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Apr 29 / Tom Woodward

Using Your Diet as Medicine

“Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.” – Hippocrates

In my experience, the practice of preventative medicine is rare in this country.  Never once have I been to a doctors office where they gave me counsel on nutrition or simply asked me what my diet is like.  Typically, we’ve never gotten into discussing my fitness much either.  Instead of discussing lifestyle factors, the preoccupation has been with assessing symptoms, diagnosing the problem, and making the problem go away.  Most doctor’s visits are either the reason for or cause of tests and prescriptions, otherwise known as things we call medicine in this country.

Food is powerful.  People have strong emotional ties to it.  They see it as energy, reward, happiness, gratification, and many other things.  Though few see it as medicine.  Because of the way we’ve been socialized, we tend to classify medicine as items that are designed by physicians to improve our health, like pills, vaccines,  antibiotics, and surgery.  We think of these as the first line of defense when it comes to medicine.  However, many of them only become necessary as a last resort when we fail to use food as medicine.

Let’s consider blood pressure medication, insulin for type 2 diabetics, statins for cholesterol, and gastric bypass surgery.  All of these are necessary only because we failed to control our insulin and leptin levels, which eventually caused hyperinsulinemia, elevated triglycerides, and/or obesity.  You might be saying that these are extreme issues and people should know better before they get to that stage of metabolic derangement.  Okay, let’s look at a few less extreme examples.  Dr. Loren Cordain has spent a good deal of his life researching the Paleo Diet and has experienced numerous cases of decreases in acne, asthma, autoimmune diseases, acid reflux, headaches, and inflammation-causing issues like arthritis and join pain by simply using diet as medicine.  There are even cases of reversing some Type 1 diabetes problems with improvements in diet.  Realize that while not as extreme as gastric bypass surgery or the like, there is medicine for ALL of these ailments.  Proactiv, Excedrin, antacid, inhalers.  All second lines of defense.

Many of these are what we would call diseases of civilization.  Gary Taubes goes into excellent detail on this in Good Calories, Bad Calories.  He describes cases of noted missionary physicians like Albert Schweitzer in Africa and Samuel Hutton in Labrador seeing astonishgly low cases of cancer.  According to Hutton, in his eleven years of working, “he hadn’t seen a single malignant growth in an Eskimo.”  A French physician who observed inhabitants in North Africa, Stanislas Tanchou, noted that “cancer, like insanity, seems to increase with the progress of civilization.”  Colonial physicians who studied the Native Americans had similar findings, noting the absence of obesity and fatigue.  These similar traits, along with perfect teeth as observed by Weston Price, were present with hunter gatherer groups like the Masai and Inuit Eskimos.  It was generally observed that these societies ate natural food, that included animal meat and fat, fruits and vegetation, as well as tubers and well prepared grains.  Taubes goes on to describe how it was later observed that general health declined in these societies when they begin to interact with Western cultures and accept white sugar and white flour in trading activities.  Cancer rates, obesity, tooth decay, and fatigue increased noticeably after being introduced to a Westernized diet.  And to their detriment, they didn’t have the drugs and medicine that we do today.

The fact is that before these cultures began to eat like us, they didn’t require what we would currently call medicine.  They had almost zero heart disease, cancer, tooth decay, inflammation, and intestinal trouble.  Yes they did die of infectious disease and trauma and I’m by no means discounting the strides of modern medicine.  However, this information shows that we can truly use food as medicine the way it was intended and rely on modern medicine as a back up plan rather than a crutch.

Apr 28 / Tom Woodward

Industrial Food and Superstimuli

In the late 1930′s, Austrian zooligist Konrad Lorenz and his colleage Niccolas Tinbergen ran an experiment on wild and domestic geese. Knowing that geese are very protective of their eggs, Lorenz wanted to see the effect of substituting an object that had the same appearance as a goose egg, but was larger. It turned out that when given the choice to bring the real egg or the larger egg shaped object back into the nest, the geese chose the larger object. Lorenz reasoned this was due to something he called the superstimulus effect, a superstimulus being an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is already an existing response tendency. Tinbergen continued with this research to find that birds also prefer eggs with more exaggerated markings and with more color saturation than their own. This research led Lorenz to posit “that analagous processes may be at work with civilized humanity.”

