Health Prevention

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Senator Harkin

Senator Harkin

Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa recently wrote an op-ed piece to explain how Congress is going to design a new and improved health-care system that will take care of everybody while focusing on preventing diseases. 

I’ve copied some quotes from Harkin’s op-ed, which are in italics.  My comments on the quotes aren’t.

With the Senate health committee convening daily to craft a comprehensive health reform bill, the basic outline of this landmark legislation is now clear.  Yes, it will ensure access to affordable, quality care for every American.  But, just as important, it will hold down health care costs by creating a sharp new emphasis on disease prevention and public health.

When politicians talk about holding down costs, it’s time to hold onto your wallet.  When Medicare was enacted in 1965, it was projected to cost $12 billion in 1990.  The actual cost in 1990 was $107 billion.  The congressional budget-crunchers were only off by 792 percent.

We spend a staggering $2.3 trillion annually on health care – 16.5 percent of our GDP and far more than any other country spends on health care – yet the World Health Organization ranks U.S. health care only 37th among nations, on par with Serbia.

I’m not happy with our health-care system either, but the World Health Organization’s rankings are waaaaay skewed.  (Honestly, would you rather be taken to an emergency room in the U.S. or Costa Rica?)  I looked up how they calculate those rankings and will write about that – plus more about health-care costs, etc.  – on the blog, probably next week.

How can this be so?  The problem is that we have systematically neglected wellness and disease prevention.  Currently in the United States, 95 percent of every health care dollar is spent on treating illnesses and conditions after they occur.  But we spend peanuts on prevention.

I agree; we medicate symptoms instead of preventing diseases in the first place.  Hey, maybe this Harkin fellow is onto something …

Consider this: Right now, some 75 percent of health care costs are accounted for by heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and obesity.  What these five diseases and conditions have in common is that they are largely preventable and even reversible by changes in nutrition, physical activity, and lifestyle.

Yes!  These are the “diseases of civilization” and they can certainly be prevented.  Go, Harkin, go, Harkin, go, Harkin, go!  Maybe I’ll move back to Iowa, where I spent much of my childhood, just so I can vote for Senator Prevention in the next election.

Listen to what Dr. Dean Ornish told our Senate health committee: “Studies have shown that changing lifestyle could prevent at least 90 percent of all heart disease.  Thus, the disease that accounts for more premature deaths and costs Americans more than any other illness is almost completely preventable, and even reversible, simply by changing lifestyle.”

AAAAAAAAAARGGGGHH!!!  Cancel that move back to Iowa.  Senator Prevention is quoting Dean Ornish, one of the biggest promoters of grain-based, lowfat diets.  This is the same diet recommendation that triggered the rise in obesity and the epidemic of diabetes we see today.

We also have to realize that wellness and prevention must be truly comprehensive.  It is not only about what goes on in a doctor’s office.  It encompasses workplace wellness programs, community-wide wellness programs, building bike paths and walking trails, getting junk food out of our schools, making school breakfasts and lunches more nutritious, increasing the amount of physical activity our children get, and so much more.

Ah, yes, that’s why our grandparents were lean and had a fraction of the Type II diabetes rates we see today:  it was all those wellness programs, bike paths, walking trails, and federal school-lunch programs.  Boy, if we just hadn’t gotten rid of those programs, we’d be in fine shape today.

Winston Churchill famously said that “Americans always do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”  Well, we’ve tried everything else, and it has led us to bad health and the brink of bankruptcy.

Yes, we have tried everything else … like federal nutrition guidelines pushing a lowfat diet, a federally-designed Food Pyramid, a school-lunch program that’s required by law to follow that pyramid, and a federal committee that declared dietary fat and cholesterol to be the cause of heart disease.

Okay, enough of the Harkin quotes.  You can read his full op-ed here.  The point is, nothing’s going to change.

Preventing heart disease, obesity and diabetes is a great idea.  But if you think solid advice on how to do it is going to come from the federal government, you must have been asleep for the past 30 years.  It was yet another Senate committee, plus the USDA and FDA, who told us to avoid fat, eat lots of whole grains, and go on low-fat diets.  The federal committee that was just assembled to re-write the federal nutrition guidelines is comprised of the usual suspects: so-called experts who think the key to health to simply eat less and cut back on fat. 

And let’s think a bit about Senator Harkin himself.  He’s a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.  That means he’ll be deeply involved in any new health and nutrition guidelines that are woven into the new health-care bill.  He’s also the senior senator from Iowa – you know, the state that grows all that corn we learned so much about in the documentary King Corn. 

Mountains of federally-subsidized corn are the reason you find high-fructose corn syrup in pretty much everything these days.  Cheap corn syrup is the reason 7-11 can sell you a 44-ounce Big Gulp that costs less than a bottle of carbonated water, and fast-food restaurants can hand you a cup the size of your head and let you have unlimited refills.  Dirt-cheap corn is also the reason ranchers don’t raise their cattle on grass anymore.

