Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fast Food Nation

The Los Angeles Times published the above article on Monday about a new law that’s making its way through the California legislature. The proposed law would require chain restaurants operating 15 or more stores to blatantly label the nutritional information of their products, including calorie content, on each of their menus. What do I think?

Bring it on! Amen!

This law touches on a sensitive subject for Americans: does anyone have the right to make you go on a diet or lose weight? The obvious answer is no; you absolutely have the freedom to choose what you eat, but this law doesn’t get in the way of that. What it does is simply give you more information about the calories you consume in the hopes you’ll make better food choices. Hey California, the legislature is giving you the benefit of the doubt here. They’re assuming that the reason 3 out 5 of us is overweight or obese is because we’re ill informed and if we just knew what was in the food we’d eat better.

I enthusiastically support this law, and it’s not just because I’m an athlete in the middle of a nation that spearheads gluttony in all forms. I don’t silently wish everyone was a fitness nut like me, but being a competitive athlete does change your perspective on these things and that has made one thing abundantly clear: we need these laws.

Looking around, it’s obvious that many of us cannot handle eating healthily on our own. Instead, we go overboard, consuming way too much of this wrong foods. This is the direct result of companies intentionally bombarding us with fattening foods combined with us not thinking about what we eat. We don’t think critically or weigh the pros and cons of our food options-- it’s a simple “I want it, so that’s what I’ll eat.” This is why we’re perpetually overweight and why we feel so weighed down by the nutritional consciousness required in dieting. Now I’m not saying this country is a nation of whiners, but if you’re used to just reacting to food emotionally, it can be very overbearing to suddenly have to see food as numbers and nutrients.

I went to a Dodgers game last night and this oblivious attitude towards calories was everywhere. It was commonplace for everyone to have their own personal serving of what was on the menu. People bought themselves a whole serving of nachos, a whole serving of garlic fries, or their own bag of Cracker Jacks. I saw several 200-300 lb. people at this game stuffed into their seats carrying trays of 22 oz. beers and lemonade, 2-3 Dodger dogs and huge plates of nachos. What’s the nutritional content for that meal? Well, according to New Yorker Magazine and the beer and lemonade total 550 calories, two hot dogs are 640 calories, and the nachos with cheese are 1,500 calories. The grand total is 2,690 calories. That’s more than what an average adult should be eating in one day and we’re not even counting snacks like Cracker Jacks or peanuts.

Splitting portions didn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind either, nor did the concept of maybe not eating ballpark food. You have options-- the Dodgers generously allow fans to bring their own food. Is the cuisine really that good or are you eating it just because you’re at a ballgame? I bet the latter, because the food I saw didn’t exactly look appetizing. This lack of thought in choosing what to eat is precisely what I mentioned earlier. Why don’t we ask ourselves how good does it really taste? Is it worth the calories?

Also, if you want a study in childhood obesity go to a baseball game. Parents were buying their obviously overfed children their own iced lemonade, plus a whole plate of nachos. And it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that these kids couldn’t make it up the stairs much better than their parents.

I think parents sometimes make poor food choices out of unfounded conventional wisdom. If you saw Super Size Me, you know that McDonalds and fast food in general wreaks havoc on your body. It’s not any less harmful if kids eat it, even though they might not gain weight as quickly as adults.

I went to an amusement park this summer where it seemed like every child survived on a diet of regular cola, Sno-Cones, cotton candy and French fries. I saw one mother tell her kids they should buy regular soda because the aspartame in the diet drinks wasn’t good for them. I’m sorry, but most nutritionists would probably say the amount of sugar and carbohydrates in regular cola is far worse than a little aspartame.

Let’s not forget that children learn what’s acceptable to eat from their parents. If we’re going to eat junk ourselves and feed it to our kids too, why are we so baffled by childhood obesity? How can we expect their waistlines to be any better than ours?

There’s a term is psychology called cognitive dissonance to describe what happens when we’re faced with the reality that what we think about ourselves doesn’t match with our actual behavior. Imagine if you thought of yourself as the furthest thing from racist and then someone somehow proved to you that you held some racist beliefs. This experience makes us uncomfortable, so we often try to change either our behavior or our beliefs in order to not experience this “dissonance. “

This proposed law pulls from the cognitive dissonance theory. Part of our problem is that most of us severely underestimate the calorie content of our food. This has been clearly demonstrated by several peer review studies, many of which are highlighted in this article. We don’t think of ourselves as terrible eaters and so we continue along in our blissful ignorance because nothing has proven us wrong yet. Slapping nutrition facts on fast foods would provide us proof that the food is not healthy, so according to the theory we’ll either accept this about ourselves or change our caloric intake to match our self-view.

Will injecting some cold reality ruin the eating experience? Absolutely not! I’ve actually found a sense of empowerment in having a leg up on companies who profit from our carb and sugar cravings. I find that being in the know is much better than trying to enjoy wearing blinders.

On the other hand, I’ve come across a few people who feel the opposite way. These people, who’d likely oppose this law, see it as forcing them to go on a diet and seem to want to protect their “right” to eat badly. Apparently, this is a freedom of choice issue; that they have the right to not make healthy eating a priority and no person or law should get in the way.

Well, what about my right to make informed decisions about what I eat? I could say those rights are being infringed on because restaurants do not currently have to provide calorie or nutritional information. Many of them take full advantage by scrimping on raw ingredients and injecting fattening additives such as lard, butter, sugar and heavy cream to keep the food sell-able while cutting costs. Imagine if you were made to buy a car but were not given information like miles per gallon, or if you had to rent an apartment without first taking a tour. If we think about it, I’m sure there’s a way that we’re all having our rights assaulted.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a person’s right to trans fat. Isn’t this a ridiculous thing to get up in arms about? I understand the argument about priorities, but what’s the big deal here? This law would help millions of Californians make better choices and after all, it’s just information—not forced dieting. There is no good reason that on personal grounds any of us should contest policies that improve public health. Perhaps we should be more concerned with solving this country’s obesity problem than advancing our personal agenda. California, isn’t it about time we started thinking beyond ourselves?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


So much of our national attention is showered on China right now: our best athletes are there competing, our channel guides are chock full of Olympic events and it’s all the media can seem to talk about. Its official, China is the “it” thing right now.

If you keep up with the news, you'll notice how feature articles outnumber simple news stories. While there’s definitely news coming out of Beijing, what’s interesting is that the media seems to be just as preoccupied with understanding China as we are.

I, like many Americans, find myself struggling to understand China in the midst of this year’s summer Olympic games. I’m not sure we as a nation gave China or Beijing much thought until recently, but now the Olympics are here so we’ve started to wonder.

The myriad articles leading up the Summer Olympic Games can basically be put into two categories:
1. The Communist Chinese government and how the Olympics have or have not changed things.
2. Now that we’re curious, what we Americans should know about China.

Regarding Category #1, it’s pretty clear that China has a big chip on its shoulder. For example, just last week President Bush denounced China’s human rights violations before travelling to Beijing and stated that he wanted his presence at the games to help draw attention to the issue. The Chinese Foreign Ministry fired back that he’d "rudely interfered in China's internal affairs." We’ve also gotten very mixed messages about China in the past few months; there’s been the country’s loud and very public tirade over the Dalai Lama and Tibetan protesters, along with their uncharacteristically humane response to May’s Sichuan Earthquake. Now that China has our attention for the Olympics, we find ourselves asking: what is their deal? The best answer I’ve found was this article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. I am half-Canuck, so we have to invoke the Globe and Mail.
“Which spirit of nation will prevail in rise to greatness?”

Category #2 has been mainly news and feature articles providing a firsthand perspective of life in China. This is probably to help us see what’s changed and what hasn’t since the country opened its doors to the west after Nixon’s visit in 1972. If you’re up for a read, check out the LA times feature “The Beijing she knew is gone; in its place, the Beijing she loves,” a very well-written personal piece by one of the paper’s foreign correspondents.

