As a naturopathic doctor, I believe in the healing aspects of nutrition and movement; however, I do not believe in generalized recommendations for anything, including food and exercise. This is based on the power of personalized medicine and the naturopathic medicine principle to treat the whole person. They are why I aim to have individualized diets for my clients that support their biochemical individuality and emotional balance.
In this fifth blog in my series of articles designed to bring awareness to healthism, I continue to debunk myths that are pervasive in diet-culture and, most recently, healthcare. Previously, I got into the dangers of trading food rules for relationships. I also discussed how orthorexia and disordered eating behavior can occur when food practices become obsessive and/or viewed as a moral obligation.
In this post, I will explore more on why counting calories and maintaining and valuing rigid nutritional and lifestyle rules could be contributing to our society’s rise in sickness and mental illness.
Our Very Sick Healthcare System
Recently, I wrote about the sad, current state of United States healthcare on Natural Path:
With all this money changing hands and the United States spending about 18% of its Gross Domestic Product on health care, you’d think we’d have a nation of very healthy people.
The U.S. world ranking for wellness indicators are not only pathetically low, but dismal. For one of the richest nations, life expectancy has been on a continual downward trend while the number of people living with multiple chronic diseases has been rising.(source, source, source, source, source, source, source)
In comparison to most other developed countries, we spend twice the amount on healthcare and that earns us a place in the bottom for life expectancy and infant mortality.(source, source, source, source)
Something is really, really, wrong.
(I continued with more sad statistics on our nation’s health here.)
Is Eating “Cleaner” and Exercising “Optimally” Really Going to Fix a Broken HealthCare System?
Many wellness and integrative medicine experts point out these problems within American healthcare. They often tout that the lack of focus on lifestyle and preventative medicine is a major reason for them.
Of course, lifestyle practices and optimizing diet can make huge strides in addressing many chronic diseases. For example, research demonstrates how naturopathic medicine is effective for managing symptoms of cardiovascular disease, anxiety, diabetes, and low back pain. Furthermore, a recent Cleveland Clinic study reported how functional medicine improved health-related quality of life.
As I’ve stated, I also believe food and movement are important and can be medicine, but they are not the sole solution to our broken healthcare system. It is much more complicated. There is a bigger picture that includes sociogenomic factors and mental health.
The 11-Country Study, which used survey data to measure and compare patient and physician experiences across wealthy nations, ranked “U.S. last overall, and on providing equally accessible and high-quality health care, regardless of a person’s income.” This issue of lack of access is true whether it be to supplements (source, source) or standard of care. It seems the people who need intervention the most are less likely to get it.
An article in Medscape also discusses another major reason why drinking kale smoothies and going keto aren’t the biggest missing links to what may be contributing to death, at least not directly (bold emphasis mine):
US life expectancy has decreased since 2014 after increasing for most of the past 60 years, according to a report published today in JAMA.
Major factors include an increase in deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, and organ system diseases among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups.
Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, and Heidi Schoomaker, MAEd, with the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, note that the increasing rate of deaths in midlife affect working-age adults, and consequently, the economy and national security.
“The trends also affect children, whose parents are more likely to die in midlife and whose own health could be at risk when they reach that age, or sooner,” they write.
The increase in deaths in midlife from 2010 to 2017 was linked with an estimated 33,307 excess US deaths.
There were statistically significant rises in midlife mortality in 37 states in the years leading to 2017 but they were concentrated in several states. The largest increases in mortality were in New England (New Hampshire, 23.3%; Maine, 20.7%; Vermont, 19.9%; Massachusetts, 12.1%) and the Ohio Valley (West Virginia, 23.0%; Ohio, 21.6%; Indiana, 14.8%; Kentucky, 14.7%)…
Between 1999 and 2017, midlife deaths from drug overdoses increased by 386.5%. By age group, they increased by 531.4% among those aged 25 to 34 years, by 267.9% among those aged 35 to 44 years, and by 350.9% among those aged 45 to 54 years.
In another Medscape report, the author reiterated the contributing factors of overdose and deaths of despair, but also pointed out the impact of economic hardship:
Suicides and alcoholic liver disease, the other components of so-called “deaths of despair,” increased as well. But this is not the full explanation for our declining life expectancy. Deaths of despair only explain 15% of the disparity in life expectancy in the United States versus other countries.
For clues as to what else is causing life expectancy to fall, we need to look deeper into the data. You can see here the states most profoundly affected by falling life expectancy—[Florida] and the Ohio Valley, which are driving these results.
What was happening in those states when life expectancy was stalling and then falling? An economic downturn, the erosion of the middle class, and rising income inequality. In fact, much of the disparity between life expectancy in the United States and other economies was driven by those at the lower end of the income spectrum.
Our society already has stigma and lack of proper treatment for mental health issues, it seems that focusing too much on the physical and promoting expensive dietary and supplemental solutions may not be the solution. I am concerned that due to the societal and “wellness community” pressure that shames anything less than healthism, we are ignoring the bigger picture of economic hardship, lack of social cohesion, and “deaths of despair.”
For example, in a recent study it was found that one of the key factors for recovering from anxiety disorders was social connection and addressing physical illness. (It was not restricting meat or carbs and/or isolating oneself to have a smoothie.) Science Daily states:
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of psychiatric illness, yet researchers know very little about factors associated with recovery. A new study investigated three levels of recovery in a large, representative sample of more than 2,000 Canadians with a history of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
“Health professionals who are treating individuals with anxiety disorders need to consider their patients’ physical health problems and social isolation in their treatment plans” says Ryckman.
I will conclude this series with my next post. I will dive deeper into how striving for “perfect” health could be contributing to more anxiety and some final food for thought.
Essential Oils and Anxiety
I wanted to leave you with one tool that can be used for mental health that is weight-neutral and life-enhancing, essential oils. They are one of my favorite modalities because they are a gentle way to nourish your body and senses in a holistic manner. I find them very helpful for those seeking health and wellness but struggling with finding balance with their relationship with movement and food.
I previously wrote several posts on using essential oils for anxiety. Click here to learn more and access how you can use these gifts from nature to live a more serene life.
Be sure to also check out my third article on the power of relationships and using essential oils to enhance the dining experience when breaking bread with loved ones.
If You Are Struggling with a Dysfunctional Relationship with Food
Part of my practice is focused on Health at Every Size (HAES) and helping people heal their relationship with food to truly nourish their bodies and lives.
If you are struggling with dysfunctional relationships with your body, food, or exercise, you are not alone. Please, reach out for help. I am happy to either assist you myself or help you find the right fit for you.
If you find this message helpful and want a truly healthy life that incorporates food as medicine, but not as the most important part of your life, please share this post and comment below.
Please also see my previous posts.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
For additional safety and medical information, visit my essential oils database. It includes a full category on how to use essential oils safely and potential drug interactions that can occur.
Please be extra cautious and be sure to check with your doctor if you have a seizure disorder. The Epilepsy Society of the UK lists certain essential oils implicated for their antiseizure effect as well as those that have stimulating properties.
If you and/or your physician are interested in consulting with me to assist with supporting the integration of essential oils safely into a therapeutic protocol, essential oils consultations are available.