The Casual Blog

Tag: nutrition

Spirit bears, dental hygiene, and why our eating matters

A rare spirit bear, also known as a Kermode bear, near Klemtu, British Columbia

During my recent trip to the wilds of British Columbia, I didn’t have room for all my new photo files on my hard drive, so this past week I bought a massive (14 TB) new one.   Once I got the new device running, I edited more of my wildlife photos. Those included shots of the very rare spirit bear, an osprey that had caught a salmon, and a humpback whale, some of which are here.  It was a moving experience to share space for a little while with these creatures.  

This week it was time for my six-month dental check up. I’m a big believer in good tooth care, since we each get only one set of teeth, and it’s much more difficult to eat without them.  So I put some effort into rinsing, brushing, and flossing, since if I don’t, who will? Well, actually, it kind of takes a village. I’ve got a whole team giving advice, encouragement, and occasional repairs at Dr. Williams’s general dentistry practice.  

Of course, my tooth health depends on a lot of others.  I’m thinking of all the hardworking folks who make the dental floss, toothbrushes, and tooth paste, who wire the building and and keep the electric grid working, who put in the plumbing, who operate the water system, and trusted teachers from my childhood, especially my Mom.  

An osprey and its prey. Moments later, the fish got loose, and was caught mid-air by a bald eagle.

But of those closest to my mouth now, I want to thank  D, my latest dental hygienist, who pushed me hard to add a Waterpik to my routine, which I did a few months back.  I used to think Waterpiks were silly and useless gadgets, but I’m now a believer. D says my Waterpiking has been very good for my gums.  

I like that D is truly passionate about tooth care, and I always learn some interesting tooth facts in our cleaning sessions.  She pointed out that TV and movie people all whiten their teeth nowadays, whereas in older movies teeth are grayer. She told me that drugstore whitening products use the same chemical as custom work (that is, peroxide) and generally work fine, but they likely won’t go on as evenly. 

In moments of existential dread, I’ve sometimes wondered what’s the use of worrying about teeth, or any bodily maintenance issues.  With all the enormous risks on our horizon, including nuclear weapons, asteroid strikes, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, runaway superintelligent artificial intelligence, and of course the dire effects of global warming, it’s difficult to factor in individual bodily worries.  The vastly different scale of the two sorts of problems prevents comparisons.

But we can’t help but feel that we as individuals have some significance, and our lives are worth taking some trouble over.  Along this line, I’m reading This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Haaglund, a Swedish philosopher at Yale.  Haaglund suggests that each individual carries various identities, such as parent, child, professional, church goer, and customer, which may be added to or fluctuate over time.  Part of the essential work of living a life is choosing how to realize the goals associated with those identities and prioritizing when the identities conflict. Haaglund’s theory is thought-provoking, and I expect to have more to say about it in a future post.  

But for now, I’m comfortable that having serviceable teeth is not inconsistent with trying to stop environmental degradation or prevent nuclear accidents.  Our identity as caretakers of our bodies is entirely reconcilable with our identity as citizens trying to avoid catastrophe.  

Grizzly bear cub

 In fact, the issues of personal health, societal well being,  and the environment are interconnected.  One of the great ironies of modern first world life is how, with all our wealth and knowledge, and with the miracles of modern dentistry, we eat so poorly.  Most of our deadliest health risks, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity, are closely related to our typical food choices.  

In my nature photography travels over the last few weeks, I’ve shared meals with a lot of prosperous, well-educated, and gifted people, who have traveled widely and made some beautiful photographs.  Much as I enjoyed our talks, I was really saddened to see how poorly a lot of them nourished themselves. Offered a choice between French fries and fruit, most always took the fries.

Grizzly mom getting a plant food snack

 I’d have to be nuts to think of taking away anybody’s French fries (and I admit, I enjoy them from time to time), but I’m just saying, fruit is generally the better choice.  Given how important eating is to our health, it’s remarkable how little most of us think about it, and how many of us do it unwisely. How well or poorly we nourish ourselves is a major determinant of the length and quality of our lives.  It’s a really big deal.  

So I was glad to see this was the subject of a recent op ed  piece in the NY Times entitled Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us  The authors explained that our typical diet accounts for elevated death rates, and noted that this is a political issue that is not being discussed by politicians.   They proposed thinking of how we eat as a medical issue, and encouraging healthy eating as a fundamental part of a healthy life. They had several practical ideas for new policies, including getting doctors to put an emphasis on nutrition and discouraging junk food with taxes.  They suggest that improvements to our eating would simplify the problem of how we provide health care, since we wouldn’t have to provide so much of it.   

