The Casual Blog

Tag: vegetarian

Precancerousness, Eno hiking, Dolci paintings, some Debussy and Liszt, and support for a plant-based diet

The Eno River, by the Eno Trace trail

This week I got a one page report that said the polyp removed during my recent colonoscopy was precancerous.  I’m not exactly sure what that means.  It sounds better than cancerous, but definitely not as good as non-cancerous.  Do they really know when something will become cancerous, or is it more like, we aren’t exactly sure, and don’t want to say there’s nothing to worry about?  The net seemed to be, it’s good they removed it, because it might not have been harmless.  In any case, it’s gone.  But instead of the usual ten-year interval for the next colonoscopy, they want me to come back in five.  So I’m twice as valuable as the usual  patient.   

On Saturday morning I drove over to Eno River State Park and hiked in the Fews Ford area.  There was frost on the grass, and some ice on the river, but it was sunny and calm.  A flock of robins was hunting for breakfast.  I stepped carefully on the rocks and didn’t get wet or twist an ankle, and got these pictures.  

Afterwards I stopped in Durham at the Nasher Museum to see the Carlo Dolci exhibit.  Dolci was a favored court painter for the Medicis in Florence in the 1600s.  Apparently he fell out of favor among art critics in the 19th century, and this is the first major exhibit of his work.  Dolci apparently was a pious Catholic, and in his work mostly focused on the popular religious subjects of the time, usually with close attention to two or three figures.  He had a great color sense, and fanatical attention to detail. And amazing commitment and endurance:  some of these paintings took several years to paint.    

Self portrait of Carlo Dolci

The Nasher also had a fascinating exhibit of the large bird’s eye view of Venice made in 1500 by Jacopo de’ Barbari.  The general accuracy of the aerial view has been confirmed by satellite imagery, so we know this work as a stunning feat of imagination and technical wizardry.  The Nasher did a state-of-the-art presentation using several large touch screens that allowed further exploration and play.  

Dolci’s St. Matthew Writing His Gospel (1640s)

That afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga.  At her suggestion, I’ve been working on Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and contrary to her suggestion, I’ve continued working on Liszt’s Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude.  The Debussy work is about atmospheres, and has some unusual technical challenges, but I can already see that with practice it can be played.  The Liszt piece is a labor of love — lots of labor that could only be justified by love.  The harmonies are deliciously rich and full of surprises, but it requires a big investment of practice time.   

It being the holiday season, we’ve been eating more with friends recently, and the subject of why we’re eating a plant-based diet comes up regularly.  It’s always a bit awkward to discuss this at meal time, since the background facts are likely to produce a less cheery vibe for the animal eaters in the group.

But I continue to think a lot about the relation between our food, our ethics, and our health, and I’m always glad to find others willing to discuss those issues.  There seems to be growing awareness of the extreme cruelty of industrial animal farming, of the enormous environmental damage this system causes, and of the damage that eating animals and animal products does to human bodies.  We recently saw two documentaries on these issues on Netflix, and found them well worth watching.  Live and Let Live is a pithy overview of the ethical and health issues involved in eating animals.    What the Health focuses on the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and the seemingly willful silence of mainstream health organizations regarding the health problems associated with animal products.  

Honoring our immigrants, meatlessness and health, and spring redbuds

Charter Square, Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, NC  March 26, 2015

Charter Square, Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, NC March 26, 2015

This week we had a tragic construction accident in Raleigh at Charter Square, a glass-sheathed office building going up a block from where I work. A motorized scaffold collapsed and three workers were killed. The names of the workers were Jose Erasmo Hernandez, 41; Jose Luis Lopez-Ramirez, 33; and Anderson Almeida, 33. Also seriously injured was Elmer Guevara, 53. My heart goes out to their families.

As you may have noted, the workers’ names look to be Hispanic. This comes as no huge surprise. Observing the active construction sites around Raleigh, I’ve seen that a lot of the workers are of Hispanic origin.
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In recognition of this tragedy, I thought it would be good to observe a moment of silence and gratitude for the recent immigrants who are doing the hard and dangerous work of building our buildings, not to mention harvesting, cooking, and serving our food, cleaning our houses, repairing our clothes, and otherwise taking care of our basic needs.

