By Rick Rivkin, We Do Better Media
According to two journal papers in the Lancet, the UK’s premiere medical journal, the United States spends more on healthcare per person than any other country in the world[i]. Each person in the U.S. spends an average of $9,237 per year on healthcare, nearly $2,000 more per person than the next country, Switzerland. U.S. healthcare spending is projected to grow at least 4% per year until 2026[ii].
Despite this spending, and living longer than generations past, life for many Americans is wrought with chronic disease. Approximately every 40 seconds, an American dies of heart disease, totaling up to 630,000 Americans each year or 1 in 4 deaths.[iii]Americans suffer 1.5 million heart attacks and strokes each year—a burden that contributes to most of the more than $320 billion in annual healthcare costs and lost productivity caused by cardiovascular disease. [iv]While many other solutions have been proposed, from Healthcare Savings Accounts, to rural hospital tax credits, and more, it is possible that the plant-based diet is a solution staring us in the face that can not only do wonders for our health, but also work to lower healthcare costs by focusing on prevention, rather than treatment.
The whole-food, plant-based diet is a diet that entails eating variety of vegetables, fruits, raw nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains. It avoids heavily processed foods, animal products such as meat and dairy, and added salt, oil and sugars. It could also be described as healthy vegetarian” or “health vegan”.
The United Nations, The World Health Organization, The American Cancer Society, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the True Health Initiative, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and many other organizations and medical practitioners support a whole-food, plant-based diet.
A report by the Permanente Journal, Kaiser Permanente’s research arm, addressed chronic diseases such as inflammation, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer: “Most of these chronic conditions are preventable and are the result of an unhealthy lifestyle. More than 80% of chronic conditions could be avoided through the adoption of healthy lifestyle recommendations”. While the practice of lifestyle medicine is ancient in comparison to, say, Western pharmaceuticals, it is relatively young as a clinical practice. Healthcare practitioners often receive little lifestyle related information in their training and give little information to their patients. [v]
Kaiser Permanente is leading the charge to move Americans to a plant-based diet. As of October 2017, Kaiser Permanente was the largest managed care organization in the United States, had 11.7 million health plan members, 208,975 employees, 21,275 physicians, 54,072 nurses, 39 medical centers, and 720 medical facilities.[vi] A nutritional update issued in 2013 to Kaiser Permanente’s medical staff, recommends the use of “strict” plant-based diets, “tailored for the individual” in “cases of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, lipid disorders, or cardiovascular disease”. [vii]
Not only can the whole food, plant-based diet prevent up to 80% of chronic conditions, saving thousands of lives, but it could also save Americans up to 80% of the costs associated with chronic conditions, saving Americans over $250 Billion per year in healthcare costs.
On the other hand, every five years, the USDA releases its dietary guidelines, which have enormous impact on the way food and nutrition are seen in the United States. Many of us may remember seeing the USDA food pyramid tacked to the wall of our school cafeteria. The USDA’s influence extends outside the school mess hall and into the world of agriculture subsidies and medical recommendations. The actions of the USDA and other federal and state organizations such as the Department of Health and Human Services affect the way tax dollars are spent and how Americans receive medical advice.
The USDA’s nutritional narrative has been continually influenced by the meat, dairy and egg industries. Like other corporations, these industries lobby in Washington D.C. to ensure federal guidelines benefit their industry. Federal contributions from processed meat businesses alone exceeded $4.1 million in 2014.[viii]
The guidelines from ChooseMyPlate.Gov recommend that half of your plate be made of fruits and vegetables, with the rest being protein foods (eggs, meat, poultry, fish, seafood) or grains and half of grains being whole grains. The guidelines also recommend the use of dairy products and that people move to lower and fat-free dairy products.[ix]In addition to ensuring that USDA guidelines benefit the meat and dairy industries, Congress, through the US Department of Agriculture, has spent billions on subsidizing the meat, dairy and egg industries, despite warnings from the ACS and the WHO.[x]
The World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed processed meat a carcinogen and red meat a probable carcinogen. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and caused about 49,150 deaths in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The ACS urges consumers to “minimize consumption of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, luncheon meats, and hot dogs.” IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), ACS, and the World Cancer Research Fund all cite research that found about an 18 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer for every 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily. (A typical serving of ham, sausage, bologna, or hot dog weighs about 55 grams, or about two ounces.)[xi]
Unfortunately, this information is not common knowledge. This is why The Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling on the USDA to require a warning label on packages of bacon, ham, hot dogs, and other processed meat and poultry products to inform consumers that eating those foods is associated with an increased risk of cancer of the colon and rectum (colorectal cancer).The differences between federal recommendations and private researchers’ recommendations also extends to dairy. On August 14, 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced plans to purchase Fluid Milk (whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, and skim) in half gallons for distribution to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).[xii] The purchases total $50 million which amounts to 13 million gallons of milk.[xiii]
“Ditch the disease-causing dairy!”, That’s what the Physicians Committee—a nonprofit with 12,000 doctor members—says in response to the government plan. “Instead of spending millions bailing out the milk industry, the government should ditch the dairy,” says Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard, M.D., F.A.C.C. “The USDA’s milk bailout unfairly burdens students and others who rely on federal food programs with increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and lactose intolerance, among other chronic health conditions.”[xiv]
The Federal Medicare and Medicaid budgets have continually gone up decade after decade. Most of these added costs come from chronic diseases like the ones outlined in the report from the Permanente Journal such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, etc.[xv]. We also can consider the costs incurred by insurance companies and patients, which totals in the hundreds of billions a year. Given that these diseases are mostly preventable, one could argue that the government’s mishandling of nutrition costs the government and the public hundreds of billions of dollars a year[xvi].
The whole-food, plant-based diet can be a scientifically proven, sustainable and cheap solution for many of our healthcare woes. There is a lot of information online on the whole-food, plant-based diet. To learn more, you can find a local plant-based doctor from a directory or read a book or an article written by a leading plant-based doctor.
Thanks to leadership from organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, we can address America’s healthcare crisis through prevention in addition to care. It could save us at least $200 billion.
[iii] National Center for Health Statistics. Fact Facts: Death and Mortality.
[iv] CDC Foundation. Press Release: Heart Disease And Stroke Cost America Nearly $1 Billion A Day In Medical Costs, Lost Productivity. April 29, 2015.
[xi] CITIZEN PETITION Submitted by: Center for Science in the Public Interest. December 1, 2016.https://cspinet.org/sites/default/files/attachment/Processed%20Meat%20Petition-CSPI%20120116.pdf
[xv] HEALTH AFFAIRSVOL. 29, NO. 4: HEALTH IT: THE ROAD TO ‘MEANINGFUL USE’ Chronic Conditions Account For Rise In Medicare Spending From 1987 To 2006. Kenneth E. Thorpe, Lydia L. Ogden, and Katya Galactionova