Thursday, December 30, 2010

How to Eat Gluten-Free

Most food is just trash. -My mother

Go to a nice restaurant and first thing, they bring out a basket of bread.

Go to the grocery store and you'll find aisles and aisles of wheat products: cereal, cake mix, cookies, crackers, batter coated meat, noodles, baked goods, bread, and so on.

My mother, who loves pre-packaged food, tells me most of the rest of the packaged stuff has wheat, too.

And is there an office left that doesn't serve birthday cake at least once a month?

How do you avoid wheat or gluten for a month? (Why should you try? Read this--the benefits I've seen from a wheat-free diet.) A suggestion: if you find it hard to stop eating it once you start, then don't start. Let me tell you about my results with moderation and total elimination.

Moderation. In the late 90s, I saw a nutritionist for my acne and she said I should avoid eating wheat. I cut down on the wheat, but didn't quit it entirely. My skin saw some improvement, but that was about all as far as I can remember. Over the next several years, I see-sawed between avoiding and indulging.

In January this year, I again cut down on eating wheat to one day a week--usually, I had a few chocolate chip cookies. Doing so brought a lot of improvement. (I was eating "real food"--more about that later.) However, in the past, cheat day food had ended up creeping into other days. (Cheat creep?)

Total elimination. In February this year, I cut out wheat entirely. I've fallen off the wagon a few times since then, but it made me so miserable--think sinus congestion, reflux, stomach ache, water weight gain--that cheating carried its own punishment. The punishment was so effective that I still have frozen chocolate chip cookie dough from a year ago. I won't touch it.

Total elimination worked better for me than cutting down, or "moderation." Moderation works for some things and some people, but how often do people cut down on something and then indulge as much as before? It's like a dreadful on-again, off-again relationship. Like someone you shouldn't be with but keep going back to, wheat acts as an opiate. Some people even go through withdrawal when they quit. I also find wheat to be an appetite stimulant: I can't stop at one cookie, even though I'm disciplined in other respects. These things make it hard to eat wheat in moderation.

What to Eat Instead of Wheat
There are two general routes you can go: gluten-free junk food or "real food." When I cut back on gluten in the 90s, I went for the gluten-free junk like bread, pasta and frozen dinners and saw a little benefit, but not enough to make me sit up, take notice, and throw out the wheat forever. Gluten-free junk food will give you some benefits if your problem is strictly wheat or gluten intolerance. But if you're gluten intolerant (and maybe even if you're not(1)) and you've been eating the stuff, you have intestinal damage that prevents you from absorbing nutrients. You have deficiencies to make up for as your gut heals. Gluten-free versions of cookies, crackers, noodles and so on may not be any more nutritious than what you just quit. Look at the nutritional information for rice noodles. "The good," says "This food is very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium." I'll add the bad: This food is low in everything but starch. And without preparation like soaking and sprouting, other grains that the junk food is made of have anti-nutrients, just like wheat. They may not provoke a reaction or damage your gut, for instance, but they'll bind to iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc, preventing you from absorbing them.

Gluten-free junk food might also spike your blood sugar. If you're often tired, especially an hour or two after a meal, if you get sugar cravings, if you're gaining weight, your blood sugar may be wonky. You can check with a blood glucose meter, available for $10 at Walgreens, or you can borrow one if you know a diabetic. Click here to see how to test your blood sugar. Note--even if a fasting blood sugar test at the doctor's office showed normal blood sugar, keep in mind that it's post-meal spikes that cause the problems.

Then there's the real food route: nutritious food like meat (the original superfood), eggs, fish, veg, cheese, nuts, and, I'll concede, some good carbs like certain fruits and starchy vegetables for people who can tolerate them. Boring? Yes, in the way that my die-hard Toyota always starts right up and gets me where I want to go in comfort and without incident. I admit a skateboard might be more exciting. Unlike the gluten-free junk food, the diet of real food and no wheat did make me sit up, take notice, and throw out the wheat forever because, at age 41, I had more energy than I did in my 20s. On this diet, I'm consistently energetic, in good shape and well cared for--like the Toyota. I don't want to be a skateboard. They take too much abuse.

I use 500 Low-Carb Recipes by Dana Carpender and The Primal Blueprint Cookbook by Mark Sisson to keep my diet from getting monotonous. If you're a die-hard grain and bean lover and you can tolerate carbs, try Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon; it has instructions for processing grains and beans to neutralize anti-nutrients.

I don't feel like I'm missing anything without wheat. My tastes changed and I literally don't recognize a lot of grainy junk food anymore. I tried some peanut and M&M mix the other day, and it didn't taste like food. I looked at another jar of junk for a minute and still couldn't tell what was in it. I can't identify what some of my coworkers eat for lunch. That's not to say I eat perfectly, just that I don't miss wheat products.

Is a diet of "real food" expensive? I can tell you that switching to a low-carb diet raised my grocery spending only $13 per month and saved me $958.36 per year when I accounted for health care and skin care spending. If you're living on cereal, pasta and sandwiches, your grocery bill will go up a lot more--but your spending on doctor visits, skin creams, pain relievers and stomach medicines and even lost wages from sick days may drop like a rock.

Does it take a lot of time to prepare real food? I don't think so. Grocery shopping is quick and easy when you shop the meat counter, produce section and dairy section instead of trolling the aisles of pre-packaged food. Reading labels doesn't take long when there are only four or five ingredients. And I can pack a lunch faster than I can go out and buy one (it takes practice).

Want to take the plunge? You'll have a lot of company. Matt Lentzner has challenged people to try a gluten-free January and as of December 22, 120 people had signed up. Good luck!

(1) "Gluten can cause intestinal damage in celiacs AND non-celiacs," Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, Volume 41, Number 4, March 2006 , pp. 408-419(12)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Why Try Gluten-Free?

I'm not into giving up foods without good reason. I've given up certain foods because, through trial and error, I've learned they make me feel lousy. Some people preach moderation, but I don't want to feel well in moderation. I want to feel fantastic, preferably all the time. For me, that's required giving up wheat, which contains gluten. When I gave up wheat, I lost weight, my appetite ratcheted way down, most of my bloating disappeared, I had more energy, and my chronic sinus congestion eventually went away, among other benefits.

Your own reaction to a food is a great reason to eat it or not, but there are some iffy reasons people more or less permanently give up or moderate certain foods:

  • An observational study stating A is associated with B isn't a good reason. (See this, this, this and this.)
  • "Because my doctor said so" isn't necessarily a good reason, either: doctors aren't required to know anything useful about nutrition. I'm related to two doctors--one with a specialty in nutrition--and neither one can control his own weight. When I asked a gastroenterologist how to relieve my bloating, he looked clueless and--I swear I'm not making this up--said a lot of ladies found relief by eating yogurt. (The link is to a TV ad for yogurt that was around at the time, stating the same thing.) Never mind that the lactose in yogurt gives some people bloating. Nor did he know a diet that would relieve my acid reflux.
  • Because a "health" organization said so isn't a good reason: "nonprofit" doesn't mean free from corruption. See this, this, this, and this.
  • Even other people's success on a certain eating plan isn't necessarily a good reason to follow that plan. Some people do well as vegetarians; for others, it's an epic fail. Some people feel great when they give up caffeine, dairy, or nightshades; that doesn't mean you or I would, too. I was on an eating plan that made me lose weight, and a few years later, gain it back.
  • Conventional wisdom: take a look around and see what it's done for the majority of people.

To my mind, the best reason to give up a food is because it makes you sick.

I gave up wheat and fruit permanently because fruit gave me acid reflux and wheat because it gave me a long list of ailments. Looking back at my blog entries on wheat, here's what happened when I stopped eating it:

...the bloating is gone. My clothes fit a little better. My belly is flatter. I immediately felt a little thinner. Much of the urge to snack [and] stuff myself [are gone].

  • My cravings for junk food have disappeared. I've stopped snacking on caramel corn, chocolate and diet soda on my non-free days. I eat two tiny pieces of chocolate per day, at most.
  • My hair stays clean longer.
  • Certain foods taste better. Coconut chai tea tastes like a candy bar in a cup (yes, I drink it straight) and even sardines taste better.
  • Since I got a scale ten days ago, I've lost two pounds. I even had to tighten the straps on my backpack today.
  • Three happy words: no menstrual pain.
  • I have more energy. If I were a horse, my name would be Secretariat.
Sunday, April 4, 2010, I wrote about falling off the wagon.

But eating that cookie [made with wheat] gave me a stomach ache, acid reflux for two days and painful nasal congestion--the viscous, sticky kind that won't move--for four days.

I didn't record this on my blog, but I recall it because it was remarkable. On February 7, 2010 (my birthday), a friend and I went out for lunch and shared a small piece of bread pudding. The next day, I was three pounds heavier. It was just water weight that went away the next day--but who wants to carry around three extra pounds of water?

