Tag Archives: health

Friday Linkage 3/3/2017


Damn, March already?  Where did the winter go?  Oh right, winter is going to be a shorter and shorter season as climate change robs us of snowy days and Donald Trump fiddles while the world burns.

On to the links…

Social Media Are Driving Americans Insane—The greatest thing I have ever done is disengage from Facebook.  I maintain an account because there are some businesses that require a log-in to view their content due to age restrictions, etc. but I do not maintain any sort of up-to-date presence.  Consider disengaging as well for the sake of your soul.

This Video Will Make You Believe in Climate Change—It’s not like someone reading this blog does not already believe in the impacts of climate change.  Take a moment, watch the video, and forward the link on to someone who might be on the fence.  Just avoid that Trump supporter in your office who reacts to everything with a spittle laced tirade.

The Pruitt Emails: E.P.A. Chief Was Arm in Arm With Industry—Scott Pruitt is a tool of the oil and gas lobby.  Plain and simple.  Any decision he makes as the head of the EPA is tainted by his close ties with oil and gas companies.

Exxon just Decided to Keep a Big Chunk of its Tar Sands in the Ground—Did you hear that?  It was the faintest sound that oil companies know that difficult to obtain sources of oil are not going to be economically viable in an economy where renewables and efficiency are the name of the game.

Why Oil Prices will Never Return to $100 a Barrel, in One Chart—I am not going to say never like the title of the article, but the underlying supply and demand curves do not favor high priced oil:

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The Blue Collar Job of the Future Is Solar Panel Installer—Coal mining is dead.  Automation, natural gas, and coal executives killed the coal miner’s job.  Installing solar panels and working on wind turbines are the blue collar replacement you have been seeking.

Palo Alto’s Repair Café Aims to Combat Throwaway Culture—The world needs more of this kind of cooperation.  How many of us have something that is in need of a small repair that we are incapable of doing?  How many of those slightly broken items could have a long life ahead of them?

How a Pacific Island Changed From Diesel to 100% Solar Power—Islands are our renewable energy laboratories because the electricity grids tend to be isolated and expensive to operate.  Lessons learned from these projects can be applied to larger grids on the mainland.

Pumped Hydro Storage Could Secure 100% Renewable Electricity For Australia—Think about pumped hydro storage as a huge, fairly efficient battery that can be deployed to regulate the intermittency of renewables.

Vacant Lots Provide More Ecosystem Services than Backyard Trees—In the book The New Wild the author makes the same point that vacant, disturbed land is a valuable ecosystem in an era when all landscapes have been shaped by human hands through climate change.

This Anarchist and ‘Anti-Fascist’ Activist is Using Facts to go After the Far-Right Fringe—You are free to say whatever you want in this country and the government cannot impinge your freedom for doing so, but that does not mean private citizens need to put up with your shit.  Daryle Lamont Jenkins is an American hero for making sure that these reprehensible scumbags cannot hide in their little alt-right spider holes.

Infographic Explains Why Coffee and Tea are so Good for Us—Ahhh, infographics.  Like salve for my soul:

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Getting the Sugar Out

The modern American…er, Western diet is awash in sugar. It is estimated that Americans consume an average of 47 sugar cubes or 10 teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup per day. This compares with 39 sugar cubes in the 1980s or 34 sugar cubes in the 1950s. I do not know if those levels in the 1950s were healthy, as it is my sneaking suspicion that the health crisis related to sugar is really a story of post-war America which begins in the 1950s. Nonetheless, we eat too much god damned sugar.

All of this sugar—whether it is HFCS or table sugar or fair trade Turbinado or organic raw sugar from lowland plains of Maui—is killing us. Depending upon the measurement criteria almost 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. Almost 35% are obese and over 6% are considered extremely obese. The problem with our weight has gotten so bad that the U.S. military is concerned that the population is “too fat to fight.”

Our collective expanding waistline is just the first sign indicator of greater problems to come. If you think a lot of people being overweight is bad, just wait until those numbers translate into a lot of people having Type II diabetes. Diabetes and its related conditions are estimated to cost Americans over $250 billion per year and it is going to get worse as the prevalence of the disease increases. This is a direct function of our love affair with sugar.

However, these trends and statistics are not new. What has changed in the last few years is that focus has been put squarely on added sugar. This is a story about the sugar that we have put into processed foods making us sick. Any dietician will tell you that the fructose in an apple—chemically similar to HFCS and metabolically the same—is not the problem because you cannot eat enough apples to get the same deleterious impact as hammering home a Big Gulp full of Coca-Cola. It’s like trying to equivocate drinking a glass of wine with dinner to doing keg stands at a tailgate. There are some similarities, but the differences are what matter.

