Whole Foods CEO John Mackey says the key to keeping people healthy in the United States is for people to eat better and live healthier lives.
"I mean, honestly, we talk about health care. The best solution is not to need health care," Mackey told Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner in an episode released on Nov. 4.
"The best solution is to change the way people eat, the way they live, the lifestyle, and diet," Mackey says. "There's no reason why people shouldn't be healthy and have a longer health span. A bunch of drugs is not going to solve the problem."
Americans are not taking as good care of their own bodies as they ought to be, Mackey says: "71% of Americans are overweight and 42.5% are obese. Clearly, we're making bad choices in the way we eat," he says. "It's not a sustainable path. And so, I'm calling it out."
It's not the first time Mackey has called for better lifestyles as a solution to expensive health care.
In 2009, he penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal along the same ilk, "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare," in which he advocated for less government control of health care in the United States.
"This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health," Mackey wrote. "We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health."
The controversial op-ed caused some to boycott Whole Foods.
While it is true that poor diet can lead to dangerous and expensive health conditions (according to a 2019 New York Times op-ed, "[c]ardiovascular disease costs $351 billion annually in health care spending and lost productivity, while diabetes costs $327 billion annually"), and it's critical to improve, it is not enough, says Nadereh Pourat, a professor and the director of the Health Economics and Evaluation Research Program at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
"The idea that if people look after themselves and have a healthy lifestyle it will improve their health is...a fundamental concept...and many public health interventions are designed to educate individuals to do exactly that," Pourat tells CNBC Make It.
That said, "there are other factors that lead to disease and determine the need for health care, such as genetics, adverse life events, exposure to chemicals, etc.," and there are things like the pandemic currently going on.
"So the public health perspective is to also have a capable and effective health care system that can provide services to screen for disease or risk factors (e.g., cancer screening), provide preventive services (e.g., flu shots), and provide treatment when needed," Pourat says.
And while Mackey recommends behavioral changes as the optimal fix for ballooning health care costs, Whole Foods provides full-time employees access to health-insurance. However Whole Foods announced that in 2020 that part-time employees who work less than 30 hours a week would no longer be eligible to buy into the company's health-care plan. (At the time, a Whole Foods said the change would affect less than 2% of its employees and that Whole Foods would work with employees to find alternatives.)
Mackey, 67, himself is a vegan who meditates daily and monitors his own behaviors to make healthful changes.
"I see how long I slept. I see the quality of my sleep. I see what my pulse rate was for the whole night," Mackey told Dubner. "Any time I drink any alcohol at all, my deep sleep almost completely disappears, I don't sleep as long, my pulse rate goes up. So, my body is trying to metabolize this alcohol. And I had no idea."
"I do think there are good [health care system] models that work," Mackey said, pointing to Singapore, where individuals pay for routine care and insurance is used for large costs, and Switzerland, where people buy insurance from private nonprofits. But in America, "[w]e're not looking for the win-win-win solutions. We're looking for win-lose solutions — my way or the highway. And it's created a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment, a lot of frustration."
This story has been updated.