Tag Archives: obesity

No-nothing Nanny

The board of supervisors in Santa Clara County just voted to take the fun out of “happy meals”.  If the popular child-size meals don’t meet certain nutritional standards it will be illegal to  give away promotional toys with them.

This of course is yet another symbolic gesture aimed at curbing childhood obesity that’s been enacted by people who have no real understanding of the problem.  They just know that they’re smarter than you and that it’s their duty to help you run your life.

Reading the quotes from board president Ken Yeager in this New York Times  article showed just how clueless our politicians can be.  Ken doesn’t have any children of his own, but he’s quite confident he knows how to best help you raise yours. 

He claims the new law would level “the playing field by taking away the incentive to choose fatty, sugary foods over healthier options.”  Sorry Ken, you can take away the toy, but the fatty, sugary foods are still going to taste good to kids.  Supermarkets sell plenty of candy, cookies, chips and other junk food without the need to include a cheap plastic trinket.

Mr. Know-it-all believes that children are choosing their meal based on the give-away that comes with it.  He then delivers this gem of parental wisdom: “Why would a kid say ‘I want a burger with fries’? It’s the toys that they want.”  That’s right Ken, give them a plastic whistle and they’ll be lined up three deep to eat brussels sprouts and tofu.

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Food Revolution???

Just Like Oprah!

I’ll apologize up front..this may not be the most cohesive thing I’ve ever posted.  My head is spinning and I could take it in a dozen different directions.  But I’m just going to start writing and hit a few of the high points.  There will be plenty of links if you care to explore things further.

A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement for a new TV show, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution”.  The premise looked interesting…a celebrity chef from Britain goes into “the unhealthiest community in America” and tries to improve their eating habits.  I made a mental note to tune in…and then promptly forgot all about it.

Then a couple of days ago I spotted a headline in my news feed—Kids to Jamie Oliver: Bag your healthy lunches.  It went on to explain that Jamie’s “revolution” wasn’t getting a lot of traction with school children.  They much preferred their chicken nuggets, pizza and chocolate milk to the healthier fare he was providing.

Reading that article made me even more interested in seeing the show.  A quick online search turned up a link that allows you to watch the the two episodes that have already aired.   If you’re into reality TV, this program takes the genre to a whole new level.

The executive producer is Ryan Seacrest, the American Idol guy.  He shares production duties with Oliver and some of the same people who bring us “Extreme Makeover Home Edition”.  Let’s just say there’s no shortage of contrived drama and conflict, and it’s all pasted together with a mixture of hair gel and tears.  

Prior to watching the show I didn’t know anything about Jamie Oliver.  Born to working-class parents in England, he dropped out of high school, went to cooking school, and then enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of celebrity chefdom.  In 1999 his show The Naked Chef debuted and his cookbook became a number one best-seller in the UK.

He has subsequently become the head of his own multinational company, with 12 TV shows and 10 cookbooks to his credit.  He owns scores of restaurants, sells cookware, and even produces a namesake magazine Jamie.  His wife is a former model, and though only in his mid 30s, his personal empire is reportedly in excess of $60 million dollars.  Life is obviously pretty good for Mr. Oliver. 

He has used his wealth and fame to champion the causes he supports.  He led a campaign to get unhealthy foods removed from British schools.  This brought on radical changes and led to the British government contributing an additional billion dollars to fund school lunches.  He definitely knows how to get things done.

But if the first two episodes are any indication, Oliver may have bit off more than he can chew.   Here in the USA things are bad—very, very bad.  On his first morning in the school cafeteria he is introduced to “breakfast pizza” and sees children eating sugared cereals bathed in a luminous strawberry flavored sugary milk.  For lunch it’s chicken nuggets and a chemistry experiment that somehow turns into something resembling mashed potatoes.  While a little bit of real food like fruit and fresh-baked bread does make it onto the childen’s plates,  it appears that the majority of it gets scraped into the trash can.  

Then Oliver gets his big chance to cook his food for the kids.   This is not without its fair share of drama, as the school’s “lunch ladies” would much prefer to stick to the status quo.  Despite his efforts to build excitement for his healthy offerings (he visits classrooms dressed up as a pea!) the children are unimpressed.   We get to watch as they spit out his food and then dump it in the trash.  Jaime doesn’t quite understand this; in Britain he say’s he’d tell them to go back and finish. 

Jaime also visits a local family, all of whom are overweight.  It is here that we see exactly where the children develop their taste for unhealthy fare.  He piles the kitchen table with all of the foods they’ve consumed over the past week–a monotone mountain of brown and tan—pizzas, corn dogs, hamburgers, with nary a vegetable in sight.  Every meal comes out of the microwave or the deep fryer.

