Perspective

September 23, 2007

I talk a lot with my friends and acquaintances about all the issues covered here. Something that repeatedly comes up is how overwhelming it all is, and how impossible to stay informed and keep up with all the fronts where we’re in trouble, as a society, as a planet and in our personal lives. I absolutely see that. It is overwhelming to think about global warming, dependence on foreign oil, erosion of our civil rights, incursion of marketing and consumerism into our minds, health challenges, our lack of time & the enormous number of demands on it, the horrible environmental and humanitarian crises worldwide, pollution, wastefulness and you name it.

It’s tempting to be immobilized by it.

But I see two things.

One, on how very, very many fronts we’ve taken a wrong path. Indeed, it’s hard to find an area of life where we couldn’t stand to find a less selfish way of doing things and where we don’t need to take a good look at the long view and the bigger picture and adjust our behavior accordingly.

But two — the fact that we are so overwhelmingly screwed up is very freeing. It means that we have a huge range of possible improvements to make, an enormous number of possibilities for changing things in a way that works for us. Thousands of places where our money, time, effort, and voices can make a difference. Not all starting places are easy for all of us. But each of us has some starting places that are simple, virtually painless, and worth doing.

One of my friends still shops at Wal-Mart (no matter how many nasty and uncalled-for cracks I make about it to her face, and I’m hoping to reform her yet) but she also knits squares that make charity afghans for disadvantaged people and baby hats for a local neo-natal intensive care unit.

My parents both drive small SUVs — they don’t want to, but they can’t get into and out of low-to-the-ground cars anymore. Yet they recycle.

Another friend built a house 30 or so miles (maybe more!) from where she works. But she bought a Prius.

As for me, well, I’m documenting our good changes. But we have weaknesses — I still eat meat (although I object to it philosophically and it’s an enormously wasteful source of fuel for humans because of the amount of food that has to be grown to raise a single beef cow, pig, or chicken). I gave up walking to the grocery store this summer (temporarily) because of a bad case of plantar fasciitis. And I can think of a host of other ways in which I’m wasteful or environmentally or humanitarianly (I’m sure that’s not a word but you know what I mean) inconsiderate, wasteful or prone to perpetuating the problem.

But I, like many other people I know, have at last made a start. Let’s keep going.

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Some Tidbits About Obesity

September 5, 2007

BTW — I’m not beating anybody up here. I need to lose 20 or 25 lbs myself, and the reading and research I’ve been doing started out being for my own benefit. I think the more reasons I can give myself for exerting the self-discipline necessary to lose the weight outside my own appearance, health and psychological need to win this battle, the easier the weight will be to lose. But it falls in line with my theories about getting healthy as a way to help the planet, so here it is:

I just finished reading “Fat Land” by Greg Critser (excellent reading, by the way). The data I’m sharing here comes from his book and, I think, lends a small idea of the scope of the problem.

“Obesity takes its toll on our daily quality of life too. Between 1988 and 1994, the number of days of lost work due to obesity increased by 50 percent – to 39 million days, worth $3.9 billion. There were also 239 million restricted-activity days due to obesity, 89.5 million bed-rest days, and 62.6 million physician visits, the last equivalent to an 88 percent rise over 1988. As A. M. Wolfe and G. A. Colditz of the University of Virginia concluded in a study of such costs among a population of 88,000 U. S. residents, “The economic and personal health costs of overweight and obesity are enormous and compromise the health of the United States (emphasis added by Critser).”

Oh, and long as we’re looking for practical applications to personal health, take these two pieces of advice from Critser — ditch the palm oil and ditch the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Palm oil is so highly saturated that “its proponents secretly touted it as ‘cow fat disguised as vegetable oil.'” HFCS, in addition to a number of other problems (like, for example, its high caloric content), apparently actually helps increase insulin resistance — which can lead to blood-sugar regulation problems like diabetes and make obesity harder to combat. (I’m greatly oversimplifying here: Critser explains it beautifully and if his explanation doesn’t make you immediately start reading labels at the grocery store, start having yourself psychologically examined for a death-wish.)

Also, it turns out that constantly bombarding yourself with frequent small snacks and meals (instead of eating periodically and allowing yourself to actually become hungry between meals) probably contributes to insulin-resistance also — yet another way we are actually making ourselves fat. (This one is often done in the name of increasing the likelihood that a diet will be successful. Go figure.)

