want to eat like a caveman? eat grains and legumes

Posted on: Wed, 03/02/2011 - 17:59 By: Tom Swiss

I recently mentioned a study showing that dietary intake of fiber from grains was strongly tied to lowered risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases, and also protective against cancer deaths in men. (That intake would have to be mostly from whole grains, since the whole point of refining grains is to remove the fiber-rich bran.) And I mentioned that this was another strike against the "paleo" diet, which strongly discourages consumption of grains, as well as legumes and tubers.

Followers of the paleo fad argue that their diet is optimal because it represents what humans ate before the development of agriculture. But as it happens, for years we've had evidence that consumption of wheat and barley -- and perhaps even grain-flour bread -- goes back at least 23,000 years. (And there are hints that it might go back as far as 105,000 years, but that's still very speculative.)

And more recently, in an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers from George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution examined phytoliths (microscopic bits of silica or other minerals from plants) and starch grains found on Neanderthal teeth dating back 36,000 to 46,000 years. Their research shows that these most iconic cavemen (who have been recently shown to be part of our ancestry and not just an evolutionary dead-end, as was argued for some years) were not only eating legumes and grains like barley, but were cooking these carb-rich foods to improve their digestibility. (Full article here, though it may be hit by the copyright cops at some point.)

veggies, fruits, and grains for longer life

Posted on: Tue, 02/15/2011 - 11:31 By: Tom Swiss

Yet again, a scientific study shows that if you don't want to die, plant-based nutrition is the way. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that intake of dietary fiber -- which comes only from vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains, and is not found in meat, eggs, or dairy products -- was associated with a lowered risk of death from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases in both men (24% to 56% lower) and women (34% to 59% lower). Fiber was also found to be protective against cancer in men, though a significant effect was not found in women -- perhaps because men are more likely to die from cancers with a strong dietary link, such as esophageal cancer.

Putting yet another nail in the coffin of the psudeoscientific "paleo" diet fad, the results showed that fiber from grains (discouraged in paleo diets) was most strongly tied to lowered risk.

The study, conducted by the National Institutes of Health and AARP, included more than 388,000 people ages 50 to 71. Diet was self-reported by a questionnaire that asked participants to estimate how often they ate 124 food items. After nine years, more than 31,000 of the participants had died, and national records were used to find out who died and the cause of death.

Risk factors including weight, education level, smoking and health status were accounted for in the statistical analysis, but the protective effect of fiber remained.

don't want to die? Eat your veggies.

Posted on: Tue, 11/23/2010 - 11:08 By: Tom Swiss

Sure, you can lose weight on a junk food diet, since when it comes to weight loss, "it's the calories, stupid" should be the mantra. But if your goal is to live long and prosper, then (like the vegetarian Mr. Spock), you need to eat your vegetables. Yet more evidence for this comes from a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which looked at data from the Third NHANES Follow-up Study and found that people who consumed the highest levels of alpha-carotene (found in yellowish-orange vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins, and in dark green ones like broccoli, spinach, and lettuce) had the lowest death rates from cardiovascular disease, from cancer, and from all other causes put together.

The alpha-carotene intake was measured by blood serum levels, and the relationship was dose-dependent -- meaning, the higher the alpha-carotene level, the lower the risk. Those with a serum level of 9 µg/dL or higher had a relative risk of death that was only 61% that of those whose level was 0 to 1 µg/dL.

Alpha-carotene is chemically similar to the famous beta carotene, but seems to be more protective against certain types of cancer.

The good news is that something as simple and inexpensive as eating more fruits and vegetables can lower your risk of disease. The bad news: the CDC estimates that only 32.5% of American adults get two or more servings of fruit per day, and just 26.3% get three or more vegetables a day.

Sun Simiao on animal-derived ingredients in medicines

Posted on: Fri, 10/15/2010 - 00:16 By: Tom Swiss

Chinese herbal medicines are well-known for often containing rare animal ingredients like tiger bone. In my opinion, a lot of this probably originated more from social/political pressure to make remedies for the Emperor or nobility from rare ingredients than from any increase in efficacy over plant materials, but regardless of the origin it's a common feature of Chinese herbal formulas, and most practitioners seem to accept it without question.

