Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dietary Fiber and Mineral Availability

Health authorities tell us to eat more fiber for health, particularly whole grains, fruit and vegetables. Yet the Diet and Reinfarction Trial, which determined the effect of eating a high-fiber diet on overall risk of death, came up with this graph:



Oops!  At two years, the group that doubled its fiber intake had a 27% greater chance of dying and a 23% greater chance of having a heart attack. The extra fiber was coming from whole grains. The difference wasn't statistically significant, so we can't make too much out of this. But at the very least, it doesn't support the idea that increasing grain fiber will extend your life. 

Why might fiber be problematic? I read a paper recently that gave a pretty convincing answer to that question: "Dietary Fibre and Mineral Bioavailability", by Dr. Barbara F. Hartland. By definition, fiber is indigestible. We can divide it into two categories: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber is mostly cellulose and it's relatively inert, besides getting fermented a bit by the gut flora. Soluble fiber is anything that can be dissolved in water but not digested by the human digestive tract. It includes a variety of molecules, some of which are quite effective at keeping you from absorbing minerals. Chief among these is phytic acid, with smaller contributions from tannins (polyphenols) and oxalates. The paper makes a strong case that phytic acid is the main reason fiber prevents mineral absorption, rather than the insoluble fiber fraction. This notion was confirmed here.

Whole grains would be a good source of minerals, if it weren't for their very high phytic acid content. Even though whole grains are full of minerals, replacing refined grains with whole grains in the diet (and especially adding extra bran) actually reduces the overall absorption of a number of minerals (free text, check out table 4). This has been confirmed repeatedly for iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. 

Refining grains gets rid of the vitamins and minerals, but at least refined grains don't prevent you from absorbing the minerals in the rest of your food. Here's a comparison of a few of the nutrients in one cup of cooked brown vs. unenriched white rice (218 vs. 242 calories):

Brown rice would be quite nutritious if we could absorb all those minerals. There are a few ways to increase mineral absorption from whole grains. One way is to soak them in slightly acidic, warm water, which allows their own phytase enzyme to break down phytic acid. This doesn't seem to do much for brown rice, which doesn't contain much phytase.

A more effective method is to grind grains and soak them before cooking, which helps the phytase function more effectively, especially in gluten grains and buckwheat. The most effective method by far, and the method of choice among healthy traditional cultures around the world, is to soak, grind and ferment whole grains. This breaks down nearly all the phytic acid, making whole grains a good source of both minerals and vitamins.

The paper "Dietary Fibre and Mineral Bioavailability" listed another method of increasing mineral absorption from whole grains. Certain foods can increase the absorption of minerals from whole grains high in phytic acid. These include: foods rich in vitamin C such as fruit or potatoes; meat including fish; and dairy.

Another point the paper made was that the phytic acid content of vegetarian diets is often very high, potentially leading to mineral deficiencies. The typical modern vegetarian diet containing brown rice and unfermented soy products is very high in phytic acid, and therefore it may make sense to ensure plentiful sources of easily absorbed minerals in the diet, such as dairy. The more your diet depends on plant sources for minerals, the more careful you have to be about how you prepare your food.

Danger! Language barrier!

There's a glitch in the Couchsurfing.com website at the moment. (Well, it's one of many, if you listen to the discontented bunch on the site's "brainstorming" forum, who seem perennially on the verge of a mutiny.)

Before I go on, let me explain a little thing about Couchsurfing profiles for the uninitiated. Besides displaying general info about who you are and what you like, there is also room to list the languages you speak and the level: "mother tongue", "expert", "intermediate" or "beginner".

Usually, it's up to the individual to check out their host/guest's profile to see if communication will be a problem, however - owing to an apparent bug - the site is currently taking it upon itself to flag it up for you. So, if you aren't both "experts" in the same language, the person's profile is adorned with a warning in big, red letters: "language barrier exists".

Bit off putting, eh?

This happened to me last weekend in Uruguay. I contacted a local girl called Florencia. She speaks expert Spanish and intermediate English; I speak expert English and intermediate Spanish. For me, there was no question that'd we'd be able to get by. I've managed with people with zero English before and it's all part of the experience. However, the
language barrier warning appeared on her page, as if our meeting would be like stepping into a danger zone.

It's a shame if some people are put off by this. (I wasn't, although, in the end, Florencia and I couldn't meet due to conflicting schedules). Some of the greatest travel-networking experiences I've ever had have been with people where I've had a so-called "language barrier" (such as with Toyo in Panama - pictured). In fact, I've just written a feature for the April issue of the The Linguist magazine about my experiences and singing Couchsurfing's praises as a way to attain valuable language emersion.

