Monday, April 29, 2013

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 2: Waist Measurements

In my previous post, I tried to convince you that if you want to have good health and fitness today, as well as in your 80s and 90s, then you should immediately start building your Spartan body. I also argued that if you eat a good diet and exercise, building and maintaining this new body would be pretty easy. But how do you know that all of your changes are working?

Without blood tests, you can't see many of the indicators of poor health (e.g., blood cholesterol, glucose, and cortisol tests). However, there are visual indicators that represent your body's overall degree of dysfunction. The most reliable (and obvious) is a growing waistline and how that waistline relates to your height and hips.

Why is Abdominal Obesity so Bad?
In my Stress and Metabolic Syndrome X post, I talked about how all the risk factors associated with Metabolic Syndrome X (e.g., high blood pressure, incorrect blood lipids, insulin resistance, large abdominal circumference) are associated with chronically excessive blood cortisol levels. One of the many consequences of excess cortisol levels is increased abdominal fat.

Abdominal fat is primarily composed of visceral fat cells and is used as emergency (or short-term) fat storage and to warm and secure major organs. Because of this, there shouldn't be much energy stored in visceral fat (it comprises about 3% of a person's total body weight). (1) This healthy condition is seen as a flat waistline.

Subcutaneous fat is used for long-term energy storage. Visceral fat is used for short-term energy storage. When visceral fat is used for long-term storage, then a person's waistline will increase. If a person has a conspicuously large belly (e.g., pot belly, beer belly) then they are likely suffering from chronic excess cortisol levels and high consumption of refined carbohydrates.

But, when a person experiences chronically elevated cortisol levels, they become insulin resistant (because cortisol counter-regulates insulin). Insulin is a storage hormone that directs sugar and fat in the blood into long-term and short-term energy storage cells (e.g., fat, liver, and muscle cells). When a person becomes insulin resistant, excess blood sugar and fat gets funneled into visceral fat cells, which increases the size of their waist. (2)

If this dysfunctional situation is not quickly corrected, then your waist will continue to grow with time as more and more blood sugar and fat are forced into visceral fat cells. If this situation is allowed to continue for decades, then your likelihood of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes increases.

Understanding the relationship between an expanding waistline, cortisol, and poor health means that your waist measurement becomes a general barometer for your overall health. In very simplistic terms, if your waistline is expanding, then your overall health is getting worse; if your waistline is shrinking (or is within a healthy range), then your overall health is getting better.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part1: Intro

If you have been convinced that today is the day that you turn your life around by cleaning up your diet and lifestyle, committed to the idea of building a better body and improving your personal fitness, then why not strive for some ideals. As I've alluded to in other posts, I'm a big fan of ideals because they give goals to shoot for while also providing me with useful feedback on how far I've traveled. And when it comes to body ideals, I tend to look to the Spartans and Greeks.

"But," you say, "it seems next to impossible to build an idealized body, requiring a legion of personal trainers, dietitians, and nannies to keep me from sitting on my butt and overeating."


While it does seem very difficult to build an athletic and beautiful body today, nothing could be farther from the truth. If you ignore most of the popular "health" advice currently in circulation and concentrate on good science, then building the body of your dreams is relatively easy. In fact, if you provide it with the right stimulus, your body naturally wants to build this idealized body.

Everyone Can be a Spartan
When I first saw the movie 300, I thought it was impossible that actual Spartans looked so ripped and muscular. However, as I do more and more research into ancient diets and societies, as well as human physiology, I'm not so sure that the physiques of the actors and actresses in that movie were so far from reality.

Hollywood's idea of Spartan men.

A quick look at the Grecian male body ideals and Spartan society shows that it is entirely possible that a society obsessed with military superiority would have trained in such a way as to develop the bodies picture above. Although some of these actors are a bit too muscled (Butler, who was the main character), I don't find it hard to believe that some of the lighter actors (Fassbender; on the left of the picture above holding the sword) were closer to what most Spartans might have looked like.

