As I stand at the intersection of 35 years in the practice of family medicine, one resounding truth reverberates through the core of my being:
"Health is our most valuable asset. Without it, the fundamental pillars of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness crumble.”
Winston Churchill's words, proclaiming a healthy citizen as a nation's greatest asset, resonate profoundly in our collective consciousness.
Yet, in the midst of this sentiment, I find myself wondering: Do we genuinely embrace the gravity of these words?
If health is indeed our most prized possession, why do we continue down a path that sees us investing billions in fast food, soft drinks, snacks, and alcohol? It’s a harsh reality to face that we’re spending over $260 billion every year on obesity and trillions on chronic diseases that we could prevent.
It's a paradox that drives us to ask two critical questions:
- Would we alter our choices if we comprehended that many diseases are mostly preventable (e.g. Alzheimer's disease is 90% preventable)?
- Would we add over a decade of healthy life by embracing simple lifestyle choices, transcending our instant gratification habits?
In the spirit of profound quotes, one that has particularly grabbed my attention as of late:
"What are you willing to change, and what are you willing to give up, to have the life you’re pretending you want?"
Over the past two decades, during the journey of Healthy LifeStars and our practice, we've empowered 77,000 children and families with the habits of choosing healthier food, engaging in healthy activity, and fostering a "can do" growth mindset.
However, despite these efforts, we find ourselves entrenched in a war against obesity and collateral battles on mental health, productivity, and chronic diseases.
Our obesogenic environment, fueled by addictive ultra-processed foods, medications, trauma, chronic stress, and environmental toxins, is usurping our health, wealth, and happiness. As a family doctor caring for patients over lifetimes, it's evident that the way we eat, move, think, and shape our environment dictates our health trajectory.
We have significant control over whether we live vibrantly into old age.
Or rather, if we succumb to the "normal" American narrative of long, slow decline—medications, and spending a decade or more in the 4D’s: diseased, disabled, depressed, & demented.
Dr. David Parks, an ICU physician, profoundly remarked, "The trauma ICU is filled with man’s inhumanity to man; the medical ICU is filled with man’s inhumanity to himself."
This is not a blame game; it's an acknowledgment of the factors contributing to obesity, from addictive foods to medications, trauma, and environmental toxins.
However, we have the capacity, and the obligation, to solve this. As Margaret Mead wisely noted, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Globally, obesity incidence has tripled since 1975, even impacting once-idyllic Blue Zones as modern conveniences erode healthy lifestyles.
Despite these challenges, the Scottsdale Blue Zones project brings a ray of hope, thanks to the collaborative efforts of HonorHealth, Cigna, & Goodwill.
Nevertheless, the statistics in the United States are staggering: 1 in 5 children and over 42% of adults are obese. Americans today carry 30 pounds more than when I began medical school, consuming an extra 500 calories daily.
The root cause lies in our dietary choices, with over 70% of American children's intake and 60% of adult diets being ultra-processed obesogenic foods. I vividly recall my own upbringing as one of seven kids, raised on a diet of sugary cereals, processed white bread, and fast food. I was that obese kid, caught in the web of sugar addiction and processed foods.
Fast forward to today, and the situation hasn't improved. Highly-processed foods, often masquerading as health foods, dominate our pantries. If only I had a magic wand to eliminate the aisles stocked with cereals, soft drinks, and snack foods—perhaps chronic diseases would magically evaporate.
Our modern push for convenience and addiction to screens has also rendered us sedentary.
As I remind my patients, if you're not moving, you're decaying.
In the grand narrative of health, the United States is flunking. Healthcare, once representing less than 5% of GDP, now voraciously consumes 17%, outpacing the GDP growth rate.
Despite this substantial investment, we receive the worst return on our over $4 trillion expenditure. We rank poorly in longevity, healthy life expectancy, and succumb to preventable conditions, leading to premature deaths from diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and cancers.
