A recent report from The Center for Food as Medicine and The Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center emphasizes food as an effective tool for the prevention and treatment of disease.
Food as medicine describes the integration of food to prevent and treat disease. “The use of food as medicine is rooted in science and has been adopted and practiced by numerous cultures despite the fact that the history of food as medicine was largely ignored by academics until the 21st century,” according to the report.
The Food As Medicine is a four-year effort of the Center for Food As Medicine and the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. It includes more than 650 studies, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and other peer-reviewed journal articles. Dr. Charles Platkin, the Executive Director at Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and Founder of the Center for Food As Medicine, tells Food Tank that the focus of the report is to “synthesize existing scholarship on food as medicine into a single, interdisciplinary resource.”
The report finds that humans practiced food as medicine as early as 300 B.C.E. Chinese, Greek, Indian, and Native American cultures are among those who grew food for medicinal and healing purposes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, Western cultures began to shift away from nutrition-based medicine towards allopathic practices, as scientific investigation and innovation took precedence.
Through social media, the practice of food as medicine is gaining momentum and finding its place in academia. According to the report, a growing body of evidence shows that healthy diets can fight inflammation and reduce susceptibility to diet-related diseases.
“Whether or not a poor diet can cause damage to the body should no longer be debated,” the report states. Studies demonstrate the link between diet and illnesses such as ischemic heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. A recent study published in PLOS Medicine finds that in the U.S., unhealthy diets cost US$50 billion a year in health care costs and account for 45 percent of all cardiometabolic deaths.
“The goal of this report is to bridge the gap between traditional medicine and the use of food as medicine in the prevention and treatment of disease,” Platkin tells Food Tank.
According to Platkin, “incorporating food as medicine practices into traditional healthcare is a strategy that medical professionals, insurance companies, policymakers, community organizations, and other key stakeholders must explore to effectively prevent and treat chronic disease, lower health care costs, and improve patient quality of life.”
The report makes 10 recommendations for stakeholders to advance the food as medicine movement. These recommendations include creating a central repository for all current food as medicine programs in the U.S. and increasing community access to culturally appropriate, unprocessed, fresh, whole foods and food as medicine programs.
Platkin tells Food Tank that to encourage health care providers to discuss food-based treatment options with their patients, health care providers should be required to take nutrition courses on the role of diet in the prevention and treatment of disease. Hospitals can also integrate food as medicine into institutional practices and programs.
And while ancient practices of food as medicine demonstrated efficacy for millennia, there remains a lack of good quality evidence with high credibility. Supporting further research could help patients find the most effective treatment plan for their lives and conditions.
The report finds that an increasing number of patients are interested in exploring food-based treatment options. According to a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) survey, more than half of American households used the internet for health-related activities in 2019. “With this increased desire for information, there is also an increased abundance of misinformation,” the report states.
The report also finds that many of the people who use the internet to search for health information have a lack of trust in the traditional medical establishment—an issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many patients were ignored or rejected for mentioning diet-related treatment options with their health care providers, leading many to seek information online.
One of the report’s additional recommendations is to create evidence-based resource guides that translate research into language that anyone can understand. “These guides will use evidence-based research to dispel myths and pseudoscience and bridge the gap between traditional medicine and the impact of food on disease,” Platkin says.
To carry out any of the recommendations and advance the food as medicine movement, the report also says diverse stakeholders must be engaged.
“Many practitioners of traditional medicine have been excluded from the design and implementation of clinical studies of traditional medicine,” Platkin tells Food Tank. “Future conversations about food and health systems should incorporate foods and dietary patterns from many different cultures to ensure food interventions are culturally appropriate for all participants.”
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