Food Deserts Not Strongly Connected to Obesity, Study Shows



A new study found “no strong evidence” that being within walking distance to food outlets was associated with being obese or not.

Researchers at UCLA and the Rand Corporation analyzed data from the California Health Interview Survey — nearly 100,000 people were included — and published their findings in Preventing Chronic Disease.

The L.A. Times picks up the story:

Given the attention to the idea of food deserts – areas with limited access to healthful food – and their effect on people’s health, the researchers wanted to find how much it mattered to have stores and restaurants within walking distance, which they defined as a mile from home.

But the number of fast-food outlets within three miles of home was associated with eating more fast food, fried potatoes and caloric soft drinks, and with less frequent consumption of produce, the researchers said. And they found that the number of large supermarkets within 1.5 miles and three miles of home was associated with drinking fewer caloric soft drinks.

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Most Californians Support Soda Tax If It Benefits Children’s Health

 (La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

(La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

Just over three months since voters in two California cities — Richmond and El Monte — flatly turned down soda taxes, a new Field Poll released Thursday found a majority of California voters say they would support a soda tax if the funds raised were devoted to children’s health.

While only 40 percent of voters said they favor a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, that number jumped to 68 percent if the proceeds will benefit school nutrition and physical activity programs.

“Voters in general don’t trust taxes that aren’t earmarked. They prefer to see taxes linked to something beneficial,” said Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president of The California Endowment, which sponsored the poll. “People that are engaged in constructing policy … should take heart in this poll and be able to look to it to construct subsequent measures for trying to engage the public support behind obesity prevention.”

Fully 75 percent of voters said they see a link between regular soda consumption and a person’s risk of being overweight or obese.
The Field Poll reported that support for such an earmarked tax was especially strong among Latinos (79 percent), Asian Americans (73 percent) and African Americans (70 percent).

“I think this poll shows that a campaign either statewide or locally in cities has an excellent chance,” Wendel Brunner, Contra Costa County’s director of public health, told the San Jose Mercury News.

But in the poll voters had the highest support — more than 80 percent — for increasing opportunities for being physically active, such as improved school sports fields and playgrounds — and keeping those facilities open after school and on weekends. Continue reading

Sex Doesn’t Burn Weight and 4 More Popular Myths About Dieting Debunked

Woman's feet on scale.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I don’t cover a lot of dieting stories here on State of Health. I figure you get enough of that elsewhere. For example, here are 88 million places I found by Googling “How can I lose 10 pounds?”

But I love evidence-based medicine. So when a group of respected researchers shatter widely-held beliefs about weight loss, I’m there. In Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine, a group of researchers does just that.

In the review, the researchers categorized as myths those “beliefs held to be true despite substantial refuting evidence.” In other words, people have been repeating these ideas for so long, everyone thinks they’re true. But they’re not.

So, here we go:

Myth #1: Small changes — eating less or exercising more — done over time will yield large weight loss.  This myth comes from the idea that a pound is equal to 3,500 calories. But the short-term studies that looked at burning 3,500 calories to lose one pound were done 50 years ago. More recent research shows that individuals will burn calories differently as they lose weight. So the 100 calories you’re burning in exercise today will affect your body differently than the 100 calories you burned, say 18 months ago, when you started these small changes. Note that it’s not to say that exercising more — or eating less — is pointless (you will see why later in this post).

Myth #2: If you lose a lot of weight really fast, you’ll just gain it back really fast; you’ll have better long-term results if you lose weight slowly. When researchers actually looked at the studies, they found “no significant difference” between the two approaches in relation to long-term weight loss. Continue reading

Can Soda Taxes Lead to Weight Loss?

(Tessek: Flickr)

(Tessek: Flickr)

My KQED colleague Mina Kim produced a great piece examining whether higher soda prices leads to weight loss — and the health benefits that come with it. She profiled a 17-year-old football player from Tracy — Jorge Cota, who at 5’11” weighed 321 pounds. He had high blood pressure and may have had heart and kidney problems. That was a year ago.

