Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023

It’s Time to Bring “Food as Medicine” into Your Health Program

Caroline Susie RDN,LDSenior Principal, MercerWELL, Mercer

Andy HalpertPartner, Clinical Innovation Leader, Mercer

Trinity ClevelandAssociate, Medical Consultant, Mercer


The concept of “Food as Medicine” is simple: Food aids individuals by supporting health. It doesn’t replace medicine, but it has the potential to enhance it. 

Does Food as Medicine have a role in employer health programs? Before we answer that question, let’s take a step back. It’s clear that there’s a dietary problem in the US. Only 1 in 10 people in this country consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. Lower-income households consume less produce and are at a higher risk for food insecurity and diet-related diseases. Healthy eating habits can be hard to adopt or maintain for those living in food deserts or who have difficulty covering the higher costs of fresh, health-conscious foods.

This is where the Food as Medicine movement comes in. Employers can potentially address food insecurity and nutrition insecurity by considering a benefit to deliver and/or subsidize healthy food. 

Employers can also assist employees who are newly diagnosed with a medical condition, such as diabetes, not only by offering and/or discounting healthy food but also by providing access to a dietitian to provide culinary education and medical nutrition therapy. Specific nutrients in foods can play a pivotal role in preventing and even managing a number of health conditions. For example, the consumption of whole grains and vegetables has been associated with stopping hypertension and, similarly, eating a diet high in fresh fruits, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, legumes, and fish has been tied to the prevention of chronic diseases.

Employers can further support employees who are experiencing complex health issues by offering delivery of medically tailored meals (MTMs) once the patient returns home from the hospital. MTMs are fully prepared home-delivered meals designed by a registered dietitian to address specific medical needs. A recent study published in JAMA found that national implementation of MTMs for high-risk individuals could produce a net cost savings of $13.6 billion annually ($2,500 per patient year). While MTMs are not widely covered by public or private health insurance plans, pilot programs have shown significant decrease in hospitalizations and overall improvement in chronic disease management and some plans are taking steps in that direction. Highmark Health recently launched such a pilot for members with qualifying chronic health conditions who are at high-risk for food insecurity. 

Produce prescriptions offer another more flexible Food as Medicine option that can be added to an organization’s wellness program or as part of a medical benefit for employees. For example, health plan Oscar offers $100 per year for healthy groceries for members with type 1 or type 2 diabetes who have an annual physical or wellness visit. Generally, these “prescriptions” come in the form of a voucher for fresh fruits and vegetables. Many employers offer free wellness apps such as WeightWatchers and Noom that focus on nutrition; however, if an employee can’t afford fresh produce (over canned or processed foods) or if they live in an area where fresh produce isn’t readily available, they are less likely to see the full benefit of a wellness program. 

Food as Medicine as part of the organization’s weight management strategy

Many employers have programs in place to address obesity, which is associated with a number of chronic conditions and higher medical costs. The rapid increase in utilization of GLP-1 medications has raised questions about whether and how to cover these costly drugs. Food as Medicine can play a part in a comprehensive strategy to support weight management. In addition to the initiatives discussed above, employers can make it easier for employees to stick to a healthier diet with:  

  • Healthy cafeteria and snack options
  • Onsite cooking classes and lunch and learns, offering chef-inspired and dietitian-approved recipes that are easy to recreate at home
  • Nutrition education sessions with registered dietitian nutritionists 
  • Flexible work hours to support healthy lifestyle activities including time for mindful eating
  • Integrating nutrition support programs into existing EAP programs

What does the future of this movement look like? As programs offered by early adopters become more mainstream, they will bring together food, healthcare and technology to support employees’ overall health and wellbeing in a more holistic, people-centric, and more effective, way. For example, if the algorithm or coach identifies financial barriers for the employee, then having the system tie in SNAP benefits information and SNAP-eligible foods into meal plans, recipes, meal delivery would be helpful. 

For employers just getting started, think about which area to address first. For example, if diabetes is an issue for your population, you might choose to begin with specialized Food as Medicine support for members with this condition. You’ll also need to think about how to integrate Food as Medicine within your benefits ecosystem, what support you’ll need to administer it, and how you will define success. There are many ways to bring the Food as Medicine movement into your program. It won’t be hard to find one that is scalable for your population and helps to advance your program’s health and well-being objectives in a practical, visible, and meaningful way.

This article first appeared on Mercer’s US Health News Blog.

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