Experimental Biology: Where Science Happens


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 www.nutsci.org.
  • 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.

‘The Diet Fix’: How to fix your broken diet… with chocolate

Bariatric physician Dr. Yoni Freedhoff felt so compelled to write a book on dieting that, on a momentous day in 2009, he holed himself up in a 500-square-foot shack in northern Ontario with no Internet, no cable television, and no cell phone reception. Forty-eight hours later he’d written 30,000 words of which he used to craft a book proposal for what would become the beginnings of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work (to be released on March 4 and available for pre-order at Amazon now).

Dr. Freedhoff’s inspiration had come two years before, just after he’d finished writing his share of a handbook for clinicians, which he co-authored with Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine and chair of obesity management at the University of Alberta. It was then that Dr. Freedhoff thought that the public deserved a book with a clinician’s advice. The Diet Fix draws from nearly a decade of Dr. Freedhoff’s clinical experience as founder and medical director at the Bariatric Medical Institute at the University of Ottawa—more than 13,500 hours, and nearly 40,000 one-on-one patient interactions.

Summing up what he’s learned over all that time about what was missing from his early days in helping patients, Dr. Freedhoff writes, “It was prescriptions for chocolate.”

In a time where more than 37,000 books currently make up the “diet and weight loss” category on Amazon, it’s practical advice based on clinical experience that sets the book apart from others. And, it’s a positive message that any food, such as chocolate, is not off the table.

The book is not a repeat of calorie-counting basics. Nor does it prescribe some foods while forbidding others. Nor does it espouse any specific “good/bad diet,” “scientific or pseudoscientific diet,” “crash diet,” “exercise diet,” “magic pill diet,” or “eat smarter diet.” The book’s message is simple: Any diet can work with the right know-how. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the actual foods people eat while on any one of a number of popular diets—be it low-fat or low-carb, vegetarian or paleo, Ornish or Atkins, mostly “processed” or “whole”. These diets (plus many others) all successfully produce weight loss, according to the scientific literature.

“At the end of the day, all diets work, every last one. Even diets with nonsensical approaches can help people lose weight,” according Dr. Freedhoff.

Why, then, do the majority of dieters fail to lose weight and keep it off? Blame it on hundreds of millions of years of human evolution that has made hunger a physiological force to be reckoned with, Dr. Freedhoff argues. Then, combine that hunger with human nature’s inherent drive to satisfy our pleasure-related desires. “We’re just not built to needlessly suffer forever,” he writes.Continue reading “‘The Diet Fix’: How to fix your broken diet… with chocolate”

A reprisal from the breakfast club

Allison figure from AJCN
“Hypothetical model of how BRR [biased research reporting] and RLPV [research lacking probative value] may be involved in perpetuation presumptions” [or, an accurate representation of David’s thinking process]. Source: Brown, Bohan Brown, Allison. AJCN. 2013.
Breakfast is still the most important meal of the day. Excuse me if I’m a little biased. Apparently, I’m not alone. I like to eat breakfast. I’ve long told everyone they should eat breakfast. And I make sure my children eat breakfast every day, often cooking up their favorite sorts of breakfast meals on the weekends.

Breakfast is a great time to eat the types of foods (like yogurt and muesli, granola, cereal, or egg omelets) that can provide valuable nutrients like protein, calcium, iron, and a range of vitamins. For nutritionists, that’s a big deal. These nutrients are especially important in children and teens, who should be eating breakfast daily to better concentrate in school and who might not get these nutrients in other meals.

Besides, it’s useful to remind that eating breakfast can help you avoid weight gain by satisfying your appetite and keeping you from bingeing on high-sugar, high-fat foods later in the day. That’s a well-known fact. Everyone knows that, right?

So on that morning last September when well-respected researchers Andrew Brown, Michelle Bohan Brown, and David Allison of the University of Alabama at Birmingham dared to question breakfast’s sanctity in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1), I just figured I’d ignore it. “Discarded information,” that’s all it was.

Continue reading “A reprisal from the breakfast club”

In defense of better junk food


Not too long ago, I had the luck of joining a small group of food scientists in touring P.F. Chang’s headquarters, in Scottsdale, Ariz. We were led through a maze of test kitchens and that’s where I came to appreciate how the restaurant company decides what ends up on their menus. Our tour guide was the senior product development manager for the company’s “fast casual” spinoff Pei Wei Asian Diner. He gave us a brief look into his job traveling through countries like China, Vietnam, and Thailand looking for the “best of the best” of ingredients. “It all began with the sauce,” he said, “flavor was king.” Then came the decision of what food items (e.g. chicken) on which to place the sauce. Once a novel concept was thoroughly developed came sensory analysis testing with trained focus groups and, finally, pilot runs at a handful of restaurants. Collecting pilot data was a critical step to be sure a product wouldn’t fail once launched. He gave examples of some of his successes and that’s when I became curious.

