Chronicles of Less Urban Living, Fresh from In the Night Farm

Primal Resources

At the Very Least

I’m reading this book.  It’s fascinating. 

Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health

In Wheat Belly, cardiologist William Davis, MD, explains how modern wheat — which is vastly different from its ancestors due to extensive modifications that were never safety-tested — not only contributes to bodyfat gain and chronic disease by damaging the gut lining (gluten) and spiking blood sugar more than ice cream or Snickers bars (carbohydrate, glycemic index), but it also stimulates appetite (gliadin) and activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as opiates like herion (exorphins).

If you’re not ready to give up all grains, at least read this book.  If you struggle to lose bodyfat, suffer from allergies or other autoimmune conditions, have skin problems like acne or eczema, deal with gastrointestinal issues from poor digestion to celiac, or worry about cancer or heart disease, at least read this book.

Just read it.  And make up your own mind.

PBC Day 2

Food as Fuel:  Coffee with heavy cream.  Pulled pork with grilled tomatillo salsa.  Grilled sirloin tip; cucumber and tomato salad with cotija, olive oil, and vinegar; green grapes.  Steamed mahi-mahi; squash ribbons with sage butter; baked sweet potato with grassfed butter.  Malbec.

Workout:  Bodyweight.  4x rotation of pushups, air squats, pullups, and planks.  Nothing too spectacular, but it definitely fried some muscle glycogen and made me a touch sore by morning.  Feels great. 

Incidentally, I was running late again last night (got stuck at the office for an impromptu meeting, then had an errand to run).  By the time I got home and did the farm chores, it was almost 7pm and I would really rather have settled into my evening relaxation routine of cooking dinner and sipping wine.  I just didn’t feel like I had the steam for a workout… but I put on my workout clothes instead, and proceeded to have a strong and enjoyable session.

That’s what usually happens.  As Nike would say, Just Do It.

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On Intimidation

More than once, trusted friends have explained to me why I don’t have more friends.  “You scare people,” they say.

I scare people?

Not physically, they hasten to add.  It’s not like anyone thinks I’m going to beat them up.  “But, you know, physically.  And intellectually.  And you’re kind of…”

Confident?  Intense?

“Yeah, that’s it.  And you’re so driven.  They feel like they can’t compete.  Most people need to chill out more.  And…”

They assume I’m judging them.

“Yeah.  That.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, let me be the first to tell you:  A personality like mine is a double-edged sword.  It’s true that there are great rewards to being an intrinsically motivated, goal-driven, will-powered, laser-focused, athletic nutrition geek.  I accomplish just about whatever I put my mind to, and I do it well.

On the other hand, I tend to put myself under a lot of unnecessary pressure.  Nobody but me cares whether I accomplish X goal within Y time period.  I know that, and yet I must do it.  I am compelled.

Secretly, folks, I envy the ability many of you have to Just.  Chill.  Out.

Would I prefer to be different?  Honestly, no.

But here’s the thing:  I wouldn’t want you to be different, either.

Are you intimidated by the intensity of my commitment to paleo eating and primal workouts?  Do people like me sometimes scare you away from starting because you fear you can’t finish?  Please,  don’t let our idiosyncracies hinder you from making more moderate changes!

Poke around the primal and paleo communities for a while, and you’ll find hundreds — no, thousands — of people who get tremendous benefit from a less-than-pristine shift toward primal living.  Many of them, including Ironman, thrive on Mark Sisson’s 80/20 concept; that is, shooting for 100% compliance but not beating themselves up over 20% slippage.  I explored “80/20” in my post Halfway House and have subsequently observed its effectiveness again and again.

For those who want to give primal living a shot, but don’t want to go whole-hog, here are some priorities on which to focus.  You can take a shotgun approach and put a few pellets through all of them, or you can start at the top of the list (with the most important stuff) and baby-step your way along as you adjust. 

1.  Remove gluten grains.  There’s just no getting around the damage wreaked by wheat, barley, and rye.  Non-gluten grains like rice, oats, and corn are still high in carbohydrate, but at least they won’t tear up your intestinal lining as badly as gluten will.

2.  Remove sugar.  This is tough at first, but the addiction will release its hold after a week or two.  Remember that almost all packaged/processed foods contain sugar — but really, did you want to eat all those nasty preservatives anyway?  Also remember that as long as you’re removing most dietary sugar, a little sweetener in your coffee or honey in your salad dressing isn’t that big a deal.

