Williams’s contribution on the debate stage was small, but important. Fixing our broken healthcare system won’t be easy for politicians or entrepreneurs — but it would save millions of lives.
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Last month’s Democratic debate touched on a lot of important subjects. But not enough time was given to one of the most urgent problems in the U.S. today: our diets are killing us.
Around 45 percent of deaths from heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes in 2012 could be because of a poor diet. About three-fourths of the population has a diet low in vegetables and fruit, while most are eating too much salt, saturated fat and sugar. Research has found that even small amounts of processed meats can increase the risk of death, from cancer and particularly heart disease.
This public health disaster is really costing us. Rising rates of chronic disease accounted for an estimated $211 billion of the $314 billion increase in healthcare spending in the U.S. between 1987 and 2000. More recent research has found that one in five deaths between 1990 and 2017 were associated with poor diet.
During the debate, presidential candidate Marianne Williamson mentioned the importance of going deeper than “superficial fixes.” “[W]e don’t have a health care system in the United States, we have a sickness care system in the United States,” she said. “We just wait until somebody gets sick and then we talk about who is going pay for the treatment and how they’re going to be treated.”
She said we need to talk about why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses compared to other countries, and the influence government has on our diets, and subsequently, our health and wellbeing.
“It gets back into not just Big Pharma, not just health insurance companies, but it has to do with chemical policies, it has to do with environmental policies, it has to do with food, it has to do with drug policies, and it has to do with environment policies,” Williamson said.
Many voters think she doesn’t stand a chance of becoming president, but in this instance Williamson has stood out among her competitors because many policymakers don’t want to talk about this broader issue. It’s easy for them to think this battle is far longer than their time in office will be, that it’s too anti-business. But this wasn’t an off-the-cuff crusade for Williamson. On her website, she argues that:
“Until America comes to terms with how much we have acquiesced to the many unhealthy practices that should be considered unlawful — but which are currently allowed in order to increase corporate profits — we will continue to have a less-than-meaningful discussion of how as a society we provide health care.”
People aren’t eating poor diets by choice; the country’s food system is designed this way. Processed food and fast food (notorious for meat-sweet items) are often cheaper and more accessible, and many trade lobbyists are pushing onto the population the very foods we need to stop eating. Improving attitudes around diet and health and longevity is welcome, but we also need to recognize the huge role policymakers play in this, and hold them accountable.
For example, Williamson said we should end agricultural subsidies for unhealthy foods, including high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and hydrogenated fats, and incentivize and subsidize those in industry and business making healthy food more available and affordable. Research has found that the rate of Type 2 diabetes is 20 percent higher in countries with higher availability of HFCS compared to countries that have less access to it.
More and more scientists and entrepreneurs are acknowledging that we need to focus more on prevention and less on treatment, that it’s already too late when people seek help from their doctor to manage their weight. One hope is that AI and other futuristic technologies will be able to spot early markers of disease and help people prevent its onset through diet, exercise and lifestyle.
Science and technology are also advancing the availability and quality of plant-based alternatives, which can play a role in helping people cut back on their meat intake. For example, in Beyond Meat’s R&D lab, an e-tongue “tastes” the Beyond Burger burgers for likeness to meat, and helps perfect the burger’s chewiness, and an e-nose isolates more than 1,000 animal and plant matter molecules. Whole plant-based foods would obviously be a healthier option, but meeting people where they are (like at the drive-thru at Carl’s Jr.) is arguably an important and realistic start.
There are many complex and intertwining factors contributing to the soaring number of Americans with preventable diseases, and a wealth of legislation that could help: from education to food regulation, advertising standards to agriculture, what children are served in school, how scientists are funded and incentivized, the food patients are served in hospitals and the food deserts (and food swamps) preventing or disincentivizing populations from accessing fruit and vegetables.
One major regulatory issue at the moment is labeling. States across the country are banning plant-based foods from using words such as “sausage” and “burger” to describe their products. Most recently, a ban in Mississippi prevents vegetarian and vegan foods from using such words. Many hope that legislators can push back on this, as there is no evidence for the main claim that such labeling confuses consumers, which courts have repeatedly affirmed.
Michelle Obama’s efforts to tackle obesity and improve nutrition for children during her time as First Lady were commendable, despite criticisms for partnering with food giants. But now, we need much bolder policy change.
Williams’s contribution on the debate stage was small, but important. Fixing our broken healthcare system won’t be easy for politicians or entrepreneurs — but it would save millions of lives. Given all that is at stake, let’s hope other candidates take a cue from Williams and raise food issues in the second Democratic debate.