Medicalizing Food, Marginalizing Obesity Care

Still life with White PitcherAn apple a day keeps the doctor away. This 19th-century Welsh aphorism is a few steps behind the current zeal for medicalizing food. Food is medicine advocates are eager to see doctors prescribe produce, medically tailored groceries, or meals. It’s a big-tent concept that feels a little bit like a faith healing revival. Certainly, nutrition is important for health. But we find it ironic that people might want to medicalize food at the same time they are denying the nature of obesity as a medical problem.

They see a conspiracy of medicalization afoot in the development of guidelines for obesity care. Medicalizing food? No biggie.

Valuing Nutrition

Nutrition has great value for promoting health. Finding ways to guide people to better nutrition through produce prescriptions, nutrition education, and medically tailored meals or groceries all have promise. For people with chronic diseases these might become important tools for achieving better health.

Saiuj Bhat and colleagues recently conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of healthy food prescription programs. They found potential for a benefit in terms of cardiometabolic risk factors and dietary behaviors. Not a lot on health outcomes. Only a moderate to very low certainty of evidence.

So there’s much work to be done on this concept if you want a strong evidence base. But there’s no doubt that good nutrition is important for health.

Labeling Food as Medicine?

With all that said, though, we come back to the problem with labeling food as medicine. If food is medicine, then so is laughter. Let’s not forget sleep, shelter, relaxation, exercise, education, and wealth, too. In fact, perhaps we should agree that all the ingredients for a rewarding life can be called medicine.

But heaven help us if food and nutrition policy gets tangled up in our broken system of healthcare and health insurance. Can you imagine getting a prior authorization for dinner? Yes, this is a silly extreme. It’s also a little silly to think that food is a substitute for medicine. In reality, it’s much more than medicine.

The best reason for eating an apple a day is surely not because you fear doctor visits. Research suggests that may not work anyway. The best reason is because eating an apple nourishes you with pleasure.

Click here for a study of apples and doctor visits, here and here for more on research related to food as medicine.

Still Life with White Pitcher, painting by Moise Kisling / WikiArt

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October 30, 2022

One Response to “Medicalizing Food, Marginalizing Obesity Care”

  1. October 30, 2022 at 9:19 am, Allen Browne said:


    Have a good day.
    See you in San Diego!