Category Archives: General Interest Articles

How the colon got the shaft

Amidst the usual mob of protesters and tear gas, WTO ministers met last December in Hong Kong to discuss – among many things – the crippling global affect of low-cost export commodities from the US made possible by mammoth farm subsidies. However, the effects of US agricultural policies on global pricing continue to overshadow the more devastating health effects of these policies within our own borders.

The farm bill signed by President Bush in 2002, which pledged an astounding 190 billion in subsidies over the next ten years, was the latest in a long line of legislation that likely guaranteed that the next generation of Americans will suffer higher rates of obesity and diabetes, have more strokes and heart attacks, and consume less fiber than any previous generation in human history. While bulging waist lines and clogged arteries grab all the headlines, the decreasing health of our colons through diminishing amounts of dietary fiber as a function of government policy is a looming and disastrous health crisis that will knock the healthcare system flat on its back.

As an anthropologist, I’ve had the opportunity to peer into our nutritional past at the bits and pieces of meals and lifeways left by our ancient ancestors. Fortunately, they were messy.

In ideal preservation contexts we often see evidence for daily intake of diverse species of plants that provided 75, 100, and up to 150 grams of fiber a day. This is similar to fiber intake noted among many healthy, rural Asian people today, or what we saw 75 years ago in places like South Africa, Uganda, and other far away non-westernized regions. But in the US today, depending on gender, age, and activity level, our government recommends we only eat 25 to 38 grams a day – give or take. Based on this guidance, Americans promptly consume about half of that.

The important physiological role of fiber in human health lies in its ability to stimulate the growth and health of the trillions of good bacteria that live permanently in our colons. These evolutionary hitch-hikers have evolved a special symbiotic relationship with humans over eons and have become so intertwined in our health and well-being they are considered an organ. Importantly, these healthy bacteria require fiber to live.

Our diminishing dietary intake of fiber is literally starving our colonic bacteria, inhibiting their ability to defend us against invading pathogens that make millions of people sick, many of whom will die. A healthy and well-fed population of colonic bacteria increases mineral absorption (think calcium), has positive affects on biomarkers of colon cancer, reduces symptoms of IBS, and reduces the risk to coronary heart disease by modulating bad cholesterol. And the list goes on.

We cannot simply go from a species that evolved on a diet of nutrient-rich fibrous plants, to one that eats almost no fiber. The current US guidelines for fiber intake are – from an evolutionary perspective – in actuality, low fiber recommendations that represent nothing more than the efforts of lobbyists who represent industries that have an interest in seeing the “number of servings” for their “food groups” maintained or increased.

To understand the decreasing role of fiber in the American diet, we need not look farther than farm subsidies. Aside from boosting profits within the industry, these subsidies result in low-cost commodities – especially grains – which end up as highly processed (read: no fiber) ingredients in many popular foods. This is one of the reasons you can buy five boxes of macaroni and cheese – which supplies nearly 6,000 nutrient-poor calories – for $1. Further, the average American derives nearly 40 percent of daily caloric needs from heavily subsidized added sugars and fats/oils.

Though the government says we should eat more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, these categories historically receive very few subsidies. This is why fresh fruits and vegetables increased a whopping 120 percent in price from 1985 to 2000, while grain, fats/oil, and sugar-laden products increased far less. With an ever-increasing number of Americans barely making ends meet, choices for “what’s for dinner” have already been economically predetermined, and fiber-rich foods can barely be seen on the plate.

As anthropologists of the future look back upon our society, what will they see? Unless we stem the tide of unbalanced agricultural subsidies and honestly address the gaps in nutrition education among consumers, I’m afraid we will be judged on a never-ending sea of oversized caskets below a surface littered with empty prescription bottles and crumbling Food Pyramids built by congressional pharaohs run amok.

How to Create the Healthiest Salad Possible in 412 Words

The salad bar at your local grocery store is the closest most of us will ever come to eating like an ancestor. Sorry, Outback Steakhouse. Our not-so-distant ancestors consumed an extraordinary diversity of plants throughout their rounds on the landscape. While meat played a significant role in our evolutionary success, the vast majority of the 50+ essential vitamins and minerals that make us a top predator in this wild kingdom we call earth is only delivered in small nutritious packages from plants.

Modern technology has condensed some of our ancient nutritional landscape into tightly spaced plastic bins and bowls sitting atop crunchy ice. A tidy landscape of such nutrition would have made the toughest of our ancestors weep. And what do most of us do upon stepping up to this diverse bounty? Flinch! And begin filling a clamshell container with piles of a single leafy green and maybe a pinch of this and that.

Over the last few months I have stalked the salad bar — I know, creepy — at my local grocery store and witnessed firsthand well-intentioned folks filling their salad container with water-laden leafy greens and not much else. If we channeled our ancestors for just a moment, we would fill this finite container with less leafy greens and a spoonful of every plant you can stand to eat. If it’s ten plants, then ten it is. If it’s fifteen, then even better.

Building a better salad means diversity. No single plant contains everything you nutritionally need; it’s the combination of physical (think fiber) and chemical (vitamins and minerals) diversity that is more in line with the edible landscape that selected the nutritional requirements of our modern genome.

A greater diversity of plants in your container will likely reduce the water percentage by weight — making you feel fuller, longer. The diversity of this mixed meal will slow down digestion and absorption, also contributing to feeling fuller for longer.

Importantly, each plant at your local salad bar contains a different physio-chemical structure of dietary fiber. With each bite of this diversity, you will more naturally stimulate the growth of good-for-you bacteria living deep in the self-contained ecosystem known as your gut. Yes, good for-you-bacteria break down and grow on dietary fiber — and the more diverse, the better. So try this next time you fill a container at your local grocery store and see how you feel.

And remember, nothing in nutrition makes sense unless in the light of evolution, friendos. Don’t flinch.

If only vegetables smelled as good as bacon

Last night I was perusing Loss-Adjusted Food Availability spreadsheets available on the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) website (I know, get a life). Despite the boring title, the data is quite interesting as it provides per capita food availability in the U.S., adjusted for food spoilage, plate waste, “other” losses, and what we export and import. In short, what farmers grow minus what gets tossed before and after a meal equals what Americans are consuming, more or less, of various foods over time. Economists at the USDA have been tracking this data in massive excel spreadsheets since 1970.

Even though this data does not measure actual consumption, that’s done by the good folks over at the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, and the data is alarming.

According to the economists at the ERS, the “average” American (all age groups) consumed 2,594 calories in 2009. As the graph below illustrates, 619 (24%) of those calories came from flour and cereal products (wheat, rice corn, etc.), 596 (23%) from added fats, oil, and dairy fats (butter, margarine, lard, salad and cooking oils, half and half, etc), and so on. Perhaps most striking is the so few calories in the average American diet that are derived from vegetables and fruit.

A mere 87 (3%) calories a day for fruits and 118 (5%) calories from vegetables. We all know that many fruits and veggies are predominately water, but 87 calories from fruits?! Really? If my math is correct – and to put it into perspective – 87 calories of fruit is equivalent to 8-9 McDonald’s French fries.

Of the veggies consumed, a whopping 47% were potatoes (e.g., chips, french fries). Other movers in the veggie category included carrots, onions, beans, legumes, cucumbers, and sweet corn – but all were in the single digits.

Below is a graph plotting the caloric consumption for each of our categories over the past 40 years (calories plotted on left axis). Despite the never-ending messaging to consume more fruits and veggies from every nutritional corner on earth, and the government’s “eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables” initiatives (think 5 A Day program, which is now 5-9 servings a day), fruit and vegetable consumption has remained more or less flat. However, we have seen a steady rise – and even some striking spikes – in other categories.

Interestingly, the government-sponsored 5 A Day program, which was founded in 1991 by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health, was farmed out a few years ago to the Produce for Better Health Foundation, which relies on support from private industry to get out their Fruits & Veggies More Matters message.

As calculated by the ERS researchers, the average daily calories from fruits and veggies above translate into 0.9 servings a day of fruit and 1.7 servings a day for vegetables, for a total of 2.6 servings a day. Even doubling that number to reach the minimum recommended 5 servings a day, something that has not been possible in nearly 40 years, would also mean doubling production. Doubling, much less tripling produce production in the U.S., is much harder than it sounds and likely means more imports – something that freaks out the food safety folks given the soaring land prices in the U.S. (i.e., all the good arable land is taken up with existing crops, cows or pavement).

This is why the launch of the USDA’s new MyPlate, and Harvard’s dueling Healthy Eating Plate, are not likely to get average Americans to consume more fruits and veggies. The messaging is the same, so the results will not be any better (history is our guide here). To honestly increase produce consumption to reasonable levels – what ever that is – will require significant policy initiatives/changes from the top down. We will need to go beyond a poorly funded MyPlate program and overhaul the system fencerow to fencerow and all the way to the grocery isle and classrooms of America. That means farm subsidies, looking at predatory marketing by food companies, addressing social inequalities from WIC to grocery stores in disadvantaged neighborhoods, better planned communities, and dare I say, teaching underlying biological principles of human evolution and genetics that are selected for our current nutritional needs.

Unfeigned biologically-driven education + policy is what will move the needle.

Top Fruits & Vegetables Are Rich in Prebiotics You Can Grow in Your Garden

As you prepare to plant your backyard garden, you may wonder what to grow this time. Choose prebiotics! Prebiotics are unprocessed sugars and fibers that encourage the growth of probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, in the digestive tract. Many prebiotic meals are suitable for vegans and others. 

Almonds, chickpeas, garlic, and chicory, are a few of the prebiotic foods. These and other prebiotics typically promote the growth of bifidobacteria and lactobacillus, which benefits the host by enhancing digestion and boosting the immune system, among other things.

The increased generation of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), which also have an anti-inflammatory impact, is primarily responsible for the health advantages of prebiotics.

They are also known to have anti-colonic cancer effects, lower cholesterol levels, and prevent obesity. Here are some of the prebiotic fruits and vegetables you can grow in your garden for the best health for you and your family.


A medium apple has roughly 5 grams of fiber, which is 20% of your daily recommended amount. Apples include a lot of pectins, a form of soluble fiber that can feed the bacteria in your large intestine because it passes through the small intestine undamaged.

According to a 2015 study, apples’ pectin can decrease cholesterol, which may assist in explaining why they are suitable for the heart. All apples thrive in full sun and well-drained soil. Avoid planting trees in low or moist areas, even though they do well in various soils.


Tomatoes are very good sources of prebiotics both eaten raw or cooked, and they are one of the most popular fruits to grow in the US. The rich source of prebiotics in tomatoes even if you just eat them raw on the vine, will help to feed bacteria in your gut.

When the ground is ready and the soil, temperature has warmed, you can plant tomatoes from seed or transplanting. Raised beds, in-ground gardens, or containers are all great places to grow tomatoes. They usually are harvested after about 60-80 days depending on varieties. If you want to grow tomatoes this year, Backyard Gardeners Network would be a great place to start your research on growing tomatoes at home.


The fiber in a cup of cooked lentils is around 15.6 grams. Lentils are high in fiber, notably resistant starch, which passes through the small intestine intact and feeds the bacteria in the large intestine.

Lentils require regions with direct sunlight. They favor organically rich, loose soil that drains well. They thrive in soil between 6.0 and 6.5 on the pH scale and should be sown 1 to 112 inches deep or deeper if the soil is dry.


Another excellent option for vegans seeking prebiotic foods to eat is citrusy grapefruit. Grapefruit is good for gut health because of its high fiber level and vitamin A and C concentration.

The optimal conditions for grapefruit cultivation are hot summer days, warm summer nights, and humidity above 60%. To minimize room in your yard, look for cultivars that don’t get too big or tall.


Garlic, a savory plant with antioxidant, lipid-lowering, and anti-inflammatory qualities, have been linked to various health advantages. Garlic serves as a prebiotic by encouraging the growth of healthy Bifidobacteria in the gut.

 Additionally, it hinders the development of microorganisms that cause disease. Garlic has a variety of substances that lower blood sugar levels, have anti-tumor properties, and lessen the chance of developing cardiovascular diseases. 

Garlic cloves should be placed 6 inches apart, 3 to 4 inches deep, and in rows 6 to 12 inches apart. Place the pointed end of the cloves in the soil. After planting, cover the earth with a few inches of mulch.

Jerusalem artichoke

The Jerusalem artichoke, which belongs to the sunflower family, has many health advantages. Per 100 grams, the vegetable offers roughly 2 grams of dietary fiber high in inulin. Greater digestive health is supported by inulin’s ability to boost the number of beneficial bacteria in the colon.

Using Jerusalem artichokes in your diet helps your large intestine better absorb minerals, improve your immune system, reduce cholesterol, and even avoid some metabolic problems.

