Thursday, December 30, 2010

How much protein does one need to be in nitrogen balance?

This post has been revised and re-published. The original comments are preserved below.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nuts by numbers: Should you eat them, and how much?

Nuts are generally seen as good sources of protein and magnesium. The latter plays a number of roles in the human body, and is considered critical for bone health. Nuts are also believed to be good sources of vitamin E. While there is a lot of debate about vitamin E’s role in health, it is considered by many to be a powerful antioxidant. Other than in nuts, vitamin E is not easily found in foods other than seeds and seed oils.

Some of the foods that we call nuts are actually seeds; others are legumes. For simplification, in this post I am calling nuts those foods that are generally protected by shells (some harder than others). This protective layer is what makes most people call them nuts.

Let us see how different nuts stack up against each other in terms of key nutrients. The quantities listed below are per 1 oz (28 g), and are based on data from All are raw. Roasting tends to reduce the vitamin content of nuts, often by half, and has little effect on the mineral content. Protein and fat content are also reduced, but not as much as the vitamin content.

These two figures show the protein, fat, and carbohydrate content of nuts (on the left); and the omega-6 and omega-3 fat content (on the right).

When we talk about nuts, walnuts are frequently presented in a very positive light. The reason normally given is that walnuts have a high omega-3 content; the plant form of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). That is true. But look at the large amount of omega-6 in walnuts. The difference between the omega-6 and omega-3 content in walnuts is about 8 g! And this is in only 1 oz of walnuts. That is 8 g of possibly pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats to be “neutralized”. It would take many fish oil softgels to achieve that.

Walnuts should be eaten in moderation. Most studies looking at the health effects of nuts, including walnuts, show positive results in short-term interventions. But they usually involve moderate consumption, often of 1 oz per day. Eat several ounces of walnuts every day, and you are entering industrial see oil territory in terms of omega-6 fats consumption. Maybe other nutrients in walnuts have protective effects, but still, this looks like dangerous territory; “diseases of civilization” territory.

A side note. Focusing too much on the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of individual foods can be quite misleading. The reason is that a food with a very small amount of omega-6 (e.g., 50 mg) but close to zero omega-3 will have a very high ratio. (Any number divided by zero yields infinity.) Yet, that food will contribute little omega-6 to a person’s diet. It is the ratio at the end of the day that matters, when all foods that have been eaten are considered.

The figures below show the magnesium content of nuts (on the left); and the vitamin E content (on the right).

Let us say that you are looking for the best combination of protein, magnesium, and vitamin E. And you also want to limit your intake of omega-6 fats, which is a very wise thing to do. Then what is the best choice? It looks like it is almonds. And even they should be eaten in small amounts, as 1 oz has more than 3 g of omega-6 fats.

Macadamia nuts don’t have much omega-6; their fats are mostly monounsaturated, which are very good. Their protein to fat ratio is very low, and they don’t have much magnesium or vitamin E. Coconuts (i.e., their meat) have mostly medium-chain saturated fats, which are also very good. Coconuts have little protein, magnesium, and vitamin E. If you want to increase your intake of healthy fats, both macadamia nuts and coconuts are good choices, with macadamia nuts providing about 3 times more fat.

There are many other dietary sources of magnesium around. In fact, magnesium is found in many foods. Examples are, in approximate descending order of content: salmon, spinach, sardine, cod, halibut, banana, white potato, sweet potato, beef, chicken, pork, liver, and cabbage. This is by no means a comprehensive list.

As for vitamin E, it likes to hide in seeds. While it may be a powerful antioxidant, I wonder whether Mother Nature really had it “in mind” as she tinkered with our DNA for the last few million years.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Maknig to mayn tipos? Myabe ur teh boz

Undoubtedly one of the big differences between life today and in our Paleolithic past is the level of stress that modern humans face on a daily basis. Much stress happens at work, which is very different from what our Paleolithic ancestors would call work. Modern office work, in particular, would probably be seen as a form of slavery by our Paleolithic ancestors.

