All in Favor of Slimness, Please Stand Up

Want to lose weight? Get up out of that chair! The scientific evidence is piling up that sitting is linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. People who stand more tend to be leaner and healthier. Obviously, if you sit around a lot you probably aren’t exercising much, but exercise is not the only factor.

Apparently, the mere act of sitting shuts down circulation of an enzyme called lipase, which helps muscles absorb fat. Physiologists have found that standing up engages muscles and promotes the distribution of lipase, which helps the body process fat and cholesterol. Standing up also uses blood glucose and may help prevent the development of diabetes.

Sitting down, on the other hand, shuts off lipase. According to researchers quoted by Science Daily, sitting around too much can double or even triple the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is true even without factoring in actual exercise. Merely standing instead of sitting can burn an extra 60 calories per hour.

And all this time, I’ve been nagging my son to snack at the kitchen table instead of wolfing down food while standing at the counter. Who knew?

The China Syndrome

The massive recall of pet foods containing wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical, has focused attention on an issue most of us would rather not think about: the heightened food safety risks that come with widespread importing of foodstuffs.

As demand for its food products has exploded, China has tried to improve food safety. But it’s difficult in a land where there are so many scattered small family farms and pressure to keep up with the ever increasing demand. Drugged farmed animals, industrial pollutants, overuse of pesticides, cutting corners to save costs—all have led to food scandals in China and abroad. (In one of the more notorious cases, substandard infant formula caused malnutrition in hundreds of babies and killed at least 12.) Europe, Japan and even Hong Kong have banned some Chinese food imports.

Americans treat their pets like children, and a scandal of this magnitude will hopefully exert pressure on Chinese suppliers and the American companies that deal with them to tighten the controls.

But this may also be a good time to question why we are importing so much of our food. Does anyone else find it ironic that America, the world’s leading exporter of wheat, is importing wheat gluten from China?

Fish oil gets another nod

A study about a link between violence and a deficiency in omega 3 fatty acids adds more evidence that our french fry- and salad dressing-laden diet harms more than our figures. In a way, it “short-circuits” our brains.

This is not a new idea; some researchers have been warning for decades that the dramatic shift in the past century in the types of oil we eat may have dire consequences. In short, we all eat way more omega 6s (found in plant oils such as soy, corn and safflower) and way too little omega 3s (found in fish, flaxseed, walnuts and greens). These essential fatty acids play a prime role in brain development.

While the number of well-designed studies is relatively small and results are mixed, fairly good evidence indicates that supplementation with omega 3s (particularly the type found in fish oils) can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder, and reduce aggression.

The idea that omega 3s can make your kid smarter, stave off cancer or improve your sex life is, at this point, mainly a pleasant fantasy perpetuated by people who sell fish oil supplements. Still, it probably won’t hurt to take fish oil supplements, and it may help.

Fish oil is safe—safer in many cases than fish, which can be contaminated with mercury and PCBs. Fish oil supplements tested by Consumer Lab contained no detectable levels of mercury, PCBs or other contaminants. Taking a lot of fish oil could have side effects, ranging from the minor (fishy belching) to more serious (bleeding too much, if you are on other anticoagulants).

You needn’t spend a fortune on fish oil supplements. Nearly all the fish oil products Consumer Lab tested were pure and contained the amounts of fatty acids advertised. I usually buy fish oil capsules at Costco. I like the enteric-coated ones–less fishy burping.

The Food Safety Net

The E. coli-tainted spinach that killed three and sickened 200 people in 26 states and Canada has again focused attention on whether food safety oversight in the U.S. is too fractured. The National Academy of Sciences, the government’s General Accounting Agency, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other consumer groups have long called for one central agency to oversee food safety. So have at least a few members of Congress.

I think they have a point. If you and a bunch of other folks who ate burgers at the Grease Palace USA chain get sick, your doctors will report it to the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates meat, so the burger patty falls under its jurisdiction. The Food and Drug Administration will get involved because it regulates the bun, lettuce, tomato and mayo. Your state health agency regulates restaurants. If toxic substances are involved somehow, the EPA will be called in.

The spinach case was actually a simple one, relatively speaking–the FDA regulates produce, packaged or otherwise.

To be fair, the regulators involved in food safety cooperate remarkably well considering they’re government agencies. Food safety experts tracked down the source of the E. coli contamination in the spinach to a certain area, and finally to cow manure from ranches in that area—an impressive feat. And the agencies involved point out that reported illnesses linked to E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria declined significantly from 1998 to 2005. (The CDC estimates foodborne illnesses sicken 76 million Americans every year, killing 5,000 of them and putting another 300,000 in the hospital.)

But in a world where the food you eat comes from everywhere and is combined in ways not even dreamed of 50 years ago (who could have predicted a burger on a doughnut?), the detective work needed to track down the source of an outbreak is difficult enough. It seems to me it would be easier if one agency was in charge.

Run for Your Food

An article in the current issue of the New Scientist suggests that humans may have evolved the body shape we did to become good runners. And why would we need to be good runners? So we could eat. Our ancestors could get to animal carcasses first to scavenge and later, when they became hunters, they could chase after prey for long distances, literally wearing the animal out.

An anthropologist who studies modern African hunters says the practice of chasing down prey is dying out. It’s a bit too labor intensive.

I’m not sure the practice is dying out. I know plenty of people who scarf down a bag of chips then run an extra mile on the treadmill. Ah, but wait—we’ve got it backwards. What you do is put the package of cupcakes or bag of Doritos a mile away. Then run for it. Better yet, race your teenage son to see who gets there first.

By the way, anthropologists say large buttocks contribute to our ability to run well on two legs. The next time you try on a pair of jeans and blanch when you look in the mirror, blame evolution, not that extra slice of fudge marble cheesecake.