Defusing America’s health timebomb

Health literacy

IT’S BEEN SAID that thanks to the worsening obesity epidemic, young people today will die before their parents do. A recent piece of news to come out of the U.K. confirmed not only that we’re in the midst of a health crisis, but that it’s become an international one. China is facing the largest diabetes problem in the world, according to another recent study, and the rate of obesity in Africa has skyrocketed in the past 35 years as the emerging middle class change their eating habits.

This epidemic of obesity has been attributed to the self-destructive behaviour by millennials, who are digging their own grave with a knife and fork. A culture that that continues to seek out immediate gratification––whether that is from the McDonald’s drive-thru or virtual reality gaming––wastes the health and wellness knowledge that it inherited from the previous generation. Reversing this trend will be a difficult and, some would say, painful process.

Dietary changes are especially difficult to change when access to the problem foods is so easy and is becoming more so. To make a lasting change will require a unified front including portion controls from the food service industry, and not limited access to food through regulation: this will have the same result as from a parent forbidding their child from dating a specific person, and we all know the end to that story.

Obesity carries with it a number of different health problems: heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer, among many others. The single biggest problem with obesity, however, is not a specific illness, but the pattern of behaviour and the vicious cycle it brings about. The more overweight you are, the less likely you are to exercise, the less active you are throughout the day, the more sedentary you are, and the slower your metabolism runs. Weight gain becomes increasingly easy; weight loss, increasing hard.

Health literacy among millennials is not so much the problem as responsibility––or a lack of it. There is a culture among millennials that emphasises self-reflection rather than self-reliance. Millennials are less likely to do things for themselves individually, and are more likely to participate in and consider themselves part of a social group identity. Consequently taking responsibility for one’s individual health seems like a lonely, non-social action for which there is no trophy. Victims are rewarded with sympathy; champions of personal health can be seen as arrogant, self-indulgent or vain.

I’ve worked in the medical industry for more than 30 years, and found that for some conditions, treating the symptoms of the illness and the illness itself is only half the battle. For these conditions––and obesity is one of them––it is as important (if not more so) to treat the behavioural or cultural underlying cause. We can try to treat the symptoms of obesity and the illnesses they cause, but if we don’t look at the societal behaviours that encourage bad eating, overeating and inactivity, this epidemic will only continue to spread and to worsen.

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