How Tufts Is Convening a Call for a National Nutrition Research ‘Moonshot’

How can we improve public health, advance healthy equity, free up federal dollars, and strengthen our military and economy in one fell swoop?

According to an expert group of former government leaders, former federal agency staff, and top scientists, the answer is to revolutionize research into one of the most basic parts of our daily lives: food.

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Federal Nutrition Research Advisory Group includes Dean Dariush Mozaffarian of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler, former Senator Tom Harkin, Bipartisan Policy Center chief medical advisor Anand Parekh, and a number of scientists, scholars, and former National Institutes of Health staffers.

In a white paper released today, the council evaluates the health, equity, security, and sustainability burdens that diet-related disease is placing on our nation, and identifies opportunities for federal nutrition research to rise to meet them.

The council calls for a national conversation on ways to strengthen federal nutrition research, which could include better coordinating the efforts of its many players; stepping up funding for research, which has plateaued or declined in recent decades; and creating a new authority, which could take the form of a new Office of the National Director of Food and Nutrition or a new National Institute of Nutrition, according to the white paper.

Mozaffarian spoke with Tufts Now about how better and improved coordination of federal nutrition research could transform and revitalize our nation, our most vulnerable populations, and our everyday lives.

Tufts Now: Why do we need this initiative right now?

Dariush Mozaffarian: Over the past fifty years, obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed. Health-care spending has gone from 5 percent to almost 30 percent of the federal budget and the average state budget, with most of that going toward diet-related diseases. We spend about $11,000 per year on health care for every man, woman, and child in the U.S.or about $44,000 per year for an average family of four. About 40,000 Americans die every month from these diseases.

This burden of suffering and economic loss is borne largely by our most vulnerable populations: low-income, rural, and minority populations, experience the highest rates of diet-related disease and food insecurity, and the most limited access to nutritious foods and information on good dietary habits.

“…We don’t have another fifty years to learn all we need to know. We need to start now.”

Our country is drowning in the social and economic costs of our food and nutrition challenges, and they’re only getting worse. As a cardiologist and public health expert whose goal is to help as many people as possible live a healthy life, I find this disheartening. But it’s also incredibly energizing, because we can actually fix these challenge—and better science is the foundation to do that.

Strengthening and coordinating federal nutrition research will help us craft better public guidance and policy, leverage our investments in federal nutrition programs, improve health equity, and treat and prevent diet-related diseases, which will substantially reduce health-care spending and free up hundreds of billions of dollars for other national priorities. Our kids will learn better in school and go on to healthier, more productive lives. Our seniors will be active and energetic throughout their later lives. Nutrition-related innovations will drive new businesses and jobs and help address the dire economic challenges that rural farming communities face.

I think there are enormous opportunities ahead of us, which promise an incredible return on investment. But we don’t have another fifty years to learn all we need to know. We need to start now.

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