Greetings, friends, and happy Cinco de Mayo. There are lots of fiesta-worthy dishes I could have made and posted today–enchiladas, tostadas, or one of my many varieties of guac. Instead, I’m taking an oblique route and offering you this lovely quinoa salad. It’s not a traditional Cinco de Mayo dish, but it does incorporate some heat (chili, jalapeno) and some cumin, both of which evoke Mexican cooking. It also features these gorgeous, cumin-dusted roasted carrots, which are delicious enough to be worthy of a post.
My favorite part of this dish is, not surprisingly, the carrot chili vinaigrette. I’m a dressing fanatic (I may have more flair for dressing than any other type of recipe), and for me, dressing makes or breaks a salad. This dressing is a keeper. It’s got it all: saltiness, sweetness, and plenty of spice. It brings the whole salad together, highlighting the sweet roasted carrots and brightening up the nutty quinoa.
For the greens in this salad, you could use spinach, arugula, or even mizuna. I stuck with spinach because it’s in season right now and because there’s usually a bunch of it hanging out in my fridge, but feel free to use your imagination. Romaine would work very nicely, too.
Quinoa, Carrot, and Spinach Salad with Spicy Carrot Chili Vinaigrette
Yield: 4 servings; dressing makes about 1 cup
For the Spicy Carrot Chili Vinaigrette Vinaigrette:
1/2 cup carrot juice
2 tablespoons white wine or champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 pitted Medjool date
1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon chili powder
Dash cayenne pepper
1/3 cup avocado or olive oil
For the Salad:
1 cup dry quinoa
2 cups water
12 medium or small carrots, tops trimmed and skins peeled off
1 tablespoon olive or coconut oil
1 teaspoon cumin powder
3 cups baby spinach
1 cup cooked chickpeas
Chopped cilantro, for garnish (optional)
To make the dressing, place the carrot juice, vinegar, lime juice, date, salt, and chili powder in a blender and blend till smooth. With the motor of the blender running, drizzle in the oil, until the dressing is creamy and emulsified. Set the dressing aside.
To make the salad, preheat your oven to 400F. Rinse the quinoa through a fine sieve until the water running through it runs clear. Place the quinoa in a medium saucepan, along with two cups of water. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the quinoa and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the quinoa for 15 minutes, or until all of the water is absorbed. Fluff the quinoa with a fork, cover it again, and let it rest off the heat for five minutes before setting it aside.
While the quinoa cooks, toss the whole carrots in the oil and cumin powder. Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and sprinkle them generously with salt. Roast the carrots for twenty minutes, or until they’re browning, stirring halfway through.
To prepare the salad, place the cooked quinoa, baby spinach, and chickpeas into a mixing bowl. Toss them together with about half of the dressing. Check the salad for seasoning and add more dressing (as well as a dash of salt, if desired). Divide the salad onto plates and top each with three roasted carrots and a sprinkle of cilantro. Alternately, you can chop the roasted carrots and toss them in the salad along with the other ingredients. The salad will keep overnight in the fridge. The dressing will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
I do so love the roasted carrots in this recipe, but you can make a shortcut version of the salad on any busy night by replacing them with a cup or two of raw, grated carrots in the salad instead. It’ll be a delicious and slightly more streamlined version of the salad.
I’m personally happy that I made enough of this dish to give me lunch leftovers today. Steven knows that I tend to be conservative with heat in my cooking, and he told me last night that he loved the kick in the quinoa, which I took to be a good compliment. And a sign that I’m becoming just a little more adventurous with my food.
I hope you all enjoy the dish–maybe with an ice cold drink and a nice bowl of guac and veggies. Happy May 5th, friends, and I’ll be back soon.
Happy Sunday, friends! I’m returning to New York right now from Pennsylvania, where I was lucky enough to celebrate a dear friend’s wedding yesterday. I hope you’ve all enjoyed some sunshine and rest in the last two days. Here are the recipes and read that have kept me company over the course of weekend travels.
2. As someone who is prone to both anxiety and stress (more of the latter but a good dose of the former), I was interested in this article’s perspective on anxiety and worry. The author’s central argument is that anxiety and worry, though potentially crippling if disproportionate or left unchecked, help us to be more self-examinatory. They may, he believes, aid in moral decision-making. I’m generally inclined to see anxiety as more harmful than helpful, but I do appreciate the argument here. It made me wonder whether my own worries do sometimes encourage me to consider my actions more carefully and critically.
Interesting to think of illness as disorder. I’ve always been attached to the idea of order–and to feelings and sensation that seem to align with order. If I were to accept Sacks’ metaphor of illness as a “a general feeling of disorder,” I wonder if it would help to explain why I struggle so much with feeling unwell (a struggle that worsens the older I get). I thought the article was thought-provoking, and Sacks’ capacity for critical perspective in the face of illness is truly remarkable.
4. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered a fascinating study this week. In the study, 20 African-Americans swapped diets with 20 South Africans for two weeks. The African-Americans ate South African fare, including cornmeal and beans, while the 20 South Africans consumed a more standard American diet, rich in animal protein, fast food, and higher fat meals. The South African diet consisted of one-sixth the meat of the American diet.
The results were dramatic: the South African, cornmeal+bean diet “reduced risk factors for colon cancer, including changes in gut flora and reductions in inflammation in colon’s mucosa in the American group, while the American diet notably increased the Africans’ risk factors for colon cancer.” The South African diet reduced levels of secondary bile (which can have a carcinogenic effect) in the colon by 70 percent, while the American diet increased it by 400 percent. The South African diet also increased levels of butyrate, a molecule that may reduce inflammation levels and cancer biomarkers.
Lead author Stephen J.D. O’Keefe, a physician in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition in Pitt’s School of Medicine, says that “These findings are really very good news…In just two weeks, a change in diet from a Westernized composition to a traditional African high-fiber, low-fat diet reduced these biomarkers of cancer risk, indicating that it is likely never too late to modify the risk of colon cancer.”
Good stuff. You can check out the study itself here.
Enjoy the reads. And if you need just one more food photo to gaze on, check out my New Veganism column this week. It’s minted pea puree on toast, and it’s a perfect springtime lunch, breakfast, or snack dish.
It’s not unusual for a vegan to love beans and lentils, but my love of pulses may go beyond the pale. I eat pulses every single day, often several times daily. They are a veritable food group for me. Like most folks, I have my favorites–chickpeas, navy beans, black beans, and lentils–but I also love adzuki beans, cannellini beans, split peas, lima beans, and cranberry beans. Pulses have texture, versatility, and remarkable nutrient density. They are an affordable staple food for much of the world’s population, and I consider them to be the most profoundly super of superfoods.
What’s a pulse, you may be wondering? I myself didn’t know the difference between a pulse and a legume until…well, this morning, as I was writing this post. Apparently, the word “legumes” refers to the plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. The legume family includes more than 13,000 species, including alfalfa, clover, peas, soy, peanuts, and mesquite. Pulses are part of the legume family, but a pulse is the dried seed of a legume plant–so, dried peas, edible beans, lentils, chickpeas, and more. Pulses are unique in that they’re dried naturally in the field instead of harvested prematurely. Pulses are also grown purely for consumption, which means that (unlike legumes) they’re never used for oil extraction.
