Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT)

Muscle Activation Techniques™ (MAT) is a very specific, non-medical, mechanically based process of evaluating and treating muscular imbalance and dysfunction. The goal of MAT is to increase the contractile capability of your muscles, resulting in increased strength, stability, range of motion, and reduced muscle and joint pain.  MAT is an effective treatment for injury recovery and rehabilitation, as well as chronic pain management for a variety of neuromuscular disorders.

How does MAT work in practice? Other bodywork modalities that address muscle and joint dysfunction primarily focus on “releasing,” or “loosening” muscles. Your physical therapist or massage therapist or other professional you are working with will identify tight muscles or limited range of motion and then proceed to knead, massage, or stretch those muscles in an attempt to increase range of motion and get rid of the feeling of pain and tightness that you are experiencing.

MAT is unique in that we view tight muscles and limited range of motion not as the primary culprits of pain and discomfort, but rather as symptoms caused by muscle dysfunction somewhere else in the body. By using a series of assessments a MAT practitioner will identify the muscles which are not working properly and then proceed to increase their ability to function, thereby allowing the tight muscles to relax.

For instance, imagine you wake up one morning and you are unable to bend over and touch your toes. This is assuming that at some point previously you were able to touch your toes. Try as you might, as you bend forward at the waist your lower back, hamstrings, and calves tighten up and prevent you from touching your toes. You think to yourself, “my hamstrings are tight, I need to stretch more.” Or, “my back is tight, I need to get a massage.” So you stretch a little bit or you get a massage and you feel better afterward and when you wake up the next morning you try to touch your toes again and you can’t do it.

The reason you still can’t touch your toes is because by stretching and massage you addressed the symptom, but not the cause. You experience muscle tightness not because you’re a bad person and you don’t stretch enough, but because it’s your body’s way of preventing you from moving into a position where you will be unable to support yourself. Your lower back and hamstrings tighten up and prevent you from touching your toes because if you actually managed to get down there your other muscles would be too weak to support your spine and you may end up with a herniated disk. Muscle tightness is a protective measure your body puts into place in order to save you from injury.

An MAT practitioner will identify the specific muscles which are not doing their job properly and improve their ability to function. An MAT session is essentially a personal training session, but instead of doing a comprehensive, full body work out, you will work just your weakest muscles, one muscle at a time. Targeting your weakest muscles is key because of a phenomenon called muscle compensation. If one of our muscles becomes stressed, overworked, injured, etc., then that muscle is able to effectively turn itself off to prevent itself becoming further injured. Since we have over three hundred skeletal muscles that can be considered “bone-movers,” we have a fair number of options for working around an injury.

A good example of muscle compensation is limping. You’re walking down the sidewalk, and a piece of it jumps out and grabs your foot and down you go. You bang your knee and when you dust yourself off and try to walk normally you find that it’s painful. But if you take a smaller step with that leg and dip a little bit, you can manage to make it home, fix yourself a drink, and feel sorry for yourself. You have created a workaround to a mechanical problem created by the injury. Every physical movement we execute is a mechanical puzzle that our brains will solve using whatever muscles they have available at the time. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. When your car has a mechanical failure it can’t create a new way of moving to get you to your destination. You have to pull over and call a tow truck.

Muscle compensation is a short-term solution to a mechanical movement problem, and it is a great survival mechanism. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, if you happened to stumble and injure your knee while running from a tiger, muscle compensation would have increased your chances of escaping and surviving long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation. However, if the injury is severe enough, or you repeatedly re-injure the same muscles so that they don’t have a chance to recover, it is possible that the short term solution your brain created to work around the mechanical problem will become your new permanent way of moving. After approximately eight weeks of relying on a compensation pattern your brain will “forget” about the “proper” way of doing things. The compensation pattern is usually not the most efficient way of moving, and over months and years can eventually lead to more dramatic compensation patterns and further muscle and joint dysfunction due to the added stress placed upon them. MAT practitioners typically refer to this state as “muscular imbalance,” which means the person is experiencing asymmetrical tension throughout their muscular system.

Understanding muscle compensation is crucial when recovering from an injury, because the process can mimic a passage from Catch 22. When you go to the physical therapist and they give you a rehab exercise to target specific muscles, often those same muscles will be overpowered by other stronger muscles due to compensation. The result is that your strong muscles get stronger, while your weak muscles never get a chance to participate in the exercise and slowly atrophy and become even weaker. This phenomenon is one of the reasons traditional rehab programs can be hit or miss. It’s not that they don’t work, or that the therapist doesn’t know what they’re doing, it’s just your brain is protecting your weak muscles and not signaling them to contract. MAT strives to bring those weak muscles into the fold so they have an opportunity participate with the strong muscles, allowing all the muscles to become stronger together.