Plus, our COVID-19 mortality per capita is both shocking and embarrassing, fueled by inequitable care, pandemics of mistrust, misinformation, and the underlying reality of an unhealthy population. Previously considered adult diagnoses such as Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver now afflict children regularly.
Adding to this grim picture, autoimmune disorders, food allergies, and 14 cancers are escalating in prevalence among those under 50, attributable to ultra-processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, and environmental toxins. Even our military readiness is compromised, with less than 1 in 3 young adults fit enough to qualify, impacting our first responders.
The economic burden of obesity is staggering, with healthcare costs for an obese person averaging 100-220% higher annually than a nonobese individual. And this was before the advent of new obesity drugs costing over $12-20K annually for life. Empowering people with a real food, plant-based diet and increased exercise can achieve similar results—without the exorbitant costs or side effects.
Obesity stands as the second preventable cause of premature death in the United States, contributing significantly to heart disease, stroke, cancer, kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Thus, the question looms large: What are we willing to change, and willing to give up, to have the life we're pretending we want for our kids, future generations, ourselves, and our country?
Decades-long studies by Harvard provide a resounding answer: Shifting to plant-based diets, promoting increased activity, and reducing air pollution could prevent 6 million, 1.2 million, and 1.2 million deaths globally, respectively.
Now, let’s shift our focus to solutions. I'll share a few secrets for brilliant health breakthroughs, drawing from the strategies of Healthy LifeStars.
These simple yet powerful principles can inspire and empower individuals to take control of their health:
- Keep it Simple: Five simple lifestyle choices—choosing a mostly real food/plant-based diet, exercising at least 150 minutes per week, sleeping 7+ hours per night, avoiding tobacco, and minimizing alcohol—can halve chronic diseases and significantly improve overall well-being.
- Address the Roots: American medicine often falls short by neglecting the root causes. My plea to every physician is to address the roots of health issues, for chronic diseases need not be a life sentence. We cannot medicate around poor lifestyle choices, and the most potent strategies extend far beyond a prescription pad.
- Excitement Works Better than Discipline: Learning to live healthfully should be enjoyable and invigorating, not a sentence to deprivation. Healthy LifeStars exemplifies this by making healthy living fun and inspiring. Remember, healthy isn’t complicated.
- Establish Accountability and a Growth Mindset: Despite the challenges of our obesogenic environment, we hold the keys to our unhealthy shackles. The mantra "I CAN DO IT" is powerful medicine. Every patient who triumphs over addiction emphasizes the magic key: "I decided."
- Get Help: Health is a family issue, and empowering kids as role models for their families can instigate powerful changes. Small habit changes, when practiced continuously, yield massive impacts.
- Get Honest: Just as in Alcoholics Anonymous, where they say, "you’re only as sick as your secrets," postponing physicals or screenings due to perceived lapses in health habits only hinders progress. We can't help with fiction.
- Fail Mightily, Learn, Change, and Move On: Health is a journey, not a destination. Perfection is not the goal, and we are all works in progress.
The mission of Healthy LifeStars transcends preventing childhood obesity; it is about inspiring resilient citizens who become role models and stewards of empowered health. Supporting problem-solvers, whether through volunteering or financial assistance, is critical. As David Brooks noted, "Culture shifts when a small group of people find a better way to live, and the rest of us follow them."
Let's collectively be a beacon of hope, a Healthy LifeStar. Volunteer, support schools or Blue Zones projects, model healthy habits, and vote with your wallet. In 20 years, Healthy LifeStars has empowered over 77,000 kids, including my own, to own it, earn it, believe it, and spread it. Let's help Healthy LifeStars reach a million, ensuring better health for generations to come.
As I reflect on the journey of the past two decades, one truth remains resolute: health is our most valuable asset, and the time to transform our choices is now. The question lingers, asking each of us individually and collectively: What are we willing to change, and willing to give up, to have the life we're pretending we want?
The power to transform lies within us; let's embrace it.