“Food is medicine:” the importance of nutritious meals to help manage chronic illness

Food assortment

By Phil Wilkins

The concept of “food is medicine” is not new. In fact, it was the Greek physician Hippocrates who stated, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food,” revolutionizing the healthcare space in 400 BC. But what does this concept mean for those who suffer from malnutrition and chronic disease, who lack the nutrients to properly fuel their bodies and ward off negative symptoms? There is a possibility that food can have a positive effect on health outcomes.

The importance of using food to help treat chronic illnesses can’t be understated, as there may be a correlation between what we eat and how our bodies fight diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

While the idea of food as medicine has existed for thousands of years, the concept of food as a source of life-saving medicine has evolved significantly over the past ten years. A new bill called the “Medically Tailored Home-Delivered Meal Demonstration Pilot” to “address the critical link between diet, chronic illness, and the health of older adults” is being considered by congress. The bill aims to help “medically vulnerable seniors get access to lifesaving medically tailored meals in their homes while providing the outcomes data (needed) to build a more resilient and cost-effective health care system,” according to the Food is Medicine Coalition. This is just one example of the increased emphasis that’s being placed on food to help treat chronic conditions.

Food deserts

Although a heavier focus is being placed on using food to help combat chronic illness, a lack of access to food—needed especially by Medicare and Medicaid populations—still runs rampant in the U.S. Food deserts, or geographic areas where affordable, nutritious food is difficult to access, affect 39.5 million Americans as of 2017 and may impact even more people in 2021 due to the effects of the pandemic.

The cause of these food deserts is complex, but each of these issues contributes to the prominence of food deserts in the U.S., subsequently leading to a cycle of poor nutrition and negative health outcomes.

The factors include:

  • transportation challenges
  • geographically limited food options
  • increased investment and insurance risks for grocers
  • the higher cost of healthy food.

The relationship between food and health

For many underserved populations, negative health outcomes go beyond day-to-day malnourishment and hunger. Many also suffer from chronic conditions, which are exacerbated or can be caused by poor dietary habits. Illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and cerebrovascular disease are among the leading causes of death in the U.S. and are all linked to what a person potentially eats. If underserved Americans had access to healthier more nutritious foods, these diseases could be better managed or even prevented.

Furthermore, clinically-tailored diets are not only healthier but designed to help mitigate the impact of a specific disease. These are often prescribed by a doctor or dietitian and have the greatest nutritional effect. For instance, low-glycemic index and low-carbohydrate diets are shown to help manage type 2 diabetes, and a plant-based diet rich in carbohydrates and low in fat is shown to help prevent heart failure due to a preexisting heart disease. Most diets recommend avoiding highly processed foods.

Having a specific diet to follow may also make adhering to the right foods easier, as there are clear guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid. These diets can be more cost-effective, especially if the food is covered by Medicare or Medicaid. (Please see my article on Medicare Advantage benefits for more on this topic.)

Accessing and seeking out healthy food

While we know that certain foods are better at helping to manage certain diseases, accessing these foods remains difficult for many people nationwide, especially for those who live in food deserts. Addressing the barriers to healthy food mentioned above is as complex as the issue itself. For instance, Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries may have a benefit that allows them transportation to the store but may lack money to buy the healthy food they need once they get there. Conversely, someone may be a participant of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—allowing them to afford nutritious food—but may be unable to find the food they need due to a lack of healthy food options in their area.

Access to healthy food is only one piece of the puzzle; another aspect is increasing awareness of the importance of treating chronic conditions with food and encouraging underserved populations to seek out healthy options instead of the unhealthy food they may be used to, which might be all that’s available if they live in a food desert.

The future of food

There are a few ways we can help solve these issues, according to a Brookings report. For example, since geography and affordability play a large part in food access, a cost-efficient food delivery service covered by Medicare or Medicaid could make a major impact on the lives of people with chronic conditions in communities across the country by increasing access to healthy, doctor-prescribed food. Another solution attempts to tackle the issue at its source by encouraging communities to share their knowledge of local food landscapes, which can help inform residents about food outlets and support local advocacy efforts.  Another idea is building community gardens, which can be strategically placed near bus stops. This is a simple yet effective way to increase access to healthy food.

Regardless of the method or methods chosen to address these inequities, states and health plans must keep an eye on what matters most: getting food into the hands of those in need. Because “food is medicine,” the lives of many within underserved populations depend on nutritious food—not only to live but to thrive.

Phil Wilkins is Senior Vice President of Modivcare Meals at Modivcare.