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Is An Economic Crisis Good For Your Health?

One of the most common reactions to earnest recommendations that we overhaul our eating habits, from a diet based largely on red meat and highly processed foods to one more focused on vegetables, fruit and whole foods, is that we can never really be sure what’s good for us. “Just wait,” someone inevitably jokes. “Tomorrow they’ll tell us that broccoli will kill us.”

 

Well, science has yet to suggest that. But it has delivered proof of the positive effect a societal change in diet can have on citizens’ health.

 

The subjects of the study were the people of Cuba, who unknowingly took part in a large-scale study on the effect of lifestyle change during their country’s extended economic downturn in the 1990s.

 

The economy began to collapse after the government of its state sponsor, the Soviet Union, fell in 1989. The Russian republic that emerged from the former regime soon ended its subsidies of cheap oil for Cuba. As Richard Schiffman reports in a fascinating new article in The Atlantic, the shift sent Cuba “into an economic tailspin from which it would not recover for over half a decade.”

 

The effects were widespread. Most motorized agriculture and food distribution systems halted. The ongoing U.S. trade embargo, strengthened by Congress in 1996, further prevented the import of many drugs, manufactured goods and food products. “Cubans survived drinking sugared water and eating anything they could get their hands on,” Schiffman writes, “including domestic pets and the animals in the Havana Zoo.”

 

And yet the population’s health actually improved, in some ways dramatically, according to a study recently released by researchers working in Cuba, Spain and the United States and published by the medical journal BMJ.

 

Researchers tracking the health of about 6,000 residents and analyzing national data compiled by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health found that mortality in the island country dropped during the depression. Death from cardiovascular disease fell by a third, and from adult-onset Type 2 diabetes by half. The rate of strokes was reduced, too.

 

Despite its economic struggles, Cuba maintained an effective health-care system. But the study found that it was not the doctors that kept citizens healthy but the lifestyle changes poverty forced on them.

 

With public transportation largely idled by the gas crisis, more people walked and bicycled. Adults also ate less, losing an average 12 pounds as their daily calorie intake dropped from about 3,000 to between 1,400 and 2,400, according to the new research. Diets were transformed as well. Protein intake dropped an average of 40% as meat and dairy products became luxuries and families turned to de facto veganism, Schiffman reports, living off “what they could grow, catch and pick for themselves — including lots of high-fiber fresh produce and fruits, added to the increasingly hard-to-come-by staples of beans, corn and rice.”

 

Cuba had gone green, even if unintentionally. With limited access to agro-chemicals, “farmers returned to the machetes and oxen-drawn plows of their ancestors,” Schiffman notes. Community gardens flourished in major cities.

 

Cuba’s state-controlled economy regained some of its footing in the late 1990s, due in large part to the support of oil-rich Venezuela. And as soon as cheap access to oil was restored, Cubans began exercising less and eating more. By 2011, the researchers found, the nation’s obesity rate had almost tripled from its 1995 low. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates rose in lockstep with obesity and the national mortality rate returned to pre-downturn levels.

 

In an editorial accompanying the study in BMJ, Professor Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health wrote: “Although the hardships experienced by Cubans in the 1990s were unfortunate, the present findings add powerful evidence that major population-wide benefits will be obtained rapidly by reducing overweight and obesity. To achieve this is perhaps the major public health and societal challenge of this century.”

 

Schiffman joins Willett in wondering what the United States can learn from the Cuban experience as our own health care system struggles to manage soaring rates of Type 2 diabetes. The American Diabetes Association’s chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Rattner, says 1 in 3 American adults could have the condition by 2050. Meanwhile, heart disease, which like diabetes is closely linked to a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy diet, remains the leading cause of death in the United States.

 

The authors of the Cuban study suggest that other countries seek to recreate the Caribbean nation’s experience — without the economic downturn — through public health campaigns, redesigned public spaces, limits on unhealthy food and drink, especially for children, and taxes on sugary and fatty foods. They acknowledge, though, a troubling reality: “No country or regional population has successfully reduced the distribution of body mass index or reduced the prevalence of obesity through public health campaigns or targeted treatment programs.”

