As this year comes to a close, I look back with appreciation and recognize that research and technology are generally moving us forward, and that we people are quite remarkable; despite our many flaws, we strive to better ourselves and improve our world.
There are of course plenty of exceptions, and this end-of-year post is devoted to some of the silliest food-related science and innovation that came my way in 2012.
Who wants a bride with no common sense?
There were many contenders for this year's prize for stupidest diet. The desire to shed weight seems to breed an endless stream of particularly magical claims, supernatural devices and silly, dangerous plans.
But I do have a clear winner. The K-E diet, or nasogastric diet, was a hit among brides-to-be looking to shed 20 pounds in 10 days. The plan is simple. You put nothing in your mouth for the duration of the diet. Instead, you insert a feeding tube through the nose, into the stomach, and through it a slow drip of carb-free nutrients supply your body with 800 calories a day. Since your body's starving and has no carbs to run on, you'll be converting fat to ketones, which will make you stink. (Know that smell coming from hungry people? It can be described politely as sweet and fruity, and more accurately as rotting fruit mixed with nail polish remover -- it's not pretty.) You'll also be constipated (avoiding fiber will do that) and look sick.
Don't be surprised if you find your groom has a change of heart. I wouldn't blame anyone who has second thoughts about sharing a life and raising kids with someone whose priorities and common sense are so, shall we say, unusual. Nasogastric tubes are an unpleasant medical necessity for patients who can't eat, but I'm pretty certain most of us hope we'll be able to introduce every morsel of food into our body the traditional -- healthy -- way, through the mouth. Stephen Colbert already imagined an upgrade to the feeding tube diet: Why stop at the stomach? Why not bypass the entire digestive tract and thread the tube all the way to the bottom? That would make any food you eat zero calorie and "You won't just hit your goal weight, you'll hit your birth weight."
Why does coffee spill?
The silliest of research is celebrated yearly at the Ig Nobel awards. The ceremony, held at Harvard University, spoofs the Nobel prizes and is presided over by real Nobel winners.
One of this year's coveted awards went to Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer, who investigated one of life's greatest mysteries: When you walk with a cup of coffee, why does it always spill?
Brownish trails in most office carpets will attest that the problem is epidemic and real: Coffee always spills! Mayer and Krechetnikov are experts of fluid dynamics and are the perfect pair to tackle this important question, and they systematically tried various walking speeds and coffee levels. Their analysis shows three competing motions at work in the walked-with-coffee-cup: side to side sloshing, forward-back sloshing, and up and down motion of the walker. All this adds up to a swirling around in the cup, as well as an up and down wave of coffee, resulting in spills. And what matters most is not the speed of walking, but how you get to that speed: your acceleration.
Bottom line: Fill the cup a little less and put a lid on. Then, be ready for a spill.
Your car as a mini kitchen
Drivers love fancy technology, and new safety features in cars are credited with large declines in accidents and fatalities on the road. But new technology has also made the car into a mini office, complete with text, email and phone calls. And if car food and drink were limited to pre-made options, this year's hot innovations promise to transform the car into a mini kitchen.
The Handpresso Auto plugs into the 12V cigarette lighter and promises a delightful, creamy cup of espresso. Just add water, a coffee pod, press a button and wait a bit. Fiat's new 500L model will include a built-in espresso machine.
This sounds like a great idea, until you ponder how often drivers stop in a safe place for their phone calls and texts. Since most drivers think they're above average, how likely are they to park the car before making coffee? Remember how coffee always spills? How hot it is when it's just brewed? Do we need another gizmo to occupy drivers while operating a heavy machine at high speed, a machine whose operation requires two hands, a clear head, and all our senses?
I'll stop here and invite you to share what fascinated you this year. To a happy, healthy, progress-filled 2013!
For more health news, click here.
For more by Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D., click here.