Obesity in Four Books and a Theater Piece


Dr. David Ludwig, a well-known figure in the childhood obesity field, teaches at Harvard University and is founding director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Optimal Weight for Life program. His work is based on the premise that the body can be convinced to accept a new, lower “set point.”

For The New York Times, Anahad O’Connor reviewed Dr. Ludwig’s book Always Hungry? and asked the author a number of questions, beginning with the underlying cause of obesity. Here is an excerpt from that answer:

It’s the low fat, very high carbohydrate diet that we’ve been eating for the last 40 years, which raises levels of the hormone insulin and programs fat cells to go into calorie storage overdrive. I like to think of insulin as the ultimate fat cell fertilizer.

Insulin programs the body to store calories, and most of those calories get stored in the fat cells. If you’ve got too much insulin, you’re going to store too many calories.

Social worker, attorney and trained therapist Rebecca Jane Weinstein presides over PeopleOfSize.com, a community that provides information, support and interaction. Her book, Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences, is described as containing “deeply personal tales and essential information, focusing on the lives, questions, and concerns of parents and children living in a childhood obesity crisis.”

Its press release says:

Fat Kids powerfully combines interviews, relevant research, social anecdotes, personal author accounts, and the reality of children struggling with weight, to create a narrative that is profoundly poignant, accessible, and essential for understanding our current war on fat.

Weinstein is also author of a rhyming children’s book, Ella’s Tummy, which covers teasing and bullying, eating disorders, disdain for the overweight, parental self-esteem building, and other pertinent issues.

Another book for children, Fartzee Shmartzee’s Fabulous Food Fest, is illustrated with cartoon characters because author Adam Michael Segal noticed how successful they were at selling products, and deduced that they might also be useful, along with humor, to sell ideas. Already an experienced writer about health and wellness, Segal was motivated by the school activities of his own two kids, which included many treat rewards and institutional fundraisers that basically depended on having the students sell junk food.

Spencer James developed a one-man show called “How to Hide a Fat Kid” to chronicle the struggles he experienced as a child and a young man. He had addressed obesity as a stand-up comic, but told a journalist:

I wanted to talk more about what the impacts are when you don’t like your own body and you’re simultaneously going through all the insecurity and crazy self-doubt of being a kid and then a teen-ager.

In James’s case, there was the additional stress of growing up in a constantly relocated military family. The stories begin with worrisome memories of waiting for the bus on the first day of school. For the longer-form stage presentation, he was aided by playwright Steve Stajich who related to the problems and said:

I had weight issues when I was a kid, and sometimes it just felt overwhelming. You wear goofy oversize clothing, you avoid certain things… You hide.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Rethinking Weight Loss and the Reasons We’re ‘Always Hungry’,” NYTimes.com, 01/07/16
Source: “Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences — Essential Reading about Childhood Obesity,” PRLog.org, 11/02/14
Source: “‘Fartzee Shmartzee’ book character educates children about healthy eating,”
CanadianInquirer.net, 04/15/16
Source: “Award-Winning Comedian Spencer James to Perform His One-man Show ‘How to
Hide a Fat Kid’,” PRWeb.com, 10/22/14
Photo credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

What’s Up With Healthful Snack Boxes?

Several online companies now offer a service that delivers healthful, natural snacks to the subscriber at regular intervals. The brands are Naturebox, Vegan Cuts, Conscious Box, Graze, and many more. Anyone may watch dozens of YouTube videos in which various customers taste-test the contents of their snack boxes. After sampling the gluten-free chipotle sorghum pilaf, a person can generally order larger amounts. The snack box is an interesting business model.

If they have any class at all, the various companies make available the complete nutritional and caloric information on each snack. For the skeptical consumer, some review websites offer “best of lists” with recommendations or the opposite. Graze.com attracted Dr. Pretlow’s attention because in the medical community, one school of thought describes grazing as a form of binge eating.

Devil’s advocate

Admittedly, these products would be useful in gift situations. In the old days, a professional in almost any field might give business friends candy or liquor on holidays. Now, fear of criticism might persuade someone to give healthful snack subscriptions instead. A six-month membership would be an ideal gift in another way. Because the customary holiday glut of food offerings can be oppressive, a monthly dose of natural snacks, stretching over half the year, might be a welcome innovation. Also, one of these snack assortments would be nice to have on hand when guests drop by.

