News - June 16, 2017

Less pills and more peppers

Tessa Louwerens

According to a team of experts from Wageningen University & Research and other institutes, nutrition can make an important contribution to treating chronic illnesses.

In the future, lifestyle should be used more often as ‘medicine’. We’ll not only be given pills, but we’ll be told to eat vegetables and fruit and to cycle and walk. This was advocated by experts in a report commissioned by ZonMW (Nederlands organization for health research and care innovation), which is being presented today during the Arts en Voeding congress.

‘Research has already shown us that nutrition is an effective way to treat chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease,’ said project leader Renger Witkamp, professor of Nutrition and Pharmacology. 'Just consider a diabetic who has had to inject insulin daily and who, after a few months, no longer needs the medicine. Not because of a medical treatment, but by eating differently and being more active. Witkamp: ‘It costs more of an
investment in the short run, but in the long run it will be more than worth it.’

Eating habits
Good nutrition can lead to great health benefits. According to Witkamp, the reason that these benefits are now relatively low is partially because of the way healthcare is paid for. ‘Health insurers are compensated for treating illnesses. Because short-term models are used most often, it’s less expensive to prescribe pills, which have an immediate effect, than to supervise a patient’s eating habits and lifestyle for a longer period of time.’

We have little insight into how these nutrtitional guidelines are followed
Renger Witkamp

In addition, it’s more difficult to provide scientific support for nutrition studies. When researching medicine, you can easily perform intervention studies in which one group is given a pill and the second group a placebo. Witkamp said that such studies are difficult to carry out in nutrition research, especially among large groups of patients with chronic
illnesses. It’s both too expensive and, practically speaking, nearly impossible to do. ‘So we are arguing for a different approach in which we look at the health effects of lifestyle interventions at the patient level. But it’s important that this approach can withstand the scientific test of criticism.’

According to Witkamp, a number of things have to change in order to make optimum use of the possibilities offered by nutrition. As already explained, healthcare will have to be financed differently. And educational programmes for health professional, such as general practitioners and doctors’ assistants, should pay more attention to the importance of
nutrition and lifestyle. Research has shown that nutrition and lifestyle are currently discussed in only a fourth of patients’ consultations with their GP.  Witkamp: ‘For a number of illnesses, the treatment protocol includes using nutrition to support the treatment. But we
have little insight into how these guidelines are followed.’ Witkamp also said
that general practitioners, physicians and policymakers could make better use
of the expertise of other healthcare professionals, such as dieticians and/or lifestyle

*De ‘Kennissynthese voeding als behandeling van chronische ziekte’ was composed by experts from Wageningen Universiteit en Research (WUR), Groningen University Medical Center (UMCG), the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) and RadboudUMC.