Five Tips to Make Traveling With a Food Allergy Easier

Five Tips to Make Traveling With a Food Allergy Easier

I am severely allergic to gluten and also have a mild dairy allergy, and even though I’m a frequent traveler, it’s not always obvious to me which dishes have either (or both!) when I’m in a new place and eating unfamiliar foods.

Dr. Alyson Pidich, the medical director of the Ash Center, in New York City, and a food allergy specialist, is allergic to shellfish and, like me, knows firsthand that even so-called “safe” foods can have trace allergens that can make you ill.

So what’s a food allergy sufferer and world traveler to do? Here are some of Dr. Pidich’s tips, all of which she keeps top of mind for her own travels.

Carry a food allergy card in multiple languages
Have a card handy that lists your food allergies in the language or languages spoken at your destination. You can create your own cards with simple notecards or sturdy paper, or order them from Allergy Translation, which charges $8 to create one card through its app or website. (You can print as many copies of each card as you want once you place an order.)

Make sure that your cards clearly list which foods you can’t eat, rather than just stating what you’re allergic to. For example, my allergy cards don’t just say that I’m allergic to gluten and dairy, they say that wheat and wheat-based products such as soy and anything containing milk, including yogurt, are off-limits.

Similarly, Dr. Pidich’s cards say that she can’t eat clams, shrimp and lobster. She learned the hard way how important it is to be super specific on her cards: her allergy card when she traveled to Tulum, Mexico a few years ago simply said in Spanish that she was allergic to shellfish, but she was served a dish with shrimp and ended up with hives all over her body.

Order with an abundance of caution
This may sound obvious, but in an ideal scenario, you always travel with food allergy cards and the people serving you understand what you’re not allowed to eat.

But say you forget your cards, or think “oh, this looks fine” because your trigger foods aren’t on the ingredient list. Dr. Pidich said that you still shouldn’t assume that what you’re eating is safe. Certain foods and drinks, in particular, including sauces, salad dressings, soups and cocktails hide common allergens such as wheat, nuts, dairy and shellfish.

Restaurant cooks often use flour to thicken sauces, for example, while soups can have shellfish broth, and salad dressings are blended with soy sauce or nut oils. Ask any vegetarian or vegan what it’s like to be surprised when their salad dressing has cheese in it or the vegetable soup has been prepared with chicken broth, and you’ll understand what it’s like. In short, even if you think you’re being cautious, be extra cautious.

Travel with a food stash
There’s nothing worse than going hungry on your trip because you can’t find enough safe food to eat. Dr. Pidich highly recommended packing plenty of snacks and a few meal replacement options on your trip, if you can.

Consider nonperishable snacks that are carry-on safe, like powdered protein shakes (go for pea protein powder if you can because it’s easy to digest and the least allergenic, compared with other, usually whey-based, powdered proteins), low-sodium jerky, low-sodium powdered soups that can be rehydrated with hot water, roasted chickpeas, nuts (as long as you’re not allergic to nuts!), and dried fruits or crunchy vegetables.

Consider a hotel room or a Airbnb with a kitchen
Having access to a kitchen means you can prepare some meals for yourself. This also cuts down on the stress of not being able to find allergy-safe food to eat.

Take your allergy card with you when you go food shopping so that the people working at the supermarket or farmers’ market can you steer you clear of anything you’re allergic to, and make sure to follow our general tips to stay healthy while traveling.

Don’t forget your allergy medicine (but carry it legally)
Even if your food allergy isn’t severe, you shouldn’t leave home without your allergy medicine. Sure, you’ll want it just in case you have an uncomfortable reaction like hives or itching, but you shouldn’t assume you can buy what you need locally, depending on where you go.

In most common destinations you can, but Dr. Pidich said that it’s better to pack some in your carry-on that you already know and have used. If you have a travel companion, have them carry an extra dose or two of the medicine in case you lose yours. The same goes for an Epi-Pen, if you use one. Finally, make sure you familiarize yourself with your destination’s rules and regulations about prescription (and nonprescription) medication, so you’ll make it through customs with your medicine.

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

What a simple cup of coffee can teach you about gratitude

What a simple cup of coffee can teach you about gratitude

A.J. Jacobs is a journalist and author of four New York Times bestsellers, including The Year of Living Biblically, Drop Dead Healthy, and The Know-It-All. He is also a contributor to NPR, Esquire, and the New York Times, and has given several renowned TED talks.

A.J.’s latest book, Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, chronicles his mission to thank everyone in the world who helped make his morning coffee possible. We sat down with A.J. to ask about what inspired this latest adventure, what surprised him most during the process, and how we can all be a little more grateful for the little things we take for granted.

1. In two sentences or less, can you sum up the “big idea” of your book?
Our coffee – as well as every other item in our lives – only exists because thousands of things went right on its journey. By acknowledging this, we can fight our brain’s built-in negative bias and be happier and more productive.

2. What surprised you the most in your research?
The sheer number of people required for something as simple as a cup of coffee. For instance, I thanked the trucker who drove the coffee beans to my local coffee shop. But he couldn’t have done his job without the road, so I had to thank the folks who paved the road. But the road needs yellow lines so the truck doesn’t veer into oncoming traffic. So I thanked the folks who made the paint. It doesn’t just take a village to make a cup of coffee. It takes the world. I try to practice six degrees of gratitude.

3. Did an event from your personal life inspire or affect the book?
Yes, I can thank my son for the idea. A couple of years ago, I started this ritual before meals. I’d say a prayer of thanksgiving. But I’m not religious, so instead of thanking God, I’d thank some of the people involved in my meal. I’d say “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes. And the cashier at the grocery store who sold me these tomatoes.” Then one day, my 10-year-old son said to me, “You know dad, those people can’t hear you. If you really cared, you’d go and thank them in person.” I said to myself, that’s actually a good book idea. So I spent the next six months traveling the world thanking people in person for my coffee. I focused on coffee because it’s so simple but so important. I couldn’t live without it. Food, shelter, coffee.