They could be great for people in offices, who don’t want to buy vending machine crap or tote food in which, face it, is kind of uncool. Just sign up for delivery and, voila! It’s righteous snack time!

But aside from a few special circumstances, does the world really need more noshes? Big-picture-wise, it probably is better for people to eat dried cranberries than bite-size atrocities bloated with sugar, salt, and grease. (Viewing the big picture from a different angle, there are plenty of people in the U.S. whose entire monthly food stamp allotment would not cover the price of one snack box.)

Hot or not?

That these services exist is open to several possible explanations. Just as some individuals are capable of civilized, controlled social drinking, there probably are people who enjoy the occasional snack without going overboard. For them, these products are appropriate.

Let’s talk about the people who can’t stop with just a little bit of their addictor. When someone embarks on Dr. Pretlow’s W8Loss2Go program, one important aspect is the identification and elimination of problem foods. That’s just how it works. An alcoholic who goes into A.A. is cut off from all kinds of drugs, and the morbidly obese have to give up their favorite treats — but there will be many more kinds of okay foods than not-okay foods. In this respect, a person addicted to overeating is much more fortunate than an alcoholic. But, bottom line, some things will just be off-limits.

Oh no, not snacks!

In another stage of the process, snacking is ended. What??? There must be a misunderstanding, because aren’t some weight loss diets totally based on snacking or grazing? Maybe so, but W8Loss2Go is not a diet, it’s a life-saving lifestyle. Now, listen to what Dr. Pretlow says about the W8Loss2Go trials:

More than 70% of the young people in our past threes studies involving over 100 participants were able to completely stop snacking. Most were surprised that they were able to do this and even more so that they didn’t miss it. Furthermore, stopping snacking avoided the seesaw effect of increased snacking when mealtime amounts were reduced.

In other words, if snacking is accepted, then when the stage of cutting down meal portions comes along, participants will tend to compensate for smaller meal servings by dishing out bigger snacks for themselves. So, no snacking.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Photo credit: tuchodi via Visualhunt/CC BY

The Overweight Pet Blues

When a child or pet is given an edible treat as a band-aid to cover every incidence of depression, anxiety, isolation, boredom, emotional pain, or other form of psychological stress, no good can come of it. Comfort eating is an easy habit to catch. Actual changes in the brain reinforce the habit, and next thing you know, it’s a full-blown addiction process.

Childhood Obesity News has been discussing the British Journal of Nutrition article written by Dr. Robert A Pretlow and Dr. Ronald J. Corbee. The “Conclusions” section of “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model” reads:

The causes of pet and child obesity are strikingly similar. Accordingly, treatment should basically follow the same approach. Staged food withdrawal, along with behavioral addiction treatment methods, is appropriate for both overweight children and overweight pets. Ostensibly, this approach should be more feasible in pets, as access to food is more controllable in pets. Nonetheless, pet–parent co-dependence is likely as daunting to treat as child–parent co-dependence.

Psychological dependence is just another form of addiction, and it usually escalates. Tolerance sets in, and both parties want more and more of the commodity they are trading. It takes more and better treats to keep one party happy, and it takes more and better love to keep the other party happy.

Whether the treat collector is a child or a pet, the mechanism is the same, and weight gain is the inevitable result. At some point, it is to be hoped that the person in charge will perceive the drift toward obesity and make an effort to reverse it. What happens next? According to the study:

Both the pet–parent and the pet then experience withdrawal symptoms, and the pet may become unaffectionate as a result… The pet may even become aggressive or dominant and bite or show negative behaviours towards the pet–parent or others in the household when food is restricted. Thus, the pet–parent is held “hostage” to the extra food and treats to keep the pet happy.

Obviously this situation is easier to avoid than to mend. When it does undeniably exist, the first thing to do is realize and acknowledge that it is an addiction problem. What can be done about it? Anyone familiar with Dr. Pretlow’s W8Loss2Go smartphone application will see the potential for adapting this program for use with pets. Both overweight children and overweight pets benefit from this program “based on classic addiction medicine techniques of withdrawal/abstinence, combined with behavioral addiction treatment methods.”

Staged “problem food” withdrawal is followed by withdrawal from eating between meals, and for both of these the parent will need good coping skills and a thick skin. If the little critter is denied a full ration of treats, it may retaliate by tearing up the paycheck and withholding the currency of affection.

