This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A few years ago, when I was in college, I was on a volunteer trip in the North of Wisconsin and I was invited to an Ojibwe sweatlodge. I had never had an experience like that before. It was incredibly powerful, like being reborn inside a volcano. But it also tested the very limits of my heat endurance, particularly since Christian missionaries influenced the tribe enough that women have to wear thick long skirts while men go into the lodge shirtless. I never did a sweat lodge again, but when I moved to Sweden I discovered sauna culture, which has many of the same benefits, but is usually much more casual and less extreme (except for a few stupid isolated incidences like the guy last year who died in a "sauna contest."). In Scandinavia saunas are often paired with swimming in cold water, which is probably why that region, along with Russia (which has a Banya culture), produces some of the world's top cold-water swimmers (many of whom are women, who have an advantage thanks to higher body fat). I'll write more about that later, particularly since I hope to interview some swimmers when I go to Stockholm next month. I'm also planning to write some more on sauna and the studies done on that subject. Fire adaptation isn't just a joke.
But lately I've thought of sweat lodges because of the whole "cold adaptation" thing that's caught on a bit. Richard Nikoley posted a pro-Dr. Kruse anti-intellectual screed. The gist of it seemed to be: well, I benefited from cold water, so Dr. Kruse must be onto something and I like him anyway. Ok. Dr. Kurt Harris and Dr. Emily Deans tried to talk some sense into him. Thankfully Ray Cronise, who happens to be an expert on the subject, showed up and finally Nikoley listened to a voice of reason. If you are interested in doing some thermal hacking with cold, I strongly recommend that you follow Ray's sane science-based recommendations.
Water temperature less than 60F/15.5C and air temperature less than 32F/0C are great lines of WARNING. in temperatures lower than this there is a chance of hypothermia. Walking hypothermia* can be very serious (google it) and so it stands to reason when you go below these thresholds it’s 1) at your own risk and 2) should be done with caution.
Contrast that with Dr. Kruse's recommendations, which involve ice water and he dismisses the significance of numbness, saying "My entire torso has been numb for 8 months now." Yikes.
Sweat lodges were touted for similar health-related benefits, as well as used for quasi-Native American new age rituals, often to the chagrin of actual Native American tribes. Unfortunately, in 2009 several people died in a New Age sweat lodge ceremony. The Lakota Nation filed a lawsuit against the guru responsible for the faux-sweat lodge ceremony that pushed so many people into the danger zone. The Lakota were concerned about their traditions being used irresponsibly.
Either way, you'd all have more fun and probably get more benefits by heading to your local Banya or Korean sauna and doing a normal sauna session and then a dip in the cold pool. Maybe have some good offal-rich soup that most of those traditional sauna places serve. When I lived in NYC I often went to Coney Island Banya, but I've heard good things about Castle Spa, a Korean place in Flushing. However, none can compare to the Finnish saunas. Nothing like a sauna next to a ice-filled lake. And grilling some sausages on the coals. And total co-ed nudity (actually less sexy than you would imagine). Or the Austrian sauna I went to in the mountains where we ran outside into the snow.
Sauna + cold pool = fun
Numbness = bad, and not fun
I find that the more regularly I do sauna, the better I am at dealing with cold. And that's important, since I don't drive and I've lived in cold climates for the past decade. And I like wearing miniskirts even in the dead of the Chicago winter. And being able to forget my gloves. I wasn't always this way. When I first moved from Georgia to Illinois I remember having to sleep under two comforters and an electric blanket.
And the Game of Thrones scene that I always think of when I read people from the South talking about cold adaptation:
* you might want to look up afterdrop too. Also I find it interesting that other neurosurgeons have done controversial cold therapy.
It's bad enough that I'm dead
It's unfortunate that well-meaning health bloggers and personalities have joined grave robbers around the world in misusing mummies, particularly since there aren't a lot of them. It's clear they had some pretty tough lives and in death they are being paraded around to debunk various popular diets. If you think high-protein diets are bad, you have a tiny selection of Siberian, Aleut, and Eskimo mummies to defame. If you think grains are evil, you have a nice selection of Egyptian mummies with a few bog and ice mummies from various agrarian settlements thrown in.
But if these diets are all so horrible, why do mummies from diverse places all seem to have atherosclerosis? And the other problems commonly represented in mummies, osteoporosis and cavities, don't seem to track with particular diets at all. For example, caries are present in Aleut mummies AND copper-age grain-eaters like Otzi. Osteoporosis is present in some Eskimo mummies, but also low-fat grain-eaters from South America. With sample sizes so low and the same problems present in all kinds of populations, I'd think nutrition geeks would be happy to leave mummies alone.
But tragically, mummy abuse is rampant in the nutritional community. I recently saw a anti-paleo vegan Youtube Series that used the poor Eskimo mummies to say "What we see here are effectively long-term studies of an animal-based Wise Traditions diet and the results are not pretty." (Credit to Cordain for first abusing these particular mummies).
Yikes, that's one sad little study, but it's not just vegans who mistreat our poor mummy friends. Dr. Eades has written quite a bit on Egyptian mummies. While I agree it's quite hilarious that their low-fat diet didn't do much for them, I'm not sure there are a reason to throw out the kamut just yet.
