Monday, September 9, 2013

Waist-to-weight ratios in pictures: The John Stone transformation


John Stone is a bodybuilder and founder of a bodybuilding and fitness web site (). There he has provided pictures and stats of his remarkable transformation, which were used to prepare the montage below.



John’s height is reported as 5' 11.5". Below the photos are the months in which they were taken, the waist circumferences in inches, the weights in lbs, and the waist-to-weight ratios (WWRs). Abhi was kind enough to provide a more detailed plot of John Stone’s WWRs ().

Assuming that minimizing one’s WWR is healthy, an idea whose rationale was explained here before (), we could say that John was at his most unhealthy in the photo on the left.

The second photo from the left shows a slightly more healthy state, at a reported 8 percent body fat (his lowest). The two photos on the right represent states in which John’s WWR is at its lowest, namely 0.1544. That is, in these two photos John minimized his WWR; at a reported 14 and 13.8 percent body fat, respectively.

When we look at the WWRs in these photos, it seems that he is only marginally healthier in the second photo from the left than in the leftmost photo. In the two photos on the right, the WWRs are much lower (they are the same), suggesting that he was significantly healthier in those photos.

Interestingly, in both photos on the right John reported to have been at the end of bulking periods. Whenever he entered a cutting period his WWR started going up. This suggests that his ratio of lean body mass to total mass started decreasing just as soon as he started cutting. I suspect the same would happen if he continued gaining weight.

Which of the two photos on the right represents the best state? Assuming that both states are sustainable, over the long run I would argue that the best state is the one where the WWR was minimized with the lowest weight. There whole-day joint stress is lower. This corresponds to the photo at the far right.

By sustainable states I mean states that are not reached through approaches that are unhealthy in the long term; e.g., approaches that place organs under such an abnormal stress that they are damaged over time. This kind of damage is essentially what happens when we become obese – i.e., too fat. One can also become too muscular for his or her own good.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Is Refined Carbohydrate Addictive?

[Note: in previous versions, I mixed up "LGI" and "HGI" terms in a couple of spots.  These are now corrected.  Thanks to readers for pointing them out.]

Recently, a new study was published that triggered an avalanche of media reports suggesting that refined carbohydrate may be addictive:

Refined Carbs May Trigger Food Addiction
Refined Carbs May Trigger Food Addictions
Can You be Addicted to Carbs?
etc.

This makes for attention-grabbing headlines, but in fact the study had virtually nothing to do with food addiction.  The study made no attempt to measure addictive behavior related to refined carbohydrate or any other food, nor did it aim to do so.

So what did the study actually find, why is it being extrapolated to food addiction, and is this a reasonable extrapolation?  Answering these questions dredges up a number of interesting scientific points, some of which undermine popular notions of what determines eating behavior.

Read more »

Monday, August 26, 2013

More Thoughts on Cold Training: Biology Chimes In

Now that the concept of cold training for cold adaptation and fat loss has received scientific support, I've been thinking more about how to apply it.  A number of people have been practicing cold training for a long time, using various methods, most of which haven't been scientifically validated.  That doesn't mean the methods don't work (some of them probably do), but I don't know how far we can generalize individual results prior to seeing controlled studies.

The studies that were published two weeks ago used prolonged, mild cold exposure (60-63 F air) to achieve cold adaptation and fat loss (12).  We still don't know whether or not we would see the same outcome from short, intense cold exposure such as a cold shower or brief cold water plunge.  Also, the fat loss that occurred was modest (5%), and the subjects started off lean rather than overweight.  Normally, overweight people lose more fat than lean people given the same fat loss intervention, but this possibility remains untested.  So the current research leaves a lot of stones unturned, some of which are directly relevant to popular cold training concepts.

In my last post on brown fat, I mentioned that we already know a lot about how brown fat activity is regulated, and I touched briefly on a few key points.  As is often the case, understanding the underlying biology provides clues that may help us train more effectively.  Let's see what the biology has to say.

Biology of Temperature Regulation

Read more »

Could we have evolved traits that are detrimental to our survival?


Let us assume that we collected data on the presence or absence of a trait (e.g., propensity toward risky behavior) in a population of individuals, as well as on intermediate effects of the trait, downstream effects on mating and survival success, and ultimately on reproductive success (a.k.a. “fitness”, in evolutionary biology).

The data would have been collected over several generations. Let us also assume that we conducted a multivariate analysis on this data, of the same type as the analyses employing WarpPLS that were discussed here in previous posts (). The results are summarized through the graph below.



Each of the numbers next to the arrows in the graph below represents the strength of a cause-effect relationship. The number .244 linking “a” and “y” means that a one standard deviation variation in “a” causes a .244 standard deviation increase in “y”. It also means that a one standard deviation variation in “a” causes a 24.4 percent increase in “y” considering the average “y” as the baseline.

This type of mathematical view of evolution may look simplistic. This is an illusion. It is very general, and encompasses evolution in all living organisms, including humans. It also applies to theoretical organisms where multiple (e.g., 5, 6 etc.) sexes could exist. It even applies to non-biological organisms, as long as these organisms replicate - e.g., replicating robots.

So the trait measured by “a” has a positive effect on the intermediate effect “y”. This variable, “y” in turn has a negative effect on survival success (“s”), and a strong one at that: -.518. Examples: “a” = propensity toward risky behavior, measured as 0 (low) and 1 (high); and “y” = hunting success, measured in the same way. (That is, “a” and “y” are correlated, but “a”=1 does not always mean “y”=1.) Here the trait “a” has a negative effect on survival via its intermediate effect on “y”. If I calculate the total effect of “a” on “w” via the 9 paths that connect these two variables, I will find that it is .161.

The total effect on reproductive success is positive, which means that the trait will tend to spread in the population. In other words, the trait will evolve in the population, even though it has a negative effect on survival. This type of trait is what has been referred to as a “costly” trait ().

Say what? Do you mean to say that we have evolved traits that are unhealthy for us? Yes, I mean exactly that. Is this a “death to paleo” post? No, it is not. I discussed this topic here before, several years ago (). But the existence of costly traits is one of the main reasons why I don’t think that mimicking our evolutionary past is necessarily healthy. For example, many of our male ancestors were warriors, and they died early because of that.

What type of trait will present this evolutionary pattern – i.e., be a costly trait? One answer is: a trait that is found to be attractive by members of the other sex, and that is not very healthy. For example, a behavior that is perceived as “sexy”, but that is also associated with increased mortality. This would likely be a behavior prominently displayed by males, since in most species, including humans, sexual selection pressure is much more strongly applied by females than by males.

Examples would be aggressiveness and propensity toward risky behavior, especially in high-stress situations such as hunting and intergroup conflict (e.g., a war between two tribes) where being aggressive is likely to benefit an individual’s group. In warrior societies, both aggressiveness and propensity toward risky behavior are associated with higher social status and a greater ability to procure mates. These traits are usually seen as male traits in these societies.

Here is something interesting. Judging from our knowledge of various warrior societies, including American plains Indians societies, the main currency of warrior societies were counts of risky acts, not battle effectiveness. Slapping a fierce enemy warrior on the face and living to tell the story would be more valuable, in terms of “counting coup”, than killing a few inexperienced enemy warriors in an ambush.

Greater propensity toward risky behavior among men is widespread and well documented, and is very likely the result of evolutionary forces, operating on costly traits. Genetic traits evolved primarily by pressure on one sex are often present in the other (e.g., men have nipples). There are different grades of risky behavior today. At the high end of the scale would be things that can kill suddenly like race car driving and free solo climbing (, ). (If you'd like to know the source of the awesome background song of the second video linked, here it is: Radical Face's "Welcome Home".)

One interesting link between risky behavior and diet refers to the consumption of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Risky behavior may be connected with aggressive behavior, which may in turn be encouraged by greater consumption of foods rich in omega-6 fats and avoidance of foods rich in omega-3 fats (, ). This may be behind our apparent preference for foods rich in omega-6 fats, even though tipping the balance toward more foods rich in omega-3 fats would be beneficial for survival. We would be "calmer" though - not a high priority among most men, particularly young men.

