Saturday, 22 December 2012

Lean and Hungry

"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous"

                                    - Julius Caesar 

There’s a lot a buzz around fasting these days, at least in the health and fitness sphere.  Sites, programs and e-books such as Leangains, Eat Stop Eat, The Warrior Diet, etc. have been both applauded and criticized by fitness devotees.  I’m certainly not going to wade into any real debates on the topic (I’ll leave that to my betters).  Rather, I’d like to just briefly summarize my own personal experiences with fasting, for whatever their worth, and some of the things I’ve learned.

For about a year or so, I’ve been pretty consistently following a Leangains-style eating pattern – that is, I fast for about 16 hours of every day and eat only during an 8-hour window (usually for me that between about 2pm and 10pm).  I’m not militant about it, but I’d say that’s the case 95% of the time.  Now to understand what a difference this has been for me, you must understand where I came from.  Since about the age of 17 or so, I had always subscribed to the oft-held belief, disseminated by muscle magazines, mainstream health experts and common gym parlance, that one must eat regularly throughout the day to maintain a constant and efficient metabolism and to add muscle.  This was taken to extremes in my early twenties when I would eat 8-9 meals throughout the day and then wake myself up in the dead of night to scarf down a plate of roast beef and potatoes! It worked in terms of weight gain (i.e. I got north of 280 lbs) but, compared to now, my strength-to-weight ratio was shit.
Even once my quest to occupy my own zip code gradually diminished, I still subscribed wholesale to the prevailing dogma of eating every two or three hours (albeit smaller amounts) to ‘stoke the metabolic furnace’.  It’s a compelling analogy – that a person’s body essentially functions like a fireplace.  Put too much wood on at a time, or wait too long between adding logs, and the fire dies (and by extension, metabolic disaster ensues, resulting in fat gain and muscle loss).  
There’s only one small problem – the human body is infinitely more complex than a bloody fireplace!  Any attempt to reduce the multiplicity of overlapping processes and regulatory systems at play to some kind of simple mechanical clockwork is doomed to failure.  I stumbled upon this realization through a lot of reading on ancestral diets, paleo, primal, that kind of stuff.  It just doesn’t make sense that the human species could have survived and thrived throughout our prehistory by sticking to a rigid, eat-every-three-hours style of feeding.  Ours is a history of feasts and famines, both short and long term.  Is it really conceivable that ancient hunters on the savannah were stopping midway through stalking a gazelle to quickly down a protein smoothie or grab a handful of almonds from a Tupperware container?  No dammit, they just went hungry until they eventually caught the gazelle, dragged its ass back to camp, butchered it, and then had a big party (likely gorging themselves until they fell asleep) and then got up and did it all again next year.  There was no, “Sorry Lothar, I’d really love to go hunting with you today but I really need to stoke my metabolism first with a hearty breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal.”  If you were that guy, you probably didn’t want to turn your back on all your buddies with the pointy sticks.
Now this is all anecdotal of course.  I’m no more an anthropologist than I am an exercise physiologist, but I can tell you what the benefits of intermittent fasting have been for me:
  • I get hungry less in the mid-morning.  When I used to eat a solid breakfast (and I’m talking substantial stuff like eggs, dairy, oatmeal, etc. – not the typical bagel or muffin bullshit that some people call breakfast), I’d inevitably be starving again by 10am.  I still wake up hungry now, but I find that if I can push past that initial 15 minutes of hunger, it subsides and I don’t even think about food throughout most of the morning.  I find this also results in a higher degree of focus at work.

  • I can maintain a slightly lower bodyfat percentage, with minimal effort.  I haven’t reached any kind of completely shredded levels like many have on Leangains or similar programs, but I’m a bit more cut than I was in the past on a more frequent, yet stricter, eating pattern.  Certainly I worry less, when I do eat, about specific macronutrient ratios and stuff like that, and yet the results are slightly better from a body composition point of view.  Muscle certainly hasn’t melted away (as some fear will happen if you skip a meal).