So, imagine my horror today when I came across a blog post aimed at travellers, entitled Don't learn a foreign language (via the Travel Rants newsletter).

Fortunately, my concerns were abated as I read on...
Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life, in all parts of it. It can help you navigate bad situations, deal with people’s emotions, understand people ...

It turned out that the piece wasn't anti-languages at all. Instead it was praising the wonders of non-verbal communication, and the joy of understanding universal gestures/expressions. It was encouraging people not to afraid of interaction, simply because they don't share the same mother tongue.

The post was written by a traveller known as Nomadic Matt. A speaker of English, Thai and Spanish, he is currently in Tawain preparing to start Chinese lessons. Although he speaks around three words of it so far, he isn't holing himself up in his hotel room for the first week six of his course, planing to resurface when able to ask about people's favourite food or how old their siblings are. No, he's getting out there, meeting people, making friends. Nice one, Matt.

As for the Couchsurfing.com hitch, I think it's up to the people - not the site's inner coding mechanisms - to decide whether there will be a language problem. We can get a pretty clear indication by ourselves, after reading a person's profile, looking their language list, and exchanging a mail or two.

The sooner the hitch is fixed, the better. In the meantime, sensible Couchsurfers should continue to ignore it. Especially as it is, occasionally, going completely haywire and throwing up completely inappropriate warnings, such as between two experts in English: one from England and one from Canada. This happened to me last week.

Now, I know they call beanie hats toques and their coins are loonies, but we can get by. Eh?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A few thoughts on Minerals, Milling, Grains and Tubers

One of the things I've been noticing in my readings on grain processing and mineral bioavailability is that it's difficult to make whole grains into a good source of minerals. Whole grains naturally contain more minerals that milled grains where the bran and germ are removed, but most of the minerals are bound up in ways that prevent their absorption.

The phytic acid content of whole grains is the main reason for their low mineral bioavailability. Brown rice, simply cooked, provides very little iron and essentially no zinc due to its high concentration of phytic acid. Milling brown rice, which turns it into white rice, removes most of the minerals but also most of the phytic acid, leaving mineral bioavailability similar to or perhaps even better than brown rice (the ratio of phytic acid to iron and zinc actually decreases after milling rice). If you're going to throw rice into the rice cooker without preparing it first, white rice may actually deliver an overall higher level of certain minerals than brown rice, though brown rice may have other advantages such as a higher feeling of fullness per calorie. Either way, the mineral availability of rice is low. Here's how Dr. Robert Hamer's group put it when they evaluated the mineral content of 56 varieties of Chinese rice:
This study shows that the mineral bio-availability of Chinese rice varieties will be [less than] 4%. Despite the variation in mineral contents, in all cases the [phytic acid] present is expected to render most mineral present unavailable. We conclude that there is scope for optimisation of mineral contents of rice by matching suitable varieties and growing regions, and that rice products require processing that retains minerals but results in thorough dephytinisation.
It's important to note that milling removes most of the vitamin content of the brown rice, and most of the fiber, both of which could be disadvantageous depending on what your overall diet looks like.

Potatoes and other tubers contain much less phytic acid than whole grains, which may be one reason why they're a common feature of extremely healthy cultures such as the Kitavans. I went on NutritionData to see if potatoes have a better mineral-to-phytic acid ratio than grains. They do have a better ratio than whole grains, although whole grains contain more total minerals.

Soaking grains reduces their phytic acid content, but the extent depends on the grain. Gluten grain flours digest their own phytic acid very quickly when soaked, due to the presence of the enzyme phytase. Because of this, bread is fairly low in phytic acid, although whole grain yeast breads contain more than sourdough breads. Buckwheat flour also has a high phytase activity. The more intact the grain, the slower it breaks down its own phytic acid upon soaking. Some grains, like rice, don't have much phytase activity so they degrade phytic acid slowly. Other grains, like oats and kasha, are toasted before you buy them, which kills the phytase.

Whole grains generally contain so much phytic acid that modest reductions don't free up much of the mineral content for absorption. Many of the studies I've read, including this one, show that soaking brown rice doesn't really free up its zinc or iron content. But I like brown rice, so I want to find a way to prepare it well. It's actually quite rich in vitamins and minerals if you can absorb them.

One of the things many of these studies overlook is the effect of pH on phytic acid degradation. Grain phytase is maximally active around pH 4.5-5.5. That's slightly acidic. Most of the studies I've read soaked rice in water with a neutral pH, including the one above. Adding a tablespoon of whey, yogurt, vinegar or lemon juice per cup of grains to your soaking medium will lower the pH and increase phytase activity. Temperature is also an important factor, with approximately 50 C (122 F) being the optimum. I like to put my soaking grains and beans on the heating vent in my kitchen.

