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Go to health

We hear a lot about health care, but what about health?



Last week's Supreme Court decision that essentially upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been getting lots of play in the media. That's an understatement when it comes to the right-wing media. That gang — Glenn Beck, Ben Shapiro et al. — has gone absolutely nuts. Blogger Shapiro wrote, "This is the end of America as we know it." Others have been no less sanguine, calling for armed revolution, declaring that the Supreme Court does not have the last word on what's constitutional, even threatening to secede from the union. 

Much vehemence has also been aimed at Chief Justice John Roberts (a George W. Bush appointee), who conservatives saw as solidly in their corner. Roberts sided with the liberal camp in saving the ACA and brought the right-wing thunder down on his head.

On the liberal side, there is crowing that the decision validates the righteousness of the Obama administration, which pushed the controversial law through in 2010.

The biggest question now is: How will the decision affect this fall's presidential election? Of secondary value, at least for now, is the question of how it will affect the cost of health care, especially in 2014 when the full provisions of the ACA kick in. What is not being discussed is the basic nature of our health care system and how it operates. And even more basic: How do Americans get healthy? Everybody is talking about health care, but few are talking about health.

And health is a big issue in the United States, where consumption of overly processed, salt- and sugar-laden foods has created an obesity and diabetes epidemic that threatens to make affordable care a sideshow in the face of overwhelming illness.

According to a Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index taken in 2009, 63.1 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. That's almost two out of three people. The headline of a article discussing the well-being index said: "Americans Are Eating Poorly, Exercising Less, and Getting Bigger, Survey Finds." 

Obesity leads to numerous ailments, including breast cancer, coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, colon cancer, hypertension, kidney disease and stroke.

African-Americans are 1.4 times as likely to be obese as non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, and four out of five African-American women are considered overweight or obese. All of the attendant disease linked to obesity is hitting the African-American community harder than other groups. One out of every three people with kidney failure is African-American. African-Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. All of the various complications that result from those diseases, such as being hospitalized, are higher for blacks too.

"In 23-plus years in emergency medicine and critical care nursing, I saw a lot of complications of diabetes," says Yvette Cobb, a local nurse practitioner who also teaches yoga and has trained in the Tree of Life therapy that claims to reverse diabetes through a raw food diet. "I saw a lot of limbs being cut off." 

The health care system will cut off your leg after you get diabetes, but will not do a lot to prevent your diabetes in the first place. Prevention takes a lot of education and lifestyle change. We actually got some leadership from the White House on that, but it wasn't from the president. First lady Michelle Obama took the lead when she planted the White House kitchen garden in 2009. She's followed that up with last month's publication of American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

Michelle Obama's book will never get near the attention that the ACA has, but what she champions has the potential to make a bigger difference in the health of Americans. The ACA is about who gets how much money in a sick system. American Grown is about people taking charge of themselves and their health by eating the kinds of things that prevent disease. It's not quantifiable; we have no idea how many cases of cancer were avoided by eating healthy, how many did not become diabetic. But we do know it makes a difference.

American Grown also puts a focus on community gardening, something Detroiters have taken up with enthusiasm. It's hard to walk through a neighborhood and not trip over a community garden these days. The book also covers composting and beekeeping, another angle of the growing community/urban gardening phenomenon.

So how does this gardening business fit in with health? Consider the points made in the headline from WebMD: eating poorly, exercising less, getting bigger. It follows that the cure involves eating better and getting some exercise. Those are certainly the short answers. 

Mark Covington, founder of the Georgia Street Collective community garden on the east side, reports losing 40 pounds over the past couple of years from working in the garden and eating healthier. He wasn't trying to lose weight. His motivation in starting the garden was to clean up a vacant lot near his mother's house. But that's the beauty of this gardening thing; it can bring you unintended benefits.

Malik Yakini, director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, understands the dynamic between gardening and good health. The DBCFSN runs D-Town Farms, a seven-acre endeavor in the River Rouge Park area growing vegetables, fruit and herbs. It has an apiary and an ambitious composting operation. All of this is directed toward instilling self-dependence regarding food.

"Health is impacted by eating fresh produce," Yakini says, adding that "gardening is great exercise — bending, standing and using muscles that you might not normally use."

Practically everybody knows that in order to be healthy you need to eat your vegetables and get some exercise. But getting someone to actually do that is another story. Yakini points to another aspect of community gardening that makes that easier.

"Being outside in the sunshine and fresh air, the positive social interaction that takes place in a garden affirms our humanity and connection to each other," he says.

It's certainly more pleasant than putting in an hour on the treadmill.

I'm not claiming that we don't need health care reform on a national level. Personally, I feel the ACA didn't go far enough. I believe we need a national single-payer health care system. That's probably the best way to get costs and coverage under control. Everybody is going to need it at some time, and that's why it should be a right guaranteed to every citizen. But even that won't deal with the obesity, diabetes and hypertension draining off our health and draining off our health care services to deal with something that is entirely preventable. That means getting people to live healthier lifestyles.

"My true purpose is to heal the universe one body at a time," Cobb says.

That's a good start.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former Metro Times editor. Contact him at [email protected]

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