Michael Pollan: “suddenly the health insurers will have an interest in your health”

Food writer Michael Pollan, the man responsible for “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” visited the Daily Show yesterday, where he had the following exchange with Jon Stewart:

Pollan: I think we need to recognize that cheap food has a very high cost. In terms of health. In terms of the environment. And that cost is getting paid by other people – by the public health system. And that’s part of the problem – the disconnect between what you pay for a cheap fast food meal, and the ultimate price of eating that way. But I think what’s about to happen, if we get this healthcare bill passed, and there are some kind of rules – no more (denying people with) pre-existing conditions, they can’t throw you off the plan, they have to take you – suddenly the health insurers will have an interest in your health, that they don’t have now.

Stewart: (laughs) That may be the worst sentence I’ve ever heard said… “Suddenly the health insurers will have an interest in your health”… Which right now they don’t…

Pollan: Their business plan right now is to keep you out of their plan if you’re likely to get chronic disease. And the western diet creates a lot of chronic disease. So, right now, the food industry creates patients for the healthcare industry. And they have a very sympathetic relationship. But that might change… And if that changes, I think you will see this very powerful industry getting onboard this growing national movement to reform food….

For some reason, this had totally escaped me when thinking about the healthcare legislation now winding its way through Congress. But, I think Pollan is absolutely right. When insurance companies are made to cover the obese, and those on dialysis, it only makes sense that they would begin supporting legislation seeking to transition people away from the empty calories of high-fructose corn syrup and the artery-clogging fats of fast food. Perhaps it’s too ambitious of a thought, but I could imagine, assuming this healthcare bill gets though, seeing our nation’s insurers backing a tax on soda, or, better yet, supporting legislation that would strip producers of high-fructose corn syrup and hydroginated soy oil of their federal subsidies.

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[This post was brought to you by the asshole Republicans of Texas who are rewriting American history right under our very noses.]

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  1. Peter Larson
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    Soda, fast food and cheap snacks are possible because of heavy subsidies that reward producers for growing corn and soy. It’s called the Farm Bill. It’s introduction was intended to help develop rural areas and improve diet in what was at the time no better than a present day developing country. This led to large scael production of meat, cheap sodas and snacks and was the root of all the unhealthy eating options available today. The days of mass malnutrition have largely passed and the necessity for the Farm Bill with it, but it remains and serves as a financial boon for giant food producers.

    A tax on soda or fast food as it gets applied to tobacco would not make sense at all as the products in and of themselves pose little health risks whereas the overconsumption of these foods does. I believe that it would make more sense for the insurance companies to join lobbying efforst to end subsidies on corn and soy and end years of agricultural industry corruption in gonvernment.

    Sure, it can be argued that ending farm subsidies will hurt farmers, but at this point, the only farmers that are able to take advantage of the subsidy are large, corporate food producers and not small scale farmers which might produce healthy foods that can be bought locally.

    The giant agricultural sector, having lost the subsidy will switch to something else that might also be profitable. They have this flexibility in terms of available capital and resources. Unfortunately, the little guy does not.

    In short, I think that it is counterproductive to target American eating habits as being inherently unhealthy, and that we should look to a larger scale system that rewards food producers for producing unhealthy foods and perhaps switch to a system that rewards the opposite. Demonizing the consumer will not help and misplaces much of the blame in addition to hiding the larger problem.

  2. Edwardo
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Agreed, Pete. The money would be better spent subsidizing organic CSAs and farmers markets.

  3. Walter Thorsson
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    What’s missing in Pollan’s analysis (and much of the debate on health costs) is that everyone dies, and end-of-life treatment costs are expensive across the board.

    Consider the comparative costs to insurers from the following:

    One fellow drinks heavily, smokes, eats fast food, never gets check ups, and dies of a sudden, massive coronary the day after he retires. He’s paid into the system (insurance and social security) his entire life and dies before the payout. This, frankly, represents an ideal scenario for health insurers (and social security).

    Then consider another fellow, who eats healthy, exercises, gets frequent check-ups and lives to be 105. In the last twenty years of life he gets hip and knee replacements (too much jogging), is treated for minor melanoma, and is assisted living the final 5 years after he develops alzheimer’s. In his final days, he suffers a stroke and hangs on in intensive care for two weeks before passing. He will cost the health insurance companies (and society) far more.

    Obviously, there are hundreds of different scenarios that we could play with ,and my scenarios have a bit of hyperbole (although they are not unrealistic).

    Point is, health insurance companies don’t pay for funerals, only treatment. The less treatment you need, the better for them.