While Cota since has made many diet changes, the first thing he did was cut out his drink of choice, Dr. Pepper. He had been drinking two or three cans or bottles a day.

He’s since lost 70 pounds, Kim reports.

Still, Cota told Kim that he doubts a penny-per-ounce soda tax would make a difference in soda consumption. After all, a 20-ounce soda would go up only 20 cents.

Kim turned to Kelly Brownell, head of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. As she reports:

His group has studied how pricing changes affect consumer behavior.

“The penny-per-ounce, which is the level of tax being discussed the most around the country, is enough to affect consumption, somewhere between 10 or 20 percent or so,” Brownell says. “[That] would be enough to not make it a terrible burden on consumers, but would affect consumption of the product enough to reduce health care costs.”

More importantly, Brownell says, passage of the tax would give a big boost to the national trend away from sugary drinks that’s already begun in school districts and communities where demand for fresh local food is growing. Continue reading

Soda Industry Spending Big to Defeat Richmond Beverage Tax

Rosa Lara talks with Alejandra Nava at La Raza market. Lara is a paid organizer for the community coalition against beverage taxes.

Rosa Lara talks with Alejandra Nava at La Raza market in Richmond. Lara is a paid organizer for the community coalition against beverage taxes.

Earlier this week, KQED’s Mina Kim looked at the ongoing soda tax campaign in Richmond. In November, voters there will decide whether to impose a penny-an-ounce fee on sweetened drinks. Today, William Harless at California Watch drilled down into newly-released campaign finance disclosures and learned that — not surprisingly — tax opponents are outspending tax supporters.

What might be more surprising is that the margin is 10 to 1. Harless reports that the American Beverage Association, based in Washington and representing Coca Cola, PepsiCo et. al. has spent $150,000 since June. (Note that the City Council voted to put the tax on the ballot on May 15.)

Harless earlier reported that the beverage association is funding the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes. To date, that organization has spent an additional $200,000, again according to campaign finance records.

While dramatically outspent, more organizations are also joining the campaign to support the tax. Continue reading

Richmond Soda Tax Campaign in Full Swing

By Mina Kim

Jeff Ritterman, Richmond city councilman who is championing the soda tax, on the campaign trail. (Photo: Mina Kim)

On MacDonald Avenue, the city of Richmond’s main drag, Jeff Ritterman is pulling a little red wagon that holds a plastic water cooler jug filled with forty pounds of sugar. Ritterman says that’s the average amount a child in Richmond consumes each year, just from drinking sodas. “The child gets overweight,” he says, “and the arteries of the heart fill up with bad fat. And that’s a real health problem.”

Ritterman is a retired cardiologist who likes to wear his graying hair in a ponytail. He’s also a city councilman and the man behind a November ballot measure that would make Richmond one of the first cities in the nation to impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

According to a report from Contra Costa Health Services [PDF], more than half of Richmond’s children are overweight or obese.

At a shopping plaza, Ritterman’s wagon catches the attention of passerby Michael Bracey. Continue reading

Beverage Companies Blur Line Between Philanthropy & Marketing

Some soda companies have begun using cause marketing to curry public favor in the face of criticism. (La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

If you were watching the Superbowl in 2010 when the Packers beat the Steelers, you may have noticed that Pepsi commercials were absent from the ads that were vying for the attention of millions of viewers. Instead, Pepsi announced Pepsi Refresh, a project to take the $20 million dollars it would have spent on Superbowl advertising and give it to a good cause. They used a vast social media campaign to involve the public in voting for which cause would get the money.

Pepsi’s good deed did put $20 million dollars into the hands of organizations working to solve global problems, but Pepsi got something back too — loyal consumers. The campaign was a splashy example of a new strategy called “cause marketing” that plays off a growing trend of corporate social responsibility. But this money comes directly out of Pepsi’s brand marketing budget, not their philanthropy arm.

