Diets and diets

Daniel Engber has an interesting article up in Slate today about gluten-intolerance. Well, I wouldn’t call it a news article so much as a review-plus-editorial, really. But still, thoughtful and interesting.*

This article made me feel defensive. I don’t have Celiac Disease or a gluten-intolerance, but I do have an autoimmune digestive disease, and like many people with such illnesses, I have had to live with my share of food intolerances and a pretty sensitive gut. I started feeling the painful effects of lactose intolerance pretty young (and that was while continuing to eat a steady quantity of lactose-containing foods, not after increasing or decreasing my consumption). My intestine really just sucks at some things.

And there is some evidence that diets that restrict certain difficult-to-digest foods might alleviate symptoms (long-term, not just as a short-term effect like the one Engber describes) of these kinds of diseases. A popular diet to try for this “treatment” is the alleged research precursor to the gluten-free diet, now known as the Specific Carbohydrate Diet. The SCD is extreme and it is difficult to maintain; and because of the side effect of food restriction that Engber discusses in some detail in his article (that your body rapidly stops producing digestive enzymes you no longer need), it is actually dangerous to start and stop the SCD in fits and starts, if you have an immune disease that is triggered by the presence in your gut of substances you can’t properly digest. It’s practically a one-way ticket to a major flare-up. That said, unscientific as it may be, the patient testimony is impressive: done strictly**, the SCD may have success rates for maintenance of remission that are not unlike many of the medications prescribed for autoimmune digestive diseases (how much it can do in an active flare is less clear, I think). I don’t recommend the SCD or think doctors should prescribe it, because it is so difficult, but it probably does work.

I was a patient on the SCD for three years and saw a long-term lessening of symptoms and very long remissions of my disease. I have now reintroduced almost all of the restricted foods (hooray!) and am still in that remission, though sooner or later I will probably have another flare-up, and would have even if I had stuck with it (the diet is not a cure. There is no cure). Reintroducing foods after being on that kind of diet is tricky, no doubt about it, and I do believe that’s related to the issues Engber raises about how enzymes work in our digestive systems. But I don’t especially regret that.

The fact that “going G-free” means eating fewer cupcakes and less pasta suggests another source of relief. It is, after all, an elaborate diet—and so delivers all the psychological benefits of controlled eating and self-denial. “Once G-free, you are no longer simply robot-eating bag after bag of pretzels,” writes Hasselbeck, in a chapter of her book titled “G-Free and Slim as Can Be!” Gluten intolerance may be a medical condition, but according to Hasselbeck, it’s also an approach to eating—like South Beach or Skinny Bitch—that’s supposed to make you lose weight and feel good about your body.

Here he hits the nail on the head. Well, on the one hand, some people will use any new trend or idea to push weight loss, and for a profit. But that’s not what I mean. The mentality that comes along with being on a strict, restrictive eating regimen for disease management is essentially the same as the one that pops up with any weight loss dieting (including “lifestyle changes”), and they are both basically the same as the psychology of disordered eating. Honestly, it took a long while before the SCD was so second-nature that I stopped thinking about it. But I think that while “dieting for health” (ugh, I hate to call it that. I do not think healthy = thin; I’m really only talking about disease management) can absolutely lead a person into obsession and orthorexia, it is nonetheless different in some ways: If you are truly removing a few foods from your daily diet because they make you extremely ill, there’s no reason to reduce everything else. And it’s not about guilt or being a bad person if you mess up — it’s about not putting yourself in agony or even in danger. When it’s really, truly for your health, because you will hurt or be on an operating table or die otherwise***, 1) it is much more of a necessity, and 2) there’s no reason to stop enjoying the rest of your food, or to stop figuring out filling, satisfying substitutes for the things you can’t eat anymore. That’s why after a while I was able to stop thinking about it and to get back to a mentally healthier place. I wasn’t reducing quantity, I was still getting every necessary nutrient (the diet is decidedly not low-carb), and I was enjoying my food and eating until satiation every day. Intuitive eating is decidedly more difficult but is possible while on a gluten-free diet.

Frankly, overall I think I benefited from trying a poorly studied and controversial dietary treatment. Maybe that was dumb luck. But my gut had a chance to heal (a result that Engber acknowledges) and that did me worlds of good. I don’t know if I’d put myself through it again, but I am probably today at a lower maintenance medication dose than I would be otherwise. (If you don’t know how medicating works with autoimmune diseases: many of those illnesses become drug-dependent, so that over time you need stronger and stronger medication to treat flares and maintain remissions. Staying in remission on a low dose of one of the less-nasty treatments is a huge long-term benefit.)

