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How sweet it is(n’t)

sugarHere’s something you don’t want to hear.

The medical news and dietary recommendations about sugar that we’ve all been reading about for the last five decades have been largely shaped by — wait for it – the sugar industry. An industry trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation (today known as the Sugar Association) apparently paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease, and focus instead on saturated fat as the culprit.

What did we hear about sugar? Okay, it caused tooth decay. Big deal. Brush your teeth. The sugar-induced energy rollercoaster could be promoted as “quick energy.” Remember the get-a-life-eat-a-Snickers-bar ad campaign? If a person was concerned about health…FAT was the real enemy. Fat was the killer. Fat was the fast-track to heart disease.

For the gory details on the collusion between sugar execs and leading Harvard scientists, one of whom went on to help draft the national’s dietary and nutritional plan, check out this recent New York Times story
and the JAMA Internal Medicine research upon which it was based.

And, lest you think this collusion between agriculture, business and science was just a remnant from the Bad Old Days, please note that just last year it came to light that Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, had provided millions of dollars in funding to researchers who sought to play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity.

At the risk of merely replacing evil demon fat with evil demon sugar (remember evil demon salt?), allow me to share this information about the health effects of sugar.

Sugar can damage your heart
Excess sugar increases the risk of heart disease (yes, like fat), but there is also strong evidence that sugar affects the heart’s pumping mechanism and may also increase the risk of heart failure.

Sugar and obesity? Yep.
Fat causes fat, we’ve been told. Fat in the diet is the culprit. Eat nonfat. Eat low-fat. But has this explosion of low-fat items in the grocery store halted out obesity epidemic? No. Consider sugar. Excess fructose consumption has been linked to an increase in a condition called leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough food. If you develop leptin resistance, you don’t get the message that you’re full. You keep eating. And eating.

Sugar specifically promotes belly fat (the worst kind)
Fructose in particular appears to actually cause visceral fat cells to mature. A study of overweight kids who consumed fructose-laden drinks showed fat accumulation in the trunk, setting the stage for a big belly and even bigger future risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Sugar may be linked to cancer production and may effect cancer survival
When we consume too much sugar, we throw our insulin production out of whack. There’s a well documented connection between insulin resistance and cancer. (link between insulin resistance and cancer. There is also a connection between elevated sugar and poorer survival rates for some cancers. ( Further studies have found negative associations between high sugar and starch intake and survival rates in both breast cancer patients and colon cancer patients.

Sugar and aging? Uh huh.
A 2009 study found a positive relationship between glucose consumption and the aging of our cells. Aging of the cells can cause something as harmless as wrinkles to something as dire as chronic disease. But there is other alarming evidence that sugar may affect the aging of your brain as well. A 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health. A 2009 study in rats showed similar findings.

Worth noting: Fruit has sugar but not the same as refined sugar: Not if the fruit in question is whole fruit. Unlike honey, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar that are added to many processed foods, the sugar naturally found in fruit is different. It is accompanied by consumed in the company of fiber, which helps your body absorb the sugar more slowly as well as promoting fullness – and, of curse, offering a host of vitamins and micronutrients. (Refined sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever.)

Words That Really Just Mean ‘Added Sugar’
• agave (juice, nectar, syrup)
• brown rice syrup
• corn sweetener
• corn syrup
• dextrose
• high fructose corn syrup
• honey
• malt sweetener
• malt syrup
• maltose
• rice syrup

(A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a detailed survey of the packaged foods and drinks that are purchased in American grocery stores and found that 60 percent of them include some form of added sugar. When they looked at every individual processed food in the store, 68 percent had added sugar.)

September 22, 2016   No Comments


bitches-say-whatI get it.

I get why Secretary Clinton (I refer to people by their first names only if I know them. Or if they are Madonna) did not initially disclose her bout of pneumonia.

It’s not just that she’s a “private person,” as her aides and confidants say. It’s that she knows, boy does she ever know, that women are just not allowed to be fallible the way men are. If a woman gets sick, she is showing weakness. If a man gets sick, well, he gets sick. And look at how strong he was to keep working while he was sick! What stamina! And look at how he bounces back! What resilience!

This is not the HRC story. Here’s what’s trending (as they say): Look, she stumbled! Watch the video. Now watch it again. She had to be held up by secret service guys! Poor sickly lady. Is she too frail to be the president? Because, you know, women are frail creatures. If you discount all the medical evidence that shows women are constitutionally stronger than men, have fewer illnesses and live longer. So she’s that kind of frail.

Secretary Clinton has a case of pneumonia. Pneumonia is an incredibly common disease. It’s all around us. The reason most of us don’t catch it is because our immune systems kick in and beat it before it has a chance to take up residence in our lungs. Secretary Clinton’s immune system was busy handling not just the killing schedule of a presidential candidate and the grind of nonstop travel and public speaking and photo opping – that’s par for the course. We expect her (and the others) to handle that.

Her immune system was being assaulted by the added stress, the extraordinary burden, of being the most powerful and successful female political leader of her (any) generation. Of being the one with everything to lose (unlike Misters Trump and Sanders…who both had/have everything to gain). It is the internalized stress that comes from being called a bitch and having to pretend that doesn’t hurt. Of being criticized for not smiling. Seriously? When did that become a thing? Oh, I know: When a woman became the leading candidate.

And now, she is being criticized for not immediately disclosing the fact that she caught a (generally) easily cured common illness…while the other candidate skates along without disclosing his federal income taxes. Or, let’s see, his national security policies.

Women have to be better to be equal. Every woman alive today knows that. You have to be tough to be taken seriously. But if you’re tough, you’re a bitch. You can’t show emotion – PMS, anyone? – but if you don’t, you’re a bitch. If you’re not assertive, you’re timid. If you’re too assertive, you’re…yep, a bitch.

Secretary Clinton is a bitch with a lung infection. I hope the lung infection clears up soon. I hope she continues being a bitch.

September 14, 2016   3 Comments

I carry your heart


There’s nothing like being in the presence of  two people who are deeply, truly, honestly in love to open your own heart.

There is nothing like being in the presence of two people who manage to be both dizzyingly in love and clear-eyed about it, whose passion is fueled by compassion, to open your own heart, to bring you back to what you’ve not so much forgotten but have learned to take for granted.

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

September 7, 2016   1 Comment

Purpose. Meaning. Life.

cat looks outAnother day, another load of garbage delivered to my email in-box, the result of my long-standing Google alert for “anti-aging.” For more than 6 years, ever since I first started researching the science of aging for my book, Counterclockwise, I’ve been slogging through these daily “news” (yes, in quotes) items that purport to alert me to the latest and greatest information.

A good 75 percent of the items are about skin creams. Because, you know, the path to an engaged, vigorous, healthy life is surely to smooth out laugh lines. The other alerts run the gamut from the newest superfood (Are people still falling for that? Did we learn nothing from the Great Kale Hoax?) to the ultimate fitness regimen, with occasional tidbits on detoxing, botoxing, fasting, dead-skin eating fish, leech facials and the habits of celebrities far too young to have any experience with aging.

In more than 6 years, I have never ever gotten an alert to a story that suggests that “anti” aging is not a battle against the process of life but rather a positive approach to living life to its fullest, to pushing boundaries, to raising the bar, to living with engagement and joy and…purpose.

Yes, living a life with a sense of purpose may be the ultimate ”anti” aging strategy.

A while back, I wrote about meeting a vigorous, energetic 92-year-old woman who does just that. You may remember that I’ve also written about a related subject: volunteering, which can provide a strong sense of purpose. I mentioned a 2013 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging that found that mid-life adults who volunteered about 4 hours a week were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure 4 years later. Other studies discovered fewer health complaints, higher functional ability, less depression and anxiety, and less incidence of heart disease among volunteers than among matched sets of non-volunteers.

Here’s more evidence: National Institute on Aging-funded research based on more than 6,000 mid-life people found that people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared to their more aimless counterparts. The Canadian researchers controlled for other factors known to affect longevity like gender, age and emotional and psychological well-being. Sense of purpose trumped them all.

And, guess what? It didn’t appear to make a difference when these people found that purpose. It could have been in college. It could have been after retirement. You might be interested to know that “sense of purpose” is not limited to the grandiose – joining the Peace Corps, cleaning up a toxic river – but also involves the personal (insuring the well-being of one’s family, producing creative work).

Exactly how purpose benefits health is not clear. It might be that individuals with a sense of purpose are also purposeful about their own health and so lead healthier lives than others. But a likely explanation – especially given the research on the health benefits of volunteering – is that sense of purpose increases self-esteem, happiness and optimism, all traits associated with a myriad of health benefits. The researchers hypothesize that a sense of purpose may protect against the harmful effects of stress, one of the great systemic agers.

All of which goes to prove that living a healthy, vigorous and long life is not about miracle face creams or miracle foods or miracle work-outs. It is about the everyday miracle of building a rich, purposeful life.

September 1, 2016   4 Comments

Old. Yeah. So what?

IdaThe world – well, 3.5 billion of us, at least — just spent 17 days watching highly trained, super-disciplined, extraordinary physical specimens show us what a human body can do. Those Olympic performances were both inspirational and aspirational, weren’t they? I don’t mean that watching Simone Biles inspired me to want to be Simon Biles, to do what she does. Ha. I mean that marveling at her performances might inspire me (us) to push ourselves, to embrace (or at least entertain) the notion that we can move forward in bold and astonishing ways. We might aspire to the attitude behind her performance, the fierce determination that we are not defined or limited by our past. Her story inspires us more than her (unattainable) physical prowess.

Now that we have celebrated the Olympics, and now that we’re sated with images of hard-bodies who’ve devoted most of their young lives to athletic performance, how about celebrating much older people (much older people) who have attained equally lofty heights of physical achievement. Consider those profiled in a recent special edition of New York Times’ “Well” blog.

Here’s a story about Anna Sofia Botha, 74, the coach of the South African runner who broke the long-standing 400-meter world record. The news media flocked to her (after all, a WHITE HAIRED LADY!!!), clamoring for interviews. Surprised, she replied: “The whole coaching scenario is an everyday way of life for me.” Gotta love it.

Or how about this story profiling a 100-year-old runner. Says Ida Keeling, who started running at 67, “Time marches on, but I keep going.”

Or read about Tao Porchon-Lynch, 97, a competitive ballroom dancer (she started at 80) and a yoga teacher, who says, “I haven’t finished learning.”

When we see Olympic athletes compete, we don’t dismiss their performances as “the exception that proves the rule” – the rule being that almost none of us look like they do and can do what they do. Instead, we enjoy their achievement and are motivated by it. Maybe we can work on adopting that same attitude about these older “outliers.”

These women (and many others — you’d be surprised how many others) are outside the norm, just like the Olympic athletes. Let’s not dismiss them as exceptions that prove the (well entrenched) “rule” about older people, the rule that states that old means frail, feeble and fragile; that old people live constricted, restricted sad little lives. How about, just as we admire those Olympians and are inspired by their stories, we enjoy the stories of world-class (older) women and embrace the attitude behind their achievements? How about that?

August 24, 2016   1 Comment

Vacation…or lack thereof

backyard vacayIt’s the last half of August, the final chance for some of us to enjoy a summer vacation. Will we?

Maybe not.

Did you know that American workers get the least mandated, paid vacation time in the world. Zero, in fact. Employers in the U.S. don’t have to give their staff any paid leave – although some are paid for at least a few of our 10 national holidays. That means that many, many workers get no paid vacation. This is simply not the way the rest of the “first world” treats its workers. Just how many days of mandated, paid vacation do people get elsewhere? Here’s a partial list: Sweden, 41; Finland, 40; Lithuania, 39; France, Portugal, Iceland, 37; Austria, 35; Slovia, Croatia, Poland, France, 31; Italy, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, 30; U.K., Australia, 28. And so on.

Maybe as an American worker you get vacation days…or maybe not. (One in four do not.) When I worked as a caregiver at an Alzheimer’s facility (part of research for a book I was writing at the time), none of the hourly staff got any paid vacation – or, for that matter, any sick leave. At another of my jobs, workers were entitled to 1 week after 1 full year of employment, 2 weeks after 2 years. And that was the max.

That’s bad. Equally as pitiful is the fact that full-time employees in the U.S., when they are given vacation time, take only half of their eligible days. And more than 60 percent report working while on vacation. (I cannot remember a vacation during which I did not work.) We work hard. And a lot. And on vacation (if we are lucky enough to get vacation and smart enough to actually take advantage of it). So that must mean we have the most productive work force on earth.

Uh, no.

Norway – which requires all employers to provide 25 days of paid annual leave — has the most productive work force. Luxembourg (also with a 25-day minimum leave) has the second most productive work force. U.S. is number 3 (yay, us!) but it’s worth noting that numbers 4-7 (Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany) trail only ever so slightly in productivity while mandating a month of paid vacation for every worker.

I’ve written about this subject before, back in the spring when I returned from Austria where people eat more calories, consume more red meat and smoke more cigarettes than Americans…and are significantly healthier. One explanation (among many) is their national vacation policy. I thought it was worth writing again about the health effects of taking vacation while we still have a few weeks remaining in August. So listen up.

The landmark Framingham Heart Study – the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease – found that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks compared to men who did take time off. And women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were almost 8 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year. Lack of vacation has also been linked to higher blood pressure, bigger waistlines and increased incidence of depression.

It’s easy to see how more work can translate into other unhealthy behaviors: more stress, unhealthy eating habits (eating on the run/ in the car, reliance on take-out and fast food), more time sitting in a chair, less sleep, less family time.

While it’s still summer, take a vacation!

August 17, 2016   8 Comments

What state are you in?

10690255_10205886556743490_3276295862642274759_nStates in which I want to permanently dwell:

state of Wonder. You know…that state we lived in as children (or, later, for brief moments, on hallucinogens): wide-eyed, breathless, astonished, amazed, in awe. Ever curious. Senses keen. Alert to both the ordinary and the extraordinary. That state of simple transcendence, which is not simple at all, when all you can do is shake your head, silently marvel, breath deep and – if you are like me – forcefully hold yourself back from tweeting it out.

Recent travels in the State of Wonder: Watching Simone Biles on the vault. Reading Norman Maclean. Again. Listening to Astral Weeks Live, in the car, on the way to a solitary week at the beach. Staring out the mesh ceiling of the tent at a sliver of a moon, a cool breeze off the Willamette.

state of Being. You know…just being. Not planning, thinking, remembering, worrying, evaluating, catastrophizing, fantasizing. Not reading, running, baking, writing, doing laundry. Just being. That I-am-totally-present-in-the-moment state that coincides with residency in the state of Wonder — and from which you exile yourself the moment you start instagramming that moment. I speak from experience. Too much experience.

state of Acute Fluency. Given that I am much better at doing than I am at being, I find meaning and delight in the state of Acute Fluency. Ever hear of it? It is when you are happily immersed in the act of creation or exploration, deep in an almost trance-like mental state that is both taxing and blissful. Fully engaged, wholly focused. The joy is intensified by a sense that time has been suspended. Also known as: in the zone. Also known as: The Flow (as per the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

state of Oregon. Yes, finally, an actual geographic state: land of feathery gray mornings and cool summer evenings, of misty autumns, soggy winters and blindingly green springs. Land of blackberries and Bernie lawn signs (yes, still), of drivers who let you in traffic (really), of #iadoregon.

August 10, 2016   2 Comments

Life lessons on two wheels

bike tour selfieWhat do you think about on day three when you’ve been in the saddle for six and a half hours and there’s a big hill you didn’t expect looming ahead and your Bike Brain says it’s 97 degrees and you need to believe that this biking/ camping adventure is more than just a biking/ camping adventure?

Here’s what you think about… Allow me to present these nuggets of sweaty wisdom (with their bike-centric application, in parentheses):


Yes, you can have everything! Just not all at the same time.
(“Everything” in bike touring terms: generous shoulders, wind at your back, no traffic, scenic road, shade. Each one is a joy in itself; together, they are pure ecstasy – but they never occur together.)

When it looks like it can’t get any worse, it does.
(That first-day 95-degree heat becomes 97 on day 2 and 101 on the afternoon of day 3.)

When it feels like it will never get better, it does.
(Thanks to Chamois Butter applied liberally to nether regions.)

Don’t ruin a good experience by thinking about how fleeting it is.
(Ah, that glorious nano-second-of-relief patch of shade. Breath into it, lean into it, don’t mourn/curse its passing even before it passes.)

You have to do the hard miles to earn the easy miles.
(Self-explanatory, in life and on the bike.)

And in the end: It’s all good miles.
(The tough uphill ones, the blazing hot ones, the no-effort downhill swooping ones, the ones at the ragged end of a long day, the one’s in the cool of the morning with a stomach full of oatmeal. All of them.)

And, perhaps one nugget that has minimal application to every day life but did sustain (and entertain) me up an endless, merciless incline:

Whoever wrote “the hills are alive with the sound of music” never biked up one.

August 3, 2016   3 Comments

Mary Berry is scrummy

AA Mary-BerryWhaaaat? You’ve never heard of Mary Berry?

Mary Berry is a household word and a national treasure – in the U.K. She is a culinary superstar, the author of 75– yes, I said 75 – cookbooks, and the co-star of one of my most favorite TV shows EVER, “The Great British Bake Off” (now in season 7).

Two years ago, she launched a new solo show on BBC, “Mary Berry Cooks.” Last year she launched another BBC show, “Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites.”

She is both quick-witted and thoughtful, funny, smart and gracious with a bearing that manages to be both regal and down-home domestic. And – just icing on the Victoria sponge cake – she’s a looker.

I mention all this and bring Mary Berry to your attention not just because The Great British Bake Off is the best show ever and you ought to see how the Brits do “reality TV” – with intelligence and humor and, gee, kindness. (Yes, even in competition….no “You’re fired” or “You’re chopped.”) I bring Mary Berry to your attention because she is 81.

And NO ONE MAKES A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT. There’s no: Wow she has so much energy for her age. Look what she is accomplishing at her age. I wonder how she does it at her age.

Because age is not the point. Because she is who she is. Because she transcends age and, in doing so, compels us to confront and eschew our own ageism.

I love Mary Berry. Mary Berry is scrummy.

July 26, 2016   3 Comments

Time, fast and slow


Time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’/ Into the future.

Yeah, what’s that about?

Why does time seem to speed up the older we get? Why did 8 weeks at summer camp when I was 12 seem like a lifetime, and last year – a full year – go by so quickly I barely registered its passing.

Time is weird, right? We have long striven to measure it with exactitude (from sundials to atomic clocks), but we all know the folly of objective time. Time is not objective. It is subjective. Time is experienced. Time is perceived.

And it turns out we experience and perceive it at a faster clip the older we get. Why? And what can we do to slow it down?

Our friends the neuroscientists have answers to both questions.

Our perception of time, how we experience (and remember) time, is dictated by how much information our brains need to process. When we feed the brain more information and expose it to more stimuli, the moment (the day, the summer) seems to last longer. We perceive it as passing more slowly. It is when we are bombarded with new experiences, and our brains are flooded with stimuli (that is, when we are younger, when every day presents a new experience), that we perceive time as moving slowly.

But, as neuroscientist David Engleman says (in a New Yorker profile): The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass. Or look at it this way: A mundane activity, a routine, gives us no new interesting stimuli to process. So when we look back on that moment (year), we can’t remember it distinctly, and we perceive it as zipping by.

You see where this is going, right? I have written so much about taking on new challenges, raising the bar on your own life, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. It turns out that all this is not just a fun, exciting and productive way to live life, it also slows time. You are feeding your brain more new stimuli to process. Doing something new means your brain has to pay attention. When it pays attention, your perception of time is altered.

Time does not keep on slippin slippin slippin away.

July 20, 2016   No Comments