If you’re wondering why I’m so jazzed about pulses today, it’s because I recently had a chance to develop a pulse recipe for a very special international event. Each year, the United Nations designates a theme or topic for international observance. Topics of observance are selected based on their ability to address four main areas of interest: Food/Nutrition, Security & Innovation, Market Access & Stability, Productivity & Environmental Sustainability, and Creating Awareness. I’m happy to tell you that the UN has named 2016 the International Year of Pulses.
Why pulses? Let’s start with their incredible nutrition profile. I don’t think I have to list the health benefits of beans and legumes for this audience, but who doesn’t love a little nutrition trivia?
●Pulses are high in protein, making them a great source of nutrition for vegans and vegetarians. One ½ cup serving of pulses offers 7 to 9 grams of protein, or 15 percent of your recommended daily intake.
●Pulses are gluten-free, sodium-free and cholesterol-free, with a low glycemic index and load.
●Pulses are high in fiber. On average, one ½ cup serving of pulses delivers ¼ of your recommended daily fiber intake.
●Pulses are one of the most antioxidant-rich foods. The antioxidant content of lentils is twice that of blueberries, and three times that of pomegranate juice.
●Pulses are high in essential nutrients like folate, iron and potassium. Chickpeas contain 3x more folate than kale and more than twice as much iron as chicken.
Pulses also have some incredible sustainability benefits. They can be grown in a variety of climates with little or no irrigation, which makes them both drought-tolerant and frost-hardy. Pulse crops also pull nitrogen from air and return it to soil, where it acts as a fertilizer (both for pulses and also for crops planted after). This means that pulse crops can be used to “fix” nitrogen levels in rotation with other crops. Pulses are cost-effective, too: in the United States, the average cost of a serving of lentils is $.07, compared to $1.07 for a serving of beef, $0.71 for a serving of pork and $0.67 for a serving of chicken.
In honor of The International Year of Pulses, the UN has selected the USA Dried Pea and Lentil Council (USADPLC) as the body to manage the International Year of Pulses activities here in the US. The USADPLC will be an ongoing resource for pulse recipes, nutritional information and sourcing information in the Unites States. Most importantly, the UN has asked each country to submit one national signature pulse recipe, and the USADPLC is in charge of selecting the USA’s entry.
That’s where this recipe comes in. When the USADPLC asked me to submit a recipe for a contest in which the US’s national signature pulse recipe is going to be chosen, I was thrilled. I can’t think of a better tribute to a group of ingredients that I love so much–ingredients that continually enrich my cooking and nourish my body.
I had endless recipe concepts in mind when I started to ponder the challenge, but in light of the fact that this is to be a national signature recipe, I wanted to offer my own tribute to that most all-American of classics: the burger.
But of course, I also wanted to add a nontraditional twist. This lentil burger is packed with umami and texture. You’ll taste delicious shiitake mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, smoked paprika, chili, and walnuts in addition to the hearty lentils. And for extra flavor, you’ll taste a tart, sweet, sticky tamarind barbecue sauce (which I now want to put on anything and everything).
No burger meal is complete without fries, and for this particular challenge I wanted to highlight pulses as much as possible. So what could have been more appropriate than chickpea fries?
One of my favorite vegan dishes in NYC is the famous plate of chickpea fries at Peacefood Cafe. I’ve often wondered what pixie dust the restaurant sprinkles in these fries to make them as delicious as they are (the fact that they’re fried probably has something to do with it, but still). While I don’t kid myself that this humble, homemade version is as delectable as that dish, I am really glad that I’ve figured out how to make chickpea fries at home. They’re crispy and delicious, and I even managed to bake this version, so that they stay on the light side.
Altogether, this is a hearty, satisfying meal with tons of texture. I love the range of flavor here, the variety of spices and herbs. It’s reinvented comfort food at its (vegan) finest. And here, without further ado, is the recipe. It looks like a ton of ingredients and steps, I know. But fear not. The fries are optional, the barbecue sauce can be made in advance, and canned lentils are A-OK. As long as you get the burger part together, you’re good to go.
To make the barbecue sauce, whisk all sauce ingredients except for the pepper together. Check the seasoning and add additional pepper as needed. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
To make the burgers, pick through the lentils to find any pieces of debris or grit. Rinse the lentils under cold, running water. Add them to a medium sized pot along with the water. Bring the lentils to a boil and reduce them to a simmer. Simmer them for 20 minutes, or until they’re entirely tender but not yet mushy (check them at the 15 minute mark for consistency). Drain the lentils, set them aside, and allow them to cool to room temperature. Alternately, you can use 2 cans of cooked lentils (about 3 cups total) in this recipe.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion. Season the onion and cook it for 4-5 minutes, or until the onion is soft and clear. Add the mushroom and cook them for another 4-5 minutes, or until they’ve rendered all of their liquid and are soft and reduced in size. Add the sun dried tomatoes and garlic. Sautee for another minute, or until the garlic is quite fragrant. Add a few splashes of broth as needed to prevent sticking.
Add the paprika, chili powder, thyme, oregano, and 2 cups of the cooked lentils. Stir all of the ingredients together until the lentils are warm and the spices are evenly incorporated. Remove the ingredients from heat.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Place the walnuts and oats in a food processor fitted with the S blade along with the 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pulse until both the oats and nuts have been ground into a course meal. Add the hot lentil mixture and pulse a few times, just enough to break the lentils and mushrooms down, but not enough to create puree.
Turn the lentil mixture out into a mixing bowl. Using your hands, mix in the breadcrumbs and the remaining cup of cooked lentils. Check the mixture for seasoning and add salt and black pepper to taste. The mixture should have a thick consistency, similar to conventional uncooked burgers. If it’s too sticky, add a few tablespoons of water.
Shape the mixture into 8 burgers. Place the burgers on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Brush the tops with a layer of tamarind barbecue sauce (recipe below). Bake the burgers for 15 minutes. Flip the burgers and brush the bottom side with barbecue sauce. Continue baking for another 10 minutes, or until each side of the burger is crispy. Serve on a whole grain or sprouted burger bun, a whole wheat or gluten free English muffin, or between a few crisp lettuce leaves, topped with additional tamarind barbecue sauce.
To make the chickpea fries, Place the chickpea flour, water, salt, cumin, and garlic into a blender. Blend till smooth.
Add the chickpea mixture into a medium or large sized pot. Heat over a medium flame, stirring constantly. The mixture will quickly begin to thicken, so watch it carefully and whisk constantly. After about 10 minutes, the mixture will be very thick. Trade your whisk for a spoon and beat it continuously as you stir in the parsley.
Quickly transfer the mixture to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use an inverted spatula to smooth it over evenly. Transfer the baking sheet to the fridge for for one hour to chill.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Cut the sheet of chickpea dough into strips that are approximately 3/4″ wide and 3″ long. (If the parchment tears as you cut them, replace the parchment beneath the fries.) Brush the fries with oil.
Bake the fries for 15 minutes. Flip them gently and brush the underside with oil. Transfer them back to the oven and bake for another 12-15 minutes, or until both sides are golden. Serve, with delightfully green tahini dressing if desired.
I hope that you’re excited about the burgers. I have a bit of advance praise from Steven, who took one bite of the dish and declared it the best veggie burger he’d ever had. Me? Well, maybe I’m biased. But as someone who has called veggie burgers an “overrated” vegan food in the past (I know, I know–blasphemy!), I gobbled these up with gusto. And I won’t even mention how quickly we both polished off the chickpea fries.
And now it’s time to ask you guys for a little help. I would be thrilled to see a vegan recipe be chosen as the United State’s national signature pulse recipe. And you can help to make it happen.
Between May 1 and May 15, you can visit the USADPLC’s Facebook page and vote for my recipe by liking the photo. Your support would mean so very much to me. I’d love to share my love of pulses with the world!
Thanks in advance for your support, friends. The USADPLC Facebook page will be ready for your vote by 12:30pm EST today (that’s just about an hour from now!).
And in the meantime, I’m scrambling to get ready for a weekend as a bridesmaid in a dear friend’s wedding. What a lovely springtime celebration it will be–and I’ll be back for weekend reading on Sunday!
Foods are either natural or unnatural. They are good or bad. Bad foods harm you, and good foods cleanse you. Bad foods are sinfully delicious, or guilty pleasures. Good foods are whole, real, clean, and natural. Bad foods are fake, unnatural, and processed.
The terms we use reflect idiosyncratic dietary faiths, the religion scholar Alan Levinovitz explains in his new book The Gluten Lie, in which he examines why people tend to put moral and religious lenses on food terminology. Much of people’s relationships to food can be explained by religious patterns of thought. Our words are often more philosophical than scientific. And our words inform approaches to eating, and overall well-being, in deeply consequential ways.
What happens, then, if you reject these words and frames entirely?
Levinovitz recounts a confrontation at a farmer’s market, where he asked a vendor whether her juice was processed. She impressed upon him that processing fruit into juice doesn’t result in processed food, that only corporations are capable of making processed food.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that he confronted the juice vendor. He probably laughed out loud, too, and not in a mean-spirited way. Levinovitz—who not long ago took a faculty position at James Madison University, after finishing his doctoral work at the University of Chicago—is a student of logic and argument. He delights in challenging beliefs. And that is what he accomplishes in The Gluten Lie, which dismantles popular arguments for categorically avoiding fat, sugar, salt, and, maybe most contentiously, gluten.
When Levinovitz was studying in China, during the era when everyone in the U.S. was terrified of monosodium glutamate (MSG), he talked to local people who were wholly unconcerned. MSG was everywhere, and it was fine. It was simply, Levinovitz writes in the book, “a sodium salt first extracted from seaweed by Japanese scientists in ￼￼￼1908, and a staple seasoning in the cuisine of long-lived East Asians. But health-conscious Americans knew better.” In the states, MSG was an interloper.
Through study of people like Daoist monks who practiced ritualistic avoidance of grains—long before the recent best-selling books Grain Brain and Wheat Belly told fantastical tales of the havoc grains wreak on the body—Levinovitz came to think that maybe we can account for a lot of food beliefs by applying mythical, superstitious patterns of thinking. And it turned out, he was right.
“I was shocked to learn that people thought sugar was bad in the late 1700s,” he said, still appearing genuinely shocked as he told me when we met recently in D.C. “Basically as soon as it was introduced, people said it was bad.”
Yes, sugar was bad even before diabetes and obesity existed in the average person’s mind. The reasoning? Pleasure was sinful. People blamed hypersexuality and alcoholism on sugar. Sugar was foreign, it was associated with savages who eat it; it was bad. According to James Redfield’s 1852 book Comparative Physiognomy, animals that eat honey are courageous and careful, like the bee, the hummingbird, and the bear, while those that prefer sugar are not virtuous, like the housefly or “the ant that lives in the sugar bowl.” Even though honey is higher in fructose than the high-fructose corn syrup people now love to blame for all of our health problems, honey has long had enjoyed a halo of naturalness. It’s the same halo that protects juice but demonizes soda, even though the differences at a macronutrient level are negligible.
A younger Levinovitz initially thought he’d become a bioethicist, but took to religion because of an interest in the way narratives inform beliefs. Philosophy is all about evidence and logic, but then there’s religion, where people just tell stories, and that was a way of convincing someone of a worldview. He assumed for a long time, like most people who haven’t studied the origins of religious food traditions, that people were taught to avoid pork for rational reasons like outbreaks of Trichinosis, and shellfish because of food spoilage. But that biological theory was rejected by many anthropologists, Levinovitz explains. In the 1960s Mary Douglas wrote a book called Purity and Danger, where she pointed out that most food taboos can’t be accounted for by medical concerns. She makes the argument that the foods that were prohibited in Leviticus had to do with animals that cross boundaries. For instance, fish without scales. They were dirty not because there was some plausible biological basis for ingesting shark and getting sick. They were dirty, Levinovitz agrees, “because they didn’t fit into a neat creation scheme.” In other words, they weren’t natural.
Pope Francis has embodied this position in his entreaties to respect nature and, at least implicitly, not to genetically modify foods. “This is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” he said last year, “to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.”
He is not at all alone in approaching food production through the romantic lenses of nature and the past. Combine that with basic puritanical fears of pleasure and the monotonic fallacy that if something is impure it must be totally avoided, and almost any popular dietary approach can be explained. Bacon is not kosher, and eating a little bit of bacon is not more kosher than eating a boat full of bacon. This is the way that many people simply choose to treat sugar or gluten: I need to not eat any of these things.
Some people have diabetes mellitus or celiac disease, and they really must avoid these things, or they will become seriously ill. Other people don’t have these conditions—or any trace of insulin resistance or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (the significance, definition, and very existence of which is disputed by experts)—but they insist on absolutist attitudes toward things whose effects are clearly dose-dependent.
Wrapping science around beliefs creates arguments like, in the 19th century, that interracial marriage leads to sickly offspring. Now the same logic is used against genetically modified plants. People use biological arguments to justify the same belief that has been around since the beginning of time: New things are unnatural and dangerous. Stuff was better before. We’re risk averse and scared of new things. That makes sense from a survival perspective, but it makes for lousy science.
This is the point of The Gluten Lie. I talked more with Levinovitz about the intersection of religious thought and nutrition, storytelling and motivational psychology, and how it all informs faith in science. Here’s our lightly edited conversation.
James Hamblin: You write about the role for storytelling and myth in the world. What’s the role of myth in understanding health?
Alan Levinovitz: Myth is great for talking about where everything came from. Or what happens after you die. Or whether there was something before nothing. What is free will? We don’t have great scientific accounts for these things. I think there are religious narratives that help people deal with really important but as-yet unanswerable questions. But myth is terrible for dietary rules.
