Archive for the ‘powerlevelling’ Category

Warfare In Food, Fat, and Class

August 15, 2012 - 4:34 pm 28 Comments

Via Chas Clifton, an article by Rod Dreher on the intersection between food, class, politics, and culture, and some of the weird eddies and patterns thereof. His article is specifically about the breed of “fuck you, nanny liberal” conservative that takes perverse joy in eating the opposite of what the “blue elite do”- junk food rather than arugula and organic grass-fed beef. I agree with Chas: read it all, and some of the comments for good measure (they remain surprisingly civil, or have for as far as I’ve been reading), not least because it’s resistant to excerpting and this post will mostly be a collection of thoughts in reaction.

– Several of the commenters brought up a point Dreher didn’t, which is that our food culture- and that of many other nations- is a relic of a time when the average citizen would spend most of the day on his or her feet, sometimes working so hard as to require two or three times the calories to get through the day at “maintenance” that the average citizen with a desk job does. The diet associated with the South and Midwest isn’t saturated in fat and starch because Southerners and Midwesterners are particularly more stupid or indulgent than other regions, it’s because they were the agricultural center of the nation and eating the greens without the pork fat or broccoli instead of mashed potatoes would have been about as productive to the average eater as eating steam. There were still sedentary people, and for that matter fat people (including fat people doing just as much of the physical labor as the skinny people), but the average working life was still not one that primarily involved sitting still.

– A common strain of thought I saw in the comments (firmly to be expected from something aimed squarely at a conservative audience), was the idea that obesity is running rampant because we’re moving more and more to more government- and insurance-funded health care, and thus obese people don’t bear any “costs” for being obese. I regard this as utter bullshit. Being obese IS a cost, and a steep one; insurance and Medicare aren’t funding liposuctions or any sort of magical fat-loss, or even doing anything more than somewhat mitigating the health problems associated with morbid obesity. You can’t pay your way out of crippling arthritis, runaway diabetes, sleep apnea, or doing ordinary errands being a giant and daunting physical challenge, even with someone else’s money. These aren’t inconveniences, being very obese is miserable compared to being thin or even moderately overweight. That isn’t even going into the social costs, which…

– …Dreher doesn’t seem to believe exist. I know it’s pretty much standard for conservatives to see themselves as standing athwart a wholesale abandonment of personal responsibility, but the degree of divergence between the America I live in and the one he apparently does is so great as to make me wonder if we’re inhabiting parallel dimensions. In the one I live in, being fat is regarded as not just undesirable but essentially sinful- perhaps the fact that Dreher agrees with that view in a classic-Christian sort of way is why he doesn’t see it as standout or as another cost associated with obesity. Being fat is like extending a blanket invitation to the world to remind you that you are, and usually accompanied by either a lecture on self-control akin to the one Dreher delivers or instructions that seem to assume that you were raised by wolves and have absolutely no idea that cake is fattening or that you should move around some. Befriending or being family to someone who is noticeably fat is like having a permanent ticket to a movie consisting solely of the world’s rudest people offering the most gratuitous abuse or obvious advice. For whatever reasons obese people are obese, because that state is not sufficiently unpleasant as to be discouraging is clearly not it.

– Speaking of cake, a brief pause for a minirant: What IS it with the cake? I eat cake on exactly two occasions, my own birthday or the birthday of someone sufficiently intimate to me to want to include me in that night’s meal. The vast majority of other people that I know, fat or thin, do pretty much the same. Literally the only person of my acquaintance who has such a sweet tooth they eat cake on a semiregular basis isn’t fat. Is there a secret town in America whose population consists of fat people who subsist solely on cake, donuts, and bacon?

– Moving on to the actual topic at hand, one observation I had is that not only did we essentially lose a generation or two of Americans in which knowing how to cook a variety of nourishing foods from scratch was a bog-standard adult life skill that everyone acquired in the family home, we did a switcheroo on the class associations of this skill. Immediately postwar during the prosperity and technology boom of the fifties, cooking became associated with the lower classes and immigrants who couldn’t afford food that was largely pre-prepared or prepared by someone else- or at least, not having to do much or any cooking for yourself became associated with wealth and status. Sometime around the eighties, yuppies kicked off a home cooking boom in which the type and cost of ingredients scaled up a good deal (setting the origins for those Whole Foods shoppers in the class-warfare game), and cooking from scratch for yourself became associated with wealth and higher class in itself. Knowing how to turn a bag of rice, beans, and maybe one dubious piece of meat into a hearty meal for six became a lower-class thing; then later knowing how to turn the same ingredients (with the price of the meat much higher for its new associations- have you seen what oxtail costs lately?) into a delicately spiced meal for two became the mark of the food snob. Meanwhile relying largely on preprepared or processed food remained the middle norm.

– It’s easy to focus on morbidly obese people who have flagrantly excessive and calorific diets and damn well know it and are suffering dramatically from the physical consequences, but in my experience this actually consists of a very noticeable minority. Most of “fattening America” seems to eat pretty similarly to the America that hasn’t gotten all that heavy. Maybe all the fatties are hiding in closets at night eating boxes of bacon-donuts, but most Americans who have a weight problem and don’t fall into the “fuck you Michael Bloomberg, I’m taking this 20-piece chicken bucket to my grave” camp seem to be if anything more conscious of what they eat, and that it should be smaller portions of not-cake, than folks who aren’t carrying around a gut. (This effect is perhaps only apparent to anyone who has been on a diet and watched lots of perfectly normal-looking folk eating things the dieter’s doctor has told them will make them physically become the Death Star.) Again: “eat less, move more!” and “you just need to be shamed more/told not to eat giant gobs of sugar and butter because clearly you don’t know” do not seem to be working.

– …Which is not to try and claim that diet, class, or our cultural eating patterns DON’T have anything to do with it. Being obese is miserable and you will catch hell for it, but eating is something very basic you have to do several times a day, and the habits we form with respect to what reads as “food, yum” to you, how often you eat and in what contexts, and where you get your food form very early and are tremendously ingrained because eating and drinking are the most basic things organisms MUST do to get on. They are difficult habits to change because evolution favors doing what worked well enough the last time to get fed, and novelty-seeking in times of abundance (which are now a more or less permanent feature of life for first-worlders) carries a lot more costs than benefits.

Which is ALSO not to say that we can’t lose weight because hardwired evolution brain is controlling everything we do, but changing our eating habits is actually pretty difficult. The background desire to do so is low to begin with, which then doesn’t help when you also have to cope with doing something radically different three or more times a day to satisfy a basic physical need, every damn day, for results that are slow to appear and give positive feedback. Throw in the fact that our appetites tend to calibrate around “the usual” as opposed to “what we actually need” (which can lead to undereating as easily as overeating- the habit matters most) rather than what we actually need and it can take a long period of new habits to recalibrate, and “fuck it, I’m having some chicken nuggets” becomes a pretty understandable temptation, even absent the class warfare.

Oh, and all the usual sources trying to give us advice on how to diet and exercise and lose weight are also full to the brim with bullshit it’s hard to recognize unless you already have a pretty good background in nutrition and physiology, so even if you make a superhuman feat of self-control you may not get good results anyway if you were following bad advice. (Free hint: one weird tip will never work.) To make it even more fun, some of those people giving out ludicrously terrible advice have M.D. after their name. A type I diabetic of my acquaintance was told after diagnosis in adulthood to eat a low-fat diet, to spare their heart, a low-carb diet, to keep their blood sugars under control, and a low-protein diet to spare their kidneys. Pointing out that this left literally no macronutrient options on the table for consumption in abundance enough to keep a young adult alive did not seem to register.

– I’ve done a lot of bashing on Dreher here, but I actually agree with much of what he wrote- just not with his fat sinners, thin moderates paradigm. He’s dead bang on that cooking is a disappearing skill, and that cooking quality ingredients from scratch is actually much cheaper than primarily living off fast food and preprepared and processed food, because the base ingredients are pretty cheap and the ones that aren’t aren’t meant to be the bulk of the meal unless you’re throwing a luxury feast. The treatment Jamie Oliver got in Huntington DID have a lot more to do with class warfare than with what was actually benefiting or hurting the schoolchildren. (Saying this makes my teeth grind, because Oliver makes my teeth grind and I happen to think his own attitude of re-educating the ignorants is part of the problem… so inconvenient when people respond with spiteful ignorance right back.)

How To Learn To Roller Skate

June 14, 2012 - 8:56 pm 10 Comments

1. Obtain skates. You can either borrow them from someone close-ish enough for government work to your shoe size, rent them from an appropriate establishment (for some strange reason the local Methodist church is that establishment here), or if you’re really insane you can just buy them. Skates are not as cheap as you will remember them being when you were a kid.

2. Obtain protective gear. Do not skip this step. At the very least* you want kneepads and wristguards, being the most likely points beside your ass you’re going to fall on. Your ass is probably well padded already. (Except for one particular point, which you may- excitingly- discover.)

3. Locate a good place to attempt skating. The sidewalk is not a good place, as you will rapidly discover if you try it. Yes, that is probably where you learned to when you were eight. You aren’t eight anymore, you are much further off the ground, and the amount of mass you have to interact with gravity has increased greatly. Even if it looks fine to you, taking a broom and clearing the chosen space, if outdoors, of gravel will do you lots of favors. Skate wheels aren’t designed for offroading even a little bit.

