Another scientific study suggests benefits from part of Ashtanga practice

It’s true that it’s us who are tying some scientific findings to Ashtanga — the strains of working out six days a week proved popular, but we’ve also pondered if yoga just isn’t strenuous enough and highlighted the benefits of our semi-regimented diet — but we do so because there always seems an obvious link, but one that probably wouldn’t otherwise be made. (So, budding researcher, search around this blog a bit and find some Ashtanga-related studies you can do.)

Here’s the latest, and it suggests the early morning asana practice is good:

In a groundbreaking 2010 study, researchers in Belgium persuaded young, healthy men to stuff themselves for six weeks with a diet consisting of 30 percent more calories and 50 percent more fat than the men had been eating. Some of the volunteers remained sedentary while gorging. Others began a strenuous, midmorning exercise routine after they had had breakfast. The third group followed the same workout regimen, but before they had eaten anything.

At the end of the six weeks, the sedentary group predictably was supersized and unhealthy, having gained about six pounds each. They had also developed insulin resistance and larded their muscles with new fat cells. The men who exercised after breakfast had also packed on pounds, about three pounds each, and developed insulin problems. But the men who had exercised first thing in the morning, before eating anything, had gained almost no weight and retained healthy insulin levels. Their bodies were also burning more fat throughout the day than were the other men.

Of course, the early-morning exercise prevented weight gain, which is not the same thing as inducing weight loss. But the results are encouraging for those who hope to shave off a few pounds, said Peter Hespel, a professor in the Research Center for Exercise and Health at Catholic University Leuven in Belgium and the study author.

You can find out more at the link.

And of course we can counter with various reasons to practice later.

Posted by Steve

Here are the best and worst diets — maybe

U.S. News & World Reports — perhaps most famous for its best colleges and best high schools rankings — has brought its expertise and acumen to the world of food.

Its ranked — with the help of a panel of “health experts” — 35 different diets. According to its metrics, “To be top-rated, a diet had to be relatively easy to follow, nutritious, safe, effective for weight loss and protective against diabetes and heart disease.”

The best? An apparently government-approved one called “DASH”:

DASH was developed to fight high blood pressure, not as an all-purpose diet. But it certainly looked like an all-star to our panel of experts, who gave it high marks for its nutritional completeness, safety, ability to prevent or control diabetes, and role in supporting heart health. Though obscure, it beat out a field full of better-known diets.

From there, one created by the National Institutes of Health is next, followed by one from the Mayo Clinic. Feeling or seeing a pattern?

Well, No. 4 is the classic “Mediterranean Diet”:

With its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish and other healthy fare, the Mediterranean diet is eminently sensible. And experts’ assessments of it were resoundingly positive, giving this diet an edge over many competitors.

A few more to, er, whet your appetite: Jenny Craig at No. 8, The Biggest Loser at No. 9, a Vegetarian at No. 11. (Yep!)

But we have to go even farther down the list to get where I’m looking. Vegan — its No. 19. But that’s still not where my eye has fallen. Not even at the Macrobiotic, at a cool No. 26.

I’m looking at the Raw Food diet. Which — despite our experience — sucks, apparently. It’s at No. 32:

The experts conferred solid marks on the diet for weight loss, both short- and long-term, but considered it all but impossible to follow and its nutritional completeness and safety were concerns. “Doing it well involves considerable commitment and effort, knowledge and sacrifice,” one expert said. “And there are diets that require less of all these that are likely to be just as healthful.”

OK, maybe that is hard to argue with. But at least it is better than the Paleo, tied for the worst at No. 34 with something called the Dukan diet. (I was hoping that was Dunkin’, as in the doughnuts, but no.)

The one thing I’ll give this list is that it has fairly decent links explaining all the diets. But it sure isn’t friendly to anything that one might generally call “alternative.”

Posted by Steve

Bottom line from new food study: Avoid processed foods

It’s no secret at this point that you can pretty much find a food/diet study to match whatever you want to eat.

How else to explain that Paleo diet, amirite?

There’s a new study out, and it has a few things going for it in terms of the people it studied and its length, but mostly it has going for it this bottom line: avoid processed foods.

I like that because it’s pretty much our food mantra here.

More generally, it found that people who were on a low-carb diet, with less worry about fat intake, lost more weight than others on a low-fat diet. Of particular note, I think: The low-fat diet people lost lean muscle, never a good thing.

You can find a link to the study here. Or you can do what I do, and let the smarty at the New York Times explain it to you:

The high-fat group followed something of a modified Atkins diet. They were told to eat mostly protein and fat, and to choose foods with primarily unsaturated fats, like fish, olive oil and nuts. But they were allowed to eat foods higher in saturated fat as well, including cheese and red meat.

