Hunter Gatherer

Brimming with ideas and a fascinating read. STEVEN PINKER, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

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John Durant

The origins of corn

Corn, or maize, now accounts for over 20% human caloric intake.  But the exact origins of corn were in doubt until recently.  Early genetic experiments (before genetic testing) pointed to teosinte.  And newer genetic experiments (proper sequencing) suggest that teosinte was domesticated starting about 9,000 years ago:

"In order to trace maize’s paternity, botanists led by my colleague John Doebley of the University of Wisconsin rounded up more than 60 samples of teosinte from across its entire geographic range in the Western Hemisphere and compared their DNA profile with all varieties of maize. They discovered that all maize was genetically most similar to a teosinte type from the tropical Central Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico, suggesting that this region was the “cradle” of maize evolution. Furthermore, by calculating the genetic distance between modern maize and Balsas teosinte, they estimated that domestication occurred about 9,000 years ago."

And it was probably a slow process:

"It is estimated that the initial domestication process that produced the basic maize form required at least several hundred to perhaps a few thousand years."

Read the full New York Times article here.

Tips for travelers: the hard-boiled egg

I find myself in airports a lot.

And in some ways, airport food is worse than airplane food.  At least airplane food is so bad that it’s not even tempting.  (If they even serve it anymore.)  But when you find yourself in an airport, there are lots of unhealthy food options — and you’re typically stressed out and in a rush.

The best food options usually are:

  • a nearly frozen chef salad loaded with cheddar cheese
  • over- or under-ripe fruit (often apples that leave your teeth sticky with sugar residue)
  • a small, $8 bag of nuts (where they try to tempt you to buy a sugar-loaded candy / dried fruit / peanut mix)
  • use the opportunity to fast (a la Art De Vany)

Well, there is a welcome development!  Enter the hard-boiled egg.  I’ve recently noticed that a number of cafes, coffee shops, and even 7-11 now carry a little package with a pair of hard-boiled eggs.  This is a great way to get some convenient, real food on the go.  Cheap too.

And remember, eggs are good for you, including the yolk!

A small conceit

I snapped a screenshot of my Colbert interview as the view count passed Pollan’s.  I’m coming for you, Pollan.


NBA players moving away from hightops

The athletic shoe is having a rough few years.  From best-selling Born to Run, Harvard professor Dan Lieberman’s work on barefoot running in Nature, to the success of Vibram Five Fingers.  And now, the NBA: players are moving away from hightops that allegedly provide more ankle support.

"One of the reasons hightops are going out of vogue, players and injury experts say, is that there’s some research that suggests they aren’t very good at protecting your feet. NBA players missed 64% more games last season because of foot-related injuries than they did twenty years ago, according to NBA statistician Harvey Pollack."

There are multiple reasons why foot injuries could be going up:

"Players have gotten taller and heavier, the pace of the game is faster and the NBA postseason has gotten longer."

But for a piece of conventional athletic wisdom, "ankle support" has surprising little support.

"Craig Richards, a researcher at Australia’s University of Newcastle, published a 2008 article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that catalogued academic studies in athletics and found no evidence that sneakers limited injuries. His research actually found that hightop basketball sneakers make players run slower and jump lower."


(Thanks to Cheryl for the pointer.)

Assorted links


 1. Another benchmark in Craig Venter’s quest to create life.
The pros: "I think they’re going to potentially create a new industrial revolution," [Venter] said.  "If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide."
The cons: "We don’t know how these organisms will behave in the environment." [Dr. Helen Wallace of Genewatch]
2. Michael Holick interview with the New York Times (a few months old)
"The American Academy of Dermatology still has that recommendation that you should never be exposed to one ray of direct sunlight without sun protection."
3. Michael Pollan’s The Food Movement, Rising in the New York Review of Books
On the different parts of the food movement:
"Among the many threads of advocacy that can be lumped together under that rubric we can include school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare; the campaign against genetically modified crops; the rise of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; “food sovereignty” (the principle that nations should be allowed to decide their agricultural policies rather than submit to free trade regimes); farm bill reform; food safety regulation; farmland preservation; student organizing around food issues on campus; efforts to promote urban agriculture and ensure that communities have access to healthy food; initiatives to create gardens and cooking classes in schools; farm worker rights; nutrition labeling; feedlot pollution; and the various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.
It’s a big, lumpy tent…"
On libertarians and evangelicals:
In his 2006 book Crunchy Cons, Rod Dreher identifies a strain of libertarian conservatism, often evangelical, that regards fast food as anathema to family values, and has seized on local food as a kind of culinary counterpart to home schooling.
And more on traditionalism:
In a challenge to second-wave feminists who urged women to get out of the kitchen, Flammang suggests that by denigrating “foodwork”—everything involved in putting meals on the family table—we have unthinkingly wrecked one of the nurseries of democracy: the family meal."
(Much the rest is familiar if you’ve read Pollan before and doesn’t bear on the excerpts above.)


Ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek pushing veganism

Ultra-marathoner and vegan Scott Jurek was recently profiled in the NYT.   For those who aren’t familiar with Jurek, he’s a crazy sick ultra-marathoner who dominates many of these 50 mile, 100 mile, 100+ mile races.  The piece is unique in that it ignores the ethical aspects of veganism and just talks about athletic performance.  Let’s see what they have to say.

In college, his diet began to improve, and as he “saw how much disease is lifestyle related,” he began eating “real food, eating the way people have been eating for thousands of years.”

I’m all for real food, but claims to history in favor of real food is not an argument in favor of veganism.

“None of this is weird,” he said. “If you go back 300 or 400 years, meat was reserved for special occasions, and those people were working hard. 

Go back 300 or 400 years?  The 18th century is the benchmark of healthy eating?  To the extent people ate less meat back then it was because they were poor.

"Remember, almost every long-distance runner turns into a vegan while they’re racing, anyway — you can’t digest fat or protein very well.”

There are so many things wrong with that sentence I don’t know where to start.

  • You can get fat or protein from plant sources, so that’s just a non-sequitur.
  • Just because you’re eating carbohydrates while you’re running doesn’t mean that you’re a vegan.   It means you’re momentarily a vegetarian, I suppose.
  • And even that assumes that you body isn’t using it’s own fat or protein stores.  That’s kind of like eating an animal.
  • Also, most of these distance racers are eating heavily processed energy gels and bars — not "real food", much less vegan food.

All it takes is one look at a long-distance runner’s body to see that they have little muscle mass and they’re all skin and bones.  Hence my choice of picture.

He said he needed 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day, “and I get that all from plant sources. It’s not hard, either. I like to eat, and I don’t have to worry about weight management. All I need is a high-carbohydrate diet with enough protein and fat.”

My emphasis.  If you’re eating 8,000 calories a day, good luck getting it from fat and protein — you’ll be too full.  Interesting…to maximize caloric intake, eat a high-carbohydrate diet.  Wait, isn’t that what we’re told to do to minimize caloric intake too?  Which is it?

I’m not saying that Scott Jurek is eating the wrong way — God, no.  He’s a super-star athlete, his achievements are mind-blowing, and if he says a vegan diet helps him achieve that, then I’m not going to suggest otherwise.  By eating a high carbohydrate diet, he’s training his body to use carbohydrate as fuel, which is probably essential for his type of long-distance exertions.

But should we eat like Michael Phelps, with his 12,000 calories a day of chocolate-chip pancakes, energy drinks, and pizza?  No.  And we shouldn’t eat like Scott Jurek either.


Barefoot running taking off in NYC

Clever media people often ask me, "How do you live a paleolithic lifestyle in…New York City?"  Zing!  Oh you clever media people.  But high population density and open-mindedness can go a long way.  Here are new developments just for barefoot running: 

1. Barefoot Runners NYC now has about 175 members.  If you’re ever in NYC and want to join us, we have regular runs in Central Park on Saturday mornings at 10am and Wednesday evenings as 7pm.

2. Michael Sandler, of RunBare and author of Barefoot Running, is holding a free clinic on Wednesday, June 2nd at 6:30pm.  Nearly 40 people have signed up for that one.

3. Barefoot Ken Bob is also holding a free clinic in Central Park the following week on Tuesday, June 8th at 6:30pm.  Details here

4. We’ve had recent running clinics with Erwan Le Corre and Barefoot Ted too.

If you’re a beginning barefoot/VFF runner, or if you’re just intrigued by it and want to learn more, the two clinics are perfect places to get instructions from some of the best.  You don’t need to go out and buy any special shoes — it’s best to learn totally barefoot first.  And they’re free!

Tough Mudder not…tough enough

I received the following email from the Tough Mudder team yesterday.  The main feedback?  Make it tougher, longer (it wasn’t a full 7 miles), and create more and longer obstacles.  Full email below.  (Apparently TM and I use the same shade of grey.)  You can see my prior comments on the race and actions shots

I’d like to know what percentage of runners finish a marathon?  What about triathlons?  Not the elite races, just the ones for the general population.

The bottom line: If they want the race to be tough, some people are not going to be able to finish.


Red meat for paleos

The conventional wisdom continues to crumble.  Today is red meat’s day in the sun.  Read the WSJ article here.  

"A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that the heart risk long associated with red meat comes mostly from processed varieties such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs and cold cuts—and not from steak, hamburgers and other non-processed cuts.

The finding is surprising because both types of red meat are high in saturated fat, a substance believed to be partly responsible for the increased risk of heart disease."

This is the second study in recent months where saturated fat has started to clear its good name.  The conclusion?

"A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD."

Dr. Eades wisely remains cautious of any of these studies, even when it’s in line with your viewpoint (especially then).

The Harvard study points to salt as the culprit — but more sound advice might be: minimize processed foods of any kind in your diet.


(Thanks to David and T.J. for the pointers.)