Food as Medicine (and Health Care Cost Control), Part II

Why is it that we can so easily recognize the importance of understanding and structuring policy regarding the dangerous addictive properties of opioids, but we have such a hard time recognizing the importance of understanding and structuring policy regarding food, which, in many cases, plays along the same addictive pathways in the brain?

There are numerous studies showing that certain foods (sugar, for example), can be at least as addictive, if not more so, than cocaine or heroin, activating the same receptors in our brains as the drugs. (This article is a great read, and provides links to a few such studies if you’re so inclined. There’s also this study regarding highly processed foods and “food addiction”). Some studies suggest that the impact of sugar on those receptors could be even *stronger* than the impact of cocaine.

We’re enraged to the point of proverbial torches and pitchforks at the pharmaceutical companies who produced and marketed opioids literally to death. (According to the latest figures – January 2019 – from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 130 people die from opioid overdoses each day – over 47,000 per year).

Yet, with the clear links between poor diet and chronic preventable disease (mentioned in my Food Friday blog last week) and related deaths, which number approximately 1.4 *million* annually in the US (I had to go to a few different sources on the CDC website to compile this number, but roughly, it’s comprised of 600,000 deaths per year each from heart disease and cancer; 140,000 from stroke, and 80,000 from diabetes), up to 40% of which are preventable (much higher, actually, for Type 2 diabetes), where’s the outrage? Where are the lawsuits?? What are we thinking???

I find it fascinating how we humans (especially we freedom-loving Americans) rationalize things like this, and how outraged many people become at the suggestion of policy (such as consumption-based taxes) that can begin to shape longer-term, truly beneficial changes in our food and beverage habits. We cling to them like a tattered blankie from childhood, assigning all sorts of mythic autonomy to our “rights” about our choices for what we eat and drink, and, in the process, choose a clear path to disease, premature death, and billions and billions of dollars in healthcare spending that are truly avoidable. We *all* then pay the price in higher costs of “delivery” and upward-spiraling insurance premiums. And then we punish the providers by continuing to squeeze them to deliver an ever-increasing volume and quality of services at lower and lower cost. It really pisses me off.

As it stands, in 2017, $3.5 *trillion* was spent on healthcare in the U.S., representing 17.9% of GDP. In 1970, in inflation-adjusted dollars, we spent $400 billion, which represented 6.9% of that year’s GDP. The rate of healthcare spending has been increasing at a considerably steeper rate since the late 1990s, and even though it’s slowed down somewhat in the past couple of years (as of the date of the latest Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker), the links between preventable chronic disease, death, and dietary choices remain.

We need to get more aware of what’s influencing our “decisions” (our own brains’ pleasure receptors gone wild; willful and active ignorance by food manufacturers as they continue to produce and heavily market products with addictive ingredients – remember the tobacco industry 40 and 50 years ago? Yeah, that. But with your FOOD.) We need to stop acting like petulant children, stamping our feet and declaring in effect, “it’s my body and I’ll eat what I want to.” We need grow up and instead, plant our feet firmly in the soil of true self-worth (as opposed to misguided notions of self-determination masquerading as “choices” we think we want to make) and start taking seriously our own roles in our individual and collective health.

Rant over. Happy (Food) Friday!

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