Life, the Universe, and Everything

Nutritional Meals

I’ve been thinking more about convenient, healthy alternatives to Soylent or MealSquares that are closer to the kind of food we’ve evolved to eat.

Here’s some food that exceeds the recommended daily intake of most vitamins and minerals with only about 1300 calories (leaving room for less healthy snacks):

  • 4 bags of Brad’s Raw Chips, Indian
  • 1.5 bags of Brad’s Raw Chips, Sweet Pepper
  • 6 crackers, Lydia’s Green Crackers (vitamin E)
  • 1 oz Atlantic oysters (B12, zinc) (one 3 oz tin every 3 days)
  • 1 brazil nut (selenium)

Caveats: I’m unsure how accurately I estimated the nutrition in the processed foods (I made guesses based on the list of ingredients).

This diet has little vitamin D (which I expect to get from supplements and sun).

It’s slightly low in calcium, sodium, B12, and saturated fat. I consider it important to get more B12 from other animal sources (sardines, salmon or pastured eggs). I’m not concerned about the calcium or sodium because this diet would provide more than hunter-gathers got and because I don’t have much trouble getting more from other food. And it’s hard not to get more saturated fat from other foods I like (e.g. chocolate).

I don’t know whether it has enough iodine, so when I’m not having much fish it’s probably good to add a little seaweed (I’m careful to avoid the common kinds that have added oil that’s been subjected to questionable processing).

It has just barely 100% of vitamin E, B3, and B5 (in practice I get more of those from eggs and sweet potatoes).

It’s possibly too high in omega-3 (10+ grams?) from flax seeds in the Raw Chips (my estimate here is more uncertain than with the other nutrients).

The only convenient way to get oysters that keep well and don’t need preparation is cans of smoked oysters, and smoking seems to be an unhealthy way to process food.

Note that I chose this list without trying to make it affordable, and it ended up costing about $50 per day. I don’t plan to spend that much unless I become too busy to cook cheaper foods such as sweet potatoes, mushrooms, bean sprouts, fish, and eggs.

In practice, I’ve been relying more on Questbars for convenient food, but I’m trying to cut down on those as I eat more Brad’s Raw Chips.

The Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference attracted many interesting people.

There were lots of new devices to measure the usual things more easily or to integrate multiple kinds of data.

Airo is an ambitious attempt to detect a wide variety of things, including food via sensing metabolites.

TellSpec plans to detect food nutrients and allergens through Raman spectroscopy.

OMsignal has a t-shirt with embedded sensors.

The M1nd should enable users to find more connections and spurious correlations between electromagnetic fields and health.

Ios is becoming a more important platform for trendy tools. As an Android user who wants to stick to devices with a large screen and traditional keyboard, I feel a bit left out.

The Human Locomotome Project is an ambitious attempt to produce an accurate and easy to measure biomarker of aging, using accelerometer data from devices such as FitBit. They’re measuring something that was previously not well measured, but there doesn’t appear to be any easy way to tell whether that information is valuable.

The hug brigade that was at last year’s conference (led by Paul Grasshoff?) was missing this year.

Attempts to attract a critical mass to the QS Forum seem to be having little effect.

There was a large shift in our ancestors diet about 3.5 million years ago to food derived from grasses and/or sedges. This has potentially important implications for what diet we’re adapted to. Unfortunately, the evidence isn’t specific enough to be very useful:

The isotope method cannot distinguish what parts of grasses and sedges human ancestors ate – leaves, stems, seeds and-or underground storage organs such as roots or rhizomes. The method also can’t determine when human ancestors began getting much of their grass by eating grass-eating insects or meat from grazing animals.

Book review: Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live, by Marlene Zuk

This book refutes some myths about what would happen if we adopted the lifestyle of some imaginary hunter-gather ancestor who some imagine was perfectly adapted to his environment.

I’m a bit disappointed that it isn’t as provocative as the hype around it suggested. It mostly just points out that there’s no single environment that we’re adapted to, plus uncertainty about what our ancestors’ lifestyle was.

She spends a good deal of the book demonstrating what ought to be the well-known fact that we’re still evolving and have partly adapted to an agricultural lifestyle. A more surprising point is that we still have problems stemming from not yet having fully evolved to be land animals rather than fish (e.g. hiccups).

She provides a reference to a study disputing the widely held belief that the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer made people less healthy.

She cites evidence that humans haven’t evolved much adaptation to specific diets, and do about equally well on a wide variety of diets involving wild foods, so that looking at plant to animal ratios in hunter-gather diets isn’t useful.

Her practical lifestyle advice is mostly consistent with an informed guess about how we can imitate our ancestors’ lifestyle (e.g. eat less processed food), and mainly serves to counteract some of the overconfident claims of the less thoughtful paleo lifestyle promoters.

