Wal-Mart: not as evil lately

The Thinker by Rodin

Back in 2003, I opined that Wal-Mart is evil. I haven’t shopped at a Wal-Mart since the early 2000s. I don’t see that changing anytime soon either. Granted, it is hardly the only retail establishment that treats its employees like dirt. Sadly most retailers will not pay their employees a living wage, and that often includes the managers. So Wal-Mart is not unique, but it is a particularly egregious offender as well as omnipresent. So it deserves to be singled out for my scorn.

I keep hoping that Wal-Mart executives will make some catastrophic mistakes and be driven out of business. This seems unlikely to happen, even if their growth in the United States has leveled off. This may be due in part to the recession, but is just as likely because they have saturated the market. Wal-Mart’s newest territories to conquer include the inner cities, such as here in Washington D.C. Their big box stores will have to be downsized to fit into these denser communities. Wal-Mart is rarely welcomed. Many cities are doing their best to dissuade Wal-Mart from coming.

Wal-Mart employees are still getting screwed, which is infuriating but no longer news. However, Wal-Mart’s prices have not been quite as low recently. Part of it reflects increased costs. Their supply chains have been squeezed about as tight as they can be squeezed. Since food is a larger part of their business, rising food prices has also squeezed them. Their not quite-as-low-prices may also reflect a reality that they have squeezed out most of the competition, which gives them the freedom to raise prices and consequently raise profits. However, their profits are reasonably flat or falling, at least here in the United States.

Wal-Mart rarely has altruistic motives, which is why their recent announcement made in conjunction with First Lady Michele Obama made headlines and captured my attention. Wal-Mart is beginning a multiyear campaign to improve the healthfulness of its food. Obama, who has made improving childhood nutrition her special project, was effusive with praise for the retailer for this new direction.

Wal-Mart’s motives are at best only tangentially altruistic. Its executives may be evil, but they have discerned that this health food trend is one they can ride toward increased profitability. In one of these strange quirks of fate, by selling healthier food not only will they increase their profits but they also may well move the entire moribund food market away from unhealthy processed foods toward foods that, while probably not healthy, are at least healthier. This might actually be palatable to Republicans as well, who would certainly object if the government required it.

This matters because Wal-Mart has become the nation’s de facto supermarket, in addition to being the nation’s largest retailer. When a retailer has as much influence on the market as Wal-Mart has, our food companies are forced to tow the line. This should mean that processed foods that Wal-Mart will sell, including presumably most of its store brands, will have fewer calories, less fat, less sugar and will be made from fewer and more natural ingredients. Perhaps there will also be fewer additives in the food as well. Most likely, once our tongues get over the shock, we will realize these healthier products also taste a lot better.

The food that Wal-Mart sells may begin to resemble, well, food. My late mother, if she were to shop at a Wal-Mart today, would probably question whether much of the food on its shelves even qualified as food. Food should be healthy to eat. Much of the crap that we consume these days simply is not. The good parts like fiber and vitamins are the first things bleached out, and are replaced with sugars, salts, fats and combinations of artificial chemicals. They are designed to make us consume more of them but are nutritionally empty, if not actually harmful to us.

In many parts of the country, you buy food at Wal-Mart because there are really no other alternatives. This includes inner cities, where if you can find vegetables they are probably only at liquor stores. These food deserts result in limited or no places to buy healthy food, which results in people living off fast food. In many communities, the Wal-Mart is your only grocer, or other food stores are prohibitively expensive. So as Wal-Mart introduces these areas to healthier food, it is good for everyone, including Wal-Mart’s bottom line. Even their employees, who often have to buy food where they shop, will benefit. If your diet consists of a preponderance of unhealthy foods like Pop Tarts, anything you eat that is healthier will leave you feeling better and (doubtless this has not escaped Wal-Mart’s attention) more alert, and hence more productive.

I don’t seem to have the power to kill Wal-Mart. It seems to be here to stay, whether I like it or not. I still do not plan to shop there, but given the oceans of obese people who frequent Wal-Marts (documented on the People of Wal-Mart site), they may begin to feel healthier. Perhaps they will even lose some weight and live longer and healthier lives. This would be good. Perhaps this is the start of Americans discovering real food again, and the beginning of the end of our unhealthy obsession with processed Frankenfood.

Devour these sites

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s a food jungle out there and you as a consumer are at a distinct disadvantage. Most packaged goods available in supermarkets at least have standard labeling. Eat out, which most of us do at least several times a week, and you generally have no idea how many calories you are consuming. It’s not just calories that have major consequences on our health, but also the fat, sugar, sodium and absence of dietary fiber in these foods.

Not all restaurants are evil. Many of the major fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Wendy’s are at least courteous enough to post the information on a wall in their restaurants. It is often on the side somewhere, and the type may be small, but at least it is there. Most restaurants will deliberately leave you in the dark. If you take the time to go to their web sites, you may find nutritional information there. Most restaurants, like, America’s quintessential neighborhood bar Applebees, prefer to leave you obese and ignorant. After all, if you knew just how caloric and toxic their food was, you would never patronize the place.

For someone like me who is back to a normal weight and plans to remain there, navigating through these endless food choices is like walking through a minefield. In part, I am succeeding because I eat out a lot less. At places I eat at all the time, like the cafeteria at work, I have learned and stick to the safe foods: the salad bar and the broth oriented soups. Yet, sometimes I cannot escape encounters with unhealthy restaurants. This weekend, because my daughter turned twenty, we let her pick a restaurant to celebrate. Being young and immortal, my daughter naturally chose one of the greasiest of joints, Red Robin in this case. Red Robin, like Applebees, prefers that you remain nutritionally ignorant. What is a smart restaurant consumer supposed to do?

