April 12, 2021

Food prescriptions for a healthy diet

A new Food Prescription Team is developing and testing weekly meal plans to help people achieve healthy and affordable diets.

Contributed by Deborah Cohen, MD

Although many of us have a good idea of what we should eat for a healthy diet — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and lean meats or proteins —that knowledge doesn’t always translate into action and meeting the recommended daily allowances for all the essential nutrients we need for optimal health.

In a world with so many options, coming up with a feasible and affordable solution to planning a healthy diet is not easy. To address this challenge, the Kaiser Permanente Department of Research & Evaluation in Southern California created a Food Prescription Team. The team’s mission is to design optimal weekly meal plans to help people achieve a healthy and affordable diet, reducing the burdens of shopping and figuring out what to prepare.

The initial trial

Our first menu plan covered 3 meals a day and snacks, for 7 days. We tested it with 5 households, each with 4 to 5 members, including a mother who had given birth in the past 12 months, meaning there was a new baby in each family. We delivered suggested recipes for meals such as oatmeal with fruit, scrambled eggs with veggies, tuna salad, chicken soup, and enchiladas and the groceries needed to prepare those meals at no cost, although families were free to prepare the groceries in any way they wanted.

In each household, the mothers reported what they ate during 2 days in the week before they received the groceries and during 2 days in the week with the groceries. The average change in dietary quality comparing the 2 weeks was significant. While caloric intake did not change, the families ate more fruits and vegetables and more fiber, while their consumption of added sugars and solid fats went down. And, the women liked the grocery delivery because getting to the store was difficult with an infant at home. They also liked the meal plans, which helped them figure out what to make every day. The cost of the groceries was $120 per family, or about $1.43 per person per meal, but all the families said they got more than enough food for the week and had plenty of leftovers.

Although we did not supply any junk food, participants said they did not miss these foods. They also all said having the food at home reduced their frequency of going out to eat, which helps explain much of the improvement in their dietary quality.

Next steps

Over 90% of Americans age 70 and under do not currently meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Adhering to food prescriptions — meals plans provided by a trusted medical care team — can ensure a healthy diet, but it is still an open question whether people will routinely follow them and be interested in a program that delivers these groceries at low cost.

In the meantime, there are a few things everyone can do to start eating better at home, including planning meals for the week and making a list to simplify grocery shopping. Planning is a good way to commit to change and makes it easier to cook at home more.