February 2011


Americans have always dreamed of the day when you could eat all the pizza, Big Macs and cheese enchiladas you want and still be incredibly healthy just by popping a few pills.

The pills would contain all of the beneficial nutrients found in such distasteful fare as green leafy vegetables, carrots, and fresh fruit. You know that it’s important to consume these items because of all the fiber and vitamins they contain, but on the other hand who wants to sit down to a plate full of lawn mower clippings?

According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition – a trade association representing the supplemental nutrition industry – Americans spend $25.2 billion on vitamins, weight management products and sports nutrition items.

That sounds like a lot of money, but it’s really only about three days’ work for Ben Bernanke assuming he has the printing presses running at full bore.

So this is a very important part of our economy since about half the population – 150 million folks – use nutritional supplements. And the market continues to grow, even in a weakened economy, according to a 2009 New York Times report.

“People are clearly cutting back on many items, from bread and milk to designer jeans and flat-screen televisions, but they are stocking up on pills that they think can spare them expensive doctor visits,” the Times said, citing a 20 percent rise in sales at the national chain store The Vitamin Shoppe.

Now there’s some fresh hope that using dietary supplements may actually pay off. A new University of Illinois study shows that you can get the cancer-fighting benefits of eating broccoli by consuming a powdered extract. But the key, according to the research, is that the powder must be taken along with broccoli sprouts.

University researchers asked four men to eat meals containing broccoli sprouts alone, broccoli powder alone, or a combination of the two. Three hours later, levels of sulforaphane metabolites – the cancer fighting substance – were measured in the men’s blood and urine.

“We saw almost a twofold increase in sulforaphane absorption when sprouts and powder were eaten together. It changed the way the subjects metabolized the powder. We saw plasma and urine metabolites much earlier and at much higher levels than when either was eaten alone,” says Elizabeth Jeffery, a University of Illinois professor of nutrition.

Most people don’t get their recommended 7-13 portions of fruits and vegetables per day and for some reason, many find broccoli particularly vile.

In 1992, the first President Bush said: “I do not like broccoli. And I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”

That certainly won him the support of 5-year-olds and had they been able to vote, today we’d all be saying: “Bill who?”

Personally, I like broccoli and don’t mind eating the real thing. But don’t overcook it, Jeffrey warns, or it will wipe out all that valuable sulforaphane. Steaming it for two to four minutes is ideal, she says.

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Question: How do you expect Americans to debate health care when they don’t even keep up on the issues?

A poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation last week showed that an amazing 48 percent of the public believes that the health care reform law has been repealed, or say they aren’t sure whether it’s still in force. Twenty-two percent say it’s absolutely been repealed, while 26 percent aren’t sure. The other 52 percent correctly said the law is still intact.

Among Republicans, 33 percent believed the law had been killed. Among Democrats, 12 percent thought it had been thrown out and 25 percent of independents agreed. The House voted to repeal the law but the House bill is likely to die without Senate approval.

Overall, 48 percent of Americans remain opposed to the health care reform law. The most disliked provision is the insurance mandate, which 67 percent would like to see removed.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wanko/466686/

When I heard that Justin Bieber had endorsed a single-payer health care system and in fact had stated emphatically and unequivocally that U.S. health care is “evil,” many questions immediately came to mind.

One of them was: Who’s Justin Bieber?

Another was: How can I capitalize on the Justin Bieber phenomenon by incorporating him into a Headline Health post?

In truth, I actually learned about Justin Bieber while watching the Grammys with my daughter, her hubby and a friend. The show struck me as an over-produced version of American Idol, but it kept pulling viewers along by promising that something for everyone was coming right up.

Lady Gaga was coming right up, as were Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. The buzz was that Lady Gaga was going to jump out of an egg, an entrance so dramatic you hesitated to go to the kitchen for a beverage refill.

I also wanted to see to see if Sir Michael Jagger, after all these years, still had sympathy for the devil. He apparently does and the devil has reciprocated, giving the 67-year-old singer the uncanny ability to hop around the stage like he was 17.

