Menampilkan postingan dari Juli, 2008

The Inuit: Lessons from the Arctic

The Inuit (also called Eskimo) are a group of hunter-gatherer cultures who inhabit the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland. They are a true testament to the toughness, adaptability and ingenuity of the human species. Their unique lifestyle has a lot of information to offer us about the boundaries of the human ecological niche. Weston Price was fascinated by their excellent teeth, good nature and overall robust health. Here's an excerpt from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration:
"In his primitive state he has provided an example of physical excellence and dental perfection such as has seldom been excelled by any race in the past or present...we are also deeply concerned to know the formula of his nutrition in order that we may learn from it the secrets that will not only aid in the unfortunate modern or so-called civilized races, but will also, if possible, provide means for assisting in their preservation."The Inuit are cold-hardy hunters whose traditional diet …

Book Review: "The Human Diet: Its Origins and Evolution"

I recently read this book after discovering it on another health site. It's a compilation of chapters written by several researchers in the fields of comparative biology, paleontology, archaeology and zoology. It's sometimes used as a textbook.

I've learned some interesting things, but overall it was pretty disappointing. The format is disjointed, with no logical flow between chapters. I also would not call it comprehensive, which is one of the things I look for in a textbook. Here are some of the interesting points:Humans in industrial societies are the only mammals to commonly develop hypertension, and are the only free-living primates to become overweight.
The adoption of grains as a primary source of calories correlated with a major decrease in stature, decrease in oral health, decrease in bone density, and other problems. This is true for wheat, rice, corn and other grains.Cranial capacity has also declined 11% since the late paleolithic, correlating with a decrea…

Sunscreen and Melanoma

Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer, accounting for most skin cancer deaths in the US. As Ross pointed out in the comments section of the last post, there is an association between severe sunburn at a young age and later development of melanoma. Darker-skinned people are also more resistant to melanoma. The association isn't complete, however, since melanoma sometimes occurs on the soles of the feet and even in the intestine. This may be due to the fact that there are several types of melanoma, potentially with different causes.

Another thing that associates with melanoma is the use of sunscreen above a latitude of 40 degrees from the equator. In the Northern hemisphere, 40 degrees draws a line between New York city and Beijing. A recent meta-analysis found consistently that sunscreen users above 40 degrees are at a higher risk of melanoma than people who don't use sunscreen, even when differences in skin color are taken into account. Wearing sunscreen dec…

Grains and Human Evolution

[Update 8/2011: as I've learned more about human genetics and evolution, I've come to appreciate that many Europeans actually descend from early adopters of agriculture more than they descend from the hunter-gatherers that previously occupied Europe.  Also, 10,000 years has been long enough for significant genetic adaptation.  Read The 10,000 Year Explosion for more information].

You've heard me say that I believe grains aren't an ideal food for humans. Part of the reason rests on the assertion that we have not been eating grains for long enough to have adapted to them. In this post, I'll go over what I know about the human diet before and after agriculture, and the timeline of our shift to a grain-based diet. I'm not an archaeologist so I won't claim that all these numbers are exact, but I think they are close enough to make my point.

As hunter-gatherers, we ate some combination of the following: land mammals (including organs, fat and marrow), cooked tub…

Another China Tidbit

A final note about the Chinese study in the previous post: the overweight vegetable-eaters (read: wheat eaters) exercised more than their non-vegetable-eating, thin neighbors. So although their average calorie intake was a bit higher, their expenditure was as well. 

Although I speculated in the last post that affluent people might be eating more wheat and fresh vegetables, the data don't support that. Participants with the highest income level actually adhered to the wheat and vegetable-rich pattern the least, while low-income participants were most likely to eat this way.

Interestingly, education showed a (weaker) trend in the opposite direction. More educated participants were more likely to eat the wheat-vegetable pattern, while the opposite was true of less educated participants. Thus, it looks like wheat makes people more educated. Just kidding, that's exactly the logic we have to avoid when interpreting this type of study!

Wheat in China

Dr. Michael Eades linked to an interesting study yesterday on his Health and Nutrition blog. It's entitled "Vegetable-Rich Food Pattern is Related to Obesity in China."

