Diet and Health Care Costs

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Diet and Health Care Costs


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


In searching for ways to reduce staggering health care costs, diet improvement is an idea whose time has come. In February 1995, the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a report(*) that provides information on the incidence, prevalence, and costs of health conditions commonly associated with poor diets. The dollar estimates include direct health care costs and lost productivity.

The four most important problems of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes account for more than 1.4 million deaths annually in the United States. All are diet-related. Diet also plays a role in obesity, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis. Taken together, these diet-related health conditions cost Americans an estimated $250 billion yearly. The extent to which these costs might be reduced by diet improvement cannot be calculated precisely, but some researchers estimate that proper diet might forestall at least 20% of the annual deaths from heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) costs the United States an estimated $56.3 billion yearly. Health professionals estimate that 20% of these deaths could be avoided by dietary changes. CHD is associated, too, with obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. All of these conditions respond favorably to dietary changes.

According to the American Cancer Society, overall costs for cancer total $104 billion each year in America. Yet it is estimated that U.S. cancer death rates could be reduced by as much as 35% by "practicable dietary means." These estimates include the effects of overeating and subsequent obesity; of ingesting naturally-occurring carcinogens, such as aflatoxin in grain; of carcinogens produced by cooking or storing, such as polycyclic hydrocarbons produced when meat is heavily broiled or smoked; and of cancerenhancing or cancer-inhibiting substances that affect the formation of carcinogens in the body, such as nitrates or antioxidants respectively.

The American Heart Association estimates that some three million Americans suffer from stroke-related disabilities, at an annual cost of nearly $20 billion. Health professionals estimate that at least 20% of stroke deaths could be avoided by dietary changes.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that diabetes affects more than 13 million Americans, half of whom are not even aware of their health problem. Total economic cost of diabetes is more than $90 billion annually, which includes costs associated with cardiovascular disease, responsible for more than half of all deaths of diabetics. It is estimated that 40% of all diabetic cases are preventable by weight control through dietary measures and exercise.

Numerous other health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis, are influenced by diet. Although faulty diet may not be a direct cause of death, some of these health conditions reduce the quality of life and contribute to premature death. For example, obesity and high blood pressure are risk factors for CHD and stroke. Osteoporosis is responsible for one-and-a-half-million bone fractures yearly, especially of the hip, spine, and wrist. Hip fractures alone result in an estimated $10 billion in annual medical costs in the United States.

American Diet Shortcomings. Despite efforts to address obesity as a public health problem, and despite consumer interest in weight-loss programs, obesity in Americans has increased dramatically. Currently, one-third of all adults aged 20 to 74 are considered overweight. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, on average, Americans are now nearly eight pounds heavier than they were ten years ago. The economic cost of illness associated with obesity was estimated, in 1986, to total more than $39 billion annually ($11.3 billion for diabetes, $22.2 billion for cardiovascular diseases, $1.5 billion for high blood pressure, $1.9 billion for breast and colon cancer, and $2. …

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