Archive for the ‘health’ Category

What do Philip Roth’s polio novel Nemesis and Justin Cronin’s vampire novel The Passage, both published in 2010, have in common?  Quite a bit, actually.  Roth’s novel renders the atmosphere of fear surrounding a polio outbreak in Newark, New Jersey in the summer of 1944.  The protagonist is a young playground director futilely trying to protect the children he supervises from contracting polio.  Cronin’s novel imagines a world ninety years in the future that has been overrun by killer vampiric “virals” as the result of a scientific experiment gone awry.  It focuses on a small colony of people struggling to defend themselves against the virals.  Both books deal with the pervasive threat of an invisible, poorly understood contagion that has no known cure.  Both focus on adult attempts to shelter children from the contagion.  In both, characters wrestle with existential questions and religious doubt—why would God inflict polio on children?  Do virals have souls?  Both books demonstrate how natural time changes—spring to summer, day to night—can heighten the threat of contagion and force humans to change their routines and behavior.  Both show how suspicion and fear can cause communities to turn against one another.  As cultural artifacts of the moment, both novels also resonate powerfully with contemporary anxieties surrounding contagion in our everyday lives.

In recent years, Americans have been alerted to the threats posed by multiple toxins and diseases: salmonella in eggs, ecoli in spinach and peanutbutter, cadmium in Shrek glasses sold at McDonald’s and jewelry sold at Wal-Mart, H1N1, West Nile virus.  Such warnings came about against the backdrop of broader fears about biological terrorism post-9/11. The current wave of viral panic is of course the most recent chapter in a very long history of epidemics—Ebola in the 1990s, mad cow disease in the 1980s, polio in the 1930s and 1940s, the black death in the 14th century, and so on.

There is a cultural dimension to this biological history—a cultural history of contagion.  Nemesis and The Passage are the latest examples of artistic expressions, literary and otherwise, that in some way reflect, reimagine, or comment upon viral panics.  Think Daniel DeFoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), Albert Camus’s The Plague (1947) (literary critic Elaine Showalter recently made a brilliant connection between Nemesis and The Plague), and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978/1990).  Think nonfiction books like The Hot Zone (1994).  Or films like Panic in the Streets (1950), Omega Man (1971), and Outbreak (1995).

As artifacts of the 21st century culture of viral panic, unlikely bedfellows Nemesis and The Passage join a diverse cultural cohort that includes the comic book series Y, about a plague that kills every mammal on earth with a Y chromosome; the 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later films, featuring the “rage” virus; the horror movie Cabin Fever, starring a flesh-eating virus (tagline: “Catch It”); Max Brooks’s book World War Z, an “oral history of the zombie wars”; and the forthcoming young adult novel Virals, about a group of teenagers exposed to canine parvovirus.

These contemporary examples of the culture of viral panic offer audiences ways to process a number of fears and anxieties that circumscribe our everyday lives in the 21st century.  Anxieties about the limitations and abuses of science and medicine.  Anxieties about our ability to protect children and youth from invisible menaces.  Anxieties about community cohesiveness and civility.  Anxieties about the government’s ability to respond to disaster.  In other words, the culture of viral panic is never just about the threat of contagion.  It always speaks to broader concerns about institutions, social relations, childrearing, science, spirituality.  Read in this context, Nemesis and The Passage have a great deal in common.


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What would you think if someone told you that they were fighting for a “share” of your stomach?  Bring to mind organ harvesting? alien invasion? theft?

But this is in fact what the food industry is doing, and has been for some time.  I first heard this term last week when I took part in a to-remain-nameless gathering of food experts in the bay area.  It was in the context of a discussion of how we might, as eaters, make healthful choices in the American food marketplace.  Someone in the room recalled being at a food industry gathering, recently, where executives from a soda company were debating how to increase their “stomach share.”  They were seeking to expand their line of products (from sodas, to juices, waters, and exercise drinks) to make sure that whenever someone put a beverage in their stomach it was from company X.   Rather than merely competing with another brand in, say, “the marketplace,” the “stomach share” metaphor takes the battle to the consumers’ own body.  The question is not just how can we ensure that the consumer is buying the maximum amount of our product, but also how can we ensure that whenever the consumer is ingesting it is our product that’s got a majority share of the space.

This stomach talk reminded me of another phrase I’d come across in my research for Empty Pleasures—“prosperity stomach.”  Coined in 1966 by Henry Schacht, an executive from a diet-food company, and mentioned in a talk to newspaper editors called “How to Succeed in Business without Getting Fat,” the phrase referred to a troubling problem faced by the food industry.  Because people (at least the middle class) did less manual labor and had more money to buy the cheaper food produced by American industry, they had begun to gain weight.  That wasn’t really the problem from Schacht’s point of view.  More troubling was that this weight gain meant that they could not—or would not—buy all of the food they wanted—food that industry could profit by selling.  The answer? Diet Foods.  By developing more foods that had fewer calories, manufacturers and marketers could enjoy profits in excess of the stomach barrier.