It would be good if we could somehow repay them. But first, we really need to stop demonizing them. It is so peculiar that there’s a mainstream political movement in the U.S. devoted in part to hating the immigrants who are doing the tough jobs. As with the war on terror, it’s another case of our fear getting hysterically out of control, and causing us self-inflicted wounds.
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Meat risks. We probably make fewer mistakes in the opposite direction – systematically underestimating risks – but it does happen. I’m thinking particularly of eating meat, which most of us have a hard time recognizing as hazardous.

There’s no shortage of information on this issue, but I was reminded this week by a piece in the NY Times that it still isn’t common knowledge. Dr. Dean Ornish wrote: “Research shows that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.” He cited “a 400 percent increase in deaths from cancer and Type 2 diabetes, among heavy consumers of animal protein under the age of 65 — those who got 20 percent or more of their calories from animal protein.”

That’s dramatic. In fact, a strong body of scientific evidence associates meat with our biggest killers: heart disease, cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Ornish doesn’t even mention another disturbing issue, which is the systematic overuse of antibiotics in industrial meat production, which has left us with fewer defenses to infectious bacteria. We just saw a good documentary on this, Resistance, which is available on Netflix.
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Ornish said his clinical research had shown success in reversing chronic diseases with a plant-based diet. Here’s how he described his recommended approach: “An optimal diet for preventing disease is a whole-foods, plant-based diet that is naturally low in animal protein, harmful fats and refined carbohydrates. What that means in practice is little or no red meat; mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and soy products in their natural forms; very few simple and refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour; and sufficient “good fats” such as fish oil or flax oil, seeds and nuts. A healthful diet should be low in “bad fats,” meaning trans fats, saturated fats and hydrogenated fats. Finally, we need more quality and less quantity.”

This is consistent with the recent report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. It basically describes how Sally and I eat, but it fails to note an important element: there are many, many delicious non-meat things to eat! The world has so many edible plants, and we keep learning more about how to enjoy them.

I am particularly fortunate that Sally loves to cook, and keeps coming up with new flavorful veggie dishes. Her favorite cookbooks are The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison, Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen, and Quick Vegetarian Pleasures, by Jeanne Lemlinand. She also gets lots of ideas from newspapers and the internet.

Spring photos. It turned cooler this weekend, but I looked about for more close up images of early spring. I was particularly struck by the beauty of the delicate purple blossoms on the small trees that around here we call redbuds.
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Sorry to be difficult, but — why I’m going vegan

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While I’ve been a vegetarian for going on 20 years, I’ve been fine tuning my approach over time, and getting my habits aligned with my health needs and values is still a work in progress. Cutting out eating animals, starting with cows and pigs, was a significant step, but only part of the story. Just as important, for health purposes, was cutting out foods that taste good but are actually bad for you, like sodas and chips. More challenging has been increasing the percentage of foods that are really nourishing, including some that I’ve long resisted.

From persistent testing and trying, I’ve finally gotten comfortable with some healthy foods I used to detest, like beets, peas, and Brussels sprouts. I’m eating lots of dark green veggies (like kale, spinach, chard, turnip greens, and dandelion greens) and fruit in my breakfast smoothies, and I’ve been getting vitamin rich cold pressed juices to sip for snacks. My repertoire of tastes has expanded.

Recently I made the shift from vegetarian to aspiring vegan. So it’s goodbye to dairy and eggs (with the understanding that there will be occasional emergencies and slips). This is partly a matter of getting healthier, but even more a matter of values. The more I learn about factory farming, the more persuaded I am that we can’t go on like this.

It is truly horrific for the farm animals, to our great shame. It’s also sickening for us (E. coli, salmonella, antibiotics, steroids). Cutting cheese from the lineup is especially challenging, both because it’s tasty and it’s everywhere. And I will miss the wonderfulness of ice cream. But I will also feel better not supporting this unconscionable cruelty and heedlessness.

Our individual eating choices may seem trivial compared to our epic social problems, like global warming, but I think they are related in a couple of ways. Industrial farming of animals is a major part element of global warming, because of the huge emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2 and methane), not to mention pollution of surface and groundwater and other environmental problems. To the extent we don’t support factory farming, we’re working on those problems. In addition, by getting ourselves healthier, we improve the chances of having the clarity of thought and strength to take on our big social and environmental problems.
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So I don’t think it’s completely self-centered to focus on the physical self. But I admit my own motives are not purely altruistic. I’m also interested in feeling good now and functioning well for a long time to come. Exercise is also an important part of this, of course. So I’ll report briefly on my current cross-training system, which I’d say is working well. I feel good.

