Parkour Visions Summit and Talk

Saturday, July 24, 2010
On August 13-15th, my friends Rafe Kelley and Tyson Cecka are hosting a parkour summit at their Seattle gym Parkour Visions. For those of you not familiar with the sport, here's a description from the Parkour Visions site:
"The essence of Parkour can be stated simply: it is the art of overcoming obstacles as swiftly and efficiently as possible using only your body. The fundamentals include running, jumping, and climbing, and we build on these fundamentals to improve our ability to pass over, under, around and through obstacles with more complex movements. Parkour is a system of fitness training that improves strength, speed, agility, co-ordination, stamina, endurance, and precision. It offers a full-body workout at any level of experience, and improves your ability to move, to harness your confidence, to change how you see the world. Parkour practitioners are called traceurs."
The summit will include seminars on strength training, injury prevention and rehab, and nutrition, as well as parkour jams, a roundtable and a dinner. I'll be giving a talk titled "Natural Eating for Sustainable Athletic Performance" on Saturday, August 14 from noon to 1:00 pm.

Registration is $40 for the whole summit. You can read a description of it here, and find a link to the registration system at the bottom of this page.

Real Food XI: Sourdough Buckwheat Crepes

Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Buckwheat was domesticated in Southeast Asia roughly 6,000 years ago. Due to its unusual tolerance of cool growing conditions, poor soils and high altitudes, it spread throughout the Northern latitudes of Eurasia, becoming the staple crop in many regions. It's used to a lesser extent in countries closer to the equator. It was also a staple in the Northeastern US until it was supplanted by wheat and corn.

Buckwheat isn't a grain: it's a 'pseudograin' that comes from a broad-leaved plant. As such, it's not related to wheat and contains no allergenic gluten. Like quinoa, it has some unusual properties that make it a particularly nutritious food. It's about 16 percent protein by calories, ranking it among the highest protein grains. However, it has an advantage over grains: it contains complete protein, meaning it has a balance of essential amino acids similar to animal foods. Buckwheat is also an exceptional source of magnesium and copper, two important nutrients that may influence the risk of insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease (1, 2).

However, like all seeds (including grains and nuts), buckwheat is rich in phytic acid. Phyic acid complexes with certain minerals, preventing their absorption by the human digestive tract. This is one of the reasons why traditional cultures prepare their grains carefully (3). During soaking, and particularly fermentation of raw batters, an enzyme called phytase goes to work breaking down the phytic acid. Not all seeds are endowed with enough phytase to break down phytic acid in a short period of time. Buckwheat contains a lot of phytase, and consequently fermented buckwheat batters contain very little phytic acid (4, 5). It's also high in astringent tannins, but thorough soaking in a large volume of water removes them.

Buckwheat is fermented in a number of traditional cultures. In Bhutan, it's fermented to make flatbreads and alcoholic drinks (6). In Brittany (Bretagne; Northwestern France), sourdough buckwheat flour pancakes are traditional. Originally a poverty food, it is now considered a delicacy.

The following simple recipe is based on my own experimentation with buckwheat. It isn't traditional as far as I know, however it is based on traditional methods used to produce sourdough flatbreads in a number of cultures. I used the word 'crepe' to describe it, but I typically make something more akin to a savory pancake or uttapam. You can use it to make crepes if you wish, but this recipe is not for traditional French buckwheat crepes.

It's important that the buckwheat be raw and whole for this recipe. Raw buckwheat is light green to light brown (as in the photo above). Kasha is toasted buckwheat, and will not substitute properly. It's also important that the water be dechlorinated and the salt non-iodized, as both will interfere with fermentation.

For a fermentation starter, you can use leftover batter from a previous batch (although it doesn't keep very long), or rice soaking water from this method (7).

Ingredients and Materials

  • 2-3 cups raw buckwheat groats
  • Dechlorinated water (filtered, boiled, or rested uncovered overnight)
  • Non-iodized salt (sea salt, pickling salt or kosher salt), 2/3 tsp per cup of buckwheat
  • Fermentation starter (optional), 2 tablespoons
  • Food processor or blender
  1. Cover buckwheat with a large amount of dechlorinated water and soak for 9-24 hours. Raw buckwheat is astringent due to water-soluble tannins. Soaking in a large volume of water and giving it a stir from time to time will minimize this. The soaking water will also get slimy. This is normal.
  2. Pour off the soaking water and rinse the buckwheat thoroughly to get rid of the slime and residual tannins.
  3. Blend the buckwheat, salt, dechlorinated water and fermentation starter in a food processor or blender. Add enough water so that it reaches the consistency of pancake batter. The smoother you get the batter, the better the final product will be.
  4. Ferment for about 12 hours, a bit longer or shorter depending on the temperature and whether or not you used a starter. The batter may rise a little bit as the microorganisms get to work. The smell will mellow out. Refrigerate it after fermentation.
  5. In a greased or non-stick skillet, cook the batter at whatever thickness and temperature you prefer. I like to cook a thick 'pancake' with the lid on, at very low heat, so that it steams gently.
Dig in! Its mild flavor goes with almost anything. Batter will keep for about four days in the fridge.