Thanks to diligent work in the field of anthropology and evolutionary biology, we’ve come to know that as a species, humans are hard wired to desire certain things. Many thousands of years ago, the most abundant sources of sugar came from fruit (fructose) and honey. These sources were few and far between and pre-agriculture folks ate them sparingly due to their relative sparseness in nature. Along similar lines, saturated animal fat was eaten sparingly due to the difficulty of hunting and killing a wild animal with primitive weapons. In addition to being a rare delicacy, sugar and fat had very high caloric density compared to vegetables, seeds, and tubers that composed that majority of the paleolithic diet. In a time when it took great effort to find and consume enough calories to remain healthy, sugar and animal fat were the gold standard and highly sought after. The genetic desire and ability to seek out and consume sugar and fat became a selected for evolutionary trait among our ancestors of yester year. Robert McElvaine summarizes the situation in his book, Eve’s Seed: Biology, The Sexes, and the Course of History:

“Evolution does not produce traits that are harmful to the organism in the current environment, but neither does it check predelictions that carry no current danger. Another example of such a no-longer adaptive predisposition is the appetite humans have for sugar. In the wild, this craving was useful, and there was no danger of getting too much of it. But, as the dental bills in the prefluoridation era attested, that is no longer the case…. Our once adaptive appetite became dangerous when something that had been scarce became abundantly available. [He then quotes evolutionary biologist Leda Cosmides on how fast food places cater to cravings for foods that were rare but crucial to eat in limited amounts when we were hunter-gatherers.] In the ancestral environment, salt, sugar, and [animal] fat were “slow food”; humans could not obtain them quickly,or in large quantities. So we have no innate means of resisting them now that what was once slow food has become fast.”

Here, McElvaine brings us back to the idea of the superstimulus. Genetically, we’re wired to respond to and crave sugar and fat since our survival hinged on acquiring these nutrients long ago. For this reason, sugar and fat are a stimulus for us, analogous to the actual goose egg in Lorenz’ experiments. Just as Lorenz and Tinbergen found that geese respond more favorably to a ‘super’ version of the stimulus that is larger, more attractive, and more brightly colored, we are also tempted every day by more exaggerated versions of sugar and fat than in the past. Rather than coming in the form of a normal paleolithic stimulus like berries or a small steak, we’re now inundated with hundreds of forms of candy, ice cream, super sized sodas, quadruple bacon burgers, and even exaggerated versions of the original stimuli like candy apples, cholocate covered berries, and chicken fried steak.

Falling prey to these superstimuli have significant ramifications for personal health, the health care burden of the nation, and the environment. Not only are the portion sizes of these superstimuli larger, but they are mostly heavily processed versions of corn that have had devastating effects on the farming community as well as our bodies. Another unfortunate consequence of overindulgence in these processed sugar and fat products is the inability to taste and appreciate the original stimuli. When people indulge in sugar, salt, and processed fat on a regular basis, natural food takes on a bland taste whenever they have it. Conversely, if you eat a natural paleo diet for a long enough period of time, an ordinary sugar stimulus like a fresh strawberry will taste incredibly sweet to your taste buds, as it probably did to our paleolithic ancestors.

Thinking about our diet in the context of the superstimulus, it’s easy to see how food is very much a drug. Drugs like heroin, alcohol, and tobacco all affect our neurotransmitters and brain chemistry in order to induce a superstimulus of euphoria, pain regulation, and relaxation. They all induce exaggerated effects of the states that we can achieve naturally. Unlike those drugs, food is not something you can quit. For people who have a serious problem indulging in too much processed food, it can be quite a challenge to break the superstimulus cycle and start to live and thrive on the natural foods we were genetically designed to eat. The best way is to start with small steps in the most important areas. This means taking a good hard look at how much processed sugar you consume and starting to slowly titrate this down. For more on this, check out the Nutrition Basics.

For further reading on the superstimulus effect and how it relates to human behavior, take a look at Dierdre Barrett’s, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

Apr 28 / Tom Woodward

Debunking ‘Meatless Monday’

In general, I’m a fan of the Green Fork Blog. It’s a wonderful gateway to current news and opinion about sustainable agriculture, food systems, and health in general. The people behind this blog seem to be very enamored with this concept of ‘Meatless Monday’. The stated goal of Meatless Monday is to “help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.” In their Why Meatless section, they assert the following health benefits:

  • REDUCE RISK OF HEART DISEASE. Beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds contain little to no saturated fats. Reducing your intake of saturated fats can help keep your cholesterol low and reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • MAINTAIN HEALTHY WEIGHT. A plant-based diet is a great source of fiber, which is absent in animal products. Foods rich in fiber make you feel full with fewer calories, resulting in lower calorie intake and less overeating.

