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Lifestyle medicine for all: Healthy food comes first

Monique Tello, M.D., M.P.H., Harvard Health Blog on

Published in Health & Fitness

“Lifestyle medicine is only for rich people, right?” a colleague asked me several years ago, questioning my involvement in this relatively new field of medicine that guides people toward healthy habits. This has been a common misperception, for sure.

But across the U.S., a revitalized brand of health activism is intent on bringing lifestyle medicine to a broader range of people. This is backed by a new effort from the American College of Lifestyle Medicine to engage communities most affected by chronic disease.

The first pillar of healthy lifestyle: Food is medicine

Lifestyle medicine is an evidence-based practice of helping people adopt and sustain healthy behaviors like improving diet, increasing activity, managing stress, sleeping well, moderating alcohol consumption and quitting tobacco. Large studies show such habits can extend our lives by well over a decade. What’s more, these habits can even keep these extra years free of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer.

Eating a plant-based diet — meaning a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds and whole grains — can lower inflammation, as well as the risk of many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer. Simply put, food is medicine. Some doctors are providing this information to patients as part of their regular medical care.

But many people do not have easy access to healthy plant foods. Especially now, they may be suffering from significant financial limitations, unemployment and unstable housing. Or they may live in a “food desert,” where grocery options are severely limited, or worse, a “food swamp,” an area where fast food and junk food are more available than anything else. Living in a food swamp puts people at a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese.

 

Ways to help change the equation

Helping patients access healthy plant foods is critically important. And some doctors and academic medical centers are taking action to bring healthy foods to underserved communities.

Food pantries. Dr. Jacob Mirsky is a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-director of the department of medicine’s Healthy Lifestyle Program. He works in an underserved community north of Boston, where he directs his clinic’s new plant-based food pantry. When he prescribes a plant-predominant diet to his patients, he also is able to provide the plants. He views this work as activism and a potent way to address inequalities while also taking care of his patients.

Plant-based food pantries and food prescription programs have been positively received by communities. One such program in a rural, low-income area of Texas provided 30 pounds of fresh produce to households identified as food-insecure — meaning they did not have enough food to eat — every two weeks for six months. Participants described the program as critical for helping them feed their families, and 99% reported that they consumed all or almost all of the food they received.

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