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Diseases of Dietary Excess : Americans Eating Themselves to Death

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The U.S. surgeon general’s report on nutrition and health, released several months ago, offered some good and some bad news.

Our abundant food supply has virtually eliminated such deficiency diseases as rickets, scurvy, pellagra, beriberi, xerophthalmia and goiter.

But we are eating ourselves to death.

Diseases of dietary excess and imbalance now rank among the leading causes of illness and death in the United States.

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Diet plays a part in five of our top 10 causes of death--coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes mellitus and atherosclerosis. In addition, diet also may contribute to other problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, dental disease, osteoporosis and gastrointestinal disorders such as diverticular disease.

Some of the end costs of diet-related diseases were detailed in the surgeon general’s report, along with recommendations for prevention. These included:

First Line of Intervention

Coronary heart disease. More than 1.25 million heart attacks occur each year, and more than 500,000 people die as a result. In 1985, illnesses and deaths from coronary heart disease cost Americans an estimated $49 billion in direct health care expenditures and lost productivity.

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The report’s recommendation: “For individuals whose high total and LDL cholesterol levels warrant treatment, the first line of intervention is diet therapy.”

High blood pressure, or hypertension. This is a major risk factor for both heart disease and stroke. Almost 58 million people in the United States have hypertension, including 39 million younger than 65. About 50,000 Americans a year suffer a stroke, resulting in nearly 150,000 deaths in 1987 and long-term disability for many others. About 2 million living Americans suffer from stroke-related disabilities, at an estimated annual cost of more than $11 billion.

Recommendation: People need to be informed of the likely benefit of dietary practices such as achieving and maintaining desirable body weight, moderating sodium and alcohol intake and moderating fat, especially saturated fat.

Cancer. The costs of cancer for 1985 have been estimated to be $22 billion for direct health care costs, $9 billion in lost productivity due to treatment or disability and $41 billion in lost productivity due to premature death.

Reduce Elevated Risk

Recommendation: People at high risk for diet-related cancers because of family history, obesity or excessive alcohol intake should receive counseling from qualified health professionals to design approaches that could reduce their elevated risk for cancer.

Diabetes. In 1985, diabetes was estimated to cost $13.8 billion a year. In addition to the nearly 38,000 deaths attributed directly to diabetes, 95,000 deaths a year result from cardiac and kidney complications.

Recommendation: Again, more information and counseling on diet.

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And the list goes on.

In the past, we all just took eating for granted. But with escalating health care costs, we need to take another look at the food choices we make every day.

Choosing an extra baked potato instead of a second serving of meat could be one step toward saving yourself the cost of bypass surgery.


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