As obesity continues to become a growing global problem around the world, there’s been a suggestion that healthy food prescriptions could be an effective way at saving lives and money.
In most cases, it’s cheaper for people to purchase unhealthy takeaway meals or microwavable dinners than it is to buy healthy ingredients for a meal or something with greater nutritional value – a factor leading many people to opt for junk foods that are worse for them and their health. Around a third of the world’s population is currently considered obese or overweight, which can increase the risk of health conditions including kidney disease, cancer, heart disease, osteoarthritis and diabetes.
New research published in the PLOS Medicine Journal by researchers from Tufts University in the US found subsidising 30 per cent of the cost of healthy foods could be a beneficial way of improving overall health and the economy. Simply subsidising fruits and vegetables could save 350,000 lives, prevent 1.93 million cardiovascular disease events and save US$40 billion (AU$56.4 billion, UK £30.1 billion) in healthcare costs over a lifetime.
Adding even more foods to the subsidy list could prevent as many as 3.28 million cardiovascular issues, 120,000 deaths and save $100 billion in healthcare costs. Researchers found the healthy food prescriptions through services similar to Medicare could generate substantial health gains and be highly cost-effective.
Researchers noted that in nearly all countries, healthcare spending continues to rise dramatically and diet-related diseases are becoming a major driver for this. They believe economic incentives through health insurance may encourage healthier behaviour, with fruit, vegetable and other produce prescriptions already being funded in the US through the Farm Bill. Researchers noted that the health impacts, costs, and cost-effectiveness of these programs have not yet been evaluated at scale, but they do seem promising.
For the study, researchers used nationally representative data and a validated model to evaluate the two subsidy scenarios. The first was 30 per cent incentives for the cost of purchases of fruits and vegetables, while the second was 30 per cent incentives for the cost of purchases of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood and plant oils.
Researchers found both programs would prevent cardiovascular deaths, with the fruit and vegetable option preventing 0.35 million cardiovascular deaths over a lifetime and the healthy food incentive preventing 0.62 million cardiovascular deaths and 0.12 million diabetes cases.
It could also be an effective way of helping people from lower socio-economic areas eat healthier. A recent study published in the BMC Public Health Journal found students living in high socio-economic status neighbourhoods were less likely to be high junk food consumers.
High junk food consumers are more likely to eat takeaway more than three times a week, eat dinner in front of the television, receive sweet rewards, be allowed to consume snacks anytime, have soft drinks available at home and a TV in their bedroom. There’s also been a rise in food delivery companies in recent years, making it even easier for people to access unhealthy foods.
Meanwhile, a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom found almost 60 per cent of food and drink adverts shown during family TV shows popular with children are for ‘junk food’ such as fast food, takeaways and confectionery.
Previous studies have shown that television food advertising exposure can alter food preferences in favour of high fat, high sugar foods and also increase consumption of these foods.
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