Friday, August 26, 2011

All that Fast Food in Tonga is making them Fat

Writing a book about fat and dieting means when I see a related news story, I read it.  I'm a contrarian when it comes to the idea that an "obesity epidemic" in the US is the fault of eeeevil Big Food corporations who sneak extra sugars and fats into our food and force us to buy it.  My research convinces me that obesity isn't foisted on us, or grew because we're spoiled and lazy and victims of too many Cheetos flung in our faces. It's a much more complex phenomenon.

So I was amused to find a scolding Reuters piece distilling four Lancet articles about the state of the globe's obesity.  Oh, we Americans are fat.  Depending on who you believe, a quarter to a third of us are obese.  And the world, too, is going to health hell in a breadbasket, warn researchers from Columbia University, as Reuters reports: "Due to overeating and insufficient exercise, obesity is now a growing problem everywhere and experts are warning about its ripple effects on health and health care spending."

A quarter of Brits, Canadians and New Zealanders are obese. Mexico boasts 30%, Chile and Ireland 22%. Iceland and Luxembourg 20%.  Seventy-five percent of black women in South Africa are obese.

Then there's the South Seas island of Tonga, where ninety percent of the population is obese.  Must be all that fast food.  Must be the Cheetos and eeevil Big Food Corporations.  We in America are exerting pressure, and threatening legislation, to force food-makers to make products healthy.  Must Tongans more urgently do the same?

An interesting article in The Guardian explains Tongan's source of flab:  they like to eat fatty meat.  Roast pig is a great treat. Corned beef is an everyday staple. They eat the taro root and yams they grow there.  And they value heft as beauty.

I don't know obesity trends in Tonga, but are we to believe that its citizens have only recently fattened into obesity, just as we in America are almost daily alarmed by new studies warning that we're inflating and soon to bust?

Except that it's not true.  Women's obesity rates in America stopped swelling a decade ago.  While at significantly higher rates than 1980, when the stats climbed after little change since records were kept, obesity figures have even dropped slightly since the overall peak six years ago.

Also, US obesity rates have risen in tandem with an increases in life expectancy.  Correlation does not imply causation, but isn't that an interesting co-incidence?  Paul Campos, in The Obesity Myth, discusses the lack of evidence that rising body weights can be blamed for disease.  In fact, being overweight is associated with longest life and best health outcomes.

That's why the headline "Half of Americans to be Obese by 2030" makes me chuckle, though I'm sure it makes many well-meaning folk gag.  First off, we're not on a trajectory to balloon endlessly. And secondly, the admonition that our horrendous food options and choices are for sure the cause of obesity (along with the eeeevil computer that keeps us sedentary) is simplistic and unproven, and after all these years of mandatory health education, ineffective in changing the fat of the land.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Launching Youngest Child is Far More Complex than Rocket Science

Our youngest son just set off to start college in Southern California.  He was bubbling with anticipation of his independence and the exciting new frontiers awaiting him.  Meanwhile, his mother was incredulous that her baby could be launching into adult life (without her).

Not an uncommon scenario this season.  And not even novel for this son and this mother, as last fall he took off for a gap-year program in Israel.  That was certainly much farther away from home, and fraught with greater dangers.  But that environment was more structured and sheltered than the freedom offered in La-La Land.  And he was enveloped in the reassuring mission of studying our religion and its values.

And now, while he's discovering that LA drivers aren't nearly as polite as those in our "capital of nice" town, grateful for a GPS as he navigates the look-alike streets of the city where he (and his mom) were born, I'm here noticing that our home is eerily quiet and shockingly neat.  That the gallon of milk he didn't finish will soon start to stink in our fridge; that I don't have to replenish pounds of spaghetti and jars of red sauce and Costco boxes of Eggo waffles, the "all white" diet he prefers.

I have plenty to do, plenty to work on, and not enough time in the day, still. But very little of my time now goes to mom duties, like retrieving stray half-filled cups of juice from various parts of the house, discovering piles of damp towels behind the bathroom door, washing mounds of sweat sox and grubby jeans.  Why do I miss the mud-tracks of his tennis shoes on the stairs?

