Sunday, December 31, 2017

From the Archives - UC Santa Barbara Bike Paths


My older daughter, a high school junior, wants a car when she goes off to college. This is comical for two reasons: 1) she doesn’t even know where she’ll be going yet and thus whether a car would be appropriate, and 2) it’s not like you can just ask your parents for a car ... can you? Myself, I hate cars, so why would I give one to anybody?

When I was in college, I naturally rode my bike everywhere. (I didn’t get my first car until I’d been married for three years and my wife needed one.) At Berkeley, commuting by bike was (and is) serious business, with real traffic and real laws that are really enforced. But at UC Santa Barbara, where I spent my first two years of college, biking was just this big joke that everybody was in on. Just now I randomly stumbled across this article about biking at UCSB, which basically said, “Hey, kids, did you know you’re supposed to obey traffic laws?” The fact of this article attests to the lawlessness of the bike paths at UCSB. So does the following post, from my archives.

[You will note in the photo above, and others in this post, that nobody biking to class at UCSB wears a helmet. At least that was true when I was there. Wearing a helmet simply never occurred to us.]

The UCSB Bike Paths - March 6, 1989

Laugh all you want at the shocking tales you hear about the UCSB bike paths. Heck, I do too. But for those who lack eight years of bicycle racing experience, the daily traumas are no laughing matter, and the accident rate gets top billing in our campus newspapers. The other day, I rode along the bike path reading in the UCSB Generic that there were 212 bike accidents in the past year alone that required immediate medical attention. The article, which was incidentally one of the most poorly written I’ve ever read, began to offer a solution: “Lex Murray, bicycling instructor at UCSB, feels that common sense would...” There the article runs off the bottom of the page, and never picks up again. Dang.

I’ve found that one of the biggest hazards is the pedestrian contingent. If they wanted to be safe, they would never dare to use the crosswalks, but since they simply must cross over the bike path, they take their chances. The out-of-towners get it the worst, since in their complete ignorance of the bike situation they wander right into traffic and get hit. During my Freshman Orientation at UCSB, one of my group members was the victim of a high‑speed crash which wasn’t just entertaining, but also artistic, with the rider flying through the air like an acrobat.

Some pedestrians get so flustered at the crosswalks, they actually just close their eyes and walk across, praying to God that they don’t get hit. Perhaps more common are the people that look at an oncoming cyclist, check to see that he is paying attention, and arrogantly walk straight across his path, forcing the cyclist to slow down. (This is really stupid, since few bikes at UCSB have working brakes.) These boneheads are my favorite: whenever I detect that I’m being scanned like this, I accelerate and head straight for the guy, staring into his eyes like a lunatic. I have yet to lose my right‑of‑way (although when I finally do, it’ll be ugly).

I think the most dangerous bicycle commuting factor at UCSB is lack of confidence. Allow me to illustrate just what kind of confidence I’m talking about. While exchanging war stories with friends from the cycling team, I described a crash I had a few years ago. Towards the end of a fast criterium in Denver, there was a big pileup. I thought I could squeak by it, but a guy ahead of me cut over into my path and my brake lever went right into one of his haunches. Flipping over my handlebars, I watched, with a strange sense of peace, almost a calmness, as the ground flew towards my face. I took the impact on my chin, splitting it open. At this point in my rendition of the story, one of my teammates asked me why I didn’t let go of the handlebars to catch myself on my hands. Realizing this guy was obviously a novice, a pal explained, “He still thought he could ride it out!”

Simply, the attitude a rider must take on the UCSB bike path, is this: “Nothing can crash me; I am invincible.” If you firmly believe this, then nobody will mess with you because they will know. To keep the rubber side down, riding defensively isn’t enough—you must ride offensively. And when things get sketchy, you cannot panic. You must absolutely refuse to go down—once you submit to fate, you’re a goner.

Your typical UCSB student tends to be pretty self-assured, even cocky, about his bike safety. Perhaps part of it is that he believes his body is as indestructible as his 40+ pound beach cruiser. It’s just a big game to him—which is good. I’ve had some close calls but my fellow students seldom panic. The other guy might simply ignore that we’ve locked handlebars, or he’ll find amusement in our mutual fight for control. Occasionally, he’ll say something witty like, “Whoa, dude!”

I have identified two things that make the UCSB bike paths particularly tricky. One is that there are these roundabouts that nobody knows how to negotiate. Students here bike between classes pretty much on autopilot, which normally works fine, but then you reach a roundabout and are yanked out of your mental haze because it suddenly seems like bikes are coming at you from every direction.

The other problem is congestion. You don’t see too much of this between classes, or even right before a class starts, because nobody here worries much about getting to class on time. But as soon as a class period ends, everyone is out of that lecture hall like a shot, students pouring out of buildings and mounting their bikes. The next five or ten minutes are total gridlock, but without the reduction in speed or observance of safe distance motorists give one another. After all, we’re all on bikes so nobody can get hurt, right?

Just the other day I found myself in the midst of a bike path nightmare. Somehow, about ten of us got suddenly crammed into the space that only one or two bikes could safely occupy. To make matters worse, I was travelling about ten miles per hour faster than anybody else (and we were all cruising). Tapping into my mountain biking skills, I squeezed my bike handlebars, which are about 28 inches wide, through an opening about 18 inches wide by putting one half of the handlebar through at a time. Had anyone panicked, we all would have been history. Instead, there was a collective burst of laughter.

But not everyone is so sanguine. Some students recognize the danger; panic; and succumb. I will sometimes see two riders on a collision course panic five feet from impact, close their eyes, and scream, and my immediate reaction is, “What a cop‑out! They didn’t even try!” Once things get out of hand, these riders just submit. That probably causes most of their crashes.

