Next fall, the UN General Assembly is scheduled to discuss the financial costs of non-communicable diseases -- such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses -- which now account for some 60% of all deaths worldwide. Diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are expected to result in dramatic losses in national income in the next 10 years. Projected losses over the next decade include more than $550 billion in China, $330 billion in India, $300 billion in the Russian Federation, $49 billion in Brazil, and $2.5 billion in Tanzania. These costs are enormous, especially in light of the current global economic climate.
It is encouraging that global leaders are taking the growing epidemic of chronic diseases seriously. However, any successful efforts must include prevention, with a strong emphasis on nutrition.
Despite the relatively recent Western transition to a diet high in animal protein, much of the rest of the world has traditionally followed a primarily plant-based diet. World meat production has increased more than 10 times the population growth rate in the last three decades, fueled partially by industry marketing efforts, the policies of wealthy nations, and international financial institutions.
The worldwide shift from plant-based to meat-based diets has contributed to rising chronic disease rates in wealthy and developing nations. Meanwhile, industrial meat production has contributed to global hunger, primarily because of the resources required for animal agriculture, compared with plant-based food production. The World Health Organization, United Nations, and World Bank have all highlighted the adverse effects of industrial animal agriculture on social, physical, and environmental determinants of health.
Population-based and migration studies within African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American populations, among others, have established that increases in animal fat consumption have led to increased rates of obesity, cancer, higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance. In contrast, epidemiologic studies have demonstrated that populations consuming low-fat, plant-based diets generally have a low prevalence of overweight and obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Numerous clinical studies have shown that plant-based diets reduce the risk for obesity, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and cancer.
Chronic diseases have taken a tremendous toll on people living in the developing world. More than 80 percent of global disability and two-thirds of the deaths attributable to diabetes occur in developing countries. India has the largest population of individuals with diabetes, with China closely approaching. Sub-Saharan African nations are becoming more affected, in contrast to historical problems with undernutrition. The diabetes predicament in developing countries is exacerbated by physician shortages and unstable health care systems. Although chronic degenerative diseases are typically associated with elderly persons, about 80 percent of productivity is lost by the working age population in developing countries, which has significant ramifications for the workforce and for children who depend on the support of disabled parents.
As the UN General Assembly considers how to best address the financial costs of noncommunicable diseases, let's hope global leaders take a close look at the root causes of these conditions. Solutions will follow. The World Health Organization Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health has already emphasized the importance of public policies that emphasize a shift from saturated animal-based fats to plant-based foods and unsaturated fats. Now, global leaders just need to follow their own advice.
Hope Ferdowsian, MD