Monday, December 29, 2008

Hostels vs hotels vs couchsurfing

We Don't Speak The Language is a series of video travel blogs "for the young and the broke". It's the work of Sean Blanda and Chris Wink, freelance journalists from Philadelphia, who recently completed a three-month trip around Europe. Unfortunately, the series has come to end now the guys are back home, but check out this episode below, offering lots of good tips in the pros and cons of backpacking accommodation options: hostels, hotels and couchsurfing.

It's a two-parter and the couchsurfing tips follow in the second video. They're spot on about making couchsurfing requests personal to increase your chances of finding a suitable and willing host. Cut-and-paste efforts are instantly recognisable, expose you as having made no effort to read the person's profile and are not likely to elicit a response. Watch on for more advice...

Part one: hostels

Part two: hotels and couchsurfing

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Local travel: future trends

Geographical magazine coined all sorts of new buzzwords for their December “future of tourism” issue. Most include the prefix “geo” as a subtle reminder of where you heard it first.

First up is the “geotourist”. According to the term’s inventor, Jonathan Tourtellot of National Geographic Traveler, this is someone who “gets off a cruise ship and discovers an interesting town, then decides to come back and explore it another time”.

Tourists who like places and aren’t satisfied with a couple of hours docking in a cruise port? This didn’t strike me as anything new, but, reading on, the underlying point gets more interesting.

Geotourists are those who look beyond just ticking places off a list and want to build connections with the destinations and their people. Their aim is to "sustain or enhance the geographical character of a place: the environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and well-being of its residents”.

Sustainable, or conscious, tourism may not be a brand new concept, but here's hoping Geographical are right and it will continue to spread. After all, something's got to give.
Tourtellot points out there could be seven billion tourists rooming our planet in next decade and “if four billion people decide to see the Mona Lisa, it would take 309 years, even with groups of 25 viewing it for one minute, 24 hours a day”.

So what else does the future hold? According to Geographical, travel by 2020 will also be “geo-local”. Basically, this means holidaymakers will travel closer to home. "We'll begin to travel more within our own countries and continents, and less frequently beyond them. A British family might head to Cornwall to stay in a locally run Cornish cottage, shop for Cornish crafts and enjoy a cream tea.”

Perhaps. Although, as the economic crisis takes hold, I’d say people aren’t going to wait until 2020 until they start holidaying closer to home.

So, it's buzzword number three that is arguably the most innovative of the lot: hyper-local sourcing. "
By 2020, we'll also see the majority of hotels getting their produce, employees, materials, services and the like from sources within their immediate vicinity," they say. They also predict a new type of hotel - 'the ten-kilometre hotel' - for which all food and materials will have been sourced from within a ten-kilometre radius. Hotels will offer energy and water for guests on a metered system, and there will be discounts for visitors who keep their consumption below average.

For me, "geotourism" and "geo local" travel are already in full swing, but I'll be interested to see if the "hyper local" prediction comes true. I can see the potential. My first, and only, such experience was when
received a discount for arriving by public transport at a tree-climbing centre on the Isle of Wight.

The hotel or excursion bill of the future ('s mock-up is pictured), which offers discounts rather than just piling on unexpected extras would certainly make a welcome change.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Butter, Margarine and Heart Disease

Shortly after World War II, margarine replaced butter in the U.S. food supply. Margarine consumption exceeded butter in the 1950s. By 1975, we were eating one-fourth the amount of butter eaten in 1900 and ten times the amount of margarine. Margarine was made primarily of hydrogenated vegetable oils, as many still are today. This makes it one of our primary sources of trans fat. The consumption of trans fats from other sources also likely tracked closely with margarine intake.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) resulting in a loss of blood flow to the heart (heart attack), was first described in detail in 1912 by Dr. James B. Herrick. Sudden cardiac death due to CHD was considered rare in the 19th century, although other forms of heart disease were diagnosed regularly by symptoms and autopsies. They remain rare in many non-industrial cultures today. This could not have resulted from massive underdiagnosis because heart attacks have characteristic symptoms, such as chest pain that extends along the arm or neck. Physicians up to that time were regularly diagnosing heart conditions other than CHD. The following graph is of total heart disease mortality in the U.S. from 1900 to 2005. It represents all types of heart disease mortality, including 'heart failure', which are non-CHD disorders like arrhythmia and myocarditis.

The graph above is not age-adjusted, meaning it doesn't reflect the fact that lifespan has increased since 1900. I couldn't compile the raw data myself without a lot of effort, but the age-adjusted graph is here. It looks similar to the one above, just a bit less pronounced. I think it's interesting to note the close similarity between the graph of margarine intake and the graph of heart disease deaths. The butter intake graph is also essentially the inverse of the heart disease graph.

Here's where it gets really interesting. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has also been tracking CHD deaths specifically since 1900. Again, it would be a lot of work for me to compile the raw data, but it can be found here and a graph is in Anthony Colpo's book The Great Cholesterol Con. Here's the jist of it: there was essentially no CHD mortality until 1925, at which point it skyrocketed until about 1970, becoming the leading cause of death. After that, it began to fall due to improved medical care. There are some discontinuities in the data due to changes in diagnostic criteria, but even subtracting those, the pattern is crystal clear.

The age-adjusted heart disease death rate (all forms of heart disease) has been falling since the 1950s, largely due to improved medical treatment. Heart disease incidence has not declined substantially, according to the Framingham Heart study. We're better at keeping people alive in the 21st century, but we haven't successfully addressed the root cause of heart disease.

Was the shift from butter to margarine involved in the CHD epidemic? We can't make any firm conclusions from these data, because they're purely correlations. But there are nevertheless mechanisms that support a protective role for butter, and a detrimental one for margarine. Butter from pastured cows is one of the richest known sources of vitamin K2. Vitamin K2 plays a central role in protecting against arterial calcification, which is an integral part of arterial plaque and the best single predictor of cardiovascular death risk. In the early 20th century, butter was typically from pastured cows.

Margarine is a major source of trans fat. Trans fat is typically found in vegetable oil that has been hydrogenated, rendering it solid at room temperature. Hydrogenation is a chemical reaction that is truly disgusting. It involves heat, oil, hydrogen gas and a metal catalyst. I hope you give a wide berth to any food that says "hydrogenated" anywhere in the ingredients. Some modern margarine is supposedly free of trans fats, but in the U.S., less than 0.5 grams per serving can be rounded down so the nutrition label is not a reliable guide. Only by looking at the ingredients can you be sure that the oils haven't been hydrogenated. Even if they aren't, I still don't recommend margarine, which is an industrially processed pseudo-food.

One of the strongest explanations of CHD is the oxidized LDL hypothesis. The idea is that LDL lipoprotein particles ("LDL cholesterol") become oxidized and stick to the vessel walls, creating an inflammatory cascade that results in plaque formation. Chris Masterjohn wrote a nice explanation of the theory here. Several things influence the amount of oxidized LDL in the blood, including the total amount of LDL in the blood, the antioxidant content of the particle, the polyunsaturated fat content of LDL (more PUFA = more oxidation), and the size of the LDL particles. Small LDL is considered more easily oxidized than large LDL. Small LDL is also associated with elevated CHD mortality. Trans fat shrinks your LDL compared to butter.

