Who doesn’t love to sleep? The trouble is that some of us don’t do it very well, but perhaps that can be improved with a better understanding of sleep through evolution.

If you’re lucky, you’ll spend a third of your life asleep. “That’s pretty incredible if you think about it, because when we’re asleep we’re not doing things that are important for our survival or reproductive success,” says Charles Nunn, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.

“We’re not searching for food, watching for predators, raising offspring, or searching for mates,” he told attendees at the International Society for Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health Inaugural Meeting on March 20, 2015 in Tempe, Ariz.

But nearly all animals show some signs of sleep. The birds do it, the bees do it, jellyfish, and fruit flies all sleep too. We know there are complex neurophysiological mechanisms going on during sleep. And we know that if we don’t get enough, our mental and physical health suffers, as is most clearly exemplified by the more than 70 million Americans who suffer from a sleep disorders.

When humans go to sleep, they first go into the lighter stages non-REM sleep, followed by the deeper stages (slow-wave sleep), then arouse out briefly, and go into REM sleep, where dreams come, arouse briefly again, and then the cycle continues. Each of these cycles lasts about 90 minutes to two hours, and is repeated, for around eight hours in humans.

But why has sleep evolved? More importantly, what is the evolutionary context of which human sleep has evolved? By researching these questions, Nunn says, it might just help us to better understand sleep disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy, seasonal affective disorder, and circadian rhythm disorders. Read More

In the final minutes of a new TEDxCERN talk, Penn State biology professor Nina Fedoroff implores of her audience, “Will we have the wisdom to invest in the scientific and technological innovations that can give everyone a livelihood, a seat at the table, and enough to eat?”

Count yourself as a decent human being if you find yourself nodding “yes” because, as the former AAAS president says, food security is essential to providing stability around the world. But in the face of overpopulation, greater appetite for animal protein, and climate change, the way forward requires hard work that includes serious efforts into educating the public about agriculture.

Getting to informed decisions about anything requires a logical flow of information, civil exchange of ideas, and intelligent dialogue. But on the subject of genetically modified foods, too often the conversation unravels into one of over-generalizations, finger pointing, and ad-hominem attacks. Read More


Diet Plan

Ever since reading Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s The Diet Fix and heartily recommending it to several colleagues and friends who were looking to lose weight, or help others lose weight, I decided that I better try the “10-Day Reset” for myself. Sometimes a nutritionist decides he better walk his talk. Setting out to achieve my own personal goals, I began March 4 to make special preparations. I let family and friends around me know that I would be doing a few things differently. I weighed myself and took some baseline measurements. I got a Jawbone, which is basically a lightweight electronic bracelet that tracks my physical activity and the duration and quality of my sleep. Plus, per the book’s recommendation, I downloaded the MyNetDiary app on my iPhone. Don’t have this yet? Go download it right now. It’ll change your life.

Let me tell you that MyNetDiary has become an obsession. My family, friends, and colleagues can attest. During breakfast, lunch, and dinner, there I am with my iPhone out logging in each of my foods. On occasion when I’ve forgotten to log a meal, and not trusting my own memory, I’ve even texted or called people asking if they remembered what all I ate. Lately, some have started reminding me before I eat to log my foods (so I don’t annoy them later?) One person (it figures that she’s a registered dietitian) has taken to calling me out whenever I reach for a treat, saying, “Are you going to add that to your calorie app?” It’s a pretty wicked tactic and yet quite effective at making me put a cookie down. Read More






I’m glad to report that my article, “Sugar Is Not the Enemy,” for Outside was published today. And there’s really no hiding my enthusiasm for writing for such an awesome publication. I’ve long been a fan of the magazine and website — having grown up in Utah before moving to Arizona, I’ve done my fair share of snowboarding, mountain biking, kayaking, and climbing over the years.

As the headline suggests, what the article does is offer a countering view to the latest vilification of sugar in the popular film Fed Up (and subsequent media coverage). My piece primarily focuses on the film’s failure to give proper credit to other factors involved in obesity, which include other sources of calories (e.g. fat) and, specifically, lack of physical activity. Given the benefits of exercise and all types of physical activity, it shouldn’t be too surprising that respected representatives of the nutrition science community including Dr. Jim Hill, Dr. David Katz, Dr. Roger Clemens, and Angela Lemond, would agree that the film was, in short, “sugar obsessed.” Read More


Yogurt is a “vital secret for hunger management,” writes Mireille Giuliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat, noting that women in France will regularly eat a serving or more for breakfast, as a snack, or as a dessert as a way to stay slimmer, sexier, and healthier. In fact, the average French woman (and man), eats at least one serving of yogurt a day, or at least six times per week, while the average American eats zero-to-three servings per week.

