Devices like cell phones, tablets, laptop computers, wireless printers, Bluetooth speakers, and even internet-enabled thermostats and light bulbs are become more and more ubiquitous, raising questions about the safety of Wi-Fi (the networking system that allows these devices to communicate without wires).
These devices use radio waves in the 2.4 to 5.0 Gigahertz (GHz) range to talk to each other, creating an invisible web of radiation called an electromagnetic field (or EMF) around them. As the number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices increases, so does the strength of the field produced. Our bodies are increasingly bathed in fields of electromagnetic radiation at home, in the office, in our cars, and even in public spaces like parks as our insatiable demand for constant Internet connectivity leads local authorities to make Wi-Fi networks universally accessible.
It is well established that at high frequencies, electromagnetic radiation can be dangerous. Exposure to intense electromagnetic fields for even a brief period of time can cause short-term damage (in the form of burns to the skin, as happens when we get a sunburn) as well as long-term damage to our cells and DNA (potentially increasing our lifetime risk of developing cancer or other diseases).
Unfortunately, the data that we have on the risks of chronic exposure to low frequency electromagnetic radiation is unclear. As experts hired by tech companies like to point out, for example, data collected by the US National Cancer Institute has found no statistically significant increase in the number of brain tumors over the past 20 years despite the widespread use of cell phones during that time.
By contrast, a 2013 review of research previously conducted on the possible health effects of Wi-Fi found that those studies were extremely mixed in terms of their scientific rigor and verifiable outcomes. Some of these studies reported finding biological effects associated with Wi-Fi exposure in laboratory and animal models, but these data were limited and could not be used to draw definitive conclusions about the possible health risks of wireless technology.
Finally, recent studies using laboratory rats found that heavy exposure to cell phone radiation increased these animals’ risks for some brain and heart tumors. Similar studies found that high levels of Wi-Fi and cell phone exposure caused both hormonal shifts and oxidative stress in laboratory mice. Although the long-term consequences of these physiological changes are unknown, they are believed to be associated with a number of cancers and neurological disorders in humans. It is important to note, however, that animal models are not always predictive of human disease. Moreover, the levels of electromagnetic radiation that these mice were exposed in the laboratory were far greater than what most people encounter when using a mobile phone or other wireless device. There’s a great and frequently updated collection of research on the safety of electromagnetic radiation on this website, compiled by Dr. Joel M. Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
While the health risks associated with using our smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices are thus still unclear, an increasing body of evidence suggests that this technology may not be as safe as our current regulations and safety standards would suggest. This may explain why the World Health Organization and its International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified mobile phones as a “possible carcinogen”
This doesn’t mean that you need to ditch your cellphone or go completely ‘off the grid’ and live in a yurt in rural New Mexico. There are some ways in which you can limit your exposure and hopefully reduce your risk of harm should Wi-Fi prove to be dangerous. These include:
1. Keep cell phones and laptops off your body.
The further the device is away from your body, the lower your exposure. Rather than carry your phones in our front pocket, keep it in your briefcase or purse.
Similarly, despite its name you should never place a laptop computer directly on your lap. Use a desk, table or other rigid surface instead. You can also buy EMF blocking mats to place underneath your computer. Not only will this reduce your exposure to electromagnetic radiation, but it will also prevent you from potential burn injuries (surprisingly, laptop burn is a real and not uncommon condition).
2. Use earphones or a headset when talking on your cell phone.
The electromagnetic output of your phone increases 100-fold when in use, and when you hold it up to your ear you are directly exposing your head to that radiation. You can reduce this exposure by using earphones or some other listening device, keeping the actively transmitting phone away from your body. Radiation-free headsets using air tube technology are also available, further reducing your EMF exposure when talking on the phone or listening to music.
3. Put your cell phone into airplane mode at night, when charging, or when not using it.
When your phone is in airplane mode it is transmitting almost no electromagnetic radiation at all; its cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and location services are all switched off. As an added bonus, your device will also charge faster.
4. Turn off your wireless router at night.
You’re not using it anyway, so why waste electricity exposing yourself to its electromagnetic field while you sleep? An easy way to do this is use the same sort of timer that you use to turn the lights in your house on and off while on vacation.