Some recent research suggests that organizational power distance is a big factor in work-related stress. Power distance is essentially the degree to which bosses and subordinates accept wide differences in organizational power between them (Hofstede, 2001).


I have been studying the topic of information overload for a while. It is a fascinating topic. People who experience it have the impression that they have more information to process than they can handle. They also experience significant stress as a result of it, and both the quality of their work and their productivity goes down.

Recently some colleagues and I conducted a study that included employees from companies in New Zealand, Spain, and the USA (Kock, Del Aguila-Obra & Padilla-Meléndez, 2009). These are countries whose organizations typically display significant differences in power distance. We found something unexpected. Information overload was much more strongly associated with power distance than with the actual amount of information employees had to process on a daily basis.

While looking for explanations to this paradoxical finding, I recalled an interview I gave way back in 2001 to the Philadelphia Inquirer, commenting on research by Dr. David A. Owens. His research uncovered an interesting phenomenon. The higher up in the organizational pecking order one was, the less the person was concerned about typos on emails to subordinates.

There is also some cool research by Carlson & Davis (1998) suggesting that bosses tend to pick the communication media that are the most convenient for them, and don’t care much about convenience for the subordinates. One example would be calling a subordinate on the phone to assign a task, and then demanding a detailed follow-up report by email.

As a side note, writing a reasonably sized email takes a lot longer than conveying the same ideas over the phone or face-to-face (Kock, 2005). To be more precise, it takes about 10 times longer when the word count is over 250 and the ideas being conveyed are somewhat complex. For very short messages, a written medium like email is fairly convenient, and the amount of time to convey ideas may be even shorter than by using the phone or doing it face-to-face.

So a picture started to emerge. Bosses choose the communication media that are convenient for them when dealing with subordinates. If the media are written, they don’t care about typos at all. The subordinates use the media that are imposed on them, and if the media are written they certainly don’t want something with typos coming from them to reach their bosses. It would make them look bad.

The final result is this. Subordinates experience significant information overload, particularly in high power distance organizations. They also experience significant stress. Work quality and productivity goes down, and they get even more stressed. They get fat, or sickly thin. Their health deteriorates. Eventually they get fired, which doesn’t help a bit.

What should you do, if you are not the boss? Here are some suggestions:

- Try to tactfully avoid letting communication media being imposed on you all the time by your boss (and others). Explicitly state, in a polite way, the media that would be most convenient for you in various circusmtances, both as a receiver and sender. Generally, media that support oral speech are better for discussing complex ideas. Written media are better for short exchanges. Want an evolutionary reason for that? As you wish: Kock (2004).

- Discuss the ideas in this post with your boss; assuming that the person cares. Perhaps there is something that can be done to reduce power distance, for example. Making the work environment more democratic seems to help in some cases.

- And ... dot’n wrory soo mach aobut tipos ... which could be extrapolated to: don’t sweat the small stuff. Most bosses really care about results, and will gladly take an email with some typos telling them that a new customer signed a contract. They will not be as happy with an email telling them the opposite, no matter how well written it is.

Otherwise, your organizational demise may come sooner than you think.


Carlson, P.J., & Davis, G.B. (1998). An investigation of media selection among directors and managers: From "self" to "other" orientation. MIS Quarterly, 22(3), 335-362.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Kock, N. (2004). The psychobiological model: Towards a new theory of computer-mediated communication based on Darwinian evolution. Organization Science, 15(3), 327-348.

Kock, N. (2005). Business process improvement through e-collaboration: Knowledge sharing through the use of virtual groups. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.

Kock, N., Del Aguila-Obra, A.R., & Padilla-Meléndez, A. (2009). The information overload paradox: A structural equation modeling analysis of data from New Zealand, Spain and the U.S.A. Journal of Global Information Management, 17(3), 1-17.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What is a reasonable vitamin D level?

The figure and table below are from Vieth (1999); one of the most widely cited articles on vitamin D. The figure shows the gradual increase in blood concentrations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin, or 25(OH)D, following the start of daily vitamin D3 supplementation of 10,000 IU/day. The table shows the average levels for people living and/or working in sun-rich environments; vitamin D3 is produced by the skin based on sun exposure.