“There are some really revealing statements in the industry literature from executives at Pepsi saying very explicitly what they were trying to do,” explained Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “And one of the things they were trying to do is get the attention of and favorability of millennials,” she added.

Dorfman and her colleagues have been digging into the nitty-gritty of the beverage industry to draw comparisons between the marketing strategies of big tobacco and those of soda companies, who have recently come under attack for the role their sugary product is playing in rising obesity rates.

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Lessons Learned from the War on Smoking, Applied to Obesity

Could a public campaign against obesity help people in the same way anti-smoking campaigns have? (Dave Whelan: Flickr)

Could a public campaign against obesity help people in the same way anti-smoking campaigns have? (Dave Whelan: Flickr)

Expect to hear a lot about obesity prevention in the coming days. A four-part HBO documentary about the obesity crisis debuts next week. Today, the Centers for Disease Control opened a major conference examining strategies to help Americans with this significant health challenge. At a report released this morning, researchers said obesity prevalence will increase about 33 percent in the next 20 years — climbing from one-third of Americans affected now to a 42 percent rate by 2030.

And believe it or not 42 percent is good news — that’s down from the 50 percent estimated in prior years.

Despite first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and its greater attention on childhood obesity, many public health leaders are frustrated with slow progress and say more must be done. They call for a different approach, using strategies similar to those used in the anti-tobacco movement. It was only after anti-tobacco advocates embraced community-based activism that smoking rates began to drop from a high of 42 percent in the mid-1960s to just over 19 percent today, they say. Continue reading

Global Experts Meet in Oakland to Share Ideas on Children’s Health

Malaria, tuberculosis, HIV — these are the communicable diseases many people associate with death in the developing world. But increasingly diseases like diabetes, heart disease and conditions related to obesity have become the ticking “time bomb” that public health experts are desperately trying to prevent form exploding.

Healthier school lunches can help fight obesity and its related diseases. (Photo: USDAgov/Flickr)

The Public Health Institute (PHI) convened the first-ever conference focusing exclusively on children and non-communicable diseases this week in downtown Oakland. Experts from around the world gathered to exchange ideas about how to prevent diseases that were once thought to be illnesses of the developed world from spreading globally. It’s no coincidence that the conference is being held in Oakland. “Poverty is a root cause of a lot of the problems that bring diseases like this to the fore, and it’s something that we grapple with on a daily basis in Oakland,” explained Jeff Meer, PHI’s special advisor for global health. “If we can get a handle on how poverty relates to illness in Oakland, then we can understand it in Bujumbura and Kigali.”

The four most common non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease and chronic heart disease. “Most of us think of them as illnesses that strike in rich, highly developed countries; but the fact is that there is a tidal wave, an epidemic of non-communicable diseases that is striking populations all over the world, and striking, frankly with great ferocity in very poor places that have fewer resources than we do to deal with them,” Meer told me. A tidal wave indeed — two-thirds of deaths worldwide can be attributed to NCDs according to Meer. Continue reading

Sugar: A Sweetener Gone Sour?

(Uwe Hermann: Flickr)

(Uwe Hermann: Flickr)

A spoonful of sugar may have helped the medicine go down when Julie Andrews sang the song, but fast forward to the 21st century and sugar isn’t looking so sweet. Today in a provocative commentary in the journal Nature, researchers argue that sugar is so toxic to our bodies, it should be regulated in the same way alcohol and tobacco are.

The three writers, all from UC San Francisco, say that every country that has adopted the Western diet, with its hallmark of highly-processed food, has seen rising rates of obesity and the diseases that go with it, such as heart disease and diabetes. But, in a turn, they argue against blaming obesity itself. “Obesity is not the cause,” they write, “rather, it is a marker for metabolic dysfunction, which is even more prevalent.” Metabolic syndrome leads to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, fatty liver disease and even cancer, they say. Continue reading