Tag Archives: nutrition - Page 2

Bloomberg Is Banning Giant Sodas In NYC

Somehow, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg got it into his head that the people of New York elected him to be their nanny — and maybe they have, since he’s been re-elected twice, and once since he banned smoking in some public places like parks, as well as banning trans fats in restaurants. Riding that wave, after a failed attempt to institute a state-wide soda tax, his latest idea is to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16oz in restaurants in the city. This largely applies to sodas, but also to sweetened juices and coffee drinks. It does not apply to diet drinks, even though those don’t seem to be good for us either. And while it’s quickly becoming clear that sugar, in the quantities we consume it, is toxic, it’s not clear at all if taking away freedom by instituting sales bans is an effective way of limiting consumption — even if it were the right thing to do.


Mayor Bloomberg with sodas and the equivalent amount of sugar cubes in them. Photo by The New York Times.


A few months ago, a group of scientists proposed treating sugar like alcohol, and this measure would certainly be a nod in that direction, but limiting the sale of alcohol has certainly not slowed down its consumption, and the same goes for cigarettes and illegal drugs. The only thing that has ever worked is education: most people like doing what’s good for them, but many don’t like being forced to make choices, good or bad. And as members of a free society, we should be able to make all the bad choices we want, as long as they don’t harm others.

Update, 1 June 2012: Jon Stewart had a funny reaction to the news that the ban would “combine the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect”:

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From The New York Times, via NPR

The Obesity Epidemic Is Caused By Overabundance Of Food

The New York Times has an interview with an applied mathematician who graduated from MIT and now works at The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (which could benefit from dropping an ‘and’). He’s been studying obesity — probably because of how it affects diabetes — for a number of years and used his mathematics background to develop a model for how the body responds to food. From this model, they created a simulator and put it on the web, so that anyone can use it to find out how much to change their eating and exercising habits in order to hit a target weight.  He also figured out why the obesity epidemic started happening, which essentially boils down to lack of will power: there’s too much food available, and it’s too inexpensive.


Along with the economy, the powers that be have been tinkering with the food supply since the unprecedented government expansion following The Great Depression. Due to the permeating despair of the time, a school of thought became very popular which advocated a middle way between socialism, in which the government completely controls the economy, and libertarianism or classical liberalism, in which the government doesn’t control the economy at all. This middle way is now known as Keynesian Economics and advocates for some level of government control over the economy, the idea being that smart people in charge can make better decisions than the market can. Economists from the libertarian camp — known as the Austrian School — included influential figures such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who over the decades persuaded government to swing its pendulum somewhat back toward libertarianism, because systems like the economy were too complex for any person to grasp, and therefore it was impossible to predict all ramifications of policies. Interestingly, after the 2008 recession, both the Keynesian and Austrian schools of thought experienced a resurgence, since both are touted as the best strategy for the economy, by their respective backers.


Returning to the food supply: during the late 1800s, after the Civil War, the government heavily encouraged farming by subsidizing land; the most famous of these measures was the Homestead Act, which gave people 160 acres of free land west of the Mississippi if they built a farm on it. The subsidy was extremely successful and resulted in populating the West, as well as turning America into the world’s breadbasket. Unfortunately, it also resulted in overproduction of food, which caused a drop in the price of food, which created a class of impoverished farmers that couldn’t sell enough crops to make ends meet.

Rather than let the surplus of farmers work itself out, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, another subsidy was introduced, this time to raise crop prices: the Agricultural Adjustment Act paid farmers to destroy crops and livestock in order to keep food prices from plummeting. Some forty years later in the 1970s, this backfired in a period of drought during which food prices rose, so yet another adjustment was made: instead of limiting the food supply to keep crop prices high so that farmers can make a living, they simply decided to get rid of the farmers. Subsidies for small farms were ended and new tax subsidies on corporate farms were introduced, since they would be big enough to deal with low crop prices. This resulted in the best of both worlds: cheap food and no impoverished farmers.