In my opinion, it's likely that both the decrease in butter consumption and the increase in trans fat consumption contributed to the massive incidence of CHD seen in the U.S. and other industrial nations today. I think it's worth noting that France has the highest per-capita dairy fat consumption of any industrial nation, along with a comparatively low intake of hydrogenated fat, and also has the second-lowest rate of CHD, behind Japan.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Fundamentals

I heard an interview of Michael Pollan yesterday on Talk of the Nation. He made some important points about nutrition that bear repeating. He's fond of saying "don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food". That doesn't mean your grandmother specifically, but anyone's grandmother, whether she was Japanese, American or African. The point is that commercial food processing has taken us away from the foods, and traditional food preparation methods, on which our bodies evolved to thrive. At this point, we don't know enough about health to design a healthy synthetic diet. Diet and health are too complex for reductionism at our current level of understanding. For that reason, any departure from natural foods and traditional food processing techniques is suspect.

Mainstream nutrition science has repeatedly contradicted itself and led us down the wrong path. This means that traditional cultures still have something to teach us about health. Hunter-gatherers and certain other non-industrial cultures are still the healthiest people on Earth, from the perspective of non-communicable disease. Pollan used the example of butter. First we thought it was healthy, then we were told it contains too much saturated fat and should be replaced with hydrogenated vegetable margarine. Now we learn that trans fats are unhealthy, so we're making new margarines that are low in trans fats, but are still industrially processed pseudo-foods. How long will it take to show these new fats are harmful? What will be the next industrial fat to replace them? This game can be played forever as the latest unproven processed food replaces the previous one, and it will never result in something as healthy as real butter.

The last point of Pollan's I'll mention is that the world contains (or contained) a diversity of different cultures, living in dramatically different ways, many of which do not suffer from degenerative disease. These range from carnivores like the Inuit, to plant-heavy agriculturalists like the Kitavans, to pastoralists like the Masai. The human body is adapted to a wide variety of foodways, but the one it doesn't seem to like is the modern Western diet.

Pollan's new book is In Defense of Food. I haven't read it, but I think it would be a good introduction to the health, ethical and environmental issues that surround food choices. He's a clear and accessible writer.

Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and happy holidays to everyone!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Local tips on trekking in Peru

Picture the scene: you’re high in the Peruvian Andes. It’s 5,000 metres above sea level, the air is thin, and you’re doing your best to keep altitude sickness at bay. You’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the rain is relentless.

This is when you happen upon a teary eyed backpacker, who has been separated from the rest of her group. She’s wearing cotton trousers, two T-shirts and a jacket that isn’t waterproof. She’s so cold that she’s verging on hypothermia and she’s even started to hallucinate.

This is what my group came across a few weeks ago on the week-long Salkantay trek through Peru’s sacred valley.

Fortunately, we were able to take her to a nearby lodge, where we dried her off the best we could, and gave her some hot food and dry clothes. Finally, her exceedingly casual guide showed up, accompanied by her shivering friend, who was similarly under-prepared with plastic bags on her feet to combat leaking boots.

This article isn’t meant to scare people out of trekking in Peru. The point is just because so many people are doing it (up to 500 people a day embark on the famed Inca Trail), it doesn’t make it a walk in the park. Altitude and weather conditions can make it tough, so preparation is essential.

I’ve been speaking to the experts (namely Jose from, Dameiro from Mountain Lodges of Peru and Jose at and getting their tips on what people should know before starting their big Peruvian trek.

If you’ve been trekking in Peru, feel free to add your own.

To combat altitude sickness
Keep hydrated by drinking lots and lots of water.
Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine.
Do drink coca tea - locals swear by it.
Go to bed early, as your sleep will be interrupted at high altitude.

What to pack
Decent trekking boots (fully broken in and making sure toes don’t touch the end)
Sock liners to go inside trekking socks to prevent blister-inducing friction (available from outdoor shops, or ordinary thin socks should do)
Blister plasters
Insect repellent
A warm hat
A sunhat/cap
Longsleeved T-shirt (to protect against insects/sunburn)
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Non-cotton trekking clothes (they dry faster)
Sleeping bag suitable for the season (or you can often hire one)
Consider taking or hiring walking poles, which, according to Cusco Guides, "reduce up to 30% off your legs' effort and also give more confidence when you walk downhill".

Book ahead if you want to do the Inka Trail
(at least six weeks). The trail is closed in February, which is the height of the rainy season. It’s not all about the Inka Trail though. Consider taking an alternative and less busy route. The Salkantay - which traverses nine bio zones and gives an unusual, distant view of Machu Picchu - is highly recommended.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

U.S. Weight, Lifestyle and Diet Trends, 1970- 2007

For this post, I compiled statistics on U.S. weight, health and lifestyle trends, and graphed them as consistently as possible. They span the period from 1970 to 2007, during which the obesity rate doubled. The data come from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some of the graphs are incomplete, either because the data don't exist, or because I wasn't able to find them. Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30+; overweight is a BMI of 25+. Yes, it's frightening. It has affected adults and children (NHANES).
The percentage of Americans who report exercising in their spare time has actually increased since 1988 (BRFSS).
We're eating about 250 more calories per day, according to NHANES.
The 250 extra calories are coming from carbohydrate (NHANES).

We're eating more vegetables and fruit (USDA).
We're eating more meat by weight, although calories from meat have probably gone down because the meat has gotten leaner (USDA). This graph represents red meat, fish and poultry. The increase comes mostly from poultry. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts anyone?
We're eating more sugar (USDA). The scale of the graph doesn't allow you to fully appreciate that sweetener consumption had increased by a full 100 calories per day by 1999, although it has dropped a bit since then. This is based on food disappearance data. In other words, the amount consumed is estimated using the amount sold domestically, minus a percentage that approximates waste. High-fructose corn syrup has seized nearly 50% of the sweetener market since 1970.
Again, the scale of the graph doesn't allow you to fully appreciate the magnitude of the change here. In 2000, we ate approximately 2.5 ounces, or 280 calories, more processed grains per day than in 1970 (USDA). That has since decreased slightly (34 calories). You might be saying to yourself right now "hey, that plus the 100 calories from sugar adds up to more of an increase than the NHANES data show!" Yes, and I think that points to the fact that the data sets are not directly comparable. NHANES data are self-reported whereas USDA data are collected from vendors. Regardless of the absolute numbers, our processed grain consumption has gone way up since 1970.

Wheat is still king. Although we grow a lot of corn in this country, most of it gets fed to animals. We prefer eating wheat without first feeding it to an intermediary. In absolute quantity, wheat consumption has increased more than any other grain (not including corn syrup).
Bye bye whole milk. Hello skim milk (USDA).

This graph represents "added fats", as opposed to fats that occur naturally in meat or milk (the USDA does not track the latter). Added fats include salad oil, cooking oil, deep fry oil, butter, lard, tallow, etc. We are eating a lot more vegetable oil than we were in 1970. It comes chiefly from the industrial, omega-6 rich oils such as soybean, corn and canola. Added animal fats have increased slightly, but it's pretty insignificant in terms of calories.

There is an artifact in this graph that I have to point out. In 2000, the USDA changed the way it gathered vegetable oil data. This led to an abrupt, apparent increase in its consumption that is obvious on the graph. So it's difficult to make any quantitative conclusions, but I think it's clear nevertheless that vegetable oil intake has increased considerably.

Between 1970 and 1980, something changed in the U.S. that caused a massive increase in obesity and other health problems. Some combination of factors reached a critical mass that our metabolism could no longer tolerate. The three biggest changes in the American diet since 1970:
  • An increase in cereal grain consumption, particularly wheat.
  • An increase in sweetener consumption
  • The replacement of meat and milk fat with industrial vegetable oils, with total fat intake remaining the same.
Mainstream America has done to itself what it did to native American and other indigenous cultures worldwide, with the same result.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Going local with the lingo

I've just spent a week in Santiago, living with a friend of mine, hanging out with her mates and generally getting a feel for Chilean life. People would pay a lot of money for that sort of language immersion. But for me, it was free. Xili was a contact from

Xili (pictured far right) and I met earlier in the year when was visiting her hometown, Panama City. She had listed herself on Couchsurfing as willing to show travellers around town and her profile carried an abundance of glowing references. We ended up spending the best part of two weeks together and got along so well that we vowed to meet up again in Santiago, where she was heading to study.

Our reunion was a testament to how travel-networking can accelerate language learning. The first time we met, back in March, we spoke almost entirely in English. This time, the tables had turned. I'd been travelling across South America pretty much ever since, hanging out with locals, and generally doing my best to get off the standard Gringo trail. All the while, my confidence and vocab have been growing.

For the past week, we have conversed entirely in Spanish, which is hugely exciting progress for me. This doesn't mean Xili's English isn't still far superior to my faltering efforts in her language. For example, I still have a tendency to speak in uncertain, approval-seeking questions when using the past tense - ie "I saw? the film", "I had? lunch already". However, ever-patient, she gave nods of encouragement where appropriate and ensured I retained confidence not to give up.

What I love most about learning Spanish in Latin America is that people are delighted when you have a go and are ultra patient, even when you make a mess of it. I remember it being rather different when I lived in France, where I'd often get "Quoi?" barked back at me, accompanied by a semi-disgusted wrinkling of the nose. I'm a big fan of French people, but it was tough at times and it took much longer to feel comfortable communicating. Although, the fact that I was a self-conscious 18-year-old may have been a factor too.

Spending the best part of this year hanging out - and, in some cases, living - with locals has worked wonders for my Spanish. It goes without saying that it's far better than learning it from a book or even in classroom setting - where, as soon as you get into the "real world", you often seize up. Or at least I do. When I first arrived in France - after seven years of lessons - I may have been able to discuss the films of François Truffaut but I didn't have a clue how to say "You're welcome".

I'd highly recommend travel-networking sites to keen linguists as a way to learn how a language is used on a real, day-to-day basis., for example, clearly shows you which languages members speak and many specifically use it to get extra practice with native speakers. So, you might find yourself in Milan, speaking Italian with your host over your morning cappuccino and then switching to English when you take an impromptu shopping tour.

My only criticism is that insists on dividing competence levels into just three categories: beginner, intermediate, or expert. I'd argue there's a big leap between the upper two levels. Could they not slot "fluent" in between? Fluent is a much better description for those who can communicate effectively, but would never claim perfection.

There are a range of travel-networking sites you can use to meet local hosts. Or, if you're rooted to the spot, why not have people come to you? When in London, my Couchsurfing profile specifically states that "patient French and Spanish speakers are particularly welcome". Alternatively, if you're feeling particularly shy, you can do it all via your computer with sites such as, and (incorporating what was Friends Abroad). Many of these also offer "voice chat", providing invaluable conversation practice.

You could also meet with a group of other enthusiasts through (Michael Muszlak runs a great Anglo-Franco get-together in Paris every Saturday night.) Or you could try a skill exchange via community sites such as Last year, Luz Marina became my Spanish teacher in London, thanks to Gumtree; this year, I visited her in her native Bogota.

Recently, in a gringo-friendly cafe in Sucre, Bolivia, I saw a good-old fashioned noticeboard request. "Looking for someone to practice English with. Nothing weird. I'm just planning to move to the US." My Couchsurfing contact in the town, Laura, noticed it too. "I used to do that," she said. "Until I discovered Couchsurfing."

I think I might try the old-fashioned note in a cafe when I get to Buenos Aires, or I'll revisit the local Couchsurfing group. I'm also hoping Xili will come and visit me while I'm there. That way I can finally return some of her hugely appreciated hospitality.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Paris Hilton is not your friend

What happens to members of elite travel-networking site that break the strict rules of conduct? Those, for example, who after gaining much sought-after membership simply can't restrain themselves from sending a wishful friend request to the site's celebrity contingency, such as Paris Hilton or Naomi Campbell?

Immediate expulsion followed by profile deletion was the worst I imagined. But no, it's much more humiliating than that.

ASW wrong-doers get relegated to a purgatory otherwise know as A Big World. Next time they log in, they find the normally blue welcome screen has turned a shameful green, access to the forums and other profiles is denied, and all they can read are the "what did I do wrong?" lamentations from other ejectees.

An old article from Wired details an anecdote from one reluctant Big World member: a 20-something
from Geneva called Talal bin Laden, who admits he's "distantly, distantly related to that guy no one likes".

"One guy posted some anti-Arab racist slurs, and I responded with a polite deconstruction of why I felt that was inappropriate," says bin Laden. "For that, I was evicted to hell."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peripheral vs. Ectopic Fat

I went to an interesting presentation the other day by Dr. George Ioannou of the University of Washington, on obesity and liver disease. He made an interesting distinction between the health effects of two types of body fat. The first is called subcutaneous fat (or peripheral fat). It accumulates right under the skin and is evenly distributed over the body's surface area, including extremities. The second is called ectopic fat. Ectopic means "not where it's supposed to be". It accumulates in the abdominal region (beer belly), the liver, muscle tissue including the heart, the pancreas, and perhaps in lipid-rich deposits in the arteries. Subcutaneous fat can be measured by taking skinfold thickness in different places on the body, or sometimes by measuring arm or leg circumference. Ectopic fat can be measured by taking waist circumference.

It's an absolutely critical distinction, because ectopic fat associates with poor health outcomes while subcutaneous fat does not. In
this recent study, waist circumference was associated with increased risk of death while arm and leg circumference were associated with a reduced risk of death. I think the limb circumference association in this particular study is probably confounded by muscle mass, but other studies have also shown a strong, consistent association between ectopic fat and risk of death, but not subcutaneous fat. The same goes for dementia and a number of other diseases. I think it's more than an epidemiological asssociation. Surgically removing the abdominal fat from mice prevents insulin resistance and prolongs their lifespan.

People with excess visceral fat are also
much more likely to have fatty liver and cirrhosis. It makes sense if you think of them both as manifestations of ectopic fat. There's a spectrum of disorders that goes along with excess visceral fat and fatty liver: it's called the metabolic syndrome, and it affects a quarter of Americans (NHANES III). We already have a pretty good idea of what causes fatty liver, at least in lab animals: industrial vegetable oils and sugar. What's the most widely used animal model of metabolic syndrome? The sugar-fed rat. What are two of the main foods whose consumption has increased in recent decades? Vegetable oil and sugar. Hmm... Fatty liver is capable of causing insulin resistance and diabetes, according to a transgenic mouse that expresses a hepatitis C protein in its liver.

You want to keep your liver happy. All those blood tests they do in the doctor's office to see if you're healthy-- cholesterol levels, triglycerides, insulin, glucose--
reflect liver function to varying degrees.

Abdominal fat is a sign of ectopic fat distribution throughout the body, and its associated metabolic consequences. I think we know it's unhealthy on a subconscious level, because belly fat is not attractive whereas nicely distributed subcutaneous fat can be. If you have excess visceral fat, take it as a sign that your body does not like your current lifestyle. It might be time to think about changing your diet and exercise regime.
Here are some ideas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tourists in Japan must dance to a different tuna

It was Tokyo's ultimate local travel experience: get up early and head to the world's biggest fish market, Tsukiji. See the giant tuna roll in, catch the auction action, and try some of the freshest sushi in town. It was a everyday life that few tourists had seen before. Until, that is, everyone caught on to the idea...

When 200 and 300 people started packing into the auction area, it became too much. Earlier this year authorities called for tourists to show voluntary restraint and stay away, but, of course, that was never going to work. So now the ban is complete. For at least a month.

As soon as tourism becomes a mass activity, problems usually follow. The main issue with "must sees" is that people usually go through the motions and forget their common sense - especially, perhaps inevitably, when getting up at 4am. There have been reports of tourists obscuring auction hand signals with flash photography, walking around in high heels and compromising hygiene by prodding the fish.

However, couldn't such stupidity be avoided without a total ban? Tsukiji's restaurants and shops must surely hope so.

"As far as sushi restaurants are concerned, I think more than 50 percent of their customers are [outsiders] on weekdays. On Saturdays, they probably account for more than 90 percent," Susumu Isono, director of local sushi chain Isonoya, told the Japan Times.

So is this just a clever PR scam? If the authorities create a storm of publicity by making such a drastic move, guidebooks and tour operators will be obliged to change their info. "Arrive at 5am to catch the action," says Lonely Planet. Expect an update soon.

Photograph: Derek Mawhinney/ Wikipedia images

Wanted: a friendly Parisian

Parisians rude and unfriendly? No, you´ve got it all wrong. In fact, to prove it, Paris Greeters will get a extra-friendly resident to give you a free city tour. Or, at least, that´s the theory. In reality, it seems all 11 million of them are a little busy right now. One will get back to you though. Maybe. If you´re very persistent.

Journalist Agnès Poirier waited six weeks to get a response - and only then after tipping them off that she was journalist. She wrote an entertaining blog about it over at Guardian Travel.

But friendly Parisians can´t be in that short supply, can they? My recent trip there showed that the best way to get behind closed doors - literally and metaphorically - is to stay with a local via a B&B network, such as or Alcôve & Algapes. Pictured left is my host, Françoise - a professional laughter coach living in the eastern suburb of Vincennes - with the equally friendly Jenny Johnson from 2binParis.

Or you could try meeting a Couchsurfer. Paris is the world´s largest Couchsurfing city, with over 15,000 local members.

And before you despair in all greeter schemes. Check out this follow-up blog, Pleased to Greet You, which covers more successful greeting experiences in Jamaica and Argentina, among others.

I'll add links to these greeter sites to the Going Local Travel sidebar. And thanks to Stephen Chapman of MakeTravelFair for making me aware of many of them.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Polyunsaturated Fat Intake: What About Humans?

Now we know how to raise a healthy pig or rat: balance omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (LNA) and keep both relatively low. LA and LNA are the most basic (and shortest) forms of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. They are the only fats the body can't make on its own. They're found in plant foods, and animal foods to a lesser extent. Animals convert them to longer-chain fats like arachidonic acid (AA; omega-6), EPA (omega-3) and DHA (omega-3). These long-chain, animal PUFA are involved in a dizzying array of cellular processes. They participate directly as well as being further elongated to form eicosanoids, a large class of very influential signaling molecules.

AA is the precursor of a number of inflammatory eicosanoids, while omega-3-derived eicosanoids tend to be less inflammatory and participate in long-term repair processes. A plausible explanation for the negative health effects of LA-rich vegetable oils is the fact that they lead to an imbalance in cellular signaling by increasing the formation of AA and decreasing the formation of EPA and DHA. Both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory signaling are necessary in the proper context, but they must be in balance for optimal function. Many modern diseases involve excess inflammation. LA also promotes oxidative and nitrosative damage to organs, as explained in the last post. This is an enormous oversimplification, but I'll skip over the details (most of which I don't know) because they could fill a stack of textbooks.

How do we raise a healthy human? Although I think pigs are a decent model organism for studying diet and health as it relates to humans, they don't have as much of a carnivorous history as we do. You would expect them to be more efficient at converting plant nutrients to their animal counterparts: carotenes to vitamin A, vitamin K1 to K2, and perhaps short-chain polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) to long-chain fats like AA, EPA and DHA. I mention it simply to point out that what goes for a pig may not necessarily go for a human when it comes to fatty acid conversion.

I've dug up a few papers exploring this question. I don't intend this post to be comprehensive but I think it's enough to get a flavor of what's going on. The first paper is an intervention trial comparing the effect of flax oil and fish oil supplementation on the fat composition of red blood cells. Investigators gave volunteers either 1.2 g, 2.4 g or 3.6 g (one teaspoon) flax oil per day; or 0.6 g or 1.2 g fish oil per day. The volunteers were U.S. firefighters, who otherwise ate their typical diet rich in omega-6. Flax oil supplementation at the two higher doses increased EPA, but did not increase DHA or decrease AA significantly. This suggests that humans can indeed convert some ALA to long-chain omega-3 fats, but adding ALA to a diet that is already high in omega-6 does not reduce AA or increase the all-important DHA.

The fish oil supplement, even at one-sixth the highest flax oil dose, increased EPA and DHA to a greater extent than flax oil, and also decreased AA. This shows that fish oil has a greater effect than flax oil on the fat profile of red blood cells in the context of a diet rich in omega-6. Another study also found that ALA intake is not associated with EPA or DHA in blood plasma. This could suggest either that humans aren't very good at converting ALA to longer n-3 fats, that the pathways are blocked by excessive LA or some other factor (a number of things block conversion of omega-3 fats), or that our bodies are already converting sufficient omega-3 and fish oil is overkill.

What happens when you reduce omega-6 consumption while increasing omega-3? In one study, participants were put on a "high LA" or "low LA" (3.8% of calories) diet. The first had an omega-6 : omega-3 ratio of 10.1, while the second had a ratio of 4.0. As in the previous intervention study, EPA was higher on the low LA diet. Here's where it gets interesting: DHA levels fell precipitously throughout the study, regardless of which diet the participants were eating. This has to do with a special requirement of the study diet: participants were not allowed to eat seafood. This shows that most of the DHA in the blood is obtained by eating DHA from animal fat, rather than elongating it from ALA such as flax oil. This agrees with the finding that strict vegetarians (vegans) have a low level of DHA in blood plasma.

In another intervention study, researchers achieved a better omega-6 : omega-3 ratio, with participants going from a baseline ratio of 32.2 to an experimental ratio of 2.2 for 10 weeks. The change in ratio was mostly from increasing omega-3, rather than decreasing omega-6. This caused an increase in serum EPA and DHA, although the DHA did not quite reach statistical significance (p= 0.06). In this study, participants were encouraged to eat fish 3 times per week, which is probably the reason their DHA rose. Participants saw a metabolic shift to fat burning, and an increase in insulin sensitivity that was on the cusp of statistical significance (p= 0.07).