A typical day’s diet was not onerous: It might consist of eggs for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch, and some kind of protein for dinner — like red meat, chicken, fish, pork or tofu — along with vegetables. Low-carb participants were encouraged to cook with olive and canola oils, but butter was allowed, too.


The low-fat group included more grains, cereals and starches in their diet. They reduced their total fat intake to less than 30 percent of their daily calories, which is in line with the federal government’s dietary guidelines. The other group increased their total fat intake to more than 40 percent of daily calories.

Both groups were encouraged to eat vegetables, and the low-carbohydrate group was told that eating some beans and fresh fruit was fine as well.

The Times story suggests, as I do above, that this study isn’t going to put anything to rest. But most of the latest studies are suggesting that the fear of fat that began in the 1960s and ’70s (creating such wonderful things as margarines and low-fat sweets) is really off-base. (An alternative take on it is here from the LA Times.)

I especially like this summation from the Times: “Dr. Mozaffarian said the research suggested that health authorities should pivot away from fat restrictions and encourage people to eat fewer processed foods, particularly those with refined carbohydrates.”

Eat real food, in other words.

Posted by Steve

Here’s a weight-loss plan I think Ashtangis can handle, no problem

This weekend’s New York Times Magazine has a short piece on new findings about how people can drop body fat pretty quickly, and keep it off — for months.

There’s this, though, from the story: “The catch, of course, is that those four days are pretty grueling.”

Since “pretty grueling” is an easy practice in the Ashtanga world, I figured this is tailor-made for all the Type A practitioners out there. (Note: Not that I’m advocating a diet.) Here’s how the Times describes things:

Researchers in Spain and Sweden had 15 healthy but overweight Swedish men restrict their calories to about 360 a day, a reduction of approximately 1,800 calories. What calories they did ingest came in liquid form: Some men drank mostly sugary carbohydrates, others a high-protein drink. The men also exercised — a lot. Their days began with 45 minutes of cranking an arm-pedaling machine for an upper-body workout. Then, as a group, the men strolled foreight hours across the Swedish countryside, with only a 10-minute break every hour. They were allowed as much of a low-calorie, sports-type beverage as they wanted during their walks.


After four days, the men had each lost almost 11 pounds, with nearly half of that coming from body fat; the rest of the loss came primarily from muscle mass. The researchers had anticipated that the high-protein drink would protect people against muscle-mass loss. In fact, the losses were the same, whether the men had been given sugar or protein.

Aside from subtly offering you a challenge, my real reason for linking to this study is that some of its fundamentals strike me as similar to those of the physical Ashtanga practice. Lots of exercise — 90 or 120 minutes, for some of us — and some level of calorie restriction, if only because there’s the need/tendency to eat less at night, in anticipation of the morning’s practice.

Put another way: Does something in this study suggest similar benefits to Ashtanga? Can we draw any conclusions, see anything that might argue for the “intelligence” of the practice?

Sadly, no. But that’s just because researchers are basically baffled by their findings:

But given the doleful statistics on weight loss — most people regain everything they lose dieting and more — these results are startling. They also, at the moment, are inexplicable. “The only explanation we can offer” for the sustained loss, Dr. Calbet says, is that the men were inspired by their hypercompressed success to change their lifestyles. The men moved more and ate less than before.

I wonder if any took up Ashtanga.

Posted by Steve

Yogi diet: Avoid processed foods, people

I tossed off at the end of a recent post the news that a study of all our fad and not-so fad diets discovered an underlying, healthy commonality among them: avoidance of processed foods.

It deserves a little more attention, I think.

The full study from Annual Reviews can be found here. But, as is so often the case, relying on someone — let’s say at the Atlantic — to put it into plain-speak English can be helpful:

They conclude that no diet is clearly best, but there are common elements across eating patterns that are proven to be beneficial to health. “A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.”

Among the salient points of proven health benefits the researchers note, nutritionally-replete plant-based diets are supported by a wide array of favorable health outcomes, including fewer cancers and less heart disease. These diets ideally included not just fruits and vegetables, but whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Katz and Meller found “no decisive evidence” that low-fat diets are better than diets high in healthful fats, like the Mediterranean. Those fats include a lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than the typical American diet.

(The Paleo diet, one that makes us giggle, doesn’t fare very well.)

So if all the diets are about equal, what to do? In sort of an answer, one of the authors did say this to the Atlantic:

“If you eat food direct from nature,” Katz added, “you don’t even need to think about this. You don’t have to worry about trans fat or saturated fat or salt—most of our salt comes from processed food, not the salt shaker. If you focus on real food, nutrients tend to take care of themselves.”

Amen. Although avoiding wheat still works for us. You can’t get rid of all the fads, right?

Posted by Steve


A reminder of the evils of wheat, because I’m stupid

We’ve written plenty about what’s wrong with modern wheat. What it boils down to is: After World War II, wheat was hybridized in order to increase the amount that could be harvested — and the speed at which it could be harvested.