Americans seem to have suddenly developed a voracious appetite for information about China, whether it’s a narrative, a bunch of photos, or even cookbooks, as mentioned in this LA Times book review. Here’s a brief quote:

“Of course, the economic benefits of the Olympics are not exclusive to China; in fact, if the number of new books on China is any indication, American publishers, like Beijing real estate developers, have decided that Olympics+China=$$$. Cookbooks, business books, political books, poetry, books about Chinese food and, of course, travel books . . . all have poured out in a torrent”

So why are we so curious now? It seems to me that our rush for information comes from a collective realization that we really don’t understand the country where the Olympics are being held. Why? I doubt many Americans, especially those who were around for Nixon’s visit and Tienanmen Square, feel they can relate to the Chinese people at all. We live in Capitalist, corporate-driven America and they live in Communist China. No matter how profit-driven and modernized the country has become, it’s still China. Plus, they always value the community above the individual—a perspective we Americans don’t know anything about.

Even though everything we buy seems to be made in China we haven’t quite figured them out yet. Besides, how can we be expected to keep up when Chinese society is so rapidly changing?

I think we’re right to acknowledge that we don’t know anything about being Chinese. Most of us have no clue what it’s like to live in a Communist country. I certainly don’t. Before the Olympics, the only meaningful perspective I’d heard was from Ted Gup, my college journalism mentor who spent some time in China while working for The Washington Post. He would elaborate on the experience of living in a country that doesn’t have free speech or freedom of the press. For a journalist, this was particularly jarring. I remember him being struck by the reality that none of the people he interacted with daily were allowed access to independent news. All these people had one source of information about their world, and that source was nowhere near unbiased.

So it seems we’ve pretty much resigned to accept our ignorance about China. It’s a country completely unlike our own, so the best we can do is to a read a few books and buy a wok. But are we right? Listen to this perspective from a LA Times Letter to the Editor published on August 10th, 2008:

“Before we use the Olympics as a tool to brazenly criticize life in China, why don’t we first tend our own garden?

While China has pollution, American’s carbon emissions per capita are many times that of China’s. While China can’t play well with others, the United States fights an unpopular war and is ridiculed around the world. China clearly should not violate human right—oh wait, we wiretap civilians while we torture and detain suspected terrorists without a fair trial.

China today isn’t a rose garden, but why can’t we as Americans be half as fervent about improving America as we are about bettering China?”

-Eric Chow
Walnut, California

So maybe as much as we don’t want to think about it, we do know a little about what it’s like to be Chinese after all. What about our own human rights violations? Just take this heartbreaking story in today’s New York Times, “Ill and in Pain, Detainee Dies in U.S. Hands.” Here is an excerpt describing two similar cases:

“In March, the federal government admitted medical negligence in the death of Francisco Castaneda, 36, a Salvadoran whose cancer went undiagnosed in a California detention center as he was repeatedly denied a biopsy on a painful penile lesion. In May, The New York Times chronicled the death of Boubacar Bah, 52, a Guinean tailor who suffered a skull fracture and brain hemorrhages in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey; records show he was left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours.”

Aren’t things like that only supposed to happen in places like China?

In America, we don’t jail people for criticizing our leaders. We also have the freedom to assemble and practice any religion we choose. But our government has also suspended the writ of habeas corpus for its own convenience and we torture too, remember?

Also like the Chinese, we Americans seem to be conflicted about the oppressive activities of our government. Both countries seem to be in some amount of denial, and both of our governments play a role by not informing us enough to know for sure what our reality is. Maybe we have more information than the Chinese—our news outlets aren’t state run, investigative reporting isn’t illegal here, we have the Public Interest Declassification Act—but we certainly aren’t given the big picture. It’s just in China we call it Communist and here we call it “classified.”

