The endless battle of the bulge

There is some good news, somewhat anecdotal, on the relentless war on our waists. The other day food conglomerates Heinz and Kraft announced they would merge, forming a new company, Heinz-Kraft. It’s unlikely that these companies would be merging at all except that their sales are down. These kings of processed foods like macaroni and cheese and Velveeta are finding that profits are falling with their sales. They hope that by merging they can reverse the trend, or at least find cost savings to prop up profits even as processed food sales seem to be receding.

If I were a stockholder in either of these companies, I would be buying more of their shares, not selling them. When forced to choose between what I would like Americans to do (eat healthy food) and what they are likely to do, I think the great expansion of the American gut is ultimately going to win. Of course there are plenty of Americans who eat healthy, as evidenced by the sales at stores like Whole Foods. Most of these customers though were eating healthy before they started shopping there. They are shopping there I believe principally because it is more convenient, and they get more variety at places like Whole Foods. They are also understandably paranoid: about processed foods, about genetically modified foods and want to live in good health to at least 100. Good luck to them on this quest.

I am not at all convinced that those of us who are principally Heinz and Kraft consumers will change our eating habits. Dieting is certainly doable, but only a relative few of those who do diet will manage to successfully make the lifestyle changes to keep the weight off. I am one of many people who have yo-yoed over the years. Dieters are great at taking the weight off. Keeping it off is the only trick they haven’t mastered.

So why is it? Dieticians have their own ideas, but I suspect most dieticians don’t really understand the problem because they don’t experience it. I think most diets fail for cultural reasons. But also, it’s almost impossible not to encounter temptation. One can of course choose to resist temptation, but it’s much easier to do so when the temptation is not constantly in your face.

Alcoholics go to AA meetings regularly, or at least try to. It’s unlikely though when they drive down the street that they will pass a package store on every block. Of course in some states it’s not too hard to find a package store on every block, or what seems like every block. Florida comes to mind but there are many other states like this. Unsurprisingly, if you are an alcoholic you’ll have more luck staying sober in states where package stores are relatively rare. It’s easier to resist temptation when you encounter temptation less often.

If you are a consumer of processed foods, avoiding temptation is virtually impossible. If you grew up eating healthy then temptation is less of an issue because you do not crave these foods, so you can pass down a strip blissfully immune from the lure of pizza and burger joints along your route. If you picked up the habit over the years then going down the street is like having a package store on every block is to an alcoholic. Of course the danger is not just your local strip. It’s your local grocery store as well where Kraft and Heinz stuff most of the aisles with products. It’s at the quick mart, it’s at the vending machine down the hall at work or school, and it’s at the airport, the train station and pretty much anywhere you go. Unhealthy food is everywhere and it’s relatively cheap.

If you can manage to unlearn the habit of eating this stuff, you can find salvation. As noted, few manage to do so in the long run. It would help to live a cloistered life, but even if you manage to do so, you also need to cut yourself off from the larger world. Madison Avenue will make sure that ads are calculated to make you give in to temptation. It’s no wonder then that few Americans succeed in permanent weight loss. For what you really need is the superhuman ability to resist temptation and it turns out that we are only human.

For most of our history, mankind has been hunter/gatherers. We foraged for food. We killed local animals for meat. Foraging is built into us. To survive foragers preferred food sources close to where they were living. So if there were berries to eat across the stream, they were more likely to be eaten than to travel a dozen miles for something else. Survival depended on expending calories wisely. This is so engrained in us that today we unconsciously select food choices close to us. So if there is an unhealthy food option a block away and a healthy food option two blocks away, when we get hungry more than likely the unhealthy option will win. Location tends to win. Meanwhile Madison Avenue keeps refining pitches to us via various media to try newer and tastier foods. So maybe we find that we prefer Papa Johns pizza to Pizza Hut, so over time that encourages Papa Johns to build a store near you, increasing the likelihood that you will prefer unhealthy food. In short, most of us are caught up in au unhealthy food cycle that will become virtually impossible to break. Hence, most diets fail in the long run.

Eating of course is also a highly social activity. No one would come to a party where no is food served, and they don’t come to eat healthy. We will tend to emulate the eating habits of those around us simply to fit in. So if other members of our family are eating unhealthy then we are likely to do so as well. But we’re also likelier to do so if our friends and neighbors do as well.

So breaking this cycle looks pretty hopeless. One way to increase the odds that you will break the odds is to hang out with people that eat healthy. Of course, there’s some likelihood that they won’t let you into their club because you aren’t skinny waifs like them. And they won’t understand your craving for a Ding Dong when they naturally select stalks of celery to munch on.

What can be done but probably won’t happen in this country is we could tax unhealthy food. We could also use zoning to limit the number of unhealthy places to acquire food, recognizing that these places are essentially public nuisances. One offshoot of the Affordable Care Act is that restaurants of a certain size are going to have to list calorie counts on their menus. This is a small step in the right direction, but resisting temptation is much easier when temptation is not in your face, or it costs extra to indulge in a temptation. Social engineering does work given time. It has dramatically reduced smoking rates over a couple of generations. However we have to find the moxey to put into office politicians that will do these things. Given that campaigns are increasingly funded by the very rich whose wealth often depends on you maintaining your unhealthy eating habits, this approach is unlikely at best.

Which is why it would be foolish to bet against Heinz-Kraft. Hold on to your stock and maybe use your capital gains to shop at Whole Foods instead. As for me, I’m sadly betting that in this Battle of the Bulge, our bulge is going to win out.

The power and profitability of treating workers with dignity

It’s taken a few years but striking fast food and Walmart workers are slowly getting some national attention. This Black Friday there was a continuation of strikes and protests that happened on Black Friday 2012, only bigger, with at least 111 protestors arrested around Walmart stores nationwide. Organizers at Our Walmart, a group organizing Walmart workers (I have given to their strike fund) claim 1500 actions at Walmarts nationwide, up from 400 last year.

One-day strikes at fast food restaurants, which used to be rare, are now becoming routine as well. Just the other day a strike was held by workers at a McDonalds inside the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C. The workers there are making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. You would think that since these are federal facilities, contracts with fast food vendors would require contractors to pay their employees a living wage. But you would be wrong.

Even Walmart would agree that the facts prove their minimum wage jobs do not pay a living wage. Studies of various states routinely show Walmart employees as the largest group of recipients of food stamps in the state. Unsurprisingly, McDonalds is usually number two. On their employee web sites, both Walmart and McDonalds suggest their employees utilize public subsidies to increase their standard of living, a standard of living they refuse to provide.

This week in Washington D.C. the first two Walmarts opened in the city. There was much rejoicing, but not because their employees were going to be paid a living wage. Walmarts in the city mean that the city’s voluminous poor no longer need to take long and expensive subway and bus trips to the suburbs to get those Walmart low prices. It’s increasingly obvious though why their prices are so low. It’s because Walmart doesn’t see a point in paying a living wage when the government will keep their employees from starving for free. Food stamps will help provide basic nutrition for their employees, and Medicaid will provide health insurance of a sort thanks to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, don’t expect Walmart and McDonald’s lobbying firms to be pressing the government to get rid of food stamps and Medicaid. Their business model and profit forecasts depend on them.

What’s particularly infuriating though is that both of these employers could easily pay their employees a living wage and still make stockholders happy. They just choose not to do so. Various studies have looked at the cost of these benefits versus their profits, and it is easily affordable. They just see no point in doing this because federal subsidies effectively take taxpayer’s money and give it to their shareholders instead. And this is because we have no law that says employers must pay a living wage.

Critics of those proposing a national $15 an hour minimum wage simply say this means that employers will cut jobs. After all, they can hire two people at $7.25 an hour for one person at $15 an hour. The problem with this logic is that you cannot actually survive on $7.25 an hour without public subsidies and likely a second or third job as well. Naturally, this doesn’t bother these employers. They are in business to make money, not to be sensitive to their employees’ feelings and wallets.

If all public subsidies were removed tomorrow and the minimum wage was not raised, these employees would be showing up at work hungry (as many already do, particularly toward the end of the month) or, more likely, would have no fixed address because they could not afford rent. Their unwashed condition would probably not allow them to be employable at all. Which goes to prove that a minimum wage is not a living wage. Instead, it is a recipe for continued poverty.

There are reasons that even a Republican should embrace for paying a living wage. For those who think the government should do less, making employers pay a living wage means that federal and state governments don’t have to provide food and social services to these low wage earners. It reduces the costs and scope of the federal government.

It also ends indirect corporate subsidies. It allows companies to prove that they really are more efficient than other companies by removing the incentive toward employee inefficiency that comes with government subsidies. Think about McDonalds today and compare it to McDonalds thirty or forty years ago, if you are old enough to remember back that far. I am old enough and I can tell you for a fact very little has changed other than the menu has gotten unhealthier and the cash registers are now electronic. For forty years McDonalds has not really rethought how its restaurants could deliver better food, do so more efficiently and — here’s a crazy idea — with some actual employee engagement.

Yet Costco has found a business model that more than pays their employees a living wage, and still allows them to thrive as a business and be a leader of low prices. What incentive does Sam’s Club (a subsidiary of Walmart) have to prove their mettle when Costco can do what it refuses to do and Walmart’s profits can be boosted by government subsidies to its employees?

Perhaps most importantly, any employer worth his salt has learned long ago that employees will be more productive if you make it worth their while. They must have missed those videos by sociologist Morris Massey, such as this clip you can see on YouTube. If you want to get the best from your employees, listen to what they have to say.

It’s not that Walmart and McDonalds employees are unproductive. They are like a hamster on its wheel. They always work at top speed because they are always being monitored. They are also being told exactly how to do their job with no ability to be innovative. So mostly, they burn out or turn dull and unremittingly sullen. You can’t keep this up forever at $7.25 an hour so you will tend to quit. Even if the next job only pays $7.25 an hour, you quit on the hope that maybe you won’t have to run so quickly on the wheel with the next employer.

These “associates” have no particular loyalty because they are not given any incentive to be loyal. Give them incentives, in the form of higher pay, more interesting and challenging work, and by incorporating their ideas into the business, and you might earn some loyalty and by extension more profit. More importantly, you unleash the power of their imaginations. They’re not stupid and have plenty of great ideas on how to do things better, just no incentive to divulge them. Leveraging their ideas is a great business model. With Costco’s living wage they became keys to Costco’s success, and the key reason Walmart’s revenue stream is suffering.

The slaves on southern plantations gave all they could as well, and generally resented it. At some point they either rebelled or simply gave up. A death by beating is at least an end to suffering.

Walmart, McDonalds and most of these retailers and fast food outlets simply suffer from a poverty of imagination. The way to a sustainable business model and a happy workforce is to stop treating their “associates” like cogs in the great wheel of business. Instead, treat them as people with actual needs, like the need to have a roof over their heads and food to eat.

As a matter of public policy, there should be a national minimum wage guaranteed to be a living wage and it should be indexed automatically for inflation. It should probably vary geographically depending on the local cost of living. For those employers too unenlightened to understand that real profit comes from harnessing the minds and creativity of their employees, it at least sets a bar of decency. Any businessman worth his salt will be anxious to pay their employees more for the privilege of leveraging their thoughts and creativity to make their business thrive long into the future.

Double Down Deadly

Why is it that cigarettes come with prominent labels from the Surgeon General warning us about the unhealthy consequences of smoking, but not fast food?

By now, even smokers acknowledge that their habit is unhealthy and could kill them. For some reason we have not yet acknowledged the same is also true about most fast food and, increasingly, most of the food served at restaurants of all types across the United States.

As bad as cigarettes and tobacco products are for your health, arguably the unhealthy food sold at fast food restaurants is even worse. I am not advocating that you give up KFC and take up smoking instead, but if you had to choose between eating healthy and smoking versus a fast food diet and not smoking, arguably the former the healthier choice. Maybe all the antioxidants from a healthy diet would reduce your likelihood acquiring cancer from smoking.

As unhealthy as fast food is, you would think that fast food restaurants might be getting a clue. You would think that maybe they would be working to make their foods if not healthy, at least less likely to kill you. Instead, there is evidence that they are going the opposite direction. The latest really bad idea from the fast food industry comes from KFC, which invented a new “sandwich” so unhealthy that if he weren’t planted six feet under The Colonel would doubtless blanch. It’s called the Double Down Sandwich.

