Can We Stop Pretending That Food Is Medicine?

It’s one of those metaphors that we’re hearing more often. Folks at the Pew Trusts say the “food is medicine” concept is simple. If people eat nutritious food, they’ll need fewer meds. They’ll go to the emergency room less. And they’ll stay out of the hospital.

A Role for Medically Tailored Meals

California is funding a six million dollar pilot program aimed at cutting healthcare costs for patients with congestive heart failure. The idea is to deliver healthy meals to heart failure patients whose diets are putting them at risk. The hope is that with healthier food (e.g., lower salt diets) these patients will have better outcomes with lower costs.

This concept is a sound one that deserves further study. Already, some data suggest that medically tailored meals might lead to better outcomes in carefully selected populations. This might include patients with heart disease, diabetes, and depression who don’t have secure access to healthy food. It can be cheaper to provide a bit of healthy food than to pay for cleaning up health problems that result for these patients without it.

In such programs, dietitians can play a vital role.

But Food Is Not Really Medicine

Good food is essential for good health. It’s an essential pleasure for life. Food is a complex mixture of stuff that can have subtle biologic effects. But it’s not a substitute for a pure and potent drug. Drugs serve an entirely different purpose.

Without a doubt, a poor diet can lead to poor health and then a need for real drugs to correct the problems that result. However, suggesting that food is medicine is false. It’s distinctly different and generally more important for life.

Click here and here for more on the California pilot. For studies on the value of medically tailored meal services, click here and here.

Veggies, photograph by Nicole Bratt, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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September 26, 2018

4 Responses to “Can We Stop Pretending That Food Is Medicine?”

  1. September 26, 2018 at 1:12 pm, Andrew Brown said:

    I agree with the idea that ‘food’ is not ‘pharmaceutical’ (nutraceuticals falling into a potential gray area in that dichotomy), but what are your thoughts if ‘medicine’ is meant as “the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease”, as in ‘the field of medicine’, as opposed to “a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth”? Do you believe food fits that definition? (quoted definitions from Oxford Dictionaries)

    • September 26, 2018 at 1:52 pm, Ted said:

      I agree with the point you’re making, Andrew. Food has a role to play in medical care. I think some of the references I linked in this post provide data that support your suggestion.

  2. September 26, 2018 at 3:12 pm, Chester Draws said:

    I know lots of people with excellent health who have terrible diets. Sure, they’re lucky and not everyone can muster it, but they can.

    I know people with fantastically good diets who are unhealthy.

    Food doesn’t cure anything, unless we’re talking a shortage of some essential element or vitamin. It can, at best, ameliorate. (Too much food of course can cause problems, but we’re not talking quantity here.)

    Food really isn’t medicine. To say it is plays into the hands of those that blame ill people for their disease (“they only got heart problems because of their diet”) or worse — the ones who think serious problems can be cured by magic diets.

    • September 27, 2018 at 4:34 am, Ted said:

      Well said, Chester.