The Role of Food as Medicine
Updated: Mar 31
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” - proverb dating back to the 1800s
Long before diets like Atkins, keto and plant-based became popular, humans were curious about food and how it impacts their physical form.
The phrase ‘food as medicine’ highlights the intersection of food and healthcare. How we nourish ourselves can play an integral role in preventing, managing and treating disease. With staggering statistics around chronic disease, obesity, and the unsustainability of our healthcare system in the United States, it’s more important than ever to reflect on what our inputs are; in other words - what’s on our plates that contributes to making us so unwell?
How We Got Here
The era of industrialization brought about a modern society that was marked by more machinery, pesticides and antibiotics being used in industrial agriculture. This is in great contrast to the type of traditional farming methods used previously. When one income was no longer sufficient to fund the expenses of a family household and both parents began working full-time, preparing home cooked meals from scratch became a struggle against the clock. Fast food restaurants, convenience store snack aisles and heavily processed frozen dinners soon became an alluring quick fix when hunger strikes.
Though sometimes forgotten amidst the bright billboards and commercials advertising highly processed foods common in the Western diet, there is and always has been an undercurrent of people that understand the healing and preventative power of food. Indigenous populations across all continents follow the wisdom of their ancestors and use traditional herbs, roots, fruits and vegetables to treat ailments and maintain good health.
“It’s a bean, [but] it’s a medicine. Why is it a medicine? Because it’s loaded with fiber and nutrients, but people forget about that. Beans are veggies, yeah, but they don’t think about the medicine in the beans.”
- Cecelia Brooks, member of St. Mary’s First Nation and an inspirational knowledge holder, teacher and creator.
For thousands of years, indigenous cultures thrived off of their land by using growing practices that produced nutrient-dense food without causing irreparable damage to the water, soil and overall health of the globe. Working alongside nature and trusting in the body’s innate desire and ability to heal itself was the dominating narrative.
The Harsh Reality of the Obesity Epidemic
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” - Hippocrates, the father of medicine.
As of March 2020, 41.9% of Americans were obese.1 Why is this related to a discussion around food as medicine? Heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer are obesity-related conditions. With healthy food and adequate exercise, obesity is preventable. The facts are simple - the most effective way to keep people out of hospitals and lessen the strain on our healthcare system is to keep our populations at a healthy weight.
In order to understand how we got here, we need to go further than just looking at the scale and the ever-expanding plus-size clothing department. Getting a grasp on how our body processes nutrients and what it needs to thrive is essential on the path to living a healthier life.
The Magic of the Microbiome
There’s a plethora of microorganisms that live inside (and outside) every one of us. Called the ‘microbiome’, our body has a symbiotic relationship with these microbial cells, which actually outnumber our human cells (approximately 39 trillion microbial cells exist in us, and on us). They directly influence our health, and their epicenter is the gut. “The gut microbiome controls the storage of fat and assists in activating the genes in human cells involved with absorbing nutrients, breaking down toxins and creating blood vessels”.2 A healthy gut microbiome thrives when it's provided nutrients from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds that contain phytochemicals, fiber and other essential components.
When our gut microbiome is functioning properly, it maintains a strong immune system, hormonal balance, brain health, and more. Switching to eating a heavily processed diet of foods that are void of these nutrients causes our gut microbiome to suffer, causing an environment prone to disease and disorders. Healthy eating is integral to maintaining a hospitable and welcoming home for our 39 trillion microbial tenants!
So, What Should I Eat?
Despite the prevalence of trendy fad diets coming into popularity at an increasing rate, we can establish certain baseline recommendations for healthy eating by looking at long-term studies from respectable health journals. “Adherence to dietary patterns that emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, vegetable oils, and fish and minimize red meat, processed meat, and added sugars are associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular events, cancer, and type 2 diabetes”.3
4 Simple Pillars of Healthy Eating
Eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits
Increase your water intake
Incorporate fermented foods
Find sources of omega-3’s
If you can adopt these as habits into your daily routine, you’ll be building a dietary pattern that reduces inflammation, boosts immunity and prevents chronic disease.4
Scientists have also drawn links to how our nutrition could be affecting our mental state. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling our moods, regulating sleep and appetite, and managing pain response.5 The production of serotonin is directly impacted by - you guessed it - the intestinal microbiome. This tells us that what we’re ingesting daily has a direct connection to the symptoms of depression and anxiety that are plaguing over 40 million adults in the U.S.6
What You Can Do
“Physicians get very uncomfortable when a simple solution fixes many disease states. But it turns out that the simple solution of a nutrient-dense diet filled with vegetables, getting rid of the toxic stuff, is the simplest solution for nearly every chronic disease state,” according to Dr.Terry Wahls, author and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
As Dr. Wahls states, ‘getting rid of the toxic stuff’ is paramount. Growing our own food, eating organic when possible, and consuming meats without antibiotics and hormones can go a long way towards building a healthier microbiome and a healthier you.
4 Quick Tips for your Next Grocery Trip
Before you head to the store, find recipes that use an abundance of vegetables
Get curious - read the ingredient list before you put any packaged product in your cart
Steer clear of ingredients you cannot pronounce or that have numbers in them - it’s a sign they are heavily processed or contain additives and preservatives.
Get familiar with the table of nutrition facts on the back of that jar of sauce, dressing or marinade and begin to learn what amounts of salt and sugar are recommended per day.
Knowledge is the first step in building awareness of how you’ve been treating your body on this journey so far. The more you can learn about your food intake and how it impacts your body, the better decisions you’ll be able to make when purchasing food.
In today’s world, we’re facing serious issues such as soil degradation, the rise of food insecurity in developed countries, and the crumbling of our healthcare infrastructure. These are all reasons we should be taking a closer look at our eating habits, and the direct and very real impact they have on our wellbeing. The empowering changes can start at an individual level, by making different choices every day about what you’re putting in your grocery cart, and on your plate.
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/surveillance.html#NPAO
The human microbiome: Everything you need to know about the 39 trillion microbes that call our bodies home. Published July 2020 https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/human-microbiome/
Food based dietary patterns and chronic disease prevention. Published June 2018. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2396
Can what you eat help you fight disease? The 4 best foods for your immune system. Published Dec 2022. https://www.nebraskamed.com/COVID/fight-illness-with-food
Harvard Health Blog - Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Published Sept 2022. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626
Anxiety Disorders - Facts and Statistics https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics