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Why Our Health Care System is Making Us Sick

Posted Sep 17 2008 12:51am

Barbeques. Fireworks. Parades. That's how many people celebrated July 4th last week.

In honor of our country's birthday, I also took my family to see An Inconvenient Truth.

The movie is about Al Gore's slide show about the global warming crisis -- but as I watched the film, I realized that the parallels between our environment and our healthcare crisis are striking.

In fact, the health of our environment and the health of our bodies are in equal peril -- and are intertwined.

In the movie, our former vice president explains how the things we think make us comfortable -- luxury cars, climate-controlled work and home spaces, and other goods fueled by the endless consumption of oil (carbon) -- are actually destroying the very world around us.

Our approach to health isn't much different.

Most of us believe that our country's healthcare system is designed to keep us healthy. In fact, it does just the opposite!

Think about it. What fuels the health care economy?

Sickness, not health. 

That's right.

All the stakeholders in industries that affect our health -- the pharmaceutical industry, the food producers, agribusiness, and the restaurant industries -- profit when people eat unhealthy food, exercise less, and are more stressed.

They're making money off of your poor health.

Take the drug companies. They cajole us into believing that we can live any harmful lifestyle -- and fix our health problems simply by taking a pill.

Just look at that commercial that encourages you to eat unhealthy food because an antacid pill or two will ease the indigestion it gives you.

Worse, our healthcare system is based on the outdated idea that disease should only be treated, not prevented. It's really disease-care, not healthcare!

This is a huge obstacle to changing the way medicine is practiced. These forces prevent us from finding foods and other resources that keep us healthy rather than make us sick.  

Simply put, sickness is good for our economy. And it's not just a problem here at home.

Let's look for a minute at what's really happening to the health of the world's population. 

It's not pretty. 

Most people in developing countries die from infectious diseases like cholera, diseases preventable by immunizations, or respiratory infections. Obesity, heart disease, cancer and chronic diseases are confined to the "civilized" world, right?

Not anymore!

Chronic disease has replaced infectious and acute illnesses as the leading cause of death in the world, both in developed and developing countries. In 2002, the leading chronic diseases, including heart disease (17 million), cancer (7 million), chronic lung diseases (4 million), and diabetes (1 million), caused 29 million deaths worldwide.

And the tragic part is that these ailments can be prevented -- they're almost entirely attributable to lifestyle risk factors such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, tobacco, and alcohol use.

Because most people still believe that these diseases only affect rich countries, most of the dollars spent in developing nations is on prevention of disease by immunization and control of infection and malnutrition.

Even Bill Gates and the actions of his charitable foundation has missed the boat on this one.  

But the fact is, one billion people in the world are now overweight. 300 million are obese.  One in three children born today will have diabetes in their lifetime.  One in five children in China will be overweight by the year 2010, as will one in two children in North and South America.   

It's an inconvenient truth -- and one that's being ignored. The major global health policy makers and agencies just aren't allocating enough appropriate resources to help prevent these lifestyle problems.

Heads of state, health ministries, the World Health Organization, academic and research institutions, non-governmental organizations, private donors, the World Bank, and the United Nations allocate only a fraction of their resources to chronic disease prevention.

What's stopping them?

Maybe they have yet to fully acknowledge the extent of the problem. Or worse, perhaps their actions are driven by financial motivations.

Despite this inaction, the science is clear. An overwhelming amount of research shows the role of lifestyle and diet in the prevention of major chronic diseases.

Let's look at a few studies that prove that eating better, exercising, and dealing with the causes of disease are more effective -- and cheaper -- than any drug.

A single nutrient, food, or lifestyle habit alone may not have a huge effect on health. But as a whole, lifestyle measures are powerful prevention. Their effects on disease prevention and treatment are overwhelming -- and are even more impressive than medication.

For instance, in a study of older adults, those who followed a healthy lifestyle (specifically, eating a Mediterranean-type diet, getting moderate exercise, not smoking, and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol) were nearly 70 percent less likely to die from ANY cause.

Similar studies show an 83 percent reduction in coronary artery disease, 91 percent reduction of diabetes in women, and a 71 percent reduction in colon cancer in men.

And no drug or combination of drugs has been shown to have an equal effect! 

The answer is clear. But not everyone is listening. 

Why? Well, this is stunning information for some people. For the first time, we're learning how the body works as a system and how nutrition, nutrients, and lifestyle affect our health. These changes are so monumental, and so contradictory to what we all were trained to think in medical school, that they are almost too great for doctors to grasp. 

It's like Columbus saying the world is round or Copernicus declaring that the earth is NOT the center of the universe. It makes sense, but it's so shocking that some people just don't want to believe it!

The only way this will change is for the average person -- that means you! -- to vote for change every day with your fork (and your feet)! 

Seem impossible? It isn't.

As Margaret Mead said, "Don't think that a small group of passionate, dedicated people can't change the world. In fact it is the only thing that has."

For our environment, that means learning practical things that will reduce global warming (see for examples).

And when it comes to your wellbeing, there are changes you and your family can make to get healthier -- and stop feeding our culture of sickness:

* Eat real, whole foods.
* Eat organic and locally grown or produced foods when possible.
* Give up all processed and packaged foods.
* Give up sodas and sugared drinks. If you do, I can guarantee that Pepsi and Coca Cola will make healthier things for us to drink!
* Eat "slow food" -- meals that are made from scratch, not processed. With enough demand, we'll start to see more slow food restaurants.
* Don't buy foods you see on commercials.
* Don't let your children watch TV commercials (Junk food companies spend $13 billion year advertising junk food to kids, who see 10,000 junk food commercials each every year!)
* Don't buy foods with trans fats or high fructose corn syrup, with more than 5 ingredients, or with ingredients you don't recognize.
* Walk where you can instead of driving.
* Demand that your doctor help you use "systems medicine," not "disease-care" (see for information on a new medical textbook about this new model of medicine, or give him or her a copy of my book Ultraprevention or Ultrametabolism). Ask your doctor to help you correct the cause of your problems rather than prescribe another medication.
* Write to congress demanding independent scientific hearings on nutrition and health and then demand they put those findings into public policy.
* Talk to your friends and colleagues and help devise ways to make it more profitable for our society to be healthy than to be sick.

Just as Al Gore's movie is a wake-up call for our environment, I hope you'll see my message as a call to action for your health. Our world is getting sicker, but it doesn't have to be this way.

The choice is up to you.

Why do you think our health care system is the way it is?

Have you gone to the doctor only to have your symptoms treated while the underlying cause was ignored?

Do you have other suggestions for how we can help stop feeding our culture of sickness and do the smart thing and shift the focus to prevention?

Let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below...

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