3.  Remove legumes and non-gluten grains.  Yes, I’m afraid these are very high-carb and contain gut-damaging lectins, too, though they aren’t as bad as gluten.  Grains are addictive — they activate the same pleasure centers as opiates — so here’s some advice on how to go shift toward grain-free living.

4.  Find your inner athlete.  You’re not trying to burn calories!  You’re simply flipping the hormonal switches that tell your body to burn bodyfat.  So, feel free to skip those long, daily sessions on the stationary bike.  Go for walks at a brisk but comfortable pace.  Lift weights or do a few pushups and air squats twice a week or so.  When you’re in the mood, try a few 10-20 second sprints.  Mark Sisson’s free e-book offers an excellent program.

5.  The other stuff.  Sure, there’s more if you want to explore it.  Many people feel best when they eschew dairy products.  Some break fat-loss plateaus by cutting down their nut consumption or eating less fruit.  Some thrive on a very low carb regimen (under 50g daily), while others feel best when they eat 100g or so.  Individuals struggling with touchy innards may want to try going without nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, etc.) for a while.

But for most people, all that is gravy.  Feel free to pour on the strictness when you’re trying to lean out for your wedding or a cruise, or exploring solutions to chronic health issues.  If you’re like me, you’ll be extra strict because you actually enjoy it — but if you don’t enjoy it, no one says you have to do it!

Will 80/20 get you the best possible results?  Physically, of course not — but it’ll come darn close, and the mental ease of such an approach is worth it to many people.  (Ironman calls it “staying sane.”)  Even 70/30 will make you much healthier and leaner than the conventional wisdom approach.

Besides, not everyone wants to be ripped.  Not everyone likes the super-lean look.  Not everyone cares how much iron they can press or how fast they can sprint.

That. Is. Fine.  Really!

Never let a perfectionist keep you from being exactly who you want to be.


Before Early Detection

Perhaps the greatest advances made in cancer research over since Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971 have been in the realm of “early detection.”  This is a good thing.  The earlier a cancer is detected, the better the patient’s chances of survival. 

But what if we could detect a pre-cancerous state?  What if we could see the body setting itself up for cancer before — even years before — a tumor grew large enough for detection by mammography or physical exam?

As it happens, we can.

Medical infrared imaging, or thermography, measures body temperature to detect locations of excessive heat, which is the earliest sign of an impending disease state.

[Note:  I’ve researched this mostly in the context of breast cancer, thanks to my recent experience, so I’ll speak in that context here, but it’s my understanding that thermography can also be useful in detecting and tracking other types of cancers.]

Most people are familiar with the leading theory that cancer develops when a faulty cell division results in a cell with altered DNA, which then spreads unchecked.  Sometimes.  Such replication errors occur thousands of times in all humans, but most of us (the lifetime statistic is 2 of 3) don’t get cancer because our immune systems kill or contain the rogue cells.

The immune system’s attack results in inflammation, just as you’d see on your skin when your body is fighting infection in a wound, and the byproduct is heat.  Thermography can detect this heat, identifying inflammation that is invisible from the outside but serves as an early warning:  Change something!  Reduce toxin load!  Support immune function!  This is the time for action!

When abnormal cells begin to overcome the immune system’s efforts, they essentially confuse the white blood cells, including natural killer (NK) cells, so they don’t even try to do their jobs.  This sets up the body for stage 2 of cancer’s attack:  angiogenesis.

Angiogenesis is a normal process of building and repairing blood vessels.  Normally, the body builds the needed vessels, then angiogenesis stops.  Cancer, however, hijacks this process and turns it to its own advantage.  Very early in the disease process, well before a lump can be detected, thermography is able to “see” the abnormal formation of excessive, new blood vessels leading to the potential cancer site, bringing it food.

Once again, this is a phase at which many cancers can be halted through lifestyle changes alone.  No chemo, no surgery, no radiation.  (Use your heads, people — work with your doctors.  But remember, most doctors won’t “see” the gathering clouds of disease at this point, so your preventative treatment may be up to you.)

Nearly every piece I read on the topic of thermography noted two things:  1) Thermography complements mammography but does not replace it; and 2) Thermography is safer and more accurate than mammography.

Draw your own conclusions.

I’ll say this, though — I, personally, am suspicious of mammography.  Not only does it miss a lot of cancers (about 20% of them), but it subjects the tissue to radiation, a known carcinogen whose effects are cumulative over a lifetime.  Some people also worry that compression of abnormal cells may contribute to their ability to spread.

