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A great meal may save America

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
An employee of Whole Foods stocks produce in Coral Gables, Fla., in this file photo. Since 2014, the grocer has ranked fruits and vegetables as “good,” ”better” or “best” based on the supplier’s farming practices.

September’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health represents a huge opportunity for the country. U.S. spending on health care is enormous, yet Americans are getting sicker and living shorter lives. If the conference achieves its full potential, Americans can be much healthier and live longer lives, and America’s health care costs (and inflation) can be cut by trillions of dollars. The formula is simple — and it’s a test of whether this conference will lead to revolutionary change or turn out to be more political junk food.

First, the conference must declare that sugar is public enemy No. 1, by far the most dangerous drug in America, a central source of many dangerous diseases, and the root cause of trillions of dollars in excess American health care costs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that high blood-glucose levels, obesity and metabolic dysfunction were a primary risk factor for death from the disease. Compromised metabolic health is increasingly recognized as a foundational epidemic in American health. Nine of the 10 leading fatal diseases for Americans can be traced to high blood-glucose levels and weak metabolic health. 

Highly refined sugar (and ultra-processed grain, which turns into sugar) in so many foods is the culprit that is addicting, afflicting and killing more Americans annually than fentanyl and other illicit drugs. As Biden administration spokespersons love to say about so many things: The science is clear, the results are in, the debate is over. Sugar is a serious problem, our usage must decline, and the White House should lead the attack.

There are several immediate steps that can be taken to save American lives. First, all direct and indirect subsidies to the sugar industry must cease immediately. Second, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must reverse their added-sugar content guidance for foods and reduce them to nearly zero. Third, federal guidance on school lunch programs must lower added-sugar content to nearly zero and begin to rapidly wean our children off sugar. Fourth, breakfast cereals, candies, sodas and other processed foods with high sugar content should contain warning labels that sugar is addictive and unhealthy. Fifth, Congress should consider levying a sugar content tax to offset America’s exploding national health care costs.

Recognizing the ineffective regulation of sugar and other unhealthy foods by NIH and the USDA, a major outcome of the White House Conference should be the creation of a fully independent National Institute of Wellness, Nutrition, and Disease Prevention, responsible for healthy food research, promotion, regulation and standards currently residing in USDA and other agencies.

The second major topic the conference should address is ultra-processed foods, nearly all of which are unhealthy. Most contain refined sugars, refined grains, refined vegetable and seed oils, and other unhealthy ingredients that erode American health and account for the majority of calories Americans consume. 

Since this administration has been masterful in the use of semantics with regard to topics such as “infrastructure,” “inflation,” “recession” and “peaceful demonstration,” it can understand and make clear that much of what is sold in supermarkets is linked to many of the symptoms and diseases Americans suffer from. The greatest victims of addictive, ultra-processed, nutrient-poor “foods” are those who are most economically disadvantaged; the “food” that the government subsidizes is entrenching disparities in quality of life, economic opportunity, and lifespan. For example, a leading item among SNAP purchases is soda, a disease-promoting product that is doubly federally subsidized — once with the corn subsidies and then with the nutrition assistance program.

A third major topic must be farming. Food is only as healthy as the soil and farming practices where it originates. As documentaries such as “Kiss the Ground” and “The Biggest Little Farm” make clear, America’s industrial farming practices are rapidly depleting our soil and producing less healthy foods, often laced with pesticides and other chemicals. Some experts estimate we will face a catastrophic soil and food production crisis within 50 years. Farm subsidies, energy policy and healthy food production must be central to the White House agenda.

The Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health website states its purpose is to “improve food access and affordability.” We must remember that ultra-processed “food” is not the food that will help us; increasing access to this form of food is not a solution.

Finally, there is the question of attendees. Clearly, politics will demand that the industrial farming and processed food industries be represented. In addition, Big Pharma may want a seat at the table since consuming unhealthy foods eventually can lead to a plethora of major diseases, which, in turn, drive drug sales. Fair enough. But balancing those vested-interest armies should be food and health experts who are strong advocates for wellness, healthy food, healthy farming, and disease prevention and reversal. For example, the Food Fix Campaign led by Dr. Mark Hyman has been advocating for major shifts in food policies that address the burden of nutrition-related chronic disease. Other leading advocates for improving the quality of our food include Drs. Robert Lustig, Terry Wahls, Sara Gottfried and David Perlmutter, who could balance the discussion with ideas that would lead to dramatic results.

Healthier Americans, trillions less in health care spending, social justice, true food security — that’s not a bad meal for America.

Dr. Casey Means is a lecturer at Stanford University, associate editor of the International Journal of Disease Reversal and Prevention, and a founder of the metabolic health company Levels Health. Follow her on Twitter @drcaseyskitchen

Grady Means is a writer, retired business strategy consultant, and former White House staff member with broad responsibilities for health care. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1

Tags Factory farming healthy eating Nutrition processed foods

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