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The American Medical Association (AMA) voted today to endorse taxation of sugary beverages as a means to raise money for anti-obesity programs. Interestingly, a recent physician survey at Medpage Today suggests that only 50% of physicians think that a soda tax is an effective public health strategy.
I am one of the 50% who feels that this policy will not be effective. In short, this is why:
1. You can become obese by eating and drinking almost anything in excess. Targeting sugary beverages is reductio ad absurdum. Did America become fat simply because of an excess supply of sugary fluids on grocery shelves? What about the super-sizing of our food portions, the change in workforce physical requirements, the advent of cars, escalators, healthy food “deserts” in poor neighborhoods, video games, and cutting gym class from schools?
Holding Coca Cola, et al. responsible for our own over-consumption of calories is both unfair and tantamount to spitting into the wind – something bad is going to come back at us. Consumers can easily get around the soda tax by buying sweet alternatives – which may have even more calories than soda. (Caramel latte anyone?) And then what? Are we really going to play public policy, food and beverage whack-a-mole?
Carmelita Jeter's Shopping Cart
2. You can be thin and fit while eating and drinking almost anything. Obviously nutrition science has shown that a diet rich in fresh fruits and veggies, lean meats, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and healthy fats is the best for our health. However, please consider that the world’s fastest woman, Olympian Carmelita Jeter, eats Hostess cup cakes, Teddy Grahams, Welch’s grape juice, whole milk, and Gatorade. How do I know? Because she posted a photo of her shopping cart on Twitter (see image to the left). I obviously have no idea how much of this she eats – or when she eats it – but if the world’s fastest woman is powered (to some degree) by “Twinkies” then I think we should all think twice about demonizing certain foods/beverages in our anti-obesity fervor.
3. You can’t regulate good behavior. Human behaviors that may lead to obesity are simply too complex to regulate. Who would want to live in a world where government becomes the de facto “Nutrisystem” for its citizens, mailing out pre-packaged, ingredient-controlled meals to 312 million people per day, three times a day, seven days a week? While that may save the post office from its imminent demise, we can neither afford to do that, nor do we need to.
People who believe that policy should drive behavior point to smoking bans that have cut down on smoking rates. While I agree that small improvements have been made in reducing smoking rates, roughly one in four people still smoke (depending on your source, this number could be as low as one-in-five), and one in every five deaths is still attributed to cigarette smoking. Hardly a resounding victory, alas.
But beyond the fact that policy changes (and the billions we’ve spent enacting and enforcing them) have resulted in a disappointing decrease in smoking rates, is the issue that cigarettes and food ingredients (such as sugar) are not analogous substances. While there is no safe minimum amount of cigarette smoke, our bodies need salt, glucose, and fat to survive. They cannot be cut out of our diet completely – nor should they. And the only way to force people to optimize their intake is to enact Draconian measures.
So instead of starting a food-fight, it’s important to accept the complexities associated with this particular health scourge and promote a broader, more-nuanced approach to wellness incentives. We have to attack this problem from the ground up, because a top-down approach requires our government to become an invasive, food and exercise nanny.
The good news is that one-third of Americans are not overweight or obese, despite our current “toxic” food/inactive lifestyle environment. Perhaps these thinner folks can be ambassadors for the rest of us, and reveal their secrets of healthy living despite our current limitations. Even with our best efforts, we need to understand that (like smokers) we will always have a segment of the population that is overweight or obese.
And as for the Olympians among us – they help to illustrate that obsessing over every morsel of food or cup of soda that we consume is not the way forward. Sorry AMA, I’m with Carmelita on this one.
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Along with the invention of smart phones, an entire medical mobile application (app) industry has cropped up, promising patients enhanced connectivity, health data collection, and overall care quality at lower costs. Last year the FDA put a damper on the app industry’s quick-profit hopes by announcing that it intends to regulate certain medical apps as medical devices. In other words, if the app is used to connect with a medical device or to turn a smart phone into such a device (whether it can check your blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rhythm, etc. or suggest diagnoses), it must undergo safety and efficacy checks by the FDA before it can be brought to market. That process is likely to inflate app development costs exponentially, thus creating a chilling effect on the industry.
I actually think that FDA oversight is a good thing in this case, since it could protect patients from potentially misleading health information that they might use to make treatment or care decisions. But more importantly, I wonder if a lot of this fuss is moot for the largest, sickest, segment of the U.S. population?
For all the hype about robo-grannies, aging in place technologies, and how high tech solutions will reduce healthcare costs, the reality is that these hopes are unlikely to be achieved with the baby boomer generation. I believe that the generation that follows will be fully wired and interested in maximizing all that mobile health has to offer, but they’re not sick (yet) and they’re also not the proverbial “pig in the python” of today’s healthcare consumption.
I’m not saying that mobile health apps have no role in caring for America’s seniors – their physicians and care teams use tablets and smart phones, their kids do too, and a small percent of seniors may adopt these technologies, but I’m a realist when it comes to massive adoption by boomers themselves. Wireless connectivity, texting, personal digital health records, and asynchronous communication is just not in their DNA. Take away a teenager’s smart phone and he or she is likely to be completely flummoxed by reality. Now give that phone to a baby boomer and the flummoxing will be roughly equivalent, but centered upon the device. The teen can’t live without the constant phone/internet connection, and the senior is overwhelmed by the lack of human interface and unfamiliar menus.
What makes me so sure of my pronouncements? I just spent a month making house calls to almost 70 different Medicare Advantage members in rural parts of this country. And I can tell you that almost none of them used any sort of smart phone app to manage their health. These “odd creatures” actually enjoyed face-to-face human contact, they used their phones almost exclusively to talk to people (not surf the Internet), and they took hand-written notes when it was important for them to remember something. They even had paper calendars that they used to schedule their physician appointments and keep records of their medications and procedures. How “weird” is that?!
