Food as Medicine: Transforming Healthcare through Nutrition

March 19, 2024


In an era where diet-relat­ed chron­ic dis­eases account for a stag­ger­ing 85% of U.S. health­care expen­di­tures, the emer­gent Food as Med­i­cine move­ment stands out as a bea­con of inte­gra­tive health, offer­ing a holis­tic approach that mar­ries nutri­tion with med­ical sci­ence to com­bat and pre­vent ill­ness.

The Food as Med­i­cine move­ment is an inte­gra­tive approach that rec­og­nizes the pow­er­ful impact of dietary choic­es on health and well-being. This move­ment is a holis­tic approach to health and nutri­tion that empha­sizes using whole, nutri­ent-dense foods to pre­vent and treat var­i­ous health con­di­tions. It rec­og­nizes the pro­found impact of diet on over­all well-being and aims to inte­grate dietary choic­es into health­care prac­tices.

The core prin­ci­ple is that food should pro­vide ener­gy and be a pow­er­ful tool for pro­mot­ing health, pre­vent­ing dis­eases, and sup­port­ing the body’s nat­ur­al heal­ing process­es. The move­ment encour­ages the con­sump­tion of whole, unprocessed foods rich in essen­tial nutri­ents, includ­ing vit­a­mins, min­er­als, antiox­i­dants, and oth­er bioac­tive com­pounds. Empha­sis is placed on a diverse and col­or­ful range of fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, lean pro­teins, and healthy fats.

Why Food as Medicine Matters Now?

While there is a basic under­stand­ing of what makes up a healthy diet, most of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion does not eat healthy food at rates con­sis­tent with the rec­om­mend­ed clin­i­cal guide­lines. This is for a myr­i­ad of rea­sons, both on a sys­temic and indi­vid­ual lev­el. We face a seri­ous food and nutri­tion inse­cu­ri­ty, access to and afford­abil­i­ty of healthy foods, a lack of strict reg­u­la­tions on food mar­ket­ing, edu­ca­tion gaps, and behav­ioral chal­lenges, such as a focus on imme­di­ate ver­sus delayed grat­i­fi­ca­tion. For instance, one in six Amer­i­cans expe­ri­ence food scarci­ty and often depend on ultra-processed foods for sur­vival. And, U.S. dietary guide­lines are still focused on nutri­ents, mean­ing any com­pa­ny can pad foods with micronu­tri­ents while keep­ing cheap­er, genet­i­cal­ly engi­neered ingre­di­ents just to pass muster.

The Roots of The Food as Medicine Movement

The con­cept of Food as Med­i­cine is noth­ing new. It was Hip­pocrates in 400 B.C. who advised peo­ple to pre­vent and treat dis­ease first and fore­most by eat­ing nutri­ent-dense foods. The quote: “Let med­i­cine be thy food and let food be thy med­i­cine,” is attrib­uted to the ancient Greek physi­cian, and stands as one of the ear­li­est affir­ma­tions that foods hold heal­ing prop­er­ties.

In addi­tion to his­tor­i­cal and folk evi­dence, includ­ing Ayurve­da (whole-body heal­ing sys­tems) and tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­i­cine, West­ern-based med­i­cine inves­ti­gates heal­ing prop­er­ties of food and food deriv­a­tives (most­ly from plants).

In the era of bio­med­i­cine, an ear­ly exam­ple of a nutrient–deficient dis­ease alle­vi­at­ed by whole foods is the rela­tion­ship between what was lat­er iden­ti­fied as vit­a­min C and scurvy. Across dif­fer­ent cul­tures, this under­stand­ing extends into a rich tapes­try of food-based reme­dies: from the Ayurvedic prac­tices of India, which use spices and herbs to bal­ance the body’s ener­gies, to tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­i­cine that pre­scribes spe­cif­ic foods to har­mo­nize with the body’s yin and yang. In the Mediter­ranean, diets rich in olives, fish, and green veg­eta­bles are linked to longevi­ty and heart health, while indige­nous cul­tures have long used plants and herbs native to their regions for heal­ing and nour­ish­ment. This glob­al per­spec­tive under­scores a broad­er rela­tion­ship among social con­di­tions, poor nutri­tion, and weak­ened health, empha­siz­ing that the most spe­cif­ic ther­a­py for mal­nu­tri­tion is, per­haps a lit­tle too obvi­ous­ly, whole foods.