4. Put on protective gear. Put on skates.

5. Stand up.

6. Attempt to move forward.

7. From your new position on the ground, assess yourself for injuries, and determine if they are serious enough to justify taking the damn skates straight back off again. Common options include groin pull and bruised tailbone.

8. Try to find either a friendly person to literally hold your hand, or a vertical surface that can be slightly leaned upon. Try to do this somewhere with walls. When you come back, if you can come back with a baby stroller or shopping cart, these tools will help enormously.

9. Practice skating in a straight line from wall to wall. Now is a good time to quietly explore and discover every single tiny stabilizer muscle you don’t use at all in any non-skating capacities.

10. Because you will be doing it whether you call it practice or not, practice falling. You want to fall onto the bits of yourself that are actually well protected, which in most cases if you bought remotely adequate kneepads will be your knees. Although you may be wearing wristguards, never rely on them; wristguards suck and they will only help you a little. Even if you don’t break your wrists, falling onto your hands is a good way to break your thumb. You are not supposed to fall backwards, but this will happen anyway; attempt to fall on one side of your ass or the other. Falling on it straight back and center will bring you naught but woe. If falling at speed and knees are not an option, try to fall on your hip and roll. Again, it is likely to be already well padded. If you are female, falling on your chest is undignified but also a well padded area. Try to keep your limbs pointed in roughly the same direction and not to sprawl.

11. When you are walking, running, or carrying something, the best way to stabilize yourself when you feel you are losing your balance is to lean your weight back on your heels. When wearing skates, this will have wacky results. The correct answer in skates is always to bend your knees and lean slightly forward. This will either stabilize you or lead the fall the way it’s supposed to go.

12. Your toe stops are not for stopping, unless you are rolling very slowly indeed. Your toe stops are for ninja tricks you may learn later. Also, if your skates are rental or stock, they are probably also mostly decorative. If you want to stop without the aid of something vertical, you have to learn to make friction work for you while wearing a device mostly designed to reduce friction.

13. Do all of this for many hours. Learn to do it on one leg, which is a surprisingly useful base skill when learning ninja tricks.

It helps to have a small, perpetually perky woman shouting at you the whole way, mostly in the sense that if you do learn, you will eventually be allowed to hit her as hard as you can. Good luck.

*At the very least for just absolutely green starting out. If you keep doing it long enough to be capable of any real speed at all, you NEED a helmet and you SHOULD also get elbow pads.

Aptly Named Product Review

May 21, 2012 - 5:35 pm 18 Comments

Voodoo Floss Bands

Aptly named as after playing with them all weekend we are pretty well convinced they are actually magical.

As readers may or may not be aware, we are fans of Mobility WOD. It’s a video blog run by a Doctor of Physical Therapy dude (and he is most definitely a dude sort of guy) named Kelly Starret, whose original and still primary aim was helping athletes address their joint and tissue injuries, injuries-waiting-to-be, and limitations. It’s sort of a paradoxical experience in that his southern California dudebroness made us both kind of want to punch him in the face at first, but emerging evidence going through this stuff that he is pretty much always right… yeah.

So, the floss bands. MWOD introduced us to the concept and it seems to be pretty much his invention. Stingray and I both have relatively normal joints, but we both have old injuries that echo forward in ways that are very slightly problematic- he has an elbow he inadvisedly employed with a jackhammer against a lot of basalt (never do this) that effectively acts like a chronic case of tennis elbow, and I have an ankle in which I popped a lateral ligament in twice in a row when I was a teenager and has never really been quite the same again. He can’t lean on his left elbow and gets irritating twinges in weight-bearing exercises that load that joint; I have less range of motion in my right ankle and it’s prone to rolling on me.

Or, actually, past tense on both, see again magic. He tried the elbow, I tried the ankle. He got all the range of motion in his elbow back plus a disappearance of the pain after a minute or two of screwing with it wrapped, I got five degrees more flexion in the bad ankle than I had in the good. (At least until I got tired of walking around on one flexible ankle and one stiff one and did the good ankle as well.) It’s not permanent- but it does last for hours, and the effects seem to be cumulatively theraputic. He’s got some elbow twinges again, but not as bad as they were and he only wrapped it the once three days ago. We’ve been obsessed with these rubber bands all damn weekend and have found it works dandy on knees and wrists as well. I’m tempted to wrap myself up like a mummy and see how many power snatches I can get in before I fall over unconscious.

