Food, Fitness and Fat

"The experts are always telling us to 'Listen to your body!' But if I listened to my body, I'd live on toffee pops and port wine. Don't tell me to listen to my body...It's trying to turn me into a blob!"
                                                                       -- Roger Robinson, New Zealand Masters Runner ***

I guess lots of Amercians are listening to their bodies. Recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a study which projects that by 2020, 75% of Americans will be overweight or obese. The OECD is concerned about this because obesity has a direct impact not just on the individual, but on rising healthcare costs. Overweight has a causal connection to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and a host of skeletal problems. In fact, obesity can shorten a life by 8-10 years.

The obesity epidemic is occurring mainly in the industrialized world. The causes are well known. Too much poor quality, cheap fast food, too much sitting in cars and subways, too much sitting in front of computers and school desks, too much eating.

The flip side of these "too much's" is too little -- too little exercise, too little eating of more nutritious foods, too little eating of smaller portions, too little rest, too little suport in the workplace for wellness. It was disappointing to see a NY Times article this week reporting that after two decades of federal programs to encourage Americans to eat more vegetables, only 23% of Americans eat even one vegetable with their meals when french fries are excluded.

Luckily, once you get on the path to fitness you start to realize that years of brain-washing by our culture and advertising make it necessary to reconsider all our assumptions about food and our cravings. The food industry, indifferent to the effects of their industrialized products on your body (they leave it to the healthcare system to deal with it), has made it necessary to become more picky about exactly what your body does listen to.

Most Americans are addicted to sugar and fat before they are teenagers (I speak from experience). Our bodies are the product of evolution. Not that long ago, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, fat and sugar were rare commodities. Our body needs both, but not in the amounts and forms heavily marketed nowadays. We crave them naturally, and the food industry stands ready to satisfy our cravings at a nice profit.

But once fitness becomes a focus in your life, so does food. Strength, endurance, reflexes, balance, ability to rest and sense of well being are all affected by food choices. For a TOJ, food is even more important to ensure muscles receive adequate nutrients to repair and grow and to maintain a strong immune system as the body is subjected to the stress of exercise.

When you exercise frequently and hard, you also begin to rewire your cravings. You become less satisfied by consuming empty calories with few nutrients. Soda pop, burgers, fries and soft serve ice cream pass into history like your youth.

*** Quote from "The Quotable Runner" edited by Mark Will-Weber

Food for Fitness

Emil Zatopek, the great Czech distance runner in the 1950's, once said, "If you come to think of it, you never see deer, dogs and rabbits worrying about their menus and yet they run much faster than humans." (This is from The Quotable Runner edited by Mark Will-Weber, a great book.)

He could have added neither do bears and elephants that are stronger than humans, nor kangaroos that jump further than humans, nor eagles that can see better than humans, nor whales that swim better than humans.

Yet we do. Right now this TOJ is reading a book entitled Power Eating by Susan Kleiner, which packed with references to studies, recommendations, recipes, do's and don'ts, lists, and eating plans. Wow, there's a lot to worry about -- nutrient timing, food combinations, right mix of carbs, fat and protein, hydrating not too much, not too little. You will not find an exercise magazine that doesn't have promise nutrition secrets inside the cover to make you better.

No doubt there's some truth among all those facts and opinions, but you have to be your own ultimate guide when it comes to deciding what you will eat and drink because we are all the same, but we are also different.
I found I felt weak and spacey on a vegetarian diet although Brendan Brazier has developed the endurance and strength to successively compete as an elite triathlete while eating a 100% vegan diet.

Science is uncovering as many mysteries and contradictions as it is certainties. For instance, check out the article by Gretchen Reynolds about "What Exercise Science Doesn't Know About Women" in which she reports a study that made a surprising discovery. The conventional training wisdom is that you can hasten recovery after a hard workout if you eat a mix of carbs and protein. However, the study discovered that is only true for males. Women, in fact, recover faster with straight carbs.

This TOJ likes to stay abreast of current thinking on these topics, but figures it's best to discover what's true for you. I appreciate all the hard work and time intelligent people put into finding some truths about food. But for most of us, nutrition will have a much bigger impact on our health than it will our performance, no matter what physical activities we prefer.

Another quote I really liked was by Don Kardong, an American marathon Olympian in the 1970's: "Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos." Now that's wisdom.


5 large frozen bananas broken into chunks
1/3 cup cocoa  or carob powder
1/4 C. agave nectar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 to 3 Tbs. water

Put all ingredients in a blender and blend into a thick cream adding water if needed. Serve immediately or place in freezer.

Closing the Fitness Gap

When I'm not TOJing, I work at a community health center in the rural resort area of Colorado. Last week a radio reporter called me to talk about childhood obesity. Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the U.S., but in the past few years, state health officials have noted an alarming trend -- the rate of obesity among children is rising fast, especially in poorer Colorado families.

The reporter asked me why this is happening. I offered several reasons: poorer families don't always have the health education to make good food choices; fresh food is less affordable than mass produced food loaded with fat, salt, and fructose corn syrup; less affluent kids don't have as many opportunities or encouragement to exercise because  fewer PE courses are offered in schools and there are fewer affordable after-school exercise opportunities (many schools now charge money for varsity sports); and cheap sugar and fat laden fast food is heavily marketed and available everywhere.

The day after the interview, I was dismayed to read that basic training of U.S. Army recruits has been altered to eliminate long runs and sit-ups because too many are so obese and unfit that these basic strength and endurance exercises pose a serious risk of injury. Army officials speculated that the causes of this sorry state of affairs were similar to those I guessed: too much junk food and video games, as well as high schools reducing gym classes.

Last Friday I was in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a meeting. Fort Collins has a well-developed trail system for running, hiking and biking. Early in the morning I went to a trailhead at the foot of the hogback just to the west of the CSU football stadium. The sun had just come up and I figured that early I'd have the trail to myself. But, surprisingly, the parking lot was jammed with cars even though I could see nobody out on the trail.

I took off running on a rolling single track for about a mile, then started a zig-zag climb up the rocky face of the hogback. As I neared the top, I saw one, then two, then a long line of runners making the tight hairpin turns down, headed my way. When the first got close, I stepped off the trail to let them pass. There were about thirty of them, mostly men and a few women. They looked lean and fit. The men all had close cropped hair and were clean shaven. As each of them passed, they said, "Good morning, sir." The way they each said "sir" left me with the distinct impression that they were a university ROTC unit out for a training run. It was good to see such a fit group of twenty-somethings out on the trail.

I thought about the difference between these young men and women and the recruits showing up for basic training, many of whom are less affluent young people without the funds to go to college and hoping to pick up some work and skills in the military. My guess is that the young university students had the advantage of mom and dads with the time, income and values to encourage them to participate in gymnastics, soccer, karate and other sports when they were young. This is not to take anything away from their excellent physical condition and discipline to be out on the trail when most of their college buddies were probably still asleep, but these gave them an advantage when they grew up. Most likely, many of the enlisted recruits did not have similar experiences growing up. 

A recent study from the transportation department at Rutgers University discovered that people in countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands and Spain are generally leaner than the average American because they walk and bike more. We need to import more of their lifestyle and city planning to make this possible for Americans, especially children.

We should expand our "inalienable rights" to include life, liberty, justice and fitness for all. And we should walk-the-talk by ensuring, first and foremost, that every child in American has access to a healthy diet and regular exercise. Children who can do sit-ups aren't just stronger, they're smarter. They will develop into adults who can protect our country and compete in the global market. Everybody wins.