Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween! A biologists view of Halloween

Halloween is one of those weird "holidays" no one really knows why we do it.  And oddly, I'm going to try and give a biological perspective to it.  Often we think of the celebration of death or the occult and all the weird things that center around those as the "reason" for Halloween.  Fortunately, that isn't entirely true, though their is that element of it.  Our version of Halloween in the United States today is really a hodge-podge of all sorts of holidays from all over the world.  Historically, Halloween like celebrations were much closer to Thanksgiving celebration except with more singing, dancing, games, and fun stuff like that.  Many cultures have their own version of the holiday to celebrate the end of and abundance of the harvest season.  This is partially where all the pumpkins come in being they often are harvested in October.  So the end of the harvest which does line-up well with the end of October is a great biological perspective we can have of Halloween.  Honestly, Thanksgiving in the end of November is far too late to be celebrating the summers harvest (OK just my opinion!).

Jack-o-lanterns obviously are a well established Halloween traditions that also rooted in the harvest celebration.  This tradition was founded in Britain and Ireland during the 1800's.  For hundreds of years prior to this people made turnip lanterns, which seems much less exciting and much more difficult to make.  These vegetable lanterns were part of a pagan form of trick-or-treating.

One of the latest Halloween traditions, and one of the most exciting I think, is the growing of gigantic pumpkins.  People that grow monster pumpkins learn all kinds of secrets about how to breed and grow these giants.  The entire process can be quite intense and people have been producing pumpkins over 1000 pounds for many years now.  Competitive growing of pumpkins is advancing in the United States so fast that world records are made nearly every year.  This fall the world record was broken again with a 1810 pound gourd!  It won't many years before a 2000 pound is grown.

"Everything you want to know about pumpkins"

Dentists also give us another perspective on Halloween.  As you would guess, they hate it because too much candy really does rot the teeth.  But several dental studies have asked the question, "How can we eat trick-or-treat candy and not rot our teeth?"  Common sense tells us that maybe if you eat it a little bit every night it will be better for you.  In this case however common sense is wrong and research has shown it is better to gorge yourself and eat it all in one night.  Which I am sure most people want to do but rather use some misguided "common sense."  When I tell people this they say, "Of course, then you will get sick and never want to eat it again."  While there probably is some truth to that, the real reason dentists say it is better to eat it in one night is because then your teeth are only covered in sugar for one night as opposed to being covered in a little sugar every night for a longer time.  Here is an article on the subject:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Amazing Trees of Life

Good news for trees and everyone else.  A lot of recent scientific research has indicated that forests, and of course the trees that compose them, will absorb a lot more of the atmospheres carbon dioxide than initially thought.  Ten or more years ago it was thought that trees could absorb a lot of the carbon dioxide put off by burning fossil fuels and thus off set global warming.  A few years later some research indicated that trees and forests would not absorb much at all.  Now however, after many years of research we have many well documented studies that show trees will in-fact absorb quite a bit of the carbon dioxide.  Several studies now show they will likely absorb about one-third of it, which is quite a lot.  What makes this research different from prior research?  These studies are based on a decade or more of research, are very large scale, and have been supported by other studies, making them far stronger then previous conclusions. Not only that, some of this research indicates trees will be able to adapt to and even clean increased air pollution.  Of course this does not mean we shouldn't try to decrease burning of fossil fuels or pollution. These are still problems and we still need to work on decreasing these things. Even so, this is great news!  And not just in regards to slowing climate change and pollution, but also to ecosystem restoration and pollution control, among numerous other things.  

