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You Are What You Grow

In an article of the same title from last month in the NY Times, Michael Pollan answers the question: how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

...why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person's wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit. So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice. As a rule, processed foods are more "energy dense" than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them "junk."

The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow. A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called "an epidemic" of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation's agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives.

Americans may tell themselves they don't have a national land-use policy, that the market by and large decides what happens on private property in America, but that's not exactly true. The smorgasbord of incentives and disincentives built into the farm bill helps decide what happens on nearly half of the private land in America: whether it will be farmed or left wild, whether it will be managed to maximize productivity (and therefore doused with chemicals) or to promote environmental stewardship.

...the "farm bill" is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interests of eaters placed first. Yes, there are eaters who think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible, no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food - to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum, these eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn't hurt the world's farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.

Mexico City - Abortion legalized

From The Week magazine for the week of May 6, 2007:

Mexico City's legislative assembly last week passed a bill legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, a first in Mexico. Women's health advocates say the law, which applies only within Mexico City limits, could serve as a template for the rest of the country, whose population of 107 million is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Government officials say about 200,000 illegal abortions are performed in Mexico every year, and complications from illegal abortions are the third leading cause of death for pregnant women in the capital city. The law bars doctors from refusing to perform abortions on moral grounds. But Roman Catholic Cardinal Norberto Rivera of Mexico City warned Catholic medical personnel that they faced excommunication if they took part in the procedure.

Diets damage health, shows biggest ever study

From an article of the same title by Fiona MacRae in the Daily Mail:

The world's largest study of weight loss has shown that diets do not work for the vast majority of slimmers and may even put lives at risk. More than two-thirds pile the pounds straight back on, raising the danger of heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Indeed most dieters end up heavier than they did to start with, the researchers found. They warn this type of yo-yo behaviour is linked to a host of health problems. And they say the strain that repeated weight loss and gain places on the body means most people would have been better off not dieting at all.

Research has shown the repeated rapid weight gain and loss associated with dieting can double the risk of death from heart disease, including heart attacks, and the risk of premature death in general. Such yo-yo weight loss has also been linked to stroke and diabetes and shown to suppress the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infection. Dr Mann said: "We decided to dig up and analyse every study that followed people on diets for two to five years. We concluded most of them would have been better off not going on the diet at all. "Their weight would have been pretty much the same, and their bodies would not suffer the wear and tear from losing weight and gaining it all back. "The benefits of dieting are simply too small and the potential harms of dieting are too large for it to be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for obesity." The psychologist, who advises would-be slimmers to swap calorie-controlled diets for a balanced diet coupled with regular exercise, added: "Exercise may well be the key factor leading to sustained weight loss. Studies consistently find that people who report the most exercise also have the most weight loss."


Mental Illness

People are using the Va Tech massacre to support their view about gun control: either that there should be more or less restrictions on gun ownership. I think this incident is an anomaly, something that really doesn't have much helpful to say about which direction gun laws should go. The best thing I've heard lately about this story, though, is that he should have be ineligible to purchase a gun because a court had declared him a danger to himself. I don't want to own a gun. I don't have a problem with law-abiding, mentally-stable people having guns as long as they keep them out of the reach of children. If you've got mental problems, though, you've got no business with a gun. From the article by Michael Luo in the NY Times:

Under federal law, the Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho should have been prohibited from buying a gun after a Virginia court declared him to be a danger to himself in late 2005 and sent him for psychiatric treatment, a state official and several legal experts said Friday. Federal law prohibits anyone who has been "adjudicated as a mental defective," as well as those who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, from buying a gun. The special justice's order in late 2005 that directed Mr. Cho to seek outpatient treatment and declared him to be mentally ill and an imminent danger to himself fits the federal criteria and should have immediately disqualified him, said Richard J. Bonnie, chairman of the Supreme Court of Virginia's Commission on Mental Health Law Reform. A spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also said that if Mr. Cho had been found mentally defective by a court, he should have been denied the right to purchase a gun.

Now we've got to figure out how to fix the system for background checks. Of course, he could he found illegal ways to get guns, but I think we'd benefit by making it harder for the mentally unstable to get firearms. Knowing what harm mentally ill people can do, we may need to re-calibrate the balance between public safety and privacy rights. Here's an article the describes the difficulties universities have in dealing with the mentally ill: link


Alcohol, tobacco worse than pot, ecstasy: study

From an article of the same title from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's web site:

New landmark research concludes that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than some illegal drugs like marijuana or ecstasy and should be classified as such in legal systems, according to a new British study.

Nutt and colleagues used three factors to determine the harm associated with any drug: the physical harm to the user, the drug's potential for addiction, and the impact on society of the drug's use. The researchers asked two groups of experts - psychiatrists specializing in addiction and legal or police officials with scientific or medical expertise - to assign scores to 20 different drugs, including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and LSD.

Heroin and cocaine were ranked most dangerous, followed by barbiturates and street methadone. Alcohol was the fifth-most harmful drug and tobacco the ninth most harmful. Cannabis came in 11th, and near the bottom of the list was ecstasy.

Tobacco causes 40 per cent of all hospital illnesses, while alcohol is blamed for more than half of all visits to hospital emergency rooms. The substances also harm society in other ways, damaging families and occupying police services.

While experts agreed that criminalizing alcohol and tobacco would be challenging, they said that governments should review the penalties imposed for drug abuse and try to make them more reflective of the actual risks and damages involved.



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