This Month’s Food as Medicine Roundup: December 20, 2019

Sahra Pak December 20, 2019
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Sahra Pak
As a registered dietitian, Sahra brings her extensive experience in health care and public health to Lighter to improve the health of the population through effective communication, sustainable behavior modification approaches and upstream intervention strategies. Through her work with Los Angeles and Solano County Departments of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente, and partnering with health advocacy organizations such as CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), Sahra has helped create sustainable food systems, adapted public policy, implemented environmental change, and health education programs.


Thank you for checking out this week’s edition of our Food as Medicine News Roundup! Once a month, I’ll share a collection of important and trending articles in the food as medicine space.

2019 went by in a flash but one thing is clear ⏤ the food as medicine movement is here to stay and many policies that affect food types and amounts must be at the forefront of our work in order to create an equitable and healthy foodscape. Read on to find how SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) can help people in need of better access to healthy foods, how we can work together to reduce the spread of antibiotic-resistant super bugs to protect the health of our communities, and how ‘food pharmacies’ are on the rise across the nation.    

SNAP can help your patients have a healthy holiday despite challenges 

In early October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed yet another cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to the tune of $4.5 billion over five years. This change will reduce the monthly benefit by as much as $75 for one in five families on SNAP. USDA finalized the new rule expected to eliminate SNAP access to close to 700,000 adults on December 4. 


“The policy targets very poor people struggling to work — some of whom are homeless or living with health conditions.”

⏤Stacy Dean, Food Assistance Policy Vice President, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities


SNAP is critically important for those who need assistance to purchase and have access to food. Despite what you may hear in the news, SNAP promotes long-term health and wellbeing, particularly for children, even though the assistance is quite small (just $1.40 on average, per person per meal). After evaluating SNAP’s effectiveness on health, beyond improving food security, evidence suggests that SNAP may be associated with promoting better health, lower health care costs, and decrease mortality risks. In a most recent study via the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University in New York, the researchers found that those who participated in SNAP led to a reduction of approximately 1 to 2 percentage points in premature all-cause mortality (population-wide reduction). Furthermore, among those between 40 to 65 years of age, deaths associated with alcoholic liver disease, cirrhosis, poisoning, or suicide decreased.  

Food insecurity is a critical issue that must be tackled via policy and system changes. However, healthcare providers have a significant part to play by recognizing the issue and give thought to the most appropriate nutrition support that includes food accessibility assessments and considerations.  


Drug-resistant super bugs are responsible for the death of an American every 15 minutes 

Outbreaks caused by bacteria such as Salmonella seem to occur on a daily basis - from meat and poultry that have been handled improperly to holiday party foods that were left out too long. According to the CDC, close to 48 million Americans fall ill due to food poisoning each year. Infection is caused by a few bugs, but the top two that are the biggest offenders are Campylobacter and Salmonella. The top 6 foods that come with a high risk of food poisoning are eggs, meats (chicken, beef, poultry, and turkey, particularly), produce (contaminated between farm to table, including cross-contaminated in the kitchen from meats), fermented foods, seafood, and raw milk and cheeses. 

What’s more, an estimated 660,900 antibiotic-resistant (AR) infections occur in the U.S. every year due to Campylobacter and Salmonella. When other AR bacteria are taken into account, at least 2.8 million people are infected each year and about 35,000 of those die due to the infections

The new report by the CDC, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, is the first major update since 2013 when the “urgent” threats by AR were studied. What’s the answer? The key may be to use less antibiotics. CDC estimates that 30% of antibiotics used for patients were unnecessary. And it’s not just in humans. We continue to overuse antibiotics in animals where over 20% of all drug-resistant infections actually come from the food we eat. 


’Food pharmacies’ may be one the best next steps for practicing and realizing food as medicine for patients

Increasingly, food retailers that still offer pharmacy services are partnering with grocery delivery services to increase convenience as well as offering telehealth support and complementary nutrition support by in-store dietitians to make healthy food purchasing decisions as they shop for food and medications. 

In the Northern California Bay Area region, local clinics are offering access to food pharmacies where the program aims to improve the health of low-income patients by offering discounted or free fresh-produce together with a Food Rx from their healthcare provider. Clinic-based food pharmacies are appearing nationwide as a result of an expanding “food is medicine movement” that started in places like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Now, from Ohio to Tennessee, more and more healthcare providers and hospitals are providing access to healthy foods inside the provider’s office or hospital. 


“I can prescribe medications all day, but if they can’t do the other piece — which is a decent diet and just knowing they’re not going to have to miss meals. Medications have to be managed around all of those things.”

⏤Suzanne Hurley, Co-director, Connectus Health


In order to increase patient engagement that leads to better health outcomes, programs that include food pharmacy such as delivery or offerings of fresh foods, cooking lessons, and other social support to encourage cooking may be part of the solution to improve the social determinants of health.  

So back to the holiday party. When sharing healthy holiday tips with patients, health-supportive, safe, and accessible foods are key. Foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts promote healing, health, and peace within our bodies and for our planet. 


Let’s keep food as medicine at the center of the holiday table as we welcome the New Year!

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