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Food(service) as Medicine

Food(service) as Medicine

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“Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” If you aren’t already aware, Hippocrates, the Greek physician often referred to as the Father of Western Medicine, said this well-known quote circa 400 B.C. What he meant is that food is what we should rely upon first and foremost to heal ourselves.

In recent decades, we’ve gotten away from that approach—eating too much low-nutrient foods, getting sick and then relying on pharmaceuticals and other unnatural treatments to reactively heal ourselves. Doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

As a result, many health practitioners are spreading the word to encourage and bring back the food-as-medicine approach—to regain a proactive and preventive approach to health, as well as take back control of our personal health.

I am one of those health practitioners. It doesn’t make sense to me that we know more about nutrition science now then ever before and have ample dietary guidelines and tools in place to teach people how to eat healthfully, yet our health doesn’t reflect this.

So what does this have to do with foodservice? A lot, according to Amanda Archibald, RD, principal of Field to Plate in Boulder, Colo., and John Turenne, FCSI, president of Sustainable Food Systems in Wallingford, Conn.

In fact, Archibald and Turenne are teaming up to bring the food-as-medicine model to foodservice. Or, as I like to say, the foodservice-as-medicine model. Their model brings together all of the important pieces to preparing nourishing food: the culinary arts, foodservice expertise and evidence-based principles of food as medicine. From an implementation perspective, Archibald is bringing to the table her company’s Hearth to Health program and partnering exclusively with Turenne’s Sustainable Food Systems consulting business for implementation in the noncommercial setting.

“We believe that chefs, foodservice managers and the menu are a critical extension of the health-supportive messages originating from medical and healthcare teams,” Archibald says. “Instead of being a basic cost center, the kitchen and the menu are elevated to the role of health restoration and lifelong well-being.”

As a registered dietitian and certified natural chef with a background in foodservice and a strong belief in the food-as-medicine approach, Archibald and Turenne’s Hearth to Health model makes sense to me. I agree with their culinary approach to wellness and how to communicate the health benefits of food to consumers…your customers. So when I learned about their partnership, I wanted to explore it further and share it with all of you.

I know what many of you are thinking: “We already have a program that educates our customers through signage and marketing materials about the calories, fat and carbs in our foods, and we let them know which items are vegan, vegetarian, gluten- and dairy-free.”

This is what Archibald and Turenne refer to as a conventional approach to dining—allowing clients to make food choices based on the mathematical model, or calculating calories, grams of carbs and percent of calories from fat. It’s what I believe isn’t necessarily working with the current nutrition education model.  

They propose taking it one step deeper by teaching and communicating the functions that the ingredients of a dish play in the body. According to Archibald, the purpose is “so the client experience becomes one of choosing food or ingredients based on how they function in the body, versus the conventional approach of how many calories they are eating.”

Archibald uses the example of omega-3 rich ingredients to explain the difference between the conventional approach and their food-as-medicine approach.

“On a conventional menu, [omega-3s] may fall into ‘calories from fat.’ In a food-as-medicine approach, we call attention to the omega-3 rich ingredients in the servery and then use informational signage at the point of sale, dining area and even the organizational intranet to reinforce the functionality of omega-3 fatty acids in the body.”

The field of medicine is quickly uncovering that nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all discipline and that individuals have very unique nutrient needs. This being the case, Archibald and Turenne believe their approach will allow the customers they serve to look for food on the menu that works for their individual needs, rather than a generic low-fat or low-carb approach.

Regarding the omega-3 fat example, a daily value percentage has not been assigned and so the mathematical model for labeling doesn’t provide actionable information. It’s just a number, which is meaningless on it’s own. When a customer at high risk for cardiovascular disease learns that omega-3’s are excellent for heart health, well now they can take action.  

So, what is the benefit to your foodservice operation using this approach? And how does it work?

“Ultimately, this program is about consumer wellness,” Turenne says. “Be it employees at a corporate dining setting, patients and staff in a healthcare institution or the students in higher [education] or K-12, this is about an institutions’ commitment [to] it’s customers’ health and well-being.”

Hearth to Health

(Continued from page 1)

The Hearth to Health model makes use of menu identifiers that fit into several food-as-medicine categories. These symbols can stand on their own or be marketed in conjunction with a foodservice operation’s existing nutrition labeling concept. The menu identifiers and their nutrition education messaging are reinforced through POS signage and other marketing materials, as well as via structured classes, tastings and cooking demos.

If you are sweating just thinking about how much training and work such a model involves or whether your clientele will even go for it, Turenne explains that it doesn’t require a complete makeover from the model you are currently using.

“This isn’t about adding weird, uncommon and unidentifiable ingredients to a menu,” Turenne says. “It’s about taking common ingredients, understanding their benefits to our body and making sure these ingredients meet the criteria we agree on in food as medicine.”

Archibald and Turenne audit the operation’s existing recipe and menu infrastructure, and make recommendations to improve ingredients and recipes that don’t match their expectations. The foodservice operation then employs the menu identification system as a new way to communicate the health benefits of their dishes to customers.  

For example, the Digestive Wellness category is about weaving more fermented and cultured products into the menu. So if the yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and chutneys offered are processed in a way that diminishes health benefits, Archibald and Turenne would recommend that these items either be made in house from scratch or more health-supportive versions be purchased.

Matt McGuire, Americas Health Manager, SABIC, Pittsfield, Mass., has been working with Archibald and Turenne for the past year to implement the Hearth to Health model at his company. He believes the traditional model hasn’t proven effective.

“Traditional nutrition programs don’t work because they are didactic in an area of life that is very intimate and personal,” McGuire says. “It’s delusional to expect that people will change because you give them some facts or show them a pyramid—it doesn’t matter how right the facts are or how graphically engaging the pyramid is. The only way to change how people eat is through an experiential approach. There are two prongs—providing food that tastes good and is healthy, and educating people (through experience) on how to choose and prepare food. I think institutional kitchens are an amazing asset than can be used for this mission.”

I could not agree more that noncommercial kitchens can be at the forefront of promoting health. It’s a matter of realizing that perhaps we are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. The round peg isn’t working and we need to find or create the square.    

As professionals managing foodservice operations, what do you think:

•    You customers may not use the same words, but are they asking for a foodservice-as-medicine approach? Even if they aren’t asking for it, are they ready to embrace it?

•    What is your current nutrition education model, and is it working?

•    Do you have concerns about implementing such a model? if so, what are they?

I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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