Saturday, March 28, 2015

All About GMOs

A few months ago, Jimmy Kimmel's people quizzed pedestrians in LA on the subject of gluten, footage of which made for a great intro to this post on gluten. Now, he's tackled another health topic in the same way. This time, farmer's market shoppers were asked about GMOs.

Watch this:

Dude! Those GMOs are giving up not-so-good vibrations.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a presentation at Boston's Museum of Science on GMOs. I found it to be very fair and evidence-based, and it's a topic on which I have been reading for some time. Here's what I've learned (and of course, my spicy opinions thereon.)

What are GMOs?

GMO stands for genetically-modified organisms. This refers to foods that have been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Basically, they splice bits of DNA strands into the DNA strands of something else. Sometimes they'll use DNA from the same type of plant (as with wheat), other times they'll use other species entirely.

Scientists tinker with genes for a variety of reasons. Some genetic engineering efforts are meant to make plants more resistant to pests. Others are meant to 'improve' the nutrient quality or simply appeal to buyers' preferences.

For example, I recently read about a scientist who is trying to modify tomatoes to make them richer in folic acid, a nutrient shown to prevent birth defects. Pregnant women are now advised to supplement their diets with folic acid, and this new-fangled tomato would undoubtedly find it's way into tomato sauces for pizzas and other processed tomato foods. And since people eat a lot of pizza, the theory is this will aid in preventing birth defects.

I heard of another effort to create peach flesh that would pull away easily from the pit. I'll admit I do find it very satisfying when my peach willingly parts with it's pit... I don't know that I need a team of researchers to finagle this for me, but well... I'll save that for my rant.

Should you avoid genetically-modified foods?

[inhaling deeply] Ok... there have been studies done on the safety and nutrient content of genetically-modified foods which indicate they are safe and as nutritious as the natural kind. However, it should be noted that these studies are usually funded by the companies that develop, sell and profit from GMOs. It is difficult to find independently-funded studies on GMOs.

How do you know a food has been genetically-modified?

Here's the sticky wicket--you don't. Food companies are not required to include this information on the label, so they don't. But something like 90% of corn, soy and canola grown in the United States are genetically modified. These crops are used in some form in almost all the processed foods sold in supermarkets, and they are used to feed livestock, even though some of those animals are not meant to be eating those foods in the first place. (Think cows -- they're supposed to be eating grass, not corn.)

Generally, unless a label specifically indicates that it does not contain genetically-modified ingredients, you should assume it does. Of course, this doesn't help you if you are buying food that doesn't come with a label, but I have also read that produce SKUs that start with '8' indicate a food has been genetically modified or irradiated. The USDA Organic label prohibits genetic modification, so buying certified organic should be GMO-free.

There is a movement afoot to require GM foods to be labeled as such, and it is being fought tooth and nail by the industry. They say it will unfairly bias consumers against their products. There is one very large company that is at the forefront on genetic engineering research. This company does not hesitate to bring legal action against anyone who threatens their business. They've sued small farmers as well as municipalities that have voted to require GMO labeling. They also produce fertilizers and pesticides. I don't want to mention them by name because I'm afraid they might sue me. But their name starts with an 'M' and rhymes with 'ronranto.'

I first heard about GMOs when I was living in Scotland back in the late 1990's. There a Hungarian-born scientist by the name of Arpad Pusztai was conducting experiments with genetically modified potatoes. Pusztai caused an uproar when he revealed in a television interview that the rats fed GM potatoes demonstrated stunted growth and supressed immune systems, and he highlighted the need for further testing.

Pusztai was summarily silenced, fired and essentially black-balled from his profession. Since then, numerous suits have been brought against pretty much anyone who threatens their interests.

And this is what really chaps my hide about GMOs. If they are so wonderful and so safe and so nutritious, why wouldn't you want to label them as such? 

I mean, really, people?? If the tomato sauce on this otherwise crappy tasting frozen pizza could save millions of babies from developing spina bifida, wouldn't we want to brag about it? When's the last time any American industry said, 'wow, let's NOT tell the people how awesome we are?'

Never. That's never happened. So if GMOs are the best thing since sliced bread made from semi-dwarf wheat, why be all hush-hush about it?

And that, dear readers, is why I smell a rat when it comes to GMOs. Why all the secrecy, the bullying? The lawsuits? Why doesn't Ronranto-with-an-M and others divert some funds from their legal departments over to PR? Why not invest in educating the public on how wonderful it is to play with DNA instead of tormenting anyone who dares cross them?

Completely avoiding GMOs is nearly impossible, but we try to limit our exposure. Our wonderful CSA produce is organic, and we buy very few processed foods. Until this industry responds to concerns with something more than legal bullying, they can expect a suspicious consumer, labeling or not.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Life is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

It's been a rough, snowy winter here in Boston, but if you go out early on a weekend morning--despite the cold and the snow banks--you'll see runners. Lots of them. Many (maybe most?) are training for the famed Boston Marathon, which runs right near my house.

Boston is considered the holy grail for distance runners. Qualifying for it is not easy, but one athlete with her eye on the prize is my friend Pru.

Prudence Lau is my cyber-friend. We cyber-met on Twitter because of our mutual love for Anthony Howell. Let's just take a moment....
Always so nice to see him, don't you think?
Source: twitter

Anyway, Prudence started reading the blog and commenting, then we started corresponding and now we're friends. Friends who have never met in real life, but friends all the same.

Pru is a badass marathoner. In fact, she was running her third marathon in a year while I was blogging on my couch in the fuzzy blue robe about the importance of rest. She's a little cray-cray, but that's part of her charm.

I was thinking of her the whole time I was blogging about rest. Not just because she was careening through the streets of Toronto while I was 'resting,' but also because Prudence has a very interesting personal story, and she employs a very well-thought-out training protocol that includes, among other things, rest. One may say she is very... prudent. (Couldn't resist.)

And so she graciously consented to be interviewed for the blog about all these things and more. I get to pretend to be a hard-hitting journalist (HHJ) and I don't even have to interview myself like I did last time! Yay! Here we go:

HHJ: So, tell us how you got into distance running.

PruIt all started with a medical mistake. I was given an incorrect dosage of medication, which resulted in significant hearing loss. It happened suddenly, and I was left permanently deaf in one ear and with only 20% hearing in the other. 

I never recovered, not even with a high dose of the steroid Prednisone. I don't remember much from the six weeks I was on it. My husband Trevor said I was hell on wheels. All I remember was weaning off that terrible medication and opening my kitchen cupboards to find half of my dishes gone. Trevor said I'd smashed them during my anger fits.

HHJ: Oh wow. I would be so wicked pissed if I were you.

Pru: Yeah, this is where running comes in. I was so angry, depressed and frustrated. I started to run - because it's very freeing. It was such a release. And it makes me happy - endorphins!  

HHJ: Oh yes, we love endorphins! We call them 'lalas.'

Pru: Yes, running gives me the lalas, definitely. And it has taught me so much. I've learned to rely on other senses -- feeling and sight. I have to trust others and, trust drivers not to mow me down. When one sense is diminished, you really do compensate with the others. 

It's also made me a more grateful person--grateful for my husband, who stood by me patiently, even as I was breaking dishes! Before the Prednisone treatments, I remember Trevor said, everything else is intact, it could be worse, I still have my health, and my brain is unaffected. I must adapt and adjust and carry on. I must grow a thicker skin, and get used to the fact people will treat me differently whether or not they know of my profound hearing loss. They may treat me as if I were stupid. I need to look past it, to understand where they're coming from. I am still learning lessons of empathy, understanding and patience for others. The world does not just revolve around me.

HHJ: You once referred to your hearing loss as 'your invisible disability.' I have another friend in a similar situation--you'd never know from looking at her that she has a disability, which is tough. How do you cope with that?

Pru: Yes, it's frustrating, and running really helps. It gives me time to think and plan, and I love to discover what I see during the run. It makes me think, the world is huge and there's so much more to life, instead of wallowing in self pity. It gives me perspective. Running has taught me there is no shame in my invisible disability and I need to be upfront about it. Of course, there are some people who treat me like a child, which is annoying, but I don't ever want to become bitter. Running definitely helps me cope.

HHJ: Ok, so why marathons? I'm not a runner, so really... 26.2 miles sounds like hell on earth to me. Why not just a nice 5K in a pink t-shirt for breast cancer research?

Pru: Haha! Yeah, marathons are tough, but I love the challenge. Testing yourself and your body beyond it's limits is really difficult. It's very hard on the body, as well as the mind. But I like marathons, because you need to line up your ducks in order. If you run it wrong on any part of the course, the marathon is huge enough to eat you up. It's scary, but also exciting.

It's also taught me patience. Anything good takes work, commitment, and a dream. Dreams do come true with a lot of work. People give up too easily nowadays, because things are just 'too tough' to attain. I say if you want things that last, they take a long time to get. If you want something now, it usually won't last. 

HHJ: So tell us about your training. Let's start with the food, because I know you love to eat!

Exhibit A
Pru: Yes! I love food! The hardest thing for me is to lay off on the alcohol. I don't drink during training. It makes me sluggish and slows me down. Otherwise I eat the same while I'm training- no special diet. I eat whatever my body wants. If it wants noodles, beef and veggies for supper, I will give my body that. If I want Doritos - I'd go for that too - just a small bowl to satisfy my cravings. I crave salt a lot during training - because the body loses a lot of water, potassium during training. And I don't shy away from fat either - it's what my joints need. And eating fat does NOT make you fat. Eat anything in moderation, whatever my body asks for, it's what it gets - without guilt. 

During longer runs, I take a Shot Bloc every 20 minutes and sip water every 10 minutes. Better to have fuel in the tank than run on empty and cramp the rest of the way. These long runs are to build endurance, and they are tough, can take up to 3 hours or longer.

HHJ: Wow, sounds very time-consuming...

Pru: Yes, and expensive! Even though running is technically 'free,' I go through about 2-3 pairs of running shoes during marathon training and gear can be pricey. And then there are racing fees.... I have to say, I am thankful - for my jobs, and my husbands support.

I don't work a 9-5 job [Prudence is a cake decorating instructor by trade] so I can work my runs around my schedule. It's all about self discipline. I cannot cut corners, especially for a marathon. The body has to be very conditioned. Even if the weather doesn't co-operate, I'm out there, doing my thing.  I run easy for the first while, and then at a quicker pace that I can sustain for a long period of time - but it has to feel easy. That is how I determine my pace for every race.

Post run, I walk to cool down, then do some stretches and yoga, and roll out my sore muscles. After a long-distance run, let's say 20k and up, and put my legs up against the wall for 30 minutes to drain out the lactic acid. I don't do ice baths - they don't work for me, and I don't stretch much, because I find I get more injuries from stretching. My formula may not work for everyone, because everyone is different. You have to experiment.

HHJ: Lord, that all sounds very painful. What do you do for recovery?

Pru: I see a sports massage therapist - very important to get deep tissue massage on a regular basis. I get mine at least once a month. It's to find out how your muscles are working, whether an injury is cropping up. It's pretty much injury prevention. My massage therapist has also became a friend, so it's also good for the soul - we are able to talk about races, what I need to work on physically or how to make some mental adjustments. Not all races are winners, some are learning races.

Off-season, I rest.  I do nothing. Enjoy life, go on holidays, go for long walks with Trevor, and eat and drink whatever I want. I don't run, I sleep in, walk, and take it easy. I do nothing - if no injuries, no foam rolling. I just lie around and read a good book in my spare time.

HHJ: Have you always been a runner?

Pru: When I was a kid, I loved PE, when it consisted long distance running or track days. I quit running at 14, because of teenage angst. I didn't pick up running again until 39. Before I turned 40, Trevor dared me to run a 1/2 marathon. I finished my first 1/2 marathon at 40 - and he told me at the finish line - you're not done yet. You're going to run marathons - and you're going to run Boston! Yikes!

HHJ: YAY! Can't wait! I'll have the pillows in the guest room all fluffed up!

Pru: Yes, and we'll eat!! My post-race indulgence is Kentucky Fried Chicken!

HHJ: Oh, good grief.

Pru: Don't tell me what's in it, I don't care, I just eat it!

So that's my task between now and whenever Prudence qualifies for Boston--find a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. She's also threatening to bring bags of Doritos for the little Darlings, in which case, rest will not be on the docket post-race. She'll be running around my house wiping neon-orange fingerprints off furniture and walls. But this is why we love Pru, she's way more fun and laid-back than I am. I can't wait to cheer her on one of these years.

Run like the wind, Pru!