The explosion of data journalism has meant we’re hearing about more polls than ever. So this morning we learned that in a new Washington Post poll Obama’s approval ratings are the lowest ever, especially when people were asked about the Affordable Care Act.  Oh, they’re also low on the economy — don’t forget that! In the next election, we’ll probably have that square dance move in which everyone ends up with a different partner.

Data’s great, but it is sometimes nice to unpack some of it to see why that might be the case. I offer you a case in point from my own extended family. I have urged the members of my family who don’t have insurance to sign up for Obamacare, and some did. What they’ve found out is that there’s a big saving on premiums — in one case almost half. However, some of them, young and uninsured, earn just too much for a subsidy and still not enough to afford the premiums. Those are still uninsured. Others have found their benefits dramatically different under Obamacare.

The saving on premiums comes with a price. The networks seem to be smaller, and contains fewer specialists.Many doctors are waiting to see what the reimbursements will be before they sign on. The co-pays, especially for meds, are higher, and certain medications aren’t covered. Compounding pharmacies do not seem to be covered. The general impression is that nothing is covered.

That’s no different from employer-sponsored health plans, whose benefits get more meager every year..

These are just data points in the sea of “big data,” but they lead a storyteller like me to some conclusions that need testing:

1)the great American cost shift is still going on. Americans with insurance are still paying for the uninsured and the poor, as well as for the administrative layers and shareholder profits of the insurance companies. Nothing has changed here; in fact the trend toward spiraling health care costs is continuing.

2)Worse, most Americans don’t care –if they are not sick. Once they are, of course, they’re forced to become instant experts and they can tell you what the hospital charges for cotton balls are this year.

3)More Americans have decided that it might be time to buy a fitness tracker or become a paleo or a vegan and try to prevent things rather than subject themselves to an apparently dangerous health care system that features sepsis, MRSA, antibiotic-resistant staph, and surgeries by residents who haven’t slept in days.

4)Last, most people aren’t informed enough about either the old or the new systems to be worth polling. Americans appear to be disgruntled with the entire political process, and respond to government in much the same way people from developing nations do: they ignore it, assuming it is corrupt and does not have their welfare in mind.

This is a big change from fifty years ago, when people still had hope for America, and a term like “The Great Society” could be introduced without derision. The last two decades of botched efforts, recessions, revelations of corruption, and self-dealing have numbed the population to most issues. Although we don’t demonstrate in the streets, we don’t pay attention anymore either. In my travels around the world, I have learned that most people feel that way about their governments — they’re not fans.

So the next time you hear about a poll that measures Obama’s approval ratings — or anyone else’s — take a moment to remember that big data is just a bunch of little stories.




Doctors are beginning to find that poor nutrition is linked to a variety of diseases — high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s. We hear about fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and complex carbohydrates ad  nauseum, but until it’s too late you don’t hear about one of the worse offenders: salt. In fact, we now have “designer” salt; Himalayan salt, sea salt, garlic salt.

You are eating too much salt, even if you never pick up a salt shaker. I can almost guarantee you are, especially if you eat out. Eventually you will have high blood pressure, and perhaps heart failure or a stroke as a result. 70% of adults in the US have high blood pressure. Why?

Nearly 85% of the adult-sized meals at 10 popular chain restaurants have more than the recommended limit for total sodium intake per day, states the Center for Science in the Public Interest; nearly half had two days’ worth of sodium in a single meal.

U.S. health recommendations urge healthy adults to consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (the approximate equivalent of one teaspoon of table salt). However, for the 70% of U.S. adults who already have hypertension, are middle aged or older, or are African-American, the goal is 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day or less. That’s because excess sodium intake is directly linked to an increase in blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

The ones to avoid are Red Lobster and Olive Garden according to the same study.  And here’s an article from Men’s Health on “20 Salads That are Worse Than a Whopper.” There are deeper, more nerdy studies than these, and I’ve read many of them. But they all come down to the same thing: our convenience-oriented lives have put us at risk.

To control my own salt intake, I eat out much less. I also go for foods with no salt added. But salt is in everything. Soup is a big offender, as is pasta sauce. Or salsa. Chinese food. Cheese. Even canned tuna has 320 mg of sodium. If you read supermarket labels, as I’ve learned to do, you”ll be amazed at how much salt is in everything that’s prepared or preserved. If you’re human, everything you dearly love is salty.

But I don’t want to stroke out from high blood pressure, and I sure don’t want heart failure. I also don’t always want to cook my own food, and I’ve given up buying prepared food. So what’s my alternative?

My best alternative, unless I want to be a hermit cooking every meal at home and eating it with only dogs for company, is upscale restaurants that have real chefs. There, you can ask for no salt.  But even in those, salt is an issue. Salad dressings, even vinaigrettes, are full of salt. And many restaurants salt their vegetables even before you dress them. All vegetables are cooked with salt, and most chefs salt the water before they put in your pasta, and salt the pasta again when it is mixed with the salty tomato sauce. Hillstone rolls the baking potatoes in sea salt, so even a dry baked potato is loaded with salt. I wipe it on my napkin:-) Meat is always salted.

As consumers of restaurant food, we’re the customer. I think it’s time we took some action.  I’m choosing salt because it’s the easiest to discuss, but really it is salt, sugar and fat that are the lethal trio. By now, we’ve all been programmed by the food industry to crave them.

But there’s a connection that we never think about. Excesses of salt, sugar and fat throw us into the healthcare system somewhere in middle age, and lower our quality of life. Some days it seems like one vast conspiracy: the food industry in league with the health care industry. Feed us cheap, bad food and then feed us expensive pills.

As consumers, we  should be angry: angry at the agricultural industry that puts chemical pesticides in the soil that leech into the food, and then sells that food to us with salt, sugar and fat added to make it more tasty. After the food industry counts its money, its ally the health care system takes over. They’re sick? Feed them X-rays and scans, and then drugs.

I grew up before most food additives and most fast food. Our grandparents ate a much more nutritional diet than we do. When are we ever, as a people, going to learn that we’ve done this to ourselves and we’re the only ones who can change it?



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