Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: My Year Revisited

It's the last day of 2009 and usually that means we all take a look at our year and see what worked, what didn't and make resolutions for the new year to be a better person in one way or another.

As with most, I continue to strive to be the best me I can be. I thought I would try and write about my year and recap all of the events, emotions and epiphany's I had in 2009.

The first few months were a blur. I just came back from being on the road with my dog Maggie and my small 4x9 teardrop trailer named, "trailie". I was trying to figure out what was next for us. I just started a little project I had in mind at the end of 2008 called American Life Today. I profiled an American each day in 2009, asking them 5 different questions about their life. It was a fun project learning about so many people, but ended late August when I was on the road and didn't have the time to post any longer. Thank you so much to everyone who participated!

In the midst of looking ahead, I forgot to take care of a tooth ache that came and went for several years. This time it was too late. In February, I had apicoectomy. It's the fun surgery where they drill into your gums on the side of your face to redo a root canal that didn't hold the first time...while you are awake. Not fun.

I recovered from that and continued on my life, saying yes to opportunities, dreaming, wondering what was next. I celebrated life...a lot. I went to parties, had parties at my house, enjoyed the night life. After a weekend in Palm Springs, I had enough of it. I was tired of being tired. I decided on April 5th that it was time to stop the constant celebrating of every day of my life with a drink in hand. I put down the drink and haven't picked it up since. It wasn't easy, but I knew that once I set my mind to something, I could do it. I stopped going to parties, and started reflecting on my life and what was really important to me. Living.

The following month I was offered an opportunity to participate in an O magazine shoot. Of course I jumped at the chance to do it! It was quite the experience. The final shot that appeared in the magazine is shown HERE.

Here I was, taking life day by day when all of a sudden, my beloved dog of 11 years, best friend and travel companion died suddenly after surgery for a growth in her spleen. I was devastated. It took me a while to recover from that although I miss her still.

The following months were spent searching and being open to opportunities. I decided to start painting.I should get back to it, but for the 12 watercolor paintings I did, I enjoyed each one. There is something about creating art that takes you away from your everyday world and transforms you into the art itself. It was a good way for me to focus my mind on something creative. It's what I was looking for all along.

The next few months were spent traveling and figuring it out. One day in July while I was home in Long Beach, I went to the farmers market and took a dog home with me. Max is now a part of my family. Little did he know what was in store for him! At the end of July, I packed everything I needed in my car, rented my house and we embarked on our big road trip.

We went to Sedona, Bryce Canyon, Moab, Arches, Colorado, Jackson, Grand Tetons and Yellowstone the first few weeks. What an adventure we had. Max had no idea that he would be leaving sunny California to be pushed inside of a sleeping bag in freezing temps in the forest. He sure kept me company and kept me laughing.

We continued our journey through South Dakota, Custer state park, and devils tower. Of course it wouldn't be an adventure if we didn't get lost, didn't try and camp through severe thunderstorms and play dress up at wall drug. We were able to manage all of that.

We went through Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Maine and back down to our destination for the month of September, Provincetown. We met with friends, camped, toured around and took pictures along the way.

Ahhhh, pictures. Even though I enjoyed my time painting, I got a bigger thrill taking a nice photograph. For the month I was in Cape Cod, I took pictures each day and fell in love with the town. I was able to stay in one place for 5 weeks and it was a nice relief from driving each day, wondering where we will end up, although there is a lot to say in the not knowing. Being in Cape Cod also helped with my photo obsession with this HOUSE.

After our five weeks were up, we went to New England to see the fall colors, then headed south. Our journey took us through New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and back home to California.

I have to say that throughout this journey, I have enjoyed our National Parks the best. There is something about being in nature that I love more than anything else. I hope you take some time in the new year to enjoy the beauty that's around you in our parks and beyond.

So, what's next for Alison and Max in the new year? Max and I will continue to travel and share what we see with you. I plan to organize the photos that I took on the journey and make them available to purchase. I hope that the pictures I take put a smile on your face or takes you to a place that you remember fondly.

Here's to an even better 2010! Thank you so much for your continued support! I hope you become a fan of my journey and photographs by clicking here. I look forward to sharing future adventures with you!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Oak Trees

As I end my trip in Chico, I drove around the outskirts of town and took some pictures of almond farms and the beautiful oak trees that are scattered around the city. I don't know what it is about the single tree that I love so much, but I do. I saw this oak tree off of old highway 32 and took some pictures of it as the sun was setting. There was about 2 minutes that the clouds allowed the sun to peek through. It was a beautiful moment.

Here are some pictures from the day.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Body Fat Setpoint

One pound of human fat contains about 3,500 calories. That represents roughly 40 slices of toast. So if you were to eat one extra slice of toast every day, you would gain just under a pound of fat per month. Conversely, if you were to eat one fewer slice per day, you'd lose a pound a month. Right? Not quite.

How is it that most peoples' body fat mass stays relatively stable over long periods of time, when an imbalance of as little as 5% of calories should lead to rapid changes in weight? Is it because we do complicated calculations in our heads every day, factoring in basal metabolic rate and exercise, to make sure our energy intake precisely matches expenditure? Of course not. We're gifted with a sophisticated system of hormones and brain regions that do the "calculations" for us unconsciously*.

When it's working properly, this system precisely matches energy intake to expenditure, ensuring a stable and healthy fat mass. It does this by controlling food seeking behaviors, feelings of fullness and even energy expenditure by heat production and physical movements. If you eat a little bit more than usual at a meal, a properly functioning system will say "let's eat a little bit less next time, and perhaps also burn some of it off." This is one reason why animals in their natural habitat are nearly always at an appropriate weight, barring starvation. The only time wild animals are overweight enough to significantly compromise physical performance is when it serves an important purpose, such as preparing for hibernation.

I recently came across a classic study that illustrates these principles nicely in humans, titled "Metabolic Response to Experimental Overfeeding in Lean and Overweight Healthy Volunteers", by Dr. Erik O. Diaz and colleagues (1). They overfed lean and modestly overweight volunteers 50% more calories than they naturally consume, under controlled conditions where the investigators could be confident of food intake. Macronutrient composition was 12-42-46 % protein-fat-carbohydrate.

After 6 weeks of massive overfeeding, both lean and overweight subjects gained an average of 10 lb (4.6 kg) of fat mass and 6.6 lb (3 kg) of lean mass. Consistent with what one would expect if the body were trying to burn off excess calories and return to baseline fat mass, the metabolic rate and body heat production of the subjects increased.

Following overfeeding, subjects were allowed to eat however much they wanted for 6 weeks. Both lean and overweight volunteers promptly lost 6.2 of the 10 lb they had gained in fat mass (61% of fat gained), and 1.5 of the 6.6 lb they had gained in lean mass (23%). Here is a graph showing changes in fat mass for each individual that completed the study:

We don't know if they would have lost the remaining fat mass in the following weeks because they were only followed for 6 weeks after overfeeding, although it did appear that they were reaching a plateau slightly above their original body weight. Thus, nearly all subjects "defended" their original body fat mass irrespective of their starting point. Underfeeding studies have shown the same phenomenon: whether lean or overweight, people tend to return to their original fat mass after underfeeding is over. Again, this supports the idea that the body has a body fat mass "set point" that it attempts to defend against changes in either direction. It's one of many systems in the body that attempt to maintain homeostasis.

OK, so why do we care?

We care because this has some very important implications for human obesity. With such a system in place to keep body fat mass in a narrow range, a major departure from that range implies that the system isn't functioning correctly. In other words, obesity has to involve a defect in the system that regulates body fat, because a properly functioning system would not have allowed that degree of fat gain in the first place.

So yes, we are overweight because we eat too many calories relative to energy expended. But why are we eating too many calories? There are a number of reasons, but one reason is that the system that should be defending a low fat mass is now defending a high fat mass. Therefore, the ideal solution is not simply to restrict calories, or burn more calories through exercise, but to try to work with the system that decides what fat mass to 'defend'. Restricting calories isn't necessarily a good solution because the body will attempt to defend its setpoint, whether high or low, by increasing hunger and decreasing its metabolic rate. That's why low-calorie diets, and most diets in general, typically fail in the long term. Restricting calories works for fat loss, but most people find it miserable to fight hunger every day.

This raises two questions:
  1. What caused the system to defend a high fat mass?
  2. Is it possible to modify the fat mass setpoint, and how would one go about it?
Given the fact that body fat mass is much higher in many affluent nations than it has ever been in human history, the increase must be due to factors that have changed in modern times. I can only speculate what these factors may be, because research has not identified them to my knowledge, at least not in humans. But I have my guesses. I'll expand on this in the next post.

* The hormone leptin and the hypothalamus are the ringleaders, although there are many other elements involved, such as several gut-derived peptides, insulin, and a number of other brain regions.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Brought To Life

My best Christmas moment was when I received an email from Kari with pictures of her sister opening her present. It wasn't just any present, it was a hand built frame by Kari and a picture of a cow through a fence in the fog that I took just outside the Shenandoah National Park.

I am gearing up to sell my photographs early in the new year but Kari insisted I print a few for her including the cow in the pasture. I agreed. Since I take so many pictures and share them with you, it was difficult to put a price on it but alas, we managed to make it work. I am so happy to have sold my first photograph to her.

The feeling I had when I saw these pictures and seeing the look on her sisters face was priceless. It certainly put a smile on my face. What a perfect way to end the day! Thank you so much Kari for bringing the cow to life in your handmade barnwood frame complete with a fence to keep the cow in its place.

She also purchased and framed two photographs I took in Long Beach as the sun was setting which is also shown below.

To see more pictures on this day or any other day of my travels across the USA, click HERE.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas In Chico

I love Chico. I went to school here and some of my closest friends still live here. I decided to spend my holiday in this city and revisit the park I spent so much time in when I called Chico my home long ago.

The town is always changing but one thing that will remain the same is the feeling I get when I am in Bidwell Park. It's a magical place, especially when you don't come across another person, which can happen. You can get lost in the hills, swim in the creek, ride your bike or walk your dog in acres of shared land.

Today I went to upper park and visited Sycamore Pool in one mile recreation area. Believe it or not, I used to spend my summers sitting in that chair lifeguarding. It's a beautiful creek that runs through a man made pool. As glamorous as it seems, it was the most boring job in the word. No music or reading to pass the time. What? What do I have to do? Watch the swimmer? Yes, I sat there watching kids being dropped off so we could babysit them for the day and tell them over and over not to run or dive in the pool. Exciting stuff.

Here is my day in the park. For more pictures, click HERE

Rabbits on a High-Saturated Fat Diet Without Added Cholesterol

I just saw another study that supports my previous post Animal Models of Atherosclerosis: LDL. The hypothesis is that in the absence of excessive added dietary cholesterol, saturated fat does not influence LDL or atherosclerosis in animal models, relative to other fats (although omega-6 polyunsaturated oils do lower LDL in some animal models). This appears to be consistent with what we see in humans.

In this study, they fed four groups of rabbits different diets:
  1. Regular low-fat rabbit chow
  2. Regular low-fat rabbit chow plus 0.5 g cholesterol per day
  3. High-fat diet with 30% calories as coconut oil (saturated) and no added cholesterol
  4. High-fat diet with 30% calories as sunflower oil (polyunsaturated) and no added cholesterol
LDL at 6 months was the same in groups 1, 3 and 4, but was increased more than 20-fold in group 2. It's not the fat, it's the fact that they're overloading herbivores with dietary cholesterol!

Total cholesterol was also the same between all groups except the cholesterol-fed group. TBARS, a measure of lipid oxidation in the blood, was elevated in the cholesterol and sunflower oil groups but not in the chow or coconut groups. Oxidation of blood lipids is one of the major factors in atherosclerosis, the vascular disease that narrows arteries and increases the risk of having a heart attack. Serum vitamin C was lower in the cholesterol-fed groups but not the others.

This supports the idea that saturated fat in the absence of excess dietary cholesterol does not necessarily increase LDL, and in fact in most animals it does not.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Freeway Snapshot Bingo

I was on the road today for a long drive. I usually do not drive longer than 6 hours a day if I want to enjoy myself. I have the tendency to wander and take pictures after driving down unknown roads. I enjoy it. but it can make for a long day if hours upon hours of driving are included in those 24 hours.

Today I drove 8 hours North. I was on the big freeway right in the middle of the state of California. Needless to say, there isn't much going on. I only stopped twice to get gas this time around.

Still wanting to get my picture taking fix, I decided to snap away as I was driving. Please put this on your "do not attempt" list's not safe. I just happen to have my camera in hand and my finger just happened to snap a picture while it was pointing out the window. So, it was a long day, but here are five snapshots of the countryside off of the freeway.

Below is what you get when you drive and put the camera out the window and snap a shot. Freeway snapshot bingo.

Remember, safety first!

What's the Ideal Fasting Insulin Level?

[2013 update.  I'm leaving this post up for informational purposes, but I think it's difficult to determine the "ideal" insulin level because it depends on a variety of factors including diet composition.  Also, insulin assays are not always comparable to one another, particularly the older assays, so it's difficult to compare between studies]

Insulin is an important hormone. Its canonical function is to signal cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, but it has many other effects. Chronically elevated insulin is a marker of metabolic dysfunction, and typically accompanies high fat mass, poor glucose tolerance (prediabetes) and blood lipid abnormalities. Measuring insulin first thing in the morning, before eating a meal, reflects fasting insulin. High fasting insulin is a marker of metabolic problems and may contribute to some of them as well.

Elevated fasting insulin is a hallmark of the metabolic syndrome, the quintessential modern metabolic disorder that affects 24% of Americans (NHANES III). The average insulin level in the U.S., according to the NHANES III survey, is 8.8 uIU/mL for men and 8.4 for women (2). Given the degree of metabolic dysfunction in this country, I think it's safe to say that the ideal level of fasting insulin is probably below 8.4 uIU/mL.

Let's dig deeper. What we really need is a healthy, non-industrial "negative control" group. Fortunately, Dr. Staffan Lindeberg and his team made detailed measurements of fasting insulin while they were visiting the isolated Melanesian island of Kitava (3). He compared his measurements to age-matched Swedish volunteers. In male and female Swedes, the average fasting insulin ranges from 4-11 uIU/mL, and increases with age. From age 60-74, the average insulin level is 7.3 uIU/mL.

In contrast, the range on Kitava is 3-6 uIU/mL, which does not increase with age. In the 60-74 age group, in both men and women, the average fasting insulin on Kitava is 3.5 uIU/mL. That's less than half the average level in Sweden and the U.S. Keep in mind that the Kitavans are lean and have an undetectable rate of heart attack and stroke.

Another example from the literature are the Shuar hunter-gatherers of the Amazon rainforest. Women in this group have an average fasting insulin concentration of 5.1 uIU/mL (4; no data was given for men).

I found a couple of studies from the early 1970s as well, indicating that African pygmies and San bushmen have rather high fasting insulin. Glucose tolerance was excellent in the pygmies and poor in the bushmen (5, 6, free full text). This may reflect differences in carbohydrate intake. San bushmen consume very little carbohydrate during certain seasons, and thus would likely have glucose intolerance during that period. There are three facts that make me doubt the insulin measurements in these older studies:
  1. It's hard to be sure that they didn't eat anything prior to the blood draw.
  2. From what I understand, insulin assays were variable and not standardized back then.
  3. In the San study, their fasting insulin was 1/3 lower than the Caucasian control group (10 vs. 15 uIU/mL). I doubt these active Caucasian researchers really had an average fasting insulin level of 15 uIU/mL. Both sets of measurements are probably too high.
Now you know the conflicting evidence, so you're free to be skeptical if you'd like.

We also have data from a controlled trial in healthy urban people eating a "paleolithic"-type diet. On a paleolithic diet designed to maintain body weight (calorie intake had to be increased substantially to prevent fat loss during the diet), fasting insulin dropped from an average of 7.2 to 2.9 uIU/mL in just 10 days. This is despite a substantial intake of carbohydrate, including fruit and vegetable sugars.  The variation in insulin level between individuals decreased 9-fold, and by the end, all participants were close to the average value of 2.9 uIU/mL. This shows that high fasting insulin is correctable in people who haven't yet been permanently damaged by the industrial diet and lifestyle. The study included men and women of European, African and Asian descent (7).

One final data point. My own fasting insulin, earlier this year, was 2.3 uIU/mL. I believe it reflects a good diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and a relatively healthy diet growing up. It does not reflect: carbohydrate restriction, fat restriction, or saturated fat restriction.

So what's the ideal fasting insulin level? My current feeling is that we can consider anything between 2 and 6 uIU/mL within our evolutionary template.

Monday, December 21, 2009


We all have it. Stuff. Things. Treasures. Junk. I know that I have too much stuff and am resisting the "need" for more. I stumbled upon the story of stuff project website and watched the short 20 minute video of where stuff comes from and where it goes. Needless to say, it was eye opening, frustrating, sad and inspiring.

I have always thought that I had too many "things" laying around. I don't need anymore things and I try not to buy in excess. Living out of a car helped with the emotional ties that some people build for things. "Things" don't boost our overall happiness in the long run and it is actually quite damaging to our mindset and life if our main focus in our job is to be able to get stuff. Then we work to buy and when we buy we have to work harder to pay for the things we bought. If we are lucky enough to get a raise, we won't see it because a lot of the time, we buy more expensive things and we are back in the same cycle.

There are things we can do about this. Let's buy less. Let's recycle. Let's donate clothes or buy used things. Don't trash what others might be able to use.

What happens when we throw something away? It's out of sight and out of mind. Or is it? I took this picture a week ago of our beach with the things we threw out of our hands and minds only to go right back in mine and now I hope, yours.

I hope it gets you thinking. I hope you start thinking about where things come from and where they go. Let's use less and live on less things. It will benefit us all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

You Can Do It Too - Photographs

As I travel, I want to encourage you to take a road trip of your own and I pointed out some ways you can do it too in a previous blog.

As with traveling, you can take some beautiful pictures without spending a fortune. There are several cameras out there that are affordable and you can snap away hundreds of shots without spending any money.

All of my pictures on my blog are taken with a Cannon Powershot SD1200 digital camera. I get a lot of questions on what equipment I use and this is it. Sometimes the information is taken with disbelief that all shots come from this point and shoot, but it's true. I take it as a compliment. I don't use the auto function and it took a while to play around with all of the settings but sometimes I get lucky. I do take a lot of pictures to end up with a few "winners."

Even though all pictures are taken in a compressed jpeg format, they still pop when printed on a quality printer.

As the ad says, "go ahead, have all of the fun you want"...I certainly have. I haven't made the leap to a SLR camera and there are a few reasons for that, beyond the obvious reason of cost. First of all, I think this little camera takes some nice pictures and secondly, I can take it anywhere. I put it in my pocket every time I go out just in case I see something that I need to capture. Lastly, I tend to drop it a lot. It's my third replacement camera. The first one (a lower model) fell to the ground when Max pulled on the leash when I was walking him in Yellowstone. The second one was dropped in the ocean in Cape Cod when I was taking it off of a tripod. Third time's a charm! I've dropped it a few times but it's still holding far.

I'm not an expert, but I do have fun with it. I tend to take a lot of pictures. I can shoot over 200 a day and like only 3 or 4 of them. Of course, I have a problem with the delete button that I need to get over. For some reason, even if I don't like the shot I will keep it. I will work on that. Someday.

Thank you for enjoying my photographs. I enjoy taking them and I love looking at what you take as well. Feel free to share your pictures with me on my facebook page. It's been fun seeing winter where you live. I am suffering in the California sunshine for now. Max and I are leaving soon for another journey. We look forward to sharing it with you.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Winter

Growing up in Southern California, I haven't experienced a snowy day during the holidays. It's usually sunny skies and crisp air. I am not complaining, it's nice! Sometimes I dream of sitting next to a warm fire in the mountains with snow falling outside. I could see myself running out and playing in the snow for a while and running in to warm up again by the fire.

What does your winter look like where you live?

I would love for you to share your photos by posting them on my facebook fan page.

I look forward seeing them!

What am I missing?

Friday, December 18, 2009

People Watching

It's the time of the year where people get out of their homes. It seems to be crowded everywhere. Since so many people are out, it's a great time to watch them. On my travels, I would spend time in cities sitting on a bench, watching people come and go. You can take a front seat to the energy of a city by being still and observing.

There are characters everywhere. At a moment in time, you are in the midst of their life. I took some candid shots along the way of people living their life. Everyday people, just like you and me.

I suppose we are also being watched in one way or another. Life...the ultimate reality show.

Take a look around you. There is inspiration everywhere. Here are some people that I captured along the way, for more click HERE