The U.S. is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, one of the most pressing public health issues today. Two-thirds of Americans, including 37 percent of Georgia children aged 10-17 years, are overweight or obese. These conditions cost the country $147 billion annually and contribute to soaring rates of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and mental illness.
At the risk of oversimplification, obesity is caused by energy imbalance - high calorie intake combined with low levels of physical activity. Modern environments make it easy to consume energy-dense foods high in fat, salt and sugar and make it difficult to be physically active. Food and beverage companies and fast-food restaurants are often blamed for promoting obesity. This is partly true, to the extent that they manufacture and market unhealthy processed food products, especially to children and vulnerable groups. But is our government equally responsible for failing our nation’s health?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with creating evidence-based nutritional recommendations and overseeing agriculture policy (in essence, determining which foods are produced and consumed) - two responsibilities that should complement each other.
This, however, may not be the case. While urging Americans to consume less fat (no more than 17 grams of saturated fats) and more fruits and vegetables (at least four-five servings daily), the USDA has laughed at its recommendations, creating and funding an organization called Dairy Management. Its mission? To get a surplus of whole milk and milk fat back into the American diet — a surplus that is the result of a shift to consumption of healthier low-fat dairy products. Per capita cheese consumption is now 33 pounds annually — more than three times that in 1970.
Dairy Management has teamed up with fast-food outlets in the country, spending $140 million annually on marketing campaigns to promote cheese consumption. One such partnership is with Domino’s Pizza, a joint venture to revive the pizza chain’s failing profits, and that has resulted in a 40 percent cheesier pizza. One slice of the government-sponsored Domino’s pizza contains two-thirds the daily recommendation for saturated fat.
A report by the Produce for Better Health Foundation found that less than 10 percent of USDA commodity subsidies were allocated to fruits and vegetables in 2008-09. In contrast, more than 65 percent of subsidies went to meat and dairy. The government is spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on initiatives that harm health, but shouldn’t it invest in promoting health? What would our health look like if, instead of Dairy Management, our government created a fruit and vegetable management organization?
The U.S. stands as a shining example for controlling tobacco use through successful policy initiatives. The country can, however, learn from other countries that have already invested in health-promoting policies aimed at reducing obesity-promoting foods. In Finland, dairy farmers (who contributed significantly to the country’s economy) were encouraged to switch to berry production. Over time, berry consumption in Finland increased while dairy consumption decreased — along with population cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease mortality. In 1987, the Mauritian government collaborated with scientists, supporting the development of a healthier palm oil. By 1992, cholesterol levels in Mauritius had declined by 19 percent.
The U.K.’s 2006 salt legislation provides further evidence that policies can promote health. By 2008, average daily salt consumption in the U.K. declined to 8.6 grams (from 9.5 grams in 2006), which translates to 6,000 premature deaths averted. This was accomplished through comprehensive work spearheaded by the government’s Food Standards Agency and involving food companies.
There are hints that the USDA has the potential to do the right thing. They recently announced an initiative to support research to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in schools. The $2 million budget, however, is a fraction of what is spent promoting cheese. The baby-carrot industry is also paving the way for collaborative industry action, recently launching a $25 million advertising campaign and selling baby carrots in convenient, single-serve packages.
The Obama administration has announced its commitment to help fight obesity, but continues to support Dairy Management. Considering water and greenhouse costs alongside health concerns, a powerful reason exists for government to reconsider its prioritization of dairy and meat. Our nation’s health, productivity and future depend on sound policies to confront the obesity epidemic.
Karen Siegel is a graduate student at Emory University’s Laney Graduate School and Rollins School of Public Health.
Dr. K.M. Venkat Narayan is a global diabetes expert and is the Ruth and O.C. Hubert professor of Global Health & Epidemiology at Rollins and a professor of medicine at Emory School of Medicine.
By Karen Siegel and Dr. K.M. Venkat Narayan