You see, while mummies are great for understanding how people lived in the past, they aren't great tools for shooting down diets. There aren't very many of them and their health problems weren't all caused by their diets anyway. An excellent book if you are interested in mummies is Mummies, Disease, and Ancient Cultures, which includes an excellent survey of various mummies and what modern science can tell us about their health problems. Like the original scientists who studied the Eskimo mummies, this text concludes that their methods of heating and cooking were extremely detrimental to their health: "The winter houses were semisubterranean with a tunnel entrance and heated by small seal oil lamps. The hot air in the house would not sink into the tunnel when the door, in the floor of the house, was opened. This effect also trapped smoke in the house. In addition it was the duty of the women to trim the lamp at night; sleeping next to the lamp increased the exposure to smoke, resulting in severe anthracosis* at an early age and lung damage, including bronchiectasis and emphysema."
So their cooking and heating practices were the equivalent of working in a coal mine and definitely worse than smoking modern cigarettes (which almost always have a filter). Needless to say, this is not good for your lungs, heart, or bones. Indoor air pollution from cooking and heating fires remains a major health problem in developing countries. If anything, these mummies are an excellent reason to me to be thankful for my gas stove and radiator heating during this cold December. And a reminder that things like lung and heart problems are not diseases of civilization.
For the other mummies, in the age of modern dentistry and antibiotics, it's easy to underestimate the contribution of dental disease and infection to atherosclerosis. It's also easy to overestimate the certainty of paleopathology, which can be quite controversial:
The development of vascular calcification is related not only to atherosclerosis.4 Other conditions may lead to the formation of such lesions, including aging, diabetes, disorders of calcium-phosphorus metabolism, chronic microinflammation, hyperhomocysteinemia, and chronic renal insufficiency.3 Moreover, given the poor state of preservation of the organic tissues, a differential diagnosis for the findings should include parasitic calcifications in lymphatic vessels (particularly from filariasis).
Conclusion on Mummies:
Relevance to your health: low
Chance of being haunted by vengeful undead: high
*= AKA "black lung"
Leave it to me to get distracted from Art De Vany's book and to willfully engage in behavior that makes my blood boil. But it's the Holiday season and of course people are asking me what paleo books I recommend. So this one was only five bucks at the Kindle store and I bought it despite suspicious reviews. It's called The Evolution Diet and it's by Joseph Morse, who is a "nutritionist" — which legally could mean anything from a mail-order certificate from New Age Center of Woo to an actual degree from a university. Not that people without credentials have anything to say, but his bio adds further suspicion to the matter:
JSB Morse is a nutritionist and athlete and prominent figure in online publications. Articles by him have appeared in the quarterly "Veracity" magazine, webzine "the State of Art" and its sister publication "The Thinker." He is also an established painter and sculptor and is showcased in the upcoming "Renascent" book. He has also provided his knowledge of nutrition and health as a consultant to United Brands Company, which produces many popular energy drinks in the booming market, namely Diesel. Future projects include an American-French restaurant called The Holy Crepe! and healthy food items with the Evolution Diet mark of approval. Mr. Morse was born in Indianapolis and has since relocated to San Diego, where he has been working and writing for the past 5 years.
Hmm, energy drinks? Crepes? It's not looking good.
Basically the book amounts to: Look how healthy our ancestors were! BTW Atkins diet is stupid! Carbs aren't bad- here have some saltines! Here are some random wild plants you can gather!
That latter chapter is particularly bewildering and random. Yes, some wild greens are nice every once in awhile, but some of his gathering tips seem a little unsafe to say the least.
Basically his nutritional recommendations are the same as Self magazine dressed up with some paleo stories: eat lots of crappy "complex" carb snacks during the day, fill your diet with "health" foods like whole wheat crackers and low-fat yogurt, and nuts. Here are some recommended "evolutionary" foods:
"Fresh broccoli with fat-free ranch • Roasted peanuts • Saltines and salsa • Fresh romaine lettuce leafs • Seasoned sweet peas • Whole-grain crackers with cheese • English muffin, lightly buttered • Multigrain Cheerios with or without milk • Multigrain tortilla wrap with salsa"
Hmm, that looks familiar. Oh yes, it's because this is the exact diet I ate before I went paleo. It left me bloated, gassy, asthmatic, and with horrible heartburn and IBS...among other ailments.
He cites a few random out of context papers to show that you shouldn't combine protein with carbs or you'll get gas and other such nonsense. You'd think that if he was trolling pubmed to fit paleo into his conventional wisdom he might come across information about how harmful gluten can be to everyone or the aflatoxin/omega-6 problems with peanuts. But no. He also laughably says that corn was eaten in the paleolithic, something even an undergraduate in anthropology would be able to refute.
Worse, he has a nearly identical book with slightly less horrible food recommendations called The Evolution Diet: All Natural and Allergy Free.
Has paleo jumped the shark? I do think we'll see more and more "made for TV" quality books like this written by those wanting to cash in on a growing trend, but I do remember Eaton's Paleolithic Prescription, written back in 1989, also recommended some gluten foods and vegetable oils. But information about why those foods are harmful has now been widely disseminated and even the newer paleo books I disagree with don't recommend such non-foods.
So where is the perfect paleo book? There are many I like, but there isn't one to rule them all yet. For food I like Mark Sisson's, for immunological context I like Robb Wolf's, for exoneration of fat I like Taubes', for exercise Art's isn't bad, for anthropological context I like anything by Richard K. Nelson or Weston A. Price. What if all the paleo luminaries collaborated and wrote one awesome book?
If you could make a better book out of all the books out there, whose books would you use?