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“We think of being healthy as the norm and being sick as something unusual, and what has happened over time is that diet-related illnesses have made us much more sick than healthy, especially in adults,” says Mozaffarian. “When nine out of 10 adults are metabolically unhealthy, largely due to diet-related disease, you know we have a broken system.”

Americans’ junk food consumption does not help. A 17-year study found that junk food — mostly processed foods that are low in nutrition and high in sugar, salt, and fat — accounts for 1 in 5 calories for children and 1 in 7 calories for adults.

These foods can be hard to resist because they contain things the body needs.

“Evolution doesn’t care”

“Junk food is mostly sweet, salty, and fatty, and these are very necessary things for life, they provide energy,” says Linda Bartoshuk, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. “And sweet is very important because glucose is the only fuel the brain can use, so nature is very interested in us craving it.”

The problem, she says, is that our bodies aren’t built to tell us when enough is enough.

“As we get older and past the age of having children, frankly, evolution doesn’t care what happens to us,” Bartoshuk says. “And then the consumption of those things that were so important when we were young becomes dangerous.

Taking too much salt, too much sugar, too much fat produces all kinds of diseases. Unsplash

In the 1960s, the United States focused on eradicating hunger; in the 1990s, food insecurity. Mozaffarian is among US health experts calling for a shift in focus from “food security” to “nutrition security” to address the lack of health of American adults.

Prescription for a healthy meal

He would like to see the federal government take the lead in improving nutrition in already existing food programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance to families in need; school meals; and Meals on Wheels, home-delivered meals for older Americans.

Even as Americans are increasingly unhealthy, the United States spent $3.8 trillion on health care in 2019. Mozaffarian says it’s time to integrate food nutrition into health care .

“There are very simple, evidence-based ways to do this, for example by producing prescriptions, where if you have a certain medical condition and you need healthy food, the doctor writes a prescription and you get partially or fully paid for healthy foods,” he says.

Nutritious foods

Even as Americans are increasingly in poor health, the United States spent $3.8 trillion on health care in 2019. | Unsplash

This approach would include medically tailored meals, healthy meals delivered to homes, and nutrition education for healthcare workers, including future doctors currently in medical school.

New nutritional program?

The last time the White House hosted a conference on food, nutrition, and health was in 1969. The panel advised President Richard Nixon on ending hunger and malnutrition among the poor in the United States and influenced the American nutritional program for decades.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (commonly referred to as the WIC Program), the National School Meals Program, and the establishment of Dietary Guidelines for Americans were all outcomes of this 1969 conference. Senator American Cory Booker and US Representative James McGovern are among those calling for a second White House conference on food and nutrition.

Also read: Beware of Secretly Unhealthy Foods

In the meantime, Bartoshuk and Mozaffarian would like to see more money invested in research.

“In appetite, in food preferences,” Bartoshuk explains. “The NIH (National Institutes of Health) aren’t spending as much research on nutrition as I think they should. It’s not molecular biology, it’s not cancer, and it doesn’t get not what I think is its fair share of funding.”

And while Mozaffarian believes nutrition education is important, he says fixing the food Americans eat is most critical.

“We are going to have to correct the food situation so that parents and children who are busy and want to enjoy their lives can get nutritious and affordable food,” he says.


(Keywords: junk food, Americans, diabetes, disease, US government, special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children)

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