FORTUNE — In 2008, in New York City, a rule went into effect that restricted all food services from using more than half a gram of trans fat per serving. Similar restrictions have since been adopted by at least 15 other local and state jurisdictions in the U.S. For every additional 2% of calories you consume daily from trans fat, it’s estimated that your risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23%. By ridding the U.S. food supply of trans fats, we could prevent between 6% and 19% of heart attacks and related deaths. That’s potentially more than 200,000 lives saved each year.
While some cried Big Brother at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move, we have evidence of just how powerful — and potentially lifesaving — such policies can be. Researchers, led by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, studied the trans-fat intake of 6,969 New Yorkers before the ban and 7,885 afterward. They determined that the new rule resulted in a substantial decrease in trans-fat consumption. What’s more, the policy didn’t discriminate — restaurant patrons from high- and low-poverty neighborhoods benefited equally.
We must continue to push for legislation that helps us live as long and robustly as possible. Tighter regulations in the tobacco industry, for example, helped us lower the incidence of smoking and lung cancer. While there is plenty of conversation in Washington about health care finance, there is little discussion about actual health. We know where we can reduce our risk for some disease by controlling certain agents of illness.
Food and health encompass approximately one-third of our economy. One progressive city implementing new policies that help people make wiser dietary choices will go only so far. Washington needs to step in and amend the health code for all Americans. These issues need to be addressed if we are to expect sustained economic growth and, of course, better, healthier, longer lives.
–David Agus is Professor of Medicine and Engineering at the University of Southern California and author of The End of Illness.
This story is from the October 29, 2012 issue of Fortune.