Food As Medicine: Foresight or Fallacy?

Food As Medicine: Foresight or Fallacy?
Is it fair to consider food as medicine?  What is the basis for this premise that food is medicine?  Take a step back in time to about 400 B.C.  in the time of Hippocrates.  You may recall the Hippocratic oath that all doctors must obey, including “first do no harm.” Hippocrates is considered the father of medicine and he is claimed to have coined the concept of “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  In this post, I will literally walk you through modern day ideas and definitions of medicine and let you decide for yourself. To answer this question of whether or not food is medicine, we must understand the definition of medicine.  Look no further than the dictionary and you will find the answer.

The Definition of Medicine

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of medicine is:

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: a medicine is something that “affects our well-being”.  Am I crazy or does the definition of medicine in the dictionary spell out the concept of food as medicine? Pundits against the idea of food as medicine take note. The literal definition of medicine describes food as medicine. I don’t think anyone would argue that food does NOT affect well-being.  Not even the BIGGEST critics of the natural food movements and herbal therapies could argue that food is something that does not affect our health. Does food replace pharmaceutical medicine?  This is not the question posed here.  Why would it need to be mutually exclusive anyways?

The Definition of Food

What exactly is food then?  If we need to define medicine, we also must define what a food is to determine if it truly could be medicine. Again, here is the literal Merriam Webster definition of food: Food is:

a:”material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes and to furnish energy.” b: “inorganic substances absorbed by plants in gaseous form or in water solution.” c: “nutriment in solid form.” d: “something that nourishes, sustains, or supplies.”

 

How does food sustain growth and repair?

A healthy diet is great for 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 duration of colds by 40% [R].  Can anyone think of a pharmaceutical drug that can do this?

How does food sustain vital processes?

When we eat healthy, 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, for 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.
We can also prevent and treat mental health with good foods.  Any 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  [R].

Categories of foods include:

We consider the following as foods: non-starchy vegetables, roots, tubers, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, spices, herbs, meats, fishes, poultry, and fats.

What is a Drug?

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.”

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.”

Tips:

Regardless of the FDA statement, by all intents and purposes, food can serve as a medicine, even as a drug.  Besides, do you let the federal government decide how a substance affects your well-being? I think not. Included in the definition of a drug is any substance that prevents disease.  Do you think of pharmaceutical or food in this setting? In graduate school, I was taught that a drug is anything that has a medicinal effect, but at large enough doses, can have an adverse effect.  I spent 7 years studying in great detail the physiology of foods in the body. Even then, I was puzzled by how food and drugs were so separated in our culture.

Examples of Food as Medicine

Recall that the definition of a 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 to help treat disease, according to the World Health Organization [R]. 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 oils can reduce risk of coronary heart disease risk pretty dramatically [R].  Do any pharmaceutical drugs compare to this?
  • A ketogenic diet can effectively treat some forms of epilepsy, according to clinical research [R].
    • I know a parent who’s child had such horrible epilepsy that NO pharmaceutical drug worked.  For a period of time, the child followed a ketogenic diet.  The child was cured of their epilepsy and never had to take a drug again- never do this unless under the guidance of your healthcare provider.
  • Elimination diets can be very effective at getting to the route cause of illness.
    • I eliminated gluten from my diet and replaced vegetables, rice, and potatoes instead of the wheat.  My cystic acne and other health issues have been gone since doing so for 5 years.
    • An elimination diet  manages most every aspect of multiple sclerosis for some people. Check out Dr. Wahls’s research [R].
  • Colitis can be managed by the inclusion of fermented foods [R].
    • 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.  Edible plants like lavender can decrease cortisol by 70 percent in clinical research .
  • 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.

While these are just a few examples, I can think of countless ways that food is medicine in our bodies. It’s time for the public to take back their own narrative of how we best heal our bodies using a functional nutrition approach.

Just like drugs, some foods have negative effects on health

While some food is medicine, processed foods 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.  Tip: long-term statin drugs increase diabetes too [R].

A personal note on 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 TMC.  Their publication describes the great need for food education for medical students. At the time, I always thought to myself, why are the 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 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.

Summary

By definition, food is medicine.  When we frame it in this way, it is much easier to put 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.

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

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