It is an unfortunate reality that a large percentage of Americans’ diets can be categorized as nutritionally poor. The fast-paced lifestyle lived by many makes it all too easy to ingest too many processed meats, refined grains and sugary beverages and too few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, due in part to the widespread availability of such items and a lack of knowledge on how to eat a healthful diet.
Public awareness of AICR’s message about the importance of a healthy diet for cancer prevention is only half of the battle. AICR also recognizes the role that public policy plays in shaping the nutritional landscape of our country. Stronger policies that help individuals make more informed decisions about what they are eating can help to prevent multiple chronic diseases, including 12 types of cancer. These policies can also help to ease the large cost burden that chronic disease places on the United States health care system: chronic disease care cost reportedly totaled $1.1 trillion in 2016.
In 2018, the federal government took action on a number of policies that impact how Americans eat. While some of these changes make it easier to make healthy choices – particularly for lower-income and more vulnerable groups – others only make the already challenging task that much more difficult.
Foods that are prepared outside of the home now account for more than half of Americans’ food budgets. To help people make healthy choices when eating out, a 2010 law required all chain restaurants and similar retailers to post calorie information for all standard menu items. Regulations to implement the law faced backlash, and after much pushback, menu labeling finally took effect on May 7 of this year. Studies have shown that this sort of transparency, particularly within fast food settings, can help individuals to make lower-calorie purchases. While more research is needed on the impact that menu labelling has on total caloric consumption, AICR applauds the move as a step in the right direction in helping the general public make more informed choices.
The FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy
On March 29, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced that the FDA would begin to look into pathways by which preventable death and disease can be reduced through nutrition. This new initiative, known as the Nutrition Innovation Strategy, focuses on modernizing health claims, ingredient labels and product standards, as well as implementing the new Nutrition Facts label and reducing sodium. In our letter to Dr. Gottlieb on this strategy, AICR applauded the FDA’s goals and suggested some ways to strengthen the strategy. AICR stressed the importance of improving labeling of items with whole grains to help Americans incorporate more whole grains into their diet, as this particular food group is known to have a strong protective effect against colorectal cancer .
School Meal Rollbacks
In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would be providing more flexibility with some aspects of Obama-era regulations on school lunches. The new regulations allow schools to serve low-fat flavored milk with no limits on added sugars and stipulate that only half of the grains served to children must be whole grains. Before, only fat-free milk could be flavored and all of the grains served at schools needed to be rich in whole grains. While there are few studies linking childhood lifestyle choices and cancer risk, AICR recognizes that habits developed during childhood persist throughout life. With 30 million students participating in the National School Lunch Program each school day, this rollback has the potential to prevent healthy habits from forming at a young age, contributing to an adult population with poor eating behaviors and greater risk of developing a preventable cancer.
The Farm Bill
The Farm Bill, which is reauthorized only once every five years, is about nutrition as much as agriculture policy. The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides financial support to purchase food for 40 million low-income Americans each month, and the SNAP Nutrition Education program (SNAP-Ed), the largest source of federal funding for evidence-based nutrition programs to help people lead healthier lives. SNAP-Ed helps to prevent cancer by working within communities to help participants learn what good nutrition looks like and how to be more physically active. The bill also reauthorized a program which incentivizes those enrolled in SNAP to buy fruits and vegetables through ensuring that benefits from the program go twice as far when used to purchase these items. The prescription of fruits and vegetables to those at risk of developing a nutrition-related disease may also soon become a reality, as the bill authorized a $4 million per year allocation for a pilot program known as Harvesting Health.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead
Legislation and regulations in 2018 played pivotal roles in helping the public to take responsibility for their own choices through the increase in transparency as well as support for improving nutrition for vulnerable populations. While the revisions to the school meal nutrition requirements were a setback, in 2019 AICR is committed to supporting and advocating for more policies that make it easier for people to lead a cancer-protective lifestyle.