In late January, IFT’s Senior Director of Government Affairs and Nutrition Anna Rosales attended the first-ever “Food is Medicine” Summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The all-day event was dedicated to the idea that nutritious food is essential to good health and can be a powerful tool in preventing, and even treating, illness.
“It’s heartening to see that we’re collectively shifting to a place in nutrition and health care that considers overall well-being, recognizing the intertwined nature of food and health and not just individual disease treatment,” says Rosales who, in addition to her policy and advocacy role, is also a registered dietitian and chef. “We’re asking, ‘How can we holistically improve peoples’ lives including how, what, and even where they’re eating?’”
A follow-up to the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, held in September 2022, the summit also aimed to advance discussions around how the U.S. health care system can better serve patients, combat obesity and food insecurity, and promote racial equity. It signified just one piece of a much broader agenda to move U.S. health care from, in the words of HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, “an illness-care system to a wellness-care system.”
Below, Rosales discusses her takeaways from the summit—and the possibilities it opens up for those in the science of food.
What do we mean by “food is medicine”?
At the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, “food is medicine” was used as a term to highlight how we could integrate food into our health system and into health care specifically, recognizing the influential role food plays in overall health and well-being. The term referred to very specific things, like nutrition education for medical students and physicians. Research has shown that if physicians have even minimal nutrition education, they are two times more likely to refer patients to a registered dietitian for counseling, and when they are educated in how to screen for malnutrition and food insecurity, they are better able to connect people to food and nutrition resources. Another aspect is medically tailored meals—meals prescribed for patients when they’re discharged from the hospital that meet their specific health needs. Some trials have shown reduced re-admission rates when people have access to these meals. A third aspect is produce prescriptions—how do we enable more health care providers to actually prescribe healthy foods to food-insecure patients, and how do we integrate this concept into our medical plans? All of this is still very much a part of the food is medicine conversation, but it became clear to me at the recent summit that the conversation is moving far beyond these specifics.
Where is the conversation going?
There’s been a distinct shift in how food is medicine is being characterized to include the idea that food is medicinal—that food can be used to prevent and treat illness. Experts from Tufts, Harvard, and elsewhere have devised a Food is Medicine “pyramid” that is largely being referenced now. The pyramid captures the idea that there are certain diseases that can be prevented or treated through diet and behavior changes. We see this with conditions like celiac disease, for example, where the only treatment is your food—eating a gluten-free diet. There is no medicine for it. To my knowledge, this is not about “instead of taking a medication, I’m going to eat an apple.” It’s more about how introducing more healthful food habits could lessen your need for medical interventions. But this movement is so much more than foods having functional benefits. It’s addressing inequalities and includes food as culture, food as community, food as an expression of care, and so much more. To understand where we’re headed, HHS developed framing language and principles for food is medicine. These include:
What are some of the challenges that surfaced around implementing these ideas?
The way the system is built right now does not readily enable health care providers to support their patients in making the dietary, health, and nutritional shifts to support prevention and treatment of their health problems. Often dietary challenges are economic challenges, and there’s a disconnect between social services and health care. Other times, a dietary intervention may not have clear research showing the benefit of the intervention on reducing health care costs (a critical concern for insurers). Bridging health care and social services and the need for additional research supporting dietary and well-being interventions are two challenges we must overcome. Sharing successes, exploring pilots, and grappling with the breadth of challenges and urgency of opportunity were the things many of the summit participants were thinking through.
What types of solutions emerged?
There was much discussion around creating a more integrated health care system, with better physician screening for food insecurity and ways to equip providers with resources to get their patients tapped into services. Having WIC and SNAP onsite for those who are income eligible, for example, to create a better patient/consumer design and eliminate barriers to access. We were able to hear about where and how this is already being implemented, and it’s exciting. Additionally, the last panel at the summit addressed nutrition education and how it changes outcomes. Harvard public health physician David Eisenberg, featured last year in Food Technology magazine, was on stage talking about his “teaching kitchens” concept—the idea of empowering people to cook healthful meals for themselves—and how to integrate a common curriculum into the health care environment to really impact patients’ lives.
What are your takeaways from the summit for those in the science of food?
I think it’s an exciting time for people who are working in the science of food to lean into what’s happening. There’s a lot of opportunity opening up. Medically tailored meals, for example, is a fascinating new space. How can we innovate on that? Right now, a lot of the conversations are really more on the medical side, like trying to figure out the timing of interventions, insurance models, things that feel very separate from the food sphere. But they impact manufacturing, production, and innovation, so I think it’s important to keep your ear to the ground and be aware of these conversations, participate in them, and think differently about how you’re making, producing, marketing, and delivering foods. If food is medicine and we’re looking at how we can actually put insurance dollars toward it, we may soon have reimbursable food products, meals, and more. This is a whole new space and economic opportunity for food scientists. Food science has the chance to innovate, create change, and bring forward a better food system at scale.
Want to learn more about IFT’s work in the health and nutrition space? Keep an eye out for our upcoming white paper on biofortified and underutilized crops from IFT’s Food and Nutrition Security Steering Committee.
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