Americans collectively spend about 17 % of the gross national product o(GNP) on health care trying to ward off or treat chronic metabolic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal and digestive disorders, autoimmune diseases, even cancer. That translates to $8,713 for every man, woman and child this year, second to none in the world. If nothing changes, we are projected to spend 25% of our nation’s GNP on health care by 2040.
In contrast, Americans spend about 7% of our income on food we prepare at home, also second to none in the developed world. USDA data tells us that increasing availability of sugar, refined starch and added fats contributed a growing percentage of calories in the American diet over the last three decades thanks to a farm policy that subsidizes crops that contribute to these foodstuffs, especially for the poor and everyone else trying to ease their family food budget at the cash register.
THEN AND NOW: FOODS COSTS AT THE CASH REGISTER
Consider the difference in food availability and what we purchase at the grocery store today compared to 40 years ago. In the first graph the only major sources of calories that significantly escalate over the last 40 years includes added sugar, flour and cereal products and added fats.
Calories from dairy products were flat while availability of protein from meat, eggs, and nuts basically stayed the same except for that little rise after 2000. My guess is that blip likely reflects people eating more eggs, nuts, and seeds as rhetoric about fat and cholesterol in food quieted. Fruits and vegetable intake remained flat as well.
The impact of eating more refined and processed foods bears out in the next graph depicting what Americans purchase at the grocery store. Over the last thirty years Americans purchased more processed foods and sweets and more sweetened beverages. We spend less money on meat, fruits, and vegetables. When you consider both graphs less money spent on grain and baked goods seems confusing until you remember that many processed foods fill you up with significant amounts of sugar and refined starch.
DOES THE US GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIZE OBESITY?
In essence, our government actually subsidizes metabolic disease, including obesity, with the action of a farm bill that subsidizes wheat for all the processed starchy snack foods, corn to produce high fructose corn syrup, and oil seed crops like soybeans that’s used in everything. At the same time other departments in the government spend billions of dollars treating diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other metabolic diseases along with billions more spent by private insurance companies and consumers. This is crazy.
Diet and lifestyle impact our health and the risk of every chronic health condition, yet it’s not fair to claim we can totally prevent disease. Lifestyle factors aren’t the only factors that influence risk of disease. However, when the most dreaded diseases strike, a healthy diet and fit body will withstand treatment and recover far better than one powered by Pop Tarts.
If the federal government is truly concerned about costs of health care, how can it continue to subsidize the very crops that manufacturers use to produce highly processed food? How can the medical and public health community begin to encourage everyone to do what they can to eat better when government policy makes problematic foods the cheapest choice?
Ultimately, the decision to eat better confronts each family and every consumer. What Does it take for Americans to purchase better food? Share what you have done to shift priorities in order to eat better.