4. Do you have a favorite quote or motto that guides your life?
I like the phrase “Just Do It.” But I would revise it to say: “Just do it, as long as you’ve properly weighed the costs and benefits to both you and society at large.” I know. Not quite as catchy. But I think we need some more rational thinking in this world. The gut can be a dangerous thing. Our president uses his gut, and I’m not a fan of where it’s gotten us.

5. What was your most humbling moment?
About 15 years ago, I posed for a nude photo that was then printed in Esquire. That was way out of my comfort zone. And probably everyone else’s comfort zone as well. It happened because the editor in chief of Esquire asked the actress Mary Louise Parker to pose nude for the magazine. She said she would, but on one condition: The editor of the article also pose nude, so he could experience the vulnerability and objectification as well. I was the editor of the article. My boss told me to do it. So I did. I’m actually very impressed with Mary Louise Parker’s idea — it definitely gave me a new understanding of being on the other side of the camera.

6. What trivial trick, talent, or feat can you do to impress people?
I can do cloverleaf tongue. This is when you can fold your tongue into the shape of a cloverleaf. I just did some research, and it turns out there’s a heated debate over whether this skill is genetic, or if it can be taught. I’m hoping it can be taught. I think everyone has the right to cloverleaf tongue.

7. What’s something that is really easy for most people that you find really challenging?
Tying shoelaces. I mean, I know how to do it. I just find it super-annoying and irrational. It’s why I use elastic shoelaces. I wish that I could wear Velcro sneakers without hearing jokes about how I’m either a toddler or a 78-year-old Sarasota retiree. But soon I’ll be old enough to pull them off.

8. What is one book that you wish everyone in the world would read?
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. I don’t agree with all his points, but I endorse the gist: Progress is real. The past was violent, disease-ridden, sexist, homophobic, smelly, you name it. We shouldn’t glorify the past. In fact, it’s dangerous. It breeds nihilism, the feeling that nothing is getting better. Instead, we should be proud of how far we’ve come as a species, and inspired to solve the many, many yet-to-be-solved problems.

9. What would you like readers to take away from your book?
That being thankful isn’t just a polite thing to do. I think it’s one of the secrets to happiness. In my book, I quote a Benedictine monk who says “Happiness doesn’t lead to gratitude. Gratitude leads to happiness.” Also, I’d love for readers to take away the name for that cardboard sleeve that goes around the cup and keeps your fingers from burning. It’s called a “zarf.” That’s crucial information!

This article was originally published on Heleo.

Forget Your Washboard Abs, the Hottest Workout Is for Your Fingers

Forget Your Washboard Abs, the Hottest Workout Is for Your Fingers

Garrett Koeppicus of Brooklyn, N.Y., knows folding bottle caps with one hand and ripping apples in half with his fingers make excellent party tricks. But to him, they’re fitness training. He wants to be strong enough to hold on to millimeters-thin ledges of rock high off the ground.

To scale gym walls and rock faces, advanced climbers like him need durable digits. The most complicated moves often require holding on to just a nub of stone with the strength of the fingertips.

Emily Harrington, a professional free climber based in Olympic Valley, Calif., has two hangboards installed above the doors in her condo. The mountable pieces of wood or plastic feature varying holds—small edges and pockets often less than an inch deep—that climbers hang on or even do pull-ups from.

“I have three, which is sort of embarrassing, portable hangboards that I travel with,” she says. “They can be hung from just about anywhere that’s weight bearing—a tree, a staircase.” That way she can get what she calls finger contact when she can’t climb.

Ms. Harrington, who is currently in Ecuador climbing and skiing volcanoes, says she affixed a hangboard to her hut situated at 14,000 feet, and hangs from it to train when “we’re not on the mountain,” she says. Locals “get pretty entertained.”

The Secret to Rock Climbing Success: It’s All in the Fingers
One of the most important components of rock climbing is the ability to grip small nubs and hang from micro-thin edges. Climber and coach Luke Livesey shares some tips for developing fingers of steel. Photo/Video: Natalia V. Osipova/The Wall Street Journal
The training tool had a cameo in “Free Solo,” about Alex Honnold’s effort to scale El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope. The film had the best-ever opening weekend for a documentary earlier this fall. In one scene, shortly after his record-breaking summit, we see Mr. Honnold doing pull-ups from a hangboard attached inside the van where he then lived.

A new audience is embracing rock climbing as the film and others such as “The Dawn Wall” help spread interest in the sport. Climbing also makes its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Last year saw a record number of 43 climbing gyms open in the U.S., double the number opened in 2016, according to Climbing Business Journal, a website dedicated to the indoor-climbing industry.

Fingers have no muscles, only tendons. The 34 muscles that move the fingers and thumb are found in the hand and forearm. L. Scott Levin, president of the American Society for the Surgery of Hand, says there aren’t many practical reasons to train these muscles unless you are a neurosurgeon, watchmaker or climber.

In 1988, German climber Wolfgang Güllich developed a training tool called the campus board to help him build the specific finger strength he would need to ascend a famously difficult climb in Germany. The suspended wooden board has a variety of different-size rungs that you climb without the aid of your feet. The strongest climbers can “hop” rung to rung with their fingertips.

Emily Harrington practices at home. PHOTO: JAMIE KINGHAM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Newer tools include the Block, a mini-fingerboard with an assortment of edges, pockets and pinches you can use to lift weights or attach to a cable weight-training machine. The Rockblob is a hollow, orange-size ball suspended from a rope to practice standard holds. They all have names, such as the half crimp, where the fingers are bent only at the second knuckle.