Anti-Paleo Diet

Soylent is an almost pure chemical diet, whose most natural looking ingredients are olive oil and whey protein. It provides the FDA recommended nutrients from mostly purified sources of the individual nutrients. The creator claims to have experienced improved health after adopting it (after previously eating something slightly better than a typical US diet).

This seems like a very effective way to minimize the poisons in our diet.

It’s also cheaper than most diets (he claims less than $2/day, but that seems questionable). He claims it tastes good, although eating the same thing day after day would seem a bit monotonous.

FDA recommendations are known to be suboptimal – too little vitamin D, too much calcium.

He seems confused about the fiber requirements, and is a bit reckless about his omega-6/omega-3 ratio. But these are easily improved.

He almost certainly misses some important nutrients that haven’t yet been identified, but that can be partly compensated for by adding a few low-risk foods such as salmon, seaweed, spinach, and sweet potatoes (the four S’s?).

I’m giving some thought to replacing 25-50% of my calories with something along these lines.


Talking20 is an ambitious startup attempting to make a wide variety of blood tests available at the surprisingly cheap price of $2 per test. Getting the drop of blood needed will still be a pain, but doing it at home and mailing in a postcard will simplify the process a lot.

If this succeeds it would dramatically increase our knowledge of things such as our cholesterol levels.

But I get the impression that they are being rather optimistic about how quickly they can get enough sales volume to make money.

Their attempt to use Indiegogo doesn’t appear to be as appropriate to their needs as seeking angel or VC investment would be.

I’m also concerned that the institutions they would compete with will try to get them regulated in ways that would drastically increase their costs.

I’m somewhat tempted to order something from them via Indiegogo, but I’m not confident in their ability to deliver.

Book review: How to Measure Anything, by Douglas Hubbard.

I procrastinated about reading this book because it appeared to be only relevant to a narrow type of business problem. But it is much more ambitious, and aims to convince us that anything that matters can be measured. It should be a good antidote to people who give up on measuring important values on grounds such as it’s too hard or too subjective (i.e. it teaches people to do Fermi estimates).

A key part of this is to use a sensible definition of the word measurement:

A quantitatively expressed reduction of uncertainty based on one or more observations


He urges us to focus on figuring out what observations are most valuable, because there are large variations in the value of different pieces of information. If we focus on valuable observations, the first few observations are much more valuable than subsequent ones.

He emphasizes the importance of calibration training which, in addition to combating overconfidence, makes it hard for people to claim they don’t know how to assign numbers to possible observations.

He succeeds in convincing me that anything that matters to a business can be measured. There are a few goals for which his approach doesn’t seem useful (e.g. going to heaven), but they’re rarer than our intuition tells us. Even vague-sounding concepts such as customer satisfaction can either be observed (possible with large errors) via customer behavior or surveys, or they don’t matter.

It will help me avoid the temptation of making Quantified-Self types measurements to show off how good I am at quantifying things, and focus instead on being proud to get valuable information out of a minimal number of observations.

Book review: Food and Western Disease: Health and nutrition from an evolutionary perspective, by Staffan Lindeberg.

This book provides evidence that many causes of death in developed nations are due to a lifestyle that is different from hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

His studies of existing hunter-gatherer societies show moderately good evidence that cardiovascular disease is rare, that aging doesn’t cause significant dementia, and shows weaker evidence of less cancer.

He has some vaguely plausible reasons for focusing on diet as the main lifestyle difference. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t mention intermittent fasting as a factor worth investigating (is it obvious from his experience that some hunter-gatherer societies don’t do this?).

He uses this evidence to advocate a mostly paleo diet, although with less fat than is often associated with that label.

Much of the book is devoted to surveying the evidence about other proposed dietary improvements, mostly concluding they don’t do much (or in the case of calorie restriction, might work by causing a more paleo-like diet).

I don’t have a lot of confidence in his ability to interpret the evidence.

He gives the impression that Omega-3 consumption has little effect on health, citing papers such as this review, whose abstract includes:

showed no strong evidence of reduced risk of total mortality (relative risk 0.87, 95% confidence interval 0.73 to 1.03)

I’d call that evidence for a moderately important benefit of Omega-3, and I consider it strong evidence in comparison to typical dietary studies, although it’s weak compared to the evidence that other scientific fields aim for.

One response from nutrition experts says:

The null conclusion of the Cochrane report rests entirely upon inclusion of one trial, DART 2.

A quick glance at recent publications from another author he cites (Mozaffarian) got me this:

Considerable research supports cardiovascular benefits of consuming omega-3 PUFA, also known as (n-3) PUFA, from fish or fish oil.

