What big plaque deposits you have!
A dentist will tell you to floss everyday, but an archeologist might, well, have different priorities. Turns out the nitrogen and carbon isotopes in dental plaque can give archeologists a look at 1,000-year-old diets.
The buildup of plaque on this set of teeth is, um, impressive. (Cut the skull some slack though, this was before we had dentists to chide us about daily flossing.) Without the benefit of modern dental hygiene, the plaque built up over a lifetime, layer upon layer like a stalagmite. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Archeological Science researchers exhumed 58 medieval Spanish skeletons and scraped off their dental plaque to test carbon and nitrogen isotopes. When they compared the isotope profiles of the Spaniards to that of plaque from an Alaskan Inuit, the scientists found the ratio of nitrogen-15 to be quite different. That makes sense, as the Intuit ate a predominantly marine diet, and there is more nitrogen-15 in the protein molecules of organisms living in sea than on land.
Have you ever eaten a single potato chip or French fry that sent you spiraling into nearly uncontrollable gluttony? Scientists are now saying that these sober binges are actually quite similar to pot smokers’ notorious bouts of the munchies: fatty foods cause your body to release marijuana-like chemicals called endocannabinoids, and this likely compels you to continue stuffing your face.
Microscopy often yields striking snapshots, but these colorful compositions have a less-than-glamorous subject: fruit fly intestines.
The insides of these humble critters may help researchers understand the human digestive system. Each of us has something like 500 million intestinal nerve cells, yet little is known about what they’re up to. According to a recent Wellcome Trust press release, fruit fly feces (seen in image 3 above) have helped researchers at the University of Cambridge understand how the gut’s nerve cells affect metabolism.
“We reasoned that what comes out of the gut may be able to tell us about what is going on inside,” says Irene Miguel-Aliaga, who headed the study. “So, we devised a method to extract information about several metabolic features from the flies’ fecal deposits–which are actually rather pretty and don’t smell bad. Then we turned specific neurons on and off and examined what came out.”
Examining fruit fly poo allowed the scientists to assign different functions to different intestinal neurons. Some regulate appetite, for example, while others adjust intestinal water balance during reproduction.
A prophetic story from The Onion in 2003 seems to be coming true: our pets and even lab and wild animals are becoming obese alongside humans:
Amid a barrage of commercials for new diet dog and cat foods, many owners say that their pets are being held to impossibly high animal-body standards perpetrated by the media. “I don’t care what anyone says, my Sassy looks good,” said Janice Guswhite.
Back in the non-satirical world, the findings are alarming. A study of over 20,000 animals from 12 different populations, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that over the last 20 years the animals in every population they studied have been growing significantly tubbier, paralleling the human obesity epidemic.
Not only pets are fattening up–the group also studied wild animals living near humans and animals living in labs and zoos. All of them have been chubbing-out over the last two decades. This could mean we are thinking about the obesity epidemic all wrong, lead author David Allison told Nature News:
What monkey mothers eat has a large impact on how skittish their offspring act in stressful situations like stranger danger–or the presence of a Mr. Potato Head in their cage.
According to researchers, even normal monkeys find the toy’s large eyes to be “mildly stressful.” But baby monkeys from mothers who were fed a high-fat diet (over 35 percent of calories from fat, modeled after a typical American diet) had a much stronger reaction to an encounter with the spud man, and also spazzed in the presence of an unknown human.
The study, presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference, found that in stressful situations, the female offspring were more anxious and the males more aggressive, explains LiveScience:
It’s been making headlines all week (“Twinkie diet helps man lose weight” and “Trying To Lose Weight… Try The Junk Food Diet” might be some of the worst health-related headlines I’ve seen in awhile) as the Ding-Dong Diet or the Twinkie Diet, but let’s just call it the worst diet ever for short.
The newsplosion came from an experiment by Mark Haub, an associate professor in the department of human nutrition at Kansas State University. In an effort to prove to his class the importance of calories in weight gain and loss, he decided to drastically change his eating habits.
He embarked from the shores of a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat (totaling about 2,600 calories per day) to a junk food diet consisting of Twinkies, Hostess and Little Debbie snack cakes, and Doritos–with sides of vitamin pills, protein shakes, and small portions of vegetables. He lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks. Why? Because he restricted his new diet to a total of 1,800 calories per day.
