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.

Couchsurfing and the importance of keeping in touch

“It’s tiring being a host,” sighed Thomas. As an active member of and, he has put numerous travellers up, for free, at his home near the French Guianan capital of Cayenne.

“I enjoy it,” he continued, “but you put so much effort into creating these friendships and then you never hear from the person again.”

He’s not the only host I’ve heard voice such an opinion. Felicia, a member of, who I visited in her home within a downtrodden barrio of Caracas, Venezuela also told me that “most foreigners come, and then disappear”.

With these conversations in mind, I´m trying my best not to do a disappearing act. It’s particularly important to keep in touch with the hosts who aren’t travellers themselves, but are putting people up purely because they want to meet people and make friends across the world.

Admittedly, Felicia’s emails, filled with stream-of-consciousness, punctuation-free slang, push my Spanish beyond its limits, but we’re getting by. In general, MSN and Facebook make it a lot easier and, of course, all travel-networking hosts are, by definition, often online. A short email or a round robin is often all it takes to show you haven’t forgotten a person.

I can’t claim to be an angel when it comes to keeping in touch with everyone I’ve met through travel networking. I have a backlog of people I need to drop a line and one slightly intense Colombian contact is constantly telling me off from sporadic contact. (A little unfairly, I feel. The understanding needs to go both ways.)

However, I’m doing my best and what I like about couchsurfing is the connection it enables you to build with the places you visit. Usually when backpacking, you only make friends with other backpackers. You might become good friends and stay in contact for years, but what becomes of the place? Once you all move on, it is little more than a shell for your memories from that one period of time.

The advantage of staying with locals is you keep in touch with the places as well as the people. Life goes on there; you receive the updates, you can picture it moving on; and, as many hosts repeat, the door is always open for your return.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My city secret: Lima

After I posted on Benji Lanaydo´s best of the local blogs earlier this week, he alerted me to a blog chain he´s started, encouraging writers to share a city secret on their blog, call it ´My city secret´, and then post a link over at

"Could a ´My city secret´ post be part of the Going Local remit?" he asked. Well, it can be if I get a local to pass on their top tips instead.

I asked my newfound Peruvian friend, Claire Jaureguy, a journalist who also works for the Peruvian tourist board, if she had any tips on her hometown, Lima. Knowing she usually has her iPod glued to her ears and is more up-to-date on the London bands than I am, I asked if she had a tip for catching up-and-coming Peruvian bands when in the country´s immense capital.

Here are her suggestions. I´m not sure how secret they are, but I´d certainly trust her enough to consider them well worth checking out.

"Sargento Pimienta (Sgt. Pepper) is the rock bar in Barranco, the bohemian part of the city. Also El Dragón and Barrancois Discoteca Voce are musts for live music."

She also mentioned Juanito en la Plaza de Barranco "for something more traditional". When I Googled "Juanito, Lima", it lead me this interesting Peru-based blog,

Thus, Benji proved his rabbit-warren theory once again. I´ll let the Cool Peru guys know and maybe they can post a city secret too.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Real Food IX: Idlis

Traditional cultures throughout the world went to great lengths to maximize the nutritional value of the ingredients they had. Fermentation is a technique that was widely used for preparing grains and legumes. Humans are not well adapted to grains or legumes, in large part due to their assortment of anti-nutrients (substances that prevent the absorption of nutrients) and other toxins. Fermentation is a very effective way to eliminate anti-nutrients, making grains and legumes more nutritious and easily digested.

Idlis are steamed, naturally leavened cakes made from a fermented mixture of ground rice and beans. They're mild, savory and fluffy, and pair well with nearly any dish. I think they fill in well for bread. Due to the combination of rice and beans, they contain a fair amount of high-quality complete protein. They are also very economical. Idlis have their roots in Southern Indian cuisine more than 1,000 years ago. They may have originated as a fermented bean dish, with rice added to the recipe later in history.

The recipe takes 2-3 days to complete, but actually doesn't require much work. First, the beans and rice are soaked separately, then they are ground and mixed, then they are allowed to ferment for 24-48 hours and steamed. This type of days-long soaking and fermentation process is common in many grain-based cultures worldwide.

The recipe traditionally calls for short-grain white rice and urad dal (split black gram). I've been using short-grain brown rice with good results. You will only be able to find urad dal in an Indian grocer, specialty store or online. If you can't find urad dal, try experimenting with other types of mild dry beans.