I think what the data suggest is that humans can convert short-chain omega-3 (ALA) to EPA, but we don't efficiently elongate it to DHA. At least in the context of a high LA intake. Another thing to keep in mind is that serum PUFA are partially determined by what's in fat tissue. Modern Americans have an abnormally high proportion of LA in their fat tissue, sometimes over 20%. This contributes to a higher proportion of omega-6 and its derivatives in all tissues. "Wild" humans, including our paleolithic ancestors, would probably have values in the lower single digits. LA in fat tissue has a half-life of about 2 years, so restoring balance is a long-term process. Omega-3 fats do not accumulate to the same degree as LA, typically comprising about 1% of fat tissue. At this point, one could rightly ask: we know how diet affects blood polyunsaturated fats, but what's the relevance to health? There are multiple lines of evidence, all of which point in generally the same direction in my opinion.

There are associations between omega-6 intake (from vegetable oils), low omega-3 intake, and a number of health and psychiatric problems. Another line of evidence comes from intervention trials. The Lyon diet-heart study was one of the most successful intervention trials of all time. The experimental group increased their intake of fish, poultry, root vegetables, green vegetables, bread and fruit, while decreasing intake of red meat and dairy fat. A key difference between this study and other intervention trials is that participants were encouraged to eat a margarine rich in omega-3 ALA. In sum, participants decreased their total PUFA intake, decreased omega-6 intake and increased intake of ALA and long-chain omega-3s. After an average of 27 months, total mortality was 70% lower in the intervention group than in the control group eating the typical diet! This effect was not seen in trials that encouraged vegetable and grain consumption, discouraged red meat and dairy fat consumption, but didn't alter PUFA intake or the omega-6 : omega-3 ratio, such as the Women's Health Initiative.

As usual, the most important line of evidence comes from healthy non-industrial cultures that did not suffer from modern non-communicable diseases. They invariably consumed very little omega-6 LA (3% of calories or less), ate a roughly balanced amount of omega-6 and omega-3, and had a source of long-chain (animal) omega-3. They did not eat much omega-3 from plant sources (such as flax), as concentrated sources are rare in nature. Dr. Weston Price observed that cultures throughout the world sought out seafood if available, sometimes going to great lengths to obtain it. Here's an exerpt from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration about Fiji islanders:
Since Viti Levu, one of the islands of this group, is one of the larger islands of the Pacific Ocean, I had hoped to find on it a district far enough from the sea to make it necessary for the natives to have lived entirely on land foods. Accordingly, with the assistance of the government officials and by using a recently opened government road I was able to get well into the interior of the island by motor vehicle, and from this point to proceed farther inland on foot with two guides. I was not able, however, to get beyond the piles of sea shells which had been carried into the interior. My guide told me that it had always been essential, as it is today, for the people of the interior to obtain some food from the sea, and that even during the times of most bitter warfare between the inland or hill tribes and the coast tribes, those of the interior would bring down during the night choice plant foods from the mountain areas and place them in caches and return the following night and obtain the sea foods that had been placed in those depositories by the shore tribes. The individuals who carried these foods were never molested, not even during active warfare. He told me further that they require food from the sea at least every three months, even to this day. This was a matter of keen interest, and at the same time disappointment since one of the purposes of the expedition to the South Seas was to find, if possible, plants or fruits which together, without the use of animal products, were capable of providing all of the requirements of the body for growth and for maintenance of good health and a high state of physical efficiency.
Price searched for, but did not find, vegetarian groups that were free of the diseases of civilization. What he found were healthy cultures that put a strong emphasis on nutrient-dense animal foods, particularly seafoods when available. I think all this information together suggests that the optimum, while being a fairly broad range, is a low intake of omega-6 LA (less than 3% of calories) and a modest intake of animal omega-3 for DHA.

I believe the most critical element is reducing omega-6 LA by eliminating industrial vegetable oils (soybean, corn, cottonseed, etc.) and the foods that contain them from the diet. Fats from pasture-raised ruminants (butter, beef, lamb etc.) and wild fish are naturally balanced. We no longer commonly eat the most concentrated land source of DHA, brain, so I think it's wise to eat seafood sometimes. According to the first study I cited, 1/4 teaspoon of fish oil (or cod liver oil) per day is enough to elevate plasma DHA quite significantly. This amount of omega-3 could be obtained by eating seafood weekly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

London shopping: keeping it local

Wards Corner is the latest London market to come under threat. The Latin American enclave in Tottenham is the being earmarked for "development".

Londoners have already lost a large chunk of Spitalfields and Camden´s future has been looking dubious for sometime. And what have we gained in their place? That monstrous shrine to excessive consumerism: the Westfield Centre.

But all hope is not yet lost. Big up to the site that celebrates London´s independent traders: Good luck to them and their New York branch.

And "suerte" to the Wards Corner community. If you´re in London, show your support at their Christmas party on Dec 5.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Polyunsaturated Fat Intake: Effects on the Heart and Brain

I'm revisiting the topic of the omega-6/omega-3 balance and total polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) intake because of some interesting studies I've gotten a hold of lately (thanks Robert). Two of the studies are in pigs, which I feel are a decent model organism for studying the effect of diet on health as it relates to humans. Pigs are omnivorous (although more slanted toward plant foods), have a similar digestive system to humans (although sturdier), are of similar size and fat composition to humans, and have been eating grains for about the same amount of time as humans.

In the last post on the omega-6/omega-3 balance, I came to the conclusion that a roughly balanced but relatively low intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fats is consistent with the diets of healthy non-industrial cultures. There were a few cultures that had a fairly high long-chain omega-3 intake from seafood (10% of calories), but none ate much omega-6.

first study explores the effect of omega-6 and omega-3 fats on heart function. Dr. Sheila Innis and her group fed young male pigs three different diets:
  1. An unbalanced, low PUFA diet. Pig chow with 1.2% linoleic acid (LA; the main omega-6 plant fat) and 0.06% alpha linolenic acid (ALA; the main omega-3 plant fat).
  2. A balanced, low PUFA diet. Pig chow with 1.4% LA and 1.2% ALA.
  3. An unbalanced, but better-than-average, "modern diet". Pig chow with 11.6% LA and 1.2% ALA.
After 30 days, they took a look at the pigs' hearts. Pigs from the first and third (unbalanced) groups contained more "pro-inflammatory" fats (arachidonic acid; AA) and less "anti-inflammatory" fats (EPA and DHA) than the second group. The first and third groups also experienced an excessive activation of "pro-inflammatory" proteins, such as COX-2, the enzyme inhibited by aspirin, ibuprofen and other NSAIDs.

The most striking finding of all was the difference in lipid peroxidation between groups. Lipid peroxidation is a measure of oxidative damage to cellular fats. In the balanced diet hearts, peroxidation was half the level found in the first group, and one-third the level found in the third group!
This shows that omega-3 fats exert a powerful anti-oxidant effect that can be more than counteracted by excessive omega-6. Nitrosative stress, another type of damage, tracked with n-6 intake regardless of n-3, with the third group almost tripling the first two. I think this result is highly relevant to the long-term development of cardiac problems, and perhaps cardiovascular disease in general.

another study with the same lead author Sanjoy Ghosh, rats fed a diet enriched in omega-6 from sunflower oil showed an increase in nitrosative damage, damage to mitochondrial DNA, and a decrease in maximum cardiac work capacity (i.e., their hearts were weaker). This is consistent with the previous study and shows that the mammalian heart does not like too much omega-6! The amount of sunflower oil these rats were eating (20% food by weight) is not far off from the amount of industrial oil the average American eats.

