Overweight Ohio

Some entity I’ve never heard of came out with their list of the fattest states in America.  Of course, I checked to see where Ohio ranked, and found that we’re at number 12 on the portly parade — not quite cracking the Top Ten of Tubbiness, but definitely up there farther than we want to be.

3672977397_af1d0d37ac_zAn outfit called WalletHub (has anybody heard of these guys?) supposedly looked at three factors — “obesity and overweight prevalence, health consequences and food and fitness” — to determine their rankings.  By their analysis, Mississippi, West Virginia, and Arkansas rank 1, 2, and 3 in overall corpulence, whereas Colorado, Utah, and Hawaii, respectively, are the top three at the slender end of the spectrum.  And notwithstanding all of the lobbying fat cats who prowl the halls of Congress, the District of Columbia is found to be one of the slimmest jurisdictions in the U.S.

I’m always skeptical of these kinds of rankings of states, but the news stories never get into the details of how they are developed that would allow proper analysis.  Precisely how was the “obesity and overweight prevalence” factor in this study determined?  Is there some kind of secret federal blubber database that was consulted?  And does food and fitness just look at the availability of food and workout facilities, or the kind of food that is consumed, or the use of restaurants and fitness outlets, or something else?  How in the world would you determine, for example, that Ohio is marginally fatter than That State Up North?

All that said, it’s clear that Ohio has work to do.  We don’t want to crack the Top Ten on the State Stoutness Scale and be known as Obese Ohio.  It’s time to put down those delectable Buckeye candies, push back from the kitchen table, hop on the elliptical or the bike, break out the weights, and start turning blubbery Buckeyes into buff Buckeyes.

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Coffee As Candy

On our drive up to Maine, Kish wanted to grab a cup of coffee, so we stopped at your basic 7-Eleven in a small town in western Massachusetts.  It’s the first time I’ve been in a 7-Eleven in years.

7-eleven-coffee-stationIt’s safe to say that the current 7-Eleven coffee station, even in your basic 7-Eleven in small town America, is . . . elaborate.  In fact, incredibly elaborate would not be an exaggeration.  Whereas there used to be one little area with a few coffee pots where you could pour yourself a generic regular coffee or decaf coffee and add your standard creamer, sugar, or non-sugar sweetener, now there is a long row of different coffee options, depending on your preference in strength and flavoring, and then an extensive choice of creamers and additives that apparently is offered to allow you get your 7-Eleven cup of coffee as close to what a high-end coffee house barista might serve you.

My mind reeled at some of the flavoring options.  There’s hazelnut, of course, but cinnamon?  Marshmallow?  There had to be more than a dozen different creamer flavors, and that doesn’t even account for the dry materials you could add to your cup.  The standard creamer bin was totally outnumbered by a host of sweetening alternatives.

Coffee is increasingly becoming less like coffee, and more like candy or ice cream or dessert.  Americans apparently have such a sweet tooth that even the old cup of joe from a 7-Eleven store needs to be gussied up into some frothy, hyper-sweet concoction.  Is it any wonder that we’ve got an obesity problem in this country?

A Blunt Instrument

As of January 1, 2018, Seattle has placed a tax — it’s officially called a “sweetened beverage recovery fee” — on sugary sodas and “sports drinks” like Gatorade.  Costco, the big box membership club retailer, has responded by placing signs showing consumers the specific impact of the tax on the Costco price for the product — and it’s a whopper.

video__sugar_tax_sticker_shock_0_10405324_ver1-0_640_360The Costco signs show that the Seattle tax adds $10.34 to a Gatorade 35-bottle variety pack — the kind you might buy if you were responsible for buying refreshments for your kid’s sports team to consume after a practice.  The price of the product was $15.99, but with the new tax the price is now $26.33.  The tax added $7.56 to a 36-can case of Dr. Pepper, bringing the price from $9.99 to $17.55.  Costco also helpfully added signage to explain the tax-related increase to its customers and remind them that they can avoid paying the additional cost simply by going to a nearby Costco located out of the city limits.  Some customers have told local TV stations they plan on doing just that.  There’s also been lots of social media chatter about the Costco signs and the impact of the tax on prices.