I don't know exactly how much adding acid and soaking at a warm temperature will increase the mineral availability of brown rice (if at all), because I haven't found it in the literature. The bacteria present if you soak it in whey, unfiltered vinegar or yogurt could potentially aid the digestion of phytic acid. Another strategy is to add the flour of a high-phytase grain like buckwheat to the soaking medium. This works for soaking flours, perhaps it would help with whole grains as well?

So now we come to the next problem. Phytic acid is a medium-sized molecule. If you break it down and it lets go of the minerals it's chelating, the minerals are more likely to diffuse out of the grain into your soaking medium, which you then discard because it also contains the tannins, saponins and other anti-nutrients that you want to get rid of. That seems to be exactly what happens, at least in the case of brown rice.

So what's the best solution for maximal mineral and vitamin content? Do what traditional cultures have been doing for millenia: soak, grind and ferment whole grains. This eliminates nearly all the phytic acid, dramatically increasing mineral bioavailiability. Fermenting batter doesn't lose minerals because there's nowhere for them to go. In the West, we use this process to make bread. In Africa, they do it to make ogi, injera, and a number of other fermented grain dishes. In India, they grind rice and beans to make idli and dosas. In the Phillipines, they ferment ground rice to make puto. Fermenting ground whole grains is the most reliable way to improve their mineral bioavailability and nutritional value in general.

But isn't having a rice cooker full of steaming brown rice so nice? I'm still working on finding a reliable way to increase its nutritional value.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How to Eat Grains

Our story begins in East Africa in 1935, with two Bantu tribes called the Kikuyu and the Wakamba. Their traditional diets were mostly vegetarian and consisted of sweet potatoes, corn, beans, plantains, millet, sorghum, wild mushrooms and small amounts of dairy, small animals and insects. Their food was agricultural, high in carbohydrate and low in fat.

Dr. Weston Price found them in good health, with well-formed faces and dental arches, and a dental cavity rate of roughly 6% of teeth. Although not as robust or as resistant to tooth decay as their more carnivorous neighbors, the "diseases of civilization" such as cardiovascular disease and obesity were nevertheless rare among them. South African Bantu eating a similar diet have a low prevalence of atherosclerosis, and a measurable but low incidence of death from coronary heart disease, even in old age.

How do we reconcile this with the archaeological data showing a general decline in human health upon the adoption of agriculture? Humans did not evolve to tolerate the toxins, anti-nutrients and large amounts of fiber in grains and legumes. Our digestive system is designed to handle a high-quality omnivorous diet. By high-quality, I mean one that has a high ratio of calories to indigestible material (fiber). Our species is very good at skimming off the highest quality food in nearly any ecological niche. Animals that are accustomed to high-fiber diets, such as cows and gorillas, have much larger, more robust and more fermentative digestive systems.

One factor that reconciles the Bantu data with the archaeological data is that much of the Kikuyu and Wakamba diet came from non-grain sources. Sweet potatoes and plantains are similar to the starchy wild plants our ancestors have been eating for nearly two million years, since the invention of fire (the time frame is debated but I think everyone agrees it's been a long time). Root vegetables and starchy fruit ted to have a higher nutrient bioavailibility than grains and legumes due to their lower content of anti-nutrients.

The second factor that's often overlooked is food preparation techniques. These tribes did not eat their grains and legumes haphazardly! This is a factor that was overlooked by Dr. Price himself, but has been emphasized by Sally Fallon. Healthy grain-based African cultures often soaked, ground and fermented their grains before cooking, creating a porridge that's nutritionally superior to unfermented grains. The bran was removed from corn and millet during processing, if possible. Legumes were always soaked prior to cooking.

These traditional food processing techniques have a very important effect on grains and legumes that brings them closer in line with the "paleolithic" foods our bodies are designed to digest. They reduce or eliminate toxins such as lectins and tannins, greatly reduce anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and protease inhibitors, and improve vitamin content and amino acid profile. Fermentation is particularly effective in this regard. One has to wonder how long it took the first agriculturalists to discover fermentation, and whether poor food preparation techniques or the exclusion of animal foods could account for their poor health.

I recently discovered a paper that illustrates these principles: "Influence of Germination and Fermentation on Bioaccessibility of Zinc and Iron from Food Grains". It's published by Indian researchers who wanted to study the nutritional qualities of traditional fermented foods. One of the foods they studied was idli, a South Indian steamed "muffin" made from rice and beans. 

