Monday, September 14, 2009

Sustainable Health Care, Part 1 - The Way We Eat

This week's newspaper column - first in a two-part series on sustainable health care reform.

The national debate on health care reform is raging. On the left, the buzz is about universal coverage and pubic options; on the right - tort reform and the free market. Everyone is concerned about the increasingly high price tag.

You may be asking, “What does sustainability have to do with health care?”

Surprisingly, sustainable practices – or more to the point, the lack of sustainable practices - have a great deal to do with how much Americans pay for health care. Regardless of where you fall in the political spectrum, or whether you are fully insured or not at all, unsustainable practices jack up the price you pay.

Consider the issue of what we eat and how we grow our food.

Perhaps the most costly contributor to what we pay for health care is America’s obesity epidemic. Americans are getting fatter and fatter each passing year. Diabetes, heart disease, respiratory ailments and other expensive-to-treat maladies are exacerbated and sometimes completely brought on by obesity.

Juvenile diabetes is on the rise as kids take in almost a third of their calories from sugary soft drinks. The sweetener of choice – high fructose corn syrup – is cheap because government subsidies over the past half century have encouraged farmers to abandon sustainable practices of rotating crops and livestock and move to single-crop farming. That strategy has been good for production yields, but bad for the diversity of local farming and the availability of locally grown produce.

Crop rotation has been used for millennia as a sustainable practice to self-fertilize and to keep pests away naturally. Without that cultivated diversity, farmers now use more fertilizer and more insecticide to produce the food we eat. Thankfully, farmers cannot spray with DDT any more - a chemical proven to have extreme adverse side effects – but the jury is still out on the long-term effects of currently-used chemicals when it comes to contracting various types of cancer.

When you think about sustainability, think “natural. One of the keys to good health is eating a diverse selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Processed foods contain extra chemicals for the sake of shelf life and preservation of natural coloration, but some of the nutritional value in processed foods is lost in the process of, well, being processed.

At some point, we began using hydrogenated oils to extend expiration dates of various packaged foods – good news for retailers, but turns out too much hydrogenated oil in the diet leads to heart disease and resulting high-cost treatments.

It’s simple: Americans are eating too many empty calories from processed sugars and fats and we’re paying a high price to treat the consequences. If we do not change the way we eat, Americans will continue to pay “too much” for health care no matter how we change system.

No comments: