Archive for November, 2009

Last week, for the first time in years, we drove to grandma’s for Thanksgiving.  It was a welcome change. When we lived in California and flew home for holidays, we had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. or so, install the car seats in a taxi, spend nearly an hour just getting to LAX, haul the suitcases and car seats into the airport, check the suitcases, try to keep the girls amused for the next hour while waiting at the gate, then drag our carry-on luggage and the car seats onto the airplane.  Sometimes, depending on what flights were available, we’d have to change planes in Dallas or Denver, which meant lugging the carry-ons and car seats from the airplane, through the terminal, onto a shuttle, through another terminal, and onto another plane. 

This time it was just a matter of tossing a couple of suitcases into the van and driving away. Along the way, we played songs on the car stereo and the girls sang along.  Sara, the six-year-old, has memorized the lyrics to “Farmer Tan,” “No One Loves You Any Better Than Your M-O-M-M-Y” and “Girls,” to name just a few.  (She was a little disappointed to learn that the diner in Pump Boys and Dinettes is called the Double Cup and not the Buttercup, which is what she’d been singing.)

Two hours or so north of Nashville, as we rolled past the steep hills and forests and lakes that surround the interstate, with gray and white clouds drifting through the blue skies, it occurred to me just how much I missed the Midwestern scenery during my decade in the converted desert called Los Angeles.  These are the images that were imprinted into my brain during my youth and young adulthood.  This is home.  I even enjoyed the feeling of a cold wind tugging at my sleeves when we stopped for gas. 

The trip north to grandma’s took about seven hours.  The return trip on Sunday was a bit more adventurous.

As we left Illinois, the girls remembered they’d signed a deal to write a travel book titled Bathrooms of the Midwest and were seriously behind on their research.  Thinking quickly, they counter-synchronized their bladders and colons to ensure that I’d be exiting the highway at 40-minute intervals in search of a bathroom.

Bladder and colon are layman’s terms.  Alana, my four-year-old, reviewed some biology texts when I wasn’t looking and informed me that the proper term for that general area of the body is patoomba.  During the many side-trips when Sara went scampering off to a bathroom to take notes, I encouraged Alana to do the same, stupidly thinking this would enable me to cover perhaps 80 miles before stopping again.  “No, thank you,” she replied.  “There’s nothing in my patoomba.” 

Forty minutes later, the patoomba would be in full crisis mode, and I’d be looking for the next exit.  Thanks to the many stops, I passed the same Winnebago at least eight times between Illinois and Tennessee.  Eventually, the driver began flashing his lights as a greeting.

We also stopped for meals, of course.  At a Wendy’s in central Illinois, at least half the adults were noticeably obese.  When I asked for my double bacon cheeseburger without a bun, conversation around the room ceased.  Lowering my voice in the now-hushed room, I also requested an iced tea without sugar — the tea dispenser was clearly marked “Sweet Tea.”  The clerk disappeared into the back of the restaurant to fill the cup.  I’m guessing they keep a jar of instant tea back there. By contrast, when we stopped at a McDonald’s in Kentucky (after the girls literally began chanting “McDonald’s!  McDonald’s!” from the back seat), hardly anyone looked overweight.  Go figure.

Also in Kentucky, a mere 90 miles from home sweet home, we hit traffic that made me think I’d dreamt the entire move to Tennessee and was now waking up in Los Angeles.  As it turns out, someone in the Kentucky highway department decided Thanksgiving weekend would be a good time to block one lane on Interstate 24 for about a quarter of a mile. 

I’ve never understood why there aren’t any signs about 10 miles ahead of construction zones, warning drivers they’ll soon need to get into the right or left lane.  Traffic is flying along with plenty of room between vehicles, which means in theory we should all be able merge into one lane ahead of time without a panic.

Instead, traffic comes to a halt as everyone (well, almost everyone) takes turns squeezing into the one open lane at the last possible moment.  The backup ran for miles, and it took us nearly 90 minutes to get past it.  As we finally entered the construction zone, I saw exactly what was wrong with the short section of road the state deemed unusable:  there were orange cones on it.  As far as I could tell, that was it.