A third paper by Dr. Sheila Innis' group studied the effect of the omega-6 : omega-3 balance on the brain fat composition of pigs, and the development of neurons
in vitro (in a culture dish). There were four diets, the first three similar to those in the first study:
  1. Deficient. 1.2% LA and 0.05% ALA.
  2. Contemporary. 10.7% LA and 1.1% ALA.
  3. Evolutionary. 1.2% LA and 1.1% ALA.
  4. Supplemented. The contemporary diet plus 0.3% AA and 0.3% DHA.
The first thing they looked at was the ability of the animals to convert ALA to DHA and concentrate it in the brain. DHA is critical for brain and eye development and maintenance. The evolutionary diet was most effective at putting DHA in the brain, with the supplemented diet a close second and the other three lagging behind. The evolutionary diet was the only one capable of elevating EPA, another important fatty acid derived from ALA. If typical fish oil rather than isolated DHA and AA had been given as the supplement, that may not have been the case. Overall, the fatty acid composition of the brain was quite different in the evolutionary group than the other three groups, which will certainly translate into a variety of effects on brain function.

The researchers then cultured neurons and showed that they require DHA to develop properly in culture, and that long-chain omega-6 fats are a poor substitute. Overall, the paper shows that the modern diet causes a major fatty acid imbalance in the brain, which is expected to lead to developmental problems and probably others as well. This can be partially corrected by supplementing with fish oil.

Together, these studies are a small glimpse of the countless effects we are having on every organ system, by eating fats that are unfamiliar to our pre-industrial bodies. In the next post, I'll put this information into the context of the modern human diet.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Health is Multi-Factorial

Thanks to commenter Brock for pointing me to this very interesting paper, "Effects of fish oil on hypertension, plasma lipids, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha in rats with sucrose-induced metabolic syndrome". As we know, sugar gives rats metabolic syndrome when it's added to regular rat chow, probably the same thing it does to humans when added to a processed food diet.

One thing has always puzzled me about sugar. It doesn't appear to cause major metabolic problems when added to an otherwise healthy diet, yet it wreaks havoc in other contexts. One example of the former situation is the
Kuna, who are part hunter-gatherer, part agricultural. They eat a lot of refined sugar, but in the context of chocolate, coconut, fish, plantains, root vegetables and limited grains and beans, they are relatively healthy. Perhaps not quite on the same level as hunter-gatherer groups, but healthier than the average modernized person from the point of view of the diseases of civilization.

This paper really sheds light on the matter. The researchers gave a large group of rats access to drinking water containing 30% sucrose, in addition to their normal rat chow, for 21 weeks. The rats drank 4/5 of their calories in the form of sugar water. There's no doubt that this is an extreme treatment. They subsequently developed metabolic syndrome, including abdominal obesity, elevated blood pressure, elevated fasting insulin, elevated triglycerides, elevated total cholesterol and LDL, lowered HDL, greatly increased serum uric acid, greatly elevated liver enzymes suggestive of
liver damage, and increased tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha). TNF-alpha is a hormone secreted by visceral (abdominal) fat tissue that may play a role in promoting insulin resistance.

After this initial 12-week treatment, they divided the metabolic syndrome rats into two groups:
  • One that continued the sugar treatment, along with a diet enriched in corn and canola oil (increased omega-6).
  • A second that continued the sugar treatment, along with a diet enriched in fish oil (increased omega-3).
The two diets contained the same total amount of polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), but had very different omega-6 : omega-3 ratios. The first had a ratio of 9.3 (still better than the average American), while the second had a ratio of 0.02, with most of the omega-3 in the second group coming from EPA and DHA (long-chain, animal omega-3s). The second diet also contained four times as much saturated fat as the first, mostly in the form of palmitic acid.

Compared to the vegetable oil group, the fish oil group had lower fasting insulin, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, lower cholesterol, and lower LDL. As a matter of fact,
the fish oil group looked as good or better on all these parameters than a non-sugar fed control group receiving the extra vegetable oil alone (although the control group isn't perfect because it inevitably ate more vegetable oil-containing chow to make up for the calories it wasn't consuming in sugar). The only things reducing vegetable oil and increasing fish oil didn't fix were the weight and the elevated TNF-alpha, although they didn't report the level of liver enzymes in these groups. The TNF-alpha finding is not surprising, since it's secreted by visceral fat, which did not decrease in the fish oil group.

I think this is a powerful result. It may have been done in rats, but the evidence is there for a similar mechanism in humans. The Kuna have a very favorable omega-6 : omega-3 ratio, with most of their fat coming from highly saturated coconut and cocoa. This may protect them from their high sugar intake. The Kitavans also have a very favorable omega-6 : omega-3 ratio, with most of their fat coming from coconuts and fish. They don't eat refined sugar, but they do eat a tremendous amount of starch and a generous amount of fruit.

The paper also suggests that the metabolic syndrome is largely reversible.

I believe that both excessive sugar and
excessive omega-6 from modern vegetable oils are a problem individually. But if you want to have a much bigger problem, try combining them!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Real Food X: Roasted Marrow Bones

Bone marrow is a food that has been prized throughout history-- from hunter-gatherer tribes to haute cuisine chefs. It's not hard to understand why, once you've tasted it. It's delicate, meaty and fatty. It's also rich in fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins K1 and K2, although this will depend on what the animal has eaten.

Roasted marrow bones make a simple appetizer. Beef bones are the best because of their size. Select wide bones that are cut about three inches long. They should be from the femur or the humerus, called the "shank bones". These are sometimes available in the frozen meats section of a grocery store, otherwise a butcher can procure them. If you have access to a farmer's market that sells meats, vendors will typically have bones cut for you if you request it.

  1. Preheat oven to 450 F (230 C).
  2. Place bones, cut side up, in a baking dish or oven-proof skillet.
  3. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the marrow begins to separate from the bone, but not much longer because it will turn to mush.
  4. Scoop out and eat the marrow by itself, on sourdough rye toast or however you please.
  5. Make soup stock from the leftover bones.

Koalas in Bolivia?

What do you do when you get off a night bus in a chilly Bolivian city at 5am when there are no couchsurfers in town? You rely on your guidebook and book into the only place that it says isn't freezing at night: the Koala Den.

Despite my fear of the cold and the den's billing as "warm and cosy", this was not an exciting prospect. I was in Potosi, a traditional Bolivian mining town that claims to be the highest city in the world, and yet was checking into a clearly Aussie-owned place called the Koala Den. Could this be the furthest thing from going local? I was disappointed with the Lonely Planet for writing off everywhere else in town and I was disappointed at myself for falling for it.

But I was wrong. On one count, at least. Sure, the hostal was full of travellers, with a DVD library of American blockbusters and a fair few Australians, but, to my surprise, it was Bolivian-owned and staffed entirely by locals.

Why the name? "Because," explained the receptionist, "the miners here are famed for chewing coca leaves. Just as koalas chew eucalyptus."

