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Posts Tagged ‘podcast’

An Artist’s Vegan Journey

Posted by tinako on July 23, 2013

Another blog, Honk if You’re Vegan, is running a series on my art.  This is part one: An Artist’s Vegan Journey, about how I became vegan.

Posted in Animals, Art, Social Justice | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Selling Addiction

Posted by tinako on May 14, 2012

Jean Kilbourne

This morning I listened to two Yale Rudd Center podcast interviews by Kelly Brownell of Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., author, filmmaker, and speaker, “internationally recognized for her pioneering work on the image of women in advertising and her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising.”

The first podcast was titled “The Selling of Alcohol and Tobacco.”

Ms. Kilbourne describes how after college she decided to be a model, which she described as soul-destroying.  She did it off and on for a while and then started thinking about the images and the whole idea of beauty, who decides.  Fascinated, she clipped out images, put them up on her fridge, and started seeing patterns.

She says that while ads always showed a beautiful ideal that was difficult for anyone to attain, now with Photoshop it is actually impossible.  These images are not real women, and yet we end up comparing ourselves to them, doing harm to women’s and girls’ self-esteem.  She talks about a slide she shows, an ad for the film “Pretty Woman” with Julia Roberts face and another woman’s body.  So Julia Roberts’ body wasn’t good enough to sell this movie.  Of course this isn’t necessary any more since the celebrity’s body can just be Photoshopped.  As impossible as these artificial altered images are to attain, women are made to feel that we could be this way if only we tried harder, bought these products, so if we don’t look this way, it’s our failure.

She said women’s bodies have been used for a long time to sell everything from chainsaws to filing cabinets, suggesting to men that if they buy this product they’ll get the woman, but she said the newer focus is on the sexualization of little girls.  She mentioned that a three-year-old on Toddlers in Tiaras was dressed exactly as the prostitute Julia Roberts plays in Pretty Woman, and encouraged to strut around the stage.  She’s seen padded bras for seven-year-olds in major department stores, and outrageous Halloween costumes.

A few years after she began thinking about images of women, she started thinking about ads for alcohol and tobacco.  She had been addicted to tobacco, had a lot of alcoholism in her family, and was spending a lot of time on college campuses and noticing how the alcohol industry was strongly targeting kids, so she started looking at their ads.

After six months of looking at their ads, she realized with horror that the alcohol industry understood alcoholism better than any other group in the country.  They understood the loneliness at the heart of all addictions, and they knew which psychological cues would trigger the urge to drink.  The addict feels like they’re in a relationship with the addictive substance; for example, cigarettes are your best friends, not your assassins.  She noticed that ads used to show a pretty woman with a beer, with the idea that a man drinks the beer and gets the woman, but now, the bottle is the lover, the drinking is the relationship.  She says this reflects a very sophisticated knowledge of what goes on in the heart of an addict.  Advertisers (in general, not just alcohol and tobacco) do an enormous amount of psychological research, down to putting electrodes on peoples’ brains.

She noticed how they were targeting kids, and then started looking at tobacco ads, because both industries absolutely depend on addicting children.  They can’t always do it blatantly, so often they turn to the internet, with web sites and gear.  They also push products heavily in other countries due to declining sales here.

She also saw how much influence the industries had on media coverage of these issues, due to advertising dollars.  You’re not going to get accurate information on alcohol being the most destructive drug in the nation if the magazine has alcohol ads in it.  You’re not going to get coverage of women’s image issues in a women’s magazine filled with these images.  It makes it difficult to get even basic health information out, much less get people to start thinking about changes for public health policies.   These industries also have enormous power in government due to the campaign financing necessary to be elected in the U.S., so it makes it difficult for our representatives to make decisions based on public health.

She says you can’t really expect companies making loads of money to change the way they operate, but that laws can help.  She notes a recent law in Israel saying that models must have a BMI of at least 18.5+ or a note from a doctor saying she is healthy.  Other countries have similar laws, starting with Madrid five years ago.  In the U.K. there’s a bill to label Photoshopped models, which they all are according to Ms. Kilbourne.

She ends this interview with her hope that things can change.  In the past, when you flew on an airplane you got cigarettes with your meal, and now they are completely banned there.

Ms. Kilbourne has created several films on these subjects.  Check them out at her web site.

