Another day, another slightly depressing study that seems to confirm what many of us know to be true: Americans aren’t the healthiest bunch. The latest piece of scientific literature on the subject was published this week by the Mayo Clinic, and its results seem shocking: Only 3 percent of Americans meet the criteria for living a healthy lifestyle.
Three percent? Can that really be the case? A few writers have been quick to point out that the benchmarks by which the researchers scored health may have been a bit restrictive. Remember back in January when a study claimed that vegetarian diets were bad for the environment? We had to remind ourselves to think critically about these alarming headlines. Well, it’s time to do that again. Just how true is it that 97 percent of Americans live unhealthy lifestyles?
Scientists looked at the nutritional, behavioral and exercise patterns reported by 4,745 people who participated in the 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They were looking for four basic characteristics of a healthy lifestyle: not smoking, eating healthy, getting adequate exercise and maintaining a healthy body fat percentage.
However, one could argue that their specific markers for these attributes could be up for interpretation. Not smoking is obviously a healthy decision, but what about the other factors? What nutritional information were they using to determine whether or not participants were eating healthily? How much exercise was required, and did they separate devoted exercise time from the moderate physical activity of everyday life?
Food for Thought
The answers to these questions show there is some relativity involved in the study. The researchers compared participants’ eating patterns to the guidelines set forth by the Healthy Eating Index, which was created by the US Department of Agriculture.
Let’s not forget the USDA has faced some criticism in recent years for encouraging the consumption of starches and vegetable oils, only for research to later uncover this was hugely problematic. Even more recently, this year’s food recommendations came without as many restrictions on red meat consumption as some experts would’ve liked, which some sources attributed to the influence of the meat industry.
How Much Exercise is Enough?
The researchers also required 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise for a passing physical activity grade. That’s four to five 30-minute workout sessions per week. While this may be advisable for some, there’s more nuance to exercise and physical activity than this study is really showing. People who work on their feet, lift weights, carry children around or live pedestrian-oriented lifestyles get a lot more physical activity in their daily lives than sedentary office workers who hit the gym four times a week.
Understanding Complexity in Health
While the study’s results are accurate in the sense that many Americans are out of shape, the claim that 97 percent of us are living unhealthy lifestyles is a bit alarmist. Not only that, it’s dangerous: Those of us who do try to eat healthy and exercise regularly may become dismayed in the face of this kind of accusation, leading us to abandon our efforts altogether.
If you’re going to take something away from this study, let it be this: In general, more Americans need to watch their physical activity levels, weight and diet. But you already knew that. Keep your weight in check by eating whole foods, staying active and not smoking, and the exact percentage of Americans who fit the bill will hardly matter.