It is common knowledge that obesity and poor diet are rising trends in the United States and are leading to increased disease and higher health care costs. To reverse those trends, Americans must reduce intake of processed foods and adopt a more plant-based diet. Educational and regulatory steps are needed to improve the American diet and to reverse the debilitating effects of poor diet.
According to the 2014 Global Status Report released by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States is the second most obese nation in the world; only second to Mexico (WHO 2014). Obesity increases the likelihood of diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer (WHO 2014). These health trends have coincided with a decline in the quality of the typical American diet, in which there is over-reliance on processed foods that have added sugar and fats, satisfying taste and convenience preference at the expense of nutritional value. This significant change in the American diet is directly contributing to increased health problems and to rising health care costs. The American diet also causes environmental sustainability problems. For example, the US food production system uses about 50% of the total US land area, 80% of the fresh water, and 17% of the fossil energy used in the country; raising animals for protein also takes substantially more resources than raising plants. (Pimental et al. 2003)
As the population grows, and as global warming leads to water shortages, the current food system will not be sustainable (Pimental et al. 2003). With recent recommendations from the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, suggesting that the American diet move more toward a plant-based regimen with fewer sugars, processed foods, and meat, there may be an opportunity to substantially improve health conditions of many Americans. From both a health policy standpoint and from an environmental standpoint, improving the American diet is critical.
However, there are significant challenges that must be overcome. The USDA Dietary Guidelines are released every five years, and the most recent 2015 version numbered over 500 pages. The guidelines outlined what foods Americans should be eating in greater proportions and what they should be cutting out. The USDA called for a huge reduction in saturated fats, red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and refined grains (USDA Report 2015). These food groups seem to be contributing the most to unhealthy eating habits and weight gain. While Americans should be focused on phasing these foods out of their diet, the guidelines also suggest that they should be replacing these with healthier foods. The report also called for sustainability and effort from Americans to create a diet that would be healthier for the environment too, explaining the advised increase in produce. While the report did give general guidelines that they believed the American population should follow, it also recommended that dietary patterns be tailored to the individual’s biological and medical needs (USDA Report 2015). By incorporating the guidelines’ main tenets into their lifestyles, Americans would be able to increase their overall health.
Improving daily diets has been proven to decrease the risk for many diseases and to generally improve health. A study published in 2013, fed volunteers a diet that coincided with the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines and showed that these volunteers had lower cholesterol levels than those who followed a typical American diet. The study also showed that volunteers who followed the USDA Guidelines had overall positive changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors. (Schroeder et al. 2013) A similar study published in 2014 showed that Chinese adults who followed the US Dietary Guidelines experienced lower mortality rate (Yu et al. 2014). Both these studies showed that following the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines led to better health. So the studies make clear that better health is achievable and accessible.
However, both adherence to and knowledge of the USDA Dietary Guidelines are fairly low across the country (Haack et al. 2014). This poses a major problem as the nation is currently in a dire situation in terms of health and nutrition. It is imperative that health officials and policy makers begin to look at ways to increase knowledge and adherence to the USDA Dietary Guidelines. Policy makers should aim to include knowledge concerning the dietary guidelines in public school curriculum as well as begin to implement them in school lunches. While educating children about nutrition is important, it’s also necessary to spread this knowledge to adults and parents often tasked with preparing meals. In hosting community outreach sessions on healthy diets and training primary care doctors to have conversations with patients about nutrition, policy makers could increase the knowledge of the dietary guidelines and impact the health of the population.
Given the state of obesity in the U.S., additional steps would also be beneficial and provide important benefits to public health. While undoubtedly controversial in the current political environment, there needs to be increased government regulation of the food industry. The U.S. food industry generates $900 billion in annual revenue, and saturates the population with advertising and an abundance of processed foods. Food processing makes foods more long-lasting, accessible, convenient, attractive, and ready-to-eat. Ultra-food processing leads to microbial deterioration and allows for longer shelf life while making the foods easily transportable over long distances. Processing also makes the foods more palatable, which has led to habit-forming behavior in consumers. The foods are designed to be consumed anywhere…in fast food restaurants, while driving, while home watching television, working, or surfing the internet. But there is a huge downside to the convenience: processing foods are a direct contributor to obesity and to declining health in many sectors of the population (Monteiro 2010).
A key problem with nutrition and health in this country is that the marketing and product strategies of the food companies are hugely successful, and consumers are literally “eating up” the ultra-processed foods (Monteiro 2010). Much like the tobacco companies of the 1950s-1980s, the corporate strategies are highly effective, but are literally killing consumers and contributing substantially to rising health care costs. Given the epidemic nature of obesity and declining health, the government should step in and regulate the food industry to require full disclosure of the health detriments of processed foods and sugar additives, or should consider placing taxes on those types of foods. With inclusion of a processed food tax, consumption would be lower due to the higher price and tax revenues could be allocated to offset rising health care costs, and to provide incentive for both producers and consumers to shift towards plant-based diets.
Poor diet and obesity are extremely widespread and serious problems in the U.S., and diet is just one, albeit a large, factor in solving the problem. With a combination of educational and health policy initiatives designed to improve the American diet, we have an opportunity to reduce our reliance upon processed foods and to positively contribute to the health of the population.
Haack, Sarah A., and Carmen J. Byker. “Recent population adherence to and knowledge of United States federal nutrition guides, 1992–2013: a systematic review.” Nutrition reviews 72.10 (2014): 613-626.
Mendis, Shanthi. Global status report on noncommunicable diseases 2014. World Health Organization, 2014.
Monteiro, Carlos, and G. Cannon. “The big issue is ultra-processing.” World Nutrition 1.6 (2010): 237-259.
Pimentel, David and Pimentel, Martha, “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment,” American Society for Clinical Nutrition (2003).
Schroeder, Natalia, et al. “Changes in cardiovascular risk factors after 4-week consumption of two diet patterns: Korean and 2010 US Dietary Guidelines.” The FASEB Journal 27.1_MeetingAbstracts (2013): 1067-12.
USDA. “Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committe.” First Print, February 2015.
Yu, Danxia, et al. “Adherence to dietary guidelines and mortality: a report from prospective cohort studies of 134,000 Chinese adults in urban Shanghai.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 100.2 (2014): 693-700.