Posted in Nutrition | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Two Men With Heart Disease

Posted by tinako on March 29, 2012

I tabled with RAVS at a health fair today.  We talked to about 25 people.  I’m really impressed with PCRM‘s handout nutrition booklet “Vegetarian Starter Kit.”  It is very appealing with nice graphics, and made it easy to discuss a lot of issues and send people home with something easy to understand.

This morning I thought up the idea for “Two men with heart disease,” composed a poster, printed it out and had it on the table with the handouts.  The other staffer laughed at my photo of Cheney; I could have been much more cruel, but I had held back.  All the photos I saw of Clinton were calm and happy, but at least half the photos of Cheney he was angry with his mouth open.  So I figure my poster was just reflecting the truth.  Anyway, as little as I like Dick Cheney, I’m not blaming him for his condition, just asking people to reflect on why one treatment is considered normal and the other is not.

The idea was based on a Compassionate Cooks podcast where Colleen first described open heart surgery and then compared that with the alternative by reading a recipe for split pea soup.

Posted in Cardiovascular, Disease, Nutrition | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Obesity: Diet vs. Physical Activity

Posted by tinako on November 8, 2010

Boyd Swinburn

This is the second podcast from the Yale Rudd Center interviewing Dr. Boyd Swinburn.  I’ll get right to it.

Dr. Kelly Brownell says that often people in their field (Public Health) claim that diet and exercise are equally important.  Even those who might disagree are disinclined to step on any toes, nutrition researchers pitted against physical activity researchers.  Brownell asks, is this an important debate?

Swinburn agrees that the debate has taken a long time to get going.  He states he’s a firm believer in physical activity’s importance both in obesity and other health impacts, but that doesn’t mean it’s contributing to the problem (or solution) equally with diet.  Of course this has very important implications for what’s driving the obesity epidemic and what the solutions might be.

Swinburn in his research has asked the question directly: How much of the rise in obesity over the last 30 years can be attributed to intake vs. physical activity?

Obesity took off in the developed countries all around the world, and even in developing countries, at about the same time, the ’70s and ’80s.  This means something at a global level changed quite quickly.  That argues quite strongly against changes in our genes, parenting styles, even in our physical activity environment, which is of course tightly linked to the built environment.  Most of us live in cities, and while cities do evolve, they don’t evolve that quickly or at the same time.  We also haven’t had a global collapse of willpower in the last 30 years [I criticized the book Fat Land which seemed to suggest this].  All these personal attributes don’t seem as though they could drive a sudden global epidemic.

So it has to be global, it has to be able to change quickly, and the obvious answer is the food supply.  Looking back over the last 30 years and thinking of the four Ps of marketing:

  • Product: They have changed drastically quantitatively and qualitatively: more variety, more energy-dense.
  • Promotion: It’s far more sophisticated, with marketing to children being of particular concern.
  • Placement: It’s everywhere.  Thirty years ago, food was in food shops; now it’s in almost any shop.
  • Price: The relative price of junk food has come down over time relative to other foods and to income.

These four Ps make a big push factor to influence our energy intake [as compared to “pull,” where people are demanding something, and which food manufacturers insist is the driving force behind the food environment].  It seems clear that energy intake is driving the obesity epidemic.

Brownell repeats Swinburn’s point: during the period of rapid increase in obesity, there have been profound changes in the food supply, but less in physical activity patterns.  Swinburn agreed; cars and TV have been around for a while, though use has increased.  Video games are new, walking to school  has declined, but they seem relatively small contributors to the overall energy balance; the food world has changed much more.

Brownell asks how we can know how much people are eating, and Swinburn’s answer is that he is quite skeptical of surveys that ask people what they eat (they clearly underestimate and that effect seems to have increased over time).  Therefore Swinburn puts more credence in USDA statistics which look at the food supply and come up with a per-capita usage across all countries.  This data shows that over the last 30 years, the food energy supply has increased dramatically.  People have come up with different equations for trying to estimate what percentage of the obesity epidemic is attributable to this food energy supply increase.  Using different equations, the answer is very similar – more than 100%.  That is, the food energy supply increase is more than enough to explain the obesity epidemic.  I’ll say it again, all of the increase in weight can be accounted for by the increase in food calories.

Swinburn talks about “push factor” again.  He says we like to think that we have free choice, but we are actually highly responsive to the environment.  For example, the commuter environment in Amsterdam is highly conducive to cycling, and most people do.  The environment in Atlanta is highly conducive to driving, and that’s what people do.  The same is true for the food environment.  If there’s a lot of food that’s tasty, that’s advertised, that’s low price, we’re going to eat it.  So the calories are being pushed, and we’re responding by eating them.