It takes about 10 days for a child or a pet to get used to the reality of a regime change, and the idea that things will be like this from now on. But a parent can crumble on Day One. If there are two parents, it is to be hoped that they are “on the same page,” with neither undermining the other’s efforts. A single parent might seek out a situational therapist, or enlist the coaching support of a friend.

Cat owners in particular are prone to leaving food in the pet bowl all the time, and this is an absolute no-no. The recommendation is for two separate and distinct meals, with no food left in the bowl between times. (Of course, fresh water should always be available.) For more tips, see the study we’ve mentioned above.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” Cambridge.org, 06/17/16
Photo credit: Yukari* via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA

Pet-Parents, Obesity, and Canine Focus

Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News listed several ways in which children and pets resemble each other or, more accurately, ways in which child-parents and pet-parents are similar in their misguidedness.

There is one more major similarity: co-morbidities. These are medical conditions that are risk factors for obesity, or for which obesity is a risk factor, or that just happen to co-exist because a careless diet exacerbates both of them. Pets are just like children in this respect, because pet obesity is often related to one or more of several related disease processes.

Complete details can be found in “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” by Dr. Robert A. Pretlow and Dr. Ronald J. Corbee, which appears in the British Journal of Nutrition. It begins to look as if the primary cause for obesity in both populations is parental co-dependency, which manifests as the attempt to buy affection with food. Similar to human parents, pet-parents tend to hand out treats and extra rations of food in the belief (justified or not) that the result will be more love.

A website called Pet Expertise delivers the surprising information that there are four different categories of treats. Even mundane kibble can be used, especially with puppies who are not yet aware that a training treat is supposed to be somewhat exotic. The trick is to keep kibble nuggets in a paper bag with some cooked bacon, soaking up the porky perfume.

“People food” will also work. Fresh meat or eggs can be dried out a bit in a microwave oven. Or gravy can be dispensed via a liquid treat dispenser. Then, there are store-bought treats — especially the brand sold by the informational website. For pet-parents who are all in, who really want to go the whole nine yards, there are recipes for tuna brownies (sprinkled with parmesan cheese) and turkey treats, basically meat loaf cut into strips.

The question for a pet-parent is, do you really want to spend your life making tuna brownies for a half-trained animal that becomes increasingly demanding?

Not everything that can be done, should be done

A cat will cause amazement by doing a trick 12 times in a row, and then disdain to repeat the trick ever again on any other day of its life. In other words, they are pretty much untrainable, so we are mainly talking about dogs here. In the realm of training, cats are immune to positive reinforcement. While a cat will remain aloof and indifferent no matter how many food treats are showered on it, a dog is going to love its human anyway, even in the face of mistreatment.

This is why bribing a dog with treats is almost perverse, because it is so unnecessary, when a dog can be taught to find positive reinforcement in praise, petting, and play. Giving a dog food treats is almost an abuse of the animal’s natural wish to please.

Apparently, one of the big problems encountered by pet-parents is that dogs blur the line between rewards and bribes. It is vital to “teach the dog the important lesson that he must successfully do the work before you’re willing to dole out the reward.”

Diversification is the best course. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers says:

[U]se something else he’s telling you he wants — like his leash put on to go for a walk, his favorite toy to be thrown, or an invitation to join you on the couch for snuggle time. By using these types of “life rewards,” you’re teaching your dog that keeping you happy by complying with your requests is the key to opening the door to everything good in his world — not just food treats!

Kevin Salem, champion of the “Diverse Method,” presents an astonishing list of 17 reasons why the food treat training method is wrong. For starters, while a dog’s love can be gained by giving it treats just for being alive, love is only a small part of the picture.

What’s needed for proper training is respect, which can not be bought with food. Salem writes:

Contrary to popular belief, relying heavily on treats gets you quick, but short-lived results. Not thousands, but millions around the world have fallen for this theory. Would you rather train your dog by your Praise, Leadership, Technique and Psychology or bribe it nonstop with cheese, hot dogs, bacon strips and beef jerky?