The basic principle of the thing is that, in healthy tissues, tendons and ligaments and fascia and muscle slide against one another freely; in tissues that have been inflamed by injury or by chronic misuse/underuse/overuse, the connective tissues tend to mat together somewhat. This limits range of motion and can cause a little to a lot of pain, depending on how bad and where. The compression banding pins down big tendons and forces the tissues to slide independently of one another again as you move the joint through as much and as many different kinds of range of motion as you can think of. (This part is not as much theoretical- you can feel it and it is WEIRD). After the wrap comes off, blood flows back into the area as you move the joint around freely again, and the extra oxygen boost helps keep things from immediately restiffening. (This part is more theoretical, but what the hell, makes sense to me.)

The I-have-a-new-joint effect lasts for hours. It’s neat. Bands cost about 25 bucks for a pack of two 7-foot bands. If you’ve got a knee or elbow or ankle or wrist or whatever that’s just not quite the same (not a real, serious disability), you might consider giving it a shot- or even if the injury is more major than that, try wrapping the joints downstream that have had to compensate for the new movement patterns in the meantime and see if it doesn’t make THEM happier.

As a disclaimer, I’m not getting paid for this. I doubt Rogue Fitness or Kelly Starrett are aware of my existence. But it’s a really damned neat feeling to spend two minutes with a rubber band and get back a range of comfortable motion (and absence of chronic pain) that’s been gone for years, if only for a couple of hours- but renewable anytime.

As a final disclaimer, lagniappe if you will, I have NO clue how this will work for those among you whose injuries involve a whole bunch of metal in the affected joint. It might help, it might hurt, if it’s actually painful rather than just weird and uncomfortable stop immediately and find someone else to make a gift of it to.

Gather Round, Children

May 15, 2012 - 6:00 pm 14 Comments

Blogfriend Blunt Object has an ongoing series about fiction and its dangers.

The gist of his point is that the act of consuming fiction is essentially the act of absorbing and accepting someone else’s narrative, in a form in which its biases and errors of construction and perception go down much more easily than had the same person simply asserted them to you as fact. At one point he describes it as an “unpatched security hole” in our cognition.

With respect, I disagree. If the human taste for fiction and narrative is an unpatched security hole in our thinking, our taste for sports is an unpatched security hole in our bodies. Sports cause us no end of problems- they expose us to physical danger unnecessarily, wear down our bodies more than normal life would, and cause us to divide into little rival tribes. Every game of sandlot baseball is an opportunity for someone to lose some teeth or get concussed or break a limb. Across the animal kingdom, studies of play have shown that it exposes those who engage in it to much more physical risk than they gain in reward in the form of practice or physical development.

But, almost no one questions the benefit or healthiness of physical play, even to the point where we really probably should. It’s self-evident that physical play builds coordination, encourages self-directed exercise, and that children aren’t quite right and really can’t stay on an even mental keel without it. It exposes us to risk and injury, but even if we can’t quite quantify it, the benefit is more than worth it to the point where we engage in national navel-gazing in how we can manage to encourage more of it in children and adults alike.

One of the most interesting theories I’ve seen on the subject of humans and their art- including fiction- is that art is actually a form of cognitive play. All small children, no matter their culture, will draw and color if given an implement that will make marks, and all of them enjoy storytelling and story games. The author’s assertion is that these activities are as much a part of our development into mentally normal humans as crawling and running around is important to developing our motor skills, and I think he makes a very strong case. (The details of said case are worth actually buying the book, though I had a lot more use for the first half than the second.)

Storytelling is specific exercise for a specific cognitive skill, one that develops late: abstract reasoning. In order to create a story, you need to create multiple purely abstract concepts and string them together in a way that makes sense and communicates something interesting enough to be worth paying attention to. Speculative fiction in particular is an exercise in changing a few variables of the known universe and then taking the results to as logical and interesting a conclusion as the author can imagine. A strong storyteller must specialize both in social skills (making the audience empathize with the abstractions and believe the premises of the created world), abstract logic, theory of mind (creating characters with believable motivations), and many other human cognitive specialties. It’s as much exercise for our particular kind of mind as Parkour is exercise for our particular physical specialties.

Blunt isn’t wrong about the dangers of absorbing someone else’s worldview uncritically in story format, but if we’re both right that leads to an interesting conclusion: literary education as valuable beyond the simple study of fiction. Given that English lit classes teach students to analyze fiction, pull it apart, identify its aims, values, and goals, examine it in context of the time and place it was produced and the life and worldview of its author, it’s essentially a self-defense course in fiction. Once you can ably dissect it, you can see its seams and pick out the author’s worldview from your own more reflexively. Once you understand how to pick out themes, ideas, and decide how well (or badly) it’s been developed, you can more easily examine a narrative’s premises as well as its desired conclusions.

