Friday, June 22, 2012

A treasure trove

Since I started training for my first half-marathon, I have come to love running.  I always knew I might, but never stuck at it long enough to find out.  With my race less than 2 months away, I'm about at the half way mark of training.  Things have been going well enough that I plan on continuing to long-distance run and aim for longer average distances over time.

Being a medical science nerd, I was interested to find out what exactly the health benefits of long distance running are, since people invariably point to the reported cases of deaths during marathons every year.  I assumed this must be a case of recall bias, that being that things which you've read frequently or can easily recall seem more common than they really are.  But where to find the data to support it?  Turns out, I'm not the only one who wants an answer to this question.

Paul Williams, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has published TONS of data from his National Runners' Health Study.  I just searched his name on Pubmed and came across the following data supporting the health benefits of long-distance running.

1.  Risk for stroke is substantially reduced in those who exceed recommended physical activity levels, even after controlling for consequent reduction in blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, and body weight.
2.  Higher fitness levels reduce the odds of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
3.  Risk of high cholesterol declines in step with increasing average running distance.
4.  Incidence of diabetes declines significantly with increasing average weekly running distance, even when adjusted for age and body mass index.
5.  Of interest, although many assume that fitness leads to weight loss, study after study after study has failed to prove this association.  One of the National Runners' Health Study reports shows that pre-study BMI accounted almost entirely for the association between BMI and fitness levels.  That is, those who are already lean are more likely to be faster runners and run more often and, not surprisingly, have the lowest BMIs at the end of the study as well.  So the association between fitness and body weight can be almost entirely explained by ones existing body weight.  Meaning that it is correlational and not causative as many would assume.
6.  While consistent long distance running does not seem to promote weight loss, it does seem to protect against the weight gaining effects of North American diets.  So it may not make you lose weight, but it will prevent you from gaining.
7.  An interesting study looked at active vs. non-active monozygotic twins.  It showed that vigorous physical activity attenuated the genetic "risk" of obesity.  Meaning that whatever genetic component contributes to obesity risk and body weight, it should be equal in identical twins.  So if one is a long distance runner and the other is not, and the active one has a lower BMI than the sedentary one, you can assume it is the running helping out the situation (they controlled for cigarette use, diet, education, etc.)
8.  Just in case the news stories still have you worried, take it from AndrĂ© Picard, the best health reporter in Canada.  From his article, you find out the following:
Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, examined records from marathons where there were 3.3 million participants over a 30-year period. There were 26 deaths. That’s a death rate of one in 126,000 – roughly the same as the death rate in the general population. Stated plainly, people die of heart disease, not running.
9.  And, in case you are still not convinced, this study conclusively shows that despite a massive increase in marathon participation in the last 30 years, deaths on the course have not become more common and continue to be rare.  

So, here I am, happy with my decision to pursue a recreational activity that I not only enjoy but that has myriad health benefits.

(As an aside, although the plural of "anecdote" is not "proof" I am certainly the embodiment of science's failure to find a weight loss effect of exercise.  Since April 30, I have run almost 100 miles, averaging 13 miles per week.  I have gained almost 5 pounds in that time.  Boo!)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Whole" Smoke and Mirrors

I follow a blog called Fooducate.  Today there is a post on the lack of "wholeness" in Whole Foods pastry offerings.  I'd like to draw attention to a few problems with this line of reasoning.

First of all, Whole Foods may have started out with a humble and worthy mission.  However, it is now a major corporation with $10 billion in annual sales, $350 million in profit, and a $16 billion market capitalization, with 304 locations.  The fact that they don't hand make all of their baked goods in store, from scratch, with only pure ingredients that any home baker could access should not surprise anyone, no less someone who has supposedly worked in the industry for 15 years.

Secondly, since when is it a crime to use white flour in baked goods?  Go ahead and use unrefined whole wheat flour in cookies next time you make them.  Let me know how it turns out for you.  Wholeness should refer to the fact that it has been made from whole ingredients without a bunch of crap added to it.  That is, in the example given, snickerdoodle cookies, if you get past all the "legal" ways the ingredients are reported, it really breaks down to this:
-baking powder
-sea salt
-pure vanilla
I don't know about you, but that's about how I'd make snickerdoodles.  The only ingredient that doesn't make sense is palm oil.  Why wouldn't they just use canola oil?

And if you look at the other examples given, they really aren't that bad.  Next time you are in a non-Whole Foods grocery store, grab a pastry item from the bakery area and read out the ingredients.  That will show you what non-whole really means.

The bigger issue here is not that this consultant is focusing on a very narrow problem, which really isn't a problem, if you ask me, but that even these products should be considered a substitute for what are really whole foods.  I guarantee you if you walk through a Whole Foods market you can still find a bunch of processed crap that you could find in any other grocery store.  It will just have fancier names to make you forget about what you are really doing: substituting convenience for healthy, homemade cooking.

Again, I will go back to the example of bread as I have so often before.  Since learning to love the practice of bread baking at home (and no, I don't have a bread machine, and no, it doesn't take me exorbitant amounts of time, and yes, I do work full-time and have 3 children at home to care for on my days off), I can count on one hand the number of times we have bought store bread in the last 2 years.  Now, let's take the authors line of reasoning and apply it to bread.

If I go to my local grocery store I can buy Dempster's Ancient Grains Bread.  And hooray, the first listed ingredients are whole grain whole wheat flour, whole grain flax, whole grain millet, whole grain spelt flakes, whole grain kamut flakes, whole grain barley flakes, whole grain poppy seeds, whole grain amaranth, and whole grain quinoa.  Good start.  Then rye flakes, sugar, yeast, wheat gluten, vinegar.  Ok.  I can get all those.  Raisin syrup.  Hmmm.  Not sure where I'd find that.  Salt, vegetable oil.  Oh, I recognize those.  Monoglycerides, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, calcium propionate, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, calcium carbonte.  Baking aisle maybe?  Chemistry laboratory nearby?

What about the bagels she lambastes because the vendor doesn't list the "type" of flour besides calling it "high-gluten flour".  Here is the ingredient list for Dempster's Cinnamon Raisin Bagels.  They do list the "type" of flour.  Good for them.  Enriched wheat flour, water, raisins, sugar/ glucose-fructose, cinnamon flakes (sugar, hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, cinnamon, soybean lecithin), cornmeal, salt, yeast*, wheat gluten, cinnamon, malted barley flour, calcium propionate, monoglycerides, vegetable oil (soybean or canola), sorbic acid. May contain potassium sorbate.  Fail.  

As far as I'm concerned, the "whole" offerings at Whole Foods look preferable to me over those at a "traditional" grocery store.  However, even if all the examples given contained whole wheat, whole grain flour, they would still not be a substitute for the homemade version.  

It is a sign of our nutrition-obsessed industrial food culture in North America that we are dwelling on such an issue.  What we should be discussing is why we need a multi-billion dollar corporation to make our breads, pizzas, and pastries for us in the first place.  All the whole grain flour in the world can't replace what we've lost in culinary knowledge in our culture.  When did a grocery store become a place where you buy meals instead of ingredients to make meals?