This week I’ve done two long gym work outs (cardio and resistance), lap swimming, two yoga classes, a spin class, a visit to my personal trainer, and outdoor running. For gym cardio, I’ve done the elliptical machine, rowing, treadmill running, stairs, and jump rope. I have a wide range of functional movements in the rotation, from lunges to box jumps to balancing to shuffles, and a variety of core work, as well as stretching of the major muscle systems.

It’s strange, I know, but I actually look forward to getting up around 5:05 a.m. Every day is always a little different, with a new challenge. I enjoy being with people in the classes, and I enjoy listening to music and reading when I’m working out on my own. And getting up early isn’t as hard as I once imagined, because it has become a habit. I don’t have to think whether or not to get up, because it’s just something I just do. But it’s also fun.
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On Saturday night, Sally and I tried our first vegan pizza at Lilly’s, and saw The Theory of Everything at the Rialto. The pizza wasn’t so great – there was something a bit off with the non-dairy “cheese” — but we really liked the movie. It’s basically a biopic on the British physicist Stephen Hawking, with particular focus on his marriage. As Hawking, Eddie Redmayne’s performance is a nuanced and remarkable tour de force. His gradual loss of control of his muscles is noted without mawkishness, and his courage and perseverance are noted without huzzahs. Having lost my own father to ALS, I’m particularly conscious of the brutality of this disease, and particularly amazed that Hawking managed to become a path breaking scientist while it ravaged his body and threatened to kill him.

Unconnected to the movie, early this week I read an interesting story in the BBC en espagnol web site regarding Hawking and artificial intelligence. I was surprised to see him saying in an interview that he expected AI would eventually not only surpass human intelligence, but would threaten it. I can see that our AI creations may eventually begin to improve themselves and leave us behind in terms of IQ, but they will not carry the emotional components that drive humans to compete for resources and domination. So why would they threaten us?

An eye exam, a veggie burger, and a new ballet

It was a busy week at work, with many new issues popping up as I tried to address the existing backlog. I also made a visit to the Duke Eye Center for an exam in preparation for my eye surgery next week. My ophthalmologist, Dr. Prithvi Mruthyunjaya, seems both brilliant and humane, but his patients have to spend an awfully long time in the waiting room. This was also true of Drs. Denny and Casey. Is this a retinological tradition? Are damaged retina patients more-than-usually patient? Dr. M. described my prognosis as “guarded.” At a number of levels, I felt not so great.

On Friday Sally and I did dinner and a ballet. For dinner, we made our first visit to Chuck’s, a new place on Wilmington Street that features in gourmet hamburgers. We quit eating cows many years ago, and so initially assumed Chuck’s was not for us, but then were told on good authority that they made the best veggie burger in town. It was, in fact, really good. It had flavor and pleasing, chewy consistency. And it didn’t fall to pieces.

The Carolina Ballet led off with a new work called A Street Symphony by Zalman Raffael. It was set to hip hop music, which, as almost everyone knows, is music emphasizing pulsing polyrhythms and rhyming gritty lyrics, and deemphasizing melody and harmony. I developed a taste for hip hop a few years back, when I found the Sirius radio hip hop channels, and found it to be good music for driving a sports car. I liked the raw immediacy and experimental transgressiveness. It is also, of course, good dancing music, but hip hop dancing seems worlds away from the ballet tradition.

Combining radically different movement vocabularies could be a banal experiment or a disaster, but Raffael succeeded brilliantly. His work Rhapsody in Blue, presented earlier this season, was soundly designed and had some marvelous flashes, but seemed more the work of a skilled apprentice than a master. With A Street Symphony, he has arrived, with a strong sense of architecture and humor.

The work is made up of seven songs, with the dancers arrayed in solos, couples, and ensembles. The set and costumes are minimalist, with the women wearing gauzy tutus of various colors pulled above their tights. In the beginning, the pounding rhythm is unsettling, and the first piece, Clockwork, uses a robotics theme that is fairly familiar. But Alicia Fabry’s replicant is both energized and vulnerable, with limbs shooting about at amazing speeds and a startled doe-eyed gaze.

