How Broccoli can Save Your Life and why it’s a Trillion Dollar Business

“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”

- Thomas Edison

Over the past year or two, I have taken a keen interest in nutrition, the food industry and global food issues. I’ve watched several excellent documentaries recently, which outline some of these issues very well. Forks over Knives, created by Brian Wendel and directed by Lee Fulkerson, highlights several medical studies performed over decades in China, the United States and other parts of Europe and Asia to explore the linkages between health and diet, specifically the notion that eating a whole-food plant-based diet can prevent or reverse the degenerative diseases that afflict us. The film is centered around the work of Doctors Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., two renowned American doctors conducting scientific and clinical studies on nutrition.

The Statistics

As this is an American documentary, most of the statistics about population health and food consumption is from American data, however, the insights regarding diet composition are certainly universal.

There have been stark changes to the average American diet over the past hundred years. The chart below outlines some of these primary changes – a significant increase in meat, dairy and processed sugar consumed.

Dietary changes in US

Some of the correlations between this change in dietary consumption and health problems include:

  • Prostate cancer – now the number 1 type of cancer in males
  • Widespread obesity – some estimates as high as 40% of the population
  • Prescription drug use – the documentary suggests 50% of the population relies on regular use of prescription drugs
  • Diabetes – type 2 diabetes has become so common that 1 in 3 people born will develop this disease

Prostate cancer is one of the major health risks that the film focuses on. The comparison between instances of prostate cancer in the United States compared to Japan in 1958 shows drastic results. This time period is significant because the popularity of fast food restaurants and supermarkets, bringing huge quantities of processed foods into American homes, exploded during the 50’s. In 1958 there were approximately 14,000 prostate cancer-related deaths in the US, compared to only 18 in Japan (the Japanese population of 92M people was about half of the US population at the time).

Prostate cancer deaths

Got Beef?

In my opinion, the most impressive study cited in this film is The China Study, a 20-year study covering 65 rural and semi-rural counties in China, involving 6,500 people and 367 variables. A total of over 94,000 correlations were identified, many of which linked plant-based diets with low instances of cancer and heart disease.

A Burger with a side of Insulin

Like any good pro-veggie documentary, this film would not be complete without a first hand view on the vast health improvements made over several months by some average omnivorous civilians switching to a whole-food plant-based diet. Two of the patients included in this documentary were overweight, at-risk of heart disease, and suffered from type 2 diabetes – both were consuming a daily smorgasbord of insulin and other prescription drugs to keep them alive. Working with doctors using a holistic nutrition approach to health care, both of these individuals reversed their risk of heart attack, stopped taking prescription drugs altogether, and achieved a healthy body weight loss.

Economic Stimulus and the End of Hunger

The healthcare industry makes up a massive amount of global economic expenditures. In the US, Canada and the UK, the combined annual healthcare spending in 2012 was estimated to be nearly $3.2 trillion US. I chose these markets as the US has the highest per capita spending on healthcare in the world, and I am a citizen of both Canada and the UK. This amount of annual healthcare spending in three countries is higher than the market cap of the 10 largest companies in the world. I make this comparison to highlight the possibilities that significant savings in healthcare could have in stimulating global economies. The doctors in this film suggest that healthcare savings of 70-80% could be realized if the population moved to a whole-foods plant-based diet. While this is a lofty claim, I have outlined what healthcare savings of 75%, 50% and 25% could mean for stimulus in other areas of the economy, such as clean tech.

Comparison of Annual Healthcare Spending to Top 10 Global Companies by Market Capitalization

Comparison of Annual Healthcare Spending to Top 10 Global Companies by Market Capitalization

As you can see, achieving even 25% savings on annual healthcare costs, a figure that could reasonably be achieved through a holistic approach to diet and nutrition, would result in hundreds of billions of dollars of excess capital - enough to purchase 100% of the shares of Apple and Exon Mobil at market values. Think of the possibilities of this kind of capital injection into emerging industries like renewable energy and its supporting infrastructure, sustainable transportation, fresh water conservation and desalination. This money could be used to feed people around the world in the poorest regions, or wipe the slate clean for government deficits.

Would it be possible for Canada, the US or the UK (or any other developed nation for that matter) to move in this direction? Could the federal bodies responsible for food and agriculture promote a whole-foods plant-based diet? I believe this solution has real merits and should be lauded for its focus on the long bottom line. What do you think?

