The superstar duo of Beyonce and Jay-Z is on to something, and Washington should be paying attention: Their new plant-based diet can teach us about revamping our health and, believe it or not, repairing the broken farm bill.
Numerous public figures, including former Vice President Al Gore, actress Michelle Pfeiffer and Pastor Rick Warren, continue to tout the benefits of plant-based eating. President Bill Clinton lost more than 30 pounds and reversed his heart disease. School districts, cities and hospitals are adopting Meatless Mondays. Over the past five years, restaurant menus have increased vegetarian options by 11 percent.
The newly formed Veggie Caucus plays a role in and around Capitol Hill, ensuring the Senate and House cafeterias are stocked with plant-based options. But while adopting a plant-based diet has never been easier — even for those without celebrity status — government policies are not helping Americans jump-start their health. Currently, the Agriculture Department recommends that Americans increase their fruit and vegetable intake, but subsidies do not follow suit. Healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables receive virtually zero agricultural subsidies, while the meat, dairy, oil, alcohol and sugar industries help themselves to more than three-quarters of the pie. Unfortunately, this year’s farm bill will leave these numbers largely unchanged.
If the federal government put its money where its dietary guidelines are, the picture of health in America would look radically different. The average American consumes just 2.7 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, less than half of the recommended goal, according to Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Our Western-style diets are largely to blame for soaring obesity rates: Almost 70 percent of adults and more than 30 percent of children in the United States struggle with their weight. Obesity-related diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke cause 7 out of every 10 deaths here.
In 2010, diet surpassed smoking as the biggest risk factor for disease and death in America. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics finds that plant-based diets are nutritionally adequate at every stage of life and also reduce the risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even some forms of cancer. Those who follow this lifestyle experience increased energy, an improved mood and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
It’s no longer possible to say that diet is only a matter of personal choice. As taxpayers, we’re footing the bill for the dramatic rise in chronic diseases, which now account for 75 percent of the $2 trillion in U.S. annual health care spending. Heart conditions alone cost more than $100 billion, not including the nearly $95 billion in lost productivity costs.
If every American added two servings of fruits and vegetables to his or her diet, the chance of dying would automatically decrease by 10 percent — this would save Uncle Sam about $150 billion each year. If we all adopted plant-based diets, we could cut our risk of heart disease by as much as 50 percent, a move that could save more than $50 billion annually.
Subsidizing healthful foods can’t guarantee a change in every American’s eating patterns, but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s also a move that can help restore our nation’s fiscal health.
Breaking barriers to the affordability and access to basic food staples — vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes — is a solid start to practicing what we preach. Imagine walking into a local corner store and seeing red apples instead of red licorice on display, or an influx in programs that teach children how to purchase and prepare obesity-fighting foods.
Reforming the farm bill requires every taxpayer and lawmakers’ full attention. It’s a move that will start to encourage major changes in America’s dietary habits. And with the support of influential game-changers like Jay-Z and Beyonce, plant-based diets are here to stay, laying a blueprint to help restore America’s health.
Susan Levin is the director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.