The American food system negatively impacts public and environmental health. However, individuals can help mitigate climate change and improve their nutrition by transitioning to a sustainable diet, one that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations. KIN’s integrative food literacy education is fundamental for breaking down systemic barriers and creating conditions for a more healthful, sustainable, and equitable food and healthcare system.
Unhealthy diets and low physical activity are leading risk factors for various non-communicable diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease (the leading cause of death in the US), high blood pressure, and some cancers in the U.S. Nearly half of Americans have heart disease, ¾ of the American population is overweight or obese, and 1 in 10 Americans develop Type 2 diabetes (including children and teens). Since 2001, youth age ≤20 : Type 2 diabetes increased by 95%. Nearly 1 in 5 adolescents aged 12 to 18 years have prediabetes and 21.2% have obesity. Type 2 diabetes and obesity are becoming increasingly prevalent in children, teens, and young adults, emphasizing the importance of early intervention.
Child Obesity in the United States (Age 2-19)
In 2016, the medical costs associated with overweight and obesity were estimated to be $260.6, $146 billion more than estimated in 2008. In 2017, the total cost of medical care and lost productivity for people with diagnosed diabetes was $327 billion. About 1 in 4 health care dollars is spent on people with diagnosed diabetes.
Grades K-12 receive less than 8 hours of nutrition education each year, far below the 40 hours needed to affect behavior change. Given that children develop habits by age 9, “Promoting and establishing healthy behaviors for younger people are more effective, and often easier, than efforts to change unhealthy behaviors already established in adult populations.” As shown by this graph, drawn from multiple studies on humans and animals, the brain's plasticity is strongest in the first few years after birth. Thus, it is easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits (habits) during the early years than it is to intervene or "fix" them later.
Unhealthy diets tend to be highly resource-intensive due to large amounts of animal-sourced proteins, driving massive environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries. Only 29% of Americans are informed about how food choice impacts the environment.
Food overall accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Animal products are highly resource-intensive and contribute 57% of greenhouse gas emissions generated by our food system, exacerbating the effects of climate change.
78% of global ocean and freshwater eutrophication (the pollution of waterways with nutrient-rich pollutants) is caused by agriculture.
94% of mammal biomass is livestock. Of the 28,000 species evaluated to be threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List, agriculture and aquaculture is listed as a threat for 24,000 of them.
Total meat production has more than quadrupled since 1961 with Americans being the largest consumers in the world.
Animal-sourced proteins are also a major driver in emerging infectious diseases (EIDs). Research shows that 75% of EIDs, and almost all recent pandemics, originate in animals. EIDs are driven by deforestation, land-use change, intensification of livestock production, biodiversity loss, and increased hunting and trading of wildlife, all components of food production’s expansion and reliance on animal-based products. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of zoonosis provoked by cross-species disease transmission and further demonstrates the relationship between our food system and the spread of EIDs. Future outbreaks could arise if we continue to largely encroach on these ecosystems.
Diet-related diseases--such as diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart disease, and cancer-- disproportionately impact marginalized communities. On top of this, lower wages and insufficient insurance coverage greatly limit access to quality healthcare for these communities. A highly effective approach to address health and socioeconomic disparities in America would be to close the ethnic and racial gap through improvements in education and food access. Greater investment in chronic disease prevention, such as through healthy diet and exercise promotion, is needed moving forward as chronic disease rates continue to increase in the USA.
In order to create a future where our health and the environment are not permanently damaged, a fundamental shift in the ways that we produce and consume food is urgently needed.
A shift from the typical Western diet to a more plant-forward and sustainable diet has transformative potential, reducing: