Nutrition 2023: Taking Food Is Medicine Seriously, Not Literally

Vitamin DonutsSloganeering inevitably plays a role in advocating for policy changes. But it can be a very blunt tool. Food Is Medicine is one of these blunt tools, currently popular with some nutrition policy advocates and it got a good hearing at Nutrition 2023 in Boston yesterday.

Underneath the problematic umbrella of this slogan, enthusiastic advocates are stashing some policy ideas that have real merit. So we come away from Nutrition 2023 taking Food Is Medicine seriously, but not literally.

The Literal Problems

The literal problem with this slogan is quite simple. It’s false. Food is not medicine. It is food – something very different and very important in its own right. Confusing it with medicine creates all kinds of problems. Chief among these problems is making food into something one must endure for a health benefit. Instead of something we enjoy for a rich and rewarding life.

In his overview of the rationale for Food Is Medicine at Nutrition 2023, Dariush Mozaffarian pointed to diabetes and obesity as key targets. “Most Americans are walking around sick and they don’t even know it,” he said.

But, although nutrition is quite important for managing these conditions, it is not a substitute for medicine. In Clinical Therapeutics, Veronica Johnson recently explained it quite succinctly:

”Given the multifactorial etiology of obesity, treatment requires multidisciplinary care beyond nutrition intervention.”

To be blunt, if we merely regard food as medicine, it’s not very potent.

The Important Aims of Food Is Medicine

Setting aside the literal problems with Food Is Medicine, the policy aims are quite impressive. The aim is really quite simple – to assure that every person can can enjoy the benefits of nutrition security. This is the assurance of more than just a supply of poor quality food, but rather nourishing, healthful, and desirable food.

In the panel discussion at Nutrition 2023, Congressman Jim McGovern was the day’s best spokesman for Food Is Medicine, simply because he made is clear that we need more than glib sloganeering to achieve these aims. “People’s lives are complicated,” he said. So rigid prescriptions for what people must eat will not be adequate. “We should be encouraging people, not punishing or restricting them.”


Click here, here, and here for further perspective on Food Is Medicine.

Vitamin Donuts, 1920s advertisement courtesy of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration / Wikimedia Commons

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July 25, 2023