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The White House is hosting a conference on nutrition and hunger

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The White House is hosting a daylong conference on nutrition and hunger this week. This comes at a time when diet-related chronic disease is a top cause of death in this country. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us this morning to talk about the ideas on the table to combat that fact. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So it became clear during the pandemic that people with chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, they have worse outcomes from COVID, right? Let's talk about the role that diet plays.

AUBREY: That's right. Yeah, well, what we eat plays a key role, Rachel. It's really a root cause of disease or can be. Researchers estimate that nearly 900 people die every day in the U.S. from diet-related heart disease, for example. And millions more are at high risk. Consider diabetes. About one out of every three adults in the U.S. has prediabetes. That's nearly a hundred million people. That's on top of the people diagnosed with the condition. I spoke to Bruce Caldwell (ph). He's 59 years old. He lives in Rhode Island. He had developed Type 2 diabetes. And he told me, two years ago, his blood sugar had risen so high, he was taking multiple medications every day and was feeling lousy.

BRUCE CALDWELL: I really thought the only process was to, unfortunately, increase medication. I knew that my next step, my PCP told me, was going to be doing some daily insulin shots. That was really the scary point to me.

AUBREY: His doctors told him that a combination of his genes, his weight and, really, his eating habits had led to the condition. We heard him say there it's scary. That's because people with poorly controlled diabetes are at high risk of so many things - kidney disease, nerve damage, eye damage - and at a much higher risk of disability.

MARTIN: So what happened? Did he end up taking more medication?

AUBREY: What he did next really fits with a key theme heading into the White House conference this week, and that is to integrate food and nutrition into the practice of medicine, to really think as - to think of food as medicine. That's what Bruce Caldwell did, actually. He completely overhauled his diet. He cut out refined carbohydrates - so white bread, pasta, sugar - began eating more protein, more healthy fats. And over the last year and a half, he's lost 55 pounds. And the mic drop here, his diabetes was reversed.

MARTIN: Wow.

AUBREY: His blood sugar is now in the normal, healthy range.

CALDWELL: It feels so good. The way I like to put it is I didn't know how bad I felt until I felt better.

MARTIN: That's amazing. That's great for him. So is he healthy enough now that he doesn't have to take any medication?

AUBREY: He no longer requires any diabetes medicine. And the way he got started on this, Rachel, is his employer paid for a program called Virta that was offered through Virta Health. It's designed to reverse diabetes and with diet and exercise. He told me, to his great surprise, it really worked.

CALDWELL: Food can be the medicine. Just by eating, knowing what to eat and what not to eat, I continue to feel better. And I have an - all around, a lot more energy.

AUBREY: The immediate financial benefit, he says, is he no longer has to pay for all these medicines each month. The long-term benefit, preventing all the diseases linked to diabetes. Now, of course, this took a lot of effort on his part. It's not easy to overhaul your diet. But it's been transformative for him. So one conversation on the table this week at the White House conference is how best to make these kinds of lifestyle-based programs accessible to more people.

MARTIN: So what's the answer to that? I mean, is it reasonable to expect that more people like Bruce are going to be helped by whatever comes out of this conference?

AUBREY: You know, I think that there's momentum to tackle food-related chronic disease. And this will be a focus at the conference on Wednesday because there's now a lot of evidence that this very strategy that Mr. Caldwell used could be helpful to many people. Here's Dariush Mozaffarian. He's a heart doctor and a dean at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University. He says there are many studies to show that a combination of diet, exercise, weight loss works to reverse or stop the progression of diabetes.

DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: Food is a direct and very rapid treatment for very complex diseases. And with a good diet and weight loss, diabetes can be put into remission. And many, many patients can go off their medications.

AUBREY: At a time when it costs the U.S. health care system more than $240 billion a year to treat diabetes, Dr. Mozaffarian and many other physicians and public health experts, who will weigh in at the White House conference on Wednesday, say now is the time to invest more in prevention.

MARTIN: Can we talk a little bit more about that, prevention? Where do efforts stand to prevent diseases like diabetes before they start?

AUBREY: Yeah, well, this will be a focus on Wednesday. The recommendation coming from many physicians and food security experts is this - one thing to do is to make school meals universally free for all children across the country. I think people assume that in 2022, obesity is a bigger problem than malnutrition or lack of food. The reality is that food insecurity, the inability to afford high-quality food, really drives obesity.

MARTIN: Right.

AUBREY: These two problems overlap. They're linked. They're one in the same. People fill their bellies with cheap food. They gain weight. And that drives the risk of chronic disease. I spoke to chef Jose Andres. He's well-known for delivering food aid during hurricanes and Ukraine. The idea he's taking to the White House is, don't just provide free meals for children. Build local economies around these free meals by buying food from local farmers, employing workers in local communities to prepare healthy meals in schools.

JOSE ANDRES: That dollar to feed the children is also giving infrastructure a boost. Money goes to buy from rural farmers. Those women and men that they train, they make good, living wage. All of a sudden, $1 is multiplied by four. We don't have that in place, and we should.

AUBREY: He says investing in healthy food for children has so many potential benefits. In the immediate term, it reduces absenteeism, makes kids more ready to learn. And in the long term, the hope is that this can - that food-related disease can be prevented.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Aubrey - Aubrey - Allison, thank you. This was a really interesting conversation. We appreciate it.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "STRETCHED HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.