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Food as Medicine for Employee Wellness: How Diet Can Treat Chronic Illnesses

An apple a day keeps the drugs away.

Eating well can mean the difference between staying healthy or developing a chronic disease. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, unhealthy diet is a leading risk factor for illness, death, and disability worldwide. On the other hand, healthy eating can not only prevent disease, it can help manage an existing condition. “Food as medicine” is more than a nice idea; scientific research proves that food can literally replace some medication, delivering measurable benefits to healthy eaters. Yet many corporate wellness programs focus on lifestyle choices such as exercise and smoking cessation, downplaying diet.

This oversight reduces the effectiveness of corporate wellness programs. A program without an emphasis on food as medicine misses a key factor for controlling chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. These illnesses are costly for employees and employers alike: People with at least one chronic illness account for 86% of healthcare costs.  

An overwhelming amount of scientific research shows that focusing on nutrition can help prevent and treat chronic illness. Here’s a roundup of some of the most noteworthy evidence that food really is medicine.

1. Diabetes

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 100 million people have diabetes or prediabetes in the U.S., and type 2 diabetes represents 90% to 95% of this group.

People with diabetes don’t have enough insulin to break down sugar, and that excess sugar damages the body over time. This chronic illness usually means a lifetime of insulin injections, check-ups, even surgical interventions if the disease isn’t properly managed. However, many with type 2 diabetes can help control their blood sugar levels (even to the point of remission) by managing their diet.

In a 2014 study in the Diabetes Care Journal, researchers divided a group of overweight, middle-aged men and women with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes into two groups. One group followed a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet, the other a low-fat diet.

Over an extended period of time, those on the low-carb diet saw dramatically better results than the low-fat group. They experienced a greater reduction in blood sugar, a longer delay before needing diabetic medication, and a higher rate of partial or complete remission. While both diets had a positive impact, the Mediterranean diet proved particularly effective in controlling blood sugar levels and weight.

In short, medication helped manage type 2 diabetes, but it didn’t put it into remission. Food, on the other hand, decreased how much medication some participants required, and in some cases the food as medicine approach delivered a complete remission, eliminating the need for medication altogether.

These studies demonstrate that managing diet is essential for those with diabetes. And for those with type 2 diabetes, diet can not only help manage the condition, it can help restore the body’s insulin sensitivity and put the condition into remission.  

2. Hypertension

High blood pressure increases the risk for heart attacks, irregular heart rhythms, heart enlargement, heart failure and sudden cardiac death. It also damages the brain and can result in strokes, dementia or mild cognitive impairment.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, developed the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet plan, in response to the prevalence of hypertension, which impacts one of every three U.S. adults.

The DASH diet is intended to help manage hypertension without medication, or as a supplement to medication. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy foods, including foods rich in nutrients that help lower blood pressure, like potassium, calcium and magnesium. It also includes moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry and nuts. Salt is limited to 2,300 milligrams a day, which is about a teaspoon.

Using the approach of food as medicine everyday, some see results within two weeks, according to government-funded research. Many people who were dependent on high blood pressure medication can be weaned off it entirely, simply by controlling diet.

3. Heart Disease

Every year, heart disease is responsible for one of every four deaths in the U.S. according to the CDC.

It’s commonly known that high-fat foods like meat, particularly red meat, contribute to high cholesterol, which clogs arteries and causes heart disease. Medication can control cholesterol levels and mitigate the symptoms of heart disease, but using food as medicine plays a powerful role in keeping hearts healthy as well.

Harvard researchers have discovered that a Mediterranean-style diet cut heart attacks and deaths by 70% in a sample group. The Mediterranean diet, which focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, proved even more effective than the more restrictive diet recommended by the American Heart Association. The study demonstrates that eating healthy doesn’t have to mean bland or boring — heart-healthy choices can be just as delicious and easy to prepare as their unhealthy counterparts.

How Corporate Wellness Programs Can Influence Diet

The research shows that diet matters when dealing with chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. For a corporate wellness program to be as effective as possible, it should include a nutrition component that equips employees with guidance and support that is easy to access in their day-to-day lives.

In the modern food landscape, it’s easy to eat unhealthily and treat the ill effects with medicine. But with the right help and guidance, food can be the medicine your employees need to get healthy, avoid chronic disease, reduce healthcare costs and improve quality of life.

Learn how Zipongo can make nutrition a central part of your corporate wellness program: Contact us today.

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