Ideas about religion can be so powerful that people can’t endorse them without giving up a part of their identity. It’s the same thing with diets. If you’ve adopted a diet and it’s become part of your identity, asking someone to reconsider something as simple as eating sugar or gluten is kind of like asking someone to give up their faith. To admit that the core of their identity is fundamentally mistaken. The pointy-head scientists and the people affiliated with Big Agriculture couldn’t possibly be right because they are demons.
Hamblin: The thing I concede to people with things like fad diets is, like a diet where you don’t eat yellow things, okay, well you’re getting some placebo effect. You’re developing a sense of identity and awareness about what you put in your body. So what about the benefits of belief?
Levinovitz: The question I ask, then, is do we have empiric evidence that irrational beliefs about the power of food lead to better real-world outcomes? In other words, I might be convinced that it’s worth thinking that gluten causes autism or that Paleolithic dieting is good for you if having those beliefs were genuinely better in terms of outcomes. To take a similar argument with religion: Emile Durkheim, sociologist of religion—he didn’t think religion was true. But he thought it was necessary for cultivating ethics. Religion was a sort of belief engine that would keep people good. The argument then is, if we don’t have this set of beliefs, how are we going to get along? Why would we treat each other nicely? We’ll just dissolve into chaos. Which is not true. We can treat each other just fine without a false belief system that tells us to. I would argue the same thing for living healthfully. There’s just no reason to think that quasi-religious beliefs about the miraculous powers of foods, or the demonizing of foods, benefit our health. And if that’s the case, then we should work to get rid of them.
And I think it does hurt our health, because we decide on easier things like miracle berries. And we live in fear, because the world is filled with these invisible antagonists of modernity: toxins and chemicals and radio waves. If there’s one thing we do know it’s that being terrified of life is not good for you.
Hamblin: At least we’re not going to war over diets.
Levinovitz: Well, if you look back in history, the first thing leaders do to introduce an us-them dichotomy is introduce dietary rules. It’s the best thing: What do we eat? What do they eat?
As for what we eat, I think the USDA and academic nutritionists need to stop coming out with nutritional guidelines. Because it’s an extremely fallible science that’s constantly contradicting itself, and it makes people think that science is not to be trusted. First they thought this about cholesterol, now they think that? I guess we just can’t trust those pointy-head scientists! You can tell people to eat in moderation and get physical activity, and then you don’t have to flip-flop on anything. And 99 percent of doctors will agree that the problem is not that people eat in moderation but slightly too much dairy or something.
Hamblin: My sense is that the nutrition guidelines now are more reactive than anything. There are so many people out there who believe that carbs are just bad, for example, that it makes sense to have a confluence of experts going on the record saying that moderate whole-grain intake is part of a healthy approach to life.
Levinovitz: Rhetorically, though, it’s something of a mistake to engage in these arguments to begin with. What enables dietary nonsense is the quibbling about ratios and constructions about kinds of food. So the way to counter dietary nonsense is not by coming up with a new set of more reasonable laws; it’s by saying I refuse to even participate in this conversation. We don’t even need to think about food this way.
Hamblin: What about people who are eating three meals a day from CVS?
Levinovitz: I know. I go to some stores and see ten flavors of Oreos and I’m like, good God, I clearly don’t understand reality.
Hamblin: But I agree that self-correcting science isn’t well received by a lot of people. Like how it’s bad in politics, where you can’t “flip flop” on things you’ve said or advocated. There’s some kind of virtue in the political economy to holding one view and never changing it, regardless of situations changing. That makes you a hero. Is that because of the importance we put on faith? In terms of a belief that is unshakably held in the face of evidence to the contrary. Or at least finding ways to fit new information into your worldview without changing your worldview.
Levinovitz: I think the faith you’re describing is a part of overconfident religion. It’s the faith of pseudoscience. We often generalize about religion, but not all religion is incompatible with science. Just look at the Vatican scientists supporting golden rice. You’re talking about a bad faith that you see in religious people and atheists alike, a type of faith that thinks there’s something virtuous about being unshakeable in your opinion.
Hamblin: Well my opinion is that the guidelines are worthwhile and won’t blow up in anyone’s face, if only because this time around they’re especially vague. Opposite that, there are national fitness guidelines, that say everyone should get 150 minutes of exercise every week. I asked one of the people who helped write the recommendation recently, what about 149? And he said, obviously don’t expect a difference. The number 150 is really about behavioral research. You have to give people something concrete and short-term. If you tell them to just be more physically active this year, they won’t do it. It’s not actionable. So I still retch when I see books or article like 10 Days to a Better Butt, but now I retch slightly less. I don’t know how many people selling 10-day plans are thinking about motivational psychology as opposed to strategic marketing, but they do have something on their side. It probably works better than something vaguer, like The Better Butt Lifestyle. Or, even safer, The Long, Difficult Road to a “Better” Butt.
Levinovitz: So the current state of the art in motivational psychology is to ask people, what do you want to accomplish for yourself? And then giving them ways to fulfill that goal. Which is very different from national guidelines.
Hamblin: But can’t you motivate people by changing priorities and values?
Levinovitz: We just don’t know how. And let’s not tell noble lies unless we have really good evidence that they’re going to work, because they’re going to bite us in the ass when we come back and recant. There’s so much science that’s good. Like vaccines. Why would we undermine the validity of this incredibly beneficial and solidly grounded enterprise through a few unfounded but highly public decrees?
Hamblin: I think a lot of the mixed public messaging comes from the pace of the news cycle. Because on the Internet, no one seems to want to read things that are three days old, and there are a lot of health writers who have to write something every day. In most of the media industry, motivations are not aligned for people to be successful and also to tell entirely accurate, staid stories. Dr. Oz has to talk for an hour every day of the week. What a challenge, to keep so many people constantly tuned in and never get carried away, over thousands of hours of talking.
Levinovitz: It’s really important for media to help separate science from corporate interests and debunk bad science. But the problem comes when, in doing that, people associate all science with corporate interests, and they want to hate it all. We have a religious understanding of moral pollution in terms of people who have consulted to corporations. In writing my book, I wanted to talk with biotech people about GMOs, but I was scared that if I even talked with them, I would be seen as tainted. Do we want academia that never talks with industry? It’s equally pernicious in understanding how corporations interact with academics and journalists as it is in understanding how foods interact with the body.
Hamblin: So how do you highlight corruption without feeding monotonic mistrust?
Levinovitz: People seem to think that a scientific consensus can be bought by industry. And while the scientific consensus has shifted in nutrition, it’s never been bought. The example people always point to is tobacco companies: They bought the scientific consensus, and that’s why we can’t trust science. The truth is that since the late 1800s scientists have said tobacco is terrible. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it was connected to cancer, but scientists knew even before that that smoking blackened the lungs, et cetera. Were doctors influenced by the PR machine in being slow to stop people from smoking? Yes. But no scientific consensus ever said it was okay. The tobacco industry only got to the people who publicly represented the scientists. People need to know they can trust scientific consensus, it is reliable, and it is impossible to buy.
Granting people the ability to believe in quasi-religious narratives about food and medicine will have very real public-health consequences, like the kind we are seeing with the anti-vaccine movement.
