Wednesday, June 10, 2015

My Rice Chex Diet (Not Perfect, but Pretty OK)

For any given person (with all their physiological quirks) at any given time, for any given set of goals in whatever priority they are, there is a Perfect Diet. There is some perfect set of foods, eaten at some perfect set of times in some perfect amounts, that will result in the best possible result for that person, given that person's own goals (the Perfect Diet for someone trying to bring down their marathon time isn't the same as the Perfect Diet for that same person heading into a powerlifting meet isn't the same as that same person just trying to maximize their lifespan).

There are 2 funny things about the Perfect Diet:
1. Nobody knows what their Perfect Diet is. Seriously, nobody. It's a platonic ideal. Nobody knows down to the gram the absolute best meal plan for their goals every day; there simply is no way to gather that kind of information. [Note: I'm not denying that lots of people know a Really Great Diet for themselves, just that they don't know the Perfect Diet, at least not perfectly.]

2. Despite #1, many (or most) people who are at all health conscious have a pretty good idea in what direction their Perfect Diet lies. For an easy example, most of us know we should be eating less sugar, less artificial sweeteners, and more green vegetables, almost no matter what our goals are. Some people might already be eating what is the absolute best diet (the diet closest to their Perfect Diet) to their knowledge, but in my experience those people are rare.

So why don't (most of us) eat in a way that is closest to supporting our goals? {Note that the question is NOT why don't we eat our Perfect Diet - we literally can't - but why we don't at least do better]

There are many answers to this question. Sometimes we are paralyzed by knowledge - we know that to eat the best diet we know of we'd have to dramatically change our entire lifestyle. Maybe we don't love the foods that we'd have to eat, or we do love the foods we'd have to eliminate.

I am, of course, no exception to these generalizations. I know a lot about what I should be eating, Yet I do not (and never have been able to) consistently eat that way.

My son recently challenged me to get a six pack (he actually said, "Dad, I wish you had a six pack like those guys in the UFC." He's seven, I'll cut him some slack). So I redoubled my lifelong efforts to get lean, fueled as much by my own vanity as by my son's disdain for my flabby belly.

Back in serious martial arts training, I know I can't afford to just restrict calories willy nilly and maintain my performance. I also know from experience that I can't do karate well (I mean well by my standards, I never do it REALLY well) on a very low carb diet.

So I need carbs. And by carbs I mean starch: actual glucose polymers, not lots of fructose or sucrose (I can go into the chemistry of that some other time). And I can't tolerate gluten, so the easiest starch sources (bread! crackers!) are all out.

I may not know the Perfect way to get my carbs, but I do know some Pretty Damn Good ways to get them. I could eat some steamed or baked potatoes, white or sweet, each day. Bake them the day before, then cool them, then reheat and eat. Or cook up some rice in a little oil, let it rest in the frig overnight, and reheat the next day (cooked then cooled white potatoes and rice have lots of resistant starch, which is good for you... another topic for another post).

There's just one problem: I can never seem to motivate myself to stick to this process. I tried, and I kept finding myself hungry in the middle of the day, needing some carbs, with a full email box of work to do, with an empty refrigerator and no time to cook anything.

At this point, there are two ways to go: give up completely or acknowledge that you can't manage the Perfect Diet, and you also can't manage the Pretty Damn Good diet but maybe you can settle for the Fair But Not Great diet That's Still Better Than What You Were Doing. And yes, I am totally going to make a book out of that and sell the hell out of it.

My 'solution': Rice Chex. I needed some source of starch that required absolutely no preparation time, with a long shelf life (I can't be bothered to shop every 3 days) and portability (I travel a lot). And gluten free.

Rice Chex fill all those criteria. Very little sugar, not too expensive, and the best part? They're good, but not THAT good. I need my carbs to be  palatable, but if they're really tasty, I know I'll eat more than I should, and then my son can forget the six pack. But Rice Chex are right between 'meh' and 'not bad,' so I can eat them all the time but I never greedily reach for a second bowl (nor do I shudder in disgust at the first bowl).

It's pretty clear Rice Chex are not part of anybody's Perfect Diet. For one thing, they have a pretty high glycemic index. They also do not have much in the way of additional nutrition - no healthy fats, no interesting phytochemicals, no protein to speak of. But they are a cheap and easy way I can get my starch in, with 0 prep time, and support as much hard training as I want.