The Protective Properties of Food

Though nat­ur­al foods, plants, and herbs have heal­ing prop­er­ties proven to alle­vi­ate symp­toms and heal ill­ness, the Food as Med­i­cine move­ment is equal­ly focused on pre­ven­tion. When we talk about med­i­c­i­nal foods, we refer to their capac­i­ty to act like nat­ur­al pro­tec­tors against dis­ease devel­op­ment. It’s help­ful to have med­i­cine to treat ail­ments, but wouldn’t it be nice if the ill­ness was nev­er an issue––considering that large­ly pre­ventable, diet-relat­ed chron­ic dis­eases are a lead­ing cause of death in the U.S.? In fact, there are ten dietary fac­tors that cause near­ly a thou­sand deaths every day from heart dis­ease, stroke, and dia­betes alone. And, in the Unit­ed States, over 48 mil­lion house­holds have a mem­ber with a health con­di­tion that needs to be man­aged through diet. Food as Med­i­cine is a proac­tive approach, much more than reac­tive.

For exam­ple, med­i­c­i­nal food can help decrease and con­trol inflam­ma­tion, which rep­re­sents a major root cause of many chron­ic dis­eases. Inflam­ma­to­ry process­es can affect near­ly every tis­sue, hor­mone, and cell in the body. Oth­er advan­tages include bal­anc­ing hor­mones, which affect bio­log­ic func­tions, includ­ing ener­gy stor­age and pro­duc­tion, cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, body weight, and sex dri­ve. It can also be a nat­ur­al way to boost your immune sys­tem response and gut health.

Focus­ing on improv­ing nutri­ent absorp­tion (bioavail­abil­i­ty) can also be addressed with Food as Med­i­cine. As researchers con­tin­ue to explore the con­cept of nutri­ent den­si­ty, they look at the bio­log­i­cal activ­i­ty of sin­gle nutri­ents in their inter­ac­tion with oth­er nutri­ents and food com­po­nents. Diet-relat­ed fac­tors in plant foods that affect bioavail­abil­i­ty go beyond the food itself to include its chem­i­cal form, how it plays with oth­er nutri­ents and organ­ic ele­ments, and of course how it’s processed.

The con­cept of Food as Med­i­cine dates back to the ear­li­est civ­i­liza­tions, but with the tech­nol­o­gy and advance­ments in place today, there’s a sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­ni­ty for both pol­i­cy and indus­try to apply this knowl­edge for a health­i­er tomor­row.

Policy Steps In

The good news is, Wash­ing­ton is lis­ten­ing and tak­ing action. In Sep­tem­ber 2022, the White House held a con­fer­ence on Hunger, Nutri­tion, and Health, the first event of its kind in more than 50 years. There, they announced a five-part plan for tack­ling food inse­cu­ri­ty and diet-relat­ed dis­eases, that includ­ed mak­ing healthy food more acces­si­ble, curb­ing sug­ar con­sump­tion, and expand­ing food-as-med­i­cine pro­grams. And last year, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion approved the use of Med­ic­aid funds to pay for fresh pro­duce and nutri­tion coun­sel­ing, in order to bol­ster pre­ven­ta­tive health mea­sures and reduce cost­ly med­ical inter­ven­tions.

The White House con­fer­ence gen­er­at­ed $8.5 bil­lion in com­mit­ments to help end hunger and reduce diet-relat­ed dis­eases and dis­par­i­ties by 2030. This includ­ed a part­ner­ship among the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion, the Amer­i­can Heart Asso­ci­a­tion, and Kroger to mobi­lize $250 mil­lion to build a nation­al Food Is Med­i­cine Research Ini­tia­tive to make FIM “a reg­u­lar and reim­bursable com­po­nent of Amer­i­cans’ health care.” To fur­ther push this work, Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty recent­ly launched an ini­tia­tive to advance FIM actions in health care by bring­ing togeth­er research, edu­ca­tion, patient care, and com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment.

