National Nutrition Month Q&A With AHE Co-lead Dr. Kevin Volpp

Posted on: March 28, 2023

Healthy food and nutrients are essential in providing our bodies with the fuel they need to
thrive — without access to nutritious foods, our health can be greatly impacted. This National Nutrition Month, we spoke with Dr. Kevin Volpp — co-lead of Accelerate Health Equity (AHE) — to hear more about his thoughts on how “food is medicine” relates to heart health, health equity, and his work with the American Heart Association.


Q: Last year, the American Heart Association named you a 2022 Distinguished Scientist. Tell us a little bit more about what this means for you as a researcher and as a co-lead of AHE.

Much of my research career has focused on testing ways to reduce cardiovascular disease risk through interventions and understanding the impact of policy initiatives on cardiovascular health outcomes. Many of our studies at AHE have strived to improve health equity by either improving outcomes for those most harmed by inequities or by shining a spotlight on the impact of policies on health disparities.

As a researcher, it is always gratifying to have years of work recognized by an important career achievement award like this. It is also a particularly important validation that
the population health research that our team has done historically, and that is featured at AHE, is seen as an important part of the broader national portfolio of path-breaking cardiovascular research. This portfolio ranges from basic science and development of therapeutics to population health research.

Q: Acknowledging the importance of food and nutrition as a foundation of good health is even more top-of-mind during National Nutrition Month. When we say “food is medicine,” how does that relate to heart health?

The many links between suboptimal nutrition and cardiovascular disease are well-documented. Suboptimal nutrition contributes to adverse health outcomes through higher rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke directly, as well as indirectly through the worsening of cardiovascular disease risk factors such as diabetes and obesity. “Food is medicine” refers to the linkage between the health system and nutrition interventions — often through identification of at-risk patient populations.

“Food is medicine” has started to get a lot of attention recently but as a research field is relatively new. There are still important questions to be answered related to the nature of interventions. How long does it take and at what intensity and dosing are interventions most effective? How can interventions be connected to other educational, coaching, or behavioral strategies? What is the optimal balance of cost effectiveness and significant improvements in health? Which patient populations are most impacted by interventions? All of these questions are critical in reaching equitable and effective “food is medicine” research.


Q: The American Heart Association has a new Food Is Medicine research initiative, launching in the spring of 2023. As someone who both leads an initiative like AHE and researches cardiovascular disease, what does this work mean for health equity at scale?

Much of this work is fundamentally about improving health equity — rates of food insecurity and nutrition insecurity are much higher in Black populations and populations with low income. Our research systematically builds evidence that provides data on the cost-effectiveness of “food is medicine” interventions. We aim to then provide public and private payors critical data that they can use when making coverage determinations of pharmaceutical products and other treatments. If a subset of the interventions are similar or higher in cost-effectiveness to currently covered services or interventions, coverage of these “food is medicine” interventions could help to greatly reduce rates of food and nutrition insecurity, thereby improving chronic disease and health equity.

Dr. Volpp is the founding Director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) and the Mark V. Pauly President’s Distinguished Professor at Perelman School of Medicine and Health Care Management at the Wharton School. He is also the Health Policy Division Chief for the Department of Medical Ethics and Policy.

National Nutrition Month Q&A With Dr. Kevin Volpp