The ultimate goal of MAT is to achieve symmetrical tension throughout the muscular system. Other modalities that concern themselves with muscle and joint dysfunction attempt to relieve tension, or release tension, or otherwise get rid of tension; which sounds great when you are experiencing the discomfort of muscular tension. But if we were actually able to get rid of all the tension in our bodies we would collapse on the floor. Muscular tension is what holds us up. Similar to a suspension bridge, where our bones are the struts and actual bridge and our muscles are the suspension cables, if we were to release the tension of the cables the bridge would collapse. When we experience that feeling of tightness in our muscles what we are really feeling is an imbalance of tension. When all of our muscles are pulling evenly and providing symmetrical tension throughout our bodies our subjective net experience of that tension is zero. When the muscles on the left side of our knee are pulling with the same amount of tension as the right side, there is an equal and opposite amount of force pulling in each direction and our joint maintains a nice, neutral position. When the muscles on the right side of the knee are not providing as much tension as those on the left, the tension is no longer symmetrical and the knee-joint has difficulty maintaining its neutral position. We experience this as tightness, pain, grinding, etc.

We can attempt to regain symmetrical tension by releasing”the tension of the muscles on the left side of the knee, the muscles which are working properly. This can be effective for relieving discomfort. But a muscles ability to produce tension is the definition of strength, so what we have really done is purposefully weaken muscles which were previously strong. This may make your knee feel better, but has also made it weaker, possibly setting you up for further injury.

Imagine a tent, one of those old school models with poles, string, and canvas. After setting up your tent, you find that it leans to the right. Ever the perfectionist, you know you won’t be able to fall asleep in the thing unless the poles are perfectly perpendicular to the ground. To make this happen you have two options: loosen the strings on the right side or tighten the strings on the left. You decide to loosen the strings on the right side, and then in the middle of the night the wind picks up and it starts to storm and you wake up smothered beneath a blanket of wet canvas. By loosening the right side you decreased the tension of the entire suspension system holding the tent up, weakening the entire structure enough that it could not withstand the added force of wind and rain. Had you instead tightened the left side of the tent until the central poles were perpendicular to the ground, the tent would have had a stronger structure and a better chance of holding up under the force of the storm.

Our bodies are a structural framework of bones held upright by an incredibly complex suspension system of muscles, and any suspension system will collapse for lack of tension. MAT is the only practice which uses this approach of “creating tension to relieve tension.” Our goal as practitioners is to restore symmetrical tension through increasing the “loose” muscles’ ability to produce tension and maintain the neutral position of the joint, and at the same time increase the overall strength of the muscles around the joint (and reduce the chance of subsequent injury).

Now that I’ve covered to gist of what MAT does, I’ll go into how MAT gets the brain to increase a muscle’s ability to contract. This is the point in my typical “What is MAT?” spiel that I start using words like “neurology,” and “neuromuscular,” and “neural pathways,” which tends to make people’s eyes glaze over and decide to just take my word for it. While I appreciate their trust, I also feel I haven’t really earned it yet. I could just as easily say “magic pixie dust.” So here I’ll try an oblique approach and introduce you to a substance called myelin.

Myelin is a whitish, fatty, waxy substance produced by our bodies to form an insulating sheath around our nerve fibers. The purpose of wrapping a nerve fiver with myelin is to increase the speed at which neural impulses are conducted. Not all of our nerve fibers are wrapped in myelin, and I’ll get to when and why and how some fibers get myelin and some don’t, but for now just think of nerves without myelin as a 1986 dial-up modem, and nerves with myelin as a next gen-broadband-wizbang-fiber optic-ethernet connection. The more myelin that the body wraps around the nerve, the faster the neural connection between the brain and the muscle.

We’ve all experienced how myelin works. Think of the last time you touched a hot stove without realizing it. The nerves connecting our brains to our sensory receptors for touch are wrapped in myelin, while the nerves connecting our brains to our pain receptors are not. When you put your hand on the hot stove, you probably yanked your hand away a second or two before you felt the pain from the burn. Or imagine the last time you stubbed your toe. You felt the impact of banging the chair leg, and then had enough time to think “shit!” and brace yourself for the pain you knew was on the way.

As humans, we posses the neural infrastructure to learn any skill that any other human can learn. We can all learn to throw a curve ball, learn another language, and play the cello. Whether we ultimately learn these skills and how well we perform them depends on how much we practice, and it is the process of practice which stimulates the production of myelin. The more you practice the cello, the more myelin your body will wrap around the nerves responsible for transferring the music in your brain to the muscles in your fingers, and the more enjoyable your screeching strings will sound to others.

This also illustrates the importance of good practice over bad practice. If you’ve ever been told that your golf swing, or piano playing, or yoga practice suffers from “bad habits,” what that really means is  you have developed less than optimal neural pathways for that skill. Your hundreds of hours of practice has been slightly wrong, and you have wrapped myelin around nerve fibers that do not allow for the most efficient execution of that skill. But it’s not a death sentence, you can always “rewire” the proper pathways with a little work and some proper coaching.

What does myelin have to do with Muscle Activation Techniques? Pretty much everything. MAT practitioners are essentially coaches for “rewiring” your motor pathways. If you experience discomfort while walking, going down stairs, or raising your arm above your head, that pain or tightness is an indication that you have developed “bad habits” for that particular skill. And yes, raising your arm is a skill. Every simple motion we perform everyday is a skill we had to learn, and we learned them with practice and myelin. Through specific neuromuscular stimulation an MAT practitioner will ensure that you are using the right muscles to execute a movement, which will allow you to repeat that movement properly enough times to encourage your body to insulate the associated nerve fibers with myelin.

