14 April 2013

The Evolving Health blog is moving to evolvinghealth.wordpress.com

Although I've enjoyed posting from Blogger for five years now, I've found that Wordpress offers me a lot more of the functionality that I need.

So, I hope you'll join me for more posts about evidence-based food, nutrition and medicine updates over at http://www.evolvinghealth.wordpress.com.

Also, don't miss my coverage of Experimental Biology 2013 from April 19-24!


09 April 2013

Why we should adopt a "zoobiquitous" approach to health

We are all animals. It's a fact that may be unsettling for some, but for others it is a fountain of understanding and of inspiration. Since 1859, thanks to Charles Darwin, our place in the animal world has been firmly established. Yet, to this day, it is all too common within medicine (and nutrition) to have the tendency to develop a narrow-mindedness about ourselves that disconnects us from the natural world. Rarely do medical doctors ever look beyond, to other animals, for a broader perspective about their fields. As the veterinarian insider joke goes, "What do you call a physician? A veterinarian who can only treat one species." 

 This is where zoobiquity (a different, zoobiquitous approach to medicine) comes in.

What is zoobiquity? When a story of how two obese Alaskan grizzlies lost hundreds of pounds helps inform nutritionists about how they might advise their human patients on weight management, you could say that is an example of zoobiquity. When a psychiatrist finds she is able to kindly comfort a patient diagnosed with anorexia by pointing out that an eating disorder is nothing ashamed of and that, in fact, it is quite common across several species, that's zoobiquity. And, when a veterinarian oncologist and human oncologist come together to discuss the similarities of their animal and human patients and share data in an effort to improve medical outcomes of their patients, that's zoobiquity.

19 February 2013

Calories aren't right on labels and maybe that’s OK

Has it ever crossed your mind that the number of listed Calories (Kcals) of, say, a large, raw, whole apple at 116 Kcals and that of a glazed doughnut at 125 Kcals might not be an accurate comparison*? Surely, you might think, isn’t the doughnut more likely to add inches to your waistline?

You'd be right. The difference that you might have understood intuitively is that, although the number of listed Kcals are similar, your body is likely to extract more of them from the doughnut than the apple. Why the disparity then on the Kcals listing? You can lay blame on the shortcomings of the Atwater Specific-factor System.

Here's a little nutrition science history lesson: In the early 20th century, American chemist William Olin Atwater pioneered calculation of energy values from measures of heat combustion of proteins, fats and carbs. This is how we arrived to the familiar protein at 4 Kcals per gram, lipids at 9 Kcals per gram, and carbs 4 Kcals per gram. It would come to be known as the Atwater General Factor System. At the time, Atwater couldn’t account for fiber, so, in 1955, Bernice Watt and Annabel Merrill refined the system with specific Calorie conversion factors of foods, which has led to what the system is now.

11 February 2013

Experts on the evolution of human nutrition

Want to eat a diet that mimics that of our Paleolithic ancestors? It might be a little more complicated than what the popular books say.

The fact is, there was never one Paleo Diet; it's more likely there were hundreds of them and that they were continually changing and broadening over evolutionary time.

That was the overarching message of an impressive lineup of experts on ancient human diets at a symposium entitled "The Evolution of Human Nutrition" organized by the Center of Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) at UC San Diego on December 7, 2012.

Now, I'm happy to report, the videos of a few of the talks have been made available (embedded in this post below). You can also read what other folks on Twitter had to say about the event using the #CARTAsymp hashtag in my Storify story.

20 January 2013

The nutritional biology of human skin color

The amount of melanin found within our skin has long been a source of division for humans culturally, but anthropologist Nina Jablonski of Penn State tells the story of how human skin color unites us all biologically.

It's become one of my favorite stories to share as it relates to nutritional biology: More pigment was naturally selected because it acted as a sunscreen needed to protect against DNA damage and destruction of folate, needed for reproduction. Depigmentation was selected for when humans dispersed from Africa and into the Northern Hemisphere where they needed skin light enough to absorb sufficient UVB rays to produce vitamin D.

I first heard Jablonski discuss the nature of human skin pigmentation almost two years ago at the AAAS conference in Washington DC. Later, I discovered her TED talk, which I've posted above. It's older, but worth watching over and over again. Jablonski has a simple message: instead of using skin color to discriminate, use skin color to teach people about evolution and health.

What a Komodo dragon can teach us about energy balance

Credit: San Diego Zoo
Try telling a Komodo dragon that physical activity doesn't matter and that all one needs to do to lose weight is eat a diet lower in carbohydrates.

Meet Sunny, the obese Komodo dragon. Her San Diego Zoo keepers have put her on a strict diet based on her animal energy and metabolic requirements. She eats only mice, rats, and ground turkey mixed with vitamins and calcium. Yet, it's not enough to keep Sunny from steadily gaining weight. When in captivity, dragons are prone to obesity because of their mainly sedentary lifestyle. They do little else than sleep, bask in the sun or shade, and eat breakfast or supper.

