Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Bird Cam: Great Blue Heron

Cornell just added a new web cam to their website. If you were having fun watching the Red Tailed Hawks, you might also enjoy this very different kind of bird. The Great Blue Herons have their own web-cam, two cameras in fact, so you can watch from a couple of different angles! This can be such a wonderful way to learn about different kinds of birds. It's a fine example of positive use of new technology.

Here is what they say about it:

Cornell Lab eNews Flash
Great Blue Herons Join Our LIVE Nest Cam Roster
A Great Blue Heron nest in a massive white-oak snag outside our office is our newest live-streaming nest camera. We'd like to invite you to watch along with us as these magnificent birds begin their nesting activities for the year. 
The Great Blue Herons have nested in this snag for the last four years. We can see the nest from our staff lounge, and in years past we've enjoyed guessing when the eggs would hatch, watching for the day the chicks' little beaks first appear over the nest rim, and following them as they grow to four-foot tall adolescents. This year you'll be able to watch their progress from virtually inside the nest
The herons returned to the nest in mid-March and soon began courting: bringing twigs, standing side by side in the nest, clattering their bills, and nipping at each other. To get good views of these large birds, we've installed two cameras that stream simultaneously, one from above the nest and the other at nest level. The lower camera can record even in dark conditions and streams all night long. 
Last night at around 7:30 p.m., the heron laid her first egg! Tune in to keep watching for the next eggs. Great Blue Herons typically lay eggs every two days, sometimes three, until the clutch is complete. After that it will be 25–30 days before the chicks hatch, and they will spend another 7–8 weeks in the nest before they fledge. We hope you'll join us as we watch this all unfold!
As with our Red-tailed Hawk nest camera, we've put the heron camera onto a temporary page at All About Birds so you don't miss the early action. The site will be live 24 hours a day and the upper camera's video can be streamed in HD. You can also watch on mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads. A full-featured BirdCams site will launch in late April with more birds.
We've enjoyed having these herons outside our windows in years past, and we hope you enjoy them too!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

More Book Art

A while ago I posted about this amazing artwork in Scotland that was showing up at libraries.

I've just come across another artist working with books. In this case, he is cutting away the pages to reveal the artwork inside. I find his work a bit darker and with less whimsy, but still fascinating never the less. His name is Brain Dettmer. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Want to watch some lava?

Going along with my recent posts on geology and all things "Earth", here is a great video I just came across showing lava flowing in the Big Island of Hawaii this February. It's pretty cool!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Failures of Our Educational System: A couple of recent essays

I have for you now a couple of very hard-hitting essays I came across this week. I say this because they come down heavily upon our current educational system and it's failures. They are both well written and thought provoking and so I pass them on...

The Death of Creativity: The By-Product of a Standardized Education (Part 1) 

Posted by  on  in

'A Test You Need to Fail': A Teacher's Open Letter to Her 8th Grade Students

Blog housekeeping notes

I'm still rather new to this so I am constantly working on making this a better blog. I have recently lowered the restrictions on comments, so anyone should be able to post a comment now even if they don't have a Google account. Let me know if there is something else that is annoying you or will help this be an easier read and a fun place to browse. I'm all ears. Just be nice please. I'm moved easily to tears these days.

Red-tailed Hawk Bird Cam

You know it's Spring when the bulbs are blooming, the animal sightings start, and the pollen starts flying. Right now in North Carolina we are enduring our annual pine pollen blizzard. The best thing I can say about this is that even though everything is coated in a layer of pale yellowish dust, at least the individual grains are too big to be much of an allergen. Ticks are out already too, but the less said about that the better!
I also typically know it's Spring when I start hearing about the web-cams. I had posted a while ago about a bald eagle nest that was being watched here in our area. The camera was damaged and they are lacking in funds to replace it, so unfortunately that will not be up again for a while. I do, however, have another great bird-cam to share. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is always such a great source for everything birds. Right now they have up a live feed, with sound, of a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting. As of yesterday, the pair has three eggs. We look forward to seeing those hatch in the next few weeks and watching the eyases grow!

You can also read on the page and through the links about the pair that are nesting and about red-tailed hawks in general. They have named the female "Big Red" and are currently holding a contest to name the male. Take a look! It's strangely addicting!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Metamorphic Rock and the Geology of North Carolina: A Geology Lesson Plan (#5) for 8-9 year olds

For our last Geology class we covered the last major type of rock, Metamorphic Rock, and then learned a little bit about our local North Carolina Geology. I also asked them to bring in a favorite rock of their own to share. We ended up spending a great deal of time looking at and talking about the rocks they brought in... more than I had planned for, so we didn't get to the final video (Bill Nye: Rocks and Soil).

Metamorphic rocks are rocks that have been changed by pressure and/or heat. There are two kinds of metamorphic rock, those that formed in a volcano or around a magma chamber (contact metamorphism), and those that formed by heating and pressure deep underground, usually during mountain building or along tectonic plate boundaries (regional metamorphism). There is a third and very rare form that happens when lightening strikes or a meteorite hits, called shock metamorphism. Shock metamorphism can produce things called fulgurites from melted sand.

Metamorphic rocks tend to be very hard, because the pressure and heat compacts the atoms and molecules (minerals) together. Some of the hardest is a rock called gneiss (pronounced "nice"). The color of this rock depends on what minerals are in it. Most of the worlds major mountains are made up of metamorphic rock.

