‘Let food be thy medicine’


Giving proper nutrition a more central role in the treatment and prevention of disease, the food-as-medicine movement has great potential to save lives and cut health-care costs in our country’s fight against chronic illness. Thankfully, it seems to have gained a toehold within the most unlikely of places—the Trump administration.

FDA Administrator Dr. Scott Gottlieb has recently pledged to explore several options within his authority to improve Americans’ eating habits, from encouraging industry to reduce salt in processed foods to updating food labels so consumers can better understand them.

{mosads}“Even a small advance in the nutrition of a single individual, which might only have a limited—although discernible—impact on a person’s individual risk for chronic disease, would have a massive impact once we aggregate all those small health gains across tens of millions of lives,” Gottlieb said in a March 29 speech unveiling FDA’s Nutrition Innovation Strategy. “And I feel strongly that FDA can do more to assist the American public with creating healthier diets for themselves and their families.”

Though he didn’t use the words outright, Gottlieb proposals ring loudly of food as medicine—a growing concept that recognizes the impact of nutrition on our health.

The idea couldn’t come at a more important time. Of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, seven are chronic diseases. Diet is a major factor in the development of many of these conditions, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Chronic disease also accounts for around 80 percent of the nation’s health care costs. If rising obesity rates offer any clue, these trends don’t show signs of improving.

To his credit, Gottlieb showed that he fully understands both the severity of the nation’s diet-related disease epidemic and the positive impact the FDA can have in addressing it. I applaud his promises to provide consumers with better information and pave the way for healthier purchasing options.

His words are a refreshing change of pace for a Trump administration bent on thwarting any and all regulations. They also offer a bit of relief, as the FDA has delayed Obama-era initiatives on menu requirements and nutrition labeling over the last year, raising concerns that the agency was bowing to industry pressure.

Gottlieb may not be the only physician in the country to recommend that Americans change the way they eat to improve their health, but he is unique in his ability to facilitate that change on a national scale.

Since the FDA has authority over labeling for the majority of the food supply, it has a significant role in helping consumers make informed decisions about what they buy and eat. As such, the agency also has leverage to work with manufacturers on how they process and market products. The efforts Gottlieb outlined are a good start—though he should be prepared for powerful industry interests to try to delay or derail them, as they have in the past.

As a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies, I stand ready to support Gottlieb as he carries through with these promises—or hold him accountable if he does not.

I’m sure many of my colleagues would do the same as we see a growing bipartisan interest in food as medicine. In January, I joined my colleagues Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to launch the Food Is Medicine Working Group within the Congressional Hunger Caucus. The new group will explore opportunities to better align agriculture, nutrition and health care policies.

Next, I hope to see food-as-medicine ideas in the Farm Bill, including a national produce prescription pilot program contained in a bipartisan bill I introduced last year.

Produce prescription programs—like one run by national nonprofit Wholesome Wave—allow doctors not only to write scripts for healthy foods, but to distribute vouchers so that patients can buy these products from local vendors. In Los Angeles, Wholesome Wave reported that 93 percent of participants met produce-consumption guidelines by the end of the program and nearly half reduced their body mass index.

There are many other worthwhile ideas under the umbrella of food as medicine. It’s time we take a look at how to expand nutrition education in medical schools, how medically tailored meals can improve health outcomes, and how we can improve institutional food procurement policies so that hospital food isn’t something to avoid.

Gottlieb’s willingness to use the federal tools at his disposal to help Americans improve their health through better nutrition is encouraging. But the issue of diet-related disease is beyond the scope of the FDA alone. I hope other members of the administration can join him in taking a cue from Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s 1st District in the House of Representatives and serves on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration.

Tags Chellie Pingree food as medicine Lynn Jenkins Roger Marshall

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