In their native habitat of Indonesian islands, Komodo dragons are extremely active. They travel up to 10 kilometers a day, run up to 13 miles per hour, swim several kilometers from island to island, then dig or climb as they hunt. Once they capture their prey, they can eat as much as 80 percent of their body weight in a single meal. That energy they will serve to store for often days or weeks.

When I asked senior zookeeper Ken Morgan what he was doing to help get Sunny moving and losing weight, he replied that they were trying a series of enrichment programs. But getting a 200-pound dragon to do any activity at all is no easy task, he said. It takes some creativity. One enrichment program Morgan has used involves burying a ball with a dead mouse inside. Sunny picks up the scent, spends some time searching for it, then digs around before finally discovering the treasure. It's activity accomplished. These games can help Sunny burn more calories to keep weight off.

What journalists should know before writing about fructophobia

"Pick your poison" Sugars by vavroom, on Flickr

In his new book, Fat Chance, Dr. Robert Lustig argues that "sugar is more toxin than it ever was nutrient." He writes that sugar is as addictive as cocaine, that it should be regulated like tobacco, and that children should be carded before having a soda. He compares the fructose component of sugar to ethanol. "Pick your poison," he writes, arguing that fructose will "fry your liver and cause all the same diseases as does alcohol." He also challenges energy balance (calories-in-calories-out) as the dominant paradigm of understanding obesity and and argues that sugar is harmful in ways beyond the calories it provides.

With statements as controversial as these, it's no wonder that the media, who tend to crave sensationalism to obtain readers or viewers, eat them up like candy. And Dr. Lustig knows what he's doing and just what to say to elicit attention. He's no stranger to the spotlight, as Elizabeth Weil writes in her article featuring the pediatric endocrinologist. The showman-doctor also knows just how to tell a classic falling-prey-to-cruelty story. He'd have his readers believe just what they want to hear: that their weight gain is not their fault, that the great evil monster of the food industry is putting addictive "poison" in their food in the form of sugar, and that the government is standing "idly by" letting it all happen. After reading Dr. Lustig's book, it's easy to understand why readers are entertained and maybe even enraged enough to give up on sugary sodas, cheese cake, and apple pie. But are the arguments Dr. Lustig makes in the book right or wrong?

02 December 2012

Why you can all stop saying meat eating fueled evolution of larger brains right now

Returning from hunt
Hadza returning from hunt in Tanzania. Credit Andy Lederer.
In William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, Sir Andrew, who was worried that a joke may have been made at his expense, reasons out loud that maybe his diet had something to do with his lack of intelligence, saying, "But I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit" (Act I, Scene III). Dialogue like that was how Shakespeare famously poked fun at what he considered "foolery" in his time; it was a common belief of the Elizabethan Age that eating too much meat made you a meat-head. Now, it appears the tables have turned. Vegetarians are getting a taste of similar medicine from comedians of our time.

On November 15th's episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert interviewed one of the world's foremost paleoanthropologists, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, about his newly published book. During their conversation, Stringer sums up nicely why meat eating may have been the primary force that drove evolution of a brain-gut tradeoff, where a shrinking gut allowed for more energy input into the brain. Here is Stringer's explanation at about minute 18:30 in the episode:
Chris Stringer: "There's a thing called 'expensive tissue hypothesis'. And this says we evolved our large brains by changing our diets. Our ancestors had great big guts because they were vegetarian. They never had enough spare energy because their guts were using 20 percent of their energy; they never had enough spare energy to evolve a large brain. When we started eating meat, a much more concentrated sort of food, it freed up energy and we could start to run a bigger brain."
Stephen Colbert: "That's why vegetarianism seems so stupid to me."

11 November 2012

Human vs. chimps: What the "regulome" tells us about meat eating & bigger brains

Source: Greg Wray
The story about how humans evolved bigger brains begins some seven million years ago in central Africa. There, in a dense rainforest, there lived the last ancestor that we share with our closest living relatives. Our evolutionary paths diverged when the global climate changed and a new habitat took shape. While ancestors of chimpanzees retreated deeper into the rainforest to subsist on a diet mainly of fruits, our ancestors found themselves in on strange, new, dry grassland.

The savanna would mean a new way of life for our ancestors. They'd learn to use tools, communicate with each other using language, and work together to hunt animals for food. Based on fossil evidence and stable isotope data, our hominin ancestors shifted to a diet where meat was a principal energy source about two million years ago. It would be a major shift in diet that coincided with an increase in cranial capacity.

Now, scientists like Greg Wray, a professor of biology at Duke University, are beginning to better understand the genetic basis for the adaptation to eating meat and how it guided the development of our larger brains. During his plenary talk at the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing's (CASW) "New Horizons in Science 2012" annual conference in Durham, North Carolina, Wray said that the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project gave scientists like himself a "detailed street map" for seeking out the genetic changes that took place since the divergence of humans and chimpanzees over evolutionary time.