Chitchat and the occasional in-depth analysis about fiber, knitting, spinning, crochet, cooking, feminism, self-image, and a modicum of personal blathering.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Why we read books (and what to do about it): A rare book review

I just finished this book and it was very thought-provoking, so I'm going to jot a few of these thoughts down.

Why We Get Fat (And what to do about it) by Gary Taubes

The book is a well-researched, highly scientific look at obesity, weight gain and loss, the science thereof, and years of misguided notions about weight and how to lose it. I had mixed reactions to reading it, and mixed reactions to the conclusions Taubes draws.

The first half of the book is solid. The writing is engaging, the facts are footnoted within an inch of their lives, and the conclusions drawn are pretty valid. Conventional wisdom about obesity is wrong. "Biology, not physics" is the title of Book One, and it thoroughly explains why "Calories in, Calories out" is meaningless. Taubes analyzes historical trends in treating obesity and how we got to today's conclusions that dietary fat is bad and carbohydrates are preferred as an energy source over fat. If you're looking for good evidence and research on why and how we get fat and the mechanism of research and how conventional wisdom becomes conventional, book one is a doozy and well worth reading.

Book Two, "Adiposity 101", starts off strong. Taubes explains, exhaustively, how insulin works and what the connection is between hormone balance and "excess" body fat. He turns the "But thermodynamics!" argument on its head and shows how biology and hormones work to conserve fat in the body depending on hormone levels. Fat mechanics, how, when, and why the body uses fat stores for energy and how, when, and why fat is stored is explained in great depth and in words a non-biologist can easily understand. He explains sugar metabolism, how it works to sequester fat in the body, and the difference between various types of sugar and how they're metabolized. It's a bit overwhelming, truthfully. But interesting.

I have two basic problems with the book.

First of all, Taubes, with all his critique of conventional wisdom and current medical science in regards to obesity, treats obesity and overweight as a pathology and something to be fought throughout the book. He blames the "obesity epidemic" (and yes, he uses that phrase constantly, to my great irritation) on the food pyramid of the 90s being grounded on carbohydrates, and the avoidance of fat to the inclusion of extra carbs in weight loss dieting and nutritional science. He states over and over that "everybody knows" dietary fat is bad and so avoidance of dietary fat to the inclusion of extra carbs is what caused a surge in obesity. I don't actually disagree with this conclusion, to a point.

He doesn't mention, not even once, that the BMI definitions changed in 1998 to make tens of millions of people "obese" who were merely "overweight" the day before, and tens of millions "overweight" who were previously "normal".

This was the point in the book when my skeptical eyebrow started going up.

My second problem with the book is that while he strikes down fallacies and false conclusions right and left when they suit his purposes, he draws false conclusions and makes deductive leaps over factual grand canyons when doing THAT suits him. For instance, the end of the second part of the book turns into a giant Atkins diet promotion. He states how our caveman ancestors ate high fat, low carb, high protein diets and they were all thin. How do we know there were no fat cave people? We don't. There probably were. But Taubes trots this out as "everyone knows" our hunter-gatherer ancestors were all skinny and fit. He doesn't mention that paleolithic man had an average lifespan of about 30 years, until the dawn of agriculture, when lifespan increased, likely due to caloric security.

Taubes promotes, heavily, a high protein, high fat, very low carbohydrate, very low sugar diet. He also concludes that following a diet different from what your ancestral forebears followed will make you sick. He uses "not many fat Japanese" and "no fat Inuit until the white man gave them flour and sugar" as examples. But the Japanese don't eat a low carb, high protein diet, typically. So his deductive leap just crashed into the Snake River Gorge like Evel Knievel.

The end of Book Two is basically a extended advertisement for Atkins. (It even includes, in an appendix, a streamlined diet plan that is nearly identical to Atkins plans.) His basis for this? A comparison study over a year that drew the following conclusions: Atkins followers lost 9.9 pounds, traditional diet plan followers lost 5.5 pounds, Ornish diet followers 5.3, and Zone diet 3.3. The chart includes figures for LDL, Triglycerides, HDL, and BP as well, all numbers slightly favoring Atkins excepting triglycerides which strongly favored Atkins.

Ten pounds. In a year. With almost zero carbohydrates.

