No Meat Michele

Michele running her marathon PR this year.

Michele running her marathon PR this year.

 

 

 

Our running club, the South Jersey Athletic Club, has a lot of running stars.  Some are stars because they simply outperform everyone in their field.  Some are stars because of their longevity in running, with one of our group about to run Boston for the twenty seventh time.  Michele doesn’t fit either of these categories.  Her stardom comes from her personality, her drive, and her steady improvement as a blossoming runner.   She first introduced herself to our group about five years ago, for our Sunday morning runs.  She wasn’t fast, and she didn’t usually go the long route.  But that changed as she kept with her training and dedication to becoming a better runner.  She ran in the cold, ran in the rain, in the heat, early before the sun came up, and after dark, carrying a light to avoid potholes.  After our Sunday runs, a group of us will gather at the local Starbucks to chat, joke around, talk about upcoming races, and make the big decisions regarding club activities.  Michele is an active participant in this group, not least because she often plies us with homemade pastries, such as biscotti, or blueberry-spelt muffins, to refuel after our long runs.  Oh, and she is also a No Meat Athlete.  The term comes from Matt Frazier, who writes a blog by the same name and has developed a large following.

Michele, warming up after a cold run at the end of March.  Whatever happened to March going out like a lamb?

Michele, warming up after a cold run at the end of March. Whatever happened to March going out like a lamb?

I was curious what led Michele to become a vegetarian, and how she felt it helped her in her athleticism.  I also wanted to know her secret for dropping over thirty minutes from her previous marathon PR when she ran the Shamrock Marathon this year.  I put to her ten questions, and she was kind enough to answer them in a very thoughtful and serious manner.  Here are the questions and her answers:

 

1.  I assume you were not always a vegetarian.  Why did you decide to go vegetarian?
Short answer:  Ethical reasons.
For as long as I can remember, I was always an animal lover.  No one in my family is a vegetarian, and meat was as much a staple in our daily diets as I imagine any other typical American family. Lunch was always some sort of lunch meat style sandwich and dinner was always centered around some kind of meat. From a young age, eating animals never quite sat right with me, but I was at the mercy of my mother, who prepared all of our meals.  When I was 14, I simply decided one day that it was time I made the switch to a vegetarian life.  I stopped eating meat “cold turkey” (Brandon would love that pun). Within a year, it was just second nature to me.  After the first few months, I really never missed it.
2.  Which came first, no meat or athlete?
No meat.  I was certainly not an athlete in high school, although I occasionally pretended to be one, joining the lacrosse, softball, and soccer teams (I was terrible at both of these), and even cheer-leading one year. When I discovered running, I realized that I prefer sports that don’t involve much hand-eye coordination.
3.  What special dietary considerations do you need to know to get all of your nutritional needs met?
The two most popular (and annoying) questions most vegetarians are asked by non-vegetarians are “So, if you don’t eat meat, what do you eat?” and “How do you get enough protein?” Contrary to popular belief, protein is not an issue for most vegetarians and even vegans. A person eating a well-balanced diet, full of a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes, will satisfy most of his or her dietary requirements.

There are only two exceptions that I know of that vegetarians and vegans should be a little more conscious of:

Vitamin D – important for bone and muscle health. Vitamin D is most plentiful in non-meat animal sources such eggs and cheese, as well as through exposure to the sun. A vegan would have to rely mostly on sun exposure, fortified foods such as nutritional yeast (an interesting type of food I have only recently discovered, most often used as a substitute for cheese, sprinkled on food or in sauces), fortified cereals, or supplements.
Vitamin B-12 – important for the health of the nervous system, as well as making red blood cells. The daily requirement of B12 for a healthy person is quite low, and the body can store it, so a vegetarian could easily get enough through sources such as eggs, milk, and yogurt. However, for vegans, it is a little more difficult, and one would have to rely on fortified foods such as fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, or supplements.

At this point, I still eat some animal products (occasional eggs and dairy products), and have never suffered any symptoms suggestive of a Vitamin D or B12 deficiency. As I move more towards a complete plant based or vegan diet, I am starting to pay a little more attention to these essential nutrients.

 

4.  When did you start running as a sport, and how did you get started?
Aside from the forced 2 miles we had to run every day for high school lacrosse, which I loathed, I really started running in the spring 2009.  Prior to that, my running history would go something like this:  Spring time arrives.  I make a vow to run every day.  I go out on day 1 and try to run a mile as fast as I can.  It is awful.  I do this 2-3 days in a row, and then give up because by then I’m hurting and it’s clear that I can’t run.  Swear off running.  Following year, start again.

