July 22, 2009
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the fossil-rich Burgess Shale in British Columbia by Charles Doolittle Walcott, the fourth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The centennial is being celebrated many ways, from articles to conferences, but one tribute has caught more media attention than others.
The Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization, has partnered with Big Rock Brewery, in Alberta, Canada, to create Shale Ale. As Randle Robertson, executive director of BSGF, said in a press release:
This is the champagne of beers to celebrate the contribution geologists have made to science. Shale Ale kicks off our 1909-2009 centennial celebrations, which are designed to engage the public in geology, climate change and the history of exploration and discovery in the Rocky Mountains.
Combining beer and science, Shale Ale’s label features Walcott and recreations of animals whose fossils he found. The vast majority of fossils that Walcott recovered were of soft-bodied creatures that are normally not preserved, making the Burgess Shale discovery one of the most significant in paleontology. The time period in which the Burgess creatures lived also adds to their importance. The fossils date to 505 million years ago and give a glimpse into life in the Cambrian Period—a time described by some as evolution’s big bang.
Unfortunately, Shale Ale is available only through the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation because of provincial liquor laws.
July 20, 2009
When some people are stressed, they eat “comfort foods” or increase the amount of food consumed, and as a result gain weight.
But what types of stress trigger weight gain? A new study in the American Journal of Epidemiology tackles that question.
John Ayanian of Harvard University and colleagues set out to look at the correlation of long-term weight gain with different types of stress related to work, personal relationships, life constraints and finances.
The study gathered data from 1,355 adults who completed an initial survey in 1995, when they were between the ages of 25 and 65, and completed a follow-up survey and exam nine years later. The researchers noted changes in the subjects’ body mass index between the initial and follow-up surveys.
The results? Greater stress was associated with greater weight gain, at least in people who were already overweight. As the study elaborates:
This effect was evident for financial stress (measured by difficulty paying bills) for both men and women, for all work-related stress variables (less skill discretion, less decision authority and higher job-related demands) for men, and for job-related demands, perceived constraints in life, and straining in relationships with family for women.
Other interesting findings:
- Men and women 55-to 64-years-old experienced less weight gain compared with the youngest age group.
- In women, quitting smoking was associated with more weight gain.
- In men, generalized anxiety and an income between $25,000 and $44,999 were associated with more weight gain.
With people struggling to pay bills and paychecks decreasing, the recession is adding extra stress to the lives of millions—and with that extra stress, extra pounds might soon follow.
July 9, 2009
If you were stocking a bomb shelter, what foods would you buy? I bet one of your nonperishable choices of protein would be the beef jerky snack, Slim Jim.
As it turns out, people are stockpiling Slim Jims, but for a different reason. ConAgra, the company that makes Slim Jim, stopped producing the dried meat strips after a factory explosion in early June that killed three people.
With the destruction of the only Slim Jim factory in the United States, the company won’t be able make new products for at least another month, according to media reports. If we dust off our economics book, that means there is a finite supply for something with a steady demand, which can lead to hoarding.
The New York Post reported that analysts predict a summer Slim Jim run:
“People who like [Slim Jim], when they find out that there’s a shortage, are going to grab onto them, I’m certain of it,” said Harry Balzer, a food industry analyst with NPD Group. “Maybe [Ben] Bernanke should step in with some TARP money because people can’t live without their Slim Jims.”
That’s true, according to food industry consultant Jim Degan.
“[Slim Jims] loyalty is very high,” Degan said. “If you eat Slim Jims, you aren’t going to find brand B or C to be an acceptable substitute.”
Until then ConAgra will use its existing supply to stock convenience stores, groceries and gas stations across the nation, but it doesn’t expect to be able to meet the full demand for Slim Jims until the fall.
If you do find yourself hungry with no beef jerky for comfort, you could always watch these Slim Jim commercials and feed your mind with this thought: Why are professional wrestlers usually hired to pitch Slim Jim?
July 8, 2009
In a recent issue of AnthroNotes, produced by Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, anthropologists Peter J. Brown and Jennifer Sweeney use culture to explore the behaviors and beliefs in societies that influence weight.
