The sit-rise test: trying to get up to save my life

Five images of the sit rise test: Standing, bending with legs crossed, sitting with legs crossed, leaning forward to get up, standing with legs crossed and arms out.

At yoga class last Monday, our teacher showed us a deceptively simple move she calls ” just stand up”. You sit cross legged on the floor (or a yoga block) and then get up to a standing position without using your arms. Or (as in my case), you don’t.

I found this task both practically and conceptually impossible while sitting on the floor. Sitting on one yoga block, I couldn’t do it cross legged ( although I could imagine doing it, and actually did it with legs wide apart). Once I sat cross legged on two yoga blocks I was able to stand up, albeit ungracefully.

Now I find that some researchers consider this yoga party trick to be a good predictor of all cause mortality– this is, how long we are likely to live.

Guess I’d better get my affairs in order now.

The test in question is called the sit rise test. Here’s a description from a USA Today article:

The goal is to get down and back up from a sitting position with minimal support. It can be used in all age groups, and results are based on a scale of one to 10. Score three or less and your risk of dying is five times greater over the next five years.It may look and sound easy, but here’s how it’s done.

You cross your feet, and go into a seated position. That’s five points. Coming back up is another 5. But you can lose points really fast.You lose a point for each hand, arm or knee you need for support. Take off a half-point when you lose your balance at any time, either on the way down or coming back up.Total them all for your final score.

If you have bad knees or hips, don’t try this alone.

Researchers in Brazil did this test on 2002 people aged 51–80. They claim that lower sit-rise test scores were associated with higher mortality risk.  Predictably, the popular press picked up on this, splashing the bad news across the headlines with glee.  The Daily Mail delivered the message in most dramatic fashion.

News article caption, reading: "The exercise that predicts your DEATH: Struggling with 'sitting-rising' test means you're 5 times more likely to die early"

They get points for the all-caps use of the word ‘death’, but I’m not buying it. Why not? A few reasons.

When I went to the source– the study itself-– I saw tables that show increased mortality risks for groups with lower sit-rise scores.  Groups that had to use hands or knees a lot  to aid sitting down and/or standing up had an average risk 5 times higher than the group that did this task with little aid by hands or knees.  Does this really mean that not being able to do this means you’re 5 times more likely to die than the get-up-easily group?  NO.  When you look at the table with the results, we also see that the average age of the low scorers is 71, whereas the average age of the high scorers is 59.  You can see this same info illustrated in this very interesting graph:

Graph from the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology article showing the division of sit-rise test scores across the age groups in the study.

Graph from the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology article showing the division of sit-rise test scores across the age groups in the study.


What this data seems to show is that younger age groups had higher sit-rise test scores.  What is more interesting to me (and I think should be to all of us) is the trend we see in the red bar (low scorers).  From ages 51–60, low scorers are a small part of the group.  It would be interesting to try this on younger people too– I bet there will be a small percentage of low scorers there, too, for a bunch of reasons.

At 61–65, the percentage of low scorers increases but is still small.  However, starting at 66–70, the percentage doubles.  And for each age group after that we see big increases in the low score groups.  This tells me that at certain age thresholds, mobility really decreases.  This is a call to action– people in those groups can use some programs to help maintain their flexibility, balance, agility, leg strength, etc.  But this is no news.  And it’s not a sign (or a new sign) that definitely shows death risk– it just shows that aging brings with it some decreases in function that can and should be addressed through exercise programs and aids in homes and public places to make them safer for older people.

Other limiters: people with knee problems and arthritis won’t score well on this test regardless of age. People with shorter legs tend to score better (except for me, apparently). Also this test was done on a small and mostly white population in a culture where sitting in the floor isn’t commonly done. It’s not clear how it would play out on other populations and in cultures where movement patterns differ. In addition, the test couldn’t be applied to people with a host of varied disabilities, so it doesn’t seem generalizable.

Sam posted about this test a while ago here.   Since she does Aikido, she’s pretty good at rolling around on the floor and getting up without using arms or knees. In yoga, we  work on a variety of balance and flexibility and strength skills.  I like them–  for me,  they are fun personal challenges. But if my body resists some of them, instead of shopping online for funeral urns, maybe I’ll work on some other strength and flexibility moves instead.

For instance: a kayak party trick I’d like to master is being able to stand up in your boat without immediately tipping over. In my women’s kayak classes (see my post about it here) they showed us how to do this, and some people did it ( with a person stabilizing their boat, and some on their own). I felt way too awkward even to try. But now I’m thinking that getting more comfortable with moving and lifting and balancing my body under unusual conditions is probably very good for it and me. So I’m going to keep my eyes open for interesting new body balance and strength challenges.

Just out of curiosity, can you do the sit rise thing? What do you think about this test? Do you have any physical party tricks you can or want to do? I’d love to hear from you.

Traffic schadenfreude and a little ditty

A lone cyclist riding in the express lane with a traffic jam in the other lanes of a highway

The past few weeks I’ve been out and about on some bike or other, around town or on short road rides as I get accustomed to more time on the saddle.  One of the great pleasures of summer for me (as an academic who commutes 40+ miles by car during the term) is the luxury of leaving the car behind and using a bike for a lot of transportation and errands.  So I’ve been going to the dentist (in downtown Boston), church (in Charlestown), meetings (all over), and grocery stores (nearby) on two wheels.

Thank goodness for that, because the traffic has been absolutely horrific lately.  It’s road construction/patching/digging up streets for no apparent reason season. There are detours aplenty, narrowed lanes on already clogged roads, giant pieces of machinery taking up space, and who knows what else.  All of this contributes to very slow going, from anywhere to anywhere else.  Here’s a particularly interesting example of convoluted detours for cyclists wanting just to ride between Cambridge and Boston without having to swim across the Charles River.

Screen Shot 2017-05-17 at 5.13.53 PM

A color-coded map of routes for cyclists riding between Cambridge and Boston, including choke points and swervy bits.

A color-coded map of routes for cyclists riding between Cambridge and Boston, including choke points and swervy bits.

There’s been construction on the Longfellow Bridge for years now, hopefully to reopen in June 2018.  The traffic patterns are prone to change without warning, which further ups the ante for commuting cyclists.

But hey– riding a bike through this mess is way Way WAY better than driving through it!  Every day this week I found myself on two wheels during either end of day, middle of day, or morning rush hours.  Lots of cars were stacked up at all lights, while I carefully made my way to the front of the line, all the while smiling smugly to myself.

Enter the schadenfreude.  What’s schadenfreude?  It is a German word that means roughly “joy at the misfortune of others”.  It’s not a nice word.  But it does describe my feelings sometimes while cycling in traffic.

I know, I should engage in life activities that promote oneness with the world and with myself.  I should cycle with the intention to embody compassion for all sentient beings, regardless of the number of wheels on their vehicle.  Like these guys are probably doing.

Two monks in orange robes, riding bikes with baskets on the front, also carrying pink plaid and blue/yellow umbrellas for shade on a blue sunny day.

Two monks in orange robes, riding bikes with baskets on the front, also carrying pink plaid and blue/yellow umbrellas for shade on a blue sunny day.

But sometimes, we don’t really want to hear what the better angels of our nature have to say.  We want to enjoy our good fortune with a generous side of smugness.

Of course I know that I am very privileged to have the time, resources, body abilities, geographic location, and knowledge and know-how to ride for pleasure and utility in my regular life.  Many many people lack those privileges, and I take this moment to say how grateful I am to be able to live this way.

Seriously, though,  I think it’s good to celebrate the feelings of liberation from traffic that cycling brings.  It’s something we talk about a lot on this blog, but it felt worth bringing up again.

And in honor of the joy of whizzing around town to and fro, I made up a little song, to be sung to the tune of “But Not For Me”.  My favorite version is by the immortal Billie Holiday– listen to it here.  I changed the words around a little.  Here goes:

The traffic’s just a mess,

but not for me.

ve-hi-cu-lar distress,

but not for me.

I know my ETA,

and there’ll be no delay,

commuting feels like play,

I guarantee.

I was a fool to drive–

it’s not the way.

Heigh ho alas and also lackaday (this is from the original– maybe they got stuck for lyrics, too)

Although I can’t deny

that cars can sometimes fly,

Oh driving’s not— for— me.  

There are currently no plans to quit my day job to become a lyricist.  But enjoy this ditty, and try humming a little song of your own while riding your bike somewhere.   Maybe some day we’ll all get caught in this kind of traffic jam, which I won’t mind at all.

Hundreds of cyclists riding down a city street, with a small boy riding in the foreground.

Hundreds of cyclists riding down a city street, with a small boy riding in the foreground.