Before that point, as traffic inched along, we had to pull off the road and onto the shoulder so Alana could step into the grass and empty her patoomba in front of several thousand witnesses.  It was dark by then, but countless spotlights attached to nearly-motionless vehicles ensured that no one behind us missed the show.  (If I understand the physiology correctly, a patoomba has two chambers; fortunately this was the liquid chamber.)

As usual when we travel, I was horrified to see the snacks people were buying whenever we stopped to fill the tank (or empty one of the girls’).  It’s amazing how many varieties of junk can be constructed from starch, hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup.  It’s even more amazing to see how many people buy them.  My stomach was churning just from witnessing the purchases.

We learned our lesson on the drive from California when we moved here.  The girls are good travelers, but if they eat sugar and then have to sit still in a vehicle, there’s a fifty-fifty chance a meltdown will follow.  So during this trip, we were firm about it:  no junk.  I had one conversation that went like this:

“Daddy, can I buy this?”
“No.”
“This?”
“No.”
“Can I have this one?”
“Sara, what is that made from?”
“Probably … high fructose corn syrup?”
“Right.  Is that good for you?”
“No.  It’s bad for me.”
“So should you be eating it?”
“No.”
“That’s right.  You can pick out some nuts if you’re hungry.”

So she did.  And despite what turned into a drive lasting more than nine hours, she and Alana didn’t have any temper-tantrums … although I nearly did when we finally passed the orange cones.

Someone elses idea of road food.

Someone else's idea of road food.

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One of the more controversial claims I made in Fat Head is that the obesity epidemic has been overblown — mostly by people with a vested interest, such as the CDC and the weight-loss industry.  (Unfortunately, between the government-industry revolving door and the consulting contracts offered to officials still in government, those are often the same people.)

A recent Gallup poll supports my claim.  I’m not suggesting (and didn’t suggest in Fat Head, despite what some reviewers think) that we don’t see more huge people walking around in public than we did 30 years ago.  Anyone with eyes knows a minority of the population has gotten very fat. 

But that’s a minority.  The statistics say the average American is only about 8 to 12 pounds heavier than a generation ago.  Let’s split the difference and call it 10 pounds — and remember, we’re also about 10 years older on average than we were in 1970.  As Dr. Eric Oliver pointed out in the film, when the Body Mass Index classifications of overweight and obese were adopted, they put millions of people right on the edge of being overweight.  It only took a few extra pounds to push those people into the “overweight” category … and then we gained those pounds.

The main thrust of the article about the Gallup poll is that while most Americans are overweight (using the BMI scale, anyway), fewer than half are currently trying to lose weight.  Well, duh … millions of people have tried the “eat less and move more” method promoted by doctors and nutritionists and failed.  It’s no wonder they’ve given up.

But what I found most interesting was the data on who’s “overweight” and by how much.  Here are the numbers:

More than 50 pounds overweight: 6%
21-50 pounds overweight: 17%
11-20 pounds overweight: 15%
1-10 pounds overweight: 24%
At ideal weight: 18%
1-10 pounds underweight: 7%
11-20 pounds underweight: 3%
More than 20 pounds underweight: 1%
Undesignated: 9%

We’re looking at BMI figures here, not a measurement of who’s actually fat and who isn’t.  As I’ve said many times, the BMI scale is ridiculous.  It labels almost anyone with decent muscles as overweight or obese.  Tim Tebow, the star quarterback of the Florida Gators, is a lean, mean, running machine.  He’s also 6’3″ and weighs 245, which puts his BMI at 30.6 — in other words, obese.  To be considered normal weight, he’d have to lose 45 pounds.  Short of amputating a leg, that’s not going to happen.

But of course, not many people are as muscular as Tim Tebow, so let’s take an example closer to home — me.  When I graduated from high school, I was 5’8″ and weighed 155 pounds, giving me a BMI of 23.6 … normal weight.  But I only had a 36-inch chest, not much in the way of muscles, a big belly and “boy boobs.”  When we played shirts vs. skins in gym-class competitions, I prayed to end up on the shirts team. 

