New ACP-Supported Report Highlights Health Benefits of 'Food Is Medicine' Approach

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Report from Bipartisan Policy Center emphasizes interventions that combine nutrition and health care, such as medically tailored meals and produce prescription programs

Dec. 15, 2023 (ACP) -- Eating an unhealthy diet is linked to a host of chronic and potentially fatal health conditions that cost billions of dollars to treat each year, but taking a “food is medicine” approach may help improve health outcomes and lower costs.

“Food Is Medicine” (FIM) refers to interventions that marry nutrition and health care, such as provision of nutritious foods, including those that are particularly focused on treating diet-related illnesses. Some examples include medically tailored meals and food packages and produce prescription programs.

The American College of Physicians has long championed such an approach, and its tenets and potential are now outlined in the new Bipartisan Policy Center report titled “Healthy Eating Rx: Improving Nutrition Through Health Care,” which ACP helped to develop.

The main barriers to such an approach include a lack of education about nutrition among clinicians and physicians, inconsistent coverage and inefficient coordination between the health care system and community-based groups that provide food.

To bridge these gaps, the authors of the report identify high-priority areas, including training health care professionals, educating patients and the public on nutrition and engaging health care professionals in programs and interventions to support patient consumption of healthier foods, explained Dr. Suja Mathew, member of the ACP Board of Regents. She represented ACP on the FIM Working Group that aided in the development of the report.

“‘Food Is Medicine’ is a practice built on the knowledge that food and diet play an important role in disease prevention and management,” she explained. “The report issues policy recommendations aimed at requiring nutrition education in undergraduate and graduate medical education programs and setting minimum standards for nutrition education for other clinicians.”

She added: “It also supports nutrition education for the existing federal agency health care workforce and opportunities to establish nutrition education as the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grantee requirement.” (HRSA supports the training and education of clinicians and physicians through various workforce programs.)

The authors of the report also call for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to play a bigger role in the assessment and growth of FIM interventions and for Congress to expand Medicare coverage for medical nutrition therapy, a specialized type of nutrition counseling provided by a registered dietitian that addresses adverse outcomes from nutrition-related chronic conditions.

Scaling these interventions should involve private-public partnerships and the establishment of connections with community-based organizations, the report authors state.

The new report “aligns in spirit with ACP policy in that both recognize the importance of nutrition and nutrition security in the health of patients and communities,” Mathew said. “Both identify the critical role that education of physicians plays in combating nutrition insecurity.”

In a 2022 policy paper titled “Strengthening Food and Nutrition Security to Promote Public Health in the United States,” ACP stressed the importance of removing barriers to a healthy diet in disadvantaged communities and identified opportunities to improve federal nutrition support programs.

ACP members can take steps to learn more about the importance of nutrition and its role in treating illness. “Members should engage patients and families in screening for food and nutrition insecurity and develop resources to address needs,” Mathew said. Such resources include written materials, referrals for nutrition counseling, financial counseling when food insecurity exists and partnerships with community-based organizations.

“[Advocating] for policies that promote healthful diets for all community members is also a powerful way that College members can support healthy eating by patients,” she added.

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Back to the December 15, 2023 issue of ACP Advocate