One could buy one of the many books on the market that estimate the nutrition in dishes at popular restaurants, although regional chains may or may not be in these books. Most of us though don’t have time to buy these books or carry them around with us. They are also of limited value because restaurants tend to change their menus regularly. However, you could go to CalorieKing.com. That’s where I went Sunday to figure out what food I could eat at Red Robin that would not spike my blood sugar nor expand my waistline.

CalorieKing.com of course would prefer that you buy one of their many books too. However, you can also use their search engine and it will often give you the nutritional lowdown. It is quite comprehensive. If you choose a national or regional restaurant chain, they most likely have the nutritional information in their database. I typed “Red Robin” into their search engine. It was somewhat tedious but I was able to browse through seven or so pages of items available at Red Robin. As I feared, although the restaurant’s food is undeniably tasty, it is one big fat and calorie cluster bomb. With a couple exceptions, even their salad should come with blinking red warning lights.

For example, you would think a turkey burger would be safe and healthy choice, right? Turkey is low in fat. Not so fast! In the calorie intensive and lard-loaded world of Red Robin, it is 704 calories, contains 43 grams of fat and has just 3 grams of fiber. (Naturally, the bun is not made with whole wheat so it, along with the fries, will quickly spike your blood sugar.) The Whiskey River Barbeque Burger? 975 calories. Many of their burgers easily top 1000 calories. Naturally fries come with the meal but are not included in the calorie count. Consume just two and a half turkey burgers, without eating any fries or a drink and the average woman has already consumed all her daily calories.

A generation ago, people went to places like McDonalds or A&W and ate what were then considered to be normally-sized hamburgers. While not exactly healthy, by themselves they were unlikely to expand your waistline. A plain McDonald’s hamburger, for example, is 250 calories. A small order of French fries is 231 calories. With a 2000 calorie a day diet, this was a reasonable meal. Unbelievably, there was a time before the Big Macs and the Quarter Pounders with Cheese when plain hamburgers and cheeseburgers were what we ate when we went to a burger joint, and we were completely satisfied by our portions. The word “supersize” had not yet been invented.

I am no fan of McDonalds, but I wish I could have persuaded my daughter to go there instead. I ended up eating Red Robin’s Garden Burger, still pretty hefty at 422 calories and 18 grams of fat. CalorieKing.com does not list the calories in the fries they place on the side of your plate, but it was likely in the 300-400 calorie range. Had I eaten at McDonalds I could have likely saved myself at least 300 calories, enjoyed some meat, and likely would have been just as satisfied.

Aside from eating out less, it helps to get regular information to keep you mindful of your eating choices. EatThis.com is my favorite web site for this kind of information. It is a treasure of practical information, attractively arranged, interesting to read and you might say, easily digestable. For most of us, trying to estimate calories is more hassle than it is worth. What we need are some good strategies. EatThis.com offers an email newsletter to which I subscribed. Most days I get a colorful email where they offer some particular advice, and warn you about a particular toxic food while providing a healthier alternative. The articles are often packed with useful information. For example, most of us are unaware that blueberries are both oh so healthy (stuffed with antioxidants) and great brain food. Perhaps I should encourage my students to have a cup of blueberries before their test on Saturday.

EatThis.com, in addition to publishing some handy books of their own that I find useful and fun to browse, also attempts to rate restaurants. Unfortunately, it does not keep a comprehensive and up to date list of all items on all popular restaurants, but it can help you make informed choices. It also rates chain restaurants based on how nutritious their food is and how well they help you make informed dietary choices. Browsing the Restaurant and Grocery tabs on their web pages, or simply using their search engine, could easily save you thousands of unneeded calories a year. I often learn things I did not expect. For example, did you know a cup of Wendy’s chili is reasonably healthy and high in fiber? The site also includes areas for kids, great swaps for various kinds of food that are less caloric and healthier but taste just as good, as well as extensive articles and tips that help you navigate the caloric landmines all around us.

I look forward to reading their near daily emails, and frequently follow the links to the articles of interest. Slowly I am becoming an informed eater. While the news is mostly unsettling (it is amazing the extent to which restaurants go to make us obese), it is also hopeful and full of pragmatic advice.

Until we get some common sense restaurant labeling laws, your health may depend on regularly reading sites like these.

Do you have a better web site to recommend? If so please leave a comment.

Real Life 101, Lesson 11: The skinny on nutrition

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the eleventh in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

An indigent and obese friend of my wife tonight sits critically ill in a hospital in Lanchester County, Pennsylvania, her abdomen a mass of bloated polyps and at least one large tumor. She has had one surgery already that removed many of them and is scheduled for another shortly, however her prognosis for a full recovery is almost nonexistent. She is in her fifties. What is unstated, but is quite possible, is that she is dying. With so many masses in her abdomen, the chance that one of them is malignant is very high.

I have met her only twice. While a nice person, she appears to have spent a lifetime treating her body with contempt. Between her regular smoking (which she only recently she gave up) and the voluminous crap she has been eating over the years, she passively chose the miserable experience that she is now enduring. (Yes, I am aware obesity is a disease like alcoholism. It required treatment that it appears she either could not afford or refused.) She also chose the substandard life she has lived these many years because the result was she became officially disabled and is hobbled by her obesity. Her joints often hurt. She is rarely mobile enough to even take a shower, and she is able to move only with great effort. She is morbidly obese.

When she visited us recently, she asked her partner to make a run through the local Burger King drive thru. I do not know whether her partner indulged her or not, but it is clear that to her junk food has the lure of a narcotic. Like too many of us overweight and obese Americans, she is addicted to stuff that seems destined to kill her prematurely.

