Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Weight of the Nation"

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HBO's four-part special, The Weight of the Nation, aired last week and it's now available on their website to watch for free, in its entirety. Part one shows the dangerous long-term effects of the standard American diet; part two focuses on the steps individuals can take to improve their health; part three focuses on childhood obesity, with a spotlight on school lunches; and part four shows how we can take collective action to reverse poor health trends in our communities.

My main problem with the series is that it makes a lot of statements that indicate a causal relationship between obesity and various health problems. It says that obesity causes diabetes and heart disease, etc. It doesn't. Obesity is just one of the more visible symptoms of a body that can't regulate its blood glucose effectively. The inability to regulate blood sugar causes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Saying that obesity causes diabetes is like saying your sore throat caused your runny nose. Just because one happens before the other doesn't mean it caused it. But obesity is a good indicator that you need to change your habits in order to head off health problems.

In general it's disappointing that we're talking about an obesity crisis rather than a diabetes crisis or heart disease crisis. It's sadly and typically American that we're fixating on physical appearance and assuming that being too heavy is the evil behind all our health problems. It's not. Out of diabetes, heart disease and other problems, obesity is just the one that offends us the most.

Another problem is that the show uses that old myth about calories in equaling calories out. This so-called weight loss formula has gotten us nowhere in thirty years of counting calories and gym memberships. If you want to be scientific, the formula would be physical mass = energy in - energy out + energy stored. And what causes our bodies to store extra energy in excessive amounts? Poor blood glucose regulation, not physical activity or lack thereof. Exercise is critical to health, but not to weight loss, although people tend to improve their eating when they exercise regularly. Part two of the series emphasizes calorie counting when the focus should be on high-starch and high-sugar foods, plus sugary beverages. Cutting those out would get us much farther than parsing out low-carb pasta and fat-free cookies. The old eat-less-move-more advice has gotten us nowhere in 30 years and I'm disappointed that the creators of this series don't seem to know that.

Now the good advice that the series gives. Two big messages are: 1) cutting out sweetened beverages (including fresh squeezed juice) is a great first step, and 2) even a small amount of weight loss makes a big difference for your heart and liver. I take this to mean that even a small change in your lifestyle will have a significant impact on your health. The program suggests going for a 10% reduction in weight, which sounds okay to me because in order to lose 10% and keep it off, you have to make a permanent change for the better in how you live.

According to the program, ideal cardiovascular health is defined as -
  • Optimal levels of total cholesterol
  • Normal blood pressure
  • Lean body mass index
  • No smoking
  • No diabetes
  • Healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
- but this is the reality: less than 1% of Americans fit all seven of these criteria.

One more striking assertion that the program makes is that if you live a typical American life and just go with the flow, you will be overweight, which is to say, you will have blood sugar regulation problems. This underscores what I've suspected: no matter how much you exercise or how good your natural metabolism is, you will eventually have blood glucose problems (and probably become diabetic or overweight) unless you actively avoid the typical American way of eating. Since this requires vigilance and resistance, every hour of every day, no wonder most of us are having health problems. It's not anyone's individual fault that they're diabetic or have heart disease due to diet, but it is our collective responsibility to change things.

It really is a problem that's entrenched in our beliefs about food, our cultural habits, the power of the food industry and our relentless American drive to make money, including by feeding unhealthy substances to our kids. It's a four part series that should make us feel ashamed, not because of our size, but because we've sold out the health of our children in order to support American agribusiness that churns out wheat, corn and soy products in toxic amounts. Since those businesses aren't going to stop willingly, we have to make changes ourselves. Start by watching it.

[5/26 - "Obesity not always tied to higher heart risk" More evidence that obesity isn't the cause of our health problems, but a symptom of the true problem. And another viewpoint on how the HBO series misses out on the true problem. ]

Friday, May 18, 2012

Totally cool party ideas

A friend says that with the job market moving so slowly, this will be the decade of innovation. My cousin Jenny Densing, who lives in Houston, Texas USA, has already started. She's a 24-year-old artist creating her own business in unusual items: felt play food, vintage items and fake moustaches for people, cupcakes and cars. OH, yeah.