No more sharing my car with a kid who'd rather buy his face-wash with his girlfriend than with me anyway.  No more trying to write while my son plucks his ukulele and sings into his laptop creating another contribution to his YouTube channel.

Some would call it peace and quiet. Others would call it a giant hole in the whole, a loss not because I need him here, but because I like him here.

That's the issue for us weepy newly-empty nesters.  We enjoy our children; we appreciate their presence, even with all the sloppiness and noise, grousing and demands, because we engage with them and through that ongoing connection know they're thriving and healthy.  We want to watch their blossoming.

There's Skype, and cell phones and texting.  But nothing compares to knowing they're safe in their own beds under your own roof with you at night.  When their home address is yours.

Isn't this what we raised them for, ask well-meaning friends.  Well, no.  When you fall in love with a little baby that's miraculously emerged from your own body, you don't imagine him thrilled to leave you.  There's a difference between intellectually understanding that they grow up, and the emotional moment when it occurs.  "Someday" becomes today too soon, and you just don't feel any older.

Part of it for me is relinquishing the idea that I'm on the cusp, bursting onto an exciting future, and realizing that the next generation is competent and moving into the spotlight as we glide out of it.  When you've got energy and ideas and motivation, passing the mantle to some pipsqueak is uninviting.  Not that generations can't share the mantle--but for some reason media and its consumers are more enthralled with up-and-comers than had-their-turn oldsters.  We all recognize the culture's fascination with new and nubile, and nowadays kids have hundreds of "followers" intrigued by their internationally-visible online output before even setting foot out the door.

So bye-bye dear son, and so-long established roles and expectations.  The term "reinvent" isn't just for out-of-work victims of the economic downturn, it's for lots of us, at every turn. The security of tradition dictating just where to land no longer exists; both my son and I are finding our ways, he on an unfamiliar campus and me through the newly-cleared pathways of my home and my mind.

Thursday, August 18, 2011 Protests for Jobs Hits Home--and Makes No Sense

Today I drove smack through the middle of a 150-person protest in the heart of my little Seattle suburb.

On one side of the street, green-t-shirted protesters held signs demanding jobs, even imploring passing motorists to "honk for jobs."  As I drove by, I withheld my inclination to honk: yes, I'm for jobs!  Who isn't?  But, Planned Parenthood and the politically left Center for Community Change, stationed in the sleepy center of this 20,000-resident community today didn't want to strengthen employers' ability to hire more, by loosening regulation and taxes.  They demand that taxpayers either pay more or swell the deficit by creating government jobs.  Across the street, a dozen holding signs "Tea Party Patriot" counter-protested, with the retort, "cut spending to create jobs!"

The scene got noisy, with one side of the street shrieking at the other, punctuated by the blare of occasional car honks.  A handful of police stood by in amusement.  Moms with strollers and toddlers gawked and took cell phone photos.  A broadcast truck with three-story antenna parked in a supermaket lot.

I called my husband, fave radio host, to apprise him of this surprising event in our usually dull midst.  I was soon called by the local news radio station, KIRO, for an on-the-scene report.  Turns out this is the third such demonstration at that site, each a "day of action" the Center for Community Change stages as part of their "American Dream Movement."

Seemed a lame and pointless endeavor, something to keep college kids busy before the new semester begins.  This site was chosen as it's about a half-block from the suburban office of our local congressman.

Everyone's distressed at the stalled economy, and everyone would love to see jobs created.  But the American Dream, for which this politically left protest "movement" is named, calls for individuals to create their own success, by availing themselves of the democratic system's opportunities in our free market economy.  In America, where Horatio Alger stories were once the symbol of industrious, self-motivated success, we are not dependent on a super-power, on government largesse or elected officials for our individual improvement.  The American Dream is of the self-made man or woman, whose great idea and effortful execution brings not only personal rewards, but uplifts all those he/she carries forward.

