Bone Broth

Bone broth is having its moment- paleo likes it, nut jobs who believe vaccines cause autism like it*, whoever the hell these people are like it, my nutritionist is a big fan.  The idea seems obvious- bones are full of nutrients that hard to get, especially in the typical American diet, surely drinking bones would be good.  Especially for calcium.  Everyone knows bones have calcium.

I got suspicious when I noticed that the nutritional label on my broth** reported 0% of my RDA of calcium.  I checked a few more brands, the top contender lists 2% calcium RDA and 4% iron/6 grams of protein.  Most list 0. gives considerably better numbers, but no source.  Their listing contains a good deal more fat (9g, as opposed to 0 in any of the commercial broth I’ve found) and a non-zero amount of carbs.  None of the micronutrients they listed (vitamin C, a few Bs, iron, calcium, manganese) are fat soluble, but maybe there is something to preparing it at home.

Some of the websites touting bone broth list other substances that aren’t on nutritional labels but they believe are important.  I am well disposed to believe this claim.  There is no reason to believe science knows all the micronutrients we need, much less a USDA oriented towards the well being of farmers, not consumers.  The specifically mention glycosaminoglycans, a class protein/sugar hybrid found in joints.  This seems utterly plausible, but I was unable to find any numbers of this. At all.

I found one scientific paper on bone broth.  It is in Korean***.  It has some English but not enough for me to actually determine the micronutrient:protein ratio.  Beyond that you have studies about the components of bone broth and the assumption that it will be absorbed in this form.  For example this paper on collagen and rheumatoid arthritis (PDF).  Given it has 60 people and RA is a cyclic disease, their results are actually pretty good, but that still leaves it open to any number of manipulations.  The second best paper is a press relief on an informal study of chicken soup.

That leaves protein.  Everyone agrees bone broth has serious protein, but unfortunately not the most important kind.  Protein is made up of amino acids, of which there are two kinds: non-essential (which your body can manufacture) and essential (which you must take in via diet).  The RDA for protein is 0.8 g/kg body weight, of which 0.1 g should be of the essential amino acids (there are per-acid requirements but I’m not tracking 9 individual requirements), so 20% is putting  you ahead of the game, except that broth is missing two EAAs entirely.  After 20  hours of cooking (see korean) paper, 25% of the amino acids are glycine.  For comparison:

  • The pumpkin-based protein powder in front of me is 20% essential amino acids (and has way more iron than broth)
  • Whey protein is 60% EAAs.
  • Soy is 34%

I have trouble digesting protein and find bone broth stunningly easy to digest, so this is still a win for me, but it’s a slam dunk.

While traveling I’m using bone broth powder, which I’m increasingly convinced is a fancy way of saying “bone-based protein powder”.  I’m okay with bone based protein powder, although I might not have packed the pumpkin if I’d realized this.

Do you know what else is basically a protein powder?  Cricket flour.  They taste similar, cricket has a better amino acid profile (25% essential) and more trace nutrients (although I’m still tracking down how many more).  It is also cheaper, which should make !broth feel bad.

I find it more plausible than the average miracle food that bone broth has effects beyond what you’d expect from a naive read of the nutrition facts, because I expect animal bone + meat to fulfill a broader range of requirements than some berry.   I do feel better when I drink it, but a lifetime of digestive and chewing problems has given me a tendency to develop food security blankets, and broth is currently filling that role.   Simply by being a security blanket that is not jelly beans or peanut butter cups****, broth is a health food for me, personally, but I can’t really extrapolate beyond that. The current press around it appears to be almost entirely groundless.

Once again, the state of nutritional knowledge is embarrassingly bad and I would like us to shift money towards increasing it.  Also why the hell can’t I test the  nutritional content of broth I make myself?


*To their credit, they have an explanation that doesn’t rely on mercury, which has been extremely thoroughly disproven.  If they had presented it as a fringe thing they needed to prove, I would have entertained their hypothesis.  They presented it as fact, without any attempt to distances themselves from the atrocious denialism of the mercury-based anti-vaxxers.