I’m also a scientist. The graphs Engber includes in his article are compelling, though I wonder how big those spikes are when the y-axis isn’t normalized, or when you consider any of the hundred other factors that might have been occurring concurrently. Assuming causation there because the peaks line up (what is with the time lag in one plot, though, and not in the other?) is fun and exciting for my brain, but it isn’t the best science. I do like to do the best science!****

For what it’s worth, the additional expense of eating gluten-free (which I basically did for a long time, even after leaving the fanatical SCD) is minor. Rice pasta is pricey but rice itself is cheap, and in a pinch I could have been making a lot more straight-up rice and still been eating filling, tasty foods. And I wouldn’t take a dietmonger’s advice on how to eat G-free to lose weight as normal behavior among people who don’t eat gluten – a great many people are not embarrassed about our needs and would never throw a cookie on the floor because somehow that would be less rude than just politely saying “no thanks.” And only assholes are annoyed because their friends, family, or guests have allergies. Get better friends.

Ironically, the people who may benefit most from the current vogue are those who have been G-free all along. The proliferation of gluten-free products has made life for a full-blown celiac easier than it’s ever been, and a greater awareness of gluten-related disorders has more celiac patients getting diagnosed than ever before. (There are still thought to be millions of undiagnosed cases in the United States.) Let’s hope those gains aren’t erased when the conventional wisdom shifts again and we leave this diet craze behind us.

This is a major reason I’m writing this post. I suspect Engber has not personally been gluten-intolerant, or made meals regularly with someone who is. That proliferation of products means that if you truly cannot eat wheat, your life is now SO MUCH EASIER than it was 5 or 10 years ago. And going after gluten-free products as superfluous seems misdirected. People DO benefit immensely from the widespread and ready availability of those foods. Maybe only 1% of people, but that’s still a lot of people. I frankly do not care if those foods are so much more available now because there was a fad diet that made them popular.

The diet mentality goes much deeper than gluten-free, or lactose-intolerant, or whatever-the-hell is the latest not-well-tolerated food (that might or might not follow the latest diet craze that eliminated that same food). Dieting is socially pervasive, and predicated on this weird systemic belief that we are all incredibly unhealthy and that that makes us bad people. (Oh and unattractive, which makes us even worse people.) Self-denial is penance. If you try to point out that we are living longer, healthier lives than ever, they want to plug up their ears and yell LALALALA. Oh and Daniel Engber, I’m sure the continuation of these mindsets and promotion of fad diets has nothing whatsoever to do with anyone in your line of work. Just saying. (Though I don’t mean you. You’re pretty okay.)

* The title annoys me, though. No, we are not being “too tolerant of gluten-intolerance.” People deserve compassion and, yes, tolerance for their needs and choices. What are you going to do, shame someone for not eating gluten?

** The motto of people on the SCD is “fanatical adherence.” Not even joking.

*** No, “obesity” really doesn’t count, and if you don’t know why, go here or here, to start.

**** There is something to the gut flora argument, however. Even post-SCD but still gluten-free, my microbes were not happy campers. Well, some of them were. Just not the ones I wanted. Anecdatal support!


All this whining about how being a Latina — and saying outright that she draws on that experience — prevents her from being properly objective is driving me bonkers.

I’m sure that white people and male people are so perfect that they never draw on their white and male experiences in order to understand the world and ethics and law. Being white and male means you’re objective, of course.

That was sarcasm. IT IS NOT TRUE, PEOPLE. Treating white and male as the default mode of being and all deviations from that as… well, deviations, is factually incorrect. The white male experience is no more default and no more inherently objective than any other human experience. And thinking critically about how your experience as a white man is affected by living in a society that favors certain groups over others would not be particularly less objective than ignoring those social effects and pretending they don’t exist while still experiencing them. Likewise, thinking critically about how your experience as a person of color and as a woman are affected by living in a society that favors certain groups over others is not less “objective” than ignoring those effects. The assumption actually seems to be that paying attention to those things is “subjective” entirely because it makes the favored group uncomfortable. Seriously? No one is required to make sure you are comfortable. I see that you don’t want to have to think about those favors you are receiving — I mean, it’s not like you asked for them, so you aren’t bad people!!! Dudes, someone else having it unfairly hard is not about you. For a second, I know it’s tough, but something is not about you. Shut up.

July Accretionary Wedge: Inspiration

It’s time for the Accretionary Wedge! If you recall, this month’s topic is your inspiration to study geoscience.

It was really fun to read these. A lot of you guys started out loving science and even geology in particular as kids, and you just stuck with it. I admire that! Lots of others just fell into it, like I did.


