Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘nutrition’

DNA Always Wins

DNA always wins.

In the fitness world, and sometimes even at that tiny intersection where fitness and health or healthcare cross paths, there is a recurring theme: you can’t out-train a bad diet. For whatever it’s worth, I think that’s true. Having said so there is a dangling little assumption that hangs off the back end of our axiom, that if you are fit and follow an evidence-based nutrition program that you will inevitably be healthy. Indeed, every worthwhile fitness program I’ve ever encountered pretty much says just that. “Fitness in 100 Words” on CrossFit.com was my first exposure to this as a mission statement. Loads of folks from the substantive (The Brand X Method) to the frivolous (The Biggest Loser) support this logic as the foundation of health-based fitness. For the most part it is true, and for most people the combination of general physical fitness and solid nutritional strategy results in health.

Except, you know, the whole Jim Fixx thing.

For all of you puppies and kittens out there Jim Fixx was the original running guru in the United States, the author of The Joy Of Running. You could make a case that only the late, great Jack Lalanne was a more influential historical figure when it comes to promoting health through exercise in the U.S. Jim Fixx was responsible for the surge in interest in running as both exercise and as sport, and his writing launched an era in which U.S. runners were competitive on the international stage in ALL distances from the mile all the way to the marathon.

As it turns out Jim Fixx may also be the single most influential non-medical individual in the history of the cholesterol theory of heart disease. You see, Fixx had hereditary hyperlipidemia. Despite his epic running history he was found one day in his running shorts at the side of the road, dead from a massive heart attack. Blood work at the time of his autopsy revealed a cholesterol of 750 or something like that, as well as other elevated serum lipids. His healthy diet, his outsized VO2 Max, and his prodigious training schedule were no match for his DNA. He died with epic fitness numbers, a single-digit bodyweight fat %, and coronary arteries that were so clogged red blood cells had to pass single-file. You can trace many of the USDA dietary guidelines and literally billions of dollars in research to the death of Jim Fixx.

Why bring up Jim Fixx now, in 2018, when we know that hyperlipidemia is a significant part of the cardiac risk story, albeit not the whole story? Well, we should harken back to the beginning of my thoughts: DNA always wins. While you can reduce your health risks by adopting a healthy, evidence-based diet and couple that with an exercise program that produces a comprehensive degree of fitness, you cannot escape genetics. Why at this particular moment? Yours truly just got all of his lab work back and despite 13+ years of a clean Zone diet and varying degrees of devotion to functional fitness, most of my serum lipid numbers have continued on their ever-upward march and have now reached a level where they simply must be addressed by modern medicine.

To do else wise would be madness.

I must confess that this is deeply disappointing. Quite frankly it feels like failure. At 58 I am relatively lean and strong, albeit a bit under-trained in the aerobic domain. Why didn’t this inoculate me from the need to take medication to lower my LDL? In the last couple of days I have chatted with my docs locally (both of whom are close friends who care about me) as well as really significant, nationally recognized experts in the science of health and cardiac risk mitigation. There is a consensus; nay, the voting was unanimous across the board. Don’t be stupid. Continue my program of fitness and nutrition and take the meds. We’ve now moved on the the minutia of choosing which one, a not-trivial discussion to be sure, but one that is less than earth-moving, you know?

Some years ago while proposing a unified theory of health on my personal blog I received an advance copy of Coach Greg Glassman’s definition: if fitness is WCABTMD then health is Fitness Over Time. As a physician and scientist I readily saw the value of this concept. However, I also saw and pointed out the deficiencies inherent in such a narrow definition. For example, any definition of health must explicitly address mental health. Over the years I have championed the term “well-being” and have suggested several metrics that can be used to measure this state of mental and emotional health. Mind you, I was openly mocked at the time for this, here and elsewhere. If you have followed the conversation in the CrossFit world since you will see an evolution of thought along this line, though. “Well-being” has been openly discussed in various ways as an integral part of health in most medical, health, and fitness communities. I like to think I played a small role in that.

I wrote before, then, and subsequently over the years that any definition of health must be more than a snapshot of how “healthy” you may be at any given moment. You may have a 2.5X body weight deadlift and squat, run a sub 5:00 mile and do “Fran” in under 3:00, but can you truly be declared “healthy” if you also harbor a malignant tumor in your gut or are running around with an LDL of 175? Like it or not, any comprehensive definition of health must be able to provide some degree of probability that you will remain healthy in the future. It must have some predictive value. Traditional health metrics–blood pressure, lipid levels, family history, etc.–added to a measurement of fitness and well-being do just that.

In practice such a value has proven elusive for a number of reasons, none the leasts of which is the difficulty in designing a truly measurable variable for fitness that would be accessible to the masses. Once such a measure exists the rest is just math, right? It will be necessary to determine the relative value of our three variables–fitness, well-being, and risk predictors–and then plug them into a formula to kick out something that we might call “True Health”. While this is still “pie-in-the-sky” stuff I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before it is a reality. To do my part I have tried to enlist new “partners” like my brother-in-law Pete, the cardiology savant, and others.

But for now there are lessons to be learned from Jim Fixx, and yes, once again there is a teachable moment in my little epiphany and “Sunday musings” this week. You can’t out-train a poor diet. A healthy diet of any type combined with a program of functional fitness meant to produce general physical preparedness that includes both strength and metabolic conditioning is the optimal strategy. Even here, though, you cannot escape genetics. DNA always wins. Good, bad, or in between, your DNA talks to you in the language of traditional health risk metrics.

Your DNA doesn’t care how fast you can run a mile or how much you can bench. I start my new meds tomorrow.

 

Measuring Health Part 4: Fitness ‘F’

Health should be defined along the lines of individual human potential. An actionable definition would go something like “the ability to live at the limits of your fullest potential without any encumbrance now or in a foreseeable future”. Fitness as defined by Greg Glassman and CrossFit–work capacity across broad time and modal domains–should therefore be seen as “applied health”. As such, since fitness at any given time is an accurate measurement of one’s functional ability, our variable ‘F’ should have the heaviest weighting in our Health Index.

Let us begin our discussion of Fitness by reviewing and dispelling several myths and misconceptions about the interrelation between health and fitness. First, is it really necessary to review all of the data which now stares us in the face as far as the importance of exercise in health? By the same token, it should be clear to any sentient being that not only is what we eat important (although we must concede that this may differ across populations) but how much?  Simple carbohydrates, manufactured substances meant to cheaply replace real food, harmful (trans-) fats–it doesn’t matter what KIND of nutrition plan you follow, these are all BAD. As I write this I am recovering from surgery and I am not able to exercise. Does anyone believe that I will NOT gain useless weight if I maintain my pre-operative food intake? This part isn’t rocket science, folks. Coach Glassman says it as well as anyone: “Eat [protein] and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

Next up is the canard that fitness is simply being able to do something for a very long time. This view, promulgated and propagated by the likes of Outside Magazine and others, is not only insufficient but has been shown to be false as well. In the last couple of years there have been a number of very important studies showing a degradation of heart function in so-called “Ultra” athletes in any area. Decreased cardiac output and an increase in cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation have been shown to be caused by excess endurance training. Endurance as the sole defining characteristic of fitness is as incomplete as would be strength. One need only look at the life expectancy of the strongest humans on record to see that strength in and of itself is not sufficient to produce health.

The question of what constitutes fitness is one that has been answered, at least insofar as health is concerned. It is not enough to be able to run or bike or swim long distances if you cannot also lift heavy things, including your own body. In the same vein one is not truly fit if one can deadlift or squat 3X his or her own bodyweight but cannot run a mile in under 15:00. One must have some measure of BOTH. As such the inescapable conclusion is that Greg Glassman is correct when he says that fitness equals work capacity across broad time and modal domains. You must be able to lift heavy things over a short distance when necessary, but also possess the ability to carry lighter things a longer way for a longer time as well. While I am not naive enough to expect that this will be accepted without spirited debate, when it comes to any measurements of health now available, all arguments to the contrary are not supportable. Glassman has won this battle.

