Tag Archives: obesity

Friday Linkage 8/14/2015

I know I originally said I was not going to publish any links today, but there were a few good stories about renewable energy costs that I wanted to highlight. Plus, it’s been a slow couple of days for work here in Boulder.

On to the links…

Cost of Producing Wind Power Reached a New Low in the U.S. Last Year—It is very cheap to deploy wind power.

‘Tipping Point’ for Florida Solar? Orlando Utility Buys at Under Fossil Generation Prices—Remember for a moment that this is in not very renewable friendly Florida. If that state can have renewables at parity or below with fossil fuels it has to be a cinch for other states to do the same.

Another Low-Solar-Price Record: Saudi Electric Company Lands Solar PPA Under 5¢/kWh—This is some seriously cheap solar.

Axa Boss Henri de Castries on Coal: ‘Do you really want to be the last investor?’—This has to be one of the most damning statements I have seen about the future viability of coal company stocks. Remember, publicly traded stock is how many large companies achieve capital goals in the modern age. Without access to this capital it is very hard, if not impossible, to achieve scale.

Cloud Peak Energy Fights To Preserve Loopholes, Ability To Rip Off Taxpayers—So, not only are these companies increasingly bad investments but their financial security rests on ripping off the American people. Why exactly do people like Mitch McConnell defend coal companies with such vigor?

New Zealand to be Coal-Free by 2018, 90% Renewable by 2025—Now these are some goals I can get behind. Imagine if the U.S. said that we wanted to be 90% renewable in ten years?

Coca-Cola-Funded Scientists Say Overweight Americans Are Too Worried About What They Are Eating—The “crap food industry” has been pushing the line that exercise is the reason people in the Western world are increasingly obese, but the reality is that our diets are to blame for our round midsections. How stupid does Coca-Cola believe that we are?

Mmm, Beer: Brewers Are on a Quest to Breed a Better Hop—This is perhaps the best line about beer and wine drinkers that I have read in a long time:

Hopheads are embracing diversity,” says Myles. “Wine snobs are viticultural racists.

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Tangential Goals

I have struggled with my weight since childhood. Periods of “normal” weight usually coincided with times in my life when I was very physically active, as in two-a-day swimming practices. Since leaving business school more than seven years ago I have found that physical activity and weight loss have been very difficult.

I have set weight loss goals, done all the recommended dieting, and struggled to even lose a few pounds. It is disheartening.

This year I wanted to do something different. I decided to ignore the number on the scale for all intents and purposes. I might weigh myself from time to time, but it was not going to be the single piece of information that determined success or failure. Instead, this year I chose to set a goal of riding my bike 2,000 miles with a stretch goal of 2,500 miles. The total stands at 1,505 miles before today’s ride

The reward for getting to my goal? A brand new Chris King external bearing bottom bracket. Granted, it’s going to replace an already fried FSA external bearing bottom bracket that I am trying to nurse through the next 500 or so miles. The clicking is starting to drive me mad, but I do not want to lose a week of riding time to get the bike in the shop. If I get to 2,500 miles I might replace the no name head set with a Chris King model as well. Sure, it’s “bike bling,” but there are no finer components for your bicycle.

The upside of this goal has been a fairly amazing weight loss. Before the end of winter I weight over 220 pounds. Just yesterday I weighed in at 196 pounds. Granted, some of it is because I have cut back on my beer consumption but some of it is due to riding my bike thirty miles or more four and five days a week. As I stay focused on getting to my mileage goal the pounds seem to melt off. Maybe I will get to my goal of sub-190 pounds before the end of the summer and sub-180 pounds before the start of 2015’s ski season.

You Must Read—Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World

Soda—or pop if you are of that persuasion—is a well-known public health enemy. It delivers a powerful one two punch of empty calories and a lot of sugar. The consumption of soda in the United States has risen dramatically since World War II. Take for example the average size of a soda bottle. Before the 1950s the standard container size was ~6.5 ounces. You know, those little glass Coke bottles that everyone tries to find in antique stores. Contrast that with today’s 12 ounce cans and 20 ounce bottles, which are considered single servings by everyone but government nutritionists.

9781613747223But, how did soda get to be such a big deal? Rather than spend more than two hundred pages demonizing an industry that has more than its share of detractors Tristan Donovan chronicles the rise of the soda giants in Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World.

While there are other major soda players there is one name that essentially defines the category: Coca-Cola. The Atlanta, Georgia-based company has become the proxy for all discussions about soda and this is for good reason. It’s marketing tactics have defined the category for the better part of eighty or more years coinciding with the introduction of the now-famous Santa Claus ads by Haddon Sundblom. It’s distribution channel is the model favored by the industry. It’s global reach and global brand identity are nearly unmatched anything outside of national governments. Heck, I bet there are corners of the globe where the Coca-Cola logo is more recognizable than the American flag.

The story is interesting because in many ways soda should have been a victim of World War II. Rationing of sugar and the lack of proper substitutes—high fructose corn syrup would not be available to soda makers until later—should have crippled the industry and taken the brand images outside of the consideration set of the world population. However, Coca-Cola allied itself quite amazingly with the U.S. military and, by extension, the victories of the U.S. military. Soldiers on battlefields across Europe and the Southeast Asia came to see a bottle of Coca-Cola as a piece of home and by permission of the U.S. military Coca-Cola was going to provide those bottles. It also helped that the U.S. military helped the company build bottling plants to supply soldiers all over the world and when the soldiers went home those plants supplied the populations left behind. I am sure that if you asked an official historian there would be little mention of this nice government subsidy in the history of the company.

More frightening, in my opinion, than anything else is just how pervasive soda has become in our modern lives. Take for example:

  • Soda now comprises approximately 9% of our daily caloric intake in the U.S. up from 4% in the 1970s
  • Children get nearly 11% of their daily caloric intake from soda or other sugar drinks

It’s easy to see how this has become such a problem. Think about how close the nearest soda is to you right now. If a soda is not in your refrigerator or on your desk, how far away is a vending machine or location that sells soda? I am guessing that within a few minute walk everyone who will ever read this blog has access to a Coke. I have been on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and seen a small refrigerated case with the familiar red and white logo. About the only place I can remember being free of western soda brands was Cuba. Soda was still present, but just not the familiar brands back home.

But the health impacts of this sweet obsession are equally appalling:

  • If you regularly consume 1 or 2 cans of soda per day you have a 26% greater risk of developing Type II diabetes as opposed to a person who rarely consumes soda
  • In men, a 1 can a day habit has been shown to raise the risk of heart disease by 20%

A lot of these debilitating effects can be traced back to sugar and HFCS, which has for the most part supplanted real sugar in soda in the U.S. Don’t believe me? Read David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison.

Tristan Donovan’s Fizz is an excellent way to gain an understanding about how a sugary drink became such an integral part of our social and economic fabric.

You Must Read—Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat

There’s nothing wrong with being in the business of selling products that every human on the planet is hardwired to consume. The difference between sugar and tobacco is that the sugar industry has us all convinced it is our fault we’re fat, not theirs. [Page 192]

Sometimes you read a book and, while it is not particularly enjoyable, it leads you to another book that is truly profound. Recently, I struggled through Year of No Sugar: A Memoir by Eve Schaub. The concept was interesting, but the tone was liberal, privileged, and preachy. If you have ever watched an episode of The Goode Family you know exactly what I mean.

9780718179076However, that tome led me to David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat. The author is an Australian lawyer, IT professional, consultant, and person who generally struggled with his weight following college like so many of us do. Working out and dieting did not work, so he set out to figure out what was structurally wrong with our food system.

Why is this a structural problem? If left to our own devices the human body will naturally tell us that we are full. However, we are very fat as a species and getting fatter. Why is such a beautifully engineered machine as the human body being subverted and making us fat? Sugar. More specifically, fructose. Our bodies, for some evolutionary reason, do not register calories consumed via fructose. Thus, we will continue to eat until we consume enough non-fructose calories.

Throughout most of human history this was not a problem because sugar was rare and expensive. The few pieces of ripe fruit, which also contain a lot of fiber, were not enough to upset the delicate balance our bodies orchestrate. Modern society has destroyed all of this by making fructose cheap and nearly ubiquitous.

Gillespie’s real triumph in this book is laying out the biochemical process in a clear, easy to understand way—trust me, biochemists and doctors are not known for writing accessible prose—that lays bare the fundamental failure of our modern food system.

You want to know how messed up the system is? We subsidize corn that is used to make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that is essentially killing us. If you live in the corn belt—like me here in Iowa—envision about half of the fields of corn being used to make HFCS. That is the scale of the problem. This is why it is a structural problem.

