Why don’t doctors prescribe fruits and vegetables?
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ~ Hippocrates
This article is intended as a frank conversation on the devastating health effects of a nutritionally poor diet, whether as a personal choice or circumstances beyond our control.
The content as follows is not intended to shame anyone for choices of sustenance. However, if you are not eating foods that contain all the nutrition that nature provides, I implore you to read on and consider the facts.
You really are what you eat
We may think that what we eat is a choice, but that presumption is not always the case. Thirty-two million Americans live in food deserts. These locations are defined by the American Nutrition Association as “…areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food.”
In contrast to the food deserts are areas called “food oasis” where there is greater access to markets with fresh foods.
If you have Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, supermarkets and farmers markets close to your home, you are in a food oasis. You, therefore, have little reason not to eat more healthily.
Of those 32 million people (about four times the population of New York City) living in food deserts, their options are limited to convenience stores, bodegas and gas stations. As you know, these businesses generally peddle soft drinks and junk food to the public.
Glenna and Jeffrey, a not-so-uncommon couple
Imagine the scene where Glenna accompanies her 49-year-old husband Jeffrey to a doctor’s appointment. He has had high blood pressure for more than five years, and a recent blood panel revealed high glucose levels and cholesterol. Not once during the appointment was the issue of diet and exercise brought up in any meaningful way.
Yet, Glenna knew Jeffrey’s diet was atrocious, and he hadn’t really exercised since his high school football days. She had tried hard for years to get him to eat healthily, but junk food and fried foods, sans any vegetables or fruit, dominated Jeffrey’s nutriment.
Glenna didn’t necessarily like to go to the gym, but she loved to take long walks and practice yoga each morning. She had accomplished much in her life to date: three children and a successful entrepreneurial career. The one thing she could never accomplish was getting her husband off the couch.
Glenna knows that Jeffrey, already beginning to suffer from high blood pressure, borderline diabetes and atherosclerosis, may not enjoy each other’s company into old age.
Most of Jeffrey’s health problems can be directly correlated to poor nutrition and lack of exercise. We may say that it is his choice, but the results affect his family, and the costs associated with such diseases become everybody’s burden. We would hope that such considerations would be appreciated by those who ignore their body’s nutritional needs.
Six states and Washington D.C. offer healthy food prescription programs. It begs the question, why would doctors write prescriptions for food? Well, that is what this article will attempt to answer.
“Live by the Twinkie ®, die by the Twinkie ®.”
We have a growing health crisis in our country, and it is a great threat to our happiness and longevity. Yet, we seem to ignore one of the main causes of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and some forms of cancer – much of it boils down to what we put in our stomachs.
On the whole, longevity for Americans is falling and has been since food has been highly industrialized. American men live an average of 73.5 years and 79.3 years for women.
We now rank 43rd in longevity in the world. As a country that also ranks in the top five of the best countries to live in worldwide, this fact is nothing to brag about.
In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan admonishes us to “…not Eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”
So, what has happened to the American pantry since great-great-grandma tended a bountiful garden and raised scratch hens? The food industry, prioritizing profits over health, has taken the “real food” out of what we eat.
The dishes on Grandma’s dinner table were untouched by preservatives, food dye and flavor enhancers.
An appalling 60 percent of all calories consumed in the U.S. now come from junk food. When we consider the causes of our current health crisis, we are totally ignoring the elephant in the room. Not eating or having access to nutritional food is a hugely important factor in our country today – and it’s killing us.
Pollan also suggests we limit our shopping to the perimeter of the supermarkets and avoid the center aisles where processed and ultra-processed foods take up most of the shelf space. Fresh foods, including meats, fruits and vegetables, are generally found on the periphery of the store.
There is a good bit of confusion about the different degrees of food processing, so some definitions are in order. We’ll use a good old carrot for example, so let’s walk out to the garden.
Pull a carrot out of the ground, and you are holding real food, a vegetable that is unprocessed. If you wish, you can rinse the carrot off and eat it raw with no loss of its nutritional content.
But what if we planned to make carrots julienne for dinner? This recipe calls for some processing, but only a fraction of that in ultra-processed foods. The recipe I use and enjoy requires cooking the carrots and adding salt, maple syrup, and a dash of cinnamon.
This dish is considered processed, with little nutrients and flavor loss. The same can be said of frozen vegetables and fruits.
If my carrots were used to make instant soup, then the processing is far more involved. The once-fresh carrots would be dehydrated and combined with a plethora of ingredients, containing preservatives, food dyes, sugar and a ton of salt.
Now, we’re talking about an ultra-processed food pro-duct, one that has been robbed of the carrot’s minerals and vitamins, not to mention flavor.
The first large-scale processing of food began in the late 18th Century, mainly to feed the military. The real switch to radical processing of food was in the early 1900s when nearly half the American population left the farms and was living in cities.
For those living in cities, the very idea of a home garden or livestock was out of the question. The food industry took advantage of this population shift from rural to urban and started selling processed and ultra-processed foods as a convenience item.
We did not recognize this change as anything other than modernization and progress, the keywords of the day. However, this was the moment in history when we divorced ourselves from “real food” and naively switched to foods that, like cigarettes, would harm us.
So, this brings us back to the original question at the beginning of the article; why don’t doctors prescribe fruits and vegetables?
As mentioned earlier, this is not as outrageous as one might think; even Medicare and Medicaid have food prescription plans for eligible participants. Likewise, there are food prescription programs in six states and Washington D.C.
Granted, drugs are an important and necessary part of good health care. but if we all maintained a healthy diet we wouldn’t have to take drugs that are often harsh and sometimes contraindicated for use with other drugs we may be taking for various health issues.
I appreciate my doctor asking about my diet and exercise habits; I know that she recognizes the overwhelming importance of both as part of a holistic approach to disease prevention.
It is not difficult to eat healthily, provided we do not live in a food desert.
The Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program has offered qualified individuals food vouchers since 2020.
As well, the USDA recommends that half of your plate should contain fruits and vegetables, while the American Heart Association suggests five servings each of fruit and vegetables daily.
I hear some readers out there moaning, mostly men, that they are “meat and potato” types and that they just don’t like vegetables. Maybe you haven’t given them a chance.
And while there is nothing whatsoever wrong with meat and potatoes as part of a nutritious meal, you are missing out on the huge benefits of fresh fruit and veggies.
Fruits and vegetables, of all colors and types, contain a powerhouse of healthful ingredients; vitamins, minerals, anti-inflammatories, phytochemicals that prevent certain cancers, needed roughage, and, the darling of the microbiome crowd, prebiotics. And they deliver these edible medicines with a minimum of salt, sugar, calories, fat, and ingredients with names we cannot pronounce.
Over the last century, we have distanced ourselves from natural forms of food, primarily vegetation and meat. You may also be surprised, or not, that many grade school students could not identify many common fruits and vegetables, things like broccoli and peaches.
Many adults do not know where their food comes from – we purchase our sanitized foodstuffs wrapped in plastic, or in boxes and cans. Unfortunately, we are oblivious to how animals we eat are treated and what industrialization has done to our sources of nutrition.
On the other hand, there are many among us who truly love food. We enjoy shopping for a meal and cooking it. We are privileged to have access to fresh, nutritional foods.
So, if your diet is not utilizing all that nature has to offer, I suggest you start making changes today. Good nutrition will cut down on trips to doctors, and it just might mean spending more years with your loved ones.
Well, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go for now.
My microwave is telling me my Hot Pockets® are done.