Nutrition-wise blog

What can be done to improve America's health?

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. July 27, 2011

Although America provides some of the world's best health care and spent over $2.5 trillion for health in 2009, it still ranks below many countries in life expectancy, infant mortality and other key health indicators. For this reason, the U.S. Surgeon General and multiple federal agencies came together to create the National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy, which was released in June of this year. The strategy calls on leaders in state and local communities, businesses, nonprofit groups and individuals to commit to healthy initiatives.

It's no surprise that healthy eating is one of the priority initiatives. We know that eating healthy can reduce risk of the most common, deadly medical problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and several types of cancer — many related to obesity. Eating healthy requires more than providing people with information — it needs to be supported by an infrastructure that makes healthy foods available, affordable and safe.

In keeping with the current economic atmosphere, the strategy includes no new funding and very few mandates. Here are examples of how it's supposed to work.

The federal government will:

  • Ensure that foods in federal programs (like school lunches) meet the standards set in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • Improve agricultural and food safety policies to align with the dietary guidelines.
  • Develop voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to children (for example in TV commercials), monitor and report on industry activities.

State and local governments will:

  • Use grants and zoning to attract full-service grocery stores and farmers markets to underserved areas, aka "food deserts."
  • Discourage businesses that serve unhealthy foods around schools.

Schools, businesses and employers will:

  • Make healthy options and appropriate portion sizes the norm.
  • Reduce sodium, saturated fats and added sugars in the foods served.
  • Eliminate high-calorie, low-nutrition drinks and provide greater access to water.

Health care systems, insurers and health care providers will:

  • Assess dietary patterns (quality and quantity of food eaten) and provide appropriate care for obesity.

Communities and individuals will:

  • Lead and expand programs such as community gardens that bring healthy, locally grown foods to schools and businesses.
  • Eat less by avoiding oversized portions.
  • Exercise more.

What changes are you seeing happen that support healthy eating — in your community? In your health system? At work or in your schools? In your local and state governments? What are you doing?

To your health,

Jennifer

Jul. 27, 2011