Warning: sugar is hazardous to your health (and may cause cancer)

I predict a day, perhaps twenty years from now, when you will go to the store to pick up a pound of sugar, or a box of Twinkies, or a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough. These products will be kept in a walled off area of the store, inaccessible to those under eighteen. Each product will have on the package a familiar looking message similar to this:

Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that the sugar in this product is a drug, may shorten your lifespan and may give you cancer.

Admit it, you were stuffing your face with M&M’s as you read this. If so, you are not alone. Americans, and increasingly the world at large, are sugar addicts. What’s new is that research is showing that sugar is addictive and can cause cancer. Naturally, you won’t be hearing any of this from the sugar industry. The Sugar Association assures us that sugar is sweet by nature and thus by implication wholly benign.

Hate to tell you this, Sugar Association, but tobacco is also a hundred percent natural, as are fermented beverages and for that matter uranium, ozone and ultraviolet radiation. Unlike a cigarette, eating a package of Ho-Hos won’t have people around you rushing for the exit. Smoking one cigarette won’t kill you. Eating one Oreo cookie a day probably won’t make you obese either, and your liver and pancreas will take it in stride. But just as smoking one cigarette a day is likely to have you smoking a pack a day before long, one Oreo will probably have you reaching for another. Unsurprising, this is because Oreos taste good. More specifically, the Oreo will make you feel briefly like Popeye. You will feel full of energy until, shortly thereafter, your sugar high abruptly crashes, which is when you will likely find yourself hoofing it to the vending machine for some more crack, er, sugar.

Most Americans who have looked around them would not have too much trouble believing that sugar and sugar-based products are contributing to obesity and the complications that come with it: principally diabetes and heart disease. But most would probably argue that I am going too far by calling sugar a drug and highly addictive. They will argue that even if it is addictive, it’s not a drug because it doesn’t really do anything bad to you, at least not right away. And you can always stop. If you do stop then you won’t feel its craving, at least not the way an alcoholic feels the craving for a drink or an ex-smoker feels the lure of nicotine.

Most likely your own experience belies this. There is a reason most diets do not succeed in the long run. It is because we crave what we cannot have, principally sugar and the sugar high we get from it. Moreover, we grew up thinking there was nothing wrong with sugar. It held no social stigma. That certainly happened to me. We got our dose of sugar daily during dessert, after my mother made sure we had eaten all our healthy food. I grew to anticipate dessert (usually yellow cakes with chocolate frosting, because it was my father’s favorite) the same way a dog anticipates his daily can of Alpo. Yes, I am a sugar addict too. Only now though am I realizing that sugar is basically a drug.

This suspicion gained more credence with the referenced New York Times article that my brother forwarded to me. Doubtless if it gets any traction the Sugar Association will be all over it. Unsurprisingly, Republicans want nothing to interfere with our sugar addiction. Among other things, they want to repeal mandates that restaurants of a certain size publish the calorie and fat content on its menus, one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Informed consent equates to Big Brother-ism and is anti-freedom, or something like that.

Nevertheless, you should read the New York Times article and ponder its implications for you and your family. I cannot say that I like them, but our obesity epidemic is hardly news. Only a fool would not agree that sugar is a major contributor to the problem. What the article makes clear though is the effect of sugar, not just on our weight, but the profound physical changes it makes to organs that you cannot live without, like your liver and pancreas. The article talks about native Inuits, who traditionally did not have sugar in their diet and now do, and now suffer from maladies like breast cancer that were previously virtually unknown. The effect of sugars on the pancreas is well known: pancreatic fatigue occurs, as the pancreas simply cannot generate enough insulin to keep up with the intake of sugar. This of course leads to adult diabetes. The effects of the bad kinds of sugar (principally fructose-based products, but really anything that is not glucose) on the liver are less well known. And like with giving up smoking, by simply removing sugar from your diet these problems can largely go away.

