If you have any doubt about the use of food as medicine, consider this: Food is the original medicine.
In fact, there is no better medicine than food as many health experts argue. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a time and place for pharmaceuticals, but our society has it mostly backward. Most people turn to a doctor, who quickly turns to a drug and often never mentions food.
This is a tragic path of ignoring the building blocks of our bodies-our food and nutrients.
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Food as Medicine History
In order to find out why food is medicine, 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 “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Much of Hippocrates’s wisdom about the human body and how to nourish it now has been proven by science.
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 as 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 as Medicine Fits Our Modern Definition of Medicine
Are you still wondering if food is medicine?
I think the sticking point for many is that some people, including some doctors, believe that only 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.”
According to Wikipedia, the definition of a drug:
“A drug is anything that can change your physiology or psychology when consumed”
The FDA further distinguishes the definition of a drug:
- “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. After all, we get to define what affects our own health, not a governmental agency. By owning our health, we gain more control of our own vitality.
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 as 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 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 Heal?
When we eat healthily, our body gets a lot of biochemical information. Nutrient-dense foods change how our body ages, and how likely we are to get a chronic disease, such as heart disease or cancer. Healthy food may even help repair neurons, as is being demonstrated in early research in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrition therapy is central to quick healing, a powerful immune system, dampening inflammation, and more. When we think about food as medicine, it changes how we consider and respect our bodies. We take more care when we decide what we put into our bodies.
Another very basic example of how food works like medicine is potassium, a vital mineral in foods. Food works to help the heart pump. Potassium is one of many nutrients from foods that do this, including the following foods
- Black beans
Potassium helps treat illnesses. For example, every hospital keeps it on hand to replace this critical electrolyte which helps the heart pump and muscles contract. A person might just as easily eat a meal with meat, potatoes, and fruit to have a better effect when possible.
Food as medicine also sustains the growth and repair of the body. A healthy diet is great for the prevention and management of illness.
We repair our bodies from viruses and bacteria by obtaining enough nutrients for our immune system. A good example of this is how zinc, an essential nutrient in foods, reduces the duration of colds by 40 percent.
We can also help prevent and treat mood issues with good food.
Any good psychiatrist knows that a patient who does not eat well will not perform well mentally. Our brain uses omega-3 fatty acids from fish to work properly. Nutrients are needed for making serotonin and dopamine (L-tryptophan and L-tyrosine). Nutrients are integral for preventing and helping treat depression.
Categories of Food as Medicine
Consider the following categories of foods as 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.
Food Can Also Be Poison
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 from 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 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 as 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.
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Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 23 years as well as a book author of the new book Gut Fix and The Whole Body Guide to Gut Health, Heidi has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. She has researched supplements and natural medicine throughout her career. One of her biggest loves is helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.