And those carbohydrate cravings that Atkins dieters often cannot get past? Taubes recommends that you simply stay strong and resist, and it will get easier over time. Seriously. Even though he states unequivocally in part one that putting fat people on weight loss diets results in a "biological imperative" to resist exercise and constant, intense hunger that he states cannot be ignored. Yet he suggests that a similar imperative to eat some carbohydrate, for crying out loud, can be easily conditioned out of the body and mind.

See what I mean about the double-standard thing? Only when it suits him.

Taubes also goes on at some length about how exercise is bad for people trying to lose weight. I don't even know where to start with that. Exercise is good for people who are able-bodied enough to do it, independent of weight. Exercise reduces blood pressure, strengthens hearts and lungs, and improves your mood due to the release of endorphins. Weight has nothing to do with it, but Taubes actually says if one is trying to lose weight, one should not exercise too much.

There is no mention of the fact that thin people also get diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and cancer. There is no talk about health parameters outside of weight, how one can improve one's health without trying to lose weight, through healthy eating and exercise. There are scare tactics and weasel words aplenty about how we're all dying of obesity and killing our kids, too, with the bread and sugar and not eating enough fatty meat and berries and leafy green veggies like our caveman gramps did, even though grandparents were pretty much a rarity before farming came along 30,000 years ago.

I'm all for challenging conventional wisdom about nutrition and what makes us fat and if that is in fact an inherently bad thing, and I'm all for challenging assumptions about what makes us healthy or unhealthy, but I am pretty much opposed to ignoring things when it suits you then making deductive leaps that defy any kind of logical gravity when that suits you too. And that's where this book loses me.

I did learn a lot about biology and the science of hormonal regulation of fat and weight, and I do plan to try to reduce the number of carbs and sugar I eat, although I already ate very few refined carbohydrates. When I ask myself would I rather be healthy or thin, the answer is a resounding "Healthy". My lack of gall bladder determines how much fat I can eat and I already pursue full-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, etc even though you can't find full fat yogurt anywhere any more. So Taubes' stripped-down Atkins plan wouldn't work for me on any number of levels.

Sadly, Taubes falls down in this book in the same places most diet books do, the conflation of thin with healthy and with body fat as an absolute liability and evil, and the pursuit and attaining of thinness as the ultimate goal. He mourns the fact that even zero carbs will not be sufficient for some of us tragic fatties to attain thinness. It's unfortunate, because the book is interesting and contains some compelling science. A shame that Taubes had to taint the science by prescribing a diet plan along with it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taking the easy way out, now

We made our day trip to Rhinebeck NY for the sheep and wool festival. It was everything I'd heard and then some.

Anna and I took off from Pittsburgh at 2 AM on Sunday. The weather was clear and cool and we made decent time. By the time we started north on I81, the sun was coming up and the scenery was gorgeous.


By the time we hit the New York State Thruway, less than an hour from Rhinebeck, I was as excited as a child going to a disney park for the first time. The Catskills loomed in the distance and the fall colors were bright and beautiful.


I have a new favorite bridge.


It cost a dollar to cross the Hudson river on the funkiest bridge in existence, and worth every penny.


Just across the bridge, we knew we were headed in the right direction.


There were sheep and llamas and alpacas everywhere. We got there around 1030, just in time to see the llama (and alpaca) parade.



We visited the exhibits barn and I had to take a photo of the prize-winning needle felted piece.


We toured the three big vendor buildings near where we were to meet up with some folks from Ravelry. We managed to not buy everything in sight on the first pass, which was a good thing, because the dozens and dozens of vendors there were nothing compared to the shopping further back in the fairgrounds.

But most importantly, at 1230 we met some people from Facebook, and from the Rubberneckers group on Ravelry.

I took lots of pictures and will link to the slideshow below, but here is my favorite shot, my very dear friend Terri who I got to meet for the first time, and Genny, who came all the way from New Zealand!


There were TONS of handknits of all colors and types and taste levels. This was hands down the best one of the day.


We visited the sheep barns and saw lots of fun sheep and goats. The voices on those critters-hilarious. Some were very loud, some were just too cool to bother with us, some were shy, and some were quite friendly.



Anna fell in love.