Here are some examples (I tried to have some actual examples of each):
shale ----> slate ------> phyllite (Slate is used for black boards and roofing tiles.)
limestone ----> marble (The most widely used of rocks. The Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, The Parthenon, and the Taj Mahal are all made out of marble.)
Mudstone -----> schists
quartzite (Used for road building and millstones.)

My naturalist friend had given me a bunch of rocks she had collected in a local stream. These were probably schist, but they had a great deal of mica in them as well as garnets. The garnets, a semi-precious stone, looked like little black balls in the rock. Formed in metamorphic rocks, it was a wonderful way to explore something local, get an idea of how unimpressive most precious and semi-precious stones look before polishing, AND they got to keep them!

North Carolina has a very complex and old geologic history. It has been formed over the Eras from a series of tectonic plate collisions and separations. The Appalachian Mountains were formed over 220 million years ago when parts of Africa and South America collided with North America. They probably topped 20,000 feet or higher, rivaling the Himalayas of today. At that point, North Carolina was on the edge of the tectonic plate and volcanically active. Since then the Atlantic Ocean has been spreading, putting down crust and moving the region to an inactive central position. The mountains have also been eroding over this time (Blue Ridge province), helping to form the Piedmont and Coastal Plain provinces of the state. The Coastal Plain is currently under 1,000s of feet of sediments from the Blue Ridge mountains. The Blue Ridge is still the highest of the Appalachian chain with 43 peaks over 6,000 feet tall.

I fortunately had access to a large map print out of North Carolina geology. It was more complicated than I needed, but it was great to be able to spread it out and look it over as I talked. A great resource for North Carolina maps and other geological information can be found at the North Carolina Geological Survey:

The Piedmont is a region of gently rolling hills about 150 miles wide. It starts abruptly at the Blue Ridge Escarpment where the elevation drops about 1,000 feet and then slowly drops from about 1,500 to 300 feet above sea level from there. At the eastern edge of the Piedmont is an area called the "Fall Zone". There are many water falls here and it marks the edge of where settlers were originally able to navigate upriver from the coast. This Fall Zone marks the boundary between the Piedmont and the Coastal Plane. Raleigh lies just inside the Fall Zone as does D.C., Richmond, and Rocky Mount. In the Coastal Plane, rivers widen and slow, dropping more sediment and opening into wide estuaries. The barrier islands are part of this and you can actually see the sediment deposition all the way to the continental margin on satellite photos.
This is a very simplified version of the geology, but it was about all they could take in at the time. Because the mountains have been eroding away for so long, there is a great deal of metamorphic rock exposed and all over the place. If the sea levels were to rise to the point they were in the Cretaceous (about 800 feet), the coast would stretch from Winston-Salem to Charlotte and Spartanburg. Lets hope that doesn't happen again any time soon!

Some fast facts about North Carolina Geology:
*The State rock is granite.
*The State mineral (precious stone) is the emerald.
*North Carolina was the first place in the United States where gold was found.
*The oldest rocks we have found in this state were dated to 1800 million years ago and were found at Roan Mountain.

A wonderful book for exploring North Carolina Geology is Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas: A Field Guide to Favorite Places from Chimney Rock to Charleston by Kevin G. Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson. In it are some great field trip ideas as well.

I finished up our class with a little quiz game of my own devising. They made teams and built a volcano by answering questions correctly. The first to "erupt" their volcano won. This was pretty simple to put together and got the job done as far as trying to get them to review what we covered.

There are many topics I did not cover in my class: caves, crystals, how to tell if you have a certain type of rock, mountains of the world, soils, oil and gas exploration... the list goes on. I only had five days though, so I think we covered a good portion of the basic material.

I did just dig up (Ha!) one final resource on basic geology at Robert Krampf's website. I love him for fun random videos on all things science. This is a nice simple lesson plan: I'm not sure if you need to be a member to view this, but even if you can't see it, check out his free videos. They can be a lot of fun.

Sedimentary Rocks: Geology Lesson #4 for 8-9 year olds

We had a lot of fun with this class. Continuing with my geology rock type theme, we needed to discuss sedimentary rocks and how they get to be sedimentary rocks (erosion). A great visual resource on erosion can be found here: (The USGS, by the way, has some great resources.)

We talked about the different ways rocks could be eroded: wind, rain, ice, glaciers, gravity, and trees. I found several pictures around the internet to demonstrate each of these. I had pictures of glaciers, river deltas, land slides, hoodoos and more.

We then talked about sedimentation and how layers are put down over long periods of time. Those layers are eventually buried and put under more and more pressure. A great demonstration of this is showing a piece of paper and comparing that to the weight of a large book. The cumulative effect can be tremendous weight and pressure that squeeze the moisture out and eventually compact the particles into a rock, a sedimentary rock. Also, the size of the particles can be anything from boulders to silt and this determines the kind of rock.

I found a fun little activity online that was doable in a group like this. The lesson plan can be found here:
Each kid got their own jar. We placed pebbles, gravel, sand, and garden soil in each (enough of each to make a layer). We added water to cover it all and then some and sealed them tight. I asked them to write down predictions of what they thought would happen when they shook the jar and let everything settle. When they were done with their predictions, we let them sit. After they had sat a while, we looked at them again and wrote down what they saw. In many cases it was not what we would have predicted, but that is the nature of science. You make a hypothesis and then test it. The result may agree with your original hypotheses or it might not. While they were settling, I went on with the lesson.