This evolved preference may also be behind the appeal of industrial foods that are very rich in omega-6 fats. These foods seem to be particularly bad for us in the long term. But when the sources of omega-6 fats are unprocessed foods, the negative effects seem to become "invisible" to statistical tests.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium

I just returned from the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium in Atlanta.  Despite a few challenges with the audio/visual setup, I think it went well.

I arrived on Thursday evening, and so I missed a few talks that would have been interesting to attend, by Mel Konner, Nassim Taleb, Gad Saad, and Hamilton Stapell.  Dr. Konner is one of the progenitors of the modern Paleo movement.  Dr. Saad does interesting work on consummatory behavior, reward, and its possible evolutionary basis.  Dr. Stapell is a historian with an interest in the modern Paleo movement.  He got some heat for suggesting that the movement is unlikely to go truly mainstream, which I agree with.  I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him and found him to be an interesting person.

On Friday, Chris Kresser gave a nice talk about the potential hidden costs of eradicating our intestinal parasites and inadvertently altering our gut flora.  Unfortunately it was concurrent with Chris Masterjohn so I'll have to watch his talk on fat-soluble vitamins when it's posted.  I spent most of the rest of the day practicing my talk.

On Saturday morning, I gave my talk "Insulin and Obesity: Reconciling Conflicting Evidence".  I think it went well, and the feedback overall was very positive, both on the content and the delivery.  The conference is fairly low-carb-centric and I know some people disagree with my perspective on insulin, and that's OK.   The-question-and-answer session after the talk was also productive, with some comments/questions from Andreas Eenfeldt and others.  With the completion of this talk, I've addressed the topic to my satisfaction and I don't expect to spend much more time on it unless important new data emerge.  The talk will be freely available online at some point, and I expect it to become a valuable resource for people who want to learn more about the relationship between insulin and obesity.  It should be accessible to anyone with a little bit of background in the subject, but it will also be informative to most researchers.

After my talk, I attended several other good presentations.  Dan Pardi gave a nice talk on the importance of sleep and the circadian rhythm, how it works, how the modern world disrupts it, and how to fix it.  The relationship between sleep and health is a very hot area of research right now, it fits seamlessly with the evolutionary perspective, and Pardi showed off his high level of expertise in the subject.  He included the results of an interesting sleep study he conducted as part of his doctoral work at Stanford, showing that sleep restriction makes us more likely to choose foods we perceive as unhealthy.

Sleep and the circadian rhythm was a recurrent theme at AHS13.  A lot of interesting research is emerging on sleep, body weight, and health, and the ancestral community has been quick to embrace this research and integrate it into the ancestral health template.  I think it's a big piece of the puzzle.

Jeff Rothschild gave a nice summary of the research on time-restricted feeding, body weight and health in animal models and humans.  Research in this area is expanding and the results are pretty interesting, suggesting that when you restrict a rodent's feeding window to the time of day when it would naturally consume food (rather than giving constant access during both day and night), it becomes more resistant to obesity even when exposed to a fattening diet.  Rothschild tied this concept together with circadian regulation in a compelling way.  Since food is one of the stimuli that sets the circadian clock, Rothschild proposes to eat when the sun is up, and not when it's down, synchronizing eating behavior with the natural seasonal light rhythm.  I think it's a great idea, although it wouldn't be practical for me to implement it currently.  Maybe someday if I have a more flexible schedule.  Rothschild is about to publish a review paper on this topic as part of his master's degree training, so keep your eyes peeled.

Kevin Boyd gave a very compelling talk about malocclusion (underdeveloped jaws and crowded teeth) and breathing problems, particularly those occurring during sleep.  Malocclusion is a modern epidemic with major health implications, as Dr. Boyd showed by his analysis of ancient vs. modern skulls.  The differences in palate development between our recent ancestors (less than 200 years ago) and modern humans are consistent and striking, as Weston Price also noted a century ago.  Dr. Boyd believes that changing infant feeding practices (primarily the replacement of breast feeding with bottle feeding) is the main responsible factor, due to the different mechanical stimulation it provides, and he's proposing to test that hypothesis using the tools of modern research.  He's presented his research at prestigious organizations and in high-impact scientific journals, so I think this idea may really be gaining traction.  Very exciting.

I was honored when Dr. Boyd told me that my 9-part series on malocclusion is what got him interested in this problem (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9).  His research has of course taken it further than I did, and as a dentist his understanding of malocclusion is deeper than mine.  He's a middle-aged man who is going back to school to do this research, and his enthusiasm is palpable.  Robert Corruccini, a quality anthropology researcher and notable proponent of the idea that malocclusion is a "disease of civilization" and not purely inherited, is one of his advisers.

There were a number of excellent talks, and others that didn't meet my standards for information quality.  Overall, an interesting conference with seemingly less drama than in previous years.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

AHS Talk This Saturday

For those who are attending the Ancestral Health Symposium this year, my talk will be at 9:00 AM on Saturday.  The title is "Insulin and Obesity: Reconciling Conflicting Evidence", and it will focus on the following two questions:
  1. Does elevated insulin cause obesity; does obesity cause elevated insulin; or both?
  2. Is there a unifying hypothesis that's able to explain all of the seemingly conflicting evidence cited by each side of the debate?
I'll approach the matter in true scientific fashion: stating hypotheses, making rational predictions based on those hypotheses, and seeing how well the evidence matches the predictions.  I'll explore the evidence in a way that has never been done before (to my knowledge), even on this blog.

Why am I giving this talk?  Two reasons.  First, it's an important question that has implications for the prevention and treatment of obesity, and it has received a lot of interest in the ancestral health community and to some extent among obesity researchers.  Second, I study the mechanisms of obesity professionally, I'm wrapping up a postdoc in a lab that has focused on the role of insulin in body fatness (lab of Dr. Michael W. Schwartz), and I've thought about this question a lot over the years-- so I'm in a good position to speak about it.

The talk will be accessible and informative to almost all knowledge levels, including researchers, physicians, and anyone who knows a little bit about insulin.  I'll cover most of the basics as we go.  I guarantee you'll learn something, whatever your knowledge level.

Monday, August 12, 2013

We share an ancestor who probably lived no more than 640 years ago

This post is a revised version of a previous post. The original post has been or will be deleted, with the comments preserved. Typically this is done with posts that attract many visits at the time they are published, and whose topics become particularly relevant or need to be re-addressed at a later date.

***

We all evolved from one single-celled organism that lived billions of years ago. I don’t see why this is so hard for some people to believe, given that all of us also developed from a single fertilized cell in just 9 months.

However, our most recent common ancestor is not that first single-celled organism, nor is it the first Homo sapiens, or even the first Cro-Magnon.

The majority of the people who read this blog probably share a common ancestor who lived no more than 640 years ago. Genealogical records often reveal interesting connections - the figure below has been cropped from a larger one from Pinterest.


You and I, whoever you are, have each two parents. Each of our parents have (or had) two parents, who themselves had two parents. And so on.

If we keep going back in time, and assume that you and I do not share a common ancestor, there will be a point where the theoretical world population would have to be impossibly large.

Assuming a new generation coming up every 20 years, and going backwards in time, we get a theoretical population chart like the one below. The theoretical population grows in an exponential, or geometric, fashion.


As we move back in time the bars go up in size. Beyond a certain point their sizes go up so fast that you have to segment the chart. Otherwise the bars on the left side of the chart disappear in comparison to the ones on the right side (as several did on the chart above). Below is the section of the chart going back to the year 1371.


The year 1371 is a mere 640 years ago. And what is the theoretical population in that year if we assume that you and I have no common ancestors? The answer is: more than 8.5 billion people. We know that is not true.

Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic view of this phenomenon, used here primarily to make a point. For example, it is possible that a population of humans became isolated 15 thousand years ago, remained isolated to the present day, and that one of their descendants just happened to be around reading this blog today.

Perhaps the most widely cited article discussing this idea is this one by Joseph T. Chang, published in the journal Advances in Applied Probability. For a more accessible introduction to the idea, see this article by Joe Kissell.

Estimates vary based on the portion of the population considered. There are also assumptions that have to be made based on migration and mating patterns, as well as the time for each generation to emerge and the stability of that number over time.

Still, most people alive today share a common ancestor who lived a lot more recently than they think. In most cases that common ancestor probably lived less than 640 years ago.

And who was that common ancestor? That person was probably a man who, due to a high perceived social status, had many consorts, who gave birth to many children. Someone like Genghis Khan.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Food Reward Friday

This week's lucky "winner"... cola!

Thirsty yet?  Visual cues such as these are used to drive food/beverage seeking and consumption behavior, which are used to drive profits.  How does this work?  Once you've consumed a rewarding beverage enough times, particularly as a malleable child, your brain comes to associate everything about that beverage with the primary reward you obtained from it (calories, sugar, and caffeine).  This is simply Pavlovian/classical conditioning*.  Everything associated with that beverage becomes a cue that triggers motivation to obtain it (craving), including the sight of it, the smell of it, the sound of a can popping, and even the physical and social environment it was consumed in-- just like Pavlov's dogs learned to drool at the sound of a bell that was repeatedly paired with food.

Read more »

Monday, July 29, 2013

Could grain-fed beef liver be particularly nutritious?


There is a pervasive belief today that grain-fed beef is unhealthy, a belief that I addressed before in this blog () and that I think is exaggerated. This general belief seems to also apply to a related meat, one that is widely acknowledged as a major micronutrient “powerhouse”, namely grain-fed beef liver.

Regarding grain-fed beef liver, the idea is that cattle that are grain-fed tend to develop a mild form of fatty liver disease. This I am inclined to agree with.

However, I am not convinced that this is such a bad thing for those who eat grain-fed beef liver.

In most animals, including Homo sapiens, fatty liver disease seems to be associated with extra load being put on the liver. Possible reasons for this are accelerated growth, abnormally high levels of body fat, and ingestion of toxins beyond a certain hormetic threshold (e.g., alcohol).

In these cases, what would one expect to see as a body response? The extra load is associated with high oxidative stress and rate of metabolic work. In response, the body should shuttle more antioxidants and metabolism catalysts to the organ being overloaded. Fat-soluble vitamins can act as antioxidants and catalysts in various metabolic processes, among other important functions. They require fat to be stored, and can then be released over time, which is a major advantage over water-soluble vitamins; fat-soluble vitamins are longer-acting.

So you would expect an overloaded liver to have more fat in it, and also a greater concentration of fat-soluble vitamins. This would include vitamin A, which would give the liver an unnatural color, toward the orange-yellow range of the spectrum.

Grain-fed beef liver, like the muscle meat of grain-fed cattle, tends to have more fat than that of grass-fed animals. One function of this extra fat could be to store fat-soluble vitamins. This extra fat appears to have a higher omega-6 fat content as well. Still, beef liver is a fairly lean meat; with about 5 g of fat per 100 g of weight, and only 20 mg or so of omega-6 fat. Clearly consumption of beef liver in moderation is unlikely to lead to a significant increase in omega-6 fat content in one’s diet (). By consumption in moderation I mean approximately once a week.

The photo below, from Wikipedia, is of a dish prepared with foie gras. That is essentially the liver of a duck or goose that has been fattened through force-feeding, until the animal develops fatty liver disease. This “diseased” liver is particularly rich in fat-soluble vitamins; e.g., it is the best known source of the all-important vitamin K2.



Could the same happen, although to a lesser extent, with grain-fed beef liver? I don’t think it is unreasonable to speculate that it could.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Brown Fat: It's a Big Deal

Non-shivering thermogenesis is the process by which the body generates extra heat without shivering.  Shivering is a way for the body to use muscular contractions to generate heat, but non-shivering thermogenesis uses a completely different mechanism to accomplish the same goal: a specialized fat-burning tissue called brown fat.  Brown fat is brown rather than white because it's packed with mitochondria, the power plants of the cell.  Under cold conditions, these mitochondria are activated, using a specialized molecular mechanism called uncoupling* to generate heat.

The mechanism of brown fat activation has been worked out fairly well in rodents, which rely heavily on non-shivering thermogenesis due to their small body size.  Specialized areas of the hypothalamus in the brain sense body temperature (through sensors in the brain and body), body energy status (by measuring leptin and satiety signals), stress level, and probably other factors, and integrate this information to set brown fat activity.  The hypothalamus does this by acting through the sympathetic nervous system, which heavily innervates brown fat.  As an aside, this process works basically the same in humans, as far as we currently know.  Those who claim that rodent models are irrelevant to humans are completely full of hot air**, as the high degree of conservation of the hypothalamus over 75 million years of evolution demonstrates.

Two new studies concurrently published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation last week demonstrate what I've suspected for a long time: brown fat can be 'trained' by cold exposure to be more active, and its activation by cold can reduce body fatness.

Read more »

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Zucchini: The Home Gardener's Worst Friend? With bonus garden-related rambling.

One of my main gardening goals has been to harvest more of something than I can eat, despite my limited gardening space here in the Emerald City.  I want the feeling of abundance that comes with having to preserve and give away food because I can't eat it all.

Enter zucchini.  My grandfather used to say that in New Jersey in summertime, you'd have to keep your car doors locked, otherwise the car would be full of zucchini the next time you got in!  In mid-May, I planted two starts from my local grocery store labeled "green zucchini", with no further information.  I put them in a bed that used to be a pile of composted horse manure, and that I had also cover cropped, mulched, fertilized, and loosened deeply with my broadfork.  They look pleased.


Read more »

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Genetics of Obesity, Part III

Genetics Loads the Gun, Environment Pulls the Trigger

Thanks to a WHS reader* for reminding me of the above quote by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health**.  This is a concept that helps reconcile the following two seemingly contradictory observations:
  1. Roughly 70 percent of obesity risk is genetically inherited, leaving only 30 percent of risk to environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle.
  2. Diet and lifestyle have a large impact on obesity risk.  The prevalence of obesity has tripled in the last 30 years, and the prevalence of extreme obesity has increased by almost 10-fold.  This is presumably not enough time for genetic changes to account for it.
Read more »

Monday, July 15, 2013

Return to the Source Parkour Camp

For those who are interested in natural movement training, this summer my friend Rafe Kelley will be hosting an interesting three-day event near Bellingham, WA called "Return to the Source".  Rafe is skilled in a variety of movement disciplines and is the co-founder of the Seattle parkour gym Parkour Visions.  Parkour is a very fun sport that hones our natural ability to skillfully navigate physical obstacles, but it's usually done in an urban context.

The camp will take place from August 23-25.  Here's a description from the Parkour Visions site:
"This summer, return to the source of human movement with Parkour Visions as we explore the natural environment in and around Bellingham, WA. Rafe Kelley will introduce you to the benefits of training and playing in nature. You will learn how to adapt your technique and movement to moving effectively through woods, over rocks, and in trees during this unique, 3-day experience."
Watch this video if you want to see what you're in for.

Knowing Rafe, it will be fun and productive.  You can sign up through this page.

How can carrying some extra body fat be healthy?


Most of the empirical investigations into the association between body mass index (BMI) and mortality suggest that the lowest-mortality BMI is approximately on the border between the normal and overweight ranges. Or, as Peter put it (): "Getting fat is good."

As much as one may be tempted to explain this based only on the relative contribution of lean body mass to total weight, the evidence suggests that both body fat and lean body mass contribute to this phenomenon. In fact, the evidence suggests that carrying some extra body fat may be healthy for many.

Yet, the scientific evidence strongly suggests that body fat accumulation beyond a certain point is unhealthy. There seems to be a sweet spot of body fat percentage, and that sweet spot may vary a lot across different individuals.

One interesting aspect of most empirical investigations of the association between BMI and mortality is that the participants live in urban or semi-urban societies. When you look at hunter-gatherer societies, the picture seems to be a bit different. The graph below shows the distribution of BMIs among males in Kitava and Sweden, from a study by Lindeberg and colleagues ().



In Sweden, a lowest mortality BMI of 26 would correspond to a point on the x axis that would rise up approximately to the middle of the distribution of data points from Sweden in the graph. It is reasonable to assume that this would also happen in Kitava, in which case the lowest mortality BMI would be around 20.