Thiamin, or vitamin B1, is also abundant in Jerusalem artichoke. They can be cultivated in pots, one tuber per pot, with a mixture of garden soil and high-quality compost. The plants will need support, so it’s a good idea to weight the pots to prevent them from tipping over.

Dandelion greens

Dandelion greens provide 3.5 grams of fiber per 100 grams, including inulin. Along with prebiotics and fiber, dandelion greens also provide antioxidants that protect your cells from oxidative stress, which can cause major illnesses, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. They can be included in smoothies, green drinks, and salads.

You can sow seedlings inside a few weks before your area’s last frost date. Spread the seeds one and a half inches apart in a deep tray or several pots with at least six inches of moist soil. Because the seeds require light to germinate, lightly cover them with soil but don’t bury them.

Intelligent Nutrition

Cultural impresario John Brockman and his wily band of third culture intellectuals over at the online magazine, recently posted over 100 essays responding to this year’s Edge question, “What is your dangerous idea?”

This newly emerging annual event – last year’s question was “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” – asked our leading scientific and forward thinking minds to ponder what dangerous ideas might just play out in the future – no matter how far fetched they may seem to us mere mortals.

Some dangerous ideas from this Who’s Who of modern thinkers included “we have no souls,” “science must destroy religion,” “being alone in the universe,” and my favorite “you can’t keep that newborn unless you are 21, married and self-supporting.”

Assuming my electronic invitation from Mr. Brockman to contribute to this heady group of essays was swallowed up in some multi-dimensional black hole in cyberspace, I wanted to make sure my dangerous idea made it into the fold. Given all the hoop-la in 2005 over the word “intelligent,” I figured it was time we considered the dangerous idea of Intelligent Nutrition.

At its core, Intelligent Nutrition assumes that our ancestors diverged from our tree swinging cousins between 5 to 7 millions ago and that the first member of our genus Homo appeared about 2 million years ago – give or take. Intelligent Nutrition further assumes that throughout our long, evolutionary march to mammalian dominance, humans lived off wild plants and animals foraged from the landscape. This means our genome and accompanying physiological and metabolic parameters that make us human were conditioned on a diet of wild, nutrient rich plants and lean meats.

Such things as agriculture and domesticated animals (that means dairy) came very late in our evolutionary history – roughly between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. Evolutionary biology 101 teaches us – and Intelligent Nutrition adheres to – that the cultural adaptations of agriculture and animal domestication occurred too recently in our evolutionary past for our genome to adapt. While we currently drive around in hybrid cars and live in comfortable surroundings, our nutritional needs are genetically rooted in our ancient lifestyle.

If we fast forward to 2006, we see that the average American diet is in discordance with the nutritional landscape in which our genome was originally selected. Based on the evolutionary biological principles that underpin Intelligent Nutrition, the current epidemic of obesity and accompanying maladies and chronic diseases plaguing Americans were predictable.

Take the US Food Pyramid for example. Based on this graphical piece of nutritional wisdom and the recommendations used to build it, added sugars can comprise “up to” 25% of daily calories. That means it’s appropriate to get a full one quarter of your caloric intake from soft drinks and donuts. This modern wisdom further suggests that “up to” 35% of daily calories may come from added fats, “half” of your grains can be from highly-processed, insulin-spiking and nutrient and fiber-poor sources, and that you should get 2 to 3 “cups” a day of dairy products.

Based on these modern recommendations, the average American promptly consumes nearly 40% of daily calories from added sugars and fats. Adding “refined grains” to the mix means that the average American consumes nearly 60 to 70% of daily calories from foods not part of our evolutionary determined Intelligent Nutrition plan. Considering dairy products just makes things worse.

Nutritional guidelines for Americans built on the dangerous idea of the principles underlying Intelligent Nutrition would require that everyone involved in the creation of these guidelines and accompanying Food Pyramid, that means lobbyists, Congressional aids, food industry, agribusiness, scientists, and various other special interests, would be required to understand the basics of our evolutionary past and its role in conditioning our very specific nutritional needs coded in our genome. Intelligent Nutrition as a guide would point to the rapid cultural (agriculture) and technological (steel roller mills, packaged foods and snacks) advances as occurring to recent in our past for our genome to adapt and consequences of such behavior would be maladaptive.

Only time will tell if this dangerous idea will retake its position in human health. In a little over 2 million years and at 6 billion strong it seems to have worked so far. Let’s not screw it up too much.