Giuliano’s claims don’t appear to be contestable. Yogurt’s benefits are well supported by evidence, according scientists who presented their research at the Yogurt in Nutrition Initiative for a Balanced Diet (YINI) 2nd Global Summit on the Health Effects of Yogurt, on April 30, in San Diego. The event took place during American Society for Nutrition’s Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2014 in partnership with Danone.

Yogurt is strongly associated with being healthier and leaner across several different countries around the world, said pediatric nutritionist Mauro Fisberg, Ph.D., a professor at Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil.  He said those who averaged the most consumption were women and children, who were more highly educated and came from higher socioeconomic levels. Men don’t eat as much, but perhaps they should, he said.

Going over the long history of yogurt (and other fermented dairy products such as cuajada and kefir), Fisberg said that the ancient food was traditionally used as medicine and has proven to be a product that is rich in highly bioavailable protein, calcium and potassium, and probiotics. Traditionally, yogurt is also often consumed with other nutrient-dense foods such as nuts and fruits. In countries where consumption isn’t as frequent, Fisberg said, yogurt is a “window of lost opportunities.”

Read More


Wilbur Olin Atwater

Best known for fathering modern nutrition in the United States, for pioneering nutrition research and education in the country, and for having developed the system of measuring energy in food that is used throughout the world today, a lesser known fact about USDA’s first chief of nutritional investigations Wilbur Olin Atwater was that he also fought for our right to enjoy a good stiff drink.

In the early 1880s, the US temperance movement was in full force and widely promoted the myth that alcoholic beverages were “poison,” destructive to families, and that drinking them served only to fill the greedy pockets of saloons and breweries. One of the most influential women in the movement was Mary Hunt, who in alliance with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had managed to convince politicians to pass laws that required physiology textbooks in schools to encourage complete abstinence of alcohol and its prohibition.

Vehemently protesting the measure was Atwater, arguing that alcohol was not “poison” and that children should only be taught the “simple facts” supported by science and that those facts be free of “exaggerated theories” and “errors.” But, for his position, he suffered personal criticism by Hunt, as well as attacks on his career and on his funding from the USDA, even his ability to publish scientific papers.

David Allison

David Allison

Biostatistician David Allison, professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and 2014 recipient of the W.O. Atwater Lectureship awarded by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), drew parallels between Atwater’s and some of his own experiences, such as his publications regarding the science of sugar-sweetened beverages, in fighting for rigorous research in obesity and nutrition.

In his lecture given on Tuesday, April 29, at Experimental Biology in San Diego, Dr. Allison said, “As you see, these things are repeating today. I think we need to try to try to learn those lessons from history, try to come out in favor of truthfulness in science, saying what we believe, and being able to engage in dialogue without trying to shut each other down.”

When we take the long view, Dr. Allison said, there has been positive progress made across the field of nutrition science at a practical level. For example, we have effectively eliminated lead and other toxins from our wine and foods. We have made many advances in agriculture and have come to understand much about nutrition, which has allowed us to radically reduce hunger and nutrient deficiencies in most of the developed world. Read More

Man can't help eating

It’s certainly tempting to think of some foods as being addictive. Buttered popcorn and doughnuts with sprinkles come to mind. These highly palatable, sugar- and fat-stuffed goodies are clearly “junk foods,” but does unrestrained splurging on them really a food junkie make?

An Internet search would lead you to believe so—not only that “food addiction” is real, but also in offering ways to recognize signs and symptoms, take self-diagnosis “quizzes”, and going as far as giving advice on treatment of our sugar- and fat-hijacked brains and their dopamine-reward systems.

“When you google ‘food addiction,’ Fox News gives you not one but seven ways to beat it,” said James Hill, professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, in a symposium on Monday, April 28, in San Diego at Experimental Biology. “The concept of food addiction is becoming widely accepted, but a critical evaluation is needed.”

In a earlier interview with ASN, the session’s co-chair Michael Kelley, Senior Principal Scientist for the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, said that the goal of the RIS was to have a comprehensive session that evaluated “where we stand” on the issues such as terminology used, mechanism of action, methodologies, and outcome measures. “Central to the review will be questions of what current technologies tell us, what they are not capable of telling us, and where we should go from there,” he said. Read More


It’s been called “deadly,” “toxic,” and “poison”. Today there’s no shortage of books, news articles, and journal articles singling out the sweet substance as the scapegoat for all of society’s ills. These include obesity, metabolic syndrome factors such as high blood pressure, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Providing the most recent fodder for anti-sugar headlines in several media channels was the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to halve intake of sugar in draft guidelines released on March 5 for public consultation (now closed). It provided strong recommendations to reduce intake of free sugars and to limit intake of free sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day, as well as a conditional recommendation to further reduce free sugars to below 5 percent of calories for additional benefits for body weight and dental caries.

