The global pandemic has exposed not only vulnerabilities in our food system but also the critical need for improving coordination among federal agencies and increasing our nation’s investment in nutrition research.
That’s among the key recommendations of a new report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, AJCN, by a group of former U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, secretaries, former legislators, nutrition experts and scientists, including Patrick Stover, Ph.D., vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
The authors’ AJCN paper calls for strengthening and accelerating nutrition funding and research. Food is medicine, according to the paper, and greater investment in that field is key to saving lives lost to diet-related chronic disease, now exacerbated by the coronavirus, and lowering increasing health care costs in the U.S.
Diet-related chronic disease costs the U.S. economy $1 trillion each year. In Texas alone, obesity costs businesses $11 billion per year and is expected to reach $30 billion by 2030. Texas spends more than $25 billion of its general revenue every two years on Medicaid.
Nutrition research needed
“Offering the most comprehensive picture of the role of nutrition research to address public health, this paper highlights the cross-cutting nature of nutrition and underscores the need to increase federal funding for nutrition research,” Stover said. “The research that needs to be done in nutrition science has the potential to change the trajectory of the current diet-related chronic disease epidemic in our country. How we move forward from here will determine how many lives we’re able to save through nutrition interventions.”
Established by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is made up of outside experts. The committee recently released its assessment on nutrition science.
USDA and HHS will use this scientific report to craft the 2020 Dietary Guidelines – the official federal nutrition advice that’s updated every five years. Among its various recommendations, the report noted limitations in quality evidence as a future consideration for enhancing dietary advice.
Stover said the latest Dietary Guidelines report supports the need for better evidence in nutrition science and added that as federal decisionmakers consider the options laid out in the AJCN paper, agriculture and the food it produces to nourish people need to be part of the nutrition conversation. He believes we need to develop the science base for food systems to promote sustainable health and wellness in a way that supports economic sustainability for producers.
Food, diet, health intertwined
“When the coronavirus became a global pandemic, it joined forces with an existing epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases in the U.S. and exposed vulnerabilities in our food system and among our underserved populations,” he said. “Our food, diet and health are intertwined, and all three are suffering right now as we grapple with a novel coronavirus that preys disproportionately on those with diet-related chronic disease. Agriculture can be the answer to these compounding crises.”
This year, the National Institutes of Health, NIH, and the USDA issued strategic plans that support the need for focused nutrition research. The USDA’s blueprint for science included a focus on nutrition research and highlighted the need for responsive agriculture – better connecting production agriculture with human and environmental health while ensuring economic sustainability for producers.
“If we utilize food systems and agriculture to decrease Texas Medicaid spending by only 1%, the savings would be more than $250 million,” Stover said. “While the cost savings are critical even without the long-term economic impact of the current pandemic, the dollar figures pale in comparison to the idea that we could improve the health of millions of Americans and save lives.”
Nutrition is among the most complex sciences, with strongly linked biological and behavioral dimensions.
In its first strategic plan for nutrition, the NIH 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for Nutrition Research cited the need for precision nutrition, which is the study of how individuals respond differently to food and nutrients relative to health outcomes. Texas A&M AgriLife recognizes the value of investing in precision nutrition.
“We have come a long way in the field of nutrition science, and now we have new tools and technologies to understand the diet-disease connections to advance sound practices and policies,” Stover said. “If we’re able to enhance federal coordination as we do this, we can infuse nutrition into neuroscience, metabolism, cardiovascular science, human development and more, alongside agriculture and food systems, to positively affect public health.”