I don't promise that giving up wheat in general or gluten in particular will do these things for you. But if you'd like to try eliminating gluten for, say, the month of January to see if your health, weight, congestion or energy improve, here is some food for thought:

  • There's no requirement for wheat in the human diet. We haven't consumed wheat for the vast majority of our existence.
  • Yes, we've been eating wheat for some 10,000 years or more, but the wheat that people eat now is very, very different from what was consumed in the days of old. See this. (Dr. Davis and some of his friends sampled some bread made of ancient wheat, and found it didn't provoke certain reactions like high blood sugar and stomach pain that modern wheat gives them. Posts are here; go to June 2010.)
  • Some wheat products are fortified with vitamins and minerals that are stripped out during processing, but you'll get even more nutrients from foods like meat, fish, eggs and non-starchy veg (think salads).
  • Wheat, unless it's prepared in a specific way, contains antinutrients that bind to iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, preventing you from absorbing them. See this post.

In my next post, I'll share some strategies for avoiding wheat--and satisfying your appetite.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

What a Difference a Year Made

Merry Christmas! In a little while, I'll be with my family, celebrating with a low-carb Christmas dinner. We'll be snacking on the low-carb goodies I made for them yesterday: low-carb chocolate peanut butter cookies, pate, roasted almonds, and some goat cheese I bought. Why low-carb? Because in the past year, cutting down on carbs has solved so many problems for me and my mother.

A year ago today when I started this blog, I was eating a high-carb (~180 grams per day), low-fat, adequate protein diet. I was scheduled for a root canal. I needed acid blockers, four-hour naps every weekend, frequent meals, and visits to the chiropractor. I was also anemic and putting on weight. This, even though I ate so-called "good carbs" and worked out six days a week.

In January, I cut out wheat and began slowly losing weight and feeling less bloated. In February, I cut way, way down on all carbs (to around 50 grams per day) and the fat fell off fast. My need for the naps, frequent meals and back cracking evaporated. My chronic congestion and acid reflux went away and my shoulder stopped hurting. (One of my dance teachers made the same comment about her knee: sugar makes it hurt.) My teeth are whiter and healthier, too. Those so-called "good carbs" or "complex carbohydrates" are, except for fiber, just starch. They're sugar molecules holding hands. When you eat starch, it turns into sugar.

My mother is diabetic, so it's extremely important for her to limit carbs. She, too, eliminated wheat--even though she once said she never would. She understands what raises her blood sugar, and has gotten it into a range that shouldn't cause organ and tissue damage. (It was 99 this morning.)

But the biggest change I've seen in both of us is that our spirits and energy have risen. My hairstylist remarked that I'd gotten in touch with my inner 12-year-old; my mom has never been so happy. Was that the hole in our souls--too much sugar and a lack of dietary fat?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Last-Minute Christmas Gifts

Last-minute gifts are usually crummy--but they don't have to be. Pretty much everybody likes treats, and a lot of people prefer homemade gifts (if only for the spirit of the thing).

Think about giving some delicious, homemade low-carb goodies. Just note that some people are sensitive to artificial sweeteners. Let them know if you've used that or any ingredients they might not expect.

No hidden carb fudge. I've made this, and it's fantastic. Easy, too. Recipe courtesy of the Blood Sugar 101 site, so this should be appropriate for diabetic loved ones, or anyone who absolutely has to watch their blood sugar.

Cinnamon-Roasted Almonds. This sounds awesome, and it's highly rated. Substitute Splenda for sugar, 1:1. I just might make this tonight.

Homemade mayonnaise. An unusual gift, but my mother actually requested this. She needs a few spoonfuls of the good stuff because she doesn't want to use the lumpy, clumpy stuff from the store. She'll be pleasantly surprised to get a whole jar. Note--use extra light olive oil. If you use the extra virgin olive oil, it'll taste a little off. And I make mayonnaise in the blender, covering the top of it as best I can while it's mixing. It takes me about five minutes to make it. If you don't have lemon or lime juice, you can use vinegar, but to me, it's not quite as good.

Strawberry cups. I haven't tried this, but it sounds good, and it's by Dana Carpender. The recipe calls for putting it in cups, but you could put it all in one dish.

Cheese and wine. OK, not homemade, but easy, generally welcome, and in good taste. One of the best cheeses I've tried is raw goat milk smoked mild cheddar cheese made by Mt. Sterling. Some good wines: Mark West or La Crema pinot noir; white wine enthusiasts might enjoy Bex reisling from Germany, my favorite at a recent wine tasting.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Want Easy Meals? Don't Light the Oven

I've just figured out why I've never found it hard to cook for one person, or to make everything from scratch. It's not cooking talent--I've never invented a recipe. It's not fancy equipment--I have a basic stove, a 30-year-old microwave, a one-speed blender, a hand-crank food processor, and very basic pots, pans, cutlery and utensils--nothing else. It's not that I have a lot of time, either, being gone 11 hours a day.

Here's my secret: Don't light the oven.

Why this works: food that can be steamed, boiled, fried or cooked in a pressure cooker (that is, cooked on the stove top) tends to be fast and easy to prepare. Food that doesn't need to be cooked at all tends to be even easier. Baking and roasting, on the other hand, take a long time, and the recipes tend to involve a lot of steps. It heats up the house, too. Living in a house without central air conditioning, I'm opposed to lighting the oven in the summer. Baked and roasted recipes often make a lot of food, too. If you cook just for yourself, you might not be able to eat all the leftovers in time. Stove top cooking lends itself to individual portions.

This rule also helps steer you away from making bread, cookies, cake, brownies, lasagna, pie, pizza, noodle casseroles, baked potatoes, and other high-carb junk.

Food I make using this rule: omelets, deviled eggs, sausage, bacon, burgers, steamed veg, cheese sauce, fried chicken, salad, salad dressing, a small roast (cook it in the pressure cooker--a good dish if you have company), liver, braised oxtail, kelp chips, steamed veg, ranch dip, fried cabbage, sauteed mushrooms, no-hidden-carb fudge, pate (for special occasions--it involves a lot of steps), a veg/olive/cheese plate, and any kind of soup.

Once in a while, I make exceptions to the don't-light-the-oven rule. I make low-carb pumpkin pie a few times a year, I soak and roast nuts (which is really easy), I broil meat now and then (which is fast), and I'll bake something if I really have a craving for it. But 95% of the time, I don't light the oven.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nose Job Healed after Eleven Short Years

Eleven years after my nose job, my nose has finally healed.

Back in 1999, I had septoplasty to straighten the inside of my nose. My doctor told me it would help me prevent my frequent sinus infections. (It didn't.) For the first time, I could breathe through both sides of my nose at once, but at the cost of constant nosebleeds. The septum (the cartilage inside the center of the nose) didn't heal until a few weeks ago.

Last May--seven months ago--I started taking megadoses of zinc. The nosebleeds mostly stopped. Then a few weeks ago after reading an abstract(1) on iron interfering with zinc absorption, I began taking iron at night and zinc in the morning. (According to the article, the interference applies only to non-food sources of the minerals. Go ahead and have your surf and turf without worry.)

An aside: since taking my iron and zinc at different times, I've been able to cut down on the magnesium. I went from 750 mg to 500 mg per day.

Over the past year, I've taken some other steps to improve my vitamin and mineral absorption: I eat very little grain (it's full of antinutrients), I soak and roast nuts and pumpkin seeds before eating them to neutralize their antinutrients, I stopped taking acid blockers (made possible through a low-carb diet), and I eat a good deal of fat with every meal. I don't drink coffee or tea within a few hours of taking an iron pill. I didn't do all these things to end my nosebleeds--but that's been one of the benefits. (I'm planning a post on all the health improvements I've seen on Christmas day, this blog's one-year anniversary.)

At long last, I've healed. The nosebleeds have all but stopped, even though this has been one of the driest winters I can remember.

What I Should have Done Instead of Septoplasty
  • I should have stopped eating wheat, and really, any other grains. I find wheat very congesting. The congestion gives germs a place to get a foothold and cause an infection.
  • I should have left the engineering field years sooner than I did. How can something that's so unstable be so dull? I work for an old, conservative, stable CPA firm now. Compared to the engineering field, it's like Animal House. I had constant sinus infections in college and for five years afterward bouncing around the job market. (However, I spent the first year out of college working on a loading dock where the air was so dirty my snot was gray. No sinus infections, though.) I left the field ten years ago and haven't had a sinus infection since.

Thinking about Having a Nose Job (Rhinoplasty)?
Unless you're knocking things over with your nose, or you're planning to trade on your good looks, don't. If you think it'll improve your chances of finding a mate, have you seen some of the married uggos out there? If my experience is any indication, plastic surgery is real surgery with real risks, blood, temporary splints sewn into your nose, drainage, vomiting, and a number of days of mouth-breathing and precious vacation days spent recovering. Fix everything else about your looks before thinking about surgery--you might change your mind.

What Not do Do
Don't take Flonase (an inhaled steroid). It doesn't help much, may make you worse, and increases your risk for diabetes.

(1) "Studies on the bioavailability of zinc in humans: effects of heme and nonheme iron on the absorption of zinc" by NW Solomons and RA Jacob. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 1981 vol. 34 no. 4 475-482.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Braised Oxtail Deliciousness

I wrote a few days ago that oxtail might be an acquired taste--but found that to be mostly wrong tonight when I had braised oxtail for dinner. It looked just as good as the picture on Steffen's Dinners blog, whose recipe I used, even though I made a few changes to reduce the carbs. More on that in a minute.

The meat had the texture of ribs, the flavor of a beef roast, and was fatty-oily like duck. The bigger pieces tasted better than the small piece, which was a little gamey.