Check out these articles:

Future Forests May Soak Up More Carbon Dioxide Than Previously Believed

World's Forests' Role in Carbon Storage Immense, Research Reveals

What’s good for trees and the atmosphere is good for people.  It’s not by mistake that the Bible’s beginning and end involves the Tree of Life.  Trees are in-fact integral, life-giving parts of the biosphere.  The diverse variety of environmental and anthropological benefits they preform and produce is truly astounding.  While they are living and growing trees clean water and air, absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, hold soil together preventing erosion and building the soil, help drive the water cycle, provide shade, cooler temperatures and regulate climate, provide food for man and animal, provide homes for a huge diversity of organisms, aid groundwater recharge and retain soil water, slow winds, and of course provide an amazing amount of beauty.  Take the time to patiently and closely examine the delicate details of leaves, the organization and strength of the trunk and branches, and the overall touch, smell, and sound of the tree.  A prolonged observation of a mature tree will clearly reveal its overall beauty.  
Fall White Oak leaves.
Even in death trees provide life.  Of course when we cut down a tree it provides fuel and building materials.  But even a dead tree in the forest supports life in the forest.  Dead trees replenish the soil and provide insects, fungi, birds, and animals all homes and places to hide or perch.  Amazingly, sometimes dead trees even support more life in their death than they do in their life.

In light of all this, while I don’t suggest leaving dead trees in your home landscape, I do suggest we all plant trees.  You can leave the dead trees in your yard if you want through!  Planting trees is an excellent activity for anyone of any age.  Obviously it will be hugely beneficial to the landscape, environment, and you personally.  Homeowners who plant trees increase the value of their home, provide beauty for their yard, and can shade and cool their home lowering energy costs among other things.  Also, taking the time to learn how to plant a tree, prune it, care for it, watch it grow, and enjoy it are some of the simple educational pleasures of life that anyone can do.  

The reality is, while we do know a decent amount about trees there are still vast amounts of knowledge we still do not know.  Simply choosing one species of tree, say a Sugar Maple, you could spend your life learning new things about it that no one ever knew.  Reading what is already known about the tree, observing how it grows, its habits, where it grows, and conducting simple experiments with it (such as how to germinate the seeds best) could make anyone willing to make the effort, an expert on that particular tree.  Great education, beauty, and environmental benifits truly can be only as far as your own backyard.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Carrots: another easy garden veggie

Multicolored carrots.  Picture from Wikipedia. 
Carrots are one of the easiest cool season garden veggies and just about everyone likes carrots to some degree.  For the beginning gardener, carrots should be one of the first plants you try out.  In my experience, they are relatively pest free, can be grown in abundance in even a small area, don't require lots of water, and are overall very low maintenance.  About 1200 years ago carrots were first domesticated in the mountains of modern day Iran and Afghanistan.  These original carrots were not the nice long orange roots we think of Bugs Bunny eating.  Rather, they were thick, often branching roots and were purple, red, or yellow.  Overtime, the single long carrot root was developed by farmers and gardeners.  Orange roots didn't, however, develop until about 300-400 years ago in Europe.  Today, most carrot varieties are single rooted and the most common is obviously orange, but red, yellow, white, purple, and various shades in-between still exist.  Today, multicolored carrots are most common in the Middle East.  Carrots are very healthy both raw and cooked.  They are loaded with far more vitamin A than our bodies can absorb, only 3% is absorbed when eaten raw while 39% when cooked.  Carrots also are a healthy source of calories.

Of course, as children we were all told that if we ate our carrots we would be able to see in the dark.  Unfortunately, this is not true even though vitamin A does help eye site.  The connection of carrots to night vision was developed during World War II by the British armed forces.  In order to trick the Germans, and cover-up their discovery of radar for detecting and shooting down German bombers at night, the British military spread rumors that they fed their gunmen huge quantities of carrots.  As the rumor went, the carrots improve their night vision so they could see German bombers in the dark and shoot them down.  The gunmen probably never ate large quantities of carrots, but the rumor did fool the Germans and covered up the British discovery of radar.  Even after exposing the rumor after the war, the myth still exists today!

Great website with everything you ever wanted to know and more about carrots: 

Like I said before, carrots are so easy to grow every garden should have an abundance of them.  The great thing about carrots is that to grow large amounts of them you do not need large amounts of space.  Carrots can easily be spaced about one per square inch, which means potentially 144 carrots could be grown per square foot.  That's a lot of food!  Potentially about eight pounds of carrots in one square foot under the right conditions!  I would like to see some experiments or contests seeing how to grow the most carrots in the least amount of space.  This would be quite interesting and an experiment anyone could do.  Fortunately, carrots are not extremely pick about the soil they are planted in.  As long as the soil is relatively rich with organic matter, relatively loose, and lacks rocks the growing tubers will be happy.  Soils that are dense, rocky, or waterlogged are not good for carrots.  Luckily, you can modify your soil by loosening it, adding compost, or by adjusting drainage and watering.  Also, carrots will grow well in containers if they are deep enough for the root to penetrate.

When planting carrots think cool season.  Here in the Sonoran Desert we can plant carrots from October through early April.  Further north they can be planted a few weeks before the last frost or very late summer.  The great thing about planting carrots is that their tops can withstand temperatures as low as 25 degrees and can overwinter under snow to be harvested in early spring.  Very few plants are as resilient to freezing temperatures.  As a result of this, carrots are also excellent keepers and store extremely well in the refrigerator or cellar for many months.  Also, when planning on growing some carrots, search online for various colors which can make growing at least a little more exciting.  I have grown every color of carrot I know of and found purple and orange grow the best in my soil in the desert.  Other colors may grow better elsewhere though, so test it out.  Each color also has its own distinct taste, though they all still taste like carrots though.  My favorite tasting carrots are also the purple and orange but I know plenty of people that prefer the other colors.  Another thing to try out for yourself!

How to grow carrots:
1. Determine when to plant.  Remember carrots are a cool season plant so they should be planted early spring or very late summer to early fall.  Check your local extension office planting calender.

2. Get your soil ready.  Loosen it up and add compost to about ten inches deep.  Make sure their are not rocks, which will result in deformed your carrots.

3. Planting carrot seeds.  Carrot seeds are tiny so only plant then about 1/4 inch deep at the most.  They can be sown and then gently raked into the soil also.  I find it easiest to sow lots of seeds and then thin them out to about one per square inch after they germinate.  Carrots can take a long time to germinate, so make sure the soil stays moist and wait patiently.  Germination may take up to 20 days or longer in cool conditions.

4. After germination, thin carrots out and water as needed.  Carrots do not need tons of water and do not like waterlogged soil, so beware of over watering.  Often, the surface may look dry so stick you finger into the soil a half inch or so to see if it is wet and in need of watering.

5.  After about 90 days the carrots will be ready to harvest.  Carefully, you can dig around the edges of the root a little and pull the carrot out.  Then all you have to do is rinse them off and store them in a cool place!

One of the things I love about gardening is the ability to "scientifically" test out how to grow things and find what grows best.  Then, mixing this information with growing things you love to eat!  Growing different varieties of carrots is a great way to mix the science with taste!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Planting the Incredible Edible Garlic

Newly sprouted garlic.
Its that exciting time of year again when everyone starts planting garlic.  Well, everyone should be planting garlic anyway (Just my opinion).  Garlic is one of those love it or hate it foods.  And I absolutely love nearly everything about it, planting it, growing it, harvesting it, and eating it.  Garlic is one of the most ancient cultivated crops around and has persisted in gardens for over 6,000 years.  Amazing!  I am sure one of the reasons it has persisted that long is its interesting flavor as well as the fact that it is easy to grow and is calorie packed.  While calorie may not be in the lime light today, for thousands of years farmers worked hard to grow calorie efficient crops to sustain themselves and their families.  And garlic packs 42 calories per ounce, far more then the average of 10 or so calories per ounce most garden crops produce.  Ancient Egyptians ate so much garlic that it was considered a dietary staple.  Ease of growing, ease of storage, and dense calories are all likely reasons it became a staple rather than just a seasoning.  Just a guess, but the strong odor is likely the reason garlic is utilized more as a seasoning and less as a staple today.  Some regions, especially in the Mediterranean still however utilize garlic as a staple today.  The astonishing health benefits of garlic have been known for thousands of years.  In-fact, during the middle ages garlic was known as a cure-all.  Yes, many, but not all, of these are real benefits and have been verified scientifically.  In our lab we have shown how garlic is an extremely strong antibiotic, far stronger than many if not most modern antibiotics.  A clove of garlic a day may really keep the doctor away...