The amount of minerals your digestive system can extract from a food depends in part on the food's phytic acid content. Phytic acid is a molecule that traps certain minerals (iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium), preventing their absorption. Raw grains and legumes contain a lot of it, meaning you can only absorb a fraction of the minerals present in them.

In this study, soaking had a modest effect on the phytic acid content of the grains and legumes examined. Fermentation, on the other hand, completely broke down the phytic acid in the idli batter, resulting in 71% more bioavailable zinc and 277% more bioavailable iron. It's safe to assume that fermentation also increased the bioavailability of magnesium, calcium and other phytic acid-bound minerals.

Fermenting the idli batter also completely eliminated its tannin content. Tannins are a class of molecules found in many plants that are sometimes toxins and anti-nutrients. In sufficient quantity, they reduce feed efficiency and growth rate in a variety of species.

Lectins are another toxin that's frequently mentioned in the paleolithic diet community. They are blamed for everything from digestive problems to autoimmune disease. One of the things people like to overlook in this community is that traditional processing techniques such as soaking, sprouting, fermentation and cooking, greatly reduce or eliminate lectins from grains and legumes. One notable exception is gluten, which survives all but the longest fermentation and is not broken down by cooking.

Soaking, sprouting, fermenting, grinding and cooking are the techniques by which traditional cultures have been making the most of grain and legume-based diets for thousands of years. We ignore these time-honored traditions at our own peril.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Going local on the Great Barrier Reef

Does Tourism Queensland's marketing body really need any help? They seem to have got the publicity thing down rather well. Their "best job in the world" campaign has been a monstrously huge hit. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it in the travel press or on a blog. Do a Google search for "best job in the world" and - bonza! - Queensland's right up there.

As a quick recap: they are on a worldwide hunt for someone to work a six-month, A$150,000 contract in the spectacular Whitsundays islands. No formal qualifications necessary, but the candidate must be willing to swim, snorkel, dive, sail and work to publicise the region. For this, they'll be able to live rent-free in a three-bedroom villa, complete with plunge pool.

Yep, these specs sure beat your average nine-to-five.

It was a clever idea and, thus far, it seems very well executed. I've just been having a look at the ultra-slick website. Candidates have been posting their video applications in their thousands - more than 19,000 so far. There are certainly some good ones and watching them is oddly compelling.

I'm not quite sure how they'll be judging it. Does the number of video views bump up your chances? Or the star-rating the public have given it? Will they choose a PR or journalism professional? An Aussie or a non-Aussie? An ardent traveller or someone who's never left their homeland? An experienced blogger and social-media fanatic? (After all, blogging and networking are big parts of the role.)

So far, the field (or should that be white-sand beach?) is wide open. I'll be interested to see who makes the grade and gets to live on Hamilton island for six months. If you're interested, you have just two days left to apply.

Failing that the Danish tourist board are trying their hand at a similar scheme. Be their travel "guinea pig" and get a free trip. No tropical reefs, no fat paycheck, but not to be sniffed at. In return, you just have to write about it. Good one for budding travel writers.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Couchsurfing meets Twitter

Apologies for having gone slightly Twitter mad this past fortnight, but here’s another interesting find. Twitter also has search facility, which enables you to look for updates related specifically to your interests or hobbies. I decided to put "couchsurfing" in and give it a whirl. The results showed reams of mentions. I scanned a few pages and came up across some interesting links. Here are the best ones:


Are couchsurfers 21st-ce
ntury hobos?
Article from Dakota Today nicely touches on the idea that good Couchsurfers are more interested in making connections with people than sightseeing. The writer, living near Mount Rushmore, also discovers how hosting a couchsurfer can help him rediscover his own area.

Couchsurfing for cyclists

Tips from two intrepid travellers who are blogging their three-year trip cycling from Alaska to the “end of the world” in Argentina’s Ushuaia.
Featuring Couchsurfing.com, HospitalityClub.org and WarmShowers.org too. This is a blog to watch.

Let the world come to you

Time Out Chicago profiles a local twentysomething who couldn’t afford a plane fare, so decided to travel through others by becoming a couchsurfing host.

Couchsurfing for Obama
CNN on how couchsurfing helped ease the accommodation shortage in Washington during Obama’s inauguration. Features one couple who hosted 16 travellers in their three-bedroom home. "We read about the people who are renting their houses for $2,000 a night, and we thought, 'That's so in contradiction to what we believe’."

Couchsurfing with kids

A basic intro from HaveKidsWillTravel for those interested in couchsurfing as a family.

