Congress Flunks on Healthy Living

By: Katherine Tallmadge

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone in Congress quote the Hippo­cratic oath during this year’s debate on health care reform — “First, do no harm” — I could retire early. What I have not heard quoted by anyone is an admonition almost as well-known and much more appropriate to the current debate: “Physician, heal thyself.”

As a nutrition and diet consultant in Washington who has worked with members of Congress and congressional staff over the past two decades, I have more than a passing knowledge of the people now making decisions that will affect the health of millions of Americans. And I can tell you they are about the last people in the world who can speak about what it takes to be in good health.

Congress’s lifestyle precludes balanced eating or regular physical activity. Lawmakers — and their staffs — work long, 10-to-14-hour days. They rarely see daylight. Walking to work a few blocks or eating a balanced breakfast is thought to be a waste of time. There are parking spaces to fill and a breakfast meeting with cheese Danishes and who needs exercise when you can have all the coffee you need to stay alert? Lunch breaks are frowned upon, and needing a good night’s sleep is a sign of weakness. Healthful eating and exercise smack of elitism (you didn’t mention arugula, did you?), and relaxation and time for family are for sissies. “It’s a very intense life. Long hours are expected, and your job is everything. You’ll make the sacrifices, including health, exercise, family,” says one of my clients, who worked as a staffer in the offices of one of the most prominent health care proponents (and yo-yo dieters) in Congress before finally deciding she had to quit. She described working on Capitol Hill as “a toxic combination of stress, long hours and unhealthy food.”

Another client broke up with her senator boyfriend because she couldn’t take the unhealthful lifestyle she was inevitably being dragged into. It was beginning to affect her health and weight and at the same time was negatively affecting their relationship.

“It was too painful to be a part of such an unhealthy life,” she explained. “His work was everything. He wasn’t finished at the office until late every night. By then he was ravenous, as he never fed himself proper meals during the day and would inhale huge steak dinners. He was becoming more and more overweight and was being warned by his doctor to shape up. I tried to get him to exercise with me, go walking, or just come home to have healthy meals. But nothing worked. He seemed to be stuck in this unhealthy lifestyle and couldn’t give it up.”

Junk food is pervasive on Capitol Hill. It’s found in abundance — from the candies, cookies and snacks given by lobbyists on everyone’s desks, to the vending machines in office hallways, to the well-stocked candy desk that has been on the Senate floor for 40 years. Who needs balanced meals? Members and staffers regularly grab free food at the continual receptions down the hall or across the street. They live on canapés, cheese and crackers, prime rib, chocolate mousse. Their waistlines expand, but they just buy new clothes, and besides, nobody notices or mentions the result. We’re doing important work here!

The few members inclined to be healthy have access to a House or Senate gym with showers and cut-up fresh fruit. If they need to stay late at work, a cafeteria with a whole crew must, by law, stay to feed them (subsidized by taxpayers). If they travel beyond this tiny and exclusive universe, they are driven, flown and “handled.” And if, heaven forbid, members fall ill, they have access to the best medical care and health insurance in the country. There are even medical offices in the Capitol where members and staffers have access to doctors or nurses as needed at no cost to them. Of course, they work hard and deserve this kind of care. But who doesn’t?

With the limos and the staff and the constant schedule of business breakfasts, lunches and dinners, members of Congress don’t really live like other people. Except in a sense, they do. Their bad habits are an exaggerated version of the things their constituents do, making them overweight and out of shape and ultimately a huge burden to all of us who have to spend money on health care.

Let’s hope that lawmakers can somehow get past their own disregard of good health and make the right choices for the rest of us. We need a system that keeps people healthy, one that actually prevents the most serious and costly chronic diseases, most of which are caused by poor eating choices, a sedentary lifestyle and/or excess body fat. As Congress works hard to reform health care, there is a temptation to simply upgrade the current very expensive system instead of developing an actual health promotion system.

Sound too simple? Well, it isn’t! In my personalized nutrition practice, by teaching people healthful habits of eating and physical activity, I see “miracles” every day. My clients — and others who are lucky enough to work with health care professionals such as me — get taken off diabetes drugs, blood pressure drugs, cholesterol drugs, arthritis pain medications and antidepressants. Studies show that people who improve their eating and activity habits and achieve their ideal body weight report an improved quality of life, level of energy, mobility, general mood and self-confidence. They experience improvements in their physical health and interactions with others.

We either ignore or simply pay lip service to the importance of prevention, perhaps because our “health care system” has no incentives for disease prevention. Who profits when people are healthier? Certainly, Big Pharma, insurance companies, hospitals and junk food manufacturers would lose their obesity cash flow bonanza of the past decades.

Some proposals that will start making a difference are no-brainers and won’t cost taxpayers: labeling calorie content on restaurant menus, getting vending machines with sodas and junk foods out of schools and getting rid of junk food ads and violent video games and television for underage children. We should teach respect for personal health in schools — nutrition, physical activity, cooking and stress management — for students and their parents. After-school physical activity and healthful snack programs should be available for children who live in poor homes or unsafe neighborhoods. Nutrition and weight loss counseling by qualified dietetics professionals should be reimbursed by Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies.

So why aren’t we doing any of this? One reason may be that the people who make the laws don’t understand the need to take care of oneself and adopt prevention. And they don’t understand it, because very few of them actually practice it.

There are exceptions, of course. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) starts every morning running or cross-training in the House gym. And his personal experience has shaped the kind of remedies he sees as necessary. Kind proposes giving tax credits for going to gyms and supports legislation that would require schools to inform parents of their children’s participation in physical education programs. “It’s very easy to lose touch with what most people have to do — even if you’re conscientious,” says Kind.

My plan for health care reform, then, is to start at the beginning, with the people debating, writing and ultimately enacting health care legislation. President Obama is a pretty good role model — assuming he cuts back on those hamburgers he seems to like so much and finally quits smoking. Now it’s time for Congress to follow his lead. Members of Congress and political leaders need to understand what leads to good health — and practice it. Then they’ll be in a position to tell the rest of the country what to do.

Katherine Tallmadge, president of Personalized Nutrition, is a counselor, author (“Diet Simple,” 2004) and speaker and has designed nutrition, wellness and weight loss programs for individuals, government and corporations for more than 20 years.

© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC

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