Colleagues and I recently submitted a grant application to a large foundation, seeking funds to support the True Health Initiative. The funds, should we be fortunate enough to secure them, will accelerate the development of a global communication campaign to convey the evidence and consensus-based fundamentals of healthy living, and notably, healthy eating. In particular, the grant would support a rigorous evaluation so that we could demonstrate the replacement of widespread confusion and doubts about consensus related to healthful, sustainable eating at baseline, with clarity and understanding by virtue of our efforts.
The True Health Initiative is global, and the research project is intended to be as well. Our application calls for targeted interventions, aimed at raising awareness, in five or more countries around the world. Those countries were chosen to represent both places where the so-called "Western" diet is long established, such as the U.S., England, and Australia; and places where that diet is fast replacing local traditions in the wake of cultural transition, such as China, India, and much of the Middle East.
While working on this grant, and thinking about its geographic scope, something odd to the point of paradoxical kept pestering me. In the U.S. and much of the long-industrialized world, one of the principal risk factors for obesity, and attendant metabolic mayhem, is poverty. In the U.S., the fattest and sickest among us tend to be the poorest, while affluence is a robust, if imperfect, defense against obesity and related chronic diseases.
In contrast, in the fast-developing countries, including but not limited to the massive populations in India and China, the situation is just the reverse. Affluence, at the population level, is propagating the tidal wave of obesity and chronic disease by which these nations are being engulfed. Within those populations, the most affluent are first in line to acquire the very morbidities that extract the greatest toll of years from lives and life from years, and which we have been striving for decades to overcome.
How can it be that affluence, at the same time but in different places, is both apparent impediment, and invitation, to obesity, diabetes, and so on?
I believe the one word answer is adaptation, and there is a glimmer of genuine hope in it.
For many years, I have occasionally incorporated into my talks what can only be called an epic, if whimsical and rather Seussian, original poem entitled: Polar Bears in the Sahara. Delivery of the poem is routinely accompanied by a sequence of slides, including the eponymous image, which has become my figurative trademark over the years. I suspect I am known in some quarters as "that polar bear guy," and it suits me fine.
These days, alas, that image could pertain to climate change, and a grim fate to which these extraordinary animals may be subject, more or less. My reference, though, going back some 25 years, is not about that. My reference is to adaptation.
I note that polar bears, marvels of survival though they may be, are adapted to a particular habitat -- and the very traits, tendencies, and attributes that foster their survival in it would conspire against them in another. Soak up and retain heat where it's very scarce, it helps keep you alive; do the same beneath the burning Sahara sun, where the survivalists dissipate heat rather than concentrating it, and it is sure to cook your goose.
We humans, so goes my argument, are the same. Throughout almost all of human history, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity unavoidable. The latter was called survival, no gym membership required, and everybody just did it every day. We have devised a modern world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get, and calories unavoidable. We have not adaptations to such a world; no native defenses against caloric excess or the lure of the couch, having contended only with their opposites throughout all the ages.
No defenses, I go on to say, save one: great, big Homo sapien brains. We are, arguably, smarter than the average bear- and have the potential, at least, to think ourselves out of this mess of our own devising.
Which brings us full circle, back to that grant, ourselves, the future, and fundamental truths about healthy, sustainable living.
The Western diet, alternatively known, here at least, as the "typical American diet," or "standard American diet" (referred to, aptly, as SAD) is a public health disaster. Despite all the noisy debate over whether its ills are a product of sugar, saturated fat, or something else, the simple reality is that it is a diet of dubious foods and drink in misguided combinations and excess. Its liabilities include both saturated fat and sugar, and are by no means limited to them.
But it is tasty to a species long adapted to crave sugar, salt, and fat. So when we can first get our hands on it, we do- and greedily. That's just what is going on now in China, India, South Africa, Qatar and elsewhere, with rather calamitous consequences.
Here, though, at the epicenter of this mayhem, we have had some time to habituate. Those with the most resources, inevitably the affluent, are starting to mount a defense. The wealthy and well educated are seeking, and finding, alternatives to a diet of hyper-processed grains, added sugar, soda, meat, butter, and cheese. The resource-rich are finding their way first, past the obstacles in our culture, to a diet of wholesome foods, mostly plants, in sensible combinations -- and water when thirsty.
A stanza near the beginning of my poem, referring to the age-old struggle to get enough to eat, goes like this:
"... now, come to have when once had not
it's clear we've overshot-
in fact, by quite a lot.
So the challenge that emerges
as our culture clearly verges
on the brink of several scourges-
heart disease, obesity, stroke, diabetes
perils immune to our pleas and entreaties
is related to excess;
can we manage to suppress
the menace mingled with success?"
The answer, it seems, is a qualified yes. Given some time to get used to the temptations of bagels and burgers, Poptarts and pepperoni -- the advantages of affluence help overcome them. Where the wealthy are starting to navigate past the perils of the modern, glow-in-the-dark diet, we are witnessing evolution, albeit cultural rather than genetic evolution. We are seeing it over an accelerated timescale play out around us, and it has important implications for the health of the world- people and planet alike.
There are two key lessons here, and one urgent call to action.
The first lesson is that the popular meme advocating for more "meat, butter, and cheese" is utter nonsense. It is belied not just by research, including randomized trials, but by perhaps the largest natural experiment of all time. As populations around the world with traditional diets of simple, minimally processed, mostly plant foods adopt a Western diet with greater emphasis on both highly processed foods, and animal foods -- their health goes to hell in the proverbial hand basket. As the privileged members of Western populations find their way back to diets of simple, wholesome foods, mostly plant, in sensible and often time-honored combinations, they wind up with far better health than everyone around them.
The second lesson is that we can, apparently, adapt to, and overcome, the temptations of the modern diet. We can, in fact, out-think this mess of our own devising.
The urgent call to action is, of course, the obvious. We cannot stand idly by while huge populations around the world follow in the footsteps we know lead to folly. We cannot abide a divide in our culture where the health of the relatively disadvantaged is scavenged to fill the coffers of corporate profit.
We are seeing some early indications that, yes, we can -- with time to adapt, and resources at our disposal -- rise to meet the menace mingled with our success. If the affluent are gradually acquiring defenses against the assaults of the modern diet on health, those defenses must be generalized. Practices that help add years to lives and life to years cannot be the exclusive purview of the privileged. Those of us in public health are duty bound to identify these very practices, and do our utmost to propagate them. Our grant application, and the True Health Initiative, are devoted to just this proposition -- so here's to their success.
Resources help us acquire the things we want. There is an urgent need to alert the global, human family that we need to be very careful about what we wish for, or we may get it. There is a need, in our culture, to share the advantages of affluence, and in cultures elsewhere -- to shift aspirations from running on a diet of donuts, to time-honored sustenance in the service of longevity, vitality, and a better life.
We are a uniquely adaptable species. It has led us into trouble that imperils ourselves, and our planet alike. There are early indications of hope that it could lead us out as well.
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Founder, The True Health Initiative