Changing the conversation about health

Food on Prescription: Ahead of a stark winter, key voices at The College of Medicine unite on why healthy food must be accessible for everyone

Back in early summer, eight of the most progressive minds on how healthy eating and food impacts our societies in the 21st century set out their views on the seismic shift needed to protect our health and healthcare systems.

Eight of the most progressive minds on how healthy eating and food impacts our societies in the 21st century set out here their views on the seismic shift needed to protect our health and healthcare systems.

These eminent voices: Dr William Li, Professor Dean Ornish, Professor Tim Spector, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Dr Uma Naidoo, Dr David Perlmutter, Henry Dimbleby and Patrick Holden, alongside The College of Medicine’s Chair, Dr Michael Dixon, offered a consensus statement on healthy eating in a post-Covid world that speaks to both patients and professionals.

As we face a difficult winter, with the cost of living crisis making nutritious food even harder to obtain, here’s their statement in full on how the Government needs to take swift action to protect society’s most vulnerable – and ensure better health for everyone.

Food on Prescription: Consensus Statement

A global obesity epidemic – fuelled by a perfect storm of growing portion sizes, forceful advertising by industry goliaths, and an increasing consumption of ultra-processed food and refined sugars – reflects ominously in the UK’s own stark statistics. More than a million NHS hospital admissions in 2020 had obesity as a factor. In the UK, around 67 per cent of men are overweight, and 60 per cent of women (1). 

Government intervention is required to derail the existing junk food cycle, says Henry Dimbleby. ‘A toxic interaction between the commercial incentive of companies and our evolved appetite is the primary reason for ill health. We’re programmed to eat dense foods high in sugar, fat and salt that. They taste delicious to us.

‘Companies invest in developing and marketing such foods, and we eat more of them. Companies then spend more, we eat more and we become overweight. This reinforcing feedback loop means both the population and the companies – fearing profits will simply be taken by others if they don’t continue to participate – are currently stuck in a vicious junk food cycle. Robust government intervention is required to fix it.’

The Food on Prescription consensus statement sets out The College of Medicine’s continued campaign for better access to better food; urging the Government to support community-led initiatives that promote diverse, healthy, locally-sourced produce for everyone (Image: Pixabay/Pexels)

Ensuring long-term sustainable health relies now on a profound cultural shift, in which the biggest voices must fight unwaveringly for better education and campaign passionately for food equity.  The Government must support community-led initiatives that promote diverse, healthy, locally-sourced and inexpensive diets, with an evidence-led balance of protein, fat, carbohydrate and micronutrients.

Through Food as Medicine research, we know that more than 200 foods have been discovered to activate and strengthen our own ability to protect health, heal, and recover from illness. Importantly, many are ingredients of traditional food cultures that are part of the heritage of people around the world.

Says Dr William Li: ‘Modern biomedicine reveals the body has innate hardwired health defence systems – angiogenesis, regeneration, microbiome, DNA protection, and immunity. These health defence systems help us repel and fight disease from infancy to our golden years and are activated by our food choices so we can eat to beat disease.’ 

Dr Uma Naidoo believes the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ should still be the headline for societies moving forward, bolstered by increasing scientific evidence that the gut microbiome is crucial to overall health. Dr David Purlmetter agrees, saying: ‘We are now recognising that the trillions of bacteria living in the gut are playing a central role in determining our health destiny. Dietary recommendations that help to nurture and not threaten the gut bacteria are vital.’ 

Professor Tim Spector, pictured on stage at the Food on Prescription conference in June, adds his voice to the statement, saying: “The single biggest threat to the health of developed countries is the rise of cheap ultra-processed foods that have replaced whole foods.

The Covid curveball has provided another, unexpected, validation for a diet that majors also on whole foods and plants. A 2021 study, encompassing research in six countries, examined how nearly 3,000 frontline health professionals, frequently exposed to Covid at the pandemic’s height, coped with the virus themselves. Those following a whole foods and plant-based diet were 73% less likely to develop moderate to severe symptoms. While those on a low-carb, high animal protein diet were 386% more likely to develop moderate to severe symptoms. (2)

Healthy eating and the future safeguarding of our planet are also powerfully meshed together. ‘What’s personally sustainable is globally sustainable’, notes Professor Dean Ornish. Eating seasonally, ethically sourced food – something our forefathers did far better than us – is a powerful weapon in halting a climate disaster. Professor Tim Spector adds: ‘The single biggest threat to the health of developed countries is the rise of cheap ultra-processed foods that have replaced whole foods. Many of these include low quality meats and fish that also impact global warming and are harming our planet.  Action is needed now to reverse this disastrous policy.’

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The depletion of our soil, intensified by industrial farming to meet supermarket demands, reduces biodiversity in the wider environment and diminishes the key micronutrients we need. Says Patrick Holden: ‘The plant vs meat debate in sustainable diets has become too simplistic and unnecessarily polarised. It shouldn’t be a question of plants or meat but the right kind of plants and livestock products, both from sustainable agriculture. 

‘Our future diets ought to be directly linked to the productivity of the sustainable farming systems which need to replace the ones we have at present. That means no more cheap chicken, pork and intensive dairy products, but instead lots of sustainably grown vegetables supplemented with mainly grass-fed beef, lamb and dairy products – and the occasional chicken as an expensive treat.’

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall urges us too to be open-minded about the new foods that are emerging from the Agri-food Tech sector.  Meat replacements, particularly created via precision fermentation and pea protein manipulation, are evolving at lightning speed, offering a credible alternative to meat. 

Education remains vital to empowering people to take care of their own health. The public, and particularly families who are nurturing the next generation, need the skills to prepare inexpensive, nutritionally-diverse food, ideally locally sourced and in season. 

Patrick Holden, a campaigner for sustainable food and farming, says cheap, poor quality meat farmed on an industrial level to satisfy supermarket demand must be replaced with a more sustainable approach (Image: Pixabay)

In schools, from Early Years to GCSE year groups and beyond, teach children how to cook their own meals, to learn where their food comes from and to understand that a good diet is the absolute bedrock of staying healthy. For families transitioning to a healthier diet, encouragement and support – be it from the Government, a GP or a community-led group – is essential to success.  

The College of Medicine’s Chair Dr Michael Dixon concludes: ‘There is a clear consensus of opinion coming from these world experts that we should move towards a more seasonal, locally sourced and diverse diet as part of creating a healthy biome. 

‘Our diets should be more plant-based with extra intake of fruit and vegetables and we should ensure that the meat and fish in our diet are of high quality and farmed or caught ethically and sustainably.  Consequently, we must move from cheap, ultra-processed foods to the sort of food for which our biology has evolved over many thousands of years. 

‘National and local government, education and health must all play a part. We will need to start young; providing children with experience and education in nutrition and cooking. The Government will need to support community-led initiatives that promote diverse, healthy, locally sourced and inexpensive diets. Farming practices will need to be encouraged and enabled to support this.  

‘In the UK, we have a health service that is free to all its citizens. The ability to eat a healthy diet along the lines of this consensus must be equally open to everyone.’ 

1). Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet: NHS study 2021

2). Plant-based diets, pescatarian diets and COVID-19 severity: a population-based case-control study in six countries.

Kim H, et al. BMJ Nutr Prev Health. 2021 Jun 7;4(1):257-266. doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2021-000272. eCollection 2021.PMID: 34308134]