KFC's Double Down "Sandwich"

KFC’s original marketing germ was probably something like, “We need to invent a new item that emphasizes our core product and is different, saltier, greasier and thus more addicting than anything we have thus far developed.” The result was the Double Down “Sandwich”. I put sandwich in quotes because hitherto a sandwich has always meant some food (generally proteins) placed between two slices of bread. Instead, KFC replaced the buns with two fried chicken breasts and placed between them layers of bacon, cheese and one of KFC’s special sauces. The result is an innovative “entrée” with enough sodium to wholly cover your daily need. Of course, this assumes that you are not already salt sensitive, which many Americans are, in which case it will raise your blood pressure and possibly cause hypertension.

The good “news” about the Double Down Sandwich is that if you are not salt sensitive and you are a big believer in the Atkins diet, maybe you can lose weight eating one of these things. Granted one “sandwich” does have 540 calories, which means for most women three and a half of these a day (and nothing else) would satisfy your calorie requirements. With two chicken breasts it is packed with protein. Unfortunately, your body does not need a huge amount of protein. One grilled chicken breast a day is all the protein your body needs.

But hey, without the buns, it’s low carbohydrate, right? Well, that’s hard to say. So far, I haven’t been able to find the “nutritional” information beyond the calories, sodium and fat count (32 grams, which is about the total fat per day you should have on a low fat diet, 10 grams of which are saturated). However, the chicken breasts are slathered in KFC’s secret coating then vat fried, so there should be plenty of carbohydrates there. Cheese has carbohydrates as well, and their secret sauce is likely loaded with them in addition to the fat. So maybe Dr. Atkins would not approve.

Nor is this “sandwich” by any means the most egregious fast food entrée out there. If you have the stomach for it, check out some of these “entrees”. Taco Bell, for example, has a “salad” with 1490 calories, 60 grams of fat and 2540 mg of sodium. Restaurants have become clever by hiding their lack of nutrition under the guise of healthy food.

The Double Down Sandwich is notable because it is so in your face. I am sure there are some who can look at a picture of it and start salivating. Most of us though will instinctively recoil. It looks evil because there is not even a hint that there is something healthy about it. Adding a bun would be an improvement. Even if it were your standard bun made from white flour, at least it would have some modest nutritional value and the bun would contribute minimal fat and salt while helping to fill you up. Instead, KFC replaced the arguably healthiest part of its sandwich with something even far worse: two fried chicken breasts.

Now it is true that you can order a grilled chicken version of this “sandwich” with “only” 460 calories and “only” 23 grams of fat. For some bizarre reason, the grilled version though comes with more sodium: 1480 grams worth. However, don’t expect your Double Down Sandwich to serve chicken from free range chickens (although considering one “sandwich” costs about $5 you might assume as much). No, KFC like most fast food vendors gets their chicken from 52 facilities and 18 suppliers across the country that follow standards set by the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute. This means before your chicken was turned into a Double Down Sandwich, it likely spent its brief life in dark, dank and poorly ventilated poultry houses eating feed full of antibiotics. These antibiotics might in turn be lowering your resistance to many antibiotics. Perhaps the cows that supplied the cheese were pasture fed, but I wouldn’t count on it.

So print this entry out and cut out that picture of the Double Down Sandwich. This way, if tempted to eat fast food, particularly at KFC, a glance should dissuade you. It should make you take a beeline toward a Whole Foods store instead. Having said this, I expect the Double Down Sandwich to be a runaway success for KFC. Just as most American smokers for decades liked to pretend cigarettes were somehow natural and healthy, most regular American fast food consumers are the same way. They will be salivating as they approach the KFC. Doubtless, they will be buying the Double Down Sandwich instead of the garden salad because the Double Down is “real food” unlike that yucky green stuff. KFC stockholders will likely be very happy as well and now that they have upped the ante, and the McDonalds and Burger Kings of the world will be looking for “innovations” like this and wondering how they can out-grease it.