In 2009 I was gearing up for the same old routine, but I happened to come across a clinic to train for your first 5K thought the Cherry Hill Recreation Department.  I think it was a 6 or 8 week clinic, and it was run by the Cherry Hill West track coach, Nick Mitidieri. Coach Nick was also Brandon’s high school track coach, and I’ve since bumped into him with his track team at some of our No Frills races.  My first week training with Coach Nick I learned the most important thing – how to pace.  That first night I ran a mile and a half and amazingly felt good at the end, much unlike my previous 1 mile solo runs.
5.  What was your first race?  How did it go?
My first race was at the end of that training clinic.  It was called the Run Your Own Life 5K (which no longer exists).  My main goal was to run the entire thing without stopping to walk.  I met that goal.  My finishing time was 31:56.  My husband was there cheering me on at the finish line, which was just amazing.  It was really the first time anyone had come to watch me in any of my sports, and it was such a great feeling having him there, supporting me.  After the race I could not wait for my next 5K!  I was, however, afraid I’d fall off the wagon, so I made a point to sign up for one 5K per month.  I knew if I had a race on the calendar, I’d keep training.
6.  What influenced you to try to run a marathon?
99% of my influence came from being around other runners, namely, SJAC members.  Before joining the club, the “marathon” was kind of some mystical fantasy in the back of my mind, which I thought maybe, just maybe, I could accomplish one day.  I gave myself a rough time frame of 5 years to complete my first marathon.  When I first joined SJAC in the fall of 2009 I was training for my first Half Marathon, and did many of my long runs with Sue Hamilton.  At the time she was training for the Philadelphia Marathon.  Over the weeks of running with Sue (and Heather), I realized that she and I ran similar pace, and seemed rather similar in our running abilities, and it made me think that if she could run a marathon, why couldn’t I?  That was when I first started thinking more seriously about the marathon.
7.  What was your first marathon?  Do you recall how it felt to finish?
Ultimately, my first marathon was in March 2011 (less than 2 years after my first 5K!).  It was the National Marathon in Washington, DC (I think this race was recently sold to the Rock N Roll series).  My time was 4:34:36, which remained my PR until my recent marathon.

Finishing was quite emotional.  I felt decent most of the race, until about mile 22, when I started a lot of walking/running.  In the last quarter mile, running up the hill to the finish line, all kinds of things started freaking out in my legs, and I think it was only the sight of the beautiful finish line that got me up that hill and kept me running at that point.  I don’t remember exactly how I felt when I finished, but I do remember being on the verge of tears, when suddenly Tom appeared before me, snapping me back to reality.

Side note about Tom:  He was, once again, a great supporter.  Spectating a marathon can be a little challenging, especially navigating around an unfamiliar city to hit as many mile points as possible.  He managed to make his way around the Metro and see me at a few different points along the race, including the finish.  Later in the day, when we were back at the hotel and I was attempting to find a position which didn’t hurt, he said to me, “Man, watching a marathon is really exhausting.”  Really?
8.  You recently ran a marathon PR by a huge margin.  How much was the margin, and to what do you owe this superior performance?
My first marathon remained my PR until this March, when I ran the Shamrock Marathon in 4:01:58, making the exact margin 32:38.  I did a lot of things this past year which I attribute to my PR.  2013 started out with me being injured and having to back out of the Shamrock Marathon.  My injuries were mostly the result of over-training. I found myself unable to do most forms of exercise.  I certainly couldn’t run, but also couldn’t bike or even do the elliptical.  The only form of cardio exercise I could tolerate was swimming.  At this point, I already was not happy with my weight and was terrified where my weight would go without being able to run.  This finally gave me the kick in the ass I needed to get some things in order.  I started paying better attention to my diet, focusing more on whole foods.  I also hired a personal trainer, who really seemed to appreciate the fact that I was an athlete, more so than most of his clients (his words, not mine) and pushed me really hard, changing up my usual gym routine, and adding in a ton  more core work.  The concentration on diet and change in exercise routine led me to lose about 18 pounds over the course of the year.  The weight loss just naturally adds some speed, and I found the cross training and increased core strength really helped my endurance.  Towards the end of the marathon, of course my legs felt beat up, but I never felt like I had to stop to walk or hit “the wall.” In my race pictures, even in the later miles, I’m still standing tall, not slouching from a weak, fatigued core like I often found myself in race pictures in the past.

The other thing was that through being injured, I really learned the difference between general soreness from training hard and actual pain.  I learned to listen to my body when something wasn’t right, and addressed those issues right away, before they turn into full-blown injuries.  I still battle a little bit with my IT band, but thankfully it hasn’t totally given out on me in quite some time, and I continue to work on strengthening the muscles in my hips, where the ITB issues originate.
9.  What keeps you running?
I love that I am truly only competing with myself.  When I played team sports, I always felt bad that I wasn’t good, like I was letting my team down.  In running, there isn’t that pressure, only whatever amount of pressure I want to put on myself. There is always another goal to achieve, whether that is to do a particular race, or to get a PR in a specific distance.  Running has also become an integral part of my social life, knowing that I have a weekly date with running friends. Everyone in the running community is supportive of one another, and there seems to me a mutual respect among all runners, regardless of abilities.  I am often amazed when other athletes, many of whom I look up to and would go to for advice, have come to ME for advice. There’s no competition or one-upsmanship – everyone simply wants their fellow athletes to succeed, whatever that means to them.
10.  If someone wanted to become a No Meat Athlete like yourself, what would be your advice? What would be the benefit?
It’s hard for me to say how one should transition from eating meat to not doing so, since I’ve been doing it for so long. But I would suggest perhaps making small changes. Cut out one form of animal product, for example, red meat, and go from there. One should focus one’s diet on eating more whole foods, eliminating most processed. As you get more into the plant based lifestyle, you can be more adventurous. Trying new ingredients that previously sounded too weird to try in a recipe start to become not so scary. (I discussed nutritional yeast in #3 above. This is something I avoided in recipes for years. Finally I took a chance, figuring if it appears in so many recipes, it can’t be that awful. Now it’s a staple in my pantry).