Thanks to Christaface for the CC licensed photo (Flickr).

Minger Responds to Campbell

Saturday, July 17, 2010
Hot off the presses: Dr. Colin Campbell's response to Denise Minger's China Study posts, and Minger's retort:

A Challenge and Response to the China Study

The China Study: My Response to Campbell

This is required reading for anyone who wants to evaluate Dr. Campbell's claims about the China Study data. Denise points out that Dr. Campbell's claims rest mostly on uncorrected associations, which is exactly what he was accusing Minger, Chris Masterjohn and Anthony Colpo of doing. He also appears to have selectively reported data that support his philosophy, and ignored data that didn't, even when the latter were stronger. This is true both in Dr. Campbell's book, and in his peer-reviewed papers. This type of thing is actually pretty common in the diet-health literature.

I respect everyone's food choices, whether they're omnivores, carnivores, or raw vegans, as long as they're doing it in a way that's thoughtful toward other people, animals and the environment. I'm sure there are plenty of vegans out there who are doing it gracefully, not spamming non-vegan blogs with arrogant comments.

As human beings, we're blessed and cursed with an ego, which is basically a self-esteem and self-image reinforcement machine. Since being wrong hurts our self-esteem and self-image, the ego makes us think we're right about more than we actually are. That can take the form of elaborate justifications, and the more intelligent the person, the more elaborate the justifications. An economic policy that makes you richer becomes the best way to improve everyone's bottom line. A dietary philosophy that was embraced for humane reasons becomes the path to optimum health... such is the human mind. Science is basically an attempt to remove as much of this psychic distortion as possible from an investigation. Ultimately, the scientific method requires rigorous and vigilant stewardship to achieve what it was designed to do.

China Study Problems of Interpretation

Thursday, July 8, 2010
The China study was an observational study that collected a massive amount of information about diet and health in 65 different rural regions of China. It's been popularized by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, who has argued that the study shows that plant foods are generally superior to animal foods for health, and even a small amount of animal food is harmful. Campbell's book has been at the center of the strict vegetarian (vegan) movement since its publication.

Richard from Free the Animal just passed on some information that many of you may find interesting. A woman named Denise Minger recently published a series of posts on the China study. She looked up the raw data and applied statistics to it. It's the most thorough review of the data I've seen so far. She raises some points about Campbell's interpretation of the data that are frankly disturbing. As I like to say, the problem is usually not in the data-- it's in the interpretation.

One of the things Minger points out is that wheat intake had a massive correlation with coronary heart disease-- one of the strongest correlations the investigators found. Is that because wheat causes CHD, or is it because wheat eating regions tend to be further North and thus have worse vitamin D status? I don't know, but it's an interesting observation nevertheless. Check out Denise Minger's posts... if you have the stamina:

The China Study: Fact or Fallacy

Also, see posts on the China study by Richard Nikoley, Chris Masterjohn and Anthony Colpo:

T. Colin Campbell's the China Study
The Truth About the China Study
The China Study: More Vegan Nonsense

And my previous post on the association between wheat intake and obesity in China:

Wheat in China

Tropical Plant Fats: Palm Oil

Saturday, July 3, 2010
A Fatal Case of Nutritionism

The concept of 'nutritionism' was developed by Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis and popularized by the food writer Michael Pollan. It states that the health value of a food can be guessed by the sum of the nutrients it contains. Pollan argues, I think rightfully, that nutritionism is a reductionist philosophy that assumes we know more about food composition and the human body than we actually do. You can find varying degrees of this philosophy in most mainstream discussions of diet and health*.

One conspicuous way nutritionism manifests is in the idea that saturated fat is harmful. Any fat rich in saturated fatty acids is typically assumed to be unhealthy, regardless of its other constituents. There is also apparently no need to directly test that assumption, or even to look through the literature to see if the assumption has already been tested. In this manner, 'saturated' tropical plant fats such as palm oil and coconut oil have been labeled unhealthy, despite essentially no direct evidence that they're harmful. As we'll see, there is actually quite a bit of evidence, both indirect and direct, that their unrefined forms are not harmful and perhaps even beneficial.

Palm Oil and Heart Disease

Long-time readers may recall a post I wrote a while back titled Ischemic Heart Attacks: Disease of Civilization (1). I described a study from 1964 in which investigators looked for signs of heart attacks in thousands of consecutive autopsies in the US and Africa, among other places. They found virtually none in hearts from Nigeria and Uganda (3 non-fatal among more than 4,500 hearts), while Americans of the same age had very high rates (up to 1/3 of hearts).

What do they eat in Nigeria? Typical Nigerian food involves home-processed grains, starchy root vegetables, beans, fruit, vegetables, peanuts, red palm oil, and a bit of dairy, fish and meat**. The oil palm Elaeis guineensis originated in West Africa and remains one of the main dietary fats throughout the region.