Ingredients and materials
  • One cup urad dal or other dried bean
  • Two cups short-grain brown or white rice
  • One teaspoon fenugreek (optional)
  • Two teaspoons non-iodized salt
  • Filtered or otherwise dechlorinated water
  • Muffin tray
  • Large pot for steaming (optional)
  1. Soak urad dal and rice separately for 6 hours (longer if you're using a different type of bean). Add fenugreek to the rice before soaking (optional). It's used traditionally to speed fermentation.
  2. Pour water off the urad dal and rice/fenugreek mixture. Don't rinse.
  3. Grind the urad dal in a food process or or blender with a minimum amount of water until it's a smooth paste. The water must not be chlorinated or it will kill our bacteria! Brita-type water filters remove chlorine, as does boiling or leaving water uncovered overnight.
  4. Grind the rice/fenugreek mixture coarsely with a minimum amount of dechlorinated water.
  5. Mix the ground urad dal, ground rice and salt. The salt must be non-iodized, or the batter will not ferment! Pickling salt, kosher salt and unrefined sea salt work well. Add dechlorinated water until it's a thick paste, stirrable but not liquid.
  6. Ferment for 24-48 hours. You know it's ready when the dough has risen significantly, and the odor has gone from harsh and beany to mild and savory. Fermentation time will depend on the ambient temperature.
  7. Fill muffin trays about half-way with batter and steam until a knife inserted into them comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. You can also bake them at 350 F. It's not traditional, but I like them baked almost as much. If you really want to be traditional, you can buy an idli steamer.
Here are photos of my last batch. Soaking the urad dal and rice:

Batter, pre-fermentation:

Batter, post-fermentation (48 hours). It more than doubled in volume. The color didn't actually change, that's just my camera.

Ready to steam or bake.

After baking. One escaped! Into my belly.

Thanks to Soumya dey and Wikipedia for the top photo

Going local in Paris, part one

Also in Sat’s locals special in the Guardian was my account of a recent B&B visit in Paris. It follows below and is part of a larger piece on tips on where to stay around the world.

Françoise was a fun host and I was impressed with the agency, While I was in town I also meet with one of their representatives, Jenny Johnson. It is part of her job to visit all the hosts, to personally vet the accommodation, and make sure they fully understand what their role involves.

Here’s my review. And stay tuned for part two of the Going Local Paris experience, when things got even more interesting and I met one of the city’s greatest local legends.

The Parisian B&B

Françoise Rousse answers the door with a big welcoming smile. Well, smiles are to be expected given that she is a professional laughter coach and the founder of the French University of Laughter. This weekend, this flame-haired sixtysomething is also my host. She has established her own Parisian B&B, offering her spare bedroom to travellers looking to get a more personal perspective on this vast, enigmatic city.

B&Bs are currently enjoying a resurgence in Paris. For proof, thumb through the newly released Chambres d'Hôtes à Paris, a pictorial guide of the city's 100 best (Hachette, €16). You don't have to be able to read the French text to have your imagination captured by images of Le Bateau Johanna (, a houseboat moored by the Musée d'Orsay, or Chez Bertrand, where the bed is fashioned out of an old 2CV (

According to Jenny Johnson of B&B specialists, Parisians are signing up to the idea in order to "meet more people and earn a little extra money". The plus points are just as obvious for the tourists: B&Bs offer the chance to tap into some local knowledge and are also a welcome alternative to overpriced tourist hotels.

Françoise's 1930s apartment block is just off a tourist-free road in the eastern suburb of Vincennes. Inside, the homely decor is just as cheerful as the owner. Its bijoux dimensions are enhanced by a wall of mirrors and a bouquet of lilies; wooden furniture is painted in primary colours; and my bedroom is pastel purples and greens.

I nearly backed out when told me I'd be staying in Vincennes, which looked far from central on my map. But it turned out to be just a 15-minute metro ride from the fashionable Marais district, on numerous handy bus routes (the number 29 takes you straight to St Lazare, for shopping at La Fayette), and there is even a Vélib stop so you can use Paris's hugely successful public bike scheme.

But, best of all, Françoise alerts me to the nearby Promenade Plantée, a green-fringed footpath (cyclists and skaters welcome) that follows an old railway line and takes you all the way to the Bastille.

There are some drawbacks to staying in such a small B&B: you are constantly aware that you are a guest in someone's home and you have to stick to a specified arrival time. However, it's certainly a more personal and insightful experience.

As for me, I still have some way to go before I get fully under Paris's skin, but I'd be happy to make my way through the 100 best B&Bs to get there.