There are so many resources for plant based nutrition for both athletes and non-athletes. My personal favorites are:

The Thrive Diet:  This diet was created by vegan former pro-Ironman triathlete, Brenden Brazier. Brazier takes the vegan diet to the next level, by concentrating on foods that deliver the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of stress to the body. The basic principal is the fuel the body with nutrients that are easily absorbed and easily digested foods. If the body is spending less energy in the actual process of digesting the food, one has more energy for training. I have 2 of Brazier’s books, and follow several of his recipes every week.

Oh She Glows Blog and Cookbook: www.ohsheglows.com. I discovered this blog about 6 months ago. It’s not geared towards athletes specifically, but all recipes are vegan and made with natural foods. The creator of the blog, Angela Liddon, recently released her first cookbook in March 2014. I pre-ordered it and have already made at least a dozen recipes from the book.

And of course, how could I answer an entire 10 questions without mentioning the No Meat Athlete website itself: www.nomeatathlete.com. This blog creator, Matt Frazier, also recently released a book, but I have not checked it out yet. While No Meat Athlete (NMA) has some recipes, the blog is designed more as just a general discussion of the NMA lifestyle. Lately I’ve been listening to Matt’s podcasts (available on iTunes) during some of my solo runs.

Michele atop the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (see my previous blog, "Rocky II, It's a Knockout")

Michele atop the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (see my previous blog, “Rocky II, It’s a Knockout”)

How to make Black Eyed Peas

Pat, a delightful nursing assistant with whom I work, was disappointed we would be missing the hospital cafeteria’s soul food extravaganza out in our surgical center, away from the main hospital.  This was an homage to black history month.  I suggested to her we should put together our own soul food pot luck for lunch, and she was quite enthusiastic about that.  In fact, just about all the nurses and techs in our surgical center wanted to contribute something.  I realize I am not black, nor do I have a “soul food” background.  But there is a crossover between Texas cooking and soul food, and I know a bit about Texas cooking, so I offered up my own version of black eyed peas as my contribution.

First, buy some ham hocks.  This is the far end of the leg of the pig, before the foot.  It has meat, but also tendon, bone marrow, fat, and skin.  I like them smoked.  (Michele, my running friend who is meat free, turn away at this point).

Smoked Ham Hocks

Smoked Ham Hocks

Put these in a pot, cover with water, and bring to a slow boil.  Cook them like this for a couple of days with a bay leaf, five or six hours a day, replacing the water as needed to keep them covered.  Let chill, skim off the fat, and set aside.  One day into this process, clean one pound of dry black eyed peas, and start an overnight soak in cold water.

Dried Black Eyed Peas

Dried Black Eyed Peas

On the day of cooking the peas, drain the soaking water, rinse the peas, and return them to a large pot.  Take the chilled pot of ham hocks, which after boiling for two days, have turned the water into a wonderful, protein rich gelatin.  The meat has been cooked to a nice tenderness.  Remove the skin, and carefully extract all the bony pieces.  There will be lots of small bones, and one gets to plow through the hocks with bare fingers, extracting the meat from the bone.  Pick out any cartilage or sinew not wanted in the final mix.  Cut or shred the meat into little bits.  Add all the gelatin and the meat to the peas.

Take one good-sized green pepper and chop into small bits.  Likewise, shop an onion.  Saute these in oil until the onions are translucent and the green pepper looks thoroughly cooked.  Add this to the pea pot.  Add water as needed to just come up to the level of the peas.  Add freshly ground black pepper, sage, and salt to taste.  Don’t over salt, since there was salt in the ham hocks.  Add several dashes of Tabasco sauce, or if you really want them hot, use cayenne pepper.

Bring the mix to a boil, and cook for 35 minutes.  Unlike a lot of beans, the black eyed peas don’t require a long cooking period.  Cooking them too long turns them into mush.  Once they are cooked, check the seasoning to be sure the heat is right.  Let chill over night.

We served these the next day by warming in a crock pot.  They were a big hit, along with all the other incredible contributions to the lunch.  We had collard greens, smokey red beans, chicken, several versions of mac and cheese, rice, corn fritters, corn pudding, green salads, and lots more.  There were several different chocolate cakes, too, since everyone likes chocolate cake.  I think we came out way ahead of the cafeteria’s offerings.

It’s still very cold here in New Jersey.  While we are facing single digit temperatures, trying to get the running miles in, facing snow, ice and wind, it’s not bad to have some nice comfort food to keep us going.

Backyard Homebrew Uncapped

Backyard hops on the vine.

Hops Growing on the Vine

Three years ago I planted four hop vines in my backyard.  I had no experience growing hops, and learned both from the information sent with the rhizome, which is a part of a root from a mature vine, and from reading books and online, that hops can grow fast.  They can gain one to two feet in a day, during their active growing phase.  It also seemed that conditions for growth needed to be just right, not to hot or cool, dry or wet, that southern exposure was ideal, they like slightly acidic soil, and a number of other points which left this first-time hop grower in a cloud.  I set up a post in the yard with thick twine as a structure for the vines to grab as they marched on their way to full flower.  As it turned out, three of my four hop plants died the first year, probably from unrelenting heat and lack of water.  In spite of watering them daily, by evening the surrounding dirt would be dry, and the plants withered.  One hardy vine held on, and made it to the next year.  The next year, I had hopes that the plant would produce, but after a promising early start, it, again, withered, but this time after getting to be about six feet long.