I hope all that food and nicotine that she enjoyed earlier in her life is worth the pain, misery, inconvenience and heartache that she is now experiencing and has been experiencing for probably at least a decade. What is clear is that she allowed these forces to control her, rather than the other way around. Had she embraced other choices earlier in her life she might have a couple more quality decades of a life ahead of her. She might have the time to watch her young granddaughter, who she dotes on, graduate college. She may also have enjoyed much more the last few decades instead of being hobbled by the consequences of these addictions.

Particularly in your younger years, the consequences of eating pizza, drinking sugar-rich beers and sodas, and smoking are fully reversible. As you age, the effect of these choices takes an increasingly larger toll on your body. The probability of gaining control over these demons lessens too with age.

Many young adults reach maturity with little to no training on nutrition. Maybe they studied the USDA food pyramid in class, but it is unlikely they received the coaching to use it effectively. The more I learn about nutrition in my middle years, the more I understand how complex it is. What is clear is that temptations abound, and the unhealthy food is artificially cheap. Paradoxically, the healthy food is increasingly more expensive.

How do young adults in particular navigate the complex issue of basic nutrition, particularly when their forebrain tells them they should eat healthy but their emotional side has them craving a processed food diet? Perhaps it starts with some understanding of what nutrition is. Based on younger adults in my own family who shall remain nameless, I don’t think most teenagers and young adults really understand. On one level, they may understand there are “bad foods” and that they tend to be the ones they want. They may also infer that “good foods” are boring and not very tasty.

The essence of nutrition is readily understandable. It is about giving your body the food it needs to operate optimally. It is also about giving your body the right amount of food so that you can maintain a healthy weight. The good thing about eating nutritious food is that it tends to naturally correct the desire to overeat. Conversely, one of the many bad things about unhealthy food is that it tends to make you want to eat more of it. You can enjoy an apple. Will a tasty apple make you reach for a second? Perhaps. Will one slice of pizza be enough? Probably not.

What is the difference? Aside from the ingredients in an apple, which are either benign or healthy, and a pizza, which is overloaded with saturated fats and quickly absorbed carbohydrates, an apple has two important attributes. First, it is not calorie dense, which means there are fewer calories for the same volume of food compared with a pizza. An apple also is rich in something called dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is simply benign non-food, or bulk if you will. It has zero calories because it is not absorbed; it just passes through you. While it does not go to your waist, dietary fiber is also good because roughage helps keep you regular and reduces your chances of colon cancer.

If an apple were a candle, it would burn slow and steady. A pizza is more like a fuse. It burns brightly and quickly. Because a pizza’s carbohydrates and fat are readily absorbed (they are rather simple), the excess is not needed by the body, so it tends to get stored instead. In addition, since the carbohydrates are quickly absorbed, your blood sugar will spike and then drop like a rock, and you will feel hungrier. You get a double whammy and unsurprisingly your waistline is likely to expand.

Nutritious food is also often loaded with natural vitamins and minerals. Many fast or processed foods are enriched with vitamins. Does this make them healthy? No, these foods are no healthier than eating a wheat donut is healthy. In other words, these processed foods still have virtually all the bad stuff, and the manufacturers are hoping to convince you that by adding vitamins and minerals it has morphed itself into something healthy. It’s still junk.

If you are overweight or obese, you might think that exercise will take off the pounds even if you keep eating the same fast and processed foods you are used to eating. Yet, most people who try this strategy fail. Why? Because exercise also depletes the body’s immediate stores of energy, i.e. your blood sugar. Your body will try to make up the difference by burning fat, but it will also send a strong signal to your brain: feed me. Exercise is still good, but you need to do it smartly. Eat a small snack with slow burning carbohydrates before and after exercise instead, this way you will not feel so hungry. While exercise has many healthy aspects to it, it is not a silver bullet for losing weight. In particular, if you are trying to lose weight, exercise in moderation, as too much exercise will simply drive you to eat more calories. Eating the same processed food you always ate while regularly exercising will not help your body be healthy either. Nor does exercise add any nutrition to your diet, unless you exercise outside in the sunlight and catch a little free Vitamin D. Fifteen minutes a week of sunshine (skip the sunscreen) is all you need to get your Vitamin D.

And speaking of Vitamin D, there is likelihood that you are Vitamin D deficient. Many Americans are these days. Why? Because we have become indoor denizens. Our jobs put us in cubicles. Moreover, we prefer to be tethered to our televisions and computers. Vitamin D deficiency is bad because it puts you at even greater risk of health complications, and markedly increases the chance of acquiring heart disease in particular. At any age, you should never take your health for granted. Make sure you are getting regular physicals so you can detect and correct these problems early.

Do not feel proud of yourself if you do not smoke but you do overeat. The evidence is clear: overeating and eating the wrong foods is at least as unhealthy for you as smoking. Overeating can trigger cancers, just like smoking. You are unlikely to die from heart disease because of smoking, however you can die of either cancer or heart disease because of poor eating habits and overeating. If I had to choose between the two habits, I would take up smoking, as disagreeable as the idea is to me.

How do you learn new habits that will last a lifetime? There are plenty of programs out there but if I had to pick one, I would choose Weight Watchers, for reasons I document here. Need more help? Try this site and buy a couple of their books, which are widely available. I think you will find them quite insightful.

Please, think carefully about what you put into your mouth, why you really do it and the long-term consequences of sticking with your habit. It may be too late for my wife’s friend, but your life is just unfolding. Do not eat yourself into an early grave.

A Republican worth memorializing

The Thinker by Rodin

No question about it. Republicans are in the doghouse, for reasons I outlined recently. Even prominent Republicans like Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security, who could probably wrest the Pennsylvania senate seat from new “Democrat” Arlen Specter, prefer to just so no. The brand is badly tarnished. You have to look hard to find Republicans worthy of admiration.

You might expect that if I were to memorialize a Republican, I would memorialize former New York state representative and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who passed away recently. There is no question that Kemp had a distinguished career, which included being Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 election. Kemp was certainly a decent man but I will let others memorialize Kemp. Instead, I wish to draw your attention to Robert B. Choate Jr., who passed away on May 3, 2009 at the age of 84. Choate was a Republican. Today he would no longer fit inside the much smaller tent that is today’s insular Republican Party. Choate was more of the Rockefeller type of Republican, a wing that has virtually been purged from the Republican Party.

Choate inherited most of his wealth from his father, who published a newspaper. In spite of being a Republican, he was a progressive in the best sense of the word. In the 1950s while traveling overseas, he contracted hepatitis. During his convalescence, he read the memoirs of civil rights leader Walter White. The book transformed Choate’s life. Through the memoir, Choate learned just how horrible poverty actually was. He vowed to do his part to reduce poverty. He was a major force in Washington for the hunger lobby and worked closely with organizations like Citizens Crusade Against Poverty. Because of his Republican credentials, during Richard Nixon’s term in office, he was appointed to work with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There he led a groundbreaking study child nutrition in America.

What he discovered appalled him. In many cases, he learned that children had enough calories, but lacked basic nutrition. He quickly focused on breakfast cereals. He discovered that most breakfast cereals had plenty of sugar but little in the way of the nutrition required by a growing body. Today’s Republicans would leave this as a problem for the free market to solve or ignore. Instead, in 1970 Choate directly took on the nation’s cereal manufacturers. Choate coined the term “empty calories”, which defined foods high in calories but with little nutrition. Of the sixty cereals he studied, he found 40 of them were full of empty calories.

The cereal industry protested, but his doggedness was effective. Within years, cereal manufacturers added nutritional labels to their cereals. Today we take food labeling for granted. Yet without Choate at the vanguard, we might still be ignorant of the calories and lack of nutrition in the many packaged products that we eat.

Call him Mr. “Empty Calories”. His term has stuck with us these last forty years. It is almost impossible to discuss nutrition in America today without using the phrase. America is clearly in the grip of an obesity epidemic but thanks to Choate, we at least know why. Essentially, we are eating a lot of crap that our body doesn’t need. Moreover, because the food we eat tastes good but does not fill us up, we want to eat more of it, which means that our waistlines keep expanding.

Americans at last are starting to heed the advice that Choate promulgated nearly forty years ago. In the last decade, we have seen an explosion of supermarkets emphasizing organic foods high in nutrition and taste. While it is easier to find nutritional information for groceries, for the most part we do not have the same information about the food we eat in restaurants. I suspect if Choate were alive today that he would be pressing Congress to have restaurants disclose the nutritional information of their dishes.

Choate, a mere citizen activist, transformed America. Americans today live longer lives, but in many ways due to our poor eating and exercise habits, our quality of life has deteriorated. I am hoping I will be one of those Americans that take Choate’s advice to heart. For many of us who do, we can look forward to long and healthy lives, giving us many decades of an extended quality life to enjoy.

Many people are concerned about choosing life, but fewer are concerned ensuring our quality of life. For that, we can thank Robert B. Choate.

Eating out is hazardous to your health

The Thinker by Rodin

Since I started my diet in late January, I have lost 16 pounds. That’s good for me, of course. My blood pressure is now about normal. I hope that in three months when I am retested my cholesterol will be within normal ranges again too.

16 pounds amounts to about 7 percent of my weight. As you might expect, my diet has changed. Not only do I consume fewer calories than I used too, the portion of my calories from fat and processed foods has nosedived, and the amount of fiber in my diet has gone way up. Perhaps because of my own dieting adventure, I am also watching the eating habits of others. For most, their habits appear to be a lot like mine were at the beginning of the year. I too was largely mindless of the total calories and fat I was consuming.

A certain loved one of mine complains of lower back pains and of feeling tired all the time. Now it all makes sense. I would be tired too if someone gave me a heavy backpack to wear every day, which is in effect what happens if you are obese. Your body, designed to support a certain weight, is now hefting many more pounds everywhere it goes. Your spine carries most of your weight so it doesn’t surprise me it would manifest itself in lower back pain. If I were obese I would probably be complaining of back pain pretty much every day of the week.

My latest excursion in dieting has made me realize that we are all literally what we eat. Not only do we gain weight by what we eat, what we eat perturbs our body in many ways that are not obvious. If your body were a car, would you put high-test gasoline in the engine, run with a quart of oil in the engine and drive around with 10 psi of tire pressure in each tire? If you did your car, which is designed for 200,000 miles, would be lucky to make it to 100,000 miles. Yet many of us Americans are doing just this with our bodies. The result is predictable: we are throwing a wrench into our innards. The result: obesity, lots of aches and complaints, higher health costs and for many ultimately a shorter lifespan.

Now when I look at a slice of pizza, the shiny fat glistening on its surface is like a neon warning sign. I think to myself, “If I eat this, most of this fat will not be burned but will quickly get stored in my fat cells. The more fat I eat, the more I will weigh. Moreover, some of these fat cells will be converted into cholesterol, and some of it will stick to the walls of my arteries and veins. This could result in all sorts of problems, including heart attack and stroke.”