Why, just today I was coming out of the Phelps Hall parking lot, and two girls coming in the other direction thought they were going to hit me and panicked. They shrieked and almost crashed into each other. Meanwhile, I calmly held my line and they missed me by a good ten inches. Not half a second later, as I turned onto the bike path, another biker cut the corner to the inside and we really were destined for collision. A natural instinct here would be to throw up your hands to protect your face, which would be carnage. But I resisted the impulse based on my special training. I hit the brakes hard. Mafac cantilevers in the front, coupled with a Shimano U‑brake in the rear, really carried the day and I averted disaster by stopping on a dime. The other rider, totally freaked out, flew off in a skew direction. (If I had been cutting the turn to the inside like that, I would have expected near disaster and not lost my cool like that.) As I pulled away, shaking my head, another guy gave me a knowing look, as if to say—what? I don’t know for sure. But something profound.

Now, all this being said, it’s possible to be too confident. And that’s exactly what led to what my friends and I now call “the Gump Incident.” My friend John was the perp/victim. He was riding along no-handed, reading the school paper, not a care in the world, minding his own business, not bothering anybody, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever (this is all a standard preamble when describing a bike accident), this fricking parked car appears out of nowhere! I mean, one second he’s just riding along, and the next second he’s plowing right into the back of this car! And it’s like, what was that car even doing there, other than sitting next to the curb being parked? The audacity!

Now, there are a couple of things to keep in mind about the Gump Incident. First, it didn’t technically happen on the bike path; it was on Pardall Road, an Isla Vista street that the bike path empties onto, so perhaps a slight increase in caution would have been wise. Second, it could have happened to any of us, because sometimes you get engrossed in an article and don’t really realize that you’ve left the bike path and are in the street. So when my friends and I refer to the Gump Incident, it’s affectionately, not pejoratively.

Now I know just what you’re thinking. “That Dana, he’s a cocky one, and he’ll get his, just you wait.” Yeah, yeah, of course you’re right; deep down inside, I know there’s a Huffy or Schwinn out there with my name on it. And when I do go down, it’s gonna be incredible to behold. First there’ll be an ear-splitting squeal as I lock up my rear wheel and my Tioga City‑Slicker lays down a rubber road. Then you’ll hear something like “LOOK OUT, GEORGE!” (even though there’s no specific reason to suspect the other biker will think I’m named George). Then the screams of onlookers will almost drown out the krunking of mangled metal as Deore XT meets Schwinn-Approved in something like a bizarre ad hoc metallurgical experiment. You may hear my jeans or shorts rip as they’re dragged across a spiky bit of bike, but if bare flesh meets metal the carnage might be silent, like a carpenter’s rasp zipping up curls of soft pine. You may hear me yell, “You BASTARD!” just before riders and bikes alike are consumed in a six‑foot fireball that will send shards of molten metal and rubber flying for hundreds of yards. Jaws will drop, beautiful girls will sob, and an early dusk will come over Santa Barbara as the mushroom cloud slowly climbs and grows and smears out the sky.

Until then, I’ll continue to ride like a man possessed. After all, this is a way of life here at UCSB.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Santa, Lance Armstrong, and the Christmas Eve Doldrums


Please don’t read this aloud to a small child. And now that you’ve stopped reading aloud, I can tell you why: I don’t want to spoil anybody’s belief in Santa. In this post I describe the Christmas Eve doldrums, a way I tried to deal with them, and my heart-to-heart with my teenage daughters about the Santa myth.

Christmas Eve doldrums

I mean doldrums in both senses: the general idea of stagnation & depression, and also the equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds. What I mean is that the holiday season is kind of like monsoon season, or what we might now call hurricane season. Going shopping for presents is, to me, like deliberately heading into a storm. And though I enjoy the slowdown at work that comes with the holidays, I also find myself feeling overwhelmed by the socializing, the music, and (above all else) the retail cyclone we get whirled into.

Of course Christmas Eve night is the hardest of all ... it’s when I have to wrap the rest of the presents, including each and every item that goes into each kid’s stocking. My wife thought I was crazy to do this when we started doing Christmas stockings for our kids. My rationale was that my parents always wrapped each stocking item, so I ought to continue the tradition. I now realize that my wife was right: I am crazy, and so were my parents. But I’m kind of stuck with the tradition.

Perhaps it was in anticipation of this onslaught that one year my mom went off by herself on Christmas Eve and watched Billy the Kid, the 1938 ballet written by Aaron Copeland, on TV. (This was our piece-of-crap black-and-white Panasonic.) To me this seemed an incomprehensible act. I was like, What does Billy the Kid have to do with Christmas? And moreover, what does watching TV have to do with us kids, on the night before Christmas? I interrogated my mom about this and she replied, “Sssh—just watch.” So I watched for like twenty minutes, half-expecting Santa to burst out on the scene, and when it became apparent he wasn’t going to show, I got bored and wandered off. Now I can relate to my mom’s desire to do something normal, non-child-centric, and non-holiday-themed with her Christmas Eve, before all the tumult of Christmas Day.

Our escape

My wife and I are similarly stalling this evening. I’m blogging, obviously, but even before that we were AWOL from holiday activities. My wife sought the sanctuary of our bedroom (which, as a Christmas gift staging area, is off limits to the kids this weekend) to read a P.G. Wodehouse novel. I took to my home office to research a mystery that arrived in my e-mail earlier in the evening. The mystery is: what is the meaning of this painting?

My friend’s e-mail read, “We’re stranded at a holiday inn in silverthorne, co, because i70 is closed. This painting is in the lobby.”