Hamblin: I think that there are, broadly, two types of patients: the anxious, not super analytically-minded people who want to hear what’s good and bad and just follow what the doctor thinks is best. And the opposite, people who want to know every potential risk and benefit and weigh everything for themselves. Some people handle that well, other people get unduly scared by the smallest risk. So when speaking to a mass audience, how much do you talk about extremely rare failures and adverse effects? When you have to boil it down to a sound bite or tweet, do you just say, vaccinate, it’s safe and smart? Because, for some people, that will only feed into a conspiracy theory.
Levinovitz: It’s incredibly hard. This is disclosure ethics, listing all of the potential side effects on medicines. Anti-vaccine advocates will say, well look at all of the things that are on the packaging label! Which, to me, is an argument for being paternalistic and removing those things because, is it doing any good? I don’t think that it is, on the whole. It’s just giving people material to be scared by. At the same time, you have to have transparency. You don’t want to encourage a black box of medical knowledge, where no one’s disclosing anything. What people are deciding with vaccines is that when there’s something so important to public health, we’re just going to legislate it. But then people think, Oh no, big government.
Hamblin: Which is most of America. And vaccines are products of the pharmaceutical industry, of which the public is especially wary. So will vaccine legislation pass?
Levinovitz: Yes, but I think it’ll take a minor disaster. There will have to be a couple deaths that are so prominent in the public consciousness that people are willing to pass legislation. Which is sad. But thank God we’re having measles outbreaks and not polio outbreaks, and that that’s what it might take to get people to mandate vaccination. It’s like hoping a small island sinks to convince people of the importance of global warming, not waiting until all of California is underwater.
Hamblin: If California were underwater, that would eliminate a lot of the anti-vaccination problem. No, but it’s just such an easily politicized conspiracy theory, educated elite doctors telling us one thing but we know better.
Levinovitz: That’s the thing with food narratives, and all branches of pseudoscience. Creationism, climate denialism, whatever it is. If you resent pointy-head authority, there are these other areas—Paleo dieting, for example—where there’s extremely technical literature that doesn’t take long to master but gives you a sort of esoteric expertise that allows you to feel as though you have something that those pointy heads don’t. I’ve seen that a lot within these diet communities: macrobiotic or probiotic, Paleo, they’ll say things like, Well, my doctor doesn’t even know about the gamma-three globulin protein. She hasn’t even looked at the studies about X, Y, or Z Neanderthal. She doesn’t even know. And all of a sudden you feel like you have this expertise that other people don’t.
Hamblin: Well that’s how every conspiracy theory works, right? Along with some realization, some moment of enlightenment?
Levinovitz: Take Gary Taubes, who’s a great science writer and skeptic who debunked the dangers of salt really effectively, and the dangers of fat, and then all of a sudden, he became a convert and called sugar toxic. He became the kind of person he’d been criticizing for so long. People can be totally reasonable and also endorse something that is just not.
Hamblin: As a writer it’s easy to want to defend positions you’ve taken even as new evidence and legitimate critiques come along.
Levinovitz: What about people who’ve never been reasonable?
Hamblin: Well when I talked with Vani Hari [The Food Babe], who has been so accused, I got no sense that she’s less than genuinely concerned about everything she tells the public to be concerned about. She’s accused of profiteering, but I think that’s simplistically cynical. I don’t think many people are legitimately willing to sell their identities—and knowingly do harm to public understanding—solely for money. Maybe I’m wrong.
Hari tends to underestimate the complexity of most of the issues she mobilizes people for/against. But she’s great at mobilizing. I hope she’ll move into working with good scientists on issues that really need awareness—climate impact of certain foods, human rights issues in agriculture, depletion of bees. I’ve gotten so into bees lately. You know I used to hate them? Now I love them. Anyway, she and others in her ilk are fundamentally anti-establishment in their messages. So many things are myths that we’ve been fed. She says the idea that nutrition science is complex is itself a myth that we’ve been fed.
Levinovitz: And they can end up making more money from fueling paranoia than the people they accuse of selling out to biotech or pharma.
I just don’t want people to get caught in this endless cycle of nonsensical dietary practices, in the same way that I wouldn’t want people to still be doing exorcisms. But the exorcists are way more exciting than the people who are telling the public that exorcism doesn’t work.
The problem is that we just don’t know a whole lot beyond eating in moderation, and we can’t promise a lot, and there are a lot of limits to medicine. That doesn’t sell books. Michael Pollan’s rule “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”? That’s a terrible idea. My grandmother wouldn’t eat any international food. Don’t eat anything that contains things you can’t pronounce?
Hamblin: Ascorbic acid!
Levinovitz: That turns everyone into the Food Babe. “Cook for yourself” is safe, but it’s classist. It assumes that you have a stove and the time to cook.
Hamblin: It’s not as classist as saying go out to restaurants every night.
Levinovitz: Sure. And I think most people really do have enough time to cook for themselves.
Hamblin: I’m told they do. So what more than that can we actually responsibly recommend to everyone? You write in the book about “eating in the fourth dimension.”
Levinovitz: The idea is that three dimensions of food we normally consider are quantity, quality, and type. So, for a month, or however long is tolerable, you eat in the fourth dimension, which is time. You read no nutrition labels, and you “detox” from thinking about food. Instead you think about the time you spend preparing food. You make sure to spend a half hour four nights a week, or whatever, cooking and eating. If people really ate in the fourth dimension, I think we’d be much happier, and healthier, and not as beholden to pseudoscience. I think that would be great.
Normally, I’d start this glowing cookbook review by telling you all about the author, Kathy Patalsky, and how talented/cool/inspiring she is. I don’t think I have to, though, because readers of my blog have heard me sing Kathy’s praises before. Most recently, my readers got to know Kathy when she posted her wonderful Green Recovery story on CR.
If you aren’t familiar with Kathy’s wildly popular food blog, Healthy Happy Life, then you may know her as the author of 365 Vegan Smoothies—which may as well be the definitive vegan smoothie collection! Kathy is known for her colorful, vibrant recipes and her beautiful food images. Everything on Kathy’s website is something that I would like to eat; she seems to have an intuitive understanding of what’s appetizing.
The thing I love most about Kathy’s recipes, be they smoothies, salads, or soups, is that they’re as healthful as they are appealing. I can count on a HHL recipe to be packed with whole foods and rimming with color, but I also know that it will look and taste comforting and satisfying. Whereas a lot of recipes seem to be carefully crafted for aesthetics, it’s always clear to me that Kathy uses her own tastes and cravings to develop recipes that will be as enticing to others as they are to her. And that’s what makes her food so soulful, so joyous.
I’ve always hoped that Kathy would publish a collection of her favorite recipes. Kathy’s new book, Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen, has far exceeded my already high expectations.
This collection of over 220 vegan recipes has it all: accessibility, flavor, foolproof techniques, and so much heart. Kathy’s own story is interspersed throughout the collection, and her friendly, welcoming voice animates every single recipe headnote. The book is also packed with helpful tips and inspiration, which I think are especially useful for new vegans. When you get the book, check out her “ten tips for new or test-run vegans,” her comprehensive list of kitchen tools and pantry ingredients, or her ten wonderful wellness tips and lessons. These include wise feedback on finding a healthy weight, building self-esteem, and practicing awareness in one’s own eating habits. I love every single one of them.