Oh — one last thing. That stuff that came out in the 1990s about how it was ok to be heavier if you were older? Bunk. Absolute bunk. Some Harvard scientists went back and looked at the data the original researcher had used to draw his well-publicized but erroneous conclusion, and found severe biases, chief among them the failure to control for cigarette smoking (which is more prevalent among thin people). I quote from Critser here (who is himself quoting from the Harvard reworking of the studies):

“‘After controlling for smoking,” they wrote,”the risk of death…increased by two percent for each pound of excess weight for ages 50 to 62, and by one percent per extra pound for ages 30 to 49.’ The same conclusion was reached after reanalyzing an American Cancer Society survey of 750,000 men and women: There was no basis for recommending more lenient weight guidelines. In fact, the numbers suggested just the opposite: Weight guidelines needed to be stricter.”

I see this as a series. Here’s the basic idea which we’ll explore in many posts: The healthier you are, the less of a drain you’ll be on the world’s resources, in oh, so many ways.

For example:

• You won’t be sucking down prescription meds that 1) cost a fortune, 2) generate a tree’s-worth of paperwork at some doctor’s office and some insurance office; 3) use up oil in being developed and transported and encased in oil-based plastic bottles; 4) cause side effects that, themselves, have to be treated; 5) take up expensive doctor-time in a world where in many places doctors are scarce, etc.; and, which, in many cases 6) are intended to be taken long-term, thus compounding the costs to our resources.

• You won’t be as reliant on oil-based transportation because you’ll be healthy enough to walk where you need to go more often, or healthy enough to make taking public transportation feasible (you’ll be able to climb onto the bus or negotiate the stairs to the subway, etc.).

• You won’t be using a host of resources relied on by the unhealthy — meds, social services, medical services/ facilities and the host of drains those pose on resources, equipment (everything from special shoes to those little carts people drive in the grocery store, all of which require oil and resources to manufacture and transport), special (read, usually, “large and gas guzzling”) vehicles, and the energy of those around you who must do more to compensate for your having to stop at doing less.

• You won’t be using a host of non-prescription meds, which have all the same sins as the prescription medications above, except for those which are doctor/insurance-related.

• You won’t be using as many of other resources. If, for example, you’re overweight, by losing the weight you will not only probably solve your involvement in many of the above-listed problems, you also require less cloth in your clothing — and the savings redounds to the planet’s credit on a host of fronts. A field of cotton goes farther making size 8 clothing than size 24, and size 8 weighs less, so it costs less to transport (or more of it can be transported at the same time, which is more efficient). Your car will weigh less when you drive it — therefore it will be more fuel efficient. You may be able to drive a smaller car. You’ll doubtless eat less, leaving more for others and using fewer resources throughout the food industry and its host of support industries. Another example: If you smoke or drink, you are not only harming yourself, you are using resources unnecessarily and probably repeatedly, and it wouldn’t hurt to remind yourself that more than just your health is at stake.

• You won’t be as limited in your ability to choose earth-friendly and society-friendly options.

• You won’t be as limited in your ability to give back.

I find this idea especially cogent as we’re in the juxtaposition of two phenomena: the largest generation of Americans ever is about to enter late-middle or old age, and the world is in serious environmental and climate trouble. We are not going to be able to solve this as a society if a huge segment of us prematurely becomes unable to take itself to the john, thus tying up another huge segment of us in care-taking. I’m not saying that everyone can be healthy. I’m saying all of us can try harder to ensure that we are as healthy as possible for as long as possible, and for reasons outside the benefits to our personal lives.

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the actual cost of a candy bar. I decided to try to find out what the candy folks were lobbying for, just to see where my money is going.

Here’s just one example. In 2005, California was considering a law that would require candy manufacturers importing candy from Mexico to both test for and eliminate lead in their candy and candy wrappers. You read that right — lead. I’d had no idea this was a problem.

The candy lobby — the National Confectioners Association — lobbied against it. Yep, you read THAT right too — the candy manufacturers who sell candy to children wanted to win the right to continue FEEDING THEM LEAD.

