Generally, adherence to a healthy lifestyle pattern decreased from 1988-2006. Obesity was up, exercise was down and eating just five servings of fruits and veggies a day dropped like a rock.

And we didn’t start out that great to begin with.

Only 3 percent of Americans at the turn of the 21st century had the following four healthy lifestyle characteristics: not smoking, not overweight, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables and exercising a half hour a day at least five days a week. And whether people were wealthy or college-educated didn’t matter; no sub-group even remotely met clinical or public health recommendations.

Where are people falling down the most? If you look at heart disease risk factors, most people don’t smoke (as you can see in the chart in the video below) and about half are exercising. But if we look at the healthy diet score, which is based on things like drinking less than four cups of soda a week, on a scale of zero to five, only about 1 percent of Americans score a four or a five. So the American Heart Association’s aggressive 2020 target to improve that by 20 percent would bring us up to 1.2 percent.

Given that we’ve known for decades that advanced coronary artery disease may be present by age 20—coronary atherosclerosis is often even present in young children—it is particularly disturbing that healthy lifestyle choices are declining rather than improving in the U.S.

In terms of life expectancy, the U.S. is down around 27 or 28 out of the 34 OECD free-market democracies. The people of Slovenia live a year longer than citizens of the United States. Why?

According to the most rigorous analysis of risk factors ever published, the number one cause of death and disability in the United States is our diet.

What about our diet is so bad? The worst five things about our diet are: we don’t eat enough fruit, we don’t eat enough nuts and seeds, we eat too much salt, too much processed meat and not enough vegetables.

Studies that have looked at diet quality and chronic disease mortality risk found that those scoring higher (e.g. more whole plant foods), reduced the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer and all causes of death combined. There is now an overwhelming body of clinical and epidemiological evidence illustrating the dramatic impact of a healthy lifestyle on reducing all-cause mortality and preventing chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

So why do we eat so bad? Aren’t we scared of dying from these horrible chronic diseases? It’s almost as if we’re eating as though our future didn’t matter.

The growing macabre fascination with speculating about one’s ‘‘last meal’’ offers a window into one’s true consumption desires when one’s value of the future is discounted close to zero. In contrast to pop culture anecdotes, a group of Cornell researchers created a catalog of actual last meals – the final food requests of 247 individuals executed in the United States during a recent five-year period.

Meat was the most commonly made request. The researchers go out of their way to note tofu never made the list, and no one asked for a vegetarian meal. In fact, if you compare the last meals to what Americans normally eat, there’s not much difference.

If we continue to eat as though they were our last meals, eventually, they will be.


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