Yes, it’s unfortunate that we may find common ground in the negative, but perhaps just thinking about these things can give us a perspective on China that we’ll never see in a travel book.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Elderly Equation

First, the article.

This New York Times piece draws attention to an important issue that doesn’t capture enough national attention. The article describes a sensitivity training program called "Xtreme Aging" which simulates for participants what it feels like to be 85 years old. While this program stresses the physical hardships of getting older, I think that’s only half of the equation. My experiences caregiving for my 84 year old grandmother have shown me that the stigma of old age and the social and mental hardships of being elderly are just as significant. Unfortunately, these often get overlooked. I wrote about this problem in an internship application a few months ago that I’d like to share. It's posted below.

Prompt: Identify a societal issue that seldom attracts the attention of the news media. How would you cover this issue as a journalist?

The quality of life for elderly people who are experiencing the frailty of old age but retain their mental sharpness seldom attracts the attention of the news media. Many times people respond inappropriately to the aged as if their obvious physical handicaps mean that their minds are equally handicapped. Not only is this demeaning, but it can lead to incomplete or incorrect responses from the very people that the elderly need for help.

I believe this issue would be best covered by a television newsmagazine such as Dateline/NBC. This format would provide an opportunity to tell the stories of many older adults through the voice of one or two seniors who experience these difficulties first-hand. If I were assigned to conduct interviews, I would select both people who are currently living in their homes and those who have recently been forced to leave. There would be taped interviews and background information detailing how prevalent this issue is in America. The story’s effectiveness would also be strengthened by providing data, such as how many people are aging in their homes and how many are dependent on community networks for basic needs.

To illustrate the dismissal that many other older adults experience, it would be effective to show taped material from a hidden camera or voice recorder. Some of the locales could include restaurants; although many older adults walk slowly and arduously, in many instances they are seated far from the restaurant's entrance. I have also witnessed restaurant servers treat older guests as mentally incompetent by making eye contact with the younger people and asking them for the elderly guest’s order.

Another locale could be a medical center or doctor’s office, often a source of trouble for the elderly. Because of macular degeneration, many older people cannot read the fine print that is used on forms and medical instructions. Medical staff often disregard this. During a recent hospital stay, I was asked to answer how well my grandmother felt. She was in the room, was perfectly capable of answering for herself, and was much more aware of her physical condition than I. I have seen cases where older adults have had their requests for water ignored for several hours, as if they are not mentally competent enough to know when they are thirsty. I believe that the elderly themselves could provide additional examples.

The outside world often does not make fitting considerations for older adults’ mental and physical conditions, which makes it far more difficult for them to stay in their homes. If the news media helped bring about change by increasing awareness of this issue, many more older adults would be able to function comfortably in society and fewer would be confined to assisted living centers and nursing homes.

As the New York Times article pointed out, the experience of getting older in this country is not an enjoyable one. My grandmother, for example, was one of the first women of her generation to experience the freedoms and opportunities made possible by the Feminist movement. She worked as a bank manager for almost 35 years while also maintaining a home and raising two children. As you can imagine, she is still fiercely independent at 84, she still wants to carry her own groceries, and she even entertains the notion of traveling by herself. Those things don't happen; in fact, she spends most of her days lying in bed listening to CSPAN, MSNBC and the Food Network because Macular Degeneration has made her nearly blind. Yes, she's in a healthy amount of denial, but can you blame her? She took care of herself and other people for almost her entire life, and now she has to depend on other people to do everything for her except go to the bathroom, cook her meals and have a shower. And when she actually goes out, people often treat her like an imbecile. Can you imagine what that must be like?

While Xtreme Aging is doing very valuable work, I think the larger issue here is that most of us don’t really understand what older people are going through both physically and mentally. While most of us have known someone older quite well, there is still a general lack of understanding of the elderly, their needs and what we can do. Older adults need us younger and middle aged people to understand their position so that they can stay self-sufficient and avoid the hardships of nursing homes. There is a clear need for us to put ourselves in their shoes, but until we do, we just won’t get it.