Now, in case you don’t follow cycling, this painting has a very strange characteristic: it features two (possibly three) Tour de France champions in head-to-head competition despite the fact that they raced during different eras. Bernard Hinault, the second rider from the left, raced his last Tour in 1986. The rider in the lead, Lance Armstrong, didn’t wear the yellow leader’s jersey (featured here) until 1999.

Clearly, the artist combined two photos from the Tour de France: one from 1984 or 1985, and the other from 1999. Here they are.

The artist has replaced Fernando Escartin with Hinault, and took that dude in the red jersey and white cap along with him. And he swapped out Laurent Fignon for Miguel Indurain. (At least, I think the rider on the far right in the painting is Indurain. This would still be anachronistic; Indurain did overlap with Hinault by a couple of years, but didn’t finish either of those Tours and certainly wouldn’t have been near the front during a mountain stage. It’s also possible this rider is Alex Zülle, who made the podium with Lance in 1999. The painting isn’t good enough to know for sure.)

Why would the artist juxtapose Lance with Hinault? Was he or she making a statement about these being champions of similar caliber?

It could be. On the other hand, maybe this artist just had a couple (or a pile) of photos to work from, knew and cared little about who else (besides Lance) had raced a bike, and painted whatever he or she felt like. (It’s surprising to me how careless people can be. I saw a bike catalog once where the photographer had accidentally—or based on some aesthetic preference—flipped the photo so it was a mirror image, and the bike’s drivetrain was on the wrong side.)

It dawned on me that the artist might think he or she was being funny. “Wouldn’t that be great if, like, Lance and Bernie had raced at the same time?” This made me think of the silly painting—a takeoff on a more famous one,“Nighthawks”—featuring a similar character substitution.

“Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome for Bogie, Marilyn, Elvis, and James Dean to be, like, hanging out together?” Seems like a pretty thin idea to base a serious artwork on, but there you have it. I wonder: did this artist whose work graces the Holiday Inn in Silverthorne take himself or herself seriously? And did the manager of the Holiday Inn? And are these one and the same person?

Then I remembered this Miyata calendar I had back in like 1981 that featured paintings of riders on the Capri Sonne team, riding Team  Miyata bicycles. Each painting was taken from some cool old photo, with the focal point of the photo (usually somebody like Eddy Merckx) swapped out for a Capri Sonne rider. I started researching this calendar, which led to the kind of pointless time suck the Internet is famous for, and this dragged me ever farther in to the Christmas Eve doldrums. I couldn’t keep with it.

Besides, my kids were still up so I had to set a good example. Watching a classic opera on PBS is one thing, but browsing Internet photos is another entirely. So I decided to do something with my kids. We took a walk through the neighborhood to look at the candle-aria. At least, that’s what I thought it was called. My kids laughed in my face and corrected me: it’s luminaria. You know, the votives inside paper bags that line the sidewalks in some lucky neighborhoods (such as mine):

During the walk I decided, suddenly, it was time to have the uncomfortable conversation with my kids about Santa. “Alexa,” I said, “you do know there’s no Santa ... right?” She gasped in disbelief. “Dad!” she protested, “I’m sixteen years old!”

Ha! Once again my deadpan delivery fooled her. I love doing this with my kid. She falls for my facetiousness—hook, line, and sinker—every time. But I was curious to know: how long had she believed in Santa?

“Well, I guess until I was about eight,” she said. “It just seemed impossible to me that he could make it to every house in the world in so short a time. So I started comparing notes with my friends, and we all kind of concluded at the same time that Santa wasn’t real. Of course we played along to keep getting the presents.”

I asked my younger daughter. “Well, I’m not sure I ever really believed there was a Santa,” she said. “I guess I thought it went from person to person, that anybody could be Santa who wanted to give you gifts.”

I replied, “So when you and your sister left cookies for Santa, who did you think ate them? Me?” She said, “Well, no ... I guess I didn’t really think it through.” This is probably a good thing. It might have been troubling for her to think of some prowler sneaking into our home, eating these cookies, and leaving a bunch of presents.

I’ve written before, in my holiday newsletter and in these pages, about how if you spill the beans about Santa, then the Tooth Fairy myth is suddenly in great jeopardy, and we need that myth in order to keep our kids’ spirits up when it comes to losing a tooth, having blood in their mouths, and this weird tender hollow in their gums (often with a shred or two of loose flesh). I asked Alexa how long she had believed in the Tooth Fairy.

“I believed in the Tooth Fairy for about another year,” she admitted. “It just didn’t seem possible that you could get that tooth out from under my pillow without waking me. In fact, I did some tests where I put the tooth as far from the outer edge of my bed as possible, in a place you’d never be able to find, to see if I could catch you in the act.” I told her I remembered those times very well. It had been a pain in the ass. But I’m glad the seeming impossibility of my efforts extended the myth a bit longer.

(You may be wondering what Santa has to do with Lance Armstrong. Well, a friend of mine did a bike fitting for Robin Williams around the time Lance admitted to all his doping, and my friend asked Williams what he thought about it. Williams—who was a good friend of Lance’s—replied, “I was devastated. It was like when I was a kid and I learned there was no Santa.” This begs a question: did Williams really believe in Lance all that time, or was this a bit like Lindsay’s position on Santa: deciding not to think too hard about it? And how many others among us might have similarly suspended our skepticism?)