Wackier gadgets include crimp training resistance bands—essentially mini rubber bands that loop around each finger to stretch and strengthen them. After the workout, acupressure finger massage rings aim to help with recovery.

Emily Varisco, head climbing coach at The Cliffs Climbing + Fitness in Long Island City, N.Y., gives tutorials that can help newbies build strength. Beginner exercises include balling up putty and pushing it out flat with both bent and straight fingers, and opening and closing fingers in a bucket of rice.

“I’ve thought about using peanut butter for resistance, but that might be too messy,” she jokes. Resourceful climbers embrace daily habits, like carrying their heavy grocery bags home with just one finger.

Climbers can see big improvements from these kinds of helpers. “If climber A can hold on to a hold using 40% of their maximum finger strength versus climber B who is at 90% of their maximum, climber A will have more left in the tank on the route,” says Zack DiCristino, the Vail, Colo.-based lead physical therapist for USA Climbing.

To strengthen their fingers, climbers often hang and do pull-ups on hangboards, left, and campus boards, right, and do resistance exercises in buckets of rice. PHOTOS: NATALIA V. OSIPOVA/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Finger-strength workouts started taking off about seven years ago, says Dave Wahl, a coach at Movement Climbing and Fitness in Boulder, Colo. He credits Eva López, a Spanish climber and coach whose Ph.D. thesis at the University of Castilla-La Mancha was on finger strength and endurance training.

Ms. López launched a training program and corresponding hangboard called the Transgression in 2011 based on her research. The concept is like powerlifting for your fingers, with hangs rarely surpassing 30 seconds and the entire workout lasting 10 to 20 minutes. For the first four weeks, climbers cling to a medium-size edge with added weights on their body for 10 seconds, or until they can’t take anymore. For the second four weeks, they hang from the smallest edge possible with no added weight for up to 10 seconds.

Tyler Nelson, a climbing coach and founder of Camp4 Human Performance in Salt Lake City, is considered a finger-strength guru in the climbing world. His office (and Instagram feed) are littered with charts and graphs that track increases in finger strength using various experimental training methods.

“You don’t know the force going through your fingers without measuring it,” he says. “By tracking the force-per-pull during a finger-training session, you know when to manipulate training intensity, volume and frequency.”

Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope is the subject of “Free Solo.” PHOTO: JIMMY CHIN/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Dr. Nelson cautions that equipment like hangboards can be dangerous for new climbers. “Tendons and joints in the fingers of the most seasoned climbers are fragile,” he says. “It takes years of climbing to prepare your fingers for that type of strain,” he says.

Just as blisters are badges of honor for distance runners, callused fingers become a rite of passage for any climber. Brooklyn-based climber Luke Livesey uses a double-edged razorblade to trim gnarled calluses and finishes the job with pro-grade sandpaper. He says some friends prefer battery operated mini-belt sanders.

Serious finger-grippers also know better than to rely on touch-ID fingerprint sensors, says Will Anglin, co-founder of Denver-based gear company Tension Climbing. “We tried to use a fingerprint scanner to clock employees in and out,” he says. “But since we’re all climbers, our fingers were too callused for them to register.”

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

‘The New Mind Readers’ Review: Scanning for Thoughts

‘The New Mind Readers’ Review: Scanning for Thoughts

In 2009 a group of researchers placed a dead salmon in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and showed the fish some photos of people in social situations. Their results, presented under the title “Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon,” were surprising. The scans revealed a red spot of activity centered in the salmon’s brain.

The authors of the study weren’t trying to pull a fast one on the scientific community. Nor did they believe in zombie fish. They were showing that statistics, used incorrectly, can demonstrate almost anything. Specifically, a certain type of data analysis, often used on fMRI scans, can find signal where there should be only noise.

Russell Poldrack, a psychologist at Stanford University, mentions the stunt in “The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal About Our Thoughts.” His book, ostensibly about fMRI and its use in studying how the brain functions (hence “functional”), serves as a lesson in how the science works—or should work. Through blunders and baloney, innovation and self-correction, the young field of cognitive neuroscience is quickly evolving.

The implicit heroes throughout Mr. Poldrack’s book are the scientists who wield statistical tools wisely. Take the debate about face processing. Some neuroscientists believe that an area of the brain called the fusiform face area (FFA) is dedicated to discriminating between visages, while others hold that it serves a more general function, helping to differentiate between things one has become an expert at recognizing—cars or birds, for example. Then Jim Haxby, a Dartmouth neuroscientist, stirred things up. Instead of looking for brain regions that responded more strongly than others to some stimulus—a picture of a face, say—he reversed the process to guess what people were looking at based on brain activity. And instead of relying on hot spots such as the FFA, he used patterns of activity distributed across a wider area. Mr. Haxby found that you could tell if people were looking at faces even if you ignored the FFA. More important, in Mr. Poldrack’s view, Mr. Haxby provided “a whole new way to think about fMRI data.”

This new way has led to the decoding of thoughts—or the “mind reading” of Mr. Poldrack’s title. Neuroscientists have used fMRI data to tell which of many images someone was viewing or to roughly reconstruct simple patterns viewed by their subjects. More recently, machine-learning algorithms have used fMRI data to (messily) reconstruct what people saw merely in their mind’s eye.

Neuroimaging rarely offers insight into human thought not available through psychology experiments, but sometimes it does. Mr. Poldrack describes patients with no use of their bodies who can nevertheless respond to yes-no questions by imagining themselves playing tennis (yes) or walking around their house (no). And fMRI has helped give birth to “neuromarketing,” where brain scans of people watching advertisements helped predict an ad’s success better than other methods, based on activity in motivation-related areas like the ventral striatum.

Neuromarketing has also been a source of growing pains for cognitive neuroscience. Mr. Poldrack recounts a newspaper article titled “You Love Your iPhone. Literally.” In it, a neuromarketer wrote that his team scanned the brains of 16 subjects as they watched videos of iPhones ringing. The scans showed heightened activity in the insular cortex, which, according to the article, “is associated with feelings of love and compassion.” From that observation, the article’s author concluded that the subjects “loved their iPhones.” The problem, Mr. Poldrack tells us, is that activity in the insular cortex is associated with lots of things. It’s highly active in about a third of brain-imaging studies. What’s more, it often indicates negative emotions. Brain areas tend to play many roles, and tasks tend to recruit many regions of the brain. You don’t find many one-to-one associations. Mr. Poldrack says that in the case of neuromarketing, “interpreting fMRI results seems to be more akin to a Rorschach test . . . than to actual science.”

Mr. Poldrack also finds villainy in the courtroom. Companies have popped up offering fMRI lie-detection services, despite insufficient evidence of its accuracy. So far, such tests haven’t been accepted by judges, but other companies have started offering fMRI proof of physical pain in civil cases using unreviewed methods.

Some mischief is unintentional or routine. Thankfully, science often self-corrects. In 2011 a trio of psychologists, noting the way colleagues in medicine and psychology massage their data to produce the conclusions they desire, used standard statistical tricks to show, among other things, that Beatles music makes listeners a year younger. Such critiques, and the failure to replicate many of the findings in the literature, have led researchers to improve their methods.

Mr. Poldrack comes across in this accessible book as eminently levelheaded but also personable. He makes a clear argument for the scientific method: “Constant questioning and self-doubt are ultimately the best way that we know to keep from fooling ourselves.” If one wanted, one could even use this book to argue for teaching statistics instead of geometry or calculus in school. Statistical methods and mindsets are helpful every day. Causality is messy and cognition is faulty. “The New Mind Readers” will teach you some things about the brain. More important, it may also teach you how to use one.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal. Read the original article.

Johnson: Bringing up baby bilingual

Johnson: Bringing up baby bilingual

THIS weekend Johnson enjoyed an American holiday in Berlin: the children’s Halloween party held by neighbours, a half-German, half-American couple. Besides mermaid tails, ladybug antennas or monster horns, nearly every one of the nippers at the party had another accessory: a second language.

Johnson’s own nipper is still pre-verbal at nearly 18 months, meaning that every request not immediately understood and satisfied may quickly turn into a piercing shriek. But we take comfort that Johnson, junior, is cognitively just fine. If his language comes a little late, that is probably because, for one thing, he is male, and for another, he is surrounded every day by three languages: English and Danish at home, and German all day at nursery. More confusingly still, the three languages are closely related: is it bread, Brot or brød? Apple, Apfel or æble? House, Haus or hus? The earthy words in English are mostly Germanic, meaning these triplets are coming up in his world all the time.

Children raised bilingual or multilingual show similar results. In early days they will mix languages. They make errors by using the syntax of one language and the words of another. (“Touch the guitar”, my old Spanish teacher’s daughter would say, instead of “Play the guitar”.) But these problems disappear quickly. By three or four, children reliably separate the languages, knowing which can be spoken with whom. Their fluency in each would be the envy of any adult language-learner.

Many parents once believed that a second language was a bad idea, as it would interfere with developing the first and more important one. But such beliefs are woefully out of date today. Some studies (such as this one) seem to show that bilinguals have smaller vocabularies in each language (at early stages) than monolinguals do. But other studies (such as this one) find no vocabulary shortfall in either language. In any case, the influence of mono- or bilingualism on vocabulary size is later overtaken by the importance of education, socio-economic status, reading and writing habits. In short, there is little evidence that raising a child bilingual will hurt their primary language.

The benefits, by contrast, are both strong and long-lasting. Bilingual children as young as seven months outperform monolinguals at tasks requiring “executive function”: prioritising and planning complex tasks and switching mental gears. This is probably because monitoring the use of two languages is itself an exercise in executive function. Such studies control for socio-economic status, and in fact the same beneficial effects have been shown in bilingual children of poor families. Finally, the effects appear to be lifelong: bilinguals have later onset of Alzheimer’s disease, on average, than do monolinguals.

All this is hot evidence for a mental exercise that could give children a lifelong advantage. Should you then run out and sign your child up for whatever language you can find? Alas, no. As the saying goes, “for whosoever hath, to him shall be given.” Multiple languages are best for you when you’ve had them from birth. The dramatic studies here work with “crib” bilinguals, children raised with both languages spoken by natives in their homes.

And even having a native speaker among the parents at home is not by itself enough. If a child is raised by one monoglot Anglophone and one bilingual in an English-speaking country, the child’s second language may atrophy if the bilingual parent isn’t strict about conducting all exchanges with the child in this language. This is the root of the “one parent, one language” theory that many bilingual families swear by. By this theory, consistency is important for the learning brain.

But one researcher on the topic, François Grosjean (who blogs here), disagrees that one-parent, one-language is a must. Instead, he says, “the need factor is crucial”—that is, the child must experience regular monolingual situations in each language. If there are no domains (school, travel, grandparents) where only one of the two languages will do, “children are very good at judging whether it is worth maintaining a language or letting it wither away.” One option he recommends is to speak only one language at home and the other outside the home. (This requires both parents to be fairly fluent in both languages, though.)

For parents who cannot make their children “crib bilinguals”, there are, of course, still many reasons to teach children foreign languages, and many benefits. Here, still, time is not on parents’ and teachers’ sides. The earlier children begin the second language, the better they will learn it. Norway has already introduced English in the first year of school, and Denmark is soon to do so. These countries, unlike France, Germany or Spain, have very small languages of their own, so they know language ability is crucial to their future competitiveness. Talk about the “need factor”.

This article was originally published in The Economist. Read the original article.

Regular Exercise May Keep Your Body 30 Years ‘Younger’

Regular Exercise May Keep Your Body 30 Years ‘Younger’

The muscles of older men and women who have exercised for decades are indistinguishable in many ways from those of healthy 25-year-olds, according to an uplifting new study of a group of active septuagenarians.

These men and women also had much higher aerobic capacities than most people their age, the study showed, making them biologically about 30 years younger than their chronological ages, the study’s authors concluded.

All of us are aging every second, of course, which leads many of us also to be deeply interested in what we can expect from our bodies and health as those seconds — and subsequent years and decades — mount.

Worryingly, statistics and simple observation suggest that many elderly people experience frailty, illness and dependence.

But science has not established whether and to what extent such physical decline is inevitable with age or if it is at least partially a byproduct of our modern lifestyles and perhaps amenable to change.

There have been hints, though, that physical activity might alter how we age. Recent studies have found that older athletes have healthier muscles, brains, immune systems and hearts than people of the same age who are sedentary.

But many of these studies have concentrated on competitive masters athletes, not people who exercise recreationally, and few have included many women.

So for the new study, which was published in August in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., decided to look at a distinctive set of older men and women.

“We were very interested in people who had started exercising during the running and exercise booms of the 1970s,” says Scott Trappe, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State and the new study’s senior author.

That era, bookended to some extent by the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the publication of “The Complete Book of Running” in 1977, introduced a generation of young men and women to recreational physical activity, Dr. Trappe says.

“They took up exercise as a hobby,” he says.

Some of them then maintained that hobby throughout the next 50 or so years, running, cycling, swimming or otherwise working out often, even if they rarely or never competed, he says.

Those were the men and women, most now well into their 70s, he and his colleagues sought to study.

Using local advertisements and other recruitment methods, they found 28 of them, including seven women, each of whom had been physically active for the past five decades.

They also recruited a second group of age-matched older people who had not exercised during adulthood and a third group of active young people in their 20s.

They brought everyone into the lab, tested their aerobic capacities and, using tissue samples, measured the number of capillaries and levels of certain enzymes in the muscles. High numbers for each indicate muscular health.

The researchers focused on the cardiovascular system and muscles because they are believed inevitably to decline with age and the scientists had expected they would see what Dr. Trappe describes as a “hierarchical pattern” in differences between the groups.

The young people, they thought, would possess the most robust muscles and aerobic capacities, with the lifelong exercisers being slightly weaker on both counts and the older non-exercisers punier still.

But that outcome is not precisely what they found.

Instead, the muscles of the older exercisers resembled those of the young people, with as many capillaries and enzymes as theirs, and far more than in the muscles of the sedentary elderly.

The active elderly group did have lower aerobic capacities than the young people, but their capacities were about 40 percent higher than those of their inactive peers.

In fact, when the researchers compared the active older people’s aerobic capacities to those of established data about “normal” capacities at different ages, they calculated that the aged, active group had the cardiovascular health of people 30 years younger than themselves.

Together, these findings about muscular and cardiovascular health in active older people suggest that what we now consider to be normal physical deterioration with aging “may not be normal or inevitable,” Dr. Trappe says.

However, this study was cross-sectional, highlighting a single moment in people’s lives, and cannot tell us whether their exercise habits directly caused differences in health or if and how genes, income, diet and similar lifestyle factors contributed.

It also did not look at muscle mass and other important measures of health or whether you can begin exercising late in life and benefit to the same extent.

The researchers plan to explore some of these issues in future studies, Dr. Trappe says.

But already the findings from this experiment suggest that exercise could help us “to build a reserve” of good health now that might enable us to slow or evade physical frailty later, Dr. Trappe says.

“These people were so vigorous,” he says. “I’m in my 50s and they certainly inspire me to stay active.”

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

Why Are We Still So Fat?

Why Are We Still So Fat?

Whenever I see a photo from the 1960s or 1970s, I am startled.

It’s not the clothes. It’s not the hair. It’s the bodies. So many people were skinny.

In 1976, 15 percent of American adults were obese. Now the it’s nearly 40 percent. No one really knows why bodies have changed so much.

Scientists do a lot of hand-waving about our “obesogenic environment” and point to favorite culprits: the abundance of cheap fast foods and snacks; food companies making products so tasty they are addictive; larger serving sizes; the tendency to graze all day.

Whatever the combination of factors at work, something about the environment is making many people as fat as their genetic makeup permits. Obesity has always been with us, but never has it been so common.

Everyone — from doctors to drug companies, from public health officials to overweight people themselves — would love to see a cure, a treatment that brings weight to normal and keeps it there. Why hasn’t anyone discovered one?

It’s not for lack of trying.

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Yes, some individuals have managed to go from fat to thin with diets and exercise, and have kept off the weight. But they are the rare exceptions. Most spend years dieting and regaining, dieting and regaining, in a fruitless, frustrating cycle.

There is just one almost uniformly effective treatment, and it is woefully underused: only about 1 percent of the 24 million American adults who are eligible get the procedure.

That treatment is bariatric surgery, a drastic operation that turns the stomach into a tiny pouch and, in one version, also reroutes the intestines. Most who have it lose significant amounts of weight — but many of them remain overweight, or even obese.

There are not nearly enough surgeons or facilities to operate on all the obese people who might be helped by bariatric surgery, noted Randy Seeley, director of the nutrition research center at the University of Michigan.

And many patients and doctors persist in thinking — all evidence to the contrary — that if overweight people really set their minds to it, they could get thin and stay thin.

Scientists got an unsparing look at what they were up against 50 years ago, when a clinical researcher at Rockefeller University, Dr. Jules Hirsch, did some old-fashioned experiments. He recruited obese people to stay at the hospital and subsist on a 600-calorie a day liquid diet until they reached a normal weight.

