Health news headlines include problems from too much red meat protein, decoding ancient grain genomes and the wonderful world of our microbiome. As always, there was plenty of interesting news, far too much for one post. So here are my top five picks, with commentary, from the latest batch of health news headlines.
Red meat and our health
Protein from red meat, including both pork and beef, makes health news headlines. Red meat protein is associated with higher rates of kidney disease in a large Chinese study. Two large U.S. studies tie eating more red meat to higher death rates.
The Chinese study concentrated on pork consumption. The U.S. studies looked at all red meats with special attention to processed meats like cured sausages. Eating less protein from red meat and more protein from plant sources was healthier. More red meat equated to higher rates of kidney disease and all-cause mortality. Increased consumption of processed red meats was the worst case scenario for health.
This should not be a surprise to anyone. Evidence has been trickling in for decades(or longer) of the negative impact of too much animal protein on our health. And it makes sense.
For all the popularity of the “paleo” diet and the great story of our hunting, meat-eating ancestors, plants cannot run away. All ancient hunter/gatherers undoubtedly ate many more calories from plant sources than from meat protein or animal fats. Plants simply require much less effort and are much more available.
The elimination of legumes, grains and some other food groups from paleo diets always bothered me. Does anyone really believe a group of hungry hunter/gatherers would pass up a patch of ripe grain seed-heads or dried bean pods? It makes sense that grain flours were not part of their daily diet, but nobody is going to pass up easy food, especially food that doesn’t spoil easily.
It is much more likely that our paleo ancestors ate a mostly plant-based diet accented by occasional lean wild game. They certainly were not eating fatty grain-fed beef and pork every day. And any kind of butter or rendered animal fats like lard must have been a very rare treat.
The things that live in us
Our gut bacteria is third in this health news headlines round-up. Some scientists wanted to know how long our but bacteria have been with us. Advances in DNA technology allowed them to find out.
DNA evidence shows that some of the bacteria living in our digestive tract have been there since before we were even humans. Some of the bacterial lineages were traced back nearly 16 million years. Species of bacteria were found to split at the same time that species of apes split. We, and our inner flora, evolved together.
This helps explain the many functions our bodies have handed over to the bacteria. For instance, much of our actual digestion, vitamin formation and absorption is taken care of by our gut bacteria. Most of our immune system also seems to be controlled by this digestive community. There is growing suspicion that many hormones and brain chemicals might also take orders from bacteria living in us.
No wonder antibiotics can have such profound effects on our digestion and moods. No wonder that too many pesticide and herbicide residues can impact our health. No wonder that an overabundance of sugar, white flour and other simple carbohydrates in our diets can lead to serious and chronic diseases.
Our microbiome evolved with us over many millions of years. Our bodies have entrusted critically important functions to these bacteria. These tiny friends take good care of us. We need to start taking better care of them.
Unraveling how our food crops were domesticated
Archeologists, botanists, biologists and geneticists are working together to piece together how our modern food crops were domesticated. An international team has read the complete genome of 6,000 year old barley grains from the fertile crescent. They found amazing similarities to the modern domestic strains still grown in the area.
It is also apparent how much the domesticated grain differs from the wild strains, even that far back. The path of breeding for larger grains and bigger yields was already well established. What surprised was how little dilution there was from other strains from outside the area. Apparently invaders were content to grow the native stains rather than bring their own.
This type of research could give us real insight into the beginnings of agriculture and how our modern crops developed over the millennia. Changing climate makes these issues even more important. We might need this knowledge to ensure a stable food supply in the future.
Friendly bacteria might save us from deadly infections
There are several strains of staphylococcus bacteria. Staphylococcus lugdunensis is friendly and usually lives in our noses. Just another part of our normal microbiome. Staphylococcus aureus in not so friendly and usually lives on our skin. This is the strain that is usually in the health news headlines.
The aureus strain is responsible for many serious infections and deaths every year. It has become resistant to the most commonly used antibiotics. It is MRSA: multiple resistant staphylococcus aureus. It is almost certainly a man-made mutation caused by overuse of common antibiotics in both people and food animals.
Aureus would also prefer to live in our noses but is only found there when lugdunensis is missing. Why would this be? Why would one of the most persistent and deadly bacteria not share space with a close relative?
Because lugdunensis makes its own never-seen-before antibiotic that kills MRSA. This is an extremely important and unexpected discovery. Almost all antibiotics discovered so far have come from bacteria that live in the soil.
Is this an isolated incident? Or might some of our other friendly bacteria also be protecting us in unknown ways. Could this be part of the reason we seem to be more open to infections immediately after a course of antibiotic medications?