Ah ha. Proof that you should never jump to conclusions.

In fairness, it turned out to be a very sweet place: cheap and friendly. The Aussies were ok too.

I'm only kidding. Aussie travellers are always fun. I'm not avoiding other travellers because I don't like them, I just hate being trapped in bubble, which is how it can feel in many of the hostels out here. There are less travel networkers in Bolivia and I am struggling to get off the gringo trail.

Here's hoping I'll have more luck in Sucre, the nation's capital, where I'll be meeting a Couchsurfer called Laura. Her profile pics is nothing more than a rather seductive pair of lips, so I'm rather intrigued...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Vitamin K2 in Marrow

I'm always on the lookout for foods rich in vitamin K2 MK-4, because it's so important and so rare in the modern food system. I heard some internet rumors that marrow might be rich in fat-soluble vitamins. Google let me down, so I decided to look through the rat studies on K2 MK-4 in which they looked at its tissue distribution.

I found one that looked at the K2 MK-4 content in different tissues of rats fed vitamin K1. Marrow was rich in K2, along with testes. It contains 10-20 times more MK-4 than liver by weight, and more than any of the other organs they tested (serum, liver, spleen, kidney, heart, testes, marrow, brain) except testes. They didn't include values for salivary gland and pancreas, the two richest sources.

If we assume beef marrow has the same amount of MK-4 as rat marrow per weight (I have no idea if this is really the case, but it's probably in the ballpark), two ounces of beef marrow would contain about 10 micrograms MK-4. Not a huge source, but significant nevertheless.

Bone marrow was a prized food in many hunter-gatherer societies. Let's see what Dr. Weston Price has to say about it (from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration):
For the Indians living inside the Rocky Mountain Range in the far North of Canada, the successful nutrition for nine months of the year was largely limited to wild game, chiefly moose and caribou. During the summer months the Indians were able to use growing plants. During the winter some use was made of bark and buds of trees. I found the Indians putting great emphasis upon the eating of the organs of the animals, including the wall of parts of the digestive tract. Much of the muscle meat of the animals was fed to the dogs. It is important that skeletons are rarely found where large game animals have been slaughtered by the Indians of the North. The skeletal remains are found as piles of finely broken bone chips or splinters that have been cracked up to obtain as much as possible of the marrow and nutritive qualities of the bones. These Indians obtain their fat-soluble vitamins and also most of their minerals from the organs of the animals. An important part of the nutrition of the children consisted in various preparations of bone marrow, both as a substitute for milk and as a special dietary ration.
Here's a bit more about these same groups, also from Nutrition and Physical Degeneration:
The condition of the teeth, and the shape of the dental arches and the facial form, were superb. Indeed, in several groups examined not a single tooth was found that had ever been attacked by tooth decay. In an examination of eighty-seven individuals having 2,464 teeth only four teeth were found that had ever been attacked by dental caries. This is equivalent to 0.16 per cent. As we came back to civilization and studied, successively, different groups with increasing amounts of contact with modern civilization, we found dental caries increased progressively, reaching 25.5 per cent of all of the teeth examined at Telegraph Creek, the point of contact with the white man's foods. As we came down the Stikine River to the Alaskan frontier towns, the dental caries problem increased to 40 per cent of all of the teeth.
Evidently, the traditionally-living groups were doing something right.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Back to the future with MeetURPlanet

I've discovered a new hospitality network. Well, new to me. has actually been going since 2001 - three years before It turns out the founder, Jeff Mitchell, was quite the pioneer in the field, completing a world tour through members homes in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, France, England, US and Australia back in the site's inaugural year.

Shame, then, to see it’s been left to go a little stagnant since then. I wanted to try and give it a whirl here in Bolivia, but there’s only one member in the entire country and he last logged in 2001.

I have been a little lazy with the site in the last year or two,” said Jeff when I emailed him. Come on Jeff, now’s not the time to be lazy. Hospitality tourism is storming forward and you should be leading the field, not playing catch up. Time to get back on it, or else you’ll certainly need to change the “the future of travel is now” tagline.

In the meantime, I’ll try that Bolivian. You never know…

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

PickUpPal picks up the bill

Bad news for carsharing site PickUpPal: they lost their Ontario hearing and now have to pay an C$11,ooo fine. The charge, which I reported on for the Guardian (Would you stick your cyber thumb out for a lift? Oct 4), followed a complaint by a local bus company that such car-sharing schemes were illegal in the Canadian province.

An antiquated law means PickUpPal users are expected to follow a bizarre series of rules, such only arranging a liftshare if you are travelling between home and work, riding with the same driver each day, and paying the driver on a weekly, not daily, basis. If you want to step outside of these rules - and, say, ask your friend for a fiver for petrol or arrange a cross-country roadtrip – the authorities demand you obtain a license first.

The ruling proved to be a shock for co-founder Eric Dewhirst, who had been confident in the run-up. Yet he's remaining optimistic.
"Because we made a case out of it and received a lot of media attention we were able to put enough pressure on the government to change the laws. Two weeks ago they introduced an amendment to the current legislation that would essentially allow us to operate. The laws still has to pass but we are hopeful," he says.

"We are disappointed at losing at the hearing, however we're thrilled that we got the attention of the government and they are moving forward on changing the laws."

With over 100,000 members, it will take more than this to keep PickUpPal down. While technicalities are being sorted out, Ontario members are being asked to abide by the local law.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Traveller´s Tree goes couchsurfing

It wasn´t easy arranging the interview from a small radio station in Cusco, but we got there in the end. Here´s a link to Traveller´s Tree´s virtual travel special, broadcast on Radio 4 earlier today. I spoke on travel networking and couchsurfing. Who knows, perhaps I have tempted presenter Katie Derham into giving it a go. She was very surprised to hear the sites are open to families too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Adios to Friends Abroad is no more. The website that enabled users to practise languages with native speakers has become a part of The FriendsAbroad site will be closing soon, but all profiles are being automatically migrated over to Babbel (pictured).

I first wrote about FriendsAbroad for The Linguist magazine back in 2006. The site was established by Simon Murdoch, one of the early internet entrepreneurs, who after selling his online company Booksellers to Amazon for a hefty £5million, went on to run

For nostalgia's sake, here's an extract from my piece from The Linguist. I like to think my Spanish has improved somewhat since then. Meanwhile, for other sites that link you with language learners overseas, you can also try or

"''Hi. My name is Vicky. I am English and live in London. Je parle Français. Hablo Espanol tambien, pero solo un poco.’ My introductory post is short and to the point, and yet a couple of days later I start to get a series of messages. Many are in Spanish, which could be a bit of a challenge, but there’s a translation aid on the site if I get stuck. There’s also no hunting around your keyboard for the special characters menu, as accented letters are easily accessible onscreen.

Most of the messages come from men - which makes me wonder if some are using it as a dating service - but as long as you don’t give out any personal information, you’re safe. Members, I am told, tend to police the site themselves and report anyone who arouses suspicions.

The introductions keep coming. “Hello,” says Ange, a 29-year-old engineer. “I’m from Paris. I can help you with french and hope to learn from you english ... Are you OK?” A quick ‘hola’ from a 17-year-old Spanish schoolgirl follows.

When I was doing my A-levels, the latter would have been an ideal correspondent. These days, I doubt we’d have much in common. To find someone with your own interests you have to search around instead of letting people come to you - but there is certainly no shortage of people to choose from."