They start out by reviewing why humans crave sweet and fatty foods. Calorically dense foods were rare in the pre-agricultural world, where prey animals often carried little extra fat and natural sugars (like honey or ripe fruit) were rare. We seem to be genetically predisposed to eat higher calorie foods to store energy.
When it comes to weight today, Brown and Sweeney note that there are fundamental flaws in the measures of obesity, like the body mass index (BMI), because food preferences and other shaped habits aren’t taken into account.
For example, a BMI greater than 30 is defined as obese. But the researchers note that muscular athletes tend to have high BMIs because muscle weighs more than fat. Also, BMI does not account for the distribution of fat on the body. Body fat in the central areas of the body is more likely to be associated with cardiovascular disease, whereas fat in the hips and limbs does not carry the same risk.
However, the most interesting part of this study (at least to me) was their discussion of the cultural perceptions of weight, particularly among women. Brown and Sweeney write:
An important recent ethnography of Azawagh Arabs of Niger entitled Feeding Desire (Popenoe, 2004) illustrates these cultural notions to an extreme degree. Here, fatness to the point of voluptuous immobility is encouraged by systematic over-eating in order to hasten puberty, enhance sexuality, and ripen girls for marriage. The people believe that women’s bodies should be fleshy and laced with stretch-marks in order to contrast with thin, male bodies.
Men, too, feel the need to gain weight in some cultures. The study cites names like “Notorious B.I.G., Heavy D and the Fat Boys” as examples of culturally accepted icons that are obese, promoting the idea that men need to be large to have power and respect.
All of this leads up to the study’s conclusion, which states emphatically that health officials must understand and take into account cultural causes of obesity if they want to effectively address the obesity problem. Otherwise, messages will be misinterpreted, like this obesity prevention ad in a Zulu community.
It featured one health education poster that depicted an obese woman and an overloaded truck with a flat tire, with a caption “Both carry too much weight.”… The intended message of these posters was misinterpreted by the community because of a cultural connection between obesity and social status. The woman in the first poster was perceived to be rich and happy, since she was not only fat but had a truck overflowing with her possessions. (Gampel 1962)
July 2, 2009
Lovin’ those Leftovers
In recent history, leftovers have joined peanut butter sandwiches as staples of lunch. This trend has its roots in a time when Americans used to eat breakfast, dinner and supper, says Lynne Olver, creator of the Food Timeline. Dinner was the main midday meal and supper was always leftovers from dinner.
The Times: The 1980s were called the “Me” decade, and billionaires and moguls were featured on the covers of magazines. President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs, and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, ending the Cold War. MTV launched in 1981 and movies like E.T. and Back to the Future were box office hits.
Why it was popular: Even though sushi had available in the United States for a while, this was the decade when noodle houses and Japanese BBQ became very popular, as exotic foods went mainstream, Olver says. Mud pie typified the decade with its rich decadence. In 1985, Coca-Cola changed the formula of its regular cola, but kept its name, Coca-Cola, the same. When Americans overwhelmingly protested the switch, the company released Coca-Cola Classic, made from the original formula. New Coke, or Coca-Cola II, remained on shelves until 1992.
The Times: This was the decade of the Internet, DotCom market and cell phones. President Bill Clinton signed off on the North American Free Trade Agreement and reformed welfare. Fads of the time included boy bands, Beanie Babies and Furbies.
Snackwell brand cookies
Why it was popular: Clearly Canadian was a fruit-flavored soda and was advertised for its health benefits, even though it was nutritionally comparable to drinking other sodas. By this point, virtually all employee lunchrooms had a microwave, which easily cooked frozen foods like Hot Pockets, Olver says.
The Times: The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shocked the nation. The U.S. to sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq under the direction of President George W. Bush. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the first African-American to be sworn in as president. In pop culture, reality TV dominates the airwaves. Who knows what else will happen — there’s a year and a half left of this decade!
Chinese food, including fried rice
Why it is popular: Leftovers have always been the mainstay of the portable lunch, Olver says. Most people were, and still are, eating what they had the night before for dinner, whether it’s homecooked or take-out.
Now that I’ve explored lunches from the 20th century, I have to ask: What’s in your lunch box?