[In full disclosure, General Mills is not paying me a penny to endorse their cereal, nor do they even know I exist, though I'd be happy to sell out if they made me an offer.]

My point here is not that YOU should be eating Rice Chex (though they're worth considering if you're facing the same issues I am). My point is that while there is one Perfect Diet for you from a physiological sense, the Best Diet you should be on is the one you'll actually stick to. I can stick to the Rice Chex diet, whereas the Sweet Potato diet might be physiologically/chemically better for me, but I can't be bothered to actually eat that way.

Find your Best Diet You'll Actually Do. In the end, that really is your own Perfect Diet.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dadbods and six packs

As I write these there are two funny things going on, one personal and one societal. Personally, after 3 years away from martial arts training and a moderate but significant accumulation of bodyfat,  I'm back in training and leaning out, to the point where I think I'm as lean as I've ever been, or at least close to it. And societally, the new 'big thing' is the dadbod, which is, as far as I can tell, just a catchphrase for people suddenly marveling at the fact that a chubby Leonardo DiCaprio can convince models to have sex with him despite being, well, chubby.

So as I get ever closer to my personal goal of having a visible six pack, women all over are publicly declaring their preference for men with some flab around their middles.

I'm not looking for sympathy here, my desire for a six pack has everything to do with my own vanity and very little to do with what most women find attractive. I do think that this whole 'dadbod' thing is worth of some unpacking and examination, because when I read what people are writing about it I find that most of it is somewhat misguided.

1. You never needed a six pack to find people who want to have sex with you. It took me decades to figure this out (I can be pretty stupid), but while I'm sure some women only sleep with men who have shredded abs, this is not true for the majority of women, and it's not even especially true of attractive women. There are plenty of women who prefer men with some extra bodyfat, and even more who don't particularly mind it. I think it's probably more difficult to find women who prefer men who are morbidly obese, but even those are out there. And for women, the converse is just as true: there are men who prefer women in any imaginable shape & size, and there are even more men who at least don't mind an extra few pounds.

2. A six pack, or shredded abs, isn't about health. Large amounts of excess bodyfat is unhealthy. There's tons of research showing that morbid obesity leads to all sorts of health problems. But there's really no research showing any health benefit to that last 10 or 20 pounds of fat that separate the shredded from the lean-but-not-exactly-shredded, and lots of anecdotal stories of people messing themselves up trying to bridge that gap. If you're naturally lean, great, enjoy it. If you're not, starving yourself to get those last few pounds or doing tons of cardio to get there is a vanity project, not an enhancement to your health. The stress of long term calorie deprivation or very high volumes of moderate intensity exercise can definitely have a negative impact on health.

3. Many people associate having a six pack with being an jerk. I've come across a bunch of comments written by women proclaiming their preference for the dadbod. I am somewhat skeptical - I mean, if they had a chubby boyfriend who started working out and got really lean and muscular, would they really be disappointed with that? But even if I'm wrong, and dadbod really is their aesthetic preference, many of them were saying that right along with comments like, "fit guys are so self absorbed, only talk about their diets and workouts, and make other people feel bad about their less than perfect bodies." My conclusion: many people associate being ripped with being a jerk. I strongly suspect that the real appeal of the dadbod is, in most cases, due to the underlying belief that a less fit guy is less likely to be a jerk.

Look, obviously there's nothing about having shredded abs that actually chemically turns you into a jerk. But there's also no doubt that many people with shredded abs actually are jerks (just because lots of people are jerks generally speaking), and when you add that stereotype to confirmation bias, many people wind up believing that all lean guys are jerks.

So, if you want to have a six pack, and are able to manage it healthfully, and it makes you happier, that's fantastic. But don't be a jerk. Here's a quick guide to being less of a jerk (and, fyi, I am guilty of all these things, and can be a jerk, so this is very much a case of do what I say and not what I do):

  • Talk about things other than your workouts and nutrition. Almost nobody cares.
  • Eat out with your friends. Practice self control when you eat out, but don't socially isolate yourself just because you're fit.
  • Don't body shame other people. It won't make them more likely to work out and get healthy, it will just make them think you're a jerk.
  • Every hour of every day, repeat this to yourself: "Just because my diet/workout plan/supplementation regime worked for me does NOT mean it will work for anybody else, let alone everybody else."
  • Talk about things other than your workouts and nutrition. Almost nobody cares. (This one was worth repeating, and it's true even if you do Crossfit).
4. Your bodyfat percentage does not define your moral value - either way. It is quite obvious that both sides of the anti-fat-shaming/ anti-obesity argument ascribe moral value to either being normal (eating pizza and wings, not being too dogmatic about gym attendance) or super-healthful (eating clean all the time, exercising a lot), depending on where they stand. Both sides are wrong.

To the fit snobs: not everyone is at a place in their life where they want to or even can live a very healthful lifestyle. There is more to life than being shredded - socializing is just as important as exercise to personal health. And people go through periods of time (sometimes long periods!) where other things do and should take priority - like taking care of kids, dealing with difficult work or family situations, or dealing with personal issues. So stop judging.

To the anti-fit snobs: there's nothing evil or selfish about wanting to be healthy or lean. If your friend wants to eat the celery and not the chicken wings when you go  out, how is that hurting you? If they are nagging you or being a jerk about it you have every right to be angry, but be angry at them FOR THAT behavior, not for being healthful or caring about their appearance.

There is moral value in how you treat other people. Not eating a brownie is not a sin. Being a jerk to someone who does eat a brownie might be. Eating a brownie is also not a sin, as long as the brownie eater isn't shoving it down the throat of some unwilling bystander.

[There is a tricky gray area with this last point. If you have a loved one who lives an unhealthy lifestyle and either suffers from some health complications or has a family history of it, there is a (I think) natural inclination to try to change that behavior. I'm not going to weigh in on this issue - it's complicated and outside the scope of this post. Let's just say that I'm trying to tell you not to nag your healthy friend who grabs the second slice of pizza, I'm not trying to tell you whether or not you should do something about a close relative eating a half gallon of ice cream the day they get home from cardiac bypass surgery.]

I really want a six pack. But I think I'm doing it for the right reasons - it's because I'm vain as shit, not because I think it will make women like me more or make me healthier or make me better at my job. Being leaner might help my martial arts performance, but to be honest the calorie deprivation might hurt my training just as much as the decreased body mass helps. If I ever manage to get shredded abs I'm pretty sure the only change in my life is I'll have a little smile on my face whenever my shirt comes off - and that nobody will care about that but me. And if you're not vain as shit, and don't care about your abdominal definition? Then don't pursue it! And please eat a chicken wing for me!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Back to the Grindstone

I recently got back into regular training for the first time in 3 years. I've blogged before about my reasons for not training, and about what to do when you can't really train fully, but I've finally reached a point in my life where I can do some minimal training and actually go to classes once in a while.

If you're keeping track (and there is no reason you should be), I started training in Seido Karate in the fall of 1988 (probably September). It is now May of 2015. That makes about 26.5 years elapsed since I first started training.

In that 26.5 years I've taken off - and I'm not counting a week or two away, I mean blocks of time longer than a few months - at least 16 years (maybe as much as 18, I don't have dates for all of it).

So I've trained regularly for about 10 years, despite starting almost three decades ago.

Coming back to karate training after a break provides some massively inspirational moments and some massively depressing ones.

First of all, I always forget how wonderful the social aspect of karate training is. Seeing and reacquainting myself with old friends is a large part of what's great about returning.

There are, however, multiple traps you have to avoid if you want to enjoy returning to training after a long absence.

You have to avoid the trap of comparing yourself to those who stayed. If you dwell on how much better everybody else has gotten, and how much you've lost (or at least stagnated), then you won't enjoy the training. This is a constant battle for me. It's nice to see others succeed, but it's a little difficult to see people I used to teach who have progressed far beyond me.

You have to avoid the trap of comparing yourself to the you-who-would-have-been. I'm not particularly good at karate, talent wise, but I'd probably be a lot more skilled if I'd managed to train regularly for the last 26.5 years. If I compare where I am to where I might have been it's a little depressing.

The last trap is trying to do too much too soon. Going from couch surfing to six day a week training will wreck you, especially if you're older or not particularly athletic. Take days off and get back into training gradually - if you're doing things right you'll have the rest of your life to train, and a couple days off every week won't make any difference in three months or three years. There are tools now to help you manage your workload - like Heart Rate Variability tests - that I'll try to discuss in a future post.

The last point I wanted to make is a confirmation of things I've said before: the most important thing to maintain during times when you can't do much training is strength. I didn't do a ton of cardio or flexibility training in the last three years, but what I did was keep up my strength training. And now that I've been back at regular training for two months, my technique is very close to where it was before, and my endurance is catching up fast.