The subjects lost 100 pounds on average, and they were thrilled. But as soon as they left the hospital, the pounds piled back on.

Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Rudy Leibel, now at Columbia University, repeated the study again and again, with the same result. Eventually, they found that when a very fat person diets down to a normal weight, he or she physiologically comes to resemble a starving person, craving food with an avidity that is hard to imagine.

The lesson never really penetrated the popular consciousness. Just a couple of years ago, Kevin Hall, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, made headlines with a study of contestants from the Biggest Loser television show. They lost enormous amounts of weight, he found, but rarely could keep it off.

Obesity’s genetic connection was conclusively demonstrated in the 1980s in a series of papers showing that body weight is strongly inherited, almost as strongly as height. Children adopted as infants ended up with weights like those of their biological parents. Twins reared apart ended up with nearly identical body weights.

It was beginning to look hopeless for obese people.

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Then, in 1995, Dr. Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University discovered what looked like the equivalent of insulin for diabetes — a molecule he called leptin that is secreted by fat cells and tells the brain how much fat the body has.

Leptin signals some sort of master controller in the brain. If a person is too thin — according to what the brain perceives as an acceptable weight — the brain signals that person to eat.

In fat people, that controller is set too high: their brains make sure they stay fat.

The drug company Amgen paid Rockefeller and Dr. Friedman $20 million for rights to leptin, hoping to develop it as an obesity treatment. The idea was to give leptin to obese patients so their brains would think they had too much fat.

If it worked, they ought to lose their appetites and drop pounds. By tailoring leptin injections, doctors might even fine-tune a person’s weight.

To everyone’s chagrin, leptin fizzled. Most people did not respond to leptin injections by losing weight. But leptin was a key to unlocking a complex network of hormones and brain signals that control body weight.

The problem was that no single target seemed to make much difference in weight loss.

“I think of eating as a survival mechanism,” said Dr. John Amatruda, a consultant and former executive at Bayer and Merck while trying to develop weight-loss drugs. “You need to eat, so our bodies are wired to have complex systems that are redundant.”

The hope now is to figure out how to have the benefits of bariatric surgery without the surgery. The operation alters the body’s orchestra of hormones and signals, among them leptin but also many others.

Afterward, tastes change. Many patients no longer crave the high-calorie foods that used to sate them. Many find they are no longer are ravenously hungry.

Might those effects be mimicked with a drug? Many researchers are trying, although most drug companies have dropped out of the obesity market, seeing no truly effective treatments on the horizon.

Even when drugs have been approved, they are rarely used. That’s not surprising, Dr. Amatruda said, because obesity medications on the market are either minimally effective for most people or have significant side effects — or both.

Dr. Seeley remains optimistic that a drug will be found. He studies mice and rats, giving them bariatric surgery and trying to untangle the web of biochemical changes that follow.

“We think we have good clues,” he said, “but nothing is far enough along.”

For now, researchers wish people — including fat people themselves — would stop blaming the obese for their problem.

“This idea that people should eat less and exercise more — if only it were so simple,” Dr. Hall said.

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

How can you eat dairy if you lack the gene for digesting it? Fermented milk may be key, ancient Mongolian study suggests

How can you eat dairy if you lack the gene for digesting it? Fermented milk may be key, ancient Mongolian study suggests

More than 3000 years ago, herds of horses, sheep, and cows or yaks dotted the steppes of Mongolia. Their human caretakers ate the livestock and honored them by burying animal bones with their own. Now, a cutting-edge analysis of deposits on ancient teeth shows that early Mongolians milked their animals as well. That may not seem surprising. But DNA analysis of the same ancient individuals shows that as adults they lacked the ability to digest lactose, a key sugar in milk.

The findings present a puzzle, challenging an oft-told tale of how lactose tolerance evolved. From other studies, “We know now dairying was practiced 4000 years before we see lactase persistence,” says Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH) in Jena, Germany. “Mongolia shows us how.”

As University of Copenhagen paleoproteomicist Matthew Collins, who was not on the team, puts it, “We thought we understood everything, but then we got more data and see how naïve we were.”

Most people in the world lose the ability to digest lactose after childhood. But in pastoralist populations, the story went, culture and DNA changed hand in hand. Mutations that allowed people to digest milk as adults—an ability known as lactase persistence—would have given their carriers an advantage, enabling them to access a rich, year-round source of fat and protein. Dairying spread along with the adaptation, explaining why it is so common in herding populations in Europe, east and north Africa, and the Middle East.

But a closer look at cultural practices around the world has challenged that picture. In modern Mongolia, for example, traditional herders get more than a third of their calories from dairy products. They milk seven kinds of mammals, yielding diverse cheeses, yogurts, and other fermented milk products, including alcohol made from mare’s milk. “If you can milk it, they do in Mongolia,” Warinner says. And yet 95% of those people are lactose intolerant.

Warinner wondered whether dairying was a recent development in Mongolia or whether early Mongolians had lactase persistence and then lost it in a population turnover. Ancient people in the region might have picked up such mutations from the Yamnaya herders—about a third of whom were lactase persistent—and who swept east and west from the steppes of central Eurasia 5000 years ago.

To find answers, she and her team analyzed human remains from six sites in northern Mongolia that belonged to the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex, a culture that between 1300 and 900 B.C.E. built burial mounds marked with standing stones. Because those nomads rarely built permanent structures, and constant winds strip away the soil along with remains such as pot fragments and trash pits, archaeological evidence for diet is scarce. So MPI-SHH researcher Shevan Wilkin took dental calculus—the hard plaque that builds up on teeth—from nine skeletons and tested it for key proteins. “Proteomics on calculus is one of the few ways you can get at diet without middens or hearths,” Warinner says.