This is an easy solution, of course, but hard to do in practice. Why? Because sugary products are addictive, just like cigarettes, boozes and various other vices are. Yet there is insufficient political will to elevate it to the status of an addictive drug. The evidence suggests that younger generations of Americans will live shorter lives than their elders. How can this be if they are smoking and drinking less than their elders? It’s largely a result of the consumption of sugar, and the many problems that it brings, all of which are preventable.

Perhaps it is fitting that America is the epicenter of the obesity crisis. Since we value freedom most of all, this gives us the freedom to indulge, and we do more and more. Sugar is an easy indulgence because it is so cheap and because we won’t declare it dangerous and unhealthy, which it clearly is. Instead, we discuss it around the edges. We’ll let Michele Obama build a garden at the White House. There is nothing wrong with daily doses of nutritious vegetables and regular exercise, but the unstated and real cause of obesity is our sugary junk food addiction.

I’m not sure what the best approach to deal with this problem is. I’ll leave that to scientists. But my suspicion as a sugar addict is a zero tolerance policy is probably what I really need. Which means no sugar based products at all. No breakfast rolls. No more of my beloved Dark Chocolate M&Ms. No more desserts ever, unless they are sugar free. It’s not about just eliminating high fructose corn syrup from my diet. The article makes clear that table sugar is no less unhealthy. That’s where I would like to go. I hope I can summon the will to do so. I may need a physician’s help to get there.

We might be able to reduce the problem by taxing sugar and sugar-based products the way we tax booze and cigarettes, as well as ending any sugar subsidies. Yes, there would be lots of howling, but we would also end up with a healthier populace.

Americans still believe in free lunches. Sadly, this is more evidence that there are none. We have bodies optimized for hunting and gathering, not for sitting all day and consuming large quantities of additive substances. We can live shorter and unhealthier lives by keeping doing what we are doing, or we can start eating like humans should instead.

Danger: Wal-Mart Customer!

How ugly can retail get? There are uglier chain stores out there than Wal-Mart, but not a whole lot. Perhaps a Marshalls. Or a Dollar General. Wal-Mart is likely to remain forever the epitome of the gargantuan box store. It comes replete with lots of garish florescent lighting, narrow aisles and overflowing merchandise.

As far as us shoppers, apparently, I am not the only one to notice a certain lack of standards among many of Wal-Mart customers. Way back in 2003 I wrote about Wal-Mart:

I don’t hate its customers, but they don’t appeal to me a whole lot. They make me itchy. I know I paint with a wide brush here (and I’m certainly not saying that all their customers are this way) but they seem to me to be a lot of overweight and over-hassled looking people. They seem to disproportionately represent the lower middle class. I don’t hold it against them for shopping there. If I were living from paycheck to paycheck I might be shopping there too.

It’s not that finding stylish customers is impossible at a Wal-Mart, it’s just unlikely to be someone other than Sarah Palin. Of course, most of us avoid dressing stylishly unless the occasion commands it, which Wal-Mart certainly does not. Still, a certain amount of decorum is expected anywhere you shop, isn’t it? It’s hard to find a store, except perhaps along a beach, that does not require you wear shoes and a shirt. Apparently, it was not my imagination. We really do need to add the ubiquitous Wal-Mart to this list. In pursuit of the almighty dollar, it appears that Wal-Mart will let virtually anyone in the store. I guess I have to give the company an A for being egalitarian, but frankly part of the reason I avoid Wal-Mart is because some of their customers frighten me (and I’m 6’2”). When I see some of these types on the street, I hurriedly cross over to the other sidewalk to avoid them. In a Wal-Mart, they tend to be in your face whether you like it or not.

Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer
Another fashion challenged Wal-Mart customer

The theme of PeopleofWalmart.com seems to be, “Don’t be afraid of these eccentrics; celebrate them.” Wal-Mart customers much braver than me are apparently snapping unflattering and amazing pictures of other Wal-Mart customers and putting them on this web site for us to gawk at. While I am unlikely to ever shop again at a Wal-Mart unless they start paying their employees a living wage, I can at least observe the Wal-Mart customer spectacle from the safety of my computer.