I omitted the turnips (mostly because I don't like them), used only one tomato, and served it with mushrooms instead of pasta. That was another new food tonight--some mushrooms that looked and felt like little white sponges. I sliced one and sauteed it in butter--wonderful!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Avoiding Sugar: Lessons from a Diabetic in a Sugar Shack

"It's the most fattening time of the year." -Bob Rivers

My mother enjoys telling people she lives in a crack house. That's true, metaphorically speaking: she has a raging case of diabetes and a husband who lives on sweets and starch and offers them to her every day. (He's diabetic too--he just doesn't care.)

The junk food temptations people deal with at holidays are part of everyday life for my mother. Her stakes are high: an average person might gain ten or fifteen pounds over a month of indulgence, but two bites of healthywholegrainoatmeal sends my mom's blood sugar over 200--the definition of diabetes. Blood sugars at that level can cause tissue and organ damage.

I asked Mom what her strategies were for resisting starchy food--which she loves. Her answer:

I just don't eat it.

Why not?

It raises my blood sugar.


About an hour later.

What happens?

I don't feel good. I get nervous and shaky and I can't write.

I've seen my mother when her blood sugar is jacked up. She gets so tired she can't stay awake. Since she's the bookkeeper and writes all the Christmas cards in the household, and does these things by hand, it's not good if she can't write.

Any other strategies?

I have some sugar-free candy, and I eat cereal about three times a year.

Breakfast cereal is the food she misses most.

A few other observations: my mother cut way back on the carbs because she was desperate to get well. She was in a rehab center for back surgery and ensuing complications from neglect and an assault. She'd been there so long she started to forget what her own house looked like. Laying off the carbs brought her fasting blood sugar from the mid-200s to the low 100s. (Yes, that was her fasting blood sugar after she came home and went on a carbohydrate bender. Her own records show some fasting blood sugars in the 300s. Her blood sugar level takes a long time to come down, just like mine.)

Even if you don't have diabetes, it's not a bad idea to avoid overindulging. I've noticed that even healthy young people tend to get tired an hour or two after a carby meal. Just today, the building's management had a free chocolate fest in the lobby at 2:00. Most of my coworkers rushed down there like--well, like there was free chocolate in the lobby. Just over an hour later, one of them said "God, I'm so tired." Someone else said she didn't feel good. (Does that sound familiar--feeling lousy and tired an hour after eating a bunch of sugar?) I didn't go to the chocolatorium because I knew my self control would have folded and I'd have felt lousy along with them.

A strategy I used to avoid the chocolate orgy was to bring a big lunch. I was full from chicken, veg with ranch dip, cheese and olives and wasn't hungry for dessert.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Buying Nutrients by the Pound

There's a food group that seems to be getting some much deserved love. It's inexpensive, full of nutrients, all natural, it's been eaten for millennia, and it's easy to prepare. It's variety meat--liver, oxtail, and various organ meats. (The downside is that some of these are an acquired taste.)

Vitamin Cottage was out of beef liver today, so I went to Denver Urban Homesteaders. Bill Flentje at the Ranch Direct Foods counter said he's been selling cuts that are normally unpopular, like the oxtail and liver I bought. (Salmon was selling well, too, and someone bought five pounds of liverwurst.) But the t-bone steaks weren't moving.

Are people buying nutrients by the pound? I don't know, but check the vitamin and mineral content of beef liver here (set the serving size to 100g). (Notice you'd have to eat seven cups of spinach to get that much iron.) Now look at the nutrients in a t-bone (set the serving size to 100 grams to compare). It doesn't even come close to liver on iron and B vitamins. And for any lipophobes out there, liver has little fat, and only 1 gram of saturated fat in a 100-gram serving.

I couldn't find nutritional data on oxtail, but a large part of the portions are bone and marrow. Since calcium and magnesium are stored mostly in the bone, it seems likely that this cut would have a lot of those minerals.

The cost of the different cuts, according to my receipt and the Ranch Foods Direct web site:
Calf liver: $2.69 per pound
Oxtail: $3.99 per pound
T-bone: $15.69 per pound.

I'll let readers decide whether it's worth their while to develop a taste for liver and oxtail. (Hint: cook liver at a low temperature in butter--don't overcook it.)

UPDATE: I found information on oxtail here. It's higher in protein, calcium and iron than t-bone, lower in fat and has no saturated fat. In most other respects, its nutrition is similar to the t-bone.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Traumatic Brain Injury Afflicts How Many Vets?

Have you seen or heard the ads for a nonprofit that aids veterans? "One in five returning vets has a traumatic brain injury." I pictured thousands of troops returning from duty, unable to perform everyday tasks--and the image didn't seem realistic. What does the statistic on the radio ad really mean?

First, the image of severe brain damage doesn't apply to every case. According to the Mayo Clinic,

Traumatic brain injury is usually the result of a sudden, violent blow to the head — which launches the brain on a collision course with the inside of the skull. This collision can bruise the brain, tear nerve fibers and cause bleeding.

Traumatic brain injury may also be caused by objects such as bullets or even a shattered piece of the skull entering brain tissue.

The severity of traumatic brain injury can vary greatly, depending on the part of the brain affected and the extent of the damage. A mild traumatic brain injury may cause temporary confusion and headache, but a serious one can be fatal.
It sounds like what used to be called a concussion, and that there's a wide variation in the severity of injury.

Now, where does the one-in-five figure come from?

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine(1) reports,

According to the Joint Theater Trauma Registry, compiled by the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, 22 percent of the wounded soldiers from these conflicts [in Iraq and Afghanistan] who have passed through the military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany had injuries to the head, face, or neck. This percentage can serve as a rough estimate of the fraction who have TBI, according to Deborah L. Warden, a neurologist and psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who is the national director of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC). Warden said the true proportion is probably higher, since some cases of closed brain injury are not diagnosed promptly. (emphasis mine)
In 2006, another group of doctors did an "anonymous survey of 2714 soldiers from two U.S. Army combat infantry brigades — one Active Component and one Reserve Component (Army National Guard) — 3 to 4 months after their return from a yearlong deployment in Iraq. The units saw high levels of combat, similar to those of other infantry units." Of those who responded, 15% had suffered injuries and symptoms defined as "mild traumatic brain injury."(2) (The survey didn't seem to be looking at those who had more severe brain injuries.) What did they consider a mild brain injury?

A soldier was considered to have had a mild traumatic brain injury if any of three questions — regarding “losing consciousness (knocked out),” “being dazed, confused, or `seeing stars,'” or “not remembering the injury” — elicited a positive response.
This raises the question, What portion of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are combat infantry? An article in the New York Times(3) reads, "According to Pentagon statistics, about 23 percent of the troops currently assigned to the Iraq mission conduct primarily combat jobs."

In other words, perhaps 15% of combat infantrymen serving in Iraq and Afghanistan sustain mild brain injuries (probably, fewer of them sustain more serious brain injuries) and around 22% of badly wounded troops have traumatic brain injuries.

If we assume that non-combat troops are a lot less likely to be wounded, and that most troops aren't wounded at all, and that many troops are assigned to places other than Iraq and Afghanistan, the one-in-five vets having traumatic brain injuries sounds unrealistically high.

(1) "Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone," New England Journal of Medicine, May 19, 2005

(2) "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury in U.S. Soldiers Returning from Iraq" by Charles W. Hoge, M.D., Dennis McGurk, Ph.D., Jeffrey L. Thomas, Ph.D., Anthony L. Cox, M.S.W., Charles C. Engel, M.D., M.P.H., and Carl A. Castro, Ph.D. New England Journal of Medicine, January 31, 2008

(3) Pulling Out Combat Troops Would Still Leave Most Forces in Iraq by By THOM SHANKER, New York Times, Published: December 10, 2006.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Got Gallstones?

If you have gallstones, you must check out the Fat Fiction blog at Mike W., who writes the blog, started researching medical literature after suffering from gallstone attacks. Based on this, he has developed a theory of how gallstones form and how they can be eliminated. The short answer for eliminating them: you need sufficient minerals (especially magnesium), you must eliminate gluten (an antinutrient) from your diet, reduce other antinutrients such as grains, legumes and sugar, avoid trigger foods, and take certain supplements. (Hmmm, this sounds familiar--kind of like this post on absorbing vitamins and minerals.)

I believe Mike is also planning to show before and after pictures of his gallbladder in five months to show how much the stones have dissolved. God speed!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Low-cost, Highly Effective Exercise

Want to exercise without spending a lot of money? If you're self-motivated and don't have health problems like a touchy back or a heart condition, consider working out at home. I've worked out at home for years and prefer it to going to a gym. When you work out at home, there are no dues, no commute, no public shower, and no pressure to buy expensive workout clothes and puffy, high-tech shoes. I exercise barefoot in the summer and in basic canvas tennis shoes in the winter. I work out on my own schedule to my own music or enjoy the quiet. There's no pressure to keep up with others.

I use Fred Hahn’s Slow Burn method of weightlifting (see Exercise without Joint Pain). All I need are four sets of free weights, a yoga mat, a fan, a timer and a metronome. The last two items are free online (links are in the Exercise without Joint Pain post). I do this workout twice a week.

