Category: Nutrition & Obesity

Will High Gas Prices Curb Obesity? Just Ask an Economist

By Melissa Lafsky | August 5, 2008 10:40 am

fatWhile the gas price spike has already reduced the amount of miles Americans drive and perhaps even jump-started a bicycling movement, could it really put a dent in America’s seemingly-unstoppable obesity rise?

Charles Courtemanche, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina, certainly thinks so. According to his latest research, a permanent one-dollar rise in gas prices is associated with a seven percent drop in overweight Americans and a nine percent drop in obesity rates—the equivalent of about four to five pounds (1.8 to 2.3 kilograms) in lost weight across the entire U.S. population. His analysis was based on gasoline prices in several states from 1984 to 2004, which he compared with each state’s average body weight and obesity rate.

Granted, these results seem to fly in the face of the obesity epidemic’s steady rise, which also began around twenty years ago—if gas prices were so steadily increasing and leading to weight loss, why were obesity levels simultaneously skyrocketing? Still, maybe some further data could bolster Courtemanche’s theory. While his paper was originally published in May of 2007 (when gas was at a “record high” of $3.22 a gallon), it was revised this summer—with gas prices already $1 a gallon higher. Perhaps incorporating the last four (crucial, unstable) years of data into his model could shed some light on whether his four-pounds-a-person theory is accurate. If so, we’re all going out for a burger.

Image: iStockPhoto 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health Care, Nutrition & Obesity
MORE ABOUT: economy, gas prices

Weekly Science & Politics News Roundup

By Melissa Lafsky | August 1, 2008 1:56 pm

• Anthrax drama! As the Feds close in on a suspect for the 2001 attacks, the top Army microbiologist foils their plan by committing suicide.

• Is contraception the same thing as abortion? Apparently, the answer depends on whether you’re looking at it from a scientific or political perspective.

• After a frantic search, officials finally locate the source of the notorious salmonella-laden peppers—though not before over 250 people were sickened and two died. But did the FDA’s poor communication with states during the process reveal an even deeper management problem?

• The New York Times Magazine delves into the psychology and habits of Internet harassers.

• And, just in time, China relaxes some of its limitations on Internet access for journalists covering the Beijing Olympic games.

• And, in a bout of litigiousness put to good use, Connecticut, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and New York City plan to sue the EPA to force the agency to start reducing pollution from ships, aircraft, and off-road vehicles.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Nutrition & Obesity

Say What? Silly Study Says 86 Percent of Americans Will Be Obese by 2030

By Melissa Lafsky | July 29, 2008 5:37 pm

fat AmericanThe news broke today of a study that’s got the blogosphere and the media buzzing. The paper, published in the July issue of Obesity, was done by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Using a mathematical model, the authors projected the future prevalence of obesity and the BMI distribution in the U.S., based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES) collected from the 1970s through 2004. Their results? If current trends continue, a whopping 86 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2030.

And by 2048, they predict, every adult in America will be overweight or obese.

Ok, let’s take a step back. Obviously, these numbers aren’t the Absolute Truth—they represent linear projections based on specific data sets, and rely heavily on the continuation of certain trends that are likely to change in the future. A similar projection would be that smoking rates will hit absolute zero based on the recent and dramatic declines in smoking.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nutrition & Obesity
MORE ABOUT: nutrition, predictions

Think Your Bread Is "Made With Whole Grain"? Check Again

By Melissa Lafsky | July 29, 2008 3:30 pm

Sara LeeHere’s a heartening example of advocates calling out the food industry on its blatant label obfuscation: Baked goods giant Sara Lee has agreed (after some aggressive prompting) to change the “whole grain goodness” label on its best-selling Soft & Smooth bread to indicate the truth: that the bread’s composition of whole grains is only 30 percent, meaning 70 percent of it is made from ultra-unhealthy refined white flour.

BusinessWeek reports that the company acquiesced to the change after threat of a lawsuit came from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a non-profit watchdog group that specializes in nutrition and food safety. But what about the FDA? Shouldn’t it be regulating misleading labeling of so-called “healthy” products?