I explained to them the various kinds of sedimentary rock using as many samples as I could get my hands on. has a great break down with pictures:

The first and most common type of sedimentary rock is Clastic. Clastic rocks have bits a pieces of rock all jumbled together. Breccia has fragments that are angled and Conglomerate has bits that are rounded (hence probably rolled down a stream for a while before solidifying). Shale is a clastic rock that is made up mostly of clay and Sandstone is made up of sand of course. Siltstone is made up of silt.

I have a marvelous friend who is also a naturalist. She gave me a large number of samples of shale she has collected in Rhode Island. These bits had small fossils of ferns and other plants. She urged me to hand them out, and so each kid was able to go home with a bit of rock from the Carboniferous era. They thought this was the coolest thing ever! I am so in debt to her as she provided me with a great many samples to share. We looked at some fossils and talked again about how fossils are formed, why many of them are in sedimentary rocks and how we can read rock layers (stratification or the Law of Superposition).

The second type of sedimentary rock is Chemical. These rocks are formed by chemical means (evaporates or precipitates). The best examples of this are rock salt or gypsum. Limestone can also sometimes be formed this way.

Finally, Organic sedimentary rocks are formed from remains of plants and animals. Limestone (calcium carbonate shells of clams, corals, bones, teeth, etc.), and coal are great examples of this.

I finished up with their FAVORITE thing, the Sedimentary Layer Cake! The whole lesson plan plus the cake can be found in this pdf.
Basically, you make a layer cake. I bought a couple of mixes and cooked them in small pans so that I had six layers in the end held together by a small amount of frosting. Food coloring was used to make each a different color. The edges can be cut so they are even, but don't frost it. You need to see the layers. A blob of dark colored frosting is then injected into the middle as unobtrusively as possible. I had some trouble with this. It might be necessary to hollow out a space in the middle. You also need some sort of clear tube to take "cores" with. I had some trouble finding something appropriate. I ended up cutting off the ends of a plastic packaging tube (like what those plastic animals come in), but you could certainly use something smaller. We took "core samples" predicting each time what we thought the cores would look like. The blob of frosting is like a hidden oil deposit. In real life, you can't crack open the earth to see where it all is, you have to take cores. We took a number of cores and the kids got to eat them.
There are other things we could have done, like make fossils, but we ran out of time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Art Exploration: Andy Goldsworthy

I had the wonderful opportunity to sit in on a class given during our co-op by my friend Angela a couple of weeks ago. She introduced to the kids, among many other things, the art of Andy Goldsworthy. I had never heard of him before, but his art captured my imagination, as I think it did the kids in the class.

Especially in the light of the large, somewhat intrusive impacts of the art by Christo, I love that everything Mr. Goldsworthy does is ephemeral and totally from nature. I rented the documentary about him from Netfliks and had the kids watch it (they loved it). You can also see snippets of the film and his work on YouTube. If you are looking for an art topic, I really think his work is perfect to fire the creativity of young minds. It could also spark questions and discussions about what makes something "art". My daughter has already tried making her own "nature art" out in the yard. This just seems like great food for thought for the spring.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Do you struggle with your weight? Here's a good article.

I do intend to finished posting about the Geology class. In the meantime, I am cleaning out my email. I came across this article my husband sent me a month ago, and I want to share it because it illuminates so much about how many people struggle to loose weight. I have been struggling with my weight my whole life. This article is encouraging even though it's telling me that my body really is working against me and things aren't ever going to be easy. At least I can have some validation that it isn't just my lack of moral character, my lack of willpower, that makes me look this way. My body really does want to keep my weight on, and my appetite is probably always going to be bigger than my caloric needs. I suspect that to keep my weight down I'm going to have to keep my calories way below what is normal for the average person and continue to try to exercise daily. This is a struggle with kids and tight schedules, but I'll keep trying. I've been giving it a push now that my feet are mostly healed from my surgeries and I have been building up my foot and leg strength slowly.

This article is long, but I feel like it's well worth the read and maybe it'll make some of you out there feel a little better about the struggle to keep the weight down, like it did for me.


The New York Times
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    December 28, 2011

