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It’s time to treat health like wealth

It's time to treat health like wealth

How important to you is your health? Stop for a minute and really think about that. How important is your health?

If you’re like most people, you’ll be saying it’s very important, or maybe even the most important thing of all. So why then do many of us not treat it that way? We eat things we know are not good for us; we drink alcohol which we know is a toxin; we don’t move our bodies enough and some of us even smoke to top it all off.

Here’s another question: Do we do enough to instil the idea in our kids that health is important?

The reason I’m asking these questions is that I’ve been pondering them myself, since meeting a personal nutrition hero, Dr David Katz. Dr Katz is an acknowledged global expert on nutrition and obesity. He’s the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Centre; editor-in-chief of the journal Childhood Obesity; president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine; author of nearly 200 scientific articles and 15 books; and instigator of some brilliant public health programmes. He’s one of those people who have achieved so much in his career that he makes you wonder what you’ve been doing with your life. Did I mention he’s also a father of five? (And as you might imagine, his wife Catherine is equally impressive, holding a PhD in neuroscience and running a brilliant healthy recipe blog. I’ll write more on her in a future blog post.)

Dr Katz is a phenomenal communicator on the subject of nutrition. On his recent trip to New Zealand he spoke at a Nutrition Foundation ‘Food not Nutrients’ symposium on the subject of healthy eating, and I had the opportunity to interview him.

We talked about weight-loss diets. Dr Katz pointed out to me that we humans, being human, are drawn to quick-fix diets and magical weight-loss solutions even though we know it’s not logical.

“If we were rational and thoughtful about health and weight,” he said, “we would approach it, I think, with the same common-sense as we apply to other things that matter in our lives. Think about most adults you know. If someone came to them with a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme – nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you can make a million dollars overnight; it’s easy; it’s effortless – the alarm bells would go off. But that same person who is approached with a fad diet book that says ‘get thin quick’; it’s effortless; eat all you want; the fat will melt away – they reach for their credit card.”

Part of the reason for this, he says, is that losing weight is hard, and makes us desperate and willing to try anything no matter how incredible it sounds. But to get a long-term payoff, we need to take a different view.

“It is as simple as treating health a bit more like wealth,” says Dr Katz. “If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If it’s the weight-loss or health equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s the stuff of sitcoms. No serious person should take it seriously.”

Dr Katz makes a great case for investing in our health. Even though eating healthily offers immediate gratification – in the form of feeling better and having more energy – there’s also a long-term payoff.

“That’s what investing is about. It would be much more fun to take all the money you earn and spend it today. But no sensible person does that. So think of health like wealth. Something you nurture, cultivate, take seriously, get genuinely expert advice about and pay forward.”

This last point – paying health forward – is key.

“Who thinks: ‘I want to be healthy so I can bequeath it to my children’? But it’s true. People who cultivate healthy practices are able to share them. Adults think about laying money aside as an inheritance for their children, right? We should be thinking about laying health aside.”

One of the main benefits of this is that it sets our kids up to adopt healthy habits themselves throughout their lives. “It’ll inculcate in them a focus on health that gives them a far greater opportunity for a long and vital life. Which makes them more productive, more likely to succeed, more likely to be affluent – everything I want my kids to have, they’re more likely to get if I’m healthy and pay it forward.

“A huge amount of damage control could be done just by growing up and treating health and weight control with the same basic respect we apply to wealth management. Of course, not everyone has wealth. But even people who don’t have much money think carefully about the budget and make careful decisions, and could do the same thing with food.”

Making that change of mindset is likely to be easier when the whole family is involved. “In unity there is strength,” says Dr Katz. “A family is the basic building block of culture. As hard as it is to change the macro culture, you are in control of your family’s culture. If parents make health and healthy eating a family value, they’re going to raise children who have that family value. And the benefit of that is they’re going to reinforce your commitment. Because now all of a sudden you have kids in the house who are used to healthy foods, there’s no temptation to get junk foods for them, and if you were inclined to go out and get junk food, it would be an intrusion into their diet. Everything about doing this together defends you against the slip – against this being a diet you go off.

“A family doesn’t diet. A family lives it. And you can live it together in a way that you can’t diet alone.”

I really love that idea. Why not get the whole family to buy into a healthy future? Why not put effort and time into teaching our kids that healthy eating is like saving their pocket money – it feels good to earn the money, just like it feels good to eat tasty, healthy food. And it feels good later on when you can spend your pocket money on something you want, just like it feels good to use your healthy body and enjoy doing things you want to do. As Dr Katz puts it, “Healthy people have more fun. And they start having more fun today.”

For inspiration on giving a healthy boost to your family’s culture, have a look at this article: The top 10 healthy eating habits to give your kids

Click here to read more from Dr David Katz.

First published: Nov 2014

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