One of the key differences between urbanites and hunter-gatherers is the greater energy expenditure among the latter; hunter-gatherers generally move more. This provides a clue as to why some extra body fat may be healthy among urbanites. Hunter-gatherers spend more energy, so they have to consume more “natural” food, and thus more nutrients, to maintain their lean body mass.

A person’s energy expenditure is strongly dependent on a few variables, including body weight and physical activity. Let us assume that a hunter-gatherer, due to a reasonably high level of physical activity, maintains a BMI of 20 while consuming 3,000 kilocalories (a.k.a. calories) per day. An urbanite with the same height, but a lower level of physical activity, may need a higher body weight, and thus a higher BMI, to consume 3,000 calories per day at maintenance.

And why would someone want to consume 3,000 calories per day? Why not 1,500? The reason is nutrient intake, particularly micronutrient intake – intake of vitamins and minerals that are used by the body in various processes. Unfortunately it seems that micronutrient supplementation (e.g., a multivitamin pill) is largely ineffective except in cases of pathological deficiency.

Urbanites may need to carry a bit of extra body fat to be able to have an appropriate intake of micronutrients to maintain their lean body structures in a healthy state. Obviously the type of food eaten matters a lot. A high nutrient-to-calorie ratio is generally desirable. However, we cannot forget that we also need to eat fat, in part because without it we cannot properly absorb the all-important fat-soluble vitamins. And dietary fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient of all.

Why not putting on extra muscle instead of carrying the extra fat? For one, that is not easy when you are a sedentary urbanite. Particularly after a certain age, if you try too hard you end up getting injured. But there is another interesting angle to consider. Humans, like many other animals, have genetic “protections” against high muscularity, such as the protein myostatin. Myostatin is produced mostly in muscle cells; it acts on muscle, by inhibiting its growth.

Say what? Why would evolution favor something like myostatin? Big, muscular humans could be at the top of the food chain by physical strength alone; they could kill a lion with their bare hands. Well, it is possible. (Many men like to think of themselves as warriors, probably because most of them are not.) But evolution favors what works best given the ecological niches available. In our case, it favored bigger and more plastic brains to occupy what Steve Pinker called a “cognitive niche”.

Even though fat mass is not inert, secreting a number of hormones into the bloodstream, the micronutrient “need” of fat mass is likely much lower than the micronutrient need of non-fat mass. That is, a kilogram of lean mass likely puts a higher demand on micronutrients than a kilogram of fat mass. This should be particularly the case for organs, such as the liver, but also applies to muscle tissue.

While gaining muscle mass through moderate exercise is extremely healthy, bulking up beyond one’s natural limitations may actually backfire. It could increase the demand for micronutrients above what a person can actually consume and absorb through a healthy nutritious diet. Some extra fat mass allows for a higher level of micronutrient intake at weight maintenance, with a lower demand for micronutrients than the same amount of extra lean mass.

Some people are naturally more muscular. Their frame and underlying organ-based capabilities probably support that. It is often visibly noticeable when they go beyond their organ-based capabilities. A common trait among many professional bodybuilders, who usually go beyond the genetic gifts that they naturally have, is an abnormal swelling of internal organs.

What complicates this discussion is that all of this seems to vary from individual to individual. People have to find their sweet spots, and doing that may not be the simplest of tasks. For example, even measuring body fat percentage with some precision is difficult and costly. Also, certain types of fat are less desirable than others – visceral versus subcutaneous body fat. It is not easy differentiating one from the other ().

How do you find your sweet spot in terms of body fat percentage? One of the most promising approaches is to find the point at which your waist-to-weight ratio is minimized ().

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Genetics of Obesity, Part II

Rodents Lead the Way

The study of obesity genetics dates back more than half a century.  In 1949, researchers at the Jackson Laboratories identified a remarkably fat mouse, which they determined carried a spontaneous mutation in an unidentified gene.  They named this the "obese" (ob/ob) mouse.  Over the next few decades, researchers identified several other genetically obese mice with spontaneous mutations, including diabetic (db/db) mice, "agouti" (Avy) mice, and "Zucker" (fa/fa) rats.

At the time of discovery, no one knew where the mutations resided in the genome.  All they knew is that the mutations were in single genes, and they resulted in extreme obesity.  Researchers recognized this as a huge opportunity to learn something important about the regulation of body fatness in an unbiased way.  Unbiased because these mutations could be identified with no prior knowledge about their function, therefore the investigators' pre-existing beliefs about the mechanisms of body fat regulation could have no impact on what they learned.  Many different research groups tried to pin down the underlying source of dysfunction: some thought it was elevated insulin and changes in adipose tissue metabolism, others thought it was elevated cortisol, and a variety of other hypotheses.

Read more »

Monday, July 1, 2013

An illustration of the waist-to-weight ratio theory: The fit2fat2fit experiment


In my previous blog post, I argued that one’s optimal weight may be the one that minimizes one’s waist-to-weight ratio. I built this argument based on the fact that body fat percentage is associated with lean body mass (and also weight) in a nonlinear way.

The fit2fat2fit experiment (), provides what seems to be an interestingly way to put this optimal waist-to-weight ratio theory to test. This is due to a fortuitous event, as I explain in this post.

In this experiment, Drew Manning, a personal trainer, decided to undergo a transformation where he went from what he argued was his fittest level, all the way to obese, and then back to fit again. He said that he wanted to do that so that he could better understand his clients’ struggles. This may be true, but it looks like he planned very well his experiment from a marketing perspective.

His fittest level was at the start, with a weight of 193 lbs, at a height of 6 ft 2 in. That was his fittest level according to his own opinion. At that point, he had a waist of 34.5 in, and looked indeed very fit (). At his fattest level, he reached the weight of 264.8 pounds, with a 47.5 waist.

As he moved back to fit, one interesting thing happened. Toward the end of this journey back to fit, he moved past the level that he felt was his optimal. He dropped down to 190.1 lbs, and a 34 in waist; which he perceived as too skinny. He talks about this in a video ().

As a self-defined “fanatic” personal trainer, I figured that he knew when he had gone too far. That is, he is probably as qualified as one can get to identify the point at which he moved past his optimal. So I thought that this would be an interesting way of putting my optimal waist-to-weight ratio theory to the test.

Below is a bar chart showing variations in waist-to-weight ratio against weight for Drew Manning during his fit2fat2fit experiment. I included only three data points in this chart because I would have to view all of his video clips to get all of the data points.



As you can see, at the point at which he felt he was too thin, his waist-to-weight ratio clearly started going up from what seems to have been its optimal at 34.5 in / 193 lbs. This is exactly what you would expect based on my optimal waist-to-weight ratio theory. You probably can’t tell that something was not right at that point, because he looked very fit.

But apparently he felt that something was not entirely right. And that is consistent with the idea that he had passed his optimal waist-to-weight ratio, and became too lean for his own good. Note that his waist decreased, and probably could go down even further, even though that was no longer optimal.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Genetics of Obesity, Part I

Choosing the Right Parents: the Best Way to Stay Lean?

In 1990, Dr. Claude Bouchard and colleagues published a simple but fascinating study demonstrating the importance of genetics in body fatness (1).  They took advantage of one of the most useful tools in human genetics: identical twins.  This is what happens when a single fertilized egg generates two embryos in utero and two genetically identical humans are born from the same womb.   By comparing identical twins to other people who are not genetically identical (e.g., non-identical twins), we can quantify the impact of genes vs. environment on individual characteristics (2).

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Food Reward Friday

This week's lucky "winner"... low-carb gluten-free bacon chocolate mocha ice cream cake!!


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Monday, June 17, 2013

What is your optimal weight? Maybe it is the one that minimizes your waist-to-weight ratio


There is a significant amount of empirical evidence suggesting that, for a given individual and under normal circumstances, the optimal weight is the one that maximizes the ratio below, where: L = lean body mass, and T = total mass.

L / T

L is difficult and often costly to measure. T can be measured easily, as one’s total weight.

Through some simple algebraic manipulations, you can see below that the ratio above can be rewritten in terms of one’s body fat mass (F).

L / T = (T – F) / T = 1 – F / T

Therefore, in order to maximize L / T, one should maximize 1 – F / T. This essentially means that one should minimize the second term, or the ratio below, which is one’s body fat mass (F) divided by one’s weight (T).

