September should be a big feeding month. We have struggled for too long and failed to reduce food and nutrition insecurity, mitigate high rates of obesity, and reduce the prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.
This issue is very real to many of us, but it is especially true to me.
For nearly 12 years as a cardiac surgeon, five days a week I have worked on people’s hearts, coming face to face with fatty, calcified and sclerotic coronary artery disease caused in large part by poor diet. I have seen firsthand how, despite hearing “you are what you eat,” many of us fail to eat essential nutritious foods to promote health and wellness. We know better.
Our nutrition – or lack thereof – has frustrated the health and well-being of our nation. And it costs many Americans their lives and their savings. It is time to act on what science, clinical medicine and public health experts have long understood: our country must prioritize better nutrition policy.
Develop a national strategy
In my 12 years in the US Senate, I have seen the importance of smart and informed policy in bringing about change nationwide, particularly in the area of food and nutrition. I hope we can begin developing a nutrition policy with a similar impact next week at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health – the first such conference in more than 50 years. This is a tremendous opportunity for leaders, policy makers and stakeholders to fundamentally advance the health and well-being of our nation.
Historically, efforts to combat our nation’s food challenges have focused on making sure every American has enough to eat. And we should be very proud of the remarkable success our country has had since the last White House conference on hunger in 1969. But now we are facing a very different set of crises that go beyond simply reducing hunger.
Currently the biggest food challenges are poor diet, poor nutrition and poor food choices. Our struggles in each of these areas are destroying the health of most Americans, causing many of our health outcomes to move in the wrong direction, and placing an unbearable strain on our health care system.
The numbers don’t lie. Poor diets make us sick and drive up health care costs. Each year, more than 300,000 deaths and more than 80,000 new cases of cancer are attributed to malnutrition. Furthermore, health care costs for diet-related chronic diseases are estimated to be in excess of $604 billion annually with the broader health impacts of our diet costing Americans more than $1 trillion. For a country that spends 19.7% of its GDP – roughly 1 in $5 – on health care, this is inefficient, wasteful and unacceptable.
In many cases, these downtrends are getting worse. However, the good news is that this can be fixed. But it takes bold new policy, new investments in science, and a new coordinated alignment of political will and private sector action.
Reporting the White House Conference
All summer I served as co-chair of the task force that, in preparation for the upcoming conference, authored a nonpartisan report containing 30 specific recommendations. Our multi-sectoral, bipartisan, 26-member group was convened by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Food Systems for the Future, and the Gerald J. .
The 30 actionable recommendations are formulated from substantive suggestions and insights from various areas such as federal nutrition programs, public health and nutrition education, health care, science and research, business and innovation, and federal coordination. We focused on social benefits and cost savings, including the perspective of the private sector as well as those with lived experiences. But nutrition and science led the way.
While each of the recommendations is important, there are two that I think are particularly noteworthy: emphasizing “food is medicine” and developing a national nutrition strategy.
Accelerating access to “food is medicine” services to prevent and treat diet-related disorders: Health and well-being are closely related to the foods we eat. And as a nation, we eat poorly. Just as food contributes to illness and disease, it also has the power to heal. Hospital systems, health plans, and practitioners should all be directly involved in nutritional interventions. A rational policy based on science should be pursued.
For example, Medicare and Medicaid should expand reimbursement for medically designed meals that have been shown to improve diet-related outcomes and advance health. Private sector entities have a major role to play as well. One example is Moms Meals, which already annually serves more than 65 million medically designed meals across the country—most of them for vulnerable populations. By working the right public policy in tandem with the private sector, we can accelerate much-needed change at scale, promoting health and reducing costs in the process.
Create a new National Nutrition Science Strategy to improve coordination and investment in federal nutrition research focused on prevention and treatment of diet-related programs: We need better nutrition research and data. Strong data and evidence-based science are essential to developing the right policies and programmes. Our report found that research focused on nutrition is currently funded by more than 10 different government departments without coordination or synergy.
Developing the appropriate format to improve research and impact will require increased investment up front. At Nourish Science, an organization co-founded by Dr. Jerome Adams, Thomas Grumble, Jerrold Mandy and myself, we specifically recommend increasing federal support for nutrition research by $2 billion annually across multiple agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Centers for Medicare and medical services. This increase will allow for better monitoring, interagency coordination, and higher quality nutrition research and data.
Accelerating “food is medicine” and developing a nationwide nutrition strategy will pave the way for robust policies and programmes. These two recommendations are important in linking nutrition to health and healthcare services and instilling a culture of well-being.
Recommendations from Nutrition Science
We created Nourish Science to help solve our country’s food and nutrition crises, to grow a healthier population, and to eliminate health disparities in the process. The organization is centered around the vision to ensure that every child reaches the age of 18 at a healthy weight. Here are three additional ways we suggest the White House take action:
- Support both the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA Food Safety Regulation and Inspection (FSIS) capabilities to reduce the risk of chronic disease Processed foods By regulating food ingredients and additives, such as sweeteners, sodium, and refined carbohydrates.
- Make nutrition and diet quality the primary goals of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) using incentive programs, healthy retail environments, and more effective education programs.
- Designate the Deputy Assistant to the President for Food, Nutrition, and Health on the White House Domestic Policy Council who can oversee nutrition policy and research.
These three recommendations, if taken seriously by the Biden-Harris administration, could lead to transformative, long-term change in nutrition.
Incorporating Better Nutrition into Federal Nutrition Programs
For next week’s conference to be successful, I believe the principle that every American deserves fair access to appropriate and nutritious foods must also be emphasized. But will the Biden-Harris administration ramp up nutrition and prioritize nutrition—particularly within federal nutrition programs—to combat the growing obesity epidemic, and reduce diet-related disparities and diseases?
Talks are already leaning toward expanding and increasing investment in our federal food support programs such as SNAP. And while this will increase food security for many, it alone does nothing to promote improved nutrition.
The benefits of SNAP are related to a high-sugar, highly processed diet. The data shows that SNAP participants have worse nutrition than Americans who don’t use the program, suggesting that the federal program may exacerbate many of the diet-related health issues we now face. The 2016 USDA report on SNAP purchases found that sweetened beverages (the number one contributor to lifelong weight gain) were the second most purchased product for SNAP households. By comparison, it was the fifth most-purchased product for comparable non-SNAP households.
Four years ago, I co-chaired the SNAP task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Together, we authored a report that recommended limiting the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages with SNAP benefits. We have urged that the core objectives of the SNAP program should be complemented by a federal focus on nutrition and diet quality. Now is the time to make nutrition a key component of this program.
Any increased investment in federal food support programs must be accompanied by tackling the obesity and nutrition crises in our country at the same time. If we really want to fight hunger, improve nutrition, and reduce diet-related diseases, we can start by doubling down on diet quality and nutrition research and education.
To meet our country’s most pressing nutritional challenges, we must prioritize nutrition. Bad foods, poor diet, and poor nutrition in general make Americans sick. Next week’s White House conference presents a great opportunity to communicate a policy level change that will directly benefit the health and well-being of every American. But that will only happen if we prioritize nutrition in clinical settings, as part of our federal nutrition programs, and if we redouble our efforts to improve nutrition research and data.
It’s time to act! We can – and must – go the extra mile to ensure that every American has the right fuel for a happy, healthy life.