It’s no secret that the standard American diet leaves a lot to be desired. The amount of health-disrupting, ultra-processed foods we consume has led to the obesity epidemic that’s both complicating lives and costing billions of dollars. The good news is innovative health care providers are finding new ways to combat this obsession with nutrient-deficient foods. Take, for instance, Geisinger Health System, which has introduced a fresh food pharmacy to prescribe food as medicine. (1)
That’s right — instead of prescribing drugs and simply suggesting people consumer healthier diets, Geisinger launched a fresh food pharmacy located at one of its hospitals in Pennsylvania where the shelves are stocked with nutritious, fresh food that is prescribed to certain patients. And it appears to be working, particularly aiding people struggling with type 2 diabetes.
What Is a Fresh Food Pharmacy?
This concept may sound strange at first, but when you consider all the different ways food affects health and how little the American public is actually told about the best foods to eat, it makes total sense. After all, food is medicine, so why shouldn’t doctors prescribe patients healthy, natural, delicious food patients can eat in place of the poisonous processed junk so many people consume?
That’s exactly what the fresh food pharmacy concept is about. Over the past year, about 180 type II diabetes patients have taken part in a pilot fresh food pharmacy program through which they’re prescribed food and receive free healthy groceries every week. The goal is to help these people lose weight and control their diabetes by eating healthier diets.
Each program participant meets with a registered dietician, who provides the patient recipes and direct, hands-on directions on making nutritious, healthy meals. Then the patients go home with five days’ worth of fresh food, all for free.
This approach is very similar to my diabetic diet plan. It helps people eat better foods filled with protein, fiber, chromium, magnesium and healthy fats to balance blood sugar levels. In addition, the fresh food pharmacy can help diabetics and those combatting obesity avoid sugar, grains and unhealthy dairy. It encourages people to eat the food they’re prescribed as opposed to making quick, unhealthy choices, and it can do wonders for patients.
One diabetic participant was more than 100 pounds overweight and had to have a toe amputated due to a diabetes-related infection. Since going to the fresh food pharmacy, he’s lost 45 pounds, his blood pressure and blood sugar have dropped, and he’s more active — to the point doctors believe they will able to reduce his medications if he remains on this trajectory. The same is true for many of the patients in the program.
What About Cost?
Clearly, this approach to treat obesity and obesity-related conditions is a great step in helping Americans really understand how diet affects health and, more importantly, how to eat a healthy diet. I’m sure, however, there are many of you wondering about the cost of essentially subsidizing people’s food choices, particularly in a time when health care costs are front and center.
There is a considerable cost. According to Geisinger, it costs about $1,000 a year for each fresh food pharmacy patient. Obviously, that can add up — but when you look at the potential savings in patients becoming healthier and having less complications, the cost appears to pay for itself and then some very quickly. While Geisinger’s team is tracking data and hopes to analyze the full year’s worth of results to calculate the effectiveness and the cost, the initial observations are very promising.
In fact, David Feinberg, president and CEO of Geisinger Health System, says by decreasing hemoglobin A1C one point — a blood test that tracks blood sugar control — saves the health care company about $8,000. In the first year, Geisinger has seen most patients have a three-point decline, meaning that $1,000 investment is saving Geisinger about $24,000 per patient a year.
Programs like the fresh food pharmacy may sound expensive at first, but then you look at the numbers and realize just how staggering they care for health care costs. Treating diabetics alone costs around $245 billion directly each year in the U.S., and the true cost is even more globally. (2) According to figures from Harvard, the global cost of treating diabetes is more than $825 billion a year. (3) That’s right, the climbing diabetes epidemic is approaching a trillion dollars in health care costs.
Fresh Food Pharmacy and Preventative Medicine
With programs like the fresh food pharmacy, an initial investment in teaching people natural, preventative measures can mitigate this cost and improve health throughout the world. Think about it — not only does eating healthy cost less than medical treatment with drugs, visits and surgeries, but it also can decrease mortality rates due to diet-related diseases. This is huge considering that about half of deaths from heart disease, diabetes and stroke are linked to diet. (4)
That amounts to huge numbers given that these conditions account for three of the top seven leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: (5)
- Heart disease: 614,348
- Cancer: 591,699
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 147,101
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 136,053
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 133,103
- Alzheimer’s disease: 93,541
- Diabetes: 76,488
- Influenza and pneumonia: 55,227
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,146
- Intentional self-harm (suicide): 42,773
By preventing disease in the first place, people can live longer and health care costs can come down dramatically. And there’s not better prevention than a healthy diet and exercise, which programs like fresh food pharmacy are taking aim at.
Preventing Disease Through Diet
Whether or not you’re looking to loose weight or naturally treat a condition, consuming a healthy, healing diet is something everyone should do. Programs like fresh food pharmacy put an emphasis on this, but even if you aren’t able to get food prescriptions, you are in control of your food choices. So instead of eating fast food and other junk, opt for the best foods to maintain a healthy weight and healthy lifestyle.
Below are the foods to eat and avoid for optimal health:
Foods to Eat
Foods to Avoid
- Corn and soybean oils
- Pasteurized, conventional dairy
- Refined carbohydrates
- Conventional meat
- Sugars of all kinds
- Trans fats
Final Thoughts on Fresh Food Pharmacy
- Heart disease, stroke and diabetes are three of the top seven causes of death in the U.S., and research shows about half of deaths due to those three conditions are linked to diet.
- Programs like Geisinger Health System’s fresh food pharmacy are prescribing food as medicine to combat the obesity and obesity-related diseases epidemic.
- By eating a healthy diet full of real, healing foods, people can stave off some of the most lethal diseases, which in turn can extend life expectancy and bring down health care costs through preventative measures.
- Instead of relying on conventional medicine and waiting until it’s too late, educate yourself on how diet affects health and integrate what you glean into your daily life by following a healing diet that avoids processed junk foods and focuses on real, whole foods that combat disease.