Being a classical agrarian society, the Spartan diet and lifestyle would also have been more traditional. Their diet would have lacked the white flour, highly refined sugars, modern dwarf wheat, high-omega-6 oils, chemical additives, soy, trans fats, and pseudo-foods necessary to produce overweight and obese humans. Their lifestyle also lacked the extreme degree of sedentism that we have today (for instance, there was no such thing as a "desk job").

This vase depicts young Spartan females.

And men weren't the only ones enjoying a more idealized body: Female Sparatans were likely athletic in appearance (at least more so than women in other parts of the world at that time) as they enjoyed the most independence and freedom of any group of women in the Classical world. Unlike in Athens, it is reported that Spartan women were fed high quality food during childhood, engaged in daily exercise, and participated in sports, just like the men.

Australian aboriginal males, ripped and muscular without the use of a gym, calorie counting, or fat-burning supplements.

Contemporary hunter-gatherers demonstrate what I mean. Without the energy-dense calories, dietary poisons, and reduced physical activity of the Western way of life, most traditional non-industrial hunter-gatherers and agrarians don't normally have a problem becoming healthy, muscular, and/or maintaining a low body fat percentage. The Australian Aborigines pictured above are an awesome example of what the human body was designed to look like. Pictures of other naturally fit non-industrial populations are below.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: #1-Eat more Nutritious Foods

"Obsessed with the idea of the microbe we often forget the most fundamental of all rules for the physician, that the right kind of food is the most important single factor in the promotion of health and the wrong kind of food the most important single factor in the promotion of disease."
Sir Robert McCarrison, MD 

The first principle of optimal health is eating more nutritious foods. While this may seem obvious, the definition of "nutritious" in the US has radically changed over the last century. Initially, minimally-processed whole foods from both plants and animals were advocated. Then, as the Industrial Revolution made its way towards food producers, Americans started eating pseudo-foods like margarineindustrially-produced vegetable oilspasteurized milkhighly-processed meatsunfermented soycanned foodswhite sugar, and bleached flour. These adulterated foods were cheaper than whole foods and, according the the US Government, seemed to be just as healthy. But these pseudo-foods are not more healthy than whole foods and generally cause nothing but disease. (1,2)

The Destructive Nature of Pseudo-Foods
Foods don't exist simply to taste good: They provide the essential nutrients humans need to allow their minds and bodies to operate optimally and with very little disease. (3,4,5,6) Humans evolved eating fresh or minimally-processed whole foods. These foods, in many different forms, were eaten by all humans and supported various levels of health and resistance to disease. Then, around the early 1800s, Europe (and then the US) started to apply the knowledge gained from the Industrial Revolution to improve alter how food was grownprocessedshipped, and stored. Soon, highly-refined, shelf-able industrial foods that traveled hundreds or thousands of miles started to replace traditionally-prepared, locally-grown whole foods in Westernized countries. 

To maximize profits and avoid food waste, businesses started finding ways to cheaply make foods that didn't spoil easily, which required the whole foods used in these processes to be subjected to intense heat, high pressures, and caustic chemicals. Unfortunately, whole foods contain delicate nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, enzymesessential fatty acids) that can become degraded, destroyed, or oxidized when aggressively processed. To make these shelf-able (and damaged) foods edible, manufacturers usually have to taste enhancevitamin/mineral enrichdeodorize, and preserve processed foods with chemicals that humans have never been exposed to. But these chemicals can't replace the nutrients lost during processing and can often provide new hazards themselves.  

It's hard to imagine that before the 1900s heart diseasediabetescancer, and obesity were very rare. Curiously, about the same time that the West started moving away from traditionally-prepared whole foods, degenerative diseases also started to become much more common. Around this time cheap pseudo-foods like white flour, white sugar, and canned products started to provide a tempting alternative to healthy whole foods. As consumption of industrially-prepared, nutrient devoid, and chemically altered pseudo-foods increased, degenerative diseases started to replace lethal infectious diseases (a major cause of death for most living things) as the leading causes of death in the US.

