What Is a Medical Food, and Why Do I Need It?

If your healthcare practitioner has recommended you start adding a medical food to your protocol, you might have some questions. While we’re all used to having pills prescribed, medical foods are likely something new. In this blog post, you can review the most commonly asked questions surrounding medical foods to get the answers you need.

What is a medical food?

A medical food is intended for the specific dietary management of a disease or condition that has distinctive nutritional requirements. It is used under the direct supervision of a physician or other licensed healthcare practitioner.

What conditions can medical foods help manage?

Certain medical conditions may have distinct nutritional requirements, and diet alone just won’t cut it. Medical foods may be helpful for the nutritional management of certain chronic health conditions. If a clinician determines that a medical food is necessary to a patient’s overall medical care, a medical food may be recommended.

Medical foods support those who have trouble digesting and absorbing food and certain nutrients and cannot nutritionally manage their condition through diet modification alone. Medical foods may be recommended for those with conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the most common types of inflammatory bowel disease. Other conditions that can be addressed with medical foods include sarcopenia, dyslipidemia, and gastrointestinal conditions.

How is a medical food different from a dietary supplement?

It can be challenging to obtain all of the necessary nutrients required for health on a regular basis from food alone. Dietary supplements help meet the nutritional needs of healthy people by providing one or more dietary ingredients such as vitamins and minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, or enzymes. On the other hand, medical foods help manage the distinctive nutritional requirements of people with specific medical conditions by providing unique combinations of nutritional ingredients.

My medical food is a powder. Is it the same as a protein shake?

Medical foods may look like meal replacement drinks or protein powders that we see in health food stores or grocery stores. But appearance is where their similarities end.

Protein shakes are a way to supplement or increase your dietary protein intake. Unlike medical foods, they are not formulated to support the dietary management of a specific disease state. However, you can use your prescribed medical food to make a “shake” or smoothie by blending with fruit, liquid, greens, etc.

Why is supervision of a healthcare provider recommended when consuming a medical food?

Medical foods need to be administered in a very specific way depending on the underlying condition. Patients who use medical foods have health conditions that require medical management and guidance from a healthcare provider who can administer and adjust the medical food recommendations as needed.

What are the ingredients in a medical food?

The ingredients within a medical food, which will vary depending on the underlying condition it is designed to manage, must be accepted by the FDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). Medical foods need to be tested for contaminants to ensure purity. Ideally, medical foods offer well-researched formulas with demonstrated tolerability and positive clinical outcomes.

Is there any reason I should NOT take a medical food?

Only take a medical food when recommended by your healthcare practitioner. It is essential, however, to discuss concerns and changes with your healthcare provider, including your list of medications and supplements, to ensure the correct approach is applied and adjustments made when needed.

If you have a condition that can be supported with a medical food, talk to your clinician to determine if there is a medical food that is specifically formulated for your medical needs, and always follow the clinician’s medical food instructions.

For more information on medical foods and other general health topics, visit the Metagenics blog.

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