TIMI GUSTAFSON | The healing power of food

“Let food be your medicine” is a well-known quotation by Hippocrates, a physician and philosopher who lived in ancient Greece and is commonly considered the forefather of modern medical practice. Despite the widespread familiarity with his words, it is not very clear to most people how to interpret them, let alone apply them in