For the past several years, it seems like there's a story about increasing obesity levels and poor diet everywhere you look. For good reason: the social costs of rising obesity rates are immense; one estimate suggested that 21% of all medical costs are related to obesity. Many factors are at work in creating this crisis, but poor diet is high on the list.
Results of two studies released this week offer a path towards healthier diets and lower obesity rates.
First, the Food and Nutrition Service of USDA published results of studies of the effectiveness of nutrition education. Specifically, the study followed up with participants of various SNAP-Ed programs. SNAP-Ed provides nutrition and cooking education to people receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). They found that education focused on the value of eating more fruits and vegetables led to an increase of fruit and vegetable consumption among participants. So investing in nutrition education pays off in healthier diets.
Then, NPR reported results of a Harvard School of Public Health study about just how much cost difference there is between a healthy diet and an unhealthy diet. The answer? A dollar-fifty a day. That small sum can provide enough buying power to purchase leaner meats, more fruits and vegetables, and more whole grains. And over the course of a year? That's just $550! For people living in poverty, that may well be a prohibitive amount, but as the NPR article points out, it's not a lot from a policy perspective or when compared to the long-term costs of high obesity rates.
These results suggest that increasing SNAP benefits and continuing to support SNAP-Ed programs in every community have the potential to change the face of long-term health in this country. Unfortunately, Congress is poised to do the exact opposite. SNAP funding is on the chopping block to the tune of $40 billion in cuts in the on-going debate over the Farm Bill re-authorization. This is a short-term view. Yes, cutting these costs now might mean a more balanced budget this year, but those costs will come back to haunt us in the form of heart disease, diabetes, knee replacements, high blood pressure, and all the other obesity-related chronic illnesses.