Lockwood tells about his lifelong fascination with science, starting with a great book as a kid and continuing through school, with some encouragement by great teachers. He ended up in geology by process of elimination after some lousy biology and chemistry classes, and stayed there because of a great and engaging teacher. Bob Jamieson talks about his experiences with exposure to geoscience over the years — by seeing great local geology growing up, by taking science classes in high school, and by just little bits and pieces that added up to an interest in the subject.

Ian Stimson can’t sing, so he had the opportunity to sample some geology instead of singing in the choir. His coursework steered him into taking geology, which at first he thought was all right. And later realized was completely awesome, of course. John at Karmasotra says he just knew he wanted a job outside. He decided to add geology to his coursework after reading a book that made it sound cool, and took a class from a teacher who was a little out of date and still teaching continental drift! crazy!

Michael Welland at Through the Sandglass says he had an early interest in geology, found through family trips and great books. And he acknowledges that after being discouraged for a while, connections with the right people helped him get inspired again. Geology Happens reports that “in high school… I found that the landscapes I had been walking, climbing. biking and canoeing through had stories that could be teased out of the rock. It seemed that by following a few simple rules anyone could piece together this tale. I was hooked. What other field allowed me to be outside all the time and to do real science?”

Silver Fox at Looking for Detachment has a geologist for a father, which exposed her to the topic, but it wasn’t until that awesome intro class that she decided to give up on the history major and try out geology herself. Apparently Silver Fox and I are twins (except for the geologist father part).

Short Geologist planned to study archaeology, but decided after that terrific intro class that geology was an exciting alternative that actually might lead to a job. And Jim Lehane followed that childhood dream of digging up dinosaurs all the way through grad school! That’s almost up there with planning to be an astronaut and actually doing it. A Life-Long Scholar didn’t want to work, but enjoyed school, so she took classes at multiple universities without ever declaring a major. Once she learned that grad students get paid to continue in school, though, she found some direction, and wound up in geology because there wasn’t a single required class she didn’t want to take. “Six years of being a full-time University student, and I’d finally found the course I wished to study! Very little time elapsed from that moment until I’d applied and transferred to another University, in another state, and became a Geology Major.”

Anne Jefferson says in her guest post at Highly Allochthonous that she was first inspired to study geology for her high school science fair project because it was not related to the science her parents studied, and she was a little rebellious! Her project was about fracturing in a Wisconsin sandstone. Tuff Cookie always wanted to be a geologist, and the more she learned, the more she was sure about that. And playing with lava at Kilauea cemented her resolve to be a volcanologist.

Jim Repka realized he wanted his professor’s job on a great intro field trip, after years of trying to study geology without a lot of luck. It took a long time to get through school, but with luck and determination and good teachers along the way, he’s gotten to where he wants to be. Garry Hayes had interests in geologic things but little exposure to academic earth science before going to college. As he says, “It worked something like natural selection: I had the interest (crystals and fossils), and I had some of the basic skills (maps and compasses), I just hadn’t found the field in which the skills and interests would be useful. Once I entered the correct situation, those pre-adaptations allowed me to survive!”

Thanks for all of your submissions! Check in at the Accretionary Wedge for next month’s topic!

My inspiration

Time for me to answer my own question: how did I end up here?

I think I have followed a more or less classic geologist path. I had the little kid inspiration, the stage of forgetting about it because barely any earth science is taught in high schools, and then the fabulous intro teacher in college that sucked me back in, and the rest is history.

in the field

So there was this guy who would come to our elementary school to give presentations for the kids. They would book him for an “assembly,” which would last about an hour, and he would give big slide shows for the whole school in the gym/auditorium/cafeteria. They were the fanciest slide shows I had ever seen: two big projector screens with two slide projectors running simultaneously. He would get one student to work each projector and cue the slides by waving his arms. And the talks were always really well put-together. He was a reptile biologist by training (the one exception to the slide show assembly format was the reptiles one, when he would bring in his reptiles and show us some awesome snakes), but he had enough knowledge of general science to be able to teach on other topics. And one assembly he gave was about geology.

This was the mid- to late 80s, so right around the start of plate tectonics. None of us had ever heard any of that before, and he used slides and these great foam models to demonstrate subduction and volcanism at plate boundaries. He also had fabulous earthquake offset and volcano eruption pictures. I was so excited. I loved how logical the theory was, and how exciting it was to think about volcanoes and earthquakes.

And there was a series of very elementary science books in my school library. I forget what they were called, but the title of the series was a question (how does it work? what is it? something like that). I read all of them, but after the earth science assembly I went back and checked out the geology one again, even though by then it was way below my reading level. Except that the book probably pre-dated plate tectonics, which I didn’t know at the time, and I was disappointed that it was just a catalog of rocks and minerals and didn’t talk about tectonics. Still, I totally wanted a rock collection, and if the book hadn’t said that rock specimens needed to be at least 3″ in length I would have started one right then. (After all, where was I going to find a rock that big around my parents’ house? They were all little 1-2″ glacial cobbles. Of quartz. Every rock I ever found there was quartz. boring!)

