What if the answer to America’s ongoing healthcare debate is as simple as changing our habits?
As a study abroad student in France, the questions that I am most frequently asked by my friends and family back home invariably relate to food. What are the crêpes like? Do you drink a lot of wine? What is the best thing you have eaten? My answers to these questions vary, but they all have a common denominator: simplicity.
A typical dinner here starts with salad and bread, I have a glass of wine with the main course, then finish with bread, cheese, and dessert—every night. All considered I eat about one entire baguette each day, some kind of dessert, red wine, maybe a pain au chocolat around lunchtime. Sounds pretty good, right? So what is keeping France from becoming, like the United States, a nation plagued by obesity, heart disease, and high cholesterol? The answer, quite possibly, is simplicity.
It’s no secret that there is a great difference between the health care systems of France and the United States. According the World Health Organization’s most recent ranking of the health care systems of its 191 member states, France ranked #1, while the United States came in at #37. Granted the report is rather old, having not been updated since 2000, but the results are astonishing nonetheless. The United States, while ranking relatively low in performance, spends the third-highest proportion of its GDP (17.9%) on health care; in France this figure is just 11%.
What is perhaps more disturbing is the United States’ shortcomings in other health-related areas. According to the World Health Organization, average life expectancy in the United States is 78.6 years—3 years less than that of France and a staggering 11 years behind Monaco’s chart-topping 89.6 years. The United States also has almost twice the infant mortality rate of France and has one of the world’s highest obesity rates at one-third of the adult population.
I recently visited a doctor in France for a physical examination required to validate my visa. Among the standard array of questions, my examiner asked if I take any medications. When I responded with “Only a multivitamin” the doctor smiled, as if this was the expected answer.
“Almost every American who comes in here tells me that they take vitamins,” she said. “Do the French not take vitamins?” I asked. She informed me that very few healthy French people take vitamins.
“I walk to work everyday, I don’t have to think about what I eat because the foods that I eat are naturally full of nutrients. I get all the vitamins I need from my food.”
This got me thinking, is it possible that all of the baguettes, wine, and cheese that I have been enjoying over the past month are actually healthy for me? My physician seemed to think so.
And food isn’t the only area where the French lifestyle takes a much simpler route. Each day I walk just over 3 kilometers one-way to get to school. Joining me are thousands of other people—on foot and on bike—making the morning commute without use of a car. Sure there are cars here, but for a city of 900,000 I have yet to see more than a few cars backed up at a signal, much less anything like the Lake Shore Drive style traffic jams that I have come to expect as a resident of the greater Chicago area.
Studies show that just under 3% of Americans walk to work each day, compared with about 15% in France. The number of those who bike to and from work each day is also much higher in France. The use of public transportation—which invariably requires at least some walking—is 5 times higher here.
Perhaps the answer to the American health care dilemma is more simple than GDP, budgets, and insurance policies. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to suggest a ‘silver bullet’ to what is, in reality, a complicated issue. Nor is this a polemic against all things American. Consider it rather a call to reason—an appeal to pragmatism. Eat good food, eat fresh food, and walk it off.
Is the answer that simple? I’ll be back in May, you can ask me then.