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Chronic, diet-related diseases have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., killing hundreds of thousands every yearwith no clear solution in sight. One out of every three Americans will die of heart disease or stroke, a staggering total of over 859,000 per year and cancer, which has been shown to be related to chronically unhealthy eating habits, kills another 606,880 each year. Type II diabetes, another diet related chronic disease, kills over 87,000, annually. These diet-related conditions make up 4 out of 10 of the top causes of death in the U.S., and account for over 71% of annual deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2019 statistics.
The economic toll of this is massive. Heart disease and stroke cost the American health system $218 billion per year, and $138 billion in lost productivity is caused by early death in general. Obesity carries a price tag of $147 billion annually.
These chronic conditions are intertwined, with multiple root causes and without simple solutions. But one factor undeniably connects them all: diet.
The food that we eat is inextricably linked to our health. A diet that avoids processed foods and excess sodium has been shown to reduce risk for many different chronic diseases that are running rampant through the U.S. According to the CDC, nine out of 10 Americans age two and over consume more than the recommended amount of sodium, shown to be a critical factor in the development of heart disease and stroke. As much as 70% of this sodium is already packaged in our foods before we even touch it.
Chronic inflammation is another lesser-known cause of many chronic diseases. While limited bouts of inflammation are essential to the human body’s immune response to ailments like colds, injuries, or more serious infectious diseases, prolonged states of inflammation are extremely harmful to the body. Chronic inflammation has been linked to increased risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, arthritis, depression, and Alzheimer's. Fried food, refined carbohydrates, sugary beverages, red meat, and artificial fats have been proven to increase inflammation.
Our food system isn’t working
The modern food production system has provided a surplus of calories that our hunter-gatherer ancestors could only imagine. The amount of energy in the form of food that we produce on a day-to-day basis is far more than our society could ever consume.
But are they the right calories? To many of the calories we eat are coming from things like sugar, processed flour and saturated fats.
The flipside of this is the alternative system focused on high-quality, healthy foods that has coalesced in recent decades. But there is a fatal drawback to this system, too. The lower yields and higher costsof producing products like organics and pasture-raised meats has driven up the price so that only the wealthy can afford it.
What good is this a healthier system if it doesn’t have the potential to be widely available to the vast majority of people?
Better wellness from better food
The solution can be found in innovation.
While the modern food production system now successfully deliversinexpensive calories, we now need to find ways to deliver inexpensive nutrition. Innovation can deflate the costs to make healthy food options available for people of all means, in all parts of the world. If we can bring down costs, we can expand access to billions of people, boosting health and wellness worldwide.
Technologies that were once a luxury, like cell phones, computers, and methods of efficient transportation have gone down this path and now form the backbone of modern society. Much of this came about through research and development, investment, and innovation.
To solve these systemic and chronic health problems that become more dire every year, the solution is simple: investing in ideas that will lower the cost and increase the availability of healthy, sustainable food.
Craig Herron is Managing Partner of iSelect Fund, an early-stage venture capital firm in St. Louis which invests in the future of agriculture and healthcare.