Let’s have a look at these claims:

“REDUCE RISK OF HEART DISEASE”

Their assertion that reducing meat consumption will lower your risk of heart disease is based entirely on the fact that saturated fat causes heart disease. First off, there isn’t a single reference or citation supporting this statement. This is probably because the idea that saturated fat is bad has been so ingrained in our collective psyche that they feel no citation of a study is even necessary since people accept it as conventional wisdom. How did it come to be this way that virtually anyone you ask will tell you that saturated fat causes heart disease?

It all began in the 1950′s with a physician named Ancel Keys. Keys proposed the lipid hypothesis, which asserts that:

  • cholesterol/fat in the diet leads to cholesterol/fat in the blood
  • cholesterol/fat in the blood causes a clogging of the arteries and results in heart disease
  • meaning cholesterol/fat in the diet results in heart disease.

Clean, simple, logical statements. Sounds about right, doesn’t it? It sure did to the American public. Keys, using his own poorly constructed study, Seven Countries, touted this theory tirelessly and vehemently discredited and slandered anyone who opposed him. Keys’ dogged determination would have been mildly admirable, however he had virtually no science to back up his theory. This excerpt from Tom Naughton’s film, Fat Head, does an excellent job summarizing how the saturated fat=heart disease hysteria got started:

If I’ve piqued your interest in how this groundswell got started and/or you have any interest in social psychology, this is a wonderful piece by Dr. Michael Eades about how Ancel Keys and the lipid hypothesis perfectly exemplifies the informational cascade, which is described succinctly in the following excerpt from the post:

We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.

If the second person isn’t sure of the answer, he’s liable to go along with the first person’s guess. By then, even if the third person suspects another answer is right, she’s more liable to go along just because she assumes the first two together know more than she does. Thus begins an “informational cascade” as one person after another assumes that the rest can’t all be wrong.

Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better…

Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children). Unable to keep up with the volume of research, doctors look for guidance from an expert — or at least someone who sounds confident.

In the case of fatty foods, that confident voice belonged to Ancel Keys, a prominent diet researcher a half-century ago (the K-rations in World War II were said to be named after him). He became convinced in the 1950s that Americans were suffering from a new epidemic of heart disease because they were eating more fat than their ancestors.

The Saturated Fat Debate, a post on Dr. Eades blog, contains a letter from Dr. Uffe Ravnskov illustrating just how dubious the research on saturated fat has been. In many cases an increase in saturated fat intake caused a decrease in LDL (bad cholesterol) along with an increase in HDL (good cholesterol), which is the exact opposite of what you would expect if you buy in to the lipid hypothesis. Additionally, only about half of the people who suffer from heart attacks have elevated cholesterol, according to Dr. Eades. So not only is it a fallacy to assert that increased saturated fat raises cholesterol, but it also is no guarantee that increased cholesterol is the main predictor of heart disease. Just recently, another study from the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk for heart disease.” Here is a summary of the studies that refute the lipid hypothesis from the Weston A. Price Foundation. These findings all cast serious doubt on the once ironclad lipid hypothesis.

In light of this information, it becomes quite obvious why the Meatless Monday bullet point on consuming saturated fat is unreferenced.

“MAINTAIN A HEALTHY WEIGHT”

A plant-based diet is a great source of fiber, which is absent in animal products. Foods rich in fiber make you feel full with fewer calories, resulting in lower calorie intake and less overeating.

This bullet point has some cunning behind it.  It’s set up first by drawing a line in the sand between animal products and plant products.  ’Plant products have fiber’. ‘Animal products do not’.  Then it gives you the one-two punch, saying that fiber is great because it makes you feel full with fewer calories and that on average Americans get less than half the daily recommendation of fiber.  So not only do plant products make us feel full and animal products don’t, but we’re obviously not eating enough plant products if we’re only getting half the necessary fiber.  There’s a little bit more to this story.

Here’s the skinny on fiber. It’s been touted for years but is not as crucial as you think.  In fact, it can become quite problematic when it comes to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  Malabsorption of vitamins and minerals is usually the case only when it comes to fortified bran and oat varieties of fiber, not from the fiber you get from fruits and vegetables.  So what is fiber good for anyway?  Here is a summary of some key points.  The truth is most people think it’s crucial for digestion, but that is just not the case.  If you’re looking to kick your digestion and nutrient metabolism up a notch, look no further than improving your gut flora.  Gut bacteria will be a common topic around here as I believe it’s a very important piece of the puzzle both for nutrition and as a way to strengthen your immune system against some of the toxins of the modern world.

