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Healthy Living Takes Skill!

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Today, The Huffington Post is launching the new platform for its Healthy Living content. That may be fodder for celebration here at HuffPost, but it begs a question: Why is healthy living something that requires such voluminous and on-going information exchange? Why is healthy living something that warrants probing and parsing, rather than something that simply happens? Why isn't living intrinsically healthy?

The answer is that it once was. Living a simple, tribal, natural existence was healthy. Sleeping and waking in response to the cycles of the sun and planet were healthy. Living in accord with our adaptations and the world around us was healthy.

Now, let's not exaggerate the situation. Living in accord with our own nature and the natural world around us may have been healthy -- but it was certainly no guarantee of good health. The environment always threatened us with everything from parasites to predators, hypothermia to homicide.

In the world of our long history, living may have been healthy -- but that did nothing to forestall the risk of dying prematurely! During the Stone Age, mean Homo sapien survival was estimated at roughly 20 years -- and the full span of human life expectancy at about 40. Living was healthy -- it just didn't last very long!

But now, we do need to talk about healthy living, because living itself is no longer healthy. It seems to require more and more advising, coaching, coaxing and coercing.

Living as we now do generally means stressing more than we should, while sleeping less -- exercising less than we should, while eating more. We are still subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, of course, in the form of perils we don't control, although generally better shielded from them. But the fact that living itself -- our daily routine -- is unhealthy, that's new.

The cause? Just about every aspect of the modern world that makes it modern. Planes, trains and automobiles. Electronic devices and global commercial markets. Tax forms and Times Square. The World Wide Web and suburban sprawl. We are out of our element. Way out.

Drilling down to my areas of special interest, I note as I have before that throughout most of human history, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity was unavoidable (it was called "survival," rather than "exercise"). We have devised a modern world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get, and calories are unavoidable. The result -- epidemic obesity and diabetes -- is a foregone conclusion in a species with no native defenses against caloric excess and the lure of the couch.

There are two solutions, alone or in combination, if we want to alter the rather dire chronic disease trends we have created: change the world, or change ourselves so we don't succumb en masse to its obesigenic and morbidigenic forces.

To the extent that Healthy Living on The Huffington Post is a forum for advocacy, it can help advance the cause of changing the world. We can visit here, see good ideas, rally around them -- and help turn them into policies that exert a salutary influence on the world around us. Maybe.

Changing the world is slow, and involves multiple steps -- and multiple impediments. The military industrial establishment never gives up the status quo without a fight! And I trust we can also agree that even in the absence of impediments, few of us would be inclined to pave our way all the way back to our native Stone Age environment. So changing ourselves is inevitably part of the formula.

The particular change required is, in my opinion, much about acquiring skill. Willpower is far more often on the marquee, but skill power matters at least as much. Will is good, but skill may be required to find, fashion, pave, and/or follow the way to health. In the absence of skill power, it may simply not be possible to get there from here.

In my prior column, I explored the issue of food addiction. Along the way, I referenced a stunning Chicago Tribune expose that highlighted targeted food industry efforts to base product formulation on functional MRI brain scans. The story suggests that brain imaging was being used to determine what flavor combinations provoked the strongest uptick in appetite.

The notion that portion control will ensue from willpower alone when Ph.D.s in nutritional biochemistry are collaborating with neuroscientists to ensure that nobody can eat just one... is at best wishful thinking, and at worst downright preposterous. Yes, of course, will is required. Yes, of course, we need a heaping helping of personal responsibility. But before we can take responsibility, we must be empowered with the requisite skills. Mountaineers don't scale Everest just because they want to; they need skills.

In the modern world, living healthy is also a steep uphill climb. Skills are required.

In the area of portion control, a number of useful skills are yours for the taking. You can enhance your awareness of what causes you to overeat, and tweak your environment to favor moderation with help from Brian Wansink. You can use the volume of food to help fill you up on fewer calories with help from Barbara Rolls. You can get tips about finding your way to real food from Michael Pollan. You can take advantage of expert guidance in a book, or on the supermarket shelf, to help you make better choices. And I am pleased to help with everything from food label interpretation, to how avoiding an excessive variety of flavors in any given food, meal, or snack can help you fill up on less.

There is no reason to limit your skills to any one of these, or even to all of them. The more skills acquired, the better prepared you are for any eventuality. There are skills related to shopping, snacking and cooking. There are skills related to time management, and fitting exercise into a crammed daily routine. For every challenge the modern environment throws on the path leading to health, there is a relevant skill to get you over or around it.

Which brings us back to healthy living. It's a priority and an aspiration. It's a responsibility and a right. It's an opportunity and an obligation. It's not really complicated -- but in the world we live in, it's hard.

Which is why it is also a web platform where insights and expertise are served fresh daily. Because in this cockamamie world of our own devising, healthy living takes skill. Come and get it.

-fin

Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com
www.turnthetidefoundation.org

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