What’s the point of the tax?  Seattle evidently is concerned about obesity, which some studies have linked, at least in part, to the consumption of sugary soft drinks.  Seattle hopes that by imposing a substantial tax on soft drinks and “sports drinks,” it will incentivize people to make healthier choices.  But get this:  the tax exempts sweetened products from certified manufacturers with annual worldwide gross revenue of $2 million or less, and products from certified manufacturers with gross revenue of more than $2 million but less than $5 million pay a much smaller tax.  That exemption is a purely political decision that doesn’t make sense as a public health issue, because the size of the producer obviously doesn’t change whatever the impact of the product might be.  Seattle’s approach also focuses only on sweetened drinks, and doesn’t address products like ice cream, candy bars, “snack foods,” or frozen pizza that might also be said to contribute to “unhealthy lifestyles.”  And, of course, it doesn’t begin to address other issues that contribute directly to obesity, such as lack of exercise.

Other cities, like Chicago, have tried soft drink taxes and dumped them in the face of business opposition.  Costco is providing a salutary service by alerting its customers to the specific cost impact of the tax so they can factor it into their decision-making.  The Seattle experiment, as illuminated by the Costco signs, reminds us, yet again, that taxes are a pretty blunt instrument when it comes to trying to change behavior and achieve broader policies — and that taxes are always going to be affected by political considerations, too.

Seat Grab

I was sitting in my seat on my flight to Denver, doing some reading for work and minding my own business, when suddenly my seat lurched backward.

I momentarily wondered what had happened,, then I realized the truth:  the person who was sitting in the seat behind me was getting up and had to grab the back of my seat with both hands to help themselves up — and from the amount of the backward movement of my seat, I figured it was a big person.  When I looked behind me, sure enough I saw a heavyset guy struggling to rise from his seat and head off to the bathroom.

How often has this happened to you?  For me, it’s become commonplace.  We’ve got such an obesity problem in this country that people can’t get up from their seats without help.  Even the armrests that allow you to balance yourself as you rise from your seat on the airplane aren’t sufficient, so the obese travelers have to hang on to the back to the seat in front of them and pull themselves to their feet.  Never mind that there’s somebody sitting in that seat they’re grabbing, and that the seat grab is going to cause that unlucky person to move backward unexpectedly, interrupting whatever they might be doing.  There’s never an apology, either.  It’s as if the seat you are sitting in was intended solely to help tubby passengers stand up, giving them every right to wrestle with your seat and maneuver it as they see fit so they can get on their feet.

It’s a minor annoyance, to be sure, but it’s just another little reminder of how extensive the obesity epidemic is in this country.  When people can’t even get to their feet on a plane without putting both hands on the seat in front of them and pulling with all of their might, it’s obviously a problem.

Politicized Diets

Recently I ran across an interesting article dealing with governmental diet instructions.  It noted that much of the nutrition advice that Americans have received from their government over recent decades has turned out to be dead wrong — and in fact may have contributed to the obesity epidemic that you see whenever you go out in public.

The article focuses on the national dietary guidelines released in 1980 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the forerunner to the current Department of Health and Human Services.  The guidelines targeted fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol as villainous substances to be avoided and drummed into American heads that low-cholesterol, low-fat foods were better for your heart and your health generally.  As a result, the article posits, food manufacturers started churning out “low-fat” and low-calorie offerings that Americans bought, thinking they were eating healthy.

dfe6c7a7569e69d9568a402ff1a01e74But the government’s conclusions about our eating habits and their effect on health turned out to be erroneous. Research has determined that fat and cholesterol are not, in fact, harmful, and the “low-fat,” high in carbohydrates foods that Americans have been munching on may instead have helped to produce vast problems with obesity and diabetes — problems that did not exist in 1980, when the government report that triggered it all was released.  One British cardiologist contends:  “The change in dietary advice to promote low-fat foods is perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history.”  And other results have indicated that diets that go in the opposite direction from the government’s instruction, with dieters looking to eat meats and eggs and limit carbs instead, are effective in reducing weight.

