Almost 75% of our nation is obese or overweight and half of us have diabetes. Both of these conditions contribute to heart disease - the leading cause of death in the U.S. The sad part is that much of this could have been prevented with proactive educational practices and national programs that stress the importance of a healthy and nutritious diet. But perhaps it’s not too late for us.
The blunt warning contained within a recent research report from Tufts University’s Federal Nutrition Research Advisory Group on the rising health issues among Americans today is simple: we need change! The advisory group recommends a more coordinated approach among the diet and health-related agencies on Capitol Hill. The paper, “Strengthening national nutrition research: rationale and options for a new coordinated federal research effort and authority”, was published in July’s issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Finding ways to better coordinate and direct research could help us make improved lifestyle choices to combat heart disease and other diet-related threats to human health. It’s time to take the necessary steps to not just manage our health, but dramatically improve our government’s efforts to provide the information and advice we need to make the smart dietary decisions best for our entire family. And it all begins in Washington, D.C.
Over 10 different federal agencies in the U.S. are researching health and nutrition while trying to identify ways to make Americans healthier by decreasing obesity, diabetes, and heart disease – ultimately lowering death rates. The problem is not a lack of research, but a lack of collaboration among all agencies.
Numerous U.S. federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Health (NIH), Food & Drug Administration, Agency for International Development, Veterans Affairs, NASA, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Health & Human Services, Department of Defense, and the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality, unanimously agree: we Americans need to improve our health…and quickly.
But what is being done?
There’s no governing unit at the federal level that oversees what research is being done and how to most efficiently come up with solutions for consumers to understand and put in place while grocery shopping. What’s mind-boggling is that these agencies have conducted similar studies without coordinating their efforts to just do one comprehensive study, showcasing an ineffectiveness in resources, time management, and tax dollars.
Because of these inefficiencies, Americans are more perplexed about their health and nutrition than ever. What should I be eating? And how much? Additionally, there are so many terms and trendy diets popping up, it is hard to know which are nutritionally sound. Low-fat vs. whole fat, paleo vs. keto, intermittent fasting, even coconut oil and celery juice – all of these diets create controversy about optimal health. Even though awareness is increasing about sugars and unhealthy fats, the switch to healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits has not been made.
COVID only amplified these existing issues. One researcher of the study, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, explained it as:
“COVID was a fast pandemic that made the slow pandemic of poor nutrition and diet-related illnesses come to life.”
COVID also accelerated many underlying nutritional problems that the “slow pandemic” was causing. This includes complications from major diet-related illnesses (obesity, hypertension, diabetes, etc.) when paired with COVID.
Results of the Study
The white paper outlines the four most important issues that prevent us from being healthy:
- How do diet-related health issues affect our economy, our health, our national security, and sustainability?
- How do cross-governmental organizations that compile research coordinate and share their information?
- What are the opportunities for nutrition-related discoveries in fundamental, clinical, public health, food and agricultural, and transnational scientific research?
- What are the best practices to strategically coordinate federal nutrition research going forward?
Through their study, researchers found that more Americans are sick than healthy due to diet-related illnesses. When our nation’s health is this poor, it causes many other problems, including:
- Issues with productivity
- Increase in health-care costs
- Health disparities among race and gender
- Government budget issues
- Economic competitiveness
- Lack of military readiness
Real change can only occur with coordination and with consolidated goals around nutrition research, budget planning, and federal investment. But it starts with us: there needs to be a greater say from the consumer as to what we need, and really what we should demand from our government.
The paper relayed that, over the last 50 years, federal healthcare spending has risen from 5% of the budget to a current level of 28%, with 85% of the spend going towards diet-related chronic diseases. In the same time frame, U.S. business spending on healthcare has increased from $79 billion to $1.2 TRILLION.
Imagine how effective those funds could be if they were redirected toward preventing diseases instead of treating them.
Researchers found that we need more funding toward health and nutrition research than there is today. The USDA and the NIH are the largest funders of federal nutrition research. However, there is still not enough funding to support the myriad ways of how and what we eat affecting our overall health.
Research in nutrition is critical…and complicated. An example provided by the paper is the molecular basis of nutritional needs based on your age and lifestyle. Or what foods are critical in the first 1,000 days of life to prevent diseases later in life. And investigating which foods help prevent food allergies.
Researchers pulled no punches in citing the federal government’s role in creating such a crisis. Finding that greater consensus is needed on matters of diet and obesity, with coordination as a key first step in what will admittedly be a very tough process.
Real change will only take place with greater coordination between agencies, and with management that aspires to dramatically improve American lives. This includes:
- One leadership at the federal level with a national director
- Advancement of federal investment and funding
- Continuing agency autonomy, but with a coordinated and harmonized system implemented from above and budget split between agencies
Executing these recommendations into a unified approach would make it far easier to do such things as identify national dietary goals, establish research needs and priorities, recommend optimal use of financial and resources, deliver a consistent message to consumers, implement educational programs into schools and universities, and so much more.
Getting the Message Across
As reasonable as the messages within the research may seem, the idea of greater coordination on this important public health issue nonetheless faces a long road to action by Washington.
Changing how Washington shares power and responsibility is a difficult task, even amid clear and present needs. That task grows even tougher when it faces enormous competition for time and energy from an administration and a Congress already overwhelmed by COVID and other pressing national issues. Politicians aren’t very likely to see this as a priority – unless we tell them otherwise.
How do we create that political pressure? What does it take to make the messages within the Tufts paper more than an academic exercise? And what can we do to bring about the changes needed to begin a process of coordination and cooperation that will lead to structural improvements?
We may not spark a revolution on making a coordinated approach to diet and health a national priority…but together we can begin an evolution.
It begins with the consumer. Calls and letters to elected officials are one traditional avenue of action. But in today’s digital age, social media has become a powerful tool for building coalitions of concerned citizens – politicians call them voters – that drive action.
Share your questions about health and nutrition with others. Describe the challenges you face in finding the relevant, credible information you need to make smart decisions about what to feed your family. Point to examples of food products, package labels, and other examples of companies that do a good job of addressing your concerns and questions. Share all that and more on whatever social media you use – and make sure you add your elected national officials to your distribution lists.
If nothing else, share them with Dirt-to-Dinner, and we’ll collect and report on them on your behalf. This is about your health and your family’s well-being, not just a Washington Beltway tussle among faceless bureaucrats.
Do you have thoughts of your own on this matter? Email us at [email protected]
The Bottom Line
Tufts’ research draws attention to something that has real importance to dealing with the growing problem of obesity, enhancing nutrition and health in real and meaningful ways, and rebuilding public trust in our government in an age of suspicion and doubt. It’s a fight worth fighting. We just need to figure out how to best assemble the army.