The images you see strewn throughout this post are pictures of the mouthwatering food from HHVK. A few graphs ago you spotted Kathy’s easy, 5-step kale salad, and the image directly above is her lovely lasagna verde. I’ve also bookmarked her spicy peanut soba noodles with veggies and (for dessert) her thumbprint cookies.
As you can see, all of the food in this collection is bright and beautiful. The recipes are also really easy to prepare; Kathy understands that a lot of folks don’t want to spend endless time and energy making food, and she’s developed streamlined recipes to help make her readers’ lives easier.
Other features that I love about this book? A whole section of bowls, for one thing. In my experience, most plant-based eaters are suckers for a great grain and veggie bowl, and Kathy offers plenty of options. She’s also got tons of “how-to” tutorials to offer her readers. My favorites are her how-to guide for making veggie burgers, her almond milk how-to, and her guide for soaking nuts. It’s all super useful and designed to help you navigate a vegan kitchen easily. You can read more about special features of Kathy’s new book here.
There are so many gorgeous recipes that I could have highlighted from Kathy’s book today. But I wanted to pick one that seemed to embody who she is and what her food represents. I chose to share her strawberry mache salad. Maybe it’s the vibrant color, the simple-yet-life-changing flavor pairing of avocado and strawberry, or the simplicity of the recipe, but somehow, this one just screams “Kathy” to me. And it’s a perfect salad to have in your pocket as we move from spring to early summer.
Simple. Fresh. Seasonal. Healthy. This recipe–and the entire collection of recipes in Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen–is what Kathy’s food and message is all about. She is such a wonderful ambassador for veganism and for mindful living in general, and I am so proud of this new accomplishment in Kathy’s writing career!
Obviously, I want my readers to have a chance to experience Kathy’s new book for themselves. Kathy’s publisher has generously agreed to share a copy of Healthy Happy Vegan Kitchen with one of my readers today. (Note that you must be a US resident to enter.)
Do you remember how you felt after your very first cup of coffee (ever)? Excitement and a remarkable ability to focus…Sometimes, even euphoria. Compare that with the slightly less-sleepy feeling you get after the fifth cup of coffee this morning. So, what happened since that first, magical sip?
Found in tea and coffee, caffeine is the world’s most popular stimulant. We usually associate a cup of coffee with happiness, and for some of us, even relief. Unfortunately, only people who aren’t used to caffeine will experience the euphoric effects associated with that cup of liquid gold. Chances are, if you’re a coffee-lover, you’ll only experience caffeine’s anti-sleep effect, and not much else.
And before you reach for that second cup, remember, caffeine tolerance is an insurmountable tolerance. This means more, doesn’t necessarily mean better. Increasing the amount of caffeine you consume will not amplify the effects of caffeine, no matter how much coffee you drink.
So the question is, are you considered caffeine tolerant? The ‘bad news’ is, just drinking coffee more than a few times a week will increase your caffeine tolerance, which means no super-focus and no euphoria. If you want to maximize the benefits of caffeine, you may want to try weaning yourself off of it or excluding it from your diet for a month, which will allow your tolerance to fade.
How it works
Caffeine blocks a subset of adenosine receptors called A2A receptors. These receptors are normally responsible for the sleepy feeling that signals you to get ready for bed, but when caffeine blocks this receptor, that sleepy feeling disappears. Blocking this receptor also augments dopamine signaling, which results in the stimulated feeling associated with caffeine.
Caffeine tolerance prevents augmented dopamine signaling, which is why coffee veterans
don’t feel true stimulation after drinking a few cups. Even the most enthusiastic coffee drinker however, will benefit from the anti-sleep effect caused by blocked adenosine receptors.
Benefits of caffeine
For many of us, grabbing that hot cup of coffee or tea in the morning, has become almost instinctual. It doesn’t just taste great, it also helps us kick off that lingering feeling of fatigue after a poor night’s sleep. But just in case you need another excuse to drink coffee, here are two more science-backed reasons to justify each sip:
Caffeine increases catecholamine signaling (adrenaline and dopamine) in the body, which doesn’t just make you feel good, but also increases motivation and improves focus. Just like how supplementing Creatine alongside exercise improves exercise performance, supplementing caffeine while studying will improve retention and focus.
A caffeine dose of 400 – 600 mg is one of the most reliable and potent ways to temporarily increase strength through supplementation. People who are caffeine naive will typically experience improved power output during strength training or anaerobic exercise.
Caffeine can also play a role in recovery post-workout, whether you’re caffeine naive or caffeine tolerant. Ingesting caffeine alongside carbohydrates can improve the rate of glycogen replenishment, which is particularly important if you work out very frequently or multiple times per day.
Getting more from less
How do you maximize the benefits of caffeine? Drink less. Or to be even more specific, less frequently. It may be difficult, but capping off your caffeine intake to once or twice a week is the best way to get more from each cup.
Am I the only one here who’s just a little intimated by rhubarb? I love the way it looks, I love nearly every recipe I see it in, and I love the color (or colors, I should say—on any given stalk of rhubarb one is likely to find shades of green, light pink, and a brilliant, dark rose). But this sturdy, stringy, sour vegetable–which has been used medicinally in China for thousands of years–continues to elude me a little. I’ll always say yes to strawberry rhubarb jam or a slice of vegan strawberry rhubarb pie. But I can count the number of times I’ve purchased rhubarb on one hand.
When there’s a vegetable like this—a vegetable I tend to shy away from—I like to offer myself the challenge of getting to know it a little better. So it is with rhubarb. I’m determined to get a little cozier with this fascinating springtime ingredient. These wonderful bars mark the first chapter in our friendship.
Full confession: this isn’t a totally original recipe. When I picked up rhubarb at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago, I intended to make a pie or a crumble. I did, and it was delicious, and the whole thing got gobbled up by me and Steven and a friend over ours over the course of one very sweet after dinner chat. But I had a few stalks of rhubarb leftover, and I wanted to do something with them that was a little different from the normal pie/crumble as usual. I settled on the idea of a bar. And, as I was coming up with a recipe, I took some inspiration from my blueberry breakfast bars, which are one of the most popular baked goods from my blog archives.
The nice thing about these bars is that they bridge the gap between breakfast and dessert. The top is perfectly crumbly, the filling undeniably sweet. But the bar base itself is made only with oats, banana, and a modest amount of maple syrup. You could enjoy these with a smear of nut butter and some fresh fruit for a sweeter breakfast, a brunch with friends, an uplifting snack, or dessert. No matter how or when you decide to eat them, I think you’ll find that the strawberry rhubarb mixture is perfectly sweet/tart, and that the notes of brown sugar and coconut oil are delightful.
NB: Steven would like you all to know that, if you eat these for dessert, they are best when heated gently and served with vanilla ice cream. You heard it here first.
3 cups strawberries, raspberries, or a combination of both (if you use strawberries, trim and quarter them prior to measuring)
1 cup chopped rhubarb
3 tablespoons organic sugar
3/4 tablespoon tapioca starch
For the crumble topping:
3/4 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup almond flour
1/4 cup organic brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
Preheat your oven to 350F.