  • My eating window coincides well with a noon-hour workout (I almost said lunch hour there!  See how like conditioned little lab rats we’ve become).  As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to get my workouts in wherever possible, and this often includes the typical midday break in a traditional workday.  There a lot of pretty solid evidence out there for the fat loss benefits of training while fasted, as well as the advantages of a substantial post-workout meal for muscle growth.  Since I usually eat my first meal of the day around 2pm, at which point I usually am famished, I can use this as a post-workout gorge-fest.

  • It works well with a busy family.  Like many parents, mornings with two young children are a shit-show.  My wife and I can spend our time getting a healthy breakfast for them (no, I don’t force my dietary predilections on my kids, especially since it seems logical that babies and children would need much more stable, consistent nourishment) and enjoying their company, rather than scrambling to feed ourselves too.

  • It provides a daily dose of humility.  So many of us exist in such a well-fed, indulged state most of the time, never experiencing genuine hunger.  It’s easy to forget that huge numbers of people throughout the world (let alone in our own country) go without food on a daily basis, involuntarily.  I have the supreme luxury of not having to worry where my next meal is coming from, but at least a daily experience of hunger, voluntary and minimal as it is, serves as a reminder that not everyone is so fortunate.

  • It makes food taste better.  Connected to the last point, I suspect that much of the reason why people often turn to over-sweetened, over-salted foods is that a lack of true hunger has effectively deadened and desensitized our societal taste buds to simple food and simple flavours.  I’m not sure who coined the phrase “Hunger is the best sauce”, but it’s strikingly true.  After 16 hours without food, a simple apple tastes infinitely better than a sickeningly sweet pastry would after just a short time.

  • I think it ultimately means spending less money on food, due to a gradual caloric deficit over the long term.  This seems a propos to the whole Hobofit gestalt.  Simpler, less money, better results – not to mention not worrying about stopping to mix up a protein shake the next time you have to chase down a passing boxcar.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Got Rings?

One of the most useful pieces of exercise equipment I own is a pair of portable gymnastic rings.  Now, I have to confess that these were purchased for me as a gift several years ago, to the tune of about 70 bucks, but they’ve been a staple of my training ever since and they’ve more than recouped that expense.  Strictly keeping with the whole ‘no-cost’ theme of this site, I’ve seen ways to make one’s own rings using PVC pipe for very minimal expense, such as here.  I’ve even considered the possibility of using towel rings, such as you’d find at any of the home reno stores, which would be quite cheap, coupled with any pair of automotive or utility straps/tie-downs capable of supporting a person’s weight.

The range of exercises one can do on rings is virtually limitless and are scalable in difficulty to the point that I don’t think even the strongest person in the world could exhaust all the possibilities.  I had always seen gymnasts using rings, of course, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that their use as a general fitness implement really occurred to me.  A friend of mine was working a summer job on a tree farm, the owner of which had a pair of iron rings attached to chains in his barn.  I don’t know how often he used them or what the rest of his diet/fitness regimen looked like, but the dude was one of the most ripped, wiry, veins popping out of his forearms guys I’ve ever seen, and I imagine the rings played a role.  I was doing pretty conventional bodybuilder-style training at the time and it registered with me enough to hang a few ropes from a tree in my yard and experiment a little bit, but I never got serious about it until years later.

Like I said, the rings are now an essential part of my training.  I use them at least twice a week.  The best aspect, for me, is their portability.  They weigh virtually nothing and take up hardly any room in a backpack or briefcase.  99% of my ring training is done on my lunch break.  I throw the rings up over a sturdy tree branch in the park across the street from my office and can get a great workout in in about 15-20 minutes.  In the wintertime, a swing set at the playground also works well (Best avoided in the summer, as not to frighten any parents or kids!).  Here’s a quick clip of a set of muscle-ups earlier this week:


Muscle-ups form the bulk of my ring work, just because they seem like such a complete upper body move.  I also do some skin-the-cats (not as gruesome as it sounds), stability holds like L-sits, and I’m working gradually up to front levers and maybe even an iron cross one day. 
After some months of failure, I finally got my first muscle-up on the rings back on Valentine’s Day of this year.  It’s still one of my most memorable fitness achievements.  It’s a useful move because it essentially means that anything you can jump and reach with your hands, you can now surmount.  Therefore it’s a key element of parkour and free running, not to mention gymnastics.  I remember first being aware of how cool it was (although I didn’t know the name of it) when I was a teenager playing Tomb Raider on an old Sony Playstation.  In some spots in the game, Lara would have to jump across a chasm of some sort, catch a ledge and then pull herself up onto it and keep going.  For some reason it made an impact on my juvenile mind. 