However, agricultural policy is a lot like a game of Whack-a-mole: one problem gets whacked, and another pops up. The new corporate farms starting producing corn on a scale never seen before, and they needed a way to sell all of it. They started feeding it to cows, making fuel with it in the form of ethanol, and making sugar out of it in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Cows now had high-energy, cheap food, so livestock production rose and hamburgers became cheap. Cheap sugar also meant cheap sodas and cheap desserts. Add in cheap potatoes and the fuel for the rise of fast food becomes obvious. But cheap food didn’t stop at the fast kind: for a few dollars more, you could hire some cooks and waitresses and open a cheap sit-down restaurant. The result: Americans now eat out an average of five times per week, and are rewarded with ridiculously large portions for doing so.


To recap: we solved conquering the West with the Homestead act, which resulted in poor farmers, which we solved by paying some of them not to farm, which resulted in high food prices, which we solved by converting farming into a corporate venture, which resulted in the current obesity epidemic. The average American now eats 1,000 calories a day more than in the 1970s, two out of three people are overweight, and half of those are obese. All thanks to Manifest Destiny, good intentions and lack of willpower.

On the other hand, in spite of what the signs of homeless people will have you believe, we live in the land of milk and honey: every person in the country has access to enough food, be it for free from a food kitchen, inexpensively from grocery stores, McDonald’s or Applebee’s, or for European prices at Whole Foods and Carrabba’s. Take into account the similarly falling price of entertainment — free music, movies, news and series on TV and the Internet — and we have the modern version of the Roman panem et circenses (bread and circuses). Hopefully, it won’t be followed by a future president marching the army on Washington.

The name of the country in which Hunger Games takes place, Panem, comes from "panem et circenses"


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From The New York Times

Cut To The Chase Already, Pizza Hut

Last month, Pizza Hut introduced a pizza in the UK with hot dogs stuffed into the crust: The Hot Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza. A couple weeks later, it introduced, in the Middle East, a pizza with crust made out of cheeseburgers: The Crown Crust Cheeseburger Pizza. Now, World Wide Interweb has a hilarious idea of where this is all going: The Fuck You Pizza.

From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Diet Sodas Definitely Aren’t Good For You

NPR highlights three studies on diet sodas, none of which do them any favors:

  • A study on how diet sodas relate to metabolic syndrome, which is generally found in fat people and causes heart disease and diabetes. The researchers created three groups and measured how many of them developed the disorder. The first group drank diet sodas and had an awful diet (think McDonald’s all the time). The second group drank diet sodas and were on a healthy diet (fruit, fish, nuts, veggies). The third group didn’t drink sodas at all and were on the healthy diet, too. Metabolic syndrome was highest in the diet soda + bad food group, followed by diet soda + healthy food one, and lowest in the no soda + healthy food collective.
  • A study on how weight change relates to various lifestyle factors, including amount of exercise, of TV watched and various foods eaten, found that diet sodas didn’t affect people’s weight. The study did find out factors that correlated with people losing weight: exercising and eating healthy (fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and yogurt). They also found out what factors correlated with people gaining weight: watching TV, drinking, smoking, sleeping too little or too much, and a poor diet (potatoes, potato chips, sugary drinks, processed meat, and red meat).
  • Just to conflict with the one above, another study showed that people who drank diet sodas gained more weight than ones who didn’t.

But no studies showed that there’s anything diet about diet sodas. They either do nothing, or make you fat. What all of this sums up to is diet soda being at best a crutch that doesn’t help your health; more likely though, it’s a crutch that slowly kills you. Just stick to water.


From The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, The New England Journal of Medicine, via NPR and CBS News

More Evidence For The Toxicity Of Sugar

Almost a year ago, The New York Times reported on Dr. Robert Lustig’s theory that the amounts of sugar present in the typical Western diet is toxic, because it causes heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome and probably cancer. Since then, it’s been confirmed that sugar consumption does indeed raise the risk of heart disease, and Lustig and his team have begun lobbying that the government regulate sugar like it does alcohol.

The heart of Lustig’s theory is that in nature, sugar is locked away inside fibrous fruit, which makes it impossible for us to eat too many sweets. But in these modern times, through the wonder of technology, we can cheaply extract the sugar like heroin from poppy, then add it to everything under the sun because it tastes good and acts like a preservative: drinks, desserts, bread, sauce, peanut butter, etc, etc, ad nauseam. As a result, the amount of hidden sugar we actually eat is so heavily disguised, that we don’t even notice the raw quantities we eat — quantities that would make us sick in the form of table sugar, and quantities that would be physically impossible to eat solely from fruit.

