Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fat and happy Australians have long lives

The traditional Australian diet of meat pies, sausage rolls etc. could hardly be more "incorrect". It's full of fat. But Australian life expectancy is high anyway. Time for a redefinition of "healthy" food?

THE number of people dying early because of chronic health problems is falling, boosting the life expectancy of Australians, a new government report has found.

The report, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) today, has for the first time come up with 42 indicators linked to chronic illness.

It found the number of people aged under 75 dying from chronic illness - like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness - had dropped by almost 20 per cent in the decade-long study period ending in 2007.

This has contributed to gains in the life expectancy of Australians, with males born between 2006 and 2008 expected to live to 79.2 years - an increase of three-and-a-half years since about a decade earlier.

Females born between 2006 and 2008 would live for 83.7 years - an rise of 2.3 years since 10 years earlier, according to the report, entitled Key indicators of progress for chronic disease and associated determinants. [In Greece, home of the fabled "Mediterranean" diet, the life expectancy for males is 77.36 years and for females 82.65 --LOWER than Australia]

Chronic diseases are usually long-lasting, persistent and may be associated with disability, the AIHW says.

"The indicators were developed as a first step to consistent reporting, which will, over time, be able to provide information about progress with preventing and managing chronic disease in Australia," said Ilona Brockway of the AIHW's Population Health Unit.

Researchers reported a mixed bag of results when it came to risk factors associated with chronic disease, such as smoking, unhealthy diet and inactivity.

"On the positive side, daily smoking continues to decrease, with less than 18 per cent of Australian adults now smoking daily, compared with over 24 per cent in 1991," Mrs Brockway said.

"On the other hand, almost a quarter of Australian children are currently overweight or obese. "For adults, the figure is around 60 per cent, and the trend has been increasing. "Excess weight is associated with many chronic conditions, so the increase shown in these statistics is of concern."


Food debate: Stick to persuasion

If you were to believe the mythology du jour, McDonald’s is nearing the final phase of its diabolical plan to capture the hearts and minds of you and your children. That goofy-looking clown (smiles on the outside, atherosclerosis inside) is throwing a desperate hail-Mary pass to his bulbous purple sidekick, hoping to score one for trans fat. And McDonald’s isn’t alone: The entire French-fry-industrial complex is working its shadowy marketing magic, cunningly seducing us out of a responsible diet. Giga-gallons of irresistible soda, laced with high fructose corn syrup, are washing down scads of industrial corn-fed meat tainted with the sweat of exploited labor.

Luckily for you an intrepid band of investigative journalists has “lifted the veil” on all this disgusting manipulation, demonstrating the perverse nature of our Fast Food Nation. Obesity, type-II diabetes, maybe even adolescent acne will be safely regulated away by a new breed of urban intellectuals vigilantly managing the food system. Schools will serve nothing but organic, all-local cafeteria fare. Whataburger will submit its marketing schemes to a nutrition board to determine if it is subliminally alluring. Prices for “good” food will be made “affordable” through a judicious system of health-care subsidies.

Organic Broccoli in Every Pot

According to Eric Schlosser of Food Inc. fame, “The American people are becoming really, really unhealthy and this is an issue we can’t just leave to individuals deciding to bicycle instead of drive their car. We need governments worldwide to be taking action to reverse the problem.”

We need government action to “reverse the problem”? Why didn’t we think of that? How shrewd. When Franklin Roosevelt instituted the first large-scale farm subsidy programs, government reversed the problem of “unbalanced production.” When government helped convert hundreds of millions of tons of ammunition-grade ammonium nitrate into the first large-scale corn fertilizer programs, they did a bang-up job reversing the problem of excess wartime capacity. When the government encouraged corn production through artificial stimulation of the ethanol market, it helped develop a sub-industry of distiller grain-feed to be processed by ever-larger herds of cattle in ever-larger feedlots.

Yes, our corn-based food system is largely a result of really cheap corn paid for at taxpayer expense. The health fallout from this ridiculous system must now be “solved” by the same kind of government tampering that gave it to us? I’m missing something.

Power to the People

Look, I get it. A diet of Big Macs and Cherry Coke isn’t pretty. I would probably agree with Schlosser about what constitutes a healthy diet. I like a meal of fresh and locally procured produce as much as any food activist. In fact I’ve taken my food consciousness a step further and spend most of my time and energy growing healthy food for conscientious consumers. The happy meals they make of it are a far cry from the drive-thru option, and I’m glad for that.

The difference is that I’m not attempting to foist my views of food morality through regulation. While I happen to share the tastes of the elites who know what is good for the rest of us, I draw the line at imposing it on others. I too would like to see schools serving better food and have done my small part to help it happen. I too would like to see sustainably raised products become more affordable and have been trimming costs to make them more accessible.

But before we congratulate ourselves too primly, I’d like to point out that the despicable eating habits of the pathetic “individuals” vilified by Schlosser have already moved far ahead of him.

Fast-Food Overhaul

I first got wind of this fact during a weak moment at Wendy’s. Like responsible parents everywhere, we avoid fast food for the most part. Everyone has his limits, however, especially when the natives in the back seat get restless. We pulled in, trying to hide our “Grassfed Beef” emblazoned door panels. Not only do the iconic pigtails offer a rather remarkable salad (spinach leaves, cranberries, mandarin oranges and bleu cheese), but the crafty buggers even gave the kids educational flash cards and puzzles. As our brood plowed through a package of freshly cut apples, I couldn’t help but wonder what Wendy’s was up to. Nothing good, you can be sure.

Subway (you know, Jared and his huge pants) is now the world’s most commonplace food joint, outstripping even the megalithic McDonald’s. Burger King, the troublemaker known for pumping the infectious aroma of flame-broiled burgers into public spaces, is now offering its latest fare on a ciabatta bun. Ciabatta? That’s so chic even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize it. How are those cretins on the street to relate?

The Way Forward

I have to credit Schlosser and his gang. The work they have done in educating the eating public is wide-ranging and important. So why not leave it there? Why sully it with blatant attempts to push it into the realm of “governments worldwide”? Michael Pollan, a somewhat more muted activist, says it well:

"I really have a lot of faith — and I know that it’s considered naive by some people on the left — that consumers can change things. I have seen too many cases of what happens when consumers decide to inflect their buying decisions with their moral and political values. It brings about change."

Indeed it does. The vibrant social debate over what makes for good food and where to get it is an excellent one to have. But let’s keep it (and the choices people make) out in the open, not behind the counter of the State. The unintended consequences of State dabbling are usually too hard to swallow.


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