Saturday, June 30, 2007

What to Eat (Marion Nestle)

"I have no idea what other people do in their spare time on business trips, but I visit supermarkets," says Marion Nestle in her book What to Eat. Marion and I would get along very well. I like to visit health food stores on vacation. (The first time I suggested to Jim that we do this on our very first vacation together, he thought I was crazy.) It's like seeing old friends (Hi Annie! Hi Nell Newman!) and new ones local to that area. Part of Marion's job is to explore how supermarkets operate, and she states early on in her book that supermarkets do not usually have your best interests in mind. "The foods that sell best and bring in the most profits are not necessarily the ones that are best for your health, and the conflict between health and business goals is at the root of public confusion about food choices."

What to Eat
has been touted in the food community as The Book To Read, and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly. Nestle's tone is straightforward and she's not out to judge you, the reader; she's there to inform you about things she understands you probably don't know [and she explains the (often political) reasons why you don't]. Here are some basic rules from the book.

  • "The basic principles of good diets are so simple that I can summarize them in just ten words: eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables. For additional clarification, a five-word modifier helps: go easy on junk foods."
  • Avoid food marketing claims. This one's tough because they are everywhere. And they're not only touting certain brands but also certain foods, or certain food properties. Current hot marketing topics include the probiotics added to yogurt, special tea drinks, even cereal; and soy and/or green tea added to every product on the sun. [Oh, and yogurt? Real (nonsugared) yogurt is a good choice, but the majority of yogurt available in stores is not a health food. It is a dessert.]
  • Don't eat only certain fruits or vegetables at the expense of others because of their touted health claims:
    My office file of studies extolling the special nutrient content or health benefits of one or another fruit or vegetable includes work on apples, avocados, broccoli, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, garlic, grapefruit, grapes, onions, pomegranates, raisins, spinach, strawberries, and tomatoes, among others. I conclude from this that all fruits and vegetables have something good about them, even though some have more of one good thing and others have more of another. That is why we nutritionists are always telling you to eat a variety of foods. It's the mix that is most beneficial and most protective.
  • Do not worry about getting enough protein. Americans get plenty of protein: "unless your diet is unusually restrictive, you will get enough protein as long as you get enough calories."
  • While Nestle doesn't suggest everyone should become vegetarians, she does suggest that most people should lower the amount of meat they eat, and points out that "[t]he meat industry's big public relations problem is that vegetarians are demonstrably healthier than meat eaters. If you do not eat beef, pork, lamb, or even chicken, your risk of heart disease and certain cancers is likely to be lower than that of the average meat-eating America. And as long as you eat any other animal product at all---dairy, fish, or eggs---you can avoid eating meat without affecting the nutritional quality of your diet."
  • If you're going to eat fish, you should be informed on the kind of toxins in that fish and how often it is safe to eat it. Don't necessarily trust the seafood industry for this information. (Nestle points out a huge difference between the safety of albacore tuna and tongol tuna that no one in the tuna industry is going to talk about.) The best place to find out this information (besides this book) is Seafood Watch, a guide created by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that is frequently updated.
  • "'Fruit concentrate,' according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, is a euphemism for sugars." So a label that says "Made with real fruit" or "100% fruit juice" does not necessarily mean that it is healthy. Read the actual ingredients and then decide.

What to Eat is a book to purchase, read, and then keep around for reference. I finished reading this book earlier this week, and it already influenced the choices I made shopping at the grocery store today and it will continue to do so in the long run.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Daniel J. Levitin)

Music is one of those things—like walking, having a conversation, or catching a fly ball—that it’s easy to take for granted until you start wondering how, exactly, we do that. (Or, in the case of catching a fly ball, how other people do that.) After all, listening to music is really just sensing changes in air pressure. Why, and how, do we turn those into rhythm, melody, song? Why do different instruments sound different? What happens when our brains follow a beat? How much of music perception is hard-wired, and how much is learned? Why do we like the music we do? Why do some songs get stuck in our heads, even when we don’t like them?

Levitin, a session musician and recording engineer before pursuing a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, spends a lot of his time thinking about these kinds of questions, and This Is Your Brain on Music is an attempt to answer some of them. The bad news is that a lot of the time, the answer eventually adds up to “We don’t really know yet, not really.” The good news is that what they do know is fascinating, and gives at least a tantalizing glimpse into the still largely mysterious world of the brain.

For example: When we hear a harmonic tone—a plucked guitar string, a note from a flute—we’re not actually hearing a single vibration, but many different vibrations, typically in integer multiples of the fundamental tone (e.g., a 100 Hz fundamental has overtone vibrations at 200 Hz, 300 Hz, etc.; a 210 Hz fundamental has overtone vibrations at 420 Hz, 630 Hz, etc.). Our brains resolve that into the basic fundamental note—what we actually hear is a 100 Hz note or a 210 Hz note. In fact, our brains our so good at this that if you artificially create only the overtone frequencies, we will still hear the correct fundamental note.

OK, so that’s pretty interesting. How about this:

Petr [a graduate student] placed electrodes in the inferior colliculus of the barn owl, part of its auditory system. Then, he played the owls a version of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube Waltz” made up of tones from which the fundamental frequency had been removed. Petr hypothesized that if the missing fundamental is restored at early levels of auditory processing, neurons in the owl’s inferior colliculus should fire at the rate of the missing fundamental. This was exactly what he found. And because the electrodes put out a small electrical signal with each firing—and because the firing rate is the same as a frequency of firing—Petr sent the output of these electrodes to a small amplifier, and played back the sound of the owl’s neurons through a loudspeaker. What he heard was astonishing: the melody of “The Blue Danube Waltz” sang clearly from the loudspeakers. . . . We were hearing the firing rates of the neurons and they were identical to the frequency of the missing fundamental. The overtone series had an instantiation not just in the early levels of auditory processing, but in a completely different species.

I bet that was a pretty mind-blowing moment.

The book ranges over a wide variety of subjects, from what happens in our brains, exactly, when we listen to music; how we categorize it, and how that relates to our capacity for categorization in general; how we acquire our taste in music; how and why music affects us emotionally; what makes expert musicians different from the rest of us; and possible evolutionary sources for our musical sense. (Ask the owls what they’re doing restoring missing fundamentals!) It’s a fascinating read from an author who’s obviously passionate (and thoroughly knowledgeable) about both music and the mysteries of neuroscience.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Help Save McSweeney's

A few years ago, my favorite magazine BUST almost went bust. But they called out to their readers to buy subscriptions en masse, and because BUST readers are a dedicated crew, they did (including me). And the magazine was (thankfully) saved. (Just ask Jim how excited I get on the day BUST arrives in the mail. It's a very exciting day.)

Well, now McSweeney's, a small independent publisher, has found themselves in a similar situation, in hard times. They are also reaching out to their readers (see here) and have a major sale on in their online store to try to get through this crunch. Jim has been the lucky beneficiary of many gifts I have purchased him in their online store, including English as She Is Spoke; Animals in the Ocean, In Particular the Giant Squid, and a very nice squid shirt (unrelated to the book, but just as cool). They also have many rare-item eBay auctions going on, including items donated by Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell.

So if you are able, please check out their offerings and make a purchase. Their goods make great gifts.