This piece is part of a larger series examining what big ideas a Trump administration could use to achieve its most ambitious goals. Read more entries in our "The Art of the Bill" series here.
Immediately following President-elect Trump’s victory, calls to “give him a chance” rang out from the media and across social media. Simultaneously, he has claimed that he will completely overturn Obamacare as well as keep certain components intact. If the President-elect wants to take national health seriously, however, he has to address the long-standing elephant in the room: nutrition.
Human beings are adaptable creatures. For millions of years our forebears made the most of what was available for foraging and hunting. Unfortunately we are susceptible to short memories and a lack of foresight. Since the advent of electric refrigeration and long-distance transportation our diets have changed, and not necessarily for the better.
Whether called ‘diseases of affluence’ or ‘mismatch diseases,’ leading killers in our country—heart disease, diabetes, certain forms of cancer—either directly or indirectly result from poor nutrition. Even influenza and pneumonia, which claim over 55,000 Americans each year, can be better fought with a well-functioning immune system, something poor nutrition negatively influences.
Then there are the mental health disorders anxiety and depression—leading causes of suicide, which claims over 42,000 Americans yearly—which are affected by diet.
Despite your penchant for posting photos of fast foods that you adore, Mr. President-elect, please remember that sugar is at the root of our problems. It almost seems cliché to mention, given how aware we are of this issue. But awareness does not equal action. Millions of Americans still smoke cigarettes despite a half-century of knowing their life will be cut drastically shorter due to it.
Prior to the First World War, Americans consumed roughly fifteen grams of sugar per day, mostly from fruits and vegetables, which, as paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman writes, surrenders fructose slowly. This is important: the slow release of sugar is less likely to cause the dangerous insulin spike that is a marker of diabetes.
Fast forward to today at fifty-five grams per day, over double the daily recommended allowance of twenty-five grams. Since the bulk of that sugar is derived from processed foods that shock our digestive system with rapid intake, the overloaded nutrient quickly turns into visceral fat, keeps our nervous system on edge, creates excess inflammation, and taxes organs that maintain homeostasis.
A proper nutrition program would not only address the sugar- and carbohydrate-rich diets causing so many ailments in our nation today. It also needs to include two other critical issues: climate change and movement.
You’ve recently acknowledged climate change as being real, Mr. President-elect (it's an issue you’ve gone back and forth on). Let’s assume you’re on the pro side this week: information regarding industrial farming’s massive depletion of resources, destruction of habitats, influence on our atmosphere, and tendency of supporting wealthy nations are well-documented. Let’s discuss movement.
In her forthcoming book, biomechanist Katy Bowman reminds us that for most of history the relationship between movement and food was interdependent: we moved in order to acquire food, while food fueled us to move. This is no longer the case. We don’t even need to drive to the store. We can have our kitchen stocked with the click of a few buttons. This is an unprecedented tragedy with far-reaching consequences in both how we relate to the sources of our nutrition as well as further removing us from dexterous movement patterns that are our birthright.
In one essay, “Movement as a Commodity,” Bowman writes that there are now two “movement specialist” groups: paid and forced laborers that move in a limited variety of ways to partake in the mechanization of food supply and those that benefit from their movement by not having to move much at all.
To put that in American terms: you’ll never actually deport illegal immigrants, for doing so would destroy our entire food system, from the people that grow, pick, and slaughter our food to those that cook, serve, and clean up our mess when we leave the restaurant. The disparate movement that each group partakes in—including the unequal movement of commerce between—already damages our national health. You can’t unravel the system. But you can help fix it.
It won’t be easy. But how else can anyone make America great again—an odd phrase given how many people claim it to be the greatest country the world has ever known. Our arrogance is tempered by the awareness that we overeat the wrong foods, move in a tragically limited number of ways, and contribute to the destruction of the planet because we want what we want when we want it. This is not greatness; it is immature self-regard.
If we want true greatness, sir, let’s move toward a sustainable nutrition program that does more than throw trans-fat labels on processed foodstuffs. We need to make the public aware that not only is sugar killing us, but that excess carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in our bodies, overtax our bodies, our environment, and our economics. We need to remember that we’re part of nature, not something separate from it.
You’re right: health care has to change. That begins by supporting nutrition messages rooted in current science without special interest lobbyists professing false data to sell products. It also involves truly addressing the overwhelming dangers of too many pharmaceuticals in our food chain: in our bodies and in the bodies of those animals we eat.
It means growing up and accepting that we, us great Americans, have gotten some things wrong. Avoiding these topics moves us in the opposite direction of greatness.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.