So the word on fiber is, eat your fruits and vegetables.  As long as you’re eating a diverse selection of these, you have nothing to worry about from a fiber standpoint.  Where we get into problems is when people are eating a diet of nutrient deficient processed food and then they double up on the oat bran in the morning because they heard they’re not getting enough fiber.  This is a recipe for stripping away the few nutrients they’re already getting from their processed diet and causing serious nutrient deficiency. Not good.

Despite all this, fiber is likely satiating as they say.  However, despite the lack of fiber in meat, it is extremely satiating.  For one thing, the delicious goodness of protein and fat in animal products digest slowly and have little effect on raising insulin.  This helps prevent that sugar high and eventual crash that leaves you hungry again.  Consumption of a higher protein diet has also been shown to increase the amount of a hunger fighting hormone called peptide YY.  Another study by the College of London suggests that a low glycemic index meal increased the hunger-satiating hormone GLP significantly.

So what’s do we end up with as the best balance?  Combine the two.  A diet of fruits and vegetables to maintain adequate levels of fiber. This, when combined with animal fat and protein, will provide an extremely satiating diet that controls insulin levels all day long.  Pretty simple, and a lot like what our diet looks like when we get our way through the Nutrition Basics.

Environmental Concerns

Beyond the nutrition argument, I’m very much in support of Meatless Monday from an environmental standpoint.  While I believe it is possible to adequately feed our population sustainably with local animal products, the fact is that people simply eat far too much food from environmentally poor sources.  If Meatless Monday can do anything to cut into the profits of those who benefit from industrial agriculture and closed animal feed operations, I say more power to them.  But I think it’s irresponsible to make distorted health claims in the name of a cause.

Apr 2 / Tom Woodward

Metabolic Conditioning and CrossFit

The following is a well done piece by Melissa Urban from Whole9 discussing the pitfalls of too much metabolic conditioning in the CrossFit program.  By now, many of you have probably seen people doing CrossFit workouts or have at least heard about it.  If you’re already training at an affiliate or are considering jumping into a CrossFit style fitness program, this article is important knowledge to have:

“If you’ve been following our affiliate (CrossFit Whole9, formerly CrossFit 603), you’ll know Dallas builds all of our custom programming around strength and quality of movement. Because of this strength focus, we’ve yet to program a high rep, high volume chipper like the Filthy Fifty. Our met-cons usually come in the form of a short, heavy, simple drill done after a strength or power workout, or a track or “strongman” day where we sprint, jump, throw stuff and carry stuff. We’re in the business of strength-based fitness, and our programming reflects that focus.

A few months ago, Dallas took that strength focus to the next level and created a Power to the People style program. The 603 PTP was a high volume, low intensity series of workouts designed to do one thing – make you stronger. We chose to work the deadlift and press at the same time, hitting both of those movements four days a week, for eight weeks straight. We threw in some gymnastics and Olympic lifting skill work, short, heavy met-cons and a few track days, but for a two solid months, we did a whole lot of deadlifts and presses.

And almost all of our virtual trainees disappeared.

Up until then, we’d had a good amount of people following our programming on line. CrossFitters and exercise enthusiasts from all across the country (and across the pond) were posting after workouts like Overhead Math and the Sissy Test. But come week three of the PTP program, all but a few loyalists had abandoned our workouts. When we asked why, people commented, “the workouts got boring,” or “it seemed too easy,” or “I missed my met-cons.” Fair enough, maybe… but also a crying shame. Because the people who DID stick around put up to 25# on their deadlift and 20# on their press in just two months. And on top of that, they PR’d workouts like “Cindy”, put weight on their clean and jerks and got a lot more comfortable under (or over) a heavy barbell. Boring or not, the PTP program worked, and the people who saw it through reaped the benefits.

People often make misguided assumptions about CrossFit workouts based on what grabs their attention on paper. “Tough workouts”, “elite athletic training” and “high intensity” translates as high repetitions, endless rounds, a grab bag of exercises (often seemingly chosen at random), or some combination of the above. And there’s a trend, especially among those new to CrossFit and inexperienced with programming, to ride that met-con train all the way to Cortisol Crazytown.

I’m here to caution you… beware the lure of the Sexy Met-Con.

For some (especially those new to CrossFit), the lure of something like the Filthy Fifty or the “300” workout is undeniable. Hundreds of reps of various bad-ass exercises all in one workout? That MUST be good fitness. New trainees doing their own programming fall quickly into the Sexy Met-Con trap, piling on the reps, adding more and more exotic movements, needing an excessive amount of time to complete the workout. They get beyond creative, making up workouts so complicated that you need a map and a flashlight just to follow along.

