Nature and museums: Surprising things doctors now prescribe

  • During lockdown, UK children from poorer families ate more snack foods.
  • Increasing food prices through taxation can leave lower income households disadvantaged.
  • Doctors could add fruit and vegetables to a growing list of unusual prescriptions.

Healthy foods like fruit and vegetables could soon be available on prescription in the UK, the latest in a growing list of surprising treatments doctors can prescribe.

In a review of the role of food in the nation’s health, the UK National Food Strategy has highlighted existing efforts to encourage people to eat less salt and sugar.

A so-called ‘sugar tax’, and other pricing mechanisms aimed to make less healthy food more expensive, could have more profound effects on lower-income households, which are more likely to consume them, the report argues.

In lockdown, vulnerable people with a COVID-19 health risk and the less affluent ate nearly a whole portion of fruit and vegetables less per day, the report found. Children – particularly from poorer backgrounds – reported eating more snacks and junk food.

The diets of vulnerable people are at risk, especially during times of crisis.

The diets of vulnerable people are at risk, especially during times of crisis.

Image: National Food Strategy report

Among its recommendations, the report suggests expanding current free school meals to cover holiday periods, and a trial programme whereby GPs can prescribe fruit and vegetables to less affluent families “suffering, or at risk of suffering, from diet-related illness.”

Although there are no firm plans in the UK for doctors to start handing out prescriptions for peas, carrots or even an apple a day, there are already other innovative treatments being recommended in consulting rooms all over the world.

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

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High blood pressure, anxiety and stress, heart disease, and mental illness can all be helped by a month-by-month calendar of things to do in the great outdoors.

Suggestions for the month of August include “turn o’er a rock and see what you see”, “make a seggie boat (fold the leaves of a yellow iris) – if you don’t know how, ask an amenable older Shetlander”, or “listen and copy a bird sound – try ‘talking’ to a bird.”

The economic and social cost of mental health has grown in the UK to reach around $165 billion a year over the past decade, according to the Centre for Mental Health.

Encouraging people to benefit from the natural world could become a normal course of action for doctors.

In December 2020, the UK government announced seven places around the country that would trial ‘green prescribing’ for two years – sharing in a pot of $8 million.

Activities include walking, cycling, community gardening and food-growing projects, and conservation projects like tree planting. Supported visits to local green spaces, waterways and the coast could also reduce isolation and loneliness, the government said.

In May this year, the UK’s Mental Health Foundation joined forces with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) to kickstart a ‘blue prescribing’ programme, which see doctors prescribing visits to water-based nature facilities.

In Canada, some patients have been advised by their doctor to immerse themselves in culture. A visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is now on the prescription books following a collaboration between the museum and a consortium of doctors, Médecins Francophones du Canada.

The museum also has an impressive online collection to cater to the needs of those who can’t get to the museum itself.

While in the UK, ‘bibliotherapy’ has long been used as a way to help patients and doctors in Bristol prescribe self-help books which patients can collect from the library.