5. Look for other ways to reduce your EMF exposure.
You might consider tossing out your microwave, for example, as it is one of the biggest sources of electromagnetic radiation in your home. You might ditch your wireless router all together in favor of an old-fashioned ethernet cable. You can purchase an inexpensive EMF meter to determine the greatest sources of radiation in your home, then reduce or eliminate their use. You can even purchase EMF blockers for home use.
While it is fairly impossible to avoid all EMF exposure in our modern world, there are simple and easy ways to reduce it. Until the true dangers of Wi-Fi and other low-frequency electromagnetic radiation are known, it would seem to be a prudent thing to do.
Did Cavemen Get Alzheimer’s?
Can the onset of age-related cognitive disorders be prevented through diet and exercise?
A couple of weeks ago, as part of my academic day job, I led a three-hour workshop on the care and treatment of patients with age-related cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently ranks Alzheimer’s as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 100,000 Americans died of the disease in 2014, the most recent year for which we have complete data.
In reality, however, those figures are likely to be a gross underestimate of Alzheimer’s true physical toll. According to a study conducted at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, the number of deaths that are actually attributable to the disease may be 5 to 6 times higher. That would mean that over half-a-million Americans died of Alzheimer’s in 2014, making it the third leading cause of death in the US. Only heart disease and cancer took more lives.
Approximately 1 in 9 Americans aged 65 or older has Alzheimer’s. That proportion rises to nearly 1 in 3 for those aged 85 and older. Thus, about 5 million people in the United States currently have the disease, a number that is expected to quadruple over the next few decades with the demographic changes associated with the aging of the baby boom generation.
Alzheimer’s is already the most expensive disease in the US. We now spend over $200 billion dollars a year caring for those with Alzheimer’s, including $150 billion in Medicare and Medicaid. About half of all nursing home residents are people with Alzheimer’s disease or other neurodegenerative diseases, most of who rely upon Medicaid to pay for their long-term care.
That too is likely a gross underestimate of the financial toll of this disease, as it fails to take into account all of the unpaid care provided by family and friends. Nearly 20 billion hours (or $220 billion) of free care was provided in 2014. Most often than not, this care was provided by women who left the workforce in order to care for an ailing spouse, parent, or sibling.
These issues are particularly important to me. I have immediate family members who have been affected by Alzheimer’s disease, both as patients and as long-term caregivers. I also carry a genetic trait known as APOE-ε4 that makes me far more likely to develop the disease, and to do so at a younger age; according to current research data, people with my particular genetic makeup (those who have two copies of the APOE-ε4, so calledε4 homozygotes) have a 50-90% chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s during their lifetime, about 15 times the rate of those who lack the APOE-ε4 allele.
As someone whose career and self-worth are tied to my ability to think and write creatively, the very thought that I could slowly lose everything that makes me who I am terrifies me. I also worry about the huge personal and financial impact that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s could have on my family.
Given this, I plan to fight my genetic predisposition tooth and nail. For me, genotype does not necessarily equal phenotype. I plan to do anything I can to ensure that I do not develop this devastating disease.
As of yet, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s. However, there are some promising studies that suggest that its onset can be delayed (or even prevented) and its progression slowed. For example, a recent study conducted by researchers at the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, found that memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients could be slowed or reversed using a program that involves changes in diet and nutritional supplementation, optimization of sleep, regular exercise, and reduction of stress.
Although the treatment protocol itself was rather complex, consisting of 36 different steps, the study suggested that those patients with the best clinical response (i.e. those that showed the greatest improvement in memory, mood, and the other cognitive, behavioral, and psychological symptoms of Alzheimer’s) did the following:
They eliminated all simple carbohydrates from their diet;
They also eliminated gluten and processed food from their diet;
They increased their consumption of vegetables, fruits, and non-farmed fish;
They reduced their stress through yoga and meditation;
They exercised for a minimum of 30 minutes, 4-6 days per week;
They incorporated resistance training into their weekly workout routine;
They increased their sleep to 7-8 hours per night;
They supplemented their diet with folic acid, vitamin D3, Omega 3-rich fish oil, and CoQ10; and
They regularly engaged in intermittent fasting, usually for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime.
These findings also dovetail nicely with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Six Pillars ofPrevention: regular exercise, social engagement, healthy diet, mental stimulation, quality sleep, and stress management.
What is particularly interesting about these findings is that many of these same recommendations are part and parcel of a paleo- or primal-aligned lifestyle.