 

In the absence of national initiative, it’s up to each of us to do what we can to improve our own health. What can you do? Here are some fundamental steps that could boost your health and prolong your life. If enough of us adopt them, we may see a reduction in our national rates of diabetes and heart disease, and we’ll ward off more cases of dementia, too:

 

  • Eat healthier. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to help prevent 30 percent of heart attacks and strokes for people at high risk of those conditions. It features olive oil, fish, fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains. Wine, eggs and low-fat dairy products are allowed in moderation. One key to the diet’s success is that it eschews highly processed snacks and prepared foods that are low on nutrients and high on additives. 
  • Try vegetarianism. We saw the impact a meat shortage had on Cubans’ health. Forgoing meat in this country is easier than ever as alternatives continue to improve and become more affordable. Becoming a vegan or vegetarian is no protection against obesity or metabolic syndrome if you continue to feast on processed foods low on fiber and loaded with fat and sugar. Focus on whole foods.
  • Get movingA sedentary lifestyle is one of the greatest health risks. Sitting for more than three hours a day can cut one’s life expectancy by two years and the effects are not entirely offset by regular exercise. C. Everett Koop, a former surgeon general, recommended a minimum of 10,000 steps a day — about five miles. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises all adults to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week. Barely half of us do either.

 

The Cubans, in a way, had good health forced on them. The discouraging news is that when it was no longer economically necessary to live a healthier, more active lifestyle, the population basically dropped it. Clearly the challenge for our country — to make such changes voluntarily and stick with them — is even more daunting.

 

As published originally in Forbes

Corporations Spend More Due to Obesity-Related Medical Concerns

Along with monetary concerns in the healthcare industry, obesity has played an active role in decreasing American employee productivity, discipline, focus, energy and even creativity. Corporations who provide benefits to their employees  with healthcare take a big hit from obesity-related medical concerns as well.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the current annual impact of poor health costs Americans about $1.8 trillion. This number is a sum of costs concerning obesity-related job absenteeism ($4.3 billion annually) and various forms of medical care among other things, which is almost no surprise given than 80 percent of Americans work in jobs that require little or no physical activity, which increases the possibility of obesity-related medical concerns.

Wellness Initiatives Could Decrease Obesity-Related Health Concerns

All is not lost when it comes to healthcare reform, however. Statistics show for every dollar spent on wellness initiatives, corporations can save as high as $10 in costs amounting to obesity-related medical concerns in the private sector. In fact, medical costs fall by about $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs – great news for the employee.

Perks go to the employer as well, as companies with wellness programs in place have an average 28 percent reduced sick leave and spend 26 percent less on healthcare costs.

Additionally, the money corporations save as a result of implementing wellness programs could be used for improving the quality of the workplace, adding more employee benefits, or even increasing employee wages.

 

Oil Down, Fitness Up

Times are tough in Houston. The oil downturn affects all of us, even those not directly employed in the oil industry. We need to band together as a city to persevere through this economic slump. Doing so will make us stronger as a city. Believe in yourself and believe in Houston.

Instead of coping with stress by eating unhealthy foods and binge drinking, do something that will ACTUALLY improve your health and make you feel better. Taking care of your body and mind will form the positive mental outlook you need to keep yourself motivated and strong. The habits you build now will not only improve your current situation, but will last an entire lifetime.

Your career is a major part of your life but it is not the only one. Don’t focus on what is negative but seek to improve what you can: health, diet, spirituality, and meaningful social connections. Balance is crucial in all things. Work towards achieving these ten tips and you will see an improvement in your life. And don’t forget: the price of oil ALWAYS bounces back.

  1. Get 8 hours of sleep at night
  2. Eat non-processed, nutrient rich foods
  3. Drink more water
  4. Exercise daily
  5. Replace white breads and grains with whole wheat
  6. Curb your sweet tooth by eating fruit
  7. Control your portion sizes
  8. Reduce alcohol consumption
  9. Spice up meals
  10. Add muscle