What Americans eat is making us sick on a staggering scale, but judging by federal investment in nutrition research, Washington doesn’t seem to care.
Diet-related illnesses like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are on the rise while heart disease remains the leading cause of death. Treating these intertwined epidemics is a top driver of ballooning U.S. health care costs.
But even in an increasingly health-conscious America, the federal government has devoted only a tiny fraction of its research dollars to nutrition, a level that has not kept pace with the worsening crisis of diet-related diseases. Studying the relationship between diet and health is such an afterthought that Washington doesn’t even bother tracking the total amount spent each year.
A POLITICO review of federal budget documents reveals that at the National Institutes of Health and the Agriculture Department — the two agencies that fund the majority of government-backed nutrition science — the share of research dollars devoted to nutrition has stayed largely flat for at least three decades, and pales in comparison to many other areas of research.
Take NIH. In 2018, the agency invested $1.8 billion in nutrition research, or just under 5 percent of its total budget. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service spends significantly less; last year, the agency devoted $88 million, or a little more than 7 percent of its overall budget, to human nutrition, virtually the same level as in 1983 when adjusted for inflation. That means USDA last year spent roughly 13 times more studying how to make agriculture more productive than it did trying to improve Americans’ health or answer questions about what we should be eating.
Nutrition science has become such a low priority at NIH that the agency earlier this year proposed closing the only facility on its campus for highly controlled nutrition studies — a plan that is on hold after pushback from outside groups.
“In so many areas [of health], things get better over time,” said Jerold Mande, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, who worked at USDA and the Food and Drug Administration during Democratic administrations. “But nutrition has gotten so much worse.”
Dozens of interviews with current and former NIH and USDA officials and nutrition researchers indicated that a leadership failure across multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic, has led to no national strategy for nutrition research and little coordination among federal agencies.
NIH in a statement said that funding for nutrition research has steadily increased over the past several years. (POLITICO’s analysis shows it is declining as a percentage of the overall research budget, however.) Three years ago, NIH also established a task force “to coordinate and accelerate progress in nutrition research” across the agency and develop the first ever NIH-wide strategic plan for the topic, the agency said. That report has not yet been released. USDA did not return a request for comment.
“… nutrition research is underfunded …”
I call B.S.
“Nutrition research is Over-politicized.”