As mentioned in a previous post, eating primally is about eating healthy proteins like organic meats and wild-caught fish, cooking with natural derived rather than industrially manufactured fats, and consuming plenty of leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a variety of sprouted and fermented foods. This approach to nutrition not only involves eliminating simple carbohydrates, gluten, and processed foods from the diet, but also includes foods that are naturally high in the two key long chain omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) and in CoQ10, reducing the need to take these supplements.
Moreover, adopting a primal lifestyle includes a consideration of the other physical and social factors that influence health, including engaging in intermittent fasting, exercising regularly, improving the length and quality of sleep, reducing stress and anxiety through regular meditation or mindfulness sessions, avoiding the overuse of electronic media and devices, and improving our relationships with friends and family.
No research has yet looked at whether a paleo or primal lifestyle can prevent cognitive decline or dementia, although some studies indicate that a paleo diet can improve measures of metabolic health, including triglyceride levels, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure that are known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
Similarly, a ketogenic diet (i.e. a diet that is high in healthy fat, low in carbohydrates, with moderate protein intake, popular with many who adhere to a paleo or primal lifestyle) seems to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in animal models. Again, no large-scale study has yet has tested the effect of a ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s patients but one small study suggested that elderly individuals with age-related memory decline performed better on memory-related tasks after six weeks on a low carbohydrate diet.
So, while going primal is necessarily a cure for Alzheimer’s, it may be an important step towards reducing the risk of developing this devastating disease.
Biohacking Thursday: Improving Meditation and Mindfulness with Biofeedback
Using a brainwave sensing device to calm my ‘monkey mind’.
One of the oft-cited statistics in the Paleo/Primal community is a variant on the old 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle). Namely, this principle states that your health and body composition is determined 80 percent by your diet and 20 percent by exercise, stress reduction, amount of sleep and other lifestyle factors. Some primal enthusiasts even break that last 20 percent down very specifically: 10% exercise, 5% sleep and 5% stress reduction.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been living a primally-aligned lifestyle for a couple of years now, but I find that last 5% is the most important for me. When I am stressed, it not only affects my health directly but also has an impact on my diet, my exercise routine and my sleeping habits. A particularly trying day at work or a recent and unresolved fight with my partner leads me to crave carbohydrates and thus stray from my normally well-controlled diet. It also affects my motivation to exercise. If I do force myself to go to the gym I often find myself distracted, which reduces the quality of my workout and increases my risk of injury due to bad form. Finally, my already-less-than-ideal sleep patterns (discussed in a previous biohacking post) are disrupted.
To help reduce stress (largely unavoidable in today’s modern world), I meditate for a minimum of 20 minutes daily. I always schedule a brief meditation session after lunch, closing the door to my office and doing a simple breath-focused practice before returning to my usual grind. If possible, I also try to do another session in the evenings after work or after dinner.
I’ve been doing this religiously now for about two years but have actually been a devotee of the practice off-and-on for a decade or more. There are now any number of studios, smartphone apps (I like Insight Timer), websites and other resources to help people interested in incorporating meditation into their daily routines. Moreover, an increasing number of research studies have shown the health benefits of meditation, including reductions in blood pressure, reduced anxiety, increased memory, and higher levels of executive functioning.
One of the challenges with any good meditative practice, however, is controlling our “monkey minds”. The term refers to the way in which our brains rapidly bounce from one idea to another, much like a monkey swinging from branch to branch in a tree.
When we meditate, the idea is to slow our monkey mind down by counting our breath, focusing on a single image or idea, repeating a mantra, or any number of other attention focusing tricks. Unfortunately, my monkey mind is extremely active. It is less a monkey mind and more like a cartoon “Tazmanian Devil” mind. In fact, my meditation sessions are often quite frustrating and even stress-inducing (rather than stress-relieving) because I cannot get my thoughts to quiet down.
Thus, the topic of this particular biohack: the use of biofeedback to help me focus my attention and control my monkey mind when meditating.
In this case, I purchased a commercially-available device known as Muse. There are a number of similar devices out there, such as the Thync Wearable and the NeuroSky MindWave, but I selected the Muse because of its availability, reviews and compatibility with my iPhone (Note: I am not promoting, selling, or benefitting financially from Muse in anyway).