Needless to say “mom” is a little embarrassed by this (and a freezer crammed with about 40 cheap pizzas).  Jamie lets her know that she is contributing to her children’s obesity and shortening their lives.    You would think that seeing her 300 lb. 12 year-old son on a daily basis might have given her a hint something was wrong—but apparently this news must come as quite a shock to her, because she cries.

Jaime whips up a healthy meal for them, and also goes out in the yard and helps them bury the fryer.  That’s some good TV!  He also has a heart-to-heart with the obese 12 year-old, who admits the other kids tease him about his weight.   Jaime offers to give him cooking lessons and tells him the girls are going to really be impressed when he can whip up a nice meal.

Conflict, drama, contrived for TV stunts, predictable tears, this show has it all.  Oliver hopes the show leads to a “food revolution” across America’s school cafeterias.  He’s also angling to arrange a meeting with Michelle Obama so they can join forces and end childhood obesity.  He has a petition on his website that he hopes to deliver to the White House.

But if the results of his efforts in his home country are any example, Oliver is up for some fierce resistance.    When the British government implemented his school-lunch recommendations the negative reaction was dramatic.  Parents pulled 400,000 children from the school-lunch program, and many opted to hand food to their kids through the gates of school yards.  Vendors set up outside schools to sell food, and enterprising students began selling junk food to peers in schools, which led to kids getting suspended for  “dealing” potato chips. 

A less-than-flattering view of Oliver and his efforts to influence the way people eat and how much the government should pay for it can be found in this article from Reason.com.   With over 300 comments and counting, it’s clear that “making school lunches healthier” is more controversial than you might think. 

 Civil liberties aside, many people are less than convinced that any government program is going to change the way people eat.   On a recent episodeof his late-night show David Letterman let Oliver know that his efforts were noble but futile.  The comedian turned serious, saying that in our food culture it was virtually impossible to lose weight.  He said that in the future he expects everyone to weigh 400 to 500 lbs and that science will have found a way to keep us healthy at that weight.

I could continue, but I would like to get this up and posted before tonight’s episode airs (9pm ABC).  Tune in and see what happens.  Like it or not, it will certainly make you think a little bit more about the way we feed our children.

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Labeling Laws

” SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING:  Eating this product leads to heart disease, obesity, and enormous gelatinous thighs.”

That may be the message you see posted on restaurant menus and vending machines in the not-to-distant future.  Part of the health care reform bill recently passed in Washington has a provision that requires restaurant chains and vending machines to provide calorie information beginning in 2011.

The specifics of the regulations still need to be worked out by the Food and Drug Administration.  What we do know is that every restaurant chain with 20 or more locations will need to provide calorie information on their menus and drive-thru signs.  Food sold in vending machines will also be required to provide this data.

The intent of the legislation in to provide consumers with the information they need to make healthier choices.  Americans spend half of their food dollars outside the home, and it is hoped that this labeling will help curb our growing waistlines.  Obesity related diseases are on the rise and the cost of treating them is already having a tremendous impact on the health care system.

It will be interesting to see what kind of edict the FDA mandates.   The measure is modeled after a program that is already in effect in New York City.  Early studies there have shown mixed results, so it is unclear whether simply providing calorie information will have any effect on consumers’ food choices. 

The government’s use of labeling laws to change behavior is nothing new.  In 1966 smokers were warned that ” Cigarette Smoking May be Hazardous to Your Health”.  When that message failed to have much effect, it was changed to the sterner “The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health”.   By 1985 the message became even more graphic, warning that “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema,  And May Complicate Pregnancy”.

It isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to see food labeling evolve along similar lines.  Who knows, in a few years every pizza box may have a picture like this printed on the lid:

HIGH FAT FOOD WARNING: May Be Hazardous to Your Girth

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A 60 Pound Problem

Is a calorie a calorie, no matter where it comes from?  That’s a debate that’s been raging for years, and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been at the epicenter of the arguments.   It appears now that we’re closer to having an answer.

Some people have argued that the switch to HFCS as our primary sweetener triggered the obesity epidemic.    The product has been demonized and has many vocal opponents who have blamed it for many of our nation’s current health problems.    Its introduction 40 years ago as a low-cost substitute for table sugar certainly correlates with our country’s increasing waistlines.

But the food industry has steadfastly maintained the product’s innocence, and science seemed to be on their side.  Table sugar  and high fructose corn syrup are both primarily made up of the same two compounds (fructose and glucose) and both contain the same number of calories.  They argued that we were simply just eating too much.

We’ve been taught that weight gain is a simple formula…too many calories in, not enough calories burned.  We know that people are less physically active and eating more today, so the attempts to blame rising obesity rates on HFCS hasn’t gained universal acceptance.  But that may soon change.

According to new research from Princeton University,  it appears that HFCS does have properties that trigger obesity.   Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.