F / T

So, you may say, all I have to do is to minimize my body fat percentage. The problem with this is that body fat percentage is very difficult to measure with precision, and, perhaps more importantly, body fat percentage is associated with lean body mass (and also weight) in a nonlinear way.

In English, it becomes increasingly difficult to retain lean body mass as one's body fat percentage goes down. Mathematically, body fat percentage (F / T) is a nonlinear function of T, where this function has the shape of a J curve.

This is what complicates matters, making the issue somewhat counterintuitive. Six-pack abs may look good, but many people would have to sacrifice too much lean body mass for their own good to get there. Genetics definitely plays a role here, as well as other factors such as age.

Keep in mind that this (i.e., F / T) is a ratio, not an absolute measure. Given this, and to facilitate measurement, we can replace F with a variable that is highly correlated with it, and that captures one or more important dimensions particularly well. This new variable would be a proxy for F. One the most widely used proxies in this type of context is waist circumference. We’ll refer to it as W.

W may well be a very good proxy, because it is a measure that is particularly sensitive to visceral body fat mass, an important dimension of body fat mass. W likely captures variations in visceral body fat mass at the levels where this type of body fat accumulation seems to cause health problems.

Therefore, the ratio that most of us would probably want to minimize is the following, where W is one’s waist circumference, and T is one’s weight.

W / T = waist / weight


Based on the experience of HCE () users, variations in this ratio are likely to be small and require 4-decimals or more to be captured. If you want to avoid having so many decimals, you can multiply the ratio by 1000. This will have no effect on the use of the ratio to find your optimal weight; it is analogous to multiplying a ratio by 100 to express it as a percentage.

Also based on the experience of HCE users, there are fluctuations that make the ratio look like it is changing direction when it is not actually doing that. Many of these fluctuations may be due to measurement error.

If you are obese, as you lose weight through dieting, the waist / weight ratio should go down, because you will be losing more body fat mass than lean body mass, in proportion to your total body mass.

It would arguably be wise to stop losing weight when the waist / weight ratio starts going up, because at that point you will be losing more lean body mass than body fat mass, in proportion to your total body mass.

One’s lowest waist / weight ratio at a given point in time should vary depending on a number of factors, including: diet, exercise, general lifestyle, and age. This lowest ratio will also be dependent on one’s height and genetic makeup.

Mathematically, this lowest ratio is the ratio at which d(W / T) / dT = 0 and d(d(W / T) / dT) / dT > 0. That is, the first derivative of W / T with respect to T equals zero, and the second derivative is greater than zero.

The lowest waist / weight ratio is unique to each individual, and can go up and down over time (e.g., resistance exercise will push it down). Here I am talking about one's lowest waist / weight ratio at a given point in time, not one's waist / weight ratio at a given point in time.

This optimal waist / weight ratio theory is one of the most compatible with evidence regarding the lowest mortality body mass index (, ). Nevertheless, it is another ratio that gets a lot of attention in the health-related literature. I am talking about the waist / hip ratio (). In this literature, waist circumference is often used alone, not as part of a ratio.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Food Reward Friday

This week's "winner" will certainly be the most controversial yet... bacon!!
Bacon is a fatty cut of pork (typically side or back) that has been thinly sliced, cured, then cooked until crispy.  This results in a fatty, salty, savory flavor that almost everyone loves.  Bacon's extremely high calorie density, saltiness, and savory flavor give it a reward value that competes with chocolate and ice cream.  Sometimes it's even used to flavor chocolate and ice cream!

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Update

I haven't been putting much effort into blogging these past few weeks.  Frankly, a little break has been nice while I take care of other things in my life.  But I haven't been twiddling my thumbs.  Obesity research hasn't slowed down and there are many topics that I'd love to write about here if I had the time.  I'll be starting a new series soon on the genetics of obesity-- a fascinating subject.  I also plan to cover some of my recent publications on obesity and blood glucose control by the brain.  Last but not least, we will soon roll out a substantially upgraded version of the Ideal Weight Program.  Those who have already purchased the program will continue to have access to the new version.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Dr. Jekyll dieted and became Mr. Hyde


One of the most fascinating topics for an independent health researcher is the dichotomy between short- and long-term responses in successful dieters. In the short term, dieters that manage to lose a significant amount of fat mass, tend to feel quite well. Many report that their energy levels go through the roof.

A significant loss of fat mass could be considered one of 30 lbs, or 13.6 kg. This is the threshold for weight loss used in the National Weight Control Registry. Ideally you want to lose body fat, not lean mass, both of which contribute to weight loss.

So, in the short term, significant body fat loss feels pretty good for the dieters. In the long term, however, successful dieters tend to experience the symptoms of chronic stress. This should be no surprise because some of the same hormones that induce a sense of elation and high energy are the ones associated with chronic stress. These are generally referred to as “stress hormones”, of which the most prominent seem to be cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).

Stress hormones display acute elevations during intense exercise as well ().

This is all consistent with evolution, and with the idea that our hominid ancestors would not go hungry for too long, at least not on a regular basis. High energy levels, combined with hunger, would make them succeed at hunting-gathering activities, leading to a period of feast before a certain threshold of sustained caloric restriction (with or without full fasting) would be reached. This would translate into a regular and cyclical hunger-feast process, with certain caloric costs having to be met for successful hunting-gathering.

After a certain period of time under sustained caloric restriction, it would probably be adaptive among our ancestors to experience significant mental and physical discomfort. That would compel our hominid ancestors to more urgently engaged in hunting-gathering activities.

And here is a big difference between those ancestors and modern urbanites: our ancestors would actually be working towards getting food for a feast, not restraining themselves from eating what they have easily available at home or from a grocery store nearby. There are major psychological differences here. Dieting, in the sense of not eating when food is easily available, is as unnatural as obesity, if not more.

So what are some of the mechanisms by which the body dials up stress, leading to the resulting mental and physical discomfort? Here is one that seems to play a key role: hypoglycemia.

Of the different types of hypoglycemia, there is one that is quite interesting in this type of context, because it refers to hypoglycemia in response to intake of any food item that raises insulin levels; that is, food that contains protein and/or carbohydrates. More specifically, we are referring here to reactive hypoglycemia, of the same general type as that experienced by those on their way to type II diabetes.

But reactive hypoglycemia in successful dieters is often different from that of prediabetics, as it is caused by something that would sound surprising to many: successful dieters appear to become too insulin sensitive for their own good!

There is ongoing debate as to what is considered a blood glucose level that is low enough to characterize hypoglycemia. Several factors influence that, including measurement method and age. One important factor related to measurement method is this: commercial fingerstick glucose meters tend to grossly underestimate low glucose levels (e.g., 50 mg/dl shows as 30 mg/dl).

Having said that, glucose levels below 60 mg/dl are generally considered low.

Luyckx and Lefebvre selected 47 cases of reactive hypoglycemia for a study, from a total of 663 standard four-hour oral glucose tolerance tests (OGTT). They classified these 47 cases as follows, with the number of cases in each class within parentheses: obesity (11), obesity with chemical diabetes (9), postgastrectomy syndrome (3), chemical diabetes without obesity (1), renal glycosuria (7), and isolated reactive hypoglycemia (16).

Postgastrectomy is the period following a gastrectomy, which is removal of part of one’s stomach. The modern term for this stomach amputation procedure is “bariatric surgery”; admittedly a broader term, which many people say they would do as if they were referring to a walk in the park!

In the cases of isolated reactive hypoglycemia, the individuals had normal weight, normal glucose tolerance, and no glycosuria (excretion of glucose in the urine). As you can see in the paragraph above, this, isolated reactive hypoglycemia, was the category with the largest number of individuals. The figure below illustrates what happened in these cases.



The cases in question are represented in the left part of the graph with dashed lines (the full lines are for normal controls). There a reasonably normal insulin response, lower in fact in terms of area under the curve (AUC) than for the controls, leads to an abnormal reduction in blood glucose levels. They are 9 out of 16, the majority of the isolated reactive hypoglycemia cases. In those 9 individuals, insulin became “more potent”, so to speak.