Early in the 20th century cardiovascular disease (CVD) replaced infectious disease (shown as the sum of deaths from tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia) as a leading cause of death in the US. The precipitous drop in deaths from lethal infections resulted from improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and food regulations started in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Source:

Why would these pseudo-foods cause disease? The growing popularity of aggressively and carelessly processed whole foods changed how the human body received and absorbed nutrients, causing deficiency diseases. These new diseases led to the accidental discovery of essential nutrients like vitamins in the early 1900s. Instead of trying to find ways to process foods without damaging these delicate nutrients, manufacturers tried to compensate by adding isolated or synthetic vitamins to these devoid foods (known as enriching). Unfortunately, these added vitamins are a poor substitute for the original nutrients.

And where are we today? Americans often don’t eat anything real and whole anymore. For breakfast, they typically have highly-processed grains submerged in pasteurized low-fat milk that is chased with either a caffeine-infused beverage or sugar-sweetened fruit "juice." Lunch brings taste-enhanced burgers, soy-filled pseudo-meats, and bubbly sugar water. Dinner usually offers most of the quality nutrients someone eats during the day, but not by much: Some meat and vegetables, but often something pre-made and filled with chemicals that is reheated in a microwave or oven for the convenience of a quick meal. No one can be healthy eating this stuff.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Stress and Metabolic Syndrome X

In my blog, you'll hear a lot about the stress hormone cortisol. If you have ever listened to a stress reduction briefing, or you exercise regularly, then you are likely aware of this hormone. However, what you might not be familiar with is cortisol's connection to the diseases that make up Metabolic Syndrome X. There is good evidence that cortisol is the "X" in Metabolic Syndrome X.

What is Metabolic Syndrome X?
Metabolic Syndrome X describes a mysterious connection between heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol. For someone to be diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome, they must have three or more of the following risk factors: (1)
  • Blood pressure equal to or higher than 130/85 mmHg
  • Fasting blood sugar (glucose) equal to or higher than 100 mg/dL
  • Large waist circumference (length around the waist):
    • Men - 40 inches or more
    • Women - 35 inches or more
  • Low HDL cholesterol:
    • Men - under 40 mg/dL
    • Women - under 50 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides equal to or higher than 150 mg/dL

The most interesting part about these risk factors is that they tend to appear together. For instance, if you are obese, then you are more likely to have (or develop) poor blood sugar control, high blood triglycerides, and high blood pressure. (2) Because these risk factors tend to appear (and disappear) together, they likely have a common cause.

While searching for this cause, I happened to read The Potbelly Syndrome by Russell Farris. It was here that I discovered that cortisol was likely the central cause of Metabolic Syndrome. I now believe that chronic stress (from any source) can cause chronic elevation of cortisol, which can cause serious dysfunction in the body. This dysfunction manifests itself as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol (as well as muscle wasting, low energy, accelerated aging, osteoporosis, suppressed immune system, and cancer).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

16 Food Additives You Shouldn't Eat

UPDATE: Because of a convincing argument made by Chris Kresser, I've removed nitrates/nitrites from this list.

For thousands of years, humans have used spices to preserve and taste-enhance food. These spices were so important that wars were fought over them. Then, a couple hundred years ago, the newly created chemical industry started developing natural and synthetic preservatives, nutrients, and taste enhancers for the processed food industry. By the mid-20th century, thousands of chemicals were being developed for use in foods. These chemical additives improved the taste and appearance of overly-processed food, as well as allowed food to sit in storage and on store shelves for months without spoiling. (1,2)

While several of these chemical additives have never been shown to be harmful, and a few have recently been officially exonerated of any wrong doing (e.g., saccharin), the truth is that most of these chemicals have never been studied for their long-term safety in humans. Even fewer studies have been conducted on the negative synergistic effects of consuming several seemingly benign chemicals together (which is normal in most industrially-processed foods). This means that if you eat a lot of modern processed foods (e.g., microwavable meals, meal bars, bread), you are participating in a live chemical additive safety experiment (whether you want to or not). (2)

Of the hundreds of chemicals that are typically added to the foods you eat, I have listed 16 that you should completely avoid consuming. There isn't always absolute proof that some of these non-essential additives are harmful, but there is enough circumstantial or anecdotal evidence to warrant their avoidance.

1. Artificial Sweeteners
Synthetic chemicals that are designed to provide sweetness without any added calories. Includes:
  • Acesulfame K. Also known as Ace K, Sunett, Sweet One. May cause cancer in animals; no sufficient evidence that this additive causes cancer in humans. (3)
  • Aspartame. Also known as NutraSweet, Tropicana Slim, Equal. Comprised of highly toxic methanol, which breaks down into formaldehyde in the body. Users have reported headaches, hallucinations, seizures, insomnia, and dizziness (and this is just the short list). (4) Recently, researchers found that for diabetic mice, aspartame caused a rise in blood sugar. (5) And finally, aspartame has been linked to obesity. (6)
  • Neotame. Similar to aspartame. About 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar. There are no long-term studies available (that I'm aware of) that indicate that this new sweetener is safe or harmful to consume. (7)
  • Saccharin. About 300 times sweeter than sugar. Can cause cancer in animals. While saccharin has not been shown to cause cancer in humans, (6) it can cause allergic reactions to those sensitive to sulfonamides. (8)
  • Sucralose. Also known as Splenda. Although more than 100 short-term studies have shown this sweetener to be safe at a daily intake of less than 5 mg per kilogram, there have been no long-term studies showing it to be either safe or harmful in humans. Some studies have found that sacralose negatively affects the gut in mice (damages DNA and harms good bacteria). (9)

    2. Artificial Colorings
    Produced from coal tar and petroleum. (10) May cause hyperactivity and ADD in children. (11) Artificial colorings can also cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, as well as DNA damage. (12,13,14) Completely avoid the following artificial colors:
    • FD&C Blue No. 1 (15)
    • FD&C Blue No. 2 (16)
    • FD&C Green No. 3 (17)
    • FD&C Red No. 3 (18)
    • FD&C Red No. 40 (19)
    • FD&C Yellow No. 5 (20)
    • FD&C Yellow No. 6 (21)
    • Orange B (22)
    • Citrus Red No.2 (23)

      3. Artificial or Natural Flavors
      Both are created by man; natural flavors are removed from natural sources, artificial flavors derive the same chemicals by rearranging molecules. Both natural and artificial flavors are used to make unappetizing, highly-processed foods taste good. (2)

      Monday, April 15, 2013

      The Six Principles of Optimal Health: Intro

      When I designed the Rapid PT Program, I tried to find the root cause of each problem that would make it difficult for someone in the military to pass their physical training (PT) Test. I then focused on the fewest solutions that would produce the greatest change; conversely, I didn't focus much on solutions that would produce very small changes (this is generally known as the 80/20 Principle). This approach allowed me to identify six essential principles that will help anyone easily get 80s and 90s on their PT test.

      As it turns out, my six principals aren't just excellent for improving PT test scores, they are also amazingly useful in addressing a vast array of health issues. My research has painted a picture of what causes heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and many of the other so-called Diseases of Civilization that is very different from what I'd previously been led to believe. What I've discovered is that if you continue to use this program for the rest of your life, being healthy and maintaining a healthy weight will become nearly effortless.

      Identifying the Six Principles of Optimal Health
      With all the noise out there, it seems impossible for anyone to truly find out what a healthy diet is, or what a healthy diet can actually do for your health.

      As I started reading about diet and health, I couldn't help but ask myself several questions: Is it normal to get heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as we age? Should we need doctors to keep our teeth straight and our eyes correctly focused? Is the human body really as frail as we've been led to believe, requiring powerful drugs to keep it alive?

      These questions encouraged me to search far and wide for answers. But, to make sure that I wouldn't draw the wrong conclusions, I had to gain some perspective. As I set out to figure out what a healthy diet actually is, I researched:
      • 12,000 years of human population change data.
      • The diets of past and present hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and Western diets.
      • The changes in causes of mortality for past and present hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and Western societies.
      • How well current theories for degenerative diseases jibe with contemporary hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies.

      Today, with nearly 70 books and countless internet and journal articles under my belt, I've begun to see a pattern in the noise. I arrived at two conclusions:
      • Given their conspicuous lack of degenerative diseases and being overweight, I found that traditional, non-industrial human populations exemplify the basics of an ideal diet. (1,2
      • Given their impressive ability to control lethal infectious diseases, prevent infant and maternal mortality, grow food at will, and fix the broken human body, Western societies have largely controlled the many dangers inherent in living with nature.  

