Down with Abstinence…. and Pregnancy?

In July 2007 the NYTimes reported that abstinence education was suffering; after experiencing fairly-solid growth in places like Texas (where else?), it seems that despite attending abstinence hug-ins, and Bible readings, teenagers still went home to sleep with one another afterwards. Not because abstinence is bad (quite the contrary, it is the only method that 100% stops the spread of STDs) but because in Texas, abstinence education, by the admittance of abstinence promoting organizations themselves, was not about getting teenagers to abstain, but instead was a foot-in-the-door technique for promoting bigger ‘family’ issues, like opposing abortion and gay marriage.

It was a system doomed to failure. No one likes the bait-and-switch. At the time I remember thinking the campaign would succeed by being honest and not a covert agenda of publicly funded morality education.  More importantly, I feared that there would be a backlash and we would see the rate of teenage sex increase – and with it the rates of all the public-health problems associated with it: STDs (including HIV), pregnancy, and unplanned & hurried marriages. But a new report from the CDC shows I may have been overly pessimistic, at least when it comes to pregnancy.  Teen pregnancy rates in all the US states are at their lowest level ever reported (70 years) – including Texas.

However, teens are still having sex, and more of it – in fact, between 1991 and 2001 the percentage of high-school students who reported they had never had sex dropped from 54.1% to 47.4%.  This must mean that teenagers are being more careful about sex despite increased desire (or pressure) to have it.  So what caused that?

Some thank MTV, of all places.  Pregnancy prevention programs have used the teen-oriented network’s show “16 and Pregnant” as a tool for educating teenage girls about the drawbacks of being a teenager and a mother.  Others thank a broader approach to sex education: For example, in 2008, only 4% of Texas school districts had sex-education classes that taught the use of birth-control and other practices as a way to avoid pregnancy (that is, 96% of schools used abstinence-only curriculum).  In 2011 25.5% of schools included information beyond abstinence (or what is called abstinence-plus curriculum).  We might have to thank the internet and social media – where teens can find and trade knowledge about sex in a non-threatening and peer-accepting way; the drawback here is this information can often be incorrect. Finally, the popularity of the Twilight series and shows like (again) MTV’s “Teen Wolf” that promote abstinence and have popular characters that are virgins must help too.

Whatever the reason the effects are evident:  Approximately 80% of both male and female teenagers use birth-control (almost always a condom) during their first sexual experience (from “Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive
Use, and Childbearing, National Survey of Family Growth 2006–2008”, CDC, June 2010).

What I take from all of this – as someone that deals with college-aged teenagers – is that the kids are thinking, which is alright with me!

Our Friends Make us Fat. Maybe.

Do our friends make us fat?  Technology can definitely influence how much we eat, and therefore our weight.  So does the time it takes for us to make healthy food.  There is lots of evidence to suggest that yes, our friends, can lead to increases in food consumption and our weight.

Imagine you go out to grab a meal at your favorite restaurant.  To make this easy, let’s assume you eat 100 calories worth of food if you are by yourself (in all actually, meals are more along the lines of 1200 calories, but I hate math, so let’s stick with 100 calories).  Studies of how people eat in the real world (compared to those done in labs) show that if you go to the restaurant with one other person, you’ll increase your calorie consumption by 33%.   In other words, you will eat 133 calories.  Bring two friends, you consume 147 calories.  Research has shown that by the time you include 7 friends, you will almost double the number of calories you eat. Here is how our 100 calorie dinner has grown:

So what does the mean in ‘real’ numbers?  In 2010 the US Dept of Commerce collected how many calories the average customer at Starbucks ordered:  232.  If we apply the above figure to the average customer ordering food at Starbucks, but this time bringing friends, below is a chart showing the caloric increases.

Our friends, though, are the least of our worries.  Eating with your spouse or a family member almost doubles the calories consumed than if you ate with just your friend.  And of course, there are gender differences.  If you are male, it doesn’t matter if your friend is male or female, you’ll increase your calories about the same.  If you are female, however, you eat more with a male friend then if you are eating with a female friend (personally, I thought it would be the other way around).

