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Health, Nutrition

A little less money could do us some good

Straw hat and.... a cigar... by Rene Bastiaanssen, on FlickIt can get depressing to reach Wednesday and the week’s food budget has already run out. It reminds me of college life. You young folk who are going to college, you’ve got it all to look forward to: independence, parties, lectures and beans on toast (not necessarily in that order). Let’s face it, with the exception of Benedictine monks, there aren’t many of us who like being short of cash.

But living less disposable income could do our heart a world of good. Recent research shows a link between a lighter wallet, a smaller belt, and a healthier body. You never know, austerity measures and increased taxes may have a silver lining after all…

Fewer luxuries mean a longer life…

Cuba, the island of chunky cigars and silly hats, is a bit of an odd place. By Western standards it is impoverished, yet the population enjoy a surprisingly long life span – even better than some ‘developed’ countries. A left-wing leadership, and a free health service that concentrates its efforts on simple, cost-effective measures to improve health have played a huge part.

But in the early 90s, communist Cuba was exiled from much of the world; for five years the USA enforced a trade embargo – resulting in the country running out of food and fuel. The government divvied out more than a million free bicycles for commuters. People ate less, got fitter and (ultimately) as research has now shown, lived longer. During this time, the Cubans lost over half a stone from their bellies (on average); heart attacks dropped (by over a third), and rates of stroke and diabetes saw dramatic falls.

So might the same be true for us? In Europe, the US, and much of the developed world, we stare in the face of indefinite pay freezes and tax hikes. Clinging to the hope of a healthier life might be something of a silver lining to weather the storm.

…but is it true today?

Findings released a few days ago (in the British Medical Journal) draw some pretty clear and straightforward conclusions: eating less and exercising more really does work – and isn’t just a theory. I genuinely hope our ‘austerity measures’ will make us fitter but unless things change I doubt it will. Similar health improvements to those in Cuba were seen following the rationing in World War 2. But the 21st Century is now a very different world.

In the ‘land of the free’, it is easy to find cheap food. Most bargain basement food isn’t healthy: ask yourself, with a family to feed and a hectic life, would you spend £2 ($3) on two supermarket pizzas for the evening, or the equivalent on fresh produce – and then need to cook?

The people I see on our local homeless soup run have nothing and certainly don’t look healthy. Hitting rock bottom is obviously devastating. The only instance I have seen where poverty gives health opportunities is at food banks. When families still have a roof over their head – the supplies given out is simple fare – pasta, bread, tinned vegetables… the bare essentials and not much in the way of pre-packaged burgers.

Is it time for vegetable subsidies?

And so I fear that the only way all of us will achieve better health is if there is a seismic shift in the food industry and cooking our own meals becomes the normal, most affordable way of eating. Chef Jamie Oliver is departing from his ever-so-pretty and extravagant recipe books to go on another crusade – promoting how healthy food can be cooked on a budget.

Despite Mr Oliver’ good intentions, I can see now real difference happening unless processed food is made significantly more expensive (perhaps through taxes?) and simple produce made cheaper (through government subsidies?). Ideally both.

Through the gritted teeth of an ice cream addict, I feel it is time for the decision-makers to take some brave, positive action. Only then might living with less mean living longer.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. This blog is intended for information and entertainment purposes and is not to be used for medical or health guidance. Feel free to discuss in the comments below…

Franco, M., Bilal, U., Ordunez, P., Benet, M., Morejon, A., Caballero, B., Kennelly, J., & Cooper, R. (2013). Population-wide weight loss and regain in relation to diabetes burden and cardiovascular mortality in Cuba 1980-2010: repeated cross sectional surveys and ecological comparison of secular trends BMJ, 346 (apr09 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.f1515

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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