I'll honk for jobs, but of the type that empower individuals without the fetters of severe regulation or government subsidy.  We're all of one mind nationally, that our president's current approach to the problem of unemployment stimulated little but despair and cost more than we can afford.  Now, the question is:  do you spend a summer's day holding signs begging for outside help, or do you get going and invent something new?  Dependence on the government isn't the American Dream; proud, creative, independent achievment is.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Israeli Protests in a Broader Context

As Israeli press reports 300,000 people protesting in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I watch from afar and wonder what they think will result from their efforts.

Summer evenings in Israel are warm, the lovely Mediterranean warmth that bathes your skin and lures you to outdoor cafes and the bustling carnival of vendors on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street that forms at the conclusion of the Sabbath. Tonight there's a solidarity among people who work hard and find their paychecks barely allow them necessities beyond rent, food, internet service and cell phones.  They swarm the streets, calling for "the system to change," according to a story in the New York Times.  Organizers, mostly university students, say they're keeping the marches purposefully non-partisan, joining together Israelis from all political persuasions to direct their national passion--and there's plenty--to something all share.

“We want a more correct balance between the free market and the human economy," said Itzik Shmuli, head of the National Union of Israeli Students, reported in the Jerusalem Post. "We are demanding serious attention to closing social gaps and for a more far-reaching answer to be given to the basic needs of the citizens of the country, in particular the country’s weakest citizens.”
Last time I spoke to The System, however, I didn't hear anything.  What "far reaching answer" do all these people expect?

They know they're the only Western-style free market Democracy in the region. They've got socialized medicine in an advanced, fair national program. Organizers insist they don't want to overthrow their leaders--to the contrary, they say they have confidence in their elected officials; they just want to earn more money so they can enjoy more of the pleasures and advantages that their society offers.

Also in the headlines the last few days is the pathetic and horrific plight of Somalis, dying of starvation in a famine that a heartless but justifiably paranoid government exacerbates, in the face of Shabab Wahhabi Islamist rebels.  Front-page photos of skeletal children and stories of aid spurned or stolen are wrenching and bring deserved sympathy and concern.

What the poor Somalis would give to have the system protested by the Israelis.

At the same time, one can understand Israelis' frustration at seeing so many accessories to modern life just out of reach.  The cost of real estate, food, restaurants, and durable goods in Israel is comparable to prices in the United States' most desirable cities, but the average wages of workers is about $2,476 per month converted from shekels. That's $29,712 annually. (Average wage is $40,711 in the US.) Technology is slightly cheaper there; housing a bit more; gasoline triple. Housing is especially high in Jerusalem, which draws people for religious reasons. They're not making many places considered to be closest to God anymore.

Back to the question: Given that Israel has an open, free-market economy, what can the government do to increase wages or hold down costs?  Israel, with a total population of not quite 7.5 million is smaller than the city of New York, which is more than 8.1 million as of the 2010 census.  Its national government has the intimacy of a city government; people's protests and complaints much more easily reach their leaders and gain response.

But the change these students seek is generic.  And perpetual.  It echoes the same vague, altruistic sentiment chanted on US college campuses in the early 1970s: "We want social justice!"  There's a spring or summer fever that propels students to the streets and quads where they can surge together in an aura of righteousness to assert their youthful beliefs.  The fact that the closely-knit country of Israel can join in this festival of both frustration and longing proves once again that it is a free society.  No one is asking for that to change.

The government can pass laws that like New York's rent control, suppress rental charged tenants, but it can't, nor should it want, to depress real estate prices.  And as long as willing buyers pay high prices for homes and businesses, they'll need to charge enough rent to cover that expense.  I just don't see how citizenry surging in the streets can effectively bring reductions in rent or real estate sales costs. Regarding other necessities, health care is socialized; cost for food is determined by its availability and production expense (and given Israel's small size, much must be imported).

There's something cathartic and therapeutic about protesting; it binds Israelis into a cohesive unit, and reminds leaders of their constituents' priorities.  But beyond that, sign-carrying, chanting and massive presence in the streets can accomplish little when the goals are so amorphous. And when the free market is, in the end, the arbiter of both wages and prices for goods and services.

The message I take away, reading the headlines so far from their datelines, is that democracy and a free market system allows us to claim ever-expanding expectations, and sometimes keeps us from remembering just how lucky and privileged we really are.