Americans’ life expectancy is decreasing due to diet-related diseases, children are suffering from fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes, and food companies are replacing harmful ultra-processed foods with healthy school lunches. I have to. But the National Institutes of Health continues to focus on finding expensive treatments for diet-related diseases such as obesity, rather than on developing successful strategies to reduce the number of people who get sick.
Congress has a chance to change that this year. President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Monica Bertagnoli as the new director of the NIH presents a unique opportunity for Congress to focus on urgently needed nutrition science research and policy solutions. Congressional leaders responsible for overseeing the nomination process should ensure Bertagnoli plans to prioritize nutritional science when he becomes the agency’s next leader. The Senate Support Committee advanced Bertagnoli’s nomination Wednesday.
Over the past two decades, the United States has seen an alarming increase in cases of obesity and other diet-related diseases. The latest data reveals that a staggering 42 percent of U.S. adults, or about 100 million people, are obese. This percentage has skyrocketed by more than 10% since 2000.
The impact of this crisis is dire, with diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes accounting for half of annual deaths in the United States. Remarkably, these diseases contributed a quarter of the whopping $1.5 trillion spent on health care in 2018, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Overall, the economic cost of nutrition-related chronic diseases is estimated at $16 trillion from 2011 to 2020. Overweight and obesity are also major barriers to military armament.
Despite the growing health concerns and prohibitive costs associated with obesity and diet-related diseases, nutrition research has been consistently sidelined at the NIH. In fiscal year 2019, NIH investment in nutrition research was estimated at just $1.9 billion annually, which is only 5% of NIH’s total funding. Even more surprising, only 1.3 percent of total NIH funding went to research into the role of diet in the prevention and treatment of human disease. This gap represents a fundamental failure to address the pressing need for comprehensive nutritional research.
The neglect of nutrition research within NIH is further exemplified by a report showing that in 2019, NIH “proposed closing the only facility on campus for highly controlled nutrition research.” Fortunately, this perplexing proposal was met with resistance from outside groups. Even more concerning, the 150-page Congressional Justification for NIH’s fiscal year 2020 budget does not mention the words “nutrition” or “diet” at all, and the word “food” is associated with the Food and Drug Administration. It only appeared once.
Under Bertagnolli’s leadership, NIH has a unique opportunity to address urgent nutrition-related research questions. A prime example is that we need to understand why highly processed foods, which make up more than 50 percent of the American diet, contribute to weight gain. The NIH trial demonstrated a link between eating processed foods and weight gain, but the exact mechanism remains unclear and requires further research.
Given Bertagnoli’s expertise as a cancer physician and current director of the National Cancer Institute, prioritizing research in nutrition aligns with her interests. It is estimated that approximately 32 percent of cancer cases are preventable through dietary changes, highlighting the urgent need for solid nutritional science to combat this devastating disease.
Dr. Francis Collins, the longest-serving director of the NIH, made great advances in biomedical research, but nutrition was not a priority during his tenure. As Congress evaluates President Biden’s nominees, it will be essential to ensure Bertagnoli’s unwavering commitment to invest in obesity and nutrition research during his tenure at NIH. She was given that opportunity by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) during the Oct. 18 Senate hearing on her own nomination, but she was unable to do so and she A missed opportunity to make this a top priority. Senators should receive her promise before confirming her.
Only by changing the focus of government agencies and adequately funding nutritional science can we hope to address America’s diet-related disease crisis and reduce the burden it imposes on society. Now is the time to act, and it starts by ensuring that nutritional science is a top priority at her NIH.
Jerrold Mande is the co-founder and CEO of. feed scienceadjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, former senior advisor to the FDA commissioner and deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
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