Live Longer and Healthier – The Physical and Psychological Health Benefits of Life in Ecuador – Noelia Roldan
As a university educated South American in my early twenties, ready to kickstart my career, I began my experience working in the non-profit social and healthcare sector. I worked for almost eight years in the USA, considered one of the world’s most advanced countries, in terms of education and technology, as applied to the field of medicine. I had no idea I was also in for an enlightening experience on people’s connection with nature, community and the redefinition of my professional and personal priorities in life.
To me, the most natural way of staying emotionally and physically healthy is linked to homemade food preparation, combined with family time, as well as exercising and spending quality time outdoors communing with nature. Therefore, when I began to work, I naturally started promoting a lifestyle in harmony with nature, the wellness of one’s body, a strong family focus and community bonding, while also utilizing my knowledge and experience in nutrition, psychology and sociology. Anyone experiencing long-term health issues, even if requiring additional medical treatment, could only receive the full benefits of proper healthcare, if these basic human needs were first met.
As my work progressed, integrating a holistic approach to medicine, I was surprised to experience a great deal of confusion and reluctance from doctors, caregivers, family members and social workers, even when positive changes in patients were readily visible, in terms of physical and psychological improvements. Such readily visible patient improvements included significant weight loss in cases of obesity, lower cholesterol levels, higher energy levels, stronger personal bonds with family, caregivers and members of the community at large, as well as generating a positive sense of responsibility in their own personal care and well being.
Unfortunately, the external pressures created increasing challenges to the positive patient progress being realized. For example, I quickly noticed that, in general, quality and health conscious cooking was more the exception, than the rule. Even as I encouraged the establishment of quality cooking groups, the health benefits I was promoting became lost in a tendency to rely on ready-to-eat microwavable dishes, relying mostly on unhealthy, pre-cooked and wholly processed foods. The table of contents in the package of each product showed a number of unhealthy chemical ingredients, while the taste was generally either too sweet, too salty, too greasy, or in some cases, quite tasteless. In the case of the bland and tasteless processed foods, there was usually a recommended “sauce” or “dip” to “improve” the flavor, which usually had concentrated additives and even more unwanted chemicals, like those generally found in processed frozen foods.
Gradually, it became clear that people’s palates had been conditioned to these types of food, apparently at an early age, therefore bland tasting, but healthy, foods, such as fruits and fresh vegetables were generally not viewed as desirable. Even quality produce like corn, carrots, green peas, etc. had been technologically modified to add an artificial sweet taste, or attractive coloring components, in detriment to its natural taste and nutritional content. Many fruits though rounded, shiny and colorful, had a high artificial sugar and water content, lacking even the normal seeds found in nature, which made growing a natural, private home garden impossible.
Meat, poultry and fish often didn’t have the proper fresh flavor or colorings, either, and were frequently little more than a synthetically flavored, sub-par product, generally coming in pre-cooked or fried versions, again promoting the use of processed sauces and dips as tenderizers or to enhance flavor. The patients’ daily intake resulted in weight gain and fluid retention, as a natural consequence of the human body fighting to cope with such artificial chemicals. Long-term exposure to these products resulted in bloating, gastrointestinal infections and a weakened immune system.
The ongoing search for organic foods then became vital, but also challenging, as pesticide free-foods are more expensive, less readily available and the very labeled “organic” content often questionable. As a result, the costs of eating healthy worked against those on tight budgets and and the time constraints involved with quality home-cooking seemed counter-culture to the accustomed eating habits of the patients. Many, for example, were all too willing to sacrifice quality home-cooked meals, preferring to eat out, instead.
Additionally, a sedentary lifestyle, heavily influenced by TV watching and the frequent use of the automobile, added to weight gain issues and further enhanced psychological feelings of depression, isolation and anxiety. In the psycho-social aspect of daily life, standard socially accepted behaviors included drinking, smoking, over-eating (often very unhealthy food), long hours of TV watching and/or playing video games (many quite violent or inappropriate), etc. In general, the focus was on personal instant gratification, as well as the evolving, but constant, acquisition of material goods, to compensate for the limited level of quality human interaction.
