Working at the intersection of nutrition and health

Tackling diet-related diseases and food insecurity

AS A PEDIATRICIAN focused on nutrition research, chronic disease prevention, and health equity, I spend much of my professional time—academically, clinically—thinking about the intersection of nutrition and health. I recently had the honor of joining the Biden-Harris administration for the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the first conference of its kind in more than 50 years. The last conference on nutrition and health, held in 1969, led to transformational programs like school lunches, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, and changes to how we label foods. These programs and guidelines have helped millions of Americans live healthier lives.

To see so many high-ranking government officials and food and nutrition experts sharing one stage, talking about food access, diet-related diseases, and healthy meals, we would be hard pressed to deny that this is one of the defining health issues of our time. Food insecurity is unfortunately on the rise, and people of color and families with children are disproportionately impacted. But the question that we were all asking ourselves was, how do we come together to end hunger and reduce these diet-related diseases and inequities?

In public health, we know that “Food is Medicine.” There are, of course, numerous medical therapeutics clinicians prescribe every day to help with diseases like diabetes, high cholesterol, or hypertension. However, evidence has shown that we should be thinking of food in the same way we do a pill. Prescribing a nutritious diet can be just as beneficial as a pharmaceutical prescription. There are innumerable health factors outside of our control—but we can choose what we eat and put into our bodies – this is achievable.

At the conference, Mayor Eric Adams of New York City spoke about his own experience with Type 2 diabetes. He suffered from severe symptoms of the disease like neuropathy (nerve damage) and vision loss. These are severe, late-stage complications from diabetes that usually only get worse over time. However, once Mayor Adams switched to a plant-based diet, his symptoms lessened, and he was able to eventually stop using insulin entirely. His experience underscores that food is so much more than just calories on a plate. It has the potential to support our health and keep us healthy, throughout our lives.

What I hope this conference will generate is an understanding among medical professionals and other food and nutrition organizations that counseling about a healthy diet is only the first step. To truly make an impact we need to support people who are on a path to healthier lives. If a patient receives a list of healthy foods—oatmeal for breakfast, fruit and nuts as a snack, more fish and leafy greens for dinner—it’s no good to them if they don’t have the financial means to buy the ingredients or don’t know how to prepare the listed items.

According to the Greater Boston Food Bank, 1.8 million people in Massachusetts experienced food insecurity, or 32 percent of the population, in 2021. Massachusetts saw a 59 percent increase in food insecurity in 2020 and 2021, the highest increase in the country.

As part of the commitments to support the Biden-Harris administration’s goal to end hunger, Mass General Brigham is proud to commit $8.4 million to promote nutrition equity and security, support food as medicine programs to tackle diet-related diseases, and fund food-related programming at local community-based organizations across Massachusetts. The projects supported by this funding include the creation of teaching kitchens and expansions of food pantries, food distribution, meal delivery, farmers’ markets, nutrition screening and counseling, healthy cooking classes, and a variety of other support services.

At the conference,  President Biden said in his speech, “No one in a country with so many resources should go to bed hungry.” It was as much an observation as it was a promise. This soundbite was not a lofty dream, it was an achievable goal. The national strategy announced at the conference was exceptional, aiming to accelerate progress and drive transformative change in the US to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, and close the disparities surrounding them.  Mass General Brigham and our community partners are excited for the work to come, but even more so, we are proud to work with so many across Massachusetts and the country who will drive these changes towards a healthier future.

Dr. Elsie M. Taveras is the chief community health and health equity officer at Mass General Brigham. Taveras is a leading expert in community health equity, childhood obesity, maternal-child health, and health disparities.