Food has enormous power to harm or heal. According to Francesco Branca, director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization, “unhealthy diet is the top risk factor for the Global Burden of Disease. The relative importance of this factor has been growing and requires urgent attention.”
Every single person reading this likely knows someone who is living with, or who has passed away because of a chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. A global study finds that approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the U.S. population, have a chronic disease. That number is projected to grow to an estimated 157 million, with 81 million people having multiple conditions. The National Health Council cites that chronic disease is the cause of 7 out of every 10 deaths in the United States. 75% of all health care costs go towards treating chronic conditions; often ineffectively in reducing early mortality.
While these statistics are heartbreaking (and for many of us they represent unwelcomed hospital visits and funerals), there is also some good news. Research has shown that we can prevent, halt, and in some cases even reverse chronic disease through diet. Dr. Ostfeld, a renowned cardiologist at Montefiore Hospital said in a Forbes article, “If the pharmaceutical industry produced a pill that provided the healing power of a plant-based diet, it would be a blockbuster.”
Although we’ve known about the healing power of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables for decades, mainstream medicine is only now starting to recognize the power of nutrition to reverse disease. In fact, Reuters recently reported on a study that showed we could save over $100 billion in healthcare costs by prescribing personal nutrition plans to patients.
The Troubling Gap Between Nutritional Advice and Healthy Eating
Currently, healthcare providers lack the scalable tools to prescribe a personalized nutrition program for their patients at risk for early mortality due to chronic disease. Lighter conducted a recent survey of hundreds of healthcare providers, all of whom were very motivated to prescribe a better diet for their patients. When we asked them what kind of tools and resources they use to prescribe food as medicine, they listed the following four:
- Documentaries and books
- Handouts that they downloaded from the internet
- Handouts that they have made themselves
- Cookbooks or recipe sites on the internet
The problem with all these resources is that none of them can be personalized to the individual patient’s needs. These impersonal resources do not take into consideration key factors such as the patient’s particular health goals, the kinds of food they like and dislike, whether or not they can cook, who else they are feeding at their dinner table, their socio-economic status, or what kind of kitchen equipment they have at home.
And, because these resources are not personalized to a patient’s need, it makes it that much harder for patients to stick to the plan, change their behavior and achieve better health outcomes.
To help people make a transition to better eating habits, nutrition programs must be personalized, delicious, easy-to-use, and convenient. They must enable progress tracking and provide long-term support for patients.
Partnering to Bridge the Gap
It turns out that it isn’t just healthcare providers who experience frustration with the way diets are currently prescribed: patients also don’t have good experiences. AARP recently organized two days of focus groups to better understand what patients want when it comes to dietary advice and support. AARP recruited people recently diagnosed with a chronic disease who shared with us the types of dietary advice they received from their healthcare systems.
The focus group showed that most people, when diagnosed with a chronic disease like diabetes or heart disease, knew they should change the way they eat and were generally motivated to do so. However, they expressed deep frustration with the advice they received from their healthcare provider. They reported receiving generalized advice such as, “cut down on carbs” or “stay away from sodium” or “read nutrition labels” or “don’t eat ice-cream.” If their healthcare provider did go into more detail, patients generally got the “no, no, no” diet, i.e. they were given a general list of foods they shouldn’t eat.
But we know that what people really want is the “yes, yes, yes” diet. They want to know that there is an abundance of foods they can enjoy while they heal their bodies. This “yes-to-food” approach is what motivates them to stick with (and actually begin to enjoy) a diet program.
When patients don’t get advice from their healthcare provider they turn to advice from friends and family, popular media, or follow current diet fads. None of these are credible or effective sources that can provide lasting change, and in some cases they may even be dangerous for a patient’s health.
It’s clear that an enormous gap exists between a healthcare provider being able to give personalized dietary advice and a patient being able to turn that advice into healthier eating. Closing this “advice-behavior” gap creates value for both the healthcare provider and the patient. Despite the challenges referenced above, we actually can create better eating habits, reduce medical costs, and ensure a healthier and happier population.
Software as a Solution
New software and services are being developed to enable healthcare providers, health systems, payers or employee health benefit providers to quickly generate a personalized nutrition program for a patient based on their health condition. This software can integrate with grocery delivery vendors such as Amazon, Instacart, and Peapod for added convenience.
UI of Lighter software
The idea is, for example, if a mom who is at risk for heart disease can walk out of a doctor's appointment with a personalized nutrition program, along with the opportunity to have a curated bag of healthy groceries delivered to her doorstep within hours.
With more awareness and adoption of how to implement personalized dietary recommendations, and then, possibly most importantly, giving patients easy access to these diets, food can better fulfill its potential as a medicinal source. The development of these technologies and services have the potential to greatly change how we think about treatment and patient-diet dynamics.
This is a guest post from Alexis Fox, CEO of Lighter.
Lighter is a software and service that bridges the gap between dietary recommendations and patient action. Their newest product, LighterPRO, is used by a wide variety of providers, including health systems, payers, employee benefit providers, cardiologists, dietitians, health coaches, physicians, and others who want to prescribe food as medicine.
Lighter participated in MassChallenge HealthTech’s 2019 cohort and developed a partnership with MGH, one of the best health systems in the entire world, and with AARP, who has worked side-by-side with us to gather qualitative and quantitative data to help solve this very important problem.
They are driven to provide a scalable, effective, software solution for making food-as-medicine a healthy reality in the lives of patients and healthcare providers. Stay tuned for the launch this summer, and stay in touch. You can also follow them on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn.
About the Author
Alexis Fox has dedicated her life to fixing our broken food system. With 20 years’ experience under her belt, she has worked to usher in the future of food as attorney, political leader and entrepreneur. Fox has been featured in Forbes, the Boston Globe, and other national media. She is recognized as an international expert and speaker on the Future of Food. Fox also spent three years as an adjunct Professor of Leadership at Emerson College.