Nutrition – a game changer in global healthcare

Fierce political debate rages on both sides of the Atlantic about the rising cost of healthcare and what should be done about it.

Spending on health services in the UK has more than doubled in cash terms in the last decade, growing from £53 billion in 2000-01 to £120 billion in 2010-11; this is equivalent to an increase of around 80 per cent in real terms (1).  In England, 22 per cent of total public spending is devoted to healthcare.

In the USA, more than $2.5 trillion is spent annually on medical care.  But as recently as 1950, Americans spent only about $8.4 billion ($70 billion in today’s dollars).  After adjusting for inflation, Americans now spend as much on health care every ten days as they did in the entire year of 1950 (2).  In the USA, medical spending now represents nearly 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The cost of health insurance continues to climb for US companies and workers, with annual family premiums growing at a pace triple that of 2010 and outpacing wage increases (3). The chairman and CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is quoted as saying that his company spends more money on insurance for its employees than it spends on coffee (4).

New legislation, large-scale reorganisation of health services, changes in insurance schemes and budget cuts are all among the radical measures being taken by governments to address this issue.

There is much less press coverage though about the real game changer with respect to reducing healthcare costs – improving nutrition and lifestyle.

Chronic or non-communicable diseases are the top cause of death worldwide, killing more than 36 million people in 2008.  Cardiovascular diseases were responsible for 48 per cent of these deaths, cancers 21 per cent, chronic respiratory diseases 12 per cent, and diabetes 3 per cent (5).

In most middle- and high-income countries non-communicable diseases were responsible for more deaths than all other causes of death combined, with almost all high-income countries reporting more than 70 per cent of total deaths due to non-communicable diseases (6).

In the UK and the USA, non-communicable diseases account for over 80 per cent of all deaths (5).

Common, preventable risk factors underlie most of these non-communicable diseases.  These risk factors are a leading cause of the death and disability burden in nearly all countries, regardless of economic development.

The leading risk factor globally for mortality is raised blood pressure (responsible for 13 per cent of deaths globally), followed by tobacco use (9 per cent), raised blood glucose (6 per cent), physical inactivity (6 per cent), and overweight and obesity (5 per cent) (7).

If we were to stop overeating, stop eating unhealthy foods, stop smoking and stop living sedentary lives, these risk factors would reduce, the prevalence of these diseases would reduce, healthcare costs would reduce and we would enjoy a greater quality of life.

Simple changes to diet and lifestyle really can make a dramatic difference to your health and well-being (8).

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Works Cited

1. National Audit Office. Healthcare across the UK: A comparison of the NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. s.l. : National Audit Office, 2012.

2. Robbins, John and Robbins, Ocean. Beyond the Obamacare debate – why does healthcare cost so much? . s.l. : Fox News, 2012.

3. US Health Insurance Costs Rise. [Online] 27 September 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/27/us-health-insurance-costs-climb.

4. Businessweek. [Online] 21 November 2004. http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2004-11-21/online-extra-a-full-bodied-talk-with-mr-dot-starbucks.

5. World Health Organisation. Non-communicable diseases country profiles 2011.

6. —. Global status report on noncommunicable diseases 2010. . Geneva : s.n., 2011.

7. —. Global health risks: mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks. . Geneva : s.n., 2009.

8. Willett, W.C. Eat, Drink and Be Healthy. New York : Free Press, 2001. ISBN 0 684 86337 5.

9. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Health Behaviour. Postnote, May 2007, no. 283. 2007.

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