What does starvation look like?

During the Bush Administration’s push to enter Afghanistan, our hearts were twisted as we heard stories of women being burned alive by Taliban men in a rush to prove their power. Our eyes poured over images of women with bruises and cuts incurred by disobeying the law of the land. It felt, at least for me, that the hijab became the symbol of the outrage of the Taliban rule – how dare these men mistreat these women? Don’t they know better? Can’t we help them?


As so often happens in our world, we see stories like this that tug on our heartstrings in all the right places. From the pictures of little brown kids with bloated bellies and flies in their eyes you lazily encounter while sifting through piles of magazines you find on side tables in the doctor’s waiting room to stories of those women in Juarez that go missing as you cozily listen to the nightly news, we are suckers for issues abroad. You know that feeling – of guilt. And I don’t blame you – it is indeed terrible and sad.


I’m not sure if we Americans feel completely blameworthy about our successes as a nation, but we sure do love to watch others’ misery and speculate on how to help. As someone who identifies with this (possibly) altruistic behavior, I do also feel acutely aware of issues we address abroad rather than domestically, especially in regards to our nutrition.


Because: there are people being mistreated here in America. There are people who are starving. We have people with bloated bellies. And we have flies.


Yet what is the state of our people here? Aren’t some of us hungry too? Why is it easier to look outwardly to help others than to help ourselves? Do we understand the complex dynamics of any other country better than ours? Is our cultural fluency that much better to be able to help people overseas better than we can ourselves?


And more to the point: who or what politicizes starvation?


We all do.


In a fabulously poignant piece, Global Food Politics points out that we are in search of a new food politics – one where our food production is applied to our hunger rather than simply matching it with production. “Talking about increasing food production is part of a long tradition of offering technical solutions to social problems. The more difficult challenges—reducing poverty and inequality, ensuring access to food, and enabling communities to address the problems they face—are political and social in nature.”

And I’ll talk about something political, here: 1 in 6 Americans face hunger. 1 in 5 of those are children. Does that tug at your heartstrings?

In last week’s post, I talked about the idea that it’s hard to come into a community and implant an idea –  that the social aspect of nutrition is why we have such an issue with malnutrition here. I’ll argue that the reason we have such a hard time looking domestically is because we don’t know how to empower people in a way that encourages behavioral shifts. How are you going to change someone’s mind about “freedom of choice,” when you’re so busy telling them that what they’re doing is wrong? If you’ve ever felt the sting of someone’s unsolicited advice, you know what I’m talking about.


The truth is that it’s definitely easier to give other people advice rather than follow it yourself. That fact is so well-touted that it has become a cliché. Yet here we are on the precipice of this generation living shorter lives than their parents (a first in human history), with 1 in 6 people going hungry and with our country’s health going right out the window.

If you need to ask yourself what hunger looks like, look around you. You might be surprised by what you see. And if you want information on how to better your community, look here.


Does Nutrition Matter?

I’m making the leap that nutrition matters. Over the years, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to connect this with overall health – because seemingly so many experts eschew the idea that nutrition is a major component of your body working smoothly (what, with the argument that has been made for exercise, exercise, exercise). But how could it not be important? The differences between a Ho-Ho and an organic carrot are…… worlds apart. It’s like putting mashed up corn juice into your car engine instead of 93 octane – one is indigestible and will leave your engine sputtering (with minor explosive releases out the back end) and the other burns hot and leaves considerably less “residue” in its wake. Would you ever take the risk to feed your car the corn mash?


Definitively saying that nutrition packs a punch is tough because we have such a limited understanding about our bodies in this sense: what kind of nutrition/long-term diet is best, what impact exercise has, and what safeguards our bodies have in regards to all kinds of diets (and what we don’t have a safeguard against). An example: we – the American public – look on as scientists find evidence that long-distance runners have increased risk of heart attack due to a thickening of the heart muscles, just as we read the reports of high-sodium diets causing this same myocardial fibrosis. What should we believe? Is it exercise, nutrition, moderation, meditation, spiritual awareness, counting our steps or pledging 10% of our annual income to the Church that makes us have a long and healthy life?


I’m gonna say that nutrition matters. A lot.


Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered did a piece about pregnancy and its relation with predisposing our children to obesity. A major takeaway from the piece was that mother’s weight does, in fact, have serious implications for their children. One study cited that “high pregnancy weight gain is associated with increased body weight of the offspring in childhood.” Another, subtler conclusion was drawn in a quote from Dr. Ludwig, the researcher for that study, that “maternal weight gain… is a good proxy for the quality of diet during pregnancy.”


