Today is World Health Day and this year's message is: "Together we can reach a fairer and healthier world." In this spirit, the World Health Organization is calling to end health inequities worldwide by urging leaders to address root causes of health disparities in their nations, provide access to healthy living and working conditions, and invest in more primary healthcare. Quite the tall order, don't you think?
WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, Dr. Ahmed Al-Mandari declares that "Health is a fundamental human right. Every person deserves to live a healthy life regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, disability, economic situation, or employment. Progress in tackling health disparities has been slow worldwide, including in the Region in which many countries are experiencing emergencies and conflict and we have the largest number of displaced people in the world." While he may not be blatantly referring to the US here, I would argue that we are in a serious emergency and have been for quite some time. It's time to address these root cause issues within our society so that we can begin addressing the root cause issues within our collective health crises.
When it comes to the United States, although we are counted among the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world, within this elite group we also hold the title for most chronic illness, most overweight, shortest life expectancy, and most limited access to healthcare for its populace*. Not exactly something to be proud of, so what can be done about this?
If you've been tuning in to the many virtual discussions we've been hosting over the last few months, you have learned that creating balance and health is not an enigmatic mystery. Now, there are always exceptions and ever-mounting environmental factors (more on that later), but it breaks down to a simple combination of eating a nutrient-dense diet, exercising regularly, managing our stress levels, getting adequate rest, and supplementing when necessary. Imagine living in a country where regardless of your income you had access to nutritious food, medical care, a safe place to live and work, and a supportive community to rely on when you needed assistance. Unfortunately, for so many in the US, these essential needs are generally not met, so it makes sense as to why we face such grim statistics. An average American is overworked, overeating, overstressed, and lacks access to basic healthcare, while simultaneously inundated with unrealistic beauty standards. It's no wonder so many of us have a complicated (if not toxic) relationship with food and exercise. There is a complete disconnect between our health and what we expose our bodies to when it comes to food, stress, inactivity, and sleep.
If the WHO and other global leaders want to walk the walk instead of repeating catchy buzzwords, this is what we can do to truly achieve a "fairer and healthier" world.
- Teach the children! Accurate nutrition education is ESSENTIAL to creating a healthier next generation. The curriculum should include hands-on access to learning about where our food comes from and how it fuels our bodies. This will help to create a healthy relationship with nourishing and nutritious food, instead of an addiction to processed sugar which sets the wheels of chronic illness into motion.
- Tear it all down. Ok, hear me out. The food and beverage industry FOR THE MOST PART mass produces products with very low nutritional content, processed corn and soy, and an obscene amount of salt and sugar, which when combined is addictive AF and does nothing to sustain us. Not to mention, the environmental impact they have on our soil, air quality, and water supply - which of course can also lead to chronic illness and worse. If these large corporations (who by the way pay millions of dollars in lobbying so that politicians across the spectrum don't address this issue) cared to improve the health of the US population, we would see a major shift in health outcomes. Imagine if Coca-Cola or Pepsi had the courage to make that change? We've seen corporations take stands over other social issues, so why not this, especially since health disparities among race and socioeconomic status are so stark? Because at this point, it looks more like a strategic business move, rather than a righteous stand to create equity and improve the lives of their customers.
- Access is necessary! Whether this means eliminating food deserts so that lower-income neighborhoods have access to fresh produce or providing affordable healthcare to people regardless of employment status, access is essential. Studies have shown when someone doesn't have insurance, they are less likely to seek preventative, chronic, and emergency medical care, which of course can only worsen their conditions. By expanding access, more Americans will feel comfortable addressing health concerns, thus taking the first step toward healing and restoring health.
- Change the work culture. Americans are expected to work as much as possible. We take pride in working 80 hour weeks and never taking vacation time. Why, why, why?! We were put on this planet to spend time with our family and friends, explore new places, and experience joy. Our purpose is not to sit at a desk or labor tirelessly to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. Corporate culture needs a complete overhaul and rather than reward employees who work the longest hours, they should incentivize them to be and feel their best, which at the end of the day creates a more productive, pleasant, and purpose-driven work environment. Employers should encourage a healthy lifestyle by adopting health & wellness benefits in addition to matching 401ks. Who wants to spend retirement suffering from chronic illness?!
- Heal the harms from stress. Prolonged stress wreaks havoc on our internal systems and our mental health. In addition to the discouraging statistics mentioned above, the US also leads the world in suicide rates*. So many among us feel lost, alone, and completely at the end of our ropes. A 2019 study from the Commonwealth Fund showed that the US had an uptick in "deaths of despair" which includes both suicide and deaths related to substance abuse and overdose, and this was BEFORE Covid! There are unforeseen tragedies that we will all experience, but if we are well taken care of, meaning: our bodies are well-nourished, we have time and space to heal, and access to services that can assist in that healing, we won't have to worry about how we are going to survive, physically, financially, or emotionally. This is monumental and can alleviate so much unnecessary stress from one's life.
So how do we make any of this a reality? As I said earlier, it's a tall order. Local non-profit, Trenton Health Team, understands that a multi-layered and multi-sector approach is the only way to achieve a healthier and fairer society, and with support, they can expand their vision and hopefully become an example for a national strategy. We can also use our voice, so remind your local, state, and federal elected officials that it's World Health Day and share the ways in which we can achieve a healthier and fairer world. As for us, we will keep emphasizing the importance of addressing root causes of illness and provide as much information to our community on how to heal and restore health.