Posted on Jun 18, 2020, 2 p.m.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to a country being healthy or unhealthy. Generally the healthiest countries are developed, having lower rates of pollution, access to quality healthcare and clean drinking water. Unhealthy countries generally don’t have access to clean water or good healthcare, in these places disease can run rampant, pollution may be high, and the quality of life is typically lower with life expectancy being shorter and the infant mortality rate being high.
The Bloomberg Global Health Index takes all of these factors into account plus others to rank 169 of the healthiest and unhealthiest economies in the world; other factors include: health risks such as smoking, high blood pressure and obesity; life expectancy; malnutrition, and causes of death. Using a variety of factors each country is given a rating out of a possible top score of 100.
According to this year’s report Spain is considered to have the healthiest population in the world achieving a score of 92.75, with it boasting a life expectancy of 83.5 years and this is projected to increase to 85.8 by 2040 to be the highest around the globe. The country may drink a lot of wine, smoke, and stay up late but their dietary choices and other lifestyle choices are what is setting them above the rest. Spain has the highest percentage of walkers with close to 40% of the population walking almost everywhere they can and following a Mediterranean diet that is loaded with healthy fats, vegetables and legumes while being very low in processed food with low amounts of red meat. Additionally the Universal Healthcare Program in Spain is very successful, being able to lower the rate of preventable deaths to 45.4 per 100,000 residents.
According to this report the top 10 healthiest countries by population for 2020 are:
Canada was ranked 16th, New Zealand came in at 18th, the UK 19th, Germany 23rd, Greece 26th, Cuba 30th, Estonia 32nd, USA ranked 35th, Poland 40th, Slovakia 45th, Turkey 51, China 52, Mexico 53, and Serbia was ranked 55.
America did not even break the top 30 on this index which was primarily due to obesity continuing to plague the nation. Trends are suggesting that more Americans are exercising, increasing from 18.2% in 2008 to 24.3%, but over 42% of the population are still considered to have obesity according to the CDC. Being overweight and having obesity is associated with poorer mental health outcomes and reduced quality of life as well as being known to increase blood pressure which is the leading cause of stroke, additionally the excess weight also increases the risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood sugar which can lead to diabetes heart disease and some type of cancers.
This rating may come as a shock because America spends the most on healthcare than any other developed country, yet has the lowest life expectancy and some of the worst health outcomes among this group. According to a recent study Americans are getting less healthcare but spending more on it; but this is not because Americans seek medical attention more, rather the greater use of medical technology and healthcare prices that are much higher than in other nations.
“When you look more deeply at how countries spend on health care, it is very clear that in the U.S. we are paying higher prices but not getting more,” said David Squires, senior researcher at The Commonwealth Fund and coauthor of the report. “And because we spend so much on health care, there is less to spend on other important needs and investments.”
Aside from the much needed overhaul of the healthcare system in America, what can people do to improve the health ranking to learn from the global leaders in wellness and life expectancy? The answer is fairly simple, make better lifestyle choices.
Overall health and well being is largely determined by what one eats. In America average diets have grown in portion sizes, saturated fats, sodium, sugars, calories as well as in frequency of eating over the past few decades, and the desire for ease of convenience has left many people eating an extensive amount of their diets from highly processed foods and beverages while becoming largely sedentary, and this begins at early ages as the rates of childhood obesity continue to demonstrate.
“The rising obesity epidemic in the U.S., as well as related chronic diseases, are correlated with a rise in ultra-processed food consumption,” write the authors of a George Washington University study.
Many European nations have managed to refrain from the conveniences of the Western style diet to stay true to more traditional culinary traditions over the passing years to consume diets that include considerably fewer processed foods that are lower in unhealthy fats while being higher in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and lean proteins.
Among the healthiest countries on this report Spain and Italy rank the highest, these populations typically follow a Mediterranean diet which has been shown to be one of the most nutritious diets globally because it places the focus on promoting heart health with healthy fats, vegetables, legumes, fish and seafood. Many European countries also enjoy tapas meals, which are small and encourage consuming smaller more right sized portions.
Outdoor exercise is more popular than indoor gyms in each of the countries ranked 1 through 5 on this report. Iceland moves more than any other European nation, outdoor hikes and swimming are the most popular there. Italy, Spain, and Japan enjoy walking, hiking, and running outside while Switzerland enjoys skiing and biking.
The healthiest countries have a variety of traditional indoor and outdoor exercise activist options, but to add to this they also maximize the movement in everyday activities such as walking to the store, working in a garden, riding a bike to work, and family strolls just for fun. These countries also embrace a more plant based whole food diet with smaller portions to go along with the regular physical exercise. These countries also have good air quality, fewer issues with drug addictions including opioids, and more walkable towns and cities which all contributes to a longer life expectancy according to this report.
While Americans may be exercising more they are not making the gains needed in the kitchen to capitalize on the exercise to improve overall health and well being. Perhaps it is time to take a cue from these healthier neighbors to go back to cooking more at home with whole foods that are unprocessed which will provide the balance of macro and micronutrients that the body needs. This change in diet when combined with regular exercise is basically adopting a more anti-aging lifestyle that will help to increase the rise of America in the healthy global rankings, decrease chronic diseases, and perhaps more importantly increase quality of life while extending both health and lifespans for all Americans.
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