“Stomach share” and “prosperity stomach”—terms invented nearly fifty years apart—remind us that the food industries have long viewed consumers as reducable to mere storage spaces for their products.  Within this climate, the wonder is not that our stomachs have expanded, it’s that they have not expanded even further.

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Slow foods & local foods are fabulous, and we should be grateful to those who have made them part of the landscape.   Thanks to advocates in recent years, many of us can now purchase a tomato from the store and know where it came from or have a conversation with a grower while getting apples at the local farmer’s market.  These encounters allow us to better understand our food, and they make eating more pleasurable by connecting us to the past, and to each other.

But they do not solve the fundamental problem we face with American food and the way we’ve been taught to use it.

Our generation has inherited a food system—and by that I mean everything from how our food is grown, to how it is processed, to its flavors, to its branding, marketing, and store shelf placement—that depends on convincing people to eat and drink way more food than they need, way too much of the time.

Within this system, it would be wonderful if everyone could go local—slow—organic.  But better health doesn’t depend on it.   Better health does depend on being able to eat moderate amounts, for rational reasons, and stopping when one is full.

It’s not a zero sum game, of course.  We can have local/slow food and ethical/sustainable food production and marketing practices.  Yet I notice that I hear far more about the importance of yummy foods and regional farmers than I do about the importance of fair, just, and rational food landscapes.  Why not advocate for the heirloom tomato and the concept of a once-in-a-while soda and the removal of nutritionally bereft (2 for 1!!) foods from the end of the aisle at the grocery store?  Consider what would happen if some of the efforts we put into creating and sustaining farmer’s markets were diverted to build better barriers between food promoters and American stomachs.

I think part of the problem is that the food revolution has become, in a way, too tasty.  We want to advocate for structural change, but we want to do it through a good meal that we enjoy.  Fighting for accurate claims in food marketing (diet! natural! healthy!) or dissecting grocery store product placement—these are a long way from meals many of us who care deeply about food would even want to eat.  Thus, while we feel occasional outrage (bewilderment?) when we see a mega display pushing 3 12 packs of soda (+chips!) for $10, the attention can easily drift away from problems that, if solved, would benefit someone else (who doesn’t “eat right” anyway…) to those that benefit ourselves.

We should sit down together at the table of slow/local and celebrate our good fortune.  And, when the meal is done, take that tasty energy we’ve ingested and use it to regulate industry claims and prevent the over-making and over-marketing of all kinds of food in the US.

That way, no matter how fast their food moves, all eaters could have a better shot at health.

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Mayor Bloomberg would like to prevent New Yorkers on food stamps from trading “stamps” for soda.  Under his newly proposed plan, food stamps won’t be an acceptable form of payment for beverages (other than milk and some fruit juices) that contain more than 10 calories per 8 oz serving.   By cutting down on soda consumption, the Mayor and his staff have argued, people will consume fewer calories and be healthier.  But what’s actually going to happen, in most cases, is that soda drinkers are going to remain soda drinkers–they’ll just swtch to “diet.”

High fructose corn syrup and sugar contribute hundreds of inessential calories to the average American body each day.  And many of these come in the form of sodas that have, year by year, been getting bigger, cheaper, and more smartly advertised as instant pleasure delivery systems.  This is not good for us, and we should cut our consumption.

But diverting those who currently drink large quantities sugared sodas to artificially sweetened ones is not a good solution. Even the most compelling argument—that diet sodas have few or no calories and so therefore will help people lose weight over regular sodas—can be refuted.  Current research emerging on artificial sweeteners suggests (counter-intuitively) that for many users they actually lead to weight gain.  And while sugar and corn syrup are sweet, the artificial sweeteners on the market today are sweeter–200 to 600 times so, per part.  So, while they don’t contribute calories, they may encourage our desire for ever-sweeter foods (most of them food-stamp eligible). And one merely has to google artificial sweeteners to find a litany of consumer complaints that they have caused a host of ailments–claims that while largely unsupported by science ought to give us pause.

While we can, and do, consume too much of it, sugar does at least provide caloric energy.  Artificial sweetener, on the other hand, has nothing our bodies can use.  That’s been, in fact, its selling point: we can have the pleasure of consumption without consequence. This promise has been very good for the pharmaceutical companies that make sweeteners, the food and beverage companies that put it in our food and drinks and the marketers that have helped nearly 200 million of us Americans become regular consumers.  Yet one is hard pressed to find evidence that it has made us healthier.

Unless the loophole is closed, many food stamp recipients will simply switch from Coke regular to Coke Zero. When that happens, artificial sweetener and soda makers will lose little.  They may even sell more once their products are state-sanctioned good-for-you options.

If we are going to legislate nutrition—and I’m not sure we should—let’s at least make sure we don’t create new problems out of the ones we face right now. Diet soda is not a healthy choice.

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Today’s NPR story on the relationship between weight loss, emotions, and hormones called leptin revealed how far we have come in our understanding of food and our bodies–and how far we still have to go.  In “Rational or Emotional? Your Brain on Food,” Columbia University Medical Center researchers reveal that weight loss can cause both a slower metabolism (which can make it harder to burn calories) and lowered levels of leptin–a hormone that works to control appetite.  It turns out that when people who have lost weight are given injections of leptin they have more activity in their brains in areas “associated with conscious decisions.”  While the study isn’t definitive, the report suggests that increasing these hormone levels may help people who have lost weight make better decisions to keep that weight off in the future.

Who wouldn’t be excited about an injection that could enhance will power, especially in keeping off that hard fought few pounds?  But will it, really?  For this we have to look at the method.  Researchers measured people’s will power by giving them an MRI and then showing them various plastic containers of foods–gummy worms, candies, cookies, bell peppers–and measuring brain activity as they contemplated the yumminess (or lackthereof) in the items.  But how many of us confront that moment of food choice (bell peppers or gummy worms, hmm…) while laying in a scanner staring at slow-moving food separated in plastic bins?  Aren’t we in fact making food choices in precisely the opposite conditions–standing in chaotic fast food lines, ordering from menus with one hand on the iphone, managing crying children or chatty friends, just after breaking up with girlfriends, while walking the aisles with hundreds of brightly packaged jumbled munchies vying for our attention?

Studies like the one at Columbia are essential if we want to understand the complex ways in which our bodies react to appetite stimulation, and we should.  Still, we need to see them for what they are: questions asked and answered in a vacuum.  The reporter herself acknowledges this when she opens the piece recalling the overwhelming smell of peanuts sold by a street vendor that challenge her calorie resolve, even in the midst of the story.  Would those peanuts have impacted her the same way in the MRI tube with a set of researchers well aware of “good food choices” watching her reactions?  We live in a complex culture and it is there that our food choices are made.  We can isolate the data in the lab and come up with technological solutions, but these are only going to address part of the problem.  And they may make new problems all their own.  We need to study food where we eat it–in the real world. For that we need scholars trained in socio-cultural aspects of food production and food choice, and scientists ready to bring them on board.

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When I was a kid and I got the flu it meant days home in bed.  I’ll try not to glamorize this, but I do recall some fairly blissful mornings with a pile of Kleenex, cough drops (remember Ludens—they used to taste just like candy!), and the TV all to myself.  I’m sure this wasn’t convenient for my mom who was a single parent, but we didn’t have flu vaccine so there wasn’t any way else to manage.  We just did.

I just took the girls to get their vaccines, and while I was waiting in the long line of other similarly haggard looking parents doing the same I had to wonder—when did we get so desperate to keep our kids from getting sick, and why?  Is it that the flu is worse now than it was when I was a kid?  h1n1 aside, I don’t think so.  More likely, we just don’t have time these days for our kids to get the flu. It’s ok if we get the flu because we can straggle into work in various stages of consciousness and, if it gets that bad we can always stay home and check emails from bed.  But when the kids get sick you can’t work.  Well, you can, but it’s hard.  Plus you look like a really crappy parent when you’re over on the computer while your kid moans from the other room.  Perhaps this is what makes flu season so scary and the flu vaccine such a balm.  We live lives without any back up—a sick kid can’t go to school and there isn’t any other childcare available to many of us.  We can’t take the time off work because in the age of the iphone, work is everywhere all the time.   A sick kid equals workplace disaster.  Preventing illness allows us to keep living lives that have little room for error, man-made or biological.

When the nurse gave the girls their post-vaccine pep talk about how they wouldn’t get sick now and wasn’t that wonderful, I found I only half agreed.  Sure, I don’t want them to be sick.  But maybe they should be.

My mother had polio, so I have to be careful not to suggest that the good old days were when people got sick.  Still, I think there is a point to getting “everyday” sick; illness is part of the natural rhythm of things.  And again, I’m not talking about h1n1.   I wonder what’s in store for this generation of kids taught in classrooms with Costco sized hand sanitizer bottles who learn group songs about the virtues of hand washing.  Will they be susceptible to superillnesses because of limited immune experiences?  Will they be unempathetic to those who are ill or disabled?  Will they equate the good life with bodies and lives consistently under their control?

It all makes me long for that box of Ludens, and a day on the couch.

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