After the candle-aria—er, luminaria—walk, I felt the Christmas Eve doldrums lifting somewhat. I’d found this candid conversation with my kids heartening somehow; it’s nice to see that we can honor traditions like Christmas stockings while acknowledging the fiction involved and having a chuckle together. And it gives me hope that there will be a time, perhaps not too far from now, when I can slack off a bit on the stockings without ruining anybody’s childhood. But for now, I better post this little essay and get on with my night ... I have a lot of gift wrapping ahead of me.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

[Quasi-] South Beach Diet - Part II


In this follow-up to my last South Beach[-ish] post, I offer reports from the trenches (my brother’s and mine); some arcana about glycemic index and glycemic load; the good news about the cool food you can still eat with this approach; some responses to a commenter on my last post; and the truth about alcohol. (I know that last bit implies that somebody has been lying about alcohol, and really nobody has, but I had to throw that in to bait you. Along those lines I will now include this phrase—what your doctor doesn’t want you to know about losing weight—because that seems a popular way to draw people in as well. Also, this weird little trick that helps you lose half your body weight in 48 hours!)

The trenches

Gosh, what a totally irresponsible metaphor “the trenches” is. Of course this is nothing like battle or real hardship of any kind. Feeling like you ought to lose weight is a real luxury, when almost 800 million people on this planet are malnourished. “I’m just not as svelte as I was in college!” Oh, boo-hoo!

Do you hate me yet? Good, good. Anybody who is doing well on a diet (or better yet, a new eating approach that is realistic for long-term benefit) ought to be hated at least a little. I love this New Yorker cartoon where two women are at the café at their tennis club and one announces, “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week, but I’m already really annoying.” (No, I’m not going to talk about gluten in this post. That’s a whole topic of its own. Suffice to say I myself never met a glutenous mass I didn’t like.)

So far, in the eighteen days I’ve been on this diet, I’ve lost nine pounds. That’s not so bad, especially because I’ve been cheating a bit. If I did Phase 1 (see my previous post if you haven’t already), I’m sure I’d see more results. My brother, in the same time span, has lost about six pounds. He’s not doing Phase 1 either … and in fact, he’s cheating regularly because one of his kids has discovered baking and is thrusting lemon bars, cream puffs, banana bread, and cobbler at him. Believe me, I had a great time ribbing him about that. At least he’s honest with his food log, and is trying to be good (“1.5 small blueberry cobbler pieces … two small cookies … very thin slice fudge…”). Of course this is the time of year when everybody becomes a glutton, but that’s no excuse for eating whatever junk you’re offered. I e-mailed Bryan, “Do we need to get you a sign that says, ‘Please do not feed the human ... when he is given people food, his nutrition is impaired and he loses interest in hunting’?”

It is almost impossible to have dessert and be on a South Beach(-esque) program at the same time. Not entirely impossible, though:

A plum can be nice and sweet, but still good for you.  I think that’s mascarpone and mint leaves below it.

My wife is doing well on quasi-South-Beach, especially in her main goal of keeping me honest. Here is a sample of our joint food journal, from the first day back on the plan:

The first thing you’ll notice is how messy this journal is. My brother’s journal is neatly typed and available online for me to peek at whenever I want, but I’ll bet it’s not quite as complete. A paper journal that lives in the kitchen doesn’t miss a thing. The second thing you’ll notice in the above snapshot is that my wife is using the “smiley face” technique of reinforcing dietary (and exercise) principles. This is probably healthier than my shame-and-fear-based system.

Another quick note: it can be helpful to monitor body fat if your scale supports it, but such measurements are probably not very accurate. That looks a bit like 16.8% above but it actually says 11.8%. Whatever my body fat percentage really is, I expect that number to go down as I continue my South Beach(-esque) effort.

You’ll find a recipe lurking in my entry, for Mexican(-ish) rice. Here’s what you do: glug some olive oil in a pan, dice a whole onion and simmer it a while, then add some cooked, cut-up meat. I used leftover turkey white-meat from Thanksgiving because a) white meat, aka breast meat, is really good for you, and b) I hate it. (My favorite part of the bird is the skin.) Frying up the meat makes it way tastier—it’s worth the oil, I think. I shake a bunch of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Poultry Magic on there and a bunch of ground cumin, which is like magic. I sear that mixture on high heat, then throw in a can of stewed tomatoes. I simmer that a bit, then throw in cooked rice. I use brown rice because it’s better for you—it has almost six times the fiber of white rice. (White rice is useless. Don’t eat it. I used it with this batch because it was all I could find.)

I have a burrito practically every day made with beans, this rice, cheese (I don’t skimp on this, actually), and really good salsa. Pound for pound I think the salsa I get is more expensive than heroin, but it’s much better for you. These burritos rock. The deal is, when you put rice and beans together, you get a complete protein. (Click here for details.) Also, the fiber in beans, helped out by the cheese and by the bran in the brown rice, help that burrito burn slowly. That’s good because it means you won’t snack.

Also, because a burrito is a modular food, you can control the size and thus your intake. I either use a soft-taco size tortilla or half a regular tortilla. That’s a big enough burrito even for a big guy like me who works out a lot. Of course, the flour tortilla is complete crap, nutritionally. But what good is a diet that makes you want to kill yourself? Whole wheat tortillas should be banned.

Note, in the journal snapshot, my wife’s apple, raisins, and blueberries, and the zucchini, peppers, and cherry tomatoes we both had with dinner. Of course we should have had more vegetables (we were just easing into this South Beach thing). Note also the peanut butter. Sure, it’s pretty caloric (as a commenter on my last post pointed out) but it greatly helps with a feeling of satiety. This is crucial. If you try to cut down on calories without addressing satiety you’re going to be miserable. The point here is to reduce calories while still feeling satisfied. Hard boiled eggs are also good for satiety. I eat one of them then and I’m basically in no mood to eat for many hours.

How can we tell what foods will burn slowly?