It’s not a monster leap to make that diet is related with weight, although the posit I’m making is that diet relates with biochemistry and epigenetics, not just with being fat (if that were the case, this issue would be much simpler). Attacking fatness is an easy way out, and rarely examines the real issues behind childhood illness and the way it translates into adult illness.


In a book “Fat Chance” by Dr. Lustig, the argument is made for “developmental programming,” a burgeoning field in medicine that studies the developmental origins of health and disease, assuming that the intrauterine environment in which a fetus is developing can have an effect on how the fetus later relates to the world biochemically. In the words of the author regarding a fetus’ epigenetic response to stress, nutritional and other stimuli: “It’s a tough world out there, kid; best be ready for it.” This book in its entirety examines the relation biochemisty has with behavior, but how does developmental programming play into that? The author alleges that a hostile intrauterine environment, in a wide variety of situations, can drive issues like metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance for the fetus later in the life. These are real-world correlations that have been studied in various contexts (1,2) and have astounding possibilities in terms of what our DNA does regarding its outside propellants.

This is FASCINATING research, and heavily implicates the mother’s environment (chosen and not chosen) in the overall health of coming generations. The main piece here is that unhealthiness begets unhealthiness. And this nation is unhealthy. More to come on issues like this, but the message here is simple: nutrition does matter.


Media and its Impact on America’s Children

We are nearly four months out from Michelle Obama’s speech about marketing to kids, a major issue in these times. There are many things to say about the rising trend of growing (and thickening) Americans – it is certainly a subject that has cast a wide shadow over the discussion of the state of nutrition in the United States. Study after study, we are more confused about what is right and what to tell our kids. And here it is: we’ve all heard the stats about childhood obesity; that childhood obesity has more than doubled in kids and has tripled in adolescents in the last 30 years. Those are pretty staggering, and what is astonishing is the relation advertising has with the success of these weighty and wealthy food companies to convince kids to keep shoving detrimental food into their mouths. The scariest part is wondering whether we have control over these new trends.


With parents having less time to spend on kids’ diet preferences (and on their own) as well as children having much more control over a family’s expenditures on food-related items – an estimated $485 billion in 1999 – the dynamic has changed. Children no longer get most of their messages from their parents about what they should eat like the advertising companies suggest they should – they’re getting social cues from friends, menu choices from school lunch programs, and nudges from advertisement. Large food companies get a lot of time with them in the form of t.v. ads, product placement, branded merchandise, and online games. Whereas parents will spend an average of 21 hours split between mom and dad caring for their kids (which is on the rise), kids aged 8-17 watch an average of 1 hour and 7 minutes per week of purely food advertisement.


While this statistic alone may not haunt you, the advertising content and hours of media consumed by children might. Of the food advertising seen on television, 20% promote a website and kids, on average, spend more than 53 hours per week using entertainment media. All of the major brands offer online games – played without having to sign up or on and without requiring parental consent. Online media, as well as all other forms of advertisement, inform what kids want; what they think is cool, how they perceive taste (even carrots packaged in McDonald’s packaging), as well as appealing to their refined sugar-loving taste buds – all of which highly influence the family’s dietary dollars. And the truth is that kids do ask for well-branded products and parents start with an uphill battle from the time that child is exposed to our branded world.


And though Mrs. Obama says that obesity rates among low-income preschoolers have dropped in 19 states and territories across the country and that childhood obesity rates are falling in major cities (from 2008 to 2011), it isn’t the weight in particular I’m worried about. Weight is a symptom of the issue at hand but the health effects of the lifestyles that cause the weight gain are indeed something to discuss. Issues like: 5-17 year olds with risk factors for heart disease, adolescents with a likelihood to have prediabetes, kids and adolescents alike who suffer greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and an increased risk in the long-term for many types of cancer (breast, colon, edometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, prostate, multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lyphoma). These health issues correlate with kids not meeting their daily nutritional requirements, even though they are going over their daily recommended caloric intake as a result of an overabundance of unhealthy food in the United States.


It’s the chronic disease-suited lifestyle that eating poorly every day will do for you. And it’s branding and advertising that contribute to our nation’s consumption of foods that aren’t actually “heart healthy” or “Diabetes friendly.” Chronic diseases that used to only plague adults are making their mark on our nation’s kids.

My question is: How do we disseminate empowering nutritional information? How do we get science to agree on what we should do in such a way to inform policy? With our tastebuds tuned to the flavor of High Fructose Corn Syrup or sugar in everything… How long will it be until the American Public can appreciate healthful food, or will it ever?