As an aside, this should once and for all put to rest the myth of the “healthy obese”. What good is it to be happy, ‘W’ off the charts, with a stratospheric ‘M’ because all of your bloodwork is perfect, to go with your BP of 120/70, if your joints will cave under pressure decades sooner than they need to? You simply cannot escape the reality that health requires physical fitness.

If fitness can be described as “applied health”, it stands to reason that it will have the greatest contribution to our eventual Health Index. As such it is especially important that our chosen tests meet the criteria outlined in Part 1, that the measurement be as broadly accessible in all ways as possible. In the purest sense we would be able to measure an individual’s “work capacity”, the totality of his or her expression of fitness as measured by many tests covering different loads, distances traveled, and time. In CrossFit we talk of this as the “area under the curve” of a graph that records Power (lbs-ft. per second) on the X axis and Time (in minutes) on the Y. In a perfect world this would be part of every individuals ongoing pursuit of health, but alas, even in the CrossFit world where a very committed everyone records everything, this has proven to be problematic. In designing a series of tests to be applied to the broadest possible swath of humanity this ideal must yield to a more pragmatic approach.

What, then, should we measure, and how? Let us first propose a couple of general characteristics of the tasks in our test and then see what fits the bill. We should test an individual’s ability to move from one place to another under their own power–running is a fundamental human trait and should be part of our evaluation. Likewise, the ability to pick something up off the ground is a pretty basic, everyday movement and would qualify as our test of strength. Lastly, in the U.S. we have a storied heritage from the 1960′s, The Presidential Council Fitness Challenge (PCFC), in which candidates are tested on their ability to perform calisthenic exercises for both speed and endurance. It would be fitting to include something that evokes this historical element.

Once again I anticipate a vigorous debate about the particular elements we include. I’ll go first. We can reward both speed and endurance by starting with a timed run in which the result is distance traveled. The most common example of this comes from athletic programs and the military: a 12:00 timed run for distance. We live in the U.S.; the unit is yards. Pick up something heavy? Sure sounds like a deadlift to me. Any deadlift you wish, standard or sumo, will do. My bias is that a lifting belt is just fine, but except in very special circumstances (e.g. one-armed subject) I would say that straps to help you grip the bar are not a good idea, especially for the very inexperienced subject.

After giving considerable thought to the exercises and format in the original PCFC I think we should simplify the test while at the same time bringing it into the modern fitness world. In the PCFC one sought a maximum number of reps in 2:00 of pull-ups, 2:00 of sit-ups, and 2:00 of push-ups. What exactly are we testing with sit-ups that reflects true fitness? I would favor swapping out sit-ups for air squats. With a nod to CrossFit and Greg Glassman’s outsized contributions to this discussion, let’s use the format made famous by the CrossFit WOD “Cindy” with a small adjustment. To test our subject’s ability to perform bodyweight movements and move quickly, repeats of the triplet of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats in 6:00, counting as our result the total number of repitions achieved.

There you have it. A definition of “Health” and “Healthy”. The introduction of the three variables that go into the measurement of “Health”: traditional medical values ‘M’, emotional well-being ‘W’, and Fitness ‘F’. Next I will address how we will value each of these measures, and then ultimately how they will be combined to give us a meaningful, actionable health measurement ‘H’.

 

Eat to Live: The 9% Solution

“Eating healthy is too expensive.” How often have you heard some version of that phrase. Whether it be Zone, Paleo, Whole 30, or just “stay out of the middle of the grocery store”, this is uttered with some degree of exasperation and oppression with a kind of mind-numbing, self-fulfilling frequency. I recently gave a talk to a group of CrossFitters and, as always, this was the instantaneous response from the crowd.

How so? Per the folks at Whole Foods, regularly skewered for being too expensive (seriously, they sell fancy potatoes), on average we in America spend 7% of our disposable personal income–that’s SEVEN–on food. 50 years ago that number was 16%. We now spend less than 1/2 of the after-tax income on food compared with what we spent 50 years ago.

And eating well is too expensive?!

If we dig deeper into that stat alone we see that modern food production has decreased the cost of food relative to both income and inflation. The cost of producing food of all kinds has risen much more slowly than income. Why? Partly because junk carb-laden food is cheap. High-fructose corn syrup costs a fraction of grain sugar. Corn-fed protein with or without pharmaceuticals is grown faster and cheaper than grass-fed. Stuff like that. Less expensive to produce/incomes risen at a greater rate across the entire spectrum, top to bottom.

How then is it too expensive to eat a more healthy diet? We have 9% of our after-tax income to play with, right? 16% 50 years ago minus the 7% we now spend. Is some other necessity (shelter, transportation, medical care, etc) eating that up? What are we doing with that 9% that we can’t find some of it to eat better? Ah, Grasshopper, now we begin to see. It’s a ‘Nando thing, superficial. It’s not how healthy you are, it’s how you look, or something like that.

Some stuff might be more expensive, but the seemingly obvious culprits are actually false targets (eg. healthcare which for this audience represents only a tiny % of new cost c/w 50 years ago because of insurance, govt. programs, etc.). Housing as a percentage of take-home pay is roughly flat. Basic clothing is no more expensive than it was 50 years ago, and in some instances is actually less. That 9% hasn’t been shifted to another necessity.  How we CHOOSE to spend that freed-up 9% is the issue.  .

Think about that household in the 1960′s or even the 70′s. One car. One TV. One radio. Once purchased all data was free. A pair of shoes and a pair of boots. Sneaks if you were a jock. You didn’t get your hair done if you were a guy, you got a haircut. You didn’t get your acrylics touched up every 2 weeks; if you wanted long nails you grew ‘em. Stuff like that.

Fast forward to today and think about the stuff you’ve acquired, stuff you are convinced you can’t live without, stuff that costs money that you choose to spend every single day. The ratio of drivers to cars in a household is seldom more than 1.5/1 and closer to 1/1 in Middle Class America. The ratio phones to people over the age of 10 is seldom less than 1/1. It’s not enough to have a phone, or even a phone with an unlimited text plan, nope, it’s gotta be a phone that will let you post your thoughts on today’s weather in Bimini to FB. Right now, from anywhere. If you don’t have Netflix available on each of the 4 flat-screen TV’s in the house you are considered a Luddite. Look around; you know I’m right.

Listen, I certainly am not saying that all that stuff isn’t great, that it’s not a ton of fun and really convenient (as I type on one of the Apple products that literally litter our household, through my WiFi network, in front of my LightBright lamp), or anything like that. What I most certainly AM saying, though, is that people who whine about how hard it is to afford to eat better almost always do so via a FB post from their iPhone 5 while sitting in the salon having their hair done, hungover from too much Bellevedere they consumed last night while noshing on Doritos smothered in Cheez-Wiz.

9 %. The stark reality is that we have let our things become more important than ourselves. Our choices speak for themselves.

Choices: Eating Healthy OR…

“Eating healthy is too expensive.” How often have you heard some version of that phrase. Whether it be Zone, Paleo, Whole 30, or just “stay out of the middle of the grocery store”, this is uttered with some degree of exasperation and oppression with a kind of mind-numbing, self-fulfilling frequency. There is an overarching sense of deprivation here, a feeling that it’s just impossible to find the money to eat lean protein or fresh fruits and vegetables.

How so? Per the folks at Whole Foods, regularly skewered for being too expensive (seriously, they sell fancy potatoes), on average we in America spend 7% of our disposable personal income–that’s SEVEN–on food. 50 years ago that number was 16%. We now spend less than 1/2 of our after-tax income on food compared with what we spent 50 years ago.

And eating well is too expensive.

If we dig deeper into that stat alone we see that modern food production has decreased the cost of food relative to both income and inflation. The cost of producing food of all kinds has risen much more slowly than income. Why? Partly because junk carb-laden food is cheap. High-fructose corn syrup costs a fraction of grain sugar. Corn-fed protein with or without pharmaceuticals is grown faster and cheaper than grass-fed. Stuff like that. Less expensive to produce/incomes risen over 50 years at a greater rate across the entire spectrum, top to bottom.