All this seems sensible, but somehow our nutrition system is harder to talk about than our healthcare system (which is also hard).  The food industry has done an amazingly effective job at conditioning us to think of food as primarily about fun, rather than survival.  Even suggesting that we should eat more plant foods and less processed junk sounds kind of grumpy and unfun. At parties, insisting on talking about healthy eating is a good way to get some alone time.

But this mindset may be slowly changing.  There was a report this week that the meat industry is fighting the growing popularity of plant-based meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.    The industry is pushing for new state laws to outlaw using the word meat to describe these products.  My first reaction to this was outrage, but then I realized, it’s kind of good news: leaders of possibly the cruelest business on the planet are worried about their continued profitability.  They must view plant food as serious competition.

And there’s increasing awareness  (though still not enough) that better diets are good not just for individual human bodies, but for the planet.  For example, industrialized meat production is a significant contributor to global warming. As the Times noted this week, even reducing our meat consumption by 25% would significantly lower our collective carbon footprint.    

But while I was organizing these thoughts, the Washington Post reported that in connection with  the next version of the federal dietary guidelines, the Trump administration has prohibited the use of scientific studies likely to support eating less meat, dairy, sugar, and processed food.    There is, of course, a lot of science that points in that direction, and it’s beyond irresponsible not to at least take a close look at it.  If your objective were to destroy more of the natural world and maximize people’s likelihood of an early death, one way to get there is exactly this:  suppress the science.

Near where we saw the spirit bear

Twenty-seven, headed down hill fast, and a note on healthy eating

Gabe Tiller at Telluride (February 9, 2011)

Gabe turned twenty-seven this week. I called to wish him a happy birthday, and felt more than usually happy myself. How wonderful to be twenty-seven! Particularly if you’re healthy, bright, athletic, good-looking, agreeable, upstanding, and employed, what could be more wonderful? Of course, that’s leaving aside all fears, insecurities, and uncertainties, of which there could be any number. But still, how marvelous to have traversed the perils of childhood and the agonies of adolescence, and stand no longer on the verge of adulthood, but actually there, strong, in your prime.

I told Gabe that it’s all down hill from here, but I was kidding. His first twenty-seven are, of course, my last twenty-seven, and I have to say that in many ways I feel healthier, more energetic, and happier than when he was born. How stressful it was to be a new parent. Also to be a grizzled veteran parent. And now, all that stress is gone! After all those years of parental anxiety and self-doubt, now he inspires me.

The picture above (which is Sally’s screen saver) reminds me of some of our skiing together the last couple of years. Even more vivid is his first POV ski video made at Telluride last March, which is exciting but I’m sure not nearly as hair-raising as the reality (such as that narrow chute). Seeing these images reminds me that I need to stay in really good shape so we can share more adventures next winter. As I mentioned to him this week, I’m thinking we should try heli-skiing (accessing backcountry powder by helicopter). He was definitely up for it.

The possibility of new adventures helps keep me focused with my continuing project to take good care of myself and eat healthy as much as reasonably possible. I’m trying to approach everyday eating in the spirit of doing a good, nourishing thing for my body — an act of kindness to my physical self. I’m steering clear of junk food, fast food, soda, and most processed food. It’s going pretty well.

Most days for breakfast I make a smoothie with dark green leafy plants (such as spinach, kale, collards, swiss chard, dandelion greens, etc.) and fruit (such as bananas and strawberries, or, this week, fresh pineapple and blueberries). In fact, I recently wore out our blender pitcher, which started leaking just outside the one-year warranty. Here’s a shout out to the good folks at Kitchen Aid, who did the right thing and agreed to replace it anyway! My smoothies are different every day and are mostly tasty (though sometimes less so — the mustard greens did not work for me) and always very green.

I’ve organized a system for addressing hunger pangs with healthy snacks such as unsalted cashews and almonds, apples, bananas, oranges, low-fat soy yogurt, and celery with peanut butter. For lunch, I typically have something like a microwave vegetarian Indian meal (Amy’s organic is good). And most nights Sally cooks a delicious vegetarian dinner, which just this week including Thai noodles with tofu (with whole wheat noodles) and Mom’s zucchini pie. She and I have gotten in the habit of having smaller portions. So my diet is mostly organic plant food of many types. I enjoy it very much.

My weight loss secrets revealed

Over a two-year period, I lost 50 pounds to reach my personal goal and have now maintained my target for another year.  I learned some things in the process, and it may be that this information would help others.  We Americans have a tendency to thicken, which is both unsightly and unhealthy.   It isn’t a great mystery what needs to be done.  To sum it up in five words:  better eating habits and more exercise.  But even knowing that, it took me a long time to figure out how to get rid of excess pounds, and it’s clear that I’m not the only person to have had such a struggle.

