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What Are Medically Tailored Meals (MTMs)? A Review

By Chrissy Arsenault, MBA, RDN, LD

What are medically tailored meals (MTMs)?

Medically tailored meals (MTMs) is a hot topic in healthcare as the “food as medicine” movement grows in popularity among healthcare systems and providers. Over the last decade, numerous clinical studies have shown that what we eat has a profound effect on our overall health. Many healthcare providers are beginning to see food as a complementary, not an alternative, form of medicine for their patients.

According to the Food as Medicine Coalition, medically tailored meals (MTMs) are meals that are designed and approved by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), who are subject matter experts in food and nutrition. [1] More than just general nutrition, these meals reflect appropriate medical nutrition therapy based on the latest evidence-based practice guidelines for specific chronic diseases and conditions.

There are several types of MTMs: 

  1. Meals for Food Insecurity: Additional supportive food and nutrition services including meal vouchers and medically tailored groceries

  2. Meals for Post-Discharge: Individuals that have been recently discharged from a hospital or nursing home may have specific dietary requirements to support their healing. Patients who are given MTM’s post-discharge are 23% more likely to be discharged directly to their homes versus another facility following hospitalization. [1]

  3. Meals for Chronic Conditions: Individuals with chronic conditions may have specific nutrition requirements to treat and manage their disease and symptoms. These chronic conditions include diabetes, cancer, HIV, heart disease, behavioral health disorders and gastrointestinal disorders (IBS, IBD).  

In this article, we will focus on MTMs for chronic conditions, which is the fastest growing area. More and more healthcare systems are evaluating and implementing MTMs for their patients.

Average monthly medical costs for MTM participants were $843 vs. $1,413 for the comparison group, reflecting a gross difference of $570 per month, and a net difference of $220 (factoring in the cost of the meals). MTM participation was associated with fewer emergency room visits, inpatient admissions, and emergency transportation services compared to controls.

Recently, medically tailored meals became a covered service option in California through Medi-Cal, with coverage beginning January 2022. Under this new policy, Medi-Cal would cover up to three meals per day for 12 weeks and/or supportive services such as MTM delivery services or groceries.

Individuals who may benefit from this program include: :

  • Those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, stroke, cancer, HIV, cardiovascular disease, or behavioral health disorders,

  • Those who have been discharged from a hospital or nursing facility with high risk of rehospitalization or nursing facility placement, and

  • Those with extensive care-coordination needs.

Most experts agree that this new Medi-Cal program could pave the way for other payors and healthcare systems across the US to begin providing medically tailored meals as a covered service for their members.

What is medical nutrition therapy (MNT)?

Although many companies promote the latest fad diets and ‘healthy’ meals, such meals often aren’t ideal for those living with chronic health conditions. People with chronic diseases require meals that are aligned with currently recommended nutrition guidelines for a specific condition. That’s where medical nutrition therapy comes in.

Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) services are defined as “nutritional diagnostic, therapy, and counseling services for the purpose of disease management which is furnished by a registered dietitian or nutrition professional… pursuant to a referral by a physician.” [2] For example, someone with a chronic condition like congestive heart failure (CHF) or Type 2 diabetes requires a different type of nutrition plan than someone suffering from a chronic gastrointestinal condition like IBS or IBD.

By working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist or opting in for meals or supportive services that are designed by RDNs, you can ensure that you’re following an appropriate diet to help manage your chronic conditions. MNT involves a full assessment as well as continued monitoring and evaluation by harnessing the power of food as medicine.

Benefits of medically tailored meals

The food as medicine movement became popular in the 1980s in the United States to help combat the HIV/AID epidemic. Research had shown that healthy food choices could help prevent and treat disease and success was seen during this time getting proper nutrition to those suffering from HIV/AIDs.

Today, medically tailored meals (MTMs) still follow the principle that food can help you feel your best.

In a recent study published by the AARP, researchers found that providing patients with medically tailored meals resulted in a 16% savings in medical costs per month versus a comparison group not receiving medically tailored meals. MTM participation was associated with fewer emergency room visits, inpatient admissions, and emergency transportation services compared to controls. However, those provided with just standard non-medically tailored meals only saw a 1% cost savings in medical costs per month.

Even if you don’t qualify for coverage of MTMs, you may want to consider choosing them for their benefits – many of which are health-related.

Fewer hospital visits

It’s no surprise that people with chronic conditions often end up being admitted to the hospital multiple times throughout their lifetime to help manage their disease. With medically tailored meals, you can expect 50% fewer hospital admissions. [1] One study showed that this was particularly true for adults who had medical and social determinants of health that affect their condition. [3]

Treat and manage your specific chronic condition(s)

We know that prescription medications, lifestyle changes, getting regular bloodwork done, and other therapies are important for treatment for chronic illness. However, did you know that food can also serve as medicine to help improve your condition? [4] 

For example, individuals living with diabetes can manage their blood sugars through carb counting as prescribed by an RDN through medical nutrition therapy. This would involve measuring the number of carbs that you take in at meals and snacks and limiting foods that may cause blood sugar spikes. A medically tailored meal could help provide consistent carb intake throughout the day so that you can avoid dangerously low or high blood sugar and so that you can feel your best.

