Tag Archives: health

Give yourself a break from multi-tasking

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Just try it. Give this podcast from Headspace about the healthy use of technology 15 minutes of your time. Pause to reflect on the way you use technology, and the extent to which switching between one window and another, between email and document, text message and Facebook, music and video, might be knocking up toxic cerebral froth.

You’ll know from my anti-multi-tasking rants that I don’t have a lot of time for the idea that ‘multi-tasking’ is a good thing. Although this podcast doesn’t use the term ‘multi-tasking’, it does refer to the documented negative effects of overstimulating your brain by constant task-switching on digital technology. It’s an important message, because it’s not just kids that try to do ten things at once with technology, it’s all of us who have the means. We need, I believe, to stop buying into the idea that we have endless processing power. I might just sign up to Headspace and give myself a break.

A geography lesson for Mail-readers

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Have you ever been to Slovenia? I have, four or five times. It’s a beautiful country. Ljubjlana is one of the quaintest, cleanest cities I know. My impression of Slovenians is of a self-assured, intelligent, well-educated, design-conscious nation, benefiting from a strong economy, an almost perfect location in Central Europe (beautiful, temperate, convenient), and a rich, honourable history.  Even when it was part of  Yugoslavia, it was the richest and most lightly-attached of all the republics, so much like Austria that you couldn’t really tell the difference, apart from the language.  It gained independence in 1991, and is one of the strongest economies of the new EU member states (of all of those, it has the highest GDP per capita, and 91% of the EU average, according to the wikipedia entry on Slovenia’s economy).

So what on earth did the Mail mean by its headline news today “England, the sick woman of Europe: Our poor cancer detection and bad diet mean Slovenian women live longer“? I’m not even going to go into the bad or rather meaningless science,  what really troubles me is that papers like the Mail still rely on its readers’ ignorance and arrogance to stoke up pointless disgust and disregard for nations just because they are not within commuting distance of Sevenoaks, or don’t have nuclear weapons. I really wonder if the Mail have any idea what or where Slovenia is? Mark Wallace certainly doesn’t:

Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said last night: ‘It is shocking that England is falling behind other European countries – and even more that we are falling behind a country like Slovenia. We spend a vast amount on healthcare but we don’t get the results that we should.

What does he mean, ‘a country like Slovenia’, given that there is every reason why Slovenians should enjoy a long and healthy life.  On what grounds should we always be ahead of Slovenia? The picture of Slovenians, all (unusually, by the way) in national costume  is compared to a fat (presumably English) woman eating KFC-like chicken from a box on a roadside bench. I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to make of this: that the fat woman and her love of chicken is letting the side down, giving those Commie folk-dancers a head start? If it weren’t for her chicken-problem, she’d be running the country and writing books about  Slavoj Žižek?

And if we were to suddenly beat Slovenia into 13th place, by ensuring their women died 2 months earlier than ours, would that be a cause for celebration? Do they deserve to die because they used to have a socialist government, or because they have funny accents over their letters? I’d like to suggest that the Mail reporters and Mr Wallace pay a trip to Slovenia to see how much further we have yet to go before we look even half as civilized. But it’s the absence of such pricks in that lovely country that makes it so pleasant to be in. So on second thoughts, just stay here, please.

A fat lot of good ‘choice’ is….

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You know it when you see it, but how hard it is to come up with it yourself: a bank of data just sitting there on a plate (literally, in this case) waiting for the imaginative researcher to recognize its worth and find a way of making use of it.  The perfect example is this research into the portion sizes depicted in representations of The Last Supper over the last 1,000 years:

Brian and Craig Wansink teamed up to analyze the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper (Phaidon Press 2000). After indexing the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the average disciple’s head, they found that portion size, plate size, and bread size increased dramatically over the last one thousand years. Overall, the main courses depicted in the paintings grew by 69%, plate size by 66%, and bread size by 23%.