I also really liked Jan Burkhard and Yevgeny Shlapko in Best of Me. Jan is a dancer with an sensual quality, and here she was fearless. Classical dance walks a fine line with respect to sex: it candidly reveals dancers’ bodies and deals with intimate subject matter, but almost never references the act itself, and is careful not to push the red button. But hip hop is sexy, and Jan embraced it. So did Eugene, who had a rangey freedom that recalled the hood.

Lindsay Purrington was really touching and beautiful in Cry Me a River. She did various transformations, including a streetwise tough and a Swan Lake swan. At one point her tutu started to fall to pieces, which added an unplanned degree of tension to the performance, but she dealt with the issue with grace, eventually ditching the thing stage right, and strutting boldly forward. Adam Crawford Chavis lifted her magnificently overhead.

This was unquestionably ballet, with pointe shoes and the traditional vocabulary, but augmented with exciting movements from urban street culture. The most successful dancers seemed to personalize their roles, though some stuck close to the familiar classical lines. For one, Margaret Severin-Hansen, who is a fantastic classical technician, was sharp and intriguing, but seemed to me to hold back a bit from the street. On the other hand, I thought Sokvannara Sar, Nikolai Smirnov, and Cecilia Ilieusiu all found interesting individual ways of combining the upmarket and downmarket.

Anyhow, I really liked A Street Symphony, and also Robert Weiss’s new work Idyll, set to Richard Wagner’s lovely Siegfried Idyll. It featured three couples and flowing lines. I was looking forward to The Rite of Spring, but it came after the second intermission, and I was just too tired to take it all in. Sally thought it too was wonderful.

It’s time to subscribe to next year’s ballet season. We’ve been going on Friday nights for fourteen years and have excellent front-center orchestra seats, but I think we’ll switch to Saturdays. On Fridays I often find myself tired after a busy week that includes 5:30 a.m. workouts, and not always able to hang in there intently for a full evening of beautiful performances. Our NC Symphony subscription has been on Saturdays, and so we’ll have to manage some conflicts, but it seems worth it.

How to eat and sleep better, and a brief report on my golfing

Sally and I stayed up late sipping wine with friends on Saturday night, and I overslept and almost missed my golf game at Raleigh Country Club on Sunday morning. I normally like to get to the course early and warm up before a round, but that didn’t work out. The day was sunny and mild, though breezy.

I walked the course with my push cart. My first drive was weak, and the succeeding drives were mostly shorter than my average.The rough was so thick that three balls disappeared never to be found, and those I found were difficult to liberate. These misfortunes and others caused several triple bogies and a disappointing net score of 103. Yet I hit some gorgeous approach shots. I sank three long putts (20-30 feet). But I missed three or four short ones (three to four feet). Golf is a beautiful but frustrating game.

Back in my New York days, everyone I knew read the Sunday New York Times. You had to read it too if you wanted to know what people were talking about and join in the conversation. I’ve kept the habit, though the original reason for it has largely gone by the wayside. Inasmuch as some of my best informed friends no longer read the Times, I will note two articles published today worth reading.

1. How to improve your health with food. An article by Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, provides clinical support for the kind of eating I’ve been doing in the last few years. Ornish says “patients who ate mostly plant-based meals, with dishes like black bean vegetarian chili and whole wheat penne pasta with roasted vegetables, achieved reversal of even severe coronary artery disease. . . . The program [which included moderate exercise and stress management techniques] also led to improved blood flow and significantly less inflammation” and lowered risk of various types of cancer. The program also resulted in sustained weight loss.

According to Ornish, “Your diet needs to be high in healthful carbs like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products in natural, unrefined forms and some fish, like salmon. There are hundreds of thousands of health-enhancing substances in these foods. And what’s good for you is good for the planet.” In contrast, he cites and large Harvard study that shows that consumption of red meat “is associated with an increased risk of premature death as well as greater incidence of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes.”

“About 75 percent of the 2.8 trillion in annual heath care costs in the United States is from chronic diseases that can often be reversed or prevented altogether by a healthy lifestyle. If we put money and effort into helping people make better food and exercise choices, we could improve our health and reduce the cost of health care.”

Ornish doesn’t say this, so I’ll say it: a vegetarian diet results in increased happiness. At least it does for me. There are so many delicious things to eat that also make you feel good. I mean physically and mentally, leaving aside the ethical dimension. But to be clear, the diet needs to include the kinds of foods noted above (though I take exception to the inclusion of fish on the list).