I am now also vigilant of just how calorie-dense modern American food is. Restaurants go out of their way to add (and hide) fat, calories and sugar. This is easy to understand: we will enjoy the food more if it is tasty, and if it is tasty and satisfying, we will want to revisit the restaurant. You would think a restaurant salad as an entrée would be a safe bet, right? Wrong. My daughter and I recently had dinner at Champps, a sports bar. The BBQ Chopped Salad with Chicken, which I had for dinner, is 742 calories. (Ostensibly, it consists of two servings but of course, it comes out as one salad.) It was a good salad but it amounted to about a third of my daily calories. Moreover, it was loaded with over 40 grams of fat.

The salad though was one of the healthiest dishes on the Champps menu. Have a craving for the Champps Cheese Burger? Supposedly, it serves two, but it does not come out sliced in half. If you eat the whole cheeseburger, it is 1162 calories with 78 grams of fat. Doubtless, the fries that come with the entrée were at least five hundred more calories. Hankering for their Cajun Shrimp Penne? It has 1322 calories and 73 grams of fat. Want a steak? The New York Strip is almost something of a health food, as it is only 1008 calories. However, if you are a woman that one steak is probably more than half your daily calories. Naturally, none of this information is actually printed on the menu. You have to dig it out from their website.

I suspect the human body does pretty well in adjusting to variations in diet. In the past, we would exercise off the calories through activities like hunting deer or tilling soil. Today, we have oriented our lives to minimize exercise. Why walk if you have a car? Why work in a hot and sweaty field for little money when you can sit in an air-conditioned cubicle and make much more? Today these choices catch up with us. They are manifested in many overweight or obese people in symptoms like excessive tiredness, listlessness and lower back pains. In my case, perhaps because I exercise regularly, they were manifested in high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which generally go unnoticed unless you look for them.

You are what you eat but who you are is a result of what your parents ate. This link goes on back until the dawn of time. Your particular chromosomes are a result of natural selection, and natural selection includes the eating choices of past generations. If you are childless but planning to be a mother, you are shaping the destiny of your children by your eating choices. If you are an overweight woman, you are more likely to give birth to a child who will grow up overweight. Moreover, that child is more likely to have more health issues than children born to healthy mothers who are of normal weight. Dads, you don’t escape either. You provide the sperm and the quality of your sperm is affected by your diet and exercise. Whether you even father a child may be a consequence of your weight. Studies show that obese men and women have a lower sex drive than people of normal weight, which is likely a result of many of them having adult diabetes. Aside from the listlessness that often accompanies obesity, obesity also tends to make you less attractive, making intercourse less likely.

There are no Surgeon General warnings on restaurant menus, like there are on cigarettes. There should be. As a public service our next surgeon general could insist that restaurant menus come with warnings like this: Warning: the surgeon general has determined that most of the entrees in this restaurant are dangerous to your health. Some restaurants have little icons to indicate items that are relatively healthy, i.e. low in calories and fat. Perhaps there should be easily understood icons next to each entrée. Perhaps a scull and crossbones would do the trick for entrees that are high in calories or fat. As a start, simply putting the number of calories, fat and dietary fiber per serving for all items on menus would be helpful.

I know now that eating out can be dangerous to your future you. So I eat out less and try to research restaurants before I got there to find entrees that are relatively healthy. Often there are no healthy entrees on the menu. Sometimes you can convert an entrée to something healthier by asking it to be cooked or served differently. For example, a baked potato is healthy, if you skip the sour cream. Eating the potato skin adds important nutrition. Restaurants could actually increase business if they emphasized their healthy entrees. A small Wendy’s chili, for example, is 190 calories and has 6 grams of fat and 5 grams of dietary fiber (doubtless from the beans). Almost everything Panera Bread serves is unhealthy, but their Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean soup is delicious and has 250 calories, 9 grams of fiber and just 2 grams of fat.

The reality is you must be a very careful shopper if you wish to avoid packing on the calories. My guess is that four out of five products served in our modern supermarkets would not qualify as healthy food and that includes many of the products with “reduced fat” on them. If you care about your health, extreme vigilance is required.

I hope with our new administration and congress we will see new progressive legislation so Americans can easily make informed choices on restaurant eating. I bet the restaurant industry would adopt. McDonalds is trying, although their menu is still rife with calories and grease. Not only should all restaurant menus be labeled with their calorie and fat content, each restaurant menu should include a simple weight chart indicating the recommended daily calorie and fat allowances for men and women of various ages and weights. Except in a few cities and states, right now we diners have the odds stacked against us.

Save a human life and eat less meat

The Thinker by Rodin

Rising food and gas prices have been much on my mind lately. Unlike many Americans, rising gas prices do not bother me that much. I feel like we have been getting discount rates for gasoline for far too long. The effect has been counterproductive, encouraging urban sprawl and environmental degradation. I would like to see gas taxes raised to encourage conservation and to fund research into clean transportation solutions. It sure will not happen if we suspend federal gasoline taxes, a harebrained proposal that was endorsed by both presidential contenders John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

Rising food prices though do bother me. As I am one of the more economically fortunate Americans, I am not personally put out much by the rising cost of food. However, I do know that rising food prices are affecting many Americans. It has reached the point where some are going hungry who never went hungry before. Community food banks are running low, affected by both increased demand and fewer contributions. The drop in donations is due in part to the rising cost of food.

Cross our borders and the rising cost of food is not a minor cause for concern, but a major problem. In some poorer countries, it has morphed into full-blown crises. In Mexico, the cost of maize has increased 30% since the start of the year, making the simple corn tortilla almost a luxury item, and beyond the budget of many of Mexico’s poorest. Food riots in Haiti last month forced a change in government. The Washington Post documented the malnutrition and starvation occurring now in Mauritania, one of many poor countries with this problem. In Egypt, ten people died recently in fights in bread lines. The Philippines, which imports much of the rice it needs to feed its burgeoning population, is finding the supply of foreign rice scarce. What rice is available is far more expensive and unaffordable to many. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the rising price of food a global crisis.