Reactive hypoglycemia is frequently associated with obesity, in which case it is also associated with hyperinsulinemia, and caused by an exaggerated insulin response. About 40 percent of the reactive hypoglycemia cases in the study were classified as happening in obese individuals.

This study suggests that, if you are not obese, and you are diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia following an OGTT, chances are that the diagnosis is due to high insulin sensitivity – as opposed to low insulin sensitivity, coupled with hyperinsulinemia. A follow-up test should focus on insulin levels, to see if they are elevated; i.e., to try to detect hyperinsulinemia.

I have been blogging here long enough to hear from people who have gone the full fat2fit2fat cycle, sometimes more than once. They start dieting, go from obese to lean, feel good at first but then miserable, drop the diet, become obese or almost obese again, then start dieting again …

Quite a few are folks who do things like ditching industrial foods, regularly eating organ meats, and doing resistance exercise. How can you go wrong doing all of these, generally healthy, things? Well, they all increase your insulin sensitivity. If you don’t build in plateaus to slow down your progress, you may not give your body enough time to adapt.

You may become too lean, too fast, for your own good. The more successful the diet, the bigger is the risk. No wonder the paleo diet is being targeted lately as a “bad” diet. How can you go wrong on a diet of whole foods; “real” whole foods, not “whole wheat”? Well, here is how you can go wrong. The diet, if not managed properly, may be too successful for your own good; too much of a good thing can be a problem, you know!

See the graph below, from a previous post on a related topic (). I intend to discuss a method to identify the point at which weight loss should stop, in a future post. This method builds on the calculation of a simple index, which is unique to each individual. Let me just say now that I suspect that, with exceptions, frequently people are hurting their health by trying to have six pack abs.



But what does all this have to do with stress hormones? The connection is this. Hypoglycemia is only “felt”, as something unpleasant, due to the body’s frequent acute stress hormone response to it. Elevated levels of stress hormones also increase blood glucose levels, countering hypoglycemia. Our body’s priority is preventing hypoglycemia, not hyperglycemia ().

And here is an interesting pattern, based on anecdotal evidence from HCE () users. It seems that folks who have abnormally high insulin sensitivity, also have medium-to-high HbA1c (a measure of glycation) and fasting blood glucose levels. By medium-to-high HbA1c levels I mean 5.7 to even as high as 6.2.

Since cortisol is elevated, one would expect higher fasting blood glucose levels – the “dawn phenomenon”. But higher HbA1c, how? I am not sure, but I believe that HbA1c will be found in the future to be something a bit more complicated than what it is believed to be: a measure of average blood glucose over a period of time. I am not talking here about cases of anemia.

One indication of this complicated nature of the HbA1c is the fact that blood glucose levels in birds are high yet HbA1c levels are low, and birds live much longer than mammals of comparable size (). Some birds have extremely high glucose levels, even carnivorous birds who consume no or very small amounts of carbohydrate (e.g. hawks), with fairly low HbA1c levels.

The title of this post is inspired in the classic short novel “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson; who also authored another famous novel, “Treasure Island”. In “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, gentle Dr. Jekyll becomes nasty Mr. Hyde (see poster below, from Wikipedia).



Mr. Hyde had a bad temper, impaired judgment, and was prone to criminal behavior. Hypoglycemia has long been associated with bad temper, impaired judgment, and criminal behavior (, ).

Monday, May 20, 2013

Sudden cholesterol increase? It may be psychological


There are many published studies with evidence that cholesterol levels are positively associated with heart disease. In multivariate analyses the effects are usually small, but they are still there. On the other hand, there is also plenty of evidence that cholesterol is beneficial in terms of health. Here of course I am referring to the health of humans, not of the many parasites that benefit from disease.

For example, there is evidence () that cholesterol levels are negatively associated with mortality (i.e., higher cholesterol leading to lower mortality), and are positively associated with vitamin D production from skin exposure to sunlight ().

Most of the debris accumulated in atheromas are made up of macrophages, which are specialized cells that “eat” cell debris (ironically) and some pathogens. The drug market is still hot for cholesterol-lowering drugs, often presented in TV and Internet ads as effective tools to prevent formation of atheromas.

But what about macrophages? What about calcium, another big component of atheromas? If drugs were to target macrophages for atheroma prevention, drug users may experience major muscle wasting and problems with adaptive immunity, as macrophages play a key role in muscle repair and antibody formation. If drugs were to target calcium, users may experience osteoporosis.

So cholesterol is the target, because there is a “link” between cholesterol and atheroma formation. There is also a link between the number of house fires in a city and the amount of firefighting activity in the city, but we don’t see mayors announcing initiatives to reduce the number of firefighters in their cities to prevent house fires.

When we talk about variations in cholesterol, we usually mean variations in cholesterol carried by LDL particles. That is because LDL cholesterol seems to be very “sensitive” to a number of factors, including diet and disease, presenting quite a lot of sudden variation in response to changes in those factors.

LDL particles seem to be intimately involved with disease, but do not be so quick to conclude that they cause disease. Something so widespread and with so many functions in the human body could not be primarily an agent of disease that needs to be countered with statins. That makes no sense.

Looking at the totally of evidence linking cholesterol with health, it seems that cholesterol is extremely important for the human body, particularly when it is under attack. So the increases in LDL cholesterol associated with various diseases, notably heart disease, may not be because cholesterol is causing disease, but rather because cholesterol is being used to cope with disease.

LDL particles, and their content (including cholesterol), may be used by the body to cope with conditions that themselves cause heart disease, and end up being blamed in the process. The lipid hypothesis may be a classic case of reverse causation. A case in point is that of cholesterol responses to stress, particularly mental stress.

Grundy and Griffin () studied the effects of academic final examinations on serum cholesterol levels in 2 groups of medical students in the winter and spring semesters (see table below). During control periods, average cholesterol levels in the two groups were approximately 213 and 216 mg/dl. During the final examination periods, average cholesterol levels were 248 and 240 mg/dl. These measures were for winter and spring, respectively.



One could say that even the bigger increase from 213 to 248 is not that impressive in percentage terms, approximately 16 percent. However, HDL cholesterol does not go up significantly response to sustained (e.g., multi-day) stress, it actually goes down, so the increases reported can be safely assumed to be chiefly due to LDL cholesterol. For most people, LDL particles are the main carriers of cholesterol in the human body. Thus, in percentage terms, the increases in LDL cholesterol are about twice those reported for total cholesterol.

A 32-percent increase (16 x 2) in LDL cholesterol would not go unnoticed today. If one’s LDL cholesterol were to be normally 140 mg/dl, it would jump to 185 mg/dl with a 32-percent increase. It looks like the standard deviations were more than 30 in the study. (This is based on the standard errors reported, and assuming that the standard deviation equals the standard error multiplied by the square root of the sample size.) So we can guess that several people might go from 140 to 215 or more (this is LDL cholesterol, in mg/dl) in response to the stress from exams.

And the effects above were observed with young medical students, in response to the stress from exams. What about a middle-aged man or woman trying to cope with chronic mental stress for months or years, due to losing his or her job, while still having to provide for a family? Or someone who has just been promoted, and finds himself or herself overwhelmed with the new responsibilities?

Keep in mind that sustained dieting can be a major stressor for some people, particular when one gets to that point in the dieting process where he or she gets regularly into negative nitrogen balance (muscle loss). So you may have heard from people saying that, after months or years of successful dieting, their cholesterol levels are inexplicably going up. Well, this post provides one of many possible explanations for that.

The finding that cholesterol goes up with stress has been replicated many times. It has been known for a long time, with studies dating back to the 1950s. Wertlake and colleagues () observed an increase in average cholesterol levels from 214 to 238 (in mg/dl); also among medical students, in response to the mental and emotional stress of an examination week. A similar study to the one above.

Those enamored with the idea of standing up the whole day, thinking that this will make them healthy, should know that performing cognitively demanding tasks while standing up is a known stressor. It is often used in research where stress must be induced to create an experimental condition. Muldoon and colleagues () found that people performing a mental task while standing experienced an increase in serum cholesterol of approximately 22 points (in mg/dl).