Here are a few, fun facts for those of you who want to give thermography a try:

  • Your medical insurance probably won’t cover the scan.  Fortunately, at $150-250, it’s not terribly expensive.
  • Medical infrared cameras and certified thermographers are few and far between.  You might have to take a long drive, like I did.  It was worth it.  See the links below for websites that include lists of certified thermographers.
  • All thermography is not the same!  My first scan (the alarming one) was done with a device made by Eidam Diagnostics Corporation.  The Contact Regulation Thermography (CRT) device measures skin temperature at 119 points.  You then get a computer-generated report that looks like this (scroll down to page 4).  Even the naturopath who took my readings could scarcely interpret the thing!  My second scan (the reassuring one) was done using an infrared camera (which costs roughly 35 times as much as the CRT device) and gave me actual pictures like these, from which even an amateur can get the jist of the results.  The point is, find a thermographer with extensive experience and good equipment!
  • Finally, note that, like mammography or ultrasound, thermography does not diagnose cancer, but rather detects suspicious changes.  If an existing cancer is suspected, biopsy (or possibly a BT blood test) is necessary.

In my view, one of the greatest values of thermography is that it can detect a pre-cancerous state at a point where lifestyle changes can often halt the disease in its tracks.  Please see the links below for information from the experts, and stay tuned for upcoming posts regarding those all-important “lifestyle changes” that any of us can choose to make.

[More posts in this cancer prevention series:  Cancer for a FortnightIn the Beginning:  The Cancer-Inflammation Connection, Only YOU Can Prevent InflammationSupply Lines:  The Importance of Angiogenesis, and Short-Circuit:  Inhibiting Angiogenesis Naturally.  See also Crap for the Cure.]

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What is Thermography? by Ingrid Edstrom, CFNP

Breast Thermography with sample infrared images by Dr. William Amalu

More thermography basics by Dr. Jeremy Kaslow

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My Food, My Medicine:  black coffee; matcha green tea; salad: spinach, red leaf lettuce, carrot, red cabbage, red onion, salmon; dressing: fish oil, olive oil, red wine vinegar, turmeric, black pepper, garlic, oregano; roasted vegetables: turnip, beetroot, cauliflower, broccoli, yellow onion, garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme; red grapes; coconut cream concentrate; lamb meatballs in marinara: ground lamb, egg, oregano, basil, thyme, red pepper, garlic, yellow onion, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, olive oil, salt; baked spaghetti squash; lavender mint tea.

Workout:  5x rotation of back squats, renegade rows, bench presses, and dips.


The Cholesterol Calculator

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear someone refer (usually in a tone of lament) to his or her cholesterol levels. This is unfortunate for many reasons, not least the fact that cholesterol continues to lose clout as a reliable indicator of cardiac health.
 
Nevertheless, we aren’t likely to start ignoring our blood lipid panel results anytime soon, so we might as well learn to understand them.  A few months ago, I posted about my effort to do just that
 
And it really was a bit of an effort.  Formulas, calculations, ratios…  Not everyone wants to do the math.  While I highly recommend going through the process at least once, to enchance your understanding of it, there’s nothing wrong with getting a little help from your handy-dandy computer.
 
And so, without further ado, I introduce to you The Cholesterol Calculator!

To download a copy of The Cholesterol Calculator, follow this link to box.net and log in as follows:
Email: NLReader [at] gmail [dot] com
Password: NLReader

Under the My Files tab, you’ll find a folder labeled Health. In the folder, you’ll find The Cholesterol Calculator by InTheNightlife.

Using the calculator is simple. Just fill in the BLUE fields with your latest blood lipid test results (the default numbers are mine; just replace them with yours), and the PINK fields will populate with your Iranian-calculated LDL and all the applicable ratios.

For more about cholesterol, check out these links:
The Definitive Guide to Cholesterol by Mark Sisson

Cholesterol and Health.com


Coconut Fried Plantains

Here’s an easy, 100% primal dessert I’ve been serving lately as part of my commitment to reintroduce a reasonable quantity of carbohydrate to my diet. (More on that in an upcoming post.) A whole, medium plantain contains about 60 grams of carbs, but just a quarter of a fruit fried up in healthful coconut makes a remarkably satisfying, barely-sweet end to a meal.