• Françoise's apartment, Courteline, costs €34.22pp per night through (+1 47 34 01 50). There are around 120 B&Bs on the site, from €35-€100pp pn. Sister company has over 4,000 B&Bs across Italy. Eurostar ( runs from St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to Paris from £59 return.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Going loco for locals

If you missed the Guardian´s local travel special, you can catch up online. Being out of the country, that´s what I´m planning to do. I´m particularly looking forward to reading Benji Lanyado´s piece on the best of local blogs. But, as Benji always says, entering the blogosphere is like falling into a rabbit warren, one good link always leads to another, so I need to set aside a decent amount of time. Right now I´ve got to dash back to my host family here in Peru. Lunch is on the table and we have a local fiesta to go to. More on that to come...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cardiovascular Disease and Vitamin K2

Vitamin K2 is intimately involved in calcium metabolism. Matrix Gla-protein (MGP) is a vitamin K-dependent protein that is secreted in cartilage, lung, heart, kidney and arteries. MGP prefers the MK-4 form of vitamin K2, the type that occurs almost exclusively in animal foods. Mice lacking MGP develop extensive arterial and soft tissue calcification (accumulation of calcium, as in bone). Same for humans with naturally occurring mutations in MGP (Keutel syndrome). It also happens in rats treated with warfarin, which inhibits vitamin K recycling. Let's hear what Dr. Cees Vermeer and his group have to say about MGP:
Among the proteins involved in vascular calcium metabolism, the vitamin K-dependent matrix Gla-protein (MGP) plays a dominant role. Although on a molecular level its mechanism of action is not completely understood, it is generally accepted that MGP is a potent inhibitor of arterial calcification. Its pivotal importance for vascular health is demonstrated by the fact that there seems to be no effective alternative mechanism for calcification inhibition in the vasculature. An optimal vitamin K intake is therefore important to maintain the risk and rate of calcification as low as possible.
So why do we care about vessel calcification? It associates strongly with the risk of heart attack and total mortality, better than traditional markers like the Framingham risk index*. That's because it's actually a measure of the disease process, rather than a marker with an unclear connection to it.

In my post on vitamin K2, I mentioned the Rotterdam study, which found that vitamin K2 intake is strongly associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular and total mortality. Vitamin K1, which is the type found in plants, was not associated with reduced mortality. I just came across another study in women selected from the PROSPECT cohort that showed something similar. Women with the highest K2 intake had the lowest level of coronary calcification. There was no association with K1. This suggests, yet again, that humans aren't very good at making the conversion from K1 to K2 MK-4. This is probably because during evolution, we always had a ready source of K2, so efficient conversion became unnecessary. Vitamin K2 MK-4 is found almost exclusively in animal foods.

Notably absent from the main text body is a discussion of where the K2 is coming from. It's tucked away in one sentence of the methods section: "cheese contributed 54%, milk products 22% and meat 15% of menaquinone intake." Oops! These are the foods that are supposed to cause heart disease! And do you remember where the K2 is? In the fat-- double oops! Yet another important nutrient that's found in animal fat.

Keep in mind that these Dutch women have an intake of K2 that is probably lower than what we would have eaten as hunter-gatherers. Most people in modern societies are verifiably K2 deficient. A focus on the organs (brain, pancreas) and fats of wild animals, shellfish, fish eggs and insects would have assured hunter-gatherers a high intake of vitamin K2 MK-4. This is precisely what Weston Price found in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. He refers to vitamin K2 MK-4 as "activator X" in the book. In modern times, our most readily available source of vitamin K2 MK-4 is actually not a paleolithic food at all, it's butter from pasture-raised cows. It's how we can get away with not eating brain, pancreas and bugs.

*I plugged my numbers into this Framingham risk index calculator and it gave me the message "Please go back and enter an HDL value in the range of 20-100."!! I can imagine if you follow NCEP dietary guidelines your HDL would never break 100 mg/dL!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Winterize Your Diet

As winter approaches, there are steps you can take to preserve your health and well-being. Here's a list of things I find useful:

-Eat in season. Root vegetables like beets, turnips, rutabagas and potatoes are in season and make a satisfying dish. Try baked beets with raw garlic, sage and butter. Winter squash are tasty, nutritious and colorful. They make excellent soups and mashes, and can be baked or steamed. My favorite varieties are butternut, kabochas, delicata and gold nugget. They pair well with sage or nutmeg. In some places, hardy greens such as kale and collards are available in winter. Many fruits such as apples, pears and citrus are in season during the winter (or stored from fall).

