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Health Lunacy and Rocket Science

We highlight a new celebrity cleanse and fad diet weekly if not daily on the morning shows; and the parade of best-selling quick fixes, each of which maligning all the others, seems never to end. And all the while, we mostly get fatter and sicker...
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The failure to use what we have known for more than two decades to prevent up to 80 percent of all major chronic disease -- heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia -- is costing virtually every one of us years lost from lives we love, and life lost from years. Since this is all entirely fixable with knowledge long at our disposal, the calamity of it all is, in a word, lunacy.

Of course, in the vernacular, that just means crazy. But the origins of the word point to the moon. And reflections on the moon, as it turns out, could prove... illuminating.

There are footprints on the moon for three basic reasons. First, we wanted to go. Second, we are an enterprising, resourceful, and at times maddeningly relentless species. And third, we knew where to find it.

As NASA set out to realize President Kennedy's lunar ambitions, there was, to the best of my knowledge, no debate about the location of the moon. There were no competing theories about where it was in the sky, or whether it was truly in the sky at all. Had there been such debates, and had both the public and experts gotten caught up in them, the moon would still be footprint-free. We would never have agreed on where to aim our rockets, and thus- never have gotten there.

Alas, in the world of disease prevention, health promotion, and lifestyle as medicine, those are the very debates that prevail. The relatively simple imperatives of healthy living, including healthy eating, that matter most- have been clear for decades. They have been shown with stunning consistency across a vast expanse of research in diverse settings, with diverse populations, using diverse methods, to account for some 80% of all chronic disease and premature deaths.

Realizing the full potential of that luminous proposition -- an 80 percent reduction in the global burden of chronic disease, and our personal risk for the same- would not be easy. Almost everything about our culture, from crazy schedules, to screen obsession, to technological invention as the mother of New Age necessities, to our willingness to market multicolored marshmallows as part of a complete breakfast provided they are haphazardly fortified -- conspires against true health. Much is broken, and much would need to be fixed.

But hard is not the same as complicated, and getting to the moon was both hard, and complicated. And yet we got there, both because we wanted to go; and because we knew where to find it.

For health, there's the rub: we can't seem to agree where "there" is.

Except that we do. The basic tenets of dietary guidance that matter most -- more vegetables, fruits, etc.- have stood the test of time. The fundamental dicta of healthy living are endorsed by a veritable Who's Who in medicine, public health, fitness, nutrition, sustainability, and even cuisine. How do I know? I've asked them, and more of them answer in the affirmative every week. We call ourselves the True Health Coalition, and we are already an unprecedented, remarkably diverse assembly -- some 200 strong, representing some 25 countries -- and really just getting started.

What are the simple exigencies for adding years to life and life to years? They can be expressed variably, but my mantra is: feet, forks, fingers, sleep, stress, and love. They translate as follows: feet = be active; forks = eat well, meaning a diet predominated by vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds; fingers = don't lift toxins like tobacco to your lips; sleep = get enough, every night; stress = manage it, so it doesn't manage you; love = have strong connections to other people. Love might readily be extended to encompass fun (i.e., love of life), self esteem (i.e., love of self), and purpose (i.e., do what you love, and love what you do). The social connections involve spirituality for some, but not for others; all love is good love. This formula is beautifully consistent across the expanse of the world's diverse Blue Zones, yet is wonderfully non-prescriptive. It is a theme, allowing us all to embrace the particular variant that works for us and our families. We can love the living, and the food, that love us back.

But it is a clear theme. We know what it is; we know where "there" is. And we know full well the luminous prize awaiting us there. And yet, we dither. We debate which super food is the true silver bullet. We debate which nutrient or ingredient is the most suitable scapegoat. We highlight a new celebrity cleanse and fad diet weekly if not daily on the morning shows; and the parade of best-selling quick fixes, each of which maligning all the others, seems never to end. And all the while, we mostly get fatter and sicker -- although surely someone is laughing about it all on the way to the bank.

The unnecessary surrender of years from lives and life from years -- years and lives not statistical and anonymous, but intimately near and compellingly dear to us -- is nothing short of lunacy. We have, and have long had, the knowledge to put a stop to it any time we choose.

We have the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and pertinacity as well. After all, when the situation called for it, we were fully capable even of rocket science. We left our footprints on the moon.

We needn't go nearly so far to advance the human condition dramatically, down here on earth. We do, however, have to get past self-interest, profiteering, obfuscation and procrastination to agree on the destination.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity