Certainly, the idea that the food people eat plays a role in their overall health is not new, but a small number of American physicians are taking this piece of advice more literally –prescribing nutritional changes or diet programmes in conjunction with conventional treatment drugs to prevent, reduce or even reverse disease in their patients.

"There's no question people can take things a long way toward reversing diabetes, reversing hypertension, even preventing cancer by food choices," says Daniel Nadeau, program director of the Mary and Dick Allen Diabetes Center.

His words echo the sentiments of a small but growing number of healthcare professionals in California and Philadelphia, who are actively making food a formal part of treatment, rather than relying solely on medications.

A new way for doctors to help patients

“Pills have a lot of side effects,” said Eric Appelbaum, chief medical officer at SBH Medical System. “Pills are expensive.”

Several programs to that effect have already been launched, including the Diabetes Center’s "Shop with Your Doc" program, where patients can sign up to meet with a doctor at the grocery store for advice on shopping more healthy foods. The doctor will also entertain questions by shoppers who are passing by.

The Therapeutic Food Pantry program at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital is another such initiative that gives patients several bags of food prescribed for their condition, along with intensive culinary training to encourage the long-term acquisition of the diet change. It has completed its pilot phase and is all set to be adopted in five clinic sites throughout the city.

"We really want to link food and medicine, and not just give away food," explained Rita Nguyen, the hospital's medical director of Healthy Food Initiatives.

"We want people to understand what they're eating, how to prepare it, the role food plays in their lives."

Healthcare professionals and patients alike must be educated

According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of deaths from heart disease and stroke are caused by high blood pressure, tobacco use, elevated cholesterol and low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Although research on the effect of food in preventing or reverse disease is beginning to accumulate, it may be a while before it fully takes. With the busy lifestyles that many in the modern world lead, it can be tempting to take the easy way in meal preparations; eschewing healthy, home-cooked vegetables and lean meat for pre-packaged or frozen meals and sugary drinks and desserts.

Doctors, too, need to be educated on the power of food in disease prevention and treatment. The results of a 2014 study of 84% of US medical schools revealed that medical student received an average of “23.9 contact hours of nutrition instruction during medical school” – which was below the minimum of 25 hours recommended. However, medical institutions are working to remedy that.

In California, Loma Linda University School of Medicine offers specialised training for its resident physicians in Lifestyle Medicine—a formal subspecialty in using food to treat disease. "It's a different paradigm of how to treat disease," says Brenda Rea, who helps run the family and preventive medicine residency program there.

"As what happened with tobacco, this will require a cultural shift, but that can happen," says Nguyen. "In the same way physicians used to smoke, and then stopped smoking and were able to talk to patients about it, I think physicians can have a bigger voice in it."

Role of diet in overall health cannot be overstated

Food not only provides energy to the body in the form of calories; substances in food such as antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and fibre play a key role in determining the body’s cardiovascular health, levels of inflammation and blood sugar, and even affecting the ease and efficiency with which waste in the body is eliminated.

Poor diet is linked to many modern health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and there have even been studies exploring the effect of diet on making the body inhospitable to cancer cells.

Food alone cannot be the solution to serious illnesses, and not all illnesses benefit from a diet change. Still, diet can have a mild reversing effect on certain chronic conditions. For example, there are multiple studies which prove that hibiscus tea can lower blood pressure, owing to their concentration of anthocyanins.

"What people eat can be medicine or poison," Rea says. "As a physician, nutrition is one of the most powerful things you can change to reverse the effects of chronic disease." MIMS

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