It’s no secret that the food industry is notorious for slapping “healthy-sounding” labels on food that barely scrape by the minimum requirements, but so far the agency has done little to stamp out the practice. In 2006, it released a statement acknowledging that unqualified “whole grain” labels could be confusing to consumers and stating the following:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nutrition & Obesity

Weekly Science & Politics News Roundup

By Melissa Lafsky | July 18, 2008 1:52 pm

• Offshore drilling: The floodgates have been opened, and many are rushing to discredit it before it starts. But will their voices be enough to squelch the demands of angry election-year constituents?

• With all signs pointing to a tanking economy, it’s nice to know that one area can still rake in the dough: The video game industry.

• Will Wikipedia shut the doors on its self-governing open edit system?

• How do scientists love thee, Wall-E? Let us count the ways. Over at Slate, associate editor Daniel Engber scolds the film for its inaccuracies about obesity, while neuroscientist and Frontal Cortex blogger Jonah Lehrer discusses Pixar’s apparent hat-tip to Darwin.

• Still, Pixar may have a point: U.S. obesity levels continue to rise.

• Whither the salmonella-laden tomatoes? The FDA shifts its eye towards peppers.

Legislating Obesity: South L.A. to Ban Fast Food Joints?

By Melissa Lafsky | July 15, 2008 3:23 pm

hamburgerThe era of government regulation on calorie consumption has begun, and nowhere is it playing out more clearly than in California. The state legislature has proposed a trans fat ban in restaurants (a rule that’s already in place in New York City) and now Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry is proposing a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South L.A. The ban is based on research indicating that 45 percent of the restaurants in South L.A. are of the fast food variety, compared to 16 percent in West L.A.; plus child obesity rates in South L.A. are 29 percent, compared with 23 percent nationwide.

The racial and socioeconomic politics here are obvious—KFC-laden South L.A. is predominantly African American and Latino, while the vegan/organic wonderland of West L.A. is home to a highly affluent (and mostly white) population.

Critics raise the obvious, and valid, point about incentives—rather than punishing restaurants for serving unhealthy food, shouldn’t we be offering economic incentives for health food stores and salad bars to open in South L.A.? Simply keeping a new Burger King out does nothing to provide South L.A. residents with healthier and more nutritious food options. As one busy mother interviewed for the piece said, “There’s never any place you can go over here to buy … organic food. There’s no Trader Joe’s over here.” That pretty much sums it up right there.

Image: iStockPhoto 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Nutrition & Obesity

Weekly Science & Politics News Roundup

By Melissa Lafsky | July 11, 2008 3:27 pm

On Fridays here at Reality Base, we’ll bring you a summary of the latest in science and politics news and opinion from around the Web.

• The G8 summit started out strong, but the end results were tepid at best. Still, a little good may have come of it.

• Are ration books next? The British government urges Brits to cut back on food waste and eat more leftovers.

• The awesome (and frightening) power of Photoshop: With a single doctored photo, Iran alters missiles, fears, international perceptions.

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How Using Food for Fuel Could Decrease Food Prices

By Melissa Lafsky | June 19, 2008 5:05 pm

food to ethanolWith worldwide food prices on the rise, it’s time to play the blame game. President Bush started it off with a bang, stating in a May 2 news conference that India’s growing industrialization and increased food demand from the middle class were, in essence, the culpable parties.

No surprise, his remarks spurred indignant responses from Indian commerce and economics officials, who fired back with the argument that the increase in food prices has as much—or more—to do with American overconsumption as it does with industrialization in India. Their argument is supported by recent research showing that the 34 percent of Americans (and similar percentage of British) who are obese consume 18 percent more food energy than the rest of the population.

But another major factor that’s, er, fueling the price increase is ethanol. Since the embrace of the corn-based product as an alternative fuel source, the federal government has mandated that large amounts of U.S.-grown corn be converted into biofuels. To this end, the feds created additional subsidies to induce farmers to grow corn for fuel as opposed to food—meaning that substantial amounts of what was once food-producing land has been diverted to non-food production. Combine less product with higher demand and prices are bound to creep up.

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Reality Check: Food and Obesity

By Melissa Lafsky | June 13, 2008 4:20 pm

The good news: Child obesity rates in the U.S. have finally stopped rising. The bad news: Even if the rates have stabilized for good, experts say levels are already so high that the epidemic will continue for decades. More bad news: Obesity increases the risk of everything from stillbirth to heart disease. And more bad news: Rimonabant, once hailed as an anti-obesity wonder drug, has now been associated with multiple deaths in the U.K. Still, on the upside, all those cases of bariatric surgery may be curing diabetes.

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