Friday, February 22, 2008

Fat Fascism building

Obesity needs to be tackled in the same way as climate change, a top nutritional scientist has said. The chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce wants world leaders to agree a global pact to ensure that everyone is fed healthy food. [Like what? McDonald's can prevent heart disease. But maybe that is not what he had in mind] Professor Philip James said the challenge of obesity was so great that action was needed now, even without clear evidence of the best options. He also called for stricter rules on marketing and food labelling.

Professor James, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, was speaking in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He commented: "This is a community epidemic that is actually a response to all the wonderful apparent industrial and economic development changes that we've seen, with a collapse in the need for physical activity, and now a targeting of children to make profits by big industry in food and drink. "We have to change that, and it will not come unless we have a coherent government-led strategy. The issue is: have we got the political will?"

He added that it was important that all food used a "traffic lights" labelling scheme so that consumers could immediately assess fat, sugar and salt content. "This is a form of public education which is being resisted mightily in Brussels with intense lobbying of commissioners who've just announced that they won't go down the British road," he highlighted. "So we're in the process of trying to make it clear that if you're concerned about the health and economics of a society you should take this seriously."

Ten percent of the world's children are either overweight or obese, twice as many as the malnourished, said Professor James. "A huge range of analyses show that we have not been looking at the problem of children's nutrition and well-being properly. "They're disadvantaged from birth, their academic achievement is impaired, their earning power is diminished, and they almost certainly have a life expectancy which is less than that of their parents."

New data from Scandinavia showed that the weight of a child at the age of 7-12 predicted whether or not they were going to die early from heart disease or other problems, he said [but die later of other problems]. "We now have to think in a totally different way and recognise that it's the life cycle," he added. "Because these children start off being born small, they are then exposed to totally inappropriate environments, and they are therefore super-sensitive."

Another expert, Professor Rena Wing, presented research at the AAAS in Boston suggesting that large-scale changes in diet and exercise were needed to prevent obesity [They sure are!]. A study of 5,000 men and women who lost an average of 70lbs (30kg), and kept the weight off for six years, shows that large lifestyle changes - such as exercising 60 to 90 minutes a day - were needed to keep people slim. "The obesity epidemic won't go away simply because people switch to skimmed milk from whole milk," she said. "They need to substantially cut their calories and boost their physical activity to get to a healthy weight - and keep minding the scale once they do."


Cheaper chickens: a slap in the face of British food snobs

The outraged reaction to Tesco's decision to sell chickens for $4 is stuffed with an unpalatable mix of snobbery and fearmongering

Tesco hits a new low with arrival of the 1.99 pounds ($4) chicken', screamed a headline in the Independent. When the paper said `low', it wasn't referring to the price. `While Sainsbury's has committed to massive improvements in animal welfare, Tesco is showing its ethical credentials with this race to the bottom', declared the research director of Compassion in World Farming. The fact that a supermarket could be widely criticised for cutting its prices reveals much about the topsy-turvy, screwed-up debate about food today.

Tesco's decision to slash the price of its Grade A broiler chickens, rather than making the more ethically acceptable free-range variety cheaper, comes almost immediately after celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a television crusade against broiler production. In Hugh's Chicken Run on Channel 4, Fearnley-Whittingstall produced two crops of chicken side-by-side: one using typical intensive methods; the other using free-range principles. The intensively produced chickens, bred to grow quickly, had less space to move in, were kept awake almost constantly and suffered from leg problems. As a result, some of them - though not many - had to be destroyed. The free-range chickens, bred to grow more slowly, were able to roam around outdoors. However, some of the free-range birds also had to be destroyed because they acquired an infection - something which the broiler birds stuck indoors were never exposed to.

In his show, Fearnley-Whittingstall frequently argued that in selling such cheap chicken (it was `two-for-a-fiver', then - now you can get three for six quid), Tesco was complicit in the lowering of welfare standards for chickens. So it must have felt like a personal slap in the face for the posh River Cottage chef when Tesco launched its latest deal to make the birds even cheaper. `I'm very surprised [at Tesco] because everybody is selling out of free-range chicken', said Fearnley-Whittingstall. `To launch a 1.99 chicken is in direct contradiction to a statement [Tesco chief executive] Sir Terry Leahy made last summer, when he said he didn't want to get into a food price war on chicken.'

Tesco, however, is unrepentant. It has promoted the latest price cut as a helping hand to families suffering from `mortgage worries, energy price rises and inflation'. Yet it seems that for a big company to ignore the ethical pestering of a celebrity do-gooder and provide its customers with what they want - good, affordable food - is beyond the pale these days. Numerous commentators and reporters are attacking Tesco for acting `unethically'. Ironically, Hugh's Chicken Run seems to have communicated at least one clear message to viewers: you can get two chickens for a fiver at Tesco! Sales of bog-standard chicken rose by seven per cent after the series ended. This suggests that while the ethical hectoring of food snobs like Fearnley-Whittingstall might get liberal and green-leaning commentators hot under the collar, it doesn't have much of an impact on the British public. When you've got a family to feed, having access to a good dinner for relatively little money is a good thing - and if we really gave a damn about chickens and their `feelings', well, we wouldn't eat them in the first place.

