Putting Prevention on the Surgeon General's Agenda | Civil Eats

Putting Prevention on the Surgeon General’s Agenda

According to the USDA, if Americans ate healthier, at least $71 billion per year could be saved in medical costs, lost productivity and lost lives. In fact, the food we eat is affecting our nation’s health to a surprising degree in the form of diet-related disease. Today, the typical American diet – high in saturated fats, sugars and sodium – is a contributor to four of the six leading causes of death and a risk factor for what has now become a nationwide epidemic – obesity.

Recently, a cadre of notable professors, chefs and policy leaders have spoken up about the dangerous links between our food and diseases like obesity, from Bill Clinton to Dr. Barry Popkin. Even Tom Vilsack has remarked that he would like to steer food policy under the umbrella of health care reform and just last week Michelle Obama spoke of reducing processed foods in our diets. But where is the voice of America’s #1 doctor, the Surgeon General?

As the Obama administration began to take shape at the start of the year and whispers circulated over the naming of the next Surgeon General, I couldn’t help but wonder what this post is really about and how seemingly appropriate its station could be in the widespread communication of food sustainability and health to the mainstream.

According to the government website of the Surgeon General, the position is part of the Office of Public Health and Science within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the office holder seeks to be “America’s chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury.”

Unfortunately, our chief health advocate has been somewhat invisible or inaudible at least, some may argue, since the days of C. Everett Koop.

It is now time to revitalize this invaluable tax-supported post in our government and choose an intelligent agenda for the next Surgeon General. Although the sustainable-food movement has been gaining in leaps and bounds at the moment (e.g. White House organic garden), by tapping the top advocate for public health to join the squad, this base can be solidified to tackle issues from a government-backed, mainstream platform – at least on the health front. How better to contain the critics who profess that sustainable food advocates have a scattered and extreme agenda?

And there is no better time than now to have a Surgeon General dedicate resources to a healthier food supply. Some have now deemed obesity the #1 threat to American health (nearly 2 out of 3 Americans is either overweight or obese).

There are plenty of innovative and effective initiatives the next Surgeon General can roll out to inject techniques of sustainable food into an agenda combating diet-related lifestyle problems. Many of these ideas have been shuttled back and forth among food policy advocates, but by being heard through the office of America’s #1 doctor, awareness and change would be better guaranteed.

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Firstly, a new campaign of health warnings pinpointing the perils of the average American diet should be considered, similar to the Surgeon General health warnings seen on alcoholic beverages, and most popularly, on packages of cigarettes. Although issuing warnings on items like cigarettes is a much easier task than enforcing rules on a vast array of retail foods, more attention should be given to finding effective ways to re-launch health warnings in a modified approach (e.g. levels of saturated fats in certain foods).

Secondly, the Surgeon General’s post could do a lot more to communicate the realities of food subsidies to the American mainstream by educating the public about how inexpensive, processed foods enter our food system and how important it is to promote healthy fruits and vegetables instead.

The Surgeon General could speak more powerfully on issues relating to fast-food outlets in urban areas and their proximity to schools, portion sizes and television advertising of processed foods to children. He or she could push for better front-of-package nutrition labeling (favored by almost 75% of American and developed for use in the U.K.), a redesigning of the Food Pyramid, and more research in the areas of local and sustainable food.

In general, the Surgeon General could be an invaluable teacher and poster child for the education of sustainable food to the masses by acting as the sole arbiter in the constant debate surrounding diet and health made more confusing by public misunderstandings over scientific findings, mixed messages from the media and a deluge of health claims pushed by corporate marketing initiatives.

Whatever the final agenda, the post of the Surgeon General needs to be rejuvenated and empowered with a new view of food policy in relation to public health. Although Admiral Galson (acting Surgeon General) has been seen very recently speaking about childhood obesity and their “Healthy Youth for A Healthy Future” initiative, these efforts are extremely weak and don’t go to the heart of the matter – changing our food system.

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By choosing the next Surgeon General based on ideas relating to sustainability the Obama Administration and Congress can tackle a wide array of problems such as climate change, national security, and energy policy in addition to healthcare, as positive changes in the way Americans eat will have domino-like affects on many sectors and of society.

The time is now to harness attention and concern over the President’s next pick for the Office of Surgeon General and a remaking of its agenda based on the interconnected themes of sustainability, health literacy and disease prevention. Food policy advocates and the sustainable food community should make a push as well, for this post may be exactly what the movement needs in terms of mainstream awareness and government support. By capturing the momentum for change brought on by the Obama administration, a revitalized and progressive Surgeon General post can prove to be a wondrous agent for good food, good health and prosperity in our country.

Pooja Renee Mottl, a former finance professional, is a diet & wellness consultant and writer exploring the links between sustainable food, fitness, preventative health and public policy. She holds a Bachelor in Economics from the University of Michigan and a Masters degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Read more >

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  1. I don't think this will ever be the focus until big business (agri, pharma & manufacturing) quits controlling most of the politicians.
  2. This all sounds great and I agree with the concept.
    I'd love to see processed, chemicalized food products listed as hazardous....let's call a spade a spade here!

    But I'm a realist. Agribusiness, the junk food industry and the drug industry will do whatever it takes to keep this from happening on the government level. It's gonna have to happen from the ground up.
  3. I too think this sounds like a good idea. I agree that labeling food like cigarettes will be an incredibly tough battle.

    I think that the surgeon general could serve an important role in educating people about healthy eating.

    One place where education in this area is lacking is in medical schools. The power and importantance of diet really aren't emphasized enough in medical education--they certainly weren't in mine.

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