The medium-chain fatty acids and monoglycerides in coconut oil are widely credited with health benefits ranging from enhanced longevity to fat loss to anti-viral impact to the elimination of candida.

Tropical Traditions is a good source of quality coconut oil. Get on their e-mailing list for a steady stream of notifications about excellent deals on their products.


Coconut Fried Plantains

1 medium plantain, peeled and cut lengthwise, then width-wise into quarters
1/2 cup unsweetened, dessicated coconut
2 Tbs coconut oil
1 cup coconut cream
Dash of cinnamon

Melt coconut oil in the bottom of a glass bread pan. Roll each plantain quarter in the oil, then in the dessicated coconut to coat generously. Return plantain quarters to pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until coconut is well toasted. Serve each plantain quarter on a small plate with 1/4 cup coconut cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Serves 4.


In the Beginning: Primal Fitness, Year One, Part One

A friend got me started on bodybuilding. A friend in another state, another generation, another class of athlete considerably more experienced than my own.

He was returning to serious training after about a year’s hiatus. I needed to get moving, too, after a winter hunkered over my keyboard with whiskey in my blood and a novel on my mind. We began together.

At first, I imitated him without really understanding why. Hill sprints and push-ups, jump rope and air squats, stair repeats and lunges. He introduced me to the concept of general physical preparedness; that is, an approach to athleticism that balances strength, speed, endurance, and flexiblity to form a base for specific sport training and/or simply the ability to live fully and save one’s own life should such an unfortunate occasion arise.

A bit of backstory
I come from a family that runs fairly lean on both sides. We’re more or less mesoporphic in body type and tend to be on the active side. I grew up playing outdoors, entirely unconcerned about body composition, and never formally exercised until I took up running in college after a boyfriend informed me that I was fat. (His loss.)

The ensuing ten years saw me finish a relay marathon and a half-marathon, log thousands of daily runs with my beloved Dalmatian, attend an assortment of aerobics classes, bicycle my commute until I got hit by a car, and even join the treadmill troops at a local Gold’s Gym.

Though I eventually bought In the Night Farm and laid on some decent muscle as the natural result of hours spent on farm chores, horse training, and riding, I can’t recall ever curling a dumbbell heavier than 10 pounds in all those years. I may have been considerably fitter than your average 30-year-old, American female, but I was neither strikingly lean nor particularly strong.

Here’s a picture of me taken in Summer 2007. See what I mean?


In March 2009, I could string together a whopping 6 push-ups…on a good day. Pull-ups were a pipe dream. I believed air squats should be performed only to a 90-degree angle to protect the knees, and couldn’t have told you exactly what a deadlift was.

I owned almost no fitness equipment. Fortunately, although my workout partner did have a good home gym, he also had a strong interest in bodyweight work and high intensity interval training (HIIT). In the early days, I fashioned an effective “gym” from a hilly road, a flight of outdoor stairs, an iron stair rail high enough to dangle from, two pairs of dumbbells (5 lb and 12 lb), and a jumprope braided of used baling twine (not recommended).

Here’s what those early workouts looked like:

Workout One
8x hill sprints (100 yards, sprinting up and walking down. Your sprint may not be super speedy, but it counts as long as you’re running as hard and fast as you can at your current level of fitness)

4x rotation of:
Air squats (To failure. See “range of motion” below.)
Hanging leg raises (aka HLRs. To failure. I think I started with 7, after a month or so of more familiar ab exercises like sit-ups and planks.)
Pull-downs (Climb a ladder to “up” position and lower slowly)
Push-ups

Workout Two
Tabata sprints (Three sets. See “Tabata sprints” below.)

4x rotation of:
Lunges or walking lunges (To failure.)
Planks (Front and side. Work up to 2 min front and 1 min each side.)
Overhead presses (With dumbbells, to failure.)