    The Fat Trap

    For 15 years, Joseph Proietto has been helping people lose weight. When these obese patients arrive at his weight-loss clinic in Australia, they are determined to slim down. And most of the time, he says, they do just that, sticking to the clinic’s program and dropping excess pounds. But then, almost without exception, the weight begins to creep back. In a matter of months or years, the entire effort has come undone, and the patient is fat again. “It has always seemed strange to me,” says Proietto, who is a physician at the University of Melbourne. “These are people who are very motivated to lose weight, who achieve weight loss most of the time without too much trouble and yet, inevitably, gradually, they regain the weight.”
    Anyone who has ever dieted knows that lost pounds often return, and most of us assume the reason is a lack of discipline or a failure of willpower. But Proietto suspected that there was more to it, and he decided to take a closer look at the biological state of the body after weight loss.
    Beginning in 2009, he and his team recruited 50 obese men and women. The men weighed an average of 233 pounds; the women weighed about 200 pounds. Although some people dropped out of the study, most of the patients stuck with the extreme low-calorie diet, which consisted of special shakes called Optifast and two cups of low-starch vegetables, totaling just 500 to 550 calories a day for eight weeks. Ten weeks in, the dieters lost an average of 30 pounds.
    At that point, the 34 patients who remained stopped dieting and began working to maintain the new lower weight. Nutritionists counseled them in person and by phone, promoting regular exercise and urging them to eat more vegetables and less fat. But despite the effort, they slowly began to put on weight. After a year, the patients already had regained an average of 11 of the pounds they struggled so hard to lose. They also reported feeling far more hungry and preoccupied with food than before they lost the weight.
    While researchers have known for decades that the body undergoes various metabolic and hormonal changes while it’s losing weight, the Australian team detected something new. A full year after significant weight loss, these men and women remained in what could be described as a biologically altered state. Their still-plump bodies were acting as if they were starving and were working overtime to regain the pounds they lost. For instance, a gastric hormone called ghrelin, often dubbed the “hunger hormone,” was about 20 percent higher than at the start of the study. Another hormone associated with suppressing hunger, peptide YY, was also abnormally low. Levels of leptin, a hormone that suppresses hunger and increases metabolism, also remained lower than expected. A cocktail of other hormones associated with hunger and metabolism all remained significantly changed compared to pre-dieting levels. It was almost as if weight loss had put their bodies into a unique metabolic state, a sort of post-dieting syndrome that set them apart from people who hadn’t tried to lose weight in the first place.
    “What we see here is a coordinated defense mechanism with multiple components all directed toward making us put on weight,” Proietto says. “This, I think, explains the high failure rate in obesity treatment.”
    While the findings from Proietto and colleagues, published this fall in The New England Journal of Medicine, are not conclusive — the study was small and the findings need to be replicated — the research has nonetheless caused a stir in the weight-loss community, adding to a growing body of evidence that challenges conventional thinking about obesity, weight loss and willpower. For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped. This translates into a sobering reality: once we become fat, most of us, despite our best efforts, will probably stay fat.
    I have always felt perplexed about my inability to keep weight off. I know the medical benefits of weight loss, and I don’t drink sugary sodas or eat fast food. I exercise regularly — a few years ago, I even completed a marathon. Yet during the 23 years since graduating from college, I’ve lost 10 or 20 pounds at a time, maintained it for a little while and then gained it all back and more, to the point where I am now easily 60 pounds overweight.
    I wasn’t overweight as a child, but I can’t remember a time when my mother, whose weight probably fluctuated between 150 and 250 pounds, wasn’t either on a diet or, in her words, cheating on her diet. Sometimes we ate healthful, balanced meals; on other days dinner consisted of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. As a high-school cross-country runner, I never worried about weight, but in college, when my regular training runs were squeezed out by studying and socializing, the numbers on the scale slowly began to move up. As adults, my three sisters and I all struggle with weight, as do many members of my extended family. My mother died of esophageal cancer six years ago. It was her great regret that in the days before she died, the closest medical school turned down her offer to donate her body because she was obese.
    It’s possible that the biological cards were stacked against me from the start. Researchers know that obesity tends to run in families, and recent science suggests that even the desire to eat higher-calorie foods may be influenced by heredity. But untangling how much is genetic and how much is learned through family eating habits is difficult. What is clear is that some people appear to be prone to accumulating extra fat while others seem to be protected against it.
    In a seminal series of experiments published in the 1990s, the Canadian researchers Claude Bouchard and Angelo Tremblay studied 31 pairs of male twins ranging in age from 17 to 29, who were sometimes overfed and sometimes put on diets. (None of the twin pairs were at risk for obesity based on their body mass or their family history.) In one study, 12 sets of the twins were put under 24-hour supervision in a college dormitory. Six days a week they ate 1,000 extra calories a day, and one day they were allowed to eat normally. They could read, play video games, play cards and watch television, but exercise was limited to one 30-minute daily walk. Over the course of the 120-day study, the twins consumed 84,000 extra calories beyond their basic needs.
    That experimental binge should have translated into a weight gain of roughly 24 pounds (based on 3,500 calories to a pound). But some gained less than 10 pounds, while others gained as much as 29 pounds. The amount of weight gained and how the fat was distributed around the body closely matched among brothers, but varied considerably among the different sets of twins. Some brothers gained three times as much fat around their abdomens as others, for instance. When the researchers conducted similar exercise studies with the twins, they saw the patterns in reverse, with some twin sets losing more pounds than others on the same exercise regimen. The findings, the researchers wrote, suggest a form of “biological determinism” that can make a person susceptible to weight gain or loss.
    But while there is widespread agreement that at least some risk for obesity is inherited, identifying a specific genetic cause has been a challenge. In October 2010, the journal Nature Genetics reported that researchers have so far confirmed 32 distinct genetic variations associated with obesity or body-mass index. One of the most common of these variations was identified in April 2007 by a British team studying the genetics of Type 2 diabetes. According to Timothy Frayling at the Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Science at the University of Exeter, people who carried a variant known as FTO faced a much higher risk of obesity — 30 percent higher if they had one copy of the variant; 60 percent if they had two.