What we are not adapted for is sitting down for long hours in very comfortable furniture (, ). But our anatomy clearly suggests adaptations for sitting down, particularly when engaging in activities that resemble tool-making, a hallmark of the human species. Among modern hunter-gatherers, tool-making is part of daily life, and typically it is much easier to accomplish sitting down than standing up.

Modern urbanites could be seen as engaging in activities that resemble tool-making when they produce things at work for internal or external customers, whether those things are tangible or intangible.

So, stress is associated with cholesterol levels, and particularly with LDL cholesterol levels. Diehard lipid hypothesis proponents may argue that this is how stress is associated with heart disease: stress increases cholesterol which increases heart disease. Others may argue that one of the reasons why LDL cholesterol levels are sometimes found to be associated with heart disease-related conditions, such as chronic stress, and other health conditions is that the body is using LDL cholesterol to cope with those conditions.

Specifically regarding mental stress, a third argument has been put forth by Patterson and colleagues, who claimed that stress-mediated variations in blood lipid concentrations are a secondary result of decreased plasma volume. The cause, in their interpretation, was unspecified – “vascular fluid shifts”. However, when you look at the numbers reported in their study, you still see a marked increase in LDL cholesterol, even controlling for plasma volume. And this is all in response to “10 minutes of mental arithmetic with harassment” ().

I tend to think that the view that cholesterol increases with stress because cholesterol is used by the body to cope with stress is the closest to the truth. Among other things, stress increases the body’s overall protein demand, and cholesterol is used in the synthesis of many proteins. This includes proteins used for signaling, also known as hormones.

Cholesterol also seems to be a diet marker, tending to go up in high fat diets. This is easier to explain. High fat diets increase the demand for bile production, as bile is used in the digestion of fat. Most of the cholesterol produced by the human body is used to make bile.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Neurobiology of the Obesity Epidemic

I recently read an interesting review paper by Dr. Edmund T. Rolls titled "Taste, olfactory and food texture reward processing in the brain and the control of appetite" that I'll discuss in this post (1).  Dr. Rolls is a prolific neuroscience researcher at Oxford who focuses on "the brain mechanisms of perception, memory, emotion and feeding, and thus of perceptual, memory, emotional and appetite disorders."  His website is here.

The first half of the paper is technical and discusses some of Dr. Rolls' findings on how specific brain areas process sensory and reward information, and how individual neurons can integrate multiple sensory signals during this process.  I recommend reading it if you have the background and interest, but I'm not going to cover it here.  The second half of the paper is an attempt to explain the obesity epidemic based on what he knows about the brain and other aspects of human biology.

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Monday, May 6, 2013

Trip to South Korea: Hidden reasons for the leanness of its people


In September last year (2012) I went to South Korea to speak about nonlinear data analysis with WarpPLS (), initially for business and engineering faculty and students at Korea University in Seoul, and then as a keynote speaker at the HumanCom 2012 Conference () in Gwangju. Since Seoul is in the north part of the country, and Gwangju in the south, I had the opportunity to see quite a lot of the land and the people in this beautiful country.


(Korea University’s main entrance, Anam campus)


(In front of Korea University’s main Business School building)

Korea University is one of the most prestigious universities in South Korea. In the fields of business and engineering, it is arguably the most prestigious. It also has a solid international reputation, attracting a large number of highly qualified foreign students.

I wanted to take this opportunity and try to understand why obesity prevalence is so low in South Korea, which is a common characteristic among Southeast Asian countries, even though the caloric intake of South Koreans seems to be relatively high. Foods that are rich in carbohydrates, such as rice, are also high-calorie foods. At 4 calories per gram, carbohydrates are not as calorie-dense as fats (9 calories per gram), but they sure add up and can make one obese.

Based on my observations, explanations for the leanness that are too obvious or that focus on a particular dietary item (e.g., kimchi, green tea etc.) tend to miss the point.

Let us take for example a typical South Korean meal, like the one depicted in the photos below, which we had at a restaurant in Seoul. If you are a foreigner, this type of meal would be difficult to have without a local accompanying you, because it is not easy to make yourself understood in a traditional restaurant in South Korea speaking anything other than Korean.


(Main items of a traditional South Korean meal)


(You cook your own meal)

The meal started with thin-sliced meat (with some fat, but not much) and vegetables, with the obligatory side dishes, notably kimchi (). This part of the meal was low in calories and high in nutrients. Then we had two high-calorie low-nutrient items: noodles and rice. The rice was used in the end to soak up the broth left in the pot, so it ended adding to the nutrition value of the meal.

Because we started the meal with the low-calorie high-nutrient items, the meat and vegetables, our consumption of noodles and rice was not as high as if we had started the meal with those items. In a meal like this, a good chunk of calories would come from the carbohydrate-rich items. Still, it seems to me that we ingested plenty of calories, enough to make one fat over the long run, eating these types of meals regularly.

A side note. As I said here before, the caloric value of protein is less than the commonly listed 4 calories per gram, essentially because protein is a multi-purpose macronutrient.

In our meal, the way in which at least one of the carbohydrate-rich items was prepared possibly decreased its digestible carbohydrate content, and thus its calorie content, in a significant way. I am referring to the rice, which had been boiled, cooled and stored, way before it was re-heated and served. This likely turned some of its starch content into resistant starch (). Resistant starch is essentially treated by our digestive system as fiber.

Another factor to consider is the reduction in the glycemic load (not to be confused with glycemic index) of the rice. As I noted, the rice was used to soak up the broth from the pot. This soaking up process significantly reduces the rice’s glycemic load, because of a unique property of rice. It has an amazing capacity of absorbing liquid and swelling in the process.

This was one of several traditional Korean meals I had, and all of them followed a similar pattern in terms of the order in which the food items were consumed, and the way in which the carbohydrate-rich items were prepared. The order in which you eat foods affects your calorie intake because if you eat high nutrient-to-calorie ratio foods before, and leave the low nutrient-to-calorie ones for later, my experience is that you will eat less of the latter.

Another possible hidden reason for the low rate of obesity in South Korea is what seems to be a cultural resistance to industrialized foods, particularly among older generations; a sort of protective cultural inertia, if you will. Those foods are slowly being adopted – my visit left me with that impression – by not as quickly as in other countries. And there is overwhelming evidence that consumption of highly industrialized foods, especially those rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars, is a major cause obesity and a host of other problems.

Cultural resistance to, or cultural inertia against the adoption of, highly industrialized foods among pregnant mothers limits one’s exposure to those foods at a particularly critical time in one’s life – the 9-month gestation period in the mother’s womb. This could have a major impact on a person’s propensity to become obese or have other metabolic derangements later on in life. Some refer to this phenomenon as a classic example of modern epigenetics, whereby acquired traits appear to induce innate traits across generations.

Another reason I was excited about this trip to South Korea was my interest in table tennis. I wanted to know more about their table tennis “culture”, and how it was influenced by their general culture. China dominates modern table tennis, with such prodigies as Ma Lin, Ma Long, Wang Hao, Wang Liqin, and Zhang Jike. South Korea is not far behind; two of my all-time favorite South Korean players are Kim Taek-Soo and former Olympic champion Ryu Seung-Min.

Another side note. The best table tennis player of all time is arguably Jan-Ove Waldner (), from Sweden. I talked about him in my book on compensatory adaptation (). Waldner has been one of the few players outside China to be able to consistently beat the best Chinese players at times when they were at the top of the games, including Ma Lin ().

But, as I soon learned, as far as sports are concerned, it is not table tennis that most South Koreans are interested in these days. It is soccer.

A nice surprise during this trip was a tour in Gwangju in which we visited a studio that converted standard movies to stereoscopic three-dimensional ones (photo below). These folks were getting a lot of business, particularly from the USA, in a market that is very competitive.


(A standard-to-3D movie conversion studio in Gwangju)

Let’s get back to the health angle of the post. So there you have it, two possible “hidden” reasons for the low prevalence of obesity in South Korea, and maybe in other Southeast Asian countries. One is the way in which foods are prepared and consumed, and the other is cultural inertia. These are not very widely discussed, but future research may change that.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Speaking at AHS13

The 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium will be held in Atlanta, GA, August 14-17.  Last year was a great conference, and I look forward to more informative talks and networking.  Tickets go fast, so reserve yours now if you plan to attend!

