By Natasha N Deonarain, MD, MBA – Natural Health Movement
“When our health becomes a problem and a solution, the original cause we stand for may end up as the very solution we protest against.”
America is no stranger to radical change. From the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s to Occupy Wall Street in 2011, we seem to find the need to unite under social causes that shape our future.
But what happens when the quest for health becomes both a solution and a problem?
Healthcare is a real problem today, not just in America but also all over the world. It has become a key reason for us to call for change at both personal and collective levels. Today, we see social movements arising related to food quality and the practice of yoga, which, because of their significant health benefits, have become popular solutions to the healthcare crisis.
There is a dark side, however. Western society focuses on profit, instant gratification, and external beauty as key benchmarks. Food and yoga movements that offer solutions to obesity and stress, among other things, may then become victims of their own popularity, thus defeating the movement’s original purpose.
Is the fact that we are pushed by current epidemics of disease to become health activists a noble endeavor? Or should we more carefully examine the implications of such health movements inside a healthcare system that’s deeply infused with a belief system built on bureaucracy, profit, and punishment as key elements to achieving health?
Better food quality and yoga practice can bring health to many people, thereby prolonging lives. But their growing popularity opens doors to self-interest groups that will re-direct outcomes, eventually bringing us back to the same problems we began with.
Ultimately, the answer will depend on whether individuals are willing to step away from current belief systems and healthcare infrastructure, and remain consistent with their original objectives of equality and better health for all.
The Food Movement
Food quality and quantity was a problem throughout the world in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The Green Revolution founded by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug brought radically different agricultural technologies to developing countries and protected some of them from mass famine. But technology combined with the American belief that “more is better” has resulted in today’s obesity crisis. Today we rank as the world’s most obese nation.
After Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in 2001 and his Forks Over Knives documentary in 2011 pointed out our problems with saturated fats and meat-based diets, the pendulum swung the other way. Americans suddenly realized for the first time the seriousness of their health issues as related to food consumption.
And so began the growth of social movements related to changing our diet and the quality of our food.
The “nutritional wasteland of convenience food and cooking,” according to former basketball player Will Allen, prompted him to start a non-profit organization that is dedicated to promoting urban farming and sustainable food practices across the nation and around the globe. His autobiography, The Good Food Revolution (2012), documents his journey to becoming a champion of this cause.
Jamie Oliver, a world-renowned chef, has been tirelessly working to promote healthy eating since 2003 (www.jamiesfoodrevolution.com). He has been instrumental in helping the British government commit to banning all processed junk food and investing funds to provide quality foods for the school food system. His non-profit organization has led to a food revolution that works to “create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.”
Food movements have not only been about changing our habits to healthy ones. In 1986, Carlo Petrini founded an organization called Slow Food, which originally began as a protest against the arrival of McDonald’s in Rome. Since then, the movement has encouraged consumers and producers to join together in “food communities” such as farmer’s markets, thus removing revenues from the usual mass market distribution channels. According to Michael Pollan’s The Food Movement, Rising (2010), the intent of slow food is to make eating a conscious experience that can “rehabilitate the act of consumption, making it something more creative and progressive.”
But today, something more disturbing is happening.
McDonalds is a key sponsor of the 2012 Olympic games. While McDonalds certainly comes with enough money to support the games, juxtaposing an icon that represents saturated, meat-based diets alongside elite athletes just somehow doesn’t make sense.
Not only that, such conflicting messages have the potential to influence many people to believe that our athletes have reached levels of health excellence and performance by chowing down on Big Macs. McDonald’s answer to the paradox is simply that everyone has the right to choose and, therefore, they should not be faulted.
But what responsibility do we have on a collective level? Do we corrupt our quest for wellness by subjecting health activist movements like Oliver’s and Allen’s to the same principles of self-interest that drives the current system? Or do we stand strong for a very different future, one that does not allow mixed messages to confuse society, and does not allow the creation of a problem similar to the one we originally started with?
