Am I Ill, Or Just Getting Old?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 6, 2018

When I was young I thought growing old meant going bald and getting wrinkles. That didn’t seem too bad. I assumed I would stay the same mentally. When I was young I felt great most of the time, hardly ever got sick, and I wasn’t bothered by heat or cold. We didn’t have air conditioning until I was a senior in high school. At sixty-six I go years without getting a cold or the flu, but I do have chronic heart, stomach and back problems, and cold and heat annoys the crap out of me. I keep my chronic conditions in check with diet and exercise.

The trouble is, I don’t feel like I used to. Is that illness, or oldness.

Getting old

In recent years I’ve felt my vitality run down. I can’t decide if something is wrong with me, or this is what it feels like to get old. And I’m only young old. What will it feel like to be really old?

At my last physical my doctor said all my blood work looked good. My testosterone was at a proper level, various vitamins were on the mark, my protein level was fine, and a bunch of other numbers I didn’t understand were where they were supposed to be. She said I was doing pretty good. I needed to lose weight and lower my cholesterol, but she’s been saying that for decades. For years I’ve been eating healthier, lost some weight, and lowered my cholesterol. The only time she praised me for my cholesterol and weight were the periods I went vegan. However, I can’t keep that up.

The thing is I feel best when I’m eating sweets. Ice cream makes me feel younger. Junk food gives me mental energy, but it eventually makes me feel sick too. I constantly struggle with my diet to find the right mixture of healthy eating that gives me the most vitality, yet doesn’t lead to feeling bad.

Recently I started wondering if my problem wasn’t disease or diet, but I’m just aging. At my last physical, I asked my doctor, “How do you tell the difference between feeling old and feeling sick?” She laughed at me and gave me some sympathetic words I’ve forgotten. Besides feeling rundown, I can’t remember shit. And I was told that is normal too.

My wife thinks I’m a hypochondriac. I used to feel normal all the time, now normal is a rare few hours in the week. Is this the real reason why people hate getting old so much? Not for the decline in appearance, but the decline in feeling good?

I constantly read books about diet, health, and exercise. Many authors promise renewed vitality if I’d only do what they say. The problem is I don’t have the discipline or the vitality to consistently follow their advice. I was able to stick with a plant-based diet for several months. I lost thirty pounds, and my LDL went to 90. However, my energy levels dwindled away. I’ve since added yogurt, kefir, and eggs back into my diet and mental energy has returned, but not like it was. I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1960s, but always ate a lot of junk food. I’ve never been a high-energy person, but I was fine for a bookworm.

In my sixties, I’m feeling the creep of decay. I’ve fought it believing it could be cured. Now I’m wondering if it’s actually normal. Now I know why Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth. Now I know why old people in my youth swilled Geritol. Now I understand my mother’s addiction to pain pills in her later life. Now I know why people hope B12 shots will give them a boost. It’s a shame that snorting cocaine is self-destructive because it sounds like a perfect drug for the Social Security years.

JWH

Diet or Die!

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 9, 2016

It’s one thing to choose to diet, it’s another thing to have to diet. I’ve become trapped into eating healthy because of my heart. If I go off my diet, I can feel the symptoms of my arteries clogging, and that isn’t nice. It seems like everyone I know can just chow down on anything they want, and ignore any possible consequences. I resent that. Some of my friends are visibly fat, but others aren’t. Most of my friends take statins or blood pressure medicines, or both. My wife has great cholesterol numbers because of her statin, and she eats what she wants. I have to take a statin and eat vegan just to keep my numbers in line.

They say the first sign of heart disease for many people is the heart attack that kills them. My first signs a few years ago were decreasing vitality, lack of stamina, trouble breathing and tightness in my chest. I was “fixed” by doctors putting a little spring in my widow maker artery called a stent. The trouble with atherosclerosis is it builds up everywhere in your arteries. Unless I change my habits, I’m only waiting for the next clog.

How Not To Die - Michael Greger

I’ve been experimenting with a plant based diet, something former President Clinton did after his stent was put in. He claims his research revealed that 82% of people who follow a plant based diet after a heart problem heal themselves. I’ve been trying to follow that diet for the last couple of years. When I stick to it, my cholesterol numbers go down. When I don’t, they go up. I keep trying to find ways to cheat with some of my favorite foods (peanut butter, sweets or cheese), but when I do, my LDL goes up again. If I cheat long enough, I can feel some of my old symptoms returning.

