Medical and nutrition experts discussed ways to address the epidemic of poor nutrition and diet-related diseases in the United States at a recent hearing of the of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who presided over the hearing, noted in his opening remarks that all of the witnesses appearing before the committee agreed that “today in America, we are facing a massive, broad-based nutrition crisis — a crisis where diet-related diseases pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of our country.” Booker noted that nearly 1 in 3 dollars in the entire federal budget goes toward health care spending, and that an estimated 80% of this money is spent to treat largely preventable diseases related to lifestyle factors like nutrition, physical activity, and use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.
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What may be even more alarming, Booker said in his remarks, is that federal health care spending is projected to rise substantially in coming years, with ominous signs like the fact that an estimated 50% of all Americans have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. And while about 3% of the U.S. population was obese in 1960, Booker noted that today obesity affects over 40% of the population, and over 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese. These numbers could even have grave national security implications, since obesity is the leading medical reason why young Americans are disqualified for military service.
Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, the ranking member of the subcommittee, noted in his opening remarks that “federal nutrition policies are still geared strictly to address caloric deficiencies, failing to prioritize the nutritional content of our food.” As a result, Braun said, some reports show that “our federal nutrition programs may be making poor nutritional outcomes worse for low-income American families.” Braun suggested that reforming federal nutrition assistance programs to emphasize nutritional value may be one way to address the worsening burden of chronic diet-related diseases.
Ways federal policies can address the nutrition crisis
Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University in Boston, testified at the hearing that “the top cause of poor health, nutrition, is largely ignored by the health care system.” Most doctors, he noted, don’t receive much training in nutrition, and health insurance reimbursement for nutrition education only applies to a few health conditions — usually once someone already has a disease that might have been prevented by better nutrition. Dr. Mozaffarian listed six ways that federal policies can help address the nutrition crisis — by advancing nutrition science and research, leveraging “the power of food as medicine in health care,” strengthening and reforming federal nutrition programs, catalyzing business innovation to advance nutrition, expanding nutrition education in public health, and coordinating federal food policy across different agencies “including new leadership, structure, and authority to do so.”
By adopting a national nutrition strategy, “We can make America the 21st century breadbasket for nourishing food, for our country and for the world — food that heals our bodies, ends hunger, reduces health care spending, supports our military, revitalizes rural America, stewards our natural resources, and creates new jobs and businesses,” said Dr. Mozaffarian.
Angela Rachidi, PhD, a senior fellow and Rowe Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who is based in Chicago, testified that “our nutrition assistance programs have mixed success in supporting nutrition among low-income households, and in many ways contribute to the problem.” For example, she said, three of the five largest expenditure categories among households that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) include sweetened beverages, frozen prepared foods, and prepared desserts. Rachidi noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates 15 different nutrition assistance programs, which together account for over $100 billion per year in federal spending. These programs, she said, lack a cohesive nutrition strategy that could include restrictions on certain purchases, incentives for healthy eating, and nutrition education. “This approach has received bipartisan support in the past and should be used as a framework moving forward,” Rachidi urged.
Last month, Booker and Braun introduced legislation that would convene a White House conference on food, nutrition, hunger, and health — the second such conference in U.S. history. It would come more than 50 years after the first one, which culminated in several new or expanded federal programs that continue to this day, including the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program. The proposed conference “would take a whole-of-government approach to ending hunger and combatting nutrition insecurity in America,” as well as “explore weaknesses within the current food system, highlighting the fragility created by hyper-consolidation that has led to fewer choices for consumers and economic insecurity for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.”