      Usually, traditional and Western approaches to life are seen as competitors, but I don't see it that way: I find that each system has important contributions to make to human society as a whole that--when taken together--can radically improve a person's quality of life.

      Relearning the Definition of a "Healthy" Diet
      It's hard to talk about traditional, non-industrial human populations without sounding like a snake oil salesman. But it is inescapable that these human populations are exceptionally healthy when compared to Western populations. So long as these populations eat their traditional foods (and don't eat much Western food), they have:
      • No problem with body weight (unless excess weight is intentional, which happens with great difficulty in some populations). (1,2)
      • No heart disease or stroke. (1,2)
      • Little to no rates of cancer. (1)
      • No acne. (1)
      • No diabetes. (1)
      • Little to no dental carries (cavities). (2
      • No dementia or Alzheimer's. (1)

      Sunday, April 14, 2013

      Food Deserts: The Problem isn't just McDonalds

      The USDA believes that food deserts could be causing obesity and diet-related diseases. (1) If you are unfamiliar with the term "food desert," it's any location where access to affordable healthy foods (which is defined by the USDA as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat milk) is limited. Specifically, there are no traditional supermarkets or grocery stores within 10 miles of a given location. (2)

      If this lack of access to a grocery store wasn't bad enough, the USDA argues, corner stores and fast food restaurants like McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut encourage poorer individuals to eat less healthy foods just to save a buck. These food deserts, and the fast food joints that infest them, are exacerbating our current epidemic of obesity by preventing poor people from eating healthy foods, or so we are told.

      The fact is that if you don't have a lot of money, you will tend to buy the cheapest food items. Generally, overly-processed foods are cheaper than healthy foods no matter where you get your food. (3)

      As for the fast food restaurants, while these establishments are generally selling excessively processed, nutrient-devoid, taste enhanced, near-meat foods, the health problems associated with food deserts (e.g., obesity, diabetes, heart disease) go well beyond cheap chicken nuggets, Big Macs, bean burritos, pepperoni pizza, and giant cups of soda. If the USDA is going to poo-poo all over fast food restaurants, then they have to also be critical of the supposed oasis of healthy eating: The grocery store. While the outside of a grocery store is filled with the stuff generally recognized as healthy (produce, meat, dairy), the center aisles are completely full of junk (see the illustration below by Chris Masterjohn). These highly-processed convenience foods represent a food dessert too.

      All convenience foods are a symptom of the modern Western diet and lifestyle, where preference is given to cost, speed, and taste instead of more slowly prepared, healthful, nutrient-dense foods.

      Saturated Fat and Cholesterol DO NOT Cause Heart Disease

      On October 5, 2011, The Week reported that Denmark was the first country to create a “fat tax,” which adds a tax to foods that are more than 2.3 percent saturated fat (by weight). Above this point, customers will be charged the equivalent of $1.29 per pound of saturated fat. This tax attempts to increase average life expectancy for Danes by three years over a ten year period by reducing deaths from coronary heart disease (CHD) and cancer. 

      I honestly believe that the Danish government has the best of intentions for its citizens with the passage of this law. Unfortunately, they are using the controversial Diet-Heart Hypothesis to guide their decision. This theory tries to argue that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol cause CHD. While this theory has been treated as fact for several decades, (1) it is not very well supported. (2,3)

      The Lipid and Diet-Heart Hypotheses
      There are actually two different hypotheses that finger cholesterol as causing heart disease: The Lipid Hypothesis and the Diet-Heart Hypothesis. The Lipid Hypothesis posits that high blood cholesterol levels cause heart disease. This theory got its start in 1918, when Nikolai Anitschkow induced human-like arthrosclerosis in rabbits fed massive amounts of cholesterol. (4,5) While Anitschkow linked blood cholesterol levels to heart disease, he didn’t believe that the cholesterol found in a normal human diet would affect blood cholesterol levels enough to produce the same result. (4) He also never linked dietary saturated fats to blood cholesterol levels.