People order her moustaches-on-a-stick (or on a beverage straw) by the hundreds and thousands for weddings, bachelorette parties and other occasions. You can find her on the Etsy website where she also offers pipe-on-a-stick, lips-on-a-stick, huge moustaches you can put on your car, etc. I’m impressed that Jenny is not only good at thinking up and creating these things, but also makes a great model for them. Take a look.

Jenny has a BFA degree from the University of Houston and doesn't like idle hands, which is good because she alone fills huge orders all week long. Those Etsy artists obviously work very hard to make a living, and yet Jenny is ready to discuss a custom made order if you have a special project for her.

I’m impressed by my cousin. It often seems like there aren't many jobs for anyone graduating in this decade, but some grads are definitely making money.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bifocals, yeah!

I'm excited to announce that I've decided to get bifocals. I needed them a year and a half ago, but didn't want to spend the money. Since then my eyes have gotten worse, so it's time.

I want the old-fashioned bifocals with the line, so I can appear properly middle aged. They're cheaper than progressive lenses, but mainly I just want to look mature and respectable. I'll never be white or male or tall, but at least I'm getting older. I think for women there's a window of time between being too young to be taken seriously and being too old to be taken seriously. I'll be 46 in July, so I think I'm there and I'm milking it. OH, yeah - bifocals. This is going to be great. Are you cool enough to wear bifocals?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

What's it like to be in an interracial marriage?

My parents, my father's parents and I were born in the U.S; my mother's parents and my dad's grandparents were born in Mexico. I was raised in the very homogeneous Walnut Creek, California in the 1970s and '80s when it was very Anglo and middle class.

There were few people of color in my high school and I sometimes say that I was a teenage white girl, but my parents taught me a decent Spanish accent and were very connected to the Mexican-American communities of nearby towns. Walnut Creek was very white, but nearby cities such as San Francisco, Pittsburg and Martinez were not.

Because my main contact with other Mexicans and Mexican-Americans happened only on weekends and special occasions, Mexican music, Spanish-speaking and tamales weren't as familiar as English and top 40. Spanish was the language of old people, wheezed out in cumin-scented living rooms that had plastic on the furniture. Tardeadas (big afternoon parties) and weddings had Mexican-American kids, but they seemed foreign to me. Like many American kids, I rarely interacted with people who were outside of my school or my city. I just wasn't used to seeing people with brown skin, besides my immediate family.

In high school, the awkward, funny, translucent-white male was almost my only option. When I came into contact with Latinos my age in one of the neighboring cities, I felt ashamed because I wasn't as Mexican as they were. My Spanish wasn't fluent, I sounded white and I dressed like everyone else at Las Lomas High School, not like Mexican-Americans who went to school with mostly Latinos. Being a brown girl raised in a white environment was often confusing. My self-esteem wasn't high.
June 2007
Bob grew up in Illinois USA and the school he went to had a good mix of Latinos, African-Americans and whites. He dated girls of different backgrounds from the very beginning and that pattern continued throughout his life. The two of us being attracted to each other was culturally inevitable.

Our union never faced any resistance from family or friends and any tension is strictly internal to our marriage. I admit the cultural differences between me and Bob are an integral part of our dynamic. He's kind of exotic to me with the constellation of freckles that cover his face, arms and torso, his limbs that go on for days, and his Midwestern manners and accent. We're learning a lot from this 24/7 cultural exchange. For instance, I had no idea how white Midwesterners like Bob handle conflict, but now I do. It's very different from the let's-get-it-out-on-the-table approach I and my family tend to use.

Every once in a while I'll notice someone looking at me and Bob when we're out in public and I usually assume it's because we're a tall, white man and a short, brown woman, but it might not be. I'm aware of the prejudices against dating someone of a different color and specifically those against a woman of color marrying a white man, but I haven't felt this bigotry touch me.

What is remarkable is when I refer to me and Bob as an interracial couple and a friend or acquaintance responds with, "I don't think of you as an interracial couple." It's is a response that only white people say, not people of color. Why do white people say this? It reminds me of times when I call myself short and someone says, "I don't think of you as short." It's like they're trying to be nice by denying what I've just said.