He expected to lose weight, but was unsure about the other health outcomes of the diet. Ten weeks later his blood tests showed that both his lipid levels and glucose had lowered, a fact that would put him in a healthier heart state, according to the American Heart Association‘s guidelines. According to ABC News, Haub even felt better:
The thing is, he began to feel healthier. He had more energy, stopped snoring, and not only did he lose enough weight to drive down his overall cholesterol and body mass index (BMI), his good HDL cholesterol crept up two points and his blood glucose — despite all that cream filling — dropped 17 percent.
Discoblog was skeptical about the hype over Haub’s junk food binge, so we asked some nutritionists and doctors what they thought of it. We came back with several different takes, but one general message. In a loud and clear voice, these nutritionists are telling America that this diet is a bad idea, and pleading with people not to try it.
A decision made Tuesday by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors may make little kids (and probably some adults) cry. With an un-vetoable vote of 8 to 3, the board banned restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Burger King from giving out toys with “unhealthy” happy meals within San Francisco’s city limits.
The decision is preliminary and will be followed up by a second debate and vote on Tuesday, November 9.
Under the proposed rule, meals deemed healthy can still be packed with action figures. To meet the city’s “healthy” standard a kid’s meal must contain fewer than 640 milligrams of sodium and 600 calories, and under 35 percent of those calories can come from fat. It also has to include a serving of fruit or vegetable with each meal and meet a number of other requirements (pdf).
The majority of McDonald’s Happy Meal options don’t meet these standards, including ALL of the cheeseburger options and any meal with fries. McDonald’s spokesperson told The New York Times they don’t agree with the Supervisors’ stance:
McDonald’s called the bill misguided. “It’s not what our customers want,” said Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for the company, in a statement. “Nor is it something they asked for.”
The ubiquitous sticky sweetener is considered poison by many foodies and some public health officials, who worry that HFCS-packed processed foods contribute to obesity. But the companies that make the sweetener–the Corn Refiners Group–are hoping that changing the name of the product will change its image, as their president told the New York Times:
“Clearly the name is confusing consumers,” said Audrae Erickson, president of the Washington-based group, in an interview. “Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient.”
The Times asked six leading nutritionists what they thought of the new name, and what they would rename it, given the chance. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, would rename HFCS “enzymatically altered corn glucose” because he says:
The name also connotes a highly-processed, novel food ingredient, which has always been the best reason to avoid it….
Doctors recently found a surprising growth in Ron Sveden’s lung: a pea plant.
Sveden, a 75-year-old man from Massachusetts reportedly suffered from emphysema for months. He worried when he met with New York City pulmonologist Len Horovitz that he might have lung cancer. Instead, X-rays revealed a pea plant, the BBC reports, which Sveden estimates grew to around half an inch.
Dr. Horovitz says that the lung’s warmth and moisture made the perfect pea habitat and suspects a pea seed went down the wrong way. He told AOL Health:
“That can definitely happen. This did not surprise me…. You can inhale a seed of a plant or sprouting plant and it can cause bronchial obstruction. I’ve pulled food out of people’s lungs before.”
Still, given the popularity of this story, we’re guessing lung gardening is pretty rare. As Sveden says in the ABC News video above, he’s not sure how big a lung-born pea plant can grow:
“Whether this would have gone full-term and I’d be working for the Jolly Green Giant, I don’t know.”
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The biggest threat to American security may not be scheming terrorists or secretive cyber attacks–it may be the growing girth of the average American youth.
Retired army generals John Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, who have both served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argue that the obesity epidemic is rendering too many Americans unfit for duty. As the generals write in a Washington Post op-ed:
It seems incredible, but these are the facts: As of 2005, at least 9 million young adults — 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24 — were too overweight to serve in the military, according to the Army’s analysis of national data.
Since 1995, the number of recruits who have failed their medical exams because they’re overweight or obese has increased 70 percent. The generals say that to defuse this national security threat, the United States needs to get to potential soldiers when they’re young. They urge Congress to pass a child nutrition bill that would get junk food and soda out of schools, and that would make school lunches more nutritious.
If they’re really serious about this campaign, though, they might want to consider replacing lunchroom monitors with drill sergeants, who could scream at the little maggots to put down the Hostess CupCakes and to drop and give them 20.
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Image: Flickr / See-ming Lee