So what is happening here?  Why do I eat more with my friends than if I eat alone?  Personal experience gives me one clue:  When I go out to eat with friends, we often start with drinks (which many people forget, do have calories) and a shared appetizer, or two.  (Hell, let’s be honest, we often order three).   Then we each order a meal, and most likely another drink.  Who knows, we might even share our meals.  Whereas alone I or my friend might just order a nice, low-cal Caesar Salad, when there are two, I am more inclined to suggest you order the Caesar Salad, and I’ll order the Chicken Cordon Bleu, and we can split them!  And of course, we might just split dessert. We also know that when we eat with others, we linger.  Eating is a social event, so we take our time.  On average eating with one other person increase the time spent eating by 44%, which means we sit and nibble longer too.

So why the maybe in the title?  Because for large eaters, the effect is the opposite.  If I am someone that usually eats significantly more than the average person, then when I eat with the average person, I drop my calorie consumptionIn other words, eating with others is a normative phenomenon.  Light eaters increase their calories per meal when eating with others, while heavy eaters decrease their calories when eating with others, approaching a middle ground.

So maybe eating with others makes you heavier, but maybe not.  The jury is out on this one.

Spend More, Weigh Less?

If you want to drop some pounds, then perhaps you should drop more cash on the food you eat.  You might think I’m joking, but there is some logic to this.  According to the US Dept of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (where you can find HOURS’ worth of fun numbers; and no, I’m not being facetious, just a geek), I came across the following report.

If you compare the US, UK, Canada and Japan, the chart demonstrates that Americans spend far less on food (almost half of what the Japanese spend) than our economic rivals. In 2009, of all the money Japanese consumers spent, 21.8% went towards food.  That is more than what they spend on housing.  In the US, we only spent 14.9%.  In other words, at the end of the month when you add up all your receipts, Americans only spend approximately $15 out of every $100 on food.  One thing we like in the US is cheap food, and we have some of the cheapest food in the world.

In my “Culture and Politics of Food” class, we just finished covering US Federal subsidies for commodity crops, especially corn.  These policies harken back to the 1970s, when Nixon (and then Ford) were feeling the pressure of rising food costs and the need to get reelected. As a response they appealed to US Dept of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz to do something.  And something he did.  By encouraging, and then enticing through cash subsidies, farmers to plant crops “from fence post to fence post,” Butz increased US grain production.  Butz wanted US crops to be cheap and plentiful – so cheap and plentiful that we could use them for anything (like making sugar – or high fructose corn syrup) and to export them to other countries, like Russia.  And one of the outcomes that Butz bragged about from his tenure as Agriculture Secretary was how little Americans spent on food.

Some researchers and public health advocates claim that our cheap (and therefore abundant) food is a root cause of the US Obesity epidemic.  With food so cheap, we eat lots of it.  And what we eat is not necessarily very satiating, and therefore we continue to eat more.  If cheap food is related to obesity then we would predict from the US labor charts that the US would have a higher obesity rate than Japan (or for that matter, the UK or Canada).

Et voila.  If we surf the web, we can find a paper in the Oxford International Journal of Epidemiology on obesity rates for 2nd and 1st world countries.  And in 2001 the US was top notch with 63% of the population being overweight, and 28% being so overweight they were considered obese.  The UK is missing from the study, but Canada has 47% overweight and 15% obesity rates, while Japan comes in with the staggering 23% overweight and 3% obesity rates.

This is, of course, correlation, and that doesn’t prove that cheap food makes us obese.  But it lends credence to the idea that our culture of food is a bit wacked, and causing us to be heavy.  Americans think a good meal is one where you get tons of food for little money; just look at how many restaurants have super-size deals, or in grocery stores how many boxes say “Get twice as much for only 50% more!”  And if we dig a little deeper into the expenditures from the Dept of Labor,  we see that what money Americans do spend on food, almost half is spent eating outside of the home (41.1%), while in Japan less than a quarter of money for food is spent outside the home (21.4%).