Foods burn slowly according to how hard they are to digest. Obviously. Fiber slows down digestion, so it’s great. Meat also burns more slowly. I think cheese does too (and I’m not going to fact-check that because if there’s anything bad about cheese, I don’t want to know). What’s really cool is that slow-burning foods can actually slow down digestion of fast-burning foods consumed in the same meal. So the meat and beans in your burrito make the tortilla burn more slowly. That’s why when you eat a big burrito at a taqueria you don’t need to eat again for like four days. (Damn, I just drooled on my laptop.)

Here is one of my typical burritos. You can see a bit of cilantro creeping out the front. This will keep me going all the way until dinner, even on days that I work out.

There’s a numeric scale that describes how slowly a carbohydrate source will burn. It’s called the glycemic index (click here for details). It goes from 1 to 100. Anything over 50 is bad. Anything over 70 is really bad. You can download charts from the Internet. The digestive process, it turns out, is actually pretty mechanical. Chewy stuff takes longer and delivers its energy more gradually. (This is why I allow myself to eat gristle even when I’m trying to lose weight.)

Interestingly, the glycemic index (GI) of spaghetti is 46 (not very good), but the GI of al dente fettuccine is only 32. This isn’t too bad except that it’s impossible not to overeat with pasta ... a bite or two in, your eyes roll up into the back of your head and you abandon all pretense of self-control. You tell yourself things like “They’re just love handles!” and “Fat people are funnier, like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill!” and “I would look great in a double-breasted suit!” and “I can do this, I’m an athlete!” And that’s just your average joe. Pasta is especially dangerous if you have “baggage” like I do, such as my teenage tradition of eating all-you-can-eat pasta—usually 5 or 6 plates at a sitting—once a week for years.

But consistency isn’t everything. What makes food choices a bit more complicated is that it can be hard to predict how caloric a food is. Soba noodles, for example, are made of buckwheat flour, which is somehow relatively lo-cal. Buckwheat is not really wheat ... it’s a grass. No, wait, I just fact-checked and it’s not a grass. It’s a “pseudocereal,” related to quinoa, sorrel, knotweed, and rhubarb. (What is knotweed? I don’t know, but it’s probably like knothead, and you are what you eat, so be careful!) One great thing about buckwheat soba noodles is that  they have one calorie per gram, which makes it easy to measure your intake, plus that’s 32% fewer calories than semolina noodles.

The other good news is that the Huffington Post calls buckwheat “one of the healthiest foods you’re not eating.” This statement is arch and snotty, and Hufffpost is hip and modern, so you can see buckwheat has all kinds of cred. The bad news is that buckwheat soba noodles have a glycemic index of 59, which is on the not-so-good end of the spectrum. (Still way better than a baked potato at 111.) You know those so-called “glass” noodles? They’re made of sweet potatoes and have a GI of 39-45. And they confer the same groovy Asian-ness that soba do. So they’re a better choice.

So if glycemic index isn’t everything—due to variances in how caloric one substance is over another—what else do we need to consider? Well, for what it’s worth, there’s a separate scale called glycemic load. This scale, based on some formula the food people have devised, factors in the number of calories. These numbers don’t fall in such a nice range as GI, but suffice to say anything over 20 is bad, and single-digit numbers are the best. (Again, you can download charts online.)

For example, watermelon (as you might guess) has a high GI: 72, to be precise. This would be a good food for somebody with no teeth left. But we can have all we want, because it’s practically bereft of calories. Its glycemic load is just 4. Have at it!

Prunes have a nice low GI (29) but they’re also pretty sweet, so their load is 10 (which is still rather good). Carrots have a load of 3.5, which makes them a great “closer”—that food that is still sitting in a bowl on the table after you’ve eaten your little portion of indulgent goodness and are fantasizing about having seconds. After you munch down a few carrot sticks you might decide you’re not actually that hungry, per se ... maybe you were going to eat out of boredom but now you’re bored of the food itself. Congratulations! You’re going to dream about food all night and wake up ready to go toe-to-toe with that bathroom scale!

Glycemic load isn’t everything, but it does help us put certain foods in perspective. For example, the person who commented on my last post needs to be corrected. She said to avoid nuts because “they’re ‘healthy fat’ but a handful of nuts has, like 800 calories.” I think she was exaggerating for comic effect; it’s actually more like 170 calories. Still a lot, but the glycemic load of peanuts is a mere 1. That’s fricking amazing. No wonder they’re so satisfying. Last Saturday I rode my bike 70 miles, with 6,000 feet of climbing, but (after my modest glycogen window snack, a cup of honey-sweetened yogurt and a weird persimmon cookie), I just wasn’t that hungry so my lunch was just two handfuls of peanuts and 4 or 5 prunes. (When your body isn’t all fouled up by lots of sugary calories, it can burn fat like a motherfrockle. This is why distance athletes—whose bodies get especially good at this—are so freaking thin.)

So, if we don’t want to deprive ourselves of the foods we love, we just need to work on portion control, which is doable if for every part starchy, yummy goodness you make yourself plow through two parts bulky, low-glycemic-load vegetables. Cabbage is great for that. Yeah, it’s not the tastiest stuff, but that’s kind of the point. After eating a bunch of it you’re asking, “Could I be full?” rather than “Could I push past the pain and eat even more?” (Raw cabbage, I’ll concede, is almost inedible, except perhaps on a fish taco. Cabbage is better cooked, and the smell of cooking cabbage helps you lose your appetite—a win/win!)

If we’re going to be realistic here, napa cabbage is more charismatic than regular. It doesn’t have much flavor, but bulks foods out nicely (instead of bulking us out not-nicely). A cup of nappa cabbage has just 13 calories. It’s like the perfect thing to stuff yourself with. Best of all, you can spell it with either one “p” or two ... your choice! (I mixed and matched here, just to be more Google-query-friendly.) I have actually put nappa cabbage in a burrito, just to give it that realistic heft you get at taquerias. You wanna know the glycemic load of cabbage? It’s an infinitesimal 0.58! Amazing!