2. Rethinking Sleep. This article by David K Randall calls into question the standard wisdom that we all should be getting eight straight hours of sleep a night. It notes that much of the world today sleeps in other ways, such as millions of Chinese workers who stop for after-lunch naps. It also notes historical references to alternate sleep cycles, including from Chaucer, separating “firste sleep” and subsequent sleep. The article cites a current study in which a common pattern was for patients to wake up a little after midnight, stay up a couple of hours, and then go back to sleep.

This was of particular interest to me, because this happens to me a lot: I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I usually read something, and sometimes write. I enjoy the quiet time. But based on the received wisdom regarding how much sleep is generally needed, I’ve thought of it as sort of a health problem, and worried about it a bit. Now I’m wondering if the eight-hour sleep prescription is yet another instance of folk wisdom masquerading as medical science.

It’s reasonably clear that sleep serves some important functions for brain health, and that getting too little sleep can impair performance. But there’s evidence that power napping works well for some people. I’m hoping it gets to be more socially acceptable.

My Father’s Day trip to a new race track (CMP)

Last weekend, I took Clara down to Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C. for some track driving. My Garmin GPS guided us down country roads and through small Baptist towns. I’ve gotten to like as a companion the Garmin’s female voice, except when she says, “Recalculating.” This can be interpreted as, “Can’t you even follow a simple instruction!” I’d like to defend myself, for example, when she didn’t describe a particular turn clearly, but we cannot have a dialog — yet. Anyhow, this was a pleasant trip of just three hours.

CMP is a road track with 14 turns, and my first objective was to learn the line for each turn. Even with this clear commitment and my experienced teacher beside me, I found it challenging to memorize the exact turning points of the track. There’s so much kinetic sensation, so much noise. After a dozen or so laps, I started to build up a body of knowledge, but even then, I had a few lapses.

In addition to learning the track, I learned more about performance driving techniques, including rev matching, dealing with understeer, the beginnings of trail breaking, and assorted other bits of car stuff. Not surprisingly, almost everyone at the event was into cars, and some were clearly crazy for cars.

Car-philia seems to be less common today than in my youth, as young people adore their smartphones more than their wheels. I remember my dad talking to relatives, acquaintances, and strangers about their cars and his, Ford versus Chevy, this year’s models versus last year’s, and on and on, and remember wondering why adults were always so boring. But the worm has turned, and now I find it all enjoyable. Even technical discussions of specific engine problems that I know absolutely nothing about, which I used to make me feel incompetent and confused, now seem intriguing, even though part of me realize we’re talking about relatively ancient technology.

At this event, organized by the Tar Heel Sports Car Club, there were some cars like Clara, pretty street cars with lots of power and a racing heritage. A Lamborghini stood out as the exotic queen of this subgroup.

But there were also a fair number of cars that at first glance looked like sad junkers, and on closer inspection turned out to be highly elaborate racing machines. I began to see how it could be fun to have an ugly car for which the only concern would be track performance. It would be nice, in a way, to not worry that Clara’s beautiful body might be seriously maimed by a poorly judged turn followed by a high-speed encounter with the tire wall.


On the other hand, this would involve a significant investment in infrastructure: a trailer, a vehicle to tow a trailer, a place to stow the trailer and vehicle, more tires, tools, etc. And a lot more time to take care of it all. There’s the rub. This would be fun, but there’s an opportunity cost — other fun foregone, other thoughts unthought.

My teacher, John, was a friendly, funny guy who turned out to know not only a ton about driving and cars, but also a lot about contemporary technology. We had a great conversation about robotics and economics.

He predicted that in the not-distant future driverless cars would end the need to buy a personal car, as groups of people subscribe to a share of a fleet of driverless cars that can appear to convey them at any time. In his view, states will eventually put strict legal limits on human driving, on the grounds that driverless cars are so much safer and more environmentally sound. The driverless cars will go much faster safely, and work together in a network to police themselves. If one should go rogue, the others will cooperate to avoid being damaged and to deal appropriately with the offender.

I told John about a story the prior week in the WSJ about the bomb-squad robots of the US Army in Afghanistan. The robots have saved plenty of human lives, which is good. But the surprising thing was that the units get attached to their particular robots and treat them as companions. When a unit’s robot gets blown up, when feasible it is shipped to the robot hospital. Its companion soldiers at times are specific that they want their robot repaired and returned to the unit, rather than a replacement.