So I was pleased to stumble on this excerpt from the work of Sun Simiao. Sun was a Tang dynasty physician born around 581; he wrote the classic herbalism treatise Prescriptions for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Gold and is so highly regarded in the history of Chinese medicine that he has been worshiped as the "King of Medicine". He wrote:

From early times famous persons frequently used certain living creatures for the treatment of diseases, in order to thus help others in situations of need. To be sure, it is said: "Little esteem for the beast and high esteem for man," but when love of life is concerned, man and animal are equal. If one's cattle are mistreated, no use can be expected from it; object and sentiments suffer equally. How much more applicable is this to man!

Whoever destroys life in order to save life places life at an even greater distance. This is my good reason for the fact that I do not suggest the use of any living creature as medicament in the present collection of prescriptions.

more evidence that meat-heavy diets kill

Posted on: Sat, 09/11/2010 - 10:40 By: Tom Swiss

New research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine uses data from the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals' Follow-up Study to compare the overall mortality effects -- i.e., how likely something is to help you to your death -- of two different sort of low-carb diets: those based on animal products, and those based on plant foods.

Unsurprisingly, overall low-carb diets were associated with an increase in overall mortality. But what's interesting is that when they broke it down by plant-based versus animal-based diets, people consuming animal-based low-carb diets had higher mortality overall and also from cardiovascular disease and cancer, while vegetable-based low-carb diets were actually associated with lower all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality.

saturated fat blocks leptin and insulin, and is addictive

Posted on: Tue, 08/24/2010 - 18:40 By: Tom Swiss

Scientific American reports on research showing that a diet high in saturated fat causes the brain to become resistant to leptin and insulin, hormones that let us know when our need for food has been fulfilled.

The research in question was done on rats, and it's always tricky to extrapolate such work to humans; and there are serious ethical issues with killing rats to find our why humans become such pigs when they eat cows. But the phenomenon in question is expected to apply to humans as well.

The researchers also performed in vitro experiments where they directly observed palmitic acid (a common saturated fatty acid) inhibiting the signaling of nerve cells exposed to insulin.

On the other hand, oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid, did not produce this result.

What evolutionary mechanism might produce such a result, that too much fat in the system actually tells the body to increase rather than decrease food uptake? Here's what one leptin expert quoted in the SciAm article says:

locality of food matters far less that what you eat

Posted on: Thu, 07/15/2010 - 17:28 By: Tom Swiss

Eating "local" is a trendy thing these days, with hipsters making much of going to the farmers' market and "Locavore" bumper stickers all over the place. And certainly, all else being equal, it's more energy efficient and gives fresher produce to choose apples from an orchard within 100 miles than to buy apples shipped over from New Zealand.

But, as is often the case, when we look more closely we see that all other things are not necessarily equal.

First off, food coming from far away will tend to use highly efficient rail transport, or moderately efficient tractor-trailers, while your local farmer is probably delivering his goods in a panel van or pickup truck.

The difference is enormous. I got curious, so I ran some rough numbers.

As you may have heard in those CSX ads, rail can move one ton of cargo 436 miles on a gallon of fuel; that works out to moving a pound of food (or other stuff) 872,000 miles on one gallon of fuel. A typical tractor-trailer might haul 50,000 pounds at 5 mpg: that's one pound moved 250,000 miles on one gallon. Now consider a panel truck that gets 20 mpg, carrying a two tons of food: it moves one pound only 80,000 miles on one gallon. (Pretend the panel truck runs on diesel, but since these are back-of-the-envelope calculations it doesn't really matter.)

The tractor-trailer and the panel truck both have to make empty return runs, while the train picks up new cargo for the next leg of its loop; so we should half the numbers for both types of truck.

Rail: 872,000 pound-miles per gallon.
Tractor-trailer: 125,000 pound-miles per gallon.
Panel truck: 40,000 pound-miles per gallon.