Frankly, I spend much of my time on PeopleofWalmart.com guiltily laughing. The site is hilarious as a nadir of bad fashion. I say this as someone who has almost no sense of fashion. I frequently end up wearing clothes that, in the opinion of my spouse, are mismatched or uncoordinated. So when someone with as little fashion sense as me finds himself appalled by someone else’s dress that truly says something.

On PeopleofWalmart.com you can see many examples of horrendous fashion every day. Just a couple of these photos would make Robin Givhan (the Washington Post fashion editor) go blind. Truly, in your wildest imagination, you could never dream up some of the combinations of clothes that actual people are wearing at your local Wal-Marts. Some of their clothes are so bizarre, so Technicolor and so haplessly uncoordinated that even a hippie would recoil.

See the same person wear too much clothing on one part of their body and too little on another. View guys and ladies with plumbers’ cracks big enough to insert your local telephone book.  See people wearing animal skins mixed with garish polyesters. See people wearing florescent colored clothes with pastels. See bare feet. G strings. View ladies in swimsuits that leave nothing to the imagination. See people wearing what I hope are bizarre costumes rather than their regular clothes. See people who look like five minutes earlier they were cleaning shit out of a public sewer. See people who make Swamp Thing look fashionable. How I wish I were making this stuff up, but I am not. Go see for yourself. These kinds of pictures leave me wide eyed with my mouth hung open somewhere near the floor. It is often followed shortly thereafter by bombastic laughter and tears coming out of the corner of my eyes. Could it really be that we share the same forty-six chromosomes? Just the idea is frightening.

At the same time, I feel sad by the overwhelming number of beyond morbidly obese people in these pictures, many of whom are completely happy to let it all hang out. Huge rolls of fat bulge out from jeans five sizes too small for them. See women with fat on their backs so enormous that it dwarfs their already ample bosoms and puffs out around their narrow halter-tops as if they were the Pillsbury Dough Boy. You wonder how some of these people can even walk.

Doubtless, they are disproportionately captured on digital film but the fact that they exist at all, let alone in these numbers, is appalling. The site does suggest something that may now be the norm in Wal-Mart: the obese make up a plurality, if not a majority of their customers. Granted with the majority of Americans now either overweight or obese, they may well be characteristic of the average American in the 21st century. If so, you have to ask, what are we doing to ourselves? The evidence on PeopleofWalmart.com suggests we have been actively engaged in mass gluttony of the most egregious kind.

Perhaps this is also why I cannot be found in the aisles of Wal-Mart. If I can avoid it, I don’t want to face this unpleasant truth about my fellow Americans. Wal-Mart in general and the many examples of its customers captured on PeopleofWalmart.com make me scared for my country’s future. I hope I am wrong, but America has never seemed so infirmed, so fat, so bizarre and so dysfunctional. Everything I see in and around the Wal-Marts of America tell me that America is not just off the right track, but our locomotive has careened into the river and the water is rapidly rising up to our necks. Only most of us cannot see it.

So perhaps I laugh not only because of some personal character defect but because it is the safer alternative. What I really want to do: scream in shock, horror and pain at this daily evidence of a national problem that seems too big to solve. We appear to be destroying ourselves, our country and our national character. There is plenty of evidence available at your local Wal-Mart.

A Tale of Two Cities

This post has been running around my brain for a few weeks. It is a tale of two cities. No, not Paris and London, the two cities that Charles Dickens wrote about in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. This is the tale of Tallahassee, Florida and Boulder, Colorado. I have been to both. It would be hard to find two cities where the fitness levels of its residents diverge so much.

Okay, in some ways Tallahassee and Boulder are similar. Tallahassee is the larger of the two cities and the state capital. Boulder has around 90,000 residents. Tallahassee has around 160,000 residents, but as city sizes go, they are not that dissimilar. Both are college towns. Tallahassee has two colleges of note: Florida State and Florida A&M. Boulder has the University of Colorado at Boulder. Both are in the United States, but otherwise that’s about all the similarities worth noting.

