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Why nutritious food could be the answer to some of the world’s greatest health problems

In the US, more than one in ten people do not have reliable access to nutritious foods.

In the US, more than one in ten people do not have reliable access to nutritious foods. Image: Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

Dani Dudeck
Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Instacart
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • It’s time to change the way we think about health and we need to start with food.
  • Malnutrition is the leading cause of death and disability worldwide.
  • We must be bold and push the boundaries of the role nutritious food can play in health and we must embrace the power of technology to help scale these solutions globally.

Many of the world's biggest health problems are actually food problems. Malnutrition is the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. Poor diets are responsible for around 11 million deaths annually. That’s more than tobacco, high blood pressure or any other health risk. We’re in the midst of a global epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases.

In the future, nutritious food could hold the key to a revolutionary new healthcare system — one that uses food to help treat patients when they’re sick and help prevent them from getting sick in the first place.
In the future, nutritious food could hold the key to a revolutionary new healthcare system — one that uses food to help treat patients when they’re sick and help prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

Nutritious food is often the best medicine

Despite the well-documented connection between nutrition and health, we’re not doing nearly enough — in the US or globally — to integrate food and nutrition into our health systems. In nearly every country, for instance, soon-to-be doctors receive thousands of hours of medical training, but little if any of that training focuses on nutrition and healthy food. Many health insurance plans cover the cost of treating an illness, but not preventing it through healthy food and nutrition programmes.

The result, according to the United Nations, is that we have “not been generally progressing” towards a world where everyone has access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. Until we do, people everywhere will pay the price.

It’s time to put food and nutrition front and centre in our approach to health — and everyone has a role to play in this. For too long, the food industry was on the sidelines in the health arena — in part because there weren’t many incentives for companies to engage and few ways to accurately measure the impact when they did. Until recently, we also didn’t have the infrastructure or technology to scale nutrition solutions to reach more than a small sliver of the population.

Fortunately, that’s beginning to change. As we learn more about the potential of food as medicine, new opportunities are emerging for food-related companies to drive real value for — and make an impact on — everyone from health systems to insurers to patients. As a result, we’re starting to see more grocers, consumer packaged goods companies and food-focused nonprofits stepping deeper into the health space.

Meanwhile, at Instacart, we have seen firsthand over the last ten years the incredible impact technology can have in giving people access to the nutritious food they need. More recently, opportunities started to emerge to harness that same technology to power innovative nutrition programmes and drive positive health outcomes for millions of people.

Today, the tools have evolved to the point where we can now scale nutritious food as medicine initiatives in ways that simply weren’t possible even a year or two ago. Physicians, for example, can now prescribe, order and send specific food items directly to a patient’s door, so the food is waiting for them when they get home from the hospital. New technologies also allow health insurers to offer individuals a weekly, category-specific grocery stipend tailored to their unique health conditions. Until recently, such personalised programmes were limited in size and scope. Today, they can reach millions of people.

The potential of this new technology is enormous. Research has shown, for example, that when people eat medically tailored meals, they are less likely to be admitted to the hospital and spend less on health care. In the future, nutritious food could hold the key to a revolutionary new healthcare system — one that uses food to help treat patients when they’re sick and help prevent them from getting sick in the first place.

For that to happen, however, everyone — from grocers and government leaders to technology companies and healthcare providers — must work together to push food as medicine programmes forward.

That means creating bold partnerships between the public and private sectors, combined with support from nonprofits, academia and research, to reimagine the role food can play in preventative, curative, and restorative health. And, it means building new connections between industries that have been disconnected for far too long — from food and agriculture to hospitals and insurers to retail and technology.

The good news is that momentum is building.

In September 2022, the White House held the first national conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in more than 50 years. By bringing together leaders from government, industry, academia and more, the summit cast a much-needed spotlight on nutrition-related issues — and started to forge some of the connections needed to address them.

Around the same time, government leaders representing the US, Spain, Germany, Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, the African Union and the European Union came together for a Global Food Security Summit to accelerate action to combat global food insecurity and explore opportunities to replace and scale innovative solutions.

These are encouraging steps. But if we want to make the world healthier, we need to take even more steps — bringing people together across industries and borders to address an old problem in new ways. We need to be bold and continue to push the boundaries of the role food can play in health. And we need to embrace the power of technology to help scale these solutions, so they can benefit more people around the world.

If we do, we won’t just change the way the world thinks about food. We’ll also change the way the world thinks about health — and millions of people will be better for it.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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