When compared to other developed nations, healthcare in the United States looks pretty abysmal. In fact, a study from August of 2021 ranked the United States’ healthcare system dead-last in a list of 11 wealthy countries even though the USA spends significantly more of its GDP on healthcare than the other 10 countries included in the study.
Politicians, legislators, and activists constantly debate how to best fix our flawed system. Many suggest adopting universal healthcare policies similar to the rest of the world, but regardless of your thoughts on healthcare reform, a new study from researchers at Tuft University claims that increased access to cheap healthy foods could save our country billions in medical costs.
Could more fruits and vegetables really have such an impact on healthcare costs? Keep reading to find out.
The Financial Costs Of Chronic Health Conditions
Chronic and lifestyle-driven health conditions make up almost 70% of diseases in the United States. According to the CDC, nearly half the population suffers from at least one chronic illness like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Not only do these illnesses take a tremendous toll on the patients and their families, but they’re also extremely expensive to treat.
The CDC calculates that 86% of yearly healthcare costs go to treating chronic diseases and that overall healthcare spending has tripled in the last 50 years. But what if we could spend a fraction of that money subsidizing cheap healthy meals to help Americans avoid developing chronic diseases in the first place? Could we cut down healthcare costs while improving the overall health of our neighbors? That’s exactly what Tuft University researchers sought to find out.
Using data from the last three years of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Tuft team came up with two scenarios to measure the financial and health impact of subsidizing healthy food alternatives.
The first scenario investigated the possibility of Medicare/Medicaid covering 30% of the costs of fruits and vegetables. In this scenario, researchers determined the subsidies would prevent almost 2 million heart attacks, 350,000 deaths, and cut healthcare spending by $40 billion.
The second scenario expanded the subsidies to include the costs of whole grains, seafood, and plant oils. Here, researchers determined the expanded subsidies would prevent over 3 million cardiac events, 620,000 deaths, and save over $100 billion in healthcare costs.
That’s a lot of people protected, and a lot of money saved—talk about the importance of fruits and vegetables!
Prescribing Healthy Food Alternatives Vs. Prescribing Medicine
The study highlights the profound impact a collective shift towards healthier food consumption habits could have on healthcare, but it also lends credence to the concept of food as medicine.
Today, 76% of doctor’s visits result in the physician writing a prescription for pharmaceuticals. While healthy foods and holistic care approaches can’t completely replace modern medicine, incorporating lifestyle and diet changes into conventional care models could drastically reduce our dependence on prescription drugs, reduce the country’s healthcare costs, and increase our overall health and wellbeing.
These kinds of models have already gained some traction in our national healthcare policies, Most notably, the 2018 Farm Bill (the same one that federally legalized hemp-derived CBD) included $25 million in funding for a prescription produce program to provide dietary education and healthy food options for low-income individuals.
California recently started a three-year food as medicine program at the state level, which provides patients suffering from heart disease and type II diabetes with free healthy meals and nutrition education seminars.
As the food as medicine movement continues to grow, we’ll hopefully see more of these programs implemented.