Why is it going to kill us?
Most of us are probably aware of the fact that the American lifestyle is a direct contributor to how unhealthy many of us are, but what are the exact causes? Are they something that we have control over? In order to improve our health as individuals and as a society, we need to focus on improving all of our health. We can do this by addressing our lifestyle habits. Before you panic, the changes aren’t going to be as drastic as you think.
Despite being the largest consumer of weight loss products in the world, the United States leads the world in obesity and unhealthy life style. The American lifestyle causes high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, lung disease, cancer, infertility, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, osteoporosis, depression, anxiety and stress. It affects everyone at every level of the socioeconomic ladder, but it gets worse the lower you go. There are several factors that play a role in our unhealthy lifestyle.
A big factor is our obsession with money and materialist things, so we work long hours in order to earn more money to buy the things that we want. Many people will give up their leisure time to work more so they can have more income. For some people though this isn’t a choice and less financially stable individuals will often work two or more jobs out of necessity. This necessity comes from the high cost of things that can be taken for granted in other countries that have a better way of handling societal needs, such as healthcare, education and retirement pensions. In the United States, all of these are something that everyone pays for out of their own pocket. Other countries consider these items a right that all citizens should have and pay for them for everyone. While they have some measures in place to cover the cost of providing these services, it means that their citizens aren’t working multiple jobs to survive. Our need to work long hours in order to afford basic necessities or to buy the things that we desire causes us to have increased stress and for us to be less healthy because of the way we structure our time in order to accommodate this lifestyle.
By increasing the amount of time we spend working, we have less time to be physically active. Nowadays, most of our jobs are sedentary. The other component of working more is that we have less time to spend with family and friends, which leads to us feeling isolated. The widening of the societal gap between the poor and wealthy contributes to this isolation because we feel that we need to work more in order to improve our station in life and this just decreases our time to spend doing other things that would be healthier for us. Besides our jobs being more sedentary, numerous advances in technology have made our every day lives easier. We have garage door openers to open and close our garage doors, self-propelled lawnmowers, washing machines/dryers and so much more that do things that we used to have to do manually. All of these changes have decreased the amount of physical effort it takes for us to do things throughout the day. Add to this the invention of television, smartphones, computers, tablets and any electronic device that requires you to sit to use it and you have the perfect firestorm of things leading to a less active lifestyle.
Part of the lifestyle changes that have occurred besides lack of physical activity, is the differences in our eating habits. Our culture is very much centered around food. We have probably all taken a picture of our food and put it on social media at some point or another. For most of us, food is tied to feelings of family, love, providing for those we care about and satisfaction. Our society encourages consumption of large portions of food. Unfortunately, given our lack of time to prepare food at home, we eat a significant amount of food from restaurants. They buy their food whole sale, which is cheaper, so they are able to serve incredibly large portions for less money than we can buy and make it at home. The bad part of restaurant food, besides portion size, is that it is usually heavily-processed, full of calories and low in nutrients. Since restaurant food is cheaper than buying food to make and we are usually short of time thanks to working more, it is easy to see why we eat at them. It is also important to note that low income areas usually don’t have access to fresh produce and other products because they don’t keep well on the shelf and are more expensive for grocery stores to buy than processed things that have a long shelf life. Several recent studies have suggested that processed and fried foods, which is often served at restaurants, contain high amounts of sodium and sugar and these are highly addictive.
Over three quarters of Americans eat a diet that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, whole grains and healthy oils. Half of Americans eat more than the recommended amounts of non-whole grains and protein and many far exceed the amount of added sugars, saturated fats and sodium that are considered healthy. More than 97% of Americans do not practice the four main habits that contribute to a healthy lifestyle, which are eating a good diet, getting moderate exercise, not smoking and keeping body fat under control. These unhealthy habits have led to over 250 million Americans currently being overweight or obese. Every year, 360,000 Americans die from diseases directly related to obesity and unhealthy lifestyle. Over 70% of American adults have a chronic disease that is caused by being unhealthy and 75% of healthcare costs are used to manage or treat chronic conditions. The United States economy spends $1 trillion yearly treating the seven most common chronic diseases and the loss of productivity related to them. Sadly, it isn’t just adults who are affected by our lifestyle. Currently, over one-third of children and teens are overweight or obese. This number has tripled since the 1970s. It is estimated that at least 25% of children are sitting in front of a screen for four or more hours daily rather than being physically active like they used to be. The rise in childhood obesity has caused children to have similar health problems to adults, such as Type 2 diabetes, and caused the life expectancy of this generation of children to be shorter than that of their parents. This is the first time in decades that life expectancy for a generation of children is less than their parents. So, how do we fix the problem of our unhealthy lifestyle?
There needs to be a systemic change in regards to the “normal” American lifestyle. As a society, we need to raise the level of awareness on how what is currently taking place is unacceptable. We should be demanding from politicians and business owners that they do a better job of providing access to and increasing the affordability of healthier food choices for everyone. In addition, new regulations for unhealthy foods options should be put in place in order to change the existing marketing practices. Also, we need to change how our work week is structured and provide incentives for people to take time to exercise. This can be accomplished through limiting the time allowed at work each week, insisting people don’t bring work home with them and doing a better job of offering services that everyone needs, like healthcare and retirement pensions, so people can afford to take the time off to destress and be physically active without worrying about their lack of income during their time off. These changes will help provide a healthier environment for all of us.
However, it can’t be just a broad sweeping change. Not only will this take a significant amount of time to put in place, but each individual has a responsibility for their own health. There are several small alterations that each of us can do every day that will make a huge difference. An important one will be to limit screen time and use that time to be physically active. You don’t have to start with anything crazy. Try going for walk around your neighborhood or local park. All you need is a pair of shoes and to go outside. It is far better for you than sitting at home watching television or looking at social media on your phone. The other key is to eat healthier. This means to eat more nutrient dense forms of foods from all the food groups while limiting foods that have added sugars, added refined starches, solid fats, sodium, high calories or a combination of these. A good example of this is drinking fat-free milk rather than whole milk. You are able to get the benefits of the nutrients in the milk without the added fats and calories. Part of eating healthier means reducing our portion size and, most of the time, eliminating beverages that have no nutritional value, such as soda and energy drinks. In order to accomplish this goal, it is vital to start off small and gradually shift more of your diet towards healthy eating. If you do it all at once, you’ll be less likely to stick to the new habits in the long run. Some easy ways to start shifting food is to trade out high calorie, high fat and high sodium snacks for fresh vegetables or whole fruits (not those packed in syrup). Remember, it is always better to buy fresh or frozen products that are not treated with syrups, sauces or preservatives. Another option is to swap out refined grains for whole grains, such as eating wheat bread instead of white. We also don’t eat enough seafood, so substituting it for another type of meat once a twice a week is helpful in gaining the benefits from the nutrients that only seafood can provide. It is important to use solid fats, like butter, sparingly. Instead, using oils is a better option. The way to tell them apart is that solid fats are solid at room temperature and oils are liquid at room temperature. The type of fat in solid fats is saturated fat and is unhealthy for us, especially when compared to the polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats that are in oils. Do not buy pre-seasoned, mixes or “instant” products because they usually have high amounts of sodium and unhealthy fats. Rather than use these or salt to season your food, use herbs and spices to provide flavor. All of this can be confusing, so it is essential to read labels before you buy any products. This will help you make an informed decision.
Without the appropriate measures being applied to rectify our unhealthy American lifestyle, more and more of us will continue to become sick with chronic diseases that easily could be prevented. Each one of us needs to do our part to ensure our own health, but we also need to stand together as a society to put forth wide sweeping changes that will help to improve the health of everyone in the country. As much as everyone loves the American lifestyle of eating as much as you want, whenever you want, if we don’t make key changes, our unhealthy habits will only continue to cost the country money and people their lives!