I stayed at the Colony Inn in Camden in a ground floor room that opened onto the parking lot. It featured the three c’s: clean, comfortable, and quiet, and entirely worth $65 dollars a night, even if they didn’t throw in breakfast. I watched some of the Master’s golf tournament on non-HD TV and sipped some wine from the Piggly Wiggly. At the urging of Larisa, my personal trainer, I’d bought some TRX portable trainer cables. In the morning, since the Colony had no gym, I hooked the the TRX systen to the door and got in a workout.

It is my custom in all hotels to leave a few dollars for the housekeepers, which I figure they can use and which may create good karma. I was glad that I followed this custom at the Colony. When I checked out I left behind my phone charger. The manager gave me a call to let me know, and I was able to retrieve the charger. This was excellent karma.

There was nothing remotely like healthy vegetarian food at the snack bar at the track, but happily I found a Subway sandwich shop a few miles down the road. Oh Subway, you are the best! In the ugly wilderness of industrialized and unhealthy fast food, so many times you have nourished me well. I ordered my usual: whole grain bread, a variety of greens and vegetables, and that delightful honey-mustard dressing. It was tasty. My Subway sandwich guy made eyes at Clara.

I did not have any serious driving errors on this trip, but as I increased my speeds I also increased the stress on my brakes, and learned what happens when brakes overheat. It is more exciting than desirable to have big speed approaching a tight turn, to hit the brake pedal hard, and find that it goes all the way to the floor with half the usual braking power. I somehow stayed on the track. John counseled me to take the last few laps of that session slower and to drive a few minutes afterwards to cool the brakes down.

On the trip back, I got a call from Jocelyn, who wished me a happy Father’s Day. I regard this holiday as even more synthetic than Mother’s Day, an occasion for retailers to encourage watch and tie consumption and, except to them, of little real value. Yet it was ever so sweet to hear her voice. As I told her, she was one of my two proudest achievements as a father.

She’s currently working her first retail job in a high-end sportswear store in Telluride. It doesn’t sound like her ideal career path, but at least it’s a job. She’s been going out with a cute guy, a river rafting and fly fishing guide whom she really likes. It seemed like she was doing OK.

Later I got a Father’s Day text from Gabe, which said I was the best dad, which I am sure is not true, but I was grateful for the thought.

Why I am a vegetarian

Being a vegetarian is, in my view, a wonderful thing. Otherwise I would have eaten a plant-based diet for the last 15 years. But it is by moments challenging. One of the challenges is dealing with a question that comes up all the time, usually when I’m eating with people I don’t know well. At the worst possible moment — just as the food arrives — my companion asks, “So, why are you a vegetarian?” This is awkward. If you’re not already familiar with the issues, it could make you a bit uncomfortable, and spoil your appetite.

But as long as we’re not eating, let me satisfy the curious who wonder, Why be so difficult? Why not just enjoy a steak? I’ve tried to boil it down, and have ended up with three main reasons: better health, concern for other living creatures, and care for the environment.

I’ll start with good health, on the grounds that it is our most valuable possible possession — more than any number of mansions, yachts, and planes. It’s worth some time and effort to improve your odds for having a healthy life.

A simple way to improve those odds is eating a plant-based diet. Vegetarians typically have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a lower body mass index. They consume less dietary fat, which is associated with heart disease and cancer. They’re less exposed to the excessive antibiotics and hormones fed to farm animals. Studies have shown that they have a reduced risk of the big killer diseases of our society: heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and several forms of cancer.

At the same time, eating fruits and vegetables gives you the health benefits of antioxidants, including carotenoids, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E, and a wonderfully complete collection of other nutrients. It gives you more than enough protein, from such sources as whole grains, beans, nuts, and some vegetables.

Now, it is possible to have an unhealthy vegetarian diet. You could, for instance, subsist on Snickers and Cokes. To benefit from a veggie diet, you need to eat less processed food and sugar, and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Especially in the beginning, that takes some conscious effort. But there’s impressive evidence that it’s worth it, in terms of a healthier, and therefore happier, life.