Also on Twitter:
Within people's tweets - aside from the predictable "OMG! Have you heard about Couchsurfing.com?" messages - I also noticed people discussing
Couchsurfing.com's new logo (sneak preview above) and came across this interesting character, @CouchsurfingOri.

Here are some of the tweets I liked:

@wanderblah: Mum still cant quite get the couchsurfing thing...

@stefidi: Being active on CouchSurfing again makes me happy. :)


@houshuang: Found a CouchSurfing host for Houston Open Education conference. Great!

@arsie: At a local Couchsurfing party in Wellington. AWESOME!!!

@godfoca: Just switched "couch available" from "Yes" to "Maybe" on CouchSurfing. I really need some time to get some shit done =/ =(

And, on that note, like @godfoca, I’m off to get some shit done.
..

Monday, February 16, 2009

Where to network with millionaires

If you've never managed to get a sought-after* invite to the elite travel network A Small World, here's a solution. Newly launched network Affluence.org doesn't require a recommendation from another well-established member. Instead you can sign up yourself with zero prior connections. And it's free.

There's only one small hurdle: you must have a
demonstrable minimum household net worth of US$3 million, or an annual household income of at least $300,000. Or, if you come in a little shy of the required millions, you can also gain entry by getting invites from five others that qualify.

But, before you start calling all your millionaire friends, is it really worth it? The site lists the benefits as follows:
  • Interact with other affluent people from around the world
  • Receive free access to a dedicated Affluence Concierge
  • Attend the most exclusive parties and events in the world
  • Receive priority access to the world's most exclusive nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants
  • Find other millionaires, billionaires, and socially elite people to network with.
Choosing your friends based on their bank balance? Nice. I wonder if Affluence members can "poke" each other, Facebook style, or if this has been replaced by the virtual airkiss?

Perhaps the site will appeal to ASmallWorld members that complain the network had lost exclusivity since becoming overrun with estate agents, WAG wannabes and
expats.

* As for A Small World membership still being "sought after", I'm not so sure. The name seems to be being banded around almost as much as Facebook in expat circles. It's now dropped into conversation as if it no longer needs explanation. "Yeah, I'm looking for apartments in the usual places, you know, Craigslist and ASmallWorld," a backpacker told me the other day.

** Photo from WikiImages/David Shakebone

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials Part III

I'm happy to say, it's time for a new installment of the "Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials" series. The latest study was recently published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Dr. Anthony Sebastian's group. Dr. Sebastian has collaborated with Drs. Loren Cordain and Boyd Eaton in the past.

This new trial has some major problems, but I believe it nevertheless adds to the weight of the evidence on "paleolithic"-type diets. The first problem is the lack of a control group. Participants were compared to themselves, before eating a paleolithic diet and after having eaten it for 10 days. Ideally, the paleolithic group would be compared to another group eating their typical diet during the same time period. This would control for effects due to getting poked and prodded in the hospital, weather, etc. The second major problem is the small sample size, only 9 participants. I suspect the investigators had a hard time finding enough funding to conduct a larger study, since the paleolithic approach is still on the fringe of nutrition science.

I think this study is best viewed as something intermediate between a clinical trial and 9 individual anecdotes.

Here's the study design: they recruited 9 sedentary, non-obese people with no known health problems. They were 6 males and 3 females, and they represented people of African, European and Asian descent. Participants ate their typical diets for three days while investigators collected baseline data. Then, they were put on a seven-day "ramp-up" diet higher in potassium and fiber, to prepare their digestive systems for the final phase. In the "paleolithic" phase, participants ate a diet of:
Meat, fish, poultry, eggs, fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, canola oil, mayonnaise, and honey... We excluded dairy products, legumes, cereals, grains, potatoes and products containing potassium chloride...
Mmm yes, canola oil and mayo were universally relished by hunter-gatherers. They liked to feed their animal fat and organs to the vultures, and slather mayo onto their lean muscle meats. Anyway, the paleo diet was higher in calories, protein and polyunsaturated fat (I assume with a better n-6 : n-3 ratio) than the participants' normal diet. It contained about the same amount of carbohydrate and less saturated fat.

There are a couple of twists to this study that make it more interesting. One is that the diets were completely controlled. The only food participants ate came from the experimental kitchen, so investigators knew the exact calorie intake and nutrient composition of what everyone was eating.

The other twist is that the investigators wanted to take weight loss out of the picture. They wanted to know if a paleolithic-style diet is capable of improving health independent of weight loss. So they adjusted participants' calorie intake to make sure they didn't lose weight. This is an interesting point. Investigators had to increase the participants' calorie intake by an average of 329 calories a day just to get them to maintain their weight on the paleo diet. Their bodies naturally wanted to shed fat on the new diet, so they had to be overfed to maintain weight.

