Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Personal health means smart choices.

Amidst all of the controversy surrounding health care reform, it is time to step back and examine the real problems plaguing America. A few issues immediately come to mind: obesity, smoking and extreme stress. Yet despite these all being easy targets, the link behind everything from diabetes to heart disease is not so simple.

The difficult issue we face today is even more American than fried chicken and apple pie: It is the great tradition that we, as a society, have of seeking a scapegoat for our problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of health care dollars are spent on treatment of “preventable chronic diseases.” Based on these numbers, something is undeniably wrong with the condition of America. It is as if the connection between increasing medical bills and personal responsibility was lost somewhere between plowing the family farm and pulling up to the drive-thru window at McDonalds.

True, insurance businesses may be guilty of profiting from medical costs. Government expenditures in health care may be inefficient. The grandmothers of our country may even be conspiring to make us fat with that extra cup of butter in our biscuits. But, at the end of the day, it is the individual who is the real culprit of poor health.

Just think — the money demanded by insurance companies would be far less if we put down the fries before our arteries needed unclogging. The money spent by the government in providing insurance could be more widely disbursed if those covered didn’t have such high demands. The grandmothers might even decide to reduce the butter if they knew we didn’t like it so darn much.

Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” recently wrote a column in the New York Times pointing out the link between rising health care costs and the cheap, fast and unheathly foods in demand (and frequently subsidized). He added that, regardless of government action, there would be a problem with health care in America as long as there is a problem with American health.

Pollan’s point is crucial. He made the significant link between diet, which the individual has complete control over, and overall well-being. Nonetheless, in centering his argument on nutrition, Pollan was guilty of finger pointing. While better eating practices may be (or are) essential to improving health, this focus skirts the deeper issue that refusal to take personal responsibility comes with consequences.

From democracy to helping a friend in need, America has some great traditions. However, the time has come to let go our national practice of seeking others to blame. So squeeze in that extra hour of sleep. Exchange car keys for walking shoes every now and then. And for goodness’ sake, put down that seventh slice of pizza.

As published in the University Daily Kansan.

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