My second main reason for not eating meat has to do with what meat is. Let me put this as delicately as possible. A hamburger is a cow that has passed on, and barbecue is a pig that has gone on to its reward. These animals are members of one of the great kingdoms of life — the kingdom animalia. Like humans. Farm animals have social structures, solve problems, and feel pleasure and pain. I believe their lives that are entitled to respect, and we make our lives nobler by giving that respect.

We generally recognize the worth of at least some non-human animals. Take my little dog, Stu, the sweetest dog in the world. He loves taking walks and being petted, and he makes strangers smile. I wouldn’t consider eating Stu, and I feel pretty much the same way about eating cows, pigs, and chickens. There’s hardly any difference, from a biological point of view. Most of the genes of Stu and farm animals are the same.

Most of us are revolted by wanton cruelty to animals. For me, it’s hard to ignore the cruelty associated with a steak or plate of barbecue. Most of the farm animals turned into food endure wretched lives filled with what amounts to torture before they are slaughtered. If you have any doubts about this, I recommend that you to watch the documentary Food, Inc., on factory farming and industrial slaughterhouses. Or read the Wikipedia article on factory farming. It is deeply disturbing.

My third reason for a plant-based diet is both ethical and practical: the meat industry is bad for the earth and the humans on the earth. Factory farming causes a host of environmental problems, including pollution of soil, water, and air, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, and habitat destruction.

Meat is a highly inefficient food. It takes 30 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat. We could feed 50 percent more people if we switched to a vegetarian diet. By eating meat, we waste a lot of energy, and burn a lot more fossil fuels. This contributes to global warming, which is an existential threat to the human race.

So there are my three main reasons for a plant-based diet – a healthier and happier life, respect for other living creatures, and taking better care of the environment. There’s actually one other reason, which is more selfish but also important. Taste! There are so many tasty plant foods, and so many textures and tastes that you start to notice when you eat less meat. Ancient cultures have developed exquisite cuisines based largely on plant foods. Think of Indian food, Thai food, and the Mediterranean diet.

Anyhow, those are my reasons for eating a plant-based diet. From now on, I can refer my interlocutors to my blog.

How to keep lost weight from coming back

Healthy snacks on the counter at Casa Tiller

Returning from travels over the holiday break, I stepped on the scales to find myself three pounds heavier. It always happens! I swear, though there were temptations aplenty, I was reasonably moderate in my eating and drinking. How amazing that the body can accumulate mass so quickly! Also, a little scary.

In recent years, I’ve not been much concerned with losing weight, but I’ve been working hard not to add it. This basically means being careful about eating and diligent about exercising. That sounds — so — boring! Even if you do it, who wants to hear about it!

Thus, I was interested to read the NY Times magazine piece titled The Fat Trap: Do You Have to Be Superhuman to Lose Weight? by Tara Parker-Pope. According to the article, sustaining a healthy weight after losing a lot of pounds is not just unusual — it’s extraordinary. Those who do it are a “tiny percentage.”

That’s a bummer, both for the individuals who struggle with their weight and for our health as a society. Scientists are trying to figure out why people usually gain back weight after losing it and what can be done about it. Meanwhile, as a member of the fortunate “tiny percentage”, I may have something helpful to contribute. I’ve previously posted about losing 50 pounds, but here are some additional thoughts specifically related to how I’ve kept that weight off for several years.

It isn’t easy, but it also isn’t impossible — obviously! In fact, the methodology is basically the same as any worthwhile achievement that takes sustained effort. If you’ve learned to play the piano, speak a foreign language, play golf, or whatever, you’ve probably already employed most of the same methods you need for ongoing weight control. You need to find your motivation, keep it simple, be empirical, and have fun.

1. Find your motivation. Actors talk about needing to find a character’s motivation to bring the character to life. Try it: ask yourself what you really want, and why. For anything that’s going to take a long, sustained effort, you’ll need a motive that carries real meaning for you — something that’s more important than simply feeling good right now. It helps to articulate it clearly. My own guiding motivation has to do with the battle with father time. More concretely, I’m working today to be able to ski the deep snow in the big mountains of Colorado and Utah when I’m in my eighties. The snow on the mountains is beautiful. I sometimes think of this in the very early morning when it’s still dark and I’m making myself go to the gym.

