Food As Medicine: Doctors Prescribe Healthy Eating
We deal with big challenges in the American healthcare system. On the one hand, there's the system itself. Healthcare costs are rising. Physicians are busy. Health insurance is pricey and hard to get. These factors limit our access to good healthcare, and continue to be a source of strong political debate.
On the other hand, there's us. As a nation, we are mostly overweight and mostly under-active. Many of us have serious health problems like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Sources like the New England Journal of Medicine say that over the next several years, the average American's life expectancy could go down by as much as five years. This means that for the first time in history, we are raising children who are not expected to live as long as their parents' do. Many of the diseases which lead to shorter lives are caused by our lifestyle, like what we eat and how much exercise we get.
In other words: what's making Americans fat and sick can be prevented.
This is actually a good thing. If we can keep ourselves from getting cancer, diabetes, and other disorders, then we can lead healthier and longer lives. Preventing disease may also make healthcare less expensive, since healthier people are less likely to need surgeries and medications.
But why are we not stopping these diseases? One problem is that there's not a big focus on prevention in our healthcare. Doctors are good at treating symptoms by giving medications and ordering expensive procedures. But they don't always fix the underlying causes of those symptoms. Also, doctors aren't taught a lot about nutrition in medical school, so not every doctor can give their patients good information about what to eat.
Fortunately, some doctors are starting to treat patients differently. They're looking for ways to keep their patients from getting sick in the first place. And since healthy eating is a huge part of preventing disease, some doctors are actually prescribing fruits and vegetables to their patients.
One company, called the Wholesome Wave Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program (FVRx), works with hospitals, community health centers, and farmers' markets to help lower-income families get fresh local produce. Right now, FVRx runs in 33 states and the District of Columbia. In 2015, the company was granted $3.77 million from the United States Department of Agriculture to continue its mission. Other organizations, like the Institute for Functional Medicine, have similar goals and have doctors working all over the country.
So will prescriptive nutrition actually work? Will it make people healthier? Will it prevent disease? There are signs that fruit and vegetable "prescriptions" are a good move in the right direction. In 2013, two New York City hospitals working with FVRx found that almost half their patients in the program lost weight. Their patients also ate more fruits and vegetables than before. Many lower-income families also reported having more food at home. Thousands of patients and families around the country are seeing similar results thanks to help from their doctors.
It comes down to this: for many of us, eating fruits and veggies seems like a no-brainer. We know we need to exercise and to not eat too much sugar and processed foods. But sometimes, it's helpful to have a doctor's orders to keep us on track.
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