(More proof: I recently saw the 2008 Martin Scorsese film, Shine a Light, which showed that none of the Rolling Stones, save drummer Charlie Watts, has even one gray hair. Keith Richards still smokes on stage.)

Back to Justin Bieber, the Canadian heartthrob who looks like the kid who hands you your Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Large Fry and Diet Coke at the McDonald’s drive-thru window.

Justin Bieber is suddenly weighing in on important social issues of the day because, well, he was asked. In the new Rolling Stone interview, he said:

“Canada’s the best country in the world. We go to the doctor and we don’t need to worry about paying him, but here, your whole life, you’re broke because of medical bills. My bodyguard’s baby was premature, and now he has to pay for it. In Canada, if your baby’s premature, he stays in the hospital as long as he needs to, and then you go home.”

They should have asked him what he thought of collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, but they didn’t. Or whether people in Florida who apply for unemployment compensation should be required to take drug tests and pick up garbage along side of the road.

“You guys are evil,” he might have said.

Justin Bieber’s comments have stirred up a media debate about whether a 16-year-old kid should be making political comments, or whether he should even have been asked his opinion in the first place. My view is that sure, of course he should.

When young kids suddenly change the topic of conversation from iPhones and Facebook to actual relevant social issues, we ought to be jumping for joy.

Justin Bieber is only 16, and his beliefs and political perspectives will become more defined and coherent over the years. He may be sharp-tongued and articulate.

Once his voice changes, though, will anybody be listening?

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This is Presidents’ Day, a time to look back and ponder the many great leaders this country has produced. These days, there’s more talk than ever about the sacred Founding Fathers and the brilliant social and political skills they brought to the birth of the country.

But here’s a question for you: How do you think the Founding Fathers would have fared under the hostile glare of today’s gotcha media? I came up with a few headlines we might have seen. I was going to write a paragraph or two for each, but I think they speak for themselves:

– Angry Betsy Ross deflects sweatshop charges

– Washington lashes out at Brit POW critics

– Report: Franklin bilked taxpayers for extravagant foreign trips

– Jefferson ‘despondent’ after paternity suit shock

– Adams faces ethics probe after City Tavern raid

– Revere retreats to undisclosed location as ASPCA scandal deepens

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Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/41770310@N06/4822833618/

Of all the movies that will be honored at the Academy Awards show on February 27, none is more deserving of recognition than The King’s Speech. It serves double duty as a great work of art, and as a messenger that brings a largely ignored but often devastating disability into the light.

The King’s Speech is the story of King George VI, who rose to power before WWII when his brother abdicated the throne. The problem was that the king had struggled with a debilitating stammer throughout his life, which made him ill-suited to his new role as a rousing public speaker — especially one expected to rally a British society living in the ominous shadow of Nazi Germany.

It’s an inspiring tale of overcoming adversity. But the real beauty of the story is the edgy and contentious, but ultimately warm relationship the king (Colin Firth) develops with his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).

Aside from the movie’s artistic merits, the plot echoes for a certain percentage of the population that suffers similarly with the problem of stammering, even if to a lesser degree.

Not surprisingly, The Stuttering Foundation has grabbed hold of his film and has used it to slingshot their messages throughout the Hollywood-fixated media.

The home page of the organization’s website is dominated by the movie, with pictures and links to media outlets that have at last taken a close, serious look at the disorder. That includes the Associated Press, CNN, The Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation, told the Chicago Tribune that The King’s Speech was sort of a Rain Man – the Academy Award winning movie about autism – for the stuttering world. “We have a world-class, superb actor showing us how devastating it is to stutter.”

About 3 million Americans stutter, a small 1 percent of the population. It can be career stifling, but it’s hardly life-threatening. So you don’t read much about it in the press. I’ve seen no cascade of research studies to come up with new therapies, although the Stuttering Foundation reports that there are “a variety of successful treatments” for the condition.

I suspect, however, that most adults who have struggled with stammering have learned their own ways to cope. I would include myself in that category.

I was a poor speaker out of the starting gate, and by the time I got to kindergarten I not only stuttered, I had a lisp and couldn’t correctly pronounce words with the letter “r.” I was assigned a speech therapist and made good progress so that by the time I was in first or second grade I had most of it under control.