Some pet-parents will even give a dog a reward treat after a walk, which is crazy. The walk is the reward! For a dog, the biggest reward of all is gaining the approval of the pack leader — which is you, having mastered the secrets of praise, leadership, technique and psychology, and having given up the pathetic strategy of trading food for love.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” Cambridge.org, 06/17/16
Source: “4 Kinds of Dog Training Treats,” PetExpertise.com, undated
Source: “Why Do Trainers Use Food When Training?,” APDT.com, undated
Source: “Biggest Scam in Modern Dog Training,” DogSecrets.com, undated
Photo credit: Mr TGT via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

The Many Similarities Between Kids and Pets

Not all horses are pets, and the number of pet owners who have horses is relatively small. Still, it is impossible to resist passing along a fascinating fact from the paper co-authored by Dr. Robert A. Pretlow and Dr. Ronald J. Corbee. Four different sources are cited to back up the likelihood that as many as 54% of horses are obese. Even the low guess is 27%, which is around one out of four, or one-quarter.

In our mind’s eye, we see sleek, muscular animals running around a track, or a fantastically agile pony carrying its cowboy rider to safety. Horses are not supposed to be fat! And neither are dogs or cats, the much more familiar pets in homes across America.

Both kids and pets are subject to environmental influences like the easy availability of hyperpalatable foods and questionable nutritional value even foods alleged to be healthful. Both tend to resort to eating in times of stress, and are vulnerable to becoming hooked on certain foods. Both will eat, or attempt to, when faced with the particular kind of stress known as boredom.

Another environmental influence is the family dynamic. Both pet-parents and child-parents use edible treats as bribes to elicit good behavior. They use treats to calm the child or pet visiting the doctor or vet, and to help the dependent creature forget about minor traumas. Many experts argue against the age-old custom of training a dog with food treats. (Most cats choose not to be trainable at all.)

What the world needs now

As we know from an old pop song, what the world needs now is love, sweet love. But not when it is dispensed in the form of food treats that will ultimately lead to overweight, obesity, and a whole constellation of problems. It is sad but true that both kinds of parents buy affection with calorie bombs. If the parents are at war with each other, and battling desperately for the allegiance of child or pet, the results can be hideous.

As Dr. Pretlow has always said, advertisers take full advantage of this human impulse to equate food with comfort and love. The recent paper, “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” quotes a commercial that blatantly commands, “Feed the dog good food and get the real love.”

Many factors contribute to obesity, and their relative importance many not be sorted out for some time, but still, there are many recognizable similarities between kids and pets. They need exercise for their bodies and, for aesthetic and spiritual reasons, connection with nature. They need to get outside and move around.

The paper mentions research showing that apartment-bound cats are more obese than those with access to outdoors. It isn’t just the lack of energy expenditure that gets them, it’s also the paucity of environmental enrichment.

Child-parents can’t see it when their kids are getting fat, and neither can pet-parents. That is why Pet Obesity Awareness Day was instituted.

Another similarity is that the prospects for sustainable weight loss are not good. Here is an exerpt from the paper:

Interventions in children have produced modest weight loss at short term, but the weight is often regained in the long term. In dogs, only half of 61% that initiate a weight-loss regimen successfully complete it, and approximately half of the dogs that successfully reach goal weight subsequently regain weight. Obese pet dogs that successfully lose weight and maintain the weight are the minority.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” Cambridge.org, 06/17/16
Photo credit: Hans Dekker via Visualhunt/CC BY

Dr. Pretlow’s Newest Publication

Yesterday, Childhood Obesity News mentioned the previous posts that have dealt with the role of pets in combatting overweight and obesity in kids. Today, we start by looking back over the posts about the serious and widespread problem of obese pets. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention estimates that in America, 54% of dogs and 58% of cats are overweight.

The organization arrived at those numbers by polling its membership, made up of veterinarians and veterinary healthcare personnel. Lead researcher Dr. Ernest Ward had already broken the news that obesity is the biggest health threat to pets today. The situation was known to be bad; the only question was, how bad?

APOP cites the fact that the American Medical Association defines human obesity as a disease, and recommends that the veterinary industry adopt a standardized Body Condition Score. The page says:

The lack of professional consensus in defining pet obesity has created confusion among industry leaders. This confusion can lead to underreporting and a decreased emphasis on the pet obesity issue by the veterinary industry and clients. A uniform definition of pet obesity would benefit veterinarians who are struggling to find a tactful and effective way to discuss obesity and the importance of weight loss.