Recipe for biking bliss: coffee ride Fridays

sign in a cafe saying "people demand bikes and coffee"

My friend Pata and I have refined the leisurely companionable bike ride to an art form.  We fine-tune our route to fit our time constraints, training needs, folk weather forecasting skills, and combined levels of oomph to dial in a perfect ride for the both of us.  These tend to take place on late spring, summer (and early fall) Fridays.

We do ride together at other times of year, but the leisurely Friday ride requires soft warm weather to feel completely at one with the bike, the environment and the agenda: have fun riding with friends.

Pata is a very experienced cyclist.  She’s a certified League of American Bicyclists instructor, alum of the same racing clinic I did years ago, and has ridden cross country from Massachusetts to Washington State with her partner.  Her blog about the trip is here.   She’s also in her mid-fifties (like me), and both of us are experiencing (and griping copiously about) the changes in our bodies, our families and our priorities that make regular cycling both more difficult and really important.

Enter the Friday coffee ride– the solution to all problems.

A couple of summers ago, I was going through the breakup of my relationship and having a hard time functioning.  All my friends pitched in to help get me out of the house and into nature, moving and being with them.  For this I am touched and grateful.

Pata got me out on the bike– just up the bike path, she said.  We’ll ride to Lexington, have coffee at Peet’s, and then assess what we want to do next.  Okay, I said.  I confess that I got a lot of therapy at those outdoor tables, large latte at my side.

Peet's coffee in Lexington MA, with two tables and chairs outside on the brick sidewalk, looking inviting.

Peet’s coffee in Lexington MA, with two tables and chairs outside on the brick sidewalk, looking inviting.

This Friday, two years later, I have moved on emotionally and socially.  But I don’t mind one bit to be rolling over the same route to the same coffee shop with my same cycling companion.

Just for the record, here’s us at my house at the beginning of the ride.


Pata (right) and me, standing smilingly with our bikes, having our picture taken by the UPS guy.

Pata (right) and me, standing smilingly with our bikes, having our picture taken by the UPS guy.


And here’s photographic evidence of the coffee/snack segment of the ride.


Two cups of coffee, two pastries, two pairs of legs with Sidi bike shoes.

Two cups of coffee, two pastries, two pairs of legs with Sidi bike shoes.


After caffeinating and snacking, we were ready to continue.  There are loads of lovely cycling routes from here.  We picked an easy one (bike path to Bedford and then back to Belmont), and set off.

During these leisurely rides, much work is done:

  • planning future bike trips
  • planning fantasy bike trips
  • discussing  personal/relationship/family problems of ourselves and others
  • solving above-mentioned issues to our satisfaction
  • pointing out attractive flora (this is generally my job)
  • pointing out interesting bikes (Pata is in charge of this one)
  • exclaiming about how fun this is

And yet it’s not tiring or taxing.  This is the wonderful thing about the leisurely companionable bike ride.

We made our way back to Belmont, refreshed and ready (albeit reluctantly) to resume life.  Here is one more pic of the happy duo:


Pata (left) and me, grinning, wearing bike helmets and sun glasses.

Pata (left) and me, grinning, wearing bike helmets and sun glasses.


In summary:  the leisurely coffee ride is good for whatever ails me.  So readers:  what activity do you do for sheer fun and relaxation? Is it with friends?  Is it just for you?  I’d love to hear from you.

In praise of small changes

Small and steady changes in the growth of a potted plant-- four stages

I love my Saturday morning Artemis studio yoga class.  It’s not too early (9:30am– I’m not a morning person), and I love the atmosphere.  It’s a beginner-level class that I’ve been going to since I restarted yoga a year and a half ago.  My friend Norah and I often meet there, and we both continue to make new discoveries about our bodies while going through the now-familiar poses and flow sequences.

Our teacher, Joanne, is all about going small in yoga.  What she constantly emphasizes in class (in a good way) is how the movements we make to get into the poses are going to be small, not drastic.  What she likes to say is that we all want to stretch or bend a lot because we think it means we’re good at yoga.  However, it tends (at my level of practice) to mean that we’re not working the muscles the pose is meant to work.  Of course, it might be cool some day to do this:

Extreme Acro-yoga pose: woman with chest on floor, left leg up an back, right leg extended to front, arms by side.

Extreme Acro-yoga pose: woman with chest on floor, left leg up an back, right leg extended to front, arms by side.

