Eating to Death

Diet-Related Diseases Stem from Lack of Health Care Knowledge

Osteoporosis, certain cancers, Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, high-blood pressure and stroke all have one thing in common — they stem in part from improper diet and unhealthy eating habits.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, diet-related diseases are among the leading causes of death in the United States. Followed by cancer and stroke, death by heart disease leads. These numbers are twice as high as deaths caused by both accidents and murders.

More than half of the nation’s population is obese or overweight. In a 2004 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Washington ranked at the bottom, with 50 percent of its population being obese or overweight. The nation’s capital came in at No. 7 with more than 8 percent of its population being diagnosed with diabetes. Residents with high-blood pressure make up a fourth of Washington’s population.

These national findings are reinforced in the District of Columbia’s first obesity report and action plan, released earlier this month. Fifteen percent of the district’s deaths in 2007 were linked to diet and inactivity. The percentage of residents engaging in the recommended level of moderate or rigorous activity ranged from 54.7 percent in Ward 8 to 84.9 percent in Wards 3 and 6. Those areas also had the lowest and highest food access scores of D-, B and B- respectively.

“Whenever there is a high rate of serious disease in any area, it is very concerning,” says Michelle Gourdine, M.D., CEO of Michelle Gourdine and Associates, LLC , a public health firm. “Diabetes and high blood pressure are especially insidious diseases because they often start ‘silently’ (i.e. without symptoms), and by the time they manifest symptoms, they have laid the groundwork for other serious conditions like heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.”

Some diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and certain cancers, have a greater impact on the African-American community, generally men. The National Cancer Institute reports that African American men are twice as likely to develop prostate cancer and high blood pressure than any other group.

“The rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in Washington, D.C., mirror trends seen in other cities with a high percentage of African American residents,” Gourdine says. “African Americans suffer from these conditions disproportionately.”

Good eating habits are the key to stopping these diseases before they start. Many doctors encourage individuals to practice eating good habits to improve the overall health care for Americans and decrease the alarming numbers.

Gourdine says that a balanced diet consists of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, brown rice, lean meats, beans and peas.

“A healthy diet also minimizes the intake of processed foods and fast foods,” she notes. This has been a challenge for residents who live in food deserts, where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find because of access, affordability and other factors.

Joanne M. Gallivan, director of the National Diabetes Education Program with National Institutes of Health, adds: “As a medical professional, I would advise people to make small changes a little at a time. You do not have to give up all of your ‘unhealthy’ foods. [Eat] everything in moderation and in smaller portions.”

The National Fruit & Veggies Program sponsored by the CDC has an interactive gadget on its website that calculates how many daily servings of fruits and vegetables one needs according to age and other factors.

Studies show that poor eating habits inflate more than the number of individuals with diet-related diseases. An unhealthy diet also contributes to higher health-care costs. The Policy Journal of the Health Sphere released by Health Affairs stated that drugs for diet-related diseases cost Medicare $7 billion in 2008. The health-care expense for obese patients alone cost double than for those who have a healthier weight.

“People who suffer from diet-related diseases see their doctors more often, take expensive prescription medications, are more likely to need special medical tests and procedures and are more likely to be hospitalized,” Gourdine says. “Each of these factors is costly, and, together, they significantly increase health-care costs. Furthermore, medical costs are a leading cause of personal bankruptcy in this country.”