Food fix for health, the planet, and community

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Healthcare providers need to focus on the food system, Mark Hyman, MD, during the virtual 2020 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference.

Only 12.2 percent of Americans are considered metabolically healthy. Additionally, mortality from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is virally driven by hyperinflammation.

Almost everything is connected to the industrial food system. However, food is medicine and what we eat can have a tremendous impact on not only health but economy, community, and planet, Hyman said.

We need to connect the dots, Hyman said, between the food system, food policy, and consumers. Ultra-processed foods are driving the epidemic of chronic disease. Six in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease, while four in 10 have two or more, most of which are caused by food.

Healthcare spending relating to chronic disease has also grown faster than the rest of the economy, by over $95 trillion in 35 years. At the same time, agri-business and food, as well as the cross-sector business groups, lobbied more than any other industry. For example, lobbying expenses by groups opposed to mandatory GMO labeling totaled over $192 million in 2015.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends fruits and vegetables comprise half of daily food intake. However, government agriculture subsidies cover less than 0.5 percent of fruits and vegetables, while corn and other grains receive 61 percent and oils receive 19 percent.

In recent years, 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were sold, while only 7.7 million pounds were sold to treat sick people in the U.S. The pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on the industrial food system to make money, Hyman said, which not only impacts human health, but contributes to the global climate crisis.

Between 44 percent and 57 percent of all greenhouse gas emission come from the global food system, Hyman said. Additionally, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2019 Climate and Land Change report found that the world’s soils have only 60 harvests left. Climate change has impacted food quality and availability, resulted in detrimental weather events that destroy the planet, and toxins damage the environment and impact human health.

Consumers have also contributed to the health crisis both people and the planet face. Up to 40 percent of food is wasted, Hyman said. Food waste is one of the largest contributors to global climate change.

Through this cycle, industrial food impacts health of people and the planet, pollution impacts the health of people and food, and people drive the health of the planet with their food choices and food policies.

The common denominator is the economy, Hyman said—the food monopoly of big food companies, fertilizer and seed companies, and big agriculture companies, totaling $15 trillion. These companies collectively spend more money on lobbying than any other industry and control policies, subsidies, taxes, food assistance programs, and dietary guidelines, Hyman said.

Food companies also influence nutrition science and skew what people believe is healthy. Professional societies are largely funded by the food industry, like the American Heart Association, as are professional publications, like the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. These companies front research groups and social organizations. Big food companies even fund the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a primary source of education for registered dietitians and nutrition professionals in the U.S.

While these conflicts of interest can make it confusing for consumers to know what to eat, there are solutions that benefits health, economy, community, and the planet, what Hyman calls the “food fix.” This includes addressing food policy, adopting sustainable agriculture practices, and encouraging food is medicine.

“We can’t go in with our eyes closed,” said Hyman. “Food is one of the biggest things we can change and the biggest lever we have.”

Hyman called for a reform in U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services policies. One idea is healthy food prescriptions, which would include vegetables, fruits, nut and seeds, whole grains, seafood, and plant oils. In an ideal world, insurance would cover 30 percent of eligible food costs, which in turn would lead to $100 billion less in healthcare utilization over a model population’s lifetime, become cost-effective after five years, and result in less diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

 “We have the power to change this with our voices, our wallets, and our votes,” said Hyman. “Healthcare providers can be part of this solution.”

Editor’s note: Click here to explore our 2020 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference live coverage.