National Pet Obesity Awareness Day is coming up in October, but around here, the feeling is that every day should be vibrant with awareness and prevention intention. “Year-Round Pet Obesity Awareness” is a pretty good general introduction. “Pet Obesity and Childhood Obesity” compares the two in pretty direct terms, as does a related post.

One of Dr. Pretlow’s motivating principles is that ideally, treating obesity in animals is nearly the same as treating it in children. This notion developed into a paper co-written with Dr. Ronald J. Corbee, member of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University. Titled “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” it puts forth the idea that new treatments are needed for this major problem, because the currently favored interventions are not getting the job done. The article can be found in the British Journal of Nutrition, or online.

For the rest of the week, we will discuss how child-parents and pet-parents often enable eating addiction, and the reasons that prompt them to act in such a counterproductive way. We will look at how collaboration between the fields of pet obesity and child obesity can be mutually beneficial, and outline a treatment borrowed from addiction medicine that can bring about positive change .

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “An Estimated 58% of Cats and 54% of Dogs in the United States are Overweight or Obese,” PetObesityPrevention.org, 03/15/16
Source: “Similarities between obesity in pets and children: the addiction model,” cambridge.org, 06/17/16
Photo credit: pixydust8605 via Visualhunt.com/CC BY

Pet Week — a Quick Review

When Childhood Obesity News discusses animals, it is often in the context of their therapeutic functionality. To play their important role in treating childhood obesity, they don’t need to have fancy training. As Dr. Pretlow points out in Overweight: What Kids Say, even mundane activities count. If a child can take a dog for a walk, instead of walking to get a hot dog, so much the better.

Of course there are many anecdotal reports from all over the world, of children’s physicality being enhanced by the presence of pets. In his book, Dr. Pretlow quotes 16-year-old Tricia:

I got a dog. He’s wonderful. He’s my friend and we take walks together every day, even we jog some. That keeps me from heading for the fridge all the time…

In 2010, a University of London study of kids in the central city found that children in dog-owning homes tend to get more exercise. However, BBC journalist Sean Coughlan noted that:

[…] researchers are still not sure whether this is a case of more active families being more likely to own a dog — or if owning a dog makes an otherwise sedentary family more active.

Pets can provide comfort and exert a relaxing influence that relieves the stress in many lives. They can be an antidote to boredom, especially if a child takes up an activity like volunteering at the local animal shelter.

Apparently there can be a downside. Britain’s National Obesity Observatory said this about the relationship between common mental health disorders, lower activity levels, unhealthful diets, and obesity:

For example, a qualitative study of 10-12 year old overweight Scandinavian children found that whilst they yearned to be part of a community, they spent a lot of time alone eating, watching television, playing computer games and taking care of pets. They were aware of healthy lifestyles, but did not manage to implement them in practice…

So, having a pet is no guarantee of increased physical activity or extroversion. Keeping a hamster or some fish will not increase a child’s physical activity, and no one would expect it to.

But some pets can do wonders. We have seen them described as companion animals in the movements known as green care and social farming. This post, “Animals, Obesity and Green Care,” is particularly dog-intensive. Psychiatric patients benefit from ecotherapy, as do those with learning disabilities, and the addicted, the stressed-out, and the obese. Three demographic groups are very open to this kind of influence — children, the elderly, and developmentally impaired people.

Our post titled “Motivation From Virtual Pets” covered an innovative therapeutic mode pioneered by the University of Georgia, in which the child is paired with an obese virtual dog. When the child increases her or his exercise level and drops weight, the result is reflected in the virtual pet. We also talked about an activity-tracking device called LeapBand which includes games and activity challenges connected to an imaginary pet.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Children ‘more active’ in homes with dogs,” BBC.com, 09/22/10
Source: “Obesity and Mental Health,” NOO.org, March 2011
Photo credit: Edu Alpendre via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

Potatoes: The Perfect Food?

During the Great Depression, when novelist George Orwell studied the eating patterns of England’s poor, he named five dietary staples,  only one of which, the potato, could be called healthful. A food-oriented website notes that a baked potato (of course, minus butter, sour cream, bacon bits, etc.) is a low-calorie, high-fiber food that may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and offers some historical trivia:

Since potatoes are good sources of vitamin C, they were subsequently used on Spanish ships to prevent scurvy. In addition, many judged potatoes with suspicion since they were not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, potatoes initially had such a poor reputation in Europe that many people thought eating them would cause leprosy.