Muse is a Bluetooth-enabled headband that uses sensors on your forehead and behind your ears to non-invasively measure brain activity. It is very similar to the electroencephalogram (EEG) used in hospitals and clinics to detect electrical activity in your brain. The device actually detects all five brainwaves – Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma waves – and uses these signals to classify your brain activity as either active, neutral or calm during meditation.
It also provides direct feedback to you in the form of a gentle sound like rainfall or wind. The more active your thoughts during meditation session, the louder the wind or the more heavily the rain will fall. This aural feedback helps you refocus your attention and calm your mind. It also records and stores this data, allowing you to track your progress and see improvements over time.
So, does it work?
I’ve been using Muse for two weeks now, meditating with it for 15-20 minutes at a time. It did take some getting used to, particularly in learning not to “force” my brain to be calm each time the sound of the aural feedback increased. But I can see improvement both in terms of the data provided via the Muse smartphone app and also with respect to how I feel after each meditation session (i.e. I’ve found I feel calmer and more focused after meditating with Muse than I have previously meditating without feedback, although this is a rather subjective assessment).
Below are two examples of sessions with the device, the first recorded shortly after I purchased it and and the second recorded this afternoon.
While I wish I had the ability to see raw data (i.e. brainwave signals) collected, the device seems pretty accurate (e.g. correctly noticing a spike in my thoughts when one of my meditation sessions was interrupted by a cat jumping in my lap). It also offers a number of guided meditations through the app and uses positive reinforcement to make the experience more rewarding. While I still haven’t achieved the levels of 60-70% calm reported by some users, I have definitely improved in just a fortnight; my monkey brain is now only 80% active during these sessions, rather than 99-100% as in the past.
Biohacking Thursday: Improving Sleep by Avoiding Blue Light
Blocking blue light at night to transform my sleep.
Biohacking Thursday: Improving Sleep by Avoiding Blue Light
As mentioned in a previous posting, I’ve started engaging in a series of controlled (and relatively sane) biohacking experiments.
The goal of these experiments is to use a variety of physical techniques, technological devices, or pharmaceutical interventions to alter my individual biology or psychology and thus improve my general health and wellbeing. This might involve trying cryotherapy to reduce the unremitting pain in my shoulder and knees, using biofeedback to improve my focus and mood, or eating a ketogenic diet in order to (finally) get rid of the layer of fat around middle while maintaining or increasing my lean body mass. I will be trying each of these ‘hacks’ in the not too distant future.
For this initial experiment, I explored the use of amber glasses and other blue-light blocking devices to improve the quality of my sleep.
For most of my life I have been a terrible insomniac. When I was in high school and college, I was lucky if I slept more than four hours a night. Even on those nights when I could get to bed early or sleep late, my chattering mind would keep me up for hours or my traitorous body would wake up every 30 minutes or so until I finally got up.
Things have gotten better as I got older, but I still have considerable difficulty getting to sleep or staying sleep. In recent years, I’ve averaged about five to six hours a night, well below the seven or more that most sleep experts recommend.
I normally muddle through the workweek by consuming relatively large quantities of coffee and taking the occasional nap during the day. The unfortunate consequence of this approach, however, is that my general energy levels are usually quite low, which adversely affects my productivity, my workout routine, my attitude, my memory, and my waistline.
Moreover, in desperate attempts to replenish and recharge, I am sometimes forced to take extremely long naps on the weekends, which can interfere with my limited time off and seriously mess with my circadian rhythms. These long naps can also make my chronic insomnia worse; taking a two-hour nap on Sunday afternoon often means that I don’t get to bed until nearly 3 AM on Monday morning.
Over the past year, I’ve tried a number of different tricks and tips recommended by doctors, researchers, and pop-culture websites to improve my sleep. These included cutting out caffeine (which just made me grumpy and chronically tired, but still unable to sleep), avoiding alcohol (which improved my waistline but little else, particularly given my penchant for a nice ale or two), and the use of a white noise machine (which simply ended up being something for my monkey mind to latch onto as it stubbornly refuses to turn off).
One of the approaches that many followers of the primal lifestyle recommend is trying to adopt the more natural sleep cycle that our Paleolithic ancestors followed out of necessity.
In the absence of artificial lights, the underlying theory postulates, our caveman predecessors were forced to go to sleep once it got too dark to see. They also arose as soon as the sun came up, thus having a wake-sleep cycle closely attuned to diurnal and seasonal variations in light.