    This FTO variant is surprisingly common; about 65 percent of people of European or African descent and an estimated 27 to 44 percent of Asians are believed to carry at least one copy of it. Scientists don’t understand how the FTO variation influences weight gain, but studies in children suggest the trait plays a role in eating habits. In one 2008 study led by Colin Palmer of the University of Dundee in Scotland, Scottish schoolchildren were given snacks of orange drinks and muffins and then allowed to graze on a buffet of grapes, celery, potato chips and chocolate buttons. All the food was carefully monitored so the researchers knew exactly what was consumed. Although all the children ate about the same amount of food, as weighed in grams, children with the FTO variant were more likely to eat foods with higher fat and calorie content. They weren’t gorging themselves, but they consumed, on average, about 100 calories more than children who didn’t carry the gene. Those who had the gene variant had about four pounds more body fat than noncarriers.
    I have been tempted to send in my own saliva sample for a DNA test to find out if my family carries a genetic predisposition for obesity. But even if the test came back negative, it would only mean that my family doesn’t carry a known, testable genetic risk for obesity. Recently the British television show “Embarrassing Fat Bodies” asked Frayling’s lab to test for fat-promoting genes, and the results showed one very overweight family had a lower-than-average risk for obesity.
    A positive result, telling people they are genetically inclined to stay fat, might be self-fulfilling. In February, The New England Journal of Medicine published a report on how genetic testing for a variety of diseases affected a person’s mood and health habits. Over all, the researchers found no effect from disease-risk testing, but there was a suggestion, though it didn’t reach statistical significance, that after testing positive for fat-promoting genes, some people were more likely to eat fatty foods, presumably because they thought being fat was their genetic destiny and saw no sense in fighting it.
    While knowing my genetic risk might satisfy my curiosity, I also know that heredity, at best, would explain only part of why I became overweight. I’m much more interested in figuring out what I can do about it now.
    The National Weight Control Registry tracks 10,000 people who have lost weight and have kept it off. “We set it up in response to comments that nobody ever succeeds at weight loss,” says Rena Wing, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, who helped create the registry with James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado at Denver. “We had two goals: to prove there were people who did, and to try to learn from them about what they do to achieve this long-term weight loss.” Anyone who has lost 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year is eligible to join the study, though the average member has lost 70 pounds and remained at that weight for six years.
    Wing says that she agrees that physiological changes probably do occur that make permanent weight loss difficult, but she says the larger problem is environmental, and that people struggle to keep weight off because they are surrounded by food, inundated with food messages and constantly presented with opportunities to eat. “We live in an environment with food cues all the time,” Wing says. “We’ve taught ourselves over the years that one of the ways to reward yourself is with food. It’s hard to change the environment and the behavior.”
    There is no consistent pattern to how people in the registry lost weight — some did it on Weight Watchers, others with Jenny Craig, some by cutting carbs on the Atkins diet and a very small number lost weight through surgery. But their eating and exercise habits appear to reflect what researchers find in the lab: to lose weight and keep it off, a person must eat fewer calories and exercise far more than a person who maintains the same weight naturally. Registry members exercise about an hour or more each day — the average weight-loser puts in the equivalent of a four-mile daily walk, seven days a week. They get on a scale every day in order to keep their weight within a narrow range. They eat breakfast regularly. Most watch less than half as much television as the overall population. They eat the same foods and in the same patterns consistently each day and don’t “cheat” on weekends or holidays. They also appear to eat less than most people, with estimates ranging from 50 to 300 fewer daily calories.
    Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that while the 10,000 people tracked in the registry are a useful resource, they also represent a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to lose weight. “All it means is that there are rare individuals who do manage to keep it off,” Brownell says. “You find these people are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.”
    Janice Bridge, a registry member who has successfully maintained a 135-pound weight loss for about five years, is a perfect example. “It’s one of the hardest things there is,” she says. “It’s something that has to be focused on every minute. I’m not always thinking about food, but I am always aware of food.”
    Bridge, who is 66 and lives in Davis, Calif., was overweight as a child and remembers going on her first diet of 1,400 calories a day at 14. At the time, her slow pace of weight loss prompted her doctor to accuse her of cheating. Friends told her she must not be paying attention to what she was eating. “No one would believe me that I was doing everything I was told,” she says. “You can imagine how tremendously depressing it was and what a feeling of rebellion and anger was building up.”
    After peaking at 330 pounds in 2004, she tried again to lose weight. She managed to drop 30 pounds, but then her weight loss stalled. In 2006, at age 60, she joined a medically supervised weight-loss program with her husband, Adam, who weighed 310 pounds. After nine months on an 800-calorie diet, she slimmed down to 165 pounds. Adam lost about 110 pounds and now weighs about 200.
    During the first years after her weight loss, Bridge tried to test the limits of how much she could eat. She used exercise to justify eating more. The death of her mother in 2009 consumed her attention; she lost focus and slowly regained 30 pounds. She has decided to try to maintain this higher weight of 195, which is still 135 pounds fewer than her heaviest weight.
    “It doesn’t take a lot of variance from my current maintenance for me to pop on another two or three pounds,” she says. “It’s been a real struggle to stay at this weight, but it’s worth it, it’s good for me, it makes me feel better. But my body would put on weight almost instantaneously if I ever let up.”
    So she never lets up. Since October 2006 she has weighed herself every morning and recorded the result in a weight diary. She even carries a scale with her when she travels. In the past six years, she made only one exception to this routine: a two-week, no-weigh vacation in Hawaii.
    She also weighs everything in the kitchen. She knows that lettuce is about 5 calories a cup, while flour is about 400. If she goes out to dinner, she conducts a Web search first to look at the menu and calculate calories to help her decide what to order. She avoids anything with sugar or white flour, which she calls her “gateway drugs” for cravings and overeating. She has also found that drinking copious amounts of water seems to help; she carries a 20-ounce water bottle and fills it five times a day. She writes down everything she eats. At night, she transfers all the information to an electronic record. Adam also keeps track but prefers to keep his record with pencil and paper.
    “That transfer process is really important; it’s my accountability,” she says. “It comes up with the total number of calories I’ve eaten today and the amount of protein. I do a little bit of self-analysis every night.”
