The phrase “food is medicine” gets thrown around a lot. In many cases, it’s true. In fact, it’s the best kind of medicine; the kind that keeps you from getting ill in the first place.
Our healthcare system tends to be reactive rather than proactive. We address problems once they occur, often not spending enough time looking at how to keep those first dominos that lead to chronic illness from falling. According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, about half of all combined deaths from heart disease, diabetes, and stroke are due to poor diet. That’s around 1,000 deaths per day in the United States. 1,000 preventable deaths from 1,000 preventable diseases.
We often treat the above conditions with medications, which may be effective but would be unnecessary if lifestyle changes were made. Dietary interventions are often suggested as well, but too many patients have neither the time, knowledge, nor resources to understand what in their diet needs to change to address the problems they face.
Enter food pharmacies. They look much like grocery stores, but are stocked with nutritious food like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish. A “prescription” might include a one-on-one meeting with a registered dietitian to help plan their choices, recipes to help incorporate these new foods into their diet, hands-on instruction for food preparation, and five (yes, five) days of free, fresh food.
Do these programs work? Geisinger Health System, based in central Pennsylvania, called the results “mind-blowing” in this NPR article on food pharmacies.
An unfortunate but unavoidable question is that of cost. How can you just give food away and keep your business model afloat? Over a year’s time, a patient on the food pharmacy program at Geisinger Health System gets about $1,000 worth of free food. Investing that sum in an individual’s diet actually leads to significant dividends when it comes to healthcare costs. How much? A one-point drop in hemoglobin A1c (which indicates average blood glucose over the previous 8-12 weeks) for one patient saves healthcare providers about $8,000 annually. Investing $1,000 in quality food yields a savings of $8,000 for providers – or more if A1c drops more than one point as it has for many in the Geisinger program.
I’ll bet that if you got that kind of return on your 401k, you wouldn’t hesitate to invest as much as you could. You’d probably also be retired by now. The question is, why aren’t more of us making those same investments in our health by making our food our medicine?