If you look in the grocery store you may only know of one or two different varieties of garlic.  This is far from the truth, in-fact, their are hundreds of different types of garlic that have been cultivated and developed all over the world.  Each of these specialty garlics has its own soil preference, growth habits, colors, and flavors.  Their is an amazing diversity of garlic flavors ranging anywhere from mild to spicy, earthy to elegant, weak to strong, bitter to and yes, some even claim sweet.  I once tasted a so called sweet garlic and I have to say, there was nothing sweet about it.  But even so, there is a garlic perfect for you out their somewhere.  I have found many.  Garlic is a great food for everyone, both high and low alike.

The Garlic Man
Several years ago I came across the Garlic Man on the internet.  I had grown garlic for many years but the information on his website was encyclopedic and inspired me to grow more garlic.  His website offers growing, health, and much more information on garlic as well as selling more varieties of garlic than I ever imagined.  I ordered a mixed warm climate adapted package of garlic varieties and found a few that grew extremely well here in the Sonoran Desert.  He also offers packages of garlic for other climate areas as well as for taste.  I find the U-Tube video on the Garlic Man below to be inspiring.  Bob Anderson truly has earned the title of the Garlic Man.  Here is his Website:
Grow your own garlic
The two varieties of garlic I have found that grow best in the Sonoran desert are Sonoran (big surprise!) and California Early.  Sonoran grows especially well here and forms very large beautiful heads with many large cloves.  California Early also does extremely well but the heads and cloves are not quite as big.  I have tried probably ten other types, and some do work but none really compare to these two.  Other gardeners in the Arizona desert may have different results though.  If you want to grow garlic know this: it is extremely easy!  Just plant it at the right time of year in decent soil, water as needed but not much, and wait a long, long time.  You can order garlic cloves from a seed company or you can just buy a head of garlic from the grocery store.  They will work pretty much the same.  Here are some steps to follow.
Sonoran garlic cloves.  Note, the flat side is always planted downwards in the soil and the pointed side upwards.
Step by step growing garlic
1. Get soil ready for planting.  Garlic is not particularly picky about soil type.  It does however prefer loose, well drained soil.  The soil needs to be rock free and cannot be waterlogged though.  Mixing in compost also helps a lot.  You can also grow garlic in a pot ether in or outdoors.

2. Plant at the right time of year.  In mild winter areas where garlic tops will not be killed by frost the beginning of October through mid-November works well.  The closer to the beginning of October though the better.  In cold winter areas where frost will kill back tops plant later in October up to a few weeks before the ground freezes.  In cold areas it is important not to plant the garlic too early, causing it to sprout and then die back.  Dying back wastes valuable energy stored in the clove and can reduce the overall size of the garlic head next summer.

3. Soak garlic cloves overnight in water.  This is not an essential step, but will greatly speed the germination and establishment of your garlic plant.  Garlic that is not soaked often will take a few weeks to sprout, but with soaked garlic I have seen it sprout in as little as three days.  This is more important in southern areas with mild winters being you want them to sprout as soon as possible.
Sprouting garlic cloves after soaking.  Rarely do cloves sprout this fast, but these apparently were just ready to go.
4. Plant your clove about two inches deep with the pointed end up.  The flat side should be down.

5. Water as needed, but remember, garlic is not a water hog.

6. As the garlic grows remove any flower like stalks.  This will cause the plant to put more energy into growing healthy bulbs.  Also, you can eat garlic leaves chopped-up in salad of in stir-fry.

7. When leaves start dying back in the spring to early summer the garlic is ready to harvest.  Simply use a pitchfork or shovel and dig up the heads.

8.  Remove the dirt from the garlic heads and leave the stalks attached.  Dry the garlic in a warm dry location.  Once all of the leaves are crispy brown the garlic is ready to eat.

