Dear Mark: Dried Sardines, Pullup Alternatives, and Blood Donation for Women

Dear Mark Dried Sardines FinalFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions from readers. First concerns an alternative form of a food I’ve always urged people to consume: small dried whole fish. Are the omega-3s still viable after the drying process? Next, pullups are a fantastic exercise that everyone with the ability should perform, but not everyone has access to a pullup bar. What other exercises can you do to approximate, if not altogether replace, the humble pullup? And finally, in previous posts I’ve mentioned the potential health benefits of regular blood donation for men. Does the same apply to women? After all, they already “donate” blood on a regular basis through menstruation. What about post-menopausal women?

Let’s go:

Hello Mr. Sisson,

I live in Japan and have ample access to a wide variety of fish. The problem is that a lot of it is farm-raised, and I want to stick with smaller fish that have fewer heavy metals in them. I can find a lot of dried smaller fish, like infant sardines, with no added ingredients. Just boiled in salt water and dried. And I like eating the whole fish because of the calcium and other nutrients from the bones. My question is — do these dried fish provide any of the beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids that their fresh counterparts do? Thank you.

There’s probably going to be some degradation of the fats, as happens with any form of processing, whether it’s cooking, canning, smoking, even freezing. Let’s look at what happens to the omega-3s in dried, smoked salmon—one of the more studied fish. This should give us a decent idea of how the omega-3s in small dried fish should respond.

A 2009 study found that smoking salmon at 95 degrees Celsius made the fish fats even more oxidatively stable than fresh salmon, with a lower peroxide value, fewer TBARS, and fewer free fatty acids.

Separating a food into its constituent parts increases each part’s susceptibility to degradation. Olive oil is less stable than whole olives, for example. That your dried fish are whole is a huge positive. The omega-3s in whole dried fish are protected by “nature’s packaging.” The salmon from above were filets rather than whole fish, and their omega-3s still remained whole. I’m confident the omega-3s in your dried sardines will be just fine.

But small dried fish without added ingredients are an incredible source of other nutrients, not just the omega-3s. Take whole dried smelt, another small fatty fish low on the food chain. They’re full of vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, protein, calcium, and selenium. It’s a great thing to eat, and sardines should be very similar.

Whenever you can eat the whole animal, do it. You’re not just eating this piece of tissue or that organ or this cross section of muscle. You’re eating the entire thing. However small it is, eating an entire animal provides a wider range of nutrients. Always say yes to the whole animal, whether it’s a freezer full of dismembered cow or an oyster.

I don’t have a pull-up/chin-up bar. Is there anything else I can do to substitute this area of your exercises?

Oh, yes.

Grab a set of gymnastics rings. You can string them up over anything that will hold your weight. Support beam running across your ceiling that’s too high to grab for pullups but reachable with a ladder? Throw the rings up and do pullups on those.

Do bodyweight rows underneath a table. Pullups are incredible, but the real key is pulling. You don’t have to do vertical pulling. Horizontal pulls are just as useful. And I bet you have a table. Just make sure it’s sturdy enough to support your pulling. Put your legs up on a chair to increase the difficulty; keep them on the ground to make it easier.

Fingertip pullups. If you can find a couple inches of ledge overhead, you can do pullups. It won’t be easy. You won’t be able to do as many as you can on a bar. But your fingers will get strong right alongside your lats, biceps, and torso. After a few months of fingertip pullups, standard-issue pullups will be a breeze.

Inverted hand plank. Some folks call this the bicep plank. It’s exactly what it sounds like: get in the plank position with hands flat on the floor, only turn them so that your fingers are pointing toward your feet and the inside of your wrists face in front of you.

Band pulls. Attach the band to a sturdy support about waist height. Bend over at the hips until your torso is parallel to the ground. Clutch the band overhead and pull toward your body. Sort of a sideways pullup.

None of these will totally replace the pullup, though. Do your best to get your hands on a horizontal overhead bar.

Mark! Hi there. I’ll get right to it. I have read that giving blood a couple of times per year is good for the body for a number of reasons. Do you agree? Can you expound on this? Is it the same for women and men since we bleed every month and you guys don’t? Thanks in advance for sharing your wisdom and experience!

Lauren C.

Before menopause, you don’t need to give blood for health reasons. Men have no real way to shed excess iron, but menstruating women do.  You can still donate blood for humanitarian reasons, of course. Just make sure to get regular tests to monitor your iron levels. Anemia is a real thing, and studies indicate that women experience more adverse reactions to blood donation than men.