Workout Three
Distance run (4-6 miles)
Reverse crunches

Workout Four
Escalating quarters (3-6x rotation of walk 1/4 mile, jog 1/4 mile, run 1/4 mile, sprint 1/4 mile on flat ground)

4x rotation of:
Air squats
Pull-downs
Push-ups
HLRs

Notes
Looking back, I am interested by the amount of work I chose to do each day. Though I largely avoided overtraining by following a 3-days-on, 1-off, 4-on, 2-off schedule and keeping each workout to an hour, I could still have achieved significant results with daily workouts featuring just the sprints or just the distance run or just the bodyweight rotation. Chalk me up in the obsessive category.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t set out to bodybuild. (My friend actually had to tell me that that’s what I was doing!) I simply aimed to achieve overall fitness — and I did. Nevertheless, I’ve since refined my training program rather significantly upon discovery of the primal blueprint way of working out and eating. I’ll get to that later in this series. For now, here are a few additional thoughts regarding the workouts above:

On sprinting — At first, I used a quarter mile section of paved road for my hill “sprints.” I later learned that 100 yards is a more appropriate sprinting distance and switched to a shorter, steep section of the same hill. Eight hill repeats (sprint up, walk down) takes about 18 minutes and is a fantastic interval workout that stimulates the release of human growth hormone and results in lactic acid accumulation and oxygen debt, both of which yeild powerful, positive metabolic benefits. Though I used to combine my sprint workouts with rotations of several bodyweight exercises, I now let my sprint workouts (which are faster, but not longer, than before) stand alone.

On range of motion — A few weeks ago, I was doing barbell squats at an out-of-town gym. A guy came up to me and asked who taught me to squat like that. Assuming he believed (as so many people do) that I should be lowering only until my hips were level with my knees, rather than into a full squatting position (aka ass-to-grass), I asked if he was going to tell me that I was going to blow out my knees. He said no, but it was so rare to see a person do squats correctly that he assumed I must have worked with someone on my technique. I gave the credit to the Crossfit website and other online resources. “Well,” he said, “that’s a damn nice squat.” You can do them too. See the “air squat demo” on this Crossfit link.

On increasing reps — As stated above, I started out at 6 or fewer pushups in a set. I chose 10 reps as my first, significant goal. During each set, I pumped out as many standard pushups as I could, then dropped to “girlie-style” to get up to 10. If I had to rest mid-set, so be it — but I was getting that 10! Within about six weeks, I could whip out four sets of 10 standard pushups and had graduated to decline pushups. Today, I can do multiple sets of up to 36 pushups with my feet on a 24-inch platform.

On Tabata sprints — Tabata sprints are brief, all-out sets of intense exercises repeated 8 times, 20 seconds of work alternating with 10 seconds rest, for a total of 4, brutal minutes. They have a similar metabolic impact as other types of interval work. Tabata sprints can be performed on a stationary bicycle, or you can use thrusters (try it faster, with lighter weights and no ball), hop-ups (2-footed jumps up and down a step; start with 4-6 inches and increase as your fitness improves), stair repeats (run up and down a flight of stairs), jump rope, etc. The key is utter intensity. You must pour full effort into Tabata to reap its benefits. If you don’t feel like you’re about to pass out or puke afterwards, you probably didn’t work hard enough.

On other things — At this point, I was still eating flegan. It was a clean diet that served me will for several years, but frequent stomach bloating (which I now realize was due to gut inflammation resulting from copious whole grain and legume consumption) was an increasing irritant. On the bright side, I made the decision to give up alcohol so as to benefit as much as possible from my training. (I now have an herbal tea habit instead.)

While the workouts above proved highly effective, further reading and a major life change led me through a series of modifications for the better. I’ll cover several such changes in my next post.

Recommended Reading:
Ross Enamait on hill sprinting
Fitness Blackbook on How Interval Training Works
Mark Sisson on the basics of Tabata sprints

Relative Strength Advantage on consistency and establishing basic strength levels

Related Posts:
Reader Question: Primal Workouts

Primal Fitness, Year One, Part Two

Progress, Plateau, Progress Again (Part Three)


Go Figure

I once dated a guy who told me I was too fat. His reasoning? The insides of my upper thighs touched each other.

I’m sorry to say that, presumably because I was young and brainwashed by our weight-obsessed culture, his comment affected me for years. It became a measure by which I assessed my own fitness, which was never poor, but wasn’t always peak, either. I recall with dismay the internal monologue: My thighs are touching! Crap! Gotta run more! (Wrong.)

This past March, while still eating flegan, I dived into a fitness regime unprecedented by anything I’d tried before, including my distance running days. A friend put me onto bodyweight training and Tabata, hill sprints and weight lifting.

In my typically obsessive manner, I devoured literature on the subject of strength training and HIIT (high intensity interval training). Plenty of science backed it up, but the best proof of all was the changes in my own physique. By June, I was leaner than I’d ever been. My biceps earned admiration from colleagues, and the shadow of a six-pack appeared in my midsection. I was getting close to doing the first pull-up of my life. And, my thighs didn’t touch. Score!