25(OH)D is also referred to as calcidiol. It is a pre-hormone that is produced by the liver based on vitamin D3. To convert from nmol/L to ng/mL, divide by 2.496. The figure suggests that levels start to plateau at around 1 month after the beginning of supplementation, reaching a point of saturation after 2-3 months. Without supplementation or sunlight exposure, levels should go down at a comparable rate. The maximum average level shown on the table is 163 nmol/L (65 ng/mL), and refers to a sample of lifeguards.

From the figure we can infer that people on average will plateau at approximately 130 nmol/L, after months of 10,000 IU/d supplementation. That is 52 ng/mL. Assuming a normal distribution with a standard deviation of about 20 percent of the range of average levels, we can expect about 68 percent of those taking that level of supplementation to be in the 42 to 63 ng/mL range.

This might be the range most of us should expect to be in at an intake of 10,000 IU/d. This is the equivalent to the body’s own natural production through sun exposure.

Approximately 32 percent of the population can be expected to be outside this range. A person who is two standard deviations (SDs) above the mean (i.e., average) would be at around 73 ng/mL. Three SDs above the mean would be 83 ng/mL. Two SDs below the mean would be 31 ng/mL.

There are other factors that may affect levels. For example, being overweight tends to reduce them. Excess cortisol production, from stress, may also reduce them.

Supplementing beyond 10,000 IU/d to reach levels much higher than those in the range of 42 to 63 ng/mL may not be optimal. Interestingly, one cannot overdose through sun exposure, and the idea that people do not produce vitamin D3 after 40 years of age is a myth.

One would be taking in about 14,000 IU/d of vitamin D3 by combining sun exposure with a supplemental dose of 4,000 IU/d. Clear signs of toxicity may not occur until one reaches 50,000 IU/d. Still, one may develop other complications, such as kidney stones, at levels significantly above 10,000 IU/d.

See this post by Chris Masterjohn, which makes a different argument, but with somewhat similar conclusions. Chris points out that there is a point of saturation above which the liver is unable to properly hydroxylate vitamin D3 to produce 25(OH)D.

How likely it is that a person will develop complications like kidney stones at levels above 10,000 IU/d, and what the danger threshold level could be, are hard to guess. Kidney stone incidence is a sensitive measure of possible problems; but it is, by itself, an unreliable measure. The reason is that it is caused by factors that are correlated with high levels of vitamin D, where those levels may not be the problem.

There is some evidence that kidney stones are associated with living in sunny regions. This is not, in my view, due to high levels of vitamin D3 production from sunlight. Kidney stones are also associated with chronic dehydration, and populations living in sunny regions may be at a higher than average risk of chronic dehydration. This is particularly true for sunny regions that are also very hot and/or dry.


Vieth, R. (1999). Vitamin D supplementation, 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentrations, and safety. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(5), 842-856.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Strength training: A note about Scooby and comments by Anon

Let me start this post with a note about Scooby, who is a massive bodybuilder who has a great website with tips on how to exercise at home without getting injured. Scooby is probably as massive a bodybuilder as anyone can get naturally, and very lean. He says he is a natural bodybuilder, and I am inclined to believe him. His dietary advice is “old school” and would drive many of the readers of this blog crazy – e.g., plenty of grains, and six meals a day. But it obviously works for him. (As far as muscle gain is concerned, a lot of different approaches work. For some people, almost any reasonable approach will work; especially if they are young men with high testosterone levels.)

The text below is all from an anonymous commenter’s notes on this post discussing the theory of supercompensation. Many thanks to this person for the detailed and thoughtful comment, which is a good follow-up on the note above about Scooby. In fact I thought that the comment might have been from Scooby; but I don’t think so. My additions are within “[ ]”. While the comment is there under the previous post for everyone to see, I thought that it deserved a separate post.


I love this subject [i.e., strength training]. No shortages of opinions backed by research with the one disconcerting detail that they don't agree.