So … what do you suppose the odds are that Senator Harkin’s committee will conduct an exhaustive study of what’s causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease, then announce an end to all federal corn subsidies? 

What are the odds that the USDA – whose mission is to sell grains – will announce that putting breads and cereals at the base of the Food Pyramid was a dumb idea? 

What are the odds that the hundreds of scientists who work for the National Institutes of Health but have lucrative contracts with pharmaceutical companies will stand up and declare that cholesterol doesn’t actually cause heart disease and the anti-fat campaigns where misguided?

Yes, our health is declining and our health-care system is an expensive mess.  Kids are becoming insulin-resistant now, and nearly one-quarter of all senior citizens have Type II diabetes – and that figure doesn’t even count the millions of pre-diabetics who are nonetheless suffering the health consequences of producing too much insulin.

Thank God the federal government is going to do something about it.  They did such a bang-up job last time around.


Stretching The Truth

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Media folks are fond of saying the camera never lies.  I’ve always thought that’s a load of bologna.  A camera is only as honest as the person behind the lens.  If  you’re shooting pictures at a rally for a political candidate you don’t like, you can choose to ignore the thousands of cheering supporters and focus instead on the little group of angry protestors.  Your pictures then emphasize conflict and dissent, when there was actually little of it.  (Not that our press would ever pull such a stunt.)

Pictures can also be posed or altered. In the old Soviet Union, officials who had fallen out of favor used to routinely disappear from state photos … and probably from the earth as well.  That required talented artists.  But these days, anyone with a computer can fire up a copy of PhotoShop and create pictures that lie.

Which brings me to this rather interesting weight-loss story Jason Sandeman of Well Done Chef! forwarded to me.  To sum it up, a formerly-fat female chef is now thin and lovely.  She was miserable then, she’s happy now, she can wear a smaller dress size, blah-blah-blah, etc., etc., etc. 

As usual, the story misses the point about her diet:  it’s clear from the list of foods she used to eat that she was a major carbivore, but of course the writer focuses on the fat and calories.  But that’s not what inspired Jason to send me this story.  Take a good look at the before and after pictures:

Notice anything strange about the before picture?  Her face is way too wide.  So are her hands.  She’s literally big-boned in that picture, but not in the after picture.  My weight has varied by 35 pounds over the past decade, but my hands and cheekbones never tried to keep up with my belly. So unless Miss Skinny Chef went on a special bone-shrinking diet, the before picture was stretched for dramatic effect. 

After laughing at the obvious fakery, I fired up my own copy of PhotoShop and squeezed the picture until her skull resumed what appeared to be normal proportions.  In doing so, I also noticed the stone tiles went from rectangles to squares, which is probably what they are.  Now look at the supposedly fat chef:

You know what I see there?  With appropriate apologies to my wife, I see a hottie with some good muscle tone.  If this is actually the same woman (I have my doubts), it’s ridiculous to label her as overweight.

I said it in the film, I’ve said it in interviews, and I’ll say it again here:  the obesity epidemic has been exaggerated to suit the goals of the weight-loss industry.  If you check the story, you’ll notice it explains that Skinny Chef  lost weight on the Cambridge Diet – one of those stupid, semi-starvation, liquid diets.

If this woman truly did consider herself overweight and chose to slim down by eliminating the sugar and starch from her diet, I’d be all for it, because she’d be getting healthier in the process. But too many people focus exclusively on weight.  They become so desperate to shrink themselves, they go on semi-starvation diets that end up wrecking their metabolisms – or worse, they let a surgeon cut apart their stomachs and bypass a crucial section of the digestive system.

Looking great in a dress is nice – but not if you’re being buried in it.  Choosing a diet should be about health first and foremost.  How you appear on camera is secondary … even if the camera is telling the truth.


Weekend Bonus: King Corn

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Last night my wife and I watched the documentary King Corn, which I highly recommend because it serves up one of my favorite combo meals:  information and humor.


I heard about King Corn when Nora Gedgaudas interviewed Curt Ellis, one of the film’s creators.  Ellis and his co-creator Ian Cheney decided to learn about the dominance of corn in our food supply by growing an acre of corn in Iowa, then following where corn goes after it’s harvested.  The short answer is:  it goes into pretty much everything.

People like to blame the big, bad food industry for turning us into a nation of corn-eaters, but it was clear to me (and yes, this fits nicely with my own bias) that the problem is rooted in stupid government policy.  Before Ellis and Cheney even till the ground, the farmer whose land they’re renting tells them, “Without the government payments, you wouldn’t make any money growing corn.”

Duh!  As they explain in the film, farmers in Iowa used to grow a variety of crops.  Now most of them grow corn, period.  Why strictly corn?  Because they get subsidies for it.  Take away the subsidies, and corn would be far less plentiful, or much more expensive, or both.  As any economist will tell you, you get less of what you tax and more of what you subsidize.

Mountains of cheap, government-subsidized corn are the reason corn syrup replaced sugar as a sweetener, and also the reason most cattle are raised on corn.  Why should a cattle rancher buy enough land to let the cattle graze when it’s cheaper to have a few tons of corn shipped in?  As Dr. Al Sears told me during our interview, grains are literally cheaper than dirt – he compared the per-pound price.

So your tax dollars are making nutritionally inferior food cheaper to produce.  Those of us who don’t drink sodas are helping to buy them for people who do.  Those of us who would prefer to eat grass-fed beef are helping to make corn-fed beef cheaper, which pretty much guarantees it will dominate the market.

Doesn’t that just make you proud of your politicians?


Michael Jackson

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I’m going to preface this by pointing out that as I’m writing, the details surrounding Michael Jackson’s death are still sketchy.  There have been rumors for some time that he’d become a heavy drinker.  Several news sites also reported earlier in the year that he was living on biscuits, gravy and painkillers.  So we don’t know – and may never know – what killed him.  The families and handlers of celebrities are pretty good at keeping those details locked up.

Having said all that, when I first heard of Jackson’s death, I couldn’t help but recall that vegetarian advocacy groups have mentioned him many times over the years as a shining example of the healthy vegetarian lifestyle.  Here’s a quote from Jackson’s book Moonwalk, published in 1988:

“I’m a vegetarian now and I’m so much thinner. I’ve been on a strict diet for years. I feel better than I ever have, healthier and more energetic.”

I’m pretty sure we can rule out a lack of exercise as a contributing factor in his death, because Jackson was an incredible dancer.  His concerts were as much athletic events as musical events.  To prepare for his tours, he worked out with Lou Ferrigno, a bodybuilder who once portrayed The Incredible Hulk.

So Jackson was a lean guy who exercised more than most of us, and he apparently didn’t eat meat.  Now he’s dead at age 50 … my age.

One isolated case doesn’t prove anything, of course.  But obviously his vegetarian diet didn’t make him immune to cardiac arrest, if that’s what killed him.  And if he was abusing alcohol, a diet consisting of vegetarian foods that metabolize easily into blood sugar may have made him crave the stuff, as I talked about during my interview with Nora Gedgaudas.

You will also no doubt recall that Linda McCartney, another famous vegetarian, died of cancer at age 56.  Again, one isolated example doesn’t constitute proof, but it doesn’t surprise me when someone who eats a lot of starch – vegetarian or not – develops cancer.  Starches turn to glucose, and glucose feeds cancer cells.  Drip glucose on cancerous tissue in a lab, and it will proliferate like crazy. 

Meanwhile, cancer is virtually non-existent among hunter-gatherers.  There’s a reason cancer, heart disease and Type II diabetes are called “The Diseases of Civilization.”  They barely show up in populations that still live on a primal diet.

I have a few friends who are vegetarians.  I wouldn’t trade my health status with any of them.  One had reconstructive dental surgery because she lost more than 50 percent of the bone tissue in her jaw.  (She’s a vegan, by the way.)  Another is currently suffering from autoimmune diseases and bone loss in her spine.  Again, I’m not surprised.  Too much starch can leach calcium from your bones, and grains can cause your intestines to leak proteins into your blood; when the body attacks those proteins as foreign invaders, it ends up attacking your own tissues as well.

Vegetarian web sites love to point out that vegetarians in general have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.  That may be true.  But vegetarians are also, compared to the rest of the population, more concerned about health.  They are far less likely to smoke or drink 44-ounce Big Gulps of soda, and they’re more likely to exercise.  It’s not avoiding meat that makes them healthier; it’s avoiding all the junk so many people put into their bodies.

One of the studies that fueled the notion that avoiding meat was the key to health involved Seventh-Day Adventists, who are strict vegetarians.  The study noted that the Seventh-Day Adventists suffered fewer health problems and lived longer than the average American.

But Seventh-Day Adventists also don’t smoke, don’t eat candy, don’t drink sodas or alcohol, and don’t do drugs.  So another group of researchers thought to compare them to Mormons, who also avoid those health hazards, but do eat meat.  In fact, they’ve been described as “some of the biggest beef-eaters in the world.”  Guess what?  The Mormons were even healthier and lived even longer. 

So the moral of the story is: don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, and don’t eat junk food.  But a steak isn’t junk food.  Biscuits are junk food.


On Primal Body-Primal Mind Radio

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On Wednesday, June 24th, I’ll be one of the guests interviewed on Primal Body-Primal Mind, an internet radio show hosted by Nora Gedgaudas.  We’ll be talking about the link between carbohydrate addiction and alcoholism. 

It’s a great show, and I encourage you to listen to all the episodes.

UPDATE:  The show is now available on this page for streaming or downloading.