The book I try to follow, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. M.D., is very strict. When I follow Esselstyn’s diet I feel good, and I lose weight. I can eat as much as I want off the approved foods, but no fun foods. After a year of trying to find ways to tweak his diet in my favor, and four quarterly blood tests, I know I can’t. I’m trapped in this diet. I’ve found a new book, How Not To Die by Michael Greger, M.D. that confirms the claims of a plant based diet with numerous scientific reports. Greger runs a website, nutritionfacts.org, that regularly explains the research in medical journals with short easy-to-understand videos.

My dad died at 49, on his third heart attack. He survived two attacks and a stroke, but was miserable for seven years. He never ate healthy, never stopped smoking, and always ate what he wanted. Evidently, by not smoking and being a vegetarian since the 1960s, has let me beat his record and live to 64. I was always a sweet-tooth vegetarian. Now I’m discovering that I have to jettison the junk food to live longer.

Advocates claim following a plant based diet will reverse heart disease. I hope that’s true. If I’m going to die anyway, I’d rather go out eating Ben & Jerry’s. Right now I don’t have a choice. If I don’t eat healthy I feel my heart clogging up, and that feels pretty much like having a scary guy point a gun at my head and say, “Eat that and die.”

Bummer.

JWH

Why Can’t I Lose Weight?

By James Wallace Harris, April 13, 2016

I know how to lose weight. I lost 29 pounds last year by following a plant based diet. I could eat all I wanted from an approved list of foods, didn’t go hungry, and my doctor was ecstatic. My blood work numbers hadn’t looked so good in decades. Then I started cheating on my diet. I didn’t gain weight, but I stopped losing weight. My blood work numbers ratted on me, and my doctor started nagging again. I cut back on my cheating. Three months later my numbers convinced her to do a happy dance. (For some reason I really love making her happy.) She even told me I could go six month without another blood test. In the moment of feeling successful, I foolishly promised I’d lose another 25 pounds.

Ha-ha, like some crazed sweet-seeking mammal I’ve since gained 8 pounds. I just can’t resist food. Why can’t I control my eating? Why can’t I lose weight? Why can’t I keep weight off once I work so hard to lose it?

Of course millions of people are asking these same questions. Why can’t we lose weight? Why can’t I be like Mr. Spock and do the logical thing? Evidently, I’m suffering from multiple personalities. One being inside me, the one writing this essay, wants to eat healthy, lose weight and be a different person. There’s another person in me that’s illogical and hungry. That person insists I go out for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but eat pizza on the way. And I’ve got to tell you, when Mr. Junk Food gets his way, we both feel pretty damn satisfied.

Mr. Spock advises me to write up a mission statement about what to eat, print it up on a nice card, and meditate on that message before every meal. But then my wife and I get hungry for dinner, don’t feel like cooking, or even going to a good restaurant, and end up pigging out on Taco Bell. I weighed two pounds more the next morning. Where did Mr. Spock go? Mr. Junk Food can shanghai my self-control in an instant. I need to kill Mr. Junk Food. Is that even possible? Self-exorcism? But what would life be like without that cute little devil on my shoulder?

Mr. Spock has already settled on a diet.  He assures me if I just followed it, I’d be healthy, happy and fat no more. He did get us to read a number of books, and took control long enough to prove that his solution works. I keep telling myself to read those books every day until Mr. Junk Food disappears—but it’s not working. I’m beginning to think Mr. Junk Food stunned Mr. Spock and transported him to another planet. He obviously overheard we were planning on dieting again.

Why can’t I be sensible? Why are my urges as polarized as liberals and conservatives? Why do I have friends who eat everything they can stuff down their gullet – and still stay skinny? Why isn’t feeling better incentive enough to eat healthy? My heart and back loved when I lost the 29 pounds. I think one reason I cheat is because I feel better, but I won’t let myself gain too much because I fear the return of pain. I remember what I felt like before I got my stent, and that helps fight off Mr. Junk Food. But only to a degree. Most of the spinal stenosis pain and numbness in my legs have gone away because of losing weight. The plant-based diet is also an anti-inflammation diet. When I follow that diet I don’t need pills, and I don’t feel the inflammation. Mr. Spock informs me of this logic every day. Why can’t I listen all day long?

Yet, eating two bags of M&M’s and drinking a Dr. Pepper would feel like winning a million bucks right now. Hell, I just realized just how bad off I am. I’d rather be a skinny person who could eat all the junk food they wanted than be rich. That’s how bad I want some Mint Oreos at the moment. (Who’s writing this essay now?)

 Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease - Caldwell B Esselstyn MDThe China Study - T Colin Campbell PHD

Eat To Live - Joel Fuhrman MDThe Forks Over Knives Plan

JWH

Health is Like a Laptop Battery

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 30, 2015

Health has to be more than the absence of disease. I sometimes hear the phrase “optimal health” or “maximum health” as if health is a fuel tank and we can fill her up. We often think of health as giving us vitality, but what then, is vitality? Our bodies and brains are the most complex “mechanism” we know of, but we can’t actually fathom how they work. Not without analogies. Our body is dead when we come to the end of health, and run out of vitality.

The ancient Greeks used the concept of the soul to explain how the body was animated. They claimed the soul made our limbs move, but that was long before science knew about different forms of energy. Getting old feels like we’re running down, running out of energy, or our mainspring needs rewinding. I shall make my philosophical analogy for health be the laptop battery. Before batteries, philosophers used the mechanical clock as a model. In the future, some future blogger will have a new technology to use in her essay.

laptop battery

I went to my annual physical today, and told my doctor she made me nervous every time I visited her because it felt like I was up for an important examination. I worried I’d flunk. At the end of our visit, she laughed and told me I passed. But even though I passed, I don’t feel very healthy, or more precisely said, I don’t feel very energetic, not like when I was younger. At 64, I am not old, but I am not young either. I know my body and mind are in decline, and I wished I could recharge my battery to its maximum capacity again.

On my birthday, I went for a long walk in the botanic gardens with my friend Anne, and then she helped me change out a pole for my outdoor TV antenna. While I had the ladder out, I raked some leaves and limbs off the roof (I’m too old to be climbing on the roof). I probably spent two hours walking and climbing, and that exhausted me. It felt like all the cells in my body were screaming for glucose. When I was younger I could work ten hours at manual labor before I felt that way. Why does my battery run out of juice sooner now that I’m older? Health appears related to stamina, and stamina feels like energy. Does our battery for health shrink as we age? Does it become more inefficient?

If health is a full charge, then shouldn’t eating recharge our battery? Eating too much can make me lethargic. Eating the wrong foods can make me feel unhealthy. But it does feel if I eat the right foods, in the right amount, that I feel healthier. That I have more energy. When I was exhausted after my birthday efforts, I ate lunch, took a nap, and I felt better. But I didn’t feel back to normal until the next day, after two more meals and a good night’s sleep. Food and sleep can recharge my health battery, but only slowly, like how old laptops need longer hours plugged in to recharge.

Getting old feel exactly like an old computer battery that won’t hold a charge as long as it did when it was new. I think one reason why I don’t exert myself like I did when I was young is because I need to conserve my battery. Unfortunately, we can’t buy a new battery like we can for a laptop. Human bodies don’t have user replaceable batteries. Image if they did. I’d buy a high capacity one that recharges quickly.

Is it possible to recondition our built-in battery? When I was a kid, I could eat junk food all day long, and my battery didn’t wear down until the end of the day, often late into the night. Now I can burn up a full charge in a couple of hours. That sucks.

Getting old means learning how to nurse my battery to last out the day. I eat better to make my health recharging more efficient. I exercise to regain a bit of a charge, and keep my contacts from corroding. And sleep cleans out all the bad chemicals that using up a healthy charge creates in byproducts. We often euphemize sexual attraction as chemistry, but it seems everything about our body can be explained in terms of chemistry. Batteries are a chemical process.

Getting old means learning to be efficient. Getting old means learning to conserve energy wherever I can. It’s like being a hybrid car that does everything not to drain the battery, or even recharge on the go. Maybe I should use an electric car as my model of health. Then I could describe exercise as  regenerative charging.

No model is perfect. What I really want to know is exactly what to eat and when, that would optimize the functionality of my aging battery. How much exercise will recharge the system, and when does exercise deplete the daily charge I get from sleep? Sometimes naps are better for recharging than walks. Why? The new health mantra is “Sitting is the new smoking” but getting old seems to require more sitting. Hell, I could claim, “Napping is the new jogging.”

I just wished I knew how I worked. Reading about health, diet and exercise is very confusing. There’s no simple model to understand. I know my health is not an old laptop battery, but it certainly feels like one.

Essay #983 – Table of Contents

My LDL Drop to 92 on a Plant Based Diet

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Back in May when visiting my doctor for my quarterly cholesterol checkup and she was writing out another prescription to fight my cholesterol, I asked her if there wasn’t a way to lower cholesterol without drugs. She told me to lose weight. She’s told me that for years and I never have. But I was sick of trying new drugs. It’s taken me years to learn I can only handle 10mg of a statin, but no more, without getting side-effects.