This past summer the conditions were just right.  That, combined with a more developed root system allowed my remaining hop vine, of the cascade variety, to move beyond the beginner vine stage and actually produce hops.  When the first flowers appeared I got very excited, but didn’t want to count my hops yet.  I didn’t have to water much, due to regular rain and humid conditions, which kept the vine growing and healthy.  As the flowers turned to the cones which I would ultimately harvest, the thought of brewing a beer with my own backyard hops looked more and more promising.

The part of the hop cone which is of most importance to brewing is the lupulin gland, a tiny yellowish dot within the cone structure which contains the alpha-acids and oils which give beer both bitterness and hoppy aroma.

Lupulin Glands in a Cascade hop cone.

From Sierra Nevada Beer, a photo of a split Cascade hop cone and the lupulin glands within.

The first documentation of hops used to make beer was in 1079, although there is earlier documentation of hops being grown.  Beer brewers discovered that hops had a preservative effect on the beer, and added pleasing flavors to contrast the sweetness of the barley malt.  Naturally, when a good thing like this is found, it is taxed, and the history of hops used in beer makes for some interesting reading.

Once the hops had matured on the vine, it was time to harvest them.  Again, this took some research to figure out when was the right moment to pluck them.  If they are picked too early, the lupulin glands have not matured, and the aroma imparted will be more grassy than one would like.  So I waited until the hops gave up their familiar scent when crushed, and had an orange/yellow tinge to the gland.  Since I only had one vine, not a whole yard as numerous online demonstrations show, it was relatively simple to cut the hop cones from the vine with scissors.  I collected them in a basket for drying.

Hop cones in a basket.

Hop cones cut from the vine and ready to dry.

Not having any special equipment to dry them, I just left them in the wicker basket and allowed the dry September air do the job.

When thinking about an appropriate recipe for beer made from these hops, I was planning a simple brew which would allow the hop aroma to come through, without competition from any complex flavors or spices.  A friend who is well versed in beer making advised me to use my backyard hops for aroma, but use commercial hops for the bittering, as the home grown will not carry the bitterness very far.

This is the recipe I devised, a simple amber ale style:

Backyard Homebrew

Partial Mash:
American 2-row pale barley malt  4 lbs
Boil:   Volume = 2.5 gal
Amber DME  3 lbs (DME=dried malt extract)
American Crystal 40L  0.5 lbs (a type of malt that adds caramel sweetness and color to the brew)
Honey  1 lb
Hops:
Cascade (commercial)  1 oz at 60 min
Cascade (homegrown)  1 oz at 5 min

Yeast:  Wyeast 1056 (a versatile yeast used for amber, pale and other ales)

The partial mash was at 157 degrees F for one hour, and then sparged (rinsed) with another gallon of water at 160 degrees.  The boil was one hour, with the commercial hops added at the beginning of the boil, and my backyard hops with five minutes to go.  What looked to me like much more than an ounce of dried hops, when measured on a scale, came out to be just a bit over one ounce.  So I used every hop I picked for aroma at the five minutes-to-go mark. Why the honey, you may ask?  I originally planned to include both honey and molasses, my homage to runners, as this is the basis for home made energy gel, and works pretty well as a source of sugar for the beer.  But at the last minute I decided to drop the molasses, because I did not want the final brew to be very dark in color, but I kept the honey to have enough sugar for the final alcohol content I was predicting, around 5.5%.

Homegrown hops in the boil

Homegrown hops added to the boil for the last five minutes.

After the boil, the cooling, and bringing the volume up to five gallons, the yeast was added and I set the carboy in it’s usual nook at the bottom of the back stairs to ferment.  One little glitch that came up was that once the fermentation takes place, one expects to see bubbling through the air lock, indicating that the yeast are multiplying and metabolizing the sugars, making alcohol and CO2 in the process.  Yet, no bubbles were merrily percolating through the air trap, as was supposed to happen.  I knew the yeast was healthy, since the container it came in puffed up like a puffer fish once the little vial of nutrients inside it was cracked.  I also knew there was plenty of substrate in the form of sugar for the yeast to work on.  So, I let it ride, thinking there must be some leak of a seal around the top of the plastic carboy, and that fermentation was taking place.  It turns out I was right.  The way to check this is to measure the specific gravity of the wort at the start of fermentation and at the end.  If the specific gravity drops appropriately, then fermentation has taken place.  After two weeks in the fermenter, the specific gravity, which started at 1.050, had dropped to 1.006, confirming that fermentation happened.  I then transferred the nascent brew into the secondary fermenter for another two weeks.

Bottling took place on December 1, 2013.  I opted for 22 ounce bottles because I had sufficient clean ones to use, rather than 12 ounce ones.  Bottling consists of adding a measured amount of sugar to the final brew before bottling so that bottle fermentation will provide the right amount of CO2 for carbonation.  Beers served from a tap at a bar have CO2 added from compressed tanks.  Commercial bottled beers in general have CO2 added from a nozzle during bottling, but bottled homebrew is allowed to carbonate naturally in the bottle.  This means a small amount of residual yeast present in the bottle will use the added sugar to produce CO2.  A small amount of alcohol is made in the process, but not enough to change the final alcohol content measurably.  Some commercial beers are also pasteurized and filtered before bottling, so any live yeast are killed.  As Johnny Fincioen from the Global Beer Network points out, the labels which say “born on….” on some commercial beers should really say “died on….” instead, since there is nothing living in these brews.  Many craft brews and microbrews are allowed to “bottle condition” so that the CO2 is provided by living yeast in the bottle.