Keep safety in mind, especially if you work out alone. Get familiar with any machines you use so you don’t, for instance, do a face plant on your treadmill. My dog loves the treadmill, and accidentally got on from the front once. If she hadn’t been quick enough to jump off, she’d have been conveyed smack into the door. Weightlifting can be hazardous, too. When I was in an engineering design class, one group designed a device to lift a bench press barbell so that the weightlifter wouldn’t need a spotter. The discussion moved to the on-off switch, and a wiseguy in the class suggested the Clapper. Kidding aside, an acquaintance believes that she ruined her knee doing aerobics (which included pivoting on her foot) on a carpeted floor, which twisted her knee. If your workout involves pivoting on your foot, I suggest using a hard, smooth floor and dance shoes, ballet slippers or sueded tennis shoes. Your knee isn’t meant to be torqued. And if you're bouncing around, trust a dancer on this: you need padded shoes AND good landing technique, although even that might not be enough to prevent injuries.

Cardio exercise is fine if you enjoy it, but I haven't observed it to be a good means of weight loss. A recent study bears this out. I've taken cardio classes, and I've been a swing dancer for eight years. I can't think of one person in either scene who slimmed down; I can think of a few who gained weight. (See my posts on weight loss if that's what you're interested in.)

Common sense suggests starting out moderately to learn what your limits are, then building in intensity. Think about progress, not perfection.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Are you Cold?

If you're like me and work in a climate-controlled office, a lot of your female coworkers say, "It's freezing in here!" I used to chill easily, but now I wonder what they're talking about. (No, I'm not in menopause.) I'm not running the heater in my car nearly as much as I used to, either, even when it's nighttime and in the 30s and 40s. I usually don't feel the need to.

Where is credit due here? The type of clothes I wear hasn't changed: usually slacks, a cotton shirt and a wool blazer for the office and a coat and alpaca hat and gloves outdoors. I did buy a long down coat, being inspired by my new style icon Mello (on the right) from Death Note, but it just replaced my slightly shorter down coat. I've even worn sandals and short skirts recently. Not together, though: if I'm bundled up in pants and a coat, I can wear sandals; if I'm wearing a coat and tall boots, I can wear a short skirt and save the tights for work.

What changed last winter was my diet. I'd been on Body for Life, a low-fat diet, for six years. Then I started eating a low-carb, high fat diet and soon wondered if springtime had come to Denver in February: I'd started feeling warmer. On Body for Life (the previous diet), I ate a lot of skinless, boneless chicken breast, turkey, tuna, lean ham, cottage cheese and lean beef. I had enough lean, tough meat to last me the rest of my life. On the low-carb, high fat diet, though, I started eating bacon, lamb burgers, pork chops, bacon, full-fat cheese, sour cream, bacon, chicken thighs and wings, and an occasional fish fillet or salmon patty. I believe that eating a high-fat diet made me feel warmer.

I'm not alone in thinking this. Tom Naughton recently reviewed a book called Kabloona: Among the Inuit by Gontran de Poncins, a French explorer who lived and traveled with a group of Inuit who lived a traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle in the Arctic. Naughton describes what we would today call Poncin's diet and exercise regime:

Poncins recounts running along trails with Eskimos for hours – he was fatigued and panting, while they barely seemed to notice the effort. After a year in the Arctic, Poncins finds he is beginning to prefer their diet, even though he had supplies of “white man” food on the sled carrying his belongings. As he explains in one passage, boiled rice could warm him up temporarily, but then he’d feel colder an hour or two later. By contrast, raw meat or raw fish was cold going down, but then he felt warmer for the rest of the day.

I may not be eating raw fish or raw meat, but I think I'm getting the same benefit from my high-fat diet. I've read that saturated fat raises LDL (bad cholesterol) in some people, but my lipid tests from before and after starting my new diet showed an increase in HDL (good cholesterol) and a decrease in calculated LDL. So if saturated fat doesn't increase LDL for you personally, it's as Mark Sisson says: there's no such thing as too much bacon.

Bacon: it keeps you from shakin'.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Both Feet on the Ground

My mother is one step closer to walking again.

Four years ago, my mom had back surgery, which started a chain of disasters: she developed deep bed sores from lack of care, she was assaulted in a rehab center, and she ended up in a wheelchair. One of the sores was on her heel, and so even putting weight on that foot was out of the question.

My mom's heel pretty much healed in July. There was a scab on it until a few weeks ago, but no depth to the wound. With the scab gone, one roadblock to walking again is gone.

The other roadblock was that she couldn't put her heel all the way down to the floor. Being in a wheelchair for four years, her muscles had tightened and atrophied. My parents and I discussed three options:

  • One doctor recommended making a small incision in the leg to either stretch or cut a tendon or muscle, allowing the heel to move downward. (Isn't that what some people have done to racehorses to end their careers?)
  • Another doctor wanted to fit a boot to Mom's foot, along with wires actually going into the foot, and making adjustments over time to stretch the foot. Given that my mom had a sore on the same foot that took three years to heal, Dad and I thought this was a bad idea. So did Mom's general practitioner.
  • My idea: if you can stretch the muscles by wearing a boot, why can't you stretch them with stretching exercises?

Physical therapy had helped with this while my Mom was a rehab, and at home she'd worn a brace that helped also. But with the sore on her foot healed, she started doing more stretching exercises at the kitchen sink for ten minutes a day, along with doing some light work standing up. Over the past few weeks, I've also been leading my mom in Slow Burn resistance training. (She even bought some two-pound free weights.) Dad and I have encouraged her to walk with a walker and stretch her muscles. I know from my experience with turf toe how quickly muscles weaken when they aren't used: when I resumed serious dancing a month after my injury, I was amazed at how much strength I'd lost in my feet. Mom still needs to develop a lot more strength to walk again. Physical therapy is good, stretching is good, but there's no substitute for making demands on your muscles.

The result of my mom's self-directed exercise program is that she can put her foot flat on the floor. No procedures needed.

The next roadblock to remove: lack of strength in her feet and flexibility in her legs.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Shout-out from Jimmy Moore

I'm feeling a bit puffed up, but not from overindulging on Thanksgiving. (My indulgence was expensive red snapper and other low-carb fare.) Jimmy Moore, author of the Livin' la Vida Low Carb blog, has recommended my blog, among several others, to his readers:

As has become my tradition when I leave for vacation, I have searched far and wide for the best and brightest new and exciting low-carb diet and health blogs on the planet that have come on my radar screen in recent months. Many of these feature the talented writing skills of people you should probably be paying more attention to which is why I like giving them a boost featuring them here at my blog.

Moore's blog features interviews, podcasts, videos and links on health and diet. The focus is on low-carb, but he interviews people with other viewpoints as well. He himself struggled with a weight problem: 1999 I did an ultra low-fat (almost no-fat) diet because we have always been taught that eating fat makes you fat and I did surprisingly well on it losing 170 pounds in just nine months. But there was only one problem–I was constantly hungry which made me irritable, tired, and feeling like I was going out of my mind! And my stomach was so bloated and big I felt like I was a lot WORSE off than I was before my weight loss. One day my wife Christine asked me if I would go to McDonald’s and get her an extra value meal and I asked her if I could have a Big Mac meal “just this one time.” Anyone who has ever been fat knows what happened next.

Hmmm. Substitute 20 pounds for 170 and cookies for a Big Mac, and that sounds familiar. I was on a low-fat diet as well once and gained all the weight back myself.

A few years later Moore did the Atkins diet--as directed by Dr. Atkins, not the unlimited-bacon-cheeseburgers-and-hold-the-lettuce version of urban legend.

By the end of the first month after beginning my New Year’s resolution to lose weight in January 2004, I had shed a total of 30 pounds. HOLY COW!!! At the end of the second month, another 40 pounds were gone and by the time I had been on Atkins for 100 days, over 100 pounds were gone forever from my body. Words simply cannot describe how I felt going through this incredible journey and I will never be the same again. Although it wasn’t an easy road by any stretch of the imagination, I am so thankful I found the healthy low-carb lifestyle because I went on to lose a total of 180 pounds that year. More importantly than my weight loss, though, is the fact that low-carb living gave me my health back. All of those prescriptions I was taking for high cholesterol, high blood pressure and breathing problems were all history within nine months of being on the Atkins diet. And to this day, I have yet to take another medication for any health ailment. WOO HOO! Who says your health doesn’t improve on the low-carb lifestyle?

I basically did the Atkins Diet too and got off of acid blockers and shed 20 pounds. My lipids improved, too. At age 41, I feel like I'm 20. I go out dancing on school nights, I weigh what I weighed in high school, and I feel great.

I encourage you to check out Moore's blog:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dodging a Bullet: Avoid Unnecessary Meds

Back in May, I wrote that my continual nosebleeds had mostly stopped since taking large doses of zinc. That's still the case. What I didn't know until a few days ago was that the Flonase my doctor prescribed for my nosebleeds could have given me diabetes. (The other alternative he presented was cauterization. However, I tend to shy away from treatments that remind me of a Civil War battlefield hospital.)

Jenny Ruhl at the Diabetes Update blog reported that a study showed a 34% increased risk of diabetes from taking inhaled steroids. When I asked her if Flonase was one of the steroids, she said it was, and added that a steroid wasn't likely to heal my nose and might have made it worse with time. As I've written here before, there is diabetes on both sides of my family, and I may have genes for the disease. Continuing to take Flonase might have made me diabetic.

