Healthcare, Health and the Politics of Food

obese ladies

It seems as though everywhere I turn, there is a new article on healthcare reform. This is certainly understandable as this issue is the current focus of Congress, leading politicians and citizens alike to express their passionate opinions that more often than not explode into heated debates. For those of you who have been living under a rock, here are three informative summaries on what is going on from The New York TimesWashington Post and  The Atlantic’s business blog. But as I sit here, sifting through various articles, blog posts, comments and message boards on healthcare in total information overload, I have come across a few interesting articles that relate healthcare reform to food. There have been a few ways in which food has been brought into the debate. For example,  there is the whole John Mackey of Whole Foods debacle, a strange mess that I am frankly tired of hearing about. Others have found a solution to both healthcare and global warming through organic foods. But I find the most interesting (and perhaps the most obvious)  link between healthcare and food to be the issue of obesity in America.

It is no secret that medical costs are soaring due to the treatment of diseases related to obesity, and so in any discussion of healthcare reform, the obesity epidemic is sure to come up. Indeed, the CDC held its first ever conference on Obesity Prevention and Control this summer in late July. The CDC  lists the discussion of “economic analysis of obesity prevention and control efforts (e.g., cost burden of obesity on healthcare system and employers, cost effectiveness of prevention)” and the “use of law-based efforts to prevent and control obesity (e.g., legislation, regulation and policies)” as two of its four goals for the conference. Clearly, public policy was at the heart of this scientific event.

One of the articles that stuck me the most was in this Sunday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine. In “Fat Tax,” David Leonhardt poses the argument made by Delos M. Cosgrove, heart surgeon and chief executive of the Cleveland Clinic. Cosgrove states that because obesity leads to an estimated cost of $147 billion and growing for Americans, individuals with a certain body-mass index should be charged higher health-insurance premiums. As Leonhardt puts it, “Harsh? Yes. Fair? You can see the argument.”

Of course, there are many issues with Cosgrove’s proposition. There are multiple factors that contribute to obesity, not just laziness. Along with genetics, obesity is correlated with socioeconomic status, and so taxing these individuals does not seem quite right.

Leonhardt points out that American society seems to be encouraging behavior that can lead to obesity. He describes our changed environment: “Parents are working longer, and takeout meals have become a default dinner. Gym classes have been cut. The real price of soda has fallen… the real price of fruit and vegetables has risen.” The first thing that Cosgrove lists here, that people are no longer cooking, reminded me of Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times Magazine just a week earlier. In “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” Pollan argues that the rise of cooking shows  “has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking.”

The fact that people are choosing not to cook is, to me, a major issue. When people cook, they see what goes into their meal. They immediately become conscious of their intake. People should make time for this, not cut it out of their schedules. The fact that people aren’t cooking in order to watch other people cook, as Pollan writes, is just some extra irony.

So perhaps we can take a moment to pause on healthcare, and consider health. I honestly believe that if people cooked more, they would be more nutrition-conscious. It is clear that something to change the cultural environment that  Leonhardt and Pollan describe in their articles needs to happen. What if schools offered more home economics classes? Not in a creepy Stepford Wives-in-training kind of way, but classes for both boys and girls in which they learn to cook nutritious food. Obviously, this requires economic resources. But if the government is toying with the idea of universal healthcare coverage, is this so outrageous ? In theory, it could pay for itself. Because studies have shown that healthy foods are harder to obtain in poor neighborhoods, perhaps the government could offer tax breaks to supermarkets that carry fresh produce opening in poorer neighborhoods? Obesity is clearly a health problem, and it is now inseparable from healthcare. Although these ideas are not new, there are few proposals  floating around Congress (perhaps with the exception of the soda tax) that focus on obesity prevention. Washington is too concerned with massive overhaul; Congress should should consider taking some of that trillion dollars over the next ten years and give some health programs (not healthcare programs) some serious funding.



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5 responses to “Healthcare, Health and the Politics of Food

  1. Martha Kennedy

    Great overview and insights on the obesity epidemic. Registered Dietitians are the recognized experts trained to provide nutrition support and education in all settings. It appears our time has finally come!

  2. Marshall

    Great read on the situation! I really enjoyed the way you brought together different sources and pulled it into one cohesive narrative.

    While I think encouraging people to cook by creating tax incentives and educational programs is a great idea…I am not sure that it will be enough to slow or turn around the shift that Pollan describes Americans are taking away from the kitchen. Even if kids are learning to cook and the food is available to more people at the store, it doesn’t mean that they will buy ingredients over microwaveable meals and spend even 30 minutes instead of 30 seconds to cook dinner. Even for someone like myself, who loves to cook, it is really tough to work all day, come home and cook a meal, and then clean up (I hate dishes).

    Small steps are definitely going to help, so keep coming up with ideas!

  3. Pingback: Parental Example: A Solution to Disordered Eating on Both Ends of the Spectrum? « maddie about food

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