Covid-19 has alarmed me, and not only for the obvious reason of potentially contracting the virus.
On October 13, 2020, NPR reported a startling fact about America’s status as a super sick nation. The “Journal of the American Medical Association finds that in the past five months, per capita deaths in the United States, both from COVID-19 and other causes, have been far greater than in 18 other high-income countries.”
Many of the reasons for our frighteningly high death rate are playing out at the federal and state level, but I won’t go there. Instead, I’ve been mulling over one hypothesis that may be a hidden underpinning to our poor showing as a country.
Here’s my assessment: The United States has been unwell for many decades. The pandemic merely acted as the tipping point that blew the cover off our faux sense of well-being.
Below are nine underlying reasons why America is so sick today.
Processed Foods Make Their Debut
As a nation, we embraced convenience as progress starting with the introduction of processed foods in the 1920s. Thirty years later, ready-to-eat foods reached mass distribution, and fast food restaurants popped up everywhere. The 1950s marked a turning point: our decline in health began in earnest.
Cooking Becomes a Lost Art
As convenience foods became ubiquitous, making a meal from scratch took a back seat, and gradually became a forgotten art. We’ve resorted to eating on the run, snacking several times a day, heating up packaged foods, and drinking our breakfast, lunch, and maybe even dinner.
Home Economics Classes Fade from Curriculums
Home economics programs in high school also faded from curriculums. Yet, with the proper rebranding and funding, home ec could be reintroduced as a survival skills class that incorporates food science, nutrition literacy, and practical hands-on cooking labs required for all young teens.
Big Food Focuses on Salt, Sugar and Fat
In addition to convenience, big food companies have a long history of incorporating the addictive trio of fat, sugar, and salt into many packaged products. When Lay’s Potato Chips introduced the 1960’s slogan, “Betcha can’t eat just one!” the brand captured the insatiable desire for unhealthy snack foods where eating for pleasure runs rampant, sometimes uncontrollably.
Food Lobbies Wield Enormous Power
America’s sickness today also involves the food lobbyists who wield tremendous power and influence over food policy.
The largest food lobby, the Consumer Brands Association exerts its strength to support processed foods.
The American Beverage Association together with the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo Inc. have spent millions to defeat soda tax measures around the United States meant to reduce consumption of sugary beverages, and raise awareness of the detrimental health effects of excess sugar.
Then, there’s McDonald’s Corporation – one focus of their lobbying efforts is to protect the advertising and marketing strategies that engage children, and promote regular McDonald’s visits. The fast food industry embraces “cradle to grave” marketing intended to create lifelong customers who, with increased visit frequency, develop unhealthy eating habits.
And as the largest producer of genetically modified seeds, Monsanto — acquired by Bayer in 2018 — uses its lobbying power to prevent GMO-labeling measures from passing.
Millions of Americans Live in Food Deserts
America has a health equity problem driven by food inequality. Millions of Americans live in food deserts, better described as nutrition wastelands, where access to affordable, high quality nutritious foods is severely limited. No wonder America is so sick today. As someone who has spent time in the poor urban neighborhoods of Chicago, I can attest to the heart-breaking reality of seeing shelves devoid of fresh produce, but amply stocked with junk food.
Covid-19 has provided a wake-up call to address the deleterious effects of nutrition wastelands. Consumption of unhealthy food and beverages with their excess added sugar, refined carbohydrates, high sodium, and unhealthy fats results in chronic diet-related outcomes like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In turn, pre-existing health conditions have fueled the highest rate of Covid hospitalizations and deaths, especially among communities of color.
Medical Schools Ignore Nutrition Education
Healthful food and good health are intrinsically related; what we eat is the most powerful decision we make each day in terms of our well-being.
Yet nutrition education is missing from medical school curriculums. If food is medicine, then why do we have this knowledge vacuum?
According to Emily Broad Leib, the lead author of a report published by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, medical curriculums have historically focused on the sciences and disease, while ignoring courses related to food and nutrition.
This baked-in legacy makes it difficult and costly to retrofit existing practices; it would require federal and state policy changes that recommend an investment in hiring and training for real change to occur in medical schools. Without the benefit of nutrition education, the majority of doctors lack the ability to recognize that the onset of serious conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes can be addressed with a healthful diet rather than medical procedures and drugs.
Food Marketing Obscures the Truth
Let’s start with packaging. Most front-of-pack labels on food packaging promote seemingly healthy attributes. Call-outs such as keto, paleo, gluten free, sugar free, low fat, and plant-based draw us in, sometimes without closer scrutiny.
The real food facts, however, reside on the back of the package: the ingredient line and nutrition label provide the critical details for deciding whether or not a product lives up to its marketing claims.
Not surprisingly, the majority of packaged foods and beverages contain unhealthy levels of refined carbohydrates, starches, gums, added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. And fiber derived from eating whole foods, not taking supplements, is sorely missing as a nutrient for gut health.
Another source of marketing manipulation starts early, reaching youth who are the most susceptible to messaging. Spending billions yearly, food and beverage companies — together with restaurants —promote a wide range of unhealthy products and meals that contribute to why America is so sick today. This ad spend is particularly egregious since it disproportionately targets Black and Hispanic communities.And then there’s online advertising. As YouTube’s popularity has skyrocketed, so too have the number of children who influence other children through seemingly innocuous junk food ads. Take Ryan’s World, for example, an extremely popular children’s channel where the “star” rings up high fat, high sodium, and high sugar items on a McDonald’s Cash Register as he serves lunch to Mickey Mouse and Cookie Monster. What a sad state of affairs, especially as child obesity rates climb upward toward 19%.
Sick Soil is Pervasive
When our earth’s soil is unhealthy, so are our crops. When our crops are devoid of nutrients, so are we.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about one-third of the world’s soil has been degraded due to heavy chemical use in conventional farming, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming.
Enter regenerative agriculture, a viable solution for improving our health, and that of our planet.
According to Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture embraces farming and grazing practices that rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity. The practice of regenerative agriculture draws down carbon in the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil, thus taking a big step toward reversing global warming.One of the most hopeful and positive documentaries about regenerative agriculture as a way to heal our planet is Kiss the Ground. I highly recommend watching it.
We must acknowledge the underlying reasons why America is so sick today. The road back to healthy habits, and a healthy planet won’t be easy, but we can do it.
We need leaders who care about humanity, all of humanity, and most importantly the disadvantaged.
We need leaders who are willing to tackle long-term problems that can no longer be shoved aside for short-term personal gains.
We need leaders and farmers and organizations who take climate change seriously, and set aggressive goals to course correct.
We need regulations and transparency to address current practices in the food and restaurant industry that adversely affect our health.
We need food policies that carve out a plan to provide fresh food in nutrition wastelands. And then, we need creativity, money, and education to support new buying behavior.
We need federal and state policy changes that support nutrition education as a critical part of medical school training. We need a high school educational policy that supports nutritional literacy, and cooking labs for all teens.
What We Can Do Now
If you have the monetary means, you can use the power of your wallet to drive change.
By purchasing unprocessed plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, whole grains, legumes), and limited portions of pastured eggs, dairy, chicken, and meat, we would collectively send a strong signal to those in charge.
Wouldn’t that be meaningful? You and I do have control over what we feed our bodies. If you‘d like a personalized nudge to start your journey to lifelong health, Lady Moxy offers a solid option. At Lady Moxy, I’ve carved out my little corner of the internet to address health issues, but we need our leaders in government, business, and agriculture to do the heavy lifting, and to rebuild the infrastructure that benefits our health, and that of the earth.