How to get powerful institutions to back really healthy eating habits

We might have to quantify the economic benefits of good health… or forget about the economy entirely.

Photo by Roberto Sorin on Unsplash

Subscription products are the holy grail of business these days. Who would turn down recurring income? Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, Adobe Creative Cloud, Kobo Unlimited, Hello Fresh, Lipitor…

Wait, what?

Atorvastatin, the generic name for the popular cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, was prescribed more than one hundred million times in 2019, and coursed the veins of nearly 25 million Americans. Roughly 10 percent of the US population takes some kind of medication to lower their LDL.

Pharmacies were among the pioneers of the subscription-product industry, reminding their patients that it was time to order a refill before their pill dispenser ran empty. Growing up, I thought of it as a thoughtful gesture. Today, I see the shrewd — perhaps greedy — business strategy.

Meanwhile, less than 10 percent of Americans eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

The difference between pills and broccoli

The problem with broccoli is that it’s not a value-added product.

So-called “value” is added to things when they change hands. Ore is extracted, then a metal is refined, then a ring is made. At every step along the way, money changes hands, jobs are created, and the thing gets a little more elaborate.

For example, a country exporting raw logs to another country that manufactures luxury furniture is thought to be missing out on the higher-quality jobs and greater income.

Pharmacological drugs are the opposite of raw logs. They embed enormous value, from the original identification and purification of the medicinal ingredients, to the research and development needed to demonstrate their efficacy, all the way down to the marketing involved in making physicians “aware” of the drug’s existence and the creation of commercials for the general public, plus hundreds of other steps. Jobs, many of them high-paying, abound and investors — including millions upon millions of normal folks saving for their retirement — reap the dividends. Hurray!

On the other hand, selling only raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes — the critical ingredients of good health — means missing out on the “added value” that greater processing could bring. By processing I mean the transformations that makes eating those foods more convenient (like removing the bits that take longer to cook and packaging them in single-serve plastic containers) and more addictive (like increasing their sugar, salt, and fat content).

In other words, most of the business practices that add economic value to food decrease its health value.

As a bonus for the economy, as people eat too few healthy foods, they develop chronic disease, which generate an infinite number of economic opportunities for value-added products (like atorvastatin) and subscription services (like recurring hospital visits).

When will powerful institutions do the right thing?

If we could do the math and show that the economic cost of disease outweighs its financial benefits, we might get powerful institutions like governments and corporations to get on board with promoting healthy cooking and eating.

Unfortunately, for the moment, it’s plain to see that there are endless money-making opportunities in sickness, while the potential of a healthy, energetic population to make the world a better place remains to be quantified.

Maybe then we need to rethink the economy.

Brigitte Gemme is a vegan food educator, meal planner, and coach. After a PhD in sociology of higher education and a 15-year career in research management, she got impatient with the slow pace of planet-friendly change and decided to help individuals live a gentler life. If you need help deciding what’s for dinner, check out her meal plans at VeganFamilyKitchen.com. If you need personal guidance and accountability to embrace a gentler lifestyle and better habits, consider signing up for a free week with her on coach.me using coupon code BRIGITTEWEEK. Brigitte loves nothing more than helping more people make a habit of eating more plants.

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Brigitte Gemme

Vegan cooking mentor, mom, runner, writer, avid reader, PhD in sociology, certificate in nutrition, morning person. Author of _Flow in the Kitchen_.