So long as the US population is aging, health care costs will continue to increase no matter what happens with health care reform. An op-ed in the New York Times, by Dariush Mozzafarian and Dan Glickman, argues that the food we eat drives up health care costs. If Americans ate better and became healthier, we would spend far less on health care.
Today, tens of millions of Americans suffer from one or more chronic conditions. Close to one third of the US population, more than 100 million adults, have pre-diabetes or diabetes. More than one third of the population, more than 120 million adults, have cardiovascular disease. And three quarters of the adult population is obese. These chronic conditions are responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars in health care spending, as well as lost productivity. (Note: Medicare covers a diabetes prevention program, weight-loss counseling and nutrition counseling.)
We know that people who eat healthy diets feel better and have lower health care costs. But, that’s different from knowing how to change people’s diets so that they eat better, especially when the food industry giants invest heavily in getting people to eat unhealthy diets. What would it take to improve population health through better nutrition?
The authors suggest a number of ways to improve people’s diets. They propose that electronic health records include nutrition; health care providers could focus more on eating well and prescribe people fruits and vegetables; health care providers also could design healthy meals for people in poor health. One recent study shows that, for each person in poor health, these healthy meals alone would save $9,000 a year in health care costs.
Of course, behavior change, whether for a health care provider or a patient, is challenging. And, the food industry will do what it can to make change in people’s eating habits difficult. The food industry has done a great job of keeping sugary beverages and junk food from being taxed more, even though these foods have no health benefits and drive up health costs.
The authors also suggest that the government subsidize the cost of healthy foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains and fish. They suggest government regulatory safety standards for processed foods to reduce sugar, sodium and transfats, if not voluntary action by industry. And, SNAP, which helps about 12 percent of Americans with the cost of food, could focus more on a healthy diet.
Government has a big role to play in helping people to eat healthy diets. But, no presidential candidates are talking about food policy and few journalists are asking about it. Government action in this area may be a long time coming.
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