Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Grant Petersen on "Just Ride"

The following is my interview with Grant Petersen on his new book, Just Ride.  To read my review of the book, click here.

Q: A few years back, I got a job that was within biking distance from my house.  I went from riding 25-40 miles on Saturdays to commuting 12 miles per day, three or four days per week, plus the normal Saturday ride.  As you suggest, my appetite increased when I was riding to work, and I definitely ate more.  Since I really love baked goods, I ate many more carbs.  Despite my increased eating, I lost about 30 pounds in three months!  Without trying!  Then, when I quit that awful job and went back to car commuting, I put all that weight back on in a few months.  In your book, you warn that cycling is not the best way to lose weight.  Does my experience surprise you?  Or does it fit in with your experience?

A:  Well...my experience is no more proof of the science than yours is, which is why we have science in the first place. Personal experiences tend to trump science, at least in what any one person comes to believe, and I think that's natural. It's the "after this, therefore because of this" trap, I think---though.

I believe with every semester of my undegreed education, that exercise increases appetite, and that you can hold off for a while, but eventually your body's going to find the balance point between calories eaten and burned; and that's why I don't believe going out and burning up a bunch of calories is a good way to lose fat. I think (and the science that is beyond my ability to explain it) that the way to lose fat is to mobilize it as a source for gettin' around fuel---to become a fat-burner rather than a sugar burner. The only way to do that is to keep the  insulin low in your blood by means of keeping the glucose low, and the way to do that is to lower your carb intake. Some people--who are insulin-sensitive (the opposite of diabetic) can eat a bowl of cereal and drink a glass of orange juice, and kill off the resulting glucose with a relatively low dose of insulin. But most people aren't so genetically lucky, and over time, the constant barrage of carbohydrates leads to increasing insulin resistance, which means more and more insulin is required to kill off X amount of glucose. That's why old guys get fat easily.

When people lose weight concurrent with a mileage increase, it's probably because they are more careful with their diet, and may be eating and drinking fewer carbs.  I don't think my own experience trumps the science, but since you asked: I ride my bike every day, but fewer miles. I limit my carbs to maybe 30g a day, I check my glucose levels as though I were a diabetic, so I'm keenly aware of which foods and what kind of exercise affect my glucose, and therefore my insulin. I eat way less than I used to---a combination of not refilling calories burned, and burning more body fat. By 58-year old male standards, I am in decent shape. My blood scores--cholesterol, triglycerides, CRP, and so on---are off-the-charts good, and eighty percent of my calories come from fat, a lot of it saturated.

Q:  Have your recommendations regarding the relative height of the handlebars and saddle changed over recent years.  A few years ago, I seem to remember reading something you wrote suggesting that the handlebars should be even with or less than an inch below the seat.  "Just Ride" states pretty emphatically that the handlebars should be above the seat.  Have your views changes, or is my memory fading?

A:  Yeah, they probably have changed, but that doesn't rule out your memory fading! When I was topping out at saddle level, I was probably overvaluing the look an undervaluing the comfort of having the bars higher. It's important (in this discussion, only) to realize that I'm not one way stuck for life. Even writing the book changed me. Be careful what you say or write, because you'll end up believing it! For me and for most people who aren't racers, bars above saddle feels better than bars level with it or below, for the same reason that a table above the chair feels better than a table below it. Upright isn't cool or racerly, but it feels pretty good. Ultimately you have to balance your emotional comfort with your physical comfort, and when you come to the point where your physical comfort matters more...then higher bars tend to win out. For a certain kind of riding, anyway.

Q:  (Introductory Note:  In Just Ride, Petersen describes his idea of the perfect bicycle helmet, which he dubs the “Moe Howard” helmet, in honor of the actor on the Three Stooges.  I won’t give too much away; suffice to say that the helmet is strong, comfortable, and values function over styling)  If someone started building the "Moe Howard" helmet, would Rivendell sell it?

My son's helmet, which resembles the "Moe Howard" design in some ways, but needs more ventilation
 A:  I don't know. We don't sell everything I like. Helmets are complicated. First, it couldn't be made in China. Second, I don't like to stock commodities, so if it were available all the heck over the place, including on the internet for a dollar over our cost, it wouldn't be worth it. If you changed the question to "would I buy and wear it?" the answer is heck yes. It would be light, it would be cool, it would allow me to scratch my head without a bent wire coat hanger, and I wouldn't feel like I was trying to look fast by  putting it on my head. I hope somebody does make it, and for me, it wouldn't matter if it didn't pass the ANSI tests for impact protection. As I said in the book, those standards are designed for helmet makers, not for head protection. The fact that they CAN save heads is incidental. A bulletproof vest with four-inches of real bullet protection can save you if the bullet hits that small bit of real estate, but is that a good vest to wear? Also, there's something fishy about selling helmets that pass tests and don't protect heads under realistic, common crash conditions. A Moe-helmet that was presented as less  protective might make you ride more carefully, and by means of that, could make you less likely to depend on it. And if it had that effect, it would be a safe helmet. This is a counterintuitive possibility that some people can't grasp, but if you're one of those who can, it makes some sense.

Q:  Do your children like to ride bicycles?

A:  I'll answer for them individually. Neither rides recreationally. It's not the time of life for them to do that. My 17-year-old, a high-school senior, has ridden her bike to school and downtown shopping a lot, when she had a school that wasn't 15 miles by freeway away. She can throw a leg over a bike and pedal away as naturally as she can sit on a sofa and read a book. But she gets a ride to school with a driving friend these days, and she never grabs the bike and says, "Hey folks, I'm goin' for a ride." She still rides downtown to the bookstore now and then, although I have to say I'd jus as soon she get her driving skils down so she can learn to be as safe in the car as she is on the bike. No doubt she is more careful driving for having ridden a bike, though.

