In this country, we check in with our doctors when we're sick, but we rarely visit them when we're looking for information about getting or staying well. That gap means that by the time most patients see their health care providers, they're often already sick with conditions that could have been prevented by a healthier diet. That's why there's a movement underway in the health care industry to proactively help patients make nutritional changes before they start feeling sick, with programs that link care to good health, not just illness.
The idea of food as medicine is not a new one. Health experts have been telling us for decades that the foods we eat will either hurt us or helps us. But it's only recently that health care providers have looked at concrete ways that they can actually help their patients prevent disease via changes in their diet.
At Boston Medical Center (BMC), an on-site food pantry allows doctors to hand out prescriptions for produce instead of or in addition to pills.The pantry helps provide healthier options to low-income families that might not be able to afford them. But it also provides services to families of all income levels with free cooking classes and partnerships with mobile markets in an effort to really change how their patients are eating.
"Doctors are starting to recognize that we can hand out shots and antibiotics day in and day out, but people will not stay better or not necessarily get better – unless you pay attention to the social determinants," Deborah Frank, a professor of pediatrics at Boston University, told the Christian Science Monitor. Frank was one of the initial founders of the BMC food pantry.
Telling patients that they should eat more fruits and vegetables is one thing, but actually giving them the produce and teaching them the healthiest ways to prepare it — that's a whole different ballgame. And it's one that doctors like Frank are hoping could make the difference between treating illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and preventing them.
According to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of deaths from heart disease and stroke are caused by high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol and diets that are low in fruits and vegetables. In other words, the vast majority of these deaths could be prevented by getting better information about health and nutrition out to patients before these illnesses have a chance to develop.
Doctors bring their knowledge to the grocery store aisles
Free cooking classes held through Boston Medical Center's on-site food pantry help people from all walks of life learn how to use food to prevent disease. (Photo: Dartmouth-Hitchcock/YouTube)
"Shop With A Doc" is another program hoping to address the divide between health care and wellness. Launched by St. Joseph Hoag Health in Orange County, California, the initiative takes doctors to the front lines of the grocery store where they can offer nutritional shopping tips to any customer who seeks out advice. In Orange County, one in three children is overweight or obese. The program could help to reverse this trend by getting nutrition advice to families before a medical issue arises.
Dr. Richard Afable, CEO and president of St. Joseph Hoag Health, told NPR that he hopes programs like "Shop With A Doc" will help his organization switch gears to become a health organization, not just a health care organization.
The idea goes beyond changing patients' perspectives to changing the way doctors are taught about the role of nutrition in health care. Some universities, such as Loma Linda University School of Medicine in Southern California, are now offering specialized training in programs that use food to treat disease. Educators at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans are working on a curriculum that teaches potential doctors how to shop for and prepare healthy meals so that they can be better equipped to help their patients do the same.
The hope is that these initiatives can shift the conversation from not only treating diseases but also to preventing them in the first place. By using food as medicine, doctors can help their patients stay healthy — so they don't have to spend as much time using health care as sick care.