America's Health Isn't Nearly As Bad As You Thought. Here's Why
We live in a wind tunnel of bad news, numbing us to the daily onrush of awful events.
Yet despite this daily barrage of political and social craziness, there actually is good news to be had, for our culture of health anyway—and that definitely needs to be shared.
Despite our 50-plus-year slide into declining health and activity rates, growing rates of obesity and childhood diabetes, there is reason to hope. It seems that our culture's unhealthy trajectory has paused. Here are a few keys areas that show promise:
1. We're making better food choices—and companies are taking note.
Recently, many food companies have removed (or pledged to remove) artificial ingredients from even iconic food brands. Kraft pulled yellow #6 from its classic macaroni and cheese. Chipotle is taking the preservatives out of its tortillas. Pizza Hut and Taco Bell are removing artificial ingredients from their foods, along with high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil. And Campbell's soups will stop using artificial ingredients and syrups in their products by 2018.
It's no surprise that food companies make these changes. Their interest is in what increases profits, which is driven by what we purchase. And that's the good news: We're choosing to purchase healthier items and therefore seeing those choices reflected in the product offerings of our producers. The tiers of Day-Glo breakfast cereals with the shelf life of steel-belted radials wouldn't be there if we didn't purchase them. What is supplied reflects our demand.
This healthy change in our food preferences is reflected not only in the grocery store but also at the farmers market. The number of farmers markets, as well as the purchasing done there, have both increased as we start to choose healthier items. By contrast, soda consumption has declined for 11 straight years.
2. We're moving more.
Over the same time that we've been eating better, we've also become more active. Overall, participation in sports, fitness, and related physical activities actually increased slightly last year.
Plus, the number of Americans who are inactive dropped in 2015, from 82.7 million to 81.6 million over the prior year. While these rates have fluctuated over the last five years, the 2014 to 2015 decrease is the largest drop since 2010. This indicates that 1.2 million people who were inactive in 2014 participated in some sort of fitness activity in 2015.
3. We're prioritizing sleep and self-care.
Our workaholic culture is a key driver of stress and the stress-related health problems that follow. We are urged to burn the candle at both ends just to make those ends meet. However, this seems to be changing as well. A Department of Labor survey showed that Americans are actually starting to work less and sleep more.
And even though the unemployment rate dropped in 2015 from 5.7 to 5.0 (reaching what economists call "full employment"), leisure time spent on activities like watching television, socializing, and exercise is still five minutes more than a decade earlier.
Those with jobs got more shut-eye, sleeping 8 hours and 52 minutes on average, which is up 7 minutes from the year before. Overall, Americans now sleep an average of 13 minutes more than they did 10 years ago.
4. Our cooking rates aren't as bad as you might think.
The fact that we don't make our own food at home anymore has been much talked about and for good reason. Trends show that Americans cooked at home less and less from 1984 until 2008. However, after this time, it levels out. In fact, the number of people eating home-cooked meals has remained at or above where it was in 2008.
Why is that important? When people cook at home, they eat food that is, on average, healthier. And contrary to popular belief, it doesn't matter whether that food is from a fast food or sit-down restaurant. Either way, research shows that you'll consume almost 200 more calories and more fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and especially sodium if you eat outside the home. It may be why Harvard researchers found a relationship between eating home-cooked meals and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
The bottom line:
Overall, smoking rates have also plummeted, falling each year from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 16.8 percent in 2014. Obesity rates have finally seemed to stabilize for adults and children. And the percentage of Americans with diabetes actually decreased slightly in the most recent CDC report.
So let’s recap: A number of markers indicate that our country's health is improving. Is it perfect? No. Do we have more work to do? Of course.
But the trend is definitely moving in the right direction. We do need to continue the conversation that encourages eating real food, getting daily activity, and controlling the daily stressors of our lives. If we can continue doing these things, we can expect this current pause in our health free fall to then reverse. And that would be very good news indeed.