Health and Behavior

March 1, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about health, healthcare and behavior recently. This is mostly because I’m reading this book Prescription for a Healthy Nation that early on makes the distinction between health and healthcare. The book itself is a little all over the place, but its overall premise is compelling–healthcare and medicine is good at what it does well–cure bacterial infections, detect cancers early, vaccinations. However, if our overall health were improved, there would be less need for the kind of healthcare that doesn’t work that well–chronic diseases are more easily reduced through changes in lifestyle, the foods you choose to put in your body, how much you move around, those kinds of things. Our society doesn’t do much for preventative healthcare, but it’s really important.

The flip side of this issue, that health is important and good health means we don’t have to rely on healthcare so often or thoroughly, is the real truth that behavior is so, so hard to change. We do a million things all the time that are bad for us. In some way or another we get enough reward or satisfaction from those behaviors that it’s worth it, even though we know that it’s harmful. There are all kinds of behavioral studies that reinforce this. The recent New York Times article on How Companies Learn Your Secrets indicates just how predictable we are. It’s kind of scary, but I also think hard to argue with. We all have routines and patterns and preferences.

All of this thinking about health and healthcare has led me to think about food more (I do all the time, anyway) and I spent Friday at the Just Food Conference. It was exciting to be part of a community that looks at the interplay between people’s health, what it takes to create healthy bodies, coupled with the health of our environment, our local economy, all of the interwoven parts that often get obscured by perverse incentives and economic rationality. Behaviors are so hard to change, but it also seems possible, especially if there are so many people trying to make healthy food delicious.

Note: One of my most favorite blogs, Dinner: A Love Story, just got the author of the New York Times article mentioned above and a whole book about habits to write about changing behavior and routines (specifically changing up cravings for dessert, which I read about as I eat dulce de leche gelato.)

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