Two bottles of Backyard Homebrew, open and ready to pour.

Two bottles of Backyard Homebrew, open and ready to pour.

Finally, to the tasting.  While I may be a perfectly good judge of my own beer, and perhaps even a harsher critic than those around me, I turned to the completely unbiased views of my wife, two of my grown children, a good friend from Philadelphia, and a college friend from Boston to provide the judgement.  To a person the reviews were very favorable.  Comments included “wonderful aroma”, “very nice flavor”, and “I would definitely order this in a bar”.  By my own assessment, the beer hit the right note.  It is not complex, but has a very nice color, appropriate for an amber ale.  The aroma of the backyard hops gives a subtle citrus quality to the head, and the flavor is great.  It is not strong, like an IPA, or overpowering, just a pleasing, medium body, with a very slight sweetness of crystal malt.  The final alcohol content was 5.8% ABV.

Frank's Backyard Homebrew in the glass.  Nice head, nice color, very enjoyable going down.

Frank’s Backyard Homebrew in the glass. Nice head, nice color, very enjoyable going down.

With this experience using my home-grown hops, I’ve been encouraged to do it again.  I’d also like to see if I can get a few more hop vines to survive to be productive.  I’ll be looking through the different types of hops available to see which ones might do best in the southern New Jersey environment.  I think I’ll go open a bottle of Frank’s Backyard Homebrew, pour a glass, and do a little research.

A Handful of Nuts….

Pecan Tree

Pecan Tree, East Ranch, Madill, Oklahoma

A handful of nuts.

A Handful of Nuts

A report was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on November 21, 2013, entitled “Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality.”  This really caught my eye for a few reasons.  The primary reason was I wondered how it was possible to do such a study.  The second, and perhaps the more important, was I wanted to know if eating nuts could really have an effect on one’s mortality.  The third was whether the study would have been published if they had not proven their hypothesis, i.e., that eating nuts is good for you.

The study has a very impressive pedigree.  It was performed and written by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Indiana University.  It was funded by the National Institutes of Health (the NIH), and the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation.  I was unaware of the Tree Nut Council, but it is an interesting note that they would be funding research showing nuts are really good for you.  On the other hand, the report states “the funders of the study had no role in its design or conduct; in the collection, management, analysis, or interpretation of the data; or in the preparation, review or approval of the manuscript.”

How was it possible to do this study?  The study was done by examining nut consumption in two very large groups of people for whom intimate details of their lives are available.  One is a group called the Nurses’ Health Study, a group of 121,700 female nurses living in 11 states in the U.S.A., enrolled in 1976.  The other is the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a group of 51,529 male health professionals from all 50 states, enrolled in 1986.  Food frequency questionnaires were regularly filled out by these participants, and were the basis of the data collected.  The examined group was pared down to those for whom good data was available.  People with known heart disease, stroke or cancer were excluded.  Ultimately, they studied 76,464 women, and 42,498 men.  So they had significant numbers of participants to study.  They report that food frequency data was collected from these people using questionnaires administered every 2-4 years, starting with the women in 1980, and the men in 1986.  They asked how often during the preceding year did the person eat a one ounce (28 g) serving of nuts:  almost never, 1-3 times a month, once a week, 2-4 times a week, daily, or more often.  They also asked if the nuts were peanuts (a legume), or tree nuts.  The end point of the study was death.  So, if you were participating and died during the study, your nut consumption, cause of death, and other factors were then compared against the group still alive.  They found some very interesting things about nut eaters.  As a group, they tend to be leaner, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise and more likely to take a vitamin supplement.  They also consumed more fruit and vegetables, and drank more alcohol.  In other words, they were very much like my running friends.  The researchers state, though, that they were able to tease apart these other factors in order to look at nut consumption alone as a predictive factor.  They found that how often one ate that handful of nuts was inversely proportional to their chance of dying during the study.  This was expressed as a hazard ratio, a way of comparing relative risks, but not the absolute risk, of an event occurring.  During the years of study, 30 for women, and 24 for men, 16,200 women died, and 11,229 men died.  That is around one in four participants in the study, which seems a high number.  The ones who ate the most nuts, more than one ounce a day, had a hazard ratio of dying of 0.8, or 20% lower chance than those who never or rarely ate nuts.  When they examined peanuts versus tree nuts, the reduced risk of mortality persisted.  Brief mention is made in the report that most major causes of death, including heart disease, cancer and respiratory disease, were decreased in the nut eaters, hence the reference to “cause specific” in the title.

They point out some of the strengths and weaknesses of such a study.  The study included a large number of enrollees, so presumably the statistics are meaningful.  They were careful to include methods for ensuring that the data were as reliable as possible, and that their statistical methods compared apples to apples, so to speak.  However, the study is an observational study, so while it can show an association, it cannot show cause and effect.  Another point not mentioned, is that the number of enrollees who died was significant, and makes me think a good number may have been older when they were first enrolled.  Another criticism of the study is that a large percent of the nut eaters were also, in general, more likely to exercise, eat a Mediterranean diet, and be thinner than the nut avoiders who, perhaps, were also were more likely to consume Ho-Ho’s, who knows.   While they state they were able to separate out these variables, intuitively it seems that if someone eats a healthy diet, exercises, and is thinner that person is less likely to develop diabetes, heart disease or cancer. In a related study published in the NEJM February 25, 2013, “Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet,” a group of Spanish researchers showed that in a study of people at high cardiovascular risk, but without known heart disease, a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the incidence of cardiovascular events.  This was a prospective study, meaning the study participants were divided into two groups, and studied going forward, rather than observed after the fact.  In fact, the study was stopped at 4.8 years due to the significance of the data being collected.  Of course, that can skew a study also.  It is possible for the healthy eaters to catch up to the poor eaters in their heart disease and mortality given a little more time.