Still, with all good intentions, I’ve found it difficult to write about this subject.  Part of the reason is, it sounds a bit like bragging, which I try not to do, or at least get caught doing.  Also, the subject suggests a certain narcissism, an excessive interest in one’s own looks or well-being, and I don’t like to think of myself as more-than-normally interested in my own physical aspects.  Also, it’s hopelessly hackneyed.  You can get more diet advice in the  grocery store checkout line than a normal person can digest in a year.

Still, the obesity epidemic persists, and in my own circle many continue to fight their individual battles of the bulge.  I’ll therefore dispense with further introductions, excuses, or formalities, and just say what worked for me.

1.  The most important thing is commitment.  I had a better than average diet and exercise system when I was at my largest (205 pounds), but it was not adequate.  The change began for me with a decision at age 50 to make real changes and a personal commitment to stay with them for the duration.  I developed a personal animating vision, which was this:   if no piano fell on my head first, I’d  ski deep powder at Alta on my 85th birthday.  Well, maybe not the exact day, since my  birthday is in July.  The point is, I would take care of my body so as to maximize health and happiness for quite a few years out.   I determined that I was willing to accept the sacrifice of certain customary pleasures, like Snickers and Lay’s, in return for my geezer powder day.  Developing a sustaining vision and planning to sustain it were essential for me.

2.  The second most important mental element is an experimental attitude.  It’s necessary to experiment with diet and exercise.  There really is no single formula for what to eat and what activities to do, even for an individual, because our metabolism is not constant.  The system that worked for the first 20 pounds may not work for the next 20.  I approached the effort somewhat in the spirit of a science experiment.  I tested a routine for a while, and if it didn’t produce results, I modified it.  I did not look for one comprehensive, enduring solution.  I accepted the likelihood that the process would always be one of trial and error.

3.  Eating is important, and should be done with loving care.  Keeping health in focus, I avoided fad diets, which are almost by definition unsustainable.  I triangulated from the conventional wisdom (e.g. the U.S.D.A. food pyramid) and respectable weight loss programs like Weight Watchers for eating advice.  My guiding rules, developed with the benefit of numerous inputs and through trial and error, involved healthier inputs and smaller portions.  Being vegetarian helps (though I should admit that I was a fishetarian-type vegetarian even when I was at my maximum).   At various points I focussed on (a) a larger percentage of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet, (b) a lower percentage of processed foods, (c) less fat of every sort (eventually I worked my way down to skim milk), and (d) fewer pointless carbohydrates.  I quit my habit of decades of having seconds at dinner, and got accustomed to a smaller plate of food.  I quit having desserts except on special occasions.  I quit having wine on weeknights.  None of this happened suddenly, and some of it I’ve modified up as well as down.   The point is, eating well involves eating more nutritious food and less unhealthy food and generally eating more sensibly.

4.  Snacking is important.  I made it my goal never to be hungry.  My reasoning was that I needed to continue functioning effectively as a professional and a human, and hunger makes it hard to do that.  Also, hunger tends to lead to overeating, and makes it hard to have small portions at meal time.  Also, hunger is no fun.  So, I tried to have a healthy low calorie snack every two or three of hours.  This required experimentation to find qualifying foods, and continually requires planning to make it work.  My current favorites include:  unsalted nuts (10 per serving), apples, bananas, raw carrots, small low fat yoghurts, and small bags of popcorn (100 calories).   Regular snacking on pleasant, healthy foods works.

5.  Exercise is necessary, and one probably needs to do more of it than one thinks.  Through trial and error, I discovered that my half hour of aerobic activity three or four times a week needed to  become 40 minutes of more intense activity five or six times a week to get rid of weight.  I’ve done just about every type of aerobic machine, including  ellipticals, bikes, treadmills, various types of stairs, and rowing.  I like to vary the activity both to avoid boredom and to work different muscles.  Lately I’ve taken up swimming, which I find challenging.  I vary the duration and intensity depending on how my body feels and other factors.  For example, I exercise harder and longer when the scale indicates a meaningful upward trend.  Weight loss is only one good reason to exercise, of course.  I’ve gradually come to enjoy my gym routine, with more of a view to strength, flexibility, and mental health.  But there’s no way to work around the need for exercising to lose weight.

6.  A good bathroom scale is helpful.  I got one that measures tenths of a pound and keeps a record of prior weights.  It’s part of the science project to take measurements.  I do it every day before I shower.  Some days there’s a little moment of happiness, other days a moment of less happiness.  But the feedback is important.

Could it really be that simple?  No.  My over eating had to do with my upbringing, culture, social milieu, and long standing habits.  Like most people, I ate (and eat) for many reasons in addition to the need for nourishment — happiness, sadness, anxiety, you name it.  A lot of bad eating has to do with bad habits, and habits are hard to break.  Breaking the worst bad ones  and building better ones did not happen all at once, and the process for me is still ongoing.  But I have proven to my own satisfaction that it is possible to change dramatically for the better.