But what does the evidence really say about sugar’s impact on health to warrant such low doses? How does it really compare with other sources of carbohydrates and calories in foods and beverages? And, is the focus on fructose as a monosaccharide warranted in finding a real answer to improving public health? Challenging the WHO and others for spreading fears about sugar unfairly were scientists in a symposium on Saturday, April 26. The event, supported and sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association, took place during the American Society for Nutrition 2014 Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology in San Diego. Read More

caution2Most are familiar with the typical cautionary statement, “please consult with your physician before using this exercise equipment or beginning any exercise program.” It’s a well-intended message designed to be responsible and keep people safe.

But scientists called for public warnings with exactly the opposite message at a satellite symposium that was organized by the American Society for Nutrition on Friday, April 25. The event, sponsored by Herbalife Nutrition Institute, took place at Experimental Biology in San Diego.

Endocrinologist Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, reminded that a sedentary lifestyle has disastrous pathologic consequences. He said that, combined with obesity, physical inactivity leads to abdominal adiposity, visceral fat, chronic systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, and ultimately diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Underlining the consequence of protein breakdown due to physical inactivity, Dr. Heber counseled that the muscle loss and a subsequent drop in resting metabolic rate puts the U.S. population at risk of widespread sarcopenic obesity. Muscle burns 30 Kcals per kilogram versus fat’s only 6 Kcals per kilogram, he reminds. Read More


ASN Logo
In a textbook or dictionary, science is generally described as being about experiments and observations. But scientists know better than that. They know that science is just as much about sharing data, comparing data, having arguments about data, coming up with theories, and shooting theories down. It’s there that the road to scientific consensus lies and that holds true, especially, in nutrition science. No, scientific consensus in nutrition does not happen with the rising popularity of any diet book. No, consensus does not depend on how much media attention one study garners versus that of another or how cleverly written the headlines and stories have been.

Regardless of whatever the content is of current bestsellers on Amazon, or whether The New York Times reports on it or not, or whether or not a study appears in Nature, the fact is that scientific consensus is reached only after scientists reach agreement on any topic. This is why it’s not an exaggeration to say that some of the most meaningful (and interesting) moments that lead to the advancement of scientific consensus in nutrition science — and other sciences — really takes place at one meeting annually.

This year, that meeting happens on April 26-30 in San Diego, California. Experimental Biology is a gathering of more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six different sponsoring scientific societies and multiple guest societies. If you can’t be there, you can still follow every bit of the excitement on Twitter using the hashtag #XBio. It’s where science happens.

One of the sponsoring societies is The American Society for Nutrition (ASN), of which I belong to, and it’s my privilege to once again cover their conference as an “official blogger” for a third year in a row. You can check this blog regularly for updates or follow my twitter feed @daviddespain. From past years, I know the one thing I can promise is a deluge of scientific developments along with lively discussion. The full program is found at the ASN website (PDF here). Below is a sample of some of the sessions I’m interested in attending, covering, or watching for coverage about:

ASN Bloggers

That’s a lot to cover and there’s still plenty more. But this time I’m also glad to report that I’ll have help in blogging the ASN conference.

  • Nutrition science doctoral student Colby Vorland is a long-time Twitter friend (@nutsci) and has a brilliant blog at
  • Judging by the program this year, it’s going to be a challenge to make it to so many interesting sessions. Good thing we’ll be joined by a runner on the official blogging team this year in the form of UC Davis doctoral student Debbie Fetter (@DebFets).
  • There will also be two official video bloggers this year including Barbara Lyle, Ph.D. (@BJoLyle), and Emily Tomayko, Ph.D., RD (@EmilyTomayko).
  • Also worthy of mention is ASN member Michael McBurney, Ph.D., (@MIMcBurney) who covers nutrition science for the DSM blog.

You can most easily read our updates by regularly checking the ASN blog and by following the @nutritionorg Twitter feed. For a fantastic ASN preview, see this post by Meghan Johnson, MPH (@m_elisabeth_j), which offers a “taste” of what’s to come from what are sure to be some of the other most anticipated sessions at the meeting.

Other Meeting Bloggers

With six participating scientific societies represented at XBio, there will be no shortage of topics to cover from the conference. They include the American Physiological Society (APS), American Association of Anatomists (AAA), American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), and American Society for Investigative Pathology (ASIP). Fortunately, some of these societies will also have members blogging and tweeting out highlights from the meetings to share and I’ve compiled a list of them here:

Want a reminder of all that happened last year? Check out my #EB2013 roundup.


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