Why did I decide to take zinc instead of Flonase? The Flonase helped a little, but not much, and I was already wary of taking medicines I didn't need. No doctor suggested zinc. I only knew from reading and experience that it was helpful in healing. Dr. Robert Atkins, whose advice hadn't led me wrong, believed in optimal doses, not minimum doses, of vitamins--and my own research suggested the minimum daily recommendations didn't mean much.

UPDATE: My mother tells me that someone in our family had a cortisone shot for sciatica. (Cortisone is the active ingredient in Flonase.) This relative, a type 2 diabetic, later had a BG reading of over 500 (yes, five hundred). Yes, I've tried to tell her what little I've learned about blood sugar control, but since she's had diabetes for 20 years and listens to her nutritionist about eating plenty of carbohydrates (read: sugar), I'm afraid she feels I have nothing to add to her beliefs about diabetes. Sigh.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fruit Fail

My healthy diet doesn't include fruit. Shocked? You're not alone: this surprises people who continually hear "eat lots of fruits and vegetables!"

I initially stopped eating fruit when I read Norm Robillard's theory of carbohydrates causing acid reflux in susceptible individuals. I found fruit to be the worst food for giving me acid reflux, and I've rarely touched it since. Anytime I have, I've almost always regretted it within 20 minutes. Non-starchy vegetables quickly became a much bigger part of my diet: they're low-carb and full of nutrients.

Am I missing anything by avoiding fruit? Lots of vitamin C and fiber? I made a chart to find out. Using, I chose five fruits and five vegetables that I eat (or used to eat) and looked up how much of certain vitamins they contained. I chose vitamins that most of them had at least of little of. I also noted their total carb and fiber content.

(Click for larger image.) Note that the bottom lines are averages, not totals. (I never ate five cups of fruits or veg a day; I doubt many people do.) For vitamins A, C and K, the vegetables listed are the runaway winners. Vitamins A and K are fat soluble, meaning they have to be eaten with fat to be absorbed. How often do people eat the fruits listed with something that has fat in it? I know I didn't before going low-carb. I eat veg with salad dressing, butter, olive oil or ranch dip.

It looks like I'd get a little bit more folate and two more grams of fiber from the fruit--and a lot more carbohydrate--23 grams per cup, on average. The carbohydrate in fruit is mostly sugar. It may be natural, but it's still sugar. If you're concerned about blood glucose levels, weight gain, your teeth, and a variety of other health issues, sugar in anything but very modest amounts is bad news.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Does it Matter where you Eat your Food?

Have you heard the advice not to eat at your desk, not to eat alone, not to have the food on your plate touching, and not to eat while watching TV? It seems the idea is that if you eat under those conditions, the food you're eating must be the kind that will make you fat. Or you'll mindlessly eat large enough quantities to gain weight. I almost always eat under those conditions, and haven't found any of this to mean anything. Would it make a difference if I plopped down with some coworkers to eat the lunch I packed? Or if I took my plate to the dining room table instead of here at my computer? Maybe it would be even better if I put my dog's dish on the table so she could join me. I really might end up eating less that way: she's a terrific scavenger.

I don't think it makes a bit of difference where you eat your food. It's what you eat. Of course, if you don't plan and prepare, you can end up eating whatever is handy, and that, I suspect, is a real reason people eat junk food at work or alone--or at home or with others, for that matter.

For what it's worth, the way I prepare is to go to the grocery store once a week and stock up on nutritious foods: meat, non-starchy veg, nut butter, eggs, protein powder, spices, cream, cheese, etc. as needed. I also get some snacks like pork rinds and low-carb ice cream. As for chips, cookies, pasta, and other high-carb food, I just don't buy it. I don't even look at it or think about it. If the stuff isn't in my house, I won't fall into temptation. Even a little bit of this makes me feel lousy, so it's no sacrifice for me.

To help keep my groceries from spoiling, I put them away immediately when I get home and don't let them sit out when I use them. I wrap them up and put them away.

Every night, I pack a lunch keeping in mind what my appetite really is, not the amount I think I should eat. Even though I work downtown, it's slim pickings for low-carb fare--and expensive. If I need to, I can buy a low-carb nut bar or string cheese or a salad at the convenience store in the building, but I pack almost everything I eat at work. It makes it easy to avoid the junk food at the office. (I do indulge in a few chocolate candies at work, though. What can I say--there's no substitute for chocolate.)

Every morning, I make a protein shake that usually fills me up until lunch. If it doesn't, no problem--there's a low-carb snack in my lunch.

When I get home, I enjoy some low-carb ice cream and usually a light dinner.

This isn't to say I eat perfectly, or always according to plan, but this method keeps me on track the vast majority of the time.

There's not only a lot of talk about where and how to eat, but how much to eat. I regulate this through a four-step process:

  1. I get hungry.
  2. I eat.
  3. I get full.
  4. I stop eating.
Be warned, this doesn't necessarily work on a high-carb diet. On a low-carb diet where you eat plenty of protein and fat, the macronutrients make you feel full and don't cause blood sugar spikes. At least, that's what I've read and what I've found to be true in my case. The only time I really went on a bender was when I tried intermittent fasting. Others have good results with it; I simply follow my four-step process.

By planning, preparing, and following a low-carb diet, I can eat in the park, I can eat with Lark, I can eat all alone, but I can't eat a scone. I can eat by a screen, I can eat while I preen, I can eat while I roam--but I should bring food from home.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dana Carpender: Food and Thought

I'd like to introduce you to someone I've added to my blog list: Dana Carpender at Hold the Toast. She's written several low-carb cookbooks and once struggled with a weight problem. In her book How I Gave up my Low-fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds, Carpender describes eating a high-carb, low-fat diet: "hungry enough to eat the carpet" and unable lose weight doing cardio four or five times a week. As a kid, she stole money from her parents to support her sugar addiction. A low-carb diet got her out of reverse.

The book begins with an introduction by one of her Internet friends who wanted to prove her (or any other woman) wrong. He goes on, sounding like a real piece of work, but tells a compelling story of how a low-carb diet saved his life. Then Carpender tells of her own experience with different diets and sneaks up on you with science backed up with a 17-page bibliography and her own experience and that of friends and family--and even a few complete strangers she chatted up.

What I like most about Carpender is that she's a thinker.
  • On moderation: "Yet a person who ate only half the sugar of the average American would still be eating more than ten times the sugar that the average American ate in 1800, and more than four times the average American's sugar intake post-Civil War times. So what's moderate?"
  • On the much-touted quick energy of carbohydrates: "By the way, the only thing your body can use carbohydrates for is fuel." Fat and protein are used as fuel and for repair and maintenance of your body. "Why should a population that is sedentary and obese get most of their food as pure fuel?"
  • On the fat-burning zone: In a blog comment she left some time ago, on the Protein Power site I think, Carpender mentioned that everyone talks about getting to that fat burning zone. Why, she asked, don't people just use fat as fuel, then?
  • On complex carbohydrates: they're sugar molecules holding hands. Aka starch.
  • On the real reason people diet: to be sexay.

I don't know whether she thinks clearly because she writes clearly or vice versa, but she makes more sense than some professional researchers whose work isn't standing up to scrutiny.

I like Carpender's recipes, too. Her salmon with lemon-dill-butter sauce is packed for tomorrow's lunch, and her tangy mustard dressing is practically a staple at my house.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Low-carb Halloween Plans

Chocolate is rich, chocolate is now
Beans from Brazil and the milk from a cow.
Stephany's Chocolates, bah do bah do wah.
Please don't mention the chemical connection
That chocolate makes in my head.
It's chocolate mints I'm saying
It's a chocolate fix I'm cravin'
If I can't be in love, I'll have Stephany's instead.

-1990s radio ad for a Denver chocolatier

Chocolate is, to me, a food group unto itself. Since going low-carb, I'm no longer face-down in it, but still partake of it. It's hard for me to resist. I ate some little cookies last week at a wine store because they were coated with chocolate, knowing what wheat does to me. Even as I write this, I'm on my second dish of low-carb chocolate ice cream, knowing it will likely give me an upset stomach later. The past few Sundays, I've gone out dancing having forgotten to eat dinner. My party place conveniently had gluten-free chocolate desserts--was it really an accident that I forgot dinner?

I'm thinking it would be a bad idea to have Halloween candy at my house. My main concern isn't weight gain, but being walloped with acid reflux brought on by too much sugar. Therefore, my plan this year is to give away something people like even more than chocolate: money. This weekend, I'm going to the credit union to get some rolls of quarters. The trick-or-treaters can buy whatever candy they want, and I can stay out of the sugar bowl.

Update: It's 7 p.m., Halloween night. The kids are going away from my door shouting "Money!" This seems to be a win-win.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How I Beat a Cold in Three Days

Three nights ago, I was having a normal Sunday evening dancing at my favorite club. Except for the afternoon nap I took, the tickle in my throat, and being completely motionless when I sat down, nothing was unusual. Maybe those should have been clues that within a few hours, I would go home early (!) and consider having my doctor check for strep throat the next day--my throat was that sore.

