I recently came across this article and thought I would share it with each of you because it discusses not only the importance that nutrition has regarding our health, but also hypothesizes a broader definition of health to include lifestyle, social, and environmental factors.  Here are some highlights:

“Dr. Malhotra, an interventional cardiologist and adviser to the United Kingdom’s national obesity forum, said studies show that people who quit smoking see large and immediate reductions in their risk of heart attacks and strokes.  But something that his heart disease patients often fail to appreciate, he said, is that changes in diet can have a similarly rapid effect.

“There is a perception among people who have heart attacks and heart disease – and I see this in my patients – that there’s already so much damage there’s not much they can do,” Dr. Malhotra said.  “But by changing your diet, you can dramatically reduce your risk of having a heart attack even if you have coronary artery disease.  We have data suggesting that the risk reduction can happen within weeks.”

Dr. Malhotra visited the Mediterranean with a documentary filmmaker, Donal O’Neill.  Together they noticed that a healthful diet was one of many factors that seemed to play a role in the longevity of people in Pioppi, where the average person has a life expectancy of about 90.

They were surprised by how the people they encountered enjoyed and savored their food, turning every meal into an excuse for a social occasion with friends and family.  They noticed that people spent a lot of time outdoors getting fresh air.  Instead of designating daily periods of time to jog or exercise, they engaged in a great deal of leisurely physical activity like walking and riding bicycles.  And they seemed to have low levels of chronic stress.

“We need to redefine the Mediterranean diet,” Dr. Malhotra said.  “The truth is that it’s a lifestyle. It’s the whole approach.  It’s the food. It’s the social interaction.  It’s getting the right kind of exercise.  It’s being outside.  It’s getting sunlight and sunshine.  The question, though, is how can we combine all these lessons from this village with what we know about modern medicine.””

I enjoyed reading this article because it made me think about what it actually means to be healthy and if and how community dining can play a role in our health.

Medical News Today Editor Christian Nordqvist has noted that:

“The most famous modern definition of health was created during a Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June, 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The Definition has not been amended since 1948.

During the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion in 1986, the WHO said that health is:

“a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”

According to the Mickinley Health Center, University of Illinois, wellness “is a state of optimal well-being that is oriented toward maximizing an individual’s potential. This is a life-long process of moving towards enhancing your physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental well-being.”

The University of East Carolina defines wellness as “the integration of mind, body and spirit. Optimal wellness allows us to achieve our goals and find meaning and purpose in our lives. Wellness combines seven dimensions of well-being into a quality way of living. Overall, wellness is the ability to live life to the fullest and to maximize personal potential in a variety of ways. Wellness involves continually learning and making changes to enhance your state of wellness. When we balance the physical, intellectual, emotional, social, occupational, spiritual, and environmental aspects of life, we achieve true wellness.””

What’s so interesting about all of these insights is how little they relate to the purpose of going to a doctor and the training doctors receive.  We look upon doctors as healers, and while more doctors are beginning to incorporate nutrition into the advice they give, even the most progressive and alternative health practitioners have little to offer regarding optimizing our health through lifestyle, outdoor activities, social interaction, and connection to nature.  Granted, doctors like Daphne Miller, associate professor and author of Farmacology:  Total Health from the Ground up and The Jungle Effect have medicated their patients with nature and made the connection among the health of our soil, farms, and food system as it relates to the health of our own bodies, but they are the extreme exception – and even these exceptional doctors have a limited view of what it means to be healthy.

On a deeper level, this limitation is apparent through health practitioners’ tendency to view death as solely a sign of sickness rather than a healthy and natural event as evidenced by their efforts to extend our lives as long as possible to avoid death, not grasping its connection to life.  Similarly, when we talk about everything we want to do before we die, there exists the inherent assumption that death represents the end of our existence and our birth must have represented the beginning.  But how can we know we are alive unless we were once dead, just as we can only know hot unless we experienced cold, or happiness without sadness?

I do not mean to suggest that using nature by whatever means we have available to prolong life, make technological advancements, and make life more comfortable is wrong and that I have the optimal solution for how to live.  On the contrary, I see nothing unnatural about the freedom to use nature to improve our standard of living  and persevere in the face of hostility to ideas that threaten the established order as eloquently expressed by protagonist Howard Roark in The Fountainhead:

“Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire.  He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light.  He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded.  But thereafter men had fire to keep warm, to cook their food, to light their caves.  He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted darkness off the earth.  Centuries later, the first man had invented the wheel.  He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build.  He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden territory.  But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon.  He had left them a gift he had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world.”

I am merely suggesting that our health care system focuses on clinging to life, and asking if this system permeates the mindset of not being able to let go into how we live – and if this inability contributes to our feeling as though we are strangers in this world and the view that the world around us represents a threat to our very existence rather than a part of it.  When we feel this way – that we didn’t ask to be here – might this feeling contribute to a sense of hostility and a tendency to blame others for our problems?  When we feel isolated from the rest of the world, does it then follow that we are more likely to view the world as a place that needs to submit to our will rather than a place that is simply an extension of our own existence with which we can live in harmony?

Maybe our health care system could be more appropriately described as a clinging to life system.  What if instead, we described this system as a death care system, or perhaps as a system for creative dying, recognizing that death is a time to rejoice just like birth?  How would this mere change of words affect our attitudes towards why we are here and how we treat each other?

While these questions do not have clear answers, perhaps that is why they may be the ones most worth asking.