Food Lobby Dominates Policy Making, Follows Trail Blazed By Tobacco Industry

Since joining the Association for Healthcare Journalists recently, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of investigative reporting and analysis more than ever.

Here’s a recent post on the AHCJ website highlighting the scope of Big Food’s toxic influence on health policy.

 

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children. 

And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity

That success has come through what the authors imply is a sort of big-tobacco model, in which the industry combines promises of self-regulation with huge amounts of money, and thus creates an irresistible package for lawmakers. For a blow-by-blow on how the lobbying muscle swayed the decision-makers in recent battles, I strongly recommend you read the full piece, which draws heavily from both data and extensive interviews. Particularly interesting? The examples of how the Citizens United decision has impacted far more than just election politics.

Learning What Your Genome Contains

From today’s Wall Street Journal health blog, here’s the story of a Stanford professor who used information from his genome to change his diet and exercise patterns to bring his blood sugar levels back to normal. It appears to illustrate the upside of genetic testing.

Snyder, who is 56, two years ago decided to see what genetics might tell him about his own health. He’s not alone, as the cost of mapping a person’s full genetic profile has been dropping quickly, as WSJ reports, raising questions about how best to use the information. Colleagues sequenced Snyder’s whole genome, which revealed a number of potential health issues.

He learned he has an elevated risk for heart disease, not unexpected since “everyone on my father’s side died of heart failure,” he says. Surprisingly, he also discovered he is at higher risk for Type 2 diabetes. “For me, that came out of nowhere,” he says.

Snyder is physically active and isn’t overweight. And, at the time of the genome test, his glucose level was normal. But the level began rising gradually over the next few months. Finally, at a physical, the doctor told him the latest tests showed, “You are diabetic.”

He ramped up his bike riding and added running to his regimen. He cut out most sweets. “It took six months, but my glucose came back to normal,” he says. His doctor now calls him a “managed diabetic,” says Snyder, who has so far avoided needing medication.

Snyder is one of the drivers behind a Stanford study of faculty members in the genetics department who were offered the chance to get their genome sequenced and interpreted. Participants will be followed for more than a year to see how they use the information to manage their health, how they react to unexpected findings and other issues.

A downside of having your genome analyzed is that, legally or illegally, risk factors could potentially be used against you by employers or insurers. Federal law has some protections in place against such abuses, but we are at such an early stage in the application of this technology that the future is very much uncharted territory.

An interesting sidelight of this doctor’s story, not fully addressed in this article, is the fact that his diabetes first emerged very shortly after he was told that he had a genetic predisposition to that disease.

Certainly that could be a coincidence and there’s no overt indication to the contrary. But what an odd coincidence!

 

House Budget Slashes Public Health, Nutrition Assistance to the Poor

The House of Representatives seems hellbent on destroying (or if that fails, undercutting) the nation’s public health efforts, cutting whatever they can whenever they can.

From today’s Public Health Newswire:

House passes bill that cuts health programs while sparing defense
On Wednesday, the American Public Health Association sent a letter to House members that urged lawmakers to vote against the bill, which includes provisions to repeal the healthcare reform law’s Prevention and Public Health Fund; reduce funding for both Medicaid and CHIP; and cut about $36 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which the association said would eliminate benefits to about 2 million Americans.

Cutting food aid to the poor at a time when more have need for it is quite a statement of principles on the part of the House Republican majority.

 

 

Climate Change: Last Chances to Avoid Disaster Fast Approaching

This has far greater implications for long-term population health than most of what we usually call health policy. The Obama Administration’s upcoming decision on the Keystone Pipeline is the central focus, but the issue goes much deeper.

From one of the nation’s top climate scientists, James Hansen of NASA, in today’s New York Times:

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.

 

Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment of the Humanities

Wendell Berry is one of my two favorite living poets. (The other is Gary Snyder). A farmer and a professor (University of Kentucky), he has long been among the wisest voices advocating for the values and practices of sustainability and community.

From today’s morning email from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

At a time that has followed crises in the global economy, unrest in society, and deterioration in the world’s ecosystems, the National Endowment for the Humanities could not have picked a more potent speaker than Wendell Berry for this year’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The essayist, novelist, and poet—a Kentuckian long known for his advocacy for family farming, community relationships, and sustainability—delivered a characteristically eloquent yet scathing critique of the industrial economy and its toll on humanity in his remarks here on Monday.

