Nutrition, Lifestyle, Disease and Wealth: Is There a Connection?

Food and Money

Is it possible that better nutrition could solve two critical problems that have persisted worldwide? According to one food industry expert, it’s our own wealth that is driving obesity levels. He says our economy is thriving because we’re NOT as active as we once were, especially at work. Combined with dramatically cheaper calories, this creates a perfect storm for fatter, sicker, weaker human beings.

Could we solve both the obesity epidemic and pervasive poverty by changing our approach to nutrition?

Adrian Daniel is the Global Head of Science at Abbott Nutrition UK. He recently gave a presentation entitled “Food as Medicine: The Power of Diet in Disease Prevention and Management.” In it he noted the shift in economic development away from food production and distribution and towards the means to create the means to manage diseases caused by overabundance and reduced need for activity.

Daniel argues that as the cost of calories has fallen and the ability to multiply work results with ever-improving technology and less manual labor improves, we are witnessing a rise in “NCD’s,” or non-communicable diseases.

Our wealth is diverted toward management of these diseases in order to maintain life span in the face of these new challenges.

Daniel pointed out that the greatest reductions in food costs since 1960 have been in calorie-dense foods. Since 1983, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables has risen by 190%. In that same period, fish increased by 100% and dairy products by 82%.

Comparatively, fats and oils rose by only 70%, sugars and sugar-based food prices rose by 66% and the cost of carbonated beverages rose by a mere 32% respectively. He noted that the cost of processed foods relative to other consumer goods has remained relatively steady, increasing by only 16% between 1960 and 2005.

During that same period, the percentage of jobs requiring moderate to vigorous physical activity has declined from nearly 80% to just 20%. As a result, the costs of being active on the job have gone up, since ignoring or abandoning technology too often means making significantly less money. According to Daniel, “We make more money sitting still tapping our fingers than if we are up and about.”

In contrast, the costs of being active have actually risen, meaning we’re pricing ourselves right into a state of disease and ill health. “We have to pay for gym memberships and take time out of our day to go and exercise.” So as physical labor becomes the exception, physical fitness becomes more of a burden relative to the rest of our lives.

What does this mean? It means that while our personal economy is thriving, we’re suffering in other ways. Increased rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, arthritis, cancer and even emotional disorders like depression and anxiety are all outcroppings of this societal trade-off.

Pharmaceutical and health care companies are working frantically to create drugs, therapies and technologies to help us manage our NCD’s, but at what cost? It’s been estimated that as much as 25% of the US economy is related to health care. That’s an increase of more than 10% in the last decade alone. With so much of our wealth being committed to managing disease in order to maintain life spans, what opportunities are we losing as a society?

We work to earn incomes that provide a richer lifestyle. However, as we do that, our quality of life declines as a result of the diseases that result from the changes in how we work. Our food quality has declined because we have placed a high value on low cost, availability and convenience of production and preparation. We’ve created a world where we have to pay for physical activities (in a lot of cases) and make time for it in an ever-busier day.

It’s a formula for disease, discomfort, dysfunction and the slow death of a society.

But what if we could “flip the script?” We may not be able to change the way we work completely. After all, productivity will always matter, at some level. But what if we could change the way we approach nutrition? What if we saw exercise and activity a little differently and tried to make it work WITH our busy days and not be wedged in between so many other necessary elements?

Daniel addressed the nutrition aspect of that question. He believes that nutritional interventions and education can not only reverse disease, but might alter our personal approaches to health and wellness. He pointed to a nutritional intervention trial that reversed Type 2 Diabetes in just 8 weeks, with a 50% follow-through success rate at 12 months, without the use of drugs.

What’s interesting about the trial is that it incorporated nutrition, activity and lifestyle management as one integrated systemic approach. It used technology to augment the tracking and reinforcement of the desired habits and behaviors during and after the trial. In other words, it fit into the current societal model of work-life balance, enhancing the non-work portion of that balance to reinforce a positive view of the lifestyle changes necessary to successfully achieve the desired goals.

While Daniel was clear about the value of nutritional intervention and education in the pursuit of reducing or eliminating disease and improving quality of life, he was also realistic about a serious impediment. He acknowledged that since so much of medicine and health care is driven by cost, those who pay the bills must also understand the value of the “food as medicine” approach.

He said, “The trouble is that we need the business models to meet strong consumer needs and fit into lifestyles. If we are going to use food as medicine to correct medical conditions, we need collaboration through the government funded services, life insurance companies and most importantly, doctors.

Healthcare payers have trouble understanding the value of food and so have trouble reimbursing for it. It’s yet to be seen whether it is the health care providers that pay for the nutrition or whether the consumers pay for it.”

Daniel said he believes that the approach requires a program of behavioral change for consumers, and that nutrition must be a part of that change. He believes that if what you are paying to prevent is worth the cost of prevention, payers will see nutrition as valuable.

What is most interesting about Daniel’s approach and thoughts is that they are based in a concept that is becoming a more common element in weight loss, lifestyle management and even fitness programs – behavior change and management.

Daniel’s belief is that if we can begin to use food as medicine, much of the wealth being poured into pharmaceutical, device-driven and therapeutic interventions would return to consumers, who could actually become richer, contribute more to other societal issues and possibly even solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. He thinks poverty, education and even the arts would benefit from this downstream flow of the wealth that is currently committed to keeping people alive while they suffer from NCD’s.

Health improvements, lifestyle improvements and wealth improvements. All from changing our approach to food and how we use it. It may not be the answer to those issues, but at least we have one more salient avenue of thought to explore.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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