There are plenty of anti-vaxxers on the left

It’s tempting to put all the blame for the pandemic on Republicans. At least when it comes to anti-vaxxers, blame can be allocated on many Democrats as well.

This is because there are plenty of “all natural” Democrats out there. While I hate to generalize, you will find a lot of them shopping at Whole Foods and attending yoga studios. They are busy eating organic, going vegan, eating whole grains and living minimally.

These are not bad things in and of themselves. They feel clean and wholesome by going all natural, which is why many times they prefer herbal supplements and holistic healers over prescription and non-prescription drugs and board certified physicians.

They believe they can become effectively immortal, or at least live to see 100, by going all natural. With this mindset, it can be hard to see something like a manufactured vaccine as something that you should let into your body. So they spurn vaccinations for themselves and their kids on principle.

These otherwise generally liberal people make strange bedfellows with many on the right who are also anti-vaxxers. At least these anti-vaxxers on the left seem to have at least the fig leaf of a rational explanation for their behavior. For those on the right, it seems to be about owning the libs by playing Russian Roulette.

I actually agree with a lot of their positions. Inarguably, eating vegan is better for the planet. Avoiding pesticides and other chemicals used in making food is also noble, if impractical for a lot of people. Nutritionists recommend whole grains and generally have no problem with people substituting vegan sources of protein for meat and fish. There’s generally nothing wrong with yoga either. If everyone were a vegan and lived sustainably, unquestionably our planet would be a much healthier place.

The problem is any philosophy can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. The assumption that if everything we ingest is clean we can live to be 100 and avoid disease is, well, bunk. In fact, there was a time when most of us were vegans, not out of choice but out of necessity. If you were a serf, you likely never ate any meat, unless there was a party at the manor and they let you in.

Meat was prohibitively expensive. Most people back then didn’t make it to age 30, and that was largely because there was little sanitation going on and diseases could run rampant. Modern medicine didn’t really come into being until late in the 19th century, and it was not available to most people as it was beyond their means. The history of diseases is they don’t discriminate: they infect and kill everyone equally, at least until you know enough about the disease so that you can improve your chances of not getting it. And that’s only possible through science.

There’s plenty of proof going on right now. About 1800 Americans are dying daily in this latest covid-19 wave, caused this time by the double whammy of a bare majority of people being vaccinated and an incredibly virulent delta covid-19 variant. One of 500 of us American is an official fatality from the pandemic, and number will doubtless keep rising. These days, if you are unvaccinated you have an eleven times higher likelihood of dying from covid-19. Plenty of these fatalities come from all-organic, all-vegan anti-vaxxers.

While their heart is in the right place, it sometimes overrules their heads. Survival belongs to the fittest, and while it may seem that the more fit and healthy you are the more likely you should be to ward off diseases, there’s little evidence to support this.

The evidence against it is plain to see in the statistics, but it requires you to engage the left side of your brain long enough to get vaccinated. Ideally, you can also engage that part of your brain long enough to allow board certified physicians to treat you instead of (or at least in addition to) holistic healing practitioners.

I admire many of these people and count some of them among my friends. I sometimes wish I could become a vegan, or at least a vegetarian. I eat a whole lot more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains than I used to. I’ve experimented with holistic medicine from time to time too, and found chiropractic care particularly useful. It’s going all in on anything that tends to be dangerous, as it clouds your thinking and makes it hard to see beyond your implicit biases.

The saddest part is that these people really don’t want to acquire or spread disease, but do in part because their thinking has become too muddled and dogmatic, allowing that vector that allows diseases like covid-19 to get in.

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.