How did the government turn out to be so wrong?  Some researchers believe that it was because, back in the ’60s, sugar industry lobbyists funded dubious research that linked fat and cholesterol to heart disease and downplayed the adverse health effects of sugar and carbohydrates.  With the nudging from the lobbyists, the government bought the sketchy results, issued its report, and started the country on the road to flabbiness.  In short, politics helped to put us on the wrong dietary road.

If you’ve lived long enough, you begin to reach a critical mass of alarming governmental declarations that have turned out to be wrong.  It’s one of the reasons why the credibility of our governmental institutions among the American public has dropped to an all-time low.  The conclusion that modern America’s obesity epidemic is a self-inflicted problem caused in part by really bad governmental advice isn’t going to help.

Obesity On The Interstate

On Saturday and Sunday, Kish and I drove home from Maine.  It was a long trip, so we broke it up into two days.  The distance wasn’t a problem for me, though, because I just enjoy driving, listening to the radio, and seeing the countryside pass by.

northway-exit1We rolled along interstate highways in Massachusetts, upstate New York (where we got ridiculously gouged paying tolls on the New York Turnpike), and then Pennsylvania and Ohio.  Because we were on the NY Turnpike, we used the service plazas to fill up, and we visited rest areas on the non-toll roads.  As we stopped from time to time and I passed fellow travelers, I slowly realized something:

My God!  We are a country of porkers!

Look, I recognize that the crowd you see on the interstate highway system in the Eastern time zone isn’t a random statistical sample of the United States as a whole.  I know you can’t extrapolate from the people I happened to see, by chance, as I stopped to fill up or hit the men’s restroom.  But after a while the number of seriously obese people I was seeing at every stop became so obvious that it just couldn’t be ignored.  And I’m not talking about people who are a few pounds above their ideal, either.  I’m talking about people that move with the slow waddle characteristic of the grossly overweight, men with colossal beer guts, women who are huffing and puffing just walking from their cars to a roadside restroom, and people who look like they are ready to burst out of their clothes.

I’m not saying this to be funny, or provocative.  It really was disturbing, and depressing.  There obviously are a lot of morbidly obese people in this country, and if you want to see them just drive a while on the interstate highway system.  When you think about the back problems, and diabetes, and joint problems, and heart disease, and high blood pressure, and other health conditions associated with obesity, you realize that the weight problems of so many people have to be a large contributor to the exploding health care costs in the United States.  Is it any wonder that we can’t control health care costs, when so many people can’t control their own urges and their own weight?

Garbage In

What are the costs of eating fast food?  Of course, one cost is the simple consumption of an unsatisfying, typically over-salted meal in either a car seat or a sticky and garish fast-food environment, rather than sitting down to a leisurely meal with family or friends.  That’s a given.  Then there’s the weight gain that tends to result from slamming down high-calorie processed foods.  But now research is indicating there’s even more to it.

chemicals-in-fast-food-wrappers-show-up-in-human-bloodThe Washington Post recently published an article about the curious association between fast-food consumption and phthalates.  (Yes, “phthalate” is a real word, and no, I have no idea how it is pronounced.)  The study tracked fast-food intake by 9,000 research subjects — fast-food was defined as any food served at a restaurant without waiters or waitresses — and took urine samples from them.  Analysis of the urine samples showed that people who had eaten any fast food in the last 24 hours had higher phthalate levels than people who had not eaten any fast food during that same period, and the larger your fast food intake, the higher your phthalate levels tended to be.

The results are troubling because phthalates are industrial chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible, and the Post reports that they have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.  Male infertility is one of them, and another is diabetes.  Why do people who consume fast food have higher phthalate levels?  Researchers don’t know for sure, but they suspect it is because the processed nature of fast food means that the food tends to touch a lot more machines, conveyor belts, plastic wrapping, other packaging materials, and other potential sources of phthalates before it gets onto your plate — I mean, your cheap cardboard box, paper bag or foam container.

But here’s the most troubling part of the Post story from my standpoint: the research revealed, and other government studies confirm, that one-third of the participants eat some form of fast food every day.  That includes one-third of kids and adolescents.

A diet that includes fast food every day.  Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel dry and briny from anticipation of the salt intake.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got some serious health and obesity problems in the U.S. of A.  We’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, and it starts with eating better food.