However, in Joanne’s class I’m really enjoying getting comfortable in downward facing dog.

Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher and body positivity advocate, in black leggings and orange shirt, facing down on the mat, with arms out in front, legs back on mat, in inverted V.

Jessamyn Stanley, yoga teacher and body positivity advocate, in black leggings and orange shirt, facing down on the mat, with arms out in front, legs back on mat, in inverted V.

After a year and a half of resuming yoga, I finally get it.  Downward Dog used to feel painful and unpleasant, with all my weight on my arms, wrists, hurting.  But shifting my hips up and back, I now find the energy in my legs and hips takes a lot of the pressure off my arms, and in fact the pose feels restorative and a little bit restful.  Whaddya know…

Now, this will sound silly, but one pose I’ve never felt completely comfortable with is mountain pose.  For those of you who don’t do yoga, mountain pose is this:

Tadasana, mountain pose-- standing on may, feet together, arms out to side or in prayer position at your chest.

Tadasana, mountain pose– standing on may, feet together, arms out to side or in prayer position at your chest.

Mountain pose is basically just standing up on the mat (I know, I know– it’s more than that; but still…) So what’s my problem?

I have bigger thighs, so putting my feet together doesn’t feel totally comfortable. So I’ve been doing a variation– standing with my feet hips’ width apart.  I thought that would make me more stable– wider platform, more stability, right?

One version of foot position in mountain pose-- feet on the floor hips' width apart.

One version of foot position in mountain pose– feet on the floor hips’ width apart.

Turns out, that’s not right for me.  Lately, in mountain pose, I have kept looking down to see where my feet were, and futzing with different positions.  Nothing felt really super stable.

Yesterday in class, we were doing some variations on chair pose.  It looks like this:

A woman standing, feet together, knees bent, arms above her head and straight, in chair pose.

A woman standing, feet together, knees bent, arms above her head and straight, in chair pose.

I tried doing this with feet apart, but just for fun, put them together for the pose.  Wow, that felt better!  I didn’t know I could do that.

Taking this idea and running with it (well, since it was yoga class, I had to be still with it), I switched up my feet for mountain pose to now look like this:

Foot position in mountain pose-- a pair of feet together, toe mounds touching, on the floor.

Foot position in mountain pose– a pair of feet together, toe mounds touching, on the floor.

Wow– what a difference!  I could finally relax into the stability of the pose, which serves as the foundation for all the other poses in yoga.  It really shifted something for me.  Feeling stable on the ground is a pretty basic requirement for balance.  I’m working on this in several areas of my life.  What a pleasant surprise to find that making a very small change made such a big difference.

Readers, have you experienced the effects of small changes or shifts in physical practices?  I’m really interested to hear your stories.

Followup on “Fit but Fat” research news

dictionary entry for the word "research"-- careful study or investigation...

This week the mainstream news media rushed to publicize a conference paper given at the European Congress on Obesity that argued that there’s no such thing as “fit but fat”. I posted Wednesday night with some immediate reactions and questions– you can see them here. Many of my questions were about the details of the study, for which we must wait until an article is published.

However, since then, I’ve been thinking more generally:  What does this mean, the idea that there’s no such thing as fit if you’re fat?  Is this right?  And how does all this affect people with a BMI >30 (like me)?  So let me address each of these questions, and you can tell me what you think about my answers.

First, questions about meaning (sorry, it’s the first place philosophers tend to go, but I’ll keep it short):  What does “fit but fat” mean?

When medical professionals say this, they’re generally talking about people with BMIs over 30 (or even over 25), who don’t have any problems like high blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar readings, or various markers of potential future heart disease or potential future diabetes.  That is, fit but fat people are healthy people who weigh more than the BMI scale says they should.

Just for fun, when I looked up google images for “fit but fat”, I got this gorgeous picture of two sumo wrestlers locked in a lovely balletic grapple.  Wow.  Don’t they look great?

Two sumo wrestlers locked upside down, grappling, with legs in arabesque position.

Two sumo wrestlers locked upside down, grappling, with legs in arabesque position.