First one opening general statement. If there was one right way we'd all know it by now and we'd all be doing it. People's bodies are different and what motivates them is different. (Motivation matters as a variable.)

My view on one set vs. three is based on understanding what you're measuring and what you're after in a training result.

Most studies look at one rep max strength gains as the metric but three sets [of repetitions] improves strength/endurance. People need strength/endurance more typically than they need maximal strength in their daily living. The question here becomes what is your goal?

The next thing I look at in training is neural adaptation. Not from the point of view of simple muscle strength gain but from the point of view of coordinated muscle function, again, something that is transferable to real life. When you exercise the brain is always learning what it is you are asking it to do. What you need to ask yourself is how well does this exercise correlate with a real life requirements.

[This topic needs a separate post, but one can reasonably argue that your brain works a lot harder during a one-hour strength training session than during a one-hour session in which you are solving a difficult mathematical problem.]

To this end single legged squats are vastly superior to double legged squats. They invoke balance and provoke the activation of not only the primary movers but the stabilization muscles as well. The brain is acquiring a functional skill in activating all these muscles in proper harmony and improving balance.

I also like walking lunges at the climbing wall in the gym (when not in use, of course) as the instability of the soft foam at the base of the wall gives an excellent boost to the basic skill by ramping up the important balance/stabilization component (vestibular/stabilization muscles). The stabilization muscles protect joints (inner unit vs. outer unit).

The balance and single leg components also increase core activation naturally. (See single legged squat and quadratus lumborum for instance.) [For more on the quadratus lumborum muscle, see here.]

Both [of] these exercises can be done with dumbbells for increased strength[;] and though leg exercises strictly speaking, they ramp up the core/full body aspect with weights in hand.

I do multiple sets, am 59 years old and am stronger now than I have ever been (I have hit personal bests in just the last month) and have been exercising for decades. I vary my rep ranges between six and fifteen (but not limited to just those two extremes). My total exercise volume is between two and three hours a week.

Because I have been at this a long time I have learned to read my broad cycles. I push during the peak periods and back off during the valleys. I also adjust to good days and bad days within the broader cycle.

It is complex but natural movements with high neural skill components and complete muscle activation patterns that have moved me into peak condition while keeping me from injury.

I do not exercise to failure but stay in good form for all reps. I avoid full range of motion because it is a distortion of natural movement. Full range of motion with high loads in particular tends to damage joints.

Natural, functional strength is more complex than the simple study designs typically seen in the literature.

Hopefully these things that I have learned through many years of experimentation will be of interest to you, Ned, and your readers, and will foster some experimentation of your own.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Pressure-cooked meat: Top sirloin

Pressure cooking relies on physics to take advantage of the high temperatures of liquids and vapors in a sealed container. The sealed container is the pressure-cooking pan. Since the sealed container does not allow liquids or vapors to escape, the pressure inside the container increases as heat is applied to the pan. This also significantly increases the temperature of the liquids and vapors inside the container, which speeds up cooking.

Pressure cooking is essentially a version of high-heat steaming. The food inside the cooker tends to be very evenly cooked. Pressure cooking is also considered to be one of the most effective cooking methods for killing food-born pathogens. Since high pressure reduces cooking time, pressure cooking is usually employed in industrial food processing.

When cooking meat, the amount of pressure used tends to affect amino-acid digestibility; more pressure decreases digestibility. High pressures in the cooker cause high temperatures. The content of some vitamins in meat and plant foods is also affected; they go down as pressure goes up. Home pressure cookers are usually set at 15 pounds per square inch (psi). Significant losses in amino-acid digestibility occur only at pressures of 30 psi or higher.

My wife and I have been pressure-cooking for quite some time. Below is a simple recipe, for top sirloin.

- Prepare some dry seasoning powder by mixing sea salt, garlic power, chili powder, and a small amount of cayenne pepper.
- Season the top sirloin pieces at least 2 hours prior to placing them in the pressure cooking pan.
- Place the top sirloin pieces in the pressure cooking pan, and add water, almost to the point of covering them.
- Cook on very low fire, after the right amount of pressure is achieved, for 1 hour. The point at which the right amount of pressure is obtained is signaled by the valve at the top of the pan making a whistle-like noise.