So ... what can I still eat while South-Beaching it?

The good news is, you can still eat anything with this approach, once you’re in phase 3 ... at least, the way I do it (and it’s working pretty well). But you can’t eat everything. That is, you need to figure out a few indulgent, non-South-Beach foods you just can’t live without, and keep eating them—but only occasionally, as a treat, and in small quantities with gobs of vegetables on the side. Other starchy or sweet foods will just have to go—you gotta choose your battles. So as much as I go on about pasta being too irresistible to mess with, I know I can never totally give it up. But if I’m going to occasionally submit to it, I better be pretty strict about desserts, white bread (like sourdough and baguettes, which I adore), and pretty much all baked goods. Oh, and I barely get to have pizza. Maybe this summer I’ll start riding Mount Diablo every weekend like I used to, and can cheat more.

But drinking ... that’s another matter.

What can I drink?

I’ll make this simple: don’t drink anything that isn’t a) water, or b) a drug delivery mechanism. Juice is all the sugar from fruit and none of the fiber so unless you’re actually trying to get fat, just skip it. If you have a reasonably balanced diet (such as South Beach) you’re getting plenty of vitamins without needing any juice. (“Vitamin water,” meanwhile, is sugar-water for morons.) Soda should be banned, but with a special dispensation for endurance athletes.

A commenter on my last post advised that you can “add splenda to all sorts of liquids and you can guzzle diet sodas.” I totally disagree. Diet soda confuses your body and triggers an insulin response, meanwhile dulling our senses to naturally sweet food, leading to the abuse of other sweets, according to this article and others. Splenda (sucralose) has long been thought safe, but recent studies (click here) link it to changes in intestinal microbes, altered glucose and insulin levels, and possibly cancer. Sure, we could debate the veracity of these studies, but why bother? Why defend chemicals designed to fool Mother Nature, just for the sake of justifying unsophisticated pleasures? If you have a constant craving for sweet drinks, you should try to figure out why. Shouldn’t you have cast off that childish fixation long ago?

Coffee (without cream or sugar) is completely fine. Drink up. Caffeine can even be an appetite suppressant, but be careful ... don’t be tempted to skip meals (which confuses your body, fouls up your energy levels, and creates diet-jeopardizing cravings). I don’t consider coffee a food, because it’s practically calorie-free. I think of it as a drug (and a very safe, useful one).

Alcohol is also, to my mind, also more of a drug than a food. But it’s a whole different deal from coffee because alcoholic beverages are highly caloric, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol they contain (so don’t bother trying to count the carbs in this or that beer). And calories are only part of the problem. Because alcohol is a toxin, when you drink your body shuts down its normal metabolic processes (like burning fat) until it’s dealt with the alcohol. Meanwhile, mixed drinks often involve sugary mixers or Coke, and drinking lowers your inhibitions so you might lose some of the discipline you’ve been trying to have about your eating. (Click here and here for details.)

(You think it was possible to resist that fourth helping of fries after drinking Belgian beer? It was not, nor was it possible to resist dipping the fries in mayo, Euro-style. But that was a special occasion.)

It kills me that there’s a whole website, Get Drunk Not Fat, dedicated to worrying about the number of carbs or other fillers in alcoholic beverages, when moderation alone is the way forward.

Does all this mean you shouldn’t drink at all when trying to lose weight? I don’t think so. Statistically, moderate drinkers are less likely to be overweight than teetotalers. Meanwhile, alcohol can be a great way to hide from your problems. (That was a joke.) The question of whether or not to drink should certainly involve not gaining weight, but weight is only one component of this bigger lifestyle choice. I think that where this South Beach[-esque] dietary approach is concerned, drinking should be treated like one of those carefully selected indulgences you might decide to allow yourself from time to time. But you better not allow too many of these indulgences, and you better indulge sparingly, if you’re serious about losing weight.

The result so far

Today my wife said to me, “You’re starting to get gaunt. You’re starting to look like a bike racer again.” This isn’t really a compliment. In fact, it’s almost a warning. I think the subtext was something like, “Watch yourself ... don’t do too good a job with this South Beach thing.” I’m happy to report that if things continue on this trend, I’ll be around or below 170 pounds for the hill climb bike race I have planned for January 1. Following that, I might just take my eating habits back in a more northerly direction, secure in the knowledge that I’m not at risk of becoming the next Humpty Dumpty.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

[Quasi-] South Beach Diet for Morons


This isn’t actually a post for morons. I thought the title would be funny, and “[Learnable Skill] for Dummies” is copyrighted. This is a shortcut to reading The South Beach Diet, and also a memoir of my weight loss efforts, but mainly a humor piece (because struggling with one’s weight is always funny, right?). Do not come here for an accurate, responsible distillation of the actual South Beach approach (which would be plagiarism and copyright infringement anyway). Call it Sloth Bleach Pseudo-Dieting(-ish). Okay?

Eight years ago in these pages, I wrote about “secondhand dieting”—whereby you end up on your spouse’s diet because he or she is doing the cooking. My goal when I wrote that was to get off the South Beach diet because I was actually perfectly happy with my weight. Well, fast-forward to last July and you’ll see, here, that as middle age has descended upon me, I am no longer happy with my weight—or, more specifically, with my belly. Toward the end of my “Ode on a Belly – Mine” post I declared my intention to do South Beach(-ish) for real, and to blog about the results. Well, here you go.

The good

The good news is, Sloth Bleach really works! When I started it, after my nephew’s wedding (and associated festivities) in late June, I weighed a whopping 193 pounds. I began recording everything I ate, and began eating very carefully, and a month later—just in time for an epic bike ride with my friends —I had lost 12 pounds and was down to 181. Success! I got down to 175 by the beginning of September and held this until the second week of October.

