|It's Killing Us
posted on 5/6/10 12:18 pm
The last time I checked, you can not do too much to change your age, race, genetic attributes or family history. All of these can be risk factors for a number of different diseases and conditions. For better or worse, once born, you are stuck with these traits. On the other hand, there are also a number of variables that we do have personal control over that can increase or decrease our risk of developing a particular type of disease. With personal choices, not only can we increase or decrease our risk, but we can also exacerbate or reduce the potential risk associated with those factors we can’t control. Tobacco use, our environment and stress levels are all things we have various levels of personal control over. Perhaps, the most powerful personal choices we make, as they relate to obesity and other diseases, is how much or how little we use our bodies and what we fuel our bodies with.
What is killing us?
First, let’s take a depressing look at the leading causes of death in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the top ten leading causes of death are; 1) Heart disease 2) Cancer from all causes 3) Stroke 4) Chronic lower respiratory diseases 5) Accidents 6) Diabetes 7) Alzheimer’s disease 8) Influenza and Pneumonia 9) Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis, and 10) Septicemia. Notice that obesity is not on this list, but at least half of the leading causes of death, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, share many of the same risk factors and/or contribute to one another. Furthermore, many of the leading causes of death are a direct result of or influenced by obesity. Historically speaking, obesity has not been classified as a major cause of death. It is clear, however, that obesity contributes to more deaths than any other single disease or condition alone. It is for this reason that many are labeling obesity as the new leading cause of death in the United States.
Genetics and other nice bed time stories
As obesity has become more prevalent here in the U.S., it is not surprising that increases have been seen in heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia and other obesity related diseases and conditions. It is interesting to consider some of the other changes that have also occurred at the same time. During this same time, medicine has advanced tremendously. The number of health clubs and health club memberships have increased drastically. Health food stores such as GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe, as well as the number of health food products they sell, have risen sharply. Public initiatives to walk for so long or take so many steps each day are pouring out of Washington. The list goes on and on, but what has it accomplished? Sure, a select few folks are making some serious money, but it is quite obvious that the endless list of “health products” has not made a positive impact on the rising rates of obesity and associated conditions. So, where have we gone wrong?
It’s our genetics!
As with many other diseases, there is certainly a genetic component to obesity. With that said, our genetics now do not differ greatly from our genetics 100 or 200 years ago before we had a major problem with obesity. Each time a new genetic link to obesity is discovered, it is important to remember that the human genome did not evolve overnight. Those same genetic links we are finding today have been present for quite some time, long before this obesity epidemic we are currently struggling through. For the majority of us, thin, obese, pear shaped, black or white, our genetics are just fine, but we are choosing to do things that our genetics simply do not handle or tolerate very well. If you have one container with one square hole and ten pegs of varying shapes and sizes, but the peg you are trying to fit into the container is not working, what would you do? You can’t select another container but you can choose from a variety of pegs to put into the container, until you find the one that fits. Our genetics are here to stay for a while, but how we deal with our genetics is up to us.
Make it a lifestyle...well kind of
You had to know that physical activity and food were going to come up sooner or later. Whether you are pre or post weight loss surgery, losing weight non-surgically or not concerned with weight loss at all, we always hear that a healthy lifestyle includes regular physical activity and wholesome foods. But, what does that really mean? Does an hour in the gym four days a week constitute a physically active lifestyle? Does regularly eating low-fat, high-protein, vitamin fortified protein shakes and bars constitute a wholesome diet?
Physical activity or something like it
This is how I see a typical American’s “active lifestyle” (proceed with caution, an unusually long sentence ahead). We mow the lawn with a riding mower, we hire someone to do the rest of the landscaping, we wash dishes in the dishwasher, we change the channel with the remote, we get money from the drive through ATM, we take the dogs to the groomer, we eat out more than we cook at home with our families, we find the closest parking spot we can and the elevator takes us up to the office. But three to four days a week, we drive our cars to the gym and hop on the treadmill for 30 minutes. We spend another 30 minutes on weight machines and then we get in our cars and drive home. Ah yes, a physically active lifestyle at its finest. I would like to say that I am exaggerating with the uncomfortably long sentence above, but I am not.
