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‘Overfed but undernourished’ — Congress is told U.S. in health crisis

Poor-quality diets are driving an expensive epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in America, a panel of physicians, researchers, and policy experts told senators on Tuesday. They called for a national strategy to replace the mishmash of federal nutrition programs. “We are on a path to disaster,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts School of Nutrition.

Three-quarters of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, half of U.S. deaths are due to diet-related diseases, and $1 of every $5 in the country is spent on health care, said the witnesses. Furthermore, they said nutrition was overlooked as a factor in a healthcare system that focuses on treatment rather than prevention.

“We have so much accord but we are not getting it done,” said Sen. Cory Booker, sponsor of a bill to call a White House conference on nutrition, inspired by a Nixon-era conference. The 1969 White House conference led to creation of WIC, the program for food insecure women and children, and expansion of the school lunch program; it also led to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, said a 2020 retrospective article. Booker chaired Tuesday’s subcommittee hearing on “the state of nutrition in America.”

“This nutrition crisis we face is a threat. In fact, I would say it is the greatest threat to the health and well-being of our country right now,” said Booker, New Jersey Democrat. He pointed the finger at food companies who make and advertise “nutrient-poor, addictive, ultra-processed foods” that encourage “the overeating of empty calories, literally making us sick” and driving up healthcare costs. It was, he said, a failure of federal policy that “too many Americans are overfed but undernourished” and suffering “staggering rates of disease and early death.”

An advocate of “food as medicine,” Tuft’s Mazaffarian listed six areas for a national nutrition strategy. They included more nutrition education and research into nutrition as well as coordinated action among federal agencies.

The USDA, for example, spends more than $100 billion a year on public nutrition programs, including SNAP and school lunch, but 21 agencies are involved in federal efforts relating to diet for reducing Americans’ risk of chronic health conditions, said a Government Accountability Office report in August. “Congress should consider identifying and directing a federal entity to lead the development and implementation of a federal strategy to coordinate diet-related efforts that aim to reduce Americans’ risk of chronic health conditions,” said the GAO.

“We need to try to work on dose, so people eat less, and what people eat,” said Patrick Stover, dean of agriculture and life sciences at Texas A&M University.

Poor diets are a bigger challenge than reforming federal nutrition programs but government programs “can play a role in helping to address them,” said Angela Rachidi, poverty scholar at the free-enterprise think tank American Enterprise Institute. She called for restrictions on what low-income Americans can buy with food stamps, incentives for healthy eating among SNAP recipients, and more attention to nutrition education. Rachidi was part of a proposal a decade ago to ban SNAP recipients in New York City from buying sodas and other sugary beverages with nutrition program benefits.

“People of color overall, and Black populations specifically, face higher rates of diet-related chronic conditions and have poorer dietary intakes as compared to whites,” said associate professor Angela Odoms-Young of Cornell University. “We did not get here by chance but through policy.”

Donald Warne of the University of North Dakota medical school said obesity rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives were 1.6 times higher than white Americans and diabetes rates were three times higher. Heart disease rates were 50% higher.

“Rather than the significant financial expenses and decreases in quality of life associated with addressing complications of diabetes and heart disease, would it not make more sense to invest in healthy food in the first place?” Among steps to improve diets, Warne suggested, were putting higher prices on unhealthy foods and subsidizing healthier options.

To watch a video of the hearing or read the written testimony, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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