Once you’ve wrapped your mind around that, read what Professor Bart Hoebel, who specializes in the neuroscience of appetite, weight and sugar addiction, observed in the study. “When rats are drinking high-fructose corn syrup at levels well below those in soda pop, they’re becoming obese — every single one, across the board. Even when rats are fed a high-fat diet, you don’t see this; they don’t all gain extra weight.”

I highly recommend reading the entire article, it contains a lot more interesting and eye-opening information.  HFCS is a well-known ingredient in soft drinks, but it’s also commonly added to fruit juice, soda, cereal, bread, yogurt, ketchup and mayonnaise. On average, Americans consume 60 pounds of the sweetener per person every year.  Yeah, that might be a problem!

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Bang, You’re Fat!

Want to make sure your research project gets plenty of notoriety?  Just ignore the most obvious (albeit boring) conclusion and instead “speculate” that there’s a mysterious “switch”  that you can flip that makes you fat.

That seems to be working for this group of Australian researchers; their study was featured on television this morning, and I just ran across it again on Yahoo’s health news.  You can see the article by clicking this link.

What they found is actually very interesting and was previously unknown-that the human tongue can detect fatty acids in food.  It was previously thought that there were only five tastes–sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (a savoury, protein-rich taste contained in foods such as soy sauce and chicken stock).

Everyone that they tested was able to identify the fatty acids, however some needed higher concentrations than others.  They also found that the people who were most sensitive to fat, those who could taste very low concentrations, had lower BMIs (body mass indexes) and consumed less fat than the people who were insensitive.

Then the speculation about the “mystery switch” starts.  They suggest that some people, the ones who don’t detect fat as easily, don’t have a “trigger” that tells them to stop eating these fatty foods, which of course leads to weight gain.

 So if we can just discover a way to re-arm this hidden mechanism, out obesity problems will be solved.  All we need to do is fund a lot more research, and then maybe the pharmaceutical companies will be able to develop a pill that will make it all better.  Yeah, right… 

Answer me this, oh enlightened researchers…aren’t people on low-sodium diets more sensitive to the taste of salt?  Isn’t a can of cola sickeningly sweet to anyone who doesn’t drink it regularly?  So if fat is also a taste, wouldn’t the same principles apply? 

Could it be possible that the overweight people have become desensitized to the taste of fats because they consume them so regularly?  That the people who choose to limit their fat intake have lower BMIs because they make better decisions?  No, no, that’s not going to make anyone any money, it must be something else.  We better fund some more research.

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Cheap Eats

There are plenty of things to blame the obesity epidemic on–larger portions, cuts to PE programs, more snacking, etc., etc.  But there’s one excuse I constantly see referenced that I just don’t understand…that somehow it’s cheaper to go out and eat fast food than to cook healthy meals.  Says who?  Why do reporters just accept this statement and report it as a fact?

Sure, if you’re going for Kobe beef and organic veggies you can run up quite a tab.  But good, healthy food doesn’t need to be expensive.  And unlike the aforementioned reporters, I’ll give you proof.   Cheap Healthy Good is a website, that as its name suggests, seeks to deliver tasty and nutritious meals at bargain prices.  It blows the “cheaper to eat fast food” argument completely out of the water.

In one post, the author demonstrates what can be done with a roasting chicken, some planning, and a little creativity.    The result is 5 different recipes in four days that makes 17 meals  at a total cost of $1.52 per meal.  And they’re good-looking meals…no cop-outs like chicken quesadillas in the bunch!   That same buck-fifty might buy you a large Coke at your favorite fast-food eatery…you still want to tell me it’s cheaper to eat out?   

Eating healthy admittedly takes some  time and effort.  You need to plan ahead…you can’t just head to the nearest drive-thru every time you start to feel hungry.  But don’t kid yourself—you’re not saving any money and you’re definitely not doing your body any favors.

Obviously its easier to settle for junk  food, so if you want to tell me that you’re too busy or too tired to cook, that’s a different story.  Of course someone who’s more cynical might say you’re just lazy, but that’s a whole different argument for another time.

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Obesity Prevention Starts Early

Here are a couple of interesting articles, especially to any new mothers (or mothers-to-be) out there. 

The first suggests that children’s food preferences are imprinted early in life, even in the womb.   If the mother makes healthy food choices, the child is more likely to seek out those same flavors later in life.  The full article can be found here.

The main point of the second article is that the path to a lifetime of obesity starts at a very young age.    A study of more than 100 obese children and teenagers found more than half were overweight by 24 months of age, and 90% were overweight by the age of five.

The obesity study also discusses eating behaviors, and notes that food preferences may be set as early as two years of age.  This is what makes reversing bad habits so difficult later in life.  A child who has been raised on processed foods will often have an appetite for nothing else.

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