New Under the Sun:
Volume 4, Issue 5
We are moving into the second trimester of the year. This is a good time to give serious thought to your health. In talking with individuals about their health issues, I’ve found that most are resistant to making the necessary dietary changes that would optimize their health. Their comments include: “I feel pretty good, so my diet may need a little tweaking, but I think it’s mostly OK.” “[food item] may be really good for me, but I don’t like it.” “I don’t care if I don’t get really healthy, I am not giving up [food item].” “I’m a vegan. I am not going to eat meat. I can get everything I need from a vegan diet.” “So what if I die young? At least I will die happy.” And so on. These are all just excuses to avoid making the necessary changes that would optimize your health and allow you the possibility of dying old and happy. If you are using one of these excuses or a similar one, it might be time to make those changes you’ve been avoiding.
“My Pyramid”?: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a new pyramid; actually, a collection of pyramids that are purported to be individually tailored. Unlike earlier pyramids, this one acknowledges the importance of exercise in maintaining good health, so daily exercise is included in their individualized recommendations. But as with prior pyramids and other dietary recommendations, they continue to focus on the same food groups: grains, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and meats. It should never be forgotten that one of the major purposes of the USDA is to aid those involved in agriculture. They are particularly beholden to agribusiness. This probably accounts for their grains recommendation which states that at least half of the recommended servings be of whole grain. This is clearly a concession to cereal producers and others who produce refined grain products. An unbiased recommendation would state that if grains are to be eaten, they should be whole grains, not refined.
Since the dairy producers are important partners to the USDA, it is not surprising that the pyramids recommend several servings of dairy each day. In testing out the “my pyramid” feature, I input information for individuals of a wide variety ages, both sexes, and differing exercise patterns. In every case, the recommendation for dairy was 3 cups each day. Hmmm… The vast majority of individuals in the world cannot process the lactose in dairy after age five. This includes about 75% of Americans of West African ancestry, 90 – 100% of Americans of Asian ancestry, and 90 – 100% of Americans of American Indian ancestry. Most southern Europeans and others in the circum-Mediterranean region also cannot process lactose. In order to follow the USDA’s recommendation large numbers of individuals will either suffer from gastric distress or have to medicate themselves first. Why does the USDA think dairy is so important (other than the obvious, that it is beholden to dairy producers)? Because dairy provides calcium. Why do we need so much calcium? We do not. The European countries with the highest dairy intake are also the countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis. Hmmm… again. What we need is plenty of vitamin D, something not mentioned in the new pyramid, except in passing when describing fortified dairy and cereal products, neither of which is a particularly good source of vitamin D.
As mentioned, I “tailored” my pyramid, and also did ones for a number of fictional individuals. The main differentiations seem to be based on age, sex, and activity level. That is, the same basic percentages are given for each individual. The amounts of each category differ by caloric intake. Except, of course, for dairy which is the same for everyone. Click here and you can tailor a pyramid for yourself: http://www.mypyramid.gov/ Then test out some other individuals and see what you find. The website is very slick. It does include some good, basic information. But don’t be fooled into thinking that following the guidelines will guarantee you good health. It is an improvement over previous iterations, but only a modest improvement.
Book Review: In a previous issue I reviewed and recommended How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too! by Sal Severe. This month I review another book written for parents (and teachers) entitled: Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Leonard Sax, MD, PhD. The research discussed in his book is based on biological rather than sociological data.
For those of us who became parents and/or teachers during the 1970s when the push for gender equality was having its first successes, this book may seem reactionary. Sax’s main thesis is that boys and girls are different in numerous ways, ways that affect their ability to learn and behave, and that we need to acknowledge and deal with these differences rather than pretending that there are no differences, or that what differences exist are trivial. These are fighting words for those in the social sciences who have built their careers around minimizing gender differences. Sax knows this, so he marshals voluminous evidence from a wide range of scientific research studies to support his thesis.
As a biological anthropologist with an interest in evolutionary psychology, I know firsthand that most social scientists are resistant to research that indicates that there is a biological basis for behavior. They would prefer to believe that all behaviors are culturally and socially constructed. While there may be such behaviors, and while all behaviors can be affected by cultural and social strictures, behaviors that are cross-cultural and/or cross-species are biologically based. A major point emphasized by Sax and the evolutionary psychologists is that the average male, whatever his culture/ethnicity, has more in common behaviorally with any other randomly-selected male than he does with his own sister. This does not mean there is not some overlap between the sexes, but it does mean that on average, males and females differ in significant ways.