In the 18th century, a French army officer named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was captured by the Prussians and, as a prisoner of war, was fed potatoes. On the enemy’s part, this was not only an economy measure but a calculated insult because the French, along with almost everyone else in Europe, believed that potatoes were only fit for animal feed.

Later, in 1772, Parmentier was instrumental in convincing the French government to declare potatoes edible. But still, only Spain and Ireland accepted the vegetable as suitable food for humans.

Eventually, King Louis XVI granted to his official a piece of ground on which to grow potatoes. With an enviable flair for public relations, Parmentier posted armed guards around the acreage, and secretly instructed them to accept bribes from citizens who wanted to steal the King’s valuable tubers. Thanks to the created illusion of value and the people’s satisfaction about getting away with something, the potato became accepted and popular.

The United Nations proclaimed 2008 the International Year of the Potato, noting that:

Potatoes are rich in carbohydrates, making them a good source of energy. They have the highest protein content […] in the family of root and tuber crops, and protein of a fairly high quality, with an amino-acid pattern that is well matched to human requirements. They are also very rich in vitamin C […] and contain a fifth of the recommended daily value of potassium.

On the other hand, according to LiveScience.com:

The problem is that potatoes have a high glycemic index, a measure of how quickly carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream. Foods with a higher glycemic index […] are associated with weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes. “The glucose release in the body is pretty large for most potato products since the starch is readily digestible.” This means the potato initially satisfies energy needs but, if that’s your primary food source, leaves you hungry and tired a few hours later…

In 2010, when the U.S. government’s WIC program decided not to pay for potatoes, Chris Voigt of the Washington State Potato commission protested by eating nothing but potatoes (and a bit of oil) for two months.

He consumed every variety of potato within reach, and at least 90% of the time he ate the skins. Obesity researcher and neurobiologist Stephen Guyenet says:

He shed 21 pounds, his fasting glucose decreased by 10 mg/dL (104 to 94 mg/dL), his serum triglycerides dropped by nearly 50%, his HDL cholesterol increased slightly, and his calculated LDL cholesterol dropped by a stunning 41% (142 to 84 mg/dL). The changes in his HDL, triglycerides and fasting glucose are consistent with improved insulin sensitivity…

Voigt described his subjective experience:

I felt really good on the diet. I had lots of energy, slept good at night, and seemed to avoid the cold viruses that circulated at home and work.

He also, according to his wife, stopped snoring during the potato experiment, and resumed snoring once he was back on a normal diet. He chalked it up to coincidence, but it might be worth looking into.

Bonus Fact

The ever-prophetic George Orwell made a prediction that tinned (canned) food would turn out to be “a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Potatoes,” WHFoods.com, undated
Source: “Antoine-Augustin Parmentier,” Newadvent.org, undated
Source: “Why Potato?,” FAO.org, 2008
Source: “Man Eating Nothing But Potatoes for 2 Months,” Livescience.com, 10/20/10
Source: “Interview with Chris Voigt of 20 Potatoes a Day,” Blogspot.com, 12/16/10
Photo credit: 16:9clue via Visualhunt/CC BY

Potatoes and Poverty

Most people know one thing about the history of potatoes. In Ireland, in the early 1840s, millions of farmers lived narrow and impoverished lives, involved in a symbiotic relationship with a monoculture. They only grew potatoes, they only ate potatoes, and the potatoes gave them enough energy to continue cultivating potatoes. In the late 1840s, the Irish crop failed and the resulting famine sent wave after wave of starving immigrants to America.

Almost 80 years ago George Orwell, famous for Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, published a lesser-known book titled The Road to Wigan Pier. It was basically a work of investigative journalism, in which the author reported what he saw while traveling around northern England by train and bus, and on foot.

He described the desperate housing shortage and the unbelievably squalid circumstances in which people lived. Potatoes were the mainstay of their diet, along with white bread, margarine, corned beef, and sugared tea.

Observing and interviewing coal miners, Orwell learned that a heavy meal before starting would impede their ability to work efficiently, and since their pay depended on how much coal they actually removed from the ground, this made a difference. Each miner had a flat tin container called a snap-can and would carry along bread spread with dripping (fat left over from cooking meat) along with a bottle of cold tea, and that was lunch.

