Preventable diseases resulting from dietary choices serve as a wake-up call to make policy changes and integrate a greater level of clinician and primary care education on the role of nutrition and "food is medicine" interventions, according to a new bipartisan report on improving health care through nutrition.

“Poor diet quality is not just a matter of personal choice. It’s really a systemic problem affecting nearly all Americans in the country from the lowest income Americans to upper income Americans,” former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said at a Bipartisan Policy Center event Tuesday.

“It’s the root and leading cause of preventable disease and deaths in our nation.”

He noted that 37 million U.S. adults, more than 11% of the population, suffer from diabetes, with another 96 million grappling with pre-diabetes.

The BPC report makes 10 recommendations, with a major focus on improving education at the clinician level.

"A major—and long-standing—barrier to improving nutrition security and access to FIM (food is medicine) interventions is the lack of health care provider education about nutrition," the report says.

The report says "other barriers to nutrition security and FIM interventions include inconsistent coverage and payment, as well as inadequate coordination between the health care system and community-based organizations that provide food."

Glickman said the report "addresses interventions such as medically tailored meals that can provide these services and also provides efforts to ensure that our medical profession is being properly trained and helping patients cope with these preventable diseases."

Former Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, a physician and BPC senior fellow, said that in his own medical education he “barely scratched the surface when it came to nutrition impact on health.”

He said the nation is facing an “epidemic of diet and lifestyle-driven chronic diseases, which costs Americans over a trillion dollars ever year.”

“Food has the power to heal,” Frist said. “And we’re finally recognizing this with more than half of all Medicare Advantage plans offering some type of meal benefit.”

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Dr. Kofi Essel, who is food as medicine director with the insurance company Elevance Health, also stressed the importance of training clinicians. “One of the most powerful tools that we can use to improve the health of our patients is food and nutrition." 

Essel recently served as director of culinary medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine, where he learned the importance of blending the art of cooking with nutrition medicine. Essel said patients can’t always just be told to “eat better” without knowing what to do. 

He also said food is medicine tools can help improve nutrition security, which takes into account not just the amount of food consumed, but the quality of food as well.

“Food insecurity always incorporated a quality metric, but nutrition insecurity allows us to hyper focus on that quality metric on equity, prevention, medical treatment of disease,” he said. “But we don’t just need to think about those who are sick, but also thinking about those who we want to prevent from being sick as well.”

Lauri Wright, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said the current Dietary Guidelines for America, including the MyPlate suggestions, address overall health and prevent.

However, she said there may be an opportunity to “pivot from general guidelines to medical nutrition therapy and personalized nutrition plan.”

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