Despite the fact that reinforcing these practical changes resulted in patients getting better lab results, M.D.s often refused to stop prescribing unnecessary meds. I routinely noticed that if I did not supervise each medical appointment, the general tendency was to leave the daily unnecessary meds dosage untouched and, furthermore, to find a matching diagnosis, whether physical and/or psychological, to match the already prescribed pills. Such practices often made patients excessively passive and helpless to take control of their personal healthcare.
At the end, even adopting healthy eating habits wasn’t enough, in a place where the system is centered around the use of vehicles for almost all outdoors mobility needs and the introduction of daily exercise routines was made so difficult. For instance, going to local parks to enjoy outdoor activities involved big coordination efforts to travel long distances from the facility to the parks, with the constant aggravation of traffic jams and the complication of having to retain the above mentioned meds administration schedule. The level of frustration involved in such trips put additional stress on both the individuals and caregivers, often leading to decisions to simply stay behind at the facility. I slowly realized that a healthy lifestyle was not impossible, but was highly challenging.
At that point, I humbly started questioning not only if I was the right professional my employers needed for the job, but also whether I was in the right place to introduce such radical changes in lifestyles! I seemed to be fighting not only a few isolated unhealthy habits, but a whole unhealthy healthcare system.
With time, it became clear that in the cultural setting in which I worked, the health model was centered around pathologies, which were often diagnosed early in life. It reinforced meds administration, often times apparently prescribed for indefinite periods of time, even beyond the point when the original symptoms were long gone. It certainly helped pharmaceutical revenue, but kept patients unhealthy and convinced of their own incapacity to take personal control of their healthcare. The long term intake of an increasing amount of meds resulted in negative side effects, for which yet another med had to be further prescribed.
Healthcare was primarily viewed as dependent upon the health insurance coverage plan and treatment often modeled after insurance industry prescribed policies, rather than what was in the strictest interest of the patient. By contrast, most South American countries deemphasized health insurance coverage, but offered affordable and universal public healthcare, which focused solely on the medical needs of patients. The contrast of the system in which I had grown up in and the very different system I was now witnessing left me confused and further questioning my role in such a system.
My own educational background was focused on preventive medicine and promoting a healthy lifestyle model, to ensure a reduction in future healthcare problems. I was often saddened to meet individuals on expensive coverage plans, with a long list of meds and an array of sophisticated medical equipment prescribed to alter their quality of life for the “better”. Since “the plan” was “taking care of everything” their families didn’t seemed concerned and as a result the individuals seemed not only to get worse but to be also be isolated and depressed.
I increasingly realized just how lucky I was to have been raised in a healthcare environment , which was so radically different from the one in which I had now been working. I recognized that I was not going to change an established system. If I wanted achieve “change”, I had to change my immediate environment to be better help others actively make better healthcare decisions.
At that point, I initiated a search for a country which was more supportive of my holistic position on healthcare. One country in particular caught my attention, due to its special emphasis on quality and universal healthcare, a self-sustainable ecosystem, traditional family unity, balanced climate and quality natural foods. This was a small, charming and rich in natural resources country in South American: Ecuador.
Ecuador, for example, has a unique Constitutional component – a ban on Genetically Modified (GMO) foods. Foods in Ecuador are grown and harvested the old-fashioned way, free of newly toxic pesticides, chemical alterations that alter the flavor and nutrient content, as well as not being genetically engineered.
Upon discovering Ecuador, I resigned my job, sold everything and left for a place where a healthy lifestyle surrounded by the vast bounty of nature, rich natural resources, strong family and community values, and an emphasis on the human element over market economics in medicine was much more compatible with my perspective on physical and psychological healthcare.
Some of the many healthy lifestyle advantages which Ecuador offers are:
• Proximity to nature: Ecuador is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. The variety of climates and the dramatically changing geographic scenery, all within only a few minutes of each other, is truly amazing.
• Fertile and arable lands: Ecuador’s rich and bountiful soil offers the potential to rapidly grow high-quality crops. The emphasis remains on the individual farmer, who controls his own seed and crops, not corporate farming, which attempts to monopolize the farming process from seed to sales.
• High nutrition value foods: Food, in Ecuador, is focused on being chemical free, non-processed, with a higher nutritional content that also preserves the natural and better tasting flavor intended by nature. It is known that people who relocate to Ecuador tend to naturally lose weight, as bodily fluid retention, created to cope with unhealthy foods, is no longer generated.
