Healthy People, Healthy Planet

Living Well Benefits More Than Just Your Body

Five children's hands indoors touching a globe
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Imagine if there was one thing you could do that was almost guaranteed to add years to your life and life to your years. You would want to hear more about it at least, right?

Now, imagine if that same thing is one of the most important, powerful, and immediately actionable opportunities any of us has to do something about environmental protection, sustainable food and water supplies, climate stabilization, and the protection of biodiversity.

You must be thinking: Whatever that is, I should probably give it a try! And you are correct.

It is lifestyle as medicine. It is eating well and being active. It turns out the road to human health and the road to planetary health are not two paths after all. I will give you an example of what I mean.

The Impact of Our Habits

In a recent book called Soda Politics, by my friend and colleague Marion Nestle of New York University, the many costs of soda to public health are laid out in considerable detail. I’m confident few of these would surprise you. You got the memo that all the sugar and calories in soda is not particularly good for you, I’m sure.

But here’s what I think will surprise you, as it surprised me. It takes up to 620 liters of water to produce one liter of cola in its plastic bottle. About two thirds of all that water goes into the many manufacturing steps of the soda itself, and the rest to the production of the plastic.

This, of course, is an argument against drinking all of our water out of plastic bottles. But it is a far more urgent argument to stop drinking soda on environmental grounds alone. There are probably many young people who are not concerned about sugar, calories, and the future risk of diabetes, but who care a lot about the planet.

The idea of dumping 600 liters of water down the drain as a prelude to drinking a Coke might very well give them pause. But, of course, even if kids only cut back on soda out of concern for the environment, the reality is that it would be good for their health, too. There is power, and opportunity, in that confluence.

Two Roads Become One

In medical school, I was at first uncertain about where to go next, as I trust many future doctors are. I settled on internal medicine as much to keep my options open and broad as for any other reason. I went on to a second residency in preventive medicine, wanting to do more about those desperately sick people in hospital beds than delaying their death a bit. I wanted those waiting in line behind them to choose a different medical destiny altogether. I wanted them to use lifestyle to stay vital in the first place.

I was very content with my choice for quite some time. But little by little, to put it very bluntly, I started worrying that I was doing all I could to extend the lives of the very creatures busily destroying the planet.

We humans have been making quite a mess of things down here. Ever more people, living ever longer, consuming ever more resources, is highly correlated with ever accelerating rates of extinction among all Earth’s other creatures. 

I never regretted my devotion to human health, of course. But I was beginning to think I had actually missed rather than chosen the big issue of my time. The fate of the planet is clearly in peril, and there are no healthy people without a healthy planet to call home.

These particular roads that seemingly diverged long ago—one leading to lifestyle medicine, the other to environmental conservation—take a highly fortuitous turn. They intersect and run on together.

Taking Care of Yourself and Our World

The diet, activity, and lifestyle pattern most conducive to the addition of years to human life, and life to human years, need not have been beneficial to the planet—but it is. A diet of minimally processed, predominantly plant foods and water when thirsty is beneficial to everything from the land’s fresh water supplies to the seas’ supplies of fish. The use of our own muscles to get around whenever possible, instead of always burning fossil fuel, promotes our own health while contributing to that of land, air, and sea.

As you cultivate your own vitality this way, reducing your lifetime risk of all major chronic disease by as much as 80 percent, you will also be reducing your consumption of water, shrinking your carbon footprint, and helping to make more of the planet useable for the stunning variety of other living things who also call Earth home.

If ever a prescription offered bang for the buck, this is surely it. The only known side effect is a sense of deep satisfaction that you are feeling very well because you are doing the world good.

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