Rotten Fish are Everywhere

Somebody anonymous with an amusingly-named blog became a vegan while working in a Thai restaurant:

Now here’s something surprising: my bosses were interested in helping me be a vegan. “Oh, that silly white boy and his eating experiments,” they’d say. Vang, the chef, learned to create delicious curry without fish sauce–learning how to dump plenty of salt and sugar into the coconut milk to compensate for the rotten fish. Plus, they introduced me the power of hot sauce, namely Sriracha Sauce–a love affair that continues to this very day. . . .

One of my uncles, who is possibly a little retarded and probably a little mentally ill, says that hot sauce kills all the germs in your body (yes, he claims all of them), thus making it impossible to get sick.

No, it’s the rotten fish that does that.

What to Do about Beijing Air

Beijing’s dirty air is easily the worst thing about living there. You might think what to do about it is obvious. Many people do, including this man who wants to sell the expensive air filter he bought:

I remember the day IQair Sales Rep Justin Shuttleworth came to my place [in Beijing] to give me a demo. This guy has the easiest job in the world. All he does is come with his little air quality measuring device, show you how bad the air you are breathing is in your apartment (indoor air is sometimes worse than outdoor air for those who don`t know), and as the minutes go by, you literally see the amount of particles in the air go down, until it’s basically nil. This was the first time that I could actually smell the difference.

This is from an email list I’m on.

I got the same demo.  But it had the opposite effect: It made me not want to buy the IQair filter.

The air coming out of the IQair filter was very clean, yes. But there was only so much it could do. More dirty air was always coming into my apartment and no matter how high (= noisy) they ran the machine the overall level of dirt was no more than cut by 2/3rds. I already had an air filter. The air it produced wasn’t quite as clean as air from the IQair filter but it was still much much cleaner than the intake air. The IQair machine cost about 11,000 RMB. My filter had cost about 1,000 RMB. For 1,500 RMB I could buy a bigger version of what I already had, an air filter that cleaned twice as much air per minute as the IQair machine while producing roughly the same amount of noise. Its output was slightly dirtier than the output of the IQair machine but the overall cleaning effect — the reduction in dirt — was much greater. I ended up getting two of the 1,500 RMB filters.

I think of this demo when I hear someone talk about how this or that traditional diets is better than our modern diet. They make a simple point: People who eat the traditional diet are healthy, people who eat the modern diet are unhealthy. Just as the IQair demo guy has “the easiest job in the world.” They inevitably conclude: Eat the traditional diet or at least closer to it. Just as the conclusion of the demo is supposed to be: Buy an IQair filter. It seems so simple.

But it isn’t so simple. Eating the traditional diet isn’t easy, just as the IQair filter isn’t cheap. Maybe their abstraction — their description — of the traditional diet leaves out something important. Just as the IQair people do not measure cleaning power per decibel, which turns out to be what matters. (I traded air pollution for noise pollution. I wanted the best deal possible.)

If you read Good Calories Bad Calories you may remember the Canadian anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson who spent many months with Eskimos eating what they ate. He came back and told the world “you can eat only meat.” In his conclusions and subsequent field experiment, he ignored the fact that the Eskimos ate a lot of fermented meat.

The Inuit Paradox

The Inuit Paradox is that the Inuit eat lots of fat and hardly any vegetables or fruit yet are much healthier than groups who follow conventional dietary guidelines. In particular,

In the Nunavik villages in northern Quebec, adults over 40 get almost half their calories from native foods, says Dewailly, and they don’t die of heart attacks at nearly the same rates as other Canadians or Americans. Their cardiac death rate is about half of ours, he says.

Likewise, the fact that Greenland Eskimos had very low rates of heart disease led to the discovery of the importance of omega-3 fatty acids. If you read anything on this subject you will come across the concept of “healthy fats”. Sure, some fats are good for you, no doubt about it. Weston Price was the first of many to make this point. But is it the whole story? Attempts to reduce heart disease by giving people fish oil have had disappointing results. Perhaps they got the dose wrong. Or perhaps they missed something crucial. Here is what the Inuit eat:

Our meat was seal and walrus, marine mammals that live in cold water and have lots of fat. We used seal oil for our cooking and as a dipping sauce for food. We had moose, caribou, and reindeer. We hunted ducks, geese, and little land birds like quail, called ptarmigan. We caught crab and lots of fish—salmon, whitefish, tomcod, pike, and char. Our fish were cooked, dried, smoked, or frozen. We ate frozen raw whitefish, sliced thin. The elders liked stinkfish, fish buried in seal bags or cans in the tundra and left to ferment. And fermented seal flipper, they liked that too.” [emphasis added]

In the rest of the article and in all discussions of the subject I have seen you won’t find a word about fermented food. Yet I believe that was crucial. The fermented food had lots of harmless bacteria that caused the immune system to stay awake; heart disease is caused by infection too slowly fought off. Why do the French have low rates of heart disease? It’s not only the wine, it’s also the stinky cheese they eat. Why do the Japanese have low rates of heart disease? It’s not only the fish, it’s also the miso and natto. I’ll be blogging more about this — stay tuned.

A surprising effect of yogurt.

Probiotics and Your Immune System

At the Fancy Food Show, five or six booths sold probiotic foods, usually yogurt. At each booth I asked what they could tell me about the health effects of probiotics. Mostly the question seemed to annoy them — especially the employees hired for the event.

But at the Oixos booth — Oixos is a Greek yogurt made by Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy in New Hampshire — Amy Plourde, a graphic designer at Stonyfield, told me that for a long time she was “always sick” with sinus infections, colds, and even mononucleosis. During that time, she ate yogurt once/week. When she started working at Stonyfield she began to eat yogurt once/day (6 oz. at breakfast) and her health got much better. Stonyfield yogurt has relatively high amounts of live bacteria. Their website has a list of scientific papers about yogurt and the immune system.

My take is that our immune systems need a steady stream of foreign pathogens (e.g., bacteria) and pieces of pathogens (e.g., bacterial cell walls) to stay “awake”. When your immune system is working properly you fight off all sorts of bacteria and viruses without noticing. When your immune system isn’t working properly it overreacts (allergies) and takes too long to react (infectious diseases). Weston Price found twelve communities eating traditional diets whose health was excellent. Their diets varied tremendously but one thing they had in common was daily consumption of fermented foods, including cheese, kefir, sauerkraut, and fermented fish. This supports Amy’s story right down to the dosage. If you don’t eat fermented foods, you might use hookworms, which excrete a steady stream of foreign substances into the blood. (Thanks, Tom.) Hookworms definitely reduce allergy symptoms; I don’t think anyone has asked if they reduce colds and other infections.

The hygiene hypothesis.

More Natto, Please

Natto. This is on the list because, for one, it’s one of the few foods I’ve eaten that I truly don’t like. But mainly, it’s here because we’ve really messed up the way we eat soy. Natto is fermented soybeans and very popular in Japan, which is where I had it. It’s becoming more popular here and this is most likely due to its health benefits. Nearly all the soy options we’re offered in the U.S. are non-fermented. The list of health benefits of fermented soy is a mile long. It’s associated with reducing the risk of cancer, minimizing the likelihood of blood clotting, aiding digestion, increasing blood circulation, an improved immune system, improving bone density, lessening the likelihood of heart attacks, more vibrant skin, and reducing the chance of balding. And it also has strong antibiotic properties, among other things. So you might want to ditch the soy crisps, soy ice cream, and your iced soy mochas and add some natto to your diet.

From 10 Foods You Should Eat. It’s a very reasonable list.