Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Even Harder to Swallow

Fast food is an American original—quick, easy, relatively inexpensive and it’s become a cultural icon. According to a recent Research International USA study, more than half of our country (57 percent) has been to McDonald’s in the past month, followed by Subway (37 percent), Burger King (36 percent), Taco Bell (33 percent), Wendy’s (32 percent) and KFC (27 percent). Because most fast food is purchased hot, it isn’t required to have a nutrition label (even though this is beginning to change in some places), so you won’t know the trans fat, saturated fat or overall fat content.

If you don’t know already, trans fats increase your risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke, make cholesterol worse, and are thought to be 10 times worse overall than saturated fats. The minimum amount of trans fat a person can consume, and not increase this risk—is zero. And, if Americans would reduce the amount of trans fats they are currently consuming—much of it from fast food, the Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates 30,000 to 100,000 deaths from heart disease could be prevented each year.

But in addition to the trans fat, consumers of fast food also eat more dietary and saturated fat, and fewer fruits and vegetables. The 15-year CARDIA study linked fast food to type 2 diabetes and weight gain. In fact, a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that states with the most fast food restaurants per square mile also have the highest obesity rates.

So, we know it’s tasty (usually), convenient, abundant, inexpensive and fast. But let us ask—does fast food really reflect American attitudes and culture? Does it really reflect our values? What about our health and wellness? What about the quality of our lives long-term? What does it say about what we pass on to our children? America has led the fast food revolution. Maybe we can also show the world that we’ve learned from our mistakes and start a new, sustainable movement toward real food and healthier lives.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hard to Swallow?

How about a Big Mac, medium fries and a medium soda? How about 1,130 calories? Let’s pretend that’s lunch. Maybe for breakfast you had just a single jelly doughnut—at 270 calories. Then there was a mid-morning grande mint mocha chip frappuccino, another 460 calories. So far, that’s 1,860 calories, not counting any mid-afternoon or pre-dinner snack, and not counting dinner or after-dinner. And this is just the calorie count. Consider the fat, saturated and trans fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Dietary guidelines for adults recommend about 2,000 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, depending on age, gender and activity level—fewer if you are one of the two-thirds of our population who is overweight or obese.

The average American spends about $500 a year on fast food, and more than half of our population eats fast food once a week. But a whopping 20 percent eat fast food at least every other day.

Sure, it’s fast, some of it’s tasty, it’s easy, it’s not super-expensive (the average spend per occasion is approximately $10.16). But if it’s not hard to swallow, it should be. We’re not doing ourselves any favors here, and if we think we’re saving time for the more important things in life, we should think again. The time we spend in a drive-thru rather than in the kitchen will come back to haunt us.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Parents! Are Your Kids in Front of the TV?

Do you realize what kids are watching on TV? First they're sitting there rather than being active. And they're watching advertising pushing food, beverages and candy—aimed straight at them. And, that’s just for starters.

  • Children ages 8 to 12 see an average of 21 television ads each day for candy, snacks, cereal and fast food, more than 7,600 a year.
  • More than 50 percent of television advertisements directed at children promote food and beverages such as candy, fast food, snack foods, soft drinks and sweetened cereals. In fact, in 2005, The Center for Science in the Public Interest reported that nine in 10 food ads on Saturday morning promoted high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, or low-nutrient foods.
  • On Saturday mornings, children see one food commercial about every 5 minutes.
  • Food and beverage advertisers collectively spend $10 to $12 billion a year to reach children and youth.
  • And this is really scary—36 percent of all children 6 years old and under have a TV in their bedroom. A preschooler's risk for obesity increases by 6 percent for every hour of TV watched per day—and if there's a TV in the child's bedroom, the odds jump an additional 31 percent for each hour watched.

Now we’re informed that for the first time an influential doctors group, The American Academy of Pediatrics, is recommending that some children as young as 8 be given cholesterol-fighting drugs to ward off future heart problems. Add to this the fact that during the last 30 years, the number of obese children in the United States has more than tripled. According to the American Obesity Association, about 15 percent are now obese and 30 percent are overweight. A report in The New England Journal of Medicine says that, "Obesity is such that this generation of children could be the first basically in the history of the United States to live less healthful and shorter lives than their parents."

This is an epidemic of our making. It’s also one we can turn around.

Friday, July 11, 2008

What’s In Our Food?

Did you know that more than 80 percent of today’s soybean crop is genetically modified? This means its DNA was altered to increase production—and better withstand being sprayed with chemical weed killers such as Roundup. That’s not all. Almost 40 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. is genetically modified.