But there’s the “but” to deal with in the “fit but fat” message.  Why the “but”?  Why not “and”?  “But” is signalling that someone is fit, BUT all is not well– that person is also fat (which is not normal or good or healthy or… fill in the blank here).  Even we we say it about ourselves, we are putting ourselves down, as “fat” is often associated with being unhealthy or defective or sub-optimal in some way.  So being fit but fat is not exactly a position of great positivity to begin with.  And now it’s being challenged by this study (to be fair, there are other studies with similar results– BUT there’s not medical consensus on the issue).

And it gets worse.  Saying that it’s not possible to be both fit and fat seems to mean that BMI trumps ALL other factors (genetic, environmental, psychological, etc.) when it comes to determining health and risk for (weight-related) disease.  Is this right?  No– not as stated there.

What medical researchers say holds for a population or group overall does not necessarily hold for particular individuals.  As we say, your mileage may vary.  A lot.  Here’s what the researchers said (this is from Pub Med Health, which doesn’t make money from splashy headlines; for a clear and undramatic account, check it out):

Of the 3.5 million people in the study, 766,900 (21.9%) were obese – of whom 518,000 (14.8%) were obese with no additional risk factors (metabolically healthy).

The researchers found that, compared to people of recommended weight, metabolically-healthy obese people were:

  • 50% more likely to get heart disease
  • 7% more likely to get cerebrovascular disease
  • twice as likely to get heart failure

Metabolic risk factors raised the chances of getting any of these conditions, in addition to obesity.

Compared to recommended weight, metabolically-healthy people, those who were obese and had all three risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure or abnormal blood fats) were:

  • 2.6 times more likely to get heart disease
  • 58% more likely to get cerebrovascular disease
  • 3.8 times more likely to get heart failure
  • 2.2 times more likely to get peripheral vascular disease

The researchers say their figures were statistically significant; however they were unable to supply the full data with confidence intervals, so we can’t check this.

We don’t know if this research is largely correct.  I have a whole bunch of technical questions about the study (all of which have to wait for the data and the article to be published).  Their work coheres with some studies and conflicts with others.  As always, we will have to wait to see how things go.  Science is complicated.

Now to my last question:  how does this result affect people with BMI > 25 and > 30?

In my view, there may be good news and bad news in answer to this question.  Shall I go with the bad news first?  Okay.

Uptake of the message that you can’t be fit if you’re fat could lead to more weight stigmatization, more fat shaming of people who seem larger than some idealized notion of a person.  This could lead to eroded relationships with healthcare providers and more money spent on useless diets and weight loss programs.  But most importantly:  it could mean less physical activity in the population, which translates into generally lower levels of standard health markers and lower levels of all sorts of features of well-being.

That’s my biggest problem with the news so far.  We don’t know if these researchers got the details right, and we don’t know how to interpret them if they did.  But what we do know is this:  studies consistently show that physical activity is a great predictor of health and a great mechanism for achieving and maintaining lots of features of well-being (e.g. less depression, better sleep).  And unlike body weight, physical activity (which isn’t the same as fitness, but hear me out) is something that a lot of us have some modicum of control over.  Becoming fit (in the various ways we understand that word) has a lot of benefits.  It’s not the only useful life goal, and it’s not of interest to everyone; fair enough.  You do you.  But I don’t want to see its value drowned out amidst the shouts of studies trumpeting the importance of having a lower body weight.  Especially since medicine offers no remotely effective tools for lowering and maintaining body weight over time (except gastric bypass, which as I’ve said many times isn’t designed or an option for most people).

Now to the good news:  if it turns out that scientific consensus develops around this idea– that the main thing that matters to my health (at least some features of it) is my body weight, then this might put pressure on governments to do something about our obesogenic food systems and infrastructure.  They could, for instance:

stop subsidizing corn production;

fund and promote public transportation;

tax sugar-sweetened beverages;

restrict food advertising targeted at children (or anyone, for that matter);

to name a few.

Are any of the actions above going to happen because of one research article?  No.  But it’s worth noting that as we learn more about the science of body weight and its relation to our health, we may find that more players are involved, giving us more options for promoting health and wellness in many ways.  Hey, an aspiring to be fit feminist can dream, can’t she?

a girl in tones of blue and silver, sitting on a cloud, gazing at a blue-gray hazy mountain top and sky.

a girl in tones of blue and silver, sitting on a cloud, gazing at a blue-gray hazy mountain top and sky.





Late breaking FFI news: episode 658 of “Don’t believe the headlines”

Breaking News logo

We at the Fit is a Feminist Issue news desk are committed to bringing you up-to-the-minute news, commentary and perspective on a variety of topics– no matter the day, no matter the hour.