“The two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment,” Mr. Berry said. “At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good.”

Mr. Berry’s speech was a discussion of affection and its power to bind people to community. It was also a meditation on place and those who “stick” to it—as caretakers and curators. “In affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy,” Mr. Berry said.

The opposite of the “sticker”—in the words of Mr. Berry’s mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner—is the “boomer,” those who “pillage and run.” Mr. Berry described James B. Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company, as a boomer who had an impact on the author’s own farming family history: In 1907, Mr. Berry’s grandfather sought to sell his tobacco crop in Louisville, so the family could maintain a meager existence on their land in Kentucky. But thanks to prices driven down by the monopolistic American Tobacco Company, his grandfather came home without a dime.

Mr. Berry once encountered James B. Duke—in bronze, if not in the flesh—during a visit to Duke University.

“On one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy.”

That disconnection is endemic to our era. “That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated,” Mr. Berry said. Our relationship to the land and to community is increasingly abstract and distanced.

“By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers,” he said. “We have progressed to the belief that humans are intelligent enough, or soon will be, to transcend all limits. … Upon this belief rests the further belief that we can have ‘economic growth’ without limits.”

Medical Doctors Teaching Nutrition

Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come.

David Eisenberg, MD, is director of the complementary and alternative medicine program at Harvard Medical School and a long-time leader in the field.

From the Well Blog at the New York Times:

This isn’t neurosurgery,” Dr. Eisenberg said as he whacked a garlic clove with the cleaver. “This is hearty, affordable, cravenly delicious food.”

The son of a Brooklyn baker, Dr. Eisenberg is the founder and chief officiant of “Healthy Kitchens/Healthy Lives,” an “‘interfaith marriage,” as he calls it, among physicians, public health researchers and distinguished chefs that seeks to tear down the firewall between “healthy” and “ crave-able” cuisine. Although physicians are on the front lines of the nation’s diabetes and obesity crises, many graduate from medical school with little knowledge of nutrition, let alone cooking….

To Dr. Eisenberg, flavor is a health issue. Now in its eighth year, the sold-out event is in the vanguard of a major shift in attitude among a young generation of medical professionals who grew up with farmers’ markets. Their ranks include students at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who have hired a chef to teach cooking skills, and a doctor in suburban Chicago who was so inspired by “Healthy Kitchens/Healthy Lives” that he went home and installed a demonstration kitchen in his medical office.

 

 

 

Lack of Sleep May Increase Diabetes Risk

Night shift workers are among those most affected.

From MedPage:

Your mother was right: regular bedtimes and a good night’s sleep are good for you — or at least, researchers reported, irregular bedtimes and not enough sleep are bad for you.

In a 39-day experiment with healthy volunteers, shortened sleep time and varying bedtimes — meant to mimic shift work — led to impaired glucose regulation and metabolism, according to Orfeu Buxton, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues.

Over time, the observed changes could increase the risk of obesity and diabetes, Buxton and colleagues reported online in Science Translational Medicine.

The findings support epidemiological studies linking disrupted sleep with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, the researchers noted — especially in workers on the night shift.

Pink Slime Update Plus USDA Proposal to Remove Federal Inspectors from Industrial Chicken Operations

An excellent discussion from the Up with Chris Hayes show, featuring Mark Bittman of the New York Times, whose excellent food columns I read regularly. 

This 20-minute video offers a perspective rarely seen on television.

h/t Erik Marcus

Congressman Tim Ryan on Mindfulness Meditation

An excellent story from the Washington Post.

In “A Mindful Nation,” published last week, Ryan details his travels across the country, to schools and companies and research facilities, documenting how mindfulness is relieving stress, improving performance and showing potential to reduce health-care costs. It is a prescription, he says, that can help the nation better deal with the constant barrage of information that the Internet age delivers.

“I think when you realize that U.S. Marines are using this that it’s already in the mainstream of our culture,” he says. “It’s a real technique that has real usefulness that has been scientifically documented. . . . Why wouldn’t we have this as part of our health-care program to prevent high levels of stress that cause heart disease and ulcers and Type 2 diabetes and everything else?”

The whole article is well worth reading.

h/t The Schwartz Report