I found this after reading an article about the 1lb Double Six Dollar burger (1400 calories, $5,49) which is pushing up sales for creators Hardee’s in the US, while other chains are nudging customers in the direction of salads and lighter chicken and fish versions (Fast Food Chains Buck The Healthy Trend).  The CEO of Hardee’s says, predictably “…the issue is simply about choice, the long-held American value of letting people make their own decisions.”

At the same time, I was wondering why on earth the UK government didn’t kill two birds with one stone (obesity epidemic & huge deficit) by bunging a whopping great tax on nutrition-free foods that are high in sugar and fat like sweets, fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits. Either obesity is a bad thing as the government keeps telling us, or it isn’t: if it really is that bad, then we need disincentives to nudge us into better eating habits, and this is one that the government could benefit from at the same time as being kind to humans.

I use the word ‘nudge’ purposely, since it’s the title of a recent book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein about the whole concept of ‘choice’ in politics. To summarise their argument, it’s virtually impossible to offer completely ‘free’ choice, because things like recency and primacy effect, for example, will make certain choices more appealing than others: we rarely make rational decisions. For this reason, they advocate a kind of paternal libertarianism, where you get choice, but the order in which those choices are given, and the way in which they are presented, nudge you towards doing stuff that is eventually going to be good for you. (See  http://nudges.org/ for more). I’m not saying it’s a great book – it’s repetitive, and they tend to drone on for pages about stuff that you already understood having read the back cover, but it’s difficult to disagree with the premise, and it’s very helpful to know about some of the insidious uses that the theory is used for (for example, those questionnaires that ask you whether you intend to buy something in the next year – it’s a psychological trick, because research shows that if you even think about it, you’re more likely to actually do it at a later date. Scary).

And indeed, there is a study which suggests that junk food taxes are more effective than health food subsidies. In short, when healthy food is discounted, buyers spend the resulting spare cash on junk food. When junk food is taxed, buyers avoid it and spend what they save on healthy food. Read the article for the detail, but the gist is that although there’s a balance to be achieved between taxing and subsidy, taxing junk food wins out every time.

I keep having to remind myself what ‘disingenuous’ means, because although it’s a pejorative term,  it always sounds vaguely positive (a mixture of ‘ingenue’ and ‘ingenious’). The Hardees story is maybe the one that will finally make me remember: nothing defines ‘disingenuous’ more than someone who claims that what is clearly a targeted marketing campaign that capitalizes on unhealthy cravings is offering choice. A year ago, even a McDonald’s representative admitted that it was salt and fat that was the recipe for McDonalds’ success.

As an ex-smoker, I applaud the smoking ban: it makes it a hundred times easier not to smoke when everywhere you go, there are little incentives not to light up: if you can’t smell cigarette smoke, you don’t want to smoke. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to eat healthily when the choices you have nudge you towards better nutrition.  And for the absolute last word on the subject, the recent article in the Guardian (Obesity: the killer combination of salt, fat and sugar) is clear about the degree to which we can talk about ‘choice’ with regard to food that is knowingly designed to be the perfect combination of salt, fat and sugar:

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the relationship between the dopamine-driven motivational system and our behaviour in the presence of rewarding foods. But we do know that foods high in sugar, fat and salt are altering the biological circuitry of our brains. We have scientific techniques that demonstrate how these foods – and the cues associated with them – change the connections between the neural circuits and their response patterns.

Rewarding foods are rewiring our brains. As they do, we become more sensitive to the cues that lead us to anticipate the reward. In that circularity lies a trap: we can no longer control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains have been changed by the foods we eat. [Guardian, 13/3/10]

Hearing loss & children

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Via Rebecca’s Pocket, still my favourite blog on the net, an article about hearing loss and young children from the NY Times.

It’s become fashionable to denigrate health & safety & ‘political correctness’, and to say ‘in my day, we jumped out of trees and played in the road and it never did me any harm’, but the prevalence of excessive noise in everyday life is new. My worst annoyance? Dance teachers who pump up the volume and then scream over it. Sorry if I offend anyone with that statement, but it’s true: we have to take the risk of over-exposure to noise seriously.