Happy New Year

Judging from the large display of exercise gear at the front of Target, it is a safe guess that weight loss is on the New Years Resolution list of many people. Never mind the sweaters being clearanced to make room for shorts and sleeveless shirts. In January.

Before I go any further, I would like to say that about 5 years ago I lost about 30 pounds, bringing myself well into the normal BMI range, and I have stayed there. I am not one of those skinny cheerleader types who has never had to lose more than 2 pounds. Nor am I one of those people who talks about what you should do, while consuming a gallon of ice cream, a six pack of beer, and a pack of cigarettes. This does not make me an expert, but I’ve been there.

There are several important truths I have learned about weight loss. The most important of these is: Every diet that works requires drastic reduction or complete elimination of refined sugar. What? You didn’t think Dean Ornish and the rest of the low-fat crowd meant that you could drop pounds by switching from Snickers to Twizzlers, did you? I am not telling you that Atkins is the way to go, although low-carb is how I did it. I am telling you that sugar is a bigger enemy than fat. Even the USDA says “Some dietary fat is needed for good health.”

The second great diet truth is: Diet foods are for the most part a waste of time and money. Low fat or low carb, the number of items I have found that defy this rule can be counted on my fingers, despite the fact that diet foods are an almost $6 Billion industry. I believe the effectiveness of the low-fat diet is inversely related to the marketing of reduced fat foods. Think about it: 20 years ago we didn’t have fat-free cookies or low-fat mayo; the only dairy products on a low-fat diet were skim milk and some varieties of yogurt — oh, and some really nasty margarine; eating low-fat meant lots of fruits and veggies, with some lean meat. Yeah, you could eat bread or a baked potato, but what would you put on it? If my theory holds true, low-carb diets will become less effective as more ersatz bread and other sugar alcohols sweetened products become available and more dieters use them as a crutch.

Another diet truth is that Calories do matter. Counting grams of this or that is usually a proxy for calories. I personally find that a read of the nutrition panel can talk me out of consuming most things I shouldn’t. Oh, and don’t forget to figure out how many servings are in the container, or how much you are likely to consume at one time.

All the experts say you can’t lose weight and keep it off without exercise, right? Alright, then here is a truth and a half about exercise: Exercise is not fun, and sports are not exercise. Ooooh did I say something unpopular? Even professional athletes have to work out. If pros don’t get enough exercise playing their respective sports, what makes you think you are getting a workout on the sporting field? Furthermore, if you exercise for fun, you will be demotivated when it stops being fun. If you exercise because of the way you look (or want to look), all you have to do is look in a mirror to be motivated. Oh yeah, and don’t think that a good workout means you deserve a treat.

The final diet truth is the heaviest of them all: Your current weight is the result of your current diet. You can lose lots of weight, but if you return to the way of eating that made you fat in the first place you will gain it all back. If you seriously think you have some medical problem which causes you to gain weight or inhibits your ability to lose weight, stop griping about it and see a doctor.

You don’t need spandex to lose weight unless that motivates you somehow. But you might want to wait on the shorts until spring; chances are they will be on clearance by the time it’s warm enough to wear them.

Corn Fed American Beef

Today’s New York Times has an interesting article on the link between farm subsidies and obesity. The author has more to say in this article and this book. Allow me to summarize and annotate today’s item.

Federal subsidies (the way they are currently distributed) pay farmers to raise as much cheap grain as possible. This has gotten the Americans and Europeans in trouble with the WTO, who a) consider this dumping b) point out that American markets are not open to many agricultural products from foriegn nations, partcularly the poor ones whose largest industry is growing food. Indeed, most nations can’t compete with subsidized farmers who can afford to sell below cost.

Lower prices causes farmers to grow even more food in a perverse attempt to "stay even." So prices are continually driven down. Companies like Cargill make lots of money selling things to farmers to increase the amount of food they can grow, no matter that the land can realistically only support so much agriculture. The other result is that the family farmer has been is being pushed out of business by continually lower commodity prices and a technological arms race.

Food Processing Companies like Cargill are more than happy to take this excess supply at rock bottom prices! After all, the subsidies mean the farmer does not actually have to make a profit on the sale of the grain. They then turn this food we don’t need into tasty highly processed food we don’t need. Had you noticed that over the years plain old fashioned sugar has been mostly replaced by corn syrup and "high fructose" corn syrup? And that it shows up in such weird places as turkey lunchmeat and premade spaghetti sauce?

Marketing wizardry convinces us that we need this processed food, and how fortunate we are that the package is so large. Never mind that the package of snacky cakes, chips, soda, or whathaveyou that will surely be eaten in one sitting is something like 2 or 5 servings. Those rich people that aren’t fat? They aren’t buying Kraft Dinner. They are buying organic this and naturally sweetened that. They aren’t supersizing their fast food meals, they are having a balanced meal on a china plate and eating it with metal flatware. “Fries” are to “vegetables” as “pork rinds” are to “meat.”

Consumers get fat eating their fair share of the food surplus. This provides opportunities for business to make money off obesity. In fact, the article doesn’t take this last step. Maybe it should.

The Scales Scream for Ice Cream

Even the “researchers” began this scoop with the concession that “Everyone knows icecream is not health food.” From the very beginning, this sounds like another missive from the Duhpartment of Stupid Research. However, I think it was a little surprising to many to find out that a deluxe ice cream cone might run as much as 800 calories. That a sundae might be over 1200 calories. That a mere milkshake might pack in a thousand calories — and that’s for plain vanilla. Or that the “fat free” frozen yogurt might have 11 grams of fat.

Talk about a diet buster. Even if you are of normal weight and metabolism, you’ll feel this on the scales. Regardless of your opinion regarding the role and impact of dietary fat, the mere calories easily equal a meal — or two! Keep in mind, they haven’t even compiled figures on the refined sugars in any of these products. And good luck finding nutritional information on their websites; you can find it sometimes if you have the time and energy and a knack for Googling. This data might be “available on request” at the respective store, assuming they have any data sheets left, and assuming the employee on duty knows where they are kept and can get to them. For that matter, any data you are actually able to lay hands on assumes that the employee does not inadvertently “super size” your order by, say, cramming 6 ounces in a 4 ounce serving, or maybe giving you “the real deal” instead of the fat/sugar/taste free item you requested.

At least if you make a sundae at home, you have the labels of each product you use handy, and can control serving sizes accordingly. If you use 8 ounces of ice cream and 4 tablespoons of Hershey’s Syrup — naturally fat free! — you and you alone are to blame for the calories.

And to think they didn’t bother to look at the nutritional information for Dairy Queen.

Health Class is Over, Have a Mountain Dew!

It probably will show my age to say that I first encountered a school vending machine in High School. The things have become ubiquitous… or have they? After years of “exclusive placement” deals, schools are being forced to either remove vending machines, or at very least offer whatever is considered “healthy” this week in the machines. These days, that means things like fruit juice, skim milk, and unsalted pretzels. To say sports drinks somehow fall in the “healthier” category is disingenuous, considering the sugars and empty calories they contain.

Of course we all know that the rise of the school vending machine is purely coincidental with rising rates of youth obesity, obesity related diseases such as adult onset diabetes, and learning disabilities such as ADD and ADHD. These things have nothing to do with giving children as young as first grade — with the judgment of children — unfettered access to all the soda and candy they can afford to stuff in their mouths. How could it be otherwise?

It is furthermore painfully obvious that students are a captive audience. If only Coke is available, students will drink Coke. If only Pepsi is there, then Pepsi is the drink of choice. If this is in opposition to what is available at home, so be it. Branding at its very worst. And that is before considering that vending machine snacks may be keeping students from eating the theoretically more balanced lunches available in the cafeteria. Theoretically. Go ahead and Google up “school lunches” and you will likely find dozens of menus in the first 3 pages of links. Decide for yourself whether you consider the meals nutritious and balanced.

Of course the reason vending machines are popular in schools is the same reason you will find them in apartment complexes and shopping malls and a hundred other places: revenue. The companies that place vending machines, as you may or may not know, pay a portion of the proceeds for the privilege of placing a sure money-maker. In an age of schools which believe they are poorly funded, this revenue may make the difference between a bare-bones no-nonsense education ad the availability of extracurricular activities. Some cynics suggest that our schools are in much more dire need, making this revenue the difference between ancient outdated textbooks and new ones.

The school day is the one chance some kids have to eat anything approaching a balanced meal, whether because of parental lack of interest of parental lack of money. Vending machines in schools undermine that ideal. To sell that dream in return for a few hundred dollars is unconscionable.