Exercise—Why the Hell Bother?

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Chances are we’re all going to live into our eighties. Probably even into our nineties. Despite the risks of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and all the other ailments of our time—even despite car accidents, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, avian flu—it is a statistical probability that as Americans we will survive to a ripe old age. Many of us will indeed suffer from chronic diseases and acute injuries, and most of us will who do will survive them. Modern medicine is fantastic at keeping us alive, and it’s getting better every day.

However, it’s debatable whether modern medicine is good at keeping us healthy. So if we’re likely to live into our eighties and nineties it’s up to each of us to make sure we can afford to live that long, not just financially, but physically.

That’s where exercise comes in. Not government recommended, twenty minutes a day, three times a week exercise; we’re talking intense, rigorous exercise for an hour a day, six days a week. Sixty minutes, six days a week, minimum.

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Minimum!? Is it humanly possible to exercise more? It is, and we’re all built for it. Our bodies actually expect us to exercise that much, and if we don’t meet those expectations our bodies will slowly decay. Most people think of this as aging, but it’s not. Aging and decay are two separate things. Aging is inevitable, while decay is entirely preventable. Why do we decay? We can blame evolution.

Specifically we can blame our genes for decay. Sometimes what’s good for us as a species is not so great for us as individuals. In the days when famine was a real concern, which was not so long ago on an evolutionary scale, it made sense for the older generation to decline and die off rather quickly so that our limited resources would be available to the younger generation, ensuring the kids would live to reproduce and so carry our genes down the timeline. While the parents and adolescents would go out every day to hunt and gather, engaging in intense exercise and staying fit and healthy in the process, the grandparents would stay home and take care of the children. No doubt a useful occupation, but a relatively sedentary one. Once strong muscles atrophy, bones become brittle, and joints become stiff. Once the children become parents, and parents become grandparents, there’s not really much use for great-grandparents, so our genes tell our bodies to wither and die rather than consume precious calories that can be used to ensure our genes survive to the next generation.

Depressing? Hell yes it is. Our genes are not our friends; essentially they use us as self-propelled Xerox copiers to replicate themselves, then replace us for newer models. They give us a few golden years to impart some wisdom to our grandchildren while their parents are out bringing home the mammoth, and then we’re done. Decay is the default mode our bodies go into, but it is not inevitable. An hour of exercise a day will override the signals for decay, and stimulate growth.

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The biological process behind this phenomenon lies in two groups of hormones: cytokine-6 and cytokine-10 (c-6 and c-10). We can think of these as decay and growth signals for the body. We have a constant trickle of c-6 (decay) running through our bodies, telling our white blood cells to demolish aging and damaged cells. This is a good thing—every cell in our bodies has a planned life span. Cells that are past their prime run the risk of turning cancerous, so we want to replace them regularly. Ideally we want to stimulate growth by replacing those cells with stronger versions. For this to happen we must flood our bodies daily with c-10, and this only happens with vigorous exercise.

Why exercise? Exercise tells our genes that we are still useful, still relevant, that we’re still contributing to the tribe. Exercise tells our genes that we’re still hunting and gathering and collecting more calories for the group than we’re consuming individually. And so long as our genes believe that to be true they’ll let us stick around. More importantly for us, given that modern medicine will probably keep us alive for a long time, exercise will ensure that our bodies continue growing, and we will keep our physical ability to function as we age. And by function I don’t mean shuffle around with a walker; I mean run, jump, climb, hike, ski, or whatever it is you enjoy doing into your eighties and nineties.

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But six days a week? Can’t I get away with four? Think of it this way. The cells in your body are a yearly budget allotted to you by your genes. If you don’t spend your entire budget, if you don’t use your muscles, bones, sinews, tendons and capillaries to their full potential, your genes will take that as evidence you don’t need them, and your budget for the next year will be smaller. This is not aging. This is decay. Just be thankful our genes are idiots. We don’t actually have to run down a gnu and drag it back to the cave. We can fool our genes by running in the park, lifting some weights, taking a spin class—as long as our hearts pound and our muscles burn we can fool our genes into thinking we’re still relevant.

So go ahead and be selfish. Be an individual. To hell with the grandkids, they can fend for themselves. An hour a day, six days a week isn’t a burden—it’s giving the next generation the finger.

Furie’s Methadone Smoothie

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Why a Methadone Smoothie? Because from the instant we saunter out of the womb we’re all raving sugar addicts, hooked on that sweet white powder. Furie’s Methadone Smoothie will help wean you off your sugar cravings, and in no time at all you’ll notice the sweetness in real food again and be able to resist the siren call of cookies, cupcakes, and chocolate croissants.

Feel free to indulge in a Methadone Smoothie any time you have an urge for something sweet, especially when you’re first starting to cut down on your sugar consumption. They’re good for a quick and easy breakfast, a snack, or an after dinner dessert. I’d recommend that you eventually try not to have more than one a day, as the Methadone Smoothie is so tasty and convenient you may be tempted to drink all your meals. As grown ups we should try to eat solid food. But if you gots the shakes something awful and the Methadone Smoothie is the only thing standing between you and a pound bag of peanut M&Ms, don’t hesitate to fire up the blender (sadly M&M’s are not an acceptable ingredient in the Methadone Smoothie).

First we’ll start with a brief overview of portion sizes—which are not really all that important. Fat loss and muscle gain have more to do with what you eat; how much you eat only enters into it when sugars and starches are involved. What this translates to regarding the portion sizes I’ve laid out means you can feel free to exceed the protein and fat measurements, but not the sugar and starch. We’re trying to reset your insulin levels to get them as low as possible, which will enable you to access your stores of body fat for fuel.

What this means for the Methadone Smoothie is DO NOT CUT THE FAT in an attempt to reduce calories! You will just get hungry later and be tempted to reach for the donuts. Getting your sugar cravings under control can take weeks or months, so give yourself time to adjust and don’t set yourself up for failure early on by trying to starve yourself.

INGREDIENTS:

2 palms of protein = 2 scoops vanilla protein powder

If you’re not into protein powders this can be a little daunting. There are all sorts on the market and each one proclaims its superiority to the others. Generally whey protein powders are easily absorbed by the body, unless you have a specific intolerance to milk proteins. Lactose intolerance shouldn’t be an issue (I’m lactose intolerant myself) since most whey protein powders are free of lactose. There are also vegetarian protein powders, usually hemp based, if that’s more your style. Just avoid soy proteins—they’re difficult for humans to digest, are among the more heavily processed foods, and can have adverse hormonal side effects.

2 fists of veggies = 2 handfuls of baby spinach

It may sound unappealing, but just toss it in the blender. It’s good for you, and you won’t even taste it.

1 fist fruit = 1 handful of frozen mixed berries

Sometimes these can be expensive, depending on where you buy them. I’ve found the store brands at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to be the cheapest (around $3 a pound). Other places charge as much as $8 for half a pound of berries, so to hell with them.

1 palm of fat = 2 tablespoons of almond butter

If you want three tablespoons, go for it. You can also substitute peanut butter, cashew butter, or whatever you like. If you’re allergic to nuts, try half an avocado. It might sound weird, but it’s creamy and delicious. A couple of tablespoons of coconut oil is also a good alternative.

Misc = almond or coconut milk (however much you need to get the blender going smoothly).

Look at the nutrition label and buy the kind with the least amount of sugar, which is usually the the carton that says “unsweetened,” but not always.

PREPARATION:

Throw it all in a blender and push the button until it looks like a smoothie. Drink it straight from the blender or pour it in a glass if you’re more housebroken than I am.

FURIE’S METHADONE SMOOTHIE DON’TS:

Don’t use juice. Don’t use soy milk. Don’t add sugar, or honey, or agave, or any other natural or artificial sweeteners. And no bananas. If you find yourself out of almond or coconut milk, use water. It’s not as tasty, but it’s still pretty good.

Types of Dietary Fat and How They Affect our Cholesterol Levels

The Four Types of Fat:

Saturated Fat:

I’ll spare everyone the full chemistry lesson, but saturated fat derives its name from the hydrogen atoms that exist between the carbon atoms. In others words this fat is saturated with hydrogen. Saturated fats are very stable, freeze easily, and are typically solid at room temperature. As such, they resist oxidation and can last a long time before going rancid.

What’s the big deal with oxidation? Well, free oxygen atoms (or free radicals) are harmful to the body—think of what happens to a fire when you add more oxygen. Then imagine that happening inside your cells. When we talk about burning fat or glucose for energy it’s not figurative; our cells literally use controlled internal combustion to create energy from these fuels. If free oxygen enters the cell the controlled burn is compromised, destroying it down to its DNA. When we break down oxidized molecules during digestion, the oxygen atoms escape and run free throughout our bodies. This is also why anti-oxidants are touted as beneficial for our health, as they help our bodies resist the effects of free oxygen.

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Monounsaturated Fat:

Monounsaturated fats have one point in each molecule where the carbon atoms are joined together without a hydrogen atom to separate them. This lack of a hydrogen atom leaves space for a free oxygen atom to bond with the molecule, which makes unsaturated fats more susceptible to oxidation and less stable, meaning they will go bad sooner than saturated fat. Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, and are commonly referred to as oils.

Polyunsaturated Fat:

These fats contain two or more points in each molecule where the carbon atoms are joined together without a hydrogen atom to separate them. This leaves multiple spaces for free oxygen atoms to bond; consequently polyunsaturated fats become rancid much faster than other fats.

Trans Fat:

Trans fat is created in a laboratory from polyunsaturated fats by forcing hydrogen atoms (as in hydrogenated) to bond with the carbon atoms, artificially turning unsaturated fats into saturated fats. Trans fatty acids are a byproduct of this process. Why would people do such a thing? It makes cheap and incredibly shelf-stable fats for use in processed food.  Imagine the fabled Twinkie and its nuclear holocaust survivability.  One of the reasons the Twinkie remains pristine for so long is because it is loaded with hydrogenated and trans fats.  Well, perhaps not so much anymore, since trans fats have been banned by the FDA, so Twenty-First Century Twinkies may not be the Official Dessert of the Apocalypse like their Twentieth Century predecessors were.

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Conventional dietary wisdom tells us that saturated fats are bad for us and unsaturated fats are healthy, that we should consume fats that are only liquid at room temperature and shun those that are solid, but I hope I’ve managed to dispel this outdated quackery in my previous post.  Instead, think natural versus unnatural fats, or minimally processed versus heavily processed fats. How do you make olive oil? Press some olives. How do you make corn oil? Press some corn? Good luck–an ear of corn has less than one gram of fat. How do you make canola oil? Well, I just get some canola at the store and… wait, what the hell is a canola?

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It’s also important to understand that there are no sources of dietary fat that are solely one sort or the other.  For instance, lard is widely considered to be the worst of all fats, a greasy, demonic substance whose sole purpose is to clog our arteries with its abundance of saturated fat; meanwhile, olive oil is considered to be a nutritional messiah, destined to save us all from heart disease.  However, if we look at both of their compositions:

Lard is composed of 47% monounsaturated fat, 40% saturated fat, and 13% polyunsaturated fat.

Olive oil is 79% monounsaturated fat, 14% saturated fat, and 8% polyunsaturated fat.

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Lard is only 40% saturated fat, not quite the devil it’s been made out to be even if saturated fat was actually unhealthy.  And supposing saturated fat is bad for us, what do we do about olive oil?  It contains saturated fat as well, and 14% is not a negligible amount if we’re to believe that any amount of saturated fat will send our cholesterol through the roof.  Which brings us to…

Cholesterol:

Let’s dispel a huge misconception: blood cholesterol level is unrelated to dietary cholesterol—that is, whether your cholesterol level that the doctor shows you at the end of your physical exam is good or bad, high or low, has absolutely nothing to do with how much cholesterol is in the food that you eat.  Our livers produce the cholesterol in our blood streams, and they do so regardless of whether we eat cholesterol or not.

All cholesterol is the same—there are no types of cholesterol. What is commonly referred to as good or bad cholesterol really refers to the various lipoproteins that shuttle cholesterol through the bloodstream.  Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that does not dissolve in water (or blood), so our livers bond cholesterol molecules with lipoproteins to transport them to damaged cells for repair.  It is the size and consistency of these lipoproteins that are affected by our diets and can lead to arterial damage and heart disease.

Total Cholesterol Level does not take into account the type of lipoproteins or their ratios. A person with high HDL and low triglycerides (desirable) can have the same total cholesterol as someone with low HDL and high triglycerides (undesirable). Therefore, your Total Cholesterol Level is largely unimportant—it does not need to be under 200. Over 330 may indicate a problem, but the important concept to understand is that a high cholesterol number by itself does not cause heart disease; rather, it is the heart disease (or some other disease) which likely causes the body to raise cholesterol levels in an effort to repair whatever damage is occurring.

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Types of Lipoproteins:

HDL: High Density Lipoprotein, usually referred to as “good cholesterol.” The higher this number is, the lower your risk for heart disease.

LDL: Low Density Lipoprotein, usually referred to as “bad cholesterol.”  However, your actual risk depends more on the shape and form of the LDL. LDL can either come in large fluffy particles, which travel through the bloodstream without incident and can be considered neutral, or it can come in small dense particles. These small, dense LDL are the real culprit for heart disease, as they are small enough to lodge themselves in the arterial wall and eventually oxidize and cause damage to the arteries.

Triglycerides (VLDL): Triglycerides are not technically cholesterol; rather, they are used to shuttle fatty acids through the bloodstream, and they themselves come in packages of Very Low Density Lipoproteins (VLDL). Regardless, you should ask the doc for this number along with your HDL and LDL levels. Ideally you want this number to be low compared to your HDL.

What is causes bad cholesterol, and how can I avoid it?

When we say bad cholesterol, what we actually are talking about are LDL and VLDL particles, and we don’t mean that these particles are bad all the time, but only when they linger in our bloodstream too long. Our bodies use these particles for a variety of functions, mostly to repair damaged cells, but we want them to get where they are going in a hurry, like they have a mission to justify their short existence, not just to hang out in the bloodstream bullshitting with their buddies like they’re under a union contract and getting paid by the hour. If they hang out in the bloodstream too long they invite oxidation, arterial damage, and heart disease.

Why do these particles stay in the bloodstream rather than clock in on time at their place of work? Being small and dense instead of light and fluffy. And what causes this difference in size and consistency? Sugar, white flour, starches, alcohol, and other high carbohydrate foods cause lipoproteins to be small and dense. Also refined, highly processed vegetable oils such as corn oil, soy oil, margarine, and any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats or oils.

What makes these particles light and fluffy and ensures they get to where they are needed without getting caught up in the bloodstream? Minimally processed fats and oils—lard, butter, cream, and other animal fats and oils, and pressed vegetable oils like olive oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, etc.

How do you tell the difference between good vegetable oils and bad? Ask yourself if you could make it at home with a bit of work and some help from a Google search. As a general rule, if you can make it in your kitchen it’s good for you. If you can press it or grind it or render it at home it’s good for you. Lard, butter, cream, olive oil, and nut and seed oils can all be made in your kitchen. It may not be very practical, or enjoyable, or even cost-effective to make olive oil or cream in your kitchen, but it’s possible.

When I was five years old I remember sitting on the couch watching my mother churn butter in a Styrofoam cup with a straw. I think it took her an episode of MASH and an episode of Mary Tyler More to finish it, and it must have been a huge pain in the ass because I don’t remember her ever doing it again, but I thought she was some kind fairy/witch/genius for pulling it off.

Corn and soy oil cannot be made at home. They are superheated and super-pressurized in huge Breaking Bad blue meth-style vats, and if you did somehow defy chemistry and manage to make corn oil in your garage it would take roughly 50 pounds of corn to get a pound of corn oil. Conversely it takes 5-10 pounds of olives to press a pound of olive oil.

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“So, I just got my blood cholesterol numbers from the doc, and he says I need to get my cholesterol under 200”. Maybe, maybe not. If your doc doesn’t explain the optimal ratios, which I’m about to do, and instead insists you start taking cholesterol lowering drugs, I’d get a second opinion.

Here are the ratios you’re looking for when it comes to your Blood Cholesterol Levels, and if the results of your physical exam don’t specify them, call your doc and insist that you get them.

HDL/Cholesterol level: Divide your HDL by your total cholesterol. It should be above 24% (0.24).

Triglyceride/HDL: Divide your Triglycerides by your HDL. It should be below 2% (0.02).

For my next post I’ll have something that’s actually useful–a grocery list and a delicious recipe for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that will build muscle and keep insulin levels low so that you can burn fat and still be full.  And you’ll find no sissy-la-la tofu or turkey bacon or any other such nonsense in any of it.

Weight Loss Part 3–Dietary Fat

Story time!

Long, long ago (1958), a researcher from the University of Minnesota named Ancel Keyes began a study to determine what health, diet, and lifestyle factors might possibly correlate to the rising epidemic of heart attacks among middle-aged American men. This was a major concern at the time to politicians and government officials; given the United States had emerged from WWII a superpower, and our entire way of life was at odds with the the world’s only other superpower, and obviously everything American was superior to everything else in every other country, especially whatever those poor, miserable, fur-swaddled commies managed to get their hands on after standing in line all day, stomping their feet and rubbing their hands together—why, given our unheard of and ever-growing prosperity, were more and more of our men dying of heart attacks?

Keyes’s study was dubbed “The Seven Countries Study,” and included the United States, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Japan. This study became the basis for everything we now consider common knowledge about heart disease, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, diet, obesity, and exercise. In a nutshell, the escalation of heart disease correlates with blood cholesterol level, elevated blood pressure, obesity, and smoking, and these factors can be positively influenced through a healthy diet and exercise. As far as diet is concerned, a diet high in fat correlates with elevated blood cholesterol, which correlates with high blood pressure, which indicates an increased risk of heart disease. If you eat fat, you die.

Finally, we have an answer for the rising rate of heart attacks! And it’s such an elegant solution! We just get Americans to stop eating butter, and bacon, and lard, and maybe cut back a little on smoking, and our middle-aged men will be in tip-top shape to kick some serious commie ass!

Actually, Keyes’s contemporaries were skeptical of the findings, especially the board members at the American Heart Association, and additional clinical studies were scheduled. But funding for more research was not forthcoming. A few years later, Ancel Keyes and his colleges who supported his research became AHA board themselves, and The Seven Countries Study became gospel.

The Seven Countries Study continued for more than fifty years, and is still called by the original name despite one of the original countries dissolving into five separate countries. And while its scale and ambition was groundbreaking at the time, its implications fall apart under closer scrutiny. For instance, women were not included in the study. There were actually data from twenty-two countries, and the seven countries chosen for the final report “just happened” to present the best evidence for Keyes’s argument. The countries and populations included in the study were not chosen at random. And most importantly, as any high school science class should teach us, correlation does not prove causation.

Since the 1950’s there have been dozens of studies and clinical trials conducted that have attempted to show directly and indirectly that dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is responsible for heart disease. None of them have been successful.

A few examples:

In 1984 the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute spent ten years and $115 million on a clinical trial to prove that eating less saturated fat would reduce the incidence of heart disease. The study was called the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. It failed to identify saturated fat as a risk factor.

In 2001 the Cochrane Collaboration, a widely respected international organization that performs peer reviews of medical literature, reviewed all of the clinical trials relating to dietary fat and mortality that the organization considered professionally reliable. Their conclusion, “Despite decades of effort and many thousands of people randomized, there is still only limited and inconclusive evidence of the effects of modification of total saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fats on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.”

Published in 2006, The Women’s Health Initiative, the largest  and most expensive health study ever conducted (over one hundred thousand participants and eight hundred million dollars), chose twenty thousand middle-aged women at random to eat a low-fat, low-saturated fat diet for eight years. Compared with the thirty thousand women of the study who stuck to their regular eating habits, the low-fat diet had no significant effect on heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, colon cancer, or accumulation of body fat.

So what does all this prove? Not a goddamned thing. We haven’t proved that fat is good for us, but billions of dollars and fifty years of research have failed to prove that dietary fat is bad for us, so there is no reason to think that it is. It’s alright if you’re skeptical; I still get a twinge of guilt when I cook eggs in butter. We’ve been told our whole lives fat is bad for us, by people we trust who meant well.

It’s also alright if you flat out don’t believe me; I believe we’re better off getting the majority of our calories from fat, but a low-fat diet won’t kill you. As long as you understand that fat doesn’t make you fat, that a diet high in sugar and refined starches does, and so as long as you’re not replacing fat calories with sugar and white flour I’ll be happy.

In my next post I’ll tackle the different types of dietary fat, how each of them affects our cholesterol, and what our various cholesterol numbers mean when we get them back from the doctor.

Also, nothing I said above applies to artificial fats.  Trans fat and hydrogenated oils are created in a laboratory and absolutely can ruin your health.  Trans fat is banned in the U.S. now, but margarine and most vegetable oils are poison, so look at the ingredients of whatever oils you have in the kitchen and if they say hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated throw them the hell away.

Weight Loss Part Two–Nutrtional Sabotage

Constant fat-burning is how our bodies are designed to operate, but it is certainly possible to throw a monkey in the matrix and burn only glucose, forcing our bodies to store more and more fat until we blame the dryer for shrinking our pants. I’ll go over nutritional sabotage in the next post, but for now just picture filling your car up with rocket fuel. It doesn’t make your car go faster—it just burns up your engine.

Now that we’ve established how our bodies burn fat and glucose for energy, and that we are designed to use fat as our primary fuel source, using glucose as a secondary fuel during intense activity, I’ll explain how this dynamic can be reversed, causing the body to stop burning fat and preferentially burn glucose, forcing us to store more body fat.

When glucose hits your system it triggers your pancreas to produce insulin. This is commonly referred to as the body’s glycemic response. Your body needs the insulin as a catalyst to enable your cells to burn glucose for energy. And this insulin response is a good thing. Our bodies are diesel engines, and glucose is gasoline, rocket fuel, and if it’s left in your system for too long it becomes toxic. Once the glucose level in your blood (blood sugar level) gets high enough the body stops burning fat and switches to burning glucose exclusively as a measure of self defense. Any glucose unable to be immediately used is converted into free fatty acids and stored as body fat.

So excess glucose consumption puts us in double jeopardy. It causes us to stop burning fat, and it also causes us to store fat. Passage to and from the fat cells is a one-way street; fat cells can either release fat, or store it, but not both simultaneously. When the body is finished burning the glucose we’ve just consumed, insulin is still coursing through our veins, and so long as insulin levels are high our cells can’t revert to burning fat.

With the glucose gone, and the cells unable to burn fat, our energy levels crash, and we feel lethargic and sleepy (sugar coma) until our insulin level can come back down. This process can take hours—and during this time it is impossible to burn fat, neither dietary fat we’ve just consumed nor stored body fat.

If we habitually subject our bodies to this condition we run the risk of developing a resistance to insulin, which can lead to metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes. But before these chronic diseases develop we will see a dramatic increase in body fat, simply because we have made it impossible for our cells to burn our own stored energy.

This is also why obese people eat a lot. They are positively ravenous because they cannot burn the fat around their middle, so their lean tissue cells are starving, crying out for immediate energy, which in the United States of Plenty typically manifests itself in gorging on sugar and non-fiber carbs (white bread, white rice, pasta, potatoes, etc.), which raises blood sugar, which raises insulin, which means any fat consumed cannot be burned, so is instead stored as body fat, and any glucose that is not immediately burned is also stored as body fat—body fat which cannot be used by the cells as energy until insulin levels go down, but before that happens the cells will have used up all the glucose they were able to and are demanding more energy NOW, energy that the fat cells, the UN Peacekeepers of the body, desperately want to give to the poor, starving cells but the Benevolent Facilitator Insulin has become an oppressive, diabolical warlord and is holding the energy hostage, so the obese person keeps his lean tissue cells placated with quick, black market energy sources (sugar and non-fiber carbs), all the while the once peaceful, thriving nation (our bodies) declines into a failed state (we get fat, and sweat a lot, and die).

Fat Cell: “Pardon me, would you be so kind as to let me get by? I really must deliver this energy.”
Insulin: “MuuuwwaaaahahahahahahaHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!

How much glucose is too much? With a typical metabolism, a healthy person will have about a teaspoon worth of glucose in their bloodstream. Not much at all, considering we have around ten pints of blood in us. If that amount drops, the body will release glucose stores from the muscles and /or liver to make up the difference, and if our glucose stores are depleted the liver will break down proteins to create the glucose it needs.

