PUBLIC HEALTH
August 2, 2016

Government-Subsidized Obesity

The U.S. government gives farmers subsidies to grow the crops that make us fat. What ever happened to nutritional guidelines?

Most of us regularly consume at least some, if not all, of the agricultural crops that are subsidized by the U.S. government which provides subsidies (money) to farmers for growing such crops as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, and raising livestock.

A huge portion of these crops and livestock end up in processing plants and on store shelves as foods of dubious nutritional quality: high-fat meats, high-fat dairy foods, juices and sodas sweetened with corn syrup, refined grains, and all manner of processed and packaged foods. According to a new study, these subsidized crops are the government's contribution to the obesity problem.

People are encouraged to fill half their plates with vegetables. Yet the government does not subsidize farmers who grow produce.

Even more concerning is that the typical American consumes 56% of their calories each day from these foods, and the people most likely to consume them are already obese and experiencing risk factors for cardiometabolic problems, like high cholesterol, high blood sugar or high inflammation markers.

The study, conducted by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, used information from the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of over 10,000 men and women whose average age was 40.

Body mass index (BMI), C-reactive protein level (a marker of inflammation), LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one), blood pressure, waist circumference to height ratio and glycated hemoglobin (a measure of blood sugar levels over time) were used to assess cardiometabolic risk.

People who consumed the most calories from subsidized foods had a 37% higher risk of being obese compared to those who ate the least amount. They were also 41% more likely to have excess belly fat, 34% more likely to have high inflammation levels, 14% more likely to have high LDL cholesterol, and 21% more likely to have elevated blood sugar levels.

The only marker for cardiometabolic disorder that did not appear to be affected by consuming subsidized foods was blood pressure.

“Although eating fewer subsidized foods will not eradicate obesity,” the study authors conclude, “our results suggest that individuals whose diets consist of a lower proportion of subsidized foods have a lower probability of being obese. Nutritional guidelines are focused on the population’s needs for healthier foods, but to date food and agricultural policies that influence food production and availability have not yet done the same.”

Government policies need to change in order for all families to be able to purchase healthy foods and for the food industry to be held responsible for the damage it causes, according to a commentary on the study by Raj Patel, Research Professor, the University of Texas. The medical community could also play a role in moving people away from their harmful addiction to 'cheap' food, he adds.

A related study that looked at the food records of over 126,000 people who were followed for as long as 32 years found that people who ate a higher amount of saturated fat and trans fat, the types found in high-fat animal foods, high-fat dairy products and processed foods, had an increased risk of death, while those who ate more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, the kind found in fruits and vegetables, had a lower risk of death.

Researchers estimated that replacing 5% of calories from saturated fats with an equivalent amount of calories from polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats found in fruits and vegetables could reduce the risk of death by 27% and 13% respectively.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating more fruits and vegetables for good health. In fact, people are encouraged to fill half their plates with vegetables. Yet the government does not subsidize farmers who grow produce. Instead subsidies are given to those who raise crops and livestock that are largely turned into cheap, unhealthy, often high-fat, processed foods.

Both studies and the commentary are published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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