If we are both correct, it’s a strong argument for required liberal arts education.

I Was Busy Tonight Too

January 30, 2012 - 10:12 pm Comments Off

Gonna run away and join the roller derby.

BRB, buying Ben-Gay.

Experience Curves

January 11, 2012 - 9:22 pm Comments Off

Earlier I was laughing at what is a sadly not-uncommon thread of discussion in gamer communities that are not particularly moderated, which is gamer dudes lamenting the apparent injustice that video games sometimes have female characters that aren’t damsels to rescue and even sometimes makes the player play as a female character. The part that got the actual horselaugh out of me as opposed to “roll eyes, move on” was one guy playing “what if” a woman were realistically the character in a first-person shooter; apparently it would be hilarious because she couldn’t lift the rifle without dragging the barrel, load it, or hit anything, and if she shot it anyway she’d break her shoulder or something.

Someone did the usual “we apologize for the abominable trolls in our nerd culture because they’re socially awkward and inexperienced with anyone who is not a fellow unsocialized troll exactly like them” thing, and it occurred to me that the inexperience speaks for itself- not merely with women or anyone that doesn’t have to brush the cheeto dust out of their neckbeard when trying to look swank, but with real-world physical skills in general.

Shooting is still a boys’ club, so are most strength-based fitness sports, and for very obvious reasons they attract a lot of macho, competitive young men. But it occurred to me that I very rarely hear gender based “women can’t shoot/load/rack/shoulder (blah)” from men who have trained, competed, and especially taught a lot, in much the same way that I see very little “women are frail/weak” talk in areas where people are training seriously for strength/speed/power and not guys who’ve done a little at the Globogym to try and pump up.

The reason why isn’t an onset of enlightenment or even growing out of any sexism or misogyny, it’s experience. If you work seriously to train a skill and don’t isolate yourself, you are going to get outperformed, by lots of people who’ve trained more or smarter than you, and even in areas where men as a gender really do have a physical advantage (in shooting they don’t, unless you’re shooting elephants) some of those people are going to be women, and it’s not just going to be when you’re just starting out.

I’m not saying there aren’t significant gender differences in certain physical domains; anatomy and endocrinology make that Just Fact. What I am saying is that the curve of training is a very long one, much longer than people with no experience of it tend to imagine, and the two places it’s most relevant are the ends- completely untrained individuals, and top-level competitors. In a physical contest between a man and a woman who’ve trained roughly as hard and roughly as smart, the man will almost always have the edge*- but there’s so much distance in between the two end points that big experience and development gulfs that easily exceed any theoretical innate advantage exist, and often.

Or, to put it in much shorter terms, if I see someone saying something along those lines, what I actually read is “I live in the basement and never lift anything heavier than a cereal box, and neither do the six or so other people I know.”

Super TL;DR: Yay Dunning-Kruger effect.

*Though not in cases where the most important thing is not actually raw power, but strength to mass ratio. When two athletes are both strong enough to do things like handstand pushups and pullups for reps and speed and are competing on those terms, the male upper body strength advantage may not be enough to give him an edge when he weighs 220 pounds and she weighs 105. This is, I think, why I see such a near-total lack of gurlz-are-weak in Crossfit boxes as compared to bodybuilding circles; a lot of their workouts are structured like that, so guys get smoked in workouts by tiny women often enough to make an impression.

Crossf****ed

November 7, 2011 - 9:00 pm Comments Off

So, we finally spent enough time making noise about wanting to get more serious about the whole getting fitter thing and wanting some sort of coaching and accountability aside from whatever we could pull out of our own asses, so we went down to one of the Crossfit boxes in Santa Fe to see about that. Because they like know when to stop before an important internal organ shoots out your nose, their policy is to give you an individual session first before they attempt to pitch you into anything else and establish a bottom baseline.

(My animated gifs don’t seem to be animating on their own. You may have to click the middle three to make the funny part happen.)

(more…)

Anthro vs. Paleo

October 31, 2011 - 3:12 pm Comments Off

Via NPR blogs, an article by a biological anthropologist concerned about the growing-in-popularity “paleo diet”. She makes some very sound points, some that I think are a bit misleading, and overall it provides a fantastic show-and-tell framework for a blog post.

In a few days, the world’s population will reach 7 billion. Only a tiny fraction of this number still makes a living by hunting and gathering, the way all our ancestors did before about 12,000 years ago.

True this. And it’s entirely possible that that ancestral population wasn’t all THAT much larger than the one that still makes its living hunting and gathering now; we came from a pretty small and spread-out initial population, when we appeared as a distinct species. There’s no question agriculture is what allowed us to number in the billions in the first place.