    Bridge and her husband each sought the help of therapists, and in her sessions, Janice learned that she had a tendency to eat when she was bored or stressed. “We are very much aware of how our culture taught us to use food for all kinds of reasons that aren’t related to its nutritive value,” Bridge says.
    Bridge supports her careful diet with an equally rigorous regimen of physical activity. She exercises from 100 to 120 minutes a day, six or seven days a week, often by riding her bicycle to the gym, where she takes a water-aerobics class. She also works out on an elliptical trainer at home and uses a recumbent bike to “walk” the dog, who loves to run alongside the low, three-wheeled machine. She enjoys gardening as a hobby but allows herself to count it as exercise on only those occasions when she needs to “garden vigorously.” Adam is also a committed exerciser, riding his bike at least two hours a day, five days a week.
    Janice Bridge has used years of her exercise and diet data to calculate her own personal fuel efficiency. She knows that her body burns about three calories a minute during gardening, about four calories a minute on the recumbent bike and during water aerobics and about five a minute when she zips around town on her regular bike.
    “Practically anyone will tell you someone biking is going to burn 11 calories a minute,” she says. “That’s not my body. I know it because of the statistics I’ve kept.”
    Based on metabolism data she collected from the weight-loss clinic and her own calculations, she has discovered that to keep her current weight of 195 pounds, she can eat 2,000 calories a day as long as she burns 500 calories in exercise. She avoids junk food, bread and pasta and many dairy products and tries to make sure nearly a third of her calories come from protein. The Bridges will occasionally share a dessert, or eat an individual portion of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, so they know exactly how many calories they are ingesting. Because she knows errors can creep in, either because a rainy day cuts exercise short or a mismeasured snack portion adds hidden calories, she allows herself only 1,800 daily calories of food. (The average estimate for a similarly active woman of her age and size is about 2,300 calories.)
    Just talking to Bridge about the effort required to maintain her weight is exhausting. I find her story inspiring, but it also makes me wonder whether I have what it takes to be thin. I have tried on several occasions (and as recently as a couple weeks ago) to keep a daily diary of my eating and exercise habits, but it’s easy to let it slide. I can’t quite imagine how I would ever make time to weigh and measure food when some days it’s all I can do to get dinner on the table between finishing my work and carting my daughter to dance class or volleyball practice. And while I enjoy exercising for 30- or 40-minute stretches, I also learned from six months of marathon training that devoting one to two hours a day to exercise takes an impossible toll on my family life.
    Bridge concedes that having grown children and being retired make it easier to focus on her weight. “I don’t know if I could have done this when I had three kids living at home,” she says. “We know how unusual we are. It’s pretty easy to get angry with the amount of work and dedication it takes to keep this weight off. But the alternative is to not keep the weight off. ”
    “I think many people who are anxious to lose weight don’t fully understand what the consequences are going to be, nor does the medical community fully explain this to people,” Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University in New York, says. “We don’t want to make them feel hopeless, but we do want to make them understand that they are trying to buck a biological system that is going to try to make it hard for them.”
    Leibel and his colleague Michael Rosenbaum have pioneered much of what we know about the body’s response to weight loss. For 25 years, they have meticulously tracked about 130 individuals for six months or longer at a stretch. The subjects reside at their research clinic where every aspect of their bodies is measured. Body fat is determined by bone-scan machines. A special hood monitors oxygen consumption and carbon-dioxide output to precisely measure metabolism. Calories burned during digestion are tracked. Exercise tests measure maximum heart rate, while blood tests measure hormones and brain chemicals. Muscle biopsies are taken to analyze their metabolic efficiency. (Early in the research, even stool samples were collected and tested to make sure no calories went unaccounted for.) For their trouble, participants are paid $5,000 to $8,000.
    Eventually, the Columbia subjects are placed on liquid diets of 800 calories a day until they lose 10 percent of their body weight. Once they reach the goal, they are subjected to another round of intensive testing as they try to maintain the new weight. The data generated by these experiments suggest that once a person loses about 10 percent of body weight, he or she is metabolically different than a similar-size person who is naturally the same weight.
    The research shows that the changes that occur after weight loss translate to a huge caloric disadvantage of about 250 to 400 calories. For instance, one woman who entered the Columbia studies at 230 pounds was eating about 3,000 calories to maintain that weight. Once she dropped to 190 pounds, losing 17 percent of her body weight, metabolic studies determined that she needed about 2,300 daily calories to maintain the new lower weight. That may sound like plenty, but the typical 30-year-old 190-pound woman can consume about 2,600 calories to maintain her weight — 300 more calories than the woman who dieted to get there.
    Scientists are still learning why a weight-reduced body behaves so differently from a similar-size body that has not dieted. Muscle biopsies taken before, during and after weight loss show that once a person drops weight, their muscle fibers undergo a transformation, making them more like highly efficient “slow twitch” muscle fibers. A result is that after losing weight, your muscles burn 20 to 25 percent fewer calories during everyday activity and moderate aerobic exercise than those of a person who is naturally at the same weight. That means a dieter who thinks she is burning 200 calories during a brisk half-hour walk is probably using closer to 150 to 160 calories.
    Another way that the body seems to fight weight loss is by altering the way the brain responds to food. Rosenbaum and his colleague Joy Hirsch, a neuroscientist also at Columbia, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to track the brain patterns of people before and after weight loss while they looked at objects like grapes, Gummi Bears, chocolate, broccoli, cellphones and yo-yos. After weight loss, when the dieter looked at food, the scans showed a bigger response in the parts of the brain associated with reward and a lower response in the areas associated with control. This suggests that the body, in order to get back to its pre-diet weight, induces cravings by making the person feel more excited about food and giving him or her less willpower to resist a high-calorie treat.
    “After you’ve lost weight, your brain has a greater emotional response to food,” Rosenbaum says. “You want it more, but the areas of the brain involved in restraint are less active.” Combine that with a body that is now burning fewer calories than expected, he says, “and you’ve created the perfect storm for weight regain.” How long this state lasts isn’t known, but preliminary research at Columbia suggests that for as many as six years after weight loss, the body continues to defend the old, higher weight by burning off far fewer calories than would be expected. The problem could persist indefinitely. (The same phenomenon occurs when a thin person tries to drop about 10 percent of his or her body weight — the body defends the higher weight.) This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to lose weight and keep it off; it just means it’s really, really difficult.
