Long-time food as medicine advocate and leading cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian will take the helm as the inaugural director of the Food is Medicine Institute, which explained at a launch event will help bridge the gap between nutrition and the medical system by integrating food as medicine into electronic health records, clinical care pathways and referral systems, leading clinical interventions such as medically tailored meals, groceries and produce prescriptions, and providing interdisciplinary training for physicians, scientists and healthcare professionals.
The institute also will drive community and private sector engagement and policy development, which are essential for advancing food as medicine and societal equity nationwide.
“The way the Institute is going to approach this is to think about food based nutritional interventions, integrated into healthcare, to treat disease and advance health equity with supportive policies and programs at the population level and in federal nutrition programs,” he said.
Such an ambitious undertaking cannot be reached by the Institute alone, noted Caroline Genco, provost and senior vice president at Tufts University. She explained at the launch event that it requires a “team effort with the faculty and the students in the Friedman School … with the School of Medicine, with our partners at Tufts Medicine, as well as our collaborators, both private and public across the country.”
Early supporters include Kaiser Permanent, which will help design, implement and assess clinical trials examining the impact of produce prescriptions in those with diet-related chronic diseases or high-risk pregnancies; Google, which will explore how technology and AI can improve nutrition information; and John Hancock, among dozens of others.
Institute launches ‘at a critical time’
Establishing the Food is Medicine Institute comes “at a critical time, when health disparities and lack of access to healthy food are significant drivers of poor health” and when there is “tremendous momentum across both the public and private sectors in the US to really address this issue,” Genco said.
Indeed, more than 500,000 deaths per year – or 10,000 deaths per week – in the United States are directly attributable to poor nutrition, noted Mozaffarian.
“On top of poor nutrition and all of the deaths and disability and suffering from poor nutrition, there is also, of course, dire and very unequally distributed food insecurity in our nation. And food insecurity isn’t exactly the same as poor nutrition, but they overlap quite a bit,” he added.
“The same areas of our country that are suffering from food insecurity and poor nutrition have the highest rates of suffering from diet-related diseases,” he said.
He added the societal costs beyond individual people and families also “are incredible,” with analysis by The Rockefeller Foundation estimating that $1.1 trillion is lost in the economy every year due to the economic costs of food insecurity and poor nutrition.
‘We don’t have to have negative adversarial relationship with the food sector'
The institute will look for root causes of food insecurity and poor nutrition, the focus of which Mozaffarian argues has predominantly focused on limiting “too much of bad things” like sugar sweetened beverages or high sodium packaged foods, but should also include insufficient good nutrition.
“There’s more deaths from insufficient protective factors than from excess harmful factors, which is really important because the way we’ve approached food in the last 30 years with the obesity and diabetes epidemic was as something negative, something we have to worry about and … have less or and reduce and limit and restrict and tax and have warning labels,” he said.
While he acknowledged “that is true for some limited things … those kinds of polices don’t work to increase the intake of the healthful foods and that is really what is missing” and on which the Food is Medicine Institute will focus.
By flipping the script to focus on the positive rather than the negative, Mozaffarian said he hopes to restore “a positive relationship between people and food, restore a positive relationship of people with farms and farmers and grocery stores and the people supplying the food.”
He added: “We don’t have to have a negative adversarial relationship with the food sector that is feeding us. That should be a positive, nurturing relationship with the food sector.”
Food as medicine “done right” also can advance other national priorities related to strengthening local and regional food systems, supporting local farmers and even prioritizing certain farming practices, like regenerative farming, Mozaffarian added.
“There can be this beneficial loop … of positive progress for not just health and the economy, but also for farms and for our food sector,” he said.
A far-reaching collaborative effort
While the launch of the Food is Medicine Institute represents a turning point for nutrition in health care in many ways, Mozaffarian stressed the Institute is not starting from scratch.
“There are many organizations, many government policies, many actions going on across the nation, from clinical societies to President Biden and his national strategies to healthcare organizations to entrepreneurs to nonprofits” all operating in and advancing food as medicine, he said.
And together, he said he believes, they can drive significant change in the health of the nation and food system in the coming years.
[Editor’s note: Interested in learning how else the food as medicine movement is expanding? Join FoodNavigator-USA’s upcoming Futureproofing the Food System where we explore the potential of nutrition interventions in health with insights from the American Heart Association, The Rockefeller Foundation, Instacart, Step One Foods and more. Check out the agenda and register.]