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Eat Like a Hobbit

17 Dec

dragoniconFor my entire life, I have been a voracious consumer of the smorgasbord of stories inherent in the worlds of Science Fiction and Fantasy (sometimes collectively lumped together as “speculative fiction”). My early years were filled with activities like watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family, re-enacting scenes from Star Wars and Jurassic Park with the neighbor boys, and burning through every book in my local library that had a dragon on the cover. Hell, I even taught myself to play Magic: The Gathering simply because it gave me an excuse to talk to the boys at camp.

My love for such stories has not abated in the least, but my appreciation of them has changed over the years. One noticeable shift is that as I have become a better scientist, I have become better able to see science-related holes in these stories. Many of these holes I’ve noticed are within the realm of biology. I mean, nerd-core fanboys will sit around for days debating reasoning to explain the physics of warp drive and lightsabers, but did no one else notice the fact that in Star Wars Episode III, that lizard-thing that Obi Wan rides at high speed through the canyon was moving in an undulating side-to-side motion, a movement pattern which–in Earth reptiles–actually blocks the lungs from inflating, which prevents the animal from breathing, and thus prevents prolonged aerobic activity except in short bursts? Also the dragons in Anne McCaffery’s classic Dragonriders of Pern series are supposedly boron-silicon based, rather than carbon-based, but boron and silicon are elements that are both heavier than carbon, a subtle difference which adds up when you multiply the number of atoms exponentially to make a full organism, but Pern supposedly is equivalent to Earth in terms of gravity so how the hell do those things fly??

Anyway. What I’m getting at is that as I have learned more about human nutrition and how it relates to health, I have also started to become gratingly skeptical of how food and health are portrayed in such stories. Continue reading

I For One Welcome Our New Overlords

5 Dec

If evolution is the name of the game, then the winning strategy for the game is variation. In this case, genetic variation. A genetically-variable population is well-insured for survival. Specifically, if something changes in an environment, introducing a new variable that affects a population’s survival, maybe there is a genetic variation somewhere in the population’s gene pool that just happens to allow them to adapt to this change and survive.

Although we sometimes like to think of modern humans as representing a pinnacle of evolution, the truth is we are still part of the game. Whether we realize it or not, new genetic combinations and variations are showing up in our vast gene pool all the time, through sexual reproduction and even random mutations. Most of these variations are benign. Some accidentally lead to bizarre genetic-based diseases and conditions that might end up negatively-affecting an organism’s survival. But some genetic variations, against all odds, create some genuinely spectacular effects.

One example of this is so-called “human magnetism.” People with this trait are able to stick metal objects to their skin, sometimes with an amazing amount of strength:

Imagine, never losing your keys again….

The effect is well-documented but until recently the cause was a mystery. Researchers knew it wasn’t “true” magnetism since the effect also works with other smooth objects like glass and plastic. The answer finally came when studies found a mutation in these people that gives them unusually smooth, elastic skin. When this skin comes in contact with another hyper-smooth surface (like metal, plastic, and glass), the high-degree of surface-area contact creates a very strong degree of friction, preventing the objects from falling (at least immediately). It may not be magical, but it’s still a wondrous example of the possibilities inherent in a genetically-variable population.

I recently learned of another, lesser-known example of “magical” abilities that is probably due to an unusual quirk of genetics and is tangentially related to the greater paleo community, which is why I share it with you today. Continue reading

Bitter Harvest

4 Nov

herbIn general, it seems that the paleo-sphere has a love-hate relationship with supplementation. I mean, we know that our ancestors were able to get all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals they needed from their diets and environment, so if we’re careful enough we should be able to do the same, right? Well, while it is true that nutrients found in foods seem to be better-absorbed and more functional than supplements taken in isolation, even us paleo-peeps are fighting a bit of an uphill struggle. We’re not spending as much time outside and getting all the sunlight and dirt that entails, we’re eating animals that often have a nutrient-poor diet to begin with, and even the high-quality, heirloom, organic vegetables we eat are, at the end of the day, products of human invention, artificially selected for decades—if not longer—for things like taste and shelf-life rather than diversity of nutrients.

So in some cases, it seems, some supplementation is merited, but an issue that often gets overlooked in the endless debate of to-supplement-or-not-to-supplement is that the quality of supplements is going to have a major impact on its overall effects and benefits. We know that a calorie is not a calorie, so it stands to reason that one type/brand of supplement might be very different from another.

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My God It’s Full Of Stars

13 Sep

One of the reasons I jumped on board the paleo wagon (or, more likely, paleo travois) so easily was because its basic philosophy made such immediate sense. In my own words, this core hypothesis can be outlined as follows:

“Living organisms evolve and adapt to have maximum reproductive fitness in their natural environments. On the scale of human history, grains and processed foods are relatively new things in our environment, so it might follow that they are presenting us with health and fitness challenges that we have not yet adapted to.”

A simple enough idea. As a scientist, though, I of course had to test it. My immediate data results were that I lost 40 pounds and cured my clinical depression, which was more than enough evidence for me to accept the hypothesis as true.

But in the last few years, I have noticed an interesting pattern when discussing the paleo diet with other people. Many common misconceptions in scientific understanding prevent people from grasping that same core hypothesis I understood right away. Because of this, many times these people focus on debating extraneous details of the paleo diet (missing the forest for the trees, so to speak) or simply write the whole thing off altogether. It is especially frustrating to me because these are the same misconceptions that that I see on a daily basis as a science educator. Continue reading

Science Report: A Review of VLC/Ketogenic Diets

4 Sep

One of the things that really struck me as I started delving into the research behind the paleo diet was how little actual, good, peer-reviewed research has ever been done that supports the conventional wisom of fats make you fat, high-carbs are good for your metabolism, cholesterol will give you heart disease, and so forth. But despite all this, people still insist on repeating the party line. Being a scientist, I’ve often gone to lengths to track down the “good” research that proved these ideas faulty.  Unfortunately, sending these papers and sources to people has had mixed results.

So imagine my surprise when one of my good friends who has been really skeptical of all the paleo research I’ve told him about sent me a link to this article the other day. It discusses the use of very-low-carb (VLC), or ketogenic, diets as therapy for a range of diseases and conditions, and cites many research studies as support for each of its conclusions. My friend was impressed with the article, and–once I read through it–I was pleasantly surprised as well. The article takes a large stack of supporting research and boils it down to concise points, in a way that many other writers and researchers in this field that I have read have struggled with.

The jargon can be a little dense, though, especially if you’re not used to reading professional science papers. Since technically I am a professional science writer, I decided to break down some of the key points of this article in the hopes that you can send it to some of your skeptic friends and have a smack down an informed debate with them.

Continue reading