Every great journey begins with a single step. The same can be said for our health.
But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or powerless when trying to make a change in our own lives or the communities we live in.
The reality is that it’s really tough to navigate predatory marketing, yoyo diets and the avalanche of health misinformation on social media.
It’s hard to find the time and money to be active and eat healthy while withstanding junk food ads on every street corner and screen we encounter.
With one in two Australians now affected by chronic disease, this is an issue bigger than individual willpower.
It will take concerted and consistent commitment from governments to address the serious barriers communities face when it comes to achieving good health.
And while I’m the first to acknowledge it’s nearly impossible to be healthy these days — particularly if you don’t have significant resources to spend on maintaining your wellbeing — there are still small things we can all do to protect our health.
Find a doctor you connect with
The most important thing you can do to safeguard your long-term health is to find a GP you connect with and can commit to.
General practice works best when you’re able to build a relationship with your doctor.
They grow to know you and your family history, understand what makes you tick, and have a deeper insight into your health risks — and opportunities.
This will also ensure you don’t miss key screening milestones or health checks along the way.
While it’s often not simple to find and access a GP, it’s worth the attention and investment.
Take steps to quit smoking or vaping
Cigarettes are the only product that if used exactly as intended, will kill two in three of their long-term users.
The good news though is that from the moment you quit, you will begin to feel benefits in your breathing, skin, eyes and overall wellbeing.
Although fewer people now smoke cigarettes, more and more young people are taking up vaping.
All e-cigarette users are exposed to chemicals and toxins that have the potential to cause harm.
In addition to nicotine and heavy metals, more than 200 chemicals have been associated with the liquid in e-cigarettes.
There are a range of services and supports to assist you in kicking the habit for these harmful products.
Calling Quit on 13 7848, or visiting their website, is a great first step. Otherwise, have a chat with your local GP.
Cut back on alcohol
When many of us think about managing our weight, we first think of food — but alcohol also contains a significant number of calories and might be a more sustainable way to improve your health.
Along with the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain, mouth, throat and more, cutting right back on alcohol can help with concentration, immunity, sleep, and even anxiety.
For women, this is particularly important, as alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer — something not commonly talked about.
Swap out sugar
Over the past few decades, sugar has snuck into many of the foods we eat each day.
From breakfast cereals to sauces, to salad dressings, a lot of the sugar we now consume is hidden in the fine print on the back of food and drink labels.
In fact, it’s estimated the average Australian will consume 2,000 kilograms of added sugar in their lifetime!
And while added sugar is particularly problematic for those of us living with a chronic disease like diabetes, the sheer quantity of hidden sugar in our food contributes to weight gain and can eventually increase our risk of heart disease, and even certain cancers.
Start by turning the pack or jar over, and looking at the sugar content of the product “per 100g”.
This will help you make sense of the level of sugar and navigate between like products in the search for a lower-sugar alternative.
Look for the option with the least sugar. This will be best for your health and nudge food companies to offer more products lower in the sweet stuff!
Eat more vegetables
Veggies are having their renaissance — and for good reason!
Cooked right, they’re incredibly diverse, tasty and nutritious. Eat a range of veg that you enjoy, but also don’t force yourself to eat those you just can’t get behind.
Learn a few simple recipes that get the most out of the vegetable — like my family-favourite broccoli with garlic and olive oil that’s converted a long list of broc-haters over to the pro-veggie corner!
Frozen veg is also a convenient, affordable and nutrient-packed way to get more veggies onto your plate.
Having a few packs in the freezer, and adding a few handfuls to a cooking pot, is a simple way to pack more health in.
Taking that step
Navigating our way to good health can be tough, and there are no simple solutions when it comes to the health of our nation.
It’s important we don’t blame ourselves or shame each other as we look for achievable, affordable, and effective opportunities to bolster wellbeing.
Rather than focusing on a daunting endpoint, let’s start with something simpler.
Small steps can add up to a powerful and sustainable leap on our path to feeling great.
Sandro Demaio is a globally renowned public health expert and medical doctor who is the CEO of VicHealth.
He writes for ABC Health and ABC Everyday, co-hosted ABC TV show Ask the Doctor and is currently appearing on Magda’s Big National Health Check. Watch part 3 at 8.30 tonight on ABC TV and ABC iview.