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Fork in the Road: Have a happier new year

Even good news came out of a bad year—to maybe spark something better
Another year is in the books—what curiosities will be sparked in 2023?

No one could blame you for trying not to conjure up too many memories from the past year. First, the toxic trucker convoys. Then Putin’s nasty war. A summer with enough heat and drought to cook salmon right on the streambanks, and I don’t mean over a bonfire. More toxicity, thanks to Musk and social media, and more COVID deaths in Canada than any previous year.

Then a deflating COP conference on our crumbling climate. And, finally, inflation and more disruptions chipping away at budgets and buying power, with a grand finale topping it all off like whipped cream with a sour cherry on top: Just as people felt chipper or courageous enough to hop on a pre-Christmas flight to visit loved ones or find a bit of sun, they ended up on trips from hell.

Whew. Goodbye 2022. And good riddance.

But wait… We saw at least a few bright spots last year, maybe ones even bright enough to carry us into the new with, if not exactly grace and élan, then some complicated optimism.

Given New Years’ resolutions still carry a lot of weight, ahem, around food and fitness, here are a few tidbits from the past year that make me feel at least somewhat hopeful we might get through 2023 in a little better shape on the personal level, and beyond.

Meta-thinking about our metabolism

Anytime you need a good laugh, just sign up for The New Yorker’s Daily Humor emails. They’re filled with wit and, better, those cartoons most of us honest enough to say so admit are the main reason we read the illustrious magazine. One of the last ones in the Old Year features two giant whale buddies (these are cartoon whales, eh?) swimming along. One says to the other, “My New Year’s resolution is to lose thirty-eight thousand pounds.”

At least none of us has to lose that much, but most of us around here could do with a little paring down. So last year I was glad to learn from professor of evolutionary anthropology and author, Herman Pontzer, that many things we believe about metabolism and how we burn calories simply ain’t true.

For one, the work that Pontzer and his colleagues have done by separating data about age and size proves there’s no difference in metabolic rates between men and women with the same body weight and body fat percentage—nuking the old trope that women have a lower metabolic rate than men.

On another front, many think we pack on weight once we get beyond our 20s because our metabolic rate slows down. Nope. Pontzer says there’s no scientific support for the belief that our metabolism decreases as we age, at least not until we reach 60. Then it slows about seven per cent per decade, partly due to losing muscle mass as we age.

Keeping your metabolic rate higher, like a young person’s—by doing things like exercising more, building muscles through weight training, and even getting a good night’s sleep—might even prove to be a sign of aging well, and protective against things like heart disease and dementia.

To learn more about all this, check out Pontzer’s book, Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Stay Healthy, and Lose Weight and his articles in Scientific American.

Some good news for whales, better news for sharks

Speaking of whales, a study published in Nature indicates that, although there’s much uncertainty about the numbers, sperm whale populations, overall, increased a little in 2022, and a lot where there’s not much human interference. Unfortunately, that’s about the only bright spot about whales, as their populations are now only about one 10th of pre-whaling numbers.

Shark populations, on the other hand, got a major boost at the tail end of 2022 when the U.S. finally joined about 50 other countries and banned buying and selling shark fins. Strangely buried in the annual military policy bill, the new legislation won’t stop fishers from catching sharks, but it should limit the troubling practice of slicing off their fins and dumping the mutilated sharks—some 70 million a year—to die a dreadful death for big profits.

Like so many old ways of thinking that still haunt us, zero scientific proof supports the myth of shark fins’ “medicinal” benefits, like boosting your sex life or making skin beautiful. There is evidence, though, that the high concentration of an amino acid, BMAA, found in the fins can contribute to Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Despite all this and the fact they have no taste or nutritional value, eating shark fins remains an important status symbol in Chinese culture, especially in mainland China.

Time marches on; Maybe we can, too

Birthdays rank right up there with the new year as reminders that time marches on—irrevocably. Most of us hope we can, too, especially with more good news from the science front in 2022—a “longevity diet” can add years to your life.

The new diet based on a huge study by a Norwegian university into the body’s aging process indicates you can increase your life expectancy by up to 13 years by changing what (basically vegetarian, with some fish); when (eat “by daylight” or keep it to eight hours); and how much you eat (you know this one—fewer calories).

I’ll write more about longevity and this diet in my next column, but for now keep in mind that while millions of people die each year from starvation and malnutrition, about 11 million people die annually from eating too much and the wrong kind of stuff.

In the meantime, dig out the best right stuff from your kitchen shelves, and get off to a good new start.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who always likes fresh beginnings.