Browncast Episode 28: Obesity, Lifestyle, Fat and more..

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In this episode Razib and Omar move away from politics and culture to talk about the science (and non-science) of nutrition, lifestyle, obesity and fatness, especially as it relates to South Asians.  As some readers may know, I am an endocrinologist with a research interest in obesity and insulin resistance and Razib is a geneticist with a personal interest in health, nutrition and lifestyle, so I hope listeners will find it useful. Comments welcome.

PS: a couple of people have asked what my recommendations are for treating obesity. I hope to do a longer post some day, but here is the brief outline of what I advise my (pediatric) patients:

-Increased physical activity (1 hour of moderate to vigorous daily activity that gets your heart rate up; minimum of 30 minutes per day). This can be as simple as taking a brisk walk or using a treadmill or going up and down the stairs or dancing in front of a video or playing activity games on a game console.
-Try to adopt a lifestyle in which most meals are home-cooked and consist primarily of fresh ingredients rather than processed foods. Try to limit overall caloric intake and I especially recommend limiting the intake of carbs (smaller helpings of pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, more of fresh veggies and meats that are not heavily breaded or fried; for significantly obese patients I recommend limiting carbs to 2 servings per meal (30 grams of carbs) and no carbs in snacks). That said, each person can find a lower calorie, lower sugar diet that they are most comfortable with. As long as it is helping them lose weight, it’s good.
-Eat fruit rather than drink fruit juice. Increase your intake of fresh vegetables and eat whole grains rather than highly refined ones. This may not have much impact on weight per se, but will improve cholesterol, cure constipation and may have other health benefits.
-Avoid all chips, Cheetos and other high-calorie snacks. Stop buying these snacks, stop eating them except on rare occasions. 
-Limit foods made with added sugar (cookies, brownies, donuts, cakes, pastries, candy, etc.) to small helpings on special occasions. Limit fast food intake to occasional outings.
-Stop the regular use of soda, gatorade, powerade, iced tea and juice, try to drink more water at meals.
-Avoid all foods that contain trans fats (read labels).
-Most studies indicate that dairy is good for you and drinking 1-2 cups of milk daily is strongly recommended for all children and adolescents. Yogurt is good for you, and cheese (in moderation) is also beneficial rather than harmful. There is evidence that whole fat dairy products may be healthier than low-fat alternatives for most people.
-Nuts, avocados and lentils appear to be healthier than equivalent amounts of other foods and eating them in moderation may have long term health benefits in addition to helping with weight loss.

-Limit screen time. (the official advice is <2 hours daily, but the fact is that most students spend more than that on just work, but limit as much as possible, set up “phone-free time” for physical activity and other social interactions.  

Finally, do NOT make a constant struggle over dieting and weight control the dominant feature of your child’s life. A healthy lifestyle for the whole family is the aim, rather than obsessive control of one child’s food intake.
-Do not be discouraged if weight loss is slow. Your body will always resist weight loss; the aim is to stick to an overall healthier lifestyle (more exercise, less processed foods, few snack items, more fresh foods)


White conspiracy!

In this age of (righteous) outrage, for anything that is worth commenting on there exists a non-empty set of someones who enrich the debate with their colour commentary and diversity dialogue. I thought I was being left out of this paradigmatic vanguard of intersectional voices, the last time I wrote on a predominantly white male topic. So, going with the zeitgeist, I present this diabolical conversation between two well-fed, entitled white males talking in presumptuous tones about the entire universe and laws that, they say, affect brown people too. Heck, brown and black… and green ones too! Weird superpositions (fancy short-hand for white superimposition) and splitting of our worlds (more Partitions of brown people!) happening to us brown folk that – get this – we are not even aware about!

It is also revealed in the conversation that one of them admits to a clear connection with the Zionist entity (ack thoo!). Their designs seem sinister, questioning agency and free-will at one point – the cheek of these white males, I tell you! Indeed, it has all the makings of a plot to deny self-determination to assorted brown bredrin across the globe. I shall have none of this white conspiracy and nor should you. But watch it to know their evil designs on us….


Pakistan’s #1 in newborn mortality rates!?!?!

Sometimes you read things you need to double check on. World is failing newborn babies:

1. Pakistan: 1 in 22
2. Central African Republic: 1 in 24
3. Afghanistan: 1 in 25
4. Somalia: 1 in 26
5. Lesotho: 1 in 26
6. Guinea-Bissau: 1 in 26
7. South Sudan: 1 in 26
8. Côte d’Ivoire: 1 in 27
9. Mali: 1 in 28
10. Chad: 1 in 28

Let’s let that sink in. Pakistan has worst mortality rate for newborns than Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Nations riven by conflict, warfare, and general underdevelopment.

I wouldn’t mind if someone pointed out how there is an artifactual bias in the above analysis. The numbers are horrifying, especially in light of the fact that Pakistan is more prosperous than most of those countries.

You shall judge a nation by how it treats the least amongst us.


Why do South Asians have heart disease?

Why Do South Asians Have Such High Rates of Heart Disease?:

Some of the most striking findings to come out of Masala relate to body composition. Using CT scans, Dr. Kanaya and her colleagues found that South Asians have a greater tendency to store body fat in places where it shouldn’t be, like the liver, abdomen and muscles. Fat that accumulates in these areas, known as visceral or ectopic fat, causes greater metabolic damage than fat that is stored just underneath the skin, known as subcutaneous fat.

…. Cardiovascular risks tended to be highest in two groups: those who maintained very strong ties to traditional South Asian religious, cultural and dietary customs, and those who vigorously — embraced a Western lifestyle. Those with lower risk are what the researchers call bicultural, maintaining some aspects of traditional South Asian culture while also adopting some healthy Western habits.

This discrepancy plays out in their dietary behaviors. Almost 40 percent of Masala participants are vegetarian, a common practice in India that is widely regarded in the West as heart healthy. But vegetarians who eat traditional South Asian foods like fried snacks, sweetened beverages and high-fat dairy products were found to have worse cardiovascular health than those who eat what the researchers call a “prudent” diet with more fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains (and, for nonvegetarians, fish and chicken). People who eat a Western style diet with red and processed meat, alcohol, refined carbohydrates and few fruits and vegetables were also found to have more metabolic risk factors.

I think one of the issues with the “traditional” lifestyle combined with modern affluence is that they aren’t actually eating like their (our) ancestors would eat. Though fried snacks and sweetened beverages are acceptable in vegetarian diets, I doubt that this was on the menu for many Indians who lived on vegetarian diets in the past. The two “bad” dietary options are really converging on modern processed/high cal diets from different pathways.


Brexit and Democracy

This is a redux of the blog post I wrote on Democracy almost two years ago. The need to write about democracy arose in the context of the #Brexit referendum. The debate around Brexit, and perhaps a second “corrective” referendum, is again at an all time high. Therefore, revisiting the first principles may be of some use. In this post I’ve tried to distill my own understanding of the concept and have included the results of a numerical experiment I ran to quantify some ideas around it. [Please note that the second half of this blog post is fairly technical]

Continue reading “Brexit and Democracy”


Have we seen the face of Rama?

One of the problems with looking up pictures of the Kalash people of Pakistan is that photographers have a bias toward highlighting the most European-looking villagers. Let’s call this “Rudyard Kipling Lost White Races” syndrome. Therefore for your edification, I post the YouTube above which is probably more representative of what the Kalash look like.

The reason I post a link to what the Kalash look like is that it is germane to the answer to the question: what did the Indo-Aryans look like? The past tense is key since “Indo-Aryans” today means a lot of people in South Asia, in a literal sense.

In the post below Zach L. made a passing comment:

(1.) The AASI’s, which are sort of co-equivalent to the Negritos and Anadamese Islanders (one of the first coastal waves out of Africa that somehow also ended up in the Amazon). It’s interesting that they are substrate to every South Asian population (I think there are trace amounts in Central Asia, Afghanistan and even Iran).

(2.) the “Dravidian” farmers out of Iran. They are probably related to the J1/J2 types and might be an olive skinned population. Prominent in Sindh and Southern Pakistan through to South India (high % in Gujarat – must have been a locus of some sort).

(3.) our beloved Aryans who are especially prevalent among Brahmins, the Punjab and Haryana (though arguably the Haryanvis and East Punjab descend from Scythians to some extent). These look “European” but it’s a very different look to #2.

The Aryans are conventional European (light eyes, light hair, white skin) the ancient Dravidians would have (probably) looked like Middle Easterners (olive skin, dark hair dark eyes) and the AASI, ” looks like Papua New Guineans.

