The Faculty of Health Sciences at Africa University gave me a surprise farewell luncheon as we ended the second semester. Since I’m vegetarian, everyone brought a home-cooked vegetarian dish for the luncheon. It was delicious. Someone even commented that it would not be hard to be vegetarian if all vegetarian meals were so good.
Our neighborhood also gave me a good-by potluck dinner. It was primarily vegetarian and it was delicious. There was one platter of meat because one of my friends said he couldn’t come if there wasn’t at least one meat option. When I quipped that I was sure others were glad he was so insistent, the place erupted with laughter and applause.
We had yet another vegetarian potluck meal at the faculty Guest-house because several students wanted an informal meeting to talk about starting a “Healthy Lifestyle Club” at Africa University. I was delighted to host this meeting, and several other members of our faculty were also involved. By the evening’s end we had a good outline for developing the club, including the gist of a Vision and Mission Statement.
All of these events were heart-warming. My being vegetarian and my walking “obsession” made me seem a bit odd when I began teaching at AU three years ago, but my lifestyle message is now seen as being valid. Friends still joke about it, but they’re warm-hearted jokes. Many told me this year that they want to start moving toward a more vegetarian lifestyle.
I encourage this, but I make it clear both in conversation and in my lectures, that I’m not trying to convert anyone into becoming vegetarian. I want my readers to understand this also. Without a doubt, wholesome plant-based meals are the healthiest ones we can eat, but this does not mean that one has to give up meat. From a health standpoint, it is wise to limit meat consumption, but giving it up totally is not required.
The special attention I received as the academic year at AU wound down was nice, but what’s truly exciting is that the value of a lifestyle approach to health is being recognized. The vision of Africa University having a Center for Lifestyle Excellence as a way forward in nurturing a healthier Africa is being embraced, and that’s good news!
Why is lifestyle excellence so important to health in Africa? For the same reason that it’s important everywhere else. Chronic diseases that are the bane of the West, such as hypertension, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, are now becoming major problems in Africa. WHO calls them an impending disaster globally. They’re a disaster for families, communities, and nations. People around the world are struggling to cope with these health calamities.
While individual disability or death due to any of these diseases is a tragedy, the deeper tragedy is that most of this is needless. Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control tell us these diseases are at least 75 percent preventable. Science tells us this pandemic is driven by unhealthy lifestyles more than any other factor. The key to reversing this grim outlook is the widespread adoption of truly healthy ways of life.
Of course, changing a lifestyle is easier said than done. Fast foods are popular everywhere because they are a quick, easy way of grabbing a tasty meal. The fact that their high salt, sugar, saturated fats and excess calories put these foods high on the list of factors that drive today’s chronic disease pandemic is easily overlooked.
Similarly, hopping into a car is much quicker than walking a few blocks. The great appeal of fast foods and sedentary technologies is that they make life easy in the short run. The fact that they make life more difficult in the long run because of their unhealthy consequences is usually not recognized. Understanding this and changing one’s lifestyle appropriately is far from easy.
The challenge of making such change is tough for anyone. It’s monumental when it comes to entire communities or countries. Compounding this problem, few people understand that lifestyle change can dramatically improve health. Even physicians seriously underrate its effectiveness. Though it is subtle, the impact of lifestyle on health is powerful.
Paradoxically, there may be greater hope for Africa than elsewhere. Most Africans are still close to their traditional roots. Even sophisticated urbanites treasure their rural homes, though they’re also fond of technological advances. Still, if they can catch the vision of reviving traditions that nourish health, and adapt them within a modern context, Africa may be able to lead the world back to holistic health.
My hope and prayer is not only that Africa can catch this vision, but the rest of the world can also. I invite you to learn more about the Foundation for a Healthy Africa.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, May 22, 2013 • Volume V, No. 5.