An interview with the Friedman School’s Dariush Mozaffarian on the power of this fast-growing field to do good for all—especially those who most need it
Dariush Mozaffarian has always sought to forge new paths that aim to have meaningful scientific and public health impact. Long an advocate for a more nourishing, equitable, and sustainable food system, he’s now in the vanguard of the fast-growing field of Food is Medicine, which recognizes the powerful impact of food on health and incorporates that science into therapeutic and preventive health care.
After eight years as dean of the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and one year as special advisor to the Tufts University provost, on July 1, Mozaffarian is stepping down from these roles to launch a new cross-university initiative that will be the first of its kind to focus on and lead the nation in advancing Food is Medicine. At the same time, the university has recognized him as a Tufts distinguished professor and dean emeritus.
“Dary brings superb credentials as an administrator, scientist, and educator as he prepares to lead on the university’s commitment to Food is Medicine,” said Provost and Senior Vice Provost ad interim Caroline Genco. “I’m confident that he will significantly advance this increasingly important area of science and policy—one that has tremendous potential to greatly improve the lives of all.”
In 2014, Mozaffarian was recruited to Tufts to lead the Friedman School as dean, focusing on its mission of producing trusted science, future leaders, and real-world impact through multidisciplinary scholarship, entrepreneurism, and external engagement. Some highlights of his decanal service include: the development of the school’s first grass-roots, comprehensive strategic plan; the creation of school’s five divisions and chairs; the establishment of multiple new faculty professorships and scholarships, which led to a doubling of the school’s endowment; and the creation of the Food and Nutrition Innovation Institute, today the largest academic/private-sector collaborative around food.
Under his tenure, the school also grew its master’s degree programs, created a new Service Scholars program and the Ellie Block and Family Career Services Center, recruited and promoted multiple new primary faculty members, and launched strategic structural advances across all aspects of the school to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In the tradition of nutrition scientist Jean Mayer, the 10th president of Tufts, the school under Mozaffarian’s leadership also expanded a flourishing public impact initiative, including the creation of the independent, nonpartisan Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which helped shape the historic 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the first such conference since 1969. Most recently, he was appointed to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition.
Mozaffarian is also a professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine and sees patients as an attending physician in cardiology at Tufts Medical Center.
Tufts Now spoke with Mozaffarian about his professional journey, the promise of Food is Medicine, and what may be on the horizon for Tufts.
When and why did you begin investigating the role of nutrition in health?
Throughout my time as a medical student, intern, resident, and fellow, it became increasingly clear to me that food was one of the top issues facing my patients. Yet, in these 11 years of training, I received almost no education on nutrition. That was a major realization: the top cause of poor health was not being addressed by health care. Then, when I read all the science to educate myself, I found the evidence did not support a low-fat diet, the prevailing national guidance of the time. That was a second major realization: the available science wasn’t being translated into policy. These two realizations have inspired me since: to advance the science and policy translation of nutrition to improve health.
Are things changing for the next generation of physicians?
I am optimistic. For example, through advocacy by us and others, the Accreditation Council for Graduate and Medical Education recently announced at a Friedman School summit that all medical residency and fellowship programs would be required to include nutrition education. This is a seismic change. Closer to home, I’m welcoming a new M.D./Ph.D. student from Tufts University School of Medicine into my lab this fall. And we’re working closely with the Tufts Medicine healthcare network to integrate and launch programs in Food is Medicine.
Should we be thinking about food primarily as a preventative or a therapeutic?
Both. For decades, people have thought about a healthy diet as a long-term benefit, requiring 10 or 20 years to make a difference. What’s exciting about Food is Medicine is the development and use of additional specific interventions that have immediate impact on treatment of disease. Examples include medically tailored meals that are nutritionally personalized to specific health conditions such as diabetes, and prescriptions for fruits and vegetables to treat diet-related diseases or help avoid complications in high-risk pregnancies.
In a world where some people don’t have enough food to survive and many others don’t have access to the right foods for health, is it realistic to think we can enact Food is Medicine policies for effective change?
Among the most significant things about Food is Medicine interventions are the joint benefits for both food security and nutrition security. These efforts address both hunger and diet-related disease, advancing health and health equity. This is critical. Few innovations in health care reduce health disparities—indeed, often the newest and most effective treatments go to patients who already have good fortune and privilege. Food is Medicine is the rare case where innovation and equity come together, doing good for all and especially those who need it most.
The national momentum is striking. Nine states have Medicaid pilot programs to cover healthy food interventions. The Rockefeller Foundation and American Heart Association have announced a $250 million initiative in Food is Medicine. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Indian Health Service are launching produce prescription pilots. Private insurers and payers like John Hancock and Kaiser Permanente are leveraging nourishing food to help people live longer, healthier lives. And there’s bipartisan support on these issues. Change is not only possible—it’s happening before our eyes.
What has been most gratifying in your journey over the last decade at Tufts?
Undoubtedly, the biggest honor in my service as dean has been the opportunity to work with and learn from the people at the Friedman School, the university, and our larger network, from our faculty, students, and staff to our alumni and volunteer leaders. This community includes many of the most dedicated, compassionate, and mission-driven people I have ever known. I’m proud to be a member of the Friedman School and larger Tufts family, and to be participating in our story together.
What can you tell us about what the new Food is Medicine initiative might look like?
I’m thrilled to be drawing on Tufts’ national leadership in Food is Medicine to create a new cross-university, cross-national collaborative to transform healthcare—a collaborative founded on the university’s traditions of innovation and commitment to public impact.
Bringing together research, education, patient care, and community engagement, this first-of-its-kind initiative will serve as a catalyst to drive change, improve health, reduce health disparities, and create a more equitable and resilient healthcare system that recognizes the power of nourishing food. This initiative will also build partnerships with stakeholders within and beyond health care to ensure that interventions reach the people who need them most.
New university resources plus targeted fundraising, combined with existing funds for Food is Medicine research and advocacy, will help propel a significant investment in this new initiative. We expect to launch and provide full details in the fall.
Interested in supporting the Food is Medicine initiative? Contact Cindy Briggs Tobin, senior director of advancement for the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.