Emphasis on healthy, nutrient-dense foods

Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) for most conditions includes foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, low in sodium, low in fat, and provide you with energy for your day. With an emphasis on fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains, you’ll be able to eat balanced and nutritious meals.

Medically tailored meal delivery services like ModifyHealth source and include healthy, nutrient-rich ingredients that are in-line with recommendations with clinical recommendations. Going beyond that, we also include specific type of foods that we know are especially rich in nutrients. For example, our purple sweet potatoes (sourced in NC and Okinawa, Japan) are a great example of going beyond just ingredients and sourcing fruits and vegetables that provide maximum nutrient density. According to The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, consumption of these potatoes is correlated to living a longer life.

Helps you make healthy changes for the long-term

Making healthy changes on your own can be tough – where do you even start? By starting with healthy meals that are designed to your needs, you can start to understand what foods to eat more of and less of.

Less emotional and psychological stress associated with planning meals

Although this is harder to quantify than most benefits, having to buy, prepare, and plan meals can be stressful for someone who is already actively managing chronic illness. Receiving medically tailored meal delivery service can be convenient, stress-free, and take the guesswork out of cooking.

Menus are designed by Registered Dietitian Nutritionists

Although many traditional meal delivery services try to keep calories fairly low, they often miss other health specifications that are critical to those living with chronic illnesses. For example, a high-fat, high-sodium meal that is lower in calories would not be well-suited for someone living with heart disease.

Lower healthcare costs

Living with chronic disease takes a toll mentally, physically, and financially. Between many hospital visits and the cost of medications, managing illness can become very expensive.

With medically tailored meals, we may be able to see lower healthcare costs – which speaks to the power of healthy food. One study found that healthcare costs were reduced by over $10,000 per month in three months after receiving medically tailored meals. [5] Although more research is needed to truly understand the impact of healthy meal delivery on total healthcare costs, studies like this are promising as healthcare costs continue to rise.

Helps combat food insecurity

Many individuals with chronic conditions often live in complex social situations – including lack of access to nutritious and fresh foods. Social disparities can contribute to a lack of time to buy or make nutritious meals at home, so following prescribed medical nutrition therapy often ends up being deprioritized. 

Although policies like Medi-Cal do not strictly cover food insecurity, those living with chronic conditions and food insecurity can benefit from medically tailored meal delivery services and groceries. This would help ensure that individuals receive the nutrition care that they need without having to make tradeoffs due to social determinants of health.

About medically tailored meal delivery services

Although there are many traditional meal delivery services as well as nonprofit organizations that provide meals for their communities and help combat food insecurity, many of these meals aren’t truly “medically tailored” meal delivery services. Most of these meal plans are not designed by Registered Dietitian Nutritionists who ensure they meet the recommended nutritional values and targets for specific chronic conditions. Nor do these organizations offer assistance and support for patients as they transition into a new nutritional lifestyle.

ModifyHealth’s team of dietitians and chefs work together to design meal plans based on the latest clinical evidence related to nutrition for chronic diseases. Our meals are designed to include ingredients that are immensely beneficial for different chronic conditions so that you don’t have to guess what will help improve your chronic illness. With convenient, nutrient-dense meals designed by Registered Dietitian Nutritionists and delivered right to your door, you can expect to reap the many benefits of MTMs.

We work with healthcare providers and systems across the country to provide a turnkey solution that they can confidently offer to their patients based on their specific chronic disease, including, but not limited to, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and obesity.

ModifyHealth’s dietitian team is also here to help support you along the way with coaching and support via our medically tailored meal programs.

The Bottom Line

Food is truly medicine. If you are interested in making healthy changes to improve your chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, you may want to consider adding medically tailored meals to your life. They can help improve your health, lower healthcare costs, and fight off food insecurity. And, if you live in California, you’re in luck -- you may be able to qualify for meal coverage through Medi-Cal. 

ModifyHealth is unique in that it provides medically tailored meal delivery services right to your door such as low FODMAP and Mediterranean meal plans. Take the guesswork out and check out the various meal plans today. ModifyHealth also offers optional dietitian support to support you on your journey.

If you are a patient or healthcare provider looking for how to best incorporate medically tailored meals into your or your patient’s lives, please visit us at www.modifyhealth.com

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Chrissy Arsenault, MBA, RDN, LD

 

[1] http://www.fimcoalition.org/

[2] Medicare MNT legislation, 2000

[3] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2730768

[4] https://www.nutrition.gov/topics/diet-and-health-conditions

[5] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2150131913490737