The calculus yielded milk proteins from sheep, goats, and bovines such as yak or cow. Yet analysis of DNA from teeth and leg bones showed the herders were lactose intolerant. And they carried only a trace of DNA from the Yamnaya, as the team reports in a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “They’re exploiting these animals for dairying even though they’re not lactase persistent,” Collins says.

That disconnect between dairy and DNA isn’t limited to Mongolia. Jessica Hendy, a co-author of the PNAS paper, recently found milk proteins on pots at Çatalhöyük in Turkey, which at 9000 years old dates to the beginnings of domestication, 4 millennia before lactase persistence appears. “There seem to be milk proteins popping up all over the place, and the wonderful cultural evolution we expected to see isn’t happening,” Collins says.

Modern Mongolians digest dairy by using bacteria to digest lactose for them, turning milk into yogurt and cheese, along with a rich suite of dairy products unknown in the Western diet. Ancient pastoralists may have adopted similar strategies. “Control and manipulation of microbes is core to this whole transformation,” Warinner says. “There’s an intense control of microbes inside and outside their bodies that enables them to have a dairying culture.”

Geneticists who once regarded lactase persistence and dairying as closely linked are going back to the drawing board to understand why the adaptation is common—and apparently selected for—in some dairying populations but totally absent in others. “Why is there a signal of natural selection at all if there was already a cultural solution?” asks Joachim Burger, a geneticist at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, who was not part of the study.

How dairying reached Mongolia is also a puzzle. The Yamnaya’s widespread genetic signature shows they replaced many European and Asian populations in the Bronze Age. But they seem to have stopped at the Altai Mountains, to the west of Mongolia. “Culturally, it’s a really dynamic period, but the people themselves don’t seem to be changing,” Warinner says. She thinks even though the Yamnaya didn’t contribute their genes to East Asia, they did spread their culture, including dairying. “It’s a local population that has adopted the steppe way of life.”

The study’s surprising results have given Warinner her next goal: to understand how Mongolians and other traditional dairying cultures harnessed microbes to digest milk and render lactose tolerance irrelevant—and to figure out which of hundreds of kinds of bacteria make the difference.

This article was originally published in Science. Read the original article.

Very Brief Workouts Count Toward 150-Minute Goal, New Guidelines Say

Very Brief Workouts Count Toward 150-Minute Goal, New Guidelines Say

As of Monday, the United States has new federal physical-activity guidelines. The new guidelines, which represent a scientific consensus about how much and what types of physical activities we should complete for good health, bear a strong resemblance to the existing, 10-year-old governmental recommendations. But they also feature some important updates and expansions, including the first-ever federal activity parameters for 3-year-olds, as well as a few surprising omissions.

And they offer a subtle, admonitory reminder that a substantial majority of us are not moving nearly as much as we should.

The idea that the government might suggest how much we need to exercise is relatively new. The first federal exercise recommendations were released in 2008, after several years of scientific background study.

During that time, an advisory board of researchers, most of them from academia, scoured the available scientific literature for clues about the relationships between physical activity and health and how much and what types of exercise seemed best able to lengthen people’s life spans and reduce their risks for disease.

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Using that information, they assembled and presented a scientific report to the Department of Health and Human Services, which used it as the basis for the original 2008 guidelines.

Most of us probably know what those guidelines suggested.

In essence, they called for adults who are not disabled to complete at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or other activities that raise people’s heart rates and breathing to the point that they can talk to a companion but cannot, should they be so inclined, sing.

The guidelines also noted that 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, such as jogging, would be equally effective but that the exercise, whatever its intensity, should take place in nonstop bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time and preferably every day.

Adults were urged, too, to do some type of strength training twice a week, while children older than 6 and teenagers were told to exercise moderately for at least 60 minutes a day.

That was 10 years ago. Since then, exercise scientists have published a mountain’s worth of new research about the health effects of physical activity — and of sitting — and of how much time we really need to spend in motion.

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So two years ago, the Department of Health and Human Services convened a new panel of scientific advisers to sift through this research and provide updated exercise recommendations.

Earlier this year, that group delivered a 779-page scientific report to H.H.S., from which the new recommendations were devised.

To the surprise of some scientists and other observers, these guidelines, which were published on Monday in JAMA, are broadly the same as the previous set.

Again, they call for adults to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week, along with strength training twice a week.

They also suggest balance training for older people and, for the first time, urge kids between the ages of 3 and 5 to be active for at least three hours a day, an acknowledgment that even small children run the risk of being too sedentary these days.

The most substantive change in the new recommendations involves how long each bout of exercise should be. The new guidelines say they do not need to last for 10 minutes.

Any physical activity, no matter how brief, including walking up stairs or from the car to the office, provides health benefits, according to the new guidelines, and counts toward exercise goals.

Using these parameters, “it will be much easier” for people to accumulate the desired 150 weekly minutes of moderate activity, says Adm. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health at H.H.S., who oversaw the development of the formal guidelines.

This idea is captured in a new H.H.S. website cheerfully titled “Move Your Way” that summarizes the latest guidelines.

But despite this expansiveness, the 2018 recommendations do not cover some types or aspects of exercise, including high-intensity interval training. Although these brief, intense workouts are popular and widely studied, the guidelines’ writers felt that more research was needed about their safety and effects.

For the same reason, the guidelines do not set a target for how much — or little — time people should spend sitting or how many steps they should take each day, instead reiterating that the best goal is 150 minutes a week of activity.

Helpfully, the new guidelines do include some practical proposals for increasing exercise, including having health care workers ask people about their exercise habits during every appointment and employers promote physical activity at work.

But such efforts are voluntary, of course, and may be unable to overcome the greatest challenge facing the implementation of the new guidelines, which is us.

Despite 10 years of hearing that we should be moving more, few of us are.

