• William Nichol

A More Holistic Approach to Health and Sustainability

How can we live longer and healthier lives while allowing our planet to do the same? What themes immediately come to mind? Vegetarianism, veganism, locally sourced, minimally processed, alternative proteins––may be a few. When we talk about health in terms of sustainability, the conversation tends to begin and end with food, but food is only part of the equation.

Well then, what else?

Countless studies seek out the unicorn “ideal diet,” something preeminently healthy and sustainable. One could spend hours reading blog posts, articles, and peer-reviewed journals, gaining nothing more than confusion and frustration from the divergent and often contradictory conclusions encountered. While there is significant consensus underpinning a few hypotheses, such as the myriad bodily and planetary ailments resulting from regular consumption of red meat and highly processed food, the internet is littered with bold, reductionist, and sometimes dangerous claims about “the ideal diet.” In an article published by Scientific American, Patrick Mustain attributes this deluge of contradictions to two factors–– “the inherent complexity and difficulties in performing human nutrition research” and “the money that’s at stake any time changes come up that might shift people away from the Standard American Diet.” Some of the country’s most powerful industries depend on the sanctity of the “Standard American Diet": meat, dairy, and the omnipresent master of disguise, corn. Due to rampant business-government collusion and the deceptive advertisement borne of corporate competition, unreliability of public information has made well-informed nutrition nearly impossible.

Though “the ideal diet” proves utterly elusive under present circumstances, the concept itself is inherently futile. The fact that human beings, for millennia, have adapted to not only survive but thrive across vastly different landscapes by subsisting on an incredible diversity of diets indicates that no single, ideal diet exists. This fact alone warrants a less reductionist approach to a healthy lifestyle. In his article, Mustain advocates for the holistic approach taken by best selling author Dan Buettner in his 2008 book Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Have Lived the Longest. Here, Buettner examines regions of the world where people have much longer than average lifespans, paying mind to every aspect of daily existence alongside diet. Mustain writes:

Most people living in the Blue Zones enjoy physical activity incorporated naturally into their daily lives (like gardening or walking); a sense of purpose (like caring for grandchildren or civic volunteering); low stress levels and a slower pace of life; strong family and community connections; and a diet characterized by moderate caloric intake, mostly from plant sources.

Across the globe, the longest living people are not only eating very little meat and almost no processed foods or saturated fats; they are living in healthy communities where interpersonal connections are strong and supportive––where a sense of purpose is deeply intertwined with community-sustaining processes like agriculture. These results indicate that, while a healthy diet is key to a healthy life, mental health is too often ignored during conversations about physical well-being and environmental sustainability.

Photo by Zen Chung

How does poor mental health shorten life?

In his recent book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, former Surgeon General Dr. Viveck Murthy draws from a vast collection of studies on the physiological effects of chronic loneliness. He claims that perceived isolation can induce a physical stress response, which over time increases the risk of a variety of health conditions and even takes years off of one’s life. In an interview with NPR, Murthy states:

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors knew this. They knew there was safety in numbers. And when we were separated from each other, it places our survival at risk. And it puts us in a physiologic stress state, which, when it’s short, when it’s acute, it can lead us to seek out connection. But when it’s prolonged, then it can become a chronic state of stress, which leads to inflammation in our body, damages tissues in blood vessels, and, ultimately, damages our physical as well as our emotional health.

We are often taught to separate mind and body, but work like Dr. Murthy’s reminds us of their inextricable linkage and the need to give mental health serious thought when considering physical health. By not taking care of ourselves mentally, we not only fail our bodies; we also fail our planet.

What has caused the influx of chronic loneliness, and how does it impact the environment?

Chronic loneliness is becoming more prevalent as the ancillary forces of capitalism steadily transform life in America and across the world. Digital media, social media, in particular, has been closely correlated with perceived loneliness and the mental health disorders which go along with it. This technology has individualized recreation and leisure and decreased the amount of time and energy available for civic engagement. Political Scientist, Robert Putnam, wrote extensively on these issues predicating much contemporary research on what he referred to as “declining social capital.” In a piece titled Bowling Alone: Declining Social Capital in America, Putnam writes:

Networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved. Dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the “I” into the “we,” or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants’ “taste” for collective benefits.

Today, the effects of declining civic engagement and social capital are jarringly apparent, particularly the ensuing lack of interpersonal trust and individuals’ shrinking capacity to empathize and compromise. With no connection between community members, no knowledge of a neighbors personhood beyond what kind of car they drive, there exists no motivation to see an issue from the other's perspective, to understand their perceived needs and wants. To grasp the incredible scale of this trend and the social and political polarization it drives, one has only to look at the partisan divide over the environment, an issue that has historically bonded the two parties and one that inevitably impacts us all. Such a divide, regardless of party affiliation, evidently stagnates progress of any kind on the federal level.

Declining civic engagement and growing distrust have not only impacted our nation on the national level but also plummeted our capacity for collective action on the local. Our increasingly individualistic and competitive culture fails to foster unity and teach collective action and, in doing so, makes it difficult for individuals to imagine, let alone find critical outlets for enacting small scale change locally. Without these outlets, environmental issues become overwhelmingly abstracted. The combination of this abstraction and the common belief that change can only be achieved through individual action elicits a sense of helplessness. This enormous pressure makes the prospect of enacting change seem completely out of reach and has led to a spike in yet another mental health condition called eco-anxiety.

To summarize, poor mental health and the socio-political conditions that arise from it are some of, if not the greatest, threats to our physical health and that of the Earth. The unchecked spread of social disconnection and loneliness is preventing us from enacting the change we need as individuals and as a society. We need to stop talking about the individual when we talk about environmental issues and sustainability. Dietary choice is a critical factor in this equation, but we can’t talk about physical health and sustainability without talking about mental health and community. It is critical that we consider every part of the issue and study their points of intersection.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

How do we move forward?

Numerous studies have shown that loneliness and related mental health issues can be alleviated through civic engagement. By prioritizing mental health, looking for community, and devoting time and energy to the maintenance of healthy connected relationships, we can avoid falling victim to the downward cycle of loneliness, inaction, and ever-increasing mortality. Join a community garden, go to therapy, volunteer at a local mutual aid fund, form your own organization or find one that already exists like SOKTI. Whatever you choose to do, don’t wait.

For some more information about opportunities to be civically engaged and how they might benefit your mental health, part two of this article, Nourish Your Mind, Body, and Planet at the Same Time, will be available soon.

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