The costs of diet-related diseases are rising fast but Washington is still not alarmed enough to open the purse strings for federal nutrition research.
Helena Bottemiller Evich and Catherine Boudreau filed this report for Politico:
A POLITICO review of federal budget documents reveals that at the National Institutes of Health and the Agriculture Department — the two agencies that fund the majority of government-backed nutrition science — the share of research dollars devoted to nutrition has stayed largely flat for at least three decades, and pales in comparison to many other areas of research.
Take NIH. In 2018, the agency invested $1.8 billion in nutrition research, or just under 5 percent of its total budget. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service spends significantly less; last year, the agency devoted $88 million, or a little more than 7 percent of its overall budget, to human nutrition, virtually the same level as in 1983 when adjusted for inflation.
At the highest level, nutrition research has never regained the prominence it had during the 19th and 20th centuries, when vitamin deficiencies like pellagra, rickets and scurvy were largely eradicated. By contrast, today’s diet crisis is one of excess, and it is costing us dearly: obesity alone costs about $147 billion annually; hypertension costs an estimated $131 billion a year; and diabetes, the vast majority of which is Type 2, costs $237 billion. Yet, there is no major lobbying force behind boosting nutrition research funding. This has allowed it to be quietly sidelined while more attention is paid to specific illnesses, rather than the root cause of so many of them: poor diet.
The lack of federal investment has left plenty of room for consumer confusion. Food industry-funded studies often fill the vacuum, but are criticized for being more about marketing than unbiased science. The nutrition science community also finds itself in turmoil, fighting over whether public health enemy No. 1 is processed carbs or fat or sodium or sugar.
Last month, a major peer-reviewed study questioned advice that most people should eat less red and processed meats, concluding that the evidence backing such long-standing recommendations is weak. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, sparked an international media frenzy and yet another round of consumer whiplash.
It highlighted why diet studies are the frequent butt of jokes: One day coffee is healthy, the next it’s not; red wine is good for your heart, or maybe not; cheese is either a healthy source of protein and calcium, or a dangerous overdose of fat and salt.