Health in the New Year
10 Top Wellness Trends for 2022
by Sandra Yeyati
Every new year marks the convergence of endings and beginnings—an opportunity to assess where we’ve been and anticipate where we’re going. As this dynamic relates to our health, this year promises an intensification in the development and adoption of several trends that have been years in the making.
Plant-Based Foods Take Center Stage
The consensus among researchers is that filling our plates with colorful vegetables and fruits improves health and reduces our risk of developing a number of chronic degenerative diseases. “This approach, along with eating less meat and avoiding sugar, is wonderful to control blood sugar, lower uric acid and nurture your microbiome, which is fundamentally important to reduce inflammation, increase your body’s production of antioxidants and vitamins and help maintain the integrity of the gut lining so that you don’t get leaky gut and, therefore, inflammation,” says board-certified neurologist David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain and four other New York Times bestsellers.
Awareness of the devastating effects of industrialized meat production is also accelerating. “Avoiding animal products is probably the first and most important ethical choice one can make,” says Princeton University bioethics professor Peter Singer, author of the seminal Animal Liberation. “That’s going to dramatically lower your carbon footprint. You will no longer be complicit in the suffering of tens of billions of factory-farmed animals, and you won’t be contributing to the increasing risks of viruses being bred in factory farms.”
According to market analysis firm CB Insights, “As COVID-19 spread across the globe, shifting consumer behavior and virus outbreaks in factories has dealt major blows to the meat supply chain, with the beef industry alone facing an estimated $13.6 billion in losses.” Several U.S. meat processing plants were forced to close their doors.
In response, a growing inventory of plant-based alternative proteins is emerging, offering new products that seek to mimic the experience of eating a juicy hamburger (Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods) or crispy chicken nugget (Simulate). Banza makes high-protein pasta from chickpeas. Retail sales of plant-based meals in the U.S. have grown by 25.5 percent over the past two years, and other manufacturers joining the field are Plantible Foods, Rebellyous Foods, Livekindly and InnovoPro. A recent survey found that 36 percent of consumers intend to increase their consumption of alternative protein sources in the near future.
Perlmutter cautions, “Just because they’re plant-based doesn’t give them full sanction. They may contain unfermented soy, which may not be non-GMO or organic, and per an article in the New York Times, their carbon footprint may be a lot higher in production of these products than we have been led to believe. Do a little research on these manufactured foods and go for plant-based options that aren’t processed. Shop the periphery of the grocery store.”
Telemedicine Will Continue After the Pandemic
According to management consultants McKinsey and Company, when COVID-19 began, the level of telemedicine increased in America 78-fold, peaking in April 2020. Although it has been declining since then, the use of telemedicine is still at a 38-fold increase compared to pre-pandemic times. “While it has leveled off, we are going to see persisting use of telemedicine in situations that involve basic communication with a patient,” says Perlmutter, citing compelling attributes such as cost savings, convenience and a lower carbon footprint because people don’t have to commute to a doctor’s office.
Wearable Devices and Home Testing Empower Patients
Perlmutter also anticipates an amplification of the use of wearable devices and home testing to provide biometric data that informs people about their health status and inspires them to modify lifestyle choices. The Oura Ring records the time it takes to get to sleep, how many times the wearer awakens during the night and how much time they spend in REM and deep sleep. This information enables people to modify day-to-day activities to improve the quality and quantity of sleep.
Apple Watch aficionados are increasingly relying on the device’s biofeedback features, including its newest metric, blood oxygenation, while diabetics and non-diabetics alike employ continuous glucose monitoring systems to pinpoint how lifestyle choices like food, exercise and sleep affect blood sugar levels. “That is not only trending now, but will increase quite dramatically as consumers push to learn more about themselves,” Perlmutter predicts. “No longer is this information going to be siloed in the doctor’s office. People are becoming more and more empowered to learn this data about themselves and act on it.”
Learning to Improve Genetic Expression
“Our evolving understanding of epigenetics—how we can change our gene expression—is bringing more people on board to the idea that our lifestyle choices matter,” Perlmutter says. “When I went to medical school, we thought our DNA was locked in a glass case and that it would determine everything about us. Nowadays, we know that the expression of more than 70 percent of our DNA that codes for health and longevity is under our control and influenced by our lifestyle choices. The food we eat, whether or not we slept well last night, the stress in our lives, whether or not we spent time in nature—all of these things, moment-to-moment, change our gene expression. Holy Toledo! We now know that certain lifestyle choices are good for you because they favorably change gene expression. They teach it in med school now. It’s a breathtaking reality.”
Harnessing the Power of Low-Level Stress
Life hackers and high-performance junkies are looking to leverage something called hormesis, which involves introducing low-level stress to the body for a positive outcome, so that when the body repairs itself from that condition, it doesn’t just repair back to the previous level, but to a new one with an advantage. This includes exposing the body to a hot sauna or cold exposure through cryotherapy, as well as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating. “People are starting to see how good things happen when we engage in things that push us in places that are perhaps a little bit uncomfortable, activating mechanisms that help with metabolic health, immunity, cognitive function and even the growth of new brain cells,” Perlmutter explains.
Mental Health Destigmatized
When U.S. gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the 2021 Summer Olympic Games citing mental health challenges, she created an opening for other people to speak up. If a world champion could reveal her vulnerability on the global stage when the stakes were so high, certainly so could they. Her compelling story is emblematic of an emerging trend: Mental health is gradually becoming destigmatized.
“It’s becoming acceptable to talk about our feelings and ask for help, and this trend is shattering unhealthy cultural myths, like the erroneous assumption that if we talk about our emotions we’re going to fall into a pit of despair and sadness,” says Licensed Integrative Psychotherapist Leslie Davenport, the author of Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change. “There’s a boldness among younger generations that are challenging the status quo and demanding to be accepted as they are. Tucking away anything that might not be socially acceptable is a part of the past. Kids want their families and adults to accept and love them exactly as they are.” On Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, #itsoknottobeok is a popular hashtag.
Mental health surveys show that eco-anxiety in particular is prevalent among the young. Late last year, scientists at the University of Bath, in England, interviewed 10,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 25 across 10 continents. In the U.S., 68 percent said that the future was frightening. Almost half admitted that they had distressing feelings related to climate change on a daily basis, 42 percent believed that the things they valued most would be destroyed and 35 percent feared that their family security would be threatened.
A Surge in Coaching
According to Davenport, “In addition to therapy becoming more acceptable, I’ve seen coaching become more common as another option in which people don’t have to examine their past and can instead look forward. A coach can help them make sense of their life, set goals and hold them accountable.”
Mindfulness Becomes Ubiquitous
In a few decades, mindfulness practices have catapulted from Buddhist monasteries to corporate boardrooms and have become a billion-dollar industry in the U.S. with an 11 percent annual growth rate. “Mindfulness has been emerging for a while, but at this point, it’s a household word,” Davenport says. “People are talking about mindful eating or mindful conversations. Core concepts like being present in the moment or taking in the other person in an empathetic way are rippling out into so many aspects of life.”
Therapy and Meditation Apps Abound
Redefining the conventional, in-person therapy session that is 50 minutes in a quiet room, therapy apps allow people to have short phone calls, video chats or text exchanges with a therapist for a low monthly fee. Notable therapy apps include BetterHelp.com, OnlineTherapy.com, BrightSide.com and Calmerry.com. For meditation, Calm.com, InsightTimer.com and HeadSpace.com are dominating the field.
Virtual Experiences Are Here to Stay
Many people that were devastated by isolation and loneliness during the pandemic sought social engagement via streaming and app-enabled webinars, exercise routines or art classes. Suddenly, virtual conferences attracted participants from all over the world. Davenport relishes the fact that she was able to take tap dancing classes from a renowned New York City teacher, even though she lives in Washington State. “In a surprising silver lining, we’ve come to appreciate the convenience of these virtual experiences, which we likely wouldn’t have attended in person before the pandemic.”