Food and Behaviour Research

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Food is medicine: actions to integrate food and nutrition into healthcare

Downer S, Berkowitz S, Harlan T, Olstad D, Mozaffarian D (2020) British Medical Journal 2020;369  DOI: 10.1136/bmj.m2482 

Web URL: Read this and related articles on the BMJ


A global epidemic of diet related chronic disease has prompted experimentation using food as a formal part of patient care and treatment. One of every five deaths across the globe is attributable to suboptimal diet, more than any other risk factor including tobacco.1 Individual interactions with the healthcare system are an important opportunity to offer evidence based food and nutrition interventions. An emerging but compelling body of research indicates that such interventions delivered in the healthcare system might be associated with improved health outcomes and reduced healthcare usage and costs. These data point to the potential for food and nutrition interventions to play a prominent role in the prevention, management, treatment, and even in some cases reversal of disease. When broadly deployed, interventions that are effective for individual patients have the potential to affect population health and shape broader food and health policy reform. Realisation of health benefits is, however, hampered by lack of investment in research, low levels of clinician nutrition knowledge and awareness of interventions, and narrow access to appropriate services and programmes. Tackling each of these challenges is critical to achieving a healthcare system in which nutrition and food are a routine part of evidence based disease prevention and treatment.

We argue for increased integration of specific food and nutrition interventions in—or closely coordinated with—the healthcare system, an initiative often known as “food is medicine.” We focus on novel interventions such as medically tailored meals and prescriptions for produce that incorporate food strategies to improve health in the structure and funding of the healthcare system rather than traditional medical nutrition interventions such as those that focus on vitamin or other nutrient supplements or medical foods.