On to the results. Participants, on average, saw large improvements in nearly every meaningful measure of health in just 10 days on the "paleolithic" diet. Remember, these people were supposedly healthy to begin with. Total cholesterol and LDL dropped. Triglycerides decreased by 35%. Fasting insulin plummeted by 68%. HOMA-IR, a measure of insulin resistance, decreased by 72%. Blood pressure decreased and blood vessel distensibility (a measure of vessel elasticity) increased. It's interesting to note that measures of glucose metabolism improved dramatically despite no change in carbohydrate intake. Some of these results were statistically significant, but not all of them. However, the authors note that:
In all these measured variables, either eight or all nine participants had identical directional responses when switched to paleolithic type diet, that is, near consistently improved status of circulatory, carbohydrate and lipid metabolism/physiology.
Translation: everyone improved. That's a very meaningful point, because even if the average improves, in many studies a certain percentage of people get worse. This study adds to the evidence that no matter what your gender or genetic background, a diet roughly consistent with our evolutionary past can bring major health benefits. Here's another way to say it: ditching certain modern foods can be immensely beneficial to health, even in people who already appear healthy. This is true regardless of whether or not one loses weight.

There's one last critical point I'll make about this study. In figure 2, the investigators graphed baseline insulin resistance vs. the change in insulin resistance during the course of the study for each participant. Participants who started with the most insulin resistance saw the largest improvements, while those with little insulin resistance to begin with changed less. There was a linear relationship between baseline IR and the change in IR, with a correlation of R=0.98, p less than 0.0001. In other words, to a highly significant degree, participants who needed the most improvement, saw the most improvement. Every participant with insulin resistance at the beginning of the study ended up with basically normal insulin sensitivity after 10 days. At the end of the study, all participants had a similar degree of insulin sensitivity. This is best illustrated by the standard deviation of the fasting insulin measurement, which decreased 9-fold over the course of the experiment.

Here's what this suggests: different people have different degrees of susceptibility to the damaging effects of the modern Western diet. This depends on genetic background, age, activity level and many other factors. When you remove damaging foods, peoples' metabolisms normalize, and most of the differences in health that were apparent under adverse conditions disappear. I believe our genetic differences apply more to how we react to adverse conditions than how we function optimally. The fundamental workings of our metabolisms are very similar, having been forged mostly in hunter-gatherer times. We're all the same species after all.

This study adds to the evidence that modern industrial food is behind our poor health, and that a return to time-honored foodways can have immense benefits for nearly anyone. A paleolithic-style diet may be an effective way to claim your genetic birthright to good health. 

Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials
Paleolithic Diet Clinical Trials Part II
One Last Thought

Friday, February 13, 2009

The world goes mad for Twestival



I didn't make it to Twestival last night. My internet connection went down so I didn't have means of contacting other attendees or, crucially, knowing where it was. (It looks like there are some drawbacks of internet-based festivals.)

For those who missed the build-up, Twestival was a multinational event taking place for users of social-networking site, Twitter. It seems it was quite a success, with 175 events worldwide.

Some of the most extensive coverage of the event came from the Twitter-obsessed Guardian. The point they made repeatedly was that - aside from raising money for Charity: water - the events were all about getting people away from their screens and interacting in person.

In San Francisco, co-founder Biz Stone said he was pleased that users were coming together to do something positive, rather than simply socialise with each other over the net.

Meanwhile, London co-organiser Tom Malcolm said he was amazed by the turnout. "On Facebook people tend to know someone else before adding them as a friend," he said. "On Twitter you meet people you wouldn't necessarily meet in real life."

However, these events were limited in only being able to allow attendees to meet users in their own city, thus giving a very narrow indication of the network's global reach on a personal level.

Predictably, the positive coverage (written by active Twitter users Jemima Kiss and Bobbie Johnson) was shortly followed by plenty of mockery from the naysayers. Unfortunately for these critics, most of their arguments fell flat because they simply didn't know what they were talking about.

Example one:
"I know who my mates are – I see them down the pub on a Friday night, I dont need to be kept informed of what the fat f****** are up to all week as well. Oh Richies up a ladder? Great. Daves stuck in traffic? Cosmic. Kevs having steak for dinner? Whoppee!"

Wrong. It's not just about leaving status updates. It's about interaction. For every status update, there are many more conversations going on and a mountain of information being shared. It's also not just about chatting with your mates - it's about expanding connections and "meeting" new people. If you only interact with people you know in the real world, you'll have a very limited experience.

Example two:

"Twitter is a load of people talking about themselves. It's the cult of the individual. Me! Me! Me!"