The miners would have their main meal in late afternoon, or in the morning, or maybe even in the middle of the night — whenever they got home from working one of the three shifts. Orwell describes their incredibly fit physiques with “not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere” and compares them to iron statues.

Of course these underground laborers were coated with coal dust, inside and out, and had short life expectancies. They were in fact living proof of the Fat Acceptance principle that a good-looking body isn’t everything.

Orwell added a health-conscious note:

Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even […] saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots.

Regarding the effect of poverty on food preferences, the author made very astute remarks that ring true today. The less money people have, he said, the less inclined they feel to spend it on health-promoting food. When people are unemployed, malnourished, bored, and generally miserable, it is difficult to convince them that their limited resources should be spent on wholesome groceries. They want something with a bit of pizazz.

For this and other reasons, he believed that diet would be the most important area to work on when trying to improve the lot of the impoverished masses. He wrote:

A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children. I think it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Great Famine,” Brittanica.com, undated
Source: “The Road to Wigan Pier,” Gutenberg.net.au, undated
Photo credit: Tim Sackton via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA

Is Rock Bottom Necessary?

The theory of addiction recovery, especially in 12-step programs modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, relies heavily on the “rock bottom” trope. This is the notion that until a person is literally lying in the gutter, she or he can’t truly be ready to make a course correction. According to this school of thought, an unbearably awful situation can be motivational when a person forms a resolve to never be in that particular situation again, and feels it so strongly that avoidance of that situation becomes life’s priority.

John McC, the recovering alcoholic who has written so much about the “lizard brain,” offers an insight about how it could work for some people. The base brain is monomaniacally dedicated to the pursuit of alcohol, cocaine, food, or some other thing that brings pleasure, to such an extent that only an enormous dose of pain can knock it off that track. If the world somehow delivers a sufficiently acute agony, the simple-minded lizard brain changes its identity from the pleasure-seeking machine, and switches over to become an entity whose single purpose and focus is pain avoidance.

In John McC’s own story, there was a vague awareness that life would probably end soon. Eviction and genuine street-level homelessness were not enough to nudge him into action, but when a doctor clearly laid out the two choices, “stop drinking or die,” somehow that made an impression.

Even then, the process was mysterious to him. He got on the waiting list for an outpatient treatment program, but hadn’t started to stop yet. One day, he ordered a beer with pizza and then, hardly even fully aware of what he was doing, changed the order to lemonade, and that was the start of the stopping.

Years later, he wrote, “I became convinced that my drinking days were over gradually,” and added:

I don’t really go along with the A.A. idea of “hitting rock bottom”. It seems like they just pick out one worst moment and call that “the bottom”. The reality is that people continue to drink as long as it is fun, and stop when it is more pain than pleasure. Of course people don’t quit drinking when things are good; they quit when things are bad. So however things were just before they quit gets called “the bottom”.

Some people who have experienced A.A. accuse the program of trying to “induce” rock bottom, especially when an intervention is involved. The idea, apparently, is to convince the alcoholic that rock bottom has been reached, which probably is futile because it is an emotional, not a logical, position. An online commenter spoke of resenting the idea that only a “broken shell” is worthy of turning his life around.

Rolf Ankermann, whose books portray A.A. as disempowering and dangerous, believes that death is the only rock bottom and says of A.A:

Many times they arrive because they have been “intervened” or threatened with divorce, the loss of their children in their lives or by a caring EAP program at work. When people are “forced” into rehab, the consequences can indeed be quite dire. It’s not hard to envision some folks coming out of that kind of coercive situation with an “I’ll show you attitude”.

In the realm of obesity caused by eating addiction, some of the people quoted by Childhood Obesity News experienced what might be called a soft rock bottom. For actor Corey Stoll, it was the realization that obesity would relegate him to “character” roles. One man realized that things had to change when he saw himself in his brother’s wedding photos.

Participants in online forums mention such incidents being unable to fit in an airplane seat, or having a chair collapse beneath them. None of those situations is comparable to lying drunk in a gutter, but in all cases, a life circumstance provided the motivation to move in a new direction.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Letters 330,” orange-papers.org, 10/26/12
Source: “‘Glee’ Star Dead: Cory Monteith Dies At 31 Years Old,” Orange-papers.org, 07/15/13
Photo credit: Bob Ramsey via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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