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hello stranger

Not feeling up to boarding a place by yourself and taking the leap into travel networking with the locals? The first step could be finding travel companion that can head out there with you. Read my article in today's Guardian for all you need to know and an account of my recent trip to Barcelona, with friends met through

I'll meet you in the plaza...

When I first started out on my travel-networking experiment, a reader emailed me to tell me about his own adventures across South America using "Let's see how many times have you found yourself meeting someone at the main plaza, in front of the cathedral," he joked.

It's true that this seems to be the meeting place of choice in this part of the world and it still amazes me when it works out.

Yesterday evening, I phoned a Couchsurfer called Jose when I arrived in Cusco. "Meet me in the Plaza d'Armes [ie the main plaza] at 6pm," he said. "But where? It's a big plaza," I asked. "By the water fountain. Ok chau. Hasta luego," he said and promptly hung up.

A couple of hours later, I was found myself trying to make eye contact with every single guy in the radius of the said fountain. Not ideal, but fortunately, at ten past, up bobbed Jose with a big grin on his face.

Some travel networkers grow on you over time, but Jose was an instant hit. He seemed highly amused by the lost look on my face and we've been laughing pretty much ever since.

Since our plaza meet, he's taken me to the local market where we've chatted with some of the traders; he's guided me on an informal walking tour around the lanes of the San Blas barrio (and to a lookout point that I probably wouldn't have found myself); he's introduced me to local delicacies such as "te pitedo" (hot tea with pisco) and tamal (moulded maize, wrapped in maize leaves, resembling a banana); and he seems to be constantly waving to people he knows, which, somehow rubs off on me, making me feel more at home.

But, best of all, he got me out of my hostal. I made the mistake of checking into one of those sprawling great place that feels like a university campus. It's nice enough (clean, hot water, good facilities), but I don't think there's a Peruvian in the place, Arctic Monkeys CDs are playing in the bar, and English echoes off all walls, whether with an Aussie, Irish or Euro twang. With the in-house pyjama party last night, I felt like a gatecrasher at Freshers' Week.

All good fun perhaps, but no different from any other huge hostal around the world, which is the main reason I turned to travel networking in the first place. If ever I was glad of a local contact, it was last night. Gracias Jose!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Google Flu Trends

I just discovered a wonderful new tool from, Google Flu Trends. is the philanthropic branch of Google. Flu Trends gives you real-time data on flu incidence in your U.S. state, as well as for the country as a whole. Here's how it works:
We've found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in your state up to two weeks faster than traditional flu surveillance systems.

Each week, millions of users around the world search for online health information. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer.
Google's data match up well with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data on flu incidence, but are available 1-2 weeks before CDC data. Here's a comparison of Flu Trends and CDC data for previous years. Plus, Google makes the information easily accessible and user-friendly.

I think this a fantastic use of the massive amount of raw information on the internet. It's amazing what a person can do with a brain and an internet connection these days.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Can Vitamin K2 Reverse Arterial Calcification?

It certainly can in rats. In April 2007, Dr. Cees Vermeer and his group published a paper on the effect of vitamin K on arterial calcification (the accumulation of calcium in the arteries). As I mentioned two posts ago, arterial calcification is tightly associated with the risk of heart attack and death. Warfarin-treated rats are an established model of arterial calcification. Warfarin also causes calcification in humans. The drug is a "blood thinner" that inhibits vitamin K recycling, and inhibits the conversion of vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) to K2 MK-4 (menaquinone-4). This latter property turns out to be the critical one in the calcification process.

Rats are able to convert vitamin K1 to K2 MK-4, whereas humans don't seem to convert well. Conversion efficiency varies between species.
Dr. Vermeer's group treated rats with warfarin for 6 weeks, during which they developed extensive arterial calcification. They also received vitamin K1 to keep their blood clotting properly. At 6 weeks, the warfarin-treated rats were broken up into several groups:
  • One continued on the warfarin and K1 diet
  • One was placed on a diet containing a normal amount of K1 (no warfarin)
  • One was placed on a high K1 diet (no warfarin)
  • The last was placed on a high K2 MK-4 diet (no warfarin)
After 6 more weeks, the first two groups developed even more calcification, while the third and fourth groups lost about 40% of their arterial calcium. The high vitamin K groups also saw a decrease in cell death in the artery wall, a decrease in uncarboxylated (inactive) MGP, and an increase in arterial elasticity. They also measured the vitamin K content of aortas from each group. The group that received the 12-week warfarin treatment had a huge amount of K1 accumulation in the aorta, but no K2 MK-4. This is expected because warfarin inhibits the conversion of K1 to K2 MK-4. It's notable that when conversion to K2 was blocked, K1 alone was totally ineffective at activating MGP and preventing calcification.

In the group fed high K1 but no warfarin, there was about three times more K2 MK-4 in the aortas than K1, suggesting that they had converted it effectively and that vascular tissue selectively accumulates K2 MK-4. A high K1 intake was required for this effect, however, since the normal K1 diet did not reverse calcification. The rats fed high K2 MK-4 had only K2 MK-4 in their aortas, as expected.

What does this mean for us? K2 MK-4 appears to be the form of vitamin K that arteries prefer (although not enough is known about the longer menaquinones, such as MK-7, to rule out a possible effect). Humans don't seem to be very good at making the conversion from K1 to K2 MK-4 (at normal intakes; there are suggestions that at artificially large doses we can do it). That means we need to ensure an adequate K2 MK-4 intake to prevent or reverse arterial calcification; eating K1-rich greens won't cut it. It's worth noting that the amounts of K1 and K2 used in the paper were very large, far beyond what is obtainable through food. But the regression took only 6 weeks, so it's possible that a smaller amount of K2 MK-4 over a longer period could have the same effect in humans.

K2 MK-4 (and perhaps other menaquinones like MK-7) may turn out to be an effective treatment for arterial calcification and cardiovascular disease in general. It's
extremely effective at preventing osteoporosis-related fractures in humans. That's a highly significant fact. Osteoporosis and arterial calcification often come hand-in-hand. Thus, they are not a result of insufficient or excessive calcium, but of a failure to use the available calcium effectively. In the warfarin-treated rats described above, the serum (blood) calcium concentration was the same in all groups. Osteoporosis and arterial calcification are two sides of the same coin, and the fact that one can be addressed with K2 MK-4 means that the other may be as well.

Both osteoporosis and arterial calcification may turn out to be symptoms of vitamin K2 deficiency, resulting from the modern fear of animal fats and organs, and the deterioration of traditional animal husbandry practices. So eat your pastured dairy, organs, fish roe and shellfish! And if you have arterial calcification, as judged by a
heart scan, you may want to consider supplementing with additional K2 MK-4 (also called menaquinone-4 and menatetrenone).

The osteoporosis studies were done with 45 milligrams per day, which was well tolerated but seems excessive to me. Smaller doses were not tested. From the limited information available on the K2 content of foods, 1 milligram of K2 MK-4 per day seems like the upper limit of what you can get from food. That's about 40 times more than the average person eats. Anything more and you're outside your body's operating parameters. Make sure you're getting adequate vitamin D3 and A if you supplement with K2. Vitamin D3 in particular
increases the secretion of MGP, so the two work in concert.