Carne Ross, a former diplomat, writes in his book, The Leaderless Revolution, that we tend to look outside ourselves for answers even though “we are the most potent shapers of change.”
When it comes to food, perhaps the only saving grace to the inevitability of economic drivers that motivate a capitalist nation is that individuals like Jamie Oliver’s, Will Allen’s, and Carlo Petrini’s messages come from the heart. And ultimately, this will be the most potent shaper of change in a society that is becoming conscious of priorities other than just profit.
The Yoga Movement
Yoga has its roots in a 5,000-year-old practice. It is not simply about the physical fitness of asana or postures, but also a spiritual path to enlightenment and connection with a Divine Creator.
Today, yoga in America is hot. From Rosie O’Donnell to Oprah to popular media to celebrity bodies, we are now in the midst of the new American yoga. It will soon become the new prescription for health by doctors who may see the asanas and a few ohms as beneficial to their patients.
Consistent with America’s values of instant gratification, profit, and physical beauty, yoga is quickly becoming a covered service for ‘preventive health.’ Health insurance companies are riding the wave of yoga’s popularity for the sake of next quarter’s shareholder earnings, and capitalizing upon the false belief that insurance is a needed component of health and not just for protection in the event of catastrophic disease.
Why has yoga become such a phenomenon today?
The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey of 2010 reported that 27 million adults received treatment for anxiety and stress-related disorders in 2007, spending almost $37 billion dollars. Trends from PewResearch.org 1972 – 2004 show that while income level correlates with reported levels of perceived happiness, we are no happier per income category than we were over thirty years ago.
So where does health end and profit begin?
The problem isn’t the fact that yoga practice is indeed very healthful. The original swell in yoga’s popularity was largely based on individuals seeking alternatives to health outside of what conventional medicine could offer. The problem lies in the fact that the healthcare industry, well entrenched in a for-profit mentality, is struggling to post earnings under today’s difficult economic conditions, while simultaneously burdened with a sick and aging population.
A necessary component of earning profits involves the perpetuation of the belief that preventive health practices such as yoga and meditation need to be insured. What was once an integrated, highly disciplined lifestyle now becomes simply body movements; a disconnected torso that goes through the motions of exercise without the added cognitive, emotional, and spiritual benefits. While the physical state of beneficiaries may improve, anxiety and stress levels may not decrease significantly if the integrated aspects of yoga are not considered.
In a recent article, The New Yoga, Ann Cushman quotes John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga Center, who says this about insurance companies dictating certification for yoga instruction: “Where there’s money, there’s power. The whole thing is rife with the possibility for corruption, power plays, and co-opting.”
What will happen when health insurance policies, currently costing $13-17,000 dollars per capita and rising, assign a cost to these ancient health practices, which have thus far been free for all to experience at a nominal cost passed from teacher to student?
In the case of the yoga movement, this paradoxical message has now been implanted into our belief system: health insurance is necessary for health practices. Health insurance companies will always be waiting to capitalize again on that belief system. In the end, change will depend upon individuals and their ability to understand exactly where health coverage ends and deception for profit begins.
Many of us fundamentally don’t like change. But like it or not, change is a part of our nature and the world around us. We cannot escape it. When it comes to changing healthcare, solutions to problems such as obesity and stress via healthy food and yoga activism can have many positive benefits. But as long as we continue to allow the infrastructure of healthcare delivery to be driven by self-interest and profit incentives, these once noble endeavors may end up being the springboard for an entirely new set of issues that will once again have to be faced. Real health will only be found once the conflicting values of capitalism and healthcare for all are clearly resolved in each of our minds.
Natasha N. Deonarain, MD, MBA has been practicing conventional medicine for over 20 years in Canada and the US. She is the founder of the Health Conscious Movement, blogs at www.7poh.com, and has an upcoming book called The 7 Principles of Health due to be released spring 2013.