While there is some new data questioning whether or not humans in traditional cultures truly go to sleep shortly after sundown – a recent study of Hadza and San hunter-gatherers in Africa shows they actually go to sleep many hours later, but do sleep soundly through the night – there is compelling research demonstrating that physical exposure to light (even via the skin rather than the eyes) reduces the production of melatonin and other sleep-inducing hormones. This makes sense given that human beings, as diurnal (i.e. active during the day) creatures, should be stimulated awake while the sun is up. As soon as the sun (and our light exposure) goes down, however, melatonin production increases and we rapidly tire.
More importantly, the type of light that seem to have the strongest effect on sleep is blue light; exposure to wavelengths from the higher end of the visible spectrum (blue, indigo and violet light) directly suppress melatonin production, both making it harder to fall sleep and making it take longer to go to sleep.
As it turns out, our modern electronic devices (televisions, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and e-readers) produce large amounts of blue light. These devices use light-emitting diode (LED) back-light technology to help enhance screen brightness and clarity, but these LEDs produce very strong blue light waves.
Spending even a couple of minutes each night watching TV, checking emails, or sending a text appears to be enough to disrupt our normal circadian rhythms and diminish the duration and quality of our sleep.
To test this hypothesis systematically as part of my biohacking project, I tried the following experiment:
For two weeks I carefully tracked my sleep patterns using the old-school approach of recording when I went to bed, each time I noticeably woke up, and the total duration and quality of my sleep using a paper journal. For the following two weeks, I then scrupulously avoided blue light after sundown and similarly tracked my sleep patterns.
I reduced my blue light exposure at night by:
Reducing the total amount of time watching television, using the computer, or checking my smartphone after dark (instead I got a lot of reading done, making a significant dent in the large pile of books on my nightstand);
Using a problem called f.lux to adjust my computer screen throughout the day, reducing the amount of blue light produced early in the morningand late in the afternoon so as to mimic the natural change in exposure;
Setting the ‘night shift’ function on my smartphone to significantly reduce the amount of blue light produced; and
Wearing amber glasses from the time the sun went down until I went to bed to further eliminate any blue light exposure (i.e. the few times I did watch TV or check emails, I did so while sporting some rather nifty amber sunglasses).
As limited as these data are – two control and two experimental weeks with a total subject number (or ‘N’) of one – the results were pretty impressive.
Week 1 (Control): The median (average) number of hours I slept each night was 5.8 hours (mean of 5.9 hours), with a range of 4.7 to 6.3 hours. I also woke up an average of 3 times a night, for 10 to 15 minutes each time. Subjectively, the quality of my sleep was mediocre to poor.
Week 2 (Control): The median number of hours I slept each night was slightly better at 5.9 (mean = 5.8), with a range of 5.1 to 6.9 hours. I still woke up an average of 3 times a night, for 10 to 15 minutes each time. Subjectively, the quality of my sleep was mediocre.
Week 3 (Experimental): The number of hours I slept each night was significantly better than in the previous two weeks. The median was 6.4 (mean = 6.4), with a range of 5.7 to 7.3 hours. I also woke up less during the night, averaging only 1 noticeable disturbance. The quality of sleep also seemed better, and I woke up feeling relatively refreshed.
Week 4 (Experimental): I slept an average of 6.9 hours a night (mean = 6.8), with a range of 6.5 to 7.3 hours. Moreover, for the first time in a while I actually slept completely through the night. Not only did I wake up feeling refreshed, I also noticed improved energy and mood throughout the day. I also seemed to fall asleep faster, often zonking out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
While I still plan to explore additional ‘hacks’ to improve my sleep, including the use of herbs like ashwaganda and schisandra or spending 20 minutes in an infrared sauna each evening before bed, the simply trick of avoiding blue light proved to be a very effective approach to combating my chronic insomnia.
As someone who follows a primal lifestyle, I avoid foods that contain gluten (except for the odd pint of ale now and then).
In fact, I was drawn to the primal lifestyle in part because it largely eschews gluten, along with many of the foods that our Paleolithic ancestors lacked access to (including corn, other cultivated grains, soy, peanuts and other legumes, refined PUFAs [polyunsaturated fatty acids] and other industrial oils, and most processed foods).
Many of these foods are known to cause systemic inflammation or have been associated with ‘leaky gut syndrome,’ believed to be the cause of a number of chronic conditions like food allergies, seasonal allergies, eczema, arthritis, and gastrointestinal issues ranging from mild diarrhea to dangerous bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Celiac disease is one of the illnesses associated with gluten consumption and leaky gut syndrome. It is caused by autoimmune reaction to gluten, the glue-like protein in bread dough that makes it elastic and gives it the ability to rise when baked. If left untreated, celiac disease can cause severe and long-lasting damage to the intestinal lining, resulting in malnutrition, osteoporosis, and even colon cancer.
Celiac disease runs in my family. I suffer from gluten sensitivity or intolerance, a mild form of celiac disease. When I eat foods (or drink beverages like beer) that containing even small amounts of gluten, I tend to wake up the next day feeling tired, bloated, lethargic, and often develop a small and itchy rash on my forearms. These symptoms usually pass in a day or two, but the link between eating gluten and my physical and mental condition is clear. This is not to say that I always avoid gluten. I will occasionally have a slice of pizza and a beer when out with my friends, but I do so being fully aware of and willing to accept the consequences.
I am not alone in being gluten sensitive. In fact, some studies suggest that as many as 2.5 million American suffer from celiac disease and another 6 million are gluten intolerant. Many don’t even realize that they are, as the signs and symptoms can be rather vague and the clinical tests for celiac or gluten sensitivity are thus rarely ordered. Many people self-diagnosis, often by cutting out gluten when they go on a “diet” and suddenly realizing that the feel much better.
When I start working with a new client, I often counsel them to do the same. One of the first things that we eliminate from their diet is gluten (along with all other cultivated grains). We slowly add these foods back in to determine which are tolerated well and which should be avoided. But this can present some challenges when it comes to gluten.
First and foremost, gluten is found in nearly everything. Not only is it present in most baked goods (which many people have great difficulty giving up), but also appears as additives in foods that you wouldn’t expect to contain wheat or other grains. This includes many processed meats (e.g. sausage or pre-shaped hamburger patties), salad dressings, Asian-style sauces like tamari or hoisin, canned soups and stews, and even some cosmetics and nutritional supplements.
Moreover, it can be found even in naturally-gluten free foods like oats if these were processed in a plant that also prepares wheat or other gluten-containing flours. Such cross-contamination is also an issue when dining out. While ordering a gluten-free choice from a restaurant menu is always a good idea, you are sometimes at the mercy of the kitchen staff. A careless chef, for example, might crisp up your French fries in the same oil previously used to cook a breaded piece of fish; such cross-contamination can have serious consequences, depending on the severity of the gluten sensitivity.
Finally, some people can actually (and perversely) experience digestive issues when they first cut out gluten. Ironically, many gluten-containing foods also have high levels of an important prebiotic known as inulin. Inulin is an insoluble fiber found in wheat but also present at high levels in asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions and sunchokes. It stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria and fungi in the gut (the so-called good microbiome), and also helps with absorption of key nutrients like calcium and magnesium. When you cut out gluten-laden wheat-based foods without increasing intake of other inulin-rich plants (or using an inulin-containing supplement), certain unpleasant side effects like bloating, constipation, or diarrhea can result. Not everyone suffers from this, and it is easy to avoid. Nevertheless, for some the challenges and ill effects of cutting out gluten are simply to great and they end up adding gluten-loaded foods back into their diet.
For me, obviously, going gluten-free was a no-brainer. For others, it can be an almost insurmountable challenge because of its ubiquitous nature and the occasional side effects from cutting it out, not to mention the eye rolling of friends and family when you tell them you are avoiding gluten. Nevertheless, given all of the illnesses (known and suspected) associated with the consumption of wheat and other gluten-containing grains, it definitely a challenge worth trying.
Is Beef Bad for the Environment?
Why a carbon tax on beef and dairy is a bad idea.
In an article published last week in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, contributing author Richard Conniff argued for the imposition of a carbon tax on beef.
Using oft-cited figures which suggest that over 1.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere for every 100 grams of beef produced (nearly twenty times the greenhouse gas emissions associated with equivalent production of tomatoes or wheat), economists at the Toulouse School of Economics have proposed a 40% tax on beef to lower worldwide consumption, reduce the release of greenhouse gases, and slow the anthropomorphic warming of the atmosphere. These same French researchers also predict that such a steep tax on cattle and dairy production will also reduce the not-insubstantial contribution of this industry to water pollution, deforestation, and global loss of biodiversity.