Mix the oat flour, oats, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon together in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the banana, almond milk, coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well to combine. The mixture should be thick but easy to mix with a spoon or whisk. If it’s too sticky, add an extra few tablespoons of almond milk. Transfer this mixture to an oiled 8×8 or 9×9 square baking dish.
Toss the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar, and tapioca starch together and mix well. Spread this mixture over the base layer in the baking dish. Place the baking dish in the oven and bake for 15 minutes.
Place the oats, almond flour, brown sugar, salt, and melted coconut oil together in a food processor fitted with the S blade. Pulse until the mixture has formed nice, big crumbs. Remove the baking dish from your oven and sprinkle this mixture over the rhubarb and strawberry layer (which should be releasing some liquid by now, and even bubbling at the edges). Bake for another 20-25 minutes, or until the top is brown and the strawberry rhubarb layer has thickened up. Place the baking dish on a wire rack to cool completely. Cut into 9 or 12 squares, and serve.
A couple of added things: you can make the oat flour for this recipe by placing rolled oats into a food processor fitted with the S blade and whirling them until they’ve formed flour. Also, this recipe is gluten free, but if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance with any cross-reactivity when you eat oats, it’s important to purchase GF certified oats and oat flour.
Finally, this recipe would be a great template for many other fruit flavors. You can find my blueberry variation here, but I’d also suggest peaches, cherries, or apple. Basically, rotate your filling according to the seasons and what you’re craving. Frozen berries will work perfectly well.
Enjoy the bars, all. On Wednesday, I’ll be reviewing a wonderful new vegan cookbook. And on Friday, I have a veggie burger recipe to share, and it’s pretty special. Till soon!
Somehow after enough yoga, sitting perfectly erect and also appearing at ease become no longer mutually exclusive. That’s how instructors Elizabeth Glover and Lara Atella sat in the foyer of their studio on H Street in Washington, D.C. this week, where they explained to me the draw of very hot yoga, as a group of soaking wet, barely clad people poured out of their 105-degree Fahrenheit noon Bikram class. Posture is contagious, like yawning or hepatitis, but with your spine. I tried to nonchalantly pull my shoulders back and stick out my chest as we talked.
If these two yoga instructors seemed especially erect and at ease, it may be because the yoga they practice is an especially intense and especially hot form of yoga. Actually, the neon sign on the brick facade still says “Bikram Yoga Capitol Hill,” but the studio is now called Hot Yoga Capitol Hill. Glover, the founder and director, declines to comment on whether the name change is a position statement—but it’s at least coincidental that, in the wake of multiple recent rape allegations against the guru who created the Bikram yoga method, Bikram Choudhury, some studios are distancing themselves from his name.
That distancing should only increase after Choudhury gave a deeply bizarre defense this month in a CNN interview, saying that he doesn’t need to rape his students because he has “millions” of women lining up to have sex with him. And, due respect for his non-native English, that did not appear to factor into his explanation that he has sex with his students only as a public service when they threaten to commit suicide if he does not.
“We love the yoga,” Glover said, drawing me away from the guru and back to the reason I came. “We’ve seen that it works for people with all kinds of mental and physical conditions. It has helped people with high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders—”
“I used to have cysts in my wrist,” said Atella, who has a neurobehavioral research background and an eye for methodological analysis, “and my doctors told me I had to get surgery to have them removed because they’d been there so long they were calcified. But then I started yoga, and they went away.”
These health anecdotes are far from isolated. Choudhury has positioned himself as more of a spiritual leader than as a fitness expert (“I implant my mind into your brain“), but many people turn to hot yoga with an eye to improving health by some unknown mechanism. The practice undeniably tends to make people feel good—even researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are evaluating hot yoga as an adjunct therapy for depression—but almost no research has been done into whether hot yoga actually is good, or even prudent, as a bodily undertaking. So I was interested in concerns raised this week by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), which released a strongly worded warning about elevations in body temperatures during Bikram classes.
Leading up to the statement, the council studied people’s heart rates and core temperatures during the course of a class and found that several people experienced significant elevations in core temperature, up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. “The dramatic increases in heart rate and core temperature are alarming when you consider that there is very little movement, and therefore little cardiovascular training, going on during class,” the researcher Emily Quandt said in the ACE statement.
Bikram yoga, by definition and decree of the guru, consists of 90 minutes at 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity. The series follows a specific set of poses in a rigid order every time. “Hot yoga,” on the other hand, is usually shorter and not so hot, and can be any amalgamation of poses. Even though the practice has been around since the 1970s—breaking into mainstream American consciousness when his friend Shirley MacLaine got Choudhury a spot on Johnny Carson—it has largely gone uninvestigated. But as its popularity continues to grow, along with growing popularity of hot workouts of other types—there are now hot spinning classes, hot kettle-bell classes, hot boot camps—the cumulative hotness drew the attention of ACE.
Body Temperatures During 90-Minute Bikram Yoga Class
“I don’t want to raise unnecessary fear and alarm, but I want instructors to be really aware of this, to look for signs and symptoms of heat intolerance,” Cedric Bryant, chief science officer at ACE, told me. We had met a couple months earlier when he was in D.C. for a conference on national fitness guidelines. Bryant is a serious and methodical person whose mission at ACE is to ensure that fitness trainers, in yoga and elsewhere, are certified by a centralized body of some kind (ACE or another, but, you know, ideally ACE) before advertising expertise and plying their trade. His takeaway in this case is that Bikram teachers and practitioners need to be attentive to heat intolerance and encourage hydration, not deprivation. “For the majority of people who are presumably healthy, [Bikram yoga] should present no problem,” Bryant said, but then added that diabetes, hypertension, and obesity can compromise body-temperature regulation, and most Americans have one of those conditions, so people should be careful.
“We had seven people get core temperatures over 103 degrees, and one was 104.1, which is pretty warm,” Bryant’s research collaborator John Porcari explained. “In that range you can see heat-related illnesses, dizziness, drops in blood pressure, headaches, vomiting, even seizures.” Porcari has lived in the small city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, for 26 years, where he’s a professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse—and where the energy cost of heating a studio to 105 degrees in winter raises additional questions of prudence. Porcari himself is not a regular practitioner of yoga, but he wouldn’t tell people not to do it.
“People seem to love it,” he said with a verbal shrug, the common refrain. He brought up the not-well-understood attraction of warm-blooded humans to saunas: “What’s magical about a sauna? What makes you feel good? There’s something anxiolytic about saunas, and about exercising in a hot environment.” Some people like it for the relief they get after they finish, and some like it more in the moment. There is also something at least slightly misleading about the amount of sweat a person produces, which is not indicative of an intense workout, but can be similarly gratifying. But that’s not necessarily bad. “I think when you look at the mental benefits, at the mind-body connection, people feel like they’ve accomplished something,” said Porcari. “They feel better about themselves.”