Only about 20 percent of American adults meet the existing recommendations, and a third never work out at all, statistics show.

But Admiral Giroir says he believes that the new guidelines can and should inspire large numbers of people to get moving.

“They are so simple,” he says. “You can walk, dance, mow your lawn, park your car a little farther away. It all counts and could really make an impact on people’s health.”

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.

Too Much Caffeine May Stress the Heart

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Too Much Caffeine May Stress the Heart

As my brother neared the end of a smooth, swift recovery from open-heart surgery to bypass an 80-percent blockage in his heart’s most important artery recently, he reverted to a longstanding habit of downing many cups a day of strong coffee. I objected, but he insisted that the caffeine doesn’t affect him, meaning it doesn’t disturb his sleep.

But when I noticed how easily he became upset or angered by minor irritations many times a day, I decided to look into what is known about the bodily effects of so much caffeine and whether it might contribute to the harmful effects of stress on the heart.

Caffeine is by far America’s leading nonprescription drug, regularly consumed by some 90 million adults each day in coffee, tea, soft and energy drinks and some prescription and over-the-counter medications.

Amounts can range widely. An 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee may contain 95 to 165 milligrams of caffeine, while a cup of instant coffee delivers 63 milligrams. One ounce of espresso has 47 to 64 milligrams; 8 ounces of brewed black tea, 25 to 48 milligrams; 8 ounces of brewed green tea, 25 to 29 milligrams; 8 ounces of cola, 24 to 46 milligrams, whereas a 12-ounce energy drink can contain as much as 300 milligrams. Much smaller amounts of caffeine can be found in chocolate, decaffeinated coffee, some candies and even some foods like waffles.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not against caffeine. I drink about two and a half cups of caffeinated coffee a day, “watered” down with lots of milk. And I occasionally snack on a few chocolate-covered coffee beans.

In moderate doses caffeine has mainly positive effects for most people. It is a central nervous system stimulant that increases alertness, relieves fatigue and improves concentration and focus. For sports participants, it can enhance endurance. It may even boost weight loss by temporarily suppressing appetite and prompting the body to produce heat and energy when digesting food. Consumed in moderation, coffee has even been linked to a reduced risk of several kinds of cancer.

If not for caffeine, I suspect there’d be a lot more accidents involving drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. I dare not drive long distances without a mug of coffee at my elbow, and often have a cup before going to a concert, opera or play. But I also know not to overdo it lest I become tolerant to caffeine’s stimulating effect and it no longer helps me remain awake when it really counts.

The Food and Drug Administration advises a maximum daily intake of 400 milligrams, the amount in two to three cups of caffeinated coffee, depending on the brand and roast. But what if, like my brother, you are consuming six or more cups of coffee a day? Even if your sleep is not disrupted, that amount of caffeine has been associated with an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, jitteriness, irritability and anxiety, all of which can have untoward effects on cardiovascular function.

Caffeine increases secretion of the body’s main stress hormone, cortisol, best known for fueling a fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat or crisis. Produced by the adrenal glands when stimulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, cortisol diverts other bodily functions to permit a quick, effective response to stress or danger.

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A sudden jolt from cortisol prompts your blood pressure to rise, heart to beat faster and energy level to soar, which no doubt enabled some early humans to escape a hungry lion in pursuit. Few of us today have to worry about becoming prey to a wild beast. Still, many live in a near-constant state of biochemical stress with the body’s alarm system turned on high all day long.

A constant outpouring of too much cortisol can result in a number of health problems, including anxiety, depression, problems with memory and concentration, trouble sleeping, weight gain and — yes, dear brother — heart disease.

Although the cortisol responses to caffeine are reduced in people who consume it every day, they are not eliminated, a controlled trial by a multidisciplinary research team demonstrated. In a report published in 2005 in Psychosomatic Medicine, the team, led by William R. Lovallo, an expert on stress at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, concluded that “chronic elevations of cortisol secretion may have implications for long-term health.”

Among the possible harmful effects the team listed are impaired responses by the immune system and central nervous system, memory deficits and changes in the workings of the brain’s frontal lobe and limbic system involved in critical factors like problem solving, judgment, motivation, attention, memory, learning, emotions and empathy.

For those at risk of heart disease, perhaps the most serious adverse effect of excessive caffeine consumption is its ability to raise blood pressure. As Dr. Lovallo’s team reported, “daily caffeine intake does not abolish the blood pressure response to caffeine” even in healthy young men and women.

Other studies have shown that in people with hypertension or at risk of developing it, cortisol responses to caffeine are exaggerated. In an earlier study, Dr. Lovallo and colleagues found that “borderline hypertensives and those with a positive family history have more rapid and prolonged cortisol responses to caffeine than do low-risk persons.”

My brother has long been treated for hypertension and is now very conscientious about staying on a low-sodium diet. But maybe it would be even more helpful if he also reduced the amount of caffeine he regularly consumes, replacing some of that caffeinated coffee with decaf, a suggestion he categorically rejected when I offered it.

I’ve since found another cardiovascular reason for my brother and others to consider reducing the amount of cortisol that routinely travels through their bloodstream. A 2012 British study of 466 healthy men and women, average age 62, who had no history or signs of coronary heart disease found that in the 40 percent who reacted to a stressful task with a significant rise in cortisol, calcium deposits in their coronary arteries increased significantly over the course of three years. High calcium levels are associated with more arterial plaque and a greater risk of heart attack.

Even in a sample of healthy young women, researchers have found that a stress-induced rise in blood pressure was associated with a 24 percent increased chance of developing calcium deposits in their coronary arteries 13 years later.

So, as with most other good things in life, with caffeine, moderation is the key to maximizing the benefits while minimizing the risks.

This article was originally published in The New York Times. Read the original article.