Several of my vegetarian and vegan friends were quick to post this article on Facebook and other social media sites, with one friend specifically calling me out for my meat-eating primal ways. How can I be an environmentalist – or more pointedly, how can I be a bioethicist who writes frequently on environmental ethics and climate change – if I’m a die-hard carnivore who eats beef regularly as part of my ‘caveman lifestyle’?
It is true that contemporary analyses of greenhouse gas emissions suggest that modern agricultural practices, including animal husbandry, are a large source of carbon dioxide and methane. As an industry, agriculture is surpassed only by energy generation and by manufacturing in the production climate-changing gases. Suggesting that a carbon tax on beef will address this problem, however, is misplaced from both an environmental and a public policy perspective.
The Toulouse study and subsequent New York Times article overstate a number of key facts and overlook important nuances related to beef production. It is true that cattle are a large net source of greenhouse gases, but this is true only for cattle raised on feedlots where they are fed large quantities of commercially grown corn, wheat, and other cereal grains. When you actually consider grass-fed beef raised on small organic farms, the carbon emission story is quite different.
The carbon emission numbers used by French researchers (and others) come from organizations and agencies like the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, a partnership of 15 environmental research centers around the world). However, the estimates of greenhouse gas production associated with beef and dairy production do not take into account potential carbon sequestration.
As studies published in peer-reviewed publications like the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation have found, when cattle are raised using a responsible and sustainable system that mimics the natural ecosystem, the total amount of carbon dioxide produced is actually much lower. Similarly, alternative models of calculating greenhouse gas emissions show that, if you rotate the grass-fed cattle on pasture and if you take into account carbon sequestration associated with that approach (i.e. capture and storage of atmospheric carbon by grasses and other plants stimulated by herbivores grazing in a natural environment), sustainable animal husbandry can have a carbon neutral or even a carbon negative situation. Such an approach can also prevent (and even help remediate) the environmental damage often seen with agricultural production. Pasture-raised cattle can reduce the number of invasive species and help fertilize the fields on which they are temporarily raised; if herds and crops are rotated properly, farmers can achieve higher yields at lower cost while also eschewing the use of toxic pesticides and water-polluting fertilizers.
This is what the local farmers in my region strive to achieve. This makes my purchase and consumption of organic beef and other meats at my Greenmarket (the main source of almost all of the meat I eat) more environmentally conscious and sustainable than most, including many of my vegetarian and vegan friends. Because I get most of my meat and vegetables from the local farmers market and a community-shared agriculture (CSA) program, I would also be willing to bet that my overall carbon footprint is lower than most of the self-described vegans and vegetarians shopping at Whole Foods. While CAFO-raised meat and poultry is a large producer of carbon dioxide and methane, another significant agriculture-based contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is fertilizer production and use, irrigation of water-intensive crops in semi-arid areas, food waste due to spoilage in fields and homes, and fuel used to harvest crops mechanically and to transport crops to market. All told, this releases more than three-times the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that commercial production of beef. So those Mexican avocados that American consumers so readily eat during the cold winter months have a larger carbon footprint than the ground beef I get from a farmer just 10 miles down the road.
This is why the proposed carbon tax on beef is a bad idea. It is akin to using a shotgun to hunt mice, at least as far as the problem of greenhouse emissions and fossil fuel use is concerned. While such a tax might reduce consumption of beef in the short term, it could actually exacerbate the climate change problem in the long term (a situation that we academic policy wonks call unintended consequences). Specifically, if applied broadly, a carbon tax on beef is likely to have a disproportionate impact on the small-scale organic producers than the large industrial CAFO-based operations. These are the very farmers whose sustainably minded practices are likely carbon neutral or negative. Moreover, the tax doesn’t address the other agricultural-based sources of greenhouse gases.
If we want to use economic incentives and disincentives like a carbon tax to reduce the impact of agricultural production on greenhouse gas emissions, we need to think more broadly. It should be progressive tax based on a particular food’s total carbon footprint, taking into account all of the greenhouse gases released and all of the fossil fuels used in manufacture and transport. Thus, there might be a 50% tariff on Chilean grapes flow to the Northeastern US while a 2% tax on eggs raised on local farms using free-range and sustainable practices.
