Chronic diseases are the biggest threat to our global socio-economic development. Lifestyle diseases including heart disease, neuro-degenerative disease, diabetes, and cancer collectively kill almost 50 million people per year.1 With 1 in 2 Americans diagnosed with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, there is no doubt that the food we eat has implications not only for our size, but also our overall health.
Food sits at the nexus of this crisis and poor diet is a leading cause of suffering, disability, and death globally. Poor nutrition is one of the 4 main risk factors for preventable chronic diseases, along with tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of physical activity.2
Adhering to a balanced diet is valuable beyond satiation and taste. In their raw form, foods are biological and functional components of nature, providing crucial information that translates into our cells to inform function, recalibration, and senescence.
Our relationship with food is impacted by a number of factors including poor access to healthier foods, high availability of ultra-processed foods, and bad behavioral choices. Social injustice, poverty, and lack of access to whole foods create nutritionally toxic and depleted food environments. At the same time, living in environments plagued with construction pollution, industrial fumes, and contaminated water, interferes with a child’s mood stability, behavior, and neurological development.
Food insecurity promotes dependence on highly palatable, energy-dense, and nutritionally depleted foods which contribute to malnutrition, inflammation, and diet-sensitive chronic disease including obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
Salt and sugar are proven to inhibit specific pathways and prevent absorption of a whole package of nutrients important for childhood development. The mass-scale production, packaging, and distribution of these ultra-processed foods and their subsequent sale in schools and supermarkets can lead to intellectual and developmental delays, anti-social behavior, and ADHD in children.
With so many processed foods on the market, children are facing an achievement gap, further contributing to our global socioeconomic development crises.
During the last decade, governments across the world have highlighted the importance of diet in combating disease.
In 2010, President Obama established a task force on childhood obesity, explaining: “We must accelerate implementation of successful strategies that will prevent and combat obesity. Such strategies include updating child nutrition policies in a way that addresses the best available scientific information, ensuring access to healthy, affordable food in schools and communities, as well as increasing physical activity, and empowering parents and caregivers with the information and tools they need to make good choices for themselves and their families. They will help our children develop lifelong healthy habits, ensuring they reach their greatest potential toward building a healthier and more prosperous America.”
The most powerful tool we have in our arsenal to reverse the global chronic disease epidemic is food. However, medicine has traditionally focused on symptom management, rather than holistically targeting the root cause of the disease.
What’s the fix?
Functional foods, nutritional supplements, and nutraceuticals are the interface between nutrition and pharma. Products such as synbiotics, meta-biotics, natural nootropics, cannabidiol, and sterols are plastered all over organic food shop windows – but what do they really mean for clinical outcomes?
Functional foods are dietary items that provide nutrients and energy while also modulating targeted functions in the body by enhancing specific physiological responses and/or by reducing the risk of disease.3 Fundamentally, they produce health-promoting properties and can be considered as potential candidates in the management of chronic diseases in combination with prescribed medication, to simultaneously alleviate symptoms and reverse disease.
Case study: multiple sclerosis
During the last few years, there has been a real change in trajectory for multiple sclerosis (MS) treatment, with healthcare professionals taking a more holistic approach to treatment and care. MS is an auto-immune disease that causes coordinated attacks and leads to degeneration of the patient’s own neurons. Without treatment, the patient can experience permanent loss of function in affected parts of the brain or spinal cord, resulting in a range of symptoms from weaknesses in limbs, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and loss of vision.
Dr Terry Wahls, pioneer of the functional medicine approach to MS and the Wahls Protocol Diet, has inspired a new wave of treatment paradigms designed to help patients manage their disease.
Rejecting the “one diet fits all” approach, the Wahls Protocol Diet is a modified paleo diet consisting of whole foods, primarily: grass-fed meat, oily fish, leafy vegetables, roots and tubers, nuts, and fruit – evidence-based functional foods that reduce inflammation and support neurological health – whilst heavily restricting dairy, eggs, grains, legumes, nightshades, starches, and sugar.
Not only is this diet central for managing MS-related symptoms, but it has the potential to reverse neuroinflammation when combined with treatments such as neuromuscular electrical stimulation and the necessary medications to protect neurons from further degeneration.
Enlisting pharma to validate functional foods and educating physicians on the benefits of working in a multidisciplinary team of dieticians, psychologists, and occupational therapists will help ensure patients are treated holistically. Rather than fighting new symptoms as they arise, the team can help the patient make environmental and lifestyle changes that – when combined with medicine – can help stave off disease progression. The team can provide mental health support that drives behavioral change, prescribe a balanced diet supported by functional foods and nutritional supplements, combat misinformation on the clinical benefits of foods, and endorse proper use of supplements.
Remote patient monitoring platforms such as Lenus are now providing virtual health and wellbeing services, as well as holistic, remote care for patients, by tracking health data such as activity, sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure along with nutrition. Health data are used to gather outcomes and insights to provide better care and allow more time for quality engagement.
Many telehealth solutions such as Teladoc now provide the full spectrum of virtual care options, enabling patients to receive multidisciplinary virtual care across many medical specialties such as nutrition, pediatrics, telepsychiatry, and women’s health. This provides a better holistic view of the patient’s health.
Bringing different clinical specialties together opens up patients to new opportunities and better care. This approach also highlights interconnected systems of biology and helps the medical sector to better understand the increasingly complex territories of disease.
It’s no longer valid to regard nutrition and pharma as distinct industrial sectors. We’re seeing a growing trend of fast-moving consumer goods companies collaborating with the life science industry through partnerships, mergers and acquisitions.
The boundaries of the production journey are becoming increasingly blurred, making this an opportune moment to link processes from production to consumption, obtain endorsement from relevant stakeholders and key opinion leaders, and marry foods, supplements, and medicine in the treatment complex.
The food industry and pharma companies can leverage a new opportunity to delve further into this little-explored realm and collaborate with healthcare systems to fundamentally reshape disease trajectories for the global population.
At Fishawack Health, we’re committed to providing patients with the information and life-enhancing therapies they need to improve and save lives. Get in touch with email@example.com to find out how we can help.
This article is an opinion piece. Please seek professional medical advice if you have a health concern.
- Hyman M. The Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Commmunities, and Our Planet—One Bite at a Time. London: Yellow Kite; 2020:4.
- Nicoletti M. In: Food Structures, Digestion and Health. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press; 2014.