Where do you live? Does it affect your health? Does it affect your eating habits? Of course, it does! Many factors play into your lifestyle, including geographical factors. A region’s weather, sunlight amount, air quality, accessibility to outdoor physical activity, and availability of various foods and restaurants all affect your wellbeing.

So how do we fare as a nation on the global stage when it comes to regional health? The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals conducted a Global Burden of Disease Study in which 188 countries were measured using data from surveys, pharmaceutical companies, and medical records. This rubric is used to measure the progress in accordance with the United Nation’s health goals. Iceland and Sweden took the top two slots. So did we make the top 5? Nope. Top 10? Nope. Did we at least make the top 20? Nope. As a first world nation, the United States barely made it in the top 30 at number 28.

I know, I know. You’re thinking this must be a mistake. Appalled? Aghast? Perplexed? Confused? Well if that devastates you, then you may not like what we discuss next. The United States has made the list of top ten most obese countries in the world many times, and has always made it in the top twenty. In fact, the United States has hovered around being number one quite a few times as well (depending upon which source you check).

When thinking about obesity indices, one can readily assume that these can be divided into two categories: rich countries and poor countries. Rich countries have too much gluttony and poor countries do not have enough food for their communities. However, the flipside can also be true at times. A rich country may have healthier options whereas a poor country may only have access to unhealthy food (due to poor agriculture, scarcity, or economic burden).

So if those are the statistics on health, then what do the numbers say about the life expectancy of Americans? According to the most recent global research published by the World Health Organization, the United States seems to be lagging behind in the category of life expectancy. So did we make the top 10? Nope. Did we make the top 20 or the top 30? Nope and nope. We are at number 31. Seriously, I’m just as shocked as you. Compared to other high earning countries, this should not be the case. So why is this happening, especially since we have money, technology, and did I mention money? Well, compared to other high income countries, we also have high maternal and infant mortality, high body mass index, high homicide rates, and wait for it…no universal health coverage. Do you want to know who beat us? Out of the thirty countries ahead of us in regard to life expectancy, here is a look at the top five (both genders combined average age): Japan, Switzerland, Singapore, Australia, and Spain. By the way, our northern neighbor, Canada, beat us also; they ranked 12th.

Ok…breathe. I know that was a lot of research and now you just want to eat donuts and watch infomercials about vacuum-sealing steaks. I decided to talk to a few local Americans who have lived in various climates and countries to compare how their lives and lifestyles have changed.

Mishaal Khan has lived in the desert climate of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and has moved to the continental climate of Chicago where four seasons of weather are typical (many times it feels like two: winter and construction). When asked to compare the two regions, Khan says Saudi Arabia was extremely dry and, when combined with the occasional dust storm, it took a toll on his allergies. However, growing up in a warm climate prompted him to be active, and the vast amount of sunlight had a huge positive effect on his overall mood and health. Did geography make a difference in regard to his eating habits? Khan says, “Eventually everyone is inclined to adopt the food habits of where they live, mostly due to availability, price, and trend. For example, it is a conscious effort for me to eat healthy in general in the US because there is a dominant fast food culture here […]; that does not leave many options for the consumer.”

Growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, Mukarram Mahmood felt the cold weather’s negative effects on his family. His children had to deal with eczema and extremely dry skin in addition to being stuck inside the house. Now, Mahmood and his family live in sunny Arizona. So how has this change been? “Well, the bright sun makes a positive difference in my mood, plus it has lessened my chronic back pain.” A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine in 2008 supports Mahmood’s statement, as it concluded that there is a correlation between vitamin D (which comes from the sun) deficiency and chronic back pain. Not only has the quantity of family time improved for the Mahmood household, but so has the quality. Mahmood continues, “I grew up in a colder climate and we weren’t able to do much as a family. Most of the time was spent in front of a computer or the TV. Now we try to take advantage of the climate and do more outdoor activities with the kids. My wife and I are able to plan outdoor activities almost every weekend!” When asked if climate has made a difference in how they eat as a family, Mahmood’s response is somewhat surprising: “Now we go out to eat more frequently because the children are excited to always go out.”

Ok, so we know that weather plays a large part in lifestyles and eating habits, as do different cultures from the east to the west. What about just moving from Toronto to Chicago? The climate is somewhat similar. The cultures are somewhat similar. The lifestyles are somewhat similar… or are they? Let’s ask two individuals, both of whom were born in Toronto and moved to Chicago after their formative years. What differences did they notice in health habits and lifestyles?

Shazia Siddiqi says, “Growing up in Canada, you see a lot more people out and about, walking outside and using public transportation. It was a part of normal daily activity.” With regard to eating habits, Farhana Khan points out the difference in culture. “People tend to cook more and eat at home in Canada. Many Canadians tend to keep in line with healthier options than Americans, perhaps because there aren’t as many options for unhealthy food. Also, when you do go out to restaurants, the portion sizes are smaller than in the United States.” Siddiqi also mentions that since she has lived in Canada and has traveled to Europe and Australia on business, she’s noticed that very few people are overweight in those countries. “Their attitudes towards fitness and food are different than here [in the United States]. They don’t diet or do intentional exercises as much. Healthy habits and being active are just a regular part of their lifestyle.”

So there you have it. From analyzing the research on health and longevity to talking to people about how moving from one region to another has affected their lifestyle, we realize that perhaps we need to get educated, get cooking, and get active. Climate, geography, and culture can play a significant part in your health goals. However, the most important factor for a healthy you is you. You can make the decision to be healthy. After all, health is one of the most important blessings we have from God. Let’s not take it for granted.

Husna T. Ghani has an MSEd and an MBA. She has taught health and science for years. When she’s not working, she reads, writes, sketches, and tries to save the world (or something like that).