Anyway, in training to do my first one, I was frustrated by the fact that it’s often quoted that you should be able to do about 15 pull-ups (and equivalent # of dips) in order to have the necessary strength to transition from the pull-up to the dip.  I had been able to hit these marks for a long time, but I just couldn’t seem to get the transition phase right.  It was finally an article on Chad Waterbury’s site that did it for me.  Now I had heard a lot of similar advice before, but for whatever reason this made it through my thick skull and actually sank in.  The trick, at least for me, was maintaining the correct backward leaning, legs-forward body position on the pull portion so that, come transition time, the momentum of your legs swinging backward forces the shoulder through and above the rings, enabling you to start the dip(pushing) phase.  That and the false grip...

It takes time to develop a strong enough false grip, which you really need for the ring muscle-up.  Essentially it means all of your weight is borne by the wrist, rather than the hand.  It hurts like hell at first, but gets much easier.  For the first month or so, I was only able to get singles because I would lose my false grip on the descent.  However with practice, I’ve worked it up to sets of about 9 reps.  That’s still shit in Crossfit/gymnastics terms, but for a 6’5”, 230 lbs dude with long arms and crappy biomechanics for this type of move, I’m starting to be happy with that.

Gloves help for the false grip.  I use my motorcycle gloves because they go down past the wrist and provide a bit of protection.  For the first while I was carving up pretty good blisters in my wrists.  Chalk would be a good alternative but, as I said, I do these on my lunch hour and it would be annoying to go back to work with chalk all over my arms.  Because it’s all anaerobic and the total work volume is fairly low, I don’t need to shower or anything afterwards.  It’s a quick, effective lunchtime power-builder.  And aside from the initial investment of the rings, the only requirements are a tree branch and 15 minutes of one’s day.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

UPDATE: Sardine? Hold the estrogen

Some of you may have read my post from a while ago extolling the virtues of sardines.  I had mentioned that the one downside of sardines was that the can linings likely have bisphenol-A in them, which is a xeno-estrogen and an endocrine disruptor. 

Well, thankfully, I already have two beautiful kids, who I’m sure would still love me even if the chemicals in daddy’s sardines cause him to develop boobs.  However, for those who still hope to procreate further, I stumbled across a BPA-free option:

Now these aren’t cheap.  I think they cost me about $3.50 a can, which is about 2.5 – 3 times the price of conventionally-packaged ones.  The ‘hobo’ cache might be a little diminished by that fact.  But, in the grand scheme of things, they’re still a pretty economical and healthy meal.

Now I recommend that, if you do go this route, you turn it into a nice upscale experience.  Put on a tie, light a couple of candles, get out the nice napkins.  I like to throw on a little Vivaldi and repeat over and over to myself what a special little snowflake I am. 

Bon appetite!

Putting the 'organ' in organic

I’m hoping to win a few converts here to the wonderful world of organ meats.  Now I like prime rib and tenderloin as much as the next guy, but there’s a whole lot more to an animal than what gets packaged and sold at Costco.  Now I never grew up eating a lot of organ meats.  My mother would cook liver once in a blue moon because she figured it was healthy, but I don’t think either of us liked it all that much.  But lately, I’ve been experimenting a lot with cooking other organs (heart, sweetbreads, tongue, etc.) and have found that they’re not ‘offal’ at all, but can be quite good.  Here are some reasons to give it a try:

  1. They’re packed full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. 
In many cases, they’re much more nutrient-dense than more traditional cuts of meat.  Perhaps this is why they were held in such high esteem in the diets of many traditional cultures, and why predatory animals tend to eat the livers and organs of their prey first.  Here’s a good article outlining some of the particular nutritional strengths of various forms of offal, over at Mark's Daily Apple.

