Taking care of our health finds a slot in our agenda when we are sick and in need to cure our ailments. Modern medicine has developed as the science to cure sick people and has made significant advancements in its ability to treat people who are affected by all sorts of diseases. These sometimes miraculous advancements of medicine have brought huge benefits to humanity, but they have also made all of us forget two very important things:
- The right time to take care of our health is not only when we are sick, but most importantly when we are healthy. The right time is always, through the lifestyle that we adopt every day. In fact, there are bad lifestyles that can make us sick, and there are good lifestyles that can make us healthy.
- The main person in charge of your health is not your doctor, it’s you. Good doctors are super important, however your health is primarily your own responsibility.
Often people drastically change their lifestyle habits as a consequence of an illness: they have an heart attack, a stroke, or cancer, and then they realize that they should do something about their lifestyle. Often people need to go through a scary medical issue to realize that they need to change their lifestyle, including their nutrition habits.
The objective of this short article is to invite you to take responsibility of your health now, without waiting for a serious health issue to come and wake you up.
“Before you heal someone, ask him if he’s willing to give up the things that made him sick.”Hippocrates
The Limitations of Modern Medicine
We live our lives, each of us with our own habits and lifestyles, and when we are sick we go to the doctor, expecting that the doctor heals us with medicines and other therapeutic interventions. In most of the cases, the general physician may refer us to a specialist, which is a doctor who specializes in a specific a specific disease area or even in a specific organ: cardiologist (the hearth), pulmonologist (lungs), dermatologist (the skin), and so on and so forth.
One might say that the human body is seen like a machine and each doctor is a different type of mechanic. If you have ever visited a doctor for a chronic disease or even a relatively minor ailment such a gastrointestinal problem, headache, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, tiredness or alike, most likely the engagement with the doctor ended with a medicine prescription and some generic behavioral recommendations, such as like “use less salt” or “eat less sugar”, or maybe “keep your stress in control” and alike. It may have happened to you that you had to see a number of different doctors to whom you described exactly the same symptoms, and then you received different opinions or even different diagnoses, sometimes in contrast one with the other.
Doctors are very important, they can save your life. Yet, most medical doctors are often trained to address symptoms in isolation. It may be relatively easy for them to give you a quick and effective solution to keep your symptoms in control, but it may be very difficult for them to find a solution that can actually cure you. In other words, to get rid completely of your disease.
The simple reason is that you are responsible for catching many of the diseases that I’ve listed above. It is your behaviors, the things you do – and not do – that originate the disease. It’s how you live your life every day. So, if you keep doing the things you always did, you will not heal from a certain condition, even if the doctor prescribes you the best medication available on the market. If you keep doing what you always did, you will keep having the same results, regardless the medicines you take. That’s a fact. You will keep taking pills for the rest of your life, you will likely keep things in control, but you will not heal. This is obviously not true in absolute terms for all diseases, but it is certainly valid for many medical conditions that are caused by lifestyle behaviors. And these are a lot, including 80 percent of heart attacks, 90 percent of type 2 diabetes, and 70 percent of colorectal cancer cases .
Curing Sick People vs. Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle
In general, curing sick people is a profitable business, while keeping and making people healthy with a healthy lifestyle do not offer many business opportunities. That’s why you are much more likely to receive communications about available cures for a disease rather than communications about how to avoid getting sick in the first place. However, the biggest problem is elsewhere. Sadly, powerful marketing efforts are actively working to make people sicker, even if not this this explicit purposes. I don’t believe this is a designed conspiracy, yet market dynamics allow big food companies to make huge profits by selling unhealthy foods and promoting unhealthy eating behaviors. In the US alone, food companies are producing about 4000 calories worth of food daily per person , this means that their sales and marketing objective is to sell 4000 calories daily per person. They are interested in making people eat more, not less. People’s health is not their priority.
Preventing sickness is not a good business, but not preventing it is a huge cost.
Global study predicts that more than half the global population (51%, or over 4 billion people) will be living with overweight and obesity by 2035 if nothing changes. 1 in 4 people (nearly 2 billion) will have obesity. Obesity is rising more rapidly among children than adults. Childhood obesity could more than double by 2035 compared to 2020 to 208 million boys (100% increase) and 175 million girl (125% increase). The World Obesity Atlas 2023, published by World Obesity Federation, predicts that the global economic impact of overweight and obesity will reach $4.32 trillion annually by 2035 if prevention and treatment measures do not improve. This is almost 3% of global GDP .