But the stutter would still come back at inopportune times and did so throughout my life, although a lot of people who know me would never guess it. That’s partly because you learn how to maneuver through the verbal hazards, avoiding certain words you know might cause a problem. (The king, remember, had particular trouble with the letter “p.”)

In school, when I wrote a paper I knew would have to be delivered orally, I edited it carefully to avoid potential tongue twisters that could lead to an embarrassing moment. Nevertheless, it has occasionally tripped me up at job interviews, or at public events when I feel as if I am being put on the spot.

One nightmare scenario was being called to jury duty, and having to stand up in a group and be questioned as a potential juror after giving a brief description of myself and my career. I got through those sessions without a hitch, but considered it a miracle.

As the Stuttering Foundation points out, this is a problem with genetic roots. My father had the exact same condition, which also remained mostly in the background but emerged at strange and awkward times. Sixty percent of people who stutter have a family member who stutters, research shows.

It is less likely to show up when talking with someone you know well, but there are exceptions to that, too. I recall him covering a topic and arriving at a word we both knew should come next, but then he would stop.

An outsider might assume he was trying to come up with the perfect word to describe what he meant. But I knew there could be another reason – that he was searching for a comparable word he wouldn’t stumble over. This he usually did, and saved the day.

Another successful maneuver through the verbal obstacle course that helped define his life.

Photo: Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter filming The King’s Speech. http://www.flickr.com/photos/lancashirecc/5343279028/

The Department of Agriculture issues new dietary guidelines every five years, and the new ones came out February 1. They’re detailed in a rambling 112-page PDF document that drones on, quite repetitively at times, about the dangers of fat, salt and sugar.

Yes, we’ve heard. The feds could have gotten a lot more mileage out of this report if they’d inserted one or two new twists – maybe a controversial recommendation to get the media’s attention. Like: If your children happen to be diabetic, make sure they never attend a Sarah Palin event.

Pretty pictures of steamed broccoli won’t sell the product, that much I can guarantee.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for education and the release did get some limited coverage. Also, First Lady Michelle Obama has taken up the issue of promoting healthy eating among kids, which can’t be a bad thing.

But best of luck to her and to the Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee members, made up of physicians, researchers and dieticians. Because as anyone who watched Sunday’s Super Bowl could plainly see, junk food is baked into the American culture.

NFL games are structured around TV commercials and the three-plus hour show contains about a half-hour of actual action. The rest is an opportunity to sell cars, flat-screen TVs, sub sandwiches, Quarter Pounders and tortilla chips.

According to Media Life magazine, Sunday’s game was expected to be the most watched Super Bowl ever – and the most-watched TV program ever, breaking last year’s record of 106.5 million viewers.

That’s more than a third of the American population.

And what were last year’s most praised Super Bowl ads? According to a study by Nielsen, viewers favored a Snickers ad and a Doritos commercial. The spots also grabbed top honors in USA Today’s Ad Meter.

The Doritos ads were the three most-recalled Super Bowl commercials while an ad for Budweiser came in fourth among viewers 35 and under. Women were most likely to recall ads for Snickers, Doritos and Budweiser but Doritos were tops among men.

This year, according to USA Today’s Ad Meter, the favorites were: Bud Light (guy throws party while dog sitting) and Doritos (pug goes for chips), tied for first; followed by Volkswagen (young Darth Vader practices force), then another Doritos commercial (Housesitter brings back grandpa from ashes).

This was followed by a commercial for Pepsi Max (Love nuts); Careerbuilder (chimps park too close); and Pepsi (First date thoughts.) A Snickers candy bar spot with Richard Lewis and Roseanne Barr came in 17th.

Now, I realize at Super Bowl parties across the nation hosts and hostesses offered trays of fresh cut vegetables with a dipping sauce. But I bet most guests went right for the mini-weiners, chips and salsa, and Frito pie (see above).

I know what you’re thinking. The Super Bowl is a once-a-year blow out, and Americans will be back on the salad and steamed salmon by Monday, Tuesday at the latest.

Yeah, right.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mesohungry/4399439121/