At some point in your life, a doctor has probably advised you that to “be healthier” you should eat more veggies. Swap sweets for fruit. Drink less soda. While you may have believed her (and even had the best of intentions to improve your dietary habits), such vague missives aren’t exactly motivating. What if she told you, however, that trading your weekly burger for a grilled chicken breast could dramatically reduce your pharmacy bill—and even add years to your life?
That’s exactly the message coming from piles of research showing that food is a central element in preventing, or even reversing, chronic disease. “I tell my patients every day: What we eat is a huge factor in our health,” says Dr. Marc Cornier, who teaches within the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and does clinical work through UCHealth at CU Anschutz Medical Campus. “I’ve seen diabetes go away as a result of healthful eating and weight loss. I had a patient who completely changed his diet—he didn’t want to take prescription medication—and lowered his cholesterol by 40 percent, which is what you might see from a statin [drug].”
Uncovering the power of nutrition to transform health has pushed the use of food as a first-line therapy—before pills and procedures for some patients—from a fringe idea to a more mainstream tenet of health care. It’s also driving a philosophical shift, as health care systems consider using nutrition to intercede in patients’ lives before they get sick. For example, this month Lutheran Medical Center (part of SCL Health) is launching an initiative called Healthy U for patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, who are also food-insecure. The 12-week program will provide food for patients and their families, virtual cooking lessons, nutrition education, and weekly biometric screenings. “At one time, [addressing health] was just about controlling or treating disease,” says Chuck Ault, Lutheran Medical Center’s regional director of community health improvement. “But now, we’re intervening further upstream with the hope of keeping patients out of our hospitals.”
As scientists and physicians continue to explore the possibilities of food as medicine, don’t be surprised if your doctor is quicker to review your grocery list than to write you a prescription. Or, better yet, don’t wait that long: For the following stories, we tapped local experts to learn exactly how you can eat your way to a longer, happier life, starting with what’s for supper tonight. —Hilary Masell Oswald