What is driving up the cost of food? As you may know, there are two primary factors. One is that more of the world is becoming industrialized. With more money in their pockets, these newly emboldened consumers are consuming more food. Principally they are eating a lot more meat. In addition, rising oil prices are “fueling” the growth of renewable energy sources like ethanol. Biofuels that come from food sources mean that there is less food on the market to be consumed, which is contributes to the fast rising price of food. If these factors were not enough, rising oil prices are also contributing to the increased cost of growing food. It costs more for the gasoline to till the soil, plant and harvest crops. It also costs more to transport crops to market.

There may have been times in our past when food prices were this high, but I cannot recall them. In my memory, American farms have always produced far more food than could be consumed. Billions of metric tons are still shipped overseas to feed a growing world. The U.S. remains the world’s biggest food exporter, but that is changing. Now, with 6.5 billion humans across the world to feed even our surplus is not quite enough. Moreover, world demand for petroleum seems unstoppable. It appears that the world is in for a turbulent and hungry period, with hundreds of millions if not billions of people at risk of malnutrition or starvation.

I know that I will survive largely unaffected. I have the income to weather any food or energy crisis. Yet, my lifestyle also has the indirect effect of causing other people to go hungry. When I fill my gas tank with 5% ethanol, I am encouraging this industry. If people are going hungry, I would rather pay higher prices for gas without ethanol in it. I would prefer to divert these crops into food for consumption by my fellow human beings. If we are going to make the choice to use renewable fuels, then we must make sure these crops go to feed hungry people first. I have no problem with using open space that is currently not being farmed to grow non-food crops like switchgrass that can be made into renewal fuels. However, the lives of hungry people must first. If we need to expand food production in order to keep people from starving, we should choose this over cultivating crops for biofuels.

In addition, we in the developed world need to rethink our addiction to meat. I mentioned in an earlier post that vegetarianism is good for the planet. It is not only good for the planet; it is good for anyone who values human lives. The majority of corn and soy grown in our country goes not to feed humans, but animals, who we then slaughter for their meat. According to this New York Times story, it takes two to five times as much grain calories to fatten livestock for slaughter compared to humans consuming the grain directly. In the case of cattle on feedlots, the ratio goes as high as ten to one. While we need protein to survive, Americans typically consume about twice as much protein as they need. The protein we do need can just as easily come from plant sources as from meats. Despite high grain prices, grains are much cheaper per calorie than meat.

I do not plan to give up meat altogether, but I do feel the ethical imperative to start consuming less meat. My steaks, which are already rare treats, will be fewer and smaller. I plan to go without meat one day a week for a start, and then see if I can make it two days a week. Perhaps I can take some wisdom from my daughter, who eats comparatively little meat, but consumes plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There is ample protein in peanut butter, and it is loaded with the good kinds of unsaturated fats, not the bad ones. If I feel the need to consume an animal product, an egg or a slice of cheese is a better ethical choice.

Now I am more aware that by driving down the demand for meat, I am helping animals of all species. However, most importantly I am helping my fellow human beings survive. It is not much, but it is a start.

The sinful lure of dark chocolate

The Thinker by Rodin

Surely, chocolate is the work of the devil, since a taste so divine is too good for us mortal and sinful human beings. I can go a day without chocolate, but I do not like to. I figure as long as I am abstaining from so many of life’s other vices, such as whoring, drunkenness, gluttony, smoking, snorting cocaine and voting Republican I am entitled to one modest little sin: chocolate. Were I a good Catholic I would feel obliged to report my sinful behavior to my priest because frankly, there is not much else to report. I would have to hope that penance did not consist of a week of chocolate withdrawal. All I can say is that for this lapsed Catholic of more than thirty years, all the Pope has to do is require priests to distribute chocolate communion wafers and I’d go back to Mother Church in a heartbeat. I’d be humming “Nearer my God to Thee” on my way to the communion rail.

A sinful delight, Dark chocolate M&Ms

Chocolate, like most things American, has become cheapened and bastardized. I came to this realization this week here in Denver. A few times a week to satisfy my chocolate craving, I have been discreetly dropping in on the snack bar where I work. There I engaged in my sinful 240-calorie habit: a bag of Dark Chocolate M&Ms. This week though because I am on business travel I have not been able to satisfy my Dark Chocolate M&Ms Addiction. None of the vending machines carried it. So yesterday, I thought I would try those old fashioned M&Ms. You know, the ones so loaded with sugar the chocolate is almost ancillary.

What a mistake! Regular M&Ms, once my ideal way to satisfy a sudden chocolate craving, became nearly inedible. Had it really this sweet all along? How could I have ever eaten this stuff? Dark Chocolate M&Ms indicated to me that I had been selling myself short all these years. The Dark Chocolate M&Ms at eight five cents were the exact same price and size as the regular M&Ms. However, the dark chocolate M&Ms were 1000% tastier.

People on the continent have understood for centuries that dark chocolate is the real chocolate. The overly sweetened stuff served to us in our candy bars is more sugar than it is chocolate. In short, it is inferior. For years, I ate the sweetened applesauces. Then one day I tried the unsweetened version and discovered that I could actually taste the apples. I never went back.

That is the way it now must be with chocolate. Chocolate is too rich an experience to cheapen it by loading it with excessive sweeteners. The real prize is the chocolate flavor itself. Admittedly, real unadulterated chocolate such as used in baking is inedible to most of us. However, by sweetening chocolate just a bit, so it is semi-sweetened, you can appreciate chocolate without having to deal with its bitter natural taste.