**I buy it frozen on the theory that my time and not having my house continually smell of meat was worth the extra money.

***I don’t think this would be hard to determine if you read Korean, volunteers would be welcome.

****Trader Joe’s brand- I’m not an animal.

ETA: I only just learned that bone broth means “bones + connective tissue”.  Clean bones give you hardly any protein, even if there’s marrow in them.  Apparently I don’t need to pay $10/bag for store made stuff, I can use $8 worth of chicken feet and liver and eat for a week.

Food Choices at EA Global

[EAGlobal was a wonderful experience that I haven’t written much about because my brain was too stuffed full of wonderfulness to produce anything useful.  I dislike that the first thing I’m writing about it is a controversy/complaint]

There’s a utilitarian thought experiment: would you rather have one person tortured for their entire life, or a googolplex of people experience a single dust mote in their eye?  I always viewed it as too theoretical to be anything but an ideological purity test, but I think I’m seeing a version of it in action right now, in the debate around serving animal products at EA Global.

You have a small number of animal rights activists saying “this is torturing and consuming a sentient being and that’s morally abhorent”, and a much larger number of omnivores going “but seriously, they’re delicious”.  The ARAs don’t understand why aesthetic preferences are overriding morality (and either don’t believe that animal products are ever medically necessary or don’t believe that outweighs the cost to the animal), and the omnivores don’t see why such a small group is getting to override their preferences because of a principle they don’t believe in.

I think the moral weight of the ARA’s concerns may actually be working against them here.  I don’t think many people would object if the organizers said “the local cuisine is vegan and shipping in meat is just too expensive, bring some in your luggage if you must.”  But the fact that the morality arguments exist and tend to resonate with people even if they don’t agree makes people defensive, and then aggressive.  Allowing the organizers to drop meat for morality reasons is an implicit endorsement of the idea that meat is indeed immoral, which has unpleasant implications for omnivore’s moral standing the rest of the week.  By the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics, better to deny that there is a problem than participate in an incomplete solution.

My original position, based mostly on the fact that I am simultaneously really bothered by and completely immune to ARA’s disgust-based arguments, was that EA Global had made the right call: vegan or at least vegetarian options in the main line, a small amount of meat hidden off to the side.  But now that I think the insistence on meat is strongly Copenhagen-driven, I’ve changed my mind.  Admitting unpleasant things about ourselves and making incremental progress is supposed to be one of our things.

[By that same token I think ARA’s should be a little happier about how much meat consumption was reduced that weekend, even if it didn’t go to zero.  But then, I’m an incrementalist]

At the same time, some people need animal products.  The definition of need is tricky here- my doctor has told me to eat small amounts of meat, but going three days without any will be fine, but in practice what was served at EA Global was too hard on my stomach and I wouldn’t have been able to eat enough calories from that alone.  Some people are on paleo and even if that wasn’t the healthiest choice, a sudden drop off in meat will be physically hard on them.  Some people have a lot of things they can’t eat such that meat is the easiest way to get them a nutritionally complete meal- especially when you have a lot of different people with a lot of different exclusions.  But even if meat were served, it’s impossible to fulfill 600 people’s dietary requirements with a reasonable amount of effort and money. The best solution may have been to announce the menu ahead of time so people could plan, and then let the chips fall where they may.

But I think we can do one better.  My new favorite solution is to offer both meat and whatever vegans nominate as the best fake meat and offer both without a way to distinguish between the two at the time.  Omnivores would be given one at random with a code that they could later use to register 1.  how much they liked what they were served and 2.  whether they think it was real meat or not.  If they really don’t like what they got they could go to a back room somewhere with their code and ask for the other one (still not telling them which they got).  The same back room could serve people who medically need meat and people who want the definitively vegan option.

This gives people who want but don’t need meat (and are able to eat !meat) a way to get it, and vegans a way to advance the cause of veganism, possibly further than they would get by banning it (by showing people how good !meat tastes).  In most circles neither side would find this adequate, but Experimenting and Using Data are What Effective Altruists  Do, and I think that could convince/pressure enough people (on both sides) into it that it would be worth trying.