In part this gets back to the argument that “fresh is best,” and pre-packaged, convenience meals are a poor substitute for what we should consider “good nutrition.”

According to “experts,” if it comes in a can or a box and the label includes soybean oil or corn syrup as ingredients, the odds are that it contains Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs. On average, it’s not a stretch to point out that about 65 percent of all products in your local grocery store have DNA-altered ingredients. But you wouldn’t know it because food labels don’t list it. The FDA does not require disclosure of genetic engineering techniques on the food label.

“Labeling is the only way health professionals are going to be able to trace if there is a problem,” says Andy Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety. “There is nothing, nothing substantially equivalent from a conventional crop to a GMO crop,” he says. “In every cell of these new GMO foods are bacterias we’ve never seen in food before; viruses, genetic constructs, and antibiotic bugs.” On the other hand, the FDA and bio-tech giants such as Monsanto, say there is no evidence that GMO’s are “anything but safe.”

And herein lies the debate.

But, don’t you have to wonder—are we part of a human trial we haven’t even signed up for?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Moms, Junk Food, Rats and Fat Kids

This post might be more interesting if you’re a rat, but . . .

There seems to be a correlation. A new study by London’s Royal Veterinary College, published in the Journal of Physiology found that the offspring of rats fed junk food while pregnant had increased blood sugar, blood fat, and decreased insulin sensitivity by the end of adolescence. And, once weaned, the offspring of the junk-food-fed rat mothers preferred junk foods more than the offspring of rats fed healthy food. And more—the obesity-linked genes were more active in the offspring of junk-food-fed mothers.

The rats whose mothers were fed junk food during pregnancy grew fatter over time than normal rats. “Their fat cells were larger, which might make them more prone to obesity and might make it harder for them to lose weight,” says Stephanie Bayol, PhD, London Royal Veterinary College.

But—where we human beings are concerned, before you completely blame Mom, consider that junk food has tastes and textures that appeal to children, and it’s heavily advertised during children’s programming. In fact:

  • Children ages 8 to 12 see an average of 21 television ads each day for candy, snacks, cereal and fast food, more than 7,600 a year. (Kaiser Family Foundation)
  • Nine in 10 food ads on Saturday morning are aimed at kids and promote high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, or low-nutrient foods. (May 2005 data, Ameena Batada, Center for Science in the Public Interest)

Whether or not the “Rat Study” crosses over to us humans, it’s important to know that we can all take control, and all play a part in our own long-term health and wellness decisions—and in those of our children. Here’s an idea: Instead of offering the fast-food “chicken-nugget” dinner to your children, “because you know they will eat it,” offer a healthy alternative such as baked chicken and vegetables. Healthy for you, healthy for them.

It all gets back to personal responsibility, yours’ and what you do for your children.

Friday, July 4, 2008

It’s Independence Day

It’s Independence Day, and your country is counting on you. We've got a big problem and it's only getting bigger. America's fighting a new "Battle of the Bulge" and right now, we're losing the fight. And this is one battle we simply can't afford to lose. We can't afford it individually, our employers can't afford it, and our country can't afford it. And, we’re running out of time.

Each one of us pays an additional $175 annually through Medicare and Medicaid to cover obesity-related illnesses. The epidemic of obesity is costing us all in less obvious ways as well. When you buy a new GM automobile, you pay more for employee health care than you do for steel. And, according to analysis by researchers at Cornell University, the extra poundage packed on by the average American in the last decade required airplanes to use an extra 350 million gallons of fuel at a cost of more than $275 million a year (and that figure is based on prices in 2000 when jet fuel was 79 cents a gallon). On a more personal level, an overweight family may lose 10 percent of every gallon of gas they buy, and at today’s prices, that adds up fast. If we want to be "green" we've got to get lean.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says obesity has roughly the same association with chronic health conditions as 20 years of aging. It contributes to 53 diseases including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and some types of cancer.

How about this? What if this Independence Day we declare our independence from junk or fast food? What if we look for healthy substitutions? What if we work in a little more physical activity? If we as a nation of individuals can each make the effort to independently create a positive change for ourselves, we will collectively do great things for our country—and our own long-term health and wellness. We are all stakeholders in this effort, and together we can turn the epidemic of overweight, obesity, and inactivity around and reduce our risk factors for preventable chronic illnesses. It's a mouthful, but something well-worth chewing on. (And it’s calorie-free!)