The epidemic rise in the number of Americans young and old who are either overweight or obese account for 67 percent according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The number of obese people has more than doubled since 1980. When you take into account the number of diseases like breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis to name a few that are linked to obesity it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the link between healthcare costs and obesity is strong, and changes can go a long way to both bringing down the costs and helping us live longer healthier lives.
I applaud the First Lady’s efforts to increase awareness of obesity. I agree that exercise and increasing fresh fruits and vegetables in our diet are important. We definitely don’t exercise enough and we eat way too much fast food. The schools should offer physical education. However, this effort doesn’t go far enough because it is window dressing designed to make us feel like something is being done. Unfortunately, it does not address the elephant in the room that no one is talking about….the food industry.
Over the past two decades we have gotten fatter and sicker, but there has been another change. Our food by enlarge is no longer produced by the small farmer. Corporate farming has taken over our food supply. The farms have gotten larger and techniques to increase the amount of food while making it cheaper and produced more quickly have been the goal of the food industry.
The argument can be made that the changes in the way our food is produced has had a direct correlation with the rise in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and the ever increasing cancer rate. In addition, it can also be argued that government policies have empowered the food industry to adopt policies that are making us sick.
The government subsidy of corn has made it cheaper.
Because of this it is ubiquitous – from the feed for cattle and chickens to high fructose corn syrup that we consume in most of our foods (from soda to ketchup to peanut butter). Clinically, high fructose corn syrup causes a sharp rise in insulin when it is consumed. This leads to insulin resistance which is one of the earliest triggers for diabetes. It is also addictive, the more you have the more you want leading to an increase in caloric intake and weight gain in those who don’t exercise enough. Simply put – this is a vicious cycle.
Techniques to bring animals to market earlier have consequences
Cows have been fed corn instead of grass. This diet change has had the effect of increasing the fat content in the meat leading to higher cholesterol levels with resultant heart disease.
Efforts to increase the growth rate of chickens by pumping them full of growth hormones has increased their estrogen content and arguably may be increasing the early puberty in girls and feminization of boys and men.
Studies have linked phytoestrogens in soy to an increase in the breast cancer rate. Soy is the second most common ingredient in the processed foods we consume.
Living conditions of animals increase the bacterial content in the food supply
The rise in Salmonella and E. coli contamination of the food supply with recurrent outbreaks affecting the public are a direct result of the living conditions of the cows and chickens forced to stand in their own excrement before they are slaughtered.
Increasing antibiotic resistance due to farming techniques promoted by corporate farming industry
The use of antibiotics to control infections such as mastitis (an infection of the udder) in cows caused by growth hormone (bovine somatotropin) used to increase their milk production and the use of antibiotics such as streptomycin and tetracycline to decrease the prevalence of E. Coli infections is believed to have a correlation with the increasing antibiotic resistance in human infections. There have been studies that show a link between eating poorly cooked meat with resistant bacterial infections.
PCBs, Dioxin and chemicals in plastics such as Bisphehol-A are on a short list of other chemicals and additives that have been found to have an adverse effect on our health. A journal article published by the The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences gives a nice overview of some of the major additives in our food that have been linked to illness.
If we really want to get serious about decreasing the cost of healthcare, we need to have a conversation about the root cause. There is something intrinsically wrong about government policies that make it cheaper for us to buy junk food than it is to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. We will only be able to limit our costs by promoting prevention and wellness. Neither can exist until something is done about an industry that is given free reign to pursue profit over our health.
The writer is a board-certified otolaryngologist. She graduated from Princeton University with a degree in biology. She received her master’s degree in medical microbiology from Long Island University, and received her medical degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. She completed her residency at Manhattan, Eye Ear & Throat Hospital. She is on the advisory council of Project 21 black leadership network, an initiative of The National Center for Public Policy Research. She hosts her own radio show, “Medicine On Call,” and she is also a keynote speaker many organizations.