Remember, if you don't succeed the first time at growing garlic, try again and try something slightly different.  Different soil, planting method, type of garlic, planting time and so on.  Also, read what the Garlic Man has to say about growing garlic and try some of it out.  I don't doubt, you will eventually succeed.

Well, I hope some of this was interesting and helpful.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fall '11 Garden

October is the start of my annual garden, at least in my mind.  Things start growing pretty well here in Arizona starting end of September and beginning of October.  This growing will go all the way through the beginning of July or so when things get out of control hot.  So to start this gardening year off well I applied much of what I learned in the previous year of gardening.  These lessons included, 1. plant early, 2. use saved seeds or trade seeds with someone for free, 3. plant productive plants according to the size of garden, 4. save money by fertilizing with compost, and 5. save time with low or minimal till.  By applying all of these I reduced the amount of money spent on my garden by over $50 from last year and saved a few hours of work.  This year I planted turnips, multiplier bulb onions, chard, kale, green leaf lettuce, beets, snow peas, garlic, rutabaga, parsnips, carrots, radishes, and cilantro.  I also have eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers that survived from last years garden and the eggplant is really starting to produce now.  Unfortunately, I have to figure out a way to keep my chickens from eating the eggplant before I pick them.  This year I am avoiding broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage being they take up lots of space and take a long time to produce.  Here is what has been done so far:

College garden
Eggplant 2 lbs 3 oz $6.30 ($2.99/lbs)
Total produce: $6.30
Total cost: $6.48
Net: -$0.18
Calories produced: 245
Time: 5 hours
Calories expended: 1530
Net calories: -1285

Home garden
Eggplant 4 lbs 6 oz $13.08 ($2.99/lbs.)
Basil 4 oz $3.98 ($1.99/2 oz)
Total produce: $17.06
Total cost: $10.50
Net: $7.10
Calories produced: 518
Time: 6 hours
Calories expended: 1836
Net calories: -1318

So far this is a very good start for the new gardening year.  We are already at the break-even point or even slightly profitable dollar wise.  Calorie wise we are in the hole as expected and it will likely take months to dig ourselves out.  Weather wise things are slightly warmer than usual meaning the plants will develop faster, helping our production.  It is still extremely dry which means added watering and monitoring plants for stress.  Unfortunately, it appears that we are in for a La Nina winter which means drier than usual.  And drier than usual in the desert is extremely dry.  So overall, we are off to a great start.

In the near future I have plans for covering plant and planting information on some cool season garden crops.  I have hopes of covering different aspects of growing these plants as well as some of their interesting historical backgrounds.  Gardening isn't just for the fields of science and agriculture, its also fascinating for historians and sociologists.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Looking Into Midwestern Deciduous Forest Future

An Oak-Hickory forest, historically this was the most common upland forest, along with oak savanna in Iowa.
Looking at a forest, we naturally get the idea that the present state of that forest will continue forever.  Historically, Iowa and much of the Midwest has been characterized by Oak-Hickory upland forests and mixed bottomland forests.  Today, even after 100 plus years of drastic change, the forests remain predominately Oak-Hickory uplands and mixed bottomlands.  Of course, its a little more complex than this and we have in-fact lost many original forests to development.  The structure and details of these communities have changed right along with changes in land use, but the overall communities remain relatively similar.  Flood control systems, agricultural practices, and urban development have more or less already "set" their effects on the land so huge impacts like ones of the past century are not expected in the coming century.  As odd as it may sound, compared to today's doom and gloom environmental lookouts, Iowa's forests are expanding in acreage and relatively healthy.  Not everything is "rose petals and teacups" however, there are problems.  But considering the states present forest conditions, what should we look for in the future?
An old Oak-Hickory woodland being taken over by Sugar Maples and Basswood due to the lack of fire disturbance over the last century.  Palisades State Park near Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Most forests in Iowa are in the 100 to 150 year old age range, growing out of logging and fire disturbances of the late 1800's.  While these disturbances were common 100 years ago, they no longer are common today.  Out of these disturbances grew the upland Oak-Hickory forests.  Both hickory's and especially oaks are well adapted to the full sun and lack of competition common after logging or fire.  One logging event, or several low intensity fires, can establish an Oak-Hickory forest that can survive fore potentially a few hundred years.  With settlement of the state, fire was suppressed and nearly eliminated.  Logging also became far less common, simply because all the forests in Iowa were already logged and most converted to farmland.  So without fire and logging, oaks and hickories have not continue to regenerate themselves.  So in the absence of these disturbances, trees such as Sugar Maple and Basswood begin to take over.  These trees easily establish in the shade of old oaks and hickories.  Then without forest floor fire disturbance they will eventually overtake the forest.  Due to these facts, Oak-Hickory forests are rapidly declining in the state as well as in much of the rest of the Eastern United States, and Maple-Basswood forests are increasing.  And as of now, it appears this trend will continue into the future.