How then is it too expensive to eat a more healthy diet. We have 9% of our after-tax income to play with, right? Even I can do that math. Is some other necessity (shelter, transportation, medical care, etc) eating that up? What are we doing with that 9% that we can’t find some of it to eat better? Ah, Grasshopper, now we begin to see. It’s a ‘Nando thing, it’s superficial. It’s not how healthy you are, it’s how you look, or feel, or something like that.

Some stuff might be more expensive; it probably really is more expensive to put a roof over your head in Manhattan nowadays, both the Island and the Beach. The seemingly obvious culprits are actually false targets (eg. healthcare which for this audience represents only a tiny % of new cost compared with 50 years ago because of insurance, govt. programs, etc.). Nope, it’s how we CHOOSE to spend that freed-up 9% .

Think about that household in the 1960′s or even the 70′s. Average of 6 people under that roof. One car. One TV. One radio. Once purchased all data was free. A pair of shoes and a pair of boots. Sneaks if you were a jock. You didn’t get your hair done if you were a guy, you got a haircut. You didn’t get your acrylics touched up every 2 weeks; if you wanted long nails you grew ‘em. Stuff like that.

Fast forward to today and think about the stuff you’ve acquired, stuff you are convinced you can’t live without, stuff that costs money, cash that you choose to spend every single day. The ratio of drivers to cars in a household is seldom less than 1.5/1. The ratio of phones to people over the age of 10 is seldom less than 1/1, often more than 1/1 if you add in a landline upstairs, downstairs, and in every bathroom.  It’s not enough to have a cellphone, or even a cellphone with an unlimited text plan, nope, it’s gotta be a SMARTphone that will let you post your thoughts on today’s weather in Bimini to FB. Right now, from anywhere. If you don’t have Netflix available on each of the 4 flat-screen TV’s in the house you are considered a Luddite.

Listen, I certainly am not saying that all that stuff isn’t great, that it’s not a ton of fun and really convenient (as I type on one of the Apple products that literally litter our household, through my WiFi network, in front of my LightBright lamp, in the bathroom), or anything like that. What I most certainly AM saying, though, is that people who whine about how hard it is to afford to eat better almost always do so via a FB post from their iPhone 5 while sitting in the salon having their hair done, hungover from too much Bellevedere they consumed last night while noshing on Doritos smothered in Cheez-Wiz.

9 %. The stark reality is that we have let our things become more important than ourselves. We are choosing Apples alright, just not the ones we find in the outer aisle of Whole Foods.

 

The Most Dangerous Man In American Healthcare

The most dangerous man in American health care is Greg Glassman. That’s right, the man who will make the biggest difference in making our country healthier, and thereby reducing the cost of providing health care, is a fitness trainer from Santa Cruz California. And you have no idea who he is.

That’s okay, though; you’re in good company. There are lots of really important, really influential people in American healthcare who have never heard of Greg Glassman. Donald Berwick, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services? Not a clue. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the vaunted Cleveland clinic foundation? Nope, never heard of him. So it goes, as well, for the presidents and executive vice presidents of all the various and sundry medical “letter” organizations like the AMA, the American Association of ophthalmology, and the like. The man who might hold the key to economic healthcare salvation is not even a blip on the margins of the healthcare establishment’s radar screens.

So what’s the big deal? Why is Greg Glassman the most dangerous man in American healthcare? There are two reasons, actually. First, he is right. Glassman has identified not only the most fundamental and foundational problem with the health of Americans, but he has also discovered, defined, and implemented the solution. Americans are not fit. There is an appalling lack of physical fitness in the populace. Fat and slow, or skinny–fat and weak, we are a nation of the unfit. What Science Daily calls “frailty” in an article linking a lack of fitness to poor health outcomes (ScienceDaily.com/releases/2011/04/110426122948.htm), Glassman calls decrepitude. Skinny or fat, how healthy can you be if you can’t get yourself out of a chair without assistance?