      Saturday, April 13, 2013

      Can Inactivity Itself Cause Overeating?

      While researching my last post about leptin resistance, I stumbled across an excellent study that looked to see how physical activity affects calorie intake and a person’s bodyweight. (PDF) This study found that up to a point, the brain will compensate for physical activity, adjusting calorie intake to make sure that a person’s bodyweight is at an established set point. However, if physical activity goes too low, then a person’s brain can no longer control calorie intake, leading to massive overeating and excess bodyweight.

      To me, this is amazing (and obvious) information because it adds another cause for obesity: If you are overweight, not only do you need to look into reducing leptin resistance (1) or chronic stress, (2) but also inactivity.

      This understanding also means that even if a person has the healthiest diet in the world (e.g., Paleo, ancestral, traditional), their inactivity can actually prevent them from losing all of their extra bodyweight.

      How Leptin Resistance can Cause Obesity

      Recently, That Paleo Guy posted a great rant about the weaknesses found in the popular concept of calories in vs calories out. Essentially, while a person may eat enough calories to support their everyday activities, disease and dysfunction in the body may make some of these calories unavailable for use, trapping them in fat cells. Ultimately, he argued that calories in vs. calories out should be changed to calories available vs. calories expended.

      While I completely agree with his overall argument, he seems to be under the impression that calories are not tracked by the brain:
      And this is again the problem with the whole calories deal.  We can’t accurately count them outside of our body, our bodies don’t count them at all, and a whole raft of hormonal and neurological factors determines where the ‘calories’ go and whether they are actually available for biological functions.
      I don’t know why The Paleo Guy thinks that calories aren't tracked by the brain. Calorie intake relates directly to your bodyweight. (1,2) If calories were not tracked, then your bodyweight would be highly unstable, changing radically with whatever calorie intake and level of physical activity you experience on a given day.

      Elite athletes, who can burn thousands of calories a day during training, (3) would be most affected by this laissez-faire management of calories: If their calories are not tracked and controlled, then they could actually exercise themselves into such low bodyweights that they would die from starvation. Obviously, this doesn't actually happen. (4)

      Although bodyweight may be higher for some, and lower for others, the brain's use of feedback controls ensures that a person's calorie intake adjusts to maintain a fairly stable bodyweight. However, if these feedback controls aren't working correctly, then a person's brain will maintain an abnormally high bodyweight, which necessitates increased calorie intake. But this isn't the whole story.

      I believe that these malfunctioning feedback controls not only cause someone to be overweight, but also cause their brain to actively defend this abnormally heavy bodyweight, producing the familiar yo-yo like effect on bodyweight if they try to consciously restrict their calories (either through eating fewer calories, trying to "burn" off extra stored calories, or both). This could prevent someone from losing weight even if they are technically starving themselves. Let me explain what I mean.

      Welcome to My Mind!

      First, let me thank you for reading my blog! With so much to read on the interweb these days, it's nice that a hand full of you have stopped by to read some of my thoughts.

      Who am I? My name is Bryan. During the day I work for Uncle Sam fixing radars and other electronic equipment. When I'm not working, I enjoy spending time with my newly expanded family.

      When I have some free time, I read. A lot. Since my interests are very wide, I have read a little about most of the popular topics (e.g., economics, history, science, religion, philosophy, finance/investing, etc.). I am also an eclectic thinker, so I have a tendency to mash up the different ideas I come across to see what new ideas I can come up with.

      Since everyone and their mother is creating a blog to share their opinions, I thought I would also start one to share what I've found.

      For the last 3 years I've been obsessed with finding a cure for the degenerative diseases that plague us today (e.g., cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc.). This journey was long and exciting and very fruitful! Because of this, many of my posts will be about health and fitness. But I promise, every now and again I'll write about other interesting stuff too.

      Anyways, let me wrap this introduction up by saying that I have found some pretty interesting stuff over the years (such as finding fixes for infertility) and I'm eager to share it.

      And thanks again for peaking inside my mind!


      P.S. Oh, and if you find what I have to say interesting, please join my email list and add my URL to your newsreader.