According to a set of claims relentlessly pushed in some books and blogs, as many modern humans as possible should adopt a hunter-gatherer diet. That is, we should eat lean meat and vegetables because our Paleolithic hunting-and-gathering ancestors did. At the same time, we should refuse dairy, grains and sugars because our hunting-and-gathering ancestors didn’t eat these items.

Well, to be fair it’s a bit more complicated than that- the exact claim is that as many modern humans that lead modern lifestyles should adopt such a diet if they wish to remain lean and metabolically healthy, because a high fraction of grains and sugars leads to an overdose of insulin and blood sugar, causing an array of metabolic ills. Ultimately, high fractions of grains and sugars are said to do so because they were much scarcer in the ancestral diet.

Granted, a depressing number of “paleo” adherents really do seem to think it’s possible to re-enact Paleolithic life in modern times and that we really should eat just the way our ancestors ate, so it’s still a fair ding.

You might think that, as an anthropologist, I’d greet this embrace of the human prehistoric past with unalloyed delight, especially in a country where a high percentage of our population is evolution-averse. Like most anthropologists, though, I don’t think there’s good science behind these claims…It’s best to clarify right off that leaders of the paleo-diet movement don’t think monolithically. Lean meat and veggies take center stage, but the emphasis may vary in details such as how much seafood to eat. A look at the current issue of Paleo — a magazine devoted to “modern primal living” — indicates that, in addition to food, paleo-faddists think hard about exercise and lifestyle choices.

“Faddist” dismissal or no, this is fair. “Don’t think monolithically” is if anything an understatement- there’s a huge amount of variation in what people think is “paleo-acceptable” (dairy deserving its very own Thunderdome as a subject), and even faddist isn’t an entirely inaccurate claim. But there’s also a pretty strong backbone of people who start from biochemistry and then go to what imagined cavemen’s dietary patterns must have been like.

Some of them, in fact, take a paleo-lifestyle to startling lengths. In profiling this “modern-day Stone Age subculture” and its leaders, Arthur de Vany and Loren Cordain, the German magazine Der Spiegel interviews disciples who run through the undergrowth and eat wild boar in explicit emulation of their Paleolithic forebears.

Wild boar is delicious and sprinting down game is about as rigorous an exercise program as you can find, should you be able to hack it. Tongue out of cheek, I agree this is a bit extreme but given hobbies like base-jumping don’t exactly see why it’s all that hair-raising. Humans do far stranger things, up to and including in the game of healthfulness.

When I’ve interacted online with paleo-diet fans, though, I’ve found the great majority to be measured and thoughtful. With them, I worried aloud about the consequences of urging even more carnivory than we’ve already got. Largely, but not 100 percent, a vegetarian, I don’t tell others what to eat. But the paleo-movement seems to doom (even if unintentionally) more animals to life and death in factory farms. A greater percentage of grain crops would also be diverted to rich countries’ animals and away from poor countries’ people.

This is both fair, and not. She goes on to clarify a bit…

What I learned is that some paleo-dieters reject the eating of animals from factory farms. Some don’t eat much meat at all, focusing instead on avoiding grains and sugary foods.

“Some” makes it sound like a minority, but just about every source I’ve ever read is pretty firm on the point that factory-farmed meat is not just ethically questionable, but actively nutritionally worse than pastured, humanely raised meat. You are what you eat, and grain-fed and factory-farmed meats tend to have a much lower proportion of omega-3 fatty acids than their freer and happier cousins, with game meats being even better.

Caveats aside though, she has a valid point. There really isn’t enough meat to go around to feed everyone on the planet a meat-rich diet, not farmed meat and most certainly not wild meat. Our ancestors lived at far lower population densities than we do. There’s more than a little privilege inherent in being capable of entertaining living mostly off fresh meat and vegetables at all, especially the more expensive (because it is less efficient to raise) organic, grass-fed, free-range, hormone and pesticide free kinds.

There’s also more than a little privilege in presuming to decide what kind of diet people should eat based on the global population. One reason poorer areas of the world do well on a primarily farmed, primarily grain-based diet, at least in terms of measures like obesity and diabetes, is that they can’t afford to eat as much as they may want, and besides that they spend huge portions of their day on hard manual labor; it isn’t a paleolithic pattern, but it is a pattern that demands massive amounts of glycogen to sustain the activity level. They need dense carbohydrates to get through life. Data entry technicians do not, and they can afford all the food that is satiating and extra treats besides.

Many nutrition scientists give the paleo-diet a thumbs-down. They worry about its dearth of carbohydrates, its cost, its impracticality, and the fact that its boasts for good health are medically unproven.