As with slow cooking in an open pan, the water around the cuts should slowly turn into a fatty and delicious sauce, which you can pour on the meat when serving, to add flavor. The photos below show the seasoned top sirloin pieces, the (old) pressure-cooking pan we use, and some cooked pieces ready to be eaten together with some boiled yam.

A 100 g portion will have about 30 g of protein. (That is a bit less than 4 oz, cooked.) The amount of fat will depend on how trimmed the cuts are. Like most beef cuts, the fat will be primarily saturated and monounsatured, with approximately equal amounts of each. It will provide good amounts of the following vitamins and minerals: iron, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, selenium, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How lean should one be?

Loss of muscle mass is associated with aging. It is also associated with the metabolic syndrome, together with excessive body fat gain. It is safe to assume that having low muscle and high fat mass, at the same time, is undesirable.

The extreme opposite of that, achievable though natural means, would be to have as much muscle as possible and as low body fat as possible. People who achieve that extreme often look a bit like “buff skeletons”.

This post assumes that increasing muscle mass through strength training and proper nutrition is healthy. It looks into body fat levels, specifically how low body fat would have to be for health to be maximized.

I am happy to acknowledge that quite often I am working on other things and then become interested in a topic that is brought up by Richard Nikoley, and discussed by his readers (I am one of them). This post is a good example of that.

Obesity and the diseases of civilization

Obesity is strongly associated with the diseases of civilization, of which the prototypical example is perhaps type 2 diabetes. So much so that sometimes the impression one gets is that without first becoming obese, one cannot develop any of the diseases of civilization.

But this is not really true. For example, diabetes type 1 is also one of the diseases of civilization, and it often strikes thin people. Diabetes type 1 results from the destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas by a person’s own immune system. The beta cells in the pancreas produce insulin, which regulates blood glucose levels.

Still, obesity is undeniably a major risk factor for the diseases of civilization. It seems reasonable to want to move away from it. But how much? How lean should one be to be as healthy as possible? Given the ubiquity of U-curve relationships among health variables, there should be a limit below which health starts deteriorating.

Is the level of body fat of the gentleman on the photo below (from: low enough? His name is Fedor; more on him below. I tend to admire people who excel in narrow fields, be they intellectual or sport-related, even if I do not do anything remotely similar in my spare time. I admire Fedor.

Let us look at some research and anecdotal evidence to see if we can answer the question above.

The buff skeleton look is often perceived as somewhat unattractive

Being in the minority is not being wrong, but should make one think. Like Richard Nikoley’s, my own perception of the physique of men and women is that, the leaner they are, the better; as long as they also have a reasonable amount of muscle. That is, in my mind, the look of a stage-ready competitive natural bodybuilder is close to the healthiest look possible.

The majority’s opinion, however, seems different, at least anecdotally. The majority of women that I hear or read voicing their opinions on this matter seem to find the “buff skeleton” look somewhat unattractive, compared with a more average fit or athletic look. The same seems to be true for perceptions of males about females.

A little side note. From an evolutionary perspective, perceptions of ancestral women about men must have been much more important than perceptions of ancestral men about women. The reason is that the ancestral women were the ones applying sexual selection pressures in our ancestral past.

For the sake of discussion, let us define the buff skeleton look as one of a reasonably muscular person with a very low body fat percentage; pretty much only essential fat. That would be 10-13 percent for women, and 5-8 percent for men.

The average fit look would be 21-24 percent for women, and 14-17 percent for men. Somewhere in between, would be what we could call the athletic look, namely 14-20 percent for women, and 6-13 percent for men. These levels are exactly the ones posted on this Wikipedia article on body fat percentages, at the time of writing.

From an evolutionary perspective, attractiveness to members of the opposite sex should be correlated with health. Unless we are talking about a costly trait used in sexual selection by our ancestors; something analogous to the male peacock’s train.