It's one of these epidemiological studies where they try to divide subjects into different categories of eating patterns and see how health problems associate with each one. They identified four patterns: the 'macho' diet high in meat and alcohol; the 'traditional' diet high in rice and vegetables; the 'sweet tooth' pattern high in cake, dairy and various drinks; and the 'vegetable rich' diet high in wheat, vegetables, fruit and tofu. The only pattern that associated with obesity was the vegetable-rich diet. The 25% of people eating closest to the vegetable-rich pattern were more than twice as likely to be obese as the 25% adhering the least.

The authors of the paper try to blame the increased obesity on a higher intake of vegetable oil from stir-frying the vegetabl…

Cancer in Other Non-Industrialized Cultures

In Cancer, Disease of Civilization (1960), Wilhjalmur Stefansson mentions a few cultures besides the Inuit in which large-scale searches never turned up cancer. Dr. Albert Schweitzer examined over 10,000 traditionally-living natives in Gabon (West Africa) in 1913 and did not find cancer. Later, it became common in the same population as they began "living more and more after the manner of the whites."

In Cancer, its Nature, Cause and Cure (1957), Dr. Alexander Berglas describes the search for cancer among natives in Brazil and Ecuador by Dr. Eugene Payne. He examined approximately 60,000 people over 25 years and found no evidence of cancer.

Sir Robert McCarrison conducted a seven year medical survey among the Hunza, in what is now Northern Pakistan. Among 11,000 people, he did not find a single case of cancer. Their diet consisted of soaked and sprouted grains and beans, fruit, vegetables, grass-fed dairy and a small amount of meat (including organs of course).

Mortality and Lifespan of the Inuit

One of the classic counter-arguments that's used to discredit accounts of healthy hunter-gatherers is the fallacy that they were short-lived, and thus did not have time to develop diseases of old age like cancer. While the life expectancy of hunter-gatherers was not as high as ours today, most groups had a significant number of elderly individuals, who sometimes lived to 80 years and beyond. Mortality came mostly from accidents, warfare and infectious disease rather than chronic disease.

I found a a mortality table from the records of a Russian mission in Alaska (compiled by Veniaminov, taken from Cancer, Disease of Civilization), which recorded the ages of death of a traditionally-living Inuit population during the years 1822 to 1836. Here's a plot of the raw data:

Here's the data re-plotted in another way. I changed the "bin size" of the bars to 10 year spans each (rather than the bins above, which vary from 3 to 20 years). This allows us to get a better pict…

Cancer Among the Inuit

I remember coming across a table in the book Eat, Drink and Be Healthy (by Dr. Walter Willett) a few years back. Included were data taken from Dr. Ancel Keys' "Seven Countries Study". It showed the cancer rates for three industrialized nations: the US, Greece and Japan. Although specific cancers differed, the overall rate was remarkably similar for all three: about 90 cancers per 100,000 people per year. Life expectancy was also similar, with Greece leading the pack by 4 years (the data are from the 60s).

The conclusion I drew at the time was that lifestyle did not affect the likelihood of developing cancer. It was easy to see from the same table that heart disease was largely preventable, since the US had a rate of 189 per 100,000 per year, compared to Japan's 34. Especially since I also knew that Japanese-Americans who eat an American diet get heart disease just like European-Americans.

I fell prey to the same logic that is so pervasive today: the idea that y…

Cancer and the Immune System

My understanding of cancer has changed radically over the past few months. I used to think of it as an inevitable consequence of aging, a stochastic certainty. The human body is made of about 50 trillion cells, many of which replicate their DNA and divide regularly. It's only a matter of time until one of those cells randomly accumulates the wrong set of mutations, and loses the molecular brakes that restrict uncontrolled growth.

Strictly speaking, the idea is correct. That is how cancer begins. However, there's another check in place that operates outside the cancer cell itself: the immune system. A properly functioning immune system can recognize and destroy cancerous cells before they become dangerous to the organism. In fact, your immune system has probably already controlled or destroyed a number of them in your lifetime.

I recently read a fascinating account of some preliminary findings from the lab of Dr. Zheng Cui at Wake Forest university. His group took blood samples…