Trainees aren’t the only victims of the Sexy Met-Con pull. New coaches and affiliate owners fall into this trap as well. What looks like you put more effort into your programming – seven rounds of five different exercises with a complicated rep scheme, or “Back Squat 5×5”? What’s an easier group class workout – a 20 minute light-weight met-con, or a structured PMenu-style Olympic lifting session? This isn’t a dig on those coaches or affiliate owners – I get it. The pressure to get creative and put out fresh “unknowable” workouts every day is enormous. There is also a need (real or perceived) to drastically distinguish themselves from their Globo-Gym competition. Add in the pressure from clients to make them SWEAT so they feel like they’re getting what they pay for and the Sexy Met-Con becomes an easy go-to on all counts.

But while it’s an easy trap to fall into – some affiliates never bear-crawl out. I follow several gyms’ custom programming, just to keep an eye on what everyone else is doing. With one, I counted back a few months and found 22 days of met-con out of a month’s worth of programming. Twenty. Two… not including rest days. Another programmed “find your deadlift one rep max” workouts two months apart – without a single day of strength-oriented deadlifting in between. Sure, they did some light deadlifts during met-cons… but how much does your 1RM go up without putting the work in on your 5×5s?

There are a few things wrong with this phenomenon. First, longer length met-cons (even those that go “heavy” for time) will not make you as strong as you could be. Sure, your cardio will improve, and you’ll most likely see some strength gains, but nowhere near the gains you’d see picking up heavy stuff with a tried-and-true 5×5, 3×5 and 3×3 protocol. (Of course, this point is only valid if you believe, as we do, that prioritizing strength is the most effective way to get better at everything.)

In addition, these types of workouts miss the bus by focusing on quantity at the expense of quality of movement. The never-ending pursuit of improved met-con “performance” overlooks the important component of quality-based training. You can learn your nine foundational movements in a group class and “practice” them in a chipper, but none of those movements (performed fast and loose, as these met-cons tend to inspire) prepare you for moving a real load. Sloppy air squats won’t translate to more weight on your back, and a hundred med ball cleans won’t prep you for a heavy clean and jerk. What you are doing, unfortunately, is reinforcing bad movement patterns for literally hundreds of repetitions. And that’s hard to recover from if and when you decide you want to start adding weight to the bar.

Want to be a better CrossFitter? Make sure your workouts are constantly varied, right? On first glance, these met-cons seem to fit the bill. The structure makes you THINK you’re working a good “constantly varied” program, with fresh-out-of-the-hopper movements and convoluted rep schemes. But “constantly varied” means more than just swapping out exercises in your 30 minute met-con. These Sexy Met-Cons work primarily one metabolic pathway, with a very limited range of strength and power. So all those randomized exercises and rep schemes, when contained within the same longer length, light-weight met-con, aren’t really variety at all.

But the biggest danger by far is this – these Sexy Met-Cons can quickly take a dive into “overkill” territory, where your training starts to hurt more than it helps. You can’t tell me that day after day of Filthy Fifties won’t produce a sharp decline in movement integrity, and the overuse of certain muscle groups, joints and tendons. (How many days of kipping, ring dips and push-ups can you do before your elbows starts to hurt?) In addition, the body goes into serious cortisol production around the half-hour mark, so these day in, day out, longer length workouts wreak all kinds of havoc on the body. These kind of met-cons (much like long distance “cardio”) are notorious for pushing people into over-trained territory, and where over-training lives, injury is soon to follow. (Not so awesome for you, but serious job security for Dallas.)

But who wants to work a boring 5×5 when there are plenty of sexier workouts to choose from? I’ll tell you who. People who want to be stronger. Nothing builds muscle and strength like the big lifts – squat, press and deadlift – supplemented with gymnastics skills for core strength and low repetition Olympic lifts to develop explosive power. And I’m not taking a bunch of one rep maxes, either! Sets of 3’s and 5’s are your money-makers – where you train the body and build the strength. Missing your met-con? Work them in, but hit them hard and keep them short. Piling 30 minutes of “cardio” after a serious strength workout is, in a word, counterproductive. And for the love of Pavel, keep them simple. Thrusters and burpees, broad jumps and overhead carries, sprints and swings – all simple, all brutally effective

Our PTP program may not have looked like much on paper, but damn if it didn’t make our trainees strong as hell, and fitter across the board. So beware the false promises of the Sexy Met-Con. Getting fancy with a chipper is fun once in a while, but if you constantly find yourself in need of a map and a flashlight to finish your workouts, sprint (don’t jog) to the nearest barbell and enjoy the simple pleasures and performance gains of a back squat 5×5.”

