Few people snack on baby carrots. Most prefer the sweet, fat, high-calorie fare colloquially known as junk food.
This is strange. Health is so self-evidently wonderful, disease so patently miserable that you’d think we’d all do everything in our power to nurture the former and repel the latter. Some of us, an increasing number, do. Not enough of us, though, to dethrone junk food as the king of snacks.
The question naturally arises: Is it possible to change that?
Not by persuasion, says Harvard University hygienist Ichiro Kawachi in an interview with Shukan Toyo Keizai magazine. It doesn’t work. Consumers already know everything you can tell them: that carrots are healthy, potato chips are not.
The junk food preference is impervious to rational argument. It must be tricked into submission. How? Packaging. Package baby carrots in bags like potato chip bags — as snacks rather than as vegetables. The appetite thinks it’s getting junk food, and is satisfied. The body knows it’s getting vitamins, minerals and plant fiber, and says thanks in a language we all understand: the language of health. This, says Kawachi — who claims to be citing an actual example of American marketing know-how — is the sort of thing health authorities should be looking at.
It’s appalling, what we’re doing to ourselves health-wise. Partly it’s our own fault. For all our millennia of civilization, we’re still largely instinctual creatures, and junk food is exactly what advertisers admit (or boast) it is: irresistible. The little self-control that would go a long way is missing, and disease flourishes.
But Shukan Toyo Keizai’s emphasis is elsewhere: on the part of the problem that is not the individual’s fault, but rather society’s as a whole. Its feature article is titled “Kenko Kakusa” (“The Health Gap”). Kakusa (gap) is a word that’s inescapable lately in discussions of Japanese society. The steadily widening gap between the well-off and the poor is deeply disturbing to a nation that a generation ago prided itself on relative equality. The rich were not bloated and the poor considered themselves middle-class — rightly, by most definitions. No longer.
The health gap is partly economic, partly not. Diabetes, spreading alarmingly, was once thought of as a disease of the overindulgent wealthy. Its recent proliferation — among the poor, the stressed, the overworked, the harassed — has altered that perspective. The following story, courtesy of Shukan Toyo Keizai, highlights some key points:
Kawabata-san (as we’ll call him) broke down in tears at the clinic. He’s 50, a part-time truck driver for a moving company; he’d just had his mandatory annual check-up, and the note the doctor handed him threw him into despair: “They won’t let me work if I show them this! Listen,” he pleaded, “I’ll take better care of myself, just give me a clean bill of health. I have to live, after all!”
The doctor sympathized and relented. Kawabata earns ¥120,000 a month, half of which goes for rent. His diabetic symptoms had advanced to the point where he needed care, urgently. But where would the money come from? Like many poor people, he is not on the national health insurance plan. Even the relatively little it costs low-income earners is too much for many of them. Back at work and secure until the next check-up, he soon forgets his vow to be careful, and continues to eat from convenience stores and at fast-food restaurants — as many overworked, underpaid workers do.
Another story, in the same vein and from the same source, features a family of four living off the grandmother’s ¥900,000-a-year pension; the father is too ill and the mother too depressed to work. The 18-year-old daughter has asthma and needs medicine, which she’s not taking — it’s too expensive. The family has been seen by a welfare worker, who explained the assistance they’re entitled to, but, no, they will have none of that: They’re determined to manage on their own. The daughter is proud of her contribution to that project, but unmedicated, her asthma forces her to miss more school than she can afford to, with obvious implications for her economic and intellectual future.
Shukan Toyo Keizai cites research showing low-income part-time employees working long hours to make ends meet are more likely to fall ill, sink into depression, smoke and eat badly than the more affluent and more secure. They are also less likely to undergo regular medical checkups, meaning incipient health problems aren’t nipped in the bud.
That’s pretty much what you’d expect, but the upper-echelon managerial class has problems of its own, the magazine finds. The stress managers are under is different, but no less corrosive than that of the poor. They have quotas to meet — or else. They sit at desks all day long, getting no exercise. Evenings they wine and dine, ignoring the protests of their digestive systems and other organs. Cancer is their particular scourge, and suicide — both significantly higher among executives than they were 20 years ago. Twenty years ago Japanese men led the world in terms of male longevity; the most recent figures show them ranking sixth. (Long-living Japanese women, however, keep the nation as a whole in first place worldwide.)
Longevity isn’t everything. Its importance is more as an indicator of health than as an end in itself. The pursuit of health can lead to some comical excesses of its own, a theme Spa! magazine took up in April under the title “Dangerous Addictions.” Health care can breed addiction to health care products. The products may be all right, but addiction to them is not. Bananas are healthy; eating bananas exclusively is not. Likewise, an overindulgence in supplements, exercise, dieting, eyewash (seriously) and other things that may be good in themselves, but only in moderation.
A philosophical French gastronome named Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1775-1826) wrote, “Animals feed, man eats: wise men alone know how to eat.” Maybe education, by making us wise, can narrow the health gap? Kawachi, the Harvard hygienist, thinks so, and advocates compulsory pre-school education on the grounds that wisdom is best inculcated in infancy. That’s what a scholar would think — scholars have a natural prejudice in favor of schools. Whether school teaches us to be wise or merely to fit smoothly into the economy is a subject best left for another day.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”
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