Food is Medicine and Medicine is Food. In order to find out why let’s take a step back in time to about 400 B.C. If you are wondering who said food is medicine first, it was Hippocrates this far back.
Hippocrates is considered the father of medicine and he coined the concept of “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
You may recall the Hippocratic oath that all doctors must obey, including “first do no harm.” This means we must, as a society, also reap the health benefits of healing foods.
In this post, I will literally walk you through modern-day ideas and definitions of medicine and how food fits into the definition of medicine.
After all, Food as Medicine is at the core of my passion. Learn more about me.
To answer the question of whether or not food is medicine in modern terms, we must understand the definition of medicine. Look no further than the dictionary and you will find the answer.
Food is Medicine Definition
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of medicine is:
a: “a substance used to treat a disease”
b: “something that affects well-being”
c: “the science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease”
d: “a substance used to treat something other than disease”. This can be a traditional American Indian belief, for example.
Let me repeat that: medicine is something that “affects our well-being”.
Not even the BIGGEST critics of natural food movements and herbal therapies could argue that food is something that does not affect our health.
How Food is Medicine Fits Our Modern Definition of Medicine
Are you still wondering if food is medicine?
I think the sticking point for many is that they only believe that pharmaceuticals are drugs.
So let’s check out what a drug is. A pharmaceutical or a drug is by definition from Dictionary.com:
- “a substance used as a medication or in the preparation of medication.”
- “a substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.”
The FDA further distinguishes:
- “a substance other than food intended to affect the structure or function of the body.”
Regardless of this last FDA statement, for all intents and purposes, food can serve as a medicine.
The Journey to Healing includes Food as Medicine
When thinking of the concept of healing, do you think of pharmaceuticals or food?
I think of food and herbs. You can be deficient in nutrients from foods, and this results in impaired healing. In contrast, no one was ever deficient in a drug.
I spent 7 years studying in great detail the physiology of foods in the body in graduate school and 20+ years beyond that. Still to this day, I’m puzzled by how food and drugs were so separated in our culture.
Many promising nutrition research papers even got passed off as nutrition quackery by those who don’t read nutrition research.
Rather than cast these studies off, I am here to share with you how food is medicine.
Food is Medicine Examples
Recall that the definition of medicine in the dictionary is anything that is used to treat disease.
Food as medicine is not only necessary for good health, it is useful in preventing chronic illness and helping treat disease, according to the World Health Organization.
Our food choices impact just about every disease outcome out there today.
In fact, I can’t think of a disease NOT impacted by food and nutrition. Here are some examples of what I am talking about.
- Eating vegetables and healthy fats can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease risk pretty dramatically.
- A ketogenic diet can effectively treat some forms of epilepsy, according to clinical research.
- Elimination diets can be very effective at getting to the root cause of illness. An elimination diet manages almost every aspect of multiple sclerosis for some people. Check out Dr. Wahls’s research.
- Colitis can be managed by the inclusion of fermented foods. For example, eating sauerkraut daily worked better than any drug for one of my patient’s colitis symptoms.
- Mind-body connections are real. Foods we eat to support our microbiome have a medicinal and calming effect on the nervous system. Additionally, edible plants that calm the mind like lavender can decrease cortisol by 70 percent in clinical research.
- Culinary herbs and spices were our primary form of medicine until one man, Abraham Flexner, highhandedly stopped the teachings of herbs in medical schools in about 1920.
- Ginger helps nausea as much or more than many medicines today.
- Puerh tea helps reduce harmful cholesterol levels which is a contributor to cardiovascular disease.
- Nutrition science shows that beets reduce blood pressure and improve exercise performance.
- Many research studies show that probiotics and probiotic foods reduce heartburn and acid reflux disease symptoms.
While these are just a few examples, I can think of countless ways that food is medicine in our bodies. It’s time for public health to take back its narrative of how we best heal our bodies using a medical nutrition approach.
Healthy food goes a long way to healing, in other words.
How does food as medicine sustain vital processes?
- Black beans
How does food sustain growth and repair?
Categories of Food as Medicine
Consider the following categories of foods medicine:
- Non-starchy vegetables
Medically tailored meals will contain different ratios of these foods to help heal depending on the health conditions at hand.
Food medication is almost always from these whole foods but can be supplemented with functional nutrients, herbs, and spices.
Just like drugs, some foods have negative effects on health
While some food is medicine, processed foods and a poor diet have more of a toxic “side effect” profile like drugs can for our bodies.
In the grocery store, we are faced with more processed foods by the day, and humans have to make decisions about what they will and won’t allow in their bodies at almost every corner.
These processed foods, if not eaten in very modest amounts, increase the rates of type 2 diabetes exponentially. Not only that, long-term statin drugs increase diabetes risk too according to research. While these medicines may be necessary, they aren’t without health risks themselves. Medicinal foods often don’t carry as much risk.
A Personal Note about Food as Medicine
Everything I was taught in conventional nutrition teachings, at a prestigious school, supported the notion that food is medicine.
Yet medical schools weren’t teaching much of anything about food or nutrition.
That was over 20 years ago.
Fast forward to today. The medical costs of obesity and food-related diseases are sinking healthcare.
We need more nutrition education
Nutritionists are still pleading that the medical establishment change, according to Texas Medical Center.
Their publication describes the great need for food education for medical students.
In grad school, I always thought to myself, why are nutrition scientists learning a lot of critical medicine, and it is concealed to the doctors who have the biggest influence on health decisions?
I still do wonder about these things.
And I still shake my head daily, not at the fallacy of the concept of food as medicine, but the fallacy that some people think that food is NOT medicine.
- Denying that food is medicine has cost us so dearly in terms of health consequences and quality of life.
- Lack of education and awareness costs money. Yes, it costs a lot of money to deny that food is medicine. Because guess what?
Related post: The Power Of One: The Power of Food | The Healthy RD
Summary of Food is Medicine
By definition, food is medicine. When we frame it in this way, it is much easier to put a value on the foods we put into our bodies each and every day. This doesn’t mean that we can’t occasionally enjoy some processed foods, but that the majority of our diet should get the respect and consideration it deserves.
This post is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice. Always discuss your diet and lifestyle changes with your healthcare practitioner.