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The Controversy Surrounding the “Food Is Medicine” Approach to Disease Prevention: Experts Highlight Limitations and Advocate for Alternatives

In the last 5 years, the “food is medicine” movement, which involves providing free, nutritious food through the healthcare system, has garnered significant attention and financial support. Key players such as the Rockefeller Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute have collectively invested over $350 million in research funding for this initiative. While the concept has historical roots in community organizations providing medically tailored foods, recent developments have expanded it to include various programs, from culinary education to physician-prescribed healthful foods.

The 2022 National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health highlighted “food is medicine” as a crucial initiative, and two states have formed coalitions to sustainably fund such programs. However, a recent article published in leading scientific journals questions the justification for the medical and public health communities’ enthusiasm, citing limitations and proposing alternative strategies.

Skepticism and Limitations:

Despite the well-established value of providing free food to those in need, skepticism arises from the lack of robust evidence supporting significant health benefits from the wide array of “food is medicine” programs. Critics argue that the proposed interventions face several challenges, including difficulties in consistent access to healthcare systems, an overburdened healthcare system, poor patient care coordination, and the complex behavioral challenges associated with promoting healthy eating habits.

Shift in Attention and Industry Influence:

The article suggests that the overwhelming focus on “food is medicine” research may divert attention and resources from more promising prevention strategies. It raises concerns about the influence of large funding agencies on scientific agendas, potentially steering talented scientists away from studying effective prevention measures. Moreover, the article warns that framing dietary issues as medical problems may unintentionally shift public discourse away from addressing commercial interests as major drivers of disease.

Advocating for Alternatives:

The authors propose redirecting funding towards evidence-based prevention strategies endorsed by the World Health Organization. These include improving food in public institutions, reformulating foods for lower sugar and salt content, implementing clear nutrition labeling systems, and supporting taxes on unhealthy food and beverages. The article emphasizes that these strategies, if adequately researched and advocated for, could make a more significant impact on improving dietary habits than the current focus on “food is medicine” programs.

Rethinking Resource Allocation:

The article challenges the allocation of resources, arguing that the vast investment in “food is medicine” could be more efficiently utilized by modernizing existing federal nutrition programs. Redirecting funds towards programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs could reach more food-insecure families and better align with public health nutrition goals.


In a nation where prevention dollars are scarce, the article urges a reconsideration of where public resources should be directed. While acknowledging the well-intentioned nature of “food is medicine” programs, the authors advocate for a shift in focus towards changing food industry behavior and ensuring accessibility and health promotion in existing nutrition assistance programs as more impactful measures to prevent diet-related diseases.

Credit: JAMA Network Open, Alyssa J. Moran, Christina A. Roberto