New generations have become increasingly aware of the potential medicinal power of food, according to the consumer research firm NPD Group. “While it is commonly understood that good nutrition promotes general health, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how their food and beverage choices can help them manage and, in some cases, reverse certain medical conditions,” the company said in an August 2019 press release.
“Younger adults, ages 18 to 24, are particularly interested in using foods to improve their health,” the company further states. “For example, 9 percent of adults say a top nutrition goal is protecting brain health and when asked about foods that promote brain health, young adults were 45 percent more likely to express an interest in these products compared with 35- to 44-year-olds.” NPD Group says that the so-called “superfoods,” (an oversimplified nutrition concept that Katz cautions against) that consumers are expressing the most interest in include elderberry, cannabidiol (CBD), and manuka honey.
Meanwhile, there’s evidence of a recent bump in interest in books and media about food as medicine. Entering the search terms “food is medicine” and “food as medicine” on Amazon yields 29 results for 2018, 44 results for 2019, and 31 results for 2020, suggesting that while interest has fluctuated, it hasn’t waned.
Meal Delivery Services
What’s more, a growing number of meal delivery services distributed commercially are rooted in the idea of using food as medicine. Here are some examples and details on how they work:
Remember the healthy frozen food brand Luvo? In 2019 it was rebranded as Performance Kitchen, with an all-star roster of former pro athletes, such as co-owners and Major League Baseball’s David Ortiz and Tori Hunter. Performance Kitchen also has a meal delivery service states with the stated goal to “to make ‘Food is Medicine’ an easy and accessible solution for everyone no matter what your unique needs.” In particular, their “Performance Kitchen Crafted” line is prepared in small batches that minimize sugar and sodium, and can be ordered for specific diets, such as maternity health (in first to third trimester plans), dairy-free, gluten-free, keto, low FODMAP, renal (for kidney disease), vegan, Whole30 and Mediterranean. You can order them in seven-day meal plans that range between $130 and $250 in price weekly, or a la carte for roughly $7 to $10 per single serving frozen meal.
This meal delivery service focuses on the low FODMAP diet, which is tailored to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea and constipation. All of Modify Health‘s meals are fresh and free of gluten, wheat, refined sugars, and peanuts, as well as artificial colors and flavors. You also have the option to exclude ingredients such as dairy, red meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and soy. Seven-day meal plans start at $165 per week, with optional dietitian support for an additional one-time $99 fee for three consultations. Single meals start at $8.
Catering to gluten-free eating (the only treatment for people with celiac disease, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation), as well as the low FODMAP diet needs, this service delivers fresh meals (not frozen) that are free of hormones, preservatives, and antibiotics. Rather than choose meal plans, you simply order a la carte dishes that cost an average of $15 each, for as many as a month’s worth at a time. Epicured also has vegan and dairy-free options on the menu.
Marketed primarily to seniors, Magic Kitchen delivers frozen meals that follow a broad array of diets including those for people who have diabetes and kidney disease (renal and dialysis), and those who need to minimize fat and sodium or exclude dairy. Gluten-free eaters and vegetarians are in luck, although vegans must look elsewhere for their culinary needs. Meal plans range from $82 to $275 per week for one to three meals per day. A la carte meals range from $10 to $35 each for two servings per meal.
Telemedicine Platforms and Apps
Digital resources, including telemedicine and apps, can also help you use food as medicine.
“Telemedicine is increasing the access to nutrition professionals,” says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, who is based in Jacksonville, Florida, and is a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “So, you don’t necessarily have to go to a clinic anymore. You can have a telemedicine visit with a registered dietitian.”
There are many ways you can connect with an RDN online using a computer, tablet or phone, but Dr. Wright says the best approach is to ask your healthcare provider to make a referral or to check your insurance company’s directory of nutrition professionals and then use whichever telemedicine platform the provider you have chosen is using.
Some people are going a step further and using apps and platforms to make diet changes for health results, like disease management or weight loss. Examples of platforms that encourage using food as medicine include:
Virta is a medically tailored, nutrition-based program that aims to help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar without medications or insulin. It is based on an individualized version of the keto diet, a low-carb, high-fat regimen that reduces the need for insulin by placing your state in a ketosis, during which it burns fat for fuel. For $249 per month, plus a $250 initiation fee, you’ll receive remote care via a desktop or mobile app that enables telehealth visits by doctors and health coaches, as well as tools to track your biometric data. The service also comes with supplies for measuring blood sugar, ketones, blood pressure, body weight, and the weight of food you consume.
DayTwo also uses medically tailored nutrition to treat type 2 diabetes, but with a twist on the traditional low-carb approach. The service analyzes the microbes in your gut, which are involved in digestion, to determine how you will uniquely respond to food. A growing body of research indicates that imbalances in gut microbes are linked to insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes. For $499, DayTwo will analyze a stool sample that you provide and then make personalized recommendations through its app for what you should eat to keep your blood sugar under control. You’ll also get a 30-minute consultation with a nutritionist.
Zoe promises to help optimize your health and weight, and boost your energy, by testing your gut microbiome and level of dietary inflammation after eating. Its algorithms are based, in part, on data from an ongoing U.K. trial, published in June 2020 in Nature Medicine, involving identical twins. The app is designed to predict a person’s response to food in terms of blood sugar and triglyceride, or blood fat, levels. Program subscriptions start at $59 per month for a test kit, meal recommendations, and telemedicine chat sessions with a nutrition coach. There is a six-month commitment, meaning the cost is $354 before tax.
If you are managing gastrointestinal conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, diverticular diseases, and gallstones, see if your employer or health plan offers Vivante Health’s GI Thrive. The integrated digital platform and telemedicine service includes gut microbe analyses, apps for monitoring and managing your condition, personalized nutrition counseling from a registered dietitian, and 24/7 support from a team that also includes nurses and a health coach. Check with your employer or health plan for any associated costs.
Katz’s app DietID takes a user’s biometric data and a user-friendly, image-driven way of detecting their diet preferences to help their nutritionist or healthcare provider prescribe an individualized diet for their optimal health. It takes about two minutes. “We can do this on any patient’s smartphone or an iPad in a doctor’s waiting room,” says Katz. While the app is not available directly to consumers, DietID has struck recent deals with companies such as the vitamin provider Nature’s Bounty, who will use their technology to help consumers select vitamins.
If you decide to follow the advice of a “food is medicine” service or app, remember that it’s still important to connect with a registered dietitian who knows you and your medical needs, Wright cautions. They will know if the advice you are receiving is truly appropriate for you — not just from a health standpoint, but also based on what you can afford, your environment and even your cultural traditions.
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