Fast forward to high school. There had been a bit of earth science exposure during the science survey class we took eighth grade (we did a fun project with testing “well samples” for “contamination” using chemical indicators, and then mapping the path of a fictional groundwater contaminating plume — it’s the only thing I remember from that whole class), but otherwise science in my town focused on the usuals: chemistry, biology, and physics. I liked those subjects but didn’t love them. And the Earth Science class in my high school was not on an honors track, so I had no room for it in my high-achiever schedule. I basically forgot that I liked geology.

I did like history, though. The history classes taught in more than half of my public school years were American history, which was very recent, and usually that started with colonialism and made it about as far as the Civil War. One year they started at the Civil War and made it all the way to the Depression, but except for AP American History, none of my classes got farther than that. Meaning almost all of the history I took in school was on the same exact subject, over and over, with almost no context. In 7th grade they jumped back to Ancient Civilizations, and in I think 10th grade there was some world history in there. But until AP American and AP Euro there was nothing connecting those things: a bit of ancient civilizations, a little bit of late European history, a whole lot of American history from colonialism until maybe the 1890s or so, and then nothing to connect it to my life here and now. Frankly, it drove me crazy. And when I finally had teachers and those AP subjects that connected the dots even a little bit, I was so happy to know what had happened beforewhy things were the way they were at, say, the start of the American Revolution. Or even now! I also loved languages. I started French in 6th grade and stuck with it through college, and I was also blown away by seeing Old and Middle English in my English classes (not that we read any Old English, but I saw what it looked like). So I decided I would study those things in college. I wanted to study history because I wanted to know why things are the way they are, including linguistics and etymology.

Okay, so after that long intro, the fact is that I never took a history class in college. I’m putting that right out there. And geology is to blame. I did sign up for a year of latin, figuring I might declare my major in Medieval Studies so I could study history + medieval linguistics. But at my alma mater we were encouraged to take chances and branch out our first year, to get that liberal arts education and try new things. When I saw that they offered an introductory class in Geology, remembering how much I liked it as a 9-year-old, I decided to try it. And before I knew it I was reading my entire textbook for fun in my room when no one was looking. I had planned to study history because I wanted to know what came before, and why things are the way they are — and that’s what geology is. Except it goes just a little bit further back, so it’s even better! (sorry, historians.) Plus scientific critical thinking was like a set of logic problems from a puzzle book, and I always loved those. For some reason that didn’t click in high school, but with geology it clicked.

So there was pretty much no looking back. I was stuck with that year of latin, of which I remember nothing, and I did later pick up some archaeology and art history on the side, but geology was it, and I knew it by the end of that first weekly field trip. I mean, hello, dinosaur footprints down the road? seriously?? To be fair to my professors, that class was designed explicitly to suck in new majors (as all good intros should), and later classes were just as exciting and engaging, and so I owe so much of my enthusiasm not just to the subject itself but to them. And later, when I had to start thinking about possible career paths, I realized that what I wanted to do most of all was be my advisor. I wanted to give other people that moment of realizing this is it omgomg, just like he and the other faculty there had done for me. And as a teacher, that’s the rush for me — when it clicks and a student suddenly gets it. Is there anything better than that?

Oh, I also liked the field trips. Getting to visit some of the most spectacular places in the world — for work — that’s not bad, either.


Just a reminder that the deadline for Accretionary Wedge submissions for July is today! I’ll accept them until midnight. Thanks for all of the submissions so far! I’ll put the carnival up by the end of next week.


My fabulous friend, an other volcanista, has alerted me to this exciting news: Dr. Marcia McNutt has been nominated by President Obama as Director of the USGS!

The Department of Interior press release and her website both report many details about Dr. McNutt’s career, but I want to repeat some of them here. McNutt got her PhD in geophysics from Scripps, worked at the University of Minnesota and the USGS (on earthquake prediction), and then held a faculty appointment at MIT, where she was the Director of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program. She served as President of AGU (the ginormous geoscience society with its annual December Geoscientists-Take-Over-Frisco meeting) from 2000-2002. She did lots of other prestigious things along the way that you can go read about, and lately has been the president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

McNutt is the first woman ever nominated to run the USGS. Finally. And she is also fucking awesome.

Paleoclimate students arrested

Kim at All of my Faults is passing on the news that U.S. and Brazilian students conducting paleoclimate research have been arrested in Brazil, presumably for not having all the correct paperwork, and could be held there for months to years pending trial. There is an open letter here, and you can email to co-sign the letter to Brazilian authorities. Please pass on the information.