This all has enormous implications for prevention.  Physical activity interventions are likely to have very modest impacts – good for other areas of your health, but unlikely to have a big impact on weight.  Swinburn’s a big advocate of physical activity, but we need to reduce our expectations for what we can achieve.

The policies need to focus on the food side, but this is a highly charged issue.  Politicians don’t like to fight with industry, which is why government policies typically fall on the physical activity side – no powerful industry is opposed to it.  In order to successfully address obesity, we will have to address the food.

Posted in Exercise, Nutrition | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Obesity: a Public Health Problem?

Posted by tinako on November 8, 2010

Boyd Swinburn

I recently listened to a couple of short podcasts from the Yale Rudd Center, interviews of Dr. Boyd Swinburn, a professor and researcher at Deakin University in Australia.   I really liked what he had to say.

The first podcast was about Public Health, and I’ll give a quick sum-up.  The interviewer, Dr. Kelly Brownell, asks why use public policy to combat obesity – what about personal willpower, personal changes?  Swinburn answers that that public-personal tension exists in many other areas such as tobacco, road injuries, etc., and what we’ve learned is that these problems haven’t been reversed until public policy has been implemented.  People still need to take personal responsibility, but it’s society’s role to give them the best chance to make the healthy choice.  So society makes the healthy choice the easy choice, and then promotes the healthy choice, which is the individual’s responsibility to select.

Swinburn describes the upstream/downstream metaphor.  If you tackle a problem downstream, you’re dealing with diabetes, etc., after they’ve happened, which is very expensive.  We currently invest heavily in downstream approaches.  This will not turn the problem around.  You’re just managing complications of a long-standing problem.  Midstream approaches target the individual.  Examples are seatbelt regulation, or for obesity, examples are motivation and education, “soft policies.”  Upstream interventions deal with the environment, the conditions people face when they’re making their decisions.  Swinburn feels most of the effort needs to be upstream.  This can be changing the physical environment so that it’s easier to be physically active, or changing the food environment.

Upstream interventions might be regulations to ban or restrict junk-food marketing to children, a tax on soft drinks, food labeling.  It doesn’t force people to choose a food, but it makes it easier for you.

Swinburn has done research to find which interventions are most effective, the most bang for the buck.  Brownell asks how Swinburn would evaluate, for example, the effectiveness of a proposed tax on soda.  Swinburn answers that the higher the tax, the higher the price, and the more that would affect behavior.  How directly price affects purchasing is called price elasticity, and it varies depending on the product (as you can imagine, for some products people will pay any price, and for others they cut back when the price rises).  This can be well-estimated based on past data, and now you know how much soda consumption will go down.  With that you can figure how many fewer calories the population will be consuming, and what that will do for body weight.

Swinburn has done this modeling and found that policies are generally pretty cheap and have a broad reach.  Health-promotion programs cost money and have a more limited reach.  Health services costs a lot of money and have a person-by-person reach.  Physical activity programs alone had very limited impact – physical activity is important, but not as important as food.

Public policy at the top of the effectiveness list: restricting junk-food advertising to kids.  It affects all kids, and while the influence on each individual is small, all together it has the biggest impact and the least cost and in fact even saves money.  Programs, particularly promoting active transport, are quite expensive with little impact.

Brownell asks isn’t restricting marketing making a nanny state?  Government intrusion into our lives?  I loved Swinburn’s answer to this.  He says “nanny state” is a flip way to dismiss what should be a serious policy debate.  If you’re talking about children, nannies are a good thing; they care about and try to protect children and support parents.  If government took on those characteristics, our children would be in much better shape.

In addition, we accept more intrusive restrictions in our lives all the time: seatbelt laws, speed limits, DWI, tobacco sales to minors, etc.  In many, many areas we accept restrictions on our “freedom” to do whatever we want, for our own benefit and for the greater population benefit.  In the obesity epidemic, nanny state keeps coming up, but he can’t think of a single proposed regulation that would tell him what he can and can’t eat or whether he has to exercise.  Most of the regulations are targeting the environment, making it easier to make a healthy decision.  It’s much less “nanny state” than many things we already accept.