So, yeah … that’s the good news.

The bad

The bad news is, South Beach isn’t really a diet. If it were, it wouldn’t work, because diets never do. Why not? Because they can’t. It’s absurd to think that you could temporarily change your behavior and enjoy permanent benefits.

Let’s look at the logic, or lack thereof, that the dieting concept implies: 
  • Premise: I weigh x because for years I have eaten y calories a day, which is z more calories than I need (hence the weight gain that has motivated me to diet).
  • Premise: If I eat, say, 0.7y instead of y, I will turn z into a negative number—that is, I will be consuming fewer calories than I need—thus my body will burn a bunch of fat and I will lose weight.
  • Premise: Once I have achieved the lower weight that I desired, I can go back to eating y calories a day, which will still be z calories more than I need, and yet I somehow won’t gain back any weight.
  • Conclusion: I am a moron.
Look, if you’re eating the way you always have, and yet you’re gaining weight, something has changed. Perhaps you’re not as active. Perhaps this is just part of getting old. Perhaps it only seems like you’re eating the way you always have, but you’re actually fighting the tribulations of middle age, parenting, and/or the working grind by self-medicating with extra booze, extra butter, or extra sloth. Whatever the case, it is impossible to implement a short-term fix to lose the weight (i.e., go on a diet and expect lasting success).

South Beach is not a diet, it’s an approach. It’s a permanent change in the style of eating that you do, that will yield permanent weight loss results if and only if you stick with it for the rest of your life—which notion is, I’ll admit, depressing as hell. But then, so is ongoing weight gain.

In case you’re hoping these caveats are theoretical, they’re not. I fell off the South Beach wagon because I started taking trips to my hometown to take care of my ailing father, then to help with his hospice, and then to spread his ashes. In order to cope, I ate breathtaking amounts of food, Beck’sted copiously, and allowed myself to eschew exercise entirely. The result is that I gained back half the weight I’d lost through South Beach.

(What do I mean by breathtaking amounts of food? Well, for one thing, my brothers and I would eat indulgent meals out such as all-u-can-eat pasta, and for another, we tended—almost without fail—to eat a pint of ice cream apiece, every night. Or to be precise, four quarter-pints.)

So, yeah—my South Beach effort had yielded weight loss results only while I stuck with it. Recently I found myself back up to the mid-180s. Something had to be done, so I resolved recently to sign up for the San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb bike race on January 1, to force me to adopt South Beach again. (Fear of disgrace is a great motivator.)

By the way, you may be aware that for years I’ve professed that the real key to staying skinny is to be a long-distance cyclist. I still hold this to be true, but with two caveats: 1) I can’t exactly advocate that for the lay reader because it takes a lot of time and it’s best to start young, and 2) I myself, despite gobs of muscle memory, don’t have the time and/or opportunity for that anymore.

The ugly

I’ll bet you’re expecting me to say being overweight is ugly. Well, I won’t. It’s being old that’s ugly. No it’s not—I’m just playing with you. This whole thing isn’t about looks. It’s about health. Being healthy and fit happens to look better than being unhealthy and overweight, but that’s incidental. I used the heading “The ugly” above simply because The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I mean, duh!

The buddy system

It’s easier to change your behavior—especially in a way that involves reducing creature comforts—when you have a buddy along. Here’s how the logic of that works. 
  • Premise: Misery loves company.
  • Premise: I love misery (obviously).
  • Conclusion: I love company. (This is according to the Transitive Law, I believe.)
The argument isn’t perfect, because eating the South Beach way isn’t a miserable experience, exactly, but I doubt anybody would deny that having friends involved in your effort will help.

My wife, supportive as ever, agreed to do South Beach(-ish) with me. So did my brother Bryan, who isn’t doing an all-uphill bike race on January 1 but wants to lose weight anyway. This is only partly because I made fun of his belly when we were in Boulder together. “OMG,” you’re thinking, “you actually made fun of somebody because of his weight? What kind of monster are you?” The answer is, a sibling. Bryan made fun of my weight too, decades ago (when, at age 6 or 8, I had an oddly big belly). The chickens have come home to roost! But again, that’s only part of it. Bryan wants to be heathier, and we’re talking about doing a grueling 108-mile bike race, over giant Alpine passes, in a summer or two, so he appreciates my encouragement (even when it takes the form of taunts and jeers).

Where South Beach is concerned, the buddy system consists of sharing snippets of your daily journal, where you record not only what you eat but what you weigh each morning. So it’s not just a matter of providing encouragement, but also holding one another (and yourself) accountable. If a little bit of rivalry finds its way in there, well so be it. After all, that can be motivational, too.

In the case of my brother, the buddy system also means explaining how South Beach works—i.e., what you can and cannot eat. In case you’re intrigued by this miracle weight loss plan (which phrase I use here quite deliberately, to help Google direct people to this blog), I’m going to share my quickie, just-the-gist South Beach(-ish) wisdom with you as well.

How this thing works

South Beach is divided into phases. During Phase 1, you can’t have any fun at all—no bread, no pasta, and in fact no starches at all really, just lots of veggies and maybe some really unappealing whole grains like quinoa or something. The point is to get some immediate results, so as to motivate yourself. (Full disclosure: I don’t have the chutzpah to do Phase 1. If you think you do, maybe you should get the actual South Beach book.)

After a couple weeks on Phase 1, the plan goes, you move to Phase 2, which lets you have a few indulgences, but is still fairly austere. You do that for—what, a couple more weeks?—and then move to the third, final, permanent phase, which is—you guessed it!—phase 3. (Wow, you’re a quick study!) This final phase lasts either forever, or until your resolve flags.