In this article, Melissa outlines a pervasive problem not just in CrossFit, but in the wider personal training field. Trainers feel the need to coach their clients in a way that will keep the client happy and satisfied, so as not to lose any business. This typically translates to multi exercise sweatfests in the CrossFit world and hand holding while doing nautilus machine work in the rest of the personal training world. The simple fact is that correct and effective strength training is difficult. Repeatedly adding weight to the bar from workout to workout is a grueling task and will not be accomplished by those not fully invested in it. We see this point in action when nearly all of Melissa’s online readership ditched the program the moment it became regimented and heavy (not to mention, effective).

The point is that if your goal is balanced fitness, you need balanced programming.  Melissa’s point is well taken that if you are repeatedly doing timed workouts between 10 and 45 minutes, it really doesn’t matter what exercises you’re doing.  The effect becomes essentially the same in that you’re training fully body muscular endurance and aerobic capacity.  Say you have 5 workouts with completely different exercises and rep schemes that are done for time and you clock in between 20 and 28 minutes on each of the five.  To a novice crossfitter, these workouts appear constantly varied and effective, but in reality they all have the same effect.  They don’t make you stronger, faster, or stronger and faster (more powerful).

To balance workouts like this, be sure there are enough pure strength and speed days in your programming.  On your or at your affiliate, you should be lifting heavy weights for low reps at least twice a week.  Additionally, there should be one or two workouts that fall in between the strength workouts and aerobic/muscular endurance workouts, such as sprint intervals with shorter rest or barbell complexes.

Jan 24 / Tom Woodward

Oven Brisket

For building muscle or just getting a good healthy dose of animal protein, you can’t do much better than a large slab of brisket. Beef brisket is a tougher cut of meat from the lower breast of the cow. Unlike more tender cuts of steak that can be grilled, a brisket is best when applied to a low heat for an extended period of time so it can tenderize. One of the most popular methods for cooking up a brisket is to smoke it. Gant over at 70′s Big has a good post and video of a simple recipe and all the steps to completion for smoking a brisket. Another easy way to prepare brisket is pot roast style, where you toss the meat in with some vegetables, spices, and a bottle of red wine for about 5-7 hours. Since we don’t have a smoker yet at our house, I elected to have a go at slow roasting it in the oven. First, I needed to find a good slab to cook.

In order to stay as local as possible with my meat source, I went down to the local farmer’s market, where Marin Sun Farms has a booth every Saturday. Their beef is very high quality and 100% grass fed. At the market, I picked up this nice 5lb cut.

Glorious.

I tried to find a cut with a decent amount of fat as you can see from the picture. Saturated animal fat is as natural for us to eat as the meat itself, so don’t let it scare you away. Also, the fat helps to lock in a lot of flavor if you cook the brisket fat side up. To prepare the meat, I used the following ingredients as a marinade: olive oil, cayenne pepper, cinnamon sugar, fresh ground black pepper, and garlic salt. I was originally going to buy a dry rub at the store, but most of the ones I found had various artificial additives, so I just bought the base ingredients for a rub instead.  In a perfect world, I would have used butter, coconut oil, or lard rather than olive oil but I didn’t have any on hand.

I screwed up at the store. Buy extra virgin and not regular olive oil.

I find the amount of each ingredient is pretty immaterial. Some people obsess over getting very specific with cooking measurements, but I typically just eyeball it. To marinate, I first coated one side of the meat with olive oil, then added a healthy dose of the dry ingredients. The olive oil helps the dry stuff stick and makes it easier to rub into the meat. Be sure to really rub it in. Your hands should be covered in oil if you do it right. Repeat on the other side of the meat. Here’s how it looks after applying the marinade before going in the fridge.

Fully rubbed

Leave the brisket in the fridge overnight then cook the next day. On cooking day, apply another layer of the marinade/rub to the meat to give it additional flavor. Since brisket is a tough meat and needs to be cooked slowly, I set the oven to only 240 degrees. A good rule of thumb is about an hour or hour and a half of cooking time per pound at that temperature. I checked up on it periodically and finally took it out after 6 hours in the oven.

All together, a medium fat 5lb brisket provides about 400 grams of protein and 5680 calories.

If anything, it was a tad overdone, but still very tender. This might be a function of having to cook it in an oven rather than on a more indirect heat source like a smoker. Nonetheless, since brisket is so tender and flavorful, it’s the perfect meat to store in tupperware and eat over the course of a few days. It’s good by itself or with side dishes, good hot or good cold. Enjoy!

Jan 18 / Tom Woodward

Buying Food Locally

Up until a few years ago, I never gave much thought to where my food was grown or how it arrived at my local Safeway or Trader Joes. I was much more concerned with the price of my oranges than the label on them indicating their state or country of origin. I never gave much thought to the fact that there were other costs associated with me buying those oranges than simply the price I was paying for them. These days, when I can’t make it to the farmers market, I always take care to check the labels on my produce to be sure they’re coming from either California, Oregon, or Washington. It may seem like a fairly innocuous act to walk away from oranges produced in New Zealand in favor of locally grown strawberries, but that decision has more of an effect than it would appear.

In 2001, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture wrote a paper called Food, Fuel, and Freeways investigating the fuel costs and CO2 emissions associated with transporting produce. The following are excerpts from their findings, which demonstrate significant environmental costs to buying food that is not locally grown:

“A weighted average source distance (WASD) was calculated for a sampling of data from three Iowa local food projects where farmers sold to institutional markets such as hospitals, restaurants, and conference centers. The food traveled an average of 44.6 miles to reach its destination, compared with an estimated 1,546 miles if these food items had arrived from conventional national sources.”

“Would there be transportation fuel savings and reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions if more food were produced and distributed in local and regional food systems? To answer this question, we calculated fuel use and CO2 emissions to transport 10 percent of the estimated total Iowa per capita consumption of 28 fresh produce items for three different food systems. A number of assumptions were used regarding production origin, distance traveled, load capacity, and fuel economy to make the calculations. The goal was for each of the three systems to transport 10 percent by weight of the estimated Iowa per capita consumption of these produce items from farm to point of sale.

The conventional system represented an integrated retail/wholesale buying system where national sources supply Iowa with produce using large semitrailer trucks. The Iowa-based regional system involved a scenario modeled after an existing Iowa-based distribution infrastructure. In this scenario a cooperating network of Iowa farmers would supply produce to Iowa retailers and wholesalers using large semitrailer and midsize trucks. The local system represented farmers who market directly to consumers through community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises and farmers markets, or through institutional markets such as restaurants, hospitals, and conference centers. This system used small light trucks. The conventional system used 4 to 17 times more fuel than the Iowa-based regional and local systems, depending on the system and truck type. The same conventional system released from 5 to 17 times more CO2 from the burning of this fuel than the Iowa-based regional and local systems.

Growing and transporting 10 percent more of the produce for Iowa consumption in an Iowa-based regional or local food system would result in an annual savings ranging from 280 to 346 thousand gallons of fuel, depending on the system and truck type. The high end of this fuel reduction would be equivalent to the average annual diesel fuel use of 108 Iowa farms. Growing and transporting 10 percent more of the produce for Iowa consumption in an Iowa-based regional or local food system would result in an annual reduction in CO2 emissions ranging from 6.7 to 7.9 million pounds, depending on the system and truck type.

These fuel savings and CO2 reductions may seem small when considering total fuel use and CO2 emissions in Iowa, but our estimates represent less than 1 percent of total Iowa food and beverage consumption by weight (not including water). If a higher percentage of other foods and beverages were grown and/or processed in Iowa, the reduction in fuel use and CO2 emissions from food transport would undoubtedly be much greater.”

Though the act of buying locally may seem like a simple decision, these numbers demonstrate that it is in fact very important. And in our society, the choices of the consumer determine the future course of any industry. If enough people make the choice to buy locally grown food in the supermarket and refuse produce that is hauled in from thousands of miles away, changes will be made by wholesalers and retailers to ensure all produce is locally grown.

Better yet, go straight to the source and find a farmer’s market in your area. This way, you can find out exactly how the food was grown and where it came from directly from the person who grew it. Understandably for many people with busy lives, the issue of practicality sometimes gets in the way. It always seems so much easier to pop into a local grocery chain to pick up dinner the day of the meal rather than planning it out a few days in advance and finding your way to a farmer’s market during hours that may not be convenient. While it is possible to buy organic at larger grocery stores, it’s difficult to stay local. More often than not, produce will just have a sticker that says USA, meaning you have no idea where in the country it actually came from.

So what’s the answer if you want to find a way to support local, sustainable agriculture yet are too busy to make time for a farmer’s market a few times a week. A resource I found through the Sustainable Table called the Eat Well Guide is an excellent option. This is an all inclusive search platform that allows you to enter a zip code and/or keywords to search for sustainable businesses in your area. A cool feature is that it will immediately take you to a category list after searching on a zip code and give you the following options, among others:

  • Ranches
  • Butchers
  • Caterers
  • Co-ops
  • CSA (community supported agriculture)
  • Coffee Shops
  • Farmers
  • Farmer’s Markets
  • Restaurants
  • Stores

You can whittle down your search results with these categories and continue your search, which provides you with contact info, locations, and website info for all of these businesses. This is a great tool for expanding your list of vendors that promote sustainability beyond those you see at the farmer’s market.

