These are the words you hear as you step on and off the subway train in London and they never cease to capture my imagination. This is especially true now, since my work as a health consultant has me focused on a very specific gap – the gap between what we know today about good health and how to achieve it and the reality of the way we actually live here in America. It is a gap in what we value – between the rights and privileges we currently hold dear and the emergent values of personal responsibility and accountability for the wellbeing of ourselves, and by extension, our communities and our planet. It is more like a gulf than a gap – in America it is still a radical step to seriously pursue optimal health.
Here are three culturally shared values that I think illuminate the gap we need to bridge:
Time. Americans spend the least amount of time preparing and eating food than any other country – an average of 60 minutes a day – for all three meals! Those meals are often eaten standing up or driving and the time that used to be spent preparing and eating meals with others is now taken up by other activities – work, TV, phones, and computers.
Taste. Americans are addicted to the taste and texture of processed foods – which means a flavor profile limited to refined sugar, carbs, fats, salt, and chemicals. The range and depth of flavors found in whole-foods are way outside the comfort zone of taste buds dulled by the superficial intensity of foods that appeal to our basest desires. Whole nutritionally rich foods are such an oddity that my nieces and nephews declare fast food “real” and the stuff that I eat (e.g. kale) is perceived as “fake.”
Money. Americans spend the lowest percentage of their income on food of any other country – a mere 10%. That frees up more dollars for spending on consumer goods and entertainment. We also have 24/7 access to cheap, plentiful food on an historically unimaginable scale. Never before have so many had access to so much.
To sum it up: we dedicate the least time possible eating superficially satisfying, nutritionally barren foods at the lowest cost. In other words, the value we put on individual freedom of choice and the pursuit of “happiness” combined with the incredible availability of food and our relative prosperity has led us to feel entitled to live and eat in whatever way pleases us. To understand the consequences to our individual health, the wellbeing of our nation, and the state of the environment, we can take a look in the collective mirror, or simply read the headlines. The pursuit of happiness, in the form of a Happy Meal, has trumped the deeper freedoms and human aspirations for personal responsibility and accountability.
So, it’s a big gap. We do know more than we let on, and in the midst of our busy lives are reluctant to wake up to how slavish we are to our baser impulses. No doubt, a trend is beginning as we become unwilling to accept the decline in the quality of life we can expect from following the status quo. The steps we take to revalue our lives and the way we spend our time and money will create a bridge to a different future based on different values.
Express your desire and willingness to take your health and wellbeing into your own hands and go against the flow of culture as it is. Buck the system, have greens for b-fast, do more than you think you can – find ways to bridge the gap between what you know and what you choose to do.