First of all, you can maintain strength levels without taking a lot of time. Keeping strength will not take multiple hours a week - you can do a lot to keep your strength with, say, two half hour workouts a week, which is within what most people can manage. Compare that to the time it takes to keep up peak endurance - much different.

Second of all, strength takes longer to come back. Building lost muscle tissue just takes a long time. Re-acquiring skills (nervous system adaptions) are much faster, and the adaptions needed to rebuild endurance are also fast.

So if you don't have time to train, at least keep up your strength work. When you do come back, expect to be less skilled than you were, and expect to be behind your former peers in skill. But even if you can't catch or pass those who started training with you, you can definitely be better - far better - than if you just spend the rest of your life riding that couch.

And if you have to spar with me, please take it easy on this old man who can't seem to manage a life that keeps him in the dojo.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Neurological fatigue, stress, and high intensity training

I've had a very stressful few years.

I'm not looking for sympathy - far from it - but it's important context for what I'm writing about. I've gotten divorced, started new relationships, gotten engaged, switched careers, and been splitting my time between 2 or 3 locations with 4+ hours driving between them, switching at least every other week. I'm also getting a bit long in the tooth (44!)

Now I've never been particularly athletic in any way, but I've always been able and willing to work pretty hard in various athletic pursuits. That's what I love about martial arts - there is such a systematic and well developed skill set that hard work can achieve so much to level the playing field against better athletes (compare that to, for example, sprinting, where technique means a lot but the best technician who is predominantly slow twitch still won't run nearly as fast as an untrained but very athletic person).

So I'm the guy who's happy to go somewhere and work on something until I've soaked through all my clothes and hit a new pr in whatever I'm doing, five days a week, week in and week out. [Please note that I'm not claiming to be one of the hardest working people out there, just that I'm not below average.]

But over these last few years I've found my ability to push the envelope in my workouts is diminishing.

It's not that my work capacity has gone down or that my ability to push hard has gone down, but I find now that when I push really, really hard, especially if I do it repeatedly (as in, several times a week for several weeks), I get wrecked.

Not wrecked physically - wrecked psychologically.

I had all the signs of being overstressed - noticeably increased anxiety, difficulty focusing, irritability, etc. My workouts were short, but their impact on me was preventing me from living the rest of my life.

The solution?

I started to mail it in when I worked out. I didn't get this idea all by myself - Dan John has been a big influence - but it's the first time in my life I've deliberately taken it easy when exercising.

That sounds crazy, but it works better than you'd think. Suppose I could do 12 reps with an exercise - instead I'd stop at 6 or 7, but do many more sets, with plenty of rest in between. My rule was simple: if I had to get myself psyched up to do something, I didn't do it. I only attempted efforts that I could knock out with little to no real preparation, and nothing that left me shaken afterwards.

Four things:

First, 2 sets of 6 reps of an exercise is much, much less mental stress than 1 set of 12, assuming 12 is pretty close to a max effort for you.

Second, 2 sets of 6 reps (with a load you could handle 12 times) will do a lot more to maintain your strength and fitness than you think - and certainly much more than doing nothing.

Third, keeping all your reps sub-maximal in effort makes it a lot easier to concentrate on proper technique - none of the reps are ever sloppy.

Four, if you're overstressed by life and your workouts, your health and fitness will suffer. Reducing the stress might actually end up leaving you MORE fit than you were when you worked harder. This is doubly true if you're trying to lose bodyfat - being very stressed (high cortisol) can cripple that effort, while easing off some on your workout intensity might leave you leaner than when you were killing yourself in the gym.

I've long been a huge proponent of higher intensity training - and I still hold to that. I still think that you're better off doing light intervals (say, 10s work/ 20 s rest with with something that gets your heart rate nice and high) over a slow, steady jog for the same overall timespan (more on this in a future post).

But if you're in a position where those high intensity killer workouts are killing you, keep the same style of effort (peaks and valleys of effort) but back off on the intensity.

There are certainly days when I push it much harder than others - days when I go for 12 reps at once. But I don't even try to do that every day.