This year, I'll be speaking on insulin and obesity.  My talk will be titled "Insulin and Obesity: Reconciling Conflicting Evidence".  In this talk, I'll present the evidence for and against the idea that elevated insulin contributes to the development of obesity.  One hypothesis states that elevated insulin contributes to obesity, while the other states that elevated insulin is caused by obesity and does not contribute to it.  Both sides of the debate present evidence that appears compelling, and it often seems like each side is talking past the other rather than trying to incorporate all of the evidence into a larger, more powerful model.

There's a lot evidence that can be brought to bear on this question, but much of it hasn't reached the public yet.  I'll explore a broad swath of evidence from clinical case studies, observational studies, controlled trials, animal research, physiology, and cell biology to test the two competing hypotheses and outline a model that can explain all of the seemingly conflicting data.  Much of this information hasn't appeared on this blog.  My goal is to put together a talk that will be informative to a researcher but also accessible to an informed layperson.

On a separate note, my AHS12 talk "Digestive Health, Inflammation and the Metabolic Syndrome" has not been posted online because the video recording of my talk has mysteriously disappeared.  I think many WHS readers would be interested in the talk, since it covers research on the important and interdependent influence of gut health, inflammation, and psychological stress on the metabolic syndrome (the quintessential modern metabolic disorder).  I'm going to try to find time to make a narrated slideshow so I can post it on YouTube.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Food Variety, Calorie Intake, and Weight Gain

Let's kick off this post with a quote from a 2001 review paper (1):
Increased variety in the food supply may contribute to the development and maintenance of obesity.  Thirty-nine studies examining dietary variety, energy intake, and body composition are reviewed. Animal and human studies show that food consumption increases when there is more variety in a meal or diet and that greater dietary variety is associated with increased body weight and fat.
This may seem counterintuitive, since variety in the diet is generally seen as a good thing.  In some ways, it is a good thing, however in this post we'll see that it can have a downside.
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Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: Salt, Sugar, Fat

Michael Moss is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has made a career writing about the US food system.  In his latest book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, he attempts to explain how the processed food industry has been so successful at increasing its control over US "stomach share".  Although the book doesn't focus on the obesity epidemic, the relevance is obvious.  Salt, Sugar, Fat is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why obesity is becoming more common in the US and throughout the world.

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Cabeza de Vaca: Supernaturalism and psychosomatic disorders


Andrew Weil, a major proponent of the idea of self-healing (), has repeatedly acknowledged the influence of osteopaths such as Robert C. Fulford () on him, particularly regarding his philosophy of health management. Self-healing is not about completely autonomous healing; it is about healing by stimulation of the body's self-repair processes, which in some cases can be achieved by simply reducing stress.

Interestingly, there are many reported cases of osteopaths curing people from various diseases by doing things like cranial manipulation and other forms of touching. We also have much evidence of health improvement through prescription of drugs that don’t appear to have any health benefits, which is arguably a similar phenomenon.

The number of such reported cases highlights what seems to be a reality about diseases in general, which is that they often have a psychosomatic basis. Their “cure” involves making the person affected believe that someone can cure him, a healer, with or without drugs. The healer then cures the person essentially by her power of suggestion.

Paleoanthropological evidence suggests that this healer-induced phenomenon has always been widespread among hunter-gatherer cultures, so much so that it may well have been the result of evolutionary pressures. If this is correct, how does it relate to health in our modern world?

I am very interested in hunter-gatherer cultures, and I have also been living in Texas for almost 10 years now. So it is only natural for me to try to learn more about the former hunter-gatherer groups in Texas, particularly those who lived in the area prior to the introduction of horses by the Europeans.

There are parks, museums, and other resources on the topic in various parts of Texas, which are at driving distance. Unfortunately much has been lost, as the Plains Indians of Texas (e.g., Comanches and Kiowas) who succeeded those pre-horse native groups have largely been forcibly relocated to reservations in Oklahoma.

Anthropological evidence suggests that the earliest migrations to America have occurred via the Bering Strait, initially from Siberia into Alaska, and then gradually spreading southward to most of the Americas between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Much of what is known about the early Texas Indians is due to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer who survived a shipwreck and lived among the Amerindians in and around Texas between 1528 and 1536. He later wrote a widely cited report about his experiences ().


(Cabeza de Vaca and his companions; source: Biography.com)

In Spanish, “cabeza de vaca” means, literally, “cow’s head”. This odd surname, Cabeza de Vaca, clearly had a flavor of nobility to it in Spain at the time.

You may have heard that early American Indians were uniformly of short stature, not unlike most people at the time, but certainly shorter than the average American today. Cabeza de Vaca dispels this idea with his description of the now extinct Karankawas, a description that has been born out by anthropological evidence. The male members “towered above the Spaniards”, often 6 ft or taller in height, in addition to being muscular.

The Karankawas were a distinct indigenous group that shared the same environment and similar food sources with other early groups of much lower stature. This strongly suggests a genetic basis for their high stature and muscular built, probably due to the “founder effect”, well known among population geneticists.

Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, two Spaniards and one Moroccan slave, were believed by the Amerindians to be powerful healers. This enabled them to survive among early Texas Indians for several years. Cabeza de Vaca and his colleagues at times acknowledged that they were probably curing people through what we would refer today as a powerful placebo effect.

Having said that, Cabeza de Vaca has also come to believe, at least to a certain extent, that he was indeed able to perform miraculous cures. He repeatedly stated his conviction that those cures were primarily through divine intervention, as he was a devout Christian, although there are many contradictory statements in this respect in his reports (possibly due to fear from the Spanish Inquisition). He also performed simple surgeries.

Much has been written about Cabeza de Vaca’s life among the early Indians of Texas and surrounding areas, including the report by Cabeza de Vaca himself. One of my favorites is the superb book “A Land So Strange” () by Andrés Reséndez, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis ().

The Spanish explorer’s experiences have been portrayed in the film “Cabeza de Vaca” (), which focuses primarily on the supernatural angle, with a lot of artistic license. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed with this film, as I expected it to show more about the early Indians’ culture and lifestyle. Juan Diego, the Spanish actor portraying Cabeza de Vaca, was razor thin in this film - a fairly realistic aspect of the portrayal.

It is quite possible that modern humans have an innate tendency to believe in and rely on the supernatural, a tendency that is the product of evolution. We know from early and more recent evidence from hunter-gatherer societies that supernatural beliefs help maintain group cohesion and, perhaps quite importantly, mitigate the impact that the knowledge of certain death has on the mental health of hunter-gatherers.

Homo sapiens is unique among animals in its awareness of its own mortality, which may be a byproduct of its also unique ability to make causal inferences. Supernatural beliefs among hunter-gatherers almost universally address this issue, by framing death as a threshold between this existence and the afterlife, essentially implying immortality.

Yet, supernatural beliefs seem to also have a history of exploitation, where they are used to manipulate others. Cabeza de Vaca himself implies that, at points, he and his companions took personal advantage of the beliefs in their healing powers by the various indigenous groups with which they came into contact.

Modern humans who are convinced that they have no supernatural beliefs often perceive that to be a major advantage. But there could be disadvantages. One is that they may have more difficulty dealing with psychosomatic disorders. The conscious knowledge that they are psychosomatic could possibly pale in comparison with the belief in supernatural healing, in terms of curative power. Another potential disadvantage is a greater likelihood of suffering from mental disorders.

Finally, those who are sure that they have no supernatural beliefs; are they really correct? Well, subconsciously things may be different. Perhaps a good test would be to go to a “convincing” movie (i.e., not a laughable “B-level” one; for lack of a better word) about supernatural things, such as possession or infestation by evil spirits, and see if it has any effect on you.

If the experience does have an effect on you, even a small one, couldn't this suggest that your subconscious belief in the supernatural may not be so easy to control in a conscious way? I suspect that having no supernatural beliefs is unnatural and unhealthy. In most cases it probably creates a conscious-subconscious conflict, and a fairly pessimist view of the world.

My guess is that it is better to have those beliefs, in some form or another, and be on guard against exploitation.