The Economic Impact of Nutrition


However farfetched it may seem, a person’s nutritional choices have swaying power over national and even global economic productivity.

Here’s a question you’ve probably never asked while mulling over lunch choices: How is this decision going to impact the economy?

Your eating habits can positively or negatively affect national healthcare spending, “big food” lobbying power, government policy, national mortality rate, and by extension, gross domestic product (GDP)—no pressure, right?

At the center of this tangle of unforeseen (or rather, ignored) consequences is the all-important connection between nutrition and healthcare spending, where forward momentum can drive both economic growth and improved health outcomes. 

Nutrition and Healthcare Spending

According to a finding published in The British Journal of Nutrition by Danone Research in Palaiseau, France, the following interrelated factors are associated with economic growth:

  • Morbidity and mortality rates
  • Survival and prevention of disability
  • Undernutrition and malnutrition 
  • Prevalence and average age of onset of chronic diseases

America is a peculiar case, because we’ve steadily improved life expectancy and “elevation in the age of onset of some chronic conditions” over the past half century, but we’re still experiencing these chronic illnesses at unprecedented rates because the American diet is far too rich in sugar, unhealthy fats, sodium, and artificial ingredients.

Nutrition Economics In America: Too Much, Too Late

Americans may be living longer, but we’re still sicker than we’ve ever been in terms of chronic disease incidence per capita.

In fact, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reported that Americans spend more than $50 billion a year on “cardiometabolic disease (heart attack, stroke, diabetes) care.” 

We contribute more to the economy because our window of “healthy years” is steadily increasing, but since so many of us are getting sick, healthcare spending is steadily increasing as well.

Aided by the ability of pharmaceutical companies to set their own prices with very little consequence (many other countries with universal healthcare broker “fair price” deals with big pharma), this increase in disease rates has seen the rise of healthcare spending to 17.7 percent of GDP (2019), or $3.8 trillion. 

The Healthcare Costs of Undernutrition 

Conversely, in sub-Saharan Africa, North Korea, and a handful of other countries, life expectancy has declined. 

The British Journal of Nutrition study reported that 17 million children throughout Africa and Asia suffer from “stunting,” a common form of undernutrition characterized by low body weight and height.

In another finding by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (referenced in the same study), “economic losses for thirteen countries across the region due to undernutrition amounted to US $17 billion or 3-4% of gross national product on average.”

Even more striking is the breakdown of where these losses come from in reference to the lifespan of an undernourished person: eight percent come from healthcare costs at a young age, and 92% come from poor educational performance and linear growth in adult life. 

Comparing nutrition economics between the USA and these developing countries is a lot like the tale of Goldilocks—too much or too little access to affordable food choices, and both public health and healthcare spending are negatively impacted. 

Nutrition and Economic Productivity

Undernutrition or overnutrition, choice or no choice, poor nutrition is inextricably connected to economic decline.

Impact of Undernutrition

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can affect manual labor occupations as well as less physically demanding occupations.

Many deficiencies not corrected by the age of two create long-lasting and, sometimes, even completely irreversible effects.

Among two of the most common nutritional problems driving economic losses are vitamin A and iodine deficiencies, which cause blindness and significant IQ losses, respectively.

In other words, in countries where undernutrition is prevalent, a variety of deficiencies affect the ability of the workforce to meet the demands of their jobs, resulting in economic decline. 

The fact that more than one study has successfully linked height to income and job performance speaks to this influence of nutrition on personal economy, which is the building block of the national economy. 

Impact of Overnutrition

As far as fast food and healthcare industry revenues are concerned, the economic impact of overnutrition in the United States has been overwhelmingly positive. 

As an everyday consumer whose annual healthcare costs are going up all the time, not so much.

We don’t struggle with malnutrition as much in America; malnutrition rates go down five percent with every ten-percent increase in income, according to the World Bank study.

But ever since food makers learned how to extract profit from our primitive cravings for salt, fat, and sugar, we’ve run in the opposite direction.

Overnutrition is a major driver in the $50 billion price tag that Americans are up against, thanks to rising incidence of the above cardiometabolic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, etc.).

Of course, if everybody was losing money, not just the everyday consumer, then we would be rushing to fix this problem.

Enter “big food.”

Improving Nutrition Economics In the USA

The sobering reality in America’s case is that the agribusiness lobby (fast food, restaurants, and retailers) is simply too powerful to stop with “nutritional awareness” initiatives—that’s a war we are most certainly losing.

As explained by this illuminating paper on “big food” by a Georgetown Law author, the agribusiness lobby is deeply entrenched into the American political system.

Per the finding, food industry supporters “donate a fortune to politicians with nearly $34 million spent on federal political lobbying in 2015.”

Big food lobbyists intentionally target politicians with anti-regulatory leanings so they can push policies that relax FDA labeling laws and other federally regulated standards to suit their aims.

For example, since this wave of money first landed on Washington, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) gradually changed their tune when it came to red meat, high-fat dairy products, and sugar by increasing recommended amounts of these foods in information released to the public (think Food Pyramid, MyPlate, etc.).

Here’s the point: big food is too powerful to be attacked head on—we have to force them into a less dominant position from the consumer level by investing our money into healthier options and letting the free market do the rest. 

Every bite you take is a vote cast either for big food or for a healthier alternative, both physically and economically.

What are you voting for?

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