It’s worth actually reading the article she linked to support her “thumbs-down” claim. It’s actually pretty inconclusive- it notes that there’s very little robust, long-term research on this eating pattern (perfectly true), acknowledges that it’s actually quite good for getting as much or more of your recommended dose of many nutrients as you need, and identifies as its primary concern the amount of fat you’re likely to take in. Which, a valid criticism of our current understanding of the role of fat in various negative health outcomes is that nutrition studies have traditionally been extremely poor at controlling for other variables- a study of “people who eat a lot of fat” versus “vegetarians”, for example, is highly likely to include a lot of people who eat a lot of junk food versus a lot of people who are very conscious of their health. A number of studies that have attempted tighter controls have found a far less tight link between fat intake and negative health outcomes- but again, this is a big area of just not enough research. We don’t really know.

For my part, I’ll focus on the paleo-anthropology.

Our ancestors began to eat meat in large quantities around 2 million years ago, when the first Homo forms began regular use of stone tool technology. Before that, the diet of australopithecines and their relatives was overwhelmingly plant-based, judging from clues in teeth and bones. I could argue that the more genuine “paleo” diet was vegetarian.

She could, but it would be disingenuous. Australopithecines were not modern humans, and there is plenty of evidence that their diet was radically different from ours. Two million years is a lot of time, and our jaw and tooth morphology especially changed dramatically from that of the australopithecines- away from that suited for tons of fibrous plant foods.

More worrisome are persistent attempts to match a modern diet to an “average” Paleolithic one, or Loren Cordain’s insistence that “we were genetically designed to eat lean meat and fish and other foods that made up the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors.”

Here’s where science most forcefully speaks back.

She’s right. There is no single ancestral human diet. We specialized in adaptability, and the available anthropological evidence is all over the map regarding what we ate. This is by far my biggest problem with the paleo movement as a whole. See John Hawks’s archive of posts on the diets of ancient humans and hominids for a picture of just how varied that could be.

First, ancient hunter-gatherer groups adapted to local environments that were regionally and seasonally variable — for instance, coastal or inland, game-saturated or grain-abundant (eating grains was not necessarily incompatible with hunter-gatherer living).

This is, again, a bit disingenuous. Grains period may not have been outside the paleolithic experience, but there’s little question they had absolutely nothing like our domesticated, starch-stuffed cereal crops. Paleo people who act as though any grain seed will kill them are silly, but an ancient hunter-gatherer’s seeds weren’t pretty much just like a plate of pasta, either.

Second, genes were not in control. People learned what worked in local context for survival and reproduction, and surely, just as in other primates, cultural traditions began to play a role in who ate what

Still a few degrees off what I’d consider straightforward truth. Genes don’t control us, especially in cultural foodways, but they sure as hell influence us- the most dramatic example is the persistence of lactase into adulthood that is widespread in some cultural groups but absent in others, and apparently new but rapidly on the rise in still others. Less dramatic but still most definitely there are differences in how well and efficiently we produce amylase, an enzyme that handles the starches found in grains, as well as genetic differences in insulin sensitivity.

Humans vary biochemically as much as they do physically, and some of it absolutely has to do with evolved adaptations to different dietary strategies.

I’m left wondering what’s the payoff to be had for pushing a popular diet as rooted in a mythically homogeneous, predictable human past. The lure of a good story may play a role. It’s a mighty powerful image: our ancestors roaming over the landscape, perfectly in tune with their bodies and the environment. Some of my anthropologist colleagues refer to this pining for a pristine past as a paleo-fantasy.

On this point I’m in absolute agreement with her. I’ve seen some damn bizarre ideas put forth as what our pure and natural ancestral state was- most especially the idea that that was ever a single state to begin with- and I find equally amazing the idea that “cavemen” were all fantastically healthy and athletic. Modern hunter-gatherers aren’t- it’s a very hard lifestyle, and it will wear your body out even if heart disease and diabetes aren’t among your problems.

It’s not paleo-fantasy that’s going to help us negotiate a healthy future, the 7 billion of us together, on this environmentally-endangered planet.

No, but all 7 billion of us don’t and won’t live in a unitary culture, lifestyle, or diet any more now than we did 50,000 years ago, and it’s pretty high-handed to tell a wealthy first-worlder in a northern climate with a sedentary job that he should eat like a third-world subsistence farmer- or, for that matter, to tell the farmer that he should stick with that lifestyle because it’s better for his health and cheaper to sustain. I don’t think there’s any particular danger that the whole world is going to start eating “paleo” and endanger the environment any more than I think there’s a particular danger that spinning classes are going to take the planet by storm.

