‘The Cambridge Diet’ and the muddy case for limits on soda size
The original Cambridge Day reporter, Rick Guinness, died this week in Connecticut of complications from a bicycle-car collision — he was on the bicycle.
Guinness came from Connecticut and returned there after producing 36 articles between Oct. 31 and Nov. 28, 2005. He arrived a car guy, because the Nutmeg State is all about cars, but Cambridge had a lasting impact on the remaining half-dozen years of his life. He never stopped remarking on the city as being a kind of compact paradise full of good health and beautiful, smart people.
Stepping out of that car the first day, he was overweight and used a cane to get around. But he was given a T pass and staked to a meal a day at Anna’s Taqueria, and Guinness was a dogged individual with great will power and fierce loyalty. He sweat a lot getting around his briefly adopted city but never hesitated to get out and hobble to where the news was.
By the time the print edition of Cambridge Day failed in 2005 and he climbed into his car to drive back to Connecticut the last time, Guinness had lost a significant amount of weight and thrown away his cane.
He also never stopped talking about “the Cambridge diet.”
Now, Guinness also claimed to be a Republican and a conservative, and if he were still reporting here in Paradise instead of, according to his theology, taking up residence in Heaven, he would be reporting with great skepticism on Mayor Henrietta Davis’ proposal to limit the size of sugared drinks sold in restaurants.
Based on his experience, that would be understandable, and a survey of 190 metro areas done in March by Gallup-Healthways found the Boston-Cambridge-Quincy area ranking 25th — although it should be noted that the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area in Connecticut(!) was No. 2 — at a 21 percent obesity rate. Not too bad. Boulder, Colo., was best in the nation, with only 12.1 percent of its residents considered obese. The UnitedHealth Foundation says Massachusetts is the fifth-most obese state in the nation (again, behind Connecticut at No. 3, where Massachusetts was last year).
While the most recent city-published Cambridge Public Health Bulletin says 43 percent of adults here are overweight or obese (compared with 58 percent statewide) and 34 percent of public school kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, the data it cites are from 2008. The Cambridge Health Alliance further muddies the waters by looking at the percentages of overweight and obese people in Cambridge in the six years ending in 2008 and finding that while the overweight population rose to 30.6 percent from 27.3, obesity shrank to 10.4 percent of the population from 11.7 percent.
You can also look deeper into the most recent Gallup-Healthways Health Index and see that for the 4.6 million people in Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, the slide in overall well-being rank to 37 from 22 has much more to do with a plummet in “work environment” (to 120 from 66) than “physical health,” in which the region leaped to 26 — into the top quintile — from 41, the second quintile. These are data from last year, not three or four years ago, although it’s based on interviews and does include a self-reported drop in “healthy behavior” to 44 from 39, staying in the second quintile.
Common sense and Cambridge
What does this all mean? Not much. The Public Health Department may yet recommend a limit on the size of sugared drinks as the mayor suggested, even if there are no clear data showing a link with obesity here or even a city weight crisis. For Guinness it means nothing at all, except that he tried to employ common sense and observation in his work — he was a consummate shoe-leather reporter — and he would tell you that if you walk, bicycle or take public transit around Cambridge you see starkly the lack of obesity afflicting such places as McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas (38.8 percent obese, according to Gallup-Healthways).
The limit is also pitched by Davis and supporters such as the alliance’s Dr. Avra Goldman, medical director of the East Cambridge Health Center, as being largely to protect kids from the threats of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The alliance’s Healthy Living Cambridge Kids program has already shown success in decreasing obesity among kindergartener through fifth-graders who participated in the program from 2004 to 2007, although the program at the time was focused on enforcing kids got five or more servings of fruit and vegetables, two hours or less of television time and one hour of exercise.
If the soda limit were directed toward New Britain, Conn., that would make sense too, since Guinness gained back some pounds when he moved there.
But Guinness would certainly be skeptical of the need for Cambridge. He never stopped talking about how if he lived here the pounds would fall back off again — thanks to “the Cambridge diet.”