There’s also a good article over at the Weston A. Price Foundation, that talks about some of the, admittedly anecdotal, evidence behind organ meat consumption from a fitness/health perspective.  Bucking the bodybuilding trend in the 1980s toward low-fat everything, bodybuilder Ron Kosloff said, speaking about his grandparents’ longevity on a fat-heavy diet, “What astounded me most was their farmhand who went by the name of Indian Joe. When I first saw him he looked in his 40s and was incredibly cut and muscular. He looked like Conan. I was shocked when I found out he was well into his 70s. Indian Joe lived to 115 years of age and ate nothing but meat, glands and intestines!"

  1. They’re soooo cheap!
I prefer to buy meat that’s grass-fed and local, whenever possible.  That means shopping mostly at farmer’s markets, CSAs, etc. rather than the supermarket.  But that certainly gets pricey.  While I have absolutely no issue supporting farmers who are using good, sustainable practices, treating their livestock well, by paying a premium for their product, that doesn’t prevent me from capitalizing on the law of supply and demand.  The fact is that demand for organ meats is quite low, so the prices are always very low.  In some ways it seems that farmers are just trying to get rid of this stuff at cost.  I almost feel bad about paying so little.  I mean, check out some of the prices I’ve paid recently for livers, hearts and tongues.  Keep in mind that this is organic, pastured, locally-produced meat – cheaper than the worst processed shit (hotdogs, etc.) you’d find in a grocery store:

Are you kidding me?!  These are big chunks of meat (enough for at least two meals) for under one dollar!

  1. Properly prepared, they can be really delicious
I’d recommend the following book for recipes, called Odd Bits.  Some of the recipes in it are labour intensive, but I’ve made a few that are quite easy (I’m no chef!).  And of course there are a tonne of excellent recipes on the internet at various Paleo/Primal sites, as well as more traditional cooking sites.
Just last weekend, I made a recipe for tongue tacos that I found over on the Crossfit main page a couple weeks ago.  They turned out phenomenal!  Made with pineapple, and served in lettuce leaves, the slow-cooked tongue had the consistency of pulled pork when it was finished. It was my first attempt at cooking tongue (I know, technically a muscle and not an organ), and I’ve since made other good recipes with it as well - like this batch of green curried beef tongue earlier this evening.

Heart is really versatile and can be prepared like a lot of other lean meats.   I made Moroccan heart kabobs (based on a recipe in Odd Bits) a couple of months ago that turned out really well.

Sweetbreads (pancreas) are really quite good.  I’ve only cooked them a couple of times, stir-fried with green vegetables and spices, and they end up taking on a very similar texture to General Tao’s chicken.

Liver is tricky, as it has a tendency to dry out.  I’ve had the most success with grilling it quickly with a bunch of onions, garlic and pancetta/bacon for extra fat.  I eat it quite often (because of availability) but am still trying to come up with the best way to do it.

There are many other options of course.  I always order tripe when I’m out for Chinese dim sum, but haven’t ever tried cooking it at home.  I love both haggis and blood sausages as well, but have yet to try making my own.  I hope to change that in the near future.

The final point that could be made, in addition to the aforementioned cost-savings and nutritional benefits, is that eating organ meats is sustainable (in the whole ‘snout to tail’ sense of making use of the whole animal).  I always think it’s important to remember that the animal you’re eating gave its life for you (not exactly voluntarily, but nonetheless!).  I’m cognisant of this, not just as a hunter and a fisherman, but also as a consumer.  In some small part it seems that eating organ meats is a gesture, amidst a culture that is quite often wasteful, in support of a more mindful and measured approach to eating that takes into account the ecosystem and food chain that supports us.

And if anyone objects to eating organs on the basis of “they’re gross” or “I can’t get past the idea of it” kind of garbage, just remember that bacon is pig’s ass.  I bet you like bacon, don’t you? (It’s pretty much the best thing ever)  If you don’t, we can't be friends anymore.  I’m sorry.