Fortunately for land managers in Iowa, as well as the rest of the Eastern United States, are realizing the value of low burning fires as a management tool in prairies, savannas, and most recently Oak-Hickory forests.  Today even, this management tool is fitting being almost all fires prior to settlement were also human started, also often to manage the growth of Oak-Hickory forests.  Native Americans and many early settlers understood the value and importance of fire in maintaining quality, productive habitats and frequently set ground fires.  Today, similar to these presettlement fires, these fires are not the raging hundred foot flames that consume everything in their path.  Rather, they were low burning, lower temperature fires.  Fire intolerant shrubs, trees, and thick accumulations of herbaceous plant materials were killed and cleared.  Fire adapted trees such as oaks and hickories survive, and herbaceous plants survive as roots, all proliferated as a result of fire.  Hopefully, the reintroduction of fire as a management tool will again cause the regeneration of Oak-Hickory forests.  Time will tell.
Oak woodland restored through controlled burns of the forest floor.
Bottomland forests continue today to have a similar disturbance pattern of flooding and wet soils.  While flooding patterns have changed during the past century due to human development of river channels, flooding still remains and will remain in the future.  Bottomland forest therefore remain a similar mix of trees such as Ash, Elm, Willow, Cottonwood, Maple, and certain types of oaks.  The future of these forests seem to be a continuation of of the past more or less.  However, there is one major up and coming problem for ash trees, the Emerald Ash Borer.  This exotic insect bores inside of ash trees and kills them.  Currently, the Emerald Ash Borer has only been found in one location in Iowa.  Managing this insect appear to be only slowing its spread.  Very likely the spread of this insect will greatly reduce the number of ash trees in bottomland forests in the future.

The future of Iowa and other Midwestern forests has its dark spots but there is good reason for hope.  While there doesn't seem to be much hope for the bottomland Ash tree, there is great hope for upland Oak-Hickory forests with the reintroduction of fire.  This doesn't automatically mean Oaks and Hickories will start regenerating, but does greatly increase the likelihood.  Our increased understanding and concern for our land will hopefully translate into healthy forests.  Increased human management today, is similar to human management of the past, and this is good for us and our forests.  These forests have been managed by humans for thousands of years, and a return to past healthy forests with the return to past management practices is very hopeful.
White Oak leaves.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fall in the Eastern Deciduous Forest

Fall in the Eastern Deciduous Forests has to be one of the most dramatically beautiful events of any ecosystem in the world.  With fall, a series of events take place that begin the transition to winter.  Thick green of late summer, growing from canopy to forest floor, slows with shortening daylight and cooler temperatures.   With less daylight, chlorophyll which normally colors leaves green begins to breakdown.  As it breaks down, colors normally hidden by the green begin to express themselves.  Bright yellows from carotenoids in ashes, reds from anthocyanin in maples, and browns from tannins in oaks.  Red and yellow pigments breakdown even further and the leaves turn brown and fall to the ground.  These leaves form a layer of mulch across the forest floor, insulating the ground through winter, protecting plants, seeds, and animals from extreme temperature changes.  In spring, the leaves decay returning nutrients to the soil and fertilizing plants and trees in spring.
Normally green leaves gain their color from chlorophyll.  But when daylight decreases in the fall, chlorophyll breaks down and other pigments are shown, changing the color of leaves.
Hickory leaf colored yellow by the presence of carotenoid pigments.
Maple leaf colored orange by anthocyanin pigments.
But to pretend that brightly colored leaves are the only thing happening in the fall is far from the truth.  Not only do leaves fall from the trees, but an abundance of nuts also.  Acorns, Walnuts, and Hickory nuts fall to the ground providing "bread from heaven", fattening forest creatures up for the coming winter.  These nuts are the perfect fall food, calorie dense with fat and easily stored, providing body fat for calories through the winter and stored food when food is scarce.  Forest creatures such as turkeys, bears, and deer gorge themselves on these nuts until none can be found.  Other creatures such as squirrels, chipmunks, and Bluejays scurry around, both gorging themselves as well as storing huge numbers of seeds in tree cavities and underground.  These nuts are to be relocated when food is scarce and eaten.  Many, if not most, of these seeds will be relocated but many also will be lost, and thus a new crop of trees and a future forest is planted.
Hickory Nuts
Acorn and oak leaves.  The tan coloration of the small oak leaf above is caused by tannins oak leaves contain.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What's Wrong With the American Diet?

The FDA's New Food Pyramid.  Though it has its problems, it is still an excellent guide to a healthy diet.
What's wrong with the American diet?  Looking in the news or on the internet a huge number problems with confusing, even contradictory solutions are offered.  Weird fix-all solutions are frequently offered from what would seem as reliable sources.  Even reliable sources seem to be at least somewhat confused.  No one really definitively is able to pinpoint a problem, and no one seems to even come remotely close to a solution.  Generally, health problems are easier to identify than the solutions.  Overall, I will say there is no one single solution such as exercise or eating spinach everyday.  Often these things do help, but overall fall short of really offering a full solution.  There are also a lot of extreme solutions being offered such as stapling of stomachs or hormonal treatments such as HCG.  The problem with these is that they are simply quick-fixes that don't really change a persons overall habits and they come with their own set of problems.  Come to think of it, obsession over finding quick fixes might be one of the problems with the American diet today.  But really, Type-Two Diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, depression, and many others are obvious health problems in our culture today.  We need to quit looking to solve all of these problems by treating symptoms, instead we need to look to treat root causes.  And in order to treat the cause, we must change our lifestyle.  Diets don't work because people think by changing their behavior for several weeks they will have a permanent change.  Well, beginning the minute the diet ends the weight starts coming back and the person is just as bad off as they were in the first place (yes, even the HCG diet has this exact same track record).  So changes need to be permanent, but not 100 percent elimination 100 percent of the time.  Yes, you can "cheat" here and their, but overall there needs to be a change, and "cheating" needs to be rare and controlled.   

While I don't claim to be an expert in this area, I have done a significant amount of reading and talking to "experts", as well as made general observations about the American diet.  Over the past several years I have compiled a mental list of problems and solutions that I have seen as common threads throughout these health discussions.  Most of these I see as very obvious problems with scientific research to back them up.  Here is the list:

1. Less sugar.  The average American today eats about 100 pounds of refined sugar (table sugar or high fructose corn syrup) every year.  100 years ago the average American ate less than 1 pound annually.  Today we put sugar in absolutely everything.  This is a serious problem causing both directly and indirectly obesity, heart disease, cancer, decreased immune function, and Type 2 Diabetes.  By significantly decreasing sugar in-takes you can significantly increase quality of life and prevent chronic disease.  

2. Fewer carbs.  In American culture today we eat huge numbers of carbohydrates compared to fat and protein.  While carbs are not evil in themselves they do quickly pack the pounds on making people more at risk of heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, and all the associated problems.  Carbs could in-fact be placed with sugar above being carbohydrates are simply longer molecular chains of sugar.  Carbs are however, better than sugar in that they do not cause blood sugar and insulin spikes.