Once I got home, I took all the vitamin D3 I had and went to bed. I’d read of colds being stopped by large doses of the sunshine vitamin, but the next morning, I felt velcroed to the bed. I still had a sore throat. I called my employer and croaked that I wouldn't be at work. Being a cheapskate, I decided to try to get well on my own before seeing a doctor.

It’s Wednesday night, and I’m well again. Tuesday wasn’t bad, either--I did a boatload of work since I took Monday off. I had very little nasal congestion during this cold.

My strategies:

  • Vitamin D3 in 10,000 IU doses, two per day for two and a half days. I took two 5,000 IU doses today. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so take the oil form or eat something fatty with it.
  • Umcka Cold Care chewable tablets, three to five doses per day. It clears congestion without drying you out. Today I gave a tablet to a coworker who said she’d had a cold for a week, and within an hour, she said she was able to breathe again. It’s non-drowsy, too.
  • Carmex. I apply this just inside my nose; I think the menthol helps break up congestion. It’s not indicated for this use, so use your own judgment.
  • Ibuprofin. Three doses on Monday for my headache.
  • Chicken soup. Actually, homemade egg drop soup with garlic. Free range chicken broth, eggs, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, instructions from the book 500 Low-Carb Recipes and a few minutes over the stove were all it took to make the best chicken soup I’ve ever had.
  • No noodles! I find wheat very congesting. In fact, I was more congested last week on the day after I ate a few little cookies than I was during this cold.
  • Rest. Both Sunday and Monday, I went to bed when I was tired. Unless you absolutely have to keep going, there’s nothing stoic about trudging on when you’re tired and ill.
  • Nourishment. I had my usual protein shake and battery of vitamins for breakfast. Hungry or not, resting or not, your body needs nourishment to fight illness.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Trouble Swallowing? Read This

Some of the most frightening experiences I've ever had were when food got stuck in my throat and I couldn't breathe. I've had the Heimlich Maneuver done to me a few times and have had to go to the hospital once I could breathe, but couldn't get the food to go up or down. The doctors injected me with Valium; when that didn't work on one occasion, they had to mechanically push down the calcium pill that was stuck. (Calcium causes muscle contraction; that may have had something to do with it being stuck so badly.) Since I seem to have found something that has ended my trouble swallowing food, I'm sure you'll understand why I feel like I've found the holy grail.

A few years ago, my swallowing problem got to the point that food was getting stuck in my throat a couple of times a week. A gastroenterologist did an endoscopy and found an esophageal ulcer, or hole in the lining of my throat. Food and phlegm were getting stuck there. I also had an acute infection of H. pylori, the bacteria that causes most stomach ulcers, and acid reflux. For some people, an esophageal ulcer or damage from acid reflux may be the cause of their trouble swallowing.

When I asked the gastroenterologists' nurse what caused someone like me, a thin person who ate small, low-fat meals, to have such bad reflux, she said, "Nobody knows." That's not true. Back in 1972, Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution stated, "Nothing clears up on this diet [the Atkins Diet] more predictably than does heartburn."(1) Indeed, a low-carb diet cured my GERD, or heartburn, this year.

Nevertheless, I was still left with trouble swallowing even after the ulcer healed. Then I tried taking epsom salts for, ahem, a condition at the other end of the GI tract. Sausage, lettuce, fish, bacon--foods that used to get stuck regularly--all went down smoothly when I used the epsom salts. When I stopped, food got stuck again.

According to some abstracts of medical papers I've read, epsom salts reduce or even stop peristalsis, the muscle action involved in swallowing. It seems counterintuitive that epsom salts would help swallowing--unless the muscles in the throat are too tight. Magnesium, which along with sulfer is part of epsom salts, is a natural muscle relaxant. A case report similar to my situation was published in the journal Mineral and Electrolyte Metabolism(2):

Esophagography evidenced a disorder of esophagus motility [ability to move food] with diffuse multiple spasm, reminiscent of the ‘corkscrew esophagus’. A link with the severe hypomagnesemia (Mg 1.1 mEq/l, normal range 1.6–2.1) was suspected, and a therapy with oral pidolate of Mg (1.5 g/twice a day) was started and continued for 4 months. This was associated with a slow progressive normalization of the Mg plasma level and reverted radiographic esophageal findings with disappearance of dysphagia [trouble swallowing].
I'd been taking a magnesium supplement, but at 250 mg per day, it might not have been enough. I now take 500 mg per day of magnesium oxide/magnesium gluconate and 1/2 teaspoon of epsom salts per day. To make the epsom salts palatable, I mix about 8 oz water, a big pinch of Splenda, a few squirts of lemon juice, and 1/2 teaspoon of epsom salts and stir vigorously for a minute. If you want to use epsom salts, try a small dose at first--too much can upset your stomach and have a laxative effect.

UPDATE, December 3, 2010: This week, I had something get stuck, and this is what worked for me: I put some epsom salts under my tongue and squeezed the muscles on the back of my neck (it's an acupressure relaxation technique). It took a minute, but the bite went down, and I had no trouble during the rest of the meal. For emergencies, I've taken some empty capsules and filled them with epsom salts and carry them with me in a little pill box.


(1) Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution by Dr. Robert Atkins, 1972, p. 284.
(2) "Hypomagnesemia and Smooth Muscle Contractility: Diffuse Esophageal Spasm in an Old Female Patient" by Silvia Iannello, Maurizio Spina, Paolo Leotta, Marcella Prestipino, Sebastiano Spina, Nunziato Ricciardi, Francesco Belfiore, Mineral and Electrolyte Metabolism, 1998;24:348-356.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Turf Toe

The second most painful thing that ever happened to me was turf toe. (The worst was an infected tooth.) It's a common injury in football, wrestling and rugby; I managed to get it while dancing in my dining room. I was practicing a Charleston move called hacksaws when my right foot didn't clear the floor. It was like pounding my fist into the floor, except it was my foot. Basically, I sprained the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint of my big toe. For the next few weeks that winter, I shuffled around in my sandals, the only shoes I could get on my swollen foot. At least it wasn't snowing.

A few things helped my foot feel better. My doctor gave me a shot in my foot and put a dressing on it. (The dressing was another reason I could wear nothing but sandals that adjusted across the toes.) The shot took away some of the pain and swelling. Another thing that helped was acupressure. After a few minutes pressing points K3 and K6, especially, I could walk without pain. (I used the book Acupressure's Potent Points as a guide.) Getting my feet out of the way every time I heard my dog get ready to climb onto the bed became a reflex that lasted for months after I healed. I never noticed it until my bout with turf toe, but she often walked on my feet when she climbed on the bed.

I was able to run after a few weeks and could dance without pain after a month. (Of course, I didn't wait that long to dance again.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dance Class Lessons on Diet and Exercise

What would you expect to learn in a day of dance workshops? In four hours of dance classes today, I learned new rhythms, ironed out a few glitches of the lindy basic step, and got some valuable pointers for following. As a bonus, I saw some theories about diet and exercise illustrated.

The classmates I had lunch with were physically fit dancers who brought sandwiches or got a burger. The sandwiches had the grainy nuts-and-twigs style bread. Some of the sandwich and burger eaters remarked after lunch that it would be a good time for a nap. I'd had a low-carb lunch of coffee, sausage, egg and cheese and some raw, home-grown vegetables kindly shared by some classmates. Earlier, I'd had a homemade protein shake with olive oil and a piece of low-carb pumpkin pie. I felt relaxed and alert after lunch--very different from how tired I felt towards the end of a day of balboa classes in 2003 and a day of Charleston classes in 2007. The difference is, I think, because I didn't have any blood sugar crash this time. I went straight to the grocery store after the workshops and had to stop myself from bouncing through the aisles.

An observation on exercise: Even though I'd planned to go to the dance tonight, and I'm still not tired, I stayed home. I sat in front of the TV for 20 or 30 minutes after dinner, completely still, watching--wait for it--the main menu of Death Note--something I normally wouldn't do for more than 20 or 30 seconds. I might still be there if my dog hadn't barked at me to get her a snack. I don't feel tired or sore, I just don't have any desire to move. To me, this goes to show what some researchers say about exercise: it may cause you to burn fewer calories when you're not exercising. (Part of my lack of desire for tonight's dance is mental: all my partners today were wonderful, and I enjoyed them very much, but I just spent four hours dancing with them today, four hours dancing with them last night, and I'm going to be dancing with them again tomorrow. That's enough.)

A surprise today: my pants, which I couldn't zip back in January, were slightly loose. So much for a high-fat diet making you fat.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"It Makes my Teeth Hurt"

My sister Connie used to make green chili that was so hot you wouldn't have wanted to walk barefoot through it. Even our father couldn't eat it, and he likes spicy food. Our mom, on the other hand, can't tolerate anything remotely spicy.

For some reason, my mom's mouth recently became so sensitive that it was hard for her to eat anything. When she tried gargling with sesame oil, it helped her mouth feel better--even though she says it tastes awful.

I also had sensitive gums a few years ago--I think I was brushing too hard. Anything hot, cold or acid (like vinegar or lemon juice) really made them hurt. Avoiding these things helped, and so did brushing more gently with Sensodyne toothpaste. (I hadn't yet read about the benefits of sesame oil.)