    Lynn Haraldson, a 48-year-old woman who lives in Pittsburgh, reached 300 pounds in 2000. She joined Weight Watchers and managed to take her 5-foot-5 body down to 125 pounds for a brief time. Today, she’s a member of the National Weight Control Registry and maintains about 140 pounds by devoting her life to weight maintenance. She became a vegetarian, writes down what she eats every day, exercises at least five days a week and blogs about the challenges of weight maintenance. A former journalist and antiques dealer, she returned to school for a two-year program on nutrition and health; she plans to become a dietary counselor. She has also come to accept that she can never stop being “hypervigilant” about what she eats. “Everything has to change,” she says. “I’ve been up and down the scale so many times, always thinking I can go back to ‘normal,’ but I had to establish a new normal. People don’t like hearing that it’s not easy.”
    What’s not clear from the research is whether there is a window during which we can gain weight and then lose it without creating biological backlash. Many people experience transient weight gain, putting on a few extra pounds during the holidays or gaining 10 or 20 pounds during the first years of college that they lose again. The actor Robert De Niro lost weight after bulking up for his performance in “Raging Bull.” The filmmaker Morgan Spurlock also lost the weight he gained during the making of “Super Size Me.” Leibel says that whether these temporary pounds became permanent probably depends on a person’s genetic risk for obesity and, perhaps, the length of time a person carried the extra weight before trying to lose it. But researchers don’t know how long it takes for the body to reset itself permanently to a higher weight. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to happen overnight.
    “For a mouse, I know the time period is somewhere around eight months,” Leibel says. “Before that time, a fat mouse can come back to being a skinny mouse again without too much adjustment. For a human we don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s not measured in months, but in years.”
    Nobody wants to be fat. In most modern cultures, even if you are healthy — in my case, my cholesterol and blood pressure are low and I have an extraordinarily healthy heart — to be fat is to be perceived as weak-willed and lazy. It’s also just embarrassing. Once, at a party, I met a well-respected writer who knew my work as a health writer. “You’re not at all what I expected,” she said, eyes widening. The man I was dating, perhaps trying to help, finished the thought. “You thought she’d be thinner, right?” he said. I wanted to disappear, but the woman was gracious. “No,” she said, casting a glare at the man and reaching to warmly shake my hand. “I thought you’d be older.”
    If anything, the emerging science of weight loss teaches us that perhaps we should rethink our biases about people who are overweight. It is true that people who are overweight, including myself, get that way because they eat too many calories relative to what their bodies need. But a number of biological and genetic factors can play a role in determining exactly how much food is too much for any given individual. Clearly, weight loss is an intense struggle, one in which we are not fighting simply hunger or cravings for sweets, but our own bodies.
    While the public discussion about weight loss tends to come down to which diet works best (Atkins? Jenny Craig? Plant-based? Mediterranean?), those who have tried and failed at all of these diets know there is no simple answer. Fat, sugar and carbohydrates in processed foods may very well be culprits in the nation’s obesity problem. But there is tremendous variation in an individual’s response.
    The view of obesity as primarily a biological, rather than psychological disease, could also lead to changes in the way we approach its treatment. Scientists at Columbia have conducted several small studies looking at whether injecting people with leptin, the hormone made by body fat, can override the body’s resistance to weight loss and help maintain a lower weight. In a few small studies, leptin injections appear to trick the body into thinking it’s still fat. After leptin replacement, study subjects burned more calories during activity. And in brain-scan studies, leptin injections appeared to change how the brain responded to food, making it seem less enticing. But such treatments are still years away from commercial development. For now, those of us who want to lose weight and keep it off are on our own.
    One question many researchers think about is whether losing weight more slowly would make it more sustainable than the fast weight loss often used in scientific studies. Leibel says the pace of weight loss is unlikely to make a difference, because the body’s warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it. Even so, Proietto is now conducting a study using a slower weight-loss method and following dieters for three years instead of one.
    Given how hard it is to lose weight, it’s clear, from a public-health standpoint, that resources would best be focused on preventing weight gain. The research underscores the urgency of national efforts to get children to exercise and eat healthful foods.
    But with a third of the U.S. adult population classified as obese, nobody is saying people who already are very overweight should give up on weight loss. Instead, the solution may be to preach a more realistic goal. Studies suggest that even a 5 percent weight loss can lower a person’s risk for diabetes, heart disease and other health problems associated with obesity. There is also speculation that the body is more willing to accept small amounts of weight loss.
    But an obese person who loses just 5 percent of her body weight will still very likely be obese. For a 250-pound woman, a 5 percent weight loss of about 12 pounds probably won’t even change her clothing size. Losing a few pounds may be good for the body, but it does very little for the spirit and is unlikely to change how fat people feel about themselves or how others perceive them.
    So where does that leave a person who wants to lose a sizable amount of weight? Weight-loss scientists say they believe that once more people understand the genetic and biological challenges of keeping weight off, doctors and patients will approach weight loss more realistically and more compassionately. At the very least, the science may compel people who are already overweight to work harder to make sure they don’t put on additional pounds. Some people, upon learning how hard permanent weight loss can be, may give up entirely and return to overeating. Others may decide to accept themselves at their current weight and try to boost their fitness and overall health rather than changing the number on the scale.
    For me, understanding the science of weight loss has helped make sense of my own struggles to lose weight, as well as my mother’s endless cycle of dieting, weight gain and despair. I wish she were still here so I could persuade her to finally forgive herself for her dieting failures. While I do, ultimately, blame myself for allowing my weight to get out of control, it has been somewhat liberating to learn that there are factors other than my character at work when it comes to gaining and losing weight. And even though all the evidence suggests that it’s going to be very, very difficult for me to reduce my weight permanently, I’m surprisingly optimistic. I may not be ready to fight this battle this month or even this year. But at least I know what I’m up against.
    Tara Parker-Pope is the editor of the Well blog at The Times.
    Editor: Ilena Silverman