Continue reading “In defense of better junk food”

Review: For God, Country, & Coca-Cola (revised 3rd Edition)

coca cola

When Mark Pendergrast was a boy, his mother refused to allow Coca-Cola in the house. She told him it would rot his teeth, disturb his sleep, and pollute his body with chemicals. Her warnings backfired, however, only making “something mysterious and enticing about the dark, bubbly liquid.” He’d go on to sneak a sip of the forbidden drink at a friend’s house, a moment he describes as when “nothing has ever tasted so sinfully good.”

The soft drink was far from the witches’ brew he was led to believe, although there was some wickedness in it. As another surreptitious Coke drinker described it, Pendergrast writes, “the effervescence was boldly astringent and as clean as a knife; the flavor suggested the corrupt spices of Araby and a hint, perhaps, of brimstone.”Continue reading “Review: For God, Country, & Coca-Cola (revised 3rd Edition)”

Want to stick it to Monsanto? March for public investment and open data

Cacao seeds

A while back, I interviewed a plant geneticist who expressed extreme frustration over the measly funds that were available for research into biotechnology.

The scientist’s own research was quite exciting in and of itself because of its potential to profoundly improve current agricultural problems across the world by improving yield, while reducing fertilizer overuse.

Intrigued, I asked the scientist about possibilities of commercializing the plant varieties soon. In response, I was told there were only a few companies motivated to invest in the research and there was little chance of raising public funds — given wide sentiment against genetic engineering.

The only hope, the plant researcher said, was that Monsanto would be interested and, then, the scientist suggested — off the record — to me that, “maybe Monsanto likes it that way.” Without competition from other companies or public funds, the company basically had cornered the market on opportunities regarding agricultural biotechnology.Continue reading “Want to stick it to Monsanto? March for public investment and open data”

Is it time to stop blaming insulin for “fat storage”?

insulin paths
Source: Saltiel & Kahn 2001.

Crack open any physiology textbook and chances are you’ll learn that after eating any normal meal, the release of insulin from the pancreas then signals the shutdown of the release of fatty acids from adipose (body fat) tissue and the increase of fatty acid uptake.

Because of this well-known role of insulin, one of the more puzzling explanations offered by some – including a few respected scientists and medical professionals — for weight gain is that elevated insulin is to blame because of its involvement in “fat storage”. In addition, they argue that the reason why a diet lower in carbohydrates works for weight loss is because of reduced levels of the peptide hormone.

It’s an easy conclusion to make. The logic goes that carbohydrates through their stimulation of insulin are fattening beyond their contribution of energy as kilocalories. It doesn’t matter how much you eat, so long as you avoid carbs to lose weight.

Continue reading “Is it time to stop blaming insulin for “fat storage”?”

When my former girlfriend told me she was dying

breast cancer stages 

“It’s too late, David. I’m dying,” she told me.

“No. No. That’s impossible,” I said. “You’re only 24.”

Less than 0.1 percent of all breast cancers occurred in women under 30 years of age from 1975 to 2000, according to the National Cancer Institute. In comparison to older women, those young women who were diagnosed had lower survival rates. My former girlfriend, Angie, was one of these young women and I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t deserve (nor does anyone) her diagnosis. She could not have played any role in causing the cancer anymore than anyone else. She had no family history of breast cancer. And I’d challenge anyone’s absurd assertion that its etiology had anything to do with more than just the fickle finger of fate.

Continue reading “When my former girlfriend told me she was dying”

How lutein and zeaxanthin earned the limelight


When light enters the human eye it passes through the cornea, pupil, and lens to focus on an area of light-sensitive tissue called the retina. Near the center of the retina of the eye is a light yellow spot called the macula. It’s here where lutein and zeaxanthin concentrate to form macular pigment to filter out excess blue and ultraviolet light — acting much like a pair of sunglasses would — and protecting the macula’s high concentration of rods and cones responsible for central vision from their possible degradation. Here is a short story about how lutein and zeaxanthin gained the limelight for eye health:

Blazing the trail dressed in yellow

In the Fall of 1996, a couple of oddly dressed men caused quite the stir when they dropped in on the first day of the American Association of Ophthalmology annual meeting taking place in Chicago. The pair showed up wearing bright yellow blazers that made them appear more like members of musical group than attendees of a scientific conference.Continue reading “How lutein and zeaxanthin earned the limelight”

Roundup of EB2013 highlights from bloggers (and others)


Now that a week of science at Experimental Biology 2013 has ended, I’ve taken a look around to see what others found that I may have missed while I was in Boston. Again, as mentioned in my preview of the conference, the American Society for Nutrition’s Scientific Sessions alone had more than 1,900 abstracts and dozens of symposia this year. It was the largest to date!

Fortunately, there were other writers at the conference who were able to catch a few of the other sessions. Below is a roundup of blog posts and other coverage that I found from other meeting bloggers and through connections from Twitter.  Continue reading “Roundup of EB2013 highlights from bloggers (and others)”