Possibly, taking more zinc eating more fat has helped also. These are both good for your skin; they may be good for your gums also. And now that I no longer eat a starchy, sugary diet, I don't feel any need to brush hard, just normally and gently.

If your mouth hurts, try avoiding cinnamon, too: it's an irritant. Remember the bee-stung lips fad from a few years ago? Some of those plumpers used cinnamon as an active ingredient. For those who use cinnamon to slow gastric emptying, it's available in capsule form.

If it hurts to chew anything, let me share my protein shake recipe with you. This is what I have every morning; the supplements are optional.

1-1/2 cups water
1 heaping tablespoon rice protein powder (chocolate)
1 heaping tablespoon nut butter (without sugar or cinnamon)
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)
2 GNC Hair, Skin & Nails Formula vitamins (optional)
250 mg magnesium (optional)
100 mg zinc (optional)
18 mg iron (optional)
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum (required)

Put everything but the xanthan gum in a blender and blend until smooth. Add xanthan gum (or some other thickener) and blend again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Getting Rid of your Pain in the Neck

What if you had severe, chronic neck pain and your doctor didn't have a clue what to do for you? That was the place I was in during my early 30s: typing was agony, I couldn't press the Dictaphone buttons with my left hand hard enough to engage them, and I was too stiff to shimmy in dance class. Most of what I recall of an outdoor performance of a Shakespeare play of that time (the one where they were stuck on an island) regards squirming around trying to get comfortable. (If you were sitting behind me, I apologize.)

A friend referred me to a chiropractor, who diagnosed two pinched nerves in my neck and between my shoulders. Nothing was torn or fractured, and IME, when that's the case, doctors who practice traditional Western medicine won't be able to diagnose anything. That's not to say you shouldn't see an M.D. If something is torn or broken, they can help where a chiropractor and the treatments I'm going to talk about cannot.

After several chiropractic treatments, my neck and shoulder recovered, but I still had niggling pain and occasional flare-ups. Over the years, I've found three ways of dealing with this--and I'm happy to say my neck and shoulder pain are gone. Here's what I've tried and the results I've gotten.

It's especially helpful for me when I have tension. My mom loves getting acupressure when her neck, shoulders and arms hurt. For most of us, this is easy to do for yourself and it can bring relief within a few minutes. All you do is press your fingertips into appropriate pressure points. A book like Acupressure's Potent Points can show you how.

Yoga. When I had continual neck pain, I did yoga neck exercises every morning, and it really helped. The exercises came from the 1959 edition of Yoga for Americans. I ignored the advice on coffee enemas and did the neck exercises daily. Every morning, I did each one five times, slowly, and didn't stretch to the point of discomfort. The exercises were moving my head side to side in a big NO motion, nodding in a big YES motion, moving my ear closer to my shoulder moving only my head, moving my head forward without tilting it (imagine a turtle poking its head out of its shell), and gently rolling my head around each direction. Often, my neck would pop and feel better when I moved my ear towards my shoulder. But if it didn't, I gave up after a few tries. Continuing to stretch just made it worse, so I waited and tried later.

I don't do this every day anymore, but it's helpful if I've had my neck in a strange position, like yesterday when a complete stranger in the seat behind me on the bus talked my ear off about the squirrel under her couch, her three dogs, two cats, guinea pigs, aquarium and colostomy bag.

Strength Training. Last year I started doing some abdominal exercises that involved keeping your head just off the floor for a few minutes. It was hard to do, but some weeks after I'd started, my neck pain was gone--surprise! My neck was stronger and free of pain. I used a video called Ballet Conditioning; now I use the Slow Burn system. (And I no longer need the yoga every day. But it's there in case I see the menagerie lady again.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

No Shoulder Pain: This Calls for a New Handbag

A new job and a svelte new figure: what could be a better reason to buy some new togs?

How about a shoulder that's as strong and free of pain as it was at age 18?

When I was that age, I carried around 20 pounds of photo equipment for a job that lasted three years. After that, I carried 20 pounds of textbooks around a large campus for four and a half years. By my early 30s, I had chronic neck and shoulder pain, sometimes severe, sometimes niggling. I took to carrying a backpack instead of a purse to lighten the load on the shoulder.

Besides seeing a chiropractor, which helped a lot, I learned yoga neck stretches from the book Yoga for Americans written in 1959 by Indra Devi. I learned to pop my neck--loudly--at will. Without the exercises, I'd have needed a lot more trips to the chiropractor.

In the past few weeks, without thinking about it, I've been carrying my backpack on my left shoulder--the one that bore the textbooks and the photo equipment for seven and a half years. I haven't had a twinge of pain or fatigue from it. No popping in my neck either, and no real need for the yoga exercises. Possibly, this is because of months of strength training and a wheat-free diet. I don't know of any studies to cite, but I've noted several comments on other blogs from people whose joint pains went away when they gave up wheat. Now, I don't believe these measures would cure someone whose cartilage is gone or tendons are torn. If you have a shoulder injury, you should see a doctor about it. In any case, though, giving up wheat won't hurt you and might bring some relief. I also believe that good muscle tone can help protect you from injury and fatigue.

My canvas and leather backpack has been great, but it's cracked and stained, and I no longer need it to carry my lunch, wallet, sunglasses and a book to work and back. It was time for a change, so today I bought a big silver nylon purse with black patent leather straps and a pink lining. (Sorry, vintage enthusiasts, but a cute little Bakelite pocketbook won't hold my lunch--and I wouldn't want to ruin a vintage treasure forever by spilling salad dressing in it.) The new bag matches my new black sandals and makes me look the way I feel.

Gas Bloating: The Incredible Shrinking Waistband and Exploding Intestines

If you've been through it, you know the feeling: you get dressed in the morning and all is well. You have breakfast, and maybe a mid-morning snack, and then your pants don't fit. Surely you didn't put on five pounds in two hours, you think. (I had one tweed skirt in particular that became uncomfortable around 10 a.m.) Some days, you even look like you're pregnant. (That was when my big lavender shirt-dress came in handy.) It's gas bloating--but what causes it? Can you stop it?

The short answer is that I got the bloating to go away without medication or supplements--and I had tried several. My understanding of the causes of bloating is that certain foods naturally lead to gas, and it's hard for some people to digest various foods. (There may be other causes, but these are the two I'll talk about here.)

Which foods lead to gas? According to Heartburn Cured (1) by Norm Robillard, a microbiologist, it's mostly carbohydrates. Fat and protein don't lead to much, if any, gas production. Some carbs lead to bloating more than others. Some people have had so much gas they even exploded during surgery--no kidding. Here are links to the medical journal abstracts he cites: International Journal of Clinical Practice, Gastroenterology, and Gut. (Don't worry--intestinal explosions seem rare.) Robillard says,

Fats produce little, if any, gas in the intestine due to the way they are metabolized by gut microbes...Because proteins are broken down more slowly and the amino acids used selectively by gut microbes, less gas is produced and it is produced in the more distal regions of the large intestines (further from the stomach).

As microbes metabolize carbohydrates, they rapidly produce significant amounts of acid and gas earlier in the digestive track [sic], closer to the stomach....It is known with certainty that a significant amount of gas is produced by bacteria in our intestines in response to carbohydrate metabolism. In fact, there have been explosions during intestinal surgery due to high amounts of hydrogen and methane gas production.

[Ed. - See text for endnotes.]

One of the biggest things that gave me problems was whole wheat. Time was when cooks and Mother Nature gave us a little help in this department, according to Nourishing Traditions(2) by Sally Fallon:

According to enzyme specialist Dr. Edward Howell, in the past we ate most of our grains in partially germinated form. Grain standing in sheaves and stacks in pen fields often began to sprout before it was brought into storage. Modern farming techniques prevent grains from germinating before they reach our tables.

...sprouting also neutralizes enzyme inhibitors present in all seeds. These inhibitors can neutralize our own precious enzymes in the digestive tract. Complex sugars responsible for intestinal gas are broken down during sprouting, and a portion of the starch in grain is transformed into sugar...Finally, numerous enzymes that help digestion are produced during the germination process.

Nourishing Traditions goes on to recommend eating sprouted grains, but my solution has been to stop eating wheat.

Another problem for me turned out to be apples. Jack Sparrow's nemesis Capt. Barbosa might have been able to eat apples all day without a problem--but he was actually dead, wasn't he?

Others say they get gas from cruciferous vegetables: cauliflower and broccoli. Could be, but how are cauliflower and broccoli usually prepared? With milky cheese sauce or ranch dressing, which are bad for the lactose intolerant.

Dairy is a problem for a lot of people. Some dairy products (especially milk) contain lactose, which is a sugar that's broken down by an enzyme called lactase. Yes, milk is full of sugar. It's common and normal for people to stop making lactase, and without lactase, certain dairy products aren't digested. You could try taking a lactase pill when you eat dairy, or look for low-lactose or lactose-free dairy products. According to this Wikipedia page(3), traditionally made cheese has little or no lactose, and traditional yogurt has its own lactase. And foods you don't think of as dairy can have lactose, too, like whey (which is in low-carb ice cream that I love but can't eat). Some other foods, according to Wikipedia:

Lactose (also present when labels state lactoserum, whey, milk solids, modified milk ingredients, etc.) is a commercial food additive used for its texture, flavour and adhesive qualities, and is found in foods such as processed meats (sausages/hot dogs, sliced meats, pâtés), gravy stock powder, margarines sliced breads, breakfast cereals, potato chips, processed foods, medications, pre-prepared meals, meal replacement (powders and bars), and protein supplements (powders and bars).
[Ed. - See link for footnotes.]
My suggestion to you is, if you have uncomfortable bloating, try giving up certain carbohydrate foods for awhile, maybe a day or so, and see if it helps. Re-introduce the foods, one by one, and see what happens.