But costly traits are usually ornamental, and are often perceived as attractive even in exaggerated forms. What prevents male peacock trains from becoming the size of a mountain is that they also impair survival. Otherwise they would keep growing. The peahens find them sexy.

Being ripped is not always associated with better athletic performance

Then there is the argument that if you carried some extra fat around the waist, then you would not be able to fight, hunt etc. as effectively as you could if you were living 500,000 years ago. Evolution does not “like” that, so it is an unnatural and maladaptive state achieved by modern humans.

Well, certainly the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is not the best point of comparison for Paleolithic life, but it is not such a bad model either. Look at this photo of Fedor Emelianenko (on the left, clearly not so lean) next to Andrei Arlovski (fairly lean). Fedor is also the one on the photo at the beginning of this post.

Fedor weighed about 220 lbs at 6’; Arlovski 250 lbs at 6’4’’. In fact, Arlovski is one of the leanest and most muscular MMA heavyweights, and also one of the most highly ranked. Now look at Fedor in action (see this YouTube video), including what happened when Fedor fought Arlovski, at around the 4:28 mark. Fedor won by knockout.

Both Fedor and Arlovski are heavyweights; which means that they do not have to “make weight”. That is, they do not have to lose weight to abide by the regulations of their weight category. Since both are professional MMA fighters, among the very best in the world, the weight at which they compete is generally the weight that is associated with their best performance.

Fedor was practically unbeaten until recently, even though he faced a very high level of competition. Before Fedor there was another professional fighter that many thought was from Russia, and who ruled the MMA heavyweight scene for a while. His name is Igor Vovchanchyn, and he is from the Ukraine. At 5’8’’ and 230 lbs in his prime, he was a bit chubby. This YouTube video shows him in action; and it is brutal.

A BMI of about 25 seems to be the healthiest for long-term survival

Then we have this post by Stargazey, a blogger who likes science. Toward the end the post she discusses a study suggesting that a body mass index (BMI) of about 25 seems to be the healthiest for long-term survival. That BMI is between normal weight and overweight. The study suggests that both being underweight or obese is unhealthy, in terms of long-term survival.

The BMI is calculated as an individual’s body weight divided by the square of the individual’s height. A limitation of its use here is that the BMI is a more reliable proxy for body fat percentage for women than for men, and can be particularly misleading when applied to muscular men.

The traditional Okinawans are not super lean

The traditional Okinawans (here is a good YouTube video) are the longest living people in the world. Yet, they are not super lean, not even close. They are not obese either. The traditional Okinawans are those who kept to their traditional diet and lifestyle, which seems to be less and less common these days.

There are better videos on the web that could be used to illustrate this point. Some even showing shirtless traditional karate instructors and students from Okinawa, which I had seen before but could not find again. Nearly all of those karate instructors and students were a bit chubby, but not obese. By the way, karate was invented in Okinawa.

The fact that the traditional Okinawans are not ripped does not mean that the level of fat that is healthy for them is also healthy for someone with a different genetic makeup. It is important to remember that the traditional Okinawans share a common ancestry.

What does this all mean?

Some speculation below, but before that let me tell this: as counterintuitive as it may sound, excessive abdominal fat may be associated with higher insulin sensitivity in some cases. This post discusses a study in which the members of a treatment group were more insulin sensitive than the members of a control group, even though the former were much fatter; particularly in terms of abdominal fat.

It is possible that the buff skeleton look is often perceived as somewhat unattractive because of cultural reasons, and that it is associated with the healthiest state for humans. However, it seems a bit unlikely that this applies as a general rule to everybody.

Another possibility, which appears to be more reasonable, is that the buff skeleton look is healthy for some, and not for others. After all, body fat percentage, like fat distribution, seems to be strongly influenced by our genes. We can adapt in ways that go against genetic pressures, but that may be costly in some cases.

There is a great deal of genetic variation in the human species, and much of it may be due to relatively recent evolutionary pressures.

Life is not that simple!


Buss, D.M. (1995). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Miller, G.F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Zahavi, A. & Zahavi, A. (1997). The Handicap Principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.