Wrong. Well, partially wrong. This does go on and some people do use it just as a platform to broadcast news about themselves. However, there's a lot of people helping each other out too. If you join, you'll soon learn to RT ("retweet" - ie pass on other people's news as well as your own).

Example three

"Is coming onto a website and having a conversation so Web 1.0? On Twitter, noone can ever point out you're an idiot."

Wrong. This person thinks Twitter is just for signing in, leaving a note and signing out. D'oh.

Example four:

"Argh! Twitter. Twestival. And I hate the world a little bit more"

Not wrong, not right: This person doesn't claim to know what they are talking about and they doesn't want to know. This is just pure, unadulterated cynicism - which, admittedly, made me laugh.

This may sound like I'm a huge Twitter fan, defending it vehemently, but I only recently signed up myself. I'm still finding my feet and making up my mind on it. I agree that spending too much time online is not a good thing, and agree that one of the pictures on the Guardian site could be a still from Nathan Barley. However, I'm also discovering that dipping in and out can actually increase productivity and forge lots of real-life contacts. Ask a question there and get it answered instantly: no phone calls, no waiting for email responses. It's certainly a good professional tool and it can come in handy for travel too, as Benji Lanyado found out on his TwiTrip in Paris.

If you still don't get it, read this great introductory guide to Twitter from a New York Times tech writer who gradually came round to the idea.

However, there's only one way you'll really be able to "get it" and make up your mind. And that's by trying it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Google Latitude takes local knowledge too far

The other day I was having a bar-room chat about coincidental run-ins. I mean those times when you randomly bump into someone on the other side of the world, or someone you haven't seen for many years. I've had a fair few of these and they never fail to blow my mind.

"And for all the people that you do run into," I said to my drinking buddy, "imagine all those you just miss. If you'd been five minutes earlier, you would have walked straight into an old colleague. Or we could be sitting here in this bar and one of our long-lost university friends could be having a drink three doors down."

It seems that just as we got all dreamy eyed and lost in our own imaginations, along came Google. Again. Not content with having the world's web habits, email accounts, videos and world mapping sown up, now they've gone and bought up fate.

Google Latitude is a new application that you can download on to your mobile and track/stalk your friends, family and exes. If they opt in, their profile pics will appear all over your Google map (as above - although maybe not quite as goofy).

Google suggests advantages of using Latitude on the site, such as “only heading to a party when you see that several of your friends have arrived”. But what if everyone's doing it? Imagine a whole crowd of potential partygoers sitting at home looking at the iPhones all night, waiting to take someone else's lead.

Google Latitude is currently available in 27 countries, which could make it great for frequent travellers. In theory. However, I think I'd prefer to let people know my location as and when I want to - via Facebook, Twitter or Dopplr. Latitude is one networking trend I can probably resist.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is 'authentic' travel?

There's a new (beta) travel site on the block, TourDust.com. According to the blurb, "It's all about discovering and sharing authentic travel experiences offered by passionate locals." They've got some interesting trips up there so far: from wine-tasting in the UK to photographing bears in Alaska. (The latter is possibly my dream trip. Although at US$750 a day, I'd better start saving now.)

The one thing I'm unsure about is the over-reliance on the word "authentic", which is plastered across the site. They are asking people to post their "authentic travel experiences". What exactly does that mean? Is it the same as striving to see the "real side" of a country? I've never been comfortable with that phrase either.

The Gecko Villa, for example, is billed on the site as "The real Thailand!" It looks like a beautiful place to take a holiday. It's intimate, it's tasteful, it's got traditional elements to the design, it's in a rural area. But does this make it "the real Thailand"? At £125 a night, I'm not so sure.

But this isn't just about prices. It's more about the constraints of labels. In trying to pin it down the real Thailand/Egypt/Tanzania, you'll inevitably end up chasing myths.

At its heart, Tourdust has good intentions and I wish them luck. They support responsible travel and want to encourage travellers "to think twice about the impact of their holidays". They also believe in working directly with local guides and hosts so tourism money goes into the local economy. (See also LeapLocal.org.)

Ultimately, travel companies and tour sites have products to sell. "Real" and "authentic" do that job quite nicely. What's worse is seeing them overused in travel journalism. "So-and-so discovers the real Brazil on a favela tour in Rio." No, they don't. They discover a different side of Brazil.

All countries have multiple identities - not just a dichotomy of the "real" (typically used as a synonym for "poor", "unvisited", "authentic") and the "unreal" (ie "more affluent", "popular").

Of course, the good news is this means that your ways of experience a country are limitless. Just think of all those different sides within every country in the world...

