You and I can do little about most of the great issues of the day: Islamic State fighters, North Korea and Ebola. But we can address a major societal issue -- our personal health.
Americans are literally eating themselves to death. According to the CDC, one-third of adults and one-sixth of children are obese and many more are significantly overweight. Obesity can be deadly and can bring a host of unpleasant consequences: diabetes, high blood pressures, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, certain cancers, degenerative arthritis and sleep apnea. Obese persons are 50 percent more likely to have arthritic deterioration of their joints and more joint replacements. Obese people die seven years earlier on average than their peers. The cost of an obese person’s medical care is 42 percent greater than a person of normal weight.
Ironically, physical exercise is often one of the first casualties of obesity. Running, jumping and other basic elements of games and exercise are too hard, if not impossible. Simple movements become difficult, basic mobility is impaired. Obesity is often a barrier to dating and can impair socializing for youths and young adults. Many worry about simple things like fitting into an airplane seat.
Unhealthy food is ubiquitous, fairly cheap and tastes great. For $8, Denny’s will give you its Grand Slam Slugger and over half your daily recommended calories. In-N-Out Burger’s cheeseburger, shake and fries weighs in at about 1,400 calories and only costs around $5. Portion sizes have exploded. People regularly consume two, three and four times the calories necessary to function.
Poor behavioral choices result in over 50 percent of health-care expenditures. Even modest decreases in obesity, overweight and smoking would translate to huge monetary savings and pay dividends to people in terms of diseases avoided and improvement in their well-being. Our behavioral choices far outweigh environmental and genetic factors in determining how healthy we are. These personal choices have been among the main drivers of the unsustainable increase in health care expenses in the United States over the past two decades.
We have a choice to make as individuals and as a society. Are we going to continue to make poor choices in eating and exercise? Will we continue to consume junk food as we watch our medical costs go through the roof? Will a whole generation of Americans consign themselves to live with obesity and all its limitations and costs? Or are we going to create a fundamental cultural change by choosing good nutrition and rejecting unhealthy food? Government and other organizations can educate people about how to find and prepare affordable, convenient and healthy foods. They can also show the consequences of unhealthy choices and promote healthy lifestyle practices.
But face it: if we are to change, government will not do it. One person, one family at a time, will have to decide to be healthy. This is about individuals and their choices. Everyone is unique and approaches food uniquely. Everyone has a story. We have different genetics, habits, tastes, exercise patterns, medical issues, cultural backgrounds, incomes and educational levels. All of these factors, and many more, feed into the problem and into the solution as well.
There is good news. Restaurants are posting calories. Fruits and vegetables are available year round. Local produce is more accessible. Healthcare systems and others are using dietitians and making their services available to more people. Kids are eating more fruits and veggies. Nutritional knowledge seems to be increasing.
We have a public health epidemic of overweight and obesity. If we don’t reverse this trend, we will never be able to afford the medical and economic impacts of tens of millions of sick people flooding our medical system with resulting diseases and conditions. Those who resist or reverse this trend in their own lives will probably live longer, healthier lives. They will, on average, have fewer diseases and will be able to enjoy physical activity well into old age. It’s never too late to begin taking a daily walk or passing up dessert. You can change the world by changing what you eat.