The task force reprogramming a nation’s nutrition?
This summer the UK government missed the opportunity for the country to become a world leader in combating the rising tide of childhood obesity. Abandoning the plans for radical intervention that could have changed so many young lives, it has been left to other nations to show the way. News last week that Portugal’s government will introduce a sugar tax on soft drinks in 2017, which is expected to raise €80m (£72m) for the public health service, was heartening, but it is an initiative in the USA that really sparked my interest.
The central challenge facing America trying to fight the rise in nutrition and obesity related chronic diseases was best summed up by Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, when earlier this year he wrote: “At the present time, the U.S. health care system almost entirely ignores nutrition in favor of pharmacology and is hugely expensive and ineffective compared with the systems in other countries. Integration of the Mediterranean diet and related dietary patterns into medical practice, hospitals, schools and other institutions has the potential to improve well-being.”
Well, his words have been taken to heart because in an announcement from the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the country’s medical research agency has set up a NIH Nutrition Research Task Force (NRTF) to coordinate and accelerate progress in nutrition research across the NIH and guide the development of the first NIH-wide strategic plan for nutrition research for the next 10 years.
A thousand mile journey begins with a single step
What an important step the setting up of this task force will prove to be. With a mandate to improve health and save lives, it will lead an organized effort to direct research and explore the nutrition-related health problems that are now so prevalent in the U.S. Calling upon experts in nutrition and chronic disease, including diabetes, obesity and heart disease, the ambition is to develop a plan to help the population achieve healthier lifestyles.
A case of re-learning how to eat
The scale of the challenge facing the task force is a mighty one, so the example of an individual can be a better way to focus on what’s at stake. Again, a story from earlier this year comes to mind, with the case of a three-year-old girl in the United States developing type 2 diabetes a stark reminder why the negative effect of eating “junk”, especially processed foods advertised as healthy, urgently needed attention at a national and strategic planning level. Foods high in salt, bad fats and sugar, highly processed and high in empty calories don’t nourish us. In fact, these “fake foods” are chronically toxic. Over years they serve to act negatively on our metabolic system, expanding our waistlines, firming arteries and infiltrating our organs with fat that our body cannot cope with, eventually leading to chronic disease and premature death. In the case of the toddler this process was radically accelerated, but fortunately reversed.
A task force focusing on the benefits of nutrition to save a nation
Nobel prize winner Professor Angus Deaton and his wife, Professor Anne Case, first noted the sharp relative deterioration in mortality and morbitity among middle-aged white American men, due to suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse. Curiously white American women between 25 and 55 have also been dying at accelerating rates over the past decade. According to The Washington Post, recent studies of death certificates highlighted that the trend is even worse for women in the centre of the United States, worse still in rural areas, and worst of all for those in the lower middle class. Drug and alcohol overdose rates for working-age white women have quadrupled. Suicides are up by as much as 50 percent. The Washington Post reported Deaton studied the data and suggested, “It’s a loss of hope, a loss of expectations of progress from one generation to the next.”
As I have pointed out previously (see Going against the grain) the age range of these people also coincided with another important development that I believe may be a major contributory factor. It was in 1980 that the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The most prominent recommendation: the promotion of a low fat diet. Designed to improve health and control waistlines, ever since this ‘western diet’ has made people fatter as well as sicker, and it is these failings this task force will now be confronting, including evidence by researchers in neuropsychiatry linking nutrition and depression.
It has been clearly established that depressive symptoms are more prevalent in people with impaired nutritional status, those with decreased nutrient intakes and poor diet quality, while the link between a lack of nutrition and low socio-economic status has already been declared an important factor to consider in the question of depression.
The US taking the lead
From its inception the USA has been one of the most resourceful and adaptive nations to ever exist, it’s people responding to any challenge, so having led the world into the obesity crisis, is there a better nation to lead us out of it?
We know for certain that weight loss isn’t enough to avert chronic disease. What is required is a reprogramming of the body through better food choices, because it’s all about what we eat and how it is prepared.
The transition of replacing Fake Foods with Real Foods appears to be the toughest part for many people when it comes to changing their way of eating, with the message of the benefits not always getting through – or indeed even enough to encourage people to change.
Of course discarding an old way of life, especially something like food that gives us comfort, can be very difficult, often involving the breaking of emotional connections to bad food habits. But being proactive about our health is our responsibility and this is something that is very much appreciated in America and so should ultimately assist the task force in its work. The bigger challenge may be the powerful Big Food lobby, as well as its advertising dollars, in fighting to retain their customers.
And yet the solution for all of us is easy: simply increasing the consumption of healthy, nutritional foods and decreasing the consumption of unhealthy, empty calorie foods.
We don’t need to totally give up the foods that provide us with pleasure, but are not nutritious. Just lower the portion size of the fake and raise that of the healthy. Even this small step will begin a process that will lead to further behaviour modification, as reducing junk food consumption in itself helps with improving self-control, less eating and reduced risk of obesity. Breaking the vicious circle of poor nutrition is simply the first step that leads to a virtuous circle of better health that comes with eating real food.
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