If my life gets any easier, I might go back to regular balls to the wall training. I enjoy doing that. If I do, I'll write about my experiences. But for now I'll be doing much more moderate work, more frequently, and seeing just how fit I can get using that modality.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Pain, the nocebo effect, and good instruction

I just listened to a very interesting podcast here. I'm not a huge fan of Jon Fass as a fitness expert (he seems like a perfectly lovely person, I just have intellectual qualms about his stuff generally), for reasons not worth addressing here unless someone asks in comments, but he is pretty knowledgeable about some things and what he said about pain jives well with things I already knew.

The podcast is worth listening to, but I can summarize the key points:

  1. Pain is not as simple as: damage to the body ==> pain. For example, some people have back pain. Some of them, when examined with MRI's, have damage to parts of their spines (herniated discs, fractured vertebrae, etc.) It is easy to assume that the damage causes the pain. But when people who have no pain are picked off the street randomly and tested they often show very similar damage - but no pain at all.
  2. Pain is profoundly influenced by expectations and psychology (which is not the same as saying it's 'all in your head'). Take the placebo effect. Give someone a sugar pill but tell them it's a painkiller and they will often feel better - the pain goes away. Similarly, there is a nocebo effect - give someone a treatment that they think might have side effects and they might experience pain even if you're not actually doing anything to them.
  3. In short, a person's beliefs and expectations can influence whether or not they experience pain from a particular physical situation. There are probably physical states that are always painful (broken leg?) and some that are never painful, but there is a much wider range in the middle that might go either way.
None of which is to say you should ignore pain or encourage your students to do so (in the context that I think we all understand that there is a difference between the temporary, normal, and mild pain of muscular exertion and the pain of injury). Pain is often a real and important indicator of mechanical injury. Unless you're an orthopedist, if a student of yours is in injury-type pain I wouldn't suggest you do anything other than refer them to a physician.

But you should also understand that certain beliefs might make your students more likely to experience pain. And as an instructor or a fellow student, your words can have a profound impact on other people's beliefs and expectations.

Let me give a quick example. I played (American) football (poorly, but I was on the team) in high school. Everyone was hyper-aware of the risk of knee injury, and it was thought by most of us that almost all hard training was likely to cause long term knee damage. We all told each other this, and all believed it. We took it in stride (and some misguided pride) that playing football would give us all 'bad knees' eventually. 

So my knees hurt. By my junior year I had constant low grade pain in my knees. Then I stopped practicing (my career ended), and the knee pain dissipated.

Did I have damage to my knees that healed? Was there some physical, mechanical abnormality in my knees in high school that went away? Perhaps. But I often did more and harder training (albeit of slightly different kinds) in later years and never had even a tiny amount of pain at any other point in my life, up to and including now. I have also never done any training since then that I believed would cause knee pain.

I'm pretty sure my expectations of getting 'bad knees' led to my knee pain in high school. It's hard to imagine another explanation for a pain that simply went away, without any intervention, never to return, even as I aged and did a lot of hard training later in life. 

What is the point? If a student comes to you with a sharp pain, take it seriously. I would never suggest otherwise. HOWEVER there are things you can do during training that might prevent the pain from ever occurring.

When you teach proper form, it is (I think?) only natural to suggest to people that doing things incorrectly can lead to injury. Locking joints while striking, letting knees cave inwards in stances, etc. all put the body in compromising positions that can lead to injury.

The problem is that telling your students this makes it more likely that they'll experience those injuries (by the nocebo effect). Obviously, the right solution is NOT to avoid teaching proper form. But when teaching proper form, emphasize the non-injury-related aspects of that form. Teach your students to use proper alignment because it's more efficient, takes less energy, increases accuracy, or increases power. Or even because it looks better.

You should continue to demand that your students constantly improve their technical abilities, but you should probably emphasize all the reasons for this without talking about how it will make them less likely to get hurt. Because if you do, then when they realize their form isn't absolutely perfect (because almost nobody has perfect form), they might believe that their technique is hurting them - and that belief itself makes it more likely that it will.

Once again: Don't lie to your students. Don't ignore a student in pain or suggest that they ignore pain. Do teach proper movement to minimize the chances that your students get hurt. Do emphasize all the reasons for that proper movement EXCEPT the fact that it will minimize their risk of injury.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Shang Chi, not Iron Fist, should be the new Marvel TV series

Marvel just announced a slew of new TV series, to be released through Netflix, and Iron Fist is one of them.

I want to love Iron Fist. He has everything I love in a comic book - martial arts based powers, a killer tattoo (on his chest! Yay!), a visually awesome "super power," and a generally excellent backstory full of mystical lost cities and dead dragons.

Yet I can't. I have, at best, mixed feelings about the character, and I doubt he'll ever be a breakout star for Marvel.

First of all, if you're not familiar with the character, make yourself so. I'll wait.


My basic problem with the character, and this is ironic, because he was paired with a black partner and they had fun liberal adventures together, is that his story is awesomely racist.

Let's recap. White kid, with no special training or abilities, winds up in the mystical (and Asian) city of K'un-L'un, where he begins intensive training in kung fu. Now, being white, OF COURSE he just happens to be the most talented kid there, even more than all the native K'un-L'un-ites who have lived and breathed martial arts starting at conception. He's so good that he becomes the best fighter around, surpassing all the darker skinned natives who have been training for decades longer, kills their dragon, and takes its power. And leaves.

If you wanted to purposefully write an allegory for cultural appropriation and imperialism I'm not sure you could. And he's the hero!

So he tries to get revenge, doesn't (which is cool, I like that bit), and then what does he do? He's the heir to a ginormous fortune (I just realized Blogger doesn't red-squiggly-underline 'ginormous'), so he hangs out in the slums of NY and fights crime with Power Man. Now Luke Cage is a man who actually grew up in those slums, who is actually struggling to do the right thing and make a life for himself. And her comes Danial Rand, a rich white dude just pretending to need to be there - an heir to a vast fortune, who's literally slumming, so he can learn about the gritty underworld.

Iron Fist fights crime and injustice because he's bored. Not driven by inner demons - he's no Batman or Moon Knight - not trying to make amends, just needs something to do with his badass kung fu skills so he figures, "hey, why not chill with the poor people and beat up the ones who don't meet my standards of behavior?"

By the time Brubaker took over the series Daniel Rand seems to loath himself. As he should. He's a douche.

To add insult to injury, Iron Fist's basic power (rad martial arts skill, plus every so often he can make his fist Like a Thing Unto Iron (and glowy) and hit stuff really, really hard) is a story killer. It's like Voltron's sword - if he can take out the bad guy without pulling out the Iron Fist, they were never a threat, and if he uses it and it DOESN'T work, the bad guy's way out of his league. He's a one trick, one shot pony, and that's a story killer.

For a contrast, let's look at a contemporary of Iron Fist's: Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. He was an infinitely better character in every way, except that he had no cool tattoos.

Shang Chi is awesome at martial arts. Why? Because his dad, basically a super rich megalomaniacal supervillain, had him trained from birth by the very best instructors in the world to be a killing machine. No implied white supremacism here (he's pretty Asian), just hard work and dedication!

Plus he has a great motivation - his dad was super evil, and he isn't, so he goes back and defends the free world from his father's evil plots time and time again. Then, when he's bored (i.e. in between evil plots by dad), he wants to fight against injustice to make amends - because he feel responsible for the sins of his father AND for bad stuff he did while still under the old man's thumb.

Making up for your father's sins. That's some classic, nigh-Shakespearean shit.

Shang Chi has no one super killer martial arts move. He has to work to figure out a strategy to defeat every skilled opponent he comes across. He has no superpowers at all, other than metal bracelets that can, Wonder Woman style, deflect knives and throwing stars and stuff. He trains hard, learns new things, and goes through crises of conscience.

In short, he's a much better character than Iron Fist could ever hope to be.

I don't mean to be all negative. I will here offer a way to fix Iron Fist as a character:

1. Make his mom from K'un L'un. She left/escaped/whatever, she had super duper skills, fell in love with a white dude, had Daniel. They came back for some reason - she dies protecting him from wolves, but had taught him great stuff or he inherited great genes from her. Takes away the white people can do everything better angle, plus adds a hook into the mystical city (maybe people there were fans of hers? Maybe some internal conflicts going on?) Maybe it's an ongoing search - why did she leave to begin with? What was going on?

2. Take away the Rand Corporation. Nobody likes rich people these days.

3. Give him some recurring villains that aren't plant people (God I wish I was making that up). Ninjas from K'un L'un (yes, I know I'm crossing cultures, sue me) out to get back the Dragon Spirit or whatever. He goes to NYC to fight them on his own turf. Or mystical dudes from another city - another culture, even - out to steal his power. Or, you know, there's some bad thing out there that the Dragon Spirit is supposed to defend us from.

4. Make his powers more... varied. Maybe the Iron Fist is his big KO, but let him do little bits of other things (jump real high, climb walls, heal himself, whatever). Maybe he has a power meter, so he can only do X units of stuff per day, then has to meditate/get laid/whatever to recharge, but add a strategy element to it - does hie put all the power into his fist, or save some for a shield/ for healing/ to make a bright light & distract his opponent? More tools = more interesting battles. I learned that from Naruto.

You want a really fantastic idea? Mash the two characters together. Guy (I'm resisting the urge to dub him Shang Rand or Daniel Chi) is from a mystical city from which his super evil father wants to rule the world. His mother escapes with him, and they go to New York & he's raised there, being trained intensely by his mom against the day when dad comes to get him (which can only happen periodically, because mystical city).

Kid grows up poor in NYC slums. After 10 years his father's minions kill his mom, kidnap him, and bring him back home. He trains more, all the while plotting revenge, gets even better (using mom's secret techniques), kills dragon, gains superpowers, defeats his father.

Now picture this: super powered kid goes back home, hangs out with childhood friend Luke Cage, and tries to help people he actually knows and cares about. Plus, make up for evil father. Plus, maybe father's minions come and offer him power - like, "become our leader & we'll help you clean up the city." Which was, like, an awesome Daredevil storyline. What does he do? Plus, the ever present tension - is he helping the city more by crimefighting or hurting it because evil dudes are always showing up to take his glowy hands away?

Which character is more compelling? Sadly, the least compelling, to me, is the actual Iron Fist. But he's blonde, so that's the one they'll go with. I'll still watch it, but I'll be saddened by what could have been... if only Marvel listened to me.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An Open Letter to Gluten-Free Skeptics

I've been noticing, here and there online, a significant backlash against gluten free (GF) diets and dieters. You may have noticed the same thing - snarky comments like:

  • Oh, did a doctor diagnose you with celiac? No? Then why are you wasting your money?
  • Gluten free food section! For weak minded people who like overpaying for products that won't help them lose weight!
  • Gluten free - the latest fad diet. Would you like some homeopathic remedies with that rice flour muffin, sir?
And so on.

I can imagine many reasons for this backlash. Many people dispute the evidence in favor of the benefits of a GF diet (or think there is NO evidence). Many people see it as a scam to sell overpriced substitute products. I'm sure many GF proponents overstate the evidence for this lifestyle, and that can make scientifically minded people cranky (and justifiably so). And, like with many other lifestyles, people who see benefits from it are often... shall we say, aggressive... about promoting it. And that can be obnoxious. I get that.

So I'm writing this open letter to the snarkiest, angriest, most ticked-off, bread enjoying, GF hating person out there on the internet:

Dear GF Skeptic:

I gave up gluten in 2010. At the time I had no symptoms of gluten sensitivity - no digestive issues, no overt symptoms of problems. No diagnosis of celiac. I was, however, obese (and have been for most of my life), and prone to uncontrollable binge eating. I gave it up as an experiment - not sure that it would help me, just hoping.

And it did.

I've been leaner, and generally healthier, during the past 3 years than at any prior time in my life. And this hasn't been an easy 3 years - it's been very stressful (for reasons having nothing to do with food), yet despite lots of travel and lots of serious life changes, I've been able to lose most of my excess fat and keep it off, without very much effort

This was not my first attempt at leaning out - I've tried many different eating strategies, from low fat to low carb to vegetarianism to intermittent fasting - over the years. None of them "stuck" until I went gluten free.

At this point, I can imagine many things you might be thinking. "n=1 doesn't prove anything." "Show me the science to back up any of your claims." "So why should I go gluten free? I'm not obese."

Here's my answer: You are correct. n=1 does not, in fact, prove anything. I don't have compelling science to show you (I'm not saying there isn't ANY science, or that there never will be, but I'm not going to argue about what's available right now). I'm not even necessarily telling YOU to try a GF diet.


Even if I DON"T have dozens of double blind studies published in peer reviewed journals showing that a GF intervention reduces inflammation, improves digestion, and leads to weight loss, I DO have evidence that it vastly improved MY life and health. I have the size 40 pants in my closet to prove it. And please remember - I had tried VERY MANY other things before going GF, and couldn't stick to any of them. And I've been lean(ish) and healthy for over 3 full years on GF, with very little effort, and in every other way those 3 years should have packed MORE pounds onto my body (divorce, career change, moved 5 times).