What does this tell us about the value of a handful of nuts, and its effect on our well being?  The researchers give several plausible explanations why nuts may be good for us in general.  They contain unsaturated fatty acids, high-quality protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.  They also contain certain phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals such as carotenoids, flavonoids and phytosterols) which may be healthful.  They cannot say, based on their research, that if one starts eating a handful of nuts on a daily basis, that person will avoid heart disease or cancer.  If you are my age, 59, much of your fate may already be cast, with regards to eating habits, atherosclerosis, and other long term health issues.  But that doesn’t mean there is no benefit.  In fact, changing one’s dietary ways at any time could have good effects, too.  In general, from numerous other studies cited by the two papers described above, eating a Mediterranean diet which includes olive oil or nuts is a very healthy type of diet.  Does your olive oil need to be “extra-virgin”?  Extra-virgin is cold-pressed and is the first pressing of the olive.  It is less processed than its non-virginal counterparts, and so has more of the natural substances intact.  There are lots of oils that claim extra-virgin status, which don’t quite live up to the name or reputation.  One must shop carefully.

I feel the benefits of a handful of nuts daily are there, but may not be as important as the overall habit of adherence to a Mediterranean diet.  I know at this time of year, close to Christmas, with cold weather and snow, and long nights with short days, the lure of all sorts of dietary indiscretions is strong.  Yet, be mindful of what you eat, as it does become you.  And grab that handful of nuts…

Pecan Tree

Another Pecan Tree

Citations:

Ying Bao, M.D., Sc.D., Jiali Han, Ph.D. et. al., Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality.  NEJM, 2013, 369:2001-2011.

Ramon Estruch, M.D., Ph.D., Emilio Ros, M.D., Ph.D., et. al., Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.  NEJM, 2013, 368:1279-1290.

Summer cooking for runners: Fish Taco Dinner

A monkfish in it's natural element.

A monkfish in it’s natural element.

Summer is going fast.  Here we are, already in August, and it seems the autumn races will be on us in no time.  But while it is still here, summer is the time to enjoy cooking on the grill, and eating the fresh produce available locally.  Certainly there is an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits now.  This report will focus on a nice way to enjoy grilled fish.

The fish taco has a great many variations, and there are those who would argue for one over another, one being more “authentic”.  Paying no attention to purists, this is my version of this dish, along with an accompanying vegetable medley.

Menu:  Fish Tacos (or fish fajitas)

Bean, Corn and Pepper medley

The main attraction of this dish is the grilled fish.  Two of my favorites for making fish tacos are Mahi Mahi, otherwise known as dolphin fish:

Mahi Mahi

Mahi Mahi

and monkfish, a really bizarre bottom dweller known as the “poor man’s lobster.”  It is also known as having all head and tail and no body, and the tail, cheeks and liver are the parts that people eat:

Monkfish in the market

Monkfish in the market

In most markets, one won’t see the whole monkfish, just the tail portion.  Both of these fish are generally available, and are not considered endangered.  There is a tagging program for monkfish run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US government, and the website has some very interesting information on this fish, as well as great photos.

The mahi mahi is a tender, tasty fish which is very lean.  It can be cooked directly on the grill, but I prefer to grill it on foil, to protect it.

Mahi mahi filet prepared for grilling.

Mahi mahi filet prepared for grilling.

I used a mango chipotle marinade on the top half, for the fish tacos, and a sesame soy marinade on the bottom half, for another dinner.  On the grill, the cooking time varies depending on the intensity of the heat and the thickness of the fish.  It is done when it is flaky and cooked white all the way through.

Mahi mahi sharing the grill with some bison burgers and sliced yams.

Mahi mahi sharing the grill with some bison burgers and sliced yams.

I cook the monkfish the same way, on foil to protect it.  Monkfish is a lot denser than mahi mahi, yet it is still very lean.

Shredded cabbage

Shredded cabbage

Black Bean and Corn Salsa

Black Bean and Corn Salsa

Avocado

Avocado

Assembling the tacos requires the following ingredients:

tortillas (of your choice, corn or flour, but they should be the large ones)

grilled fish

shredded cabbage

Muir Glen Organic Black Bean & Corn Salsa, medium hot

ripe avocado

light pepper ranch salad dressing

The fish can be used right off the grill, fresh and hot.  It can also be refrigerated once it is cooked and it is still good for a few days.

Tortilla with monkfish.  This was grilled with a fajita marinade.

Tortilla with monkfish. This was grilled with a fajita marinade.

Next comes the fresh, shredded cabbage.

Next comes the fresh, shredded cabbage.

Spoon some of the salsa over the fish and cabbage.

Spoon some of the salsa over the fish and cabbage.

Add some avocado slices to top it off.

Add some avocado slices to top it off.

Add a drizzle of light pepper ranch salad dressing on top.  This adds a little creamy sweetness to counter the heat of the salsa.  Then, wrap it up!

 

Black and White Bean, Black Eyed Peas, Corn and Pepper side dish:

This is my wife’s recipe, and she is the cook for this cold dish.

Ingredients:

grilled corn on the cob, four ears

two ripe Jersey tomatoes, chopped small

one large can of black beans, 1lb. 13oz., rinsed

one can of small white beans, 15.5oz., rinsed

one can of black eyed peas, 15.5oz., rinsed

two bell peppers, one green, one red, chopped in small pieces

six green onions, diced

one quarter cup of chopped cilantro

Ken’s Light Caesar dressing or red wine and vinegar dressing

We start by grilling the corn shucked and straight on the grill, to give it a nice char.  This enhances the flavor of the corn.  The corn is cut off the cob and placed in a large bowl.  The other ingredients are added.  Finally, we add a dressing of Ken’s Light Caesar dressing, or some other such as red wine vinegar dressing, to give it some zing.  Mix it all up and serve.

For a beverage to go with this meal, here are some suggestions:

Kona Brewing Company Longboard Lager, a malty lager which complements fish tacos, if only because of it’s Hawaiian heritage.  The Kona one buys on the mainland is brewed here, not in Hawai’i, but according to the Kona recipe.

Iced tea, can’t go wrong with this.

Milagro Farm Estate Grown Rosé of Sangiovese, a dry rosé which matches well with the spicy fish.  If you happen to live in San Diego, seek this one out.  If not, you’ll probably need to find another rosé, preferably dry and medium bodied.

Today was an “almost too good to be true” day.  No rain, blue sky with an artists display of cumulus clouds, and dry, moderate temperatures.  I had a good fourteen mile run today, at a very decent pace.  It was such a relief not to run in murderous heat and humidity.  I’m looking forward to enjoying a couple of these tacos for dinner this evening.

¡Buen Provecho! and happy running.

Summer Pasta Dinner for Runners

Summer on the Farm

Here’s a suggestion for a nice pasta dinner for keeping healthy and refueling in the summer months. This took me about an hour to prepare, and I used a blender for the sauce.

oster

 

 

 

 

Menu:

Salad: mixed greens with tomato, mushrooms, avocado and raisins

Main Course: Organic Sprouted Whole Grain Penne Pasta with organic chicken sausage and tomato sauce

Desert: Ben and Jerry’s Liz Lemon Frozen Greek Yogurt with Blueberry Lavender Swirl.

Ingredients:

Salad: mixed organic greens (I like half spinach, half mixed spring greens)
Organic Tomato
Sliced organic mushrooms
1/4 avocado, diced. If you can find organic, go for it.
Organic raisins
Dressing of your choice. Honey mustard or Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil go well with this.

Pasta: organic sprouted whole grain penne pasta. The sprouted grain frees up natural sugars in
the grain, giving it a better flavor than typical whole grain pasta.

Organic Sprouted Whole Grain Penne Pasta

Organic Sprouted Whole Grain Penne Pasta

Sauce:  1 28 oz. can organic whole peeled tomatoes

1 6 oz. can organic tomato paste

organic Italian style chicken sausages, one 12 oz. package

spices to your preference.  I used home grown basil and spicy oregano, dried onion, dried pepper flakes, salt, ground black pepper, and

a touch of garlic powder.  I’m not a big fan of garlic.

Preparation:

Start with the sauce.  A blender is necessary for this step.  Heat the chicken sausages whole in a frying pan.  These usually come precooked, but the addition of a little browning on the skin makes for a tasty sausage.  Add a touch of olive oil or cooking oil spray to the pan, since they don’t have much fat.  Empty the can of tomatoes and the tomato paste into the blender.   Add the spices.  Blend.  You should make a good, thick puree with this method.  Once the sausages are browned, take them from the pan and cut them into half inch slices.  Add them back to the pan and pour in the sauce.  Simmer the sauce while you are making the rest of the meal.

The pasta:  boil water.  Simple, no?  Add the pasta and a pinch of salt.  Boil to preference, but be aware, there is a narrow range of done to al dente for this type of pasta.  Too much cooking and it turns to mush.  Drain.

Salad:  mix greens, tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, avocado and raisins together.  Add a dressing of your choice.

Sit down and enjoy your home made creation.  The salad has the nice touch of the creamy avocado, which I love in a salad.  The pasta was surprisingly tasty for whole wheat pasta.  The meal is relatively low in fat, made from mostly organic sources, and is easy to prepare.  The first time I made this my wife commented the sauce was too bland for her liking, so I spiced it up the second time.  The addition of spicy oregano is unique.  You can make yours as spicy or different as you like, since the sauce is basic and waiting to be customized.  For an accompanying beverage, try Victory Prima Pils, or a dry rose.  Or, just some iced tea.

As a desert in the summer, the Liz Lemon is a perfect blend of sweet and low calories.  I found it delicious.

Ben and Jerry's Greek Frozen Yogurt Liz Lemon with Blueberry Lavender Swirl

Paleofantasy: a book report

Paleofantasy

What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live

by Marlene Zuk

Published Feb. 2013 by W.W.Norton & Co., 328 pages

paleofantasy

 

 

 

 

 

When I was in high school, first learning about genetics, things seemed fairly simple and straightforward.  Blue eyes, a recessive trait, required two genes, one from each parent, specifying blue eyes.  Otherwise, the eyes would be brown, being from a dominant gene.  Since then, with the explosion of scientific knowledge of molecular biology and the analysis of the entire human genome, the world of genetics and evolution has, well, evolved, to put it in the phrasing of Dr. Zuk, a professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.  But it is as if we have just dipped our toe in a vast and unexplored ocean, which was previously unknown.

I picked up this book at my favorite book shop in the U.S., Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, while on a ski trip in February.  The title captured my interest.  There is a huge “Paleo” movement at present, based on the theory that our genes adapted to life of the paleolithic time, that is, from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago.  This covers a lot of time, from when earliest human-like creatures developed, to the development of modern homo sapiens.  A search on Amazon for books with paleo in the title yields 2,719 titles, very few of which have to do with actual paleontology.  They are almost all about eating paleo, living the paleo lifestyle, and there was even a paleo cookbook for your dog.  The concept is that humans evolved before the era of agriculture, caught their meals in bursts of speed chasing down animals, gathered vegetable food from nature, and walked and ran barefoot.  Thus, the argument goes, we are best suited for this type of food, and life, and that our genes are ill equipped to handle crops such as grains, non-meat sources of protein, and running long distances, especially in shoes.  There are also devotes to various concepts of how stone-agers lived in family units, or groups, how they coupled up and reproduced, and whether there was pairing for life versus multiple partner life.  The purpose of devoting oneself to a paleo lifestyle, then, is to be in harmony with ones nature and genes, to be healthier, leaner, fitter, sexier, have less immunological problems, and presumably, to be able to run injury free.

Dr. Zuk starts off with a brief description of human evolution.  She explains some of the complexity of the evolutionary process, that many human ancestor lineages were changing in different ways, that we share an enormous percent of our genome with earlier species right down to bacteria, and that evolutionary change is not always change for the good.  She points out some of the complexity of genes being favorable or unfavorable for survival.  For example, if a trait is unfavorable, and results in loss of that trait, other genes will be lost along with that  trait due to their being linked together.  She gives specific examples. She also documents that there was not just one paleolithic lifestyle; there were many different routes taken along very different paths.

Her second major point is that evolutionary change can happen quickly or slowly, and may occur without any type of survival pressure.  An argument of the paleo adherents is that our genes were fixed back in pre-modern times, and that the last 10,000 years is too short a time to allow for adaption to new foods, and new ways of living.  She rebuts this with specific examples of changes that have occurred in that relatively short period.  Blue eyes, mentioned above, came about in the last 10,000 years.  Lactose intolerance seems to have a lot to do with where and how one’s group survived, and is also very recent.  It has the complex nature of being caused by a lack of a gene to inhibit built in turning off of another gene which inhibits lactase production as one matures, lactase being the enzyme required to digest lactose.  She mainly discusses genetic changes which are changes in gene expression, as opposed to major gene alterations such as occur with mutations.  In other words, she’s not talking about how we got to be human, but rather how our genome is modified over time to adapt to our surroundings.

The following chapters deal with diet, food procuring methods, exercise or physical activity including running, sex, monogamy versus multiple partners, family structure, child raising, susceptibility to diseases, and how we protect ourselves from disease.  Her discussions of these topics are backed up with scientific studies, and she cites the literature from which she makes her arguments.  She also points out where the science does not support the claims made by paleo adherents, thus the “Paleofantasy” of the title.  In many ways, she does not try to say that the “paleo” approach to diet or exercise is harmful, just that it is not based on real scientific reasoning.  As with any devoted scientist, she includes a lengthy bibliography which she used to form her arguments, as well as a notes section and an index.

Her writing style was an interesting, and sometimes to me, annoying mix of sound scientific argument with a conversational tone that seemed unnecessary.  It was like watching a really good Nova TV show on a particular topic, and then having a few lines from the sitcom “Cheers” thrown in.  She uses the word “well” a lot, as I used it above in the first paragraph.  I enjoyed the humorous touches, though, and I think she would make a very entertaining teacher in the classroom.  The title of the book is clearly meant to titillate, listing sex as the first major topic, when it’s really primarily about diet.  She got most of her information regarding the paleo lifestyle from the internet and popular books, which makes sense, since it’s not a scientific discipline, but it does make comparisons of real research with what paleo advocates consider perfectly logical thinking a bit one-sided.  This is not meant to be a book for scholars, but for the lay public, and I think she has accomplished that very well without sacrificing the scientific complexity which makes this topic so interesting.

I learned a lot reading this book, about evolution and current thought about genes and molecular biology.  I think she makes very sound arguments that, while living a paleo lifestyle may not hurt you, you won’t necessarily be any better off for it.  She successfully defends her thesis, that the paleo movement is based on fantasy, not fact.  Reading the comments about her book online, there were obviously many adherents of the paleo life who were not only unconvinced by her arguments, but found her book essentially sacrilegious.  In fact, a number of commentators remarked that they would not read the book. For me, it was an exciting look at topics which are themselves changing rapidly as new research is done in the areas of evolution, genes, reproduction, disease, disease prevention, fitness and longevity.  I think anyone who is interested in these topics will find this book fascinating and a good read, as long as you can, well, ignore some of the style issues.

Vlad Averbukh, 29, a follower of the paleo diet, eats raw meat along the Hudson River in New York in 2010. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Vlad Averbukh, 29, a follower of the paleo diet, eats raw meat along the Hudson River in New York in 2010.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

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