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Can nutrition really reduce healthcare costs?

Can nutrition really reduce healthcare costs?

Last week I attended a symposium outside of Chicago co-hosted by the National Health Research Institute (NHRI), the American Nutrition Association (ANA) and the NOW Health Group. Entitled Cutting Healthcare Costs through Prevention, the symposium featured several experts in the fields of integrative healthcare, herbal medicine and nutrition, each speaking of the impact dietary supplements and herbal medicines could have on the U.S. healthcare system. Speakers included integrative healthcare professor Meg Jordan, PhD; American Botanical Council executive director Mark Blumenthal; health economist Allen Dobson, PhD; omega-3 expert Artemis Simopolous, MD; and Russell Jaffe, PhD, MD.

Over and over, I’ve heard the intuitive argument that we could eliminate the healthcare crisis if only practitioners, patients and insurance companies put more stock in nutrition-related prevention. Naturally, it was refreshing to see some sober evidence supporting the notion.

Allen Dobson, president of Dobson DaVanzo & Associates, pointed to a statistical study from the Lewin Group that he helped direct in 2004, which investigated the potential impact of different supplements on reducing healthcare utilization. The study pointed to calcium with vitamin D, folic acid, omega-3s, and lutein with zeaxanthin as a few supplements that could have a great monetary impact; calcium with vitamin D, for example, supporting a reduction in hip fractures, could save an estimated $16 billion in Medicare costs over five years.

Russell Jaffe targeted diabetes as one disease rife with avoidable healthcare costs, suggesting that through programs addressing diet, supplements and activity, diabetes-related healthcare costs could shrink by $135 billion a year.

Mark Blumenthal cataloged a host of herbs and phytomedicines and the evidence supporting their benefits, from hawthorn leaf for heart health to cinnamon for glycemic control.

Artemis Simopoulos stressed the importance of omega-3s in a healthy diet, suggesting that Americans consume too many omega-6s. The culprits of corn, canola oil and grain-fed beef contribute to an unstable ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in the American diet, highlighting the need for diet change and supplementation.

And Meg Jordan offered a great synthesizing point to the whole prevention conversation. Prevention, in allopathic circles, is essentially just mammograms, pap smears and prostate exams. And even in the complementary and alternative medicine world, the conversation stops at diet, nutrition and exercise. But Jordan emphasized the importance of human happiness, awareness, presence, and cultural engagement as necessities for public health. Without that focus, systemic change is impossible.

All in all, I was very impressed by the caliber of the presenters and their content, and I would recommend anyone interested to attend the next NHRI/ANA Scientific Symposium.

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