So when co-editor-in-chief Samantha FB messaged me to get on this story, I got straight to it (after eating my dinner, that is; you can’t do good investigative journalism on an empty stomach).

The story is– what are we to make of the mainstream news stories claiming that “Fat but fit is a big fat myth”?  This was the headline of a BBC article, out today.  What’s the deal?

Here’s the upshot: At this year’s European conference on obesity, researchers from the University of Birmingham gave a paper suggesting that the notion that people could be obese, metabolically healthy, and therefore not at increased risk of heart disease and diabetes is false.

This reporter will dig into more detail for Sunday’s blog post, but for now, I’ll tell you what the news article says, and then what questions I have (as an academic who researches and writes about this medical and scientific literature).

First, here’s what an article by the Guardian has to say about the new study (which is not even in article form, much less submitted, much less reviewed, much less accepted for publication, much less published):

Several studies in the past have suggested that the idea of “metabolically healthy” obese individuals is an illusion, but they have been smaller than this one. The new study, from the University of Birmingham, involved 3.5 million people, approximately 61,000 of whom developed coronary heart disease…

The scientists examined electronic health records from 1995 to 2015 in the Health Improvement Network – a large UK general practice database. They found records for 3.5 million people who were free of coronary heart disease at the starting point of the study and divided them into groups according to their BMI and whether they had diabetes, high blood pressure [hypertension], and abnormal blood fats [hyperlipidemia], which are all classed as metabolic abnormalities. Anyone who had none of those was classed as “metabolically healthy obese”.

The study found that those obese individuals who appeared healthy in fact had a 50% higher risk of coronary heart disease than people who were of normal weight. They had a 7% increased risk of cerebrovascular disease – problems affecting the blood supply to the brain – which can cause a stroke, and double the risk of heart failure.

The article then goes on to foment panic among health care providers and consumers.  Well, I think the tone is a little frantic.  See what you think:

Susannah Brown, senior scientist at World Cancer Research Fund, said the study’s finding, “emphasise the urgent need to take the obesity epidemic seriously.

“As well as increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, being overweight or obese can increase your risk of 11 common cancers, including prostate and liver. If everyone were a healthy weight, around 25,000 cases of cancer could be prevented in the UK each year.”

Right.  Now, let’s all take a deep breath.  As some of you know, I’ve posted often about how real science is complicated, so we should not take sensationalist news headlines as telling the truth about new, or controversial, or counter-intuitive, or nuanced research results.  So here are some questions I have:

When the researchers talk about increased risk that people with BMIs over 30 have for various illnesses, are they showing statistically significant increases or clinically significant increases?   What I mean here is this:  a researcher can find a shift in risk that ends up being irrelevant to the real-life clinical likelihood of developing particular conditions (this is complicated but important).  We don’t know, as there is no paper yet.

What sorts of risk profiles did the researchers find for people with BMIs under 25? under 20?  When one peers at the fine print in the data tables in medical and epidemiology papers (as I am wont to do), one finds interesting and potentially reportable risks for folks who are co-called underweight–  BMI under 18.5.  Are there increased risks in those groups?  Are they comparable to the risks in the BMI> 25 and >30 groups? We don’t know.

What about the same BMI in different age groups?  How do those risks vary over the life trajectory?  It turns out that at various life stages, different BMI groups have very different risk profiles for medical conditions and death due to medical conditions.  For instance, men in their 50s with BMIs <18.5 have a pretty high all-cause mortality risk (generally from cancer).  We don’t know anything about this yet.

Then there’s how they defined their terms.  Sounds pedantic (and yeah, it is, but this is my job), but it’s important to know very precisely how the researchers defined metabolically healthy in terms of blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar (e.g. Hemoglobin A1c), and then what clinical end points (that is, records of diseases people in the study ended up having) or surrogate end points (e.g. blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar) they used.

And last (until Sunday; consider yourself warned): it seems to me (and lots of scientists agree) that the jury is out, sooooo out, on a clear understanding of the ways in which both genetic and environmental determinants of human metabolic processes contribute to body weight change and maintenance.  Topics currently being investigated include:

  • the role of body fat
  • the role of body shape
  • the role of abdominal fat
  • the role of visceral vs. subcutaneous fat
  • how visceral fat and trigliceride levels interact
  • the role of body weight variation over the life trajectory
  • what science and medicine can do about the body weight of the population (since so far medicine has come up with nothing effective other than gastric bypass, which has its own problem)
  • And much much more.