Posted in Nutrition | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Food and Addiction

Posted by tinako on October 17, 2010

Dr. Elissa Epel

I listened to a podcast from the Yale Rudd Center featuring Dr. Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF.  She had the strongest words I’ve heard yet on whether food is addictive, with most researchers saying it might be so but we need more research.

She wonders, Why do people overeat against their will?  The answer her research indicates is that the reward center in our brains is a major driver of what and how much we eat, and is regulated by dopamine and opioids.  The pleasure center lights up when we are engaged in very rewarding activities.

She uses the term “highly palatable,” which means that it doesn’t just taste good, like a delicious crisp salad, but that it tastes amazing, like a hot fudge sundae.  Think fat and sugar.  When rats get highly palatable food, their reward center “goes crazy,” but they habituate so that with continued sugar they start having a normal brain response.  What about people?  With repeated sugar, do we habituate or do we become sensitized, dependent on that level of reward?  She answers that a large proportion of people seem to be wired to become highly dependent on highly palatable food, so that they go through hedonic withdrawl when they eat less of that food.  They feel terrible.  She gave as an example Morgan Spurlock’s description in Supersize Me of how he felt after five hours without McDonald’s food: he was nauseous and shaky, which Dr. Epel said was consistent with opioid withdrawl.  Highly palatable food and drugs of abuse use the same neural pathways.

Why is sugar picked on so much?  Just because it’s studied so much?  No, she answers, sugar has special properties in the brain.

She explained that lower animals without much cortex are well-calibrated to keep homeostasis and only eat the calories they need.  Human brains are not good at detecting how many calories we need, and the reward system can completely override those delicate signals of satiety.

Another thing she brought up was that severe dieting, forcing ourselves to not eat something, such as sugar, sensitizes the reward system even more and leads almost inevitably to bingeing, massive overeating.  Stress is involved as well.  She mentioned an experiment wherein rats were given oreos, which were then withheld.  If you then return the oreos, the rats don’t overeat unless stress is added as well.  Also they will not binge if you block the opioids (probably surgically or pharmaceutically).

Here is where she starts getting more concrete about whether food is addictive.  She mentioned that she has met people whose described relationship to food sounds exactly like drug addiction.  It runs their lives.  These are probably a statistical minority, but she says there are lower levels of addiction.  She mentioned families who at the insistence of a nutritionist give their best effort to stop drinking sugary soda, and they are unable to do so.  This is a food dependence on a spectrum with addiction.

She mentions a study in which they found that about 50% of obese people and 20% of lean people have no sense of satiety.  They never feel like they have eaten enough.  She says the toxic food environment is the number one driver of this satiety failure, and stress exacerbates it.

If food is addictive, what are the implications?  Her answer is that Just Say No to the doughnut on your desk does not and will not work.  We’re steeped in a culture that looks on obesity as a failure of personal control, but our brain is wired so that almost everyone will choose the doughnut, especially if stressed, and especially if trying hard not to eat it.  That restraint is peanuts compared to the strong impulsive drive.  Dr. Epel’s clinical work in helping people develop mindful eating is a weak Band-aid in the face of our toxic food environment.  She says we need food policy to help people, both tax structure and healthy defaults.

Drugs have been described as “hijacking” the brain, running down any reasoned responses.  Could you use that very powerful word to describe food?  Dr. Epel answers, for some people, yes, and for kids, they don’t have those reasoned responses – we have to control the environment for them.  To fail is to set them up for a lifetime of struggle against obesity.

Posted in Nutrition, Schools | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

No Wonder We’re Obese – A new way of thinking about the epidemic

Posted by tinako on June 30, 2010

Up until about two weeks ago, I would say that I had the same idea about obesity that most people, including obese people themselves, have.  You’ve heard of the ELFS diet?  “Eat Less Food, Stupid!”  It’s offensive, but I think it about sums up what most people think is the problem: obesity is a personal failure to control oneself.

But in the last two weeks, I have thrown myself into a Psychology course Yale offers free online, and I have been immersed in a new way of thinking about obesity and overweight in general.