I became acquainted with Tallahassee in 2007 when life finally took me there for a few days. I even blogged about it. There are possibly other cities in or around the Gulf Coast where the residents are more obese, but it is hard to imagine such a place. Tallahassee must be something of a Mecca for endocrinologists and Glucophage manufacturers. Its population appears to consist mostly of adult diabetics in the more advanced stage of the disease. Not that its many obese residents actually appear to be treating their diabetes. First, most of them appear too poor to afford treatment outside of an emergency room. Second, where would they find the health food? The eating choices in Tallahassee seem to be largely limited to the greasiest of the greasy joints. Burger King is the most predominant grease joint in Tallahassee, but in reality, it is just one of many. Within a quarter mile in Tallahassee you can find the following greasy spoons: Dominoes, which is next to the Taco Bell, which is across the street from Moe’s Southwest Grill, which is next door to Firehouse Subs, which is adjacent to Momo’s Pizza and Shane’s Rib Rack. Across the street is a Papa John’s Pizza. A little further down the street you will find Qdobo Mexican Grill and, of course, a Burger King. If you need groceries, there is exactly one Winn Dixie on the southern and predominantly African American side of town. Winn Dixie, Circle K and Albertsons have close to a lock on the grocery business in Tallahassee. Good luck finding a Whole Foods. There are none.

If it were not for the college students, the situation would appear far worse than it is. Those out of towners help, but cannot begin to hide the extent of Tallahassee’s obesity problem. Why is obesity so bad in Tallahassee? It likely has a lot to do with the relatively low average income of citizens in the city. Thanks in part to massive farm subsidies, we have made grain and sugar artificially cheap, which means that it costs little to eat the wrong food and proportionally a lot more to eat healthy, if you can find healthy food at all. Healthy food is not easy to acquire because I paid careful attention while I was there and found nothing resembling a health food store. The culture of the city though seems to be saying, “It’s okay to be morbidly obese and to eat junk. You’re just like everyone else.” If I were a health insurance provider, I would redline the whole city.

Boulder, Colorado on the other hand is its polar opposite. If there is a healthier (and more environmentally correct) city in the country, I would like to know about it. I doubt it exists. Having spent many pleasant days in Boulder in the company of my brother and sister in law, I find much to like about Boulder. Obesity is not unknown in Boulder but it is hard to find. That is because the city’s culture seems hardwired toward healthy eating and exercise.

Fast food can be found in Boulder, but it can be challenging. There is one Wendy’s downtown close to Pearl Street. Otherwise, you have to travel to the edge of town. There are three McDonalds in the city, and a few more along its edges. If you want a supermarket, you had better prefer organic supermarkets because they are far more plentiful. There are six Whole Foods markets in Boulder alone.

Don’t move to Boulder and expect to be a couch potato. It is not allowed. I think they must have citizen organizations that hunt for couch potatoes and make them work out. Boulder takes exercise seriously; it is practically a commandment. It is not just that you live right next to the Rocky Mountains and there are abundant hiking trails within easy walking distance. In Boulder, it seems like there must be an ordinance requiring its citizens to get regular aerobic exercise. Its citizens take their obligation seriously. When I have been in Boulder during a snowstorm, my brother pointed out that plowing the roads was scattershot. However, the bike trails, which are numerous, were plowed. The residents of Boulder have their priorities and snow removal on roads is second to removing snow from its biking trails. They do not seem to mind biking in freezing weather or even in the snow. Instead, they put studs on their bike tires and peddle to their destination. Or they may snow ski. Or run. They do not seem worried about twisting an ankle by running through the snow, even on the mountain trails where a slip could be fatal. Whole families can be seen walking around neighborhoods at night just for the exercise.

My latest trip to Boulder in March suggested to me that a certain percent of Boulder residents are, well, insane. I should mention that this does not apply to my wonderful brother, his wonderful wife and her adorable daughter. They work in exercise, daily if possible and particularly on the weekends. Fifty or sixty mile weekend bike excursions are par for their course. It could be that, or snow shoeing, or hiking, or long walks or most likely of all, some combination of all of these. Frankly, I admire their healthy attitude and wish some of it would rub off on other members of my immediate family here in traffic clogged Northern Virginia.

Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of Boulderites who exercise the way addicts mainline crack. I saw some of them on the last Sunday in March when my brother drove me up to Fort Collins. I thought it was strange when in thirty-degree weather we kept passing packs of bicyclists traveling on the shoulders of major thoroughfares, at times even crowding out the vehicular traffic. We passed dozen of packs on the way to Fort Collins; some of these packs consisted of a hundred or more bicyclists. My brother told me that many were biking to Fort Collins and back, which is a nice little jaunt of a hundred miles or so.

He also told me of a neighbor who after returning from one of these marathon hundred mile plus rides quickly rushed off to the swimming pool. Why? Because he was competing in a triathlon so now he had to swim a few miles too. This probably meant he also had to run a dozen miles or so too.

Doubtless, he was but one of many Boulder residents also planning to compete in a triathlon, so I expect the swimming lanes at the local pools were congested. Good luck to them but isn’t doing this level of exercise consistently maybe just a wee bit insane? It is to me. Granted there is nothing wrong with it, if your body can handle it, and it is certainly magnitudes healthier than eating grease at the plentiful fast food joints in Tallahassee. My last trip to Boulder though convinced me that it is possible to overdo exercise. Some small but sizeable number of Boulderites have gone off the deep end.

I am considering Boulder as a place to retire. I suspect it would not take too many weeks of living in Boulder before hundred mile bike jaunts would become second nature to me too. I would hardly be unique, just one of the crowd. I do know one thing: despite some folks in Boulder who may be exercise obsessed, it is a great place to live, if you can afford its real estate prices. I would definitely rather retire to Boulder than to Tallahassee, although on my pension I could live like a king in Tallahassee. In Tallahassee, I am convinced I could gain weight just by breathing its air.

Solving the obesity crisis

I read two items in the news that are guaranteed to make obese people and the parents who raise them feel guilty. First, obese people are contributing disproportionately to global warming. Apparently, because obese people are larger, they need more calories to sustain their weight. This also translates into the need for more fuel to move them around on cars and public transportation. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, obese people on average require eighteen percent more calories than people of the same height and age of normal weight.

The second story (and to me the more frightening one) is the lead story in today’s Washington Post, Obesity Threatens a Generation. Apparently, the youth of today who are obese or even overweight have a much higher likelihood of developing chronic diseases earlier in life.

Doctors are seeing confirmation of this daily: boys and girls in elementary school suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians’ offices; even a spike in child gallstones, also once a singularly adult affliction. Minority youth are most severely affected, because so many are pushing the scales into the most dangerous territory.

I am worried not only for the children out there who are overweight but also for my own daughter. She had times in her childhood when she was technically obese. For a few years, we enrolled her in Taekwondo. During that time, she had a normal weight and was in great physical condition. Eventually chose to give up the sport to concentrate on her academics. We encouraged her to exercise but she got out of the habit.

Now that she is eighteen and is earning her own money, she has the freedom to buy whatever she wants. Apparently, our choice of junk foods is very modest, so she has begun to buy her own food. Her food choices have been discouraging. She eats what most in her generation eat: a preponderance of junk food. My wife and I have of course registered of concern, but are being careful not to overdo it. As a young adult, she has the right to make her own choices and too much nagging is likely to be counterproductive. Fortunately, her job at a bookstore provides exercise simply because associates are so often on their feet. That helps.

Obesity runs in my wife’s side of the family. I am hoping my daughter did not pick up that particular gene. Given that my wife is one of many Americans struggling with obesity, I cannot help but wonder if ten or twenty years down the line, or perhaps even sooner, my daughter will be struggling with the same issues. I hope of course that she will emulate me and eat better, and exercise regularly. Like most teenagers, she thinks she is immortal. She realizes she may have to eat better and exercise regularly someday, but for now, she chooses to ignore the issue.

As do a preponderance of our youth, apparently. I am skeptical that today’s youth will find the wherewithal to address the problem as adults. I think without some major societal intervention that it is much more likely that they will stick with their current eating and exercise choices, because it has the feeling of familiarity and thus provides the illusion of comfort in a confusing world.