I can’t see any disagreement with point number two.

As for the AASI (“Ancient Ancestral South Indians”), we need to be careful here. They diverged from the ancestors of the people of Papua New Guinea ~40-50 thousand years ago. The divergence from the Andamanese, who probably migrated from mainland Southeast Asia, was not too much later. Aside from being very dark-skinned, the various extant “Australasian” people can be quite distinctive in appearance. The people of Papua, and native Australians, are quite robust. A substantial minority have blonde hair color due to a mutation common among Oceanians. The “Negrito” people of Southeast Asia and India all seem to be have adapted to a narrow relic niche, and may not be representative of their ancestors.

That being said, there is a particular non-West Eurasian look that many South Asians have which we can presume is the heritage of the AASI.

The comment about Aryans looking like Europeans raised my eyebrows a bit. This is a touchy subject, and to be honest my initial reaction was to be skeptical. But the more I read the primary literature to check up on Zach, the more reasonable this seemed to be. The dominant steppe signal into South Asia does resemble the people who were pushing into Central and Western Europe 1,000 years earlier than the Indo-Aryans, who were moving southward probably ~3,500 years ago. This is clear in rather simple statistical genetic analyses-populations such as the Kalash and Pathans for example show strong evidence of “European-like” gene flow.

Current work out of David Reich’s lab suggests that the Kalash are the best modern proxies we have for the “Ancestral North Indians,” the ANI. This population is modeled as:

– ~30% “steppe”, which is very similar to the ancestry which expaned westward into Europe between 3000 and 2500 BCE
– ~70% “Indus Periphery”, which seems the likely ancestral contribution of the people of the IVC, and is a heterogenous mix of Iranian-farmer and AASI

The mid-range estimate for the emergence of the Kalash mix is ~2,500 years before the present, but these usually have some downward bias, so it is reasonable that it would be greater than ~3,000 years. The samples from the Swat Valley dating to this period show gradual increase of “steppe” ancestry over time.

So one reason to be skeptical that the Indo-Aryans were “European-like” in appearance is that by the time they were flourishing in the lands previous inhabited by the IVC they may already have been more than 50% genetically like the people of the IVC. In which case, a minority would be very European-looking, but most would look vaguely West Asia, with some looking more stereotypically South Asian. If you look at the video above I think you do see the Kalash look this way.

One reason I’ve always been skeptical of the idea that the Indo-Aryans looked European, or, that their demographic impact was large, is that it seemed unlike both could be true. The expression of blue eyes among Indians was too low of a percentage.

Here is the frequency at a major SNP which predicts a lot of the blue vs. brown eye color.

Continue reading “Have we seen the face of Rama?”


Hinduttva (a)

This is a follow up to:

Kushal Mehra is one of Hinduism’s and atheism’s greatest thought leaders and scholars. Kushal does not identify as Hinduttva and describes himself as non left. However he is deeply respected by Hinduttva people and knows many of her leaders. He is a Hindu Atheist. Of the 10 ancient Darshanas (or sights or views or philosophies) of Hinduism he follows Chaarvaaka. [Other philosophies include Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya/Yoga, Purva Mimaamsaa/Uttara Mimaamsaa, Nyaaya/Vaisheshika, Ajivika]

Ali and Armin are two heroes of the world’s 1.6 billion muslim heritage global community. I am only 4 minutes into the above video but intend to watch and comment on it.


Adding Saurav’s comment from another thread:

This is to address some of the comments here about hinduism/vedanta/enlightenment etc made here, twiter and the other article about Hindutava by Annan.

I am frequently surprised by how much difference there is in “web” hindutva/hinduism (including this blog) and on the ground Hinduism/Hindutva. Let us be very very clear the ethnicity and traditions from which on the ground hindutva is driven. It isnt driven by high level intellectualism which has been professed here/ twitter etc. Its driven on the ground by Hindu conformists/ conservatives of North Indian stock. There is nothing problematic about it. But let us be at least honest about it. In India because every “hindu” community is so large that they feel what they profess is real “Hinduism”. I have met Bengali “hindu” and Tam Brahm who possess no electoral power back in their own state go on and on teaching others about Hindutva/Hinduism. The hindutva world does not run for better or for worse on Tukaram/ Adi Shankracharya/ Vivekanda/Charvaka. Had it been then Arya Samaj would have been bigger than RSS. It runs on Ram /Hanuman and for females(Durga). It projects masculinity(again not a value judgement) and not on “enlightenment” values/intellectualism. Its not run by hindu “free thinkers” like the ones we find over the internet. The web space is not projecting the real face (positive or negative) of the movement on how its conducted on the ground. Please lets separate what we want and our own projection over the movement and our analysis on what the movement really is. The day some other “Hindu” movement (led by Slapstick Teasari and Annan) becomes bigger than the current one i will happily accept that.