The Miracle of Our Body’s Ability to Heal Itself
Most likely you happened to cut your finger in the kitchen, or to have an hematoma on your knee after a fall. If so, then you have experienced one of the miracles that we see every day and we use to give for granted: the ability of our body to heal itself. The wound slowly reduced it size and eventually disappeared, and the same happened to the hematoma on your knee. Similarly, when you got a cold or a flu, then you recovered completely in a few days, just by taking care of yourself. What cured you was not the painkiller or the nasal decongestant, it was your own body being put in the conditions that healed itself: you kept the wound dry, you did not touch the hematoma, you rested at home, and then you healed. You magically returned as you were before.
While medicines are truly miraculous in certain situations and for certain conditions, overusing them, in particular when they are not needed, can put our health in danger. In fact, often we take medicines when we actually don’t need them, in particular when we self-prescribe medications. One example is the reckless use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, used for every little problem, that has led to the weakening of our defenses, to the killing our microbiome, and to a serious antibiotic resistance. This does not end up in the news every day but is already a catastrophe. In Europe there are 35.000 annual deaths from antimicrobial resistance , in other words people die simply because they arrive at the hospital and there is not a single antibiotic that works for them. This is something completely unthinkable only 20 years ago.
In fact, taking a pill is a much simpler undertaking than changing your own lifestyle habits. However, when you have an health issue, the most important question is: “why am I affected by this disease”? The question “how can I heal” is of course very important but somehow secondary. In fact, you need to understand first what led you to have the disease in order to address the cause and be able to heal and not develop the disease again in the future. This is valid not only for relatively small issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, headaches, or gastrointestinal problems. It is often valid also for serious diseases such as cancer , heart attack or a stroke . As a matter of fact, if you survive most likely you will ask yourself the questions “why I was affected by this” and “what I can do to avoid it happens again”, and do your best to find answers to these questions.
If you are about to crash into a wall, the most important thing you need to do first is to take your foot off the accelerator pedal, and only after that you have to brake. If you have high blood pressure, just to make an example, and the only thing you do to manage your condition is to take a pill, then it’s like you are hitting the brake pedal without taking your foot off the accelerator. You also need to take the foot off the accelerator: in this case this may mean following a DASH diet, which consists in eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and choosing lean proteins, low-fat dairy, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils, while limiting sodium, sweets and foods high in saturated fats . A study observed that a low-sodium (1,500 mg/day) DASH diet was as effective for lowering blood pressure as a first-line blood pressure-lowering medication .
If you are sick, your main concern should be to put your body in the best conditions to heal itself. In other words, the most important action you should take first is to take off your foot from the accelerator pedal.
And when you are healthy, you should keep your body in the conditions not to become sick in the first place. Let’s see in more details what this means.
The Need for Lifestyle Changes
Living a healthy lifestyle is crucial for enjoying a longer, more fulfilling life. Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have identified several lifestyle factors that can significantly impact our health and life expectancy 
- Having a healthy diet: Consuming a balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, and avoiding unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.
- Exercising regularly: Engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily.
- Maintaining a healthy weight: Achieving and maintaining a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 – 24.9 (click here to calculate your BMI).
- No smoking: Avoiding tobacco use, as smoking is a leading cause of preventable death and disease.
- Having a moderate alcohol intake: up to 1 drink daily for women, and up to 2 daily for men. This means between 5 and 15 grams of alcohol per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of alcohol, this means about 330ml of regular beer, 150ml of wine, or 45ml of distilled spirits.
- Improving sleep quality: Aiming for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night and establishing a consistent sleep schedule.
- Fostering positive social connections: Cultivating meaningful relationships with friends, family, and community members to enhance overall well-being.
- Having a sense of life purpose/meaning: Engaging in activities that align with personal values and passions to foster a sense of fulfillment.
- Keeping the brain active: Participating in mentally stimulating activities such as reading, solving puzzles, and learning new skills to maintain cognitive function and reduce the risk of age-related cognitive decline.
- Intermittent fasting: Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that intermittent fasting may have potential benefits for health and longevity. However, it is essential to consult with a physician before starting any fasting regimen.
By adopting these healthy habits, you can take control of your well-being and enjoy a longer and higher quality life.
As Dr. Walter Willet says:
Eating well – teamed with keeping your weight in the healthy range, exercising regularly, and not smoking – can prevent 80 percent of heart attacks, 90 percent of type 2 diabetes, and 70 percent of colorectal cancer. It can also help you avoid stroke, osteoporosis, constipation and other digestive woes, cataracts, and aging-related memory loss or dementia. And the benefits aren’t just for the future. A healthy diet can give you more energy and help you feel good today.From the book “Eat Drink, and Be Healthy – The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating”, by Walter C. Willet, MD, DrPH, with Patrick J. Skerrett, Co-Developed with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Dr. Willet is Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and one of the most important experts about nutrition and health in the world.
The good news is that eating better is not only easy, but is also very enjoyable and it provides fast and huge benefits.
Empower yourself: start taking control of your health and well-being today! Take a look at my Free weekly meal planner for healthy eating.