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Nutrition Expert to U.S. Senators: Enact Food is Medicine Policy Now

Treating food as medicine in policymaking will save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars, said Friedman School’s Dariush Mozaffarian

Dariush Mozaffarian, director of the Food is Medicine Institute at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, spoke before a United States Senate committee on Tuesday afternoon, May 21, to argue for quick Congressional action on bolstering food is medicine (FIM) initiatives throughout the country. 

The food is medicine approach centers on using nutrition, by way of actual food, to prevent, treat, and manage disease, he explained to the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security. This can involve medically tailored meals and prescriptions for produce, nutrition education for doctors, and more. 

“Food is medicine can improve health and save money. There’s almost nothing in health care that can do both of those things,” said Mozaffarian, who is Jean Mayer Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School, where he was the dean for eight years. He is also a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. “It’s time for Congressional action to help bring food is medicine to the American people.”

Measurable Health Benefits 

Poor nutrition, Mozaffarian told senators, is the leading cause of death and disability in the United States, with the typical American diet—high in refined starch, sugar, salt, and other additives and low in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, seafood, and yogurt—causing an estimated 10,000 deaths, 1,500 new cases of cancer, and 16,000 new cases of diabetes each week. 

“Over the course of any given year, I see and speak to thousands of Americans who know in their gut that our food is making them sick, and yet feel helpless do anything about it. This inability to eat well is literally lethal,” Mozaffarian said.

Food is medicine treatments have proven to improve blood pressure, mental health, and disease self-management, and reduce body mass index and the potential for complications from diabetes, he said.

Cost-saving Power 

Such treatments also can save money compared to other common medical interventions, Mozaffarian pointed out, especially when targeted to high-risk patients with complex medical conditions. 

In an analysis he contributed to with Friedman School colleagues, a state’s medically tailored meals program resulted in net annual savings of $9,000 for each patient treated, even after accounting for the costs of the program. 

Based on his own research, he also estimated that about 6 million Americans qualify for medically tailored meals, and that providing them would save nearly $14 billion annually.

The Importance of Access

While FIM programs are accelerating across the country, Mozaffarian said, most Americans can’t access them, partly because of the way Medicare and commercial health insurance plans work. Other obstacles include a lack of FIM vendors and suppliers and medical education among healthcare providers. 

Mozaffarian called upon Congress to update policies to allow greater access to FIM programs across the country and a greater overall benefit from the FIM approach. 

“The nation is at a tipping point to accelerate FIM,” he said. “More research and implementation projects are critical to assess which FIM programs work best for which patients.” 

Specifically, Mozaffarian said, Congress should create policies that support FIM programs at community health centers, which serve the most vulnerable Americans. Congress should also advance FIM in Medicare, he said, and encourage the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Intervention to incorporate and test FIM approaches in their pilot programs. 

A Matter of National Health and Security

The effects of such updated policies will be far-reaching, Mozaffarian said.

On top of making hundreds of millions of individuals sick, poor nutrition contributes to large-scale problems across the country, he pointed out. It causes an estimated $1.1 trillion in economic losses every year from preventable healthcare spending and lost productivity. It affects budgets at every level, from households to businesses to state and federal governments. 

Poor nutrition is also “an urgent matter of national security,” he said: Nearly 8 in 10 young Americans do not qualify for military service, largely because they are overweight or obese. 

And it disproportionately affects low-income and historically marginalized communities, driving societal discord, he said.

“If you want to do the things that you believe are important for the American people,” he told senators, “you will never have the funds you need until we reduce healthcare spending. And healthcare spending will never go down until we fix food.”