Making Healthy Change in an Unhealthy World: An IIN Evening in DC with Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH)

November 25, 2019

Image via Shutterstock

Pilar Gerasimo, IIN Faculty Member and Strategic Adviser

It’s not every day that you get a chance to sit down for a cozy, face-to-face chat with a member of Congress and a room full of Health Coaches, health advocates, and other healthy change agents. But at a recent IIN-hosted event on Capitol Hill, that’s exactly what a small and lucky bunch of us got to do.

On Thursday, November 14, Rep. Tim Ryan honored us with a visit, joining a group of 20 or so Integrative Nutrition Health Coaches, friends, and collaborators for an intimate evening reception at a historic row house on Capitol Hill. Attendees included IIN friends Michelle Maldonado, a mindfulness and emotional intelligence expert who presented at our IIN Live event last month; Claude Harriott, a former NFL player who leads health and life skills–related youth activities for the DC Chapter of the NFL Players Association; and Marc Levin, president and CEO of Maryland University of Integrative Health.

Fielding questions from me and the gathered group, Rep. Ryan connected the dots between a broad array of important issues (from climate change and agriculture to education and corrections) that affect the health of our country, our people, and our world. He also shared his reflections on the opportunities and challenges inherent in advocating for the kinds of modest, incremental policy changes that can earn bipartisan support in a polarized political climate and begin steering our country in healthier directions.

As he explained, “Our medical system relies too heavily on responding to illness rather than promoting wellness.…We’re now at this important shift in the market; a new world health is factored in and wellness is factored in…government can't be bringing up the rear. Left and right agree social and emotional learning and promoting wellness is important; we have to get out ahead.”

The congressman talked about his passion for advancing whole-food nutrition, mindfulness, and social-emotional learning in schools. He underscored the critical importance of addressing trauma and adverse childhood events as critical but often overlooked factors that affect the health outcomes and life chances of millions, particularly in lower-income communities and communities of color. He also highlighted the essential role Health Coaches play in meeting people where they are and helping them take practical, empowered steps toward their own health and healing.

Beyond Personal Health

When I joined the Institute for Integrative Nutrition last fall, one of the first things I learned was that the company had a long history of nonpartisan issue advocacy, working to advance bills and policies that support this country’s Health Coaches and elevating their visibility and recognition. IIN even has its own director of advocacy: Darrell Rogers, a dedicated pro who knows his way around DC and keeps his finger on the pulse of the legislation and legislators who can make the biggest difference in health-related issues in the United States.

Rep. Ryan, who has served eight terms in Congress, is one of those legislators. The author of two health-related books (A Mindful Nation and The Real Food Revolution), Ryan was among the first legislators to lend his support as a cosponsor of House Resolution 117, IIN’s Health and Wellness Coach Recognition Resolution.

During our conversation, Ryan shared a brief summary of the personal health turnaround – guided by nutrition counsel from IIN visiting teacher Mark Hyman, MD – that helped him and his wife, Andrea, conceive a much-wanted child and also shift their whole family’s health habits in a better direction. But Ryan’s personal health passions are firmly rooted within a much broader social and political framework, which is why he has been an important advocate for transformative pieces of legislation, including:

  • The ENRICH Act, which creates an integrated nutrition and physical activity curriculum program in medical schools
  • The Nutrition Coordinators for Local Healthy Youth Act, which allows qualified professionals to lead nutrition education and healthy eating promotion efforts in schools
  • The National Institute of Nutrition Act, which facilitates and helps coordinate innovative research into nutrients, foods, and their relationships to better health
  • The Social Emotional Learning for Families Act of 2019, a grant program that supports the social and emotional skills, habits, and mind-sets of children
  • The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, which helps stimulate investment and healthy nutrition options in food deserts across the country

Playing Big

While most Health Coaches are understandably focused on helping individuals with their personal health goals and challenges, it’s important to remember that virtually all those goals and challenges take place in the context of a society that can make them easier or more difficult to achieve. Our country’s laws and policies have a huge impact on everything from accessibility and affordability of healthy choices to the default norms and behaviors that can make being healthy comparatively easy or ridiculously hard (something I talk about in my own forthcoming book, The Healthy Deviant). It’s important for Health Coaches and other healthy change agents to remain engaged, not just at the personal level but at the larger, collective civic and societal levels, too.

Tracking the legislative issues that affect human health as well as the health coaching profession, and reaching out to your elected representatives to let them know how you feel about those issues, can go a long way toward influencing the policies of tomorrow. And staying abreast of the reports that IIN’s own Darrell Rogers shares on a monthly basis is a wonderful, easy way to do just that.

While I was in DC last week, for example, Rogers told me that IIN is currently seeking a House sponsor for a piece of legislation that would allow individuals to use their FSA and HSA funds for health coaching services and nutrition programs. If that legislation gets sponsored and subsequently passes, it will make health coaching far more affordable for many, empowering millions to access the support they need for healthy lifestyle changes, and give the health coaching profession a huge boost.

Reach out to your elected officials – bring coffee to their office or invite them to a local wellness event or demonstration; even a simple phone call or letter can have a surprisingly big impact on their point of view.

Share your stories with them. Ask them to support the changes you want to see. You might just inspire one of them to become the next legislative champion of this country’s health seekers and the coaches who are helping them find their way.

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