A healthy diet is critical to the prevention of many chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. But what about treatment? Can a healthy diet be used to manage a chronic condition that is already present? Many health experts say yes. This concept of “food as medicine” is gaining traction these days, with more health care organizations and non-profits joining in the practice of “prescribing” healthy food to their patients. In honor of National Nutrition Month, we took a closer look at this emerging phenomenon.
Food plays a critical role in condition management.
Chronic conditions are commonly treated with prescription medicine. Consider a disease like congestive heart failure. According to the American Heart Association, heart failure patients may need multiple medications. Each one treats a different symptom or contributing factor and comes with its own instructions and rules.1 But some medical professionals argue that simply taking the medication may not be enough. Dr. Tanvir Hussain, a clinical cardiologist in California, puts it simply: “Maximal compliance with drug therapy doesn’t keep congestive heart failure patients out of the hospital without dietary adherence.” 2
Unfortunately, healthy eating is easier said than done for many patients. There are so many obstacles—including the accessibility of healthy ingredients (especially in lower income neighborhoods known for “food deserts”) and the time and know-how to prepare a healthy meal.
And, as Dr. Brenda Rea, of Loma Linda University’s School of Medicine, says, “Many people don’t know how to cook…they only know how to heat things up.” 3 This translates to an overreliance on processed, packaged food that is high in sodium, fat, and sugar.
Organizations are springing up to provide healthy food prescriptions and education.
This is where community and health care organizations have stepped in to help. Over the last decade, several non-profits and pilot programs have cropped up to make healthy eating more attainable for patients with chronic conditions. Here are a few to note:
- A Philadelphia non-profit MANNA, provides patients with three meals a day, seven days a week and offers 11 dietary modifications to accommodate different diseases. MANNA teamed up with AmeriHealth Caritas ( a southeastern Pennsylvania health plan) to provide medically tailored meals to 472 members and got great results: a reduction of nearly 25% in overall medical costs; a 31% decrease in inpatient visits; and a 20% decrease in emergency room visits. 4 The organization also serves patients with Aetna Better Health of Pennsylvania, which has seen a 30% reduction in patient hospitalization for participants.
- The Medicaid system in California, Medi-Cal, is conducting a pilot study using food as medicine. Organizations like Project Angel Food provide lunch, dinner, and nutrition counseling to patients with chronic diseases. The study is still in process, but the hope is that the results will be so promising that the Medicaid system will start to include healthy meals as part of its coverage.
- Wholesome Rx partners with medical providers to issue fruit and vegetable prescriptions, much as they would a conventional medication. Patients receive coupons for up to $1/per day per household member, which can be redeemed at a participating market or store for produce. The program maintains that 69% of program participants eat more produce and 47% decrease their BMI. 5
- Three years ago, the Chicago Botanic Garden launched the VeggieRx program serving Chicago’s West Side. The program helps patients with diet-related diseases who are also food insecure by providing a veggie box containing $15 worth of fresh produce, along with weekly nutrition information and cooking lessons. As Dr. Wayne Detmer, Chief Clinical Officer, Operations, at Lawndale Christian Health Center says, “Rather than address their medical problems with a pill, we are introducing lifestyle changes to impact health. Diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure are directly related to what we eat.” 6
We’ve long-known that healthy eating is a huge factor in the prevention of chronic diseases. It’s encouraging to see health care and community-based organizations taking it one step further by using food to treat conditions patients already have. The concept of “food as medicine” is definitely one to watch—it has huge potential to improve patients’ health and quality of life while at the same time significantly lowering health care costs.