I'm not sure how I feel about having a llama for a son-in-law, but at least they make good guard animals.

By 230, it was time to get some lunch so we headed back up to the place we'd been before to see if the fried artichoke line was any smaller. It was. I got the Artichoke French and Anna got the fried artichokes. Both were delish. And we got to visit some more with Terri and Lisa and Kim and Danielle and Elizabeth.


They left, and once I dried my tears, we wandered over to watch the frisbee dogs in action.





One last trip through the food barn to get some nuts, and we hit the road.

The trip back was not as calm and uneventful as the trip up. We were both very tired and it started to rain when we hit Pennsylvania again. But we made it back in one piece, just after 2 AM. 24 hours, 814 miles. Next time, we stay for the weekend.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

I've never been a big fan of squash, but this ended up being very tasty. A little savory, a little sweet, a lot delicious.


Butternut squash-five pounds or so (You can also use buttercup squash, pumpkin, acorn squash, whatever fall/winter squash you like or have on hand)
2-4 oz bacon
medium sized sweet onion
2-3 carrots, cut into generous chunks.
2 cups vegetable stock-low salt or salt free is best.
2 cups pinot grigio
1 cup cream, half and half, or whole milk
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil


Heat oven to 350. Cut squash into large pieces to prepare to roast. (I cut it right down the middle, then cut those pieces lengthwise. You don't need to peel it unless you're masochistic.)

Place squash pieces skin side down in roasting pan. Place whole peeled onion in the pan with the squash. Brush everything with olive oil and sprinkle with ginger and cinnamon-not too much. Roast for approx 40 minutes or until cooked.

While the squash is roasting, cut the bacon into 1/2 inch strips or so and saute' in the butter. Add carrots. Cover and cook on medium heat until the carrots start to get soft. Add the wine and vegetable stock. Cover and simmer until the squash is cooked and cooled enough to handle.

Scoop squash out of skins. Add squash and onion to the broth. Stir, add a little water if needed for consistency, cover and simmer approx 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. You might need a little salt, you might not.

Add a cup of milk, cream, or half and half, and puree with an immersion blender, hand mixer, or whisk. You may add more milk to taste if you wish.

Serve with crumbled bacon or chives on top.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mustard Greens with Bacon and Carrots

I made this dish for dinner tonight and wanted to write it down so I'd remember!

Pound of fresh, cleaned mustard greens
4 slices lean bacon, cut into small pieces
One carrot, sliced
Two shallots, sliced thin
Low-salt vegetable broth
White wine

I used my saucier, but you can use any saute' pan with a lid. It should be deep enough to hold the greens.

Saute' bacon with shallots until it begins to crisp. Add carrots, cover, cook for a few minutes until the carrots start to get soft.

Add 1/4 cup white wine and deglaze bottom of pan.

Add 1/4 cup vegetable broth, add greens, and cover

Allow greens to cook until just about done, then add a tablespoon of honey. Mix well into liquid, cover and cook until done.

Serve with crusty bread so you can sop up all the yummy juice!

Monday, October 10, 2011

You don't think like I think, you don't joke like I joke


Haven't had much to say, not much going on.

We went to a members only event at the conservatory, the photo above is from there. I'm knitting socks, but I'll never get as much knitting done as I'd like before the holidays. I've taken too much time off from it. Just can't get into it this year. It's almost like something is bothering me. Hm. What could that be.

My younger daughter and I are going to the New York Sheep and Wool festival next Sunday. Taking a day trip. She would not let me make any excuses for not going, and she said she'd help me drive. Maybe I'll find christmas presents there.

We've been getting some groceries from Penn's Corner Farm alliance, I highly recommend it for anyone local. The prices are reasonable, the products are great, and you're supporting local farmers. We don't get a CSA, it's more than we could use, but the farmstand ordering system works well for us.

I'm off because I cooked like a fool today and need to sit and chill now. If you want to make my recipe for stuffed eggplant, chopped sun dried tomatoes are a nice addition to it, and you can make it vegetarian by eliminating the pancetta. Look on the sidebar and click "recipes".


Hopefully lots of photos from Rhinebeck, New York next week. For now, this one I took at Frick Park a few weeks ago, when we took Lily.