-Prepare soup stocks. There's nothing like a long-simmered bone broth to drive away the winter chill. They are also rich in minerals and gelatin, which aids digestion and soothes the digestive tract.

-Make sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables. Fermentation was once used as a means to preserve flavor and nutrition for the winter. Fermented vegetables are a powerful digestive aid. After the first frost, cabbage is at its sweetest. Sweet cabbage makes the best kraut.

-Keep your vitamin D level high. This may protect against the typical winter ills, including flu and seasonal depression. Unless you live in a warm climate and spend time outside in the winter regularly, it's wise to seek out vitamin D. High-vitamin cod liver oil, pasture-raised animal fats, shellfish and fatty fish are good sources. Some people may wish to supplement with vitamin D3.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Book Review: Dangerous Grains

Dangerous Grains is about the health hazards of gluten grains. It's co-written by James Braly, an M.D. who specializes in food allergies, and Ron Hoggan, a celiac patient who has written widely on the subject.

Celiac disease is a degeneration of the intestinal lining caused by exposure to gluten. Gluten sensitivity is a broader term that encompasses any of the numerous symptoms that can occur throughout the body when susceptible people eat gluten. The term gluten sensitivity includes celiac disease. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, its close relatives (kamut, spelt, triticale), barley and rye. Wheat is the most concentrated source.

Dangerous Grains is a good overview of the mountain of data on celiac disease and gluten sensitivity that few people outside the field are familiar with. For example, did you know:

  • An estimated one percent of the U.S. population suffers from celiac disease.

  • Approximately 12 percent of the US population may suffer from gluten sensitivity, according to blood antibody tests.

  • Gluten can damage nearly any part of the body, including the brain, the digestive tract, the skin and the pancreas. Sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms are absent.

  • Both celiac and other forms of gluten sensitivity increase the risk of a large number of diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and cancer, often dramatically.

  • The majority of people with gluten sensitivity are not diagnosed.

  • Most doctors don't realize how common gluten sensitivity is, so they rarely test for it.

  • Celiac disease and other symptoms of gluten sensitivity are easily reversed by avoiding gluten.

That's an enormous disease burden coming from a single type of food. I suspect the true incidence may actually be higher, although it's difficult to be sure.

Dangerous Grains
also discusses the opioid-like peptides released from gluten during digestion. Opioids are powerful drugs, such as heroin and morphine, that were originally derived from the poppy seed pod. They are strong suppressors of the immune system and quite addictive. There are no data that conclusively prove the opioid-like peptides in gluten cause immune suppression or addiction to wheat, but there are some interesting coincidences and anecdotes. Celiac patients are at an increased risk of cancer, particularly digestive tract cancer, which suggests that the immune system is compromised. Heroin addicts are also at increased risk of cancer. Furthermore, celiac patients often suffer from abnormal food cravings. 

I know several people who have benefited greatly from removing gluten from their diets. Anyone who has digestive problems, from gas to acid reflux, or any other mysterious health problem, owes it to themselves to try a gluten-free diet for a month. Gluten consumption has increased quite a bit in the U.S. in the last 30 years, mostly due to an increase in the consumption of processed wheat snacks. I believe it's partly to blame for our declining health. Wheat has more gluten than any other grain. Avoiding wheat and all its derivatives is a keystone of my health philosophy.

Another notable change that Sally Fallon and others have pointed out is that today's bread isn't made the same way our grandparents made it. Quick-rise yeast allows bread to be fermented for as little as 3 hours, whereas it was formerly fermented for 8 hours or more. This allowed the gluten to be partially broken down by the microorganisms in the dough.
Some gluten-sensitive people report that they can eat well-fermented sourdough wheat bread without symptoms. I think these ideas are plausible, but they remain anecdotes to me at this point. Until research shows that gluten-sensitive people can do well eating sourdough wheat bread in the long term, I'll be avoiding it. I have no reason to believe I'm gluten sensitive myself, but through my reading I've been convinced that wheat, at least how we eat it today, is probably not healthy for anyone.

I'm not aware of any truly healthy traditional culture that eats wheat as a staple. As a matter of fact, white wheat flour has left a trail of destruction around the globe wherever it has gone. Polished rice does not have such a destructive effect, so it's not simply the fact that it's a refined carbohydrate. Hundreds, if not thousands of cultures throughout the world have lost their robust good health upon abandoning their traditional foods in favor of white flour and sugar. The medical and anthropological literature are peppered with these stories.

Overall, the book is well written and accessible to a broad audience. I recommend it to anyone who has health problems or who is healthy and wants to stay that way!