Experts say the typical American diet is a leading cause of health problems in our country. But all those bad-for-you processed foods also happen to be inexpensive, quick, and tasty. No wonder Americans eat poorly. It’s just so easy to do!

In today’s drive toward improving population health, there’s a hardy focus on the concept of food as medicine. Payers and providers are smart to experiment with programs that make eating healthy food easy and convenient.

Two factors are at play here: First, bad food can make people sick, which means higher healthcare costs and reduced quality of life. Second, the right type of food can reduce the risk and the severity of a bunch of chronic conditions, which means lower costs and a better life.

A recent study documented the trend of insufficient consumption of recommended foods and nutrients in populations around the world in 2017. Bad diets caused more deaths than any other risk factor, including cigarette smoking. FYI: The United States stood out for consuming the most processed meat, trans fats, and sugary beverages, while being especially low on whole grains. (Lancet)

We know a steady diet of good food has long-term positive effects, thanks to its proven ability to combat disease risk. For example, a Women’s Health Initiative observational study followed 50,000 women over 20 years and found those who ate more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains had a lower risk of breast cancer. (Washington Post)

Motivation to eat well

Since there aren’t too many ways to dress up the flavor of steamed Brussels sprouts (hint: try roasting them instead), we think making healthy food more convenient is the better method to encourage consumers to eat well. For payers and health management organizations, the common sense solution would be to consider partnerships with local resources for grocery and meal delivery programs that might supplant a patient’s default toward processed and fast food.

And with rideshare services getting onto the healthcare highway, as we noted earlier this year, good eats can be just a click away. Lyft, for example, has announced the expansion of its Grocery Access Program, which offers rides to families who live in food deserts for a flat rate of $2.50. Meanwhile, a number of Blues plans are cruising along with their new FoodQ home deliveries that offer healthy meals for just $10 a month.

Cost comparisons indicate the model does promise a real return on investment.

In Pennsylvania, the nonprofit MANNA Institute has quantified the healthcare impact of its medically tailored meal program for individuals with serious illnesses. For those who received tailored meals — such as low-sodium or kidney-friendly options — hospital visits decreased by 50%, and average monthly costs were $13,000 less per month. (MANNA) They have since partnered with several major health insurers to provide reimbursable services for plan members.

Remember those with chronic conditions account for 90% of the healthcare spend. Programs that make a healthy diet easy can decelerate the cost cycle of illness and treatment, which makes tons of economic sense.

Also, by integrating community partners into the larger health ecosystem, organizations could capitalize on other opportunities to improve social determinants of health. Need a low-sodium meal and a ride to the cardiologist? Done.

The cautions, of course, are in the difficulty of measuring the outcomes of healthy food access programs and operationalizing the logistics. Consumers need to be home to receive the groceries, and delivery trucks need refrigeration for fresh selections. Logistics will be especially tough in neighborhoods that need food programs the most.

Our Take: What’s awesome about the good-food model is that it applies across the continuum, so it can have far-reaching effects on prevention, chronic care, and post-acute care. It’s time to make the case to invest in food as valuable medicine that can and will transform the system from sick-care to healthcare.

Food-as-medicine is just one of the transformational trends we’ve got an eye on. Read more in our white paper, The Best Market Opportunities in Healthcare.