Today I’m 5’11″ and weigh 195 pounds, giving me a BMI of 27.2 … overweight.  I also have a 44-inch chest, with much thicker arms and legs.  My belly is smaller and the boy boobs are gone.  But to be considered just barely at “normal” weight, I’d have to lose 20 pounds.  To reach my high-school BMI of 23.6, I’d have to lose 26 pounds.  That’s how screwy the BMI measurement is.

Not surprisingly, then, the Gallup poll found a “gap” between the number of people who are technically overweight and the number who consider themselves overweight.  No kidding.  If you tried to tell Tim Tebow he needs to lose 45 pounds, he’d probably hit you.  If you tried to tell me I should lose another 26 pounds, I’d probably ask Tim Tebow to hit you.

Let’s have a little fun with the Gallup numbers.  We’ve heard over and over that obesity is reaching epidemic proportions and 60% of all Americans are overweight.  Yup … if we accept that the BMI scale actually means something and we include people who are 10 pounds or less overweight, I guess that’s true.

But since the average weight gain since 1970 is about 10 pounds, let’s take everyone who’s considered overweight, put them on a low-carb diet, and knock off those pounds — after all, 10 pounds isn’t much.  Better yet, let’s decide the BMI categories are arbitrary (which they are) and simply spot people another 10 pounds before they’re considered overweight.

All of a sudden, POOF! … our epidemic isn’t quite so scary.  Instead of 62% of all American adults being overweight, we’re down to 38% — and we could even say that only 23% of all adults are more than 10 pounds overweight. 

According to the poll, the average American adult is 14 pounds over his or her ideal weight.  But keep in mind, that’s an average.  Six percent of American adults are 50 pounds or more overweight.  They’re not being offset in the numbers by people who are 50 pounds underweight. 

Take one guy who’s 50 pounds above the “normal” BMI and average him together with one man who’s 15 pounds overweight, three who are 10 pounds overweight, one who’s five pounds overweight, and one at the ideal weight, and you get an average of 14 pounds overweight.  But only two of the seven are above that average, and five of the seven are within 10 pounds of their supposedly ideal weight. 

There are probably a lot of numbers like these involved in that “gap” that had the Gallup people so surprised.  People who are within 10 pounds of their supposedly ideal weight (a quarter of the population) can be forgiven for answering that their weight is “about right.”

That’s what you’re actually seeing when hysterical members of the media show you those state-by-state charts, with the overweight and obesity numbers growing like a runaway cancer:  the statistical outcome of 10 extra pounds on average since 1970 … which for many people were the result of gym memberships and weight machines.  Not many people lifted weights in 1970.  Now even my naturally-thin wife does.

A different Gallup poll underscores another point I made in the film:  there is a genuine epidemic out there, and it’s called diabetes.  More than 11% percent of Americans adults have diabetes now, and more than 90% of those have type 2 diabetes, which is mostly preventable.  The rate has more than doubled in the last decade alone.  Among senior citizens, the numbers are even more harrowing: nearly one-quarter have diabetes.  Just think of all the physical damage that’s causing.  And even those numbers don’t count the pre-diabetics.

Since high blood sugar can lead to both weight gain and diabetes, we’re actually seeing two sides of the same coin.  But the real problem is the diabetes, not the extra 10 pounds, or even the extra 20 or 30 pounds many people have gained.  In my family, there are two type 2 diabetics who are lean and look great in their clothes.  No one told warned them about the dangers of high blood sugar, and since they were lean, they assumed their diets were just fine — after all, they ate lots of those energy-giving carbohydrates and not too much of that icky fat.

The constant drumbeat about the obesity epidemic and the emphasis on losing weight is sending the wrong message.  We need to tell people to get their blood sugar checked and keep it under control with the proper diet.  If we do that, the 10 pounds will take care of itself.  And if it doesn’t, well … so what?  A bit of belly won’t kill you if it’s not the result of high blood sugar.

p.s. – We’re leaving for grandma’s house on Wednesday.  It’s not likely I’ll post on Thursday, but I’ll check comments when I can.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving.

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I heard from a Facebook friend in France that Fat Head will air again on French television. I don’t speak French (except, apparently, on French TV), but here’s the listing:

http://television.telerama.fr/tele/emission.php?id=15028424

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Review:  Movie Popcorn Is Full Of Saturated Fat
(CSPI, 2009).  Zero stars.

The Center For Science in the Public Interest released its latest horror story today, titled Movie Popcorn Is Full Of Saturated Fat.  Actually, this latest effort is a remake of another CSPI horror story released 15 years ago, also titled Movie Popcorn Is Full Of Saturated Fat.

I’m wondering why a busy, successful media organization like CSPI has been reduced to producing a remake.  This is, after all, the same group that managed to spend much of the past decade filling our screens with such screamers as Eggs Will Kill You, Gryos Are The Worst Food On Earth, The Coffee Killer, Fettucine Alfredo: Heart Attack On A Plate, and Monster Thickburger: Heart Attack In A Bun.

I can only guess that CSPI was affected by last year’s writers’ strike in Hollywood.  Or perhaps executive producer Michael Jacobson has heard plenty of pitches for horror stories featuring newer faces in the food market, but none of them captured his fancy quite like the fatty, blobby monsters that built his media empire.

Either way, as any movie fan knows, remakes usually aren’t very good, and sadly this one is no exception.  To be honest, this story barely qualifies as a remake.  It’s closer to a straight repeat.  Here’s a quote from the Los Angeles Times synopsis:

A medium-sized popcorn and medium soda at the nation’s largest movie chain pack the nutritional equivalent of three Quarter Pounders topped with 12 pats of butter, according to a report released today by the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Lions and burgers and butter-pats … oh my!  Every time CSPI wants to scare us with yet another version of The Thing That Contains Fat, they start tossing out the Quarter Pounders and the butter-pats.  As the kids today say, Boooorrriiing! Maybe they should try producing their horror stories in 3-D so when they toss some butter at the camera, we’ll at least feel compelled to duck.

The biggest weakness with the current production is the casting.  Once again, CSPI chose Coconut Oil as their bogie man — the same bad actor who appeared in their 1994 production.  As the Los Angeles Times (perhaps trying to be helpful) explains:

One problem is that Regal and AMC, the two largest chains, pop their popcorn in coconut oil, which is about 90% saturated fat, noted Jayne Hurley, senior nutritionist at Washington-based CSPI.

Coconut Oil may have frightened audiences 15 years ago, but since then the oily substance has made an annoying habit of showing off its benefits.  Far from being a heart-stopper, it’s been spotted in public fighting viruses, promoting healthy thyroid function, assisting in weight loss by boosting metabolisms, and protecting against cancer.  Those are hardly the actions of an aspiring bogie-man.

I guess it’s fair to say CSPI has a talent for scary stories, but a tin ear for casting the principal actors.  After releasing the original version of Movie Popcorn Is Full Of Saturated Fat, CSPI introduced Hydrogenated Soybean Oil as their latest action hero, dedicated to fighting heart disease.  (Industry insiders have long insisted that CSPI received a hefy product-placement fee for their promotion efforts.)

Unfortunately, “Trans Fats,” as Hydrogenated Soybean Oil was dubbed by media, turned out to be a public relations disaster.  Trans was soon implicated in a number of suspicious deaths, many induced by the very heart disease CSPI anointed Trans to battle.  After first defending Trans in a flurry of press releases, CSPI later quietly abandoned the effort.  Eventually they even began suing anyone who employed Trans — incredibly, without ever acknowledging they originally and enthusiastically promoted the frankenfat’s dubious career.

With Trans no longer on anyone’s A-list, CSPI is now promoting the career of Canola Oil — yet another Canadian hoping to capture the hearts of the American public by fighting the horrors of saturated fat.  And indeed, Canola is everywhere these days.  The trouble is, Canola Oil lacks natural talent.  (No surprise, since it’s not natural for humans to consume oils chemically extracted from rapeseeds.)  Canola Oil not only failed to capture the hearts of test audiences — laboratory rats and pigs  – but apparently led to problems with bleeding and heart lesions.

