Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why is the US so unhealthy? Part I

In my second post I was complaining about cost of health care in the US, which is ridiculously high.  My goal was to point out that as a component of the overall healthcare costs our personal choices play a large part.  To be sure, insurance, pharmaceuticals, hospitals (and doctors), and lawyers all have portions of the blame, some much higher than others.  But it is my opinion that the single most important thing a person can do to keep their own healthcare costs down is to stay healthy.  It is understood that many people have medical issues over which they have little control, but it is also true that in many cases they would be of less impact, or more easily manageable, if those people had better overall health.

None of this is rocket science – the basics are pretty simple – doctors and scientists have been saying these same things for over 50 years.  Diet and exercise is number one, followed by moderation of alcohol and no smoking, finished with things like flossing, sleeping, and sunscreen.  Ultimately though, every person is completely responsible for their own health, with advice provided by doctors, nutritionists, etc.  
Be more informed and be healthier.

People lived healthy, happy lives long before we had MRIs, advanced drugs, or arthroscopic surgery, and for the most part so can we.  Certainly we have a better chance of living into our 90s now than they did 200 years ago, and infant mortality has dropped, in most first-world countries, to near zero, but a lot of people lived a lot of years without extensive, expensive medical care.  It almost seems like the medico-legal-pharmaceutical complex is forcing us to be sicker so that they can rush to the rescue (or in the case of lawyers, rush to court).

There is a lot, perhaps too much, information available today on how to live a healthy lifestyle.  Given this over-abundance, how can you know what is the most important?  Read everything you can find and consider whether it makes sense to you.  I am including several web sites that I think have interesting and important material, but it is up to you to understand what information is most beneficial to you.  This first one is a very general guide of dos and don’ts.

First, and perhaps most important to good health, is proper nutrition.  Certainly, you should eat enough but not too much, of the right foods in the correct proportions, to stay healthy.  Fast, or processed, foods are one of the worst things we have ever devised.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have eaten, and still occasionally eat, fast food.  But over the last several years I have tried to cut back on this habit and have seen dramatic weight loss and overall health increase.  I have long had the opinion that if you could see how our ancient ancestors lived, and how and what they ate, you could learn a lot.

This article very closely matches my thoughts on how we have evolved to process different foods, and added some to my understanding of why we seems to have problems with processed foods – even bread is a processed food.

The gist of the article is that for several hundred-thousand years we lived as hunter-gatherers (HG), and have adapted to those kinds of foods that were available in that style of living.  The cooking of food started long enough ago that we have adapted to it, but it still seems that the less we cook the better off we are.  Harvested grain consumption was a relatively recent change to our diet which is why there are problems with it, although this is a somewhat new theory.  Dr. Oz has gone so far as to compare highly processed carbohydrates to cocaine, both in its addictiveness and in its damage to the body.

So we have natural foods, processed as little as possible, which should be eaten in moderation; no binging and no starving.  In fact, recent studies have suggested that eating less per meal and increasing meal numbers is better overall for health.  This aligns nicely with the HG lifestyle; snacking on fruits, nuts, seeds, and perhaps fresh vegetables while on the hunt.

Along with the types of food, the quantities of it, and the frequency of eating, I want to add drinking water.  Everyone has heard that you should drink 8 glasses of 8 ounces of water every day, but there is some controversy surrounding this advice.  I personally think that this is good advice and try and follow it, but each person has to decide for themselves.  Additionally, the consumption of caffeinated, highly sugared, or alcohol-added drinks frequently cause the body to lose more water.  At any rate, here is an article listing the benefits and has recommendations – as always, decide for yourself.

The second major health style concern is exercise.  Imagine how fit you would be if you had to chase down your food every day, or gather all of the fruits and vegetables you need.  Even as recently as 100 years ago, it appears that farmers and ranchers were generally healthier than the average person today.  How could anyone not see that the more active you are the better your overall health would be?

How much exercise is enough is a highly debated number, which depends on several factors including but not limited to: current and optimum weight; amount of activity during work hours; physical and medical conditions; etc.  I think that it is obvious from looking at statistics collected by experts, that we as a nation don’t get enough exercise.  But many of those experts have arrived at some guidelines for, if not preparing for a triathlon, at least maintaining general fitness.  So somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes per day seems to be the right amount.

I think that this is one of the things that each person has to determine for themselves.  If you are exercising at some specific level and duration, and you feel good, aren’t gaining or losing weight (unless that is your goal), then you are probably getting enough.  But keep in mind that if you perform exactly the same exercises every day, your body will become accustomed to it and, over time, you will not be gaining as much benefit.  Many fitness experts suggest that you vary the type of exercise that you do over some schedule, for instance: hiking or biking alternated with weight lifting or resistance exercises (which is what I do).  The combination of cardiovascular exercise and some amount of weight or resistance training seems to have the most long-term health benefits.  I like this article on principles and techniques of resistance training.

Let’s again imagine our ancestors, climbing hills, running after prey, throwing rocks or sticks, or beating an animal to death, every day of their lives.  We clearly don’t get enough exercise.  I will continue on this thought tomorrow.

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