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Food is Medicine

But I didn’t have to tell you that, did I? I know many of you have been following me for years, and probably already espouse to a healthy eating regimen. And if you have been coached by me, you know my mantra “eat whole foods” and have seen the benefits of making dietary changes to improve your health and appearance.

This past Monday, right after the holiday weekend, Morning Edition, a regularly scheduled radio show on NPR, covered the topic of doctors prescribing meals. Not just any old meals, but medically tailored meals (MTMs) to manage or treat chronic conditions such as metabolic syndrome. I was delighted!

Metabolic syndrome, another topic I have covered many times, is a group of conditions that increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other related health problems. Sometimes it is called insulin resistance syndrome, and perhaps you have had a discussion with your doctor about it, especially if you are pre-diabetic.

Three or more of these conditions indicate metabolic syndrome:
1. High blood pressure
2. High blood sugar levels
3. High blood triglycerides
4. Low HDL cholesterol
5. A large waist – having an “apple” shape or a waist over 35”

It is common in the US, affecting 1 in 3 adults, and is becoming more prevalent in other industrialized nations as well. Often called a “lifestyle” syndrome, the good news is that we can mitigate the risk by making healthy changes to our lifestyle.

Getting back to the NPR program, the segment showcased one woman who was in the hospital after a fall, recovering and was found to have elevated blood sugar levels. She was diabetic but not managing it well, so they prescribed nutritionally dense meals that helped control her spikes in her blood sugar. The patient received these medically tailored meals (MTMs) as part of her overall care, covered by her insurance. As time went on, the patient noticed an improvement in her energy and now seeks out vegetables over sugary snacks. Her choice, and that is the best outcome.


This “prescription plan” was first established in California during the AIDS epidemic by Project Open Hand , a non-profit which gathered and delivered nourishing meals to the patients in the Oakland area.

Now the focus has expanded as more diet-related diseases have sprung up. Project Open Hand packs up and delivers thousands of portioned meals to patients, of which many are covered by health insurance.

Kaiser Permanente, a huge healthcare provider, has invested over $50 million in this initiative in California and medically tailored meals are available in over 27 states, with California being the first. The five percent of the population that are the sickest are also the ones that incur over 50% of the healthcare costs, which is why insurance companies and managed care providers are so eager to find better ways to improve outcomes. According to one 2019 study on the efficacy of MTMs to mitigate risk, it was found that getting (10) meals prepared and delivered per week, reduced the overall medical spending and hospital admissions among the participants.

However, we don’t want to get to the point where we are getting MTMs because we are sick, do we? I didn’t think so. Eating nutritious and well-portioned meals are a great way to maintain your health long-term, and since we are all going to be living longer, this is a great habit to establish.

Now, food as medicine doesn’t mean we eschew medical intervention and drugs when needed. Food is not a replacement for medicine and there are many factors that contribute to disease, of which not all can be prevented or treated through diet only.

A poor diet can contribute to or cause an illness but genetics, age, environmental factors, even stress, can affect our health. It goes without saying that poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, or alcohol abuse contribute as well.

However eating a whole foods diet can help improve your health, with these foods offering impressive benefits:

Berries - may protect against chronic conditions, including certain cancers
Green tea – reduces inflammation
Mushrooms – especially maitake and reishi boost your immune system, and the compounds found in them protect your heart and brain
Fatty fish – salmon and sardines have high levels of omega 3 fatty acids which protect against heart disease
Cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, watercress and arugula (all my favorites) are bursting with antioxidants, and may decrease your risk of heart disease and increase your longevity
Spices – such as turmeric, cinnamon and ginger are packed with phytonutrients, containing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties
Herbs – your parsley, oregano, rosemary and sage not only enhance flavor but also boast health-promoting compounds

Eating a more whole foods diet will go a long way in improving how you feel. I know this from my own experience, those I have coached, and those I have observed eating a very nutritionally poor diet. I am so glad that the role of whole food is becoming more important to an individual’s overall wellbeing, something that I learned in nutrition school years ago.

The quote “let food be thy medicine ..,” is attributed to Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine and all doctors prescribe to the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm”. It is wonderful to see this inflection point of nutrition and medicine in the national media, right on the heels of our Thanksgiving holiday. So appropriate and I am so thankful.

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