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15th September

First Published in The New York Sun, September 15, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Michael Phelps, the Olympic champion, is understandably trying to capitalize on his remarkable athletic achievements. In reality, there is little money to be made from swimming. There are no pro swim teams, or other professional competition for which he could be compensated.

So in time-honored tradition, Mr. Phelps is seeking his fortune through endorsements. Last month he delivered endorsements for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and McDonalds Restaurants. He might as well have endorsed firearms for toddlers or condoms for six-year-olds, such was the venom and antagonism of the backlash.

A group called the Children’s International Obesity Foundation charged that Mr. Phelps’s “judgment regarding the McDonald’s and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes endorsements was either 1) ill-advised by his handlers; 2) the irrational product of too much blood sugar; or 3) a sad triumph of greed over good. CIOF believes that celebrities should think twice before choosing to endorse or encourage the consumption of any product which is inherently unhealthful to children, especially if that product is correlated to obesity, diabetes, and a myriad of dangerous conditions.”

I certainly had my share of Frosted Flakes as a young boy a half-century ago. I was then skinny as a rail. I probably haven’t had so much as a spoonful of the stuff for at least 40 years and am now as fat as a house. A delayed reaction? I think not.

The food police are doing their job scaring adults and children alike, and New York is at the epicenter of their efforts. Officials of Mayor Bloomberg’s Health Department wrote recently in a medical journal that the populace needs to be kept from such “unhealthy food” much as government protects us from food borne illnesses and dangers such as botulism, e coli, and salmonella. They have already banned trans fats, taken the fat out of milk served in schools, and taken the fun out of our children’s school lunches.

If you don’t think they can go further, think again. As quickly as smokers were consigned to furtive puffing in guilty groups outside of office buildings, eating certain foods can be demonized in the same way, though the science is far from clear.

Two studies recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine offer contrarian conclusions that in one case questions the linkage between high blood pressure and cholesterol levels and obesity, and in the other the linkage between obesity and diabetes.

None of this should surprise anyone who has witnessed the past few decades in which the sands continually shift as to which foods are healthy and which are not. The truth is that nobody knows the truth other than this: People are living longer and more productive lives than ever, even as they gain weight.

As if the health arguments weren’t extreme enough, consider this dispatch from the Britain’s Guardian newspaper, just a week ago.

It seems that among some, a linkage has been made between eating meat and global warming. Reducing meat consumption will have a big effect on fighting global warming suggests the chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri. Earlier last week Mr. Pachauri, who himself is a vegetarian, spoke at “an event hosted by animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming, which has calculated that if the average UK household halved meat consumption that would cut emissions more than if car use was cut in half.”

This group is sort of “PETA Lite” and actively promotes vegetarianism. To me this crosses the line from health or even environmental concerns to political opinion. Animal rights activism can be found at the center of much of the dietary agenda that is being foisted on our children.

As a society we have been quick to accept whatever arguments are presented about childhood obesity. But have there been any studies to examine what the possible repercussions might be of the current fashion of giving children only skim milk rather than whole milk? Could this be related to the huge increase in autism? What about asthma? Could, possibly, declines in test scores over the past few decades be related to diminished fat in children’s diets? After all, cholesterol is a key component found in human cells, including brain cells.

The conclusion of the Guardian article shows just how little we really know about all this:

“Last year a major report into the environmental impact of meat eating by the Food Climate Research Network at Surrey University claimed livestock generated 8 per cent of UK emissions - but eating some meat was good for the planet because some habitats benefited from grazing. It also said vegetarian diets that included lots of milk, butter and cheese would probably not noticeably reduce emissions because dairy cows are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas released through flatulence.”

On that fragrant note, pass the Frosted Flakes.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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