I drove home seriously thinking about how to fight cholesterol. I got on Amazon and ordered the book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., and I also discovered that night on Netflix, Forks Over Knives, a documentary that featured Dr. Esselstyn.

Forks_Over_Knives

I followed this plant based diet for three months and it worked. My August check-up showed I had dropped from 232 pounds to 211. My overall cholesterol went from 187 to 152, my LDL from 130 to 92, but sadly my good cholesterol dropped from 40 to 38.

The plant base diet is hard, but not that hard. No animal products of any kind, and no oils, not even olive oil, which everyone believes is good for your heart. I did cheat a little bit though. I ate peanut butter. I found if I could have one peanut butter sandwich a day I didn’t crave all my other favorite foods. I eat healthy cereal and almond milk for breakfast, and then a lot of salads, veggies, fruits, soups, and especially various rice and bean dishes. The worst thing about the diet was the gas, but over time my gut got better at processing so much roughage.

Now that I know this diet works I’m going to stick to it. Getting below 100 with my LDL amazed my doctor. She was so happy for me, and I don’t want to let her down. This is the first time in decades I’ve been below 230 pounds. I began 2015 at 242, and struggled for five months to lose 10 pounds. Then went on the plant based diet and lost 20 more in three months. The speed of losing weight has tapered off, but I’m going to struggle to lose more.

widowmaker

Another documentary, The Widowmaker, which I recently found on Netflix, also inspires me to keep on the plant based diet. That show claims heart disease is preventable. Forks Over Knives claims a plant based diet is the key to stopping heart disease. I guess I’m one statistic proving it works.

JWH

Designing My Own Restaurant Style Menu for Healthy Eating

The other day I wrote, “Simplifying an Overloaded Life” which has inspired me to work on a single goal developing a healthy diet.  This morning, in the predawn darkness of being neither awake or asleep, a good idea came to me.  I imagined creating a menu, like the kind we use in restaurants, that would have all the healthy foods and dishes I could eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, listed in an attractive way, that will remind me of what I might want to eat, or should eat.  If it’s not on the menu, then I don’t eat it.

health-cook-books

[click on photo for larger image]

I even imagined using Microsoft Publisher to lay out this menu with attractive lettering and appetizing photos, printing it on card stock, and even having it laminated.  I pictured myself pulling out this menu whenever I got hungry so it would remind me just what I could eat, knowing that if I ordered from this Healthy Living Home Menu, I’d be eating just what I need to feel better and lose weight.

Of course, in the light of day, this appears to be quite an ambitious project.  What if my menu offers twelve different dishes for breakfast, lunch and supper?  That’s learning how to cook 36 meals.  Damn, that sounds like a lot.  28 has always been my favorite number, so let’s go with eight items for breakfast, and ten for lunch and supper.  Even that sounds too ambitious. 

Of course I know myself.  I cook one thing and eat on it three days, and freeze any leftovers.  I tend to eat the same breakfast every day.  Right now I live off of about six different meals I know how to prepare, but what I need to do is eat more variety of vegetables and fruits, so I need to expand that repertoire of items on my menu.

I’ve decided that December is the month I’ll totally focus on learning to eat healthy as my one and only goal.  Here’s what I plan to do:

  1. Gather all my diet/health/cook books into one place for study (see photo).
  2. Read and compare these books for their best recommendations.
  3. Write down the best advice and tips I read in Evernote.
  4. Learn how to shop for the best foods I should eat – how to tell when fruits and vegetables are in season, at their best to buy, etc.
  5. Learn how to store food for optimal quality – fruits, veggies, spices, condiments,  dairy, eggs, nuts, etc.
  6. Learn how to chop and cook food properly.
  7. Select 20-30 recipes to master and start learning to cook them – save them in Evernote.
  8. Create and print my menu of approved foods.
  9. When at home, only eat from that menu. 
  10. Research menus at local restaurants for their most healthy meals and make a list of approved away from home menu items.
  11. Make a list of all foods and ingredients I want eat and know about, and why they are good for me, and if they have any curative powers.

One problem I’ve always had when I’m at the store, especially a healthy one like Whole Foods or Fresh Market, is seeing all the fruits and vegetables and not knowing how to select and prepare most of them.  Recently I’ve been adventurous and started buying avocados after some training with my friend Janis.  I’m still never sure how to pick out a good one, but I’ve learn how to cut them open, even though I make a mess, but all I do is put a few slices on my salad and then I have half an avocado that I don’t know what do with.  I really need to get to know fruits and vegetables.

