HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Phantasmagoria USA

We have plummeted down Alice’s hole, where two plus two equal –whatever we want it to equal. Forget logic. Forget science. Forget that dreary word, “evidence.” Listen to the snake oil vender, pay up, and believe.

In this Year of Trump, we listen to phantasmagoric factoids: a wall, financed by Mexico, will stop illegal immigration (though our economy might plummet if we stopped it); we can lower the deficit, spend more, and tax less – simultaneously; a terrific negotiator will negotiate peace among tribes that have warred for centuries. We believe because we want to, and the person leading us down this alluring hole wants to be President.

We also believe in a raft of comforting health factoids – none of them true, all preached to us by companies that profit from leading us down a rabbit hole of myth.

Take our populace’s growing girth. We squish into once-adequate airport seats; we buy “mature-size” clothes. And companies – Big Food – peddle calorie-laden stuff as essential accoutrements to daily living. Yet, in a strange fantasy, we don day-glo sneakers and yoga pants, trusting that exercise will drain the pounds. Indeed, soda companies – the grandfather of empty calories – sponsor the ubiquitous races, walks, and competitions. Timothy Caulfield (The Cure for Everything, Beacon Press, 2012) has traced the pernicious masking of Big Food’s intent. Exercise will not in and of itself make you lose weight. Obese people do exercise the least – but if they exercised more, they would not lose weight. The key to weight loss is simple, but difficult: fewer calories. Which means, ultimately, eliminating “junk food.” Yet soda companies have smudged this truth with feel-good sponsorship of athletics. You can almost correlate their profits with our pounds.

Exercise of course is key to good health. Vigorous, aerobic exercise, with bouts of resistance training, done frequently and regularly, will help heart, muscles, lungs. Exercise per se, though, will not pare the pounds

The second dire secret to losing weight: eat less food. Our portions have grown with our girths. Like the Coneheads of Saturday Night Live, we eat vast quantities of food. A restaurant industry has spurred the desire for mega-meals. And that industry is creating the new “fourth meal”: after the game, celebrants go out for more beer, more pizza, more calories – and more sales for a burgeoning fast food industry.

We also love the idea of super healthy almost-miracle foods – acai berries? pomegranates? Avocadoes? All healthy, praised in feel-good blurbs on the internet, or in a magazine. As Caulfield points out, journalism has segued into entertainment. Feel-good miracle-food stories sell. Nobody wants to read summaries of research. Too boring. Indeed, no double-blind clinical trials with large numbers of participants test the claims for super foods. Nor do replication studies. Moreover, the industry, waiting at the bottom-line checkout, sponsors some of the research into these foods.

Just as crucially for our girth, the enthusiasm for “good-for-you” foods has been additive not substitutive: we may eat more fruits and vegetables, but we aren’t subtracting anything. And we have created an oxymoron: the healthy cookie (aka granola bar.)

Our enthusiasm for easy miracles extends to “non-traditional” medicine. Can you have type 2 diabetes, yet throw away medications? On the internet, somebody will tell you how. Ditto for arthritis, for cancer, for multiple sclerosis. Happy people will testify to the great results from a super duper treatment. Readers in phantasmagoria can click to learn more, with credit cards handy. Miracle cures guarantee miracle-profits for the purveyors.

Understandably, Americans have grown skeptical of “traditional” medicine. Big Pharma funds research into “blockbuster” drugs, pays detail agents to convince physicians to prescribe them, hires ghost-writers to write encomia. Insurers limit formularies, excluding some drugs, including others – with no clear rationale. Sometimes treatments prove more dangerous than beneficial. Remember estrogen replacement therapy. Meanwhile, costs for some drugs have soared into the stratosphere. As patients have embraced “alternative” remedies, however, they have not shown skepticism to those over-the-counter options.

Reality is often depressing: losing weight means changing your diet, reducing the yummy stuff that is driving up the pounds. Getting healthy means exercising – vigorous, aerobic, resistance exercise, more than occasionally. Political reality is just as depressing: a widening gap between rich and poor, a government seemingly beholden to a Midas-like stratum of billionaires, wars-without-end internationally.

It is no wonder that we scramble down Alice’s hole. But at the bottom we will find just a black hole.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2016

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