Work­ing in par­al­lel, the pri­vate sec­tor is also look­ing to reduce hunger and improve health through food. The com­mit­ments gen­er­at­ed by the White House con­fer­ence includ­ed a coali­tion of investors who pledged $2.5 bil­lion to sup­port new com­pa­nies and the scal­ing up of proven tech­nolo­gies.

Early Adopters in The Space

While per­son­al­ized nutri­tion star­tups prove the evi­dence of bet­ter eat­ing, food-as-med­i­cine com­pa­nies are prepar­ing to do the hard things by invest­ing in infra­struc­ture and part­ner­ing with the pub­lic sec­tor. This is a big deal. Med­ical­ly tai­lored meals could save $13.6 bil­lion a year and pre­vent 1.6 mil­lion hos­pi­tal­iza­tions, alone. So, who is at the fore­front of this move­ment? Except for This­tle, which is one of our port­fo­lio com­pa­nies, we are not endors­ing these busi­ness­es. How­ev­er, the fol­low­ing list is a sam­ple set of trail­blaz­ers that are worth men­tion­ing.

  • In 2021, non­prof­it About Fresh part­nered with five Mass­a­chu­setts health­care sys­tems, debut­ing a Med­ic­aid-sup­port­ed pro­duce pre­scrip­tion deb­it card.
  • Last year, Free From Mar­ket, (which has now called Attane Health) raised $2.1 mil­lion, and pro­vides bulk order­ing, produce/meal deliv­ery, and tele-nutri­tion ser­vices for low-income indi­vid­u­als with chron­ic health issues.
  • Food-as-med­i­cine plat­form Sea­son Health part­nered with healthAlign to cou­ple Medicare Advan­tage-backed in-home aged care with per­son­al­ized meals. Last year they raised $34 mil­lion in a Series A. Sea­son had pre­vi­ous­ly raised $11 mil­lion in seed fund­ing.
  • Uber Health announced a physi­cian-pre­scribed gro­cery deliv­ery ser­vice for those recent­ly dis­charged from hos­pi­tals.
  • This­tle, a Ground­Force Cap­i­tal port­fo­lio com­pa­ny, deliv­ers fresh, ready-to-enjoy plant-for­ward meals straight to your doorstep.
  • Bitewell helps peo­ple shop for foods to pre­vent or treat dis­ease that fit their needs, pref­er­ences, and bud­get on their easy-to-use dig­i­tal food far­ma­cy. They announced an over­sub­scribed close of their $4 mil­lion seed round last year.
  • We are also start­ing to see Food as Med­i­cine-for­ward meal-kit and food box deliv­ery ser­vices crop up like Farm­boxRx, Vitabowls, and Mod­i­fy­Health.

Like­ly spurred by a shift in pol­i­cy, the last year has seen tremen­dous growth for star­tups and com­pa­nies look­ing to expand into the Food as Med­i­cine space.

The Future of Food as Medicine

The future looks bright for Food as Med­i­cine. As these ear­ly adopters pave the way, there are oppor­tu­ni­ties to refine and advance tech­nol­o­gy, and increase wide­spread edu­ca­tion and con­sumer adop­tion. Shiri Avn­ery, Thistle’s Co-Founder & Pres­i­dent, pos­es the impact­ful ques­tion, “What if we could use food to heal our bod­ies and our plan­et”? With her Ph.D. in Envi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence, Shiri explored the deep con­nec­tions between diet and glob­al health, inspir­ing her and her hus­band, Ash, to found This­tle. Their com­pa­ny embod­ies the prin­ci­ples of the Food as Med­i­cine move­ment by pro­vid­ing con­ve­nient, plant-for­ward meal options that cater to a health­i­er and more sus­tain­able lifestyle. As advo­cates like Shiri pro­pel this move­ment for­ward, the promise of using food to heal both bod­ies and the plan­et becomes increas­ing­ly tan­gi­ble, mark­ing a sig­nif­i­cant chap­ter in the evo­lu­tion of health­care and nutri­tion.

The momen­tum of Food as Med­i­cine is accel­er­at­ing, dri­ven by both pol­i­cy changes and pio­neer­ing com­pa­nies. By embrac­ing the ancient wis­dom that food can be the best med­i­cine, we can forge a future where diet is not just a fac­tor, but a foun­da­tion­al solu­tion to pre­vent­ing and treat­ing chron­ic dis­eases.

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