The research, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the more people ate foods based in heavily subsidized commodities like meat, cheese, and corn, were more likely to be overweight or obese with high cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
The ubiquity of fast and cheap cheeseburgers, chips, and sodas has been targeted in recent years as one of the leading causes of the nation’s obesity crisis. Now, new research say the government may also be to blame by way of food subsidies that make these foods more accessible, while fresh fruit and vegetable consumption by comparison, can be more expensive, and more difficult to find.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and moderate amounts of dairy, while recommending limited consumption of saturated fats, sugars, salt and refined grains,” the researchers wrote.
“At the same time, current federal agricultural subsidies focus on financing the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock, the latter of which are in part via subsidies on feed grains.”
The news comes as other data show a steady decline in fruits and vegetables between 2003 and 2013.
“Over the last decade, loss-adjusted supplies of total fruits and vegetables available to consume in the United States have fallen from 299 pounds per person in 2003 to 272 pounds per person in 2013,” explains the USDA on its website.
The USDA notes that the drop is related to declining consumption of orange juice, potatoes, and head lettuce, which could signal a move toward healthier fruit and vegetable products. Potatoes are most often connected with chips or fries—not the healthiest options, and research on juice has shown that it can spike blood sugar similarly to soda consumption, which may explain the declining sales. Lettuce too has seen its place in salad bowls replaced with hardier greens like kale, spinach, and arugula.
According to the USDA data, the higher the education level of consumers, the more likelier they are to consume a wider variety of vegetables and fruits than the common potatoes, tomatoes, and head lettuce:
“In 2007-08, college-educated adults consumed 187.4 pounds of total vegetables per person per year, of which 100.7 pounds were other vegetables. Adults with only a high school education ate 181.9 pounds of total vegetables per person, of which 87.6 pounds were other vegetables. Adults who had less than a high school education consumed 158.2 pounds per person of all vegetables, of which 76.3 pounds were other vegetables.”
This mirrors the CDC research that found 56 percent of calories people remembered consuming came from subsidized food groups; the more subsidized foods eaten, the more likely the subject was obese—37 percent were likely to be obese, 41 percent were more likely to have excess belly fat, 21 percent were more likely to have unhealthy blood sugar levels, and 14 percent had a higher incidence of high cholesterol.
“The present finding that higher subsidy scores are associated with adverse cardiometabolic risk highlights the effect that agricultural subsidies may be having on health disparities in the United States, in part due to the lower cost per calorie of unhealthier food and the higher cost per calorie of healthier food,” the authors wrote.
“Although eating fewer subsidized foods will not eradicate obesity, our results suggest that individuals whose diets consist of a lower proportion of subsidized foods have a lower probability of being obese.”