Sax introduces his discussion of sex differences with a description of research done on vision which focused on tracking objects and on color perceptions. There are two main types of cells in eyes. Magnocellular (M cells) are motion detectors wired to rods which are insensitive to colors other than black or white. M cells have little input from cones which are sensitive to colors. Parvocellular (P cells) are much smaller, are wired to cones, have little input from rods, and are concentrated rather than more evenly distributed as are M cells. Research indicates that M cells track objects while P cells give detailed information about the objects. Analysis of retinas has shown that male animals have more M cells than every female, and every female has more P cells than every male. Males and females see the world differently. Males tend to be focused on the movement of the object while females tend to focus on the color and texture of the object.
Because of the different distribution of rods and cones, when asked to draw a picture, males tend to prefer a darker palette of black, blue, gray, and silver, and to draw vehicles or an action scene. On the other hand, females tend to use a much larger, richer color palette, and tend to draw static scenes. Since most elementary school teachers are female, and since most individuals tend to like what they are comfortable with, female teachers will tend to give more positive feedback to what girls draw than they will to what boys draw. And since visual differences are only one of the many gender differences, the tendency of female teachers to view their own perception of the world as the correct perception could set up boys for failure. The same holds true for male teachers with female students.
Sax presents numerous examples of how gender differences affect ability to learn. These differences range from ability to hear different frequencies, to use of rewards and punishment, to ways of handling aggression. From this, he concludes that single sex classrooms are the most effective and appropriate for student success. While he does present compelling evidence for this, implementation appears quite problematic. The vast majority of K –12 teachers are women. This seems unlikely to change in the near, or even distant, future. Given these realities, it seems that the best we can do to ensure appropriate educational environments for all students is to understand that there are gender differences and to adapt teacher education programs to take this reality into consideration. Sax clearly expects parents to take a proactive role with those educating their children so that gender differences in learning styles will be taken into account.
While most of the book is devoted to examining the differences between the average heterosexual male and female, Sax also devotes a chapter to those children and adolescents who fall outside those parameters. He concludes that, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to the contrary, the average gay male is actually hypermale in his behaviors. Female homosexuality is different from male in that it derives from a need for a deep, emotional attachment. This emotional attachment can be met by a variety of different individuals and may lead to a sexual relationship in only a few cases. The average homosexual/bisexual female is not hyperfemale, but she is open to having a sexual relationship with another female. Other than having parents and teachers accept homosexuality, Sax does not seem to feel that these individuals are really different from their gender norms.
This is not the case for children he considers anomalous. Anomalous girls are those who prefer trucks to dolls; climbing trees to playing house; competition to cooperation. Sax believes that such girls should be encouraged in their pursuits and that they will end up being successful achievers. His attitude towards anomalous boys is far less positive. He rather derisively describes them as over-protected mama’s boys. However, many of their qualities are quite positive. They are verbally precocious; tend to be insightful thinkers; and are more interested in cooperation than competition. These are the boys who become physicists, computer programmers, and other scientific thinkers. Sax defines the male pilot of a space shuttle as a real male as opposed to the male mission specialist who is an anomalous male.
In every case he presents in the book, Sax encourages parents and teachers to go with the child’s natural inclinations and to appreciate their differences. In every case except one. In the case of the anomalous boy, Sax sees only a tragic outcome. He encourages parents to ignore and fight against the boy’s tendencies. In effect, he wants parents to reshape the boy into a “normal” boy, for the boy’s own good. This so flies in the face of everything else that he has asserted that it makes one wonder if he is speaking from his own experience. Reshaping all anomalous boys to the “average” model would only harm society. We need divergent thinkers to provide the creative insights that propel society forward. Sax seems to realize this when, later in the book, he mentions that one of the benefits of all male classes is that males can comfortably study subjects and participate in activities viewed as too “female” in a coed context.
Except for the rather major caveat on anomalous boys, I recommend that parents and teachers read this book. Gender does matter. As Sax states, “Human nature is gendered to the core. Work with your child’s nature, work with your child’s innate gender-based propensities, rather than trying to reshape them according to the dictates of late-twentieth-century political correctness.” (p. 237)
AnthroHealth Tip of the Month: You know you could be doing better with your diet, but change is difficult. So, for this month, just pick one thing to change. For instance, if you cannot bring yourself to give up bread, at least make sure that you eat only whole grain bread. And don’t assume that a “whole wheat” label means “whole grain”. Look at the ingredient list. If “wheat flour” is the first item, it is not whole grain. If you need more fruits and vegetables in your diet (and who doesn’t), try adding a whole fruit serving to your breakfast (thawed frozen blueberries are great), and a vegetable serving at lunch (lots of pico de gallo on your taco). These small changes will have big health benefits.
© 2001-2009 Kathleen E. Fuller, PhD. All rights reserved.