One last comment: the standard view in medicine and medical research is that having  a BMI over 25 is bad for people, and a BMI over 30 is much worse (and don’t even get me started on over 35, over 40, etc.) Studies and articles that have come out challenging that assumption have been pilloried by a lot of public health and medical experts.  But, like any scientific paradigm, there’s research on the edges, and sometimes that research gives rise to a new paradigm.  I don’t know if we’re on the way to a new paradigm, but I know that the current paradigm has left a lot of important and foundational questions unanswered.  Of course, that doesn’t make for good headlines.

Three women reading the newspaper with shocked looks.

Three women reading the newspaper with shocked looks.


What should we eat? A weekend on food and ethics

view of Burlington VT and Lake Champlain from the 5th floor of the Old Mill building at UVM,

This weekend I write to you from lovely Burlington, VT, where I’ve been attending and presenting at their annual Food Ethics Workshop.  It’s run by the philosophy department and supported and attended by food systems, nutrition, sustainability, law and other interesting folks.  It’s also even publicized by their local coop food market; that’s how Burlington rolls.

A poster of the University of Vermont Food Ethics conference, MAy 12--13, 2017.

In addition, I stayed at a hotel where they combine seating and plant cultivation in one handy location.  That’s cool.

A gray fabric covered bench, with a small potted plant embedded in it.

My talk was on problems with the notion of “intuitive eating” and the values involved in so-called “unhealthy” eating.  Tracy and I have both blogged about this issue (here and here); these posts have been among the most-commented-on for the blog.  So there’s something compelling that draws peoples’ attention to moral values attached to foods.

For now, I’ll defer discussion of my paper and also a fine paper given by Laurie Ristino of Vermont Law School on using systems and design theory to help solve food sustainability problems.

The two other papers in the workshop,  given by Alexandra Plakias of Hamilton College and Bob Fischer of Texas State University, focused more directly on moral (and other sorts of) responses to certain kinds of eating.  Alex was looking at how our reactions of disgust work– are they just visceral “Ewwws” or do they indicate some moral stance with respect to the thing we’re disgusted by?  One issue that we may all be facing sometime in the Earth’s future is entomophagy.  What’s that?  The practice of eating bugs.

You should now silently thank me for not inserting a photo to illustrate; you’re welcome.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the idea of eating insects provokes for loads of people a strong disgust reaction.  However, there are at this moment startups (see here and here) and research groups figuring out how to make insects a regular part of our protein intake, given the need to feed billions of people sustainably, now and in the future.  In trying to understand what disgust reactions are about, Alex was opening up some space for thinking about possible other attitudes we could take about some things we may be currently disgusted by.

Bob ‘s paper was also concerned with the morality of eating– in this case, eating animals.  He’s written a ton about this topic (check out his website if you haven’t already) and is a very strong advocate for not eating animals.  He recounted in his paper how, in his philosophy courses, that students sometimes respond to the discussion about treatment of animals by saying “I see that eating meat is wrong, but I’m not going to stop.”  How does one continue a moral conversation when that happens?

Well, we can use other means, like telling stories, talking about lots of concerns that make for meaningful lives.  Bob talks about Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals and how Foer uses stories to convey strong and resonant messages about what’s important to us (in addition to information about factory farming, etc.) to make a case for not eating animals.  I will definitely use Foer’s book (and some of Bob’s work too) the next time I teach my philosophy and food course.

So that’s the upshot on my very pleasant philosophy of food weekend.  Some final thoughts to share with you, dear readers:

I don’t eat insects.

I do eat meat.

For now, I’m not feeling compelled to start eating insects.  But I am (and have been for some time) troubled about eating meat, for the very good reasons that are out there.  I have a host of reasons for not changing my eating habits, but they’re seeming a bit excuse-y right now.  I’ll be blogging more about my shifting relationship with meat as food.  For now, I’d love to hear from you:  what is your comfort level with meat eating (if you are a meat eater)?  No judgment– I’m just looking to hear your thinking and feelings on the subject.  Thanks as always for reading, and see y’all next week.  I’ll leave you with a lovely view of Lake Champlain…

view of Lake Champlain in Burlington VT on a sunny day with blue skies and a few clouds