Allegedly, dark chocolate is something of a health food. Like any candy, it should be consumed in extreme moderation. Nevertheless, I feel better knowing that consumed in moderation it may have a few health benefits. It can lower blood pressure. Since I do not have a blood pressure problem, this is probably not a reason to consume it. Yet it can also be an antioxidant, providing it was manufactured without milk. What is dark chocolate’s secret? It is something called cocoa phenols, which is a compound known to lower blood pressure.

As best as I can tell, Dark Chocolate M&Ms do not have any dairy products mixed with them. However, even if it had no health benefits, it does not matter. It is by far the best brand of M&Ms on the market. It is inspiring me to try a host of other dark chocolates, both foreign and domestic. With less sugar in it than regular M&Ms, it is also less likely that I will feel the need to consume more chocolate.

Whatever. I predict that within a few years Dark Chocolate M&Ms will overtake regular M&Ms in overall sales. America will discover that it prefers the chocolate to the sweeteners and the added milk.

It is amazing how much more endurable my life has become because I indulge in a few small bags of Dark Chocolate M&Ms over the course of a week. I have discovered I can endure a lot of crap in my life for the compensation of the taste of this ambrosia. Lord, I am not worthy to receive this elixir, but if you cut down all our chocolate trees, I’ll come after your head.

The Wegmans Effect

The Thinker by Rodin

Last year I wrote about the Wegmans grocery chain, which opened two stores within ten miles of me. Shopping at Wegmans, a grocery chain that is just now starting to expand out of its northeastern roots was a real eye opener. Mainly, I had not realized that I had settled for grocery mediocrity for so long.

We continue to visit Wegmans regularly, even though it is hardly our closest grocery store. No other grocer in our area comes close to delivering its variety of products. The quality of its store brands often exceeds those of the national brands. For example, their Country Wheat bread is a staple in our house. My wife will only reluctantly eat something else. Since I do not necessarily visit Wegmans once a week, when I do go I make sure to stock up on their Country Wheat bread. I typically buy a half a dozen loaves at a time, much of which ends up in our freezer. In addition to superior store brands like their excellent strawberry jam, their meat, much of it served by actual butchers from behind a butcher counter, is truly a cut above the competition. Add their excellent store layout, their friendly clerks always happy to serve you, their bountiful and fresh produce, their in store food courts (which amounts to being a restaurant in a store) and the fact that they actually pay their employees a living wage then Wegmans is your logical grocery shopping destination. It seems counterintuitive that their prices should be competitive with the discount grocers, but they are.

In the Washington metropolitan area where I live, communities are clamoring Wegmans to open stores near them. Largo, Maryland recently became the first predominantly African American community to get a Wegmans. (It presumably got this honor because it is likely also the most prosperous African American community in the country.) Baltimore wants a store. Frederick, Maryland wants one too. In addition, rich, upscale Montgomery County Maryland has been petitioning Wegmans for a store too. Why, they wonder, does Fairfax County, Virginia across the Potomac River get one and we have none?

As for the rest of the grocery business, they are belatedly playing catch up. With a few exceptions, traditional grocery stores are trying to turn themselves into something that resembles Wegmans. Our local Giant Food was one of the first to sense they needed to look like Wegmans. They apparently convinced the owners of their shopping center to move the renters next to them somewhere else. The wall came down and the store was expanded and remodeled. Now our local Giant bears a more than passing resemblance to a Wegmans. (The Giant also has a Starbucks inside, even though there is a Starbucks literally less than a hundred feet away in the same shopping center.)

I really knew that the times were really a changin’ when the Wegmans effect struck our local Food Lion. Food Lion is perhaps the stodgiest grocery brand out there and its least exciting. The Food Lion in our prosperous neighborhood always seemed out of place, as demonstrated by their parking lots that never came close to being full. Over the course of a couple months, the Food Lion turned into a Bloom. Bloom is apparently Food Lion’s new and trendier grocery store designed for higher income areas. There is however a wee problem. It is only about one-third the size of a Wegmans. Even after all that remodeling it still feels like a Food Lion. They have more of the gourmet foods but its harsh industrial fluorescent lighting remains. Moreover, rather than having a customer friendly staff like you expect at Wegmans, they staff it with mostly minimum wage high school kids. No wonder I cannot stop calling it Food Lion. Bloom is merely putting lipstick on the Food Lion pig.

Change is also coming to the discount grocer Shoppers Food Warehouse. Apparently, its management concluded that its stores, in addition to having such limited selection (which is presumably how they keep their prices low) are seriously ugly. The result is an improvement but it too is no Wegmans. Shoppers Food Warehouse is now where Giant was before it upgraded its stores.

Other smaller and newer grocers seem less affected. Wegmans may have studied Whole Foods or visa versa because their layouts seem similar. I found a Whole Foods in Denver that was so huge it was nearly indistinguishable from a Wegmans. Out here in the Washington metropolitan area, the Whole Foods stores tend to be smaller. Trader Joes continues to market itself as a less expensive version of Whole Foods, emphasizing natural foods but with a more limited selection.

Will all this catch up help these traditional grocers retain their customers? It remains to be seen if this will be the case. Many of us will always prefer convenience to variety. A Wegmans requires a lot of real estate, so they tend to build in emerging upscale communities. I doubt the District of Columbia residents will ever see a Wegmans even though if any community needs a top-notch grocery chain, DC does. Many of its residents depend on substandard produce from liquor stores.

