By: Zarana Parekh RD, LD, CLT
Good nutrition is the foundation of good health. Food can be used as medicine because the true purpose of food is to provide information to the body so that it can function in the way it is designed to function. Food as medicine is the most trending approach in healthcare field; however, it is not a new concept. One of the most famous quotes by Hippocrates around 400 B.C. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” was an inspiration to current food as medicine movement. Many ancient medicine fields including Ayurveda and Chinese medicine has focused on using food as medicine for thousands of years. Using household remedies for healing common health issues is a common practice in many parts of world.
Chronic inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases. Poor diet, stress and gut permeability plays a role in chronic inflammation. Our modern-day diet is a big culprit in increased incidence of inflammation and chronic diseases. Standard American diet (SAD) is severely lacking in nutrients and loaded with processed foods, sugars, artificial colors and additives. An average American eats ~ 22 teaspoons of sugar/ day. We have become a nation that is malnourished, inflamed, and sick, over-fueled with foods that lack the essential information humans need to function properly.
It is time we focus on changing the fuel we are providing to our bodies. Eating healthier diet rich in phytonutrients, anti-oxidants, fiber and good quality fats can help in reducing inflammation, maintain stable blood sugar levels and boost our immune system. As we know ~ 70% of our immune system is in the gut – what we eat becomes extremely important to support our immune function.
Our microbiome (the gut bacteria) plays a very important role in our health. What we eat affects our microbiome; which can either increase or dampen the inflammation in body. Eating a plant rich diet with minimal processed foods can feed the healthy bacteria in our gut and hence provide protection against chronic diseases.
A healthy diet plays a role on how we express our genes. Nutrigenomics is a science of focusing on how nutrition impacts our genes. A balanced diet can have a protective effect on genes by turning them on and off. Food provides information to the entire body and mind; it is a biochemical messenger to our entire system. What we eat can impact on sending positive messages to our genes.
The quality of food plays as important role as quantity. The use of pesticides, hormones and chemicals as well genetically modified foods has increased significantly in the last 20 years. Many of these chemicals are inflammatory in nature and are endocrine disruptors which can create an imbalance in body systems; hence, it is extremely important to pay attention to how we grow, produce and prepare our foods.
Growing research supports that the type of food we eat is not only important for our physical health but can influence our mental health and mood. Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in brain, neurotransmitter and mood protective compounds like antioxidants and phytochemicals. Omega 3 fats are the building blocks of happy neurotransmitters. Hence, a balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats is extremely important for better mental health.
Food nourishes our body, mind and soul. In addition to focusing on what we are eating; it is also important to pay attention to how and when we eat our meals and how we prepare our meals. It is important to understand your bio-individuality. We all are unique in our body needs, food preferences and cultures. It is important to make small changes gradually as it can help make a long-lasting health benefit.
Top 10 guidelines to use whole foods as medicine:
- Eat real, unprocessed foods: Food in its most natural form is the best source of nutrients. Eat nutrient dense foods that are full of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to support your health. Minimize intake of processed and packaged foods. While choosing a product; look for minimal ingredients and no added preservatives.
- Choose non-GMO / organic foods: Organic foods reduces our exposure to pesticides and additives which can have harmful effect on our gut bacteria and overall health.
- Eat a wider variety: Eating a variety of foods provides adequate nutrition to support various metabolic functions in body. Eating local and seasonal foods is beneficial to add more variety and reduce exposure to preservatives and/or ripening agents.
4. Eat your rainbow: Eat mostly a plant based high fiber diet. Eating fruits and vegetables from different color; loaded with phytonutrients, polyphenols and fiber can help reduce inflammation and provide vitamins and minerals.
5. Include good quality proteins: Good quality proteins help maintain stable blood sugars. Choose high quality meat products, wild caught fish, sprouted lentils, beans and nuts as your protein choices.
6. Minimize sugar and processed carbohydrate intake: Sugar is very inflammatory in nature and major cause of obesity. Sugar hides in many foods under various names. Look for added sugars on the label to guide you. Reduce intake of processed carbohydrate products made from white flour like cookies, cakes, pasta.
7. Feed your good bacteria: Our gut bacteria play a crucial role in our immune function, mood and overall health and well-being. Consuming probiotic rich foods like fermented foods have been associated with greater health benefits. Include Sauerkraut, Kimchi, fermented coconut yogurt and low sugar kombucha in your diet to provide these beneficial bacteria.
8. Include healthy fats: Good fats have beneficial effects on brain health, hormones, heart health and blood sugar stability. They are essential for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Include healthy fats from Avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil, Ghee, fatty fish in your diet.
9. Spice it up: Many herbs and spices are powerful modulators of inflammation as well as adds flavor to the food. Ginger, turmeric, parsley, cilantro, garlic, oregano all have beneficial effects on reducing inflammation and digestion as well provide phytonutrients to detoxify and prevent chronic diseases. Include these foods in your cooking.
10. Nourish your whole self: Balanced health goes beyond physical health. Food nourishes our body, mind and soul. The environment in which you eat can affect your digestion. Cooking and eating in a peaceful manner can boost your digestion. Practicing breathing / gratitude at mealtimes is extremely beneficial in supporting healthy relation with food.
“The Doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” – Thomas Edison
Sandquist L. Food first: nutrition as the foundation for health. Creat Nurs. 2015;21(4):213-221.
Park A. Why food could be the best medicine of all. Published February 21, 2019. https://time.com/longform/food-best-medicine/