Motion Sickness

The typical explanation for motion sickness is that your inner ear and your eyes disagree about whether or not you are moving, your body interprets it as food poisoning, and prepares to throw up.  This does not quite make sense to me, because it fails to explain any of the following:

  1. Why being a passenger is so much worse than being the driver.
  2. Why playing video games (eyes say movement, ears say stationary), reading in a bus (eyes say stationary, ears say moving) and riding a roller coaster (eyes and ears both say moving very fast)  produce the same feeling.
  3. Why smooth rides (subways, no-turbulence airplanes) are so much easier than busses, or why highways are easier than stop and go traffic.
  4. Apparently other people consider nausea a stomach issue, but for me it’s very much a head issue.  Motion sickness also gives me headaches.  What’s up with that?  Why is it so tightly correlated with sinus pressure?
  5. Why does low blood sugar feel so much like motion sickness?
  6. I’ve never experienced this, but television assures me heavy drinking produces the same effect.  Why?
  7.  Why does motion sickness give me temperature fluctuations.

I’ve heard a partial explanation for #3, which is that your inner ear actually senses acceleration, not movement, so a steady velocity doesn’t feel like movement.  And we have a very compelling proximal explanation for #6: the difference in density between water and alcohol stimulates your inner ear both as you get drunk and as you sober up.  So obviously the inner ear is very involved in this, but how?

Alternate hypothesis: motion sickness is designed to keep you from eating, because your body is not in a good state to digest. One way that can happen is if your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for fight-or-flight-or-stand-there-being-really-anxious) has kicked in, because it redirects blood flow and energy to things that are immediately useful in escaping from tigers (muscles, senses) and away from things that solve future you problems like digestion and the immune system (which are regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system).

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are regulated by the hypothalamus.  For fun I googled “hypothalamus motion sickness” and the first result was this rat based study,* which put rats in a “animal centrifuge” to induce motion sickness. I couldn’t find video of a rat centrifuge, but NASA helpfully provided video of a dog centrifuge.  It looks not quite as bad as a tilt a whirl, although the rats were exposed to double gravity so I should probably cut them some slack.

During their amusement park adventures, the rats experienced a spike in histamine production in the hypothalamus (how cool is it that we can continuously measure that?), and caused the rats to display characteristic motion sick rat behavior.  Inhibiting histamine production or removing the inner ear (the part that detects motion) caused both of these to disappear.  Histamines also help regulate body temperature, so that’s #7.  This suggests that anti-histamines would be useful at fighting motion sickness.  The good news is that this is correct, the bad news is that they make you sleepy and possibly give you Alzheimer’s.   That’s fine for any one time but I don’t want to make a lifestyle out of taking them.

A website my laptop unfortunately ate the link to has a subtly different explanation:  your brain tracks motor movement via an efference copy, creates a prediction of what sensory changes that should create, and they compares that to the actual sensory input.  Motion sickness might be your brain saying “these are too different, abort, abort”, or buckling from the intensity of calculation needed to reconcile the input.

I have always wondered why I/people hold my (our) breath during times of stress.  Unless you’re being hunted by a xenomorph right that second, oxygen deprivation is not helpful.

An artist's rendering of when holding your breath is useful
An artist’s rendering of when holding your breath might be useful

The most convincing hypothesis I’ve found is that your brain can only do so many calculations per second, compensating for breathing takes calculation, so you stop breathing.  That this rapidly starves your brain of oxygen, lowering the number of calculations you can do, is exactly the kind of long term thinking I expect from the human body which, lest we forget, takes in air and food through the same hole.  If both breath-holding and nausea can be caused calculation overload, we would expect the same things to cause them both. I can think of two things that do exactly this off the top of my head- sparring (but not drills) in martial arts, and playing Katamari, both of which involve complex spatial reasoning.  These are not great examples because there’s a lot of confounding variables, like extreme physical exertion while being hit in the stomach.

To summarize my speculation:  sensory input requiring too high a rate of calculation points you towards your sympathetic nervous system, which makes you nauseous so you won’t eat while you’re not capable of digesting.

