Our country is earning a thumbs down on how many of us live our daily lives. Our busy schedules and our tastebuds are front and center on why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 42% of all Americans are obese.
America is not alone in our struggle with extra pounds and eating habits that can lead to major health issues. The National Institutes of Health notes that “the worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.” Much of the problem stems from the continued slide to a more sedentary lifestyle and our less healthy diets.
Obesity in the United States is often linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer. All of these conditions are among the top causes of preventable, premature death. The CDC finds that medical costs of obesity in our country were nearly $173 billion in 2019, and this was before COVID-19 affected our waistlines. It’s estimated that overweight adults spend roughly $2,000 more a year on medical costs. Fortunately, each of us can learn lifestyle habits — at any age — that will help keep us healthy throughout our lifetime.
What is healthy living?
Healthy living encompasses more than one aspect of our lives. Part of healthy living is the food we take in and the energy we put out. Exercise and mental health are also a part of this. Putting family, friends and relationships above the stress of work is a really important part of healthy living. How we care for ourselves also includes finding the joys in life and focusing on the people and activities that make us happy.
What health shift is happening in America?
Americans are very productive people. We have a big list of things we need to do. We go from work to the PTO meeting, then maybe we go to a movie with friends. We try and jam-pack all these to-dos and activities into our lives. And the best way to get places is by car. We’ve cut out even small amounts of walking. In our larger cities everything is condensed, so walking is feasible. In contrast, in the Midwest we drive everywhere so we have more issues with obesity than say New York City.
We end up driving to go get food instead of walking. We put so much into our life on the day-to-day that we don’t prioritize the importance of a meal as nourishment. Our dining habits are more on-the-go rather than sitting down and enjoying a meal with our loved ones. People in other cultures don’t usually eat in their cars. They don’t eat when they walk. Our attitude is more I need to eat food so I can keep doing my other things.
And technology makes it harder because we’re connected to the now and the instant. You’re always at beck and call to do something or go somewhere. Where previously, it was just assumed you would eat dinner every night at home. The problem is because everything else in our life is taking priority, food is just a means to not be hungry anymore.
What’s unhealthy about fast food?
Most fast food is quite unhealthy to eat, and manufacturers dump in fat, salt and sugar. When fat melts in the tongue it takes good. When salt hits the tongue, it tastes good. Sugar tastes good and it provides an instant carbohydrate load. You get instant energy from sugar. Yet sugar is a drug and we can become addicted to sugar. (That’s why everybody loves ice cream!) Restaurants do the same thing with food. Butter and salt are the two main ingredients in most every restaurant dish. These two ingredients along with sugar make you want to come back for more. Fast food is very addictive because of what’s added to it.
I tell my patients that we are fighting an uphill battle against obesity because food in general is so accessible. Whenever our ancestors would hunt, it might be two or three days before they could track down a deer. To get food daily, they had to forage for berries. Today at the primal level, our brain tells our body to hold onto calories because it might be a while until we get more calories.
We are designed to hunt and to look for food and not always eat, but for most of us in America, food is everywhere and our brain doesn’t know that. So having food around is a constant, but that very primal relationship about calories is still present. In my desk drawer, I have Sour Patch Kids® candy, and in my fridge I’ve got blackberries and protein shakes. I don’t have more than my arm’s length to get to food.
What about unhealthy habits for adolescents?
Unhealthy living is an epidemic. The longer a child is obese, the higher likelihood they will be obese in adulthood and the rest of their lives. Unhealthy eating sets up dangerous habits that children will carry into adulthood. Weight is not everything. It’s important to note that people come in all shapes and sizes. However, when we see the medical implications of obesity, it needs to be addressed. Being overweight unfortunately underlies pretty much all medical issues. An unhealthy body weight complicates and worsens medical problems.
For example, we are seeing pre-diabetes and diabetes in younger and younger people, especially children and adolescents. Once you have diabetes, you have it. Type 2 diabetes is increasing in adolescents, which used to mainly affect adults. We are also seeing an increasing number of young people with high blood pressure, which can then lead to heart attacks.
What can help turn around the unhealthy habits in youth?
Much of the problem stems from so much time watching TV, playing video games and not getting exercise. It’s important to encourage adolescents to love being outdoors, to love exercising. I’m not talking exercise in a gym class, but exercise as part of a regular day—getting up from sitting, moving the body. Exercise also helps with brain development as well.
Incorporating healthy habits into adolescence is vital. I always tell parents of my adolescent patients to not allow phones in the bedroom. That’s a big one. Adolescents need sleep so they can repair their bodies from activities during the daytime. It is also really important that we instill a love of whole food and healthy food. If we start with wise health choices when individuals are young, later when they are stressed in college or required to sit all day at a desk job, they will use their free time to do things to keep themselves healthy.
How do we address obesity?
Obesity is complicated. There are many factors why people struggle with weight. For example, here in Omaha our bus system is fairly limited. Everyone is expected to drive their car, and we are sedentary because many of us sit at computers for our jobs. I can tell my patients that even with the best intentions, the odds are stacked against you. Maintaining a healthy weight is an uphill battle, but it’s one that’s worth fighting for because the consequences can be so dire.
What steps can someone take to fight the weight battle?
Number one is to eat at home. If you’re going to nothing else, eat at home. It doesn’t matter what you cook necessarily because whatever you serve will most likely have less calories than the food you eat out.
So just eat food at home and eat at a table. When you eat at a table and not in front of a TV and not on your phone, you start to get back to the healthy relationship that we have with meals. Americans see food as a means to an end. Many other countries are good about carving out a time just for enjoying food and drink and time with each other.
Of course, the pre-made microwave meals are generally not as healthy. They tend to be high in carbs, fat, salt and preservatives. Food packed with those ingredients can lead to obesity. Look for higher protein options. If you have a decision between two things, choose the one higher in protein. Protein tends to fill you up and keeps you full longer. I also recommend incorporating a vegetable on your plate for lunch and dinner and even snacks.
What other habits help with healthy living?
Simple exercises like going on a walk after dinner also helps with weight management. Exercise doesn’t have to be running, doesn’t have to be playing a sport. You can take the dog on a walk. You can make walking around the block together a habit for the whole family.
I also emphasize making time for yourself because if you are not your own priority, nobody else will prioritize you like you do. You have to prioritize yourself. If you make yourself a priority, everything else will fall in place. To help with stress, you can make time to meditate or do yoga or something similar. You can shut off the screens, turn off your brain and do something you enjoy such as reading a book. You’ll find that with your elevated mood, you won’t crave the junk, high-fat food. If you take care of your mood, and you’re in good spirits, you’re more likely to eat better food.
We have seen a shift in fast-food places offering healthier options, but some of these items are not always healthier. At some restaurants, the cheeseburger has fewer calories than a salad with loads of dressing. It’s a good practice to read nutritional labels. You might be surprised at what’s in your food.
How would you sum up healthy living?
In two words: slow down. Slow down your mind. Slow down your eating. Slow down your day. Slowing down is what is going to create healthy living and healthy eating. When you dial down your pace each day, you are building better health habits both for today and for the rest of your life.
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