Can healthy food help save the NHS?
In his second column, Sepe Sehati discusses the UK’s relationship with food and how well-thought-out government initiatives coupled with a change of mindset and lifestyle could help create a healthier Britain and save the dying NHS.
At a time when more than one billion people worldwide are obese, it is an amazing achievement that Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity and highest average lifespans in the world.
It is worth reminding ourselves that obesity is not just a cosmetic concern. Rather, it is a medical problem that significantly increases the risk of other diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.
Obesity and chronic conditions can wreak havoc not only with one’s health, but ultimately one’s nation and its fiscal stability. No wonder the legendary Warren Buffet likens the out-of-control health care costs to a “tapeworm eating at our economic body”.
Key health figures in the UK
Money definitely has and continues to be spent on health care or should I say, “disease care”? Looking at the latest figures between 2020-2021, the UK saw the biggest increase in health spending as a proportion of GDP than any other country in a global 19 nation league table.
What is the outcome of such expenditures?
According to recent OECD data analysed by the think tank Civitas:1
- Brits saw health spending go up by 14 percent on a per person measure – in a single year – breaking the £4,000 per person barrier – the largest increase of all 19 comparable countries and up by 43 percent since 2011.
- New figures for avoidable deaths show that Brits are more likely to die of treatable diseases at the hands of the health system than any other country apart from America.
- If the UK health system matched the average performance for health outcomes, more than 9,000 lives a year would be saved.
- British life expectancy has plummeted – among 19 similar countries only Americans die sooner. Life expectancy went up by an average of 9.6 months across other countries but fell by 2.4 months in the UK.
- The UK is 10th out of 19 comparable countries for spending on its health system as a percentage of GDP. Putting us mid-table.
- In 2019, the UK ranked 17th out of 19 comparable countries for life expectancy.
- For strokes and heart attacks the UK has the worst survival rates of comparable countries.
- Across five different types of cancer measured by the OECD the NHS comes 16th out of 18 comparable countries.
- For treatable diseases the UK is second to bottom – 15th out of 16. If we matched the average of other countries, we would save over 6,500 lives every year or 17 a day.
- The only thing the UK tops the charts on is helping diabetics avoid limb amputation.
What this means for the UK
Across 16 major health care outcomes the UK comes bottom of the league four times – more than any other country – and is in the bottom three for eight out of 16 measures. No other comparable country has such a poor record.
Understandably the NHS is loved by us all, but whichever way we look at it something is seriously wrong with such statistics. The status quo has for quite some time not been fit for purpose. Our relationship with the NHS has to be seen as one of mutualistic symbiosis where both ‘organisms’ benefit from the association. Currently, at best we have a parasitic relationship.
For the NHS to survive we must become healthier. It is only then that we can begin to migrate from our current unsustainable practice of ‘disease care’ to a sustainable ‘health care’.
One of the highly dysfunctional aspects of modern health care (in reality ‘disease care’) systems remains the fact that as if by design food plays a negligible role in treating or preventing disease. Instead, food has been largely vilified as an underlying cause of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases through overconsumption and poor diet.
But as our forefathers knew, a healthy diet can not only be a way of staving off these health problems, but it also has the power to manage and treat diseases too.
Forgotten health care insights
One of the oldest medical texts in the world is the Ebers Papyrus, a compilation of treatments and cures written in around 1500 BC. The text has instructions on which plants to consume to treat various diseases, giving 811 prescriptions for a wide range of disorders from mental illnesses to crocodile bites.
Later came ‘the Hippocratic Corpus’ often attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. Remedies included honey to treat insomnia and infected wounds and basil used to soften the bowel. In total, 40 percent of the remedies in the collection were made from 44 plants – 34 of which were also consumed as food.
The use of foods to help ensure a healthy long life has been addressed in traditional Chinese, Mediterranean and Ayurvedic medicine and many more ancient texts. Given the well documented huge problems with medicine today, smart nations such as Japan are once again utilising practical food-based practices to actively help towards achieving relatively miraculous health care results. In next month’s column, we will study this Japanese approach.
About the author
Dr Sepe Sehati is an innovator and a passionate advocate and practitioner of both critical thinking and tactical cross-pollination of disciplines. Sepe holds a Doctorate in Bioengineering from the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. Sepe’s innovative approach to problem solving and strategising – fuelled through the application of diverse scientific fields, analytics, neuroscience, behavioural science and evidence-based principles, has led him to contribute to various high-profile initiatives, ranging from President Obama’s Transition Health Policy, to the UK Prime Minister’s sustainable development plan, to the late Dr Richard Rockefeller’s innovative healthcare models.