TCS Daily

Look WHO's talking

By Duane D. Freese - January 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Forget about taxes on "bad foods" and subsidies for "good foods," as the World Health Organization's draft report on a worldwide solution to obesity recommended before the evil Satan United States pointed out the science behind the plan was, well, a bit thin.

After all, what's a good food and what's a bad one? Consider the history. Peanuts and avocados, once out of favor, are now in. Carbohydrates in breads and pastas that were once in are now out -- but only after American public obesity levels increased 60 percent. Milk, kicked out by schools for being fatty, now reportedly provides much needed help in battling weight because of its calcium.

You'd think that if you were going to have a tax and subsidy regime that you would want one with a strong scientific basis that wouldn't change with the latest diet fad, unless of course you are the Center for Science in the Public Interest (whose motto should be: Act First, Study Later).

"It's ironic that the U.S. is the country that invented fast food, Coca-Cola and Twinkies and is now telling the rest of the world how to combat obesity," Bruce Silverglade, CSPI's legal director, complained to USA Today, regurgitating Yale University Kelly Brownell's claim that it is a "toxic food environment" that is the cause of obesity.

As Gary Taubes, a correspondent for the journal Science wrote, "Fast-food consumption ... continued to grow steadily through the 70's and 80's, but it did not take a sudden leap, as obesity did." And no scientific study has demonstrated a link between added sugars and obesity either, something Sandy Szwarc in her Tech Central Station series busting the myths about obesity made clear.

Indeed, many obese people don't eat fast food, don't drink Coke, don't have Twinkies. Many other people drink sodas by the gallon, gulp down sweets and eat prolific amounts of breads and beef -- as my 30-year-old nephew, Pablo, in Argentina -- and remain thin as rails.

CSPI can't explain that. But for that center on science, it seems that science is good only if it can be used to attack American business because that's what its interest really is. Otherwise forget about science.

WHO, though, ought not to go there, not if it really, really wants to battle the bulge, rather than merely bulk up government bureaucracies in the Third World. As Anthony Newley sang in Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd, "I've got a better answer, I've got a better scheme." It came to me while I was in San Martin de los Andes in Argentina over the holidays.

Baby Gymnasiums.

Let me explain. I was left with taking care of my niece's two-month-old baby one day for several hours, during which I discovered five primary activities that two-month old babies engage in.

First, a baby will suck on a bottle, (I don't breast feed), but only when it's hungry. Can't make it eat if it doesn't want to, just stops sucking. Secondly, it sleeps. A lot, if you're lucky. Third, it, well, you know, eliminates what it eats. Sort of churns it out, so it looks a lot like butter, though the nose knows it isn't. Fourthly, it looks at corners of the ceiling, just gazing off into the distance, as if there is some ethereal specter just behind you that disappears the minute you turn to look.

Creepy, no? But, finally, speaking of creepy, a baby will straighten its legs -- especially if you give it a little lift up off your lap. Mateo, my great nephew, would actually try to keep them straightened for long periods -- five seconds to start, 30 seconds after three weeks of practice, seemingly attempting to stand up on his own two feet, before collapsing. I thought Mateo might even have succeeded if not for the droopy diaper. I just didn't have the courage to hold him upright without it. Fear of butterfat.

But the point is, the kid liked to squirm. He liked to straighten his legs. And as he straightened his legs on my stomach, I would do crunches. When he'd collapse, I'd collapse. Did it for half an hour.

He also liked to rock. Or rather he liked it when I rocked him lying on his back against my legs. Only time I saw him smile, really, and don't tell me smiles are a learned response. I could smile at him all day and he wouldn't lift a corner. But do a little rock and roll and he'd gurgle his approval.

And finally, he also liked to be held head down, supported by hand and arm while I was standing doing a kind of slow dance, humming him to sleep.

By the time I was done, the baby had had a good work out and I had had a better one. I'd done a combination of aerobics (it takes a long time to get a baby to sleep), weight lifting (hey, he's now nearly nine or 10 pounds, I bet), and calisthenics.

And I thought: "Here's the answer to the day care crisis, and Americans need to get more exercise. Hook up out of shape people with babies in need of day care -- Baby Gymnasia. You could make money from both ends -- the people seeking exercise and the mothers and fathers needing day care -- and cut the costs for each at the same time."

I could even have special exercise sessions for prospective parents, a form of aversive therapy birth control.

It wasn't until I got home from Argentina, though, that I realized how important this revelatory idea could be in fighting the international epidemic of obesity.

At about the same time that the draft of the WHO plan on obesity was being leaked with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services scientific objections to it, a study appeared in the British medical journal, The Lancet, finding that the typical amount of daily physical activity among Scottish toddlers was 20 to 25 minutes -- a third of what they needed to get.

Such sedentariness early in life, the researchers claimed, made the youngsters more prone to obesity later in life.

Indeed, Dr. John Reilly of the Division of Developmental Medicine at the University of Glasgow told BBC News Online: "Public-health interventions are needed urgently, and these must involve population-based strategies that increase physical activity, reduce sedentary behavior, or both, in early life."

And I have the right intervention. Yes, Baby Gymnasia. Hey, WHO, how about a subsidy?


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