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Thursday, December 14, 2017

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Generation Rx

Generation Rx

This disturbing tale begins with a question: are children taking psycho-stimulants like Prozac and Ritalin because of scientific information or commercial use? Shockingly, all the evidence favors the latter.  After several doctors and a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist began investigating, it was found that no valid studies have been conducted illustrating the benefits of these drugs. What was found was that the research was mostly anecdotal.

But how did these drugs then become so pervasive in our lives, especially in the lives of children? The answer lies in the clever marketing strategy of pharmaceutical companies. Children were the last “untapped” market, and once targeted for consumption, this industry enlisted the help of doctors. Suddenly psychiatrists received grants and were sent to conferences, all which drummed in the same information: some brains were chemically imbalanced and our drugs can help them. Through this system, psycho-stimulants became the method of calming restless children; all the while the perverse side effects were kept secret. It is through the use of these medications that normal human brains become chemically imbalanced and these medications can even cause brain atrophy.


Ada “The Termin-ada” crushes the marathon

On last night’s Biggest Loser, Patrick, a sweet, aw-shucks unemployed 27 year-old husband and dad of two from Vicksburg, MS, was crossing the finish line of a marathon on the California coast. Weighing in somewhere in the mid 200s (the show’s official weigh-in had not yet happened), he made a respectable time of 5 hours and 45 minutes.

But there was another man talking to him. It was …. also Patrick, taped back when he weighed 400 pounds, just three months prior. Disconcertingly referring to himself as “we,” meaning, “the fat me and the skinny me,” he also commented:

“I don’t believe there’s any way that I could run a marathon. I’m not sure that I could even finish it. It would take all day. That’s like climbing Mt. Everest or somethin’….”

Moments later as viewers continued to watch our heroic final four dieters run, jog and walk to the marathon finish, they heard from Fonzie-like Staten Islander Frado, a family man and financial trader: “You can do this. If I can do this, anybody can do this.”

It was marathon night on Biggest Loser, where the four remaining dieters each completed a 26.2 mile course. Ada ran it in a competitive burst with a final time of 4.5 hours while Elizabeth surely walked most of her 7.5 hours. Regardless, for the series’ penultimate episode, it was the perfect, symbolic choice. Nothing could be a clearer demarcation of how far the losers have come, or a more perfect representation of how many missed opportunities America’s biggest health-related TV show has seen this season.

After all, a two-hour diet and exercise show which regularly pulls in between 7 and 12 million viewers has a pretty strong platform for disseminating encouraging information, right?

Photo Credit/

Photo Credit/

I may be in the cheering section when I hear others urging the transparent and shameless public discussion of health issues.  The problem is that I don’t think I’ve ever been very good at it when it has been my health issue.

Which leads  — prepare for a jarring transition —  to my prostate.  I had a biopsy done last Monday.  I wanted to share some of what went through my mind as  I hopped on the table doing deep breathing exercises, preparing for a distinctly unpleasant procedure.

For close to two decades, I have been teaching an undergraduate class at Hunter  College that has examined the representation of disease and illness in media and culture. Much of the class has necessarily focused on HIV/AIDS and other health issues.  In recent years, I have taught a related graduate version of the course. You’ll have to trust that in the classroom I have been able to speak about  these topics  explicitly and without shame.

And actually done it pretty well.

Health Bucks

Health Bucks

A few months ago I started a video project exploring food policy programs in New York City.  Our news media is saturated with talk of healthy eating and diet-related disease – I was curious: what is happening in NY to address the problems with our food system and increase access to healthy, affordable food for city residents?  What are some of our local discussions and controversies?  In my next few blog posts I’ll share some of the people and projects (and policy initiatives) I’ve been profiling and talk about how it all adds up to a pretty vibrant and growing urban food movement.

There is much to be said about the debates and challenges surrounding anti-obesity initiatives. For example, a recent webinar: SNAP and Soda: whose business is it anyway? is worth watching. For this first post, however, I decided to share a story which gives plenty of cause for optimism: I’d like to introduce Fabienne and her cooking classes.

fabienne-hannahs-food-postI met Fabienne one hot morning last summer in Corona, Queens, as she prepared to teach a nutrition lesson and cooking class at the local farmer’s market.  As she maneuvered through the market she told me: “I grew up in a family that was always food centered… and then my mother got sick, she had heart disease.  I saw how food had a big impact on this so I became interested in nutrition.”

Currently she works for the city health department’s Stellar Farmer’s Markets program.  The program is based at farmer’s markets throughout the city, primarily in neighborhoods with high rates of chronic disease, that are home to majority low-income residents or folks enrolled in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  Stellar provides a hands-on way for people to see cooking demos, sample seasonal produce, and receive “Health Bucks” – vouchers they can use to buy fruits and vegetables at the market and support local farmers.

Host Alison Sweeney and guest Nastia Liukin

Host Alison Sweeney and guest Nastia Liukin

In last night’s episode of The Biggest Loser, Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin delivered an important message to the contestants. With a bright smile and her child athlete’s familiarity with total self-denial, she was a beacon of hope, a kindred spirit to our friends on their journeys. She was also there to address a crucial topic: food, which is something rarely discussed on the show. Aside from tossed-away tips and food-related challenges, America’s $100 million weight-loss juggernaut is mostly silent about what to eat while slimming.

However, Nastia had some helpful information: “Staying fit is a process and part of that is eating right and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The great thing about Subway is, it fits perfectly no matter what your needs are.”

You see, leaving the ranch loomed large on last night’s Biggest Loser.  With six contestants remaining and two of them about to go home, everyone began to worry about how they would fare outside of the show’s artificial bubble. Bob and Jillian decided it was time for a fireside chat.

“Contestants are going home soon. Historically speaking, it’s a really difficult transition for them,” said Jillian, with her trademark crooked smirk.

Bob went for a more colorful (and confusing) metaphor to describe the contestants’ situation: “You guys have pulled the curtain back. You’ve met the wizard….You have the strength. You have the knowledge. You can do it. If you decide you’re worth it enough to do it.”

But the soon-to-be-eliminated Mark voiced the fear that all the sweatshirt-clad were feeling:

“I honestly don’t know what to do when I get home.”