January 8, 2016

Food for Thought Friday: Rickety, or Robust?

I have bad news, everyone: we’re going to get old.

All of us. Every single one of us.

If we’re lucky, that is.

If God, or nature, or the universe, or whatever, sees fit to let us ripen to an old, old age, it will no doubt be a bumpy ride. Predictable and unpredictable ups & downs and trials & tribulations await us. As a dear friend’s grandmother used to say, “It’s hell to get old, but the alternative isn’t any better.” (Getting old really is a privilege. Not everyone is so fortunate.) (Aside, to MW: I don’t know if you still read my blog or not, but if you do, it was your grandmother, HC, who said that.)

If we’re also lucky, we will retain most of our physical and mental/cognitive capacities well into old age. Some of these will inevitably decline—the physical more so than the mental/cognitive. And if we do start to experience cognitive decline, guess what? Alzheimer’s is the result of "REVERSIBLE metabolic syndromes." And for once, that’s not me saying so, but rather, the MD who knows it’s reversible, because he’s done it. But I digress…

It’s just not reasonable that an eighty-year-old will have the same strength and speed they had in their younger years, even for individuals who devote a significant amount of time and effort toward preserving strength and mobility as they age. We can slow the loss of muscle mass and muscle strength, but we cannot stop them completely.

That being said—that we cannot entirely halt physical deterioration and decline—there is most definitely a role for remaining active and holding onto as much physical capacity as we can, for as long as we can. This doesn’t have to mean getting into a gym several times a week and doing a prescribed program. Maybe it means walking or jogging regularly, or biking or swimming, or simply staying engaged in a hobby or avocation that requires physicality and agility: woodworking/carpentry, hiking, tennis, gardening. (If you think gardening isn’t a workout, you probably haven’t done much of it.)

My point is, we do ourselves a disservice by downplaying the importance of strength and mobilityparticularly as we age. Someday, after I’ve worked my way through the bazillion blog posts I already have waiting on the backburner, I’ll do one about the critical importance of muscle tissue. One that will be suitable for my diverse audience, and won’t cater solely to the CrossFit, holier-than-thou, “Do you even lift?” crowds, who somehow think that if you don’t regularly pick up heavy stuff and put it back down again, you are unworthy of taking up space on the same planet as them.

But, until I get around to that post, for now, I do want to touch on the importance of physical robustness. I recently wrote a series about stubborn fat loss, and went into detail on a few things that might be getting in the way of fat loss, even when someone is sticking to a good low-carb, high-fat or Paleo-style diet. And fat loss is important, especially if your size impedes your quality of life and prohibits you from enjoying activities that you would otherwise participate in regularly, such as fitting comfortably into a booth at a restaurant, a seat at a movie theater, or an airplane seat. I have written over and over again that being of large size is not usually, by itself, the cause of health complications, and that we can not make guesses about someone’s health and well-being based solely on their size. That being said, as I just mentioned, being of extra, extra-large size can interfere with quality of life, and for that reason alone, it’s not a bad idea to have a weight loss goal. BUT: for someone carrying around an extra five or ten pounds? Maybe even fifteen? Meh. Meh at 25 years old, and a far more emphatic MEH at 75 years old.

Let me tell you about someone I know.

I know a woman who is 70 years young. She runs a publishing company, is the founder and president of a prominent non-profit organization, and she owns her own farm, where she is as hands-on as it gets. She has a hectic schedule, not just because of her usual work obligations and commitments, but because she is also in high demand as a guest speaker, and her travel schedule is packed with these events. This woman is no slouch. Intellectually, she’s sharp as a tack. Physically, she’s got strength and stamina many people half her age would envy.

Here’s the thing, though: she’s not what anyone would call slim. Certainly, no one would accuse her of being skinny. But she’s not obese, either. Not even overweight—at least, not by my own opinion. (Screw whatever the life insurance charts would say.) If you ask me, she looks healthy. Strong. Capable. Robust.

This woman is very well-known in the real food world, and she’s made many friends, but also many enemies along the way. As such, there are some unflattering photos of her online from a few years ago, but I assure you, she looks great now. Hey, we’ve all had our moments of looking less than our best. The difference for most of us, however, is that we’re not in the public eye, and, barring pictures our friends choose to post online and “tag” us in, we can pick and choose the photos we let the rest of the world see and we can destroy the evidence that we’ve ever looked anything less than glamorous. (Just make sure no one ever gets hold of our middle school yearbooks!)

Through the years, this woman has been bigger and she’s been smaller. Who hasn’t? The point is, right now, she looks great, and I know what she eats. I spent two weeks living in her house and working on her farm, and I occasionally still have dinner there once in a while, if I need to spend the night at the farm in order to be there early the next morning. (If any of you are in the DC/MD/VA area, come on out to P.A. Bowen Farmstead. I work in the store every Friday! In addition to award-winning raw milk cheese, we now sell raw milk for pets! [Plus all the goodies you’d expect from such a farm: beef, pork, chickens, organ meats, lard, fermented vegetables, locally-produced jams/jellies, raw honey, and more!])

I can tell you for sure that this woman loves to cook and is true to her principles when doing so. (Like me, she is someone who escapes to the kitchen [whereas many other people want to escape from the kitchen.]) Our meals were loaded with homemade broth, enzyme-rich salad dressings, soaked/sprouted nuts & seeds, lots of well-cooked vegetables, and, of course, the best quality animal proteins, cooked on the bone, served with gravies and pan-sauces made from the drippings. I dined like royalty during that time. (You would not believe the amount of butter, bacon, and kombucha that household goes through! Well, if you’re reading my blog, are a LCHFer, and know about her organization, maybe you would, teehee.)

Okay. I’m getting off message here. My point is, this woman might not be the size she was as a teenager or twenty-something, but why should she be? She’s seventy years old. She’s had three children, and had many, many other pursuits in her life such that her primary activities did not involve weighing and measuring her food; tracking every last morsel in a spreadsheet; fasting; recording her daily breath, urine, and blood ketones; and getting up at 5am to attend a spin class or “WOD” beatdown.

And even in the absence of these things—which some people out there might even think are required to be the slightest bit fit and healthy—she is achieving goals, solving problems, and generally accomplishing things at a rate that would put many young’uns to shame.

Her farm produces raw milk cheese, and she is the primary cheesemaker. If you have never made cheese on a large-ish scale before, let me assure you, it is not for the weak. It is backbreaking work. There’s a lot of bending, heavy lifting, back & shoulder movement, and time on your feet. (This is particularly true of making cheddar cheese, when it is done via the traditional, super-old-school cheddaring method, and is done entirely by hand.) I know, I know. Cheesemaking? That’s hard work? Yes, yes it is. (I’ve done it. It’s not an ultra-endurance race, sure, but it’s no stroll in the park, either.)

It was during my two weeks living and working at this farm that I recorded a podcast with the one and only Robb Wolf. During our conversation, I mentioned that the laser-like focus on weight loss and body size in the low-carb & Paleo worlds really detracts from a more important metric: physical robustness. I said something about the importance of having meat on your bones if you’d like to age well and remain independent into your sunset years. Do you want to be someone who can barely carry his/her groceries from the car into the house, or do you want to be someone who could (assuming you wanted to) haul buckets of water and heavy bags of animal feed? Do you want to be able to get up out of a chair under your own power, or do you want to risk breaking a hip or cracking a rib if you lose your balance and fall? (Something tells me the farm woman I’ve talked about here has bones and joints that could take a heck of a licking and keep on ticking. All that gelatin and fat will do that to ya! Not to mention, she does swear by cod liver oil. Kind of like Chris Rock and his Robitussin routine. [NSFW!] Whatever ails ya, the answer is cod liver oil. I’m not sure I believe this, but it sure is working for her.)

Granted, as I said at the beginning of this post, we are all going to age. We are all going to become less physically robust than we are now and were in our younger years. But we sure as heck don’t have to speed the process along! And frankly, some of the practices people might engage in in order to get rid of “the last ten pounds” could actually work against physical robustness and strength. Please understand that, assuming you are healthy by your bloodwork, by your mental & emotional stability, cognitive function, and by the yardstick of being able to participate in the activities you want to participate in, then those last ten pounds are for vanity only. Let me say that again: They are vanity pounds. They have nothing to do with the stiffness of your arteries, or your glomerular filtration rate, or your level of inflammation, or the amount of triglyceride in your liver or pancreas.

Pulling out all the stops to divest yourself of those last few pounds might backfire and detract from your quality of life. It might also turn you into an insufferable a-hole whom no one wants to be around, if your single-minded quest to get to your self-defined ideal body weight makes you refuse to join friends and loved ones for a shared meal because you won’t know exactly how many grams of carbs you might be ingesting, and your hostess—who has been your best friend for 46 years—might have…*gasp!*…used a tablespoon of canola oil in the meatloaf she lovingly prepared for you, and she doesn’t spring for grass-fed beef or eggs from pastured, soy-free hens, and God only knows what the provenance of the tomato sauce is, and there’s no way you can eat a meal that will kill you, so you might as well stay home by yourself, with your sad organic spinach and your sad little spreadsheet.

(I am not completely opposed to tracking food, and I am not mocking those who find it necessary. Please. Cut me some slack. This is a Friday post, where I let myself rant and be more tongue-in-cheek than usual. If you find that weighing & measuring your food keeps you where you want to be, great! Carry on! But if it starts ruling your life, and it is using you as a tool, rather than the other way around [like the scale often does], it’s time to put down the pencil or close the app.)

If you are a “seasoned” citizen, or even a not-so-seasoned one, please, don’t worry so much about the scale. Yes, I realize this probably sounds disingenuous coming from someone who wrote a series on stubborn fat loss, but again, I’m not talking about losing an amount of weight that is interfering with your life. I’m talking about fighting tooth and nail and potentially causing interference with your life in order to get back to a weight that you were forty or fifty years ago, or maybe you never were, and might even be completely unnatural for you to be in the first place, and that’s why it’s so damn hard to get there. If you can do all the things you want to do (barring physical disability or incapacitation, of course), then maybe you’re already just the right size. And if you can’t do some of the things you’d like, and you suspect (or know for sure) that what’s holding you back is a lack of strength or stamina, then for goodness’ sake, stop wasting time on the scale and start doing things to build your strength and stamina.


P.S. I know other folks at 70+ years of age who are more intellectually “with it” and far more physically capable than people half their age. And they have some things in common. First, they’re all physically active. None of them regularly do what we would describe as “working out,” but they all do a lot of walking and are also engaged in physical hobbies, such as farming & cheesemaking, and boating/sailing. Second, they all remain engaged in intellectually stimulating activities, and issues they are passionate about, either through professions they haven’t retired from (although they may have cut back a bit), or by taking adult education courses or “lifelong learning” classes at a local community college.  Third, these people regularly engage with other people. They go out to dinner with friends, they’re active in religious and/or social organizations: churches, temples, or other houses of worship; veterans’ groups; Rotary, Kiwanis, or Lion’s clubs; etc. It’s interesting…maybe socialization and intellectual engagement are skills that atrophy if you don’t use them enough. (Here’s a good podcast to listen to if you’re interested in the health effects of loneliness and social isolation. You can listen to the recording if you scroll way down, or you can read the transcript if you prefer. I am the world’s most introverted introvert, but even I crave human contact once in a while. [In fact, I'm headed to this conference on low-carb and ketogenic therapies hosted by the great Dr. D'Agostino in Florida later this month, and might also emerge from my shell to go to Paleo f(x) and the Ancestral Health Symposium this year. I’m finally over feeling like an outsider, and like I’m way too big a loser to sit at the cool kids’ table.] I figure, if Robb Wolf vouches for me, that’s gotta count for something, no?) 

P.P.S. I haven’t mentioned the 70-year-old farm owner by name. Some of you probably knew right away who I was talking about, and for those of you who still don’t know who she is, you can find out by clicking on any of the related links. Just to let you know, I’ve poked around in her kitchen, and I’ve seen the contents of her refrigerator and pantry. Yes, indeed, I have seen the inner sanctum.  ;-) It was something to behold. (In a good way, of course.) Some people aspire to fancy cars or vacation homes. Most of my aspirations are kitchen & culinary in nature, and boy, was it a treat to see what I saw!

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.


  1. What a great post! I'm giving it a standing O.

    Here's my Friday rant--not far from what you are saying:

    It's that time of year when all the NY resolution newbies join Paleo and LCHF groups on social media. And the questions start "can I have. . . On this diet?"

    Aaargh! Spent half the night trying to compose a reply in my head to a newbie who wanted to drink Slimfast shakes ("but they are only one net carb!") instead of eating real food. I didn't want to sound snarky, but this particular group follows Dr. Westman's plan and page four of his booklet lists the foods that are permitted. I'm pretty sure maltodextrin, carageean, cellulose gel, sodium molybdate, etc. are NOT on his list. The only recognizable ingredient was cocoa. Most others were trying to explain to her the value of REAL food, but she (with some support from a minority) said that it was what she NEEDED to make this work for her. Sigh... I wanted to come up with something kind and brilliant to get it across to her, but this morning I realized it's a waste of electronic hips. She'll be gone by February, with yet another failed diet under her belt. I can hear her now--"LCHF didn't work for me because it was too restrictive (all those shakes!) and besides I gained all the weight back plus 10 pounds when I quit".

    How did we get so far that people don't recognize the difference between processed crap and REAL food??? Why do people rush to defend this person's misguided "choice" (brought to you by the dreck manufacturers of America) while they criticize your 70 year old lady who lives the way we were meant to live??

  2. Hi! Being otherwise at loose ends, I decided to drive down today and check out the farm store. Picked up some items for which I don't currently have a good source and may at some point return for the tour. In the meantime, I continue to enjoy your writing. 8-)

    1. Awesome! Thanks for coming by! I think I remember you...you bought blue cheese. ;-) Enjoy!

  3. So I *did* have a brush with fame today! Somehow, I got the impression that you weren't you, not sure how ;-) Nice to have met you, Ms. Berger.

    I can get some raw-milk cheeses closer to home, but not blue, so I may stop by now & again when I need a fix. I haven't tried it yet, but so far in life I haven't encountered a blue (nor even a bleu) cheese that I haven't liked...

    If you have a link to any bacon/brussels sprouts recipes you'd vouch for, let me know. I think I may be ready to take the plunge.

    1. A brush with fame... I love it! Don't know if I'd go that far, though. ;-) Yeah, I look pretty plain in real life, so if you were looking for the woman in the glamour shot from the blog, you might not have recognized me, hehheh. You should have introduced yourself though - I don't know if I've met one of my readers in person!

      As for recipes, don't sweat it if you just don't like Brussels sprouts. To each his own. But here are a couple recipes to look at. I usually just cut sprouts in half, toss with olive oil, salt & pepper, then roast at about 415/425 for 15-20 min. The bacon fat is less important... the real secret is actually the roasting. Makes them really tender and brings out their sweetness when they start to brown.




  4. Well, a brush with *incipient* fame, then.

    Plain? I wasn't disappointed in the least ;-)

    My poor opinion of Brussels sprouts goes way back to what I'm sure were a scant few exposures when I was young. I've since developed a taste for a good number of foods with strong or bitter or unusual flavors, things I'm sure I would have rejected outright back then. Time for a retry!

    Thanks for the recipes. I'll probably try your own minimalist approach first. I like bacon, but I still suspect it's not the most healthful thing to indulge in too often.

    Andy (you may ignore the only-for-contracts version of the name 8-)