Worse still for Jacobson, the public seems to be growing jaded.  CSPI’s horror stories just aren’t eliciting the screams they once did.  Again, as the Los Angeles Times explains:

“According to the most recent statistics from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the average American attends six movies a year,” Regal said. “Theater popcorn and movie snacks are viewed as a treat and not intended to be part of a regular diet.”

It’s unclear if consumers would storm the concession stand for low-cal popcorn anyway. After the 1994 popcorn report, “many cinema operators responded by offering their patrons additional choices, such as air-popped popcorn,” the National Assn. of Theatre Owners said in a statement.

“After very little time, movie patrons in droves made their voices heard — they wanted the traditional popcorn back.”

Perhaps it’s time for CSPI to get out the business — or least bring back Coconut Oil in the kind of happy, feel-production it so richly deserves.

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My four-year-old daughter Alana will be packing bread in her lunchbox tomorrow when she goes to preschool.  No, we haven’t gone over to the dark side, and no, she didn’t ask for it.  But she did bring home a note this afternoon that reads as follows:

Dear Parents:

Our STARS assessment is coming up.  As you might recall, a Meals Guidelines paper was included in your packet of information at the beginning of this school year.  Whether fairly or not, we are evaluated and rated on the lunches that you send in for your children.

Each child MUST have 3/4 cup of milk, whether they drink it or not.

Each child MUST have two servings of fruits or vegetables:
100% fruit juice counts as one serving
Fruit cup or applesauce counts as one serving
Raisins count as one IF they equal 1/2 cup
Carrots count
Celery counts
Potato chips don’t count (nor do other chips)
Salad with dressing works also – but remember the fork!

Each child MUST have one serving of grain or bread:
1/2 slice of bread
1/4 cup of dry cereal
1/4 cup of pasta, noodles or grain
Peanut butter crackers

Each child MUST have one serving of meat or meat alternative:
1 1/2 oz. of meat or poultry
1 1/2 oz. of cheese
3/4 egg or 3/8 cup of cooked dry beans or peas
3/4 oz. of nuts and/or seeds
6 oz. of yogurt
3 tablespoons of peanut butter or other nut or seed butter

For snack time, please pack components from two of the four categories.

Alana attends preschool at a Methodist church in downtown Franklin.  It’s a private preschool, but evaluated by the state — which I’m guessing receives its marching orders from the federal government.  Perhaps it’s part of the No Child Left Without Grain program, or the No Parent Trusted to Make Proper Dietary Decisions Act.

Either way, the evaluation process is simultaneously laughable and appalling.  We’re actually going to have officials visiting the school to make sure every child is packing a government-approved lunch.  Why?  What is the rationale here?  We’re not talking about a lunch prepared and served by the school; this is an evaluation of the lunches sent to school by parents.  So apparently, the school is being judged on how well they’ve convined us to substitute the government’s dietary wisdom for our own.

That’s bad enough.  But worse, I could ensure that my daughter passes inspection by spreading three tablespoons of peanut butter on a slice of white bread and adding a box of fruit juice and a half-cup of raisins.  (Better not forget the milk, though.)  Yup … I could make the state happy by giving Alana a lunch guaranteed to send her blood sugar on a roller-coaster ride.

Conversely, I could screw up the school’s rankings by packing a lunch I believe is good for her … say, some meat and cheese and nuts, but no bread or fruit juice – in other words, the kind of lunch she usually eats.  I’m not comfortable having that kind of power.  Skip the carbs entirely, and I may inadvertently shut down the whole school.

When I first read the guidelines — shortly after my wife finished shaking her head and handed them to me — I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we sent Alana to school with a salad but no fork.  I picture some state official realizing there’s no fork in the bag, then banging the heels of her boots together to spring a poison blade from one of the boot-tips and kicking a teacher while screaming, “Zere ees no fork vit dis salad!  Zis child has no intention of eating her green leafy vegetables!  You are attempting to circumvent zee guidelines!”

The groupings are simply laughable.  How exactly did fruits and vegetables all get lumped together?  Do the government nutrition nannys really believe celery and bananas provide anything close to the same nutrients and macronutrients?  Celery is nearly all water and fiber.  A medium banana, on the other hand, contains more than 100 calories, mostly from sugar.