My 23-year-old rode to school all through high school, and it was by any standards a brutal ride. I rode with her, and we did it because it took way less time than driving did. Now she's living in Minnesota, she doesn't ride for the heck of it, but she rides her bike every day to get  places--to school, work, downtown. I visited her not long ago, on the book tour, and it was thrilling to ride with her and see her comfort on the bike, her competency and naturallness---although, of course, "naturallness" really just means her apparent comfort and control. It's not natural, and it came from all the riding she has done.
If neither daughter aspires to long tours, that's fine with me. If either wanted to race, I'd be shocked but supportive in the same way I support any direction they go with some forethought. But, I am proud of how my oldest daughter uses her bike daily, and when my youngest one goes away to school, I hope she does, too.

Q:  Should I take the training wheels, pedals and chain off my son's little 16" wheel bike and make a balance bike out of it? 

A:  Yes... lower the saddle, let him paddle. You could even do it with one of your bikes, too--I mean, if he feels emasculated by being stripped of pedals.  Grass and slight downhills are idea, but flat works great, too. How fun! Remember every moment. You'll be seeing learning happening, and it is so wonderful.

Q:  (Introductory Note:  At this point, our interview becomes much more of a conversation.  As noted above, I do not take everything that Petersen says about carbs and salt as gospel.  That said, I was quite impressed with his depth of knowledge on the subject.  He taught me a great deal in his book and in this ensuing conversation)  In your book, you discuss replacing the salt one loses through sweating.  I've had high blood pressure since I was a highly-fit twenty-something-year-old.  Hypertension is just written into my genes.  When I lose salt from my system, I tend to think, "Woohoo!"  My doctor's stress the importance of a low salt diet to me, and my relatives have been living much longer, healthier lives since low-salt diets have become standard for people with high blood pressure.  I assume you are not an expert on the dietary needs of people with high blood pressure (please correct me if I am wrong), but do you have any advice for us in terms of electrolyte and other mineral replacement?

A: I know...all that "inside the body" stuff I wrote about led the pub to include the disclaimer in the opening pages. My editor referred to it as my "bloodletting" advice---

Did you see this a few weeks ago in the NYT?


and...there's evidence that a low-carb diet helps high bp, too. There are a few dissenters, but mostly...well, here:


If you've been low-salting it for years or decades and still have high bp, then either it isn't working (and something else might), and maybe you're in the same trap that overweight high-mileage cyclists are. They're ignoring the evidence that it's not working in exchange for believing that if they cut back the miles, they'll gain weight hand-over-fist. (won't happen, but that's another story). So they think it IS working.

Health worries are a pain, and there's so much contradictory  information out there. Maybe your relatives are giving low-salt more credit than it is due? Usually when people are concerned enough about a health issue to do ONE thing, they also change some other things.

Hmmm. I don't know (obviously), but if I had to bet, I'd bet sugar's the culprit. Are you diabetic? Do you know your glucose levels?

Q:  Thanks for the input!  I've tried to keep up with the salt/no salt debate over the years.  I guess the bottom line is that, two generations ago, everyone on my mom's side of the family died of heart and blood pressure-related diseases in their thirties through early sixties.  Now, she is 79 and her brother is 82 or so, and they are both doing really well.  Was it the low-salt diet that helped them?  I'm not sure, but I'm not going to take any chances, either.

My blood sugar has always been under control, generally speaking.  At times, it got close to pre-diabetic levels, but when I adjusted my diet to be mostly vegetarian and very low in fats, all bloodwork numbers got much better.

A:  That's unusual, Forbes. Glucose rises with carb intake, and carbs are the ONLY thing that increase triglycerides, too. It would be quite unusual, also, if your HDL increased on a vegetarian diet.Your LDL may decrease, but the ratio of dense (bad) LDL to fluffy (harmless) LDL will increase. A normal lipid panel doesn't test for those, but a VAP test will...and not all labs test for it.

When I went from low-fat/high carb to the opposite, my triglycerides dropped 75 percent, my HDL nearly doubled. You test your own glucose? It's easy...cheap...convenient...and it tells you absolutely how diet and exercise affect it.

Hmm...  Maybe I could survive on a low-carb diet after all!
Photo by Patsy Kreitman, www.famfriendsfood.com
Q:  And, don't get me wrong, I don't gorge on carbs on a regular basis.  I generally try to maintain moderation in all things.  The key word in that sentence is "try."

A:  The first two weeks of low-carb are challenging. Moderation is fine, but if by means of unlucky genetics or decades of carbs you have increased your insulin resistance, then your body is producing a lot more insulin for a given amount of carbs than it used to; so "moderate" at this stage of your life is a lot less than "moderate" was when you were fifteen. The problem with carbs is that they make you crave more of them.That's because carbs (by spiking insulin) prevent you from using body fat to fuel your exercise. The insulin diverts the calories into fat, and since you're not using them for fuel, you stay hungry. "Hunger" is your muscles saying "feed me." If your muscles are being fed by stored body fat, it's almost hard to get hungry.

If what you're doing is working, no need to change. But if you're always hungry and your scores are getting worse, give up all grains and corn and beer for a month, and you'll drop ten pounds. After four months, you'll be down another 15 pounds. Then get your blood scores again, and see the improvement. Well--that's enough meddling for a month, on my part!

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