Good nutrition is critical to health. In the United States, four of the leading causes of death—chronic heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes—are diet-related, and millions of Americans face related health problems that cause hardship and expense. Today, more than one-third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are obese and highly vulnerable to early-onset chronic disease. At the same time, approximately one in seven individuals in the United States struggles to find or have sufficient income to purchase enough food for a healthy life.
The causes and effects of poor nutrition are complex. Evidence is clear, however, that health care costs are growing and many of those costs are tied to poor or high-calorie diets. Systemic changes to the food system are needed to enable and encourage better dietary choices to promote long-term health.
The federal government’s “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” are designed to foster healthy diets. Current guidelines encourage Americans to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while eating less high-fat and processed foods. Yet food guidelines are not enough. Individuals make food choices based on a variety of factors. Enabling and encouraging food choices that promote healthy diets require a comprehensive approach that addresses availability, access, affordability, information, and acknowledges social and cultural factors that drive food choices. The policy debate about how best to shift diets is extremely heated, with differing views about the role of taxes (on soda and salt, for example), regulations, marketing, and restrictions on the use of food assistance dollars available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Appropriate and effective roles and actions must be identified for all stakeholders in all sectors, and both supply and demand issues must be examined. Food choices are highly personal, but the impact of widespread malnutrition is shared by all of society.