No, Coca Cola. You may not comment on obesity.

So Coca Cola has made a new ad in which, as I tweeted yesterday, the [*big evil*] corporation ‘dares to consider itself part of the solution to obesity’:

In my tweet I also predicted that the grumps would be arriving, and of course they have. A sample of comments from YouTube:

‘I really wonder how you guys can sleep at night. This is TOTAL BULLSHIT.’

‘An advert showing that we are still being taught that all calories are the same and energy balance is the key to weight loss/gain. What a load of rubbish! Shame on you all…..’

‘I see what you people did here. You’re smart, people at coca cola.You people took what the tobacco industry did and adjusted it to fit your needs. What tobacco companies do is put label that tell you not to smoke. Now smokers associate “don’t smoke” signs with cigarettes. Coca cola is attempting to associate its brand with calorie counting. … [Reluctantly concluding] As a student in my university’s college of business, i appreciate your hustle.’

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The Olympic Year of Bad Science and Worst Practice

I was recently led to this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review via Twitter, where it was retweeted by @ProfTimNoakes. Tim Noakes, for those of you who may not have heard of him, is a South African sport scientist who used to be the guru of “carbo-loading” for major sports events like marathon-running, as chronicled in his once-iconic book, The Lore of Running. This year he caused a bit of a stir when he turned that lore on its head and declared that everything he had said about carbo-loading was false. Instead, he became the latest advocate for a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, which also means he became the latest poster-child for the deceased Robert Atkins and the very-alive-and-kicking Gary Taubes. (Read the Philosophe’s take on Noakes here)

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No, *this* is why you’re fat

So I finally got round to watching the first episode of The Men Who Made Us Fatthe three- part BBC documentary currently screening on BBC 2, presented by Jacques Peretti. As its name suggests, it tells the story of how obese people became so through no fault of their own. In an only slightly novel twist on this now-tired ground, we are encouraged to not just blame high fructose corn syrup, but the men who made HFCS happen (legislators, scientists, farmers), and who helped to convince people to consume so much of the stuff (Mad Men).

If you haven’t read or seen much to do with obesity (fat chance!), you’d be in for an engaging tale that would fairly likely convince you that high fructose corn syrup is the problem, and that we are powerless against its evil charms because it is addictive and toxic – not to mention that it’s in, like, everything. At least in the US, that is. HFCS has made its way across the pond in some products, but the Brits’ main problem is with eating too much normal sugar, which like its sibling HFCS, is addictive and toxic. Oh, and they also eat too many fish and chips and pies and stuff. And they probably also drink too much beer. This is the second part that we’re not responsible for: we live in obesogenic environments which conduce us to getting fat because there is too much cheap, calorific food around, and our caveman brains just can’t say no.

Continue reading “No, *this* is why you’re fat”

Mind the Gap

There are two current “hot topics” which interest me: obesity and the Internet. For the former, I’m not as interested in the actual condition as I am in (and have written about) its media representation: the endless claims about having discovered The Causes of and thereby The Solutions to this “epidemic”. As far as I can tell these are totally counterproductive for the simple reason that most of them lack nuance or the acknowledgement that there are obviously multiple causes. I mean yes, I think we can all agree on the main cause, which is that people eat too much, but the elusive question is why do “we” eat too much? Is it because we live in obesogenic/”toxic” environments? Is it because sugar and junk food are as addictive as heroin? Because we have fat friends? Perhaps it’s Nigella Lawson‘s fault, or Paula Deen‘s?

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Deen there, done that

I’ve been experiencing various levels of annoyance at various times over the last few days. Much of this is heat(-wave) related, but mostly it’s from witnessing the brouhaha over the Paula Deen “scandal’ in the food media world. Practically every media outfit has their own take on it, but the facts are these:

– Deen (the “butter queen“, or as Frank Bruni put it, the ‘deep-fried doyenne of a fatty, buttery subgenre of putatively Southern cooking’) recently announced that she has Type 2 diabetes;

– She has known this for three years already;

– She is receiving money from Novo Nordisk to plug Victoza, a new diabetes drug (with as yet questionable benefits: those evil Danes!). Victoza is pretty expensive compared to other drugs on the market – think $500 a month vs. $20 a month.

The scandal includes any or all of the following:

a) she has deceived her audiences

b) she is a shill

c) she is a shilling a product that ordinary (read: poor) people cannot afford 

d) she is still fat (well, no one says it like that, but that’s what they mean when they comment on her not having made ‘significant lifestyle changes’)

e) she wasted three years not teaching her viewers how to cook healthy food.