Furthermore, the problem is structural because foods that are not normally considered sweet—bread, cereal, etc.—have become veritable minefields of sugar laden pseudo-foods. Take a moment and consider the cereals we consider acceptable for breakfast. How are Lucky Charms, Trix, Fruity Pebbles, or anything similar considered anything but an occasional dessert instead of a breakfast cereal? No wonder we are fat. If you start the day off with one of these fructose bombs you might as well just schedule your trip to the endocrinologist for a diabetes checkup. It does not stop at breakfast.

The solution seems simple: cut out the sugar. In fact, the solution is that simple. In practice, it will be much harder but unless we want to look like the humans in Wall-E there is no other choice. Put down the Big Gulp. Now!

Friday Linkage 1/23/2015

I am taking a certain sick pleasure in watching the current Republican controlled Congress. The Senate recently voted, nearly unanimously, to admit that climate change was real and not a hoax. The same Senate also did not pass a resolution saying human actions were the cause of global warming. Okay, Mr. Wizard, what is the cause of climate change?

On to the links…

Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says—Basically, the oceans are dying and we are to blame. It’s not too late to save the oceans, but it will take coordinated…ah, screw it. We’re too stupid and narrow minded as a species to do anything to actually save the oceans. Let’s go shopping.

S.F. Bay Bird Rescue: Mystery Goo Bedevils Experts—There is a mystery goo, it’s a technical term folks, that is coating and killing birds in the Bay Area. If we did not need more proof about the dire health of the oceans, here it is.

India’s Tiger Population Increases by almost a Third—The animal is still critically endangered and there are many threats to a continued recovery, but the effort is being expended to make this a success story. That in and of itself should be a ray of sunshine on a Friday morning.

A Brief History of the Oil Crash—As I write this post oil is trading sub-$50 per barrel. The rolling 52 week high was just over $100. This is an interesting look at the causes of the price crash.

Graph Dispels The Myth That Cheap Gas Means Cheap Energy—Oil is just one energy source and the energy source that leads to a near daily price interaction as many of us drive by gas stations advertising the price of a gallon of gas. However, the total cost of our energy is a much more varied picture.

Single-Family Residential Solar Power Investment Beats S&P 500 in Most US Cities—I am not suggesting that you stop investing in your 401K, but maybe solar on your own roof could be seen as an investment just like that condo your Uncle Benny keeps talking about in Boca Raton.

Largest-Ever Study Quantifies Value Of Rooftop Solar—People are willing to pay more for homes with solar PV systems. Did this really need to have a study to confirm?

Florida Power & Light Solar Rebate Sells Out Completely In 3 Minutes—Florida is not the friendliest state to renewables. Heck, Florida is not the friendliest state to its own residents. However, this rebate program’s quick sellout confirms a market demand for solar power in the Sunshine State.

Why It’s Taking The U.S. So Long To Make Fusion Energy Work—Fusion is the unicorn of energy technology: cheap, plentiful, pollution free…a man can dream can’t he? Too bad it always seems like it is a decade away.

Striking Photos Show Struggle Of Farmers In California Drought—Maps showing drought conditions are nice, but sometimes photos convey a lot more meaning without being technical. Our best understanding of the misery of the Dust Bowl comes not from facts and figures but from striking monochrome photos.

Experts Zero in on Pizza as Prime Target in War on Childhood Obesity—Damn, I have never been so glad that my kids are not pizza eating wild animals like a lot of other kids. Tacos and breakfast burritos are our problem.

Craft Beer Uses 4 Times As Much Barley As Corporate Brew—It turns out that Natty Light really is just watered down real beer.

You Must Read—Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

The ability of food manufacturers to find synergy in the interplay of their key ingredients is not limited to fat and sugar, of course. The true magic comes when they add in the third pillar of processed foods: salt. [Page 264]

I have often told the story about how I usually feel good about the food people are buying when I first walk into the grocery store. Fresh fruits and vegetables are arrayed in bountiful displays and people seem to buying. However, I round the corner and walk into a miasma of boxed dinners—usually Hamburger Helper—that occupy untold linear feet of shelving. These boxes are little more than carbohydrates, salt, and fat. And people have carts full of the stuff. This is the beginning of the fall of human civilization.

9780812982190If you want to understand why these foods are so prevalent than you need to read Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. Point by point he lays out the systematic way that processed foods have been designed and marketed to the primarily American consumer. The scary thread running throughout the book is that food executives understood the food they were selling was garbage, in terms of health, but that the almighty quarterly report demanded that they sell more crap. If you took out the references to common brand names like Oreos or Frosted Flakes you might have been fooled into thinking you were reading a book about the practices of tobacco companies.

Processed foods are vehicles for little more than salt, sugar, and fat—hence the title of the book. More insidious is that these foods are designed to engage our taste buds, pleasure centers, and memories in a biochemical dance that leaves us craving more and more. Really, try and eat one Oreo or a single Dorito. It’s an exercise in willpower that would make a heroin addict blush.

Moss does an excellent job of detailing how sugar and fat dovetail in ever higher quantities to create a bliss point that delivers a caloric time bomb into our guts. So much so that diabetes and other obesity related illnesses threaten to bankrupt what little national health care we have in the U.S.

Salt gets a little bit of short shrift here, but that is because salt is the universal lubricant of modern processed foods. Without copious quantities of this cheap ingredient—so cheap that it barely registers when it is indiscriminately dumped on food products—processed food would gum up the industrial works, taste like cardboard, and smell awful. Without salt you might as well be eating bad MREs.

What is most stunning is that this development was done consciously. As Moss succinctly writes toward the end of the book:

But there is nothing subtle about the products themselves. They are knowingly designed—engineered is the better word—to maximize their allure. Their packaging is tailored to excite our kids. Their advertising uses every psychological trick to overcome any logical arguments we might have for passing the product by. The taste is so powerful, we remember it from the last time we walked down the aisle and succumbed, snatching them up. And above all else, their formulas are calculated and perfected by scientists who know very well what they are doing. The most crucial point to know is that there is nothing accidental in the grocery store. All of this is done with a purpose. [Page 346-7]

You Must Read—Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues

The truth is always obvious in retrospect. How could people really have thought that the sun revolves around the Earth or that Earth is flat? Yet dogma are powerful and to their adherents infallible. [Page 219]

The complex and true role that bacteria play in our lives as humans is a dark place in terms of knowledge. For most of the period during which we have known of the existence of bacteria our mantra has been, quite simply, the only good bacteria is a dead bacteria. In that vein we have pursued a medical regime that assaults bacteria with broad spectrum antibiotics in the hopes of killing what ails us in a microscopic genocide.

9780805098105However, according to Martin J. Blaser in Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues this approach is misguided and may be at the root of many modern ills.

First and foremost among those modern ill is the specter of antibiotic resistant bacteria. With the introduction of penicillin, mankind was able to beat back infection for the first time in a safe and systematic way. Until penicillin the leading killer on the battlefield was not directly from enemy action, but through infection. However, modern medicine has perverted the practice of using antibiotics as the time to diagnose patients has decreased, patients seek pharmaceutical solutions, and the threat of litigation hovers. It is easier for a doctor, primarily pediatricians, to prescribe a course of antibiotics for an ailment that may only have a 10% chance of being bacterial rather than to tell the patient that it is likely the antibiotics would be nothing more than placebo.

In conjunction with medical overuse the primary user of antibiotics is agriculture. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has read any book critical of the livestock industry. While animals increasingly require antibiotics to survive the conditions of CAFOs, the original intent of prescribing animals antibiotics was to increase their size in shorter period of time.

Apparently, the same mechanism that allows that practice to work in animals may also work in humans. What works to cause a cow to be fatter for slaughter may be the same mechanism behind our great increase in obesity during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Surely our diets of crap have contributed and our predominantly sedentary lifestyles contribute, but it is Blaser’s assertion that there is a culprit in the changing composition of our microbiome. No summary could do his analysis and explanation of the published literature justice given the succinct nature in which he writes about the topic in the book. Suffice to say, our conquering—however temporary—of bacteria through the use of antibiotics may have given us a host of modern plagues.

At times I feel like the author is using the change in our microbiome as a panacea to answer our modern ills. So much so that it feels a little new age, but there is a compelling argument made that we have subverted tens of thousands of years of co-evolution with bacteria by conducting a scorched earth war inside our bodies.

If you are not feeling up for reading the entire book—at 220 pages of text it easily fits into a summer weekend of reading—then check out the Daily Show’s interview with the author. It hits the high points with the snark that only Jon Stewart can provide.