The problem is, that changed some of the protein structures so the wheat most of us get today — whole wheat, multi-grain, you name it — isn’t the same as the wheat people were eating 100 years ago. It comes down to our glucose response.

An even easier way to think of it is: Wheat just isn’t good for you anymore. (We aren’t talking at all about gluten and all that. And we do mean all kinds of wheat, even the ones that claim to be “heart healthy.”)

Given how much we’ve written about this, you’d think I’d know this. I suppose I do, but…

Perhaps it is because, three weeks after getting back from India, I still weigh eight or 10 pounds less than I did before our trip. I feel like I may need to put a few pounds back on and have been a bit looser on my diet. Or so I figured, except after gaining a few pounds initially, I dropped them back off.

Too much salad.

And so, during the past three days, I’ve had:

1. Pizza on Saturday.

2. A bagel on Monday. (To be fair, I was hoping for a muffin or something but they didn’t have it. And, yes, I was using a “free pastry and coffee” giveaway from a place near work.)

In both cases, about four hours later, I got that empty shaky feeling that I know associate not with low blood sugar (although I suppose that’s what it is) but with a wheat crash.

The crazy amounts of sugar in wheat — a Mars bar spikes your glycemic level less than two slices of bread — are causing me to crash a few hours later.

It happened Saturday. Did that stop me from doing the same on Monday? No. And the same thing happened.

Wheat’s evil, is the lesson — one day perhaps I won’t be so stupid and will remember that. And as we’ve written before, just try cutting it out for five days or so and see how you feel. Including whether you stop having any crashes.

Posted by Steve

Blog highlight: The stages of a yogi diet

Note: While we are in India, we intend to post new items if we have the Internet access. In the meantime, to keep our mojo going, we’re running some of our most popular posts.


One of my students asked me the other evening after class if it was true that you get more aware of your diet when you do yoga.

I hesitated a moment, thought about it a second, gave a shrug, but said simply, “yes,” with a quietly implied “you poor soul.”

Over the course of my time doing Ashtanga, my diet has changed radically. This has been mostly motivated by my desire to do a decent backbend. But also because I’ve looked first to my diet to fix other, more complex health issues, like chronic fatigue, repeated bouts of pneumonia (triggered by early tuberculosis), bone loss, and anemia.

Now, it should be said that I”m a serious carnivore. I’m from Texas. I’m also Irish. There are many things going against a vegetarian diet in my genetics and upbringing, such as my deep and abiding love of a good steak. But slowly, slowly over the last ten years of practice, a new twist would get added to the Great Experiment that is my daily intake, and it just keeps getting worse.

First, of course, was the vegetarian diet. Although I felt better about practicing non-harming, I have to be honest I was an awful vegetarian. Potato chips, for instance, are vegetarian. So is cake. It didn’t work.

Then, I added juicing. I juiced everything. It was great. I could eat potato chips and still get the good stuff. But it seemed so wasteful, throwing out buckets of carrot or spinach or whatever. Also, I was a lazy juicer. The thing was so hard to clean, and it took forever. Bad yogi.

The bone loss started happening, along with serious problems recovering. Arthritis started as well, and bone spurs. Calcium supplements, different forms of dairy, soy milk–it didn’t matter. I was losing bone. And taking forever to recover from practice. My doctor said, “Why not try two weeks of a raw diet?”

Worked like a charm. An annoying, persistent charm. Now I am raw (seriously, you begin to identify yourself that way). Bone loss stopped. Recovery normal. But here I am, stuck with the part-time job that is raw eating. How can this get more extreme?

I’m not saying I’m some kind of Gandhi-like raw saint, either. I fall off the wagon. You can find me in line at a Carl’s Jr. every now and then. But for the most part, I feel I have no choice.

I get a dehydrator. I discover the Vita-Mix. The juicer gets relegated to the back of the cabinet. I make unholy “smoothies” of almond milk and kale, blueberries, E3 Live, whatever is in the veggie drawer.

That must be the wall, you’re thinking. No. Almond milk? Processed filler. Fruit? Who needs all that sugar? Now, I jam the Vita-Mix with dill, parsley, cucumber, mustard greens, mint, celery, cilantro, dandelion, throw in some pure water and drink that all day long. It’s disgusting. But I can’t stop. I feel great. When will this end? Is celery for weaklings?

Now, I’m not saying your should try any of this. As we become more and more aware of what dairy does to us, the evils of wheat, the utter lack of goodness in an apple, the cancerous nature of fried food, etc. I think I may have reached a point, way out here at the extreme of raw, where I think I’ve learned that whatever helps you practice must be good for you. Whatever that is. So when I come across friends who are just starting on the journey, I think the best course of action when asked, “will it change my diet?” is to just say, simply, yes.

Posted by Bobbie