The easy answer is to make all of our food from scratch. I am sure that there are people with both the time and patience to pull that off. I congratulate them on their being awesome. I am not nearly as awesome. Sometimes I need a quick solution to hungry kids while I assemble dinner after working the entire day.

The go-to solution in my house to hungry kids is a cup of yogurt and a banana. The banana speaks for itself, but the cup of yogurt is a Trojan horse for sugar. I had never really thought about the sugar content until a few months ago. Guess what? You might as well give your children a candy bar if you are going to feed them most flavored yogurts. Compare the nutritional labels of a standard cup of national brand strawberry yogurt versus equivalent sized cup of strawberry yogurt from Kalona SuperNatural:

Yoplait_Original_Strawberry

The strawberry yogurt from Kalona SuperNatural has 104 calories for a 6 oz serving and 6 grams of sugar. The irony is that the Kalona SuperNatural yogurt has significantly fewer calories while having more fat. Where do you think those calories are coming from? That’s right. Sugar.

Damn. 18 grams of sugar versus 6 grams of sugar. The Kalona SuperNatural yogurt has two-thirds the sugar.

Things are not as clear cut as the math would make it seem. Nutritional labels are not required to show the sugars that are naturally occurring versus the sugars that are added. In yogurt this means that you do not get to see the sugars present as lactose versus the added sugars like HFCS or sucrose. Depending upon the brand and variety of yogurt a six ounce serving may contain anywhere from 13 grams of lactose to as few as 2 to 6 grams of lactose. It matters if the yogurt is fat free where more lactose is present to take the place of removed fats or if the yogurt is Greek in style which has lactose skimmed out. This is why reading the nutritional label is not going to always provide a clear answer. A Greek style yogurt may appear to have less sugar, but the reduction in sugar is really a function of having less lactose not less added sugar which is the component we are trying to avoid.

Assuming that these two yogurts were made in similar ways with similar base ingredients you can really start to see the difference in added sugar.

Children are supposed to only get approximately 12 grams of added sugar per day. A single cup of grocery store brand strawberry yogurt puts them nearly all of the way to the total. And that was supposed to be a healthy alternative. See what I mean about yogurt being a Trojan horse for added sugar? It’s literally a battle of grams and teaspoons when it comes to cutting out the sugar.

The moral of the story is that we can find better alternatives to the things that we feed ourselves and our children. In my house, we went cold turkey on a lot of sugar laden items. One day there was your standard strawberry yogurt and the next it was replaced by something with a lot less sugar. I think there was one complaint and away we went.

The Many Evil Faces of Added Sugar

Start talking about added sugar, without even getting into the differences on a biochemical level of fructose versus other sugars, and the rebuttal is likely to be, “But fruit has sugar.” At the most base level this argument is true and, in fact, fruit contains the very sugar type—fructose—that appears to be the source of our dietary ills.

An apple, according to data sources that I averaged across the internet, will contain approximately 65 Calories, 13 grams of sugar in the form of fructose, and 3 grams of dietary fiber. Compare that with a twelve ounce can of Coca-Cola which has 143 Calories, 40 grams of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup, and no dietary fiber. Here it is in a simple chart form:

Apple Chart

Sure, fructose is contained within the natural sugar of an apple in roughly the same proportion as it would be in a can of Coca-Cola. However, to get the same amount of fructose as the Coca-Cola you would need to eat three entire apples. On par, you would still be slightly ahead because the apple contains dietary fiber and other nutrients beneficial to the body’s function. Your mother was right about soda being just a bunch of empty calories.

Not that I would suggest undertaking this experiment, but drink an entire can of Coca-Cola and tell me how you feel. Do the same thing with three apples and tell me how you feel. I am certain that there will be major differences in satiation. Three average apples will fill your belly with approximately 35% of your daily requirement. It’s not a pound of Brussels sprouts, but it will get your insides a moving if you know what I mean.

There is a problem in demonizing an entire category of nutrients. If you say fat is bad then you ignore the beneficial fats. If you say carbohydrates are bad then you have dismissed a key source of the body’s energy system. You get the idea.

Within those broad categories, however, there can be bad actors. All fats are not bad, but trans-fats might as well be the Red Skull of the nutritional world. Seriously, when have either the Red Skull or trans-fats done something good?

It’s the same way with carbohydrates and, specifically, sugars. If our body is capable of registering the calories from a sugar—i.e. every sugar except for fructose—than it has a role to play in our nutrition. Fructose, in the form added to our food, is a bad actor because it screws with our bodies in a myriad of ways.

