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The Culture of Obesity vs. The French Paradox

On the latest Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker examines media coverage of rising obesity rates around the world. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!


I, like many (well, most) Americans have had issues with my weight. After going off to college in 2004, I noticed my weight beginning to climb until I started feeling unhealthy. I tried dieting and adding more exercise to my daily routine, but the extra weight stayed on. Then something miraculous happened: I left the country. During my year of study abroad, my waistline shrunk. Was I beating myself up about keeping to a certain number of calories a day? Did I take up an intensive exercise schedule? Not at all. So, what explains the weight loss?

In a word, culture. Although diet, exercise, and body chemistry are the critical factors in determining body weight, there is evidence that one's culture plays a huge role (pardon the pun) when it comes to obesity. While America is known worldwide for obesity problems, it isn't technically the most obese nation on earth. According to Forbes, that distinction goes to the tiny island nation of Nauru with a remarkable 94.5 percent of its population overweight. In fact 8 out of the top 10 overweight nations are located in the South Pacific. Part of the reason for this may be genetic, but part of the cause is the widespread poverty on these islands and the dependence on imported foods. Highly processed foods imported from the west are a cheap sources of calories; unfortunately they're also the unhealthiest. Cultural factors, including, "[the] notion that 'bigness' is a sign of wealth and power" also contribute to a culture of obesity which has left the South Pacific the fattest region in the world. Is America, like the South Pacific, a victim of having a culture of obesity? We certainly don't equate 'bigness' with wealth and power - quite the reverse, if our celebrities and icons are any indication.

Which brings me to France, the country in which my weight-loss miracle occurred. While the United States and the South Pacific are two of the world's fattest regions, France is championed for its low national obesity rate. How do the French, with a diet rich in carbs, fats, and oils, stay so thin? Researchers have called this the French paradox.

But the French paradox really isn't much of a paradox at all. When it comes to how French citizens stay thinner than Americans, both the quantity and quality of food consumed makes the difference. French consumers typically eat less processed food than their American counterparts, and when they do indulge in fats and sweets, they generally eat smaller portions. In my personal experience, I found processed junk foods to be more expensive in France than fresh fruits and vegetables - where in American supermarkets, the situation is often the opposite. America also has a 24 hour fast food culture with opportunities to eat just about anything at anytime, anywhere. In France, the majority of supermarkets are closed by 9PM - and you can't get a decent burrito anywhere.

So do I really attribute my weight loss to a geographical change? In many ways, I do. When I was surrounded by a culture whose values about food and eating promoted a healthier way of life, I found myself behaving like those around me. Think of it as positive peer pressure. This is not to say that all is perfect in the land of foie gras and baguettes. The French, like many cultures worldwide, are beginning to grapple with their own obesity problem as the fast-food culture spreads.

So how is my weight now that I'm back in the US? In 1.5 years, I've gained back most of what I lost in France. I can't blame America, though. In France I was able to change my lifestyle so I could eat fresher, smaller, and more slowly. I learned the right way to eat, but I just started to get lazy once I returned to a culture where it's a little harder to do so. Oh well, I gotta go... the pizza delivery guy is here.



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Presidential Illness: How to Respond?

While Former President Bill Clinton's hospitalization is currently the focus of much media attention, the health of political leaders has recently been an imperative topic in Nigeria. On Feb 9th, Nigeria's parliament transferred temporary presidential power to VP Goodluck Jonathan, ending almost 2 1/2 months of political uncertainty after President Umaru Yar'Adua refused to cede power during his hospitalization in Saudi Arabia. The image of a nation is inextricably related with the image of its leader, so the situation in Nigeria raises a larger question. When a leader becomes seriously ill, is it best for a government to come clean and share the gravity of the situation, potentially leading to a worried population? Or to remove the President from power and install a leader who is more physically fit? Is it unethical to hide the full extent of the leader's illness, or to even deny that there is any illness at all?

By their very nature, totalitarian regimes seek to limit information considered damaging to the nation, and promote an often quasi-religious cult of personality around their central leaders. It is believed by American sources that Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's leader, is extremely ill. North Korea's government vociferously denies any claims that Kim is sick, and accuses western sources of creating such rumors to undermine the government. Curiously, South Korean government and media officials have also downplayed allegations that Kim Jong-Il is ill, in hopes of maintaining an image of a strong North Korea for their own political purposes.

Totalitarian regimes hardly have a monopoly on lack of disclosure when it comes to the illness of a President. Democracies, including the United States, have downplayed the full extent of a President's illness: FDR's battle with severe polio restricted his ability to walk, although the vast majority of Americans were unaware of his illness. This was partly due to a media that shied away from detailing the disability of a wartime president, an act unthinkable today with an American media fixated on every detail of a president's personal life. The secrecy surrounding FDR's illness was far from unique in American history.

So, how well did Nigeria handle the crisis? On one hand, there was a noticeable lack of information from the government about the state of Yar'Adua's health. There was also a nearly two month period in which the Nigerian political apparatus failed to come to an agreement on how to handle the president's absence. This lack of action led to allegations that politically powerful pro-Yar'Adua factions were stalling to keep him in power.

On a positive note, the fact that the presidential handover was accomplished without a coup d'état is notable for a nation that has seen no less than 8 coups during its 50 years of independence. Unlike Cuba's undemocratic transfer of power from one brother to another, at least Nigeria's transfer was within parliamentary procedure (Max Siollon's blog gives an excellent overview of Nigerian legislative procedure, showing the nation's commitment to its democratic infrastructure and the rule of law. Perhaps most importantly, opposition groups were not prohibited from demanding to know the full extent of their president’s illness, which is a positive sign in any democracy.



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For Haiti Earthquake Coverage, Would Less Have Been More?

In the latest Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker looks at media coverage of the Haiti earthquake. Watch the episode and share your thoughts below!


Does the excessive coverage of Haiti’s earthquake – not to mention the questionable journalistic and medical ethics involved when doctor/reporters can’t decide whether to operate or do interviews — give the viewer a better understanding of the disaster? Or is it little more than the casting of journalists as action heroes? 

The New Republic’s Chief Editor, Noam Scheiber, in his recent article taking the news establishment to task, wrote that “in Haiti the dozens of redundant dispatches are stressing an already perilously fragile situation.”

In a follow-up interview with Global Pulse featured in this week’s episode, Scheiber says, “More information is great. But if an airport is being taxed with a volume way above its normal capacity and as a result aid workers, doctors and nurses can’t get in, then I think we have gotten to the point where one good—information—is trumping another good—relief workers…to the detriment of the people we are trying to help.”

The solution, Scheiber thinks, is a so-called “disaster pool.” Comprising a limited number of reporters in country, the disaster pool would share information with news outlets in a similar manner that White House correspondents share “pool reports” with the dozens of journalists unable to attend a briefing. You can download an MP3 of the complete Scheiber interview here.

This might preclude scenes like those we used in this episode, of Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric aiding wounded children, but it may give networks more time for in-depth stories that discuss Haiti’s tumultuous history, the roots of its abject poverty and what day-to-day life was like for the average Haitian pre-earthquake.

Journalist Marc Cooper, characterizing the coverage as “myopic” and “disaster porn”, on his blog, wrote, “It's a totally legit news story for CNN or anyone else [to] zoom in on this or that dramatic and heart-rending rescue of one or another victim trapped in rubble. But every one of those stories is also a stark and rather sickening reminder of how the daily pre-earthquake deaths, starvation and deprivation were considered SO non-newsworthy.”

This reminds me of my own trip to Haiti in the fall of 2008, as part of a disaster response team after a series of hurricanes killed hundreds of people and badly damaged the city of Gonaïves. While the storms made headlines, the fallout apparently wasn’t on a large enough scale to warrant widespread news coverage. 

Looking back, what I remember most is the darkness. There is little electricity in Haiti, and the nighttime’s dim storefronts and weak candlelight gave the impression of a city that was a relic of another age.

Will Port-au-Prince once again become a forgotten city? As this article from the Columbia Journalism Review reminds me, there was once, and is likely to be again, only one full-time American journalist in Haiti.



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10 Bright Spots in a Pretty Bad Year

In this week’s special edition of Global Pulse, host Erin Coker reviews 2009 news stories that will matter in 2010. Watch the episode, and share your thoughts, below!


Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an upsurge in violence in Pakistan, Iran’s political upheaval and the global financial crisis, 2009 has been tumultuous to say the least. Even for someone immersed in global media, it was difficult at times not to hit the cheap (and the not-so-cheap) wine just to get through the daily barrage of bleak news.


Which is why I took it upon myself to drum up 10 of the year’s more positive stories. Some were widely reported, others warranted only a fleeting mention, but all stand out as bright spots on an otherwise challenging year. A good reminder that even in the darkest of times, a silver lining can be found if you look hard enough. I’ll drink to that!

1. A Different Kind of Hotel Rwanda
Following the instability and brutal civil war that plagued the central-African nation in the late-1990s, tourists are returning to the country to marvel at its mountain gorillas and lush landscapes. Tourism revenues rise 11 percent in the first quarter of 2009, compared to the same period last year. Even better, the Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World announces that Rwanda is officially “landmine free” – a distinction that is doubtless welcomed by tourists and residents alike.


