Health is patriotic

"Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country," said President John F. Kennedy.

Though I'm proud of many of our nation's achievements, including our ingenuity and still-formidable education system, our national checkup and health forecast leave much to be desired. To be blunt, we need to become a leaner, cleaner-burning, calorie-efficient society.

In the past year, according to government estimates, Medicare, Medicaid and a major children's health program are projected to account for more than 20 percent of federal spending, more than expenditures for defense or Social Security. By 2035, unless we make big changes — including improving our health — the projection doubles to 40 percent, and health care spending is expected to jump to the equivalent of 20 percent of our gross domestic product.

In light of these staggering costs, what can we do as individuals? How can we finesse some "portion control" from our "slice" of the health care pie, so to speak? In addition to not overusing health care services, there are some common-sense things we can do to rein in our own contribution to the nation's "health deficit."

Education seems a logical starting place. Find out what's at stake if, for example, you've recently been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or diabetes — or better, how and why to avoid diabetes. In focus groups hosted by the American Diabetes Association, people routinely undervalued diabetes risk and its inherent potential to shorten lives.

There are many thousands of competent health care professionals who provide education, guidance, support, procedures and prescriptions, along with volumes of information about chronic diseases on the Internet, television, radio, billboards, etc. Only individually, however, can we take the driver's seat for our health.

Late last year, President Obama signed legislation that would expand access to more healthful school lunches for children and restrict access to junk food that is contributing to kids' obesity.

The law will give schools an extra 6 cents for each meal served, which is the first increase in school-lunch reimbursement beyond inflation in about 30 years, despite the fact that school lunches provide 30 percent or more of school-aged kids' daily caloric intake.

In our area, there are some innovative programs working toward expanding access to fresh foods and health education. A colleague at Southern Oregon University, Jennifer Slawta, has developed a physical-activity and nutrition-education program called "Be a Fit Kid," which is gaining traction in various school districts. Also, the Rogue Valley Farm to School program is making a difference in kids' awareness of where food really comes from, empowering youths' own kind of food security.

Anyone using his or her own 6 cents knows the reimbursement increase is not nearly enough to make a difference in overall children's health, but at least it's a step in the right direction and acknowledgement of our abysmal national prognosis. Expanding nutrition education, healthful meals and physical education — inside schools and out — seems a win-win-win, a trifecta with good odds for a healthier future.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. E-mail him at

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