Friday, July 24, 2009

What's Food Got To Do With It?

If you pay attention to my blog, you know the health care debate has temporarily pushed aside my concerns for the environment. Today, health care and the environment come together in an "Open Letter to President Barack Obama," which I ran across on a website called "The World's Healthiest Foods," a site operated by the George Mateljan Foundation. George Mateljan was a health food store mogul, sold his business, and decided to take his passion for healthy eating to the world. Hence, The World's Healthiest Foods website, He promotes organic, good for humans and the planet. And folks, I've said it before, we humans are part of the flora and fawna we need to preserve through healthier ecosystem practices. The cities where we live, the things we put in our mouths - all this needs to be cleaned up.

Anyway, Mateljan recognizes that lowering health care costs starts with raising awareness about the impact of food on human health. He drafted an open letter to President Obama, calling for a "Healthier Way of Eating" campaign as a means of saving up to 50 percent of health care costs. Here are a few choice nuggets from his letter, and the link to the entire thing is below. I can't tell you this is the most exciting reading I've brought to you, but it is a very exciting idea.

"Healthcare costs have risen from $3,468 per person in 1993 to $8,160 in 2008, and costs continue to rise. It is estimated that in the next 5 years, healthcare costs will increase almost another 50% to $13,100. These high costs might be justifiable if Americans benefitted by being among the healthiest people in the world, but sadly, we are far less healthy than people living in countries where healthcare costs are much lower. Our current system attempts to manage end-stage disease; it does not promote health. We need to change not just the way in which disease-care costs are paid, but the care that is provided. To lower healthcare costs and make true health care available to all, we need to focus on health promotion and disease prevention, not on how to shift the costs of disease care.

"One of the most important contributors to health promotion is a healthy diet. Our current public-health crisis calls for a strong public-health message about the importance of diet, even at the expense of offending the food industry and pharmaceutical companies, whom I believe to be largely accountable for the current state of our national health.

* * *

"I would like to outline how measures to enhance the eating habits of Americans can result in reductions in healthcare expenses.

"Obesity: If obesity continues to increase at its current rate, analysts predict that by the year 2020, we will be spending 20% of all our healthcare dollars on obesity-related problems. We now know that excess fat, especially visceral fat, is not merely a storage depot for extra calories, but functions as an endocrine organ significantly increasing inflammation and the risk for chronic degenerative disease. The enormous impact of obesity is due to its promotion of other chronic preventable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancers. For example, experts estimate that one-half of all type 2 diabetes cases could be prevented simply by controlling obesity! If we could lower the rate of obesity (even by a modest amount) through a healthier way of eating campaign, researchers project that we could also lower cases of chronic preventable disease by about 15 million cases. That reduction in chronic preventable disease translates into $60 billion dollars less in treatment costs, and $254 billion dollars more in workplace productivity.

"Heart disease: According to research experts, it would not take complicated dietary changes to trigger major reductions in heart disease rates and their associated healthcare costs. For example, if we could simply take the 2% of the calories the typical American is consuming in the form of trans-fat and replace this 2% with polyunsaturated fat, we could reduce our rate of coronary artery disease (CAD) by at least 8%, and probably by much more in the 25-30% range! Since healthcare costs related to CAD total nearly $200 billion per year, we're talking about a potential savings of $50 billion dollars from a single dietary change that swaps a small amount of polyunsaturated fat for trans-fat.

"Diabetes: In 2002, an estimated $132 billion was spent on diabetes-related health problems, including about $40 billion on sick day costs and disability related to this chronic preventable disease, including blindness, amputation, heart disease, and early death. Since healthcare analysts predict that half of all diabetes cases could be prevented if obesity were prevented, approximately $40 billion in diabetes-related costs could be cut simply by the implementation of a healthier way of eating that corrected or prevented obesity. I don't have good estimates for the cost savings related to other dietary steps that can be taken to lower risk of type 2 diabetes, but I definitely know what these steps are.

* * *

"Cancer: The American Cancer Society estimates that we are spending over $100 billion each year on cancer-related costs, and there is some research to suggest that about one-third of all cancer deaths could be prevented by simply choosing to eat healthier food. Since $57 billion dollars are estimated to be lost each year following premature death from cancer, prevention of 33% of these deaths by a healthier way of eating alone would mean about $20 billion dollars in healthcare savings each year. In the case of colorectal cancer, it has been estimated that a healthier way of eating combined with exercise could prevent more cases than implementation of early screening.

"While it is somewhat mind-boggling to consider, all of the evidence described above points to a very clear-cut conclusion. According to healthcare experts, our best bet for reversing chronic preventable disease rates does not lie in more expensive medical procedures, or in more sophisticated technology or in further specialization with respect to testing and medication. Our best bet experts agree, lies in the simple, everyday practice of a lifestyle change in the foods that we eat. We could be saving millions of lives and several hundred billion dollars in healthcare costs related to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer if we would consistently eat health-promoting foods-foods that the peer-reviewed medical research has already demonstrated can prevent or help prevent these diseases. Instead of spending more money and having more disease (our current situation), we would be spending less money and having less disease!

If you have the time, I urge you to read the rest of Matejlan's letter. If it doesn't convince the President, I really hope his letter will convince you. And do explore the WHF website. I love the site, personally, and am glad of this opportunity to share it with you here.

WHFoods: Open Letter to President Barack Obama
photo above is chard, the "healthiest food" of the month at WHFoods.
ADDENDUM: this topic started a big ol' discussion on facebook, during which I managed to convince myself that we should pay for health care reform by taxing the things that make us sick - like trans fats, sugar above a certain ratio to other food values, etc. So this made my fb friends crazy (some of them anyway). There was discussion about slippery slope and eating mandates, and blackmarket twinkies. But to me, it's just like internalizing the costs of pollution, instead of externalizing them for society to pay. Imagine - if we taxed the unhealthiest food choices, then agribusiness would have to reformulate their products to be healthier to avoid the taxes. And if people purchased seasonal, local produce, their fresh food costs would come down too. It's a win-win, all the way around. And even though it would mean retooling, why is this different than what we've asked from Detroit (retooling for hybrid vehicles)? Ultimately, it would be an excellent sales pitch to be able to say your food is healthier AND lower priced!

1 comment:

  1. i say food, health care and the environment are all intrinsically linked. if we don't have a healthy eco system with good quality food then we and the planet are sick....