• Healthy traditional cuisines: Ecuadorian meals are not processed and include mostly a very healthy natural balance of vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and fish.
• Friendly local population: The Ecuadorian people are known to be very kind, protective and considerate. I found that to be basically because raising children is a family and community affair. Children learn to have a strong sense of belonging and community, which they carry with them into adulthood, leading to a healthy psychological development. Children play long hours with close family members, in an interactive and personally stimulating social environment, using their imaginations and basic toys, rather than hiding in a video game console, or being absorbed by the television set. This emphasis on personal interaction, even as children, helps create a socially friendly native population.
• An emphasis on social equality for all: Ecuador offers a perception of justice, which emphasizes taking responsibility for one’s actions and those of their immediate family members, especially for the familial authority figures. As a society, Ecuador strives to create and promote positive behavioral socialization patterns, which are strongly linked to concepts of social equality and community cooperation. A system with social equality doesn’t mean using the same rule for all, it means granting everybody the tools to potentiate themselves to the best of their abilities.
• Emphasis on family, over career: It has been statistically proven that one’s mental and physical health is improved when we feel immersed in a culture rich with genuine family values, as opposed to a culture that focuses more heavily on career goals, a materialistic orientation and the promotion of separate class/caste systems. Family and personal time is a priority here in Ecuador, with expatriates often having a hard time understanding that the client doesn’t always comes first, but rather comes second to the core family unit.
• A privileged climate: Ecuador enjoys a temperate climate range, with enough bio-diversity to make for an exiting adventure, simply by hiking for an hour or two. One can go from tropical to mountain weather in only a few hours, but without the weather extremes known in some of the harsher foreign country climates. Temperature variances, for example, in any given region seldom fluctuate dramatically outside of a relatively narrow range, with the capitol city of Quito, perhaps, offering one of the few exceptions to this general rule.
• Ready availability of alternative and conventional meds: The alternative and holistic medical market is very much alive, well and respected in Ecuador. Holistic medical products can be found in local pharmacies, side-by-side with traditional clinical medicine. Such sales are wholly legal and not actively discredited as “non-certified” medication. Traditional medicines are also available over the counter, for easy access by the populace, without the need for expensive doctor visits to obtain a prescription. Pharmacists are highly trained to understand the application of traditional medicines and the interaction of various medicinal products. As such, they can help patients at the point of sale, without further delay and enhanced medical costs.
• Ready availability of medical care professionals: Doctors, here in Ecuador, still routinely make house calls, provide their personal cellphone numbers for medical follow-up and adjust their fees to accommodate a patient’s economic status and ability to pay. All commonplace medical care practices in the North American region, before succumbing to the economic pressures from the healthcare insurance industry. For the past year, the current Presidential Administration in Ecuador has also been offering relocation incentive programs for Ecuadorian physicians residing overseas, to return home and set up successful local practices. The response has been overwhelmingly popular, further boosting the quality healthcare already present in Ecuador. Additionally, the Ecuadorian government has sponsored significant scholarship programs, so that talented Ecuadorian youth may study medicine abroad, at some of the finest medical schools across the globe.
• Affordable and well equipped hospitals, with free universal emergency room care: Hospital stays are a fraction of North American costs, usually along the order of 10% of North American prices. Personalized service is exceptional, the hospitals are clean and the equipment increasingly more sophisticated. No one is turned away from an emergency room visit, due to “lack of insurance” or the inability to pay. Medical welfare comes first and the commercialization of human life is not commonly practiced here.
Due to many of these healthcare advantages, foreigners have been coming to Ecuador in record numbers for the past 5 years, in order to access a quality healthcare system, at affordable prices, while embracing The Physical and Psychological Health Benefits of Life in Ecuador. Those preferring an alternative and more holistic medical approach are also pleased to discover that Ecuador embraces such options openly and without bias.
I am heartened to see so many people discovering Ecuador, its healthy lifestyle, quality, affordable and preventive-based medical care, as well as its emphasis on natural foods and a holistic healthy lifestyle. I welcome and encourage others to continue making the journey, just as I did, and to come on down to the “middle of the world” and discover a new serenity and relaxing lifestyle. Your psychological and physical well being will likely be enhanced and you will definitely reconnect with nature, family and community.