Health can only be achieved by getting back to basics: focusing on the root of medical problems instead of merely treating the symptoms.
As a doctor, I always like to see my patients happy. That’s why I steer them away from quick fixes like the latest “wonder” drug or device. After all, when it comes to our health, there are no free rides – particularly for the nearly 70 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese. Instead, real and sustained health can only be achieved by getting back to basics: focusing on the root of medical problems instead of merely treating the symptoms.
Take today’s weight loss drug craze, for example. The enthusiastic response being given medications like Ozempic demonstrates how much interest there is in improving our health. Indeed, overwhelming evidence shows that America is being seriously harmed by our overconsumption of sugar and ultra-processed foods. That’s why it's vital for our nation to adopt new dietary habits and a major change in policy for a long-term fix.
I’m talking specifically about our national nutrition standards. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Dietary Guidelines in 1980, a “mere” 13.4 percent of Americans had obesity. Today, 42 percent do. Additionally, at least six in 10 adult Americans have one or more chronic diseases, such as diabetes or cardiovascular illness. And all of these conditions are driven by poor nutrition.
That’s why I’m supporting an alternative set of guidelines – evidence-based advice to help people struggling with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease cure themselves of nutrition-related illness.
The “Food Fix” campaign, a nonprofit educational and advocacy initiative I chair, is getting the word out that chronic disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans – ending an estimated 4,300 lives each day – due, largely, to our diets.
As we revise our national standards, we must therefore embrace the concept of “food as medicine,” driving home the understanding that wiser nutritional choices can prevent and even reverse chronic diseases.
Consumers, be they healthy or ill, should learn to steer clear of supermarkets’ middle aisles, where we find all those highly processed cereals, cookies, chips, and sodas. Instead, they should shop along the periphery, where single-ingredient, natural foods such as vegetables, meat, and eggs, are key to better health.
The evidence shows that a nutritious diet low in refined starch and sugar is best for preventing and treating excess weight, obesity, and chronically illness. As documented by the American Diabetes Association, this diet is highly effective in keeping blood sugar low, which is crucial for the nearly 1-in-2 Americans afflicted with diabetes and prediabetes, a majority of whom are African American. Likewise, the American Heart Association advises that low-carbohydrate diets lead to lower blood sugar, more weight loss, and improved heart health. And peer-reviewed studies consistently show that nutrient-rich diets can achieve remission and an end to medication use, often within weeks.
These facts underline the need for big changes in the dietary guidelines, which today are heavy in refined starches and sugar. If the next generation of guidelines instead emphasize proven nutrition, they will deal a much-needed blow against chronic disease. Just as important, improving America’s dietary standards will save some of the $1.72 trillion we spend each year on health care related to excess weight, while also correcting some of our most glaring health inequities.
Happily, we’re already seeing progress. Earlier this year, Congress directed the USDA, which oversees the Dietary Guidelines with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, to include in their next iteration in 2025, “a dietary pattern for the treatment of diet-related diseases, including obesity and diabetes, based exclusively on rigorous data.”
This suggestion has had years of prestigious support. Following the first-ever peer review of the Dietary Guidelines process, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine noted the need for dietary recommendations “to include all Americans whose health can benefit by improving their diet based on the scientific evidence. Without these changes, present and future dietary guidance will not be applicable to a large majority of the general population.”
Towards that end, I am educating policymakers and advocating for these changes. A powerful consensus is forming among Members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle. And, together, we are urging USDA to use the latest scientific evidence so all Americans benefit from the best scientific dietary guidance available.
We could continue searching for quick fixes, I suppose. But in the end, they would cost much without delivering sustained results. Or, we can embrace a better, safer, cheaper, and healthier way to combat disease and obesity – without drugs or devices.
Let’s get back to basics and fix our food guidelines.
Dr. Mark Hyman
October 4, 2023