New Report: Healthier Diets Could Save Thousands of Lives — and Trillions of Dollars

Photo by José Damián Garrido.

Anyone who has suffered from (or lost a loved one to) cardiovascular disease can attest to its costs, both emotional and financial. We know that each of us can avoid – or at least stave off – heart disease by maintaining a healthy diet and that the most effective way to get people to eat better is to make it easier (and cheaper) to do so. Sadly, food and agriculture policy rarely reflects this knowledge.

For years, good food advocates have complained that government subsidies for commodity crops like corn and soy support a system where junk food is cheaper and easier to find than fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, where diet-related diseases are especially prevalent. Helping citizens avoid cardiovascular disease is a worthy goal in itself but these days it seems that framing things financially is the only way to talk to decision-makers.

Enter a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which adds up the cost of diet-related cardiovascular disease and extends these financial projections to scenarios where people ate more fruits and vegetables, creating real savings, in both money and lives.

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The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There breaks it down financially:

  • If Americans ate enough fruits and vegetables to meet dietary recommendations, we could prevent more than 127,000 deaths and save $17 billion annually — just in medical costs.
  • The actual savings would be much higher — using estimates of how much people are willing to invest in measures to reduce cardiovascular disease mortality, UCS calculates that we could save more than $11 trillion a year by eating our veggies.
  • Even if each of us ate just one more portion of vegetables daily, savings would still add up to a whopping $2.7 trillion.
  • If we continue to eat the way we do now, “by 2030 116 million American are projected to suffer from some type of cardiovascular disease and treatment costs will have increased by 200 percent — reaching a staggering $818 billion.”

Assuming these sizable savings are enough to gain the attention of the Senate Agricutlure Committee, what exactly can they do to make it easier for people to make healthy food choices? UCS wraps up the report with a number of simple policy recommendations, including:

  • Make it easier for farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables by investing in research that would lead to higher yields and more resilient crops, removing restrictions on farm subsidies to allow farmers to grow fruits and vegetables alongside commodity crops like corn, soy and cotton (currently, farmers receiving subsidies aren’t allowed to grow them, except under certain conditions) and give fruit and vegetable producers access to crop insurance (many – especially who grow a variety of crops, can’t get insurance).
  • Improve access to fresh, locally grown produce. This would include providing grants and loans for new fresh food businesses in underserved areas and removing obstacles for consumers to redeem SNAP and other nutrition benefits at farmers’ markets.

Of course, by maintaining a healthy diet, we can each offset our risk of other diet-related illnesses, too, and the costs of those aren’t even factored into this report. And rewriting policy to support fruit and vegetable farmers would have other added benefits – our local economies would be healthier, and farmers who grow a diverse range of crops tend to use fewer chemicals, so they’re good for our environment, too. Saving thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, while improving local economies and the environment? Sounds like the kind of triple – make that quadruple – bottom line even Congress should be able to get behind.

Image by José Damián Garrido.


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