It is clear who is leading the grocery business and who is following. Wegmans is a leader. It is a shame they expand so slowly, but it may be for the best. It could be impossible for Wegmans to replicate its success across the country too quickly. In any event, if you are fortunate enough to get a Wegmans in your community, you will be wondering why you put up with substandard grocers all these years.

Kashi: It’s what I am eating for breakfast

The Thinker by Rodin

First, a disclaimer. This is an honest product endorsement. I was neither solicited nor compensated for this review. In addition, as you can see by browsing through my blog, I am not one of these paid corporate or candidate bloggers. I speak my mind free of any overt external influences. Except from some spare change from Google Adsense revenue, which, at best, just pays my hosting costs, I do not make a dime off this blog.

I am not one of those whole food types. I do not go out of my way to eat organic or “natural

Competitive Eating: I Want to Throw Up

The Thinker by Rodin

In the perfect world, certain sports would be everywhere illegal. Humanity would have fully ascended out of the primordial muck from which we evolved. We would have reached some sort of dignified plateau. Bullfighting would be banned not just for being cruel and inhumane to the bull, but also because no decent human being would want to see it. By implication, the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, to be held in a few days on July 7th, would also be outlawed. I personally find boxing very offensive. I hope in time that more of my fellow citizens will share my view and outlaw it within the United States. We should not encourage people to beat up on other people for money. From reading The Washington Post, I recently learned of this web site. On it, you can watch people inspired by the movie Fight Club beat up each other. It strikes me as odd that while we can get so upset by hardcore pornography, few of us have problems with the pervasive violence in our sports, movies and now online.

Alas, we are also a nation that believes in liberty. Although we have laws that put many things consenting adults do off limits, or make them at least heavily restricted (gambling comes to mind) we tolerate and even enthusiastically support sports like boxing that should have us feeling queasy in the stomach. I know I felt queasy in the stomach today watching a competitive eating event today on ESPN.

In competitive eating contests (incase you are unfamiliar with the “sport”) participants compete to try to ingest the largest amount of a particular type of food in a limited amount of time. Today Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, age 27, devoured 53 and 3/4 hot dogs in twelve minutes. In doing so, he won a competitive eating event on Coney Island sponsored by the hot dog manufacturer Nathan’s. Incidentally, this was a new record for him, but it was not the first time he won this event. He last won it two years ago, but this year he also managed to consume ¼ more of a hot dog for a new personal record. Woo hoo!

53 and 3/4 hot dogs consumed in 12 minutes. That is about four and a half hot dogs per minute, or one hot dog every 13-14 seconds. I would guess that you would need hyperactive salivary glands to compete “professionally” in this sport. I have to assume these competitive eaters do not do this every day, because Mr. Kobayashi is only 160 pounds. I do not know how long this “sport” has been in existence, but I fear for the health of those who engage in it. Do they put mustard and catsup on those hot dogs? I am not sure how many calories are in a Nathan’s hot dog, but a typical hot dog has 240 calories and 15 grams of fat. Many hot dogs are also loaded with salt and other nasty chemicals. A hot dog bun contains 80-110 calories. Each contestant has to consume the hot dog and the bun. Figure 100 calories per bun and we have 18,275 calories that were consumed by Mr. Kobayashi in 12 minutes. Along with those calories, add in about 806 grams of fat. To put it another way, in 12 minutes he consumed 1.8 pounds of fat alone.

I sure hope most of these calories are not absorbed and instead are passed out by the body. I do not think I would want to share a restroom with one of these competitive eaters for several days after the event, that is for sure. However, it is hard for me to imagine that anyone can put that much food into body in such a short time and not cause risk major complications. Assuming you do not throw much of it up after the event (which in itself sounds dangerous), how on earth is your digestive system supposed to digest that much food? How much bile and insulin can the body create to consume one meal? Maybe I don’t want to know the answer.

Ironically, I watched this event on television while at the health club today. Yes, the Gold’s Gym where I work out has many televisions to distract us. We burn off calories on the various elliptical, walking, running and stair climbing machines while staring at whatever is on the TV. Once on a machine though you are a bit loathe to move off an on to another machine because you don’t like the show on the television in front of you. So there I was watching ESPN, expecting to see some muscles vigorously exercised by athletes in top form. Instead, I watched a competitive eating event. Perhaps in this sport you develop amazing biceps from moving all that food into your mouth in such a short period.

All I know is that after a minute or so I had to look away. I just could not take it anymore. I was feeling sick. I am not one of these people who believe that pornography is obscene, but I witnessed obscenity today on ESPN. They call it entertainment and a sport, but in reality, it was just sickening and nauseating to watch. I realize Nathan’s is in the business to make money and events like this help their bottom line, but is it absolutely necessary for the company to sponsor an event like this? Suddenly I have new respect for Oscar Meyer unless, of course, they are engaged in sponsoring their own competitive eating events. I do not recall if I ever ate a Nathan’s Hot Dog. I do not care how terrific they may taste. I do know that from now on I will avoid them as long as they are sponsoring “sports” like this. I think they should be ashamed of themselves. In addition, ESPN should be ashamed to broadcast a sport like this. What is next, a competitive eating event where contestants try to down the largest number of Tim Horton doughnuts in twelve minutes? (Homer Simpson, I am sure, would want to participate.) Should we expect medals for competitive eating at future Olympics?

At the very least, these contests are exercises in bad taste. At their worst they promote a practice that is likely quite dangerous and should not be encouraged. If, in order to be the land of liberty, we have to allow competitive eating contests, can we at least do it somewhere away from the cameras?

Since it is the Fourth of July, hot dogs are what’s for dinner in our house tonight. They do not look quite so appetizing to me now. Fortunately, they are Hebrew National.