It looks like the experts are finally getting on the “added sugar is pretty bad” bandwagon.  And maybe that egg yolk won’t kill you after all.

China’s Environment is Screwed and so is its Economy

China’s economy may be a growth miracle, but the externalities associated with that growth are certainly coming home to roost.

The infamous smog, that wonderful concoction of airborne pollutants and atmospheric conditions, made well-known during the run-up to the Olympics in 2008 has not gotten better. It’s gotten worse.

Recently, the U.S. embassy in Beijing—which has become a trusted source on the quality of the air in China—reported that its air quality index measuring so-called PM2.5 particles hit 545. A number greater than 300 is considered immediately hazardous to one’s health. The visibility in the city is expected to be reduced to less than 500 meters.

What does that look like? Here you go:

B7Xq5FSCEAAEWit

Granted, the smog gets worse in the winter as atmospheric conditions and increased heating burden mix to create this lovely toxic stew.

However, the long term trend is that China’s air is so messed up that it will inhibit long term economic security. Why? People will not want to live there.

Businesses will not be able to locate themselves in China because no one will want to work there or will demand what amounts to hazard pay in order to relocate. Don’t believe it? Coca-Cola is offering its employees a so-called “environmental hardship allowance” for expatriate employees.

Panasonic is doing the same thing.

For Republicans or anyone who believes that air quality is a luxury remember that people like to breathe clean air. The lack of clean air will impact the economic viability of companies and countries. It looks like China is going to be the laboratory for this particular experiment in free market thinking. Here is to hoping the invisible hand of the market slaps the libertarians in the house.

No More Diet Soda

Hot on the heels of nearly banishing beer from my daily routine—I have been giving myself one night a week to enjoy carefully curated beers—I started to wonder about another daily habit that might be quite harmful to my health.

Despite my love of the Sodastream, I fall victim to the convenience and deception of diet soda. It’s so easy to get a twenty ounce bottle from the vending machine at work in the afternoon when I am thirsty and my energy is flagging. A little caffeine and carbonation seem to do wonders to get me through the stretch run most days. Add on top the idea that I am getting a soda fix without the calories and corn syrup guilt of a traditional soda.

With apologies to Lee Corso, not so fast my friends. In our collective desire to consume fewer calories and not make any lifestyle changes—isn’t that what diet soda is really selling—the addition of artificial sweeteners to our diets may be causing more harm than good.

How is that possible? The dangers of artificial sweeteners have been hinted at for years. Most people hew to the conventional wisdom that aspartame—the generic name for trademarks like Nutrasweet—is not good for children. As my daughter so rightly pointed out one day, “If I shouldn’t drink it, why can you?” Good logic, little one, good logic.

The answer, in all likelihood, is that no one should be consuming artificial sweeteners. Why? Because recent studies and anecdotal evidence, which is mounting by the day as more long term studies are published, show that something in these products is confusing our bodies. People who replace sugary sodas with diet sodas do not appear to lose any more weight and, in fact, show signs of glucose intolerance which is a precursor to diabetes. Our bodies do not like to be fooled into thinking we are getting sugar because we are hard wired to seek calories. It’s a survival instinct.

There are a host of other problems associated with artificial sweeteners like migraines that appear to be linked to consumption. Rather than seek some happy median, it just seemed easier to excise the products from my life entirely. Like any change to habit it’s hard not to fall back into routine and slide a few dollar bills into the vending machine to get a late afternoon hit of liquid satisfaction. It all seems worth it when you are trying to avoid lifelong health problems like diabetes. On one hand you can have a diet soda, but you increase your risk of getting a lifelong illness. On the other hand, you can save a few bucks and avoid that chance. The downside risk on this one blows the upside gain out of the water.

Have you gotten rid of artificial sweeteners in your diet?

No More Beer

Have you ever had gout? No. Trust me, you never want to have even the slightest hint of having gout.

Why? It’s brutal. My father suffered from gout for the last couple of years of his life and it would immobilize him for days at a time. Other people describe even the slightest sensation of touch near their feet as being unbelievably painful.

When I got the first hints of gout in my big toes I got worried. So worried that I started to figure out what I needed to do in order to avoid having full blown attacks. Guess what? Of all the risk factors related to lifestyle I was only guilty of one—alcohol consumption via beer.

Furthermore, I have a long history of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in my family on both my parents’ sides. This makes me especially sensitive to any issue relating to joint health because I know that before too long I will be combating the symptoms of RA. There is no need to hasten that arrival by inviting inflammation of any kind into my body.

The third health consideration is that I am overweight. Not extreme weight loss overweight, but probably carrying a little more than 20 pounds of fat that is extra pressure on my already taxed joints. No matter how much I watch what I eat and exercise I was probably sabotaging my efforts by finishing the night off with a few pints of homebrew from keezer. At about 13 calories per ounce an imperial pint was packing an extra 250 or so calories into every glass I finished. Ugh.

This got me to really assess my lifestyle vis a vis my beer drinking. I love beer. I enjoy the culture of beer. I find satisfaction in trying new beers and seeking out new breweries. I revel in talking about all aspects of beer with like minded folks. However, I like to be able to walk without pain and if the small amount of time I spent with a gout-like episode was any indication I would give up drinking in a heartbeat.

People reorder their lives for all sorts of reasons and I imagine that health is paramount among those reasons. My decision was to make changes before my health degraded to the point where I was dependent upon medication or staring down the barrel of surgery.

Will I still drink a beer now and again? Sure, but it will form a much less significant portion of my life than it has for the past several years. On the bright side, I should be awake early on Sunday mornings to go for bike rides and hikes with my daughter as opposed to shuffling around the house with a hangover.

Anyone know of someone who wants to give a keezer a good home?

You Must Read—Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal

Product profitability is as much a necessary consideration for food companies as how their products taste. [Page 195]

We all pretty much acknowledge that the majority of food in the modern American supermarket is crap. For every little display of broccoli or kale there are twenty linear feet of Hamburger Helper and its generic equivalents. If you ever want to be depressed about what people eat spend five minutes watching frozen pizzas fly out of the coolers on a given day. It’s amazing.

9781451666731But why does American food seem to suck so much? It’s something that Melanie Warner, a freelance writer based in Colorado, tries to answer in Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal.

Ironically, our journey into the processed food wasteland began about the same time that people were beginning to fear what was in their food. Who can forget the image in The Jungle where a worker falls into a rendering vat and the processing continues. I bet that was on tasty canned hammed.

Science and industrialization came to the rescue. Basic ingredients like oat and wheat were steamed, rolled, flaked, puffed, baked, and generally abused until these processed foodstuffs were packaged and shipped off to America’s growing supermarkets. In an era when mass culture was taking off it was even better that such products could be advertised nationally on television sets.

Too bad all of that abuse rendered the foundation ingredients essentially nutrition free. So much so that nutrition had to be added back into products like bread. Make bread from whole grains and it is full of vitamins. Make it into Wonder Bread and you need to fortify the hell out of it.

The most telling fact about the reason why so much of our food is processed comes late in the book. In the same section where the quote at the top of this post is located, Warner writes:

Simple items like cheese, frozen vegetables, and chicken breasts have gross margins ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent. Breakfast cereal and snack chips, on the other hand, command margins up to 70 percent; soda and sports drinks offer a ridiculous 90 percent.   That is why you see a constant barrage of ads for Gatorade and nothing for frozen blueberries. [Page 195]

The margins commanded by processed food are important because it not only drives the profitability of the manufacturers, but it dictates where investment dollars will flow. An investor, faced with an opportunity of similar potential success, will choose the project with a higher gross margin unless compelled by some other motivation outside of profit. By and large, our investment community is driven by the profit motive.

The post-World War II fascination with science and “progress” led us, as a collective whole, to believe that we could be separated from nature in so many ways. Our food could be made better by the intervention of man, but in the process something vital was lost and our food became little more than empty calories that expanded our mid-sections.

This fascination also led us, again as a collective whole, away from the kitchen for a variety of reasons. Some of the statistics Warner cites about the amount of time spent preparing meals prior to the processed food revolution are staggering:

Over the last seven decades, home cooking in America has plummeted. In 1927—the pre-TV dinner era—the average woman spent an unimaginable five to six hours a day preparing meals for her family. By the fifties, the food industry claimed that a housewife relying on convenience foods could fix her family’s meals in an hour and a half less, which is still an eternity by today’s standards. [Page 206-6]

There are a lot of reasons for our decreasing cooking time, primary among them is the migration of women into the workforce, but it is an even more insidious death spiral. As subsequent generations come of age, they will not have the institutional knowledge of how to cook and, therefore, cannot pass those skills down to further generations. Even if a person wants to cook there is a learning curve that must be mastered. At some point will we lose the common knowledge of how to operate in a kitchen? God, I hope not but I am not going to place a bet on the positive side of that ledger.

Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Is a short read—thankfully not over pedantic at just over 200 pages of text—that illuminates some of the drivers behind the development of our modern processed food complex.