    If we’re evaluating this strictly on cost to society (esp. social security and medicare), we should really be taxing the potential centenarians.

  4. Frog Bottom
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink


    If that means slathering them in antibiotics, so be it. I want to consume pork like I consume air. I demand aerosol pork!

  5. Posted January 6, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I think I’ve read a similar point from Pollan, maybe in an update from Food Democracy Now! or some such. The point, as I understand it, is that right now the big food producers are able to lobby to continue the Farm Bill with little organized opposition. Changes to health insurance laws will give the insurers a vested interest, and may lead them to lobby for changes in or elimination of the Farm Bill.

  6. Kristen Cuhran
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    If you haven’t already, rent “Food, Inc” from the Ypsi Public Library.

    I agree with Mark’s entire post, as well as the first 4 paragraphs from Peter. I take issue with the 5th paragraph in that I don’t think it has to be an either/or situation. As you said Peter, it is the over-consumption of these products that lead to so many health problems. The majority of American’s food habits should-in my opinion- be demonized (as you say). It is way past (over 30 years past) the time for a wake up call.

  7. Taco Tom
    Posted January 6, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I agree with most of Peter’s comments. I also think like Kristen, that we need to educate folks a lot on what is better, healthier eating. How to address the issue is not so different, though from American car-buying habits. How do you decrease the amount of SUVs ? Mountain Dew and Escalades are equally pointless. A lot of money for a product you don’t need. Do we punish the manufacturer or the consumer?
    I say both…luxury tax to manufacture, and another tax to buy it. And education on healthy choices. It has taken time, but cigarette smoking has diminished over the years primarily though education, and because of increased taxes. Who’s to say a similar approach wouldn’t work here?

  8. Posted January 6, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    “The days of mass malnutrition have largely passed.”

    I would argue that there has never been a time when such a large percentage of the US population has health problems due to malnutrition. Corporations strip all the nutrients out of the food, creating a market for patented chemical replacements. As a result, people eat and eat without ever getting the nutrients they’re craving.

    I switched to a traditional diet about 6 months ago, traditional meaning soaked grains, fermented vegetables, unpasteurized and cultured milk products, and meat, eggs and butter from pastured animals. We initially made this change to buy more local products, and I was surprised when my asthma and IBS were basically cured. (Steve quit taking one of his medications, and the pharmacy is sending letters now about how concerned they are for his health.) Food is medicine.

  9. Me
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Peter wrote, “I believe that it would make more sense for the insurance companies to join lobbying efforst to end subsidies on corn and soy and end years of agricultural industry corruption in gonvernment. ”

    That sounds like the Brothers Karamazov’s “One reptile eats the other.” I just don’t think it is likely to result in anything good for consumers.

    Taco Tom wrote, “How do you decrease the amount of SUVs ? ”
    Decrease the amount of people, maybe?

    Taco Tom also wrote, ” I also think like Kristen, that we need to educate folks a lot on what is better, healthier eating.”

    Unfortunately, I cannot agree with you here. I know too many educated people who don’t give a fuck to really have faith in education.
    For example, how many cardiologists are obese? Mine is.
    In fact, I was talking to him one day about all the ninety year old patients he has who are on several pills a day and eat nothing but porkchops. He said they all want Cialis on the government dime now, because the blood pressure medicine won’t let them get a hard on. Nevermind that they are ninety years old.
    He said that without porkchops and soft drinks, these bastards would live to be two hundred. Is that what we want? Sometimes, you just have to let go. A cardiologist should know.

    I was just kidding. People should live forever and do whatever they want with their diet. But I didn’t make up that conversation with the obese cardiologist. He really did say that.
    I love America.

  10. Me
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 1:46 am | Permalink

    I saw a woman in a huge Escalade a few days ago. She looked to be about five feet tall. She could barely see over the steering wheel. It was a gi-normous SUV. There were no passengers. She was doing about sixty in a 35 zone and completely across in the wrong lane. Her hair was about two feet tall and very, very, very black. Looked like a wig. Her cheeks were so flabby it was obvious just from looking at her little round face that she was about 100 pounds overweight. I just shook my head as she went by. She must have felt invincible in that SUV.
    The US is a very rich country. Something happens every day to remind me of it. It is so strange it makes me laugh a lot.

  11. Me
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    Hillary wrote, “Food is medicine.”
    Now that I agree with one thousand percent.

  12. Ed
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    If beer is food, and food is medicine, it stands to reason that beer is medicine, right?

  13. Ed
    Posted January 8, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Rest easy, my friend, one day we will hunt the rich like they were rabbits.

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