His speculation ended when I asked about the spiritual element of the practice—if a feeling of transcendence or well-being that sometimes comes from hot yoga could be related to the low blood pressure and dizziness. (Porcari: “Transcendence meaning?” Me: “You know, if you’re light-headed enough you might be having some spiritual experience?” Porcari: “That’s beyond my realm. If you start feeling lightheaded and dizzy, I don’t see that as a good thing.”)
But Brian Tracy, a neuromuscular-function researcher at Colorado State University, didn’t leave me hanging. “There is a pretty distinct sense of well-being that you have after a class,” Tracy, who is himself a weekend Bikram warrior, said, “Physically, yes, but mentally also. And it’s a real thing. People talk about the exercise high, and this seems different to me. There may be a whole different mechanism where exposure to heat, like going into a sauna, may feed back and have actual positive effects in the brain.”
Tracy was not involved with the current study but has done other Bikram research, including the first peer-reviewed study of physiological effects—which was not published until 2008. At that point he found improved balance and strength, and control of the leg muscles, after regular Bikram practice. In 2013, he published another study showing improvement in flexibility and a small decrease in body fat. He was surprised by the new body-temperature findings, and a little suspicious. “My thing about all this concern is, there are thousands of people around the world that practice this on a regular basis and are practically ‘addicted’ to it, and they love it. So, it can’t be that bad. Listen to your body.”
If everything that my body told me to do were really good for me, the world would be a different, wonderful place.
Tracy’s more tangible counterpoint to the new evidence is his own research, which is forthcoming, which found that the highest body temperatures any Bikram practitioners experienced was 101.5. “That’s nowhere near ringing alarm bells about core temperature,” he said. It must be noted that Tracy’s work at Colorado State has been underwritten by Bikram Yoga College. But he is adamant that the conflict of interest does not compromise his integrity. It’s an objection he’s heard before over his years of Bikram research, and he was upfront about the funding source. I warned him that readers would be skeptical, even though not all of his findings have been favorable to Bikram. “Well,” he said, “they can have my raw data if they want.”
That data, like the data used in La Crosse, consists of temperature measurements from an edible thermometer. Tracy describes it as “the biggest vitamin you’ve ever seen in your life, coated with a rubbery substance.” Inside is a transmitter that sends temperature readings to a receiver while the thermometer works its way through a yogi’s small intestine. The subjects are not asked to retrieve the thermometer once its intestinal journey is complete. That is what graduate students are for. No, just kidding. The thermometer pill, like the Bikramites whose temperatures it once monitored, gets flushed.
Both core-temperature studies involved a very small number of subjects, so the reason for the discrepancy between the two studies is tough to parse. If more people would like to fund research of hot yoga—not you, Bikram Yoga College—that would be great. It might be especially worthwhile as more cardio-intensive forms of exercising in heat comes into fashion. “I have more concerns about those [types of exercises] with more upright work, with more pooling of blood and lightheadedness,” said Bryant.
The most important part of both studies is that no one actually experienced heat stroke, or any symptoms at all. Glover’s D.C. studio has been open since July 2006, and she remembers “maybe three times” that there was cause for acute medical concern. “In one case someone was on a diuretic and didn’t tell us in advance, so of course, they were dehydrated,” she recalled. In Atella’s experience, people have developed symptomatic dehydration in class after a night of drinking.
Tracy drinks a liter of water before class, and nearly another liter during. (Actually it’s lightly-salted water, because electrolytes prevent hyponatremia and swelling of the brain that can come with drinking too much pure water.) Porcari says water should be fine for most Bikram practitioners, because this isn’t a desert ultramarathon. Glover tells people to drink 16 to 20 ounces before class. As long as all practitioners are encouraging hydrating—rather than telling people to push through the thirst and master their bodily desires, which few do—the consensus seems to be that should be sufficient for safe practice.
Jessica Matthews, a senior advisor at ACE, offers a couple other points of advice. “Embrace the process of sweating and encourage students to do the same,” she writes, by which she means that because sweating cools the body through the evaporation process, students should be encouraged “to avoid becoming distracted in their practice by constantly wiping sweat from their skin, which, from a safety perspective, can lessen the amount of evaporative cooling that occurs, resulting in retained body heat and an increased risk of dehydration and overheating.”
I know in a piece like this, the writer would usually try Bikram yoga and report back on how sweaty they got. But I’m not that writer today. I stepped into the 105-degree room and out of it, and it was very hot and the air was thick and sweaty, and that’s all. After talking with so many people about it, though, I’m inclined to try it sometime. Ideally at a place that no longer uses the name of the guy who justifies sex with his students as a public service. It ultimately sounds a little bit like a drug, but one that might even be good for you.
“With every therapy there are risks and side effects,” said Atella. “Yes, when you do Bikram, there are risks, especially if you push it too hard.”
Usually in exercise, pushing hard is the goal. So maybe “therapy” really is the best way to think about hot yoga, and that heat exposure is best considered apart from exercise. Like a sauna. More is not necessarily better, and nor is hotter. But regular practice provides elements that have very real physical manifestations: ritual, relaxation, and community. The Bikram community is tightly knit and a significant part of many practitioners lives. It provides social support and acceptance. This is a group of people that, no matter where you go in the world, does this exact set of poses in the exact same order, in the exact same environmental conditions. It seems that some of the hesitation of the community to distance itself from Bikram Choudhury comes from a reluctance to drift apart into the nebulous world of “hot yoga,” to dissolve the community, and thereby jeopardize the most evidence-based elements of the practice.
Meanwhile people’s physiologic explanations for why they benefit from practicing Bikram yoga will remain largely speculative. Atella was a runner before she started Bikram, but she was never much of a sweater. After she took up the practice, she began sweating more, even outside of class, which she believes helps her body thermoregulate. “This makes it possible for people to sweat like they never thought they could,” she claims, after 16 years of experience doing Bikram. “We see people leaving here every day looking like they’re walking on air.”
And, yes, that was exactly what the people leaving the H Street studio looked like. Going off into the normal-temperature world, to sit perfectly upright someplace. They were just smiling for no clear reason, like crazy people.
Having turned four years old last month, and with over a million people visiting us every month, it’s time for us to expand our team to make sure we remain your best resource on unbiased information on supplementation and nutrition.
These are all part time positions, but essential to our workflow and great as learning opportunities.
We’re looking for additional members to join our research team. The team includes members with a variety of backgrounds, from those with dietetics degrees to biomedical PhDs to those with doctorates in pharmacy. Researchers work with the most nitty gritty details of research, and must be intimately familiar with interpreting and evaluating peer-reviewed articles on nutrition and supplementation.
Copyeditors help translate research into reader-friendly writing. A high level of curiosity and interest in nutrition and supplementation is an asset, and experience as a copyeditor is a prerequisite. The ideal candidate would have enough coursework in science to understand concepts that we cover, in addition to at least a couple years of copyediting experience, preferably with a college or graduate degree in writing as well.
Reviewer/Subject Matter Expert
This position is mainly for those with advanced degrees and experience. Reviewers provide an additional layer of expertise for the information we put out, making sure that we don’t miss essential points and are as accurate as possible. They should have broad knowledge as well as formal research experience.