Excessive skepticism is probably better than hype, but it will discourage many people from reading it. Plus the style is somewhere in between a reference book and a book that I’d read from start to end.

The recent Quantified Self conference was my first QS event, and was one of the best conferences I’ve attended.

I had been hesitant to attend QS events because they seem to attract large crowds, where I usually find it harder to be social. But this conference was arranged so that there was no real center where crowds gathered, so people spread out into smaller groups where I found it easier to join a conversation.

Kevin Kelly called this “The Measured Century”. People still underestimate how much improved measurement contributed to the industrial revolution. If we’re seeing a much larger improvement in measurement, people will likely underestimate the importance of that for quite a while.

The conference had many more ideas than I had time to hear, and I still need to evaluate many of he ideas I did hear. Here are a few:

I finally got around to looking at DIYgenomics, and have signed up for their empathy study (not too impressive so far) and their microbiome study (probiotics) which is waiting for more people before starting.

LUMOback looks like it will be an easy way to improve my posture. The initial version will require a device I don’t have, but it sounds like they’ll have an Android version sometime next year.

Steve Fowkes’ talk about urine pH testing sounds worth trying out.

This past spring I adopted a diet resembling Dave Asprey’s. After about 5 weeks on it, I took a fancy blood test (trying to optimize things such as my vitamin D levels, Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio, etc). When I finally got the results back, I was shocked to find that the most important results involved my cholesterol levels.

Six years earlier my cholesterol had been good enough that I hadn’t had any reason to pay attention to it. But this May it was 369, with an LDL of 208, and an amazingly good HDL of 108.

If I’d been unlucky enough to get those results from Kaiser, I’d have felt helpless for quite a while. But the WellnessFX report also mentioned that my ApoE Genotype is 3/4. When I got around to researching the implications of that, I figured out that the ApoE4 gene can contribute to some unusual reactions to fat, and that a few people with a copy of it had reported skyrocketing cholesterol in response to a diet of paleo foods plus much coconut and grass-fed butter.

So I cut back on my fat intake, and figured out how to test how my diet affects my cholesterol. I’ve been using CardioChek about once a week. It’s unreliable (about 50 mg/dL too low, judging by my two comparisons with Kaiser). And I’ve only been getting total cholesterol numbers. I could get better info by also measuring HDL with it and subtracting that from the total to get the number that I really want to reduce. But that would require getting a second blood sample, and I barely have enough patience to take one good sample (I often end up with too little blood and need to start over).

With all the uncertainty about the accuracy of those numbers and the time delay between altering my fat intake and when my cholesterol levels showed my response, I wasn’t too optimistic about getting clear results. But the first ways I quantified the evidence gave correlations of 0.540 or 0.418 using 12 or 13 data points (the first of those excludes an implausibly low reading the first time I used it). That’s using an exponential moving average of my saturated fat intake that roughly corresponds to the past week. Other averages of my saturated fat intake have produced somewhat similar results.

My saturated fat consumption ranged 23.5 to 53 grams per day for that data, and the cholesterol levels at the high end of the range are something like 30-50 mg/dL higher than the low end.

So I see a clear and moderately strong connection.

My limited attempts to analyze subclasses of saturated fat have been inconclusive.

Now, how good or bad is the combination of very healthy HDL and disturbingly high LDL?

There are a variety of algorithms to estimate my risk based on my cholesterol levels. Some weight LDL heavily and say I ought to be concerned about the higher readings. Others weight HDL more, and say I’m unusually healthy. The TC/HDL criterion says I have improved with each of the tests I’ve taken [excluding the home tests that only measured TC].

Without strong evidence about which algorithm is more reliable, I’m disposed to keep my cholesterol somewhat close to normal levels.

What about the evidence that societies with high coconut consumption are healthy? That could mean that high cholesterol with ApoE4 is a healthy sign – the body sees lots of rich food, and decides it devote more resources than normal to reducing inflammation. Or it might mean that ApoE4 genes got selected out of those populations.

It looks like coconuts have been eaten for the longest time in islands of the west Pacific, with the Philippines currently having the highest consumption for a sizable country, and high consumption extending west to India.

According to this study the ApoE4 prevalence in countries from the Philippines to India (including China, which presumably hasn’t had much dietary coconut in the north) ranges from 6 to 10 percent, as opposed to 17 percent in the US (which is about average). (This paper(paywalled) has some different-looking numbers on a not very readable map.)

So it looks like there has been enough selection against ApoE4 in those areas that I shouldn’t feel safe eating lots of coconut fat. But I suspect that there are other relevant genes which make it hard to generalize to everyone with an ApoE4 gene.