‘Food is your medicine’: Advocating for nutrition policies
In my experience, most people face incredible challenges in switching to a healthy diet.
These challenges include the high cost of fruits and vegetables, while processed ultra-sugared foods are readily available and usually at lower cost; limited access to fresh foods, what is often referred to as a food desert; misconceptions about healthy food taste; lack of experience in cooking healthy foods; and insufficient time to cook or to learn how to cook. Hence, how can we — scientists and physicians — champion the importance of fruits and vegetables and healthy eating if our patients can’t pay the price or can’t find quality food in the stores nearby?
I learned quickly that policy about nutrition is paramount to achieve healthy diets in our communities.
‘Tremendous political will’
It does require tremendous political will to stand against the processed food industry. I was excited when former First Lady Michelle Obama included in her political agenda the improvement of nutrition guidelines, and now as a result school lunches include fresh fruits and vegetables. It is almost ironic to think that such an easy and logical strategy was so politically targeted and quickly disbanded by the Trump Administration.
Fortunately, the office of Congressman Jim McGovern, D-MA, a champion of the “food is your medicine” movement, is just 10 minutes away from my lab. Congressman McGovern is the representative for the 2nd District of Massachusetts and is leading a bipartisan working group focused on “the costs related to hunger and the importance of keeping U.S. agricultural and nutrition policy rooted in health-focused research.” It was through my work with the American Gastroenterological Association that Congressman McGovern and I started a conversation about the importance of research in nutrition.
Last February, Congressman McGovern visited my lab to learn more about the research we are doing developing rationally designed and behavioral centered dietary interventions that can be used as a treatment for our most prevalent chronic illnesses. We discussed the challenges and opportunities on providing nutrition to our communities. The challenges for healthy eating were clear: costs and access. We also shared common ground on the challenges facing nutrition research: lack of rigorous studies with enough participants to make clear conclusions and the scarcity of funds to perform such costly studies.
I was struck by the Congressman’s passion for nutrition and by his sincere efforts to understand the problem to better address it. He has been a key advocate of “food is your medicine” at the National Institutes of Health, which now includes four strategic goals to answer key questions in nutrition research. Using his platform, Congressman McGovern raised awareness about the cumulative effect of poor eating in American health and, more importantly, he is an advocate in moving forward policies that will propel healthy eating habits. After our conversation ended, I was invited to speak with legislators in the capitol about the research in my lab and the future challenges to be tackled in nutrition research.
Advocacy as a scientist
Opportunities like this allow scientists like me, investigating GI diseases, to get involved in policymaking and in doing so we can express the hurdles we see among our study participants/patients. Given the pandemic, in-person visits with legislators are limited, but we have the opportunity to connect virtually. In late September, the AGA will set up meetings between gastroenterologists and our federally elected officials to discuss issues related to practice, research, and patient care.
As an immigrant scientist, this is an exciting way to make a positive impact on the country that has welcomed me. I hope my fellow GI enthusiasts, scientists, and gastroenterologists, will join me on AGA Advocacy Day on Sept. 25, 2020, to help our congressional lawmakers to take action on what matters most to patients, caregivers, nurses, clinicians and scientists: evidence-based research to inform patient care to reduce the overall burden of disease and their costs on our health care system.