Beef isn’t the problem. Our global (as compared with local) and industrial (as compared to sustainable) approach to food production is.
Why Go Primal?
Reasons for and against adopting a Primal lifestyle in the modern world.
A lot has been said and written about some of the more common diets that people are pursuing, promoting, and profiting from. These include the Mediterranean Diet (which emphasize eating plenty fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish and lean meats), the Atkins and Ketogenic Diets (which limit consumption of sugars and carbohydrates), commercial diets like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig (which rely on a combination of pre-packaged meals and individual or group support), and the increasingly popular Paleo Diet.
The latter diet is probably the one that has engendered the some of the most heated and acrimonious debate of late.Adherents greatly laud the Paleo diet’s effectiveness. Detractors call it dangerous.
There are numerous scientific studies that suggest that adopting a Paleo lifestyle may actually be effective in promoting weight loss, as well as in helping people control blood pressure and plasma cholesterol without medication. On the other hand, it recently ranked it dead last out of 35 diets that had reviewed by a panel of dietary experts hired by US News and World Report.
As the name might suggest, the idea behind the Paleo diet is that human beings evolved eating only those types of foods that were available during the Paleolithic era, long before the rise of agriculture. Also albeit erroneously known as the ‘Caveman Diet’, the Paleo Diet emphasizes eating those foods that would have been consumed by someone living a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, nomadic, hunting-gathering sort of life. Thus, this approach stresses a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and plenty of meats, along with so-called good fats. The more heavily processed foods that are a large part of the Standard American Diet (or SAD, as it is pejoratively known by Paleo followers) are forbidden, as are sugars, grains, dairy, and alcohol. A variant of the Paleo Diet, known as the Primal Diet, allows for more consumption of saturated fats (like grass-fed butter or coconut oil), the occasional ingestion of dairy (particularly raw or fermented dairy), and even the odd glass of wine or shot of tequila now and then.
There are many pros and cons to adopting a Paleo or Primal lifestyle. Yes, they are better described as lifestyles rather than as diets because Paleo and Primal practices emphasize a holistic approach to living. This includes not only eating a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in nutrient-dense foods, but also following a fitness plan that focuses on natural movement and strength building, adhering to a wellness plan that includes mindfulness, relaxation, and ample sleep, and engaging in other habits that are meant to mimic a prehistoric lifestyle in our modern wired and wireless world.
I’ve been following a largely Primal lifestyle off-and-on for nearly three years now, and the rest of this post is about my thoughts as to the pros and cons of the Primal approach to living.
So what are the cons?
First and foremost, it takes a lot of commitment to make the radical dietary and lifestyle changes that a living a Primal (or Paleo) life requires. It’s hard enough to avoid eating sugar, consuming grains, or avoiding alcohol at home, let alone when grabbing a 15-minute lunch at work or going out for dinner and a movie with friends. The recent gluten-free fad has helped make it easier, at least when dining out, and there are plenty of recipes and cookbooks out there, but it’s still tough. There are also a lot of naysayers out there – most often your friends and family — telling you why you are wrong and tempting you with pepperoni pizza.
A Paleo or Primal diet can also be unhealthy, particularly with regard to overconsumption of saturated fats or nitrate laden meats. Contrary to what some critics (and even promoters) have suggested, this is not a lifestyle in which you encouraged (and free) to eat all of the eggs and bacon that you want.
Despite those challenges, there are a lot of advantages to this lifestyle. It emphasizes high quality foods, particularly those that are locally and ethically sourced. It’s about eating healthy proteins like organic meats and wild-caught fish, cooking with natural derived rather than industrially manufactured fats, and consuming plenty of leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a variety of sprouted and fermented foods.
Moreover, the Paleo and Primal lifestyle gets you back into the kitchen, where you can focus on preparing healthy meals with your family and friends. It also gets you thinking about all of the other social factors that influence your health, including improving the length and quality of sleep, reducing stress and anxiety, avoiding the overuse of electronic media and devices, regular meditation or mindfulness sessions, and even the childlike joy of unfettered play.
For those who can make the change, the immediate and long terms benefits are clear, not only with respect to diet and exercise, but also in the relationships you have with your friends and family. More importantly, the lifestyle allows to you make small changes that reap big results over time.