2. Afghanistan and Pakistan Get More Schools
Non-profit activist Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), continue to build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in Taliban areas. Because CAI schools rely heavily on community involvement, militant groups have largely avoided destroying or damaging what are perceived as locally-backed projects.  To date, the CAI has built 130 schools in the two countries. To learn more about CAI or to get involved, visit


3. Aceh Rebuilt
Five years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated communities in Aceh, Indonesia, rebuilding efforts in the hardest-hit province are wrapping up. In November, aid group CRS announces that it has met its reconstruction goals in Aceh.


4. Karadzic Faces the International Criminal Court. Sort of.
Although the alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal boycotts the opening of his trial, claiming that he did not have sufficient time to examine the evidence against him – 10 years on the lam wasn’t enough time? – Radovan Karadzic does appear in court on November 3. The trial is expected to resume in March of next year.


5. Kidnapped Aid Workers Released
After being seized by Somali gunmen in Kenya, three aid workers with Action Against Hunger are released three months later. In a similar bit of good news, assailants also free kidnapped aid workers snatched in Sudan’s Darfur region.


6. U.N. Demands Halt to Rape as War Weapon
Unanimously voted in, resolution 1888 reflects the 15-member body's "demand for the complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence with immediate effect." Plans are in the works to create a special U.N. post to front the effort.


7. Detained Journalists Freed in Iran, Iranian Writers Honored
Following domestic and international protests, jailed U.S./Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi is released from a Tehran prison. Saberi had been originally sentenced to eight years in prison for “having collaborated with a hostile state.” Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari is also released after being held for nearly four months following Iran’s June elections. In November, Human Rights Watch honors four Iranian writers with prestigious Hellman/Hammett awards for their courage in the face of political persecution.


8. Latin America Takes Steps Towards Equality
Mexico City backs a gay marriage bill, making the city the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. In another first, Uruguay passes a same-sex adoption bill, granting same-sex couples the right to adopt children.


9. Zimbabwe Slowly (Very Slowly) Improving
Following political instability, runaway inflation and a devastating cholera outbreak, Zimbabwe is making some inroads to recovery. HIV prevalence rates continue to fall and inflation is dropping. After months of fruitless negotiations, Zimbabwe’s rival leaders reach an agreement on commissions for human rights, election and the media, possibly putting an end to ongoing political deadlock.


10. Child Brides Take a Stand
A Saudi court rules in favor of an 8-year-old girl seeking to divorce her 47-year-old husband. Soon after the decision, the Saudi justice minister announces plans to enact a law protecting young girls from marriages. In rural India, young girls follow the lead of Rekha Kalini, who attracted widespread attention after refusing a forced marriage.


For more news highlights from 2009, catch the Global Pulse year-end special Once and Future News 2009-2010.


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On Climate Change: An Open Letter to World Leaders

In this week’s Global Pulse Episode, host Erin Coker asks whether Africa deserves reparations for climate change damage from the developed world. Watch the episode, see how others responded and share your thoughts below!


To the world leaders en route to Copenhagen for the U.N. Change Conference –


Today, December 2, climate change resulted in the deaths of some 1,000 people. By the end of the year, the figure will be around 300,000. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to the number of people killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and 100 times the number of people killed in 9/11. Each year.


If you haven't already, I suggest reading through the Global Humanitarian Forum’s (GHF) Human Impact Report on climate change – perhaps on the plane to Copenhagen – to get a sense of the human cost of climate change.


Next, I suggest some face time with Maldives president’s envoys. President Nasheed is among the more vocal supporters of carbon neutral development, a position I imagine many of you would likewise adopt if rising seas threatened to wipe your entire country off the map.


Speaking of rising seas, Greenpeace’s mock IHT article on Italian Prime Minister Burlusconi’s new sweeping climate change initiatives would have been funny, if these images of a severely flooded Venice did not offer a real glimpse of what could become of Italy’s historic city a few decades from today.


As the leaders of two of the world’s largest polluters, international focus will be on U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Both Washington and Beijing have been slow to act on climate change, and the U.S. refusal to sign the Kyoto protocol is an embarrassment. I am aware as no doubt you are, of the arguments in favor of inaction – the loudest among them citing the high cost of emissions reductions.


Before your arrival in Copenhagen, I recommend reading a recent National Commission on Energy Policy report [PDF link] analyzing the risks, economic and otherwise, of unmitigated climate change. The 36-page report recalls a similar publication put out by Tuft’s University a few years ago that likewise confirms the frightening cost of inaction. [PDF link]


In the several hours it takes to read through these documents, climate change will kill another 150 people. An estimated 5,000 more will die between now and the opening session of the Copenhagen Climate Change summit. This is unacceptable. To do justice to their memory and to the future of our planet, you must embark on a cohesive international agreement to slow and reduce global warming.


As Kofi Annan remarked in GHF’s impact report, "If political leaders cannot assume responsibility for Copenhagen, they choose instead responsibility for failing humanity."



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