Eat Healthy Michigan

Like Magic: Eat Healthy, Save Billions

Do we all have permission to deploy truthful hyperbole now? Judging from nutrition headlines today, the answer is unmistakable. Who needs healthcare? A small shift in eating patterns could save billions said Carolyn Scrafford of Exponent in a press release from Nutrition 2018:

We found that increasing adherence to healthy dietary patterns by even 20 percent at a population level has the potential to save more than $20 billion in both direct and indirect costs associated with 10 major health outcomes. That’s a significant saving from what we believe is a realistic shift in diet quality.

A Realistic Shift?

Mediterranean Veggie ChipsBut we’re feeling dense. Exactly what evidence exists to suggest that a 20 percent shift in eating patterns is realistic? When we look at the numbers, we find that the trends are going in the opposite direction. For example, Rui da Silva and colleagues analyzed trends in adherence to the Mediterranean diet. They found that most of the 41 countries they studied were drifting away from that healthy diet.

In the U.S., we have lots of talk about healthy eating. But somehow, all those good intentions get co-opted by things like gluten free veggie chips.

We would genuinely like to see a 20 percent shift toward more healthful dietary patterns. However, wishful thinking will not be enough to make it happen.

Evidence for Cause and Effect?

It’s also worth remembering that we’re making a leap of faith about the benefits of a shift in dietary habits across a broad population. Much of the data for these benefits comes from observational studies. We know that good health outcomes have an a association with healthy dietary patterns. We even have some intervention studies to show that in very targeted populations, a shift in dietary patterns can bring health benefits.

Unfortunately, much can be lost in translation. A 20 percent shift in dietary habits across the entire population would not happen in a vacuum. The food system is big, complex, and adaptive. When consumer behaviors change, the system adapts in unpredictable ways. Unintended consequences are certain to come along for the ride.

So it’s fine idea to aspire to healthier eating patterns. But  please hold off on spending all those billions we’ll be saving on healthcare.

Click here for the abstract of this study. You can find further perspective here and here.

Eat Healthy Michigan, photograph © A Healthier Michigan / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 12, 2018

2 Responses to “Like Magic: Eat Healthy, Save Billions”

  1. June 12, 2018 at 9:28 am, Bruce Daggy said:

    Good points as usual, Ted! Unfortunately for long-term outcomes in nutrition, it’s almost impossible to do better than epidemiology studies. We can’t lock people up on a metabolic ward for 40 years, with absolute control over what they eat. But epi studies like the ones done in 7th Day Adventists strongly suggest what makes biological sense: what a population puts into its collective mouth everyday affects health. You hit the nail on the head with your observations about the food system. Obviously the system we have in place today does not deliver the necessary food for the dietary improvement; nor does it want to!

    • June 12, 2018 at 4:19 pm, Ted said:

      Good points all, Bruce. And good reasons to be cautious about “truthful hyperbole.”