Programs supporting whole food, plant-based diets need to be part of the solution
As a headache neurologist, I most often focus on common food triggers for migraines. Besides, obesity is a risk factor for the most severe and debilitating form of migraine, known as chronic migraine. However, a recent study showed that the prevalence of migraine is higher in food insecure than food-secure young adults.
Food insecurity is also a problem in older adults and is linked to economic factors, more chronic diseases, and poorer disease management. To improve food security and public health, innovative policies are needed that promote whole food, plant-based diets, rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts.
There are many reasons why the widespread adoption of whole food, plant-based diets is an acceptable policy for food security, beyond the negative impacts that meat and dairy consumption have on the environment and climate change. A report by One World in Data using statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization showed that land allocated for crops could feed larger populations of people far more efficiently than the land used for raising livestock and the crops to feed those animals.
As the report explained, “livestock takes up nearly 80 percent of the global agricultural land, yet produces less than 20 percent of the world’s supply of calories.” Taken together, while there has been a lot of emphasis on meat shortages, meat is ultimately an inefficient way of obtaining calories. Instead of feeding animal agriculture, grains and crops need to go directly to people to eliminate waste, in line with United National Sustainable Development initiatives.
The Food and Agriculture Organization encourages the protection of vulnerable populations, support for social programs, local farmers, and regional and global supply chains. Some initiatives are already in place to improve access to fruits and vegetables. On the CDC website, the 2018 State Indicator on Fruits and Vegetable guides methods, recognizing successes and opportunities for improvement in food systems that promote fruit and vegetable access.
Forty-seven states have policies that support farm to school or farm to Early Care Education (ECE); however, with children at home due to social distancing needs, food insecurity may be further exacerbated. The number of farmers’ markets are growing; yet, a lack of access to these markets in low-income areas has contributed to food deserts and overconsumption of processed foods. Whole food, plant-based diets are on the rise, and further efforts to promote and incentivize production could result in more widespread adoption.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “the social and economic impact of preventable chronic diseases, health disparities, and food insecurity are enormous.” Plant-forward diets may lower cholesterol, are low in salt, high in both fiber and good fats, and may provide complete protein. Diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce cancer risks, according to the American Cancer Society, and are anti-inflammatory due to phytonutrients. Furthermore, the International Agency on Research for Cancer has recommended policies to limit meat, especially processed meat consumption, due to the potential for colorectal cancer. Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish are advised for brain and heart health.
Still, vegan sources of omega3 fatty acids (i.e., flaxseed, algae) have advantages because fish consumption is associated with exposure to environmental toxins (i.e., PCBs, dioxins, etc.), mercury contamination, and may lead to overfishing and the destruction of the ocean ecosystem. Adherence to a whole-food, plant-based diet is associated with lower rates of diabetes, hypertension, a major risk factor for stroke, high cholesterol, obesity, cardiovascular and chronic heart disease. Moreover, whole food, plant-based diets may reduce the risk for COVID19 infections by preventing comorbidities known to increase the risk of transmission.
Overall, food insecurity is a public health concern because poor diets can lead to illness and unnecessary deaths, which should be unacceptable in a rich country like the United States. Both the Biden and Trump campaigns should outline specific proposals on how to address these problems. National and statewide economic recovery plans need to include immediate, aggressive, and sustainable measures that ensure access to whole-food, plant-based diets, beyond the COVID19 pandemic.
Teshamae Monteith is an associate professor of Clinical Neurology at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, and a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project.
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