Image credit: David DeFranza
The debate over health care has, thus far, revolved around access and cost. While these are important issues, and will no doubt be the focus of any reform plan that emerges from Congress, they overshadow other more fundamental health concerns.
Food, what we eat and how we eat it, is central to the health care debate in America for six reasons.
1. America's Epidemics
The CDC reports that preventable chronic diseases account for three quarters of America's health expenses each year. This includes, as Michael Pollan points out, "$147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to" our diets.
Indeed, America is suffering from several costly epidemics and nearly all of them are related to what we eat. Reducing the frequency of these diseases would significantly lower our annual health care expenditures, making a universal plan without deficits, rations, or extreme tax increases possible.
2. The Answer is Health, not Care
Instead of creating a system focused on solving expensive problems we create for ourselves, a universal health care system should be devoted to helping people get and stay healthy.
Writing about the health care debate in the Huffington Post, Dr. Andrew Weil explained that if we did so:
It would be a system that puts the health back into health care. And it would also happen to be far less expensive than what we have now.
The first step to a plan that encourages health, rather than manages disease, is to change what we eat.
3. You Are What You Eat
"You are what you eat," a mother once scolded when her family chose chips over fruit. It turns out, that mother was right.
It's becoming increasingly apparent to more and more people that fast food, corn syrup, processed snacks, and sodas are the root of our nation's problems of obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes.
A health care system that gave doctors an incentive to teach healthy ways of eating and living would help fight these epidemics. A national food system that encouraged healthy, local eating would be even more powerful: it would remove the very source of the problem
4. Food is Part of the Environment
Fast food and soda are easy targets but out-of-season fruits, factory farms, and other elements of our industrial food system are also to blame. Understanding that food is part of the environment, that something grown locally and organically is better for you, for the producer, and for the planet, is an integral part of America's transition to health.
Making the switch to local and organic food will lead to reductions in pollution, another serious health concern, fewer farm workers poisoned by pesticides, and leave the American public with simpler food choices based on what's fresh and in season, rather than what has the most evocative marketing.
5. Food is a Gateway Choice
Eating good, fresh, healthy food is one choice that leads to many others. Once you start down the road of locally-sourced vegetables, sharing grass-raised meat or becoming a vegetarian is not far behind. If you spend an afternoon walking around the farmers' market, it's easier to make the choice to walk home or to work the next day. Over time, all that walking may lead to running and other forms of exercise.
Understanding that your food is a product of the environment encourages you to care for your surroundings. Conserving water is easy when you know the relationship it has to the food you eat and composting makes much more sense if you've seen the magic it can produce in a garden.
People's habits won't change overnight, but, through many small steps, the can change. Finding healthy food is just one of the first of those steps.
6. It's All About Respect
Ultimately, a system based on health instead of health care will depend on respect. Insurance companies must respect the choices of doctors who say it's better to prevent illness than treat it. Doctors must respect patients by teaching them healthy ways to avoid illness. Most importantly, however, patients, the American people, must respect their own bodies.
Eating food that was grown with dignity, near your neighborhood, without chemicals or engineering, is one way, an easy way, to respect your body.
If our diets in America changed, health care would be a much smaller issue. Indeed, people would have reformed the system themselves, using nothing more than their kitchens and their stomachs.
Read more about food and health:
13 Great Vegetarians From History (Slideshow)
80,000 Baltimore Students Join Meatless Monday Movement
Agriculture to Play a Major Role in Mitigating Climate Change
Stop Crying Wolf! Cap-and-Trade Will Increase Farmer's Production Costs Less Than 1%