A Food and Drug Administration rule recently went into effect that requires restaurants and other food sellers with at least 20 locations to display calorie numbers for their products. In his announcement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb mentioned studies that show calorie labeling on menus can reduce the number of calories in the average order by 30 to 50 per visit.
This has potential to be a meaningful development for health, but what stands out is it almost didn’t happen.
The requirement was planned back in 2010 and was supposed to take effect a year ago, before being delayed (for the third consecutive year) just days before it was supposed to go into effect. Opponents of the new regulation, mainly food and restaurant lobbying groups, cited potential expenses, liabilities and extra burdens for businesses.
On the surface, this resistance seems to make sense. After all, this regulation is arguably designed to encourage people to think twice before buying certain calorie-dense products, which would cut into businesses’ bottom lines.
But if we really want to support American enterprise, one of the best things we can do is to invest in whatever it takes to make people healthier. That’s why regulations such as this new FDA rule that work to prevent chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes are so crucial.
Our organization’s work is focused on diabetes, which affects about 30 million Americans. One of the less frequently considered effects of preventable chronic diseases such as diabetes is how they impact productivity and precipitate absenteeism, early retirement or disability. A pioneering study of the Australian workforce, published this spring, found that if diabetes and its complications didn’t exist, the increased capability of a healthier workforce would grow Australia’s gross domestic product by about $60 billion a year.
Australia and the United States have a similar rate of diabetes. But the population of the United States is about 10 times that of Australia. Imagine, then, the potential implications of having a healthier workforce on that sort of scale. It could mean an economic benefit of more than half a trillion dollars.
Even without eliminating diabetes altogether, investments in improving management and care can have similar benefits to the American population and workforce. Belgium, for example, conducted a study on the cost-efficacy of reimbursing continuous glucose-monitoring technology for people who use insulin. This technology, which allows people with diabetes to see continuous blood glucose trends throughout the day, reduced work absenteeism by 25 percent. Clearly, investments to make the workforce healthier can pay clear returns for employers and employees alike.
Obviously, it isn’t a simple thing to make all Americans healthier. But the solutions aren’t complete mysteries, either. The United States and the rest of the world are teeming with what we like to highlight as “Bright Spots.” These are health initiatives that already make a tangible difference and deserve greater attention, replication and investment.
The FDA’s new calorie-reporting requirement has the potential to be a major Bright Spot, one that can more than justify whatever burdens it creates. But it won’t be enough. To truly enable our population to be healthier — and to make our nation both happier and more prosperous in the process — we must make many more deliberate, innovative and widespread investments in making it easier to be healthy.
Count us in.
Kelly Close is the founder and chair and Ben Pallant is a senior associate at The diaTribe Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of people with diabetes and prediabetes and advocating for action, and they are authors of The Anthology of Bright Spots, a collection dedicated to highlighting investable, scalable success to address the societal burden of type 2 diabetes.
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