I have listened to scientists talking about the animal studies they have conducted indicating that high-fat or high-sugar foods are addicting in a way very similar to cocaine, alcohol and nicotine.  Animals eat normally when exposed to healthy foods but overeat when they are allowed to eat fat and sugar.  Rats exposed to sugar develop tolerance to it which makes them need more of it to get the same dopamine reaction.  Rats will choose sugar over cocaine or alcohol.  Fat and sugar cause changes in the brain scans of obese humans that are indistinguishable from the changes that cocaine cause.  This addiction, like that of other drugs, appears to prime the victim to lifelong cravings for the substance.  There are opioid-blocking drugs, usually used for alcoholics, that work to treat binge eaters [Contrave is a combination of several of them].  As with other addictive substances, habitual ingestion of sugar causes the body to prepare for it when cues are received (sight, smell causes insulin increases, etc.).  When people experience these cues without taking the expected cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, or sugar, they experience strong cravings because their bodies are prepped.  People and animals both need more of the sugar and fat over time to maintain the same levels of dopamine in their brains.  Patients with overeating problems use the language of addiction, “craving,” “loss of control,” and experience visible and measurable withdrawal symptoms, such as change in body temperature.   People continue to overeat despite clear negative consequences physically, socially, and healthwise.  It is not clear whether it is only sugar which is addictive, or whether it could be fat, chemical additives, or other ingredients such as High Fructose Corn Syrup.  All these professionals say that more studies are needed before any of these ingredients are labeled addictive substances, but as you can see, they are well on the way.

If alcohol or cocaine were available everywhere, dumped into school lunches and products aimed at children, advertised all day, and pushed on people constantly, through office candy bowls and birthday celebrations, school parties, miles of fast food joints, and shelves of junk in gas stations and pharmacies, would we be surprised that people had a problem resisting it? Nicotine was once advertised to children, loaded into vending machines, and sold for a quarter a pack, and no one thought anything of it.  When we learned how addictive it was, we put a stop to it.  If it turns out that sugar is addictive, as it appears to be, what ramifications will that have?

I have learned that sugar is jammed into things it has no business in, such as peanut butter, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, and ketchup.  Why?  Because it tastes good and increases sales.  It reminds me of the way Coca-Cola got its start; now it just relies on a HFCS high.

Our bodies’ biology evolved in a world of scarcity, and that biology fights us in a world of overabundance.  We developed very strong tastes for sugar and fat, the hard-to-come-by energy-dense foods that would help us survive through the lean times.  Our bodies are designed to store this energy as body fat, and to conserve it in lean times.  Our bodies don’t care that we are trying the newest diet – it thinks we are facing starvation, and cuts our metabolism and increases our desire for food.

We are often under stress, and stress leads to unhealthful eating.  In the Yerkes primate study, subordinate monkeys (who experience more stress) ate a little less of a healthy diet than dominant monkeys, but when sugar and fat were introduced, dominants ate a bit more but subordinates ate a lot more, especially at night.  The fat and sugar was a comfort to them, an efficient dopamine-stimulating coping strategy.

How about genes?  It is estimated, using twin studies, that 25-40% of population weight variance is due to genetics.  Adopted children’s weights show a strong correlation to their biological parents’ weights, and little to their adopted parents’ weights.

“Genetic influences largely determine whether a person can become obese, but it is the environment that determines whether a person does become obese and the extent of that obesity.” – Stunkard & Meyer 1993

“Genes load the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.” – Bray 1988

You know how some people can eat and eat and never gain a pound?  I’m not totally like that, but I have to admit, I have never had a problem with weight.  But people with the obesity genes would have had great advantages thousands of years ago.  They would have been the ones who could starve and starve and never lose a pound.  That’s what they’re up against when they try to diet.

An economist pointed out that once upon a time work was hard work.  People toiled and sweated.  Some still do that, but many perform more sedentary labor, which means that instead of being paid to spend calories, it has become more expensive, primarily in lost leisure time.  Everyone is busy, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to consider a hard life of stand-in-one-place retail work sandwiched with a bus ride home and caring for children in a difficult neighborhood which does not give an opportunity for an hour of jogging.  This probably isn’t an uncommon situation, and can you blame them for not getting enough exercise?

Whose failure is it that our government’s farm bill subsidizes exactly the crops that go into the worst foods?  Corn and soy are converted into animal flesh and most of the unidentifiable chemicals that populate processed food ingredient lists.  The resulting artificial cheapness of  these foods explains why they are so profitable, so heavily advertised, and so prevalent.  How many times have you wondered why vegetables are so expensive?  It’s the other way around – American spend less per capita on food than any other nation.  Vegetables, even organic ones, probably are a truer reflection of the actual cost of food, and they don’t seem expensive until you compare them with our dirt-cheap processed food and 99 cent menu items.  Our laws encourage consumption of food that will make people sick.  The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine makes the connection between this issue and our hair-tearing about the high costs of medical care:

“Even if the steak and cheese produced on American farms foster health problems, our government rallies behind agribusiness all the way to the emergency room.  Sadly, every administration in recent decades has been caught up in a system that not only tolerates ill health, but encourages it.” – Barnard

“A good source of 7 vitamins and minerals”

Food manufacturers have most of us outsmarted.  They deliberately tweak their marketing and the product itself to trick us into eating more than we think we are.  They sneak in unhealthy fat and sugar, they cause us to increase our portion sizes by making the product more nonuniform (studies show people will eat more of a snack mix than a homogeneous snack such as plain pretzels), they put health claims on packages that are usually inversely related to the healthfulness of the product within (compare health claims on packages of Cocoa Puffs “now with Whole Grains” to a package of carrots), they trumpet the vitamins they added to Pop-Tarts, for Pete’s sake.  Vitamin deficiencies are not really a problem for most Americans – Pop-Tarts are the problem!  Restaurants know that we think a good deal is more food for the same price, and so we come back to establishments that load up our plates, so now they all do, and it is now very difficult to have restraint when we eat out – our whole sense of how much is reasonable to eat has been sideswiped.  Industries study us and tweak their approach to push our buttons.  We don’t stand a chance.

Diets don’t work.  How many obese people do you know who followed a diet, took off weight, and kept it off for five years?  When diet promoters give statistics of success for their products, they tout how fast the weight comes off and usually use a six-month standard, but that isn’t good enough.  Here is a study that followed several diet and exercise combinations for two years, and at the end of that period there was little net weight loss and two of the three groups ended up heavier.  The best-rated diet, Weight Watchers, repeatedly says you will keep weight off “if you stick to it.”  That’s the whole point.  People with with a chronic addiction to unhealthy foods, immersed in a toxic environment of cheap, tasty, ubiquitous, artificial foodlike substances, are unlikely to be able to resist for long.

Click to zoom in on this amazing picture.

Look at the food in the grocery store.  If you did an item-by-item analysis, I think you would find that the vast majority of it is crud that no one should be eating.  What are the percentages of white pasta to whole wheat?  How about for bread products?  What is the proportion of truly healthful cereals to the rest?  How many of those peanut butters and jellies are the best they could be?  How many aisles are dedicated to snacks and sodas? Compare the number of bags of white flour to whole wheat.  White rice to brown.  Juices with sugar to juices without.  There’s a little tiny shelf dedicated to dry beans, and an entire aisle of freezers dedicated to processed meals, fried whatever, and desserts.  Half an aisle honors ice cream.  There is more space dedicated to candy than to canned vegetables.  Remember the food pyramid?  How is all that candy going to cram into that teeny tiny little triangle at the top??

I was talking about this toxic environment with my Dad and he said he wondered why he overate the stuff he bought, and then started wondering why he bought what he did at all, and the answer was, it was there.  He would wander down an aisle and, oh, that looks good, and here it is in the store, people must eat this, so why shouldn’t I?

Now, you can very reasonably counter that the stuff is there in those proportions because that’s what people demand.  That may take the blame off the store, but how does it help the person who’s trying to lose weight?  Having one person go on a diet in the midst of this feeding frenzy is like putting one of your fingers on a diet.  How can we blame individuals for this collective and often state-sponsored mess?

Yes, people can make better choices, but the deck is vastly stacked against us: a biology designed for scarcity, a food economy which separates food as a commercial commodity from food as nutrition and encourages consumption of unhealthy foods, nutrition education that is designed not by health advocates but by industry interests, and food manufacturers whose object is to manipulate us into eating more and more of food that’s worse and worse for us.

In these studies, in the articles I have read, the doctors, lawyers, economists, psychologists,and researchers I have heard speak in their own words, I have found a new compassion for and understanding of the problem of obesity, which may even surpass what obese people feel about themselves.  They think it’s all their fault, too.

One thing that all these professionals seem to have in common is that they do not know what to do about the problem.  The answer doesn’t seem to be diets, litigation (suing manufacturers), or even education.  How well has blaming or shaming the obese worked?  Maybe we should abandon that tactic.  A vaccine was mentioned as a possibility, something I would have scoffed at two weeks ago as a pharmacological solution for a lifestyle problem.  Now I’m not so sure.  Prevention of this chronic disease was discussed, particularly in light of all the marketing towards children.  Sugar taxes are unpopular with the public because they don’t want anyone telling them what to eat.  If you think there aren’t people all day telling you what to eat, through ads, your tax dollars, the USDA in your child’s classroom, and on and on, you haven’t been paying attention.  Wouldn’t you prefer it to be someone who cares about your health?

I’m coming to the conclusion that a huge part of the problem is the farm bill, a result of our senate system being skewed for more representation for less populated (farming) states.  I’m not opposed to farmers and I have no informed opinion on farm subsidies in general, but it doesn’t seem to make much sense to subsidize unhealthy food and then wonder why our health is so poor.  But no one can be sure.  Some of those professionals I heard felt that a variety of societal approaches should be tried to determine what works, and this is happening now, but in a haphazard, segmented way.   One suggestion was that a governmental department for food health be created, basically breaking that task away from the catastrophically conflicted USDA, which is primarily charged with promoting agriculture.  There’s no H or N for health or nutrition in “USDA.”

I’ve tried to present here an overview of thinking about obesity in a new way.  If this topic interests you, I would urge you to find out more through the Yale course linked above and through the Yale Rudd Center.

Posted in Exercise, Musings, Nutrition | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Reading, Listening, and Watching

Posted by tinako on June 21, 2010

I read a bunch of stuff for my Food Psychology class today, and then watched the fourth lecture.  This Time article is an amusing account of a journalist fasting for two days.

I’m enjoying Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, though I find things to disagree with.  For instance, a major point he tries to make is that most of what you find in the supermarket is not food but what he calls edible foodlike substances.  This is amusing enough and makes for a succinct tagline (“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”), but I’m not sure it’s worth arguing about a definition of food – let’s stick to arguing about how much of certain types we should eat – more, less, or none?  We can make exactly the same point (stop eating processed food) without arguing over semantics.  Just make it “Eat whole food. etc.”  He has written elsewhere that redefining food will make it easier to kick junk “food” off of food stamps and out of schools and remove their sales-tax exempt status.  IMHO, those are policy decisions that we can decide to make without having to convince Webster’s dictionary to redefine a common word.  Can you imagine processed food manufacturers sitting still while their product is defined as non-food?  But everyone already knows it’s junk food; have the government officially classify “junk food” and then implement those changes.

And do we need to argue about whether shoving food in our mouths while we watch TV is “eating” or “feeding”?  Can we just say that if the food is making it down your throat, you’re eating, and maybe there are better and worse ways to accomplish it for mental and social health?  Maybe I will agree with him when I have finished the book.

Michael Pollan

This book is a response to questions Pollan received from readers of his earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  People wanted to know what they should eat, and what he eats.  In the introduction Pollan wonders why people would want a journalist to tell them what to eat.  (I wonder the same thing as I write my blog.)  He answers his own question that people are confused about what to eat because the topic has been taken away from our mothers and handed over to scientists, who have made it very confusing.  He cites a study from the early twentieth century in which doctors and medical workers stationed overseas noticed that as people in that area abandoned their traditional diet for a Western diet, predictable disease patterns followed, but even more interesting, the original diet was incredibly varied from place to place.  Some populations thrived on “high fat, some on low fat, some on high carb, all meat, or all plant; indeed there have been traditional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine.”  This suggests that humans can be healthy on a wide variety of diets, but the Western diet is not one of them.  [p.11]  Interesting.

I want to say, I really like Michael Pollan when he stays out of the topic of meat.  He has a lot of smart and insightful things to say.  I’ve read The Botany of Desire and several pieces he’s written for the NY Times, such as this open letter to the incoming President Obama, “Farmer in Chief.”  This article, “Unhappy Meals,” seems to be a summary of In Defense of Food. But whenever he gets on the topic of animals, he has a brain freeze.  I didn’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma because I didn’t want to put myself through reading about the calf he buys and then eventually has slaughtered.  I understand that is a small part of the book, and I should probably give it a read, though at this point I think I’ve heard most of what he has to say on the topic of where our food comes from through other media.  But it’s not just that I disagree with him on animals, it’s that he doesn’t make logical sense.  This review from the Atlantic Monthly, “Hard to Swallow,” does a great job of skewering T.O.D. (and here’s my take on it), but I’ve seen Pollan fall apart over meat in other essays as well.  He’s OK when he just touches on meat – he usually recommends reducing our consumption and getting animals out of intensive confinement, but when he goes in depth, he is just pumping out excuses.