When I asked one of the seniors if she’d be interested in using a cell phone to check her blood pressure and have that automatically uploaded to her doctor’s office she replied,
“I’m too old to learn that stuff, dear. I’m lucky if I can find my slippers in the morning.”
The reality is that the average app user isn’t sick, and sick people don’t see a need for apps… yet. So our challenge is to meet seniors where they are instead of trying to change their habits. House calls are the best way I know of to get a full appreciation for individual quirks, compliance challenges, and health practices. If we are really serious about reducing healthcare costs in our aging population, it may take some low-tech solutions. As un-sexy as that may be, it’s time that we put down the iPhone and practiced some good old-fashioned medicine.
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This news flash from the land of no surprises… The Journal of The American Medical Informatics Association recently published a study analyzing physician use of online technology. They hypothesized that certain types of physician specialists (such as dermatologists?) would display higher adoption rates of Internet-based communication technology (including things like social media platforms, podcasts, health apps, and widgets). But instead they discovered that adoption of these technologies was correlated with male gender, younger age, and practicing medicine in an academic hospital setting. In other words, young geeky dudes are the ones who are most likely to use techie medical widgets. Who’d have guessed?
All kidding aside (and in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a middle-aged, female physician who does not practice medicine in an academic setting. I have a blog, a podcast show, and was recently rated one of the top 10 MDs to follow on Twitter – so I must be a serious, category-blowing geek), this does have implications for healthcare. First of all, according to the US Department of Labor, ~80% of family healthcare decisions are made by women, and we consume a disproportionate amount of healthcare resources too. So in my opinion, healthcare technologies should be built by/for women and marketed to them more aggressively. Because if we’re trying to drive adoption of these things to streamline care, facilitate access, and reduce utilization, then we’ve gotta get the ladies on board too.
This study only confirms to me that we’re not there yet – guys are still more likely to use health apps/widgets, etc. But just as “progress” has been made in the video gaming industry (where only 12% of gamers were girls in 2001, that has grown to 40% in 2009) I think we can make similar gains in healthcare. And it’s for a much better cause than “getting really good at playing Grand Theft Auto.” Health apps have the potential to help people manage their diseases and conditions, avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor, and get them to the right healthcare provider at the right time.
So all you geeky (I say that with the utmost respect as a geek myself of course), male software developers out there – please befriend a few female physicians and work with us to get the tech trends moving in the right female direction. We’re all together in this game of life, right?
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Kellogg’s Special K cereal brand has long been known for its iconic slim woman in a red bathing suit. In a bold, Dove-soap-like new ad campaign, they have decided to feature “real women” – which apparently means women with larger BMIs – in red bathing suits. A Special K spokeswoman explains,
“We want to encourage a responsible attitude when it comes to body image and to show that losing weight isn’t just about the way you look or a certain size you need to conform to, but more importantly about the way it makes you feel.
The fact that we are using real women for the first time of a variety of shapes and sizes is the perfect way to encourage women to think differently about losing weight and not just focus on the numbers on the bathroom scales.”
While I certainly appreciate the intent, I think there may be an even better way of achieving the objective of avoiding an over-emphasis on the bathroom scale. Instead of normalizing and accepting overweight bodies, why not show what women of the same percent body fat look like? That might be a healthier way to help us wrap our minds around the fact that (for example) 21% body fat on one woman might look very different than 21% body fat on another… Of course body fat alone is not a perfect measure of health – cardiovascular fitness doesn’t always correlate with it. But it’s a potential new way of normalizing healthy bodies rather than accepting a new overweight standard.
In fact, with the upcoming summer Olympic games, it might be fun to show the many faces of fitness. Women athletes at the peak of their performance look very different from one another. How about putting them all in red bathing suits?
Anyway, I thank Special K for opening the discussion – and I encourage us all to strive for optimal health. But as a physician, I believe that we shouldn’t accept overweight bodies as a new health standard. Good health does come in many shapes and sizes, but not in high levels of body fat.
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If you’re like me, you probably feel guilty about not making stretching a part of your regular exercise routine. I attributed my history of low back pain to lack of stretching, although when I began practicing yoga last year I experienced no lasting benefits. Stretching was uncomfortable and I saw very little improvement in my flexibility for all my efforts. I eventually gave up after one well-meaning yogi told me that I may just be “genetically incapable” of making much progress. I turned to strength training and running with complete resolution of my back pain – though with a continued inability to bend over and touch my toes or sit cross legged for prolonged periods. Oh well. No traditional Japanese dining for me!
And so it was with great surprise that I read the conclusions from a recent analysis (by Alex Hutchinson, Ph.D.) of the science of stretching. I recommend that you read it for yourself (along with the links to the primary source literature). But I’m going to summarize his findings here:
Q: Does stretching reduce the risk of injuries during exercise?
A: Not that we can prove.
Q: Does stretching help you avoid soreness after exercise?
Q: Does stretching make you stronger or faster?
A: No. In fact, there is some evidence that stretching can have the opposite effect. Why? Muscles have spring-like properties, so that when they are stretched out, they become less able to transmit as much force. Imagine the difference between the power of a thick, metal spring and a thin metal spring. Studies have shown that the more flexible you are, the less efficient you are as a runner.
My take away message is that there’s no need to flagellate yourself into stretching if you don’t like it. It really depends on what you need to do with your body – if you’re a gymnast, then stretching will always be a part of your life. If you’re a runner who hates yoga, so be it. You may never win a toe-touching competition, but then again, you can probably crush the Primal Games competition. Wish me luck as I attempt to do just that in two weeks!