Healthy Byte: It All Adds Up

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USA TODAY

Study: Sugar-reduction initiative could lead to reduction of heart disease in millions across the U.S.

Nada Hassanein, USA TODAYMon, August 30, 2021, 9:31 AM·3 min read

Slashing sugar from packaged food and drinks could prevent disease in millions of people and potentially cut billions from health-care costs, especially among people of color, a new study suggests.

Researchers conducted estimates by creating a model that projects future impacts from a proposed “sugar-reduction policy” by the U.S. National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative. The regulation would push food and drink companies to decrease sugar in their formulas.

Cutting sugar from a fifth of packaged food and 40% of drinks could prevent more than 2 million strokes, heart attacks and cardiac arrests, according to the study, published Friday in the American Heart Association’s journal, “Circulation.” The researchers also estimated a dramatic impact on health-care costs: The U.S. could save more than $4 billion in total health-care costs and more than $118 billion across the current adult population’s lifetime.

Even if companies didn’t fully comply, the regulation could lead to “significant health and cost savings,” the authors wrote.

Dietician Dana Hunnes, a community health sciences adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the findings shed light on the far-reaching effects food regulations can have.

“It’s important to have a monetary value on these things, in addition to a health value” for policymakers, she said. “The sheer volume of health-care costs that can be saved, and basically life productivity and life in general that can be protected, is really quite astounding.”

Lead author Dr. Siyi Shangguan, an attending doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, argued such regulations would have a greater impact on reducing adult sugar consumption more than a sugar tax, labeling added sugars or banning drinks in schools.

Due to a number of structural inequities, including lack of access to healthy food and a history of targeted marketing, sugar consumption is highest among Black Americans, poorer people and those with less education. But policies like this could help, the authors found.

Health and health-care cost improvements “were most prominent among younger adults, Black and Hispanic Americans, and Americans with lower income and less education. The policy was estimated to consistently reduce health disparities among different races/ethnicities, income and education levels,” wrote Shangguan and her colleagues, who included scientists from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Dr. Neel Chokshi, a cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said such upstream efforts are important because medical professionals can only do so much by the time a patient needs their care.

“In general, diet is probably the biggest contributor to long-term cardiovascular disease, but it is the most difficult for us as physicians and clinicians to intervene upon, because it has so many variables,” Chokshi said. “By the time they’re seeing a cardiologist, usually they’ve developed some sort of cardiovascular disease or have developed a cardiovascular risk factor.”

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