It was Hippocrates, often cited as the father of medicine, who is credited with an aphorism equating food and medicine with the phrase ‘Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’. Our diet, health and lifestyles remain at the core of this quote about the responsibilities of healthcare professionals, the individual, of governments and society. Given the urgency of the need to realign and transform food systems to deliver better health outcomes and prevent illness, the debate provoked by Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago, is as pertinent today as it has ever been.
Food lies at the heart of human, ecosystem, and animal health and well-being. Our health and well-being are being impacted by our food systems – the way we grow, harvest, process, transport, market, consume, and dispose of food, through multiple and inter-related pathways. Today our food systems are making us ill, are driving climate change and undermining the health of ecosystems and the essential services on which our own health and well-being depends
Today, a new report, which I am pleased to have authored, on behalf of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, highlights how doctors, nurses, vets and other health professionals can work together with other actors across the food system to take actions which not only improve health but also tackle the climate agenda, restore valuable biodiversity, and advance social, environmental, and racial justice, all while putting forth a refreshed vision that prioritizes prevention over the curing of disease. The set of ten stories are testament to the power of collaboration and partnership in designing alternative food systems that benefit the well-being of people, animals, and the planet. It is our hope that from these examples, healthcare and public health professionals can draw the evidence and ideas for how food–health action can be taken at local, regional, national, and international levels.
One case study, in Canada, highlights the work of the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre offers a model of care that recognizes how food sovereignty and the ability of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities to self-determine their healthcare journey contributes to food security and better physical, mental, and spiritual health and wellbeing. The traditional ways in which food is harvested, prepared, and eaten cannot be overlooked, nor can the importance of placed-based diets. In another case study, we highlight the work of the World Organization of Family Doctors (WONCA) who have created a planetary health course that educates primary healthcare professionals about how human health depends on the continued functioning of the Earth’s natural systems. Recognizing how food systems contribute to human and ecological health, WONCA works with medical schools and other institutions with the aim of integrating planetary health into the curriculum.
Overall, we drew five main lessons from the case studies including:
- Greater collaboration between those working at the intersection of public health, food, animal health, and planetary health is necessary to advance positive food–health outcomes. Health professionals are powerful advocates for change and are often highly trusted and respected in the communities they serve. Health is a priority for the political agenda of many governments; hence the health sector is in a strong position to advocate for policies and practices that support healthier food systems.
- Upholding lived experiences and Indigenous knowledge is key to better health responses across all health impact pathways. Inequality is pervasive across food systems, and Indigenous Peoples, migrant farm workers, women, and low-income communities often bear a disproportionate burden of food related health impacts, including food insecurity, obesity, food-borne disease, and the mental health implications that can result from an inability to access traditional food or one’s ancestral land
- Medical institutions, including hospitals and community health centres, have an important role to play in supporting the availability of healthy foods for their patients and communities. Healthcare professionals can do similarly by partnering with food systems actors. There is ample opportunity for the health sector to ensure food-procurement policies within medical institutions support local producers, culturally relevant diets, and the serving of healthy, fresh foods. Healthcare institutions could include community-supported agriculture initiatives and food gardens on their own grounds as a source of healthy food and as a means to educate patients and staff. There are also opportunities to prescribe and incentivize the consumption of nutritious foods.
- Healthcare and public health professionals can influence government policy in a way that improves the health and well-being of the communities they serve. The health sector can engage with farm workers, environmental groups, community leaders, and other stakeholders to influence policy and regulation at local, regional, and national levels. This can improve the long-term health outcomes of the people they serve, while also bringing benefits for the economy, community resilience, and the environment.
- Advocate for culturally appropriate nutrition education, food literacy, and skills training through schools, health services, agricultural extension, social protection schemes, and community settings. Health sector professionals can actively educate the public about the benefits of healthy eating, including the consumption of traditional and indigenous whole-food diets. There are also opportunities for professional development among healthcare professionals, such as teaching about the integration between health and the environment and awareness campaigns that educate health sector workers about the role of nutrition in promoting good health.
Further information or to download the report please click here