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Connecting the Dots: Diet and Health (People, Planet, Economy)

While battles in Washington DC take a breather, there is no end in sight for one of the main culprits exacerbating budget problems.  Healthcare, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid costs, eats up about 21% of the federal budget and is projected to grow substantially in the years ahead.  Overall, the Congressional Budget Office projects healthcare costs in the USA to grow from 15% of GDP in 2007 to 31% and 46% of GDP in 2035 and 2080, respectively.  These are astounding statistics.

While there may be numerous structural reasons for the USA’s exploding healthcare costs, underlying it all is an unhealthy diet ‘enjoyed’ by an apparent majority of Americans.  A new study, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011” (Trust for America’s Health), outlines the staggering obesity epidemic both in terms of sheer numbers and rate of expansion (no pun intended!).   Thirty-eight states have adult obesity rates above 25% and twelve of those are above 30%.  Contrast this to twenty years ago, when not one state had an obesity rate above 15%.  Obesity of course, is a precursor to a variety of debilitating and expensive, if not heartbreaking diseases – diabetes, heart disease, cancer – growing in epidemic proportions today.

Where does this state of affairs lead us?

The standard American diet (SAD) today, derived from meat and dairy and laden with added fats and sugars, is of course, not only wreaking havoc on our bodies and burdening our economy, but it is having an equally damaging toll on our planet, whether contributing to climate change conditions or through the wasteful use of natural resources.  Fortunately, the connection between diet and health, both human and planet, and the economy, is drawing considerable attention.  Here are some developing trends that will drive opportunity and (hopefully) force change:

  • Demand for healthier fast food (for those who believe this is not an oxymoron).  For example, as reported earlier on Triple Pundit, McDonalds is conceding to pressure from community stakeholders.  They are revamping their meals to cut down on sugar (no more carmel dipping sauce for apples!), offer more choices to reduce fat content, and optionally substitute vegetables for french fries.  (Incidentally, the latter was rated the #1 food responsible for weight gain in a recent study reviewed in the NYT).

  • More calls for taxation of junk food and sugar drinks.  Current research points to excise taxes as having the greatest impact - they are incorporated into and raise the unit price.  Philadelphia, NYC, and San Francisco have all considered them and it seems a matter of time before they catch on.  When you consider the very high costs of obesity-related diseases ultimately borne by the taxpayer, you can see parallels with the successful actions taken by the government to discourage smoking.

  • Greater interest in how our food is grown and how livestock is treated.  Locavores further push food consciousness while the organic movement becomes mainstream.   In a sign that not all stakeholders will shirk responsibility, Safeway and Kroger (but not Costco), abruptly suspended pork shipments from their distributor after animal-rights group, Mercy for Animals, released an undercover video documenting cruel and inhumane treatment of pigs.

  • More voices extolling a healthier diet equals healthier people and a healthier planet.  Environmental Working Group (EWG), a strong, innovative voice for researching and exposing environmental toxins has just begun a new campaign.  Declaring “not all meat is created equal”, they have published a “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health”.  It gives a detailed breakdown of the carbon footprint associated with different meat and cheese choices and empowers people to make small changes for big impact.  Popular chef/author Mario Batali is part of the chorus urging people to make the pledge – for healthier children and planet – to eat less meat, more vegetables. Per influential food writer Michael Pollard,  “The single most important thing any of us can do to shrink the environmental footprint of our eating is to cut back on our meat eating -- doing so has a bigger impact than eating local or organic.”

It is becoming harder not to see the collision course we are on – unhealthy diets are ruining our health as well as our planet’s, and bankrupting us along the way.  Can we collectively connect the dots?  And then, are we capable of choosing health over status quo?
Susan Hopp

Susan Hopp is a Presidio MBA in Sustainable Management. She writes about a wide range of topics reflecting the intersection of sustainability with societal response. Coming from a career in technology start-ups, she knows the power of business as a powerful change agent.

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