The Common Good

Spending Less on Food, Spending More on Health Care

As the health-care bill passes through Congress, one wonders about an issue that has been left out of discussions. No, not abortion. Food. How much is what we eat linked to what we spend on health care?

First, consider the costs. The average life expectancy in the United States is around 78 years. Over the course of these 78 years, the average American can expect to spend $7,290 on health care. That's twice as much as our brothers and sisters in Canada. And in terms of GDP, double that of our friends in the United Kingdom. Oh, and both of those countries have higher life expectancy rates.

So we spend a lot on health care. But why? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75% of our health-care spending is on preventable chronic diseases. And most of these -- obesity, Type 2 diabetes, most heart disease, and some cancers -- are linked to our diets (or lack thereof).

Specifically, about 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. And according to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, we spend $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Thank our so called "Western diet."

Our health care would not be sick care if we ate smarter. That means less low-fiber food (corn and soy) and more high-quality fibrous foods (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains). But unfortunately, our current agribusiness and health-care systems benefit from large-scale corn and soybean plantations as well as factory farms, which are unsafe for animals, humans, and our environment.

It's a poor equation: spend less on food, spend more on health care. And no matter how many farmer's markets we have, the poor among us will continue to eat cheap, processed food, or no food at all. Approximately 1 billion people worldwide don't have regular access to any food all, including 36 million Americans.

We need to rediscover the value of food. Our legislators must realize that to reform our health system is not enough. If our leaders really want a challenge, let's reform our food system.

For 10 ways to change our food system, watch the movie Food, Inc. and visit their Web site.

Sheldon C. Good is the media assistant for Sojourners.

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