This past Sunday, 60 Minutes got into the game too, with a segment featuring Dr. Lustig and other scientists, all telling us why they’ve quit eating added sugar:

  • A study at UC Davis showed that within two weeks of eating 25% of their calories in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (which is the same thing as sugar), subjects had increased levels of LDL cholesterol and were are higher risk for plaque in their arteries, as well as heart attacks.
  • A Harvard professor and biochemist explains how eating sugar increases the risk of cancer: a third of common cancers have insulin receptors; eating sugar causes insulin to spike, which in turn is ingested by the receptors on tumors, which fuels the tumors and causes them to grow
  • A neuroscientist shows, via fMRI brain scans, how sugar activates reward centers in the brain in the same way that drugs like alcohol and cocaine do, which makes it very addictive. As with those other drugs, people also develop a tolerance to it, and need more and more to get the same pleasure from eating it.
  • A spokesman for the sugar industry is skeptical, and says the science “is not completely clear”.

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From 60 Minutes, via a vigilant reader

Cadbury Eggs Of Sugar

The method in this xkcd comic makes it really easy to visualize exactly how much sugar is in sweet drinks.


As we’ve seen before, excess sugar — like its cousin, excess alcohol — causes heart disease and probably diabetes and cancer. The movie Supersize Me had a similar visualization in the form of a tub of the 30lbs of sugar Morgan Spurlock ate during the month of filming, but the Cadbury egg is much easier to relate to on a daily basis.


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From xkcd

Eating Fruits And Veggies Makes You More Attractive

A study from the University of St. Andrew in Scotland found that white people who ate at least three servings of fruit or vegetables a day (as opposed to living on pizza and French fries) had a significantly different skin hue — more yellow or red. This hue in turn made them more attractive to other test subjects. So fruits and veggies give you a kind of rosy glow that show you’re healthy, which is part of what makes people look good. Also, they don’t make you fat. Any questions?


From PlosOne, via NPR

Scientists Say Sugar Should Be Treated Like Alcohol

In April of 2011, Robert Lustig was featured in a New York Times article as leading the charge that sugar, in the quantities we are consuming it, is toxic. He is a neuroendocrinology professor at UCSF, and his theory is that the amount of fructose we get from the excessive quantities of sugar we eat (sugar is half fructose) wreaks havoc on various systems in our bodies, most notably the cardiovascular and endocrine ones. This in turn is responsible for the Western epidemic of heart disease (the leading cause of death), diabetes (7th leading cause of death) and some cancers (2nd leading cause of death). To bolster his theory, in late 2011, a study verified that eating a lot of sugar causes heart disease even in thin people.

Robert Lustig


A couple of weeks ago, Lustig and two other scientists from UCSF wrote an opinion piece in Nature (paid subscription required — Time has a good synopsis) arguing that sugar is dangerous enough that it should be regulated like alcohol: sale to minors should be curbed, a sin tax should be enacted, and vendors should be licensed for the sale of sugar.

It’s an unfortunate habit that America has gotten into:

  1. Discover something is bad
  2. Ban or regulate it
  3. Problem solved

It definitely worked with the War on Drugs. But consuming half a cup (1/4lb) of sugar a day is also an unfortunate habit America has gotten into it. Of course, turning to the nanny state because we have no sense of personal responsibility is not the answer to kicking that habit. Education, however, is a good answer, and for example, is probably the sole reason smoking rates are half of what they were 50 years ago: no one ever quit because smoking was too expensive, just like no one ever gave up heroin because they ran out of money.

Morgan Spurlock ate over 30lbs of sugar while filming Supersize Me


People quit or cut back because most humans want to live as long as possible; and the ones that don’t care if they die tomorrow, that’s their prerogative as members of a free society. But while their political recommendations may be misguided, the scientists’ hearts are certainly in the right place: sugar is bad news, and it’s time to quit.

And if you’re still on the fence about the science, Lustig has a good hour and a half lecture on YouTube. It’s been viewed 2 million times.