Once menopause rolls around, all bets are off. You’re no longer shedding iron each month. Like men, you’re accumulating it. Some researchers have proposed. The drop in estrogen gets the most attention and blame for menopause symptoms, but estrogen has a concurrent and inverse relationship to iron in post-menopausal women. As estrogen declines, iron goes up. Is this a problem? Probably:

Menopause increases the storage of iron in skin, likely accelerating its aging and wrinkling, and perhaps responsible for the increased incidence of dermatosis.

Elevated iron levels may increase the risk of atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome in post-menopausal women, but not in pre-menopausal women.

Excess iron accelerates bone loss in middle-aged men and post-menopausal women.

I was unable to find any trials testing the health effects of blood donation in post-menopausal women, but it’s quite beneficial for men. Might be worth a shot if your iron levels are elevated.

That’s it for today, folks. Thanks for reading!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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28 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Dried Sardines, Pullup Alternatives, and Blood Donation for Women”

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  1. I had thought that exercise was a way that men could shed excess iron?

  2. I have a membership in a national gym chain everyone would recognize. It does not have a chin up bar. It has some gawd awful pointy things on the top of cable weight machines but no straight, pipe-like chin up bar. The rectalites are also not interested in adding one. Yes, I will be changing gyms when the membership is up.

    1. If there’s a squat rack at your gym, or one of the larger varieties of cable machine, there should be a large steel cross beam you can grab for pull-ups. They’re quite a bit larger obviously, which will change your grip and make the movement more difficult.

    2. Wow, that’s pretty absurd! It irks me how much floor space gyms will allocate toward silly machines that work isolation movements. I have a pullup bar at home but when I want to challenge my grip, I go to the local playground and do pull-ups on the monkey bars. You might look a little strange but it’s free! Hah. Best of luck in your new gym!

  3. I love canned sardines and eat them often. Dried sardines (or any other type of dried fish) might be harder to find unless one has access to an Asian market. Smoked salmon might be a good alternative here in the US. There are some good brands that don’t contain weirdo chemicals.

  4. Another good pulling alternative is floor pulls (pulling yourself along a floor that hopefully slides). You are prone and just pull yourself along as hard as you want.

    If you do floor pulls to a standing position (and repeat and repeat), there is an intermediate pushing motion as well to get up to standing position, and combined with the act of straightening the legs to stand up (a concentric squat), you pretty much cover the whole body in that one move.

    If I have absolutely no equipment (not even anything to do pull ups) and I want a full body workout, I just do floor pulls to stand over and over again. It’s surprising how quick you can get gassed.

  5. Been eating lots of canned sardines from Trader Joes ever since I started on PB about 4 months ago. Absolutely have come to love them… I have always like almost all fish to begin with, but man the canned sardines is an amazingly quick, nutritious and tasty snack.

    1. I have them at least 3 times a week in the form of a smoked sardine Caesar salad. The dressing consists of a tbs of primal mayo fish sauce, the juice of half a lemon add fresh black pepper and whisk in the oil from the can. I use the whole head of farmstead romaine lettuce and some fresh grated parmasian and toss. Then top it with the sardines and toss some more so sardine break up and coat the leaves. It’s #1 on my list of BAS meals.

  6. I have a pull-up bar and use it regularly. I also have a big Austrian Pine in my yard with some fairly horizontal branches. I love using a tree branch for pull-ups and it’s pretty primal…

  7. Regarding the pullups, what about using a tree? Most of us can get out to a park at least once a week and locate a sturdy tree and pull up as if a bear is chasing us.

  8. Wow, some interesting topics today! I am in love with sardines…now I want to try dried ones just out of curiosity. I really think they keep my skin looking good. The pull up thing was interesting. I am in good shape but when I attempt a pull up I feel like it is straining my abdomen (I had a double hernia repair several years ago, and also have a diastasys rectis) so I’ve been scared. Maybe some of the alternatives would help me. Thanks for the great info!

  9. I had two babies in 2 years and struggled to keep my iron levels steady for a long time. But, at that time (in my young and naiive life) I was vegetarian and donated blood several times a year “for humanitarian reasons”. After I lost so much iron I fainted, the doc told me to stop. I started eating red meat and stopped donating blood and things got a lot better. So, if you’re going to donate blood, get your iron checked annually. Your insurance should cover it.

  10. Also try “Let Me Ins” where you use two opposing door knobs as a grip, sit back, and pull up from floor to door. Learned that from You Are Your Own Gym. Careful to use non-slip surface or shoes…nuts better whole than crushed.

