Prescribing Food as Medicine to Treat Patients

food as medicine

We all know that eating nutritious foods is one important part of living a healthy life. While “let food be thy medicine” is a quote often misattributed to Hippocrates, the “food as medicine” movement has begun to grow in popularity in recent years. Many doctors and medical facilities now make food part of treatment plans, rather than relying solely on medications. Will the future of healthcare revolve around the use of food as medicine? 

You are What You Eat?

While there is not extensive research on the power of food to treat or reverse disease, physicians say that existing data shows that the salt, sugar, and processed foods in the American diet contribute to the nation’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of deaths from heart disease and stroke are caused by factors that can result from low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Although the food as medicine movement continues to grow in popularity, some specialists argue the approach is simply not thorough enough to reduce the need for traditional medications. Dr. Dylan MacKay, a nutritional biochemist at the Richardson Center for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals in the Department of Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, points out that diet is just one of many factors that influence health. While what a patient eats is important, so too is his or her environment, physical activity levels, and genes. 

Programs Using Food to Treat Illness

Several hospitals, including Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Boston Medical Center, have launched therapeutic food pantry programs. These programs provide patients with food prescribed for their conditions, along with training on how to prepare it. 

“We want people to understand what they’re eating, how to prepare it, the role food plays in their lives” says Dr. Rita Nguyen, Zuckerberg’s medical director of Healthy Food Initiatives. “This will require a cultural shift, but that can happen.”

The food as medicine idea reaches beyond hospital walls. In 2018, grocery chain Kroger launched a pilot program for its Kroger Health concept. Under this plan, doctors can write food prescriptions that patients can then fulfill at one of the chain’s stores with the help of a Kroger Health professional. In the pilot program, diabetes patients work with a local physician for dietary recommendations that can then be taken to a nutrition expert at a nearby Kroger. 

The “prescription” is simply a shopping list of food items, tailored to fit the patient’s specific medical conditions. However, the in-store dietitian can make further recommendations for the patient’s lifestyle, budget, and cooking skills. One nutrition expert, Bridget Wojciak, RDN/LD, says that the prescription can help patients struggling with vague “You should eat better” advice. 

Food as medicine extends to more than the grocery store. Epicured is a subscription meal service that focuses on dishes catering to patients with conditions like Crohn’s and celiac diseases. 

The Future of Medicine

If patients can reduce the risk of certain diseases by following a specific diet, can that diet also be used to treat existing conditions? Are we heading towards a future where doctors will attempt to treat conditions with a prescription diet before prescribing pharmaceutical medications?

While doctors are not likely to see changes in training anytime soon, food as science has already begun to impact medical education options. Loma Linda University School of Medicine became one of the first schools to offer specialized training for resident physicians in Lifestyle Medicine. This formal subspecialty focuses on using food to treat disease. According to Dr. Brenda Rea, who helps run the family and the preventive medicine residency program at Loma Linda, this subspecialty will become essential for physicians moving forward. 

“What people eat can be medicine or poison,” Rea says. “As a physician, nutrition is one of the most powerful things you can change to reverse the effects of chronic disease.”

Whether food as medicine becomes the healthcare standard or not, all experts agree that following a nutritious diet is an easy way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It is up to doctors to determine if their patients would benefit from more.

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