So, you say, well, who cares about candy from MEXICO, because I eat Hershey and M&Ms. Well, guess what? Once the sugar subsidy in this country got too ridiculous, American candymakers started outsourcing to — you guessed it — Mexico. Including Hershey and M&M Mars, both of whom have facilities there.

Now, the law in California passed, despite the candy lobby’s efforts. But — that’s California. Who knows what they’re feeding us elsewhere? That’s bad — but to me, the worse thing is that given something that should be a moral imperative — we’re talking about a known poison being given to an audience that consists largely of children — the candy lobby picked the wrong side. And used my money to fund it.

Rather puts a hole in the idea of candy as comfort food for me!

Fluidity

June 24, 2007

Two items crossed my desk this week. One was a survey about a new water product that allegedly isn’t as heavy as tea but has the “health benefits” of tea built into it. (Read: yet another flavored fortified water.) The other was a news story on CNN about an order given by the mayor of San Francisco banning the city government from buying bottled water, even for water coolers. (HOORAY for them!)

Now, I buy bottled water once in a while, but it’s for two reasons. One, I have a supply in stock for hurricane preparedness (I live in Florida) which will sit there indefinitely until we need it. Two, I buy a large bottle and then reuse it over and over again (for taking water with me to the gym) until the bottle begins to fail structurally or develops other problems, at which time I replace it and recycle the old. I suspect the water companies figured this habit out, though, because Evian bottles fail rapidly, and so do those from my local store brand. At the moment I’m using a Fiji bottle, and it’s holding up well. But I’m thinking I’m not going to do that anymore — I’ll just buy a durable plastic bottle from Rubbermaid or someone similar, and use it permanently.

One thing this habit of drinking the bottled water and then refilling with tap has taught me is that my tap water tastes better than some bottled water. For example, by comparison with my tap water, Evian tastes positively chemical to me. I’d heard about the studies comparing the quality of bottled water vs. tap but this morning I actually went out and read up on it (allaboutwater.org and the NRDC’s study of bottled water) and was stunned to see that not only is bottled water less well regulated (FDA regulations for bottled water are less stringent than EPA regulations for tap), it failed the microbe-content test in nearly 20 percent of samples studied!

Yikes!

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The Cost of a Candy Bar

June 18, 2007

I’m standing in the grocery store today and I catch myself doing something I’ve caught myself doing before — trying to talk myself into buying a candy bar, even though I’m not hungry and I don’t actually crave one. It’s amazing how often I give in, too. As if I’ll regret not having bought it when I leave without it (which has, I’ll admit, happened). But I long ago learned that five minutes worth of discipline in the grocery store saves hours of discipline later on, so I try to ignore the self-destructive voices urging me toward chocolate, with spotty success.

Historically this has largely been for health/diet reasons. I lost 50 lbs during 2000, and have kept most of it off (although lately I’ve been fighting some creepage-back). And I think that’s how most people typically evaluate many food choices – in terms of health. Recently, though, I’ve started to think of candy bars in larger terms.

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Kellogg has taken a first step toward ceasing marketing of unhealthy products to children under 12, including in schools, according to a report on ABC News. They’re also embarking on a new-but-flawed labeling program for their foods that will give people nutritional information on the front of the box (I say flawed because the labeling information will be based on a 2,000 calorie [read adult] diet, even though many of the products are intended primarily for children, who require far fewer calories.) It’s a start.

Kudos to Kellogg for taking this first step without forcing a long court battle and without hiding behind the lack of federal regulation, of course, and like they, I hope other companies will jump on. But the darts and laurels procession doesn’t stop there:

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Last week, I noticed that my local grocery store was now advertising its milk as RBGH-free. What, I wondered, is RBGH? I have since found out.

I won’t go on at length about it. I’ll just give you the bare bones and the sources.

RBGH stands for Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone and it is administered to cows (through the kind offices of its manufacturer, Monsanto) to increase milk production, which it does. It also makes the cows far more likely to contract several illnesses, including mastitis.

I watched a little segment about this very issue in a documentary called “The Corporation” (which I highly recommend) yesterday, and one eyewitness said the pus generated by the cows in trying to fight off the mastitis ends up in the milk.

Well, that was enough for me, but it turns out it isn’t all the bad news.

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