It is up to Millennials to save the world. That may not start with ending war, eliminating poverty, running for office, or colonizing Mars. It may start at the dinner table.
The death rate in the U.S. has gone up for the first time in a decade, and the drivers of this alarming change are almost all preventable.
Suicide, heart disease, liver disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and drug overdose are among the causes of death that ticked up in 2015 compared to previous years. These are all connected to diet and lifestyle, making them imminently preventable.
Depressive disorders correlate with drug abuse and dependency just as much as with poor diet. In fact, addiction may be connected with diet even without the co-presence of other emotional health problems. And of course, obesity–a global epidemic and American mainstay for decades–is clearly connected to diet, as well as virtually every other major health complaint whose causes we currently understand.
So it is no big leap to say that Americans are dying unnecessarily, and that their diet is at the root of it all.
But diet is not as personal as it is often made out to be. The American Diet is a broad, cultural phenomenon, and like Disney movies and rock music, it is being exported around the world in the form of processed snacks, fast food restaurants, and calorie-packed, nutritionally deficient convenience “foods” like soda and frozen meals. Where American brands go, obesity follows.
Right here in the heart of it, then, is a cultural war zone–and Millennials are on the front lines.
It is clear from the example of Prohibition, as well as the continuing failure of the War on Drugs, that law-based approaches to cultural problems are not effective. Diet and food choice are at the root of many social and medical problems, so change must also occur at the roots.
One of the pillars of any effective strategy addressing the obesity crisis is education. That doesn’t just mean public education and awareness campaigns–it means changing the education of medical professionals.
Primary care physicians, on average, receive less than 24 hours of total instruction on nutrition over their six-plus years of medical school. Given the stresses of the job and the demands on their time, doctors are likely to depend on unhealthy convenience foods as anyone else; they are no more role models than they are information resources when it comes to diet. They aren’t to blame for this, of course–the hospitals where they work are equipped with vending machines and cafeterias that churn out junk food on-demand and at an industrial scale.
American healthcare institutions are addicted to unhealthy food in the same way the rest of the nation and world are.
Primary schools both public and private mirror the same conflict that plagues hospitals. Perpetually short on funding and obliged to feed millions of youths every day, schools pay lip service to healthy eating with the odd P.E. class or food pyramid poster, then rely on deep fryers to prepare the staple foods they provide. The cultural standards for what counts as “food” or a “meal” are drowning out the messages that promote true health and balanced nutrition.
Outside of these critical institutions, the messaging turns cultural homogeneity into a failure of self-control and personal choice. In the same way that addiction has long been constructed as an individual weakness–rather than a disease with genetic, mental, and especially social factors–the determinants of diet are buried beneath falsehoods. Everyone is complicit, yet the blame falls on the victims, rather than the culture that made them sick.
Millennials are making it both fashionable and practical to fight this trend.
Farmers’ markets and organic grocery stores may earn scorn as hipster fads, but they are also making personal choice an actual alternative to the ubiquitous and economically dominant mainstream of junk food.
The growth of this cultural alternative supports the social pillar that is also critical to enacting positive, lasting change. The opportunity to make better choices is not sufficient in itself to empower people to break old habits. Any quality addiction treatment program recognizes the risk of relapse, and provides a supportive community, in addition to personalized therapy, to support each person’s recovery.
When an entire culture is addicted to food that isn’t really food, marketers don’t sell products so much as they trigger relapse among those trying to take control of their diets. Preventing that relapse requires communities that can counteract these messages, support the shift away from the old lifestyle, and make the change positive and affirming.
For Millennials, the “counter-culture” is not about psychedelic drugs, protest songs, or anti-war assemblies. It is more about confronting the urgent need to recognize, undo, and replace damaging cultural norms that have persisted for generations. Just as Millennials have inherited a stagnant economy, overcrowded prisons, and a warming climate, they are encountering a cultural legacy as unhealthy to the individual as it is to society and the world at large.