To extract the oil, palm fruit are steamed, and the oily flesh is removed and pressed. It's similar to olive oil in that it is extracted gently from an oil-rich fruit, rather than harshly from an oil-poor seed (e.g., corn or soy oil). The oil that results is deep red and is perhaps the most nutrient-rich fat on the planet. The red color comes from carotenes, but red palm oil also contains a large amount of vitamin E (mostly tocotrienols), vitamin K1, coenzyme Q10 and assorted other fat-soluble constituents. This adds up to a very high concentration of fat-soluble antioxidants, which are needed to protect the fat from rancidity in hot and sunny West Africa. Some of these make it into the body when it's ingested, where they appear to protect the body's own fats from oxidation.

Mainstream nutrition authorities state that palm oil should be avoided due to the fact that it's approximately half saturated. This is actually one of the main reasons palm oil was replaced by hydrogenated seed oils in the processed food industry. Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Doesn't it? Let's see what the studies have to say.

Most of the studies were done using refined palm oil, unfortunately. Besides only being relevant to processed foods, this method also introduces a new variable because palm oil can be refined and oxidized to varying degrees. However, a few studies were done with red palm oil, and one even compared it to refined palm oil. Dr. Suzanna Scholtz and colleagues put 59 volunteers on diets predominating in sunflower oil, refined palm oil or red palm oil for 4 weeks. LDL cholesterol was not different between the sunflower oil and red palm oil groups, however the red palm oil group saw a significant increase in HDL. LDL and HDL both increased in the refined palm oil group relative to the sunflower oil group (2).

Although the evidence is conflicting, most studies have not been able to replicate the finding that refined palm oil increases LDL relative to less saturated oils (3, 4). This is consistent with studies in a variety of species showing that saturated fat generally doesn't raise LDL compared to monounsaturated fat in the long term, unless a large amount of purified cholesterol is added to the diet (5).

Investigators have also explored the ability of palm oil to promote atherosclerosis, or hardening and thickening of the arteries, in animals. Not only does palm oil not promote atherosclerosis relative to monounsaturated fats (e.g., olive oil), but in its unrefined state it actually protects against atherosclerosis (6, 7). A study in humans hinted at a possible explanation: compared to a monounsaturated oil***, palm oil greatly reduced oxidized LDL (8). As a matter of fact, I've never seen a dietary intervention reduce oxLDL to that degree (69%). oxLDL is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and a much better predictor of risk than the typically measured LDL cholesterol (9). The paper didn't state whether or not the palm oil was refined. I suspect it was lightly refined, but still rich in vitamin E and CoQ10.

As I discussed in my recent interview with Jimmy Moore, atherosclerosis is only one factor in heart attack risk (10). Several other factors are also major determinants of risk: clotting tendency, plaque stability, and susceptibility to arrhythmia. Another factor that I haven't discussed is how resistant the heart muscle is to hypoxia, or loss of oxygen. If the coronary arteries are temporarily blocked-- a frequent occurrence in modern people-- the heart muscle can be damaged. Dietary factors determine the degree of damage that results. For example, in rodents, nitrites derived from green vegetables protect the heart from hypoxia damage (11). It turns out that red palm oil is also protective (12, 13). Red palm oil also protects against high blood pressure in rats, an effect attributed to its ability to reduce oxidative stress (14, 15).

Together, the evidence suggests that red palm oil does not contribute to heart disease risk, and in fact is likely to be protective. The benefits of red palm oil probably come mostly from its minor constituents, i.e. the substances besides its fatty acids. Several studies have shown that a red palm oil extract called palmvitee lowers serum lipids in humans (16, 17). The minor constituents are precisely what are removed during the refining process.

Palm Oil and the Immune System

Red palm oil also has beneficial effects on the immune system in rodents. It protects against bacterial infection when compared with soybean oil (18). It also protects against certain cancers, compared to other oils (19, 20). This may be in part due to its lower content of omega-6 linoleic acid (roughly 10%), and minor constituents.

The Verdict

Yet again, nutritionism has gotten itself into trouble by underestimating the biological complexity of a whole food. Rather than being harmful to human health, red palm oil, an ancient and delicious food, is likely to be protective. It's also one of the cheapest oils available worldwide, due to the oil palm's high productivity. It has a good shelf life and does not require refrigeration. Its strong, savory flavor goes well in stews, particularly meat stews. It isn't available in most grocery stores, but you can find it on the internet. Make sure not to confuse it with refined palm oil or palm kernel oil.

* The approach that Pollan and I favor is a simpler, more empirical one: eat foods that have successfully sustained healthy cultures.

** Some Nigerians are also pastoralists that subsist primarily on dairy.

*** High oleic sunflower oil, from a type of sunflower bred to be high in monounsaturated fat and low in linoleic acid. I think it's probably among the least harmful refined oils. I use it sometimes to make mayonnaise. It's often available in grocery stores, just check the label.