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Can prescription foods change your life?

We all know that diet plays a huge role in overall health. Will doctors soon be providing grocery prescriptions to be delivered to our doors and prepared by smart appliances?

A proper diet has long been considered essential to good health. But few have the time or skills to follow a diet spelled out on paper and prepare the right foods for every meal. Enter prescription food services ordered by your doctor, delivered by a food service, automatically restocked by your refrigerator, and cooked to perfection by your stove—after it crowdsources the best final touches to the recipe.

In other words, technology can help us eat better. Plenty of studies show that good nutrition prevents diseases ranging from rickets to diabetes and heart problems. The right caloric intake also speeds recovery from illnesses, accidents, and surgeries. Further, more recent research has discovered that diet impacts your epigenetics, the mechanism that turns genes on and off, and thus affects not only your health, but your future offspring’s, too.

“Examples of epigenetics in food include the ability of green tea to influence DNA methylation marks and reduce cancer susceptibility, as well as the ability of sulforaphane in broccoli to slow the growth of cancer via histone modification,” according to a report in What Is Epigenetics. “Other epigenetic examples even suggest that DNA methylation might fix binge eating early in life or eating brown rice can epigenetically reduce food cravings.”

New discoveries in how food affects your health do not contradict earlier studies, in regard to general impact. The consensus—that the foods you eat and how you prepare them affect your health—is confirmed again and again. Yet the American diet contains a lot of processed and fast foods with little planning based on nutrition science. Processed foods are the opposite of good nutrition, yet their low prices and ready availability make them the most frequent food choices.

Doctors constantly preach against eating processed and fast foods, but many people don’t have the time or skills to prepare better meals. And certainly not to choose foods specific to their health needs in the moment.

Even so, the constant public education against fast foods and processed foods is influencing consumers and the food industry.

A "Healthy Happy Meals" bill in New York never passed, but it drew nationwide attention. An American Journal of Preventative Medicine study analyzing food ordered for 422 kids—with an average age of 7—at three popular burger chains found that meals averaged 600 calories, reported USA Today.

The pressure is on to provide more nutritious and lower calorie food for people of all ages, even via a drive-through window. But despite increasing demand for healthier menu items, scoring healthy food is still tough for many people to accomplish, in part due to costs. “Fast food has become a synonym for bad food. Yet, the industrial farm system that has made it possible for McDonald’s and many other chains to sell cheeseburgers for a dollar has also enabled Americans to spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than people do in any other country,” reports The New Yorker.

Digital transformation in life sciences. What’s new and what that means to you.

The evolution of food service

The Internet is flattening many of our society’s institutions, and the food industry is no exception. Online services cut costs by chopping out the middle man and connecting sellers directly to consumers.

Today’s food services deliver the precise amount of fresh foods and other ingredients for specific meals. These services evolved from the disruption of the traditional grocery store model. The list of such services is long, including Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Sun Basket, and Home Chef. In each case, everything comes in a box that a couple or family would need for that meal. The appeal is convenience, cooking guidance, good nutrition, and portion control. Cutting out the middle man sometimes helps bring the cost down, too.

Current food services are answering the pent-up consumer demand for healthier foods in greater variety and easy-to-prepare recipes. And they are performing well in terms of meeting consumer health objectives.

The next step in the evolution of food services is prescription foods.

So how would that work? And how would it differ from the diets prescribed now?

Prescription food services

Soon your doctor will prescribe more than medicine to get you healthy and keep you that way. That means prescribing technology to help you monitor your condition and maintain your wellness. By this point, the doctor has also diagnosed any conditions you might have and has prescribed a meal plan for you. Food will be delivered and cooked for you with a lot less effort than previously.

Here’s one scenario on how that would work: You arrive home, where a box of fresh foods and ingredients awaits you on the doorstep. Everything in that box fits into meal plans that conform to your prescription diet. You may also receive a box of prescribed medical wearables or other devices on your stoop, if you don’t already have them to monitor your health. There may even be smart devices in your home capable of monitoring your health, such as a smart toilet and ultrasonic bath that can analyze bodily excretions and scan your internal organs, respectively.

These devices will all report your health metrics on your electronic medical record and alert your doctors to any new information. This information will automatically be carried over the Internet from a preconfigured Wi-Fi router in your home, via apps on your phone and other devices.

Your food, prescribed for your unique health condition and delivered to your door, can be cooked by (or with the help of) integrated smart devices and intelligent assistants, something akin to Apple Siri, Samsung Bixby, Amazon Echo helper Alexa, and Google Assistant.

After all, having the complete meal kit sent to your home eliminates the need to shop, but some people may still have trouble preparing the meal without assistance. Intelligent assistants can help with instructions and examples, but smart devices can help with the actual work.

The rise of machine chefs and home health monitors

One class of such devices is Internet-connected ovens, which are already on the market. Many have met with positive reviews. One example is the June oven, which asks a series of questions about the meal to be cooked and then, using a complex array of sensors, cooks the meal to the specifications set by you—or based on the best practices of other cooks reporting back in the cloud on the success of their experience.

Another example is the Tovala smart oven and subscription plan, Meals arrive at your door already prepared—seasoned, marinated, or chopped as needed. You just pop the trays into the smart oven, scan the tray sleeve to give the stove its instructions, and press start. The oven cooks the recipe perfectly—by itself. You can also cook your own recipes in it.

Your smart refrigerator will ensure you are stocked with foods and ingredients that match your prescription diet, and suggest recipes based on what you actually have on hand. The resulting tasty dish is then cooked in your smart oven, and your intelligent assistant will handle the stove settings appropriately for that dish.

If you decide to go out and eat with friends instead, your smart refrigerator will perfectly store the foods that were delivered at precise temperatures. Your phone app will take over and suggest restaurants that have the foods you were prescribed to eat. When you arrive, the phone app will have already analyzed the menu and make suggestions on what to order. If you like, it will actually make the order for you.

When you get back home again, smart devices will measure your health and report to you and your doctor. For example, the smart toilet will tell you your weight and muscle tone, while a smart camera connected to Amazon’s Echo will tell you if your clothes still fit properly. Did you lose weight on your prescribed foods? Echo will suggest how you can adapt your current wardrobe to still fit, or where you can find new clothes on sale. Would you like the new clothes delivered to your door as well, Echo will ask? If you do, Echo will order what you need from Amazon or another store of your choosing.

Cheater penalties

While all of this is certainly convenient and probably very tasty, no doubt some patients will at least occasionally cheat on their diet. The new technologies will report such to your doctor and adapt your food plan to make up for the transgression.

But humans being human, cheating on a diet is to be expected. Smart healthcare providers will likely accommodate this tendency to cheat by providing a prescription for foods that stop or reduce urges. How can that be done? Big data and personalized medicine to the rescue!

Personalized medicine is all about fitting a customized prescription treatment to the patient and that includes predicting urges and weaknesses for certain tastes and chemical substances found in foods, such as sugar and caffeine. Penalties are therefore not much of a concern, unless you count a possible impact on your health insurance premiums for failing to comply with your food prescription. But in general, it will be a pleasant experience both in terms of dining and in health outcomes. 

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.