This suggests that anything that kicks you towards the parasympathetic system should reduce motion sickness.  Unfortunately the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems run on the same neurotransmitters, so looking at the relevant drugs does not provide useful information.

This also suggests that anything that lowers the number of calculations you need to do will be helpful.  BCMC tested a heads up display that showed users their head position relative to the horizon.

Studies found it overwhelmingly helpful, although I haven’t dug into that paper in detail yet.  Unfortunately there’s no way to purchase the technology, so I’m left hoping someone picks up the patent.

In conclusion: we don’t really know what causes motion sickness and that there’s no known really good treatmen.  I am going to experiment with consciously tracking my head position relative to horizon and with rhythm games (which help integrate sensory data).

*The second result appears to be the exact same experiment, done 10 years earlier, with the exact same result.  It’s nice to see something reproducible.

Autism as Developmental Injury

Left untreated, people with phenylketonuria (PKU) can develop intellectual disabilities, seizures, and “other medical problems”.  But PKU does not cause any of those.  Phenylketonuria + a normal diet causes a build of of phenylalinine in the body, which causes those problems.  If PKU is caught at birth and the sufferer is kept on a phenylanlinine-light diet, they will never develop these problems.

Henry Markram suggests that something analogous is going on with autism.  He and his collaborators think that the actual problem is that autistic babies have extraordinary sensory sensitivity, and this sensitivity causes defenses that cause them to miss certain critical information during developmental periods.  What is challenging but achievable (the zone necessary for learning) for other people is overwhelming for them, so they don’t learn.  The developmental window closes and they’ve lost their chance to truly master that skill.  But if they were given stimulus in their zone of achievable challenge, they would learn those skills and maintain them for life.  They might continue to need accommodations, the way phenylketonurics need to stay on a phenylalinine-light diet their whole life, but with those accommodations they could function “normally”.  This is known as the intense world hypothesis.

The example they give is the critical period for learning language.  You *can* learn a new language after the critical period, but it will never be as easy, most people will never attain genuine fluency, and if you never learn any language it may be truly impossible to pick one up later.  If normal human speech is overwhelming to an autistic infant they will miss that period and their language will be impaired for life.  But if they’re given regular access to speech they are comfortable with (probably quieter and slower) they could learn it just fine, the same way hearing impaired children do fine with sign language.

I was also really impressed with the writing of this lay-press article.  I’ve been avoiding doing take downs, especially of popsci articles, because there are millions of wrong things every day and criticizing them is easy.  For a while I could justify them as case studies in critical reading, but now it just feels bad.  This had led to a lot of aborted blog entries, as I read something amazing and then realize it’s too flawed to pass on uncritically.   I don’t agree with everything the article says (insisting there’s only one cause of autism strikes me less as brave and more as idiotic), but it lays out its case in an informative and responsible manner.

Review: Surprisingly Vegan Waffle Mix

Before I was tested for food sensitivity my diet was incredibly reliant on eggs, dairy, and wheat, so you can imagine my dismay when I tested sensitive to all three things and was told to give them up.*  When I did so, I decided to shift to eating foods that naturally didn’t contain any of those things, rather than search out substitutes for my old staples.  My theory was that vegetables can be really awesome at tasting like vegetables, and meat can be… well at the time eating any meat was a huge struggle, but it was one I eventually expected to pay commensurate dividends.  But the vegan milks just remind me of how much better actual milk is, and the thing that makes gluten-containing food delicious is gluten.  Plus the imitation food tends to be incredibly processed in order to more closely approximate their originals.  If I was going to put a ton of work into learning to cook and enjoy different foods, I might as well pick the healthier of the two.

But everyone needs easy carbs some times, and more than one thai restaurant in my neighborhood now recognizes me on sight, so I needed some new options.  John served this vegan, gluten free waffle mix (referral link: Charity Science) at an EA event and I have to say: it’s pretty good.  Not good enough you’d choose it over regular waffles for taste alone, but pretty good.  The ingredient list is short and full of actual foods.

I seriously doubt this will apply to anyone else, but it’s interesting in light of my recent deep dive into appetite hormones.  When I eat waffles + syrup and nothing else, there is an obvious disconnect between different parts of my brain as to how full I am.  Each bite of waffle is ridiculously rewarding (indicating high ghrelin?), and yet I never seem to feel satiated, even as my stomach reports it is uncomfortably full.  I solved this problem by putting chia seeds in my syrup and interspersing waffles with swigs of protein powder (also mixed with chia seeds).  This seemed to get me the good parts of waffles while ensuring I also eventually stopped eating them.

One warning: they are not kidding about the cooking time for this mix.  It takes much, much longer than you are used to.  It is theoretically possible to turn this into pancake mix by watering it down, but I could never manage to give them enough time to fully cook.  Putting them in the waffle iron and walking away was easier.  The good news is they’re not as temperamental as regular waffles either, a few extra minutes doesn’t ruin them.  But do give them that extra time, or you will be eating batter.

*Many professionals believe that the test is purely a measure of what you’ve eaten, and that the immune reaction does not present a problem.  My personal experience is that I do much better when I avoid these foods.

r/fatlogic endorses creationism

Normally when I’m investigating something I like to read well regarded books on both sides, in the hopes that the ignorance will cancel out.  Finding a suitable counterpoint to Health At Every Size is hard, because its opposition is “everyone in the world”, and there has been no selective pressure to elevate the actual science away from the shame and aesthetic preferences.

For example, I spent a little bit of time on r/fatlogic which, as decisions go, was not my best ever.   r/fatlogic frames itself as a criticism of horrible “fat logic”- things like “700 pounds is no less healthy than 200 pounds.  Possibly healthier.”  This is not a great start.  I have a deep personal understanding of how frustrating it is when people are wrong, but I have found I am happier and a better person when I say “yup, wrong”, and then move on with my day.  For the truly awful I might e-mail a friend making fun of it (thanks, Rachel!).  Forming a whole club around criticizing people, especially people that are already having a pretty tough time in life, is bad for everyone.

r/fatlogic is even worse than that, because it has an extraordinary case of the cowpox of doubt.  Wrong people keep insisting body fat is independent of calories consumed and exercise?  Well then body fat must be solely dependent on calories consumed and exercise, and anyone who suggests it is affected by anything else is a fatty fat fathead making excuses for their fat.  They are literally denying  the possibility of individual variability in the translation of external environment into physical state.  For bonus points, they invoke “but thermodynamics”, which is the same argument creationists use against evolution itself.

Here I tried several ways to explain exactly how wrong they were and how that was terrible, but then I decided to take my own advice and stop before I endorsed the hollow Earth theory.  My current contender for an opposition book is Good Calories, Bad Calories, but I’m open to suggestions.

Health At Every Size Roundup

I read Health At Every Size and wrote a number of blog posts on it.  Some are follow ups on science it mentions but didn’t not examine in depth, some are spot checks of its scientific claims.  Neither set is comprehensive, but hopefully they are helpful.

HAES pre-check: What I thought about fat, food, and health before reading HAES.

Now I’m learning about hypothalamusing: The hypothalamus is the main coordinator of food consumption and use, and we have no idea how it works.

Ghrelin: The Hunger and Lung Development Games: the discovery that the hunger hormone also plays a crucial role in fetal lung development inspires a pun I will find increasingly difficult to maintain as the series progresses.

Leptin: Catching Chemicals: This one was a stretch.

Insulin and Glucagon: Mockingsugar: you try and come up with a food/health/fat based pun on the word Mockingjay.

Bariatric Surgery: HAES says it’s universally bad, my reading of the literature is that it’s awful, but sometimes the better choice.

Fiber: The Mr Rogers of Nutrition: Everyone likes fiber.

Obesity, Blood Pressure, and Study Design: partially an examination of the link between obesity and blood pressure, but mostly an explanation of why the studies we’ve done so far are so unhelpful.

Controls and Confounds: Why designing a study to determine causality is so hard.

HAES post-check: What I thought about fat, food, and health after reading HAES.