The consequences for these latest generations are truly dire. Yet there is little in the way of planned action to address these chronic problems. It appalls me to think that I may live to an older age than my daughter, primarily because my mother fed us healthy and nutritious food. Single parent families or dual income families are disproportionately raising today’s generation. That was true for our daughter. We both had full time jobs when our daughter was growing up. Living on one income, however modestly, was out of the question until the last few years. Our daughter ate most of her lunches in the school cafeteria, where she could safely consume the foods she wanted, like pizza, rather than the foods she needed. She fit right in. Her friends largely did the same thing.

I think dual income parenting contributed a lot toward the obesity epidemic. With family time so squeezed, it is not surprising that parents often rustled up meals from of a box or out of a fast food bag. It was also not surprising that our children tended to prefer these meals too. Food vendors do not stay in business by making uninteresting food. In order to attract more business, food had to be jazzed up. In that sense, American capitalism succeeded very well. Over time, we developed strong preferences for this unhealthy kind of food.

Congress may have inadvertently done our kids in too. Our agricultural subsidies, most of which went to subsidizing grains that could rarely turn a profit, made grain incredibly cheap. When certain types of food are cheap to purchase, many of us feel inclined to consume more of them than we used to. It used to be that we would rotate through seasonal foods over the course of a year. With grain cheap all year round, we added more and more grain to our diets. With sugar also artificially cheap, we had a deadly combination: cereals and breads laced with sugars. Cheap grain also encouraged us to give it to our livestock, making the price of meat cost less too. Most foods served in America were relative bargains throughout the latter half of the 20th century. There was little reason for restaurants not to super-size our portions when the ingredients were so cheap.

Our additional eating was one part of the equation. Lack of exercise was the other part. When I was a youth, we were free to roam neighborhoods at will as long as our homework was done and we returned home in time for dinner. Neighborhoods were assumed safe. My parents gave little thought to where we were as long as we were in the neighborhood. We also lacked modern indoor distractions like computers and videogames. Going outside and playing with the kids on the block was a compelling alternative to the drudgery of being home. Modern parents perceive that if they give the same freedom to their children that their children are at risk from child molesters. Parents believe it is safer to keep children at home rather than let them roam the neighborhood. To make this unfortunate reality easier to swallow, we provided indoor amusements for them. The combination of a poor diet and reduced exercise appears to be toxic.

Few of our children are likely to end up in professions where exercise will be built into the jobs. Most are likely to spend their lives much as we do: in offices living sedentary work lives much like Dilbert’s. Perhaps in their off hours they will be able to grab some exercise. That seems unlikely, for they will likely have children of their own at home, and these children will have to be fed and protected.

Our society desperately needs a culture shift. We may need to reduce our workweeks to 35 hours a week simply to allow adults to have time for physical fitness and parenting. An hour-long workout may not be enough, but it is a start. Employers may need to be required to offer exercise facilities to their employees to use at work. Just as you cannot keep horses in the stables for days on end, neither should humans be trapped in cubicles, cars and their homes for days on end. We are built to move, not to sit.

Exercise needs to be seen as a necessary and critical part of being a human being. What has changed over the last generation or two is that most Americans must now dedicate time for exercise. It should be encouraged by our leaders and our employers. Health insurance premiums should be substantially discounted for people who participate in monitored exercise programs. Our children need more than recess and occasional PE classes. They need regular and more vigorous exercise at school, extending the school day if needed, as well as more healthful food in school cafeterias. Since they are children, their weekly exercise should be monitored and tracked by school officials. It may seem offensive to some to require our children to be regularly weighed and tested for their physical fitness at school. However, these prosaic activities also encourage children toward a lifelong appreciation toward the necessity of exercise and healthy eating.

My suspicion is that these are the sorts of steps that must be taken to keep future generations of Americans from being obese, dying prematurely and the obscene health care costs that are associated with obesity. They may seem Big Brotherish, but for the sake of our children, we need to do it.