Food is Medicine First: Insights Into How Food Heals

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

Wording Food is Medicine on wooden letters with a wooden background by The Healthy RD
Image of wooden lettering depicting food is 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

  • “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:

  • “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.

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?

When we eat healthily, our body gets a lot of biochemical information.  Nutrient-dense foods change how our body ages, 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 [R].
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 from foods. Food works to help the heart pump.  Potassium is one of many nutrients from foods that do this, including the following foods:
  • Bananas
  • Potatoes
  • Kiwi
  • Citrus
  • Black beans
  • Meats
  • Yogurts
Does potassium treat illness?  Of course, it does!  Every hospital keeps it at the ready in times of the body’s depletion.  One might just as easily give a patient a plate of vegetables and fruits and have a better effect. But I digress.

How does food sustain growth and repair?

A healthy diet is great for the prevention and management of illness.
We repair our bodies from viral and bacterial insults by obtaining enough nutrients.  A good example of this is how zinc, an essential nutrient from foods, reduces the duration of colds by 40% [R].
We can also help prevent and help treat mental health with good foods.
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 for serotonin and dopamine transmission, release, and control in the body. This means that fish oil is integral to prevention and helping treat depression.   [R].

Categories of Food as Medicine

Consider the following categories of foods medicine:

  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Roots
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Spices
  • Herbs
  • Meats
  • Fish
  • Fats

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

“He who takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skill of his doctors.” 

Chinese proverb

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.

Related post: Are Supplements Nutrition Quackery? How to Evaluate (

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?

Food is THE medicine that we are currently lacking as a society.

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.

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