In our society it is most common for people to take our own and our family’s health for granted until something happens that challenges it. Then we usually begin the round of doctors and health care providers trying to find an explanation and a way to recover the lost health. In conventional medicine the emphasis is on the diagnosis of the disease. In natural medicine the approach is different. Even though naturopathic physicians are also concerned with the diagnosis, we also strongly question why the person got sick. What happened to that individual’s health that allowed him or her to fall ill with that particular disease?

In other words, we don’t believe that people just fall sick out of the blue. We see illness as the later, more visible, stage of a process of decline that usually began long before the person would be generally recognized as sick. This decline for most people begins at birth. We are all born with a certain level of health (or vitality) that is determined by a number of factors. These include the level of health of our parents at conception, genetics, accidents of fetal development, the health and nutritional status of our mother during the pregnancy, and birth trauma. Most people are born with relatively good health, and some with less health. Regardless of the level at the start, from that point on the level of health tends to decline over a person’s lifetime.

There are many factors that contribute to this decline of health over people’s lives. Among others, these include unhealthy diet and lifestyle, emotional stress, exposure to toxic substances and chemicals, radiation, physical trauma, and suppressive treatments. Some of these health-impairing factors you can influence and some you can’t. It was reported in the medical journal Age that 40% of the factors affecting life expectancy can be controlled. However, belief systems, ignorance and poor priorities have a big effect on how much control people have over their rate of decline in health. For example, living a completely sedentary lifestyle has a big negative impact on a person’s health over their lifetime. But if you are either uninformed of this fact or choose to ignore it you will not have control over this health factor. Or if you live in a town with badly polluted air your choices may be limited whether you are knowledgeable about these things’ health effects or not.

The most important health factors that we can control are diet and lifestyle. To the extent that we can avoid the other negative influences on our health, we should. But over a lifetime diet and lifestyle are the factors we have the most direct control over. Unfortunately, some powerful influences in our consumer society attempt to lead us astray over these same factors. Staying healthy requires that people make choices that often run contrary to these influences. How often do you see a TV advertisement for broccoli? The media is constantly bombarding us with messages that could influence us, if we let them, towards lifestyle and diet choices that negatively impact our health. In a country and at a time of the greatest affluence ever seen on this planet, our modern consumer society largely encourages us to live an unhealthy lifestyle and to eat junk food. And our American health statistics confirm this. They are worse than most of the other developed countries.

There is a better way. We have choices. At the very least we have choices that can, and do, have a significant influence on whether our health declines quickly or slowly. Those choices may even determine whether you die relatively young, live to be 80 but feel miserable the last 25 years of your life, or have a long active healthy life. Our bodies represent millions of years of evolution. It is only in the last couple of hundred years that we have been exposed to such large amounts of refined foods (like sugar and white flour), extensive industrial pollution, a sedentary lifestyle, and a plethora of synthetic chemicals. Our bodies were not designed for this. It is as though we went out and bought our dream car, threw away the manual and then filled its gas tank with kerosene. It is no wonder so many of us spend much of our lives trying to cope with one chronic disease after another. In fact, it is an incredible testament to the power of our bodies to heal that so many of us live past childhood.

Don’t get me wrong. Our ancient ancestors had a tough life and often died early – except it was from trauma, infections and starvation, not chronic degenerative disease. But their biochemistry and physiology was virtually identical to ours. Until 12,000 years ago, when agriculture was developed, humans had been living a lifestyle and diet that had barely changed over millions of years. The next major lifestyle change was with the development of the modern food industry. That has happened within the memory of our grandparents.

While it is wonderful to have the convenience of modern foods, it has come at a heavy price. It has been easier and more profitable to sell foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and synthetic chemicals (i.e., preservatives, food coloring, flavoring agents, etc.) than it is to make tasty convenient foods made of whole foods. And whole foods are the kinds of foods our ancestors ate and we are designed to eat.

A little story of the development of white flour will illustrate this point. In the last couple of centuries white flour went from being only available to the rich aristocrats to being available to the middle class. Traditionally, wheat was ground into whole-wheat flour by the local mill. With the growing numbers and affluence of the middle class and the development of steel rollers in England, the millers found that they could make more money selling white flour because people could afford it and would pay more for it. After all it was a delicacy that previously had only been available to the rich – and everyone wanted to live like the rich. The byproduct of making white flour is a lot of wheat germ and fiber (where most of the nutrition and all of the vitamins in wheat are found). The millers found that they then could turn around and sell this to farmers for animal feed to “fatten” livestock – making even more money from the same raw product. Thus, was born the food industry as we now know it.

But wait, the story is not quite over. Along comes World War I and England is trying to fill its draft quotas and it is having a problem. Too many men are not healthy enough to pass the physicals or are under the height requirements. A government investigation discovered that the health status of people was declining across society due the wide use of white flour and the resulting vitamin deficiencies. So what was done? They decided to mandate that synthetic vitamins be added back into white flour to prevent these vitamin deficiencies. The result was “enriched flour.”

In this way the millers could continue to sell the vitamin-rich wheat germ and fiber for animal feed, the government could have relatively healthy men for the trenches, and the public could continue to eat like aristocrats. Everyone got what they wanted. Of course, in the long term, a number of these same people would later suffer from diverticulitis, obesity and diabetes or die of colon cancer and heart disease, but nobody was keeping track of that.

It doesn’t have to be like that. People have choices. You can choose to eat healthily and live a healthy lifestyle – it clearly makes a difference over the long term. If your health is already impaired, these choices can make a difference now. Only you can choose a better and healthier life. It is about making one good choice after another. You can choose to eat the unhealthy meal or the healthy one. You can choose to sit on the couch and watch reruns all evening on TV or take a walk. It is about making one choice at a time. Just start now!