I also need to learn how to use spices.  I can cook by a recipe, but crudely.  What I like to do is think of a selection of tasty veggies and make a stir fry or soup, but I’m never sure how to season my concoctions.  So in studying my cookbook, I need to select a range of recipes that will educate myself about spices.

I assume my menu will be a good place to save all the recipes I want to master, so it might end up like a small book.

My ultimate goal is to simplify my life.  I want to get past thinking about what I should eat.  I want to get past thinking about how to live healthy.  I want to learn what’s in my diet/health/cook books and then give them away.  I want to stop worrying about what I should eat.  I want to stop worrying about eating an unhealthy diet.

I want to start the new year without having to make any resolutions about dieting.

JWH – 12/4/13

Is Dieting a Test of Free Will?

Ever since I read The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker I’ve been obsessed with the concept of free will.  I’ve read enough books on brain studies in recent years to doubt the existence of free will.  Now I’m not saying we’re all robots, but I question whether or not we’re making decisions on our own, as if we were independent souls sitting in our heads driving our bodies around, and making impartial decisions based on weighing all the evidence and facts.

red-pill-blue-pill-matrix

I remember a freshman philosophy course I took in 1969 and my professor challenging us to come up with an example of free will.  That class inspired many arguments between me and my friends.  Free will is a philosophical concept that few people think about in normal life – mostly because it feels like we do make our own decisions so why even ask about free will.

When Neo makes his choice between the red and blue pill in the film The Matrix, is that an act of free will?  If he’s the One, wouldn’t that make him born to take the red pill?

Everyone assumes they have free will and they are acting on their own volition, but the older I get the more I assume that’s just an illusion.  So I’ve been wondering if I can come up with a test for free will.  I think I’ve found one with dieting.  Our bodies and hunger represent the power of nature and the hardwired programming of genes.  The need to diet comes from our environment, where we constantly learn that fat is sexual unattractive, unhealthy, and like Pavlov’s dog, we’re constantly conditioned that being fat is bad.  Without that nurturing my nature would run wild.

If we have free will we should be able to evaluate all the outside data and decide to diet and lose weight because of its own philosophical merits.  Then why do so many people have trouble dieting?  Is it because our bodies, genes and physiological wiring program us to eat and free will can’t overcome that?

I started a diet today and at this very moment my body is already nagging at me to eat something fun.   “What a puss,” my mind tells my body.  I say no, it says yes.  If I can keep saying no, is that proof of free will?

Now there are two factors here:  free will and will power.   Scientists are throwing water on the concept of will power too.  And what’s the difference between free will and will power?  Deciding to diet might be an act of free will, but failing to diet might be a lack of will power.  And if I succeed in losing weight is it really because I have free will, or has outside stimuli overcame my genetic programming and reprogrammed my eating habits?  Where is the me in all of this activity?

Or is it a case of “I diet, therefore I am.”  (I wish I knew the Latin equivalent to cogito ergo sum that includes the word diet.)  Is thought good enough to prove the existence of free will?  Without thought I’d just eat anything I wanted and never think to lose weight.  However, all those thoughts about losing weight come from the outside world.  If I really had free will, wouldn’t it have been my idea to lose weight? 

But who comes up with original ideas???!!!  Einstein and the theory of relativity comes immediately to mind.   Imagining the concept of space-time had to be an act of free will.  Do we discount the billions of years of cosmological and biological evolution that produced Einstein as not part of the equation, or is Einstein’s discovery of space-time really the universe’s act of free will?  Einstein couldn’t have made his discovery without a long history of other scientists and thinkers.

When I choose to diet, is it my decision, or society’s?  Like Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  Can we ever separate our will from the world’s?  The urge to eat is genetic.  How much I want to eat is probably genetic too.  Choosing to eat between steak and veggie burgers would seem like a free will choice, but is it?  If I had never read about vegetarianism would I ever considered the choice?

That’s the weird thing about asking ourselves if we have free will.  Genetics might be our hardwiring, but the environment seems to be doing all the software programming, so where is there room for free will?  Would that be self programming?  Even if I could write my own personality programming, wouldn’t the “free will” writing the programming been created by outside programming or genetics?

If I really had free wouldn’t even the urge to eat be my choice?  Is thwarting the urge to eat free will, even thought he idea didn’t originate with me?  Is free will the ability to choose among the various outside impulses we get from society?  Society tells me not to eat, but advertising on TV is doing a major brainwashing job to get me to eat.  Every time I see a Sonic commercial I want one of their shakes.

Dieting is a test of will power and maybe even an example of free will.  It’s a shame I always flunk it.

JWH – 12/15/12