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From Nature, via Time

Spoken Language Correlates To Long-Term Choices

An associate professor of economics at Yale wrote a very interesting paper (PDF) in which he compares good future-driven behaviors with not speaking a future-aware language. He noted the distinction between languages that have a strong future-time reference (FTR) requirement and ones that have a weak one: for example, English ranks as a strong FTR language because the language changes significantly when talking about the future (“It will be cold tomorrow”) compared to talking about the present (“It is cold today”). Contrast that with Finnish, which barely changes to account for the future: “Tomorrow be cold” vs “Today be cold.”

Most languages have a strong FTR: all Romance ones, most Slavic, Turkic, Iranian, etc. The language families that tend to have weak FTRs are Germanic, Chinese, Japanese and Sundic. (English, while a Germanic language, has been so heavily influenced by Latin and French that it has a strong FTR — the only other Germanic language besides Afrikaans to do so.)

Charlize Theron's first language is Afrikaans


The paper then compares this language trait with data that indicates a concern for the future: savings accounts, heavy smoking, physical activity, obesity. The idea being that if you smoke a pack a day, have 47$ in your bank account, spend your weekends on the couch and ate a cheesecake for dinner last night, you probably aren’t too concerned about the future. It turned out that speakers of languages with weak FTRs (like the Germans and Japanese) are a lot better about future-oriented behaviors:

Weak-FTR speakers are 30% more likely to have saved in any given year, and have accumulated an additional 170 thousand Euros by retirement. I also examine non-monetary measures such as health behaviors and long-run health. I find that by retirement, weak-FTR speakers are in better health by numerous measures: they are 24% less likely to have smoked heavily, are 29% more likely to be physically active, and are 13% less likely to be medically obese.

So there is correlation between how much a language emphasizes the distinction between present and future and how much speakers of that language prepare for the future. This is evident in the current economic situation in Europe: Germany (weak FTR) has to bail out Greece, Spain and Italy (strong FTRs). The author’s hypothesis is that speakers of languages like Finnish, in which present and future are pretty much treated the same, are more aware of the future because to them the future is now — so they tend to smoke less and save more. Whereas the French see the future as this far-off thing, so they smoke more and save less.


But is there also a causation between language and behavior? That’s a much harder question to answer: it could be that the language influences behavior, and it’s pretty unlikely that behavior influences language — people would have to migrate on a scale that’s probably a lot larger than observed. But it could also be that a third factor, like culture, influenced the way the languages developed, as well as the behavior. If, thousands of years ago, the Germans as a people were concerned about the future, maybe they didn’t care to make the distinction between present and future, but cared to save their gold. The author himself notes that it appears that language and culture both independently influence future-driven behavior, and that language doesn’t directly cause that behavior, but that it may affect it through an intermediary.

In marginally-related news, having a name that’s easy to pronounce has been correlated to being more likely to be promoted. That explains why Mitt doesn’t go by Willard.

From Yale (PDF), via Motherboard and Slashdot

Calorie Counting Is Like Training Wheels For Eating Well

Tony Horton, the P90X guy, has been writing for Ask Men lately. In this week’s column, he talks about calorie counting and takes the same view Churchill took on democracy: it’s pretty bad, but it’s the best we’ve got. The reason it’s bad is because even if done extremely well and diligently, it’s a poor approximation. There is no way for the average person to exactly count how many calories are in an apple or a chicken wing. And there is no way for them to know how many calories they burn throughout the day from various activities and the base metabolic rate.

Photo by John Schilling


Actually, there is a way: hunger. But the problem with hunger is modern Western culture. Hunger is not always true hunger, but a craving for junk food that tastes good, for a reward at the end of the day, or for something to do because Boardwalk Empire is good, but kinda boring. The challenge for most people is to be able to tell the difference between hunger and cravings, to distinguish the true meaning of cravings, and to quench them with healthy choices: banana instead of ice cream, salmon instead of potato chips. And calorie counting is a great way to start on that path: it shows with numbers just how bad unhealthy food is, with its high calorie content and low nutritional value.

And after that information is ingrained into the super-ego, we can consciously make healthy food choices that the id will accept and eventually get our instincts back on a healthy track like they were meant to be, before sugar, preservatives and chemicals hijacked our diet.

From Ask Men