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Food as Medicine: Joining forces to improve public health

June 16, 2023

I hope you’re following the recent progress around food as medicine as closely as I am. If not, no worries, here are some thoughts and resources to get you up to speed quickly.

It’s a fact that poor nutrition is a leading cause of illness in this country, associated with more than half a million deaths each year. Eating a well-balanced diet not only helps prolong our lives, but lowers the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes and many other conditions.

Unfortunately, nearly 85 percent of adult Americans have at least one chronic disease that not only affects their quality of life, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also responsible for 90 percent of the nation’s annual health care costs.

But there is a commonsense concept that can help address these issues, it’s gaining momentum and I’m passionate about it.

The food as medicine movement
For centuries, people across the globe have looked at food as medicine. A recent report from the Center for Food As Medicine describes how humans practiced food as medicine as early as 300 B.C.E. Chinese, Greek, Indian and Native American cultures are among those who gathered and grew foods, such as herbs like peppermint and roots like ginger, for medicinal and healing purposes.

The topic is gaining popularity as people are looking at food’s proven power to heal through the ages and how to apply that knowledge today.

The partnership of diet and medicine
This movement is supported by studies showing that even modest dietary adjustments can help to reverse the mortality rates attributable to diet-related diseases, and that with certain diseases, long-term dietary changes can be as effective as some pharmacological interventions — especially in the early stages. A good example of this is the landmark Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) trial that demonstrated losing 5 percent of body weight through diet and lifestyle modification was more effective than metformin at improving diabetes management.

Pharmaceutical therapies used in combination with a medically tailored diet may be more effective than drugs alone. There are ample studies showing the health benefits of food as medicine and indicating that the emphasis should not be on either diet or medicine only, but rather on diet and medicine.

Working together
The Sept. 28, 2022, White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health — the first such event since 1969 — had an ambitious stated goal of ending hunger by 2030 and reducing diet-related diseases and disparities. The White House conference captured the attention of a broad cross section of U.S. policymakers, public and private sector organizations, and other food equity advocates.

The administration said it will encourage Congress to pass legislation for a pilot test of medically tailored meals for the original Medicare (fee-for-service) population, and work with states to test Section 1115 Demonstration waivers for medically tailored meals in the Medicaid population. If these initiatives move forward, both will expand medically tailored meals to the most vulnerable people served by a government payer.

In coordination with the request by the White House for commitments from public and private organizations, The Rockefeller Foundation and Kaiser Permanente committed grants for food as medicine initiatives, as well as programs and collaboration for ending hunger and improving health and health equity.

Many health plans and organizations have already taken steps or are starting to take steps toward health equity. They’ve recognized that Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) — the factors that drive inequities in health care that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is targeting — are the foundation of providing whole-person care. For example, CMS is now requiring that all Special Needs Plans screen for SDOH, including food insecurity.

Communication and action
It is critical we build awareness that food insecurity and diet-related diseases are rising, but preventable. That makes communication and education vital on all levels — consumer, community, state and national.

A first step could be helping people be more aware of the government programs and services that may be available to them such as SNAP and WIC and sharing assets from those programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a wide variety of educational resources to share. Other educational resources regarding chronic diseases and their prevention and management through proper nutrition include the CDC, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association and the National Kidney Foundation. Mom’s Meals also has a large suite of
nutrition-based materials around food insecurity, SDOH and chronic diseases.

A more robust approach can ensure all members, including the most vulnerable, are engaged. Education is just the beginning. Many people, based on unmet social needs, readiness to receive and act on educational messages, or barriers such as literacy, language, broadband or others will need support through action. Payers offering whole person models of care that include condition-appropriate, fully prepared meals delivered directly to members’ doorsteps have found improved rates of condition management, reduced high-cost utilization, improved medication adherence and greater engagement with health care providers.

A layered approach that includes education and action can help ensure organizations have the right support for all members and that will drive near- and long-term improvements in health outcomes and lowering costs.

New food as medicine white paper. Mom’s Meals® in The Power of Food as Medicine: What Health Care is Doing and What is Working takes a deeper dive at how together — through quality nutrition — health plans, government entities, public and private organizations, and individuals can better integrate the food as medicine concept into services and benefits for better outcomes and lowering health care costs for all.

Let’s keep the momentum going but increase the pace. The link between nutrition and health is clear and we must continue to build a community of advocates who believe in the power of nutrient-rich food and its impact on public health.