When you need to lose weight for the sake of your health, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But what if a doctor helped you to change your eating habits by officially prescribing you a bountiful supply of free fruit and vegetables?
Food prescription programs – where subsidised food is used as a medical tool to treat obesity and chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes – have existed in countries like the USA for some time. Now, thanks to The George Institute for Global Health, there’s a food prescription program happening in Sydney.
The institute is currently running a pilot with Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Harris Farm to test whether food prescription programs could work effectively as part of the Australian medical system. This program is helping people with poorly controlled type 2 diabetes to improve their diet and health and it is predominately targeted at those that are food insecure and who may not have the necessary means or funds to access healthy food options.
“We've all heard of the term ‘let food be thy medicine’,” says program head of Nutrition Science at The George Institute, Dr Jason Wu. “This study is living proof of that saying.”
“A health professional may tell a patient to eat better. But eating well doesn’t just come down to having the knowledge that you need to eat well."
Dr Wu explains that an unhealthy diet and lifestyle may contribute to the development or worsening of type 2 diabetes.
“A health professional may tell a patient to eat better. But eating well doesn’t just come down to having the knowledge that you need to eat well.
“Sometimes, there are structural barriers preventing people – who are from vulnerable communities and are food insecure – from eating well. Barriers may include the cost of healthy food and accessing a supermarket to buy the food.”
This is why the institute’s pilot focuses on individuals who are food insecure. It aims to test whether subsidised healthy food prescription programs could co-exist alongside our current system of medication subsidisation for the management of chronic conditions, like type 2 diabetes, when evidence suggests dietary changes may help.
How the food prescription program works
By the end of this month, the pilot program will have recruited 50 food insecure patients.
The idea is that for three months, each participant (referred to the program by a medical professional) receives a free healthy food box, supplied by Harris Farm and home-delivered weekly.
Every box includes a variety of low-fat dairy products, lean meats, plant-based proteins, wholegrains, fruits and vegetables. There’s enough food in the boxes for two meals per day, five days per week, for the participant and their family.
“We have to make sure your family is supported to eat healthily in order for the participant to feel supported to eat healthily.”
“The food is not just for the patient but their whole family because we recognise there’s a strong social support angle here,” Dr Wu says. “We have to make sure your family is supported to eat healthily in order for the participant to feel supported to eat healthily.”
The pilot’s participants also receive three months of dietetic support and have their weight, blood glucose levels, blood pressure and cholesterol levels regularly checked.
The hope is that by being prescribed healthy food, patients will have lost weight, changed their eating habits, have improved clinical markers and better manage their type 2 diabetes over 12 weeks.
Real-life changes in health
Peter Lambropoulos, aged 52, has already completed the program. The Sydney-sider was made redundant during COVID last year and is currently unemployed. He says his type 2 diabetes was worsened by poor eating habits over time.
When Lambropoulos started the program in early 2021, he was 121.6 kilograms. After three months, he was 108 kilograms and has kept the weight off since. His blood glucose levels are now down to 4.9.
“I’ve been told by doctors and dietitians before what I should eat to lose weight and manage my health,” Lambropoulos, who has a Greek background, tells SBS. “But when you’re told, it often goes in one ear and out the other. Receiving advice alone doesn’t help.”
“With a food prescription program, you are given food and taught practically, in real-time, what foods are good for you to eat. Being involved in the pilot gave me confidence and helped me to change my eating habits.”
“With a food prescription program, you are given food and taught practically, in real time, what foods are good for you to eat."
Dr Wu hopes the program will benefit all its participants, even though the results are yet to be seen. "We know food can be medicine but can we do this in a real-world setting so that it becomes part of healthcare?" the researcher says. "We hope so."
Should all go well, the Sydney-based pilot will add to the evidence base on food prescription programs and lay the foundation for a larger randomised control trial. This could be used to make a stronger case for the integration of a food prescription program into the Australian healthcare system. But first things first: the pilot has to reach completion and be evaluated towards the end of the year.
“Food is a magical thing and can do amazing things if we stop and think about what we eat,” Tristan Harris, co-CEO of Harris Farm tells SBS.
“Healthy foods are not only nutritious but can be incredibly tasty and delicious. We hope this program can inspire Australians to a healthier lifestyle and can put medical proof behind it. [We hope] it offers a way forward for Australians to be inspired to eat healthily and live longer without disease.”