It’s been a fractious election year to say the least. For those of you who have followed the political circus, you have stamina and patience. There’s been something conspicuously missing from the talking points of this election cycle- our health. I’m not talking about the quagmire of the healthcare system, but rather the actual health of Americans.
Nowhere in the debates did I hear a single mention of what we can do to combat one of the nation’s most lethal enemies. I’m not talking about ISIS, China, or Russia. The enemy I’m referring to is the Obesity Epidemic, which, according to the U.S. Department of Public Health, kills 300,000 Americans a year. When 3,000 people died on 9/11 we deployed 100,000 soldiers and spent nearly a trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan. With 300,000 deaths a year being caused by obesity, it’s long past the time that we dedicate the same kind of resources to fighting a war against an epidemic that is killing us by the masses right here on our home soil.
75% of Americans are overweight, and 35% obese, there is more than lives at stake, our financial security is also at risk. We spend $191 billion a year on obesity-related healthcare costs, or approximately 21% of all of the annual healthcare spending in the United States. That figure doesn’t include the hundreds of billions in costs such as lost time at work, and home care provided by family and friends. It is estimated that the total costs of this epidemic is around $500 billion a year. Millions of Americans are dying, billions are being spent, and there hasn’t been the any discussion about it in the entire election cycle, why is that?
Starting the Conversation
So why don’t we talk about good health? There are a couple of simple reasons. First, it’s the same reason that doctors spend so much of their time prescribing drugs to fix our problems instead of discussing dietary changes as a cure to most ailments. There is little money to be made by keeping people healthy. Prescribing salads doesn’t help the insurance and pharmaceutical industries meet their shareholders profit expectations, nor does it keep the bypass surgeries and stomach stapling rolling, or give CEOs million dollar bonuses.
The second reason we don’t talk about good health is because people want to avoid the subject and look for a quick fix. We love instant gratification, that’s how we’ve gotten so large in the first place. As a society, we’re more apt to turn to fad diets, pills, and surgeries than we are to make long-term healthy choices and exert self-control. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s the truth.
I recently watched a video about children eating lunch at schools in France. The children take an hour to eat a lunch that’s served to them in courses, healthy meals prepared by real chefs. The children take time to learn about food, how to eat a balanced diet, and what it means to enjoy what they eat rather than making it just a quick greasy moment of instant gratification. I was shocked when I saw the high quality of school food the children in France share together, but I was even more in awe when I found out that the video was partially filmed at one of France’s poorest public schools.
As I watched the video, I figured it must be wrong, that something was surely being hidden from me. Luckily, my French wife was sitting next to me and able to confirm that yes, it was all true, they had delicious meals served to them in several courses as they sat for an hour each day at school. Let’s look at a comparison…
And we wonder why we are the world’s most obese country? This is what we are feeding our children. We aren’t just feeding the next generation garbage and making them obese and unhealthy, we are sending a message that it’s actually OK to eat food like this on a regular basis.
Here is a quote from a school near Paris, “Mealtime is a particularly important moment in a child’s day. Our responsibility is to provide children with healthy, balanced meals; to develop their sense of taste; to help children, complementing what they learn at home, to make good food choices without being influenced by trends, media, and marketing; and to teach them the relationship between eating habits and health. But above all else, we aim to enable children to spend joyful, convivial moments together, to learn a ‘savoir-vivre’, to make time for communication, social exchange, and learning about society’s rules–so that they can socialize and cultivate friendships.”
There is a lot being said there, and it’s all music to my ears. Words that jump out at me- “responsibility”, “healthy”, “balanced”, “good food choices”, and “social exchange”. American school lunches average 30 minutes, and that includes the time it takes to stand in line with a tray just waiting for a sloppy joe. In general, meal times in America are often rushed. Eating slowly is scientifically proven to be healthier for you, while shoveling down our meals is a common cause for bloating and gas.
A recent study found that 32% American families finish dinner in less than 20 minutes. Another study found that children in families that eat dinner in less that 16 minutes have a greater chance of being overweight than families that sit for just 4 minutes longer. Still, just 20 minutes? Keep in mind that the French students take an hour to eat healthy food together, converse, and learn the “savoir-vivre”, a knowledge of life.
Prioritizing Good Health
So where are our priorities? I think we can safely say that with three-quarters of our population overweight, we are a genuinely unhealthy nation. We feed our children food that would be thrown out in many other first world countries. At meal times, we can’t even sit down long enough with one another to properly chew our food, let alone hear about one another’s days. Yet, our politicians argue about who cheated on who, and that our biggest threat to our country is radical terrorism spawned in the Middle East.
I reviewed 75 of the most talked about issues this election, and not one of them had to do with our actual health. When the candidates did spar about health, it was only about Obamacare and abortion, never about the fact that our caloric intake has gone up by almost one thousand calories a day in the last few decades. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans are suffering from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a slew of other health issues with one major cause- our diet.
Bucking the Trend
It’s time to get our priorities straight. It’s not just the healthcare system that needs attention, it’s our diets. People shrug off talk about things like sugar taxes saying that we should have a freedom of choice. Choice, really? Do consumers have full knowledge of the harms caused by what they eat? There is often more sugar in a single drink, than an adult should consume in an entire day. The food companies have nearly unlimited funds to market and advertise their products, while we lack the political will to educate our population about the harm those very products are causing. It’s an uphill fight, and the winners so far are the ones selling cheap unhealthy calories.
It’s clearly time for a change, but where do we start? The first step is to get the conversation out there. Being overweight causes sickness, disease, and early death. The enormous cost of healthcare due to the obesity epidemic is crippling individuals in debt, making it impossible for the many Americans to survive. Our health can’t be a topic that is simply avoided by family, friends, and politicians- it should be the hot topic.
If we want to be a prosperous nation, prosperity starts from within, with good health and caring about our future. The way we eat now is going to continue to drive up debt and healthcare costs for years to come… it’s time for a change. Our destiny lies in what we put into our mouths. We need to start talking about obesity and food quality as the problems that they are- a national health crisis.