    If you live in the country, use a tree; if you live in the city, use a park playground or construction scaffold (learned that from Al Kavadlo).

  11. Just gave whole blood last week for the 130th time. Maybe it’s the ‘gift of life, for another reason than helping others. One thing to note is that it really affects how you perform in the gym or other strenuous exercise for about a week (kinda like high-altitude training I guess…?) Good to lower your expectations for a few days after, and BTW, lay off any drinking for a couple of days after. Cheap drunk, but you’ll pay for it!!

    1. Truth. Never has a single shot of tequila rendered me so loopy as it did a day after giving blood.

      1. I gave blood for the very first time a few weeks ago and it took me about 1.5 weeks to get my normal workout levels back. I was a little tired for 4 days.

  12. Go get some real pull up bars. You’ll love it.

    I have two pull up bars in my home office. The Ultimate Body Press Wall Mount Pull Up Bar with Reversible Risers (see on Amazon) and an above the door frame one (Ultimate Body Press Wall Mounted Doorway Pull Up Bar ) also on Amazon. Get a set of bands (Set of 5 Functional Fitness Pull Up Bands – #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 – 20 – 335 lbs ) for warm ups and extended reps and you’re totally set. Even my 13 year old daughter is doing pull ups now (with a little band assist).

    Nothing will make you feel more of a bad-ass than confidently knocking out some pull ups. Widens the lats and shoulders super fast too. Gives you that nice “V” torso.

  13. pullup alternative= just have your kid poop in the woods. real primal-like.

  14. At least one ‘no-equipment’ body weight guru suggests doing pullups on a door itself rather than the door frame. He suggests wedging the door so it won’t swing, draping a towel over the top and pulling yourself up overhand.

    Sounds like a way to get splinters on one’s nose, but the whole ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ and ‘Body By You’ schemes suggest this….

  15. Pullup bar is by far the best investment I ever made. Love it! Slowly getting better at them and reclaiming my health.

    Looks like I’m overdue for a trip to the Asian market for some small dried fishies. I got some a few years ago but they were sourced from Japan and I was scared of Fukushima nuclear contamination so I reluctantly threw them away.

    I’m overdue for a blood donation or phlebotomy or a bloody fight with some vegans. Oh wait, the vegans would be the ones bleeding.

  16. What should I eat after donating blood? The one and only time I gave blood, they refused to give me a cup of tea afterwards like everyone was drinking because it was my first time (I *really* wanted a cup of tea) and they made me drink really strong sugary orange squash and eat a biscuit (more sugar, but would have been nice with a cup of tea!). I understand the reason for it (they want to give me a glucose spike), but I’ve gone low carb / high fat and have given up sugar.

    I like the idea of doing my civic duty and giving blood, but I have residual fear after that first time (I also gave in the morning before work like my dad did, but this was a mistake as I had a horrible migraine by the end of the day).

  17. If you donate blood via the Red Cross they will check your hemoglobin levels prior to your donation. If your iron levels aren’t high enough then you aren’t allowed to donate. I think they have different requirements for men vs women. Plus their app records your iron levels from your previous donations so you can keep on eye on any changes over time. I’m not sure if other orgs are the same. I found out I’m a universal donor so I’ve been going every 2 months for humanitarian reasons. I notice a little extra fatigue the day after so I avoid working out a day or two. Feels good to potentially be saving lives for people in need though!

    1. Same thing in Québec, with Héma-Québec, they will check your iron levels before and it has to be a certain number in order to be able to give blood, I think it is 13 but not sure 13 what though!

      1. The blood donor service is just part of the NHS, as far as I’m aware. They didn’t do any iron testing as I recall, just had to fill in forms. But this was nearly thirty years ago before the days of apps. I might look up modern procedure.

        1. I give blood and the NHS centres do check iron levels first, via a finger-prick test.

  18. Many swimming pools have ledges above the water. This is a great way to build up to full body weight pull-ups. The excercise gets progressively harder the higher you go. Full body weight pull-ups can be discouraging for many who struggle to do any unassisted. Pool-ups are a great strength and confidence booster.

  19. I’ve heard that donating does good for the cholesterol levels, but never bothered to check it out. When I still lived in Amarillo, TX, I lived within walking distance of the blood donation center and their mobile used to make stops at my work place. One of the questions asked on the questionnaire before allowing people to donate is are you menstruating or have you recently give birth. There’s a reason for that. However, if you know you aren’t on your period or have not recently give birth, but are still worried, eat a burger. That’s what I was told the first time I went in. Maybe eat a burger the night before and steak for breakfast that morning. It does help quite a bit.