Weil to Bioneers: Health is your responsibility, not politicians

Paul Liberatore – Contra Costa Times

The annual Bioneers conference prides itself on presenting unsung “superstars” – “great people nobody has ever heard of,” founder Kenny Ausubel said during the weekend gathering at the Marin Civic Center.

But Andrew Weil, a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, is a superstar physician just about everyone has heard of from his books and appearances on “Larry King Live,” the “Today Show” and “Oprah.”

An avuncular figure with his neatly trimmed white beard, bald head and easy smile, Weil spoke about the contentious health care reform issue at the 20th Bioneers convocation on Saturday.

He was the headliner of the morning plenary session, strolling the stage in jeans and a gray T-shirt, speaking without notes to a large but not capacity crowd in the 2,000-seat Veterans Memorial Auditorium.

He wasted no time in framing the current debate as not about health care, but about health insurance, pointing out that our overly expensive health care system is 37th in the world in terms of quality, about the same as Serbia.

“There is something very wrong with this picture,” he said.

He noted that in his recent speeches on health care, President Barack Obama’s only reference to preventive medicine was to encourage people to get a colonoscopy. But there was no mention of health education or the lifestyle choices – diet and exercise – that are major factors in disease prevention and health promotion.

He blamed a corporate “disease management system” that is overly
dependent on expensive technology – the overuse of high-tech scans that themselves may cause cancer, and the over-reliance on prescription drugs for treating each and every disease.

“Americans are taking prescription drugs at 10 times the rate as when I was growing up,” he said. And without naming brand names, he got a big hand when he took aim at the proliferation of ads for prescription drugs on television, saying, “If I were king, I would ban direct consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals. If I were on a desert island and had to pick 12 drugs to have with me, I’d pick things like morphine and aspirin, not the stuff advertised on TV. This is a big problem we’ve got to solve.”

He advised his audience against relying on politicians to solve it.

“They only pay lip service to prevention,” he said. “They are too beholden to vested interests. The corrupting influence of money is overwhelming. The profits are outrageous.”

Instead, he placed the responsibility directly on the shoulders of the average person.

“It’s up to you to change the balance of political power,” he said. “Health is an individual responsibility. But we’ve got to make it easier, not harder, for people to make healthier choices.”

He brought up some novel approaches to help people do that. He cited the example of Alabama, which is looking at combating its high obesity rate with a fat tax that would cause people who don’t lose weight to forfeit some health benefits.

“That’s something to experiment with,” he said.

And he brought up a Swedish attempt to make exercise fun by turning a staircase into a piano keyboard, encouraging people to make music while taking the stairs rather than an escalator.

“I like that,” he grinned. “It’s a novel strategy that won’t give people the feeling of being coerced.”

The bottom line, Weil told the group, is that “you can’t afford to get sick.” And he offered some simple ways of staying healthy.

“It’s not that complicated,” he said. “When it comes to nutrition, stop eating refined, processed and manufactured foods. That’s it. Just stay out of the interior of supermarkets.”

He recommended more of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and in fish oil. He also suggested that Americans need vitamin D, which comes from the sun, saying that we suffer from a widespread deficiency of it in this country.

Within reason, “the sun is good for you,” he said.

Then there’s exercise. “You’ve got to move your body,” he said. “Figure out ways to move. You don’t have to run marathons or join a gym. Just try to walk. Walk a little more today than you did yesterday.”

And, lastly, “neutralize stress.” He said his favorite method was a simple breathing technique. “Try breathing deeper, slower, quieter and more regularly. Practice this. It’s very simple stuff.”

Despite the divisiveness of the health care debate, Weil said, “I’m optimistic about the future. If enough people demand change, maybe we can change things. But it’s only going to change if we get aroused enough and angry enough to make the change.”

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