An Angolan Epidemic and “Eat Your Peas”

When I was a kid, my mom urged me to eat my peas because “there are children starving in Africa.” Like most kids, I would have been all too happy to ship my peas over there, and didn’t understand the underlying concept of “you don’t realize how lucky you are.”

Today, I was scanning Google News and I saw an article about an epidemic of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in Northern Angola, and the World Health Organization’s attempts to bring it under control. It’s the worst known fever epidemic in history, with 174 deaths. And I thought to myself, “You don’t realize how lucky you are.”

As a reasonably affluent American living on the east coast, I take for granted the following things:

1. I have access to an unlimited supply of safe drinking water and a safe and plentiful food supply
2. My house will not be bulldozed, my car will not be burned, and my roads will not be bombed anytime soon.
3. I will not lose a limb or a child today because of land mines all around my neighborhood.
4. If I am in an accident, I have speedy access to high quality emergency care in a facility that can afford MRI and CT machines, let alone clean needles and hand soap.
5. I have a very good chance of living to a ripe old age.

Wow! That’s a lot to be thankful for, and all it takes is a little perspective on the sad state of much of the human population of this planet.

Now let’s imagine a little further that a poor Angolan family were magically transported out of their situation and into mine. They could shop at (and afford) Whole Foods Market, they could eat fresh produce and drink potable water, and they could walk through their neighborhood without fear. Their life expectancy would probably rise from 38.3 years – that’s right, by the time the average Angolan is my age, he’s been dead for a year and a half.

Now, of course, they’d be subject to all the “diseases of affluence,” as T. Colin Campbell calls them in The China Study. And if they didn’t know better, they’d start eating the standard American diet and likely succumb to heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, or any of the other diet- and lifestyle-related diseases years before their time.

The US life expectancy, bought by the most expensive medical system in the world, is 77.1 years, and for the first time since they’ve started counting, it’s expected to go down. How does that rank us?

We’re 28th in the world. Behind Japan, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Germany, and the UK. But also behind Spain, Greece, and Jordan, three countries much poorer than us. For a complete list, Download the data in an Excel spreadsheet.

What’s my point? Now that I understand the relationship between diet and disease, and I realize how unbelievably lucky I am to be living in a time and place where great health is within the reach of most people, I feel obligated to take care of myself.

Now that I’m 40, I finally get what my mom was trying to tell me about gratitude, opportunity, and obligation. I figure that if I continue to take care of myself and eat Nutrient Rich, I might live long enough to understand the rest of what she’s been trying to teach me.

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