The researcher helps promote the concept of ‘Food is Medicine’ to achieve nutritional security goals

Food and Medicine programs promote overall well-being among food insecure people by focusing on the prevention or treatment of diet-related diseases. Credit: Max Esterhuizen for Virginia Tech.

Food is many things. It nourishes our bodies, delights our senses, and gives us something to rally around. Food is also a powerful cultural symbol, reflecting the traditions, values ​​and history of peoples around the world.

But for a researcher in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, food is also medicine.

Bailey Houghtaling, Ph.D., a registered dietitian, works to promote overall wellness among low-income and food-insecure people, with the goal of preventing or treating diet-related diseases.

“Access to enough nutritious food is essential for individual well-being,” said Houghtaling, also a registered dietitian and affiliate faculty member in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise. “Food and Medicine can encompass a variety of interventions.”

The White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, held in September 2022, renewed national attention and issued a call to action to end hunger and reduce the prevalence of chronic disease in the United States by 2030 Food and Medicine programs could help achieve this. this goal.

“These programs are promising, and there is currently a lot of emphasis on understanding effectiveness in promoting food and nutrition security, although it is important to recognize that Food is Medicine programs are implemented in different communities and in health care organizations with different levels. support or ability,” said Houghtaling, who is also a research scientist with the Center for Nutrition and Health Impact, a national nonprofit research and evaluation center. “Understanding factors is critical [within] it is these contexts that influence adoption, implementation, sustainability and scalability for public health impact.”

Houghtaling authored two papers that focus on barriers and opportunities for food integration as medicine. His first paper covers organizational factors in health care settings that affect the success of Food is Medicine programs.

The second paper outlines how to leverage nationally representative data among US households to identify individual, family, and community factors that likely influence participation and use of these programs. This is especially important for programs that limit redeemable products to only fresh fruits and vegetables. Not all Food is Medicine programs do this, but some do.

The first paper was recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. The latter was recently published in BMJ Open.

Food is medicine in healthcare

Food and Medicine programs are relatively new, and there is no standard guidance for implementation in healthcare settings. Houghtaling and colleagues conducted a review to explore barriers to program integration in US health care settings.

“In our research, we focused on cases where healthcare partners, such as physicians or other allied healthcare professionals, were conducting programs to screen patients with, or at risk of, chronic diet-related diseases chronic diet, for food insecurity,” said Houghtaling. . “For those who screened positive, we focused on programs where health care partners provided a low- or no-cost healthy food incentive [such as a produce prescription]for example for fruit and vegetables.”

Electronic medical record functionality to identify and track patients and increase data sharing between partner organizations was found to be important in supporting implementation and evaluation. Strategies to help healthcare staff implement these programs were also important, such as providing reminders and problem solving and technical support.

The study found that it was also important to involve physicians, health relatives, and students for success and to identify and address resource barriers early and often. Leadership support and alignment of the Food is Medicine program with the mission or values ​​of the healthcare organization was also critical to success.

“Many healthcare professionals who have implemented these programs have found them beneficial and have noted improvements in job satisfaction,” Houghtaling said.

Based on the results of this study, the research team developed an implementation checklist that can be a reference for health care, partner organizations, and technical assistance personnel to support Food is Medicine programs in these settings.

Houghtaling and co-authors noted many opportunities to improve the implementation of Food and Medicine in health care contexts moving forward.

Food is Medicine in the community

In the second study, the research team, also led by Houghtaling, described a plan to examine how “prescribing” products through the Food for Medicine incentive program could influence participation through the team’s protocol paper.

Through the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, participants receive product recipes that they can only redeem for fresh fruits and vegetables versus frozen, canned or dried options.

According to the researchers, this policy limitation could hurt participation and benefits for families living in communities with limited access to fresh produce.

“Households face higher barriers to access to fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States, depending on a number of factors,” Houghtaling said. “Understanding the implications of this policy limitation is important to inform future Food and Medicine policy that maximizes impact and equity.”

In the paper, the researchers plan to use the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey, a large representative data set, to examine this policy limitation to support sensitive policy decisions.

Achieving nutritional security is a national priority, which means enabling all Americans to have access to an adequate quantity and variety of foods and beverages recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including fruits and vegetables, and Virginia Tech researchers are helping to achieve that goal.

More information:
Bailey Houghtaling et al, Implementing Food and Medicine Programs in Healthcare Settings: A Narrative Review, Journal of General Internal Medicine (2024). DOI: 10.1007/s11606-024-08768-w

Bailey Houghtaling et al, How is eligibility for a GusNIP produce prescription related to fruit and vegetable purchases and what factors shape the relationship? A protocol for secondary analysis of nationally representative data in the USA, BMJ Open (2024). DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2024-085322

Available at Virginia Tech

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