    Thursday, March 1, 2012

    February Slump or Just Spring Fever?

    I, or maybe I should say "we" collectively as a family, seem to have hit a wall in terms of school work. I think I've heard it's pretty common for homeschooling families who are chugging along to get a bit of fatigue come February. I didn't think this would happen to us, but several factors seem to have come together at once. First, the weather here has been all over the map. One day it's rainy and cold, one day it's sunny and in the 70's. It snowed last week and today (after a rough night of wind and some rain) it's close to 80 degrees. When you are at the end of winter and you get a day like today, how can you focus on a dumb worksheet in front of you? Everything just seems to say, "Go out and soak up those sunny rays and enjoy!"
    "Daydreaming" by Winslow Homer 1880-1882

    The other thing that has happened these past two or three weeks is that I have found myself over committed yet again (I know I hear you laughing. Doesn't every homeschool parent say that over and over again?) We've had birthdays and birthday parties and a confluence of co-op classes for me to teach and new classes the kids have started.  This means outside homework and me scrambling to put together group lessons. I wish I were someone who could put together a lesson quickly, but I just can't. Each lesson takes me days of sifting through books and online sources to find just the right combination of age appropriate information and fun (and doable) activities. It's not so much the execution but trying to figure out what to include and what to skip over. Meanwhile I am relearning the material myself. I seem to find myself doing a lot of science classes. The reason is that I love science and I love to get kids interested in science. The downfall, however, is that there is a great deal of preparation involved. It's not like a writing class where you hand out assignments and discuss them. Once I've figured out what I want to do, I have to gather the materials and try them out to see if the activity or experiment actually works! Half the time it doesn't. In some cases I'll go ahead with it anyway (scientific results aren't always as predicted after all), but in some cases I decide the whole thing is just dumb anyway and chuck it in favor of something else. I've never been a fan of pre-packaged curriculum. We homeschool so we can personalize our educational experiences after all. I'll admit, however, that following a curriculum would be easier, if slightly more boring.

    My kids benefit greatly from group Co-ops and classes. We have such a wide range of talents and interests in our co-op parents that it makes it very much worth-while. The kids get the benefit of being taught (essentially for free) by someone who is an expert in art, writing, dance, or math. The flip side of this is that I must commit to teaching myself, and sometimes that tradeoff results in me being so completely absorbed in preparing lessons that our other work has to take a back seat until I can spare the time and energy badger them to do it. Ehem... math...

    Finally, the dreaded springtime viruses. Just when you think winter is over and you are home free in the flu and cold department, a bug will hit the house and swiftly remove any will or energy to focus on... well really anything. We've got all of this going on right now. The wheels are still rolling and the regular weekly activities are still there, but that is about it. I've decided not to stress too much about the other stuff though. It's a blessing that the kids CAN go out and enjoy the nice weather when it is nice, and we can catch up on the other stuff when our hearts and minds are more in it and able to absorb the lessons. My experience tells me that when it's forced it's not very productive and very little gets retained, so why beat my head against the wall?

    Go out and enjoy the Spring. Notice the flowers blooming and the bugs coming out. Watch the birds and go for a hike. Let the kids run and jump and play. All that other stuff will be there when the Spring Fever wears off.