Americans are by and large (no pun intended) fat and unhealthy. When you look at what we eat, it’s really no surprise that our waistbands are expanding.
New research suggests that the U.S. government may be at least partly to blame for our poor eating habits because food subsidies make heavily processed, unhealthy foods cheaper and more accessible to consumers than healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
According to a new study conducted in part by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, American adults who consumed a higher percentage of calories from subsidized crops — like corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, livestock and dairy — were more likely to have signs of poor health, including a body mass index (BMI) over 30, increased levels of c-reactive protein (which is a sign of overall inflammation in the body) and higher bad cholesterol, all of which can boost people’s risk for heart disease. (A BMI in the 18.5 – 24.9 range indicates a healthy or normal weight, according to the CDC. Over 30 is considered obese.)
Humans have consumed corn, wheat and rice for millennia, but nowadays these staple crops are usually not eaten in their whole-food form. “Rather, they’re turned into cattle feed or refined and converted into sweeteners (like high fructose corn syrup) and processed fatty foods,” explains Time.
“In the U.S. and many other places, an excess of subsidies in these areas ends up leading to a conversion into foods like refined grains and high calorie juices, soft drinks with corn sweeteners and high fat meats,” says Dr. Ed Gregg, chief of the CDC’s epidemiology and statistics branch in the diabetes division. “It’s basically the way that they’re used that ends up being detrimental.”
U.S. dietary guidelines recommend eating a diet rich in vegetables, whole fruits, grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and lean meats and proteins, including poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts.
“At the same time, current federal agricultural subsidies focus on financing the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock, the latter of which are in part via subsidies on feed grains,” the researchers wrote.
According to data from the USDA Economic Research Service, Americans’ annual consumption of healthy fruits and vegetables dropped from 299 pounds per person in 2003 to 272 pounds per person in 2013.
Health experts say subsidizing healthy fruits and vegetables, instead of corn, dairy and wheat, would improve Americans’ health because it would reduce the price of those foods, making them more accessible to consumers.
It’s easy to tell people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of subsidized commodities in processed foods, “but affording healthy food is a challenge for millions of Americans — around 50 million Americans are food insecure — and it makes little sense to blame the working poor for their inability to afford to eat fewer subsidized foods and more fresh fruit and vegetables, when our modern food system is geared toward encouraging everyone to eating these commodity crops,” [Raj] Patel [of the University of Texas at Austin] said.
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