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Hartford HealthCare expands ‘Food as Medicine’ prescription program to combat rise in diabetes

Glucose monitor with fresh vegetables. Healthy food, diet and nutrition.
simpson33 / Getty Images
Glucose monitor with fresh vegetables. Healthy food, diet and nutrition.

More than one in three adults in the U.S. — or 98 million people — are prediabetic, but more than 80% don't know they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One hospital system in Connecticut — Hartford Healthcare Group (HHC) — is responding by expanding access to foods that prevent or delay the onset of diabetes.

Dr. Egils Bogdanovics, medical director of the diabetes center at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, part of HHC, said one in three children born today are expected to develop diabetes.

“It's because of our epidemic of overweight and obesity, associated with insulin resistance, which is really what prediabetes is about,” he said. 

A fasting blood sugar level from 100 to 125 mg/dL is considered prediabetes. If it's 126 mg/dL or higher on two separate tests, the person has diabetes. Prediabetes is a precursor to type 2 diabetes and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, but it is reversible.

In Harford where the hospital is located, nearly 30% of people live in poverty and ‘food deserts,’ lacking access to healthy, affordable food.

“Food insecurity is one of the reasons that we're seeing an uptick in type 2 diabetes,” Bogdanovics said. “We're initiating a program called Food as Medicine, where a provider can write a prescription to get food at one of our clinics.”

The hospital’s doctors have begun writing prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables at no cost to patients, who are guided by a nutritionist on site.

“I think that there are certain groups that are disproportionately affected by diabetes, and by extension by prediabetes,” he said. “And those are the groups particularly within our cities that we have to reach out to.”

Hartford Hospital and the Institute of Living, which started the program, have prescribed food to nearly 200 patients.

Prediabetes complications; CDC prediabetes quiz 

Endocrinologists are concerned by the complications that arise from diabetes.

“What happens with diabetes is that it really increases your risk of heart attacks and strokes and mortality from cardiovascular complications,” said Dr. Parvathy Madhavan, an endocrinologist at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

“And this not only occurs in diabetes, you can also see this in prediabetes,” Madhavan said.

Madhavan encouraged people at risk to take a CDC online quiz "Could You Have Prediabetes?"

“Only if they know, can they implement the changes – exercise, diet, and so on,” she said. “If you are having any of those risk factors that you see in the quiz, doctors will screen you for diabetes, or prediabetes.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.