Eat This, Feed Me

Pick Up Both Shovel and Fork!

Heavy for a gardener, but not for a 52 year-old American

Friend of Rant Christopher C of Outside Clyde is the rare exception that proves the rule: He grows beautiful vegetables, but feels inept cooking them. (Must send you some cookbooks, Christopher!) But most vegetable gardeners live for the kitchen. They grow the tomatoes because they want to make the homemade sauce. They have the basil the size of boxwoods because they want to produce the perfect pesto on a whim. The really crazy ones–me–even grow the dried peas for the hummus and the dried beans for the chili. Yes, this effort is ridiculous when even organic dried legumes cost nothing, but my own do taste better. Vegetable gardeners are ruled by their palates.

Despite this intense interest in food, however, most of the vegetable gardeners I know look pretty terrific, at least compared to the people in your average shopping mall. We get a lot of exercise. We may not have it all perfectly balanced, especially in a good tomato year–I threw a party last weekend with a total storm of food from my garden, and the first thing my mother did when she walked in the door was to ask why I’m so “heavy”–but it’s generally a system that hums along without a lot of artery clogging or fat accumulation. Exhaust yourself weeding and mulching, cook fabulous meal, eat what you want, exhaust yourself weeding and mulching.

So I cannot tell you how ANNOYED I have been over the years by the supposed scientific evidence that the key to longevity is near-starvation. I know a few truly skinny people, the ones who don’t seem to like to eat, and they do not exhibit the glow of people who dine on sunshine and soil, or rather, on plants grown in the sun and good garden soil, where as many as a million different species of bacteria in every gram are contributing various enchantments to one’s food that will soon, I am betting, be confirmed in the laboratory as essential to good health.

I was so delighted this week therefore to read in the New York Times about a long-awaited major study of rhesus monkeys that found that severely restricting their diets did not prolong their lives, as the “surprised and disappointed” researchers had expected.  All it did was make the monkeys’ lives less joyful.

Of course, there is always something to be annoyed about in the world of science, since far too few scientists are gardeners. And I was intensely annoyed by an recent op-ed piece titled “Debunking the Hunter-Gatherer Workout” by anthropologist Herman Pontzer. Pontzer writes about a study he conducted with some colleagues of the Hadza people of Tanzania, one of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer cultures.  The researchers used very precise biological markers of daily energy expenditures and found, surprisingly, that despite covering miles and miles of terrain every day, the average Hadza burned no more calories per day than the average American, even after questions of body mass were accounted for.

The theory is that the Hadza expend fewer calories on the basic processes of cell metabolism, which allows them the energy for physical activity–that across cultures, our bodies generally burn the same number of calories no matter what and just grow more efficient with greater exertion. Pontzer believes this study debunks the idea that our national obesity problem is due to inactivity. He sees fatness therefore as purely a function of diet–it’s not that we don’t move enough, it’s that we eat too much. “Physical activity,” he writes, “is very important for maintaining physical and mental health, but we aren’t going to Jazzercise our way out of the obesity epidemic.”

On the surface, that statement is ridiculous. How many fit people do you know who are obese?

But even if he’s right, even if exercise won’t make us slim, maybe it’s still better for our bodies, our minds, our appearance, our morale, our yards, our world, for the inner processes that prop us up to be conducted so sleekly and efficiently that we have energy to expend outwards. Fortunately, as a counter-balance to the depressing Pontzer, we have Andy Coghlan, whose piece in this week’s NewScientist argues that exercise is “the best medicine.”  He writes

A plethora of recent studies shows that exercise protects us from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and depression.  It even boosts memory.  And it has the potential to prevent more premature deaths than any other single treatment, with none of the side effects of actual medication.

So, in the interest of preventing my own premature death–and the premature deaths of the people I love–I intend to continue to be heavily engaged in two activities, gardening and eating, until the day some 45 years hence that I keel over in a patch of parsnips. And I promise you, I will enjoy many, many great meals along the way.

 

Posted by on August 31, 2012 at 11:12 am, in the category Eat This, Feed Me.
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25 Responses to “Pick Up Both Shovel and Fork!”

  1. Jason says:

    Amen! I don’t know much about the Hazda, but in my life I’ve known many people who engage in a lot of heavy physical activity – some for a living and others for a vocation. And those people EAT. And, mostly, they have been pretty fit, though some have had issues with cigarettes, alcohol, etc. There’s a reason for sayings like, “He eats like a longshoreman.” Of course, it matters what and how much we eat, but I can’t imagine anyone can be healthy without a decent amount of exercise.

  2. Wendy Sykora says:

    My sister is the avid vegetable gardener in the family. She has extended her garden later into fall and earlier in the spring via covering some of her plants.

    My claim to fame is to extend the use for fresh fruit and vegetables as long as possible. First of all – I have learned to create veggie/fruit smoothies in an effort to increase my daily veggie and fruit intake.

    Secondly, I have learned to freeze fruit/veggies on trays and then transfer them to ziplock bags. This way I can have onions and peppers to throw in stir fries. I can also take advantage of good prices on things like cherries, strawberries, and blue berries.

    My hat is off to anyone who can successfully raise their own fruits and vegetables. My garden success is limited to mint, chives, basil, oregano, and chives. All of which I also freeze (the basil as pesto).

  3. Susan Harris says:

    Okay if no one else has already, I’ll step in to state the obvious – that you’re a tad heavy for a teenage gymnast, but not for a gardener of any age. Hell, you’re walking proof of the claim that gardening keeps you fit and HOT into middle age. ANd in your case, I predict well beyond middle age, too.

    • Oh, definitely too much pasta and wine and not enough running this summer. An excellent tomato year in my part of the world! But moral support from a blonde bombshell in her 60′s is always much appreciated.

  4. gemma says:

    OK, what annoys me is to read misrepresentations of scientific studies. In newspapers, the headline often oversimplifies and distorts the findings. But I think it’s a general rule that if you leave out all the interesting details and nuances, you lose the point of the study — and it’s usually a small point, with lots of qualifiers.

    What the longevity researchers are advocating is not near-starvation, but rather a 25 percent reduction in calories. As I understand it, you chart your calorie intake for a period of time, then reduce it by 25 percent, if you want to follow this path. Years ago I knew a few gaunt people (now in their late 80s) who didn’t seem to like to eat, but it was not a conscious choice to eat less in order to live longer. I don’t know any CR (calorie restriction) folks, but it might be interesting to find out how much attention they pay to eating (or not eating) and see if they do have that gardener’s glow.

    Of course, if you reduce calories, you have to pay more attention to getting all your vitamins and minerals. Researchers have speculated that the monkeys didn’t live longer because of social isolation and because their diets were too high in protein. “The quality of the diet matters,” according to Washington Univ. gerontologist Luigi Fontana.
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/08/calorie-restriction-monkeys/
    I read about this at my other favorite blog, which frequently features great recipes as well.
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Happy-Healthy-Long-Life-The-Healthy-Librarian/298259113530705

    I think the most important thing to learn from the Hadza study is that diet trumps exercise — a big point, but still with the qualifiers that it was based on studying one isolated population. It suggests that you can’t eat junk and think a little exercise will atone for it. I’ve observed that most people do eat too much, and too much of the wrong thing — and often they say it themselves as they’re indulging. Of course, the right thing to eat is tons of fruits and vegetables (according to lots of research), and the most fun way to procure them is to grow them (in my experience).

  5. Norma says:

    I, too, was thrilled to hear that near starvation does not contribute to longevity. It was an issue that had me worried since I first heard about it a few years ago as there was no way I was going to convince my husband to live off 500 calories a day.

    Re: Your mom’s comment; nonsense. You look wonderful. Send her down here (the rural South) so she can see what a “heavy” person REALLY looks like.

  6. Chad B says:

    I agree with Jason: this post deserves an Amen!

  7. gemma says:

    OK, what annoys me is to read misrepresentations of scientific studies. In newspapers, the headline often oversimplifies and distorts the findings. But I think it’s a general rule that if you leave out all the interesting details and nuances, you lose the point of the study — and it’s usually a small point, with lots of qualifiers.

    What the longevity researchers are advocating is not near-starvation, but rather a 25 percent reduction in calories. As I understand it, you chart your calorie intake for a period of time, then reduce it by 25 percent, if you want to follow this path. Years ago I knew a few gaunt people (now in their late 80s) who didn’t seem to like to eat, but it was not a conscious choice to eat less in order to live longer. I don’t know any CR (calorie restriction) folks, but it might be interesting to find out how much attention they pay to eating (or not eating) and see if they do have that gardener’s glow.

    Of course, if you reduce calories, you have to pay more attention to getting all your vitamins and minerals. Researchers have speculated that the monkeys didn’t live longer because of social isolation and because their diets were too high in protein. “The quality of the diet matters,” according to Washington Univ. gerontologist Luigi Fontana. I read about this at my other favorite blog, the Healthy Librarian, which frequently features great recipes as well.

    I think the most important thing to learn from the Hadza study is that diet trumps exercise — a big point, but still with the qualifiers that it was based on studying one isolated population. It suggests that you can’t eat junk and think a little exercise will atone for it. I’ve observed that most people do eat too much, and too much of the wrong thing — and often they say it themselves as they’re indulging. Of course, the right thing to eat is tons of fruits and vegetables (according to lots of research), and the most fun way to procure them is to grow them (in my experience).

  8. Jeff Minnich says:

    I don’t think you look heavy at all, Michele. I think you look wonderful.

  9. Susan in WNC says:

    Ditto Susan, Chad and Jeff. I should look so good. Maybe I need to pull a few more weeds.

  10. Gotta love your mother Michele. Mine is always asking me if I have gotten skinnier.

    Really I am only half the rare exception because I do love to eat and will gladly hang out in the kitchen for good food. The other question I get from my mother is how can you eat so much and stay so skinny. Maybe if I wasn’t gardening hard all day every day I might be more interested in cooking my fine produce myself instead of just sitting down and eating it. Not. I don’t want cook books, I want a cook.

    My current chef does not like to cook either and comes from a German-Irish, mid-western tradition of bland cuisine. My palate was tainted by 20 years of exposure to all forms of Asian cooking. The compromise is we eat real food even when the roadside vegetable garden is not in high production mode. There is very little use of highly processed crap. I have to buy my own baked goods to supplement what is prepared for me.

  11. [...] Pick Up Both Shovel and Fork! Posted on September 1, 2012 by [...]

  12. Tami says:

    You look fabulous, period.

  13. tibs says:

    Well, obviously I am not gardening enough or hard enough. Cause I am way heavier than my young days when I was not gardening. I wonder if our mothers are long lost sisters, because that is exactly the type of comment my dear mother makes.

  14. kermit says:

    You look great, of course, Michelle, but you know that.

    I spent my teenage years and my young adulthood (20-50) lifting weights, jogging, and training in martial arts. After buying our house eleven years ago, my sweetie and I started a garden, and I’ve had to seriously cut out the other activities. I haven’t run in years, and I’ve cut way back on the weights. Gardening is just too strenuous. I find it unlikely that our lean ancestors exercised less than we did. They ate nature’s fruits and veggies (walking several miles to gather them all) , and the occasional zebra burger – and it was a lean zebra, usually acquired after running a marathon while carrying sharpened sticks.

    Don’t trust single studies, especially if it’s been run through a journalist first. Too many things can be overlooked or misinterpreted – that’s why multiple studies are needed.

    Gemma is right, diet trumps exercise. Note that our ancestors were eating fruits and veggies – what gardeners eat!

  15. greg draiss says:

    So if genetic diversity is awed in the world of plants and animals only a moron would think that limiting the variety and quantities of foods eaten by people would be better for longevity.

    Thanks for the post but be need to stop giving idiots who propose stuff like that anymore press.

    The TROLL

  16. Amy says:

    It has been said that extreme caloric restriction does not actually make life longer; it just makes it SEEM longer.

    Who the hell wants to live 90 or more long, hungry years staring at everybody else’s pasta primavera, chardonnay, and blueberry pie while you nibble a lettuce leaf and sip a glass of water?

  17. Rhea says:

    I am one of those too heavy people. But I am also pretty darned active and the only middle aged gal that I know that perennially hauls 50 pound bags of amendments all over my acre lot. This year the count is about 150 bags. Not bad for an obese middle ager. Did I mention walking an hour a night with two athletic pit-mixes. If that doesn’t build up arm strength….

    So for the record, you are beautiful and in a shape I aspire to; lets face it, no one really knows why one person lives a long life and another clocks out quickly. I know I man who started smoking unfiltered camels when he was 12, worked in a coal mine in his teens, ate eggs and bacon every morning for breakfast, routinely had a snootful and live well into his 80s, in almost perfect health and physical condition until the very end. Defying what I am sure are boatloads of serious scientific studies that said how he lived was impossible.

    Love the blog, keep ‘em coming.

  18. Sometimes there’s no pleasing mothers but they mean well. There’s no greater satisfaction than growing your own food and eating it…I find it always tastes better!

  19. Joy says:

    The phrase “How many fit people do you know who are obese?” is pretty offensive. I’m obese, and go to the gym a hell of a lot more than most people: but if you saw me, you’d just assume I’m not fit because I’m fat, and that would serve to reinforce your stereotypes. You can’t know anything about someone’s fitness based on their fatness.

  20. Lisa-St. Marys ON says:

    I have to agree with Joy. I do actually know a lot of heavy people that are very fit, me being one of them. I garden, trail run, mountain bike, and kayak regularly, but diet trumps the exercise everytime. I just eat too much.

    If you go to a marathon, and half marathon event there are quite a few heavy runners.

    My cousin and I did an adventure race last year together, two middle aged kind of heavy women. We won the women’s team class, against some much younger skinnier teams. Looking at the competition we felt seriously outclassed, but apparently we are that fit.

  21. Linnea Borealis says:

    The most annoying point of those 2 scientific papers, is that they want to find ONE cure: Either it’s the food, or it’s the exercise. Haven’t we already learned there is never a silver bullet? Eat well, garden well, be kind – that’s probably a good start.

    Michelle – you’re proving them wrong, that’s for sure, with your food-loving, ‘hunter-gardener’ lifestyle!

  22. LC says:

    Another fit and fat (okay, maybe just pretty plump) veggie gardener here. I garden every moment I can, and walk the dogs and take hikes and dig post holes and all the rest…and eat veggies from the backyard with grass fed meat. Sometimes body type is just the (bad) luck of the draw, and you have to keep working on cutting out more calories if you care enough about the size jeans you wear. C’mon, Michelle – you never have been heavy, right? And neither has your mom. You got both the good genes AND the veggie loving and the gardening yen. Its a wonderful gift! You look great! Those of us who look less great don’t necessarily love gardening less.

  23. commonweeder says:

    We have long sung Snoopy’s refrain – Is there any reason why mealtime should not be a joyful occasion? And three times a day for joy! None of us got fat, either.

  24. UrsulaV says:

    Yeah, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I’m–if not fat, at least distinctly plump–and I’m outrageously healthy. My cholesterol (never all that high) actually started going down last year, and my blood pressure is so low already that if I drop a lot of weight, (as has happened once or twice) I start fainting when I stand up. I have none of the “OH GOD, PANIC!” markers that people who are carrying extra pounds are supposed to be at risk for, and I can sling mulch with the best of ‘em.

    Plenty of us are, I expect, carrying around both muscle AND fat. The only reason I want to lose weight is so that I look better in a skirt, not because I’m not fit. And I have friends who appear distinctly more chunky than I am, who can hike until I fall down and beg for mercy.

    We’re maybe not as diverse a bunch as bacteria, I grant you, but there’s a lot of variation.

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