Something worth mentioning briefly, is the impact regular physical activity has on disease. Let’s use cardiovascular disease as an example. While an individuals body weight and numerous other factors impact one’s cardiovascular disease risk, more than 40% of the U.S. population is at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease simply because they do not move enough. Perhaps you have achieved your goal weight after weight loss surgery, but are relatively inactive. Cardiovascular disease risk, while reduced as you lose weight, does not simply vanish with weight loss. If you are inactive, even at a healthy weight, your risk of cardiovascular and other diseases are higher than if lived a truly active lifestyle.
One hundred or more years ago, health clubs were hard to come by. Pilates was just some guy’s last name and water aerobics, well, let’s just say that in-ground pools were slightly less common. Yet, the risk of becoming obese or developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes due to physical inactivity was not nearly as prevalent as it is today. The fact of the matter is that the majority of us do not live physically active lifestyles even if we exercise four, five or six times a week for an hour. An hour of your day, several times a week, does not represent a lifestyle. Our bodies are not accustomed to moving 30 or 60 minutes a day. Our bodies are designed to do work, not depend on something else to do it for us. Food, if that’s what you call it Do you know who grows your food? Do you know how far your food has traveled? Do you know if any of the foods you eat contain genetically modified ingredients? Were your tomatoes ripened with ethylene gas? Do you know what all those ingredients are on the food labels of the foods you eat? Is the beef you eat from cattle that eat primarily grass? Is your salmon really wild? If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to most or all of these questions, how do you know you are truly eating healthy food?
For the most part, we are disconnected from the food we eat unlike we have ever been in the past. We eat and purchase more foods in a box than raw whole foods. Calorically dense, sweet and salty foods are on every street corner. Few of us know a farmer by name (other than your great grandfather) and fewer of us grow our own vegetable gardens or have a tomato plant and a few herbs growing in the kitchen window. Many of us can rattle off facts about protein and vitamin needs, but don’t know where the local farmers market is. We depend far too much on large companies and big corporate interests to supply the foods we put in our mouths numerous times each day. There is something really wrong with this scenario and if we keep depending on others to essentially make our food choices for us, we will continue to face the same issues we are facing today.
I challenge you to investigate your food. What country are your bell peppers coming from in the winter? What pesticides are used on your fruits and vegetables? How was your chicken raised and treated before it found its way to your plate? Bell peppers, chicken, fruits and vegetables; these are healthy foods right? Well, we live in a time of industrial food and as food is mass produced, even the healthiest of foods can sometimes fall prey to unintended consequences.
In dependency we trust
The fight against the obesity epidemic and a number of preventable diseases is really one of dependency. It is not a fight against genetics or laziness. We depend far too much on someone else or something else to do our work for us and to supply us with “healthy” food. It’s not a poor recommendation to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. But, until we actually use our bodies, live actively and depend far less on someone or something to do our work, the problems associated with physical inactivity will persist. It’s not a poor recommendation to get at least nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. However, if we don’t become more familiar with how our food is treated and grown, know where it comes from, purchase more locally grown foods and/or take the initiative to grow some of our own, we will continue to be inundated with bad, unhealthy, mass produced food.
Bottom line, we each need to make a conscious effort to use our bodies more, not just in gym or on our 30 minute walks, but to do basic things each day that we have otherwise just let some machine do. We also need to take responsibility for the quality of the food we are eating and demand better. Uncle Sam can regulate this food and that, but unless you pick the food from your backyard or you can go visit the local farm your food was grown on, it is difficult to ensure that you are eating quality food. We enjoy modern conveniences and the efficiencies they offer, but what good are they if we allow 5, 10 or 20 years of our lives to be taken from us?
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