Now, I’m not going to enter into the shilling debate. This piece in the LA Times did a fairly good job of convincing me the major problem with this, which is the illusion of a quick-fix solution that Deen’s deal with the evil Danes promotes:

‘The life of a diabetic is somewhat less than swell — but Novo Nordisk is selling swell, alongside drug companies that promise to medicate away depression, gas, incontinence, clogged arteries and fibromyalgia. … Support and encouragement is one thing, but what we’re being sold is magical thinking. In the battle between healthcare reality and fantasy, Paula Deen is small potatoes (steamed, skins on, no butter), but what she represents matters: another attempt to market immortality to a culture that’s particularly in love with misbehaving, followed by an easy fix.’

What does irk me, though, are the various permutations of a) and e), above. Suddenly now (or then, as it happens) that she has diabetes, Deen is only allowed to cook “healthy” food on television? Suddenly she now has a responsibility to make her audiences healthy too, and thereby fix the diabetes/obesity crisis? Maybe it would be a good idea for her to stop tasting and eating the food that she is apparently so good at making (even though she has pointed out that – surprise surprise – what we see her make on TV is not actually how she eats every day, and that her shows are for entertainment), but that shouldn’t stop her fans from making her fatty, buttery recipes if they damn well please. Should watching Anthony Bourdain sucking foie off a plate come with a diabetes advisory?

Bruni’s piece does an excellent job of describing the classist hypocrisies at play in much of this finger-wagging. But I am less disturbed by that than the evidence, once again, of how ready people are to blame their problems on someone else, and to expect someone else to fix them. It’s also an appetite for scandal which turns out to be a really convenient excuse to not think clearly about the actual issues, which as chef José Andrés also points out in this CBS interview, are quite simply not Paula Deen’s to fix.

Rant over. Now go buy the book.

Making a milkshake out of yoghurt

I have been reading (and writing) about Mr. Oliver’s latest LA venture for some time now, but I didn’t get to *enjoy* the full spectacle of the first episode until last night. Late at night was a stupid time to watch, because it sent me to bed depressed.

Smite me with your bleeding heart if you must, but I am not depressed about the obesity “epidemic” in Los Angeles, America, or the rest of the world for that matter. Which is not to say I don’t find it sad that so many people get it wrong when it comes to feeding themselves and their families. Nor that I don’t find it sad that some children are made to eat something resembling airplane food on a mostly-daily basis. But getting depressed about these things would be a waste of my time and energy, a) because the reasons for this state of affairs are much more complex than even I dare to imagine that I fully comprehend, and b) because there is little I can do to change it.

Not so Mr. O. He’s depressed alright. And he also has the conceit to imagine that a) he understands everything about the system that he is taking on, and b) that it his responsibility – nay, his right – to take this system on. He keeps talking about how it is his “job” to do this and that: his “job” to try to force the LAUSD to let him into their schools (where he’s been banned from filming); his “job” to try to persuade Dino – the nice man who let Jamie into his burger joint Patra’s – to make his burgers with grass-fed Black Angus beef, and his milkshakes with yoghurt instead of ice cream. Dino really is a nice man. He lets Jamie mess about in his kitchen, and lets him fix a yoghurt smoothie, and then rightly responds: “I tried it, and it tasted good, but he missed the point. This is a great drink, but it’s not a milkshake.”

Here’s what Dino looks like when he’s explaining that Jamie is crazy for thinking that he can take burgers and fries off the menu at a burger joint:








And here’s what Dino looks like when Jamie tells him that using grass-fed Black Angus beef for his burgers will make his burgers cost $4,89, instead of $2,69 (warning: picture of a scared man):










I nominate Dino as the Food Revolution hero, because Dino gets it right. He gets that Jamie is missing the point if he thinks that putting a smoothie on the menu of a burger joint is going to do a damn thing to curb obesity. I’ve never been to LA, but I’m also pretty sure that people who want smoothies can find them elsewhere. Dino gets that he is running a business, and servicing customers who come to his restaurant because there’s something on his menu that they want to eat. He gets that there is a difference between freedom of choice and responsibility.

What Jamie Oliver does not get is that saying, on leaving Patras, “I don’t know if I can work with Dino” is in fact a very stupid thing to say, because he does not have to “work with” Dino, and neither does Dino have to work with him. Just as the LA Unified Schools District has no mandate whatsoever to work with Jamie Oliver. (Which they did in fact offer to do, just not on camera. But that, as someone else put it summarily, ‘is not a TV show‘.)