Of course, Tesco is not providing cheap chicken for the love of it. Rather, it thinks that a high-profile promotion such as this will get more shoppers into its stores and increase its turnover. Sainsbury's, on the other hand, has always pitched itself as being a bit classier, middle-class and right-on than Tesco, and so it uses a bit of PR about its ethical values to get a different kind of shopper into its stores. Both companies are interested primarily in making money. But as long as that means producing and selling food cheaply and efficiently, surely that is good news for the rest of us?

Underpinning the reaction to Tesco's price cut is a feeling that food is becoming too cheap - that we no longer know the true value of what we eat. If only we would pay more for our meals, then they would be tastier, healthier and more `ethical'; they would be more morally filling, apparently. It is certainly true that you get what you pay for, and it's nice to have the option of a `posh' chicken every now and then. But it is far from clear why returning to the days when food absorbed 30 per cent or more of the average household budget is anything to celebrate. Such a reversal would inevitably mean sacrificing other things that we enjoy doing, and it would put some foods out of the reach of poorer families altogether. The food snobs' explicit attempt to prevent food from being made cheaper could have a detrimental impact on people's living standards.

What really underpins the outraged reaction to ever-cheaper chicken is snobbery: a sense that the dumb masses don't know what is good for them. Some anti-Tesco (or perhaps Tescophobic) commentators write about the `zombies' who work and shop there, and claim - without a smidgen of evidence - that cheap meat is poisoning poor people. Better if they didn't have meat at all, I suppose, and lived instead on tinned beans and potatoes. Indeed, the chicken snobbery is liberally basted with a mixture of fears: that the food we eat will not only poison our bodies (through making us obese and stuffing us with additives), but will also poison our minds (through making us think that animal cruelty is okay) and poison our communities (through driving the local butcher and baker out of business).

This sense of superiority over the thick, cheap meat-scoffing masses permeates today's food campaigning: it's there in the blame-the-parents scaremongering of Jamie Oliver's TV and political crusade to improve school dinners and police the lunchbox, and in the food fears spread by the likes of Sun columnist Jane Moore and the anti-supermarket rant Tescopoly by Andrew Simms. While most of the British public buys and enjoys cheap and nutritious food, and then gets on with the more interesting parts of their lives, sections of the commentariart bizarrely work themselves into a frenzy about dangerous chickens or turkey twizzlers.

Our food is not killing us. In fact, never in the history of Britain has such a wide variety of safe and healthy food been affordable to so many. When the well-to-do start lecturing companies and customers about their selling and eating habits, it's not just the chickens that need a good roasting.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

9). And how odd it is that we never hear of the huge American study which showed that women who eat lots of veggies have an INCREASED risk of stomach cancer? So the official recommendation to eat five lots of veggies every day might just be creating lots of cancer for the future! It's as plausible (i.e. not very) as all the other dietary "wisdom" we read about fat etc.

10). And will "this generation of Western children be the first in history to lead shorter lives than their parents did"? This is another anti-fat scare that emanates from a much-cited editorial in a prominent medical journal that said so. Yet this editorial offered no statistical basis for its opinion -- an opinion that flies directly in the face of the available evidence.

Even statistical correlations far stronger than anything found in medical research may disappear if more data is used. A remarkable example from Sociology:
"The modern literature on hate crimes began with a remarkable 1933 book by Arthur Raper titled The Tragedy of Lynching. Raper assembled data on the number of lynchings each year in the South and on the price of an acre's yield of cotton. He calculated the correlation coefficient between the two series at -0.532. In other words, when the economy was doing well, the number of lynchings was lower.... In 2001, Donald Green, Laurence McFalls, and Jennifer Smith published a paper that demolished the alleged connection between economic conditions and lynchings in Raper's data. Raper had the misfortune of stopping his analysis in 1929. After the Great Depression hit, the price of cotton plummeted and economic conditions deteriorated, yet lynchings continued to fall. The correlation disappeared altogether when more years of data were added."
So we must be sure to base our conclusions on ALL the data. But in medical research, data selectivity and the "overlooking" of discordant research findings is epidemic.

"What we should be doing is monitoring children from birth so we can detect any deviations from the norm at an early stage and action can be taken". Who said that? Joe Stalin? Adolf Hitler? Orwell's "Big Brother"? The Spanish Inquisition? Generalissimo Francisco Franco Bahamonde? None of those. It was Dr Colin Waine, chairman of Britain's National Obesity Forum. What a fine fellow!


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