White House conference on nutrition and health: Critics applaud “food is medicine” approach but want more support for plant-based diets
29 Sep 2022 --- During the White House’s first conference on nutrition and health since 1969, many health professionals and organizations voiced their support for several proposed resolutions to improve the health and diets of US citizens. Others decried the administration for not doing enough to promote plant-based foods in eating habits.
NutritionInsight speaks to health and industry professionals from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) about one of the administration’s standout topics: the plan to institute its “food is medicine” agenda through health legislation.
In the newly published Biden-Harris Administration National Strategy On Hunger, Health and Nutrition, a plan is introduced to institute the “food is medicine” initiative by expanding the Medicare program and increasing the amount and type of interventions open to those utilizing the Medicaid program.
“I am pleased that co-chair to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian views ‘food is medicine,’” Dr. Vanita Rahman, author, clinic director and member of PCRM, tells NutritionInsight. “I have used this same philosophy with my patients for years with tremendous success.”
“While Americans’ current health status cannot be blamed entirely on the action steps resulting from the first White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in 1969, it is not hyperbole to say that the recommendations that my colleagues establish at this conference have the potential to improve health and longevity for many Americans,” remarks Dr. Asha Subramanian, food for life consultant for PCRM.
Expanding intervention possibilities
According to the publication and the information presented at the conference, some of the interventions the White House is proposing include allowing beneficiaries of Medicaid to receive produce recommendations and tailored meals. These recommendations would come with prescriptions or vouchers that could be used to purchase the prescribed foods.
The White House states that this may be one of the best ways to ensure that those suffering from diet-related diseases and food insecurity are able to receive healthy and nutritious foods, which many health professionals and health organizations – including the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association – identify among the best preventative treatments for many non-communicable diseases.
The administration states it will support legislation to pilot-test its proposed Medicaid initiatives.
The government also supports legislation to expand the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, while affording beneficiaries access to obesity and nutrition counseling that could include nutritional assessments for everyone and not just those suffering from diet-related diseases, as is the case under the current legislation.
Plant-based solutions sidelined?
The administration states that it wants to increase the availability of plant-based beverage options in federal facilities, as well as working with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to encourage restaurants across the country to offer “at least one plant-based or vegetarian option on their dinner menus.”
While many professionals and organizations applaud the administration’s plant-based endeavors, some also hold that they do not go far enough. Subramanian details that the outcomes of the original 1969 conference led to dietary guidelines that were heavy on cheese, dairy, meat and other animal products.
According to Subramanian, these are the very guidelines that the administration is now being forced to work against. Accordingly, she joins over 17,000 other health and medical professionals who called on the administration to promote plant-based diets earlier this year.
“Let’s consider how our nation’s health has fared since these well-intended but flawed recommendations were made more than a half-century ago,” she states. “Since 1969, adult and childhood obesity rates in the US have nearly tripled. Heart disease, an ailment largely preventable with healthy lifestyle choices, remains our number one killer.”
“While the first conference focused on the tragedy of hunger, that tragedy has largely been replaced with the tragedy of diet-related chronic disease,” she underscores.
Society-wide response needed
Though the Biden-Harris administration has stated their commitment to addressing diet-related disease through healthcare expansion, they also call for a “whole-of-society response.”
The administration advocates collaborating with non-profit or community-based organizations to establish a state-funded produce prescription program for low-income individuals and families.
It maintains that state, local and territory governments should integrate nutrition experts into their health departments and modernize the scope of practice laws, as applicable, to allow qualified health care professionals to play a larger role in disease prevention and management efforts.
The US government also advocates regularly screening patients for food insecurity, while expanding nutrition education in graduate medical education curricula, board exams and post-graduate training.
Passing on the burden
However, some health professionals argue that the burden should be on the administration to pass legislation instead of relying on health insurance companies to expand their coverages.
“The Biden-Harris administration must advance nutrition policies that make a dramatic shift away from animal-derived products and toward the adoption of more healthful plant-based diets,” Rahman stresses.
“This very prescription for a whole food plant-based diet has aided many of my patients in lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol numbers, losing and maintaining healthy weight, and recovering from many other ailments.”
“With the overwhelming evidence of the role of meat and dairy in chronic disease, it is imperative the White House advance policies not only to reduce and eliminate the consumption of these foods but also to encourage the further adoption of plant-based diets,” affirms Subramanian.
“This conference gives the Administration the opportunity to champion new, assertive policies that bring the benefits of healthy, plant-based nutrition to Americans who need it most.”
The US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services are currently developing the Dietary Guidelines for 2025-2030, she highlights.
“Improving the Dietary Guideline for Americans would make an immediate impact in the lives of many Americans; federal food programs like the National School Lunch Program and others use the Dietary Guidelines as a baseline for millions of meals served each day in this country.”
By William Bradford Nichols
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