Then, something changed. Along about July, my fitness efforts bogged down in a quagmire of fatigue, bloating, and poor quality sleep. I looked pretty good, but I felt worse and worse. What on earth was I doing wrong?

My research led me first to the possibility of removing grains from my diet. It took me two months of reading to accept that the “healthy whole grains” that comprised nearly half of my daily intake could actually be wreaking cumulative damage on my intestines due to glucose intolerance, or simply the toxins such foods contain.

By the time I was convinced that going grain-free was worth a try, I’d also come around to understanding the detrimental effects of excessive carbohydrate intake. Thus began my shift to primal eating, which I embraced whole-heartedly by mid-August.

Now, looking down the barrel of October with a growing set of Tuesday Tallies documenting my new eating patterns (low carb, high fat, moderate protein) and continued bodybuilding and sprint workouts, I have replaced bloating and fatigue with muscle mass and power.

There’s just one problem: My thighs touch.

I confess this bothered me, when I first noticed it a few weeks back. Were the primal advocates wrong? Would all that new thigh muscle make me look fat? How about the newly-defined obliques that both strengthened and thickened my core? Was I losing the figure I’d worked months to achieve?

Yes, the questions bothered me…but not nearly as much as the thought of giving up my workouts. After all, my primary goal had always been to achieve a high level of functional strength and cardiovascular endurance — and I’d never felt better nor been more powerful! No way was I going to sacrifice athleticism for cultural ideals.

All the same, I was most gratified to stumble across the photo below.

I’m no professional pole-vaulter, but I’m proud to say that my physique doesn’t fall too far short of this chick’s. I’m no guy, either, but I think she’s pretty damn hot — sculpted obliques, touching thighs, and all.

Go figure.

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Related Resources:

The Definitive Guide to Grains from Mark’s Daily Apple

The Real Truth About Those “Healthy Whole Grains” from Fitness Spotlight

Unexpected Effects of a Wheat-Free Diet from Heart Scan Blog

The Definitive Guide to Fats from Mark’s Daily Apple

Fats: The Real Story and Why You Need Them from Fitness Spotlight

Saturated Fat Intake vs Heart Disease & Stroke from Free the Animal

Sugar is Poison — a link from Fathead to Dr. Lustig’s excellent video presentation. Highly recommended!


A Tale of Oregon Elk: On Food and Gratitude

When I was in high school, my family owned a whitewater rafting company. Our offerings of four- to seven-day expedition trips down wilderness rivers attracted mostly outdoor-types from the West, but we also booked the occasional city slicker.

Mary Jo, a hefty and good-natured soul with glossy, black curls and florid cheeks, was one of the latter. She hailed from Boston and was startled to learn that there really wasn’t any point in packing her alarm clock in her waterproof gear bag. (Nope, not even with an extension cord.)
Along about Day 3 of Mary Jo’s trip, we were floating through open range, where cattle spend the summer feeding on the vast acreage of public lands. Mary Jo, spotting a pair of Herefords drinking along the bank, exclaimed, “Look! Wildlife! What kind of animals are those?”
Sure Mary Jo was kidding, the nearest guide joked, “Oh, those are Oregon elk. They’re very rare!” Imagine his surprise when Mary Jo pulled out her camera and started clicking away. He did some fast talking to spare our guest the embarrassment of hauling out her photo album and showing all her friends back home the elusive “Oregon elk,” which almost anybody would recognize immediately as garden-variety cattle.
That night in camp, we served up an Italian feast of wine, garlic bread, salad, and spaghetti with marinara and meatballs. Mary Jo ate with her usual gusto. Watching her from across the circle of canvas chairs in the fading light, I wondered if she had even a passing thought connecting her “wildlife” sighting with the meal rapidly disappearing from her plate. I was saddened to conclude, probably not.
Saddened, I say, because although Mary Jo may have been an extreme case, she is far from an anomaly. Too many people these days believe that food comes from the grocery store. I once heard of a woman who, listening in on a discussion about the danger a single plant disease could pose to our inadequately-diverse food supply, said “Oh, I’m sure they’ll always have flour at the store.” She, like Mary Jo, clearly had no concept of the sacrificial exchange that fuels our bodies.

We the People, with our fast food joints and deep freezes, are so far separated from farm life that we rarely consider that from the T-bones we gnaw once hung the loin of a cow with a swishing tail and liquid eyes. That neat mound of poultry breast was made to nestle warm about a clutch of eggs. Those egg yolks formed to nourish chicks ’til they grew large enough to hatch.

I’m not saying I have a moral problem with eating meat or eggs, any more than I have one with tearing carrots from the soil and scattering my salad with their precious roots. Zucchini grow to ensure there is seed for the next generation, not to be sauteed in my breakfast hash, but saute them I do. To live is to take other lives. Any farmer knows there’s no escaping the fact, no denying it, no point feeling guilty about it.

But I do believe there is benefit in understanding it — not just believing it intellectually, but experiencing it firsthand — for in understanding there is value, and in value, gratitude.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to be reared in agricultural country should be at least halfway there. We visited U-pick orchards every fall, plucked wild blackberries from their vines, perhaps retrieved eggs from the nests of disgruntled hens. Some of us even fattened stock for slaughter.

I was eight the first time I observed the death our annual beef cow. The man from the packing plant shot her three times, right there in our barn, before her sway turned to a topple and her topple to utter collapse. He hooked a chain to her hind legs and winched her outside to his truck, where he peeled away her chestnut coat and spilled her foul-smelling offal among the weeds.
My mother worried that I, an empathetic child who had bottle fed that animal as a calf, would be put off our daily meals of hamburgers and steak. But I was untroubled. Somehow, with the innate wisdom of the very young, I understood.
Not all children have such opportunities. One of my best friends grew up in the jungles of Chicago. He claims once to have stumbled over a pile of milk bottles and thought he’d found a cow’s nest. Does that mean he shouldn’t be permitted to eat meat, because he hasn’t paid his dues?
Of course not. But I do think those in his position should look for opportunities to connect with the lives and deaths that feed them. From farmers markets to bookstores, there is plenty of recourse for those who wish to understand their meals. A number of authors have addressed the concept of late, all from different perspectives. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), and most recently, Lierre Keith (The Vegetarian Myth) come readily to mind.

 

For the most adventurous — and wisest? — more creativity could lead one to a farm on butchering day, to feel the blood from chickens’ throats run hot across trembling fingers, see the feathers float on scalding water and stick like rain soaked leaves to pluckers‘ wrists. To pull the trigger that ploughs a painless path through the brain of a hog, or gut a fish from the neighbor’s pond, or simply gather the bosoms of ripe onions as they press up from the soil, strip peas from their pods, sever the stems of living herbs to rub beneath a turkey’s freshly-denuded skin.
I remember one blustery day in early spring at In the Night Farm. A freshly-slaughtered lamb had hung for several days from the north deck, aging beneath its burlap wrap. Meanwhile, out beyond the horse paddocks, lambing had begun. I spent the entire day running between the kitchen, where I rinsed and packaged chunks of carcass for later meals, and the lambing jugs, where I knelt in the hay to draw colostrum from ewes’ udders and coax it down the silken throats of newborn lambs.
I ate lamb that night, with the smell of sheep’s milk still strong upon my hands. The following winter, I butchered the wooley babies whose lifes I had saved. Come spring, I nurtured several more.
Death. Life. Death feeding life feeding death feeding life. The unbroken circle. Don’t feel guilty. But please, don’t forget. Real food costs more than pennies for pounds.

This post is participating in Fight Back Fridays at Food Renegade. Stop by and see what else is on the menu!


Intersection: NightLife Goes Primal

Fleganism.

Goodness. Three years of eating a “flexible vegan” diet are now under the bridge.

I enjoyed them. Being flegan expanded my culinary skills and leaned my body. The prodigious consumption of fresh produce virtually eliminated my seasonal allergies and longstanding arthritis pain in my bunions. I felt virtuous and strong.

Until I tried to get stronger.

Last March, a good friend got me started on bodybuilding. No, not the steroid-laced hoax whose ultimate goal is the perfect(ly grotesque) photo of a musclebound body that can’t perform real work.

I’m talking about real bodybuilding. Pushing, pulling, and lifting bodyweight and iron. Building functional strength that can drive a fence post, buck hay, run for miles, and ride an endurance horse as effortlessly through mile 45 as at the starting line.

For several months, all went well. I ate my usual flegan meals based on whole grains, legumes, and plenty of vegetables. My push-up count climbed. My sprint times fell. By June, I could see the beginnings of six-pack abs…but I could also feel the strain.

