The old adage “an apple a day” was on to something. There is significant potential to prolong lives, improve health, and save health care costs if Americans simply ate more fruits and vegetables each day, according to a new report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
“The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There” examines the linkage between fruit and vegetable intake and incidence of cardiovascular diseases. These diseases, the leading killer of Americans, include coronary heart disease and stroke, which together are responsible for 725,000 U.S. deaths each year.
The report finds that if Americans consumed just one additional serving of fruits or vegetables a day, the nation would save $5 billion in health care expenditures and prevent 30,301 heart disease and stroke deaths annually.
If Americans were to go a step further and ate a full 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit daily, as recommended by federal dietary guidelines, it could prevent 127,261 deaths each year and save $17 billion in medical costs. The economic value of the lives saved from cardiovascular diseases is an astounding $11 trillion.
“Eating right is good for your health, and it rewards both your wallet and the economy,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, an agricultural economist with UCS’s Food & Environment Program and author of the report. “Helping Americans eat more of the right foods should be a public policy priority.”
Current farm policies set by Congress and implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) channel taxpayer dollars into subsidies for commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are used as feed for livestock, biofuels and as processed food ingredients. These policies offer few incentives for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables – effectively discouraging production of the very foods federal dietary guidelines recommend.
“In addition to these perverse subsidies, these policies mean that consumers and taxpayers are footing the bill twice – once to subsidize commodity crops that become ingredients in unhealthy foods, and again to treat skyrocketing rates of costly diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and stroke,” said O’Hara.
Treating cardiovascular disease is expensive for individuals, and collectively for taxpayers who fund subsidized health insurance programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid. In 2010 alone, the total cost of treating cardiovascular diseases amounted to $273 billion – and these costs are expected to reach $818 billion by 2030.
“Our food system is quite literally making Americans sick and driving the country further into debt,” said O’Hara. “One solution is to enable better access to fruits and vegetables, and we can do this through incentives that make produce more available and affordable.”
UCS is advocating cost-effective policies that increase the availability and reduce the cost of domestically grown fruits and vegetables for consumers, especially low-income consumers who are hardest hit by cardiovascular disease and other diet-related illnesses. Low-income neighborhoods – where some 30 million Americans reside – are often far from grocery stores and other sources of fresh produce, hindering access.
“An ‘$11 trillion reward’ is possible, but it will take smarter policies that invest in more farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, along with other programs that make fresh produce more affordable for low-income families. We need to start thinking about consuming produce as a public health investment,” said O’Hara.
“These smart investments would reduce the health care burden on families and taxpayers, and improve public health – a win-win for Americans,” added O'Hara.