to go about this. Going to the gym with friends or significant others works well. Being part of a team sport is another. Or how about joining a grouped activity, like running, cycling, or inline skating (pictured above and among my favorites)? Martial arts is an exceptional one. Students push each other and help keep their energy up even as the training gets tougher.

There’s plenty of other activities. What’s your favorite and what tips do you have to get involved in social physical activity?

Where are the Stairs?

on Mar 8, 2010

Often times I’ll walk into a building and find an elevator right by the entrance. I look for stairs but they’re nowhere in sight as they’re typically hidden away at some end of the building. What if it was the other way around? What if the stairs were located right by the entrance of the building while the elevators were hidden off at some far end of the building? People will generally do the more convenient thing, which in this case means taking the stairs. It’s certainly something for building designers to consider.

Here’s another thought on convenience: without a doubt, elevators are convenient to go up multiple stories. But having a fit body is awfully convenient to go up many flights of stairs. And a fit body that uses the stairs helps itself to remain fit.

A strong factor that defeats stair use is social influence. It’s difficult to take the stairs when the friends/colleagues/family you’re with are waiting for the elevator. Why not say something? Even getting one more person on your side is enough to sway the entire group’s decision, and there’s always a possibility that others are willing to take the stairs but are adhering to the group’s default choice to take the elevator. Perhaps if more of us did this, the social norm would be to take the stairs rather than the elevator (I’m sure plenty of places have it like this, and I’m curious to know how these sort of norms developed).

Bonus tip: if you’re looking for the stairs, try following those Exit signs affixed to ceilings. They’ll usually lead you in the right direction.

Ease Yourself into Physical Activity, But Be Sure to Sweat

on Mar 6, 2010

So you’d like to get into better shape but perhaps you’re finding it a bit daunting or are concerned with whether you’ll stick with it. If it’s been a while since you’ve done serious (as in, enough to get you sweating and feeling sore afterwards) physical activity , then start off easy. Your body will need to readjust to the motions and intensity. By starting off slow, you minimize the shock factor. If you happen to start off intensely, then your whole body will be utterly sore and things will be very painful. This on its own isn’t a bad thing (assuming no injuries occur from such a drastic change) but you might be less inclined to continue with the training. Now of course this doesn’t mean take it so easy that you don’t break a sweat. You should be pushing it enough to be sweating and feel sore later on. A workout, after all, requires work, though hopefully it’s something you enjoy (or come to enjoy over time, which often happens). Over time, you should ramp up the physical activity as your body (and your attitude if need be) will get used to the change.