Friday, February 6, 2009

Another godfather of Couchsurfing

Ah, they're all coming out of the woodwork now. I've already mentioned Jim Haynes and MeetURPlanet founder Jeff Mitchell as forerunners to Couchsurfing.com. Now introducing ... Ramon Stoppelenburg, the Dutch founder of LetMeStayForADay.

Ramon travelled the world from May 2001 to July 2003. He did so without any money, relying on people who had agreed to host him through his website. His invite-me-over page
led to 3,577 invitations from 72 countries.

Inspired by online schemes such as SendMeADollar and the RedPaperClipGuy, he gained sponsorship to help him travel the long distances, and hitchhiked the rest.


Read an extract from his book (translated from Dutch) on WorldHum.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Is Twitter useful for travel?

Like many people, I didn't get Twitter at first. "Bit limited, isn't it?" I thought. "Why would I want to use that site to tell people what I'm doing or where I am. Might as well just update my status on Facebook."

Ah, poor misguided fool that I was.

But although it's proved its worth for following the exploits of celebs, like Twitter legend Stephen Fry, or reporting breaking news. Is it really any good for travellers?

The aspect that I totally overlooked about Twitter is the interactivity. It's not just about telling the world where you are or what you're doing; it's about their reactions. This is great news for travellers.

Imagine you're in an unfamiliar city, in a rather lame bar. Your guidebook only gives you options for places right across town. There's nothing obvious on the doorstep. What do you do?

A quick tweet from your mobile saying "Vicky is looking for a cool bar near so-and-so street." Next thing you know you have a reply from a friend who used to live there. "There's a great speakeasy with live music and cheap cocktails, two blocks down," they say and pass on an address. Bingo.

Guardian Travel has gone Twitter mad in the past week. First news of Benji Lanyado's Twitter Trip to Paris (where he'll be guided around the city by people's tweets), then they got Twitchhiker on board, a guy who plans to travel for 30 days relying solely on the hospitality and advice of the Twitter community.

Will Twitter Trips catch on? I can certainly see people gleaning advice from time to time, if not for every move.

I'd love to give it more of a trial myself, however my mobile phone is from the dark ages and can't even cope with sending a text back to the UK, let alone access the net. Best to follow Benji, who is in the middle of his Parisian jaunt right now.



Photo: Benji Lanyado arrives in Paris. (Reproduced with permission.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

From fridgesurfing to pottysurfing

The couchsurfers and the cynics have been having virtual fisticuffs again. This time, they've been arguing the merits of travel networking in response to an article on MLive.com. I must admit the cynics make for a better read.

"Just what I want, someone I don't know staying at my home. Might as well pick up a hitchhiker and invite them home for dinner," says one of the commenters. "If anyone is interested, I am start a fridgesurfing site. I'm sure it will become all the rage."

It's shortly followed by this suggestion...

"I have what I think is a perfect business for possible cross-promotion. It's called PottySurfing. It's a network of kind, caring, progressive-minded households across the country who make their loo available to travelers in their time of bodily need. For the traveler it replaces the sometime frantic search, gas station, to grocery stores, to the bushes by the side of the road. For the homeowner, renter or squatter, it provides the opportunity to meet some really interesting people. You don't really get to know a community until you can say for certain if its an over the roll or under the roll town. Our company motto is ´You know where to go, when you got to go´."

Actually, it´s not far off the idea of WarmShowers - where cyclists open their homes to other cyclists who need to freshen up after a long ride.

Perhaps an enterprising soul should buy up the pottysurfing.com domain before it´s too late.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Thelma and Louise go home swapping


Apparently, they cut a scene from 1990s road movie Thelma and Louise. Just before the fugitive pair took a drive over the canyon, the smarter one looks at her ditzy-but-lovable friend and says, "Darn it, Thelma, I know how to solve this mess we've got ourselves in to. If we wanted to escape our day-to-day lives, we could have just done a home swap."

It might not have made such a good movie and, from what I remember, they would have had trouble convincing anyone to swap with them. ("On offer: one bedroom in Redneckville. Abusive boyfriend included.") But it certainly could have provided the getaway they needed, and for very little outlay.

Ok, as you may have guessed, it's not really the movie heroines that have moved into home-swapping, but the women's travel networking site of the same name - thelmandlouise.com. (Founders Grace and Christine, pictured.)


One of the site's reps tells me: "We started offering the house swap service because we had received requests from members who were keen to share their homes with other members, however they weren't sure how to go about doing this. We thought swapping accommodation was a great idea, as it is a fun and cost-effective way of seeing another region of the country or the world."