Friday, December 05, 2014

Food for Thought

Reading a new McKinsey analysis of the most effective ways to fight obesity made me remember that if it weren’t for an inability to metabolize sugar, I would probably be struggling with a weight problem, if not on my way up the first wrung of obesity.

The study quantifies the effectiveness of interventions including areas of personal responsibility as well as education and environmental factors such as labeling, portion control and subsidies and taxes, all of which have spawned a huge “sugar” lobby.

I first felt the hypoglycemic reaction that my body has to the levels of sugar in foods, mostly added, when I was 11 years old, going on 12 and weighed about 84 pounds on a 4’8” frame.

But it wasn’t fully diagnosed for another ten years when by that time I touched the scales at 150 pounds and nudging 6 foot tall.

I descended from a long line of “white food” eaters on both sides, who when they weren’t drawn to sweets and foods that quickly convert to sugar such as mashed potatoes, macaroni and milk, corn, fruit salad laced with whipped cream and bread, even bread and milk.

To my mom, who was a great cook having learned from her mother-in-law, even oatmeal wasn’t right without a layer of sugar across the top.  Maybe it is little wonder that my parents struggled with weight and sought comfort from these foods their entire lives.

Actually, our weight and happiness are on opposite “u” curves during our lives, one with the u bending upward and the other bending downward, but looking at how sugar affects the brain, they seem related.

Our relationship with food is apparently linked to both.

One of the interesting findings in the McKinsey analysis is that obesity is a condition shared now by 30% of the global population.  It is projected to increase to 41% by 2030, but already has the same economic drag as tobacco and armed conflict.

It is far more costly than alcoholism, for instance.

The interventions McKinsey finds most effective can lower obesity by 20% within a five year period when deployed together.

Portion control and reformulation of foods have the greatest impact followed by limiting access to high calorie foods, weight management programs and parental and school education.

A high-sugar tax can also play a role.

In the United States, obesity is the second most significant social burden.

In 1750, sugar consumption was about 3-4 kg or less per person.  It took off in the United States in the late 1800s and then skyrocketed about the time I was born.

About the time I retired five years ago, Americans were powering down 28 kg of “added” sugar alone or about 60 pounds per person.

The obesity epidemic is no surprise.

Normal weight, according to the McKinsey study means keeping the body mass index below 25.  My doctor tries to get me to stay below 19.  Overweight is between 25 and 29.

Obesity comes in three stages beginning at 30% and ranging to more than 40.

Those of us who are overweight push medical costs up 31%, and obesity, depending on the level, pushes costs up anywhere from 58% to 86%.  Click here for the latest pie chart showing where America’s $2.9 trillion health dollars go.

I’ve learned to limit my intake of added sugar to between 6 and 9 grams (about two teaspoons) per day and stay away from foods naturally high in sugar.

Still I am not deprived.  My diet averages around 30-40 grams a day.

One of the advantages to logging my meals, often vetting them in advance using an app called myfitnesspal, is being far more aware of foods high in sugar.

Whenever we eat breakfast at Bob Evans, I like the Border Scramble, substituting a fruit plate instead of potatoes and without bread.

But even without the fruit, that dish has 7 grams of sugar.  The fruit plate has another 13.  Way over my threshold and even with the protein involved risking where, for me anyway,a hypoglycemic reaction would kick in.

My sweet tooth is fed by two glasses of wine with dinner - only red - and on the more “minerally” side.  Each glass has only 1.8 grams of sugar each but is much weightier in calories overall.

But the apple a day I snack on later has 11 grams which is possibly why even when I was young, I learned to eat this fruit as my dessert after dinner, a time of day when any adverse reaction would occur only while I am asleep.

Also being certain to drink two quarts of water a day on top of the water in about 60 oz. of coffee is crucial in my case.  But my point is that even religiously avoiding foods with added sugar, I get a lot in my diet.

Obesity increases in countries along with prosperity.  In in the U.S., the CDC finds it at the same levels for men regardless of income level but in women it affects 42% of low income vs. 29% at high income levels.

This may give finger-waggers more ammunition to lecture the poor about personal responsibility, but it is clear the correlation is to only being able to afford or easily access unhealthy foods and eating leftovers while caregiving, I suspect.

This is another reason that making certain low income people have healthcare insurance is smart.  When it comes to healthcare costs we’re in this together when it comes to our pocketbook regardless of partisan leanings or feelings of superiority.

So whenever someone asks for the mashed potatoes to be passed during holiday meals, we need to be aware of just how incredibly powerful the “white food” lobby is in this country and give thanks if we are less impacted, but less judgmental of those who are.

New research shows that it is more than with fitness and caloric diary apps that smartphones are impacting the way we buy food.  A study shows that 79% of women alone now use their smartphones in stores.

Of those, 35% do it in grocery stores alone, 23% to check barcodes to learn more about products than may be revealed on labels.  By the way, the same percentage use GPS via smartphones to find the store greatly reducing any tiny remnant of rationale remaining for billboards.

I suspect, without my reactive hypersensitivity to blood sugar level, I would be among those judged.  I love mashed potatoes and not just because I’m from Idaho where it is patriotic or because “red states” are more prone to obesity.

Retirement agrees with me.  Although I seem to be getting shorter, I also dropped about 25 pounds (intentionally) over the past six months, more a credit to walking daily and cutting calories, not just a diet low in refined carbohydrates (smile.)

Now for some comic relief about the determination of the sugar lobby, click here to see John Oliver propose that all food labeling regarding sugar added be put in terms of “circus peanuts” (which have 5 grams each.)

Actually, a Gallup poll showing what Americans spent on average for this past Thanksgiving week reveals that it certainly isn’t peanuts nor is it just on food.

Happy Holidays!

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