Jan 8 / Tom Woodward

Pheasant Pie

My roommate Hennie is an avid hunter and an all around generous guy. Over Christmas break, he brought back a nice haul of pheasants from a hunting trip. He tried out a new recipe of Pheasant Pie (not the exact recipe but close) and let all of us roomies have a go at it.  Usually, I’d steer clear of the gluten, but given that it was a type of meat I usually don’t get to eat, I figured it was worth it.  As a game bird, it has a fantastic strong flavor that has much more kick behind it than your typical store bought turkey or chicken.

More than the taste, I enjoy the fact that I know exactly where this meat came from, how it was cleaned, and how it was cooked.  With the exception of the meat from most local farmer’s markets, it’s nearly impossible to get peace of mind about the origin of our meat.  With the expansion of factory farming in recent decades, meat production is now a streamlined assembly line process.  A few of the many downsides of this process are e.coli and the fact that your hamburger may contain meat from many different cows.  There’s also the life of the animal to consider.  A cow in the factory farming system lives their shorter-that-would-be-natural life in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), stuffed side by side in pens of their own manure with other cattle, fed a diet of corn, hormones, and antibiotics.

This is in contrast to a 100% grass fed cow, who spends their life outdoors eating blades of grass, the food nature intended.  Though some claim that the act of hunting and eating meat in general is inhumane, I disagree completely. Unlike those factory raised and slaughtered animals, the pheasant I’m eating was able to live a natural life on it’s own terms until it’s death. Yes it was eventually killed and eaten, but that is how nature intends it to happen whether by a human or another animal predator.

Jan 1 / Tom Woodward

Review of Food, Inc.

Food Inc. (2008) is a film directed by Robert Kenner which takes us behind the veil of the business of food in the United States. The film is an unflattering examination of how food production in our country has become more consolidated over the past 50 years, relying on innovations in technology and means of production to cut costs to consumers and turn windfall profits. The decrease in prices and increase in overall production have come with enormous costs to the consumer, the employees of the corporate food companies, and the environment. Food Inc delves into the following topics, among others:

  • Closed Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s)
  • Farm Subsides
  • E.coli poisoning
  • Predominance of diabetes in lower income households
  • The close connections between corporate food production and regulatory bodies like the FDA, USDA, and EPA
  • The inability of regulatory bodies like the USDA and FDA to change things for the better due to the stranglehold the large corporations have on legislation and litigation

Some highlights and quick hits from the movie:

  • 50 years ago, the top 5 beef producers in the US had only 20% of the market share. Currently the top 4 producers dominate 80% of the market share.
  • In 1950, chickens were allowed 70 days to be raised to full maturity before slaughter. Currently, large corporations like Tyson mandate no more than 48 days.
  • “The fact that I have to write a book to tell people where their food comes from shows just how far removed we are from it.” – Michael Pollan
  • Under the Bush administration, the former chief lobbyist for the beef industry was given the position of chief of staff of the USDA.
  • In 1972, the FDA conducted approximately 50,000 food inspections. In 2006, they conducted 9,164.
  • “Our system is skewed towards bad calories. These calories are cheaper because they come from highly subsidized commodity crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. This needs to be reversed in order to make carrots cheaper than chips.” – Michael Pollan
  • 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will develop early onset diabetes. Among minorities, this number will be 1 in 2.
  • “We’ve allowed ourselves to be wholly ignorant of something so intimate as the food that we eat.” – Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms
  • When cheap American subsidized corn flooded the Mexican market, 1.5 million Mexican corn farmers were put out of business. Many of them were enticed to come work in American meat processing plants since they had no other option.

The film was very informative and truly serves it’s purpose of lifting the veil of where our food comes from. Beyond this, it presents a very bleak picture for both farmers and consumers. Due to significant lobbying, a lack of effective regulation, the threat of litigation, and massive financial reserves, the corporations in charge of what we eat are in a position to dictate the terms. They have effectively lowered the price of their raw materials (corn, wheat, and soybeans) through farm subsidies, allowing them to supply fast food and processed products at lower prices than fresh foods. This presents a very painful dilemma for people on a budget who are trying to maintain a healthy diet. As Michael Pollan said, we desperately need to find a way to make carrots cheaper than chips.