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The best of food's best...

From a year that's best past
going nuclear Researchers are studying the structure and properties of 'nuclear pasta' to determine the effects it might have on observable neutron star properties. illustration Courtesy of M. E. Caplan and C. J. Horowitz, Reviews of Modern Physics, American Physical Society

Wow! 2018! What kind of a year was that? The Fear. The Fakeness. The Facebook. The Donald. The Kim. And The False Alert from Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency that pretty much tied it all up with a bow: A warning issued to islanders in my old home state to take cover because a ballistic missile was on its way—but it wasn't. Sigh.

No wonder we all took comfort in food—and tons of it—last year. Yes, folks, Canada has hit an all-time high for packin' on the pounds.

While hanging out in the Whistler bubble might make it hard to believe, we Canucks have doubled our obesity rate since the 1970s, lobbing ourselves, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, into the ignominious realm of countries with the top obesity rates. And we didn't have spin bikes or FitBits back then.

The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that, as of 2017, 60 per cent of young Canadians aged five to 17 were overweight or obese; that increases to 64 per cent in the 18-and-over category. As for obesity alone, the agency reports that 14 per cent of Canadian were obese in 1978, compared to 28 per cent today—a number expected to hit 35 per cent by 2025, which will cost Canadians billions in healthcare dollars.

But before I guilt you out more and send you running for comfort-food cover, here's some fun from 2018—my picks for best food bits from a year that's otherwise best past, if not pasta (add winking emoji), all of them from the wonderful world of science.

It hasta be sub-atomic pasta

First out of the starting gate, and a contender for what might be the most far-out food metaphor of all time, is the "nuclear pasta" concept cooked up by three imaginative astrophysicists. One of them is Matt Caplan from the McGill Space Institute in Montreal, who models neutron star crusts.

I'm all for bringing astrophysics down to Earth in a really approachable way whenever possible, and that's just what Matt and his colleagues did with their September 2018 article, "Elasticity of Nuclear Pasta." It was first published by the American Physical Society, founded in 1899 at Columbia University and now representing 55,000-plus physicists worldwide.

"Deep in the crusts of neutron stars, where matter is a trillion times denser than anything on earth, nuclear matter undergoes a phase transition. At depths of approximately one kilometer, directly above the neutron star core, nuclei start to touch. They rearrange and form exotic shapes, such as planar 'lasagna' and cylindrical 'spaghetti', which have been whimsically named 'nuclear pasta'," Matt explains on his McGill website.

Matt studies the structure and properties of nuclear pasta to determine the effects it might have on observable neutron star properties. To do this, he uses large-scale classical molecular dynamics simulations to simulate thousands to millions of nucleons. See the illustrations, above, to check out the nuclear lasagna, and more. What I really like are the antimatter expressions—antignocchi and antispaghetti. You'll never see those at your favourite Italian resto!

To smash this "pasta," where the protons and neutrons have been shaped into flat sheets, clumps and more, you'd need a force 10 billion times greater than that needed to smash steel.

Cooking on a whole new level

Here's the best one-liner ever for your New Year's conversations around climate change, thanks to The Guardian's ongoing Cities project: Climate change is producing conditions where human cells start to cook.

In spring 2018, the 1 million-plus residents of Nawabshah, Pakistan suffered the hottest April on Earth, as temperatures reached just over 50 Celsius. Two years ago, Phalodi, India reached 51 C. Scientists warn that what used to be an urban anomaly (50 C and hotter) is now reality—a reality that's halfway to water's boiling point and 10 C above a healthy body temperature. Note that at 50 C, not only do human cells start to cook, but blood thickens, muscles lock around the lungs, and the brain is starved of oxygen.

How's your gut microbiome doing?

That's the question I asked my friend's bright young son, Jack, as he loaded up his plate with turkey at a fabuloso feast this holiday season. He immediately wanted to know what I meant, as you might, so here goes...

Your gut's microbiome made lots of headlines in 2018—with the added fascinating fact that a clear-thinking brain might even depend on it.

The gut microbiome—just a newer name for all the microbes that live in your intestines—has been gaining increased scientific interest over the past decade or so. Now scientists are convinced it's responsible for so much more than good digestion. Research shows that the health of your gut microbiome is linked to diseases such as Parkinson's. Even your brain's normal functioning depends on your gut microbiome's health. I hate to say it, but that gives a twisted wisp of credibility to The Donald's claim that his gut instincts are more reliable than his top advisers.

Maintaining a healthy, diverse gut microbiome is far more complex than simply including probiotics like yogurt and kombucha in your diet. Apparently, their effects wear off very quickly. The simplest takeaway I can share is, eat your veggies—and a wide variety of them. Research shows it's best to aim for 30-plus different veggies a week, and that includes herbs, seeds and spices in addition to the usual peas and carrots.

On that vegged-out note, we can all carry on merrily using Michael Pollan's timeless Eater's Manifesto: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who is munching on a carrot stick as she writes.

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