What are everyone’s thoughts?

Global alliances and wheels within wheels


Quantum Mechanics Simplified

The idea of writing this post arose during a brief exchange with Llewelyn Morgan – an Oxford classicist whom I follow on Twitter. Llewelyn was responding to an interesting piece in Quanta mag on a classical fluid physics experimental analogy of the famous De Broglie-Bohm interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and remarked that he found the topic abstruse. I think it is a fair comment, but attributable more to a lack of clarity around the general field of quantum mechanics (in part a reflection of the confusion within the community of physicists themselves) than to some innate difficulty in understanding the basic details of QM itself. So my post is an attempt to explain QM to the lay reader.

Note that this post has literally nothing to do with anything remotely brown or even brownish. So people who read this blog for cultural commentary or South Asian history etc may stop right here.

Also a general note to physicists reading this: in my description of the problem (specifically tangential references to mathematical details) I may introduce some simplification in language. Don’t get unnecessarily triggered by this for you are not the intended audience 🙂

Continue reading “Quantum Mechanics Simplified”


Why Climate Change is a cult-

I really enjoy the tweets from the Aerogram since they provide well-curated content. However this third-party article on Monsoon dispersion of pollution is simply rife with generalities and polemicism, high by even BP’s well-worn standards.

The article starts off on a fascinating note:

As South Asia burns fossil fuels, researchers from Germany say the clockwise-spinning storm pulls the emissions high into the troposphere. There, lightning-fueled chemical reactions transform the pollutants into more stable forms, which fall to earth as harmless rain.

A paen to Mother India cleaning up after her messy spawn. However before we could take any consolation in the good news:

By combining these measurements with computer models of air circulation, the researchers tracked the path of the contaminants and how they changed as they reached higher altitudes.

As expected, at lower altitudes, the South Asian monsoon did disperse pollutants over a wide region, including distant areas like Tibet. However, the scientists also found that the monsoon pulled the polluted air from the atmosphere into the much higher troposphere, where with the assistance of the storm’s lightning, it reacted with other gases, and could be washed out by the rain.

Note they use simulated models to track the pollutants so in a way this isn’t verified or empirical based science. It would have been good to actually validate pollution levels in places like Tibet etc. And then for the final piece de resistance:

Unfortunately, Lelieveld told VOA, “the monsoon is weakening, which can reduce the cleaning mechanism. We also believe that the air pollution contributes to a weakening of the monsoon.” He added, “Intuitively, if the monsoon weakens, the pollution will stay more near the ground rather than being transported upward.”

This is a comment that wouldn’t have even passed muster in our own threads. How do we know the Monsoon is weakening and how do know that air pollution is weakening the Monsoon.

I do think it’s fairly straightforward and uncontroversial to state that we should pollute less but it’s increasingly evident that anthropogenic pollution isn’t as clear-cut a topic as we think it is. The Earth does seem to have some feedback mechanisms and it’s also worth reflect if the human scale of pollution can match natural events (like a volcano eruption etc).

We live in a liberal-defined shibboleth and these new orthodoxies are sometimes even more pernicious than the ones of yore since these are draped in the values and ideals of the enlightenment. Please note I’m not necessarily espousing one view over the other but we as learnt in BP; argument from authority (experts) is a logical fallacy and the article above reeks of it.


India Still Rising

The Honorable former U.S. ambassador to India David C. Mulford’s summary of why India is rapidly becoming a great global superpower and why PM Modi might become the best PM in Indian history. My estimate is that India will have more billionaires than America in less than a generation. When this happens what is to stop post modernists from decrying “Asian supremacy”, Asian hegemony, Asian exploitation, Asian empire, Asian imperialism, Asian oppression, Asian racism/bigotry/ sectariansim? How to reduce jealousy of Asia? Or is this dark future inevitable?