eating · health

Vitamin D: What’s a reasonable person to do?


I often blog about topics where I’ve done some research and thought I’d save you the time. On topics such as exercise non-responders (Or, are you a non responder?), intermittent fasting and women’s health (Intermittent fasting and why it might not work), and athletes and pain tolerance (Are athletes masochists?) I’m far from an expert in the field but I’ve read enough to have some conclusions to share.

But on some topics, I’m perplexed. I’ve read a fair bit but I’m still not sure what to think or do about Vitamin D.  Let’s start with the question that many of us in the northern hemisphere worry about, are you getting enough Vitamin D?

Some reports suggest nearly half the world’s population suffers from vitamin D deficiency, which is unsettling news given that a lack of vitamin D has been associated with a host of serious conditions: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis and even depression, not to mention brittle bones and the common cold.

But it’s not clear that supplements help. See the Limits of Vitamin D Supplements.

A large review of studies has found that vitamin D supplements have little or no benefit beyond the low levels required for bone health.

The meta-analysis, published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, combined data from 290 observational studies and 172 random trials. All the studies used blood levels of vitamin D to measure outcomes. Dosages varied, but most trials used 800 units or more.

The observational studies generally found an association of lower vitamin D levels with increases in cardiovascular disease, lipid concentrations, glucose levels, weight gain, infectious disease and mood disorders. But random trials showed little or no effect of vitamin D supplements on any of these problems. The authors conclude that low vitamin D levels are almost surely an effect of these diseases, and not a cause.

Current guidelines recommend supplements for anyone with a blood level under 30 nanograms per milliliter, but the lead author, Dr. Philippe Autier, said that only at levels of 10 or less would there be a risk to skeletal health. Less than 10 percent of Americans, he estimates, fall into this category. Dr. Autier is a researcher at the International Prevention Research Institute in Lyon, France.

“Unfortunately, there is probably no benefit to expect from vitamin D supplementation in normally healthy people,” he said.

See also, from Precision Nutrition, Vitamin D supplements: Are yours helping or hurting you?

Almost every expert recommends it. And everyone’s taking it. But what if we’ve been using it wrong? What if our vitamin D supplements aren’t really helping us at all?
If your car’s oil light went on once a week…and every time you checked the oil, it was running low…what would you do?
Shrug? Top up the oil tank (again)? Do your best to forget about it?
Or would you try to figure out the cause? Why that oil light kept coming on? Why your oil was running low?
If you’re smart, you take your car to the mechanic. Where you learn that low oil is just a symptom. There, the mechanic looks for the real problem.
Why, then, don’t we take the same approach with our health? With our supplements?
Why’s that vitamin D low?
Research over the last few years has indicated that a large percent of the world’s population is low in vitamin D. However, the response to this is kinda strange.
Healthcare practitioners typically test a patient’s vitamin D levels and notice that they’re low.
Then s/he prescribes a vitamin D supplement.
The patient comes in again a few months later and vitamin D is still low.
So the doctor increases the supplement.
Interestingly, very few professionals ever ask: Why is this person’s “vitamin D tank” leaking in the first place?

In case you thought indoor tanning in the winter was a reasonable response, think again. The Canadian Cancer Society says, “Using tanning beds may increase vitamin D production, depending on the type of bulbs used (only UVB radiation can stimulate vitamin D production). But tanning beds are not a safe way to get vitamin D. There are safer ways to get vitamin D.”  Read more:

The International Skin Cancer Foundation puts in in stronger terms.

No … no… no! A tanning bed will never provide you with the vitamin D that you need, nor is it safer than tanning outdoors. Not understanding the facts can literally mean the difference between life and death. Both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation cause cell damage that can lead to skin cancer. When you lie in an indoor tanning bed, you are exposed primarily to UVA, which penetrates deep into the surface of the skin, damaging the cells beneath and prematurely aging your skin. But it is UVB (the sun burning rays) — not UVA — which helps the skin make vitamin D, so you are increasing your risk of skin cancer without receiving any benefit!

As for the claim that tanning beds emit a controlled dose of UV radiation, a “controlled dose” of UV radiation from a tanning bed is a dangerous dose: frequent tanners using high-pressure sunlamps may receive as much as 12 times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose they receive from sun exposure.

It’s estimated that 10 minutes in a tanning bed matches the cancer-causing effects of 10 minutes in the Mediterranean summer sun. This may be one reason that indoor tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, than those who have never tanned indoors, and that people who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma, the two most common skin cancers. In addition to increasing your risk of skin cancer and accelerating signs of skin aging like wrinkles and brown spots, UV radiation also weakens the immune system — which further increases your risk for skin cancer. While there is no question that vitamin D is essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system, current evidence does not support its role in the prevention of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, heart disease and stroke. Adults should obtain their recommended daily dose of 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D safely, from foods such as oily fish and fortified dairy products and cereals. Another easy way to ensure you are getting enough vitamin D is to take supplements. I strongly advise against exposure to artificial UV radiation (tanning beds), since the health risks — including skin cancer and premature skin aging — are significant and potentially life-threatening.

But should we test everyone for vitamin D deficiency?

There are problems with making vitamin D tests a standard part of preventive medicine, a federal panel said. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said Monday there’s not enough evidence of benefits or harms to recommend vitamin D testing for all. And even though some studies have associated low levels of vitamin D with a long list of ills, including a higher risk of fractures, falls, heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes, depression, thinking problems and death, scientists who evaluated studies for the USPSTF say there is no direct evidence that universal screening would reduce those risks. “The effect of vitamin D levels on health outcomes is difficult to evaluate,” the recommendation statement says.

So what do I do for now? I get outside in the sun when it appears. Walking my dog helps. And I do take a Vitamin D pill in the lowest sun months. Given the above I’m not sure it’s doing me any good but it’s a low enough dose that it’s not doing me any harm either.

What do you do about Vitamin D in the winter? Why? (And although I’m a professor and this is exam season, I don’t mean that question in an exam like way! I’m curious about what decisions others make when it’s not clear what the facts are.)


Guest Post · running

Guest Post: Running in Winter (Outdoor or Indoor. . .Ice or Monotony)

I am entering this winter the fittest I have ever been and I’m keen to keep that up. There is, however, this small problem of being Canadian and therefore having to deal with pesky ice and snow.

When I look around my small-ish town’s trails at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, I still see runners everywhere. In fact, I saw two running in the snowstorm that hit us last week. I can’t decide if those people are a little bit out of their minds or if I’m missing something but my experience of running in the winter is never going to include running in a snowstorm.

I know that there are many of you reading this saying to yourself, “Stop whining and just move indoors”. But that has its own issues.

First of all, treadmills. I mean, when people think about ditching their highly competitive, stressful, boring office jobs and moving out to the country with a few chickens and a milking cow, they use the phrase, “I’m getting off the treadmill”. Why get on a treadmill on purpose? I have also read that the forces on the body in the stride on a treadmill are fundamentally different, more hip flexor, less glute. Any woman over 35 who has ever picked up running later in life knows that additional stress on her hip flexors and less activation in her rear end is the last thing she needs.
I am lucky to have another indoor option.

There is a track in town that is suspended over an indoor ice rink. There are a lot of good things about that. It is always cool and cool temperature running is good for me. I don’t have the running in place while the ground moves under me problem and can therefore vary my stride naturally and activate those glutes!

However, I’m going round and round and round and round. It is such a strange thing to go around a 200 m track 26 times. Sometimes, it is nearly soothing, the monotony of it. I breathe, I focus and I run mindfully. However, much like what happens to me when I try to sit mindfully, there are bursts of intense mental discomfort in the form of boredom and other pesky thoughts. Thoughts like, “What lap am I on?” “I hate running,” “Is that guy going to lap me again?” “What’s for dinner?” “I don’t want to have to walk the dog after this.” Etc.

Yesterday, I did manage an outdoor run in the morning with my running buddy. It was cool and dry and quiet. Even for a person who hates running (me) it was lovely.

There really is no dilemma here. I know that. Indoor running when it’s icy or storming, outdoor running when it’s dry. Indoors trying to be mindful in the monotony and outdoors being careful to avoid breaking bones. Keep moving, don’t look back and long for spring.


body image · link round up

Fit is a Feminist Issue, Link Round Up #11

Link Love, drawn in sandThis is where we share stuff we can’t share on Facebook page for fear of being kicked out! Read why here.

Usually the posts are about body image. Why? Because those are the posts that usually have bare body bits in the image attached to them.

Unconventional beauty represented

Is there a mold that fits every person that tells if he or she is beautiful or not?

Thank God there isn’t, although we have somehow taken it upon ourselves to judge people under false and pretentious standards, to measure the heights and widths of other people’s bodies; impose value upon their skin tone and clothing style.

For once, we’d like you to take a breather and explore the “other beauty” that exists above societal norms. These nine women have taken their insecurities and turned them into their biggest virtues, inspiring other people to feel comfortable in their own skin.

Be inspired!

Watch the Trailer for the Free the Nipple Movie

 Question: What’s a more unstoppable force than a hundred drunk Santas on a Santacon rampage of your local pubs?

Answer: A shirtless #FreetheNipple team of women in hot pink beanies tearing through New York to reclaim the power of their bodies.

The women fighting to desexualize nipples in Free the Nipple aren’t Instagram celebrities so if you’re here for it, even you can join the battle. It’s garnered big support, and now the cause is going to be big screen-amplified. In the trailer, it’s hard to take the leaders that seriously, but countless women are marshaled to the cause, which is the high point for the movement.

Watch it and just try not to get fired up by the music and the toplessness.

The video is here:

We can’t embed it in the blog post because images of naked breasts might show up on Facebook. The horror!

25 Women Pushing The Limits Of Street Art Around The World

Earlier this month, The Atlantic’s Kriston Capps proposed a curious question: What if Banksy is a woman? In his following analysis, Capps went as far to claim that the cheeky British street artist is “probably” a she, chastising the public for assuming that such a dominant pop cultural force is a man.

Of course, the hypothesis is interesting — we’re certainly supportive of publications pointing out the the lack of diversity in art worlds, one of them being street art. However, Capps claim was based on little real evidence, a factor Animal NY’s Bucky Turco was quick to discuss. Nonetheless, the original essay spawned more than a few speculative treatises: see this one, this one, this one and this one.

We’ve commented on the Banksy hysteria before. Yes, the anonymous graffiti master is probably the most well-known figure in street art — there was “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and now there’s “Banksy Does New York,” documenting his month-long NYC residence in 2013. But the endless fascination with this one character can sometimes overshadow the rest of the identifiable artists making waves in their medium.

When The Guardian proclaimed Bambi the female Banksy, we responded by highlighting 10 other female street artists worthy of the moniker. Now that Capps has opened the door to more serious talk of women in street art, we’re extending our list. Behold, 24 real women pushing the limits of street art around the globe.


shin shin street art
Shin Shin + Elbow-toe
artista street art
Artista, London, UK:!outdoor/cy5v



athletes · competition · Guest Post · weight lifting

Fat, Strong, and Confident (Guest Post)

Five years ago I couldn’t walk three blocks without an embarrassing amount of huffing, puffing, and sweating. I would cancel invitations if there was any amount of walking. The shame of falling behind or asking to take breaks was unbearable. That’s if I got close to getting out the door. Frequently, I would cancel because I didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I would rather stay at home and lose myself in a book.

Growing up, exercise was all gym class embarrassment. Jiggling too much during jumping jacks. Being last at the mile run, every. single. time. Pullup? Ha. This time around I was determined not to fight my body. I wanted to find an outlet of physical activity that brought me joy, that helped me reconnect my body and my mind.

I started working with a personal trainer once a week for half an hour. That half hour was all I could handle. I would immediately come home and take a nap. It was humbling and horrible. What kept me coming back was this wonderful secret about being a large woman that no one tells you: sometimes, when you’re big, you’re also strong as hell. Even though I was soaked in sweat and lying on the floor at the end of my workout, I was still using heavier weights than many other women in the gym who had been training longer. And that felt goood.

Having a victory, something that I was objectively better at than at least a few other people, gave me a boost I sorely needed after so many years of thinking I was the worst at all things exercise. Over time, I learned to focus more on my own body and mind, on improving myself from within. The effort of moving under the bar, pushing against gravity, pushing against my mind when it screamed out, “that’s too heavy,”–I couldn’t get enough. For the first time, I wanted to put in the time to get better at an exercise, not because I had to do it to lose weight, but because I felt at home in my own skin. I started to crave the overpowering, quiet intensity in my mind and body that I get when I lift. I wanted know my limit. How much weight could I move?

After two years of slow and steady improvement, the owner of my gym noticed how strong I was becoming and challenged me to try a weightlifting competition of some kind. I saw World’s Strongest Man on ESPN and thought, “Giant dudes pulling trucks. That looks like fun! I wonder if they have that for women?” I found North American Strongman and for the first time saw women who looked like me moving weight I was only dreaming of lifting.

With strongman, it was love at first lift. The variety of events kept me from getting bored and let me enjoy my strengths as well as forced me to work on my weaknesses. In any given competition I might have an event that tests maximal strength, like an axle clean and press for heaviest weight followed by a yoke carry for time, where speed counts as much as strength. Plus I need physical and mental endurance to get through five events in a day long competition.

My life is full of experiences that me-of-five-years-ago would not have imagined. I have a dozen competitions under my belt, including finishing solidly in the middle at America’s Strongest Woman twice and the Arnold Amateur Strongman World Championships. I have competed alongside the women who inspired me to lift. I train and am friends with men and women both push and support me in ways I have never known. I have (and continue to) test the limits of what my body can do.

In weightlifting, I didn’t just find exercise that I love, I found my confidence. Under the bar I am powerful, I am competent, and I exceed expectations: I am my ideal self. I nurtured that pearl of confidence and over time learned to use it as a tool to give me a boost in other areas of my life. I can close my eyes and relive the feeling of a breaking a personal record. I have a body that doesn’t bend or break under a 550lb yoke, why would it bend or break because a stranger thinks I’m too fat to be wearing skirt that shows off my butt or a coworker thinks my project is crap?

I no longer hide. Wear bright colors? Try a hip hop dance class? Aerial yoga? Improv comedy class? Get a massage? Sure, why not! I am free to enjoy it or hate it, be good or bad at it, without self-judgement.

I still have times when I am unsure of myself–when I don’t believe what I look like matches how I feel. Sometimes I see muscular calves and quads the size of tree trunks, broad shoulders that carry a couple 40lb bags of mulch without flinching, a core that easily stabilizes all this. Sometimes I still see a lazy, fat girl. Now I’m better able to reason with myself, give myself a pep talk, and carry on with my head held high.

Sharon Moss is a nonprofit nerd living in Columbus, Ohio. She shares her life with a couple cats, a mastiff mix, and a spouse who always makes sure she’s well fed after training. If you stand too close, she will pick you up. 

Aikido · cycling

“Trust the technique”: Life lessons from Aikido, #1

So in the drafts folder of this blog I’ve got a post that just keeps getting longer. It was called “Six Things Aikido Taught Me” but then that turned to “Ten Things…” and so on. And it’s also too long. So I’ve broken up the post into series of small posts. Here’s the first one. 

In Bikido I wrote about this odd thing I’d been doing, going straight from a fast 40 km group ride, led by a cycling coach, to Aikido. (By the way, there’s another person blogging about biking, running, and Aikido. See  Run, Bike, Throw.) At the end of the ride, it’s fair to say I was pretty exhausted. If the overall pace hadn’t knocked me  out, the sprint at the end, followed by a Strava segment I’m trying to reclaim, certainly did. Typically once the ride was over I grabbed a sports bar and coasted to Aikido.

Fast outdoor riding is over now but it seems Bikido isn’t over just yet.

Coach Chris is now leading indoor cycling classes on trainers. We all bring our bikes and trainers to his basement and pedal away. Fine. And again it’s straight from there to Aikido.

I’m pretty exhausted when I bow onto the mat but I think it might actually be improving my Aikido.

How could that be?

Well, in many ways Aikido isn’t a particularly athletic activity. The goal is to use your attacker’s energy to disarm them. It’s pretty non violent as self defense goes. And the best Aikido is all about efficient technique.

By temperament, that’s not my way. I’m strong and bouncy and often try to succeed using muscle, not form. But that’s not good Aikido.  I can recognize excellent technique when it’s performed on me. It doesn’t hurt but I have absolutely no choice but to go where my partner is taking me (short of tapping the mat). I notice this especially when I’m working with one of the senior women, who is older and much smaller than me. I could lift her up and carry her off but when we’re working together, she can just throw me around. It’s no surprise that the big men in our club can throw me around but the magic of Aikido is that at half their weight and twenty years their senior she can do it just as well.

When training for my last test, my partner kept reminding me to stop trying to use muscle. His motto for me was “trust the technique.”

Turns out it’s easier to trust the technique when you’re exhausted and power and muscle just aren’t there to rule the day. Exhausted Aikido means my movements are more efficient and I need to concentrate on form to make the techniques work. When my body is tired, my brain takes over and when it comes to Aikido that’s not a bad thing.

It also occurred to me that there might be other areas of life where this is true, where it’s better to trust the process rather than try to muscle your way through.

And hey, if I’m ever attacked after an exhausting bike ride, I’m ready to go.

Aikido is a martial art that doesn't require strength and can be practiced and used far into old age, which is good because it take that long to master.
Aikido is a martial art that doesn’t require strength and can be practiced and used far into old age, which is good because it take that long to master.
athletes · Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday!: Why are painful workouts so much fun? (And other questions about suffering and athletic performance)

From the archives, two years ago, what makes athletic suffering enjoyable?


Cute Fruit



It’s that time of year. On the work front, it’s lots of grading, academic meetings, and writing letters of recommendation

On the social front, lots and lots going on too. I’m always looking for fun, healthy treats to bring to parties as we approach Christmas. I’m not much of a cook. I do bake but the stuff I make, like
The Best Pumpkin Muffins, with dark chocolate chips, tends to pale besides all those Christmas cookies and squares. So when these cute fruit creations passed through my news feed on Facebook, I thought that I’d found an answer, adorable fruit.

I can do this!

What do you bring to holiday parties?







From Stylish Eve on Facebook.

diets · eating · food · Uncategorized · weight loss

Vegan for Weight Loss? Not Necessarily but Don’t Let That Discourage You!

Everyday Pad Thai. Photo credit: Vanessa Reese.
Everyday Pad Thai. Photo credit: Vanessa Reese.

It’s making the rounds again–the idea that a vegan or at least vegetarian diet is the best way to lose weight.  According to this article:

Overweight and obese adults who wanted to lose weight were randomly assigned to one of five low-fat and low-glycemic index diets: vegan (no animal products), vegetarian (dairy products included), pesco-vegetarian (dairy products and seafood included), semi-vegetarian (all food included, but red meat no more than once a week and poultry no more than five times a week), or omnivorous (no restrictions on food type and frequency).

Participants were told they could eat small amounts of nuts and nut butters, avocados, seeds, and olives in their diets but were encouraged to focus on lower-fat food options. The dieters were not given goals for limiting the number of calories they ate. As the researchers put it, “participants were free to eat until they were satisfied.”

After six months, those in the vegan group had lost the most weight, an average of 7.5 pounds. The vegetarian group was not far behind, with an average loss of 6.3 pounds. Those in the other groups lost only half as much weight (an average of 3.2 pounds for the pesco-vegetarian and semi-vegetarian groups and 3.1 pounds for the omnivores). There was no significant difference in reported activity level among the five groups.

I’ve blogged before about why this kind of thing bugs me.  First of all, any diet that restricts whole food groups for the purposes of losing weight is really just a fad diet that’s not likely to stick.

Not only that, and probably related, dieting to lose weight is for the vast majority of those who do it, doomed from the outset. It’s really hard to keep off all the lost weight.  We’ve had lots to say about that on this blog and are basically anti-diet in our approach.  See here and here and here and here for example.

Don’t get me wrong. There are all sorts of good reasons to be vegan or follow a plant-based diet.  Lots of athletes do well on a diet that’s free of animal products.  Like Rich Roll, an ultra-triathlete, and Scott Jurek, an ultra-runner.

I’m vegan, but I can’t say it helped me lose weight or perform better athletically. I continue with my vegan lifestyle (which goes beyond the diet) anyway because my motivation is ethical not based on health or weight loss or performance.

I don’t mind if people are convinced by articles like the one I quoted above to try this approach to eating. But I hate to make its virtues dependent on losing weight or improving athletic performance.

Not everyone is going to respond the same way to every approach to eating. For some people, there may be dramatic weight loss on this kind of diet. But for others, there may be none, or even weight gain.  Especially after they learn how to cook and realize that for every amazing non-vegan food out there that tempts us, there is an equally delicious vegan alternative!

So yes, try eating a plant-based diet.  It’s a perfectly legitimate and morally worthwhile way to satisfy your nutritional needs and keep your palate happy at the same time.  But it’s not a miracle diet.

Here’s a link to a recipe for “Everyday Pad Thai” from one of my favourite vegan blogs, Post Punk Kitchen by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.


Greetings from the happiness trough!

If you imagine lifetime happiness to have the shape of a letter U, Tracy and I are blogging to you from the bottom. According to recent research, young people are happy, old people are happy, but those in the middle are in a valley of despair.

Hello up there!

Luckily for us, according to recent research, after 50, things start to look up.

See Happiness Begins at Fifty:

In recent years, happiness researchers have confirmed the existence of the midlife crisis beyond popular myth, and they have developed theories for why our contentment with life follows a “U-curve”, bottoming out in our 40s and picking up again in our 50s. This dip in happiness, the so-called midlife crisis, often has to do with our immersion in professional life and a preoccupation with material wealth.

A flagship study, completed in 2011 by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen, explains what changes as we age:

“‘As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.’ Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness.”

There’s a good piece in the Economist which examines the causes of this phenomena. See Age and Happiness: The U Bend of Life.

What’s it like here in the happiness trough? Well, for me, I’m just less cheerful than usual. I’ve been attributing it to a bad year in terms of death–I lost my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my dog and my mother’s dog–and the stresses and strains that come with parenting teenage humans.  But maybe there’s more to it than that. Certainly, it’s a time of thinking “what next?” What will this second half of my career look like? What will it be like once all the teens have left the nest? Mostly, I’m enthusiastic about what’s ahead but there are days when it all seems a bit much. (And then cycling/Aikido/CrossFit/running all help!)

I was fascinated to read that humans aren’t the only primates to have the U: The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis

A lot of eyebrows went up when Oswald and four other scholars, including two primatologists, found a U-shaped curve in chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ state of mind over time. Zookeepers, researchers, and other animal caretakers filled out a questionnaire rating the well-being of their primate charges (more than 500 captive chimps and orangutans in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States). The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable, in people, to between 45 and 50. “Our results,” the authors concluded in a 2012 paper, “imply that human wellbeing’s curved shape is not uniquely human and that, although it may be partly explained by aspects of human life and society, its origins may lie partly in the biology we share with closely related great apes.”

Photos from






Green belt!


I did it! I tested yesterday for the rank of 4th kyu in Aikido. Usually you have to wait a week to hear if you passed but Sensei Sheppard broke the rules for me and immediately pulled the white stripes off my belt once the test was over.

Thanks Nat, Michel, David, and Jeff for coming to watch. Loved having friends in the room.

Thanks to the senior belts in our club who’ve all been helping me get ready for the test.

It was a very lovely day. First, the test. Next up, celebratory lunch with friends. Then, listening to three family members perform, as part of the Karen Schussler Singers, John Rutter’s Magnificat. And the evening ended with dancing at a friend’s anniversary party, twenty years of non-wedded bliss! I missed another friend’s 40th birthday in Toronto but you can’t do everything.

I train at the Aiki Budo Centre in London, Ontario. You can read about our dojo here. And you can read past posts about Aikido here.