My friend in the gym on the roof -- the elliptical machine

2. Keep it simple. If a system is too complicated, it will not be sustainable. A good system is one you don’t have to think about very much once it’s in place. It involves turning good intentions into good habits. For myself, I have some simple rules that help in avoiding bad eating decisions, such as: no chips, no sodas, and no candy bars. For snacks, I put in place simple and nutritious substitutes, like apples, bananas, and baby carrots. If you are considering going vegetarian, I’ll note that one of its many benefits is helping to simplify the challenge of eating a healthy, less fattening diet. Anyhow, these types of snack choices have gradually become habitual for me, and as habits they don’t take much mental energy. Of course, there’s the countervailing powerful force of other lifelong personal habits, customs, traditions, and advertising tempting you to make bad eating choices. There will be slip ups — and hello, there’s three new pounds. Then you refocus, and move on.

3. Be empirical. Look at the available data, and consciously monitor how you feel. I bought a digital bathroom scale and use it every day. I watch food portions carefully, and notice whether I’m feeling too hungry or unenergetic. I have not adopted a single off-the-shelf theory of eating and exercise, because I think every body has somewhat different needs. What works for you may not work for me. You need to be experimental. If an approach isn’t working, chuck it, and try something else. If you test a healthy snack or an exercise approach that seems to work for you, try it again and see if it still works.

4. Be creative and playful. We’re talking about a long-term approach here, and if it is no fun, you will eventually give it up. Simple repetition is boring. Try out interesting new healthy foods and new exercises and sports. When traveling, I make it a little game in airports to find the least unhealthy meal, and to find something interesting to do in the little hotel gym. I vary activities over the course of a normal week, so that at the moment I alternate among the elliptical machine, the stationary bike, and swimming, and various types of resistance training. For more fun, I enjoy listening to music and reading while doing the elliptical. I’ve found that classes liven up the cycling experience. Every so often, I change the mix of activities and try something new.

So there you are, for whatever it’s worth. Having said all that, I’ll note again, sustaining weight loss isn’t easy. It takes conscious work every day and every meal. But it doesn’t have to be white-knuckle misery or boredom. The guidelines of motivation, simplicity, empiricism, and playfulness help. And developing skill with the guidelines could lead to other good things. They can be applied to any rewarding long-term objective, like learning a sport or a musical instrument.

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.

Gary Player’s diet and exercise routine, and a few thoughts on yoga

One of the nice things about getting older is that you gradually worry less about being cool. You slowly realize it’s almost impossible to be old and cool, and give up on the idea. Letting go of such worry frees up some energy for more fun.

Age is tough on a body. Fight as we will, eventually we’ll all succumb. But I see no real choice but to fight. Over time I’ve become more dedicated to the battle for good health, though it occasionally strikes me that it could be viewed as hopeless, ridiculous, or both. A middle-aged white guy sweating — for what? It’s certainly not cool.

Thus I was cheered and inspired this week by an account of Gary Player’s fitness program now that he’s 75. As golfers know, Player is a legendary player, with more than 160 tournament victories. In his prime, the man was known to be serious about exercise, and he still is. His routine involves 1,000 sit ups and push ups every morning. He does lunges and squats, works with weights, and runs, swims, and does stairs. As for diet, Player says that it’s 70 percent of the fitness puzzle. He eats a mostly vegetarian diet heavy in fruits and vegetables, and aims for portions about half the size he used to eat. He says he has more energy since he cut the meat, and his stomach works better.

I also have found that a diet of moderate portions of plant foods is energizing. And so is regular morning exercising. Lately I’ve been noticing how during most of my waking hours I feel really good, and feeling grateful for it.

I’m especially grateful to my yoga teachers (Yvonne, Suzanne, Kathleen, Jill, and others). Over the past couple of years, yoga has gradually insinuated itself into my life, and has become a good friend. Lately I’ve been doing two or three classes a week at Blue Lotus. Every teacher and every class of every teacher is different. Some classes are quite arduous (think high heart rates and lots of sweat) with an element of risk, and some are very slow and calm.

When I began, I’d expected that yoga would help my flexibility and balance, which it has, but it has done some other good things that I hadn’t expected. It has made me a better breather and more conscious of the significance of breath. It has helped my focus and concentration. And it has made me view relaxation as an essential element of good health.

There’s also something pleasing about exercising in a class. It’s sometimes humbling but often inspiring to see so much strength and grace in the group as it moves together. I like the sound of people breathing in unison. It’s good to be with people who are committed to taking good care of their bodies. And it’s fun.