But my case is not really with Jamie Oliver, just as my case, in another context, is not with quacks like Gillian McKeith. No, my case is with the many people who do listen to them, and who do not get that these people, who may even have their hearts and concerns in all the right places, are simply not the authorities that they make themselves out to be. What’s the harm, especially if *something* improves? The harm is that worshipping pseudo-authorities is a slippery gateway to compromising all our rational decision-making faculties, believing whatever scare stories and half-baked statistics they throw about, and soon everybody will be taking advice on how to live their lives from someone called Oprah. Oh wait…

(And oh, if do ever find yourself at Patra’s, don’t forget to try the new Jamie Oliver Revolution burger, made with grass-fed Black Angus beef. If you’ve got $4,95 to drop, that is:)

Homeopathy to blame for obesity! #ten23

This morning I swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. I had a handful of headache pills too, and I think some opium for good measure. This is how I felt afterwards:

Well, OK, I felt a little sick first, but that’s only because I’m not used to stuffing hundreds of sugary ‘pillules‘ into my mouth at once. Which is really to say that I’m not used to stuffing my mouth full of sugar (unless it comes in the form of a brownie). But once I had washed them down with a good glug of water, I felt pretty good, and I can now say from personal experience – along with the experiences of my fellow overdosers – what we already know of homeopathy: there’s nothing in it. Except sugar, of course, and a large dose of bullshit.

This is serious. Do the 50,000+ fools (the Beckhams and the Queen included) who opt for homeopathic treatment every year in the UK realise how many empty carbs are in that stuff? And here everyone’s been pointing fingers at McDonald’s and Coca Cola for making the world fat.

Yes, there is one born every minute, but if you are going to stuff yourself full of sugar, you could at least make sure it tastes of a brownie.

The fight to fight obesity

A few days ago the LA Weekly reported that Jamie Oliver’s latest US crusade was off to a bad start, because the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) had banned the chef access to all their schools. He responded with this remarkable statement:

“Normally getting into schools isn’t a problem. We’ve never had a total shutdown. In my country, it would be illegal.”

I’m intrigued as to which part of this situation could be considered illegal in the UK. Not allowing a celebrity chef to film a documentary in schools? Not allowing a celebrity chef to interfere with issues of public health (if indeed school lunches are that)? Or perhaps not paying attention to Jamie Oliver?

But the main problem here is not really any of the above, but rather that first word: “Normally.” There is really nothing “normal” in the world of Jamie Oliver, or in the world of celebrity chefs saving the fat world from its fat self, because everything is made up as they go along. And luckily for Mr. O, they’ve been going along quite swimmingly, not least thanks to his “activist” endorsement by TED last year.

Until now, that is. Which also makes it hard to not actually feel sorry for the man when you see a headline like this:

“I’m finding it really hard to tell the truth in this country,” he apparently said – adding that he’s never been “so deflated” in his whole career. Now, say what you like about him – and I have plenty to say myself – but the only reason that he’s been able to get to the self-delusional position of believing that he is some sort of truthsayer is because no one has ever gotten in his way before (OK, a bit here and there, but they “normally” come round to his side and everyone comes out larfin’).

It’s all a very curious drama to watch – including the sideshow which features Michelle Obama hooking up with Walmart (not for the first time, mind you) to promote “healthy” eating: some say it rocks, while others think it’s doomed.

And while the celebrities sulk and the corporations flex their (friend’s) well-toned arms, most people will probably carry on chomping their Pop Tarts and not giving a crap how many calories they eat.

The Case Against Health

by Richard Klein, The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2010:

‘In the United States, health has become a commodity and an industry. We spend vastly more than any other country on health care, and increasingly our health is our wealth. Even in our down economy, health-care spending continues to grow. In 2006, Americans spent about $35-billion on diets and diet services, in large part under the illusion that they were improving their health. Yet we consistently fall behind Britain, not to mention France, in every measure of public health. Some place American public health just ahead of that of Slovenia.

We may be nearing a point where institutions of public health and the commercial interests that surround it, including the media, do more harm than good to the nation’s health. The official version of health peddled by our current system is not only venal but potentially noxious. In some instances, public health has been transformed into a kind of iatric disease, a medically induced assault on the health of society. Our minders trumpet the obesity epidemic even as epidemiological evidence suggests that “yo-yo dieting” (repeatedly losing and regaining weight over a period of several years) actively damages the immune system. At any given time, it is estimated that 50 percent of all women are on diets, and 95 percent of all diets fail. The more we diet, the fatter we seem to become.’

Do yourself a favour and read the full essay here, and then get the book in which (a version of) it appears, here.

You could do yourself another favour by reading Joe Jackson’s excellent essay on smoking here.