John Cawley

I also enjoyed listening to this podcast from the Rudd Center, an interview of John H. Cawley, PhD, an economist at Cornell who studies food economics full time.  He had some very interesting observations, beginning with a discussion about research he is doing into deceptively advertised weight loss products.  He says there is no law saying weight loss products, such as pills, have to work or even be safe, and they can make any claims in their ads that they wish.  He was really interesting.

I think it’s wonderful that this Rudd Center series of interviews on obesity includes lawyers, economists, nutritionists, epidemiologists, psychologists, journalists – you get such a diverse view of the issues.

You know, all this reading and watching about obesity and junk food makes me crave foods I normally do not want, such as chips.  But I am able to laugh at myself, and have not rushed off to the store for any Flaming Hot Cheetohs yet.

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Gas Station Dining

Posted by tinako on June 19, 2010

We went down to my parents cottage this afternoon and planned ahead to pick up dinner at a Subway we found through Google maps.  I rather hopelessly checked out a few other restaurants that would be on the way down, but most of them do not serve vegetables.  Well, I could get a plain salad.  Possibly pasta, but I would have to call each one and sound like a weirdo asking whether they have dairy in their marinara sauce – I am really tired of doing that, especially in this region.  I have a strong hunch that my daughter and I are the only vegans in the county.

We had trouble finding the Subway and that was because it was inside a convenience store for a gas station.  So that is what it has come around to: the healthiest food in the region is to be found at the back of a gas station.  I’m grateful!  I got a veggie sandwich on whole wheat with everything.  They had spinach so I got that instead of lettuce, and of course plenty of hot peppers.  That sandwich was smokin’!

During the drive I listened to a series of podcasts from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, out of Yale.  This center is run by the professor whose class I am watching online.  I like them.  There are shorter 3-4 minute ones on such subjects as discrimination against obese patients in hospitals and getting trans fats out of restaurants, and longer 20 minute ones interviewing experts.

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Posted by tinako on November 16, 2009

I’m not an expert on podcasts, but I really like them and I’ve had a few people ask me about them.  A couple that I like have to do with food, so that’s the connection here.

A podcast is a series of audio or video files available online for people to download for free.  They can be a minute or an hour long, whatever.  There would usually be more than one from the same people, and they are posted periodically, like a newspaper or a TV show.  Visit the web sites of your favorite media and you may very well find a podcast that you like.  You can also Google for podcasts on topics that interest you or browse through directories such as this one.  There are kids’ podcasts, too, often people reading stories.

Most podcasts offer a variety of ways to listen.  Sometimes they may be embedded in your browser window so that Internet Explorer, for instance, will play them for you right on the page.  For example, this site offers you the ability to do that (press the green triangle under the podcast episode title to play it).  But next to that you see you can also Download it to your computer and play it through Windows Media Player, or save it for later, etc.  It’s just an audio file.

You can subscribe to a podcast using your browser bookmark.  Look around the podcast page for “Subscribe” or “RSS.”  This will let you add a bookmark tab that keeps changing to show you the available podcasts (usually your bookmarks stay the same, right?”).  Then you can quickly see what’s new without visiting a bunch of sites.

But I don’t do this.  I use podcatcher software that came with my MP3 player.  Mine is a Creative Zen so the podcast catcher is called ZENcast.  I tell it what podcasts I like and when I open it it automatically downloads the latest ones.  I can use it to transfer to my MP3 player, or I can listen or watch right at my computer.  iTunes does this for iPod players.  There are also free online ones – I think Google Reader is one.  (I recommend making sure any MP3 player you buy comes with good software – we bought a Sansa and it comes with nothing, leaving you at the mercy of a patchwork of freeware and Microsoft applications.)

So that’s what I do.  I already have the podcasts I like set up.  I run ZENcast, it downloads the latest, and I transfer them to my player and take it out for a walk.  I mostly listen to podcasts while I walk, run, or drive.

Here are the ones I like:

Two podcasts that have changed my life:

  • Vegetarian Food For Thought: Series of talks on vegan issues, including ethics, communication, nutrition, recipes, and literature
  • Zencast: This is a series of very approachable lectures on Zen Buddhism, including a five-week meditation course.

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