3. Just add sunlight.  The lack of vitamin D in American's today has been called epidemic.  Most Americans are cooped up in offices five days a week and rarely receive direct sunlight, the easiest and most effective means of receiving vitamin D.  Yes, the body produces its own vitamin D simply through exposure to sunlight.  In-fact, a person can receive 100% of their daily intake with only about 5-10 minutes of noon-day sunlight.  Of course, sitting out in the sun for extended periods can have negative effects on health but limited exposure is extremely beneficial.  Just don't let yourself burn.   Vitamin D has been found to have positive overall effects on immune function, cancer prevention, preventing depression, among other things.  Vitamin D pills can be taken but they are not as effective as sunlight.

4. More fruits and veggies.  Simply by eating more fruits and veggies we can increase our nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other healthful nutrients, all of which have positive effects on our health.  Fruits and veggies are simply jam-packed with these things and often naturally cleanse our body from toxins.  Studies show, eating these, even in modest amounts, do have many positive health effects.

5. More omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in coldwater fish such as salmon, grass-fed or free-range meats, and some plants such as walnuts, avocados, and flax seed.  Unfortunately, we eat very little fruits or veggies in our diet today, very little fish, and grass-fed beef is a rarity.  The more common omega-6 fatty acid causes inflammation and decreased immune function when eaten in excess.  Omega-3's and 6's need to be eaten in approximately a 1 to 4 ratio.  The American diet typically has a 1 to 10 ratio of omega-3's to 6's.  When eaten in the proper ratio, these fatty acids average themselves out, giving us all kinds of health benefits, including decreasing cholesterol and preventing or even healing heart disease.  Notice I am not saying fat is the problem here, but I am saying the wrong types of fat are the problem.  What we need are unsaturated plant based fats in approximately the correct ratio, and to limit but not eliminate saturated animal fats.  

6. Increased activity.  You have heard it a million times, we need to exerciser more!  We all know the benefits so I won't go over them for you to hear for the millionth time.  And yes, the benefits are truly remarkable.  The good news is that exercise does not need to involve nearly killing yourself or even going to the gym.  I really hate going to the gym, but I love hiking, walking, and gardening.  All of which are excellent forms of activity that aren't traditionally always thought of as exercise.  Even modest amounts of activity, especially when coupled with a healthy diet, can go a long ways in improving health.  Studies have even found that only 15 minutes of moderate activity a day has positive health effects.  And if 15 minutes still sounds like too much, break it down into three, five minute intervals of exercise (intervals may have even more positive health effects than one longer period of exercise).

Again, the above simply are common threads I have come across over the years.  This is not a comprehensive list at all.  It is also not an all or nothing list.  Improving health can be done one step at a time, do what you can now.  Just because you don't do everything on the list doesn't mean you can't do at least one of them.  And even doing one thing will improve health.
Dr. Weil's food pyramid.  A research based pyramid which is another excellent dietary guide.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Happy Birthday Practical Biology! 1 Year and 100 Posts!

Practical Biology is 1 year old and this is officially the 100th post!  My goal for this first year was to produce 100 posts and simply see what happens.  This coming year I plan to continue development of the blog, with posts every Monday and Friday.  My goal is to make real science both interesting and accessible to the general public.  I want to tell the stories of nature and science so everyone can understand.  Most science generally is presented as overly complex and inaccessible to the average person.  However, when presented the right way even normally difficult inaccessible science becomes understandable and practical.  While the average person without a lab can't carryout high-tech science experiments they can understand high-tech science and carryout meaningful real experiments.

In the coming year I plan on creating more posts on natural history, gardening, enzyme experiments, wild food foraging, food experiments, soils, and anything else I come across that makes science real to the typical non-scientist.  I hope to produce content that is both interesting and useful for you, the reader.  Any comments, suggestions, or topic ideas that you may be interested in would be greatly appreciated.  Just let me know in the comments!