UPDATE 6/27/2012: Carrageenan can also cause bloating. It's an additive in some processed meat, almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, chocolate milk, infant formula, many dairy products, and other foods. In research it's used to induce inflammation and sensitivity to pain in laboratory animals. My summary post on it is here.


1. Heartburn Cured by Norm Robillard, Ph.D., pp. 65-68.
2. Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, p. 112.
3. "Lactose Intolerance," Wikipedia,

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Healthier, Whiter Teeth

One of my goals is to die with all 32 teeth in my head. So far, I've met the all-32-teeth part. Up until around age 35, I'd had only one cavity. It was so small that the dentist, with my permission, drilled without anesthetic. I brushed twice a day, and usually didn't floss. Being without insurance and low on funds during many of my younger days, I'd go years without seeing a dentist, and have only a tiny bit of tartar on the rare visit. And no, I didn't drink lots of milk. Yuck!

At 34, I started on a low-fat, high-carb diet plan that I followed for six years. (At around 180 grams per day, it was high-carb compared to what I'd been eating.) In those six years, I got eight cavities. I had lots of plaque. I got an electric toothbrush, brushed for two and a half minutes morning and night and flossed every day. The cavities and the plaque kept forming--and my teeth were becoming dingy-colored. Around Christmas last year, I found myself in the worst pain of my life: one of my teeth was infected. A root canal followed.

I was eating what many consider a healthy diet: lots of fruit, yogurt, and complex carbohydrates. But what are those full of? Sugar! Starch! And when my blood sugar came crashing down an hour later, what did I eat? More sugar and starch!

I got off the sugar train in February and started a low-carb diet. (As you probably know, a low-carb diet is, by definition, low in sugar and starch--in my case, less than 50 grams a day.) Results: I have very little plaque on my teeth. When I floss, there's little or no gunk to clean out. My teeth are whiter. And on my last visit to the dentist a few weeks ago, I didn't have any cavities. It was one of the few experiences from my younger days I was happy to repeat.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Less Sit and Scoot

"Poop Van Scoop. We pick up where your dog leaves off. Number one in the number two business." -A long-running ad for backyard sanitation services.

Readers, if a post about canine gastrointestinal problems (read: pooping problems) isn't your cup of tea, why don't you read this post about how music made me feel better than the 20 pills a day I was taking at one point in my life.

I've always had dogs, but I never had one who would sit and scoot, until Molly. Dogs do this when their anal glands are too full; conventional wisdom says that hard, small stools cause the problem by not pressing on the anal glands enough to empty them. I just knew that every so often, I had to take Molly to the vet to have them drained. Sometimes they even became infected, or "full and stinky" in veterinary terms.

For the past few years, I've been fiddling with Molly's diet to help her poop be less like jawbreakers. From what I'd read about digestion, I thought the answer involved fat and fiber. I wanted to keep non-fiber carbs low because Molly puts on weight easily. (She was once stray and on a starvation diet for who knows how long--that surely didn't help her metabolism.) I know a person (and a dog, I presume) can have a few extra pounds and be healthy. But Molly has two congenital heart defects and really doesn't need blood sugar spikes or extra fat around her organs.

I finally created a diet that allows Molly to poop easily, doesn't spike her blood sugar (I've checked it), and hasn't made her fat. (My vet thinks she's fat; I think she's stocky and furry.) She does sit and scoot now and then, but not nearly as much as she used to, and I haven't had to take her to the vet since I got back from vacation in early June (when her diet was changed). Here's what Molly eats:

3/4 cup Taste of the Wild dog food (usually bison flavor; the salmon works well, too)

3/4 cup Taste of the Wild dog food
1/2 cup broccoli slaw

Late night:
2 tablespoons flaked coconut, no sugar added

A few times a week:
bacon grease from two or three strips of bacon

Taste of the Wild is grain-free dog food that's made mostly of meat. It's around $2 a pound. It isn't sold at the big chains, but a search on their web site shows there must be thousands of smaller stores in the U.S. and Canada that sell it. It's available online, too.

I give Molly broccoli slaw (which is mostly fiber) with her dog food because you need fat (from the dog food) to absorb certain vitamins (from the broccoli slaw). (At least, humans require fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K, and I assume dogs do also. In any event, I don't see any reason the combination would be harmful to her.) I wait a few hours to give her coconut because it has phytic acid, which can inhibit mineral absorption. (This post has some info on vitamin and mineral absorption.) On days when I didn't give her coconut, she'd sit and scoot, and she sat and scooted more before I started the coconut, so this seems to play an important role.

One last benefit from this diet: I can't remember the last time Molly had smelly gas.

ETA 9/25/10: I'm beginning to think that it's important not to feed Molly too much. When I was on vacation, my neighbor fed her leftover hamburger in addition to her regular diet (and Molly's glands got infected), and whenever I feed her a little extra because she's worked up an appetite at the dog park, she ends up sitting and scooting more. If Molly is extra hungry, I'll try giving her a few spoonfuls of olive oil.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cardio: A Waste of Valuable Dance Time

"I'd rather hold a girl in my arms than a football." -Joe DeCicco, friend and dancing fanatic

Have you heard that it takes a woman 77 hours of exercise to lose a kilogram of fat? (For us Americans, that's half a pound.) That's according to a study cited by Dr. John Briffa.(1) The women who huffed and puffed three hours a week for a year ended up 4.4 pounds lighter than the sedentary women. That doesn't surprise me: my own weight loss involved a lot less exercise than what I'd been doing. I did no cardio workouts, just strength training. I had more time and energy for dancing, which is a stress reliever, helps keep me in shape, and it's a ton of fun.

It's not expensive to dance (as long as you stay away from the studios). I've found excellent lessons at clubs where the teachers really care about the students getting it. Here in Denver, there are dancing clubs that are run by nonprofit organizations, where the prices are reasonable and the clientele is focused on dancing, not drinking or hooking up. In fact, the places where I go are open to all ages, and I'd have no problem taking my 11-year-old niece to them. (If you're not sure about a certain club, ask the doorman to let you look in for five minutes to see if you want to stay.)

Here's a thread that will help you get started dancing--finding a teacher, preparing for the class, practicing, and getting the most out of your lessons. The most useful info is in the first post.

Dancing comes in a wide variety of flavors--from elegant to hip, mild to grueling, and amusing to thrilling. Here are the dances I'm familiar with.

Swing. This is my passion. It's danced to big band, early jazz, post-war combos, old R&B and early rock n roll. Dances include east coast (a good introduction to partner dancing), Charleston, balboa and lindy. Even if you're athletic, lindy and Charleston will put you through the paces. Those two are mentally challenging, too: there are many variations you can do to Charleston; lindy involves a constantly changing frame that takes months to nail down. (An aside: I was doing the Charleston at the People's Fair a few years ago and people asked me what the dance was. The Charleston is so old that you can do it in a modern context and almost nobody will be any the wiser.) The dress and atmosphere are casual. Put some duct tape on the bottom of an old pair of tennis shoes and you'll be ready to start.

Ballroom. Did you know that the waltz was scandalous when it was introduced 200 years ago? Up until then, dancers only held one another by the fingertips. Besides the waltz, ballroom dancers also do the fox trot and quick step. IME, ballroom dancers expect you to know the basics before you go to one of their dances. You don't need to be especially fit to waltz or fox trot. People dress up, but if you're looking for an ermine-and-pearls scene, I'm afraid you'll have to find a way back to the 1930s.

Latin. Rhumba, tango, salsa and cha-cha are the most common Latin dances at clubs. Hip action and attitude are important in most of these. As in ballroom, people dress up and they expect you to know the basics when you come out to dance with them, but you needn't be an athlete.

Ballet. How can something that looks so light and fluffy and pretty be so grueling? I took a ballet course a few years ago at age 37. They say ballet increases strength and flexibility, but brother, you'd better have both before you start. I finished the course, though, and it made my dancing more graceful. I've had lindy partners who could tell I'd studied ballet.

Belly Dance. I only had one belly dance class--but I got a lot of mileage out of it. It focuses on hip action that's useful for certain dances, but may not be the focus of, say, a cha-cha class. If you want to have fun and learn to move gracefully but don't want to take ballet, this might be the dance for you.

Jazz. All the jazz classes I've taken were about old solo jazz movements based on sailor dances, African dances, and mockery of white overlords. It's very different from the way people normally move nowadays, and the moves take a lot of practice to get down pat. Having learned these, though, I have a good repertoire of African-based dance movement that I can use almost anywhere. Like the Charleston, the moves are so old that practically nobody will recognize them--and you can do them in a modern context. The classes are for the energetic with a lot of time and patience.

1. Friedenreich CM, et al. Adiposity changes after a 1-year aerobic exercise intervention among postmenopausal women: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 2010 Sep 7.