Medical Foods Help Patients Manage Disease

You know supplements.

But do you know medical foods?

No, no, we’re not talking about Twinkies injected with penicillin (although that might be a good idea), and we’re not talking about a salad-only diet plan, either (although that might be pretty healthy). We’re talking about an actual, prescription option for actual patients.

Medical foods can be a bit confusing to understand, though. Here are some basic questions and answers about the category.

What are they?

Medical foods are special formulations meant for dietary management of specific illnesses. They can aid patients with allergies, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, or chronic pain, among other conditions. A doctor needs to supervise their use.

They’re not meant to cure a condition, but to help prevent problems or make disease management easier. This is important, because otherwise they might have to be treated like actual prescription drugs. It also means they don’t have the kinds of side effects associated with prescription drugs.

The phrase “specially formulated” is important. Medical foods can’t be, say, a bundle of carrots, or potatoes, or other naturally occurring produce. They can’t be high-fiber bread or any other product you could find in a supermarket. They need to actually be created and mixed by a company and intended to address an actual condition.

Why would someone use them?

Patients struggling with certain illnesses may not be able to meet their nutritional needs through regular diets. Those with gastrointestinal problems or renal disease have specific requirements that medical foods purport to fill.

There’s also a medical food specifically for diabetics dealing with neuropathy. Metanx, which Diabetes Health has covered in the past, is available in capsule form. It contains active forms of vitamins meant to help restore circulation and repair nerve damage.

Medical foods aren’t intended to replace traditional drugs. Instead, they’re supposed to supplement and support a patient’s treatment regimen. Think of it this way: Regular exercise has been shown to have all sorts of helpful, healthy effects. But regular exercise isn’t a prescription drug. It’s something you do to make yourself healthier-along with drugs and doctors’ appointments.

Is the use of medical foods spreading?

You bet. According to recent information provided by Targeted Medical Pharma, a company that formulates and distributes medical foods, business is good. More and more facilities are making these products available, particularly in the Northwest region of the United States.

“With the number of prescribing clinics on the rise, we have seen a 26 percent increase in prescriptions for our medical foods in the Northwest region and Hawaii compared to last year’s fourth quarter,” said William Shell, the company’s chief executive officer and chief science officer.

“Strict new regulations for opioid prescribing in Washington and Oregon, coupled with widespread opposition to traditional, high-dose pain drugs among patients, continue to fuel the demand for safer, more effective therapeutic alternatives such as medical foods across the entire U.S.”

Many companies make medical foods now, too, including corporate conglomerates like Nestle. It’s safe to say that you’ll be hearing much more about them in years to come, especially as healthcare providers emphasize prevention and early management of chronic diseases.

Are medical foods regulated in the same way as prescription drugs?

No. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “medical foods do not have to undergo premarket review or approval by FDA and individual medical food products do not have to be registered with FDA.”

Translation: This is a very different kind of product, and treated as so by federal regulators. Does this mean medical foods put patients’ health at risk? Not at all. Each ingredient must be listed (as is the case with ordinary processed foods you buy at a supermarket), and all of the requirements for regular food production still apply.

On the other hand, do medical foods actually work? Are they effective? Given the lack of regulation, companies don’t have to know. They don’t have to prove anything. (Some companies do test their products, but it’s not a requirement.) That’s a pretty big caveat.

“If anything sounds too good, it’s probably too good,” said Bernd Wollschlaeger, director of educational programs at the American Nutraceuticals Association, according to the Wall Street Journal. “There are no miracles.”

As in the world of supplements, there will likely be legitimate companies that try hard to provide an accurate picture of their products, and others that try to stretch the truth. This all makes the advice of a qualified physician crucial. Your doctor should be able to tell you whether one product or another will actually address your condition.

What’s the difference between medical foods and vitamins?

Vitamins (or supplements) are even less regulated than medical foods. Manufacturers can only say that a vitamin “helps maintain” a user’s health. The pills are also much less targeted, and they’re not meant to remedy a nutritional deficiency.

That said, after seeing the success of medical foods, some supplement companies have started to suggest that their vitamins treat specific conditions, which is a big no-no. The government has had to crack down on some vitamin-makers.

“What we see unfortunately frequently-and we’re seeing more and more of it-are people wanting to make disease claims,” said the FDA’s Daniel Fabricant, director of Dietary Supplement Programs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Should I be using a medical food?

If you don’t suffer from a chronic disease, probably not. If you are, though, it probably depends upon your specific challenges and treatment plan. Ask your doctor or other health care provider if you have questions.

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