Or let’s look at the “meat” group.  Sliced turkey breast is nearly all protein.  Cheese is mostly fat with some protein.  Peas provide a little bit of protein but are mostly starch.  The typical yogurt cups you’ll find in the grocery store are mostly sugar.  Yet all them count as “meat” in the evaluation.

I’m tempted to send to her school with a couple of celery stalks, a quarter-cup of dried noodles, three-quarters of an egg and big thermos of chocolate milk, just to see what would happen.  I’m even more tempted to write up a list of 95 reasons these nutrition guidelines are hogwash and nail the document to the church door. 

But of course, the church is just doing what they’ve been ordered to do by the government nutrition nannys.  So my wife will dutifully prepare Alana a lunchmeat sandwich and toss in the required fruits and vegetables, and the school will pass the all-important evaluation.  And then Alana will go back to eating the kind of lunch she prefers, at least until the next evaluation day.  I suspect the other parents will be doing the same.

Your tax dollars at work.  Ain’t it a beautiful sight to see?

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I wasn’t able to get to the gym this week until Thursday, so my 6-Week Cure update is actually six weeks and two days.  The final results:  36.5 inches around the belly, 195 pounds.  I started at 41 inches, 205 pounds, so I lost 4.5 inches and 10 pounds.  I suspect my actual fat loss may have been more than 10 pounds, since I’m lifting 20 or 30 pounds more on several weight machines compared to when I started.  Doesn’t seem likely I’d gain that much strength without adding at least a bit of muscle mass.

Those aren’t eye-popping results, but I’m happy with them.  I was already on a low-carb diet and I was already working out, so knocking off an extra 10 pounds and making some significant gains in strength is an accomplishment — especially at my age, which is …

… 51 as of today (egads!)

Boy, time flies.  Exactly a year ago, when I turned 50, we celebrated by throwing the premiere party for Fat Head at a restaurant in Burbank.  That experience still feels so recent.

Pretty much everyone who worked on the film was there, along with several friends and people I knew from my programming work.  Drs. Mike and Mary Dan Eades made it through the door just before the film started — they were escaping fires in Santa Barbara that threatened their home.  I couldn’t believe they showed up.  I found out Mary Dan Eades and I have the same birthday, so we got to toast each other.

It was the first time I had a chance to show the film to an actual crowd.  The laughs came at the right places — always a relief for a comedian.  I’d worked and worked to shape the humor, find the funny moments … so naturally, a reply offered by my wife in one scene got the biggest laugh in the film.

It was a joyous occasion, but also a sentimental one.  My wife and I had already started talking about leaving California.  We hadn’t even selected a new place to live; we just knew we’d had it with California in general and the Los Angeles area specifically.  As much as we enjoyed the party, we were also aware that this big, happy gathering of our Southern California friends would likely be our last.  It was.

A month later, Fat Head aired on a TV network in Israel — the first commercial showing anywhere. Soon it also aired in New Zealand, Poland and Turkey.  I started hearing from people around the world, asking lots of questions.  I decided to start this blog to keep the conversation going.

In March we visited the little town of Franklin in Tennessee and fell in love with the place.  We put our house on the market as soon as we got back.  We had some nibbles, and even a firm offer in June, but the buyer flaked.  We finally had a sale go through late in July, then found out we had about two weeks to pack up and go.  We didn’t even have a place to live in Tennessee yet.  I flew out here knowing I had three days to find a house.  I suppose it should’ve been a stressful situation, but it wasn’t.  Some things just feel like they’re meant to be.  Moving here was one of them.

So now we’re here, and we’ve never regretted the move.  The scenery is beautiful, the people are polite, and my daughter loves her new school.  My only fear – not enough opportunities for creative endeavors – turned out to be groundless.  I’ve already performed in a play with a group of very talented actors — and, in sharp contrast to my theater experiences in Los Angeles, not a one of them seemed to be using acting as a substitute for some badly-needed therapy.

In short, it’s been a great year.  I don’t mind turning 51, because life is good. I feel strong and energetic and optimistic — despite what certain goofy researchers say about low-carb diets and mood.

Here’s to many more.

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