Somewhere around 2001 Greg Glassman co–founded a fitness system which he dubbed “Crossfit”(http://www.crossfit.com). He offered  the first actionable definition of fitness ever created: work capacity across broad time and modal domains. How much stuff can you move, how far, how quickly. It’s not enough to be strong, you must also be able to travel long distances. By the same token, it’s not enough to be able to travel long distances if you are not strong enough to lift your own body. This definition led to a measurement of fitness, power output or work.

To achieve this level of fitness Crossett offers the equivalent of a prescription. Exercise should consist of “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movements.” Intensity is the key. Fitness gains are not only magnified but are achieved in the most efficient manner when the exercise is performed at relatively high intensity. Functional movements include fitness standards like running, swimming and biking, but also weight training using major lifts like the deadlift, the clean, and the squat. Crossfit has returned those staples of gym classes in the 60′s, pull-ups, push-ups, and squats, to a prominence not seen since the days of Kennedy’s Presidential Council on Fitness.

Caloric intake matters; you can’t out train a bad diet or a bad lifestyle. Crossfit’s dietary prescription is quite simple: “eat meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but NOT BODY FAT.” Crossfit preaches the merits of both quantity and quality when if comes to food. Carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, protein containing all essential amino acids, AND FAT are all essential to producing physical fitness. Food should be seen as fuel and should be measured as such. Even the highest quality foods consumed in the most balanced proportions will produce increased body fat and decreased fitness if taken in too high volume

A funny thing happened on the way to revolutionizing the fitness industry. In addition to increased strength, increased endurance, and decreased body fat, which translated into a dramatically fewer inches and lower dress sizes, it seemed as if everyone who did Crossfit became healthier. Lower cholesterol. Lower resting heart rates. Decreased blood pressure. Elevated moods. It looked like a move away from decrepitude and frailty was actually a move TOWARD health. Toward WELLNESS.  A scientist at heart, Glassman digested this information and in 2008 made the following statement: fitness is a proxy for health. Indeed, Glassman declared that fitness EQUALS health. In this, Greg Glassman is right, or at least more right than not. At a minimum, fitness is the foundation upon which health is built. A healthy nation is one that need not expend countless $Billions on curing diseases that could be prevented by becoming fit. This is the first reason why he is the most dangerous man in American health care.

The second reason is that he doesn’t care.

Greg Glassman is like the little boy standing at the side of the road watching the naked emperor parade by who declares “the Emperor has no clothes!” He is standing there watching a parade of the fat and the weak and he is saying “hey look…they can’t get their butt off the throne!” It’s uncomfortable to hear someone say that, but he doesn’t care; it needs to be said. The standard dietary dogma of high carbohydrate, low-fat diets with little or no meat? A straight ticket to decrepitude! He doesn’t care that statements like that make all of the Oz’s and Pritiken’s sputter and squirm. When asked once upon a time how to gain weight for a movie role Glassman famously responded: “ easy…non–fat frozen yogurt.” It’s no different with exercise. Walking and other low-intensity exercises? Better than nothing, but only almost. Cue the howls of the Jillians and the Jakes, and every glossy, muscly, fitnessy magazine editor in the English speaking world. Glassman is right, and he doesn’t care.

Greg Glassman has looked at what is wrong with the health of Americans and he is willing to say what that is and say it out loud. He is willing to say that we as a people are unfit, and that this is the primary cause underlying our lack of health, and our accelerating need to spend money to cure disease. He is willing to say that the vast majority of the advice that we have received to fix this is flat out wrong, whether it comes from the government or the cover of Fitness Magazine. He is willing to say the the road to economic salvation in American Healthcare leads through the gym, the grocery store, and the kitchen, not to or through something as meaningless as an “Accountable Healthcare Organization” (whatever that may be). Although he is convinced that he is right he is presently spending gobs of his own money studying the effects of the Crossfit prescription on the health of regular people.

Yup, Greg Glassman is right, and he doesn’t care that all of the so–called experts in healthcare don’t know who he is yet, or that they wouldn’t agree with him if they did. Judging by what’s going on in the physical fitness world right now as Crossfit grows 30% PER MONTH, I’d say that makes Greg Glassman the most dangerous man in American healthcare.

Better learn how to spell his name.