Slower recovery times, cottony muscles that performed hard workouts in the morning but wanted to nap by afternoon, and reduced sleep quality all had me looking for answers. I knew nutrition was almost certainly a major factor, but wasn’t I already offering my cells a glorious buffet of healthful, whole foods? What was going wrong?

Intuition, research, and discourse with my bodybuilding friend led me to one of the more obvious solutions: protein. Even the most protein-rich vegan foods, many of which are highly-processed soy products, don’t hold a candle to animal products.

I stopped selling my chickens‘ eggs and started eating them. Two a day. It helped. I kept reading, scouring the library and internet for ideas supported by published, independent, peer-reviewed research rather than the industry-financed, politically-motivated stuff of conventional wisdom.
Patterns emerged. Startling patterns that warred with my existing nutritional construct. Patterns backed by research. Patterns I couldn’t ignore. Protein, it transpired, was the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Whole grains are bad for you. Legumes aren’t much better.
  • Carbohydrate reduction — not calorie reduction — is the key to fat loss and good health.
  • Large quantities of natural dietary fats, including saturated fats, are beneficial.
  • Animal products are important for thriving health.

Scores of articles, chapters, blog posts, and research papers passed under my review as I evaluated these ideas. Meanwhile, I added a daily serving of fish to my diet….and felt better. I took the huge step of eliminating all grains and legumes….and felt much better. Reluctantly, I reintroduced more meats while maintaining my usual, high rate of vegetable consumption…and felt better still.

But what did I eat? How does a person who has relied for calories predominantly on grains and legumes survive without them? By replacing them with natural, healthful fats and proteins, that’s how.

My daily diet shifted from this “flegan” menu:

Pre-workout: Green drink (smoothie made with bananas, pear, grapes, kale, and flaxseed)
Breakfast: More green drink and oatmeal with walnuts, dried fruit, and unsweetened soy milk
Lunch: Spinach salad with chickpeas, mixed raw vegetables, and olive oil vinaigrette
Snack: Natural peanut butter
Dinner: Barley pilaf with artichoke hearts

2,287 calories, 314 grams carbs, 100 grams fat, 74 grams protein

…to this “primal” menu:

Pre-workout: Banana with almond butter
Breakfast: Spinach salad with tuna, olives, sunflower seeds, mixed raw vegetables, and olive oil vinaigrette
Lunch: Hot vegetable curry topped with 2 hard boiled eggs
Snack: Walnuts
Dinner: Gazpacho with avocado and grilled chicken, mango, and jicama salad
Dessert: Blueberries with coconut milk

2,271 calories, 135 grams carbs, 147 grams fat, 137 grams protein

Same number of calories. Half the carbs. One and a half times the fats. Twice the protein. All the produce!

Since that shift, I’ve played around with the carbohydrates a bit and found that I do best on slightly more than your typical “primal” maintainance level, given my penchant for extreme(ish) fitness and extensive physical activity. I’ve leaned out, chiseled that six-pack, built and cut some serious muscle in my limbs and back, and banished the bloating and low-energy that had plagued my flegan self.

So. So long, fleganism. I loved ya, but it’s time to move on.

Needless to say, this shift from “ideal eating” (according to conventional wisdom and the vegan crowd) has caused quite a stir among my acquaintances, particularly those who shared a vegetarian bent. Several people have expressed downright alarm. Many have asked the same questions I did, questions no doubt raised by this post:

What on earth is wrong with whole grains and legumes?
Are you sure fat is healthful?
Animal products? Seriously?
So, you’re doing Atkins now? (Nope!)
What does “primal” mean?

I don’t claim to have all the answers — but I do have some, along with a lot of logic and research to back up my own, anecdotal experience. Instead of trying to regurgitate all of it here, allow me to refer those who are interested to a few resources, just for starters:

Mark’s Daily Apple (Primal nutrition and fitness)
Fitness Spotlight (Low-carb nutrition and fitness)
The Vegetarian Myth (book review by Dr. Michael Eades)
Cholesterol and Health (Fat and cholesterol research)
Food Renegade (Real food & related politics. Home of Fight Back Fridays!)
Good Calories, Bad Calories (Book regarding the science of low-carb eating by Gary Taubes)

Note: Most of the above links will take you to main pages; be sure to click around and read the sites more deeply. I’ll link directly to articles on particular topics in future posts.

And so, my friends, NightLife turns down the primal path. Shall we see where it leads?
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