As little as half a teaspoon more glucose in the bloodstream for an extended period of time is enough to cause serious adverse effects. Our bodies go to a tremendous amount of effort to regulate our blood glucose levels, and indulging in sugar and non-fiber carbs is much worse than the concept of “empty calories” implies.

It seems to be a popular conception that carbs (glucose) are the body’s preferred source of energy because they will be burned before fat. This is precisely wrong.

The body will burn glucose first because it becomes toxic if left in the blood stream. We have to burn excess carbs in our system, and if we can’t (or don’t) burn them we will convert them into fat and store them before the glucose poisons us. Glucose is rocket fuel—a teaspoon’s worth will give us more speed, two teaspoon’s worth will burn us out from the inside.

Well gee, Patrick, thanks for the info and all, but what the hell am I supposed to eat if I can’t have pasta, or bread, or french fries? And aren’t carbs the cornerstone of civilization? I mean, we built the Pyramids with beer, and the Great Wall with rice, so I think I’ll just sit down and enjoy my big, fluffy muffin. Don’t tell me it’s not healthy—it’s got blueberries!

All valid arguments. For now my only response is it’s doubtful you built anything visible from orbit, the poor bastards who did are buried in that wall, the world’s largest monuments are also the world’s largest tombs, and anyway I’m fairly certain I saw on the Discovery Channel that aliens built the Pyramids, and everyone knows they only sip dark matter from tiny crystal teacups.

In my next post I’ll go over dietary fat, why you shouldn’t feel guilty eating it, and why butter is good for you.

Yes.  Butter.

Weight Loss Part One–When, Where, Why, and How You Burn Fat

After a few complaints of my last post being too long, I’m going to split this one up into small, easily digestible parts. Too long? I mean, the last post was like 2000 words—how did you people make it through college?

For the first part I’ll go over how our bodies burn energy, as well as the two types of energy we use for fuel.

Fat:

Fat is your body’s primary fuel source. We are constantly burning fat while sitting, sleeping, standing, walking—any light to moderate activity we engage in will burn fat. Obviously, the more intense the activity, the more fat we’ll burn. However, there is a point where we receive diminishing returns from fat as an energy source. The reason is individual fat cells are, well, fat. Only so many fat cells can fit through our capillaries at a time. As our activity level increases in intensity, our cells demand more energy, and past a certain point fat cells are literally too big to get through our capillaries in time to meet that demand. Think of fat as your body’s diesel fuel—low intensity, high mileage, endurance fuel. For faster, harder, and more intense, your body has to turn to glucose.

Glucose:

Glucose is your body’s high octane gasoline. It’s not a very efficient fuel, and you don’t get anywhere near the mileage as fat, but sometimes you just gotta go fast. Well, maybe not you, but your hunter-gatherer ancestors needed glucose to chase their dinner, and to avoid becoming dinner.

Your body prefers to burn fat rather than glucose. How do we know this? Because we store more fat than glucose. Our capacity for fat storage is nearly unlimited—the more we store, the fatter we get. Glucose, on the other hand, is stored primarily in the muscles, and there is a definite limit to how much glucose our muscles can hold.

A few of our body parts require glucose for energy, like the brain and red blood cells, and the glucose stored in our muscles can fuel our bodies for about twelve hours at rest. If we add intense exercise, a person in good shape will have about two hours worth of glucose to burn, depending on the type of activity. So what the hell does all this mean? Do we need to keep replenishing our glucose stores before they run out?

Good God no! What it means is despite all of our civilization, biologically we are still hunter-gatherers. We are designed to burn fat most of the day while we forage for nuts and berries on the way to the hunting grounds, burn even more fat as we jog around the wildebeest herd comparing notes with each other on which poor little gnu is the likeliest catch, and then burn even more fat mixed with some high octane glucose as we chase that delicious self-propelled barbeque down, stab the hell out of it like Caesar in the Senate House, and high-five each other while we drag it back to our cave.

That little hunting scenario is a good image to use to get a rough idea whether you’re burning glucose or not.  If you’re able to talk then you’re probably burning mostly fat.  If you don’t have enough air in your lungs to waste on idle gossip with your treadmill neighbor then chances are you’re tapping into your glucose reserves.

Typical Paleolithic Era outfit with an ergonomic design that allowed freedom of movement for hunting and gathering (post-Ice Age).

A big misconception I find most people have is that fat/glucose burning is an either/or situation, and to burn more body fat one should engage in low intensity aerobic activity. This is absolutely not true. Fat burning does not switch off just because your muscles start burning glucose—glucose is burned on top of and in addition to fat, and if your muscles are burning glucose it’s because you can’t possibly burn any more fat and keep the same intensity level.

Constant fat-burning is how our bodies are designed to operate, but it is certainly possible to throw a monkey in the matrix and burn only glucose, forcing our bodies to store more and more fat until we blame the dryer for shrinking our pants. I’ll go over nutritional sabotage in the next post, but for now just picture filling your car up with rocket fuel. It doesn’t make your car go faster—it just burns up your engine.