Does the phrase "interracial couple" sound as negative as the word "short?" Shortness isn't so bad, and neither is interraciality. "I don't think of you as an interracial couple." Maybe the whitel person wants to make clear that she isn't racist and doesn't think that way or maybe she's saying she's okay with me being a Mexican who's married to a white man. Or it could simply be that she doesn't think of me as Mexican, just as she doesn't think of me as short. You'd think this would be fine, but it doesn't quite feel right. Why deny that Bob and I have an interracial marriage? Does it seem like a bad thing? On the contrary, I'm pretty sure there's nothing wrong with being short or Mexican or in an interracial marriage.

"I don't think of you as an interracial couple," sounds like, "You're okay with me, Regina, no matter what names you want to call yourself."

But rather than feel erased by people who think I'm no different from Bob, I appreciate this marriage because this relationship makes me feel more Mexican than I've ever felt in my life. In the context of Bob's life and family, I'm the real deal. I speak Spanish and have hundreds of memories of food, music, tradition and idioms that are specifically Mexican-American. Bob can never step into this experience with me, which marks me as the ethnic one, a role that I've often felt doubtful about.

Being in an interracial marriage works very well for me. For most of my life I've uncomfortably straddled the cultures of the whites and the Latinos. But with Bob my life finally feels unquestionable: he's the white one and I'm the brown one. There's no doubting that and it feels good.

UPDATE in March 2018:
But it was occasionally quite painful to be in an interracial marriage. Bob didn't have the understanding of racial dynamics that I had and I found myself giving him the benefit of the doubt way too much.

The worst time was when the Harvard police arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. outside of his own home. Gates was trying to get into his house when neighbors called the police, who asked Gates for identification. When Gates protested, the police saw him as creating a disturbance and arrested him, taking away his cane, which he needs to walk.

I tried to talk to Bob about how upset I was about this, but he didn't see what the fuss was about. He saw the police as doing their job. I told him Gates had been on my graduate program committee when I was in the PhD program at Cornell, so he could trust me when I said (Skip) Gates would never do anything to threaten an officer. But Bob wouldn't give Gates the benefit of the doubt and we started arguing.

Eventually we got around to why American prisons are full of Blacks and Latinos, with Bob saying it must be because those are the criminals. I was furious. I couldn't believe the educating task I had in front of me. This was my husband.

We didn't resolve that argument and for the rest of our marriage we avoided such discussions. When I brought up racism and politics, Bob would go silent until I was done. We had no connection on this topic, or on many others.

At the very beginning of our marriage, my (white) mother-in-law had me on her email list of people she forwarded things to. One day I received a forwarded rant against "anchor babies," which are the babies Latin American women supposedly come to the U.S. to give birth to, so they'll be allowed to stay in the U.S. with their American children. It's a myth and the email angered me. As politely as I could I emailed my mother-in-law that her email was incorrect and my grandparents were Mexican immigrants and I didn't want to read such things. She didn't forward me anything else.

Bob and I are divorced now and I'm currently not in a relationship. I have no particular insight into marriage with someone who sees our racial society so differently from me. While I was married, I wanted it to work so badly that I overlooked a lot of things I had previously believed I wouldn't tolerate. Would I marry another white man? I doubt I'll get married again at all.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Must Eat Brains: Animal Organs Are Good for Us

In the AMC series American Horror Story, Jessica Lange’s character brings animal offal to her neighbor, Vivian, to support Vivian's pregnancy. She says that parts such as brain and liver are critical to having a healthy baby. We watch Vivian’s horror, but see her gamely take a bite of each dish as it is presented to her over several days. In spite of her initial disgust, Vivian ends up polishing off each organ with gusto, even going so far as to scrape the bowl to get the last of the raw brain.

I admire the writers of that show for including traditional nutrition that most of the world knows, but that many Americans have forgotten: organ meats (liver, brain, intestines, heart, etc.) contain far more vitamins and essential fatty acids than any other part of the animal. These parts have been critical to human health through millennia, especially to ensure that women have hearty, strong babies. Fruits and vegetables have important nutrients, but they also have a lot of water and sugar. They’re important for things like vitamin C, but we need fat to process fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and K. These nutrients are best absorbed from animal foods like dairy, meat and organs.

