Why We Need an Unhealthy Population

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Why We Need Unhealthy People (photo illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Why We Need Unhealthy People (photo illustration: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Recenly, a photographer friend Wei Hwu gave me a huge cake, it was left over from a photo shoot she had earlier in the day. With the cake sitting on my kitchen counter, I realized it didn’t really fit in its container with the lid closed. So I did the only logical thing: I started eating until it fit.

This cake was slightly mangled – it had a rough photo shoot – and was swimming in frosting at certain places, while naked in others. During the process of eating it, I realized my personal quandary of cake eating: I don’t like it when there’s too much frosting, it overpowers the cake, but when there’s too little, I crave for more. Like most people, I desire balance. I attacked the cake with relative precision in terms of how much cake accompanies how much frosting.

Although not all of us are quite as OCD about their cake eating as I, we all have the desire for balance to varying extents.

We humans require a certain balance in the things we directly interact with, and the things we directly consume.

In this way, we are connected with our environment and the resources we consume, just as, for instance, plants are connected when they take nutrients from the soil.

Which brings me to one Andre Woodward, a rather unique artist I had the pleasure of meeting a few months back.

Andre Woodward's "A Common Balance: Impossible Dream'n" (Photo, Patrick Lydon)

Andre Woodward's "A Common Balance: Impossible Dream'n" (Photo: Patrick Lydon)

Andre, artist in residence at Montalvo Arts Center, has a habit of growing plants in very strange conditions and contortions, perhaps most famously encasing the roots of small trees in concrete to form sculptures. Living sculptures. The first plants he created about five years ago are still healthy, he simply ‘waters’ the concrete blocks. It’s a slightly disturbing yet amazing sight.

During his experiments with these plants cast into concrete, Andre noticed something very special: plants won’t grow too fast if there are not enough nutrients to sustain themselves. It seems self-explanatory, but the point here is that, even though these plants  – Andre uses ficus and maple in particular – are placed in what look like dire situations, they don’t die. Instead, they simply cut consumption, living on a rather conservative diet.

Humans used to be much the same way. Recently, however, something has disrupted this balance and we are growing to insanely unhealthy proportions.

But We’re Living Longer!

Some organizations such as the United Nations, seem to think all that a statistic of primary concern is length of life, and thus applaud nations who can keep their people alive the longest. Yet even though our lifespans are much longer than they were decades ago, they are also riddled with far more shiny-new health problems. We’re seeing people live to be 80 and 90 years old, yet they have a constant need for medication their entire life. We’re seeing people who have serious mobility issues by the time they are 30 years old and they end up spending the majority of their adult lives in a wheelchair or hospital bed, not from unfortunate physical accidents, but from circumstances which could be helped simply by proper eating habits.

Long life does not equal quality of life.

All for Sugar and Sugar for All

Remembering the profit-margin banner under which our corporate world functions is important at this point, as in the U.S. in particular, researchers point fervently to sugar (and high-fructose corn syrup) as the main ingredient, not only in diabetes, but in obesity.  Dr. Robert H. Lustig believes he has pinned the issue with our current obesity epidemic squarely on fructose.

Essentially, the market found a sweet, cost-effective substance that was readily available and could make even the most horrible cardboard diet crackers taste good… and they poured it into just about everything we ate.

In his speakings on fructose, Dr. Lustig would have us know that not even our own government understands the real causes behind the obesity issue. In fact, he claims that in our quest for the perfect diet in the U.S., we’ve been attacking the wrong enemies altogether. Lustig’s surprise hit 1.5-hour lecture (with nearly 2 million YouTube views) shows us how our sugar and fiber intakes are unbalanced, and how even chomping down on fat might be preferable to eating anything laden with sugar and its unfortunate cousin, high-fructose corn syrup.

While he’s at it breaking down the role of sugar as a poison, Lustig also pokes some huge holes in current thought when it comes to obesity. Most amazingly — amazing because it seems so simple — he notes the fact that the U.S. government built decades of health education and diet recommendations on a thought process that does not even hold up to the most basic logic. It’s a “duh” moment for anyone watching.

Yet whether sugar turns out to have been the magic bullet or not, our own critical eye and mind remains the key in rounding that corner to a more healthy lifestyle. Corporations are not inherently evil entities, but we must remember that large parts of the industries who feed us and who treat our diseases are focused on profit first, and handling public backlash second; and the most successful ones can do both simultaneously.

Tell Me What to Eat!

Through a combination of advertising onslaughts — and according to researchers such as Dr. Lustig, through the prevalence of sugars and high-fructose corn syrup in our diets — we’ve lost the ability to control our eating habits. If we were one of Andre’s plants, our roots would have destroyed the concrete and reached out down the street for some burgers, coke, and fruit juice.

And this is exactly how the market needs us to be.

If major food and drug companies could help it (and they are trying), they might just enjoy seeing the entire world as a bunch of obese, diabetic, terminally ill beings who live relatively long lives in pain and are profusely medicated.

Why would any food or pharmaceutical company wish ill on you and I?

It’s nothing personal, it’s just good business. What use is a healthy, fit world to companies who sell unhealthy food, or to companies who sell drugs to combat the effects of unhealthy food? The majority of these business entities would catastrophically fail if all of a sudden we became a healthy, responsible, controlled population.

We are not, and the green-eyed thrive on that fact.

At last count, there were about 238 million Americans (about 70% of the country) who abide by advertisements, clean off their plates, empty their soda and juice cups, and are now categorized as overweight or obese.

Photo Illustration Credit: Patrick Lydon, with works by Mikael Häggström, FatM1ke, Erich Ferdinand, James Heilman, MD.