I seem to have spent more time agreeing with her than not, but the areas of not are still pretty nontrivial. Paleolithic peoples’ diets may have been much more varied than Loren Cordain thinks, varying by season and locale, but that still doesn’t mean that because some populations ate a lot more tubers and wild seeds than others, that’s pretty much just like a diet based on bread, pasta, and potatoes is good for any modern human that doesn’t burn off all the extra glucose going through hours and hours of strenuous daily activity. Because australopithecines were primarily vegetarian, doesn’t mean the hominids that we became didn’t become much more dependent on animal flesh, whether on land or sea, and that those changes aren’t reflected in our morphology and our biochemistry.

Genes may not determine our destiny, but that likewise doesn’t mean that someone whose ancestors had been eating cereal grains for nine thousand years and has three times the amylase production of someone whose ancestors had been hunting, fishing, and dairying somewhere frozen for the same length of time will have exactly the same metabolic experience eating a bowl full of rice- or for that matter a glass of milk and a bear steak.

We can’t sustain the entire planet on wild boar and fiddlehead ferns, but that doesn’t mean that an individual person whose primary concerns are his serum triglycerides, waistline, and blood sugar numbers should consider himself identical to someone whose primary concerns are the monsoon season, his subsistence income, and the early arthritis in his elbows and knees when it comes to deciding what he should eat or how he should move.

Crossfit is trying to kill us.

July 19, 2011 - 4:35 pm Comments Off

After this, content when we can type more again. Or breathe.

Bad For You

July 7, 2011 - 3:09 pm Comments Off

In the vein of Blunt Object’s post on irrational articles about diet and health that focus on macronutrients as though they were inherently bad or good for you without considering that what makes for a “healthy meal” is largely contextual, here we have an article about somebody who managed to overdose on 5-hour Energy displaying the same kind of fundamental issue.

What’s really striking about the article is that it focuses on the fact that 5-hour Energy has caffeine in it and gives the story a frame of caffeine addicts looking for their next hit, including a quote from a nutritionist saying that the energy in energy drinks comes from caffeine, with the B-complex vitamin cocktail being “purely for glitz”.

This would not be remarkable if it had been the caffeine that put the subject of the story in the hospital, but it wasn’t- it was the niacin, also known as vitamin B3. Normally it’s very difficult to overdose on B vitamins because they’re water-soluble and leave with urine, but front-load enough niacin by main-lining energy drinks as though they were coffee and you’ll box your liver good and hard, as this woman did. The article acknowledges that her actual problem was niacin overdose, which makes the overall caffeine-junkies message of the article as strange as it is.

The underlying reason both for why it would pass as normal to be written that way, and for the woman in question to think it would be okay to knock back that much “energy drink”, is the same issue as Blunt is talking about in talking about fat or sugar as though they were evil; caffeine is a thing that is “bad for us”, and vitamins are “good for us”, regardless of whether the caffeine is in high enough doses to actually hurt us or if vitamins can kill us in their overdose as well as their lack. We need vitamin A for proper vision and gene transcription, among other things, but in excess it will break your bones and is a teratogen for developing fetuses*. Selenium is an essential trace element, but ingesting it in milligrams rather than micrograms will kill you very dead.

The more you examine the pattern, the less sense it makes. Sodium is an essential substances for nerve transmission we need plenty of and will die without, but it’s on the “bad for you” list in media narrative. Potassium is involved in exactly the same biochemical process as sodium is and will shut down your kidneys and potentially stop your heart in excess, but it’s on the blanket “good for you” list and the possibility and dangers of hyperkalemia are rarely mentioned if you’re not a medical student. This particular example has a simple enough explanation- we use sodium chloride to flavor our food, not potassium chloride, so it’s much easier to ingest in amounts exceeding “enough”- but it still doesn’t really explain why either substance is normally discussed and thought about as entirely bad for you or entirely good for you, especially as the effects of not enough sodium can be felt by anyone who spends several hours working outside in the heat with water alone to sustain them- not exactly a rare scenario. One man invented an industry on the problem by putting lemon juice and sugar in what was essentially a bottle of Ringer’s solution, a lightly modified version of which you will find hanging from IV stands in hospitals, used for rehydration.

Perhaps the only real take-home message here, besides “healthy is contextual, not an innate quality”: if you’re a caffeine addict needing more, stick with coffee. They put all kinds of other crap in energy drinks your body isn’t as able to cope with in excess, like vitamins.

*Vitamin A toxicity is more hazardous because it’s fat-soluble. Researchers attempted to solve this problem by making a water-soluble version, which suffered from the drawback of being ten times more toxic in that form.