Dr. Catherine Shanahan’s Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food makes a case for how our body parts are nourished by the correlating body parts of animals. Eating cartilage is good for building cartilage, eating eyes gives you excellent nutrients for healthy eyes, etc. Gram for gram, organs like heart and liver contain more vitamins, folate and magnesium than an equal amount fruits and vegetables. These are the nutrients critical to a healthy body, especially for women considering pregnancy. Fetuses need this stuff, so start eating it now.

[photo by Michael Nagrant and taken from this webpage]

What’s sad is that the whole world knows this except for just a few of us. My friends born in Korea, Mexico and Lithuania enthusiastically tell me of their favorite offal dishes. Other cultures ply their pregnant women with organs and intestines, knowing these are the healthiest foods they can eat. American Horror Story got it right. It’s us squeamish Americans who are missing out on the good stuff, although in rural parts of the U.S. they enjoy things like Rocky Mountain oysters (calf testicles) and other such delicacies. So really it’s us city folk who need to get in step.

Beef and chicken liver have been the easiest offal for me to find in the regular supermarket, so I loosely followed a recipe for flourless liver with bacon and onions for the first time last week and it was surprisingly good. Yes, I’m a squeamish urban American who did not grow up eating things like liver, but if it’s good for me, I’ll give it go. I’ve made that liver recipe twice this week and I enjoy it more each time. I also had my first tacos de tripa (cow intestines) last Saturday and they were delicious. A little chewy, but not more so than squid or calamari. I went back for more yesterday.

Some feel concerned about the amount of saturated fat or cholesterol found in animal organs, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks. We know vitamins and minerals are good for us, but no study has ever clinically proven (as in a double-blind experiment) that saturated fat or cholesterol conclusively cause heart disease. Researchers have drawn that conclusion based on questionnaires asking people what they’ve been eating. While high heart disease rates correlate with people who eat lots of red meat, those meat-eaters usually consume a lot of buns, French fries, bread and baked potatoes with their burgers and steaks. Is the meat causing the health problems or is it the starch? Since no one has proven anything, you have to decide for yourself. (Hint: homo sapiens and our hominid ancestors have been eating animal fats and cholesterol for millions of years. If those things were bad for us, how could we be here now? Wheat has only been ingested by humans for the past 20,000 years and man-made frying oils for only a few decades.)

I recently discovered that Brown’s Chicken sells fried livers and gizzards. Foods fried in vegetable oil aren't good for us because vegetable oil is a chemically produced, toxic fat, but Brown's might be a place to at least taste gizzards. A friend promises to take me with her to a taquería that sells tacos de sesos (brain) and tacos de lengua (tongue). I can’t wait. I’m proud to have left the population that turns up its nose at the healthiest part of the animal. I’m happy to have joined the global majority that knows that animal offal helps to maintain strong bones, joints and healthy tissues.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

International No Diet Day

Get ready for International No Diet Day on Sunday! How about it?

You might wonder if a day of eating everything in sight really better than watching what you eat. I think the day isn't about going off your diet, but about trusting yourself to eat in a healthy way without fixating on food. I believe it's a day of rest from counting, measuring, weighing, considering nutrients and limiting things. Of course, the best approach to food is to simply eat when you're hungry, stop when you're no longer hungry and trust your body to tell you what it needs, but that's surprisingly difficult to do in our American food-fixated culture. What do you really want to eat if you're not worried about calorie counts or triggered by racks of candy bars? Disconnect food from all the emotions and rules and thoughts of this-treat-compensates-for-my-wretched-life and eat what your body is truly asking for.

That's how I'm approaching International Diet Day, anyway.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Still an atheist

This Thursday on the United States' National Day of Prayer, nontheists will have a National Day of Reason and recently Washington D.C. saw the Rally of Reason. Coming out as an atheist is becoming one of the bravest moves an American can make, especially if she's a minister. Apparently the U.S. is the most religious Western country in the world, which probably puts me on the cutting edge, being Mexican and all.

But you won't hear me argue against the existence of a spiritual being because I believe that faith can be extremely useful. It just doesn't work for me.