That means that, for the same amount of fuel it takes a small farmer to move food 100 miles in their truck, rail transport might move that same food over 2,000 miles! Of course, it has to be moved to and from the train depot, but this illustrates the issue: it's quite possible for food coming from far away to use the same or less energy to transport, than "local" food.

(Of course the most local food is what you garden or forage yourself; there's no transportation cost when I walk out front and pick a few leaves of kale, and I'm thinking of trying some experiments with the plantain that's taking over the yard...)

So in terms of transportation efficiency, local food may not be a big win, or indeed a win at all. But more than that, transportation is a small piece of agricultural energy usage, as this WorldWatch article explains. Final delivery from producer or processor to the point of sale accounts for only 4 percent of the U.S. food system's greenhouse gas emissions; add in "upstream" miles and transport of things like fertilizer, pesticides, and animal feed, and transport still only accounts for about 11 percent of the food system's greenhouse gas emissions.

80 to 90% of greenhouse gas emissions from the food system come from agricultural production. So reducing those is far more important than reducing transport emissions. And how can we shift to more efficient food production? You know what I'm going to say: plant-based diets.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that 18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, a bigger share than the total of all transport. Livestock account for about 20 percent of the total terrestrial animal biomass. Grazing occupies a stunning 26 percent of the Earth's land area, while about a third of all arable land is devoted to feed crops for livestock.

a tale of two videos: one by activists, one by corporate shills

Posted on: Wed, 05/26/2010 - 18:00 By: Tom Swiss

Two interesting "undercover" videos came my way today. The first is from activist group Mercy For Animals, and shows workers at an Ohio dairy farm abusing cows and young calves, including stabbing cows in the face, legs and stomach with pitchforks, and kicking injured "downed" cows -- abuse carried out and encouraged by the farm's owner.

Does this represent every dairy farm? Of course not. Most make at least some effort to be humane.

(Though there's a sharp limit on how humane you can be in the production of milk in industrial quantities, since you have to keep the dairy cows giving birth to keep the milk flowing; those calves mostly end up as beef and veal, and there's no retirement plan for old dairy cows once they are no longer economically viable milk producers. The natural life span of a cow is 15 to 20 years, but a typical dairy cow (conventional or organic) only lives four to six years before she's slaughtered and ends up as sausages and pet food. Still, I believe the level of cruelty seen in this video would sicken most dairy farmers.)

Not everyone likes the fact that cruelties like this get exposed. Some in the industries that profit from animal abuse would like to "shoot the messenger". Thus, the second animal-abuse related video -- or, supposed animal-abuse related video -- that came my way today: a claimed exposé of the Humane Society of the United States's (HSUS) Duchess Horse Sanctuary, by a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom.

Now, I've sent money to HSUS before, so I was anxious to see if my donations were being misused. What did I see in this exposé? Horses being beaten? Starving, diseased animals? No. I saw some horses in a muddy field, with captions that suggest that this is the entirety of the sanctuary. I've camped out in fields that were almost as bad after enough rain. (Squishwood!)

In point of fact, the Duchess Sanctuary is an 1,120-acre facillity; a video that shows that that an area of perhaps a half an acre is muddy on some day in February (a fairly rainy month in the Eugene, Oregon area, is not exactly damning.

So, I asked myself, what's up with this "Center for Consumer Freedom"? And with a little Google-fu, I had my unsurprising answer: shills. The "Center for Consumer Freedom", the group behind this video, is an front group for the restaurant, meat, alcohol, and tobacco industries, who's primary strategy is to "shoot the messenger" and attempt to discredit any groups -- such as the HSUS -- that criticize these industries.

According to SourceWatch:

ordering a vegetarian in-flight meal as a terrorist red flag

Posted on: Tue, 05/18/2010 - 18:34 By: Tom Swiss

The Daily Mail reports that British police secretly investigated the backgrounds of 47,000 flyers last year, people who were singled out for attention by a 1.2 billion pound "terrorist detector" system. The system has never led to the arrest of a terrorist, and is now used to target "sex offenders and football hooligans". One of its red flags for potential terrorists: ordering a vegetarian meal.

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