Sources:

Canadian healthcare spending
US healthcare spending 
UK healthcare spending 
Market Cap data

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7 thoughts on “How Broccoli can Save Your Life and why it’s a Trillion Dollar Business

    • The answer is ‘no’, and here’s why: (1) economics and (2) politics. Imagine for a second that there was a recipe for a pill you could take that would cure diabetes once and for all – you take the pill, you’re cured and that’s it. If there was a way to patent the pill and sell it, ‘monetize’ it, then the pharmeceutical company that produced it would reap vast profits for the 20 years it was patented and so there would be a huge business incentive to research and produce this pill. But let’s say there was a way to cure diabetes, prevent it from even happening, but the ‘pill’ is free, can be grown by anyone, does not require complex laboratories and cannot be patented. How much money would there be in it? Basically nothing more than a small profit margin beyond the cost of growing it, not much incentive at all. Broccoli is that magic pill that prevents diabetes, but it’s also very cheap and cannot be patented etc. There is little profit in growing broccoli or natural foods.

      But you say: “vegetables will make us all healthier and society better off, saving billions of dollars in healthcare costs”. Two points (1) this is a ‘public good’. Public goods are not produced in capitalist markets, economics is very clear on that point for the reasons listed above. And (2), taxpayers pay billions but drug companies MAKE billions, and who has more say in the legistlative process? Easy: drug companies. The pharmacuetical and healthcare lobby is far more powerful and donates far more money than the organic food lobby, simple as that: money in politics equals say in legistation.

      • Great article BTW, I enjoyed it. Michael Pollan writes about food a lot, and organic food is certainly the way to live a long and healthy life. I’ve read the China Study several times, an excellent book I agree with you – it makes the case for milk/meat causing cancer so conclusively it is hard to ignore. But just because something is good for us (long life, health) does not mean it will be provided. Things are provided because either (a) powerful political backing or (b) there’s a lot of money to be made off them. Healthy food has neither, unfortunately.

      • Hi J,

        Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to respond. I was expecting there would be some disagreement with some of the statements I made, and I think it’s great we can include different perspectives on this important issue – it’s why we started this blog.

        There are two quotes that came to mind when I was thinking about how to respond to this comment. The first is by Henry Ford, who said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.” The second is from Albert Einstein, who suggested, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I’m sure if you were to poll people with cancer or diabetes, many of them would ask for a pill that instantly cures the disease. But, this approach relies on a symptomatic treatment, rather than a preventive approach – perhaps an alternative desire would be no pill at all.

        One of the purposes of the Long Bottom Line is to explore some of the long accepted economic theories to see whether there are alternative or supplementary principles that would better support a sustainable world, for both individuals and businesses. For example, who should be responsible for the costs of the externalities created by certain companies or industries? There is definitely a cost associated with health issues caused by unhealthy food, or the carbon emissions and water contamination from transporting and manufacturing consumer goods, but in many cases the party responsible for the externality is not responsible for paying for it. What I hope is that many of these accepted principles will eventually support the changes that I believe are necessary. Looking at some other basic principles of economics, we can apply the theory of suppy and demand to the issue of health and nutrition. As more people become concerned about their diet and how it impacts their daily health, life expectancy, and medical bills, the demand for healthy foods should increase, while the demand for unhealthy, highly-processed foods should decrease. I believe this will contribute to a market shift as further opportunities become apparent – the recent success of Whole Foods indicates to me that this is already happening.

        After I wrote this post, my co-editor and I discussed some other possibilities. Perhaps insurance companies would be invested in this type of preventive health approach, after all, it would decrease the risk of serious disease in their policy holders, and thus decrease the likelihood of payouts. I only raise the idea here, but I think it’s worth asking the question, as something like this could provide some of that political sway you mentioned.

        In order for change to occur, we will need change agents to help develop a critical mass of informed and supportive people. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but it will make for a healthier world.

        Thanks for sharing,

        Daniel

  1. Pingback: Rethinking Health Insurance | Long Bottom Line

  2. All I can say is I HOPE SO! I’ve been on a plant-based diet for a year, and the transition wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I’m not saying it wasn’t hard, but I just didn’t think I’d be able to do it at all because I loved ice cream and cheese so much. Anyway, I figure that if I can do it that anyone can do it. The problem is motivation. No one is going to attempt to change without a lot of motivation. And I can’t imagine a large portion of the population being motivated enough to change their diet. I can’t imagine it, but I can hope. I guess that’s my dream. Thanks so much for this post. It helped me to see another aspect of a plant-based diet.

    • Thanks for your comment Celeste, I found the same thing. Even though for a long time I believed the major food groups were meat, cheese, bread and condiments, I found the transition to a plant-based diet to be relatively smooth. I have more energy than I ever did before, and I enjoy cooking more as well.

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