Rishabh Mehrotra

Take a good look at yourself, America.

Rishabh Mehrotra has, and what he sees has inspired him to take up the cause of changing the health habits of 310 million Americans.

Mehrotra, president and CEO of SHPS Inc., has been blogging at “Building a Well Nation” since November about what he terms the “well nation” and the “sick economy.”

He writes about a chronically overweight America where people eat massive amounts of unhealthy food,  smoke, drink and rarely exercise on one hand, and the life-style revolution needed to save us from ourselves on the other.

Or, as Mehrotra writes on one blog, “Changing health habits means more than changing health habits. What I mean is that we need to collectively commit to a movement.”

In the sick economy, the amount of healthcare people consume in treatments for everything from diabetes to heart disease is increasing to unsustainable levels.

Mehrotra sees the problem firsthand because SHPS is a consulting firm that manages companies’ benefits while helping them cut healthcare costs through case-management and disease-management plans. That includes recommending more health-improvement information for employees.

Mehrotra’s passion connects to his business. But his blog goes far beyond the delicate diplomacy of business. The posts are calls to arms, with some rather strident views guaranteed not to make him the most popular guy with fast-food purveyors and free-market advocates.

“Yes, we are well-nation company,” he said. “But what I’m talking about goes beyond any self-interest.”

Like Michelle Obama, Mehrotra is using his (more local) influence to try to change people’s behaviors to well from healthy.

The sick economy is the portion of domestic spending either fueled by spending on managing poor health, or spending on behavioral habits that create poor health, according to his blogs.

The well nation will leave that all behind.

Let’s talk about schools, Mehrotra said. Do food subsidies make sense that put fatty foods on student’s lunch plates? he asks.

“Why not provide them with healthy meals, more exercise at schools?”

Probably Mehrotra’s most radical departure from conventional wisdom is that if Americans radically changed their habits and improved their health, it would wreck the economy:

Unfortunately, in our current environment, sickness is far more profitable than wellness. The sick economy, which I define as the part of our economy that is either directly or indirectly a contributor to our healthcare costs, is roughly 40% of our Gross Domestic Product! If we were to reduce this spend by 20-40%, it would lead to a decline in our GDP by as much as $2 trillion dollars! ― in other words, a massive recession. This gap puts us in an economic Catch-22 of sorts: If we improve healthy behavior, thereby reducing healthcare costs, it will drive our economy off the cliff. Therefore, the conundrum we need to solve is the following: How can we change the paradigm to drive real change that improves health, reduces healthcare costs, and grows our economy?

Mehrotra’s conclusion? The only solution is to shift to the “Well Nation” mode fast enough to offset the corresponding decrease in demand for healthcare.

“Ultimately our economic development is based on spending, so we have to take it from one area to another.”

A well nation would be one where consumers, companies, regulators and educators would all be on the same page, creating legislation that would encourage employers to encourage employees – who are also  consumers – to chose the healthy drink over the Coldstone Creamery PB&C shake, with 2010 calories, 131 fat grams and 153 grams of sugar.

(For reference, most people in the world only get about 2,800 calories during an entire day.)

Mehrotra’s posts also have a healthy dose of reality about the perils businesses face if they really follow his logic:

I recently spoke with a senior executive at a fast food chain and asked what they were doing to improve the health content of their food. Interestingly, this company had hired a Chef to do exactly that and they had experimented with burgers with fewer marbles (i.e. fat). The result, sales dropped. They also tried to introduce veggie-burgers on the menu. The result; nine sold in a week. So if you are the product manager of a fast food chain, what would you do: more marbles or less? If you said more marbles, then you just contributed to the Sick Economy. If you said less, you just impacted your paycheck.

When SHPS executives started putting healthier food in the company cafeteria, “initially we saw sales in the cafeteria drop,” Mehrotra said.

But if all companies cut the unhealthy snacks they’re offering employees, that would send a message to vendors to make different types of goods, he insists.

Mehrotra admits his mission is ambitious, and it will be a war of incremental victories.

“This isn’t one month or one year. This movement may be a 30-year journey to create that well economy,” he said.

In future posts, Mehrotra plans to blog about what policy makers should do about the out-dated system of food subsidies, a holdover from the Great Depression; about innovative companies and how they’re addressing health issues.

About health and lifestyles as global issues as people in China and India increase their intake of calories through fast foods.

He sees himself doing more public speaking and public advocacy: “I’m not looking for controversy, but bringing a point of view.

“I have nothing to gain, and therefore nothing to lose.”

Hightlights from “Well Nation”:
The numbers are stark. About 73 million Americans are obese and over 35% suffer from chronic conditions, most of which are driven by unhealthy behaviors. And despite these alarming statistics and public debates, we continue to slip into a downward spiral of poor health and increasing costs. We’re far from being a well nation.

According to the IFTF; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50% of our healthcare spending is driven by controllable behavior. The primary drivers of healthcare costs are eating habits and caloric intake, lack of exercise, and smoking. The statistics in each area are shocking:

  • The average caloric intake for Americans is 3760 calories vs. the recommended intake range of 1500-2300
  • 27% of the healthcare cost increase since 1990 is driven by obesity
  • The highest calorie drink in America, the Coldstone Creamery PB&C shake, has 2010 calories, 131 grams of fat equal to 68 bacon strips, 153 grams of sugar or 30 chocolate chip cookies!
  • Soft drinks have replaced milk in the diets of many American children
  • Nearly 73 million Americans, including many children, are obese
  • Probability of a child being obese with obese parents is 80%
  • Being overweight or obese is a primary risk factor for diabetes; half the country could have diabetes or pre-diabetes by 2020
  • Life expectancy of a smoker is 64 vs. 78 for a non-smoker
  • Americans watch an average of four hours of TV per day
  • The deteriorating health affect from the lack of exercise is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day
  • Over 35% of Americans suffer from behavior-related chronic conditions such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease.

Terry Boyd

Terry Boyd

Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.