More important than these phases is the emphasis on filling up on veggies instead of starches. The principle, as I understand it, is simple: we didn’t evolve to eat refined stuff like flour and sugar. That stuff is too calorically dense for us, especially since we’re not doing much physical labor anymore. (If this sounds like the Paleo diet, that’s a coincidence, since I know essentially nothing about it except that it’s probably annoying.)

Long story short, you essentially need to serve up all kinds of bulky, low-caloric, simple foods like vegetables, and fill your gaping gut with those instead of the tasty stuff. By “tasty” I mean “foodstuffs that have been manipulated to be more tasty.” (Obviously if we’re talking about all things that taste good, we should include fruit, vegetables, and other naturally tasty things, but the fact is, most people have forever thrown those over for highly manipulated crap like sugary cereal, “chicken” McNuggets, pasta, pizza, fries, etc. and I’m not going to pretend otherwise.)

So South Beach is way to reconcile what our bodies really need with what we feel like we need. We sorry humans have this pathetic need to feel full, because we’re so used to this feeling and because our souls are empty. And it’s actually okay to feel full, but only if it’s because a lot of high-fiber, low-calorie stuff is pushing against the inner wall of our bellies. We leave the table feeling sated, or at least bored of eating, and our overall calorie intake goes down.

In response, our bodies relearn how to burn fat efficiently. Meanwhile, our blood sugar becomes more stable. We snack less, eat better calories, enjoy all the benefits of the vegetables and meats we evolved to draw nourishment from, and become healthier. With our newfound health, we can cheat here and there and enjoy pasta again—because without pasta, life simply isn’t worth living. Obviously.

Some rules of thumb 
  • Try to avoid refined starches
    • If you have bread, make sure it’s whole grain (my family gets this Alvarado bead that has no flour, just wheat berries), and eat as little as possible of it (i.e., open-faced sandwiches only, and go for that really thin heel)
    • Sometimes I just have a big spoon of PB & J instead of a sandwich
    • Rule of thumb: if you have to butter it, you should just stop eating it
  • No pasta, unfortunately, except as a treat ... it is the hardest thing to eat in moderation
  • No pizza except as a treat (it’s a controlled substance in my household)
  • No alcohol ... sorry!  (Obviously you can cheat here, but alcohol is truly fattening, in all its forms including low-carb beer.)
  • If starchy stuff is served, try to eat a ton of vegetables along with it, like spinach or broccoli
  • Try to have brown rice instead of white whenever possible (it’s actually pretty good, not like whole wheat pasta, which is inedible)
  • The greener and more cruciferous your veggies, the better
    • Chard, broccoli, broccolini, and—yes—kale are all good
    • Cabbage is cheap and good and helps you lose your appetite
  • Eggplant is cool—slice it and put salt all over it for a while to chase out the bad-tasting liquid
  • Squash, zucchini, green beans, asparagus, celery, peppers are all great
  • Corn is barely a vegetable—almost more like a starch—so don’t eat it often
    • I think peas aren’t actually much better than corn
  • Asian veggies like daikon and bok choy are good choices and also make you super sophisticated
  • Fruit is okay, especially apples and other fiber-rich stuff
  • No juice ever, no soda ever, no freaking vitamin water for crying out loud, just water and tea and coffee
  • Record all your snacks, if you must snack
  • Watch the condiments! Lots of calories hiding there!
    • Salsa is great
    • Step up and start drinking your coffee black, with no sugar!
    • Black tea has to have milk but that won’t kill you
    • I guess milk in your coffee isn’t the end of the world, but half-and-half or cream? Really?
  • Hard boiled eggs are great ... very filling and they’re not fried in butter etc.
  • Burritos are great if you do them right:
    • Make your burritos with beans, brown rice, and either a soft-taco-size tortilla or half a regular tortilla (no, I’m not going to say a whole wheat tortilla because that’s just cruel)
    • You can still stuff that bad boy pretty full, so that the tortilla may not even totally wrap it up—more like a covered wagon
    • Shove other stuff in your burrito like a few cooked cabbage leaves, or some mushrooms, or grilled peppers, anything to flesh it out without being too caloric
    • Dice some onions real fine and throw them in ... it’s yummy and keeps you in the habit of messing about with vegetables at every opportunity
    • Throw some avocado slices on there when they’re in season because life is too short not to
    • Skip the sour cream ... it’s an indulgence and exactly the kind of empty calorie that fattens you up (that’s right, carbs aren’t the only evil)
    • Sometimes we have chips around but then come to our senses
  • If people are eating yummy caloric stuff around you, what a perfect time to show off your absurd discipline and imperviousness to temptation
  • Write down everything you eat, even if it’s like 1 chip
    • Nobody can eat just one”? I can!
    • Maybe if it gets to be too much hassle writing everything down you’ll snack less!
  • Smiley faces in the margins of your journal are a nice little zero-calorie reward!
So how’s it working out?

My brother e-mailed me a few days into our SB effort and said, “Thanks for the good tips! I'm inspired, truly. I started a food log of my own, and you’re right, Dana, just writing down what I had for dinner last night filled me with shame.” See? It’s working!

Just like I didn’t want to overwhelm my brother with arcane nutritional lore in our first few days of Sloth Bleach, I think it’s time to let you come up for air. Go watch a really dippy romantic comedy now, or wash your hair, or drink a beer, or whatever it is you do to release the viselike grip my relentless text has surely had on your poor head. And tune in next week for more inspiration; delicious, gossip-like updates on my brother’s and my progress (or frustration); and more useful information, including quick and easy lo-cal recipes like Mexican(-ish) rice and roasted Ewok!

Part II is here.

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