And I bet you know at least a couple of people with similar stories.

Is it possible that those of us who benefit from GF diets are outliers? That we represent only a tiny portion of the population? Of course. I have seen MANY people try a GF diet and see very little benefit. Maybe they didn't give it long enough, or were eating hidden sources of something damaging, or maybe... they just don't need to be gluten free. I have no idea.

But as much as YOUR argument that I don't have science proving gluten is bad for everybody - nobody has any science showing that NOBODY benefits from a GF diet.

Let me reiterate: NOBODY has ever done even a single study that shows in any sense that NOBODY benefits from eliminating gluten from their diet.

If I were recommending that you eliminate something important from your diet, you'd have every right to hold me to a higher standard. If anyone says to avoid meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, fruits, vegetables, or berries entirely from your diet you should be VERY skeptical - because they'd be telling you to eliminate a source of important nutrients from your diet. Not that you CAN'T eliminate any of those categories - you can probably eat a healthy diet that skips any one of those categories - but you're definitely giving up some important stuff, and you'll have to be careful to replace those nutrients.

What do we give up when we give up gluten? Please don't say carbs, or fiber - there are PLENTY of carb and fiber sources that aren't wheat, and I'm not talking about anything exotic - potatoes, rice, and vegetables are not fringe foods in our society that can only be purchased in specialty stores. The fact is that there are NO nutrients in wheat that aren't quite easy to get with other foods (and people will argue about the necessity of carbs and fiber anyway, but I don't want to address that here).

If I were to say that everybody SHOULD give up gluten, you'd have every right to be skeptical. But I'm not. If I started going into details regarding mechanisms by which gluten harms you, we could start a biochem knowledge war that neither of us is really equipped to wage. But I'm not.

Here's my claim - and the biggest claim made by sane GF advocates:

A gluten free diet seems to be very helpful to SOME people. If you are struggling with your bodyfat levels, systemic inflammation, or digestive problems, you MIGHT want to TRY a gluten free diet for a while to see if YOU ARE ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WILL BENEFIT.

I'm not promising that going gluten fee will turn you into Wolverine - or even into Hugh Jackman. I'm not promising it will help YOU lose weight. Or take better craps. I have no idea what percentage of the population would benefit from a GF diet - maybe it's 1%? Maybe it's 20%? Maybe it's 100%? I have no idea.

But I DO KNOW that it's NOT 0%. Some portion of the population sees dramatic improvements in health from going gluten free. And the nutritional cost of giving up gluten is pretty much nothing - there's no important nutrient in wheat that you can't get from potatoes, rice, vegetables, meat, eggs, nuts, fruits, berries.

Does going gluten free suck? It sure does. I miss pizza, and bagels, and brownies, and cookies... I love that stuff.

But I don't miss my size 40 pants. Or feeling crappy all the time.

So, if YOU are overweight, or have digestive issues, and maybe have already tried other interventions, and not found success... maybe it's time to try this whole GF thing?

You might be mocked by internet trolls or derided by science nerds talking about evidence based practices. And I CANNOT promise that you will be any better off for having tried it. I can't prove that gluten is bad for everybody, or that you're one of the people who will be better off eschewing it. But I CAN ABSOLUTELY prove that it's very, very helpful to SOME people. And you might be one of them.

That's the part that I find heartbreaking - I KNOW GF was a huge part of the solution for me. I strongly suspect that's its part of the solution for LOTS of other people (just because I find it hard to imagine that I'm special or unique). Yet so many smart people are soooo skeptical - and let's be honest, if you're arguing that it's IMPOSSIBLE that being gluten free will benefit any particular individual who hasn't tried it, then you're actually on weaker footing than I am, scientifically speaking.

Once again: if you are struggling with digestion, weight, or inflammation, and you've tried other things and failed, please try eating gluten free. Give it a month. If you don't feel better, eat a huge pizza and breath a sigh of relief that you can again do so. If you DO feel better, then... you'll be feeling better.

And maybe think twice before you mock the soccer mom heading over to the gluten free aisle at Whole Foods. She might be sheepishly following a fad diet with no real thought or understanding, but she might be fitting into her size S yoga pants for the first time since she was a teenager thanks to her switch to a gluten free lifestyle.


(now needing a belt when wearing size 32 pants)