13 May 2022

Food as Medicine

Welcome back. There’s a new report you may have missed that I’d like to tell you about. You can download the entire document at no cost, so I’ll just point and hit the highlights.

To bridge the gap between traditional medicine and the use of food in preventing and treating disease, the Center for Food as Medicine and the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center have produced a major narrative review: Food as Medicine: How Food and Diet Impact the Treatment of Disease and Disease Management.

Cover of Food as Medicine report (foodmedcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/foodasmedicine.pdf).
The 335-page report, with more than 2500 citations, has five parts.

Part 1: Brief history of food as medicine
Humans were cultivating food crops for medicinal purposes as early as 300 BCE. The authors review how food as medicine was practiced across ancient cultures, including traditional Chinese medicine, ancient Greece, Ayurvedic medicine in India, as well as in the New World.

Although food has remained an integral component of many Eastern healing practices, Western cultures broke away. Nevertheless, its popularity has risen in modern society, popular culture and on social media.

Among items spotlighted are garlic and mushrooms as medicine and deciphering online health information.

Part 2: Challenges to food as medicine
The use and acceptance of food as medicine encounters modern challenges. The report begins with the impact and influences of dietary guidelines--America’s, the World Health Organization’s and those of multiple countries. Governmental diet regulations are severely politicized and criticized because of their ties to corporate interest.

Other topics addressed include food insecurity, food as medicine interventions, primary care physicians and nutrition counseling, attempts to define healthy and unhealthy, and a big, broad problem, the effects of marketing, legalized health claims and industry-funded research.

Part 3: Food as medicine Interventions, programs, policies and practices
The epidemic of diet-related diseases has led to the increased use of food to treat these illnesses and avoid costly healthcare.

A variety of food interventions are reviewed, including medically tailored meals designed and prepared for specific medical conditions and food prescriptions (mostly fruits and vegetables) assigned like a pharmaceutical by a health care professional. Incorporating these solutions directly into programs such as Medicare and Medicaid has proven affordable and effective, improving health outcomes and reducing healthcare costs.

A related topic is culinary medicine, which blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine in an effort to improve patients’ conditions by analyzing how food can play a role in preventing or treating a particular disease.

Dietary supplements, nutraceuticals and functional foods that are ingested with the intention of providing a physiological or medicinal effect are also discussed, as is health insurance to cover food interventions and food as medicine programs.

Part 4: Food for specific diseases
Dietary interventions have been studied for specific conditions and diseases. The report covers: Alzheimer’s, Arthritis (Rheumatoid and Non-Rheumatoid), Autism, Cancer, Chronic Kidney Disease, Cirrhosis and Ascites, Diabetes, Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, HIV/AIDS, Hypertension, Mental Health Conditions and Illnesses, Multiple Sclerosis and Sleep.

Part 5: Recommendations
A series of recommendations are offered for healthcare professionals, insurance companies, policymakers, community organizations and other key stakeholders to consider when designing food as medicine interventions, programming, policies and research.

Wrap Up
I’ll close with a selection of some of the report’s key findings:

- Many medical schools do not require basic nutrition courses, leaving physicians unprepared to interact with patients about food to manage disease.
- Social media has facilitated the hijacking of food as medicine, co-opting it into a pseudoscientific alternative medicine.
- Websites with evidence-based content coexist with those containing inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information, making it difficult to decipher information about food as medicine.
- The increased popularity of dietary supplements paired with a lack of regulation has caused confusion among consumers and patients.
- Marketing and health claims printed on packaged food can muddy consumers’ understanding of the impact of food and diet on disease.
- Research funded by the food industry has skewed public understanding of the impacts of certain foods on health.

Happy reading, and thanks for stopping by.

End graphic from Food as Medicine report (foodmedcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/foodasmedicine.pdf).
Food as Medicine report: foodmedcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/foodasmedicine.pdf
Article on report on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/948063
Center for Food as Medicine: foodmedcenter.org
Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center: nycfoodpolicy.org

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