In our current healthcare climate, Dr. Amy Loden Tiffany, triple board-certified in Internal Medicine, Lifestyle Medicine and Obesity Medicine, sheds light on the significant burden of medical costs impacting many Americans. The surge in chronic diseases such as dementia, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, alongside their hefty treatment costs, is a primary cause of this financial strain. Dr. Loden Tiffany guides us through how these health issues destabilize individuals’ financial situations. The growing costs of managing these diseases often lead people to make difficult choices, like foregoing necessary medications, postponing diagnostic tests, and missing key healthcare appointments, to manage essential expenses like housing, utilities, vehicle fuel, and groceries.
The Costly Consequences of Avoiding Medications:
With healthcare expenses soaring, individuals often find themselves skipping or rationing medications due to cost. In adults 65 and older, for instance, one in five report medication-nonadherence, with the cost of prescription medication being a leading cause of these decisions. This practice aggravates health conditions resulting in higher treatment costs to stabilize the condition. This leads to further financial strains, and in many cases, results in accumulating medical debt due to emergency room visits and hospitalizations.
The True Culprit: Poor-Quality Food
A significant chunk of healthcare spending is linked to chronic diseases that occur from the consumption of poor-quality foods. Many, attempting to make healthy choices, often end up selecting foods that inadvertently contribute to chronic diseases. While food deserts restrict access to healthier options, the broader issue spans across all demographics: a widespread lack of understanding about what truly constitutes nutritious food. This nutritional illiteracy leads to suboptimal dietary choices. Compounding this is the growing dependency of Americans on ultra-processed foods (UPFs), which are as addictive as drugs and negatively impact both health and long-term financial well-being.
The Financial Implications of Consuming Low-Quality Foods:
Eating foods loaded with refined sugars, saturated fats, and artificial additives not only deteriorates health but also incurs substantial financial consequences by inducing insulin resistance and chronic inflammation. These result in diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, strokes, many cancers and other chronic diseases. Patients often incur large medical bills for treatment of these chronic diseases.
In 2022, for example, the average cost of medical expenses for an individual with diabetes was $19,736 with approximately $12,022 of that directly attributed to diabetes. Between 2017 and 2022, the direct medical cost of diabetes rose 7% despite the prevalence remaining stable, and this is expected to rise. Additionally, they experience decreased work productivity and absenteeism due to illness. In the US, absenteeism accounts for $5.4 billion annually for indirect costs due to diabetes.
Individuals with chronic conditions pay more for their health care compared to those without chronic diseases through increased co-insurance, deductibles and other out of pocket expenses. This forces many to choose between electricity, fuel and groceries instead of medication. Other significant expenses include long-term care, particularly for conditions like dementia. The cost of care provided by nursing care facilities in 2022 rose by 5.6% to $191.3 billion. These facts and others underscore the urgent need for a change in approach and a greater emphasis on preventing and reversing chronic diseases through lifestyle changes, particularly in nutrition education and support.
The Temptation and Dependency on Ultra-Processed Foods:
A significant problem within the standard American diet is the prevalent consumption of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). These foods, packed with refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, manipulate the reward mechanisms of our brains, leading to increased cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The specific combination of macronutrients in UPFs triggers a reaction in the brain akin to the effects of highly addictive substances like tobacco, cocaine or heroin.
UPFs are notably deficient in nutritional value. Consuming these calorie-dense yet nutrient-deficient foods, often in frequent intervals throughout the day, prompts our bodies to store excess energy, leading to weight gain. This issue is exacerbated by chronic inflammation caused by ingesting foods that are harmful to our bodies. With regular consumption of UPFs, blood glucose levels remain consistently high, leading the body to become less responsive to insulin, a condition known as insulin resistance.
Understanding Insulin Resistance and Chronic Inflammation
Insulin resistance and chronic inflammation stand as key contributors to the onset of chronic diseases. Chronic inflammation represents the body’s extended defense reaction to harmful external factors, with poor dietary choices being a primary culprit. Consuming UPFs foods can incite an ongoing inflammatory state which leads to a range of chronic diseases. To counteract this, a change is needed in the types of nutrients consumed, the timing and quantity of meals, the integration of regular physical activity, and adequate high-quality sleep into one’s routine.
The Value of Education About Ingredient Lists And Nutrition Labels
It is true that understanding the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) you are eating supports making good decisions about your food. Still, the critical component is understanding what ingredients comprise those macronutrients. It is rare for adults to understand how to interpret nutrition labels and ingredient lists.
This gap in knowledge highlights the need for comprehensive education on understanding these labels. Integrating this type of education into various educational and cultural curricula, from early childhood through college, is essential in cultivating critical food literacy skills in the next generation. Just as people are familiar with basic life skills like calling 911 in an emergency or refueling their car when the gauge indicates, understanding the details on nutrition labels and ingredient lists should be regarded as an equally fundamental life skill.
When grocery shopping, a practical tip to identify whole grain foods from refined grains is to check for the presence of the words “whole grain” in the ingredient list. If the first ingredient isn’t “whole grain”, the product is not a whole grain, regardless of the marketing terms on the package! Another tip is that unhealthy (saturated) fats – those found in items like coconut oil, butter, and cheese – are typically solid at room temperature. When unsure about the quality and nutrient density of a food, Dr Loden Tiffany advises her client to avoid foods that come in a bag, box, or bottle from the middle of the store. Finally, if living in a food desert where it is difficult to access fruits and vegetables, or if it is a season where these are more expensive, you can opt for frozen fruits and vegetables instead. These are frozen in their peak ripeness state and offer high-quality nutrients to the body.
Rethinking Nutrition Education Paradigms
People need to recognize that the dietary recommendations given today are based on research that was published on average, 17 years prior. This means that research published in 2024 may not make it into clinical practice until after 2040. That’s a long time for habits to get established and poor nutrition to cause disease! Additionally, individuals must understand that they are not only what they eat but also what their food eats. For instance, if an animal is raised on a diet of candy to make it grow, it’s not the best quality meat for humans.
Dr. Loden Tiffany notes that a significant misstep in nutrition education in the United States has been the focus on tools that emphasize calorie counting over understanding the ingredients and quality of food. The emphasis needs to shift toward educating children and adults about growing, preparing, and enjoying nutritious, fiber-rich produce and whole grains, rather than relying on processed foods. Implementing gardens in schools and teaching students how to cultivate, cook, and store their harvest can be a transformative step in fostering a healthier, more informed approach to nutrition.
How Food Literacy Saves Money
Making the switch to reading ingredient labels and choosing unprocessed foods is a crucial step in ending the cycle of consuming nutritionally poor foods. By investing in healthy foods, individuals may alleviate the anticipated long-term financial strain by avoiding the chronic conditions linked to poor-quality nutrition.
Better nutrition correlates with a decrease in chronic diseases and the need for medications, resulting in fewer medical appointments or tests, ultimately leading to more financial savings. Furthermore, widespread education on selecting, preparing, and minimizing the waste of nutrient-rich foods is key in aiding individuals to make and sustain healthier choices.
Nourishing Health and Financial Well-being through Informed Nutrition
Dr. Amy Loden Tiffany, triple board certified in Internal Medicine, Lifestyle Medicine and Obesity Medicine, underscores the indisputable link between the consumption of low-quality foods, insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, and the development of chronic diseases. In today’s world, where healthcare costs pose a significant challenge, Dr. Loden Tiffany highlights the critical need to address the intricate relationship between healthcare expenses and nutritional choices. This approach is not just about cutting down healthcare costs but also about fostering long-term health and financial well-being.
At the core of this approach, as emphasized by Dr. Loden Tiffany and practiced at her clinic, Vitality Medical and Wellness Consulting, is the importance of food literacy. Individuals are encouraged to actively read and understand ingredient labels and to make a conscious shift towards unprocessed, whole foods. This change in dietary habits is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of unhealthy nutrition that many find themselves trapped in. By making these informed choices, individuals can substantially reduce the financial strain often brought about by managing chronic diseases.
The commitment to choosing the right foods today is more than a dietary choice—it’s an investment in a healthier and more financially stable future. Under Dr. Loden Tiffany’s expert guidance, individuals can navigate this journey towards improved health, gaining the knowledge and tools needed to make empowering decisions about their diet and overall health.
Written in Partnership with Dr. Amy Loden Tiffany