You are what you eat. Every year, new scientific discoveries make clear that food is critical to health. In recent years, nutrition research trials have shown that a Mediterranean diet reduces cardiovascular disease; ultra-processed foods increase weight gain; omega-3 fatty acids improve IQ in preterm babies; cocoa prevents heart attacks; and vitamin D supplements do — well, almost nothing.
But many questions remain: What’s the best diet for weight loss? Do supplements really work? Can certain foods or better nutrition help cancer treatment, maintain brain health, treat autism, or improve immunity? What’s the best way to nurture the gut microbiome?
It will take years before answers to these and many other questions emerge — time the U.S. does not have as obesity and diet-related diseases rise at alarming rates. What’s needed right now is a national nutrition science moonshot.
Diet-related conditions are the leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. Not only is poor nutrition deadly, it’s expensive: The combined health care spending and lost productivity from suboptimal eating costs the economy $1.1 trillion each year. Obesity alone has far-reaching consequences for the education system, American workplace, and national defense, with 1 in 3 young adults disqualified to serve in the military because of excess weight. Americans who live in rural areas, have lower incomes, or are part of certain racial or ethnic groups often face higher rates of diet-related diseases like diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart disease. The combined toll of poor nutrition is astronomical.
The recent White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health brought together diverse federal agencies, bipartisan congressional leaders, scientists, and individuals from the private sector and advocacy organizations to confront the country’s nutrition problem and identify ambitious, actionable solutions. An independent task force, which we co-chaired, provided recommendations to help inform this process.
The consensus? A resounding call for better research.
Because even as researchers work to develop costly new drugs and map out distant galaxies, even the experts don’t really understand why certain foods are good for us, or even more fundamentally why — despite diet trends to reduce caloric intake — the nation is gaining weight. It seems calories in vs. calories out may not be the simple magic formula: We must get to the bottom of this and many other diet-related questions.
Despite this pressing need for more information, relative funding for nutrition research has remained flat for more than 40 years, even as diet-related diseases have skyrocketed. Government efforts to advance nutrition research are also fragmented, lacking coordination and synergy.
It’s time for the nation to invest in a better understanding of the top cause of poor health and preventable health care spending among Americans: what we eat. We see three critical actions Congress can take to start closing the gap between the causes of disease among Americans and investment in scientific research.
First, Congress should fully fund the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Nutrition Research, created last year by former NIH Director Francis Collins based on recognition of the vast implications of nutrition research. In a leadership role, the Office of Nutrition Research could coordinate and amplify nutrition research across the NIH’s 27 institutes and centers and with other federal agencies. It can help the nation determine, for example, the role of nutrition in precision medicine, and how best to address nutrition-related health disparities. This work is essential, with tremendous potential for high return on investment. Yet the budget for the Office of Nutrition Research is just $1 million a year — less than one-millionth of the national cost of diet-related diseases.
Second, Congress should consider creating a new institute within the NIH: a National Institute of Nutrition. This new institute can lead innovative, cross-cutting research on nutrition and health, be a strong partner for cross-governmental research needs, promote the training of a diverse nutrition research workforce, guide nutrition education for health care providers, and translate trusted nutrition science findings to the public.
Third, Congress should increase investment in nutrition-related research across the U.S. Department of Agriculture, particularly its research efforts at the intersection of nutrition, agriculture, sustainability, and health equity.
It’s time to close the research gap in nutrition and health. Congress is deciding the next budget right now, and it needs to take doctors’ orders on this one. As medical professionals, we are calling on Congress to fully fund the Office of Nutrition Research with at least $97 million in fiscal year 2023, assess the practicality and impact of a new National Institute of Nutrition, and increase investment in nutrition-related USDA research. These actions would be a much-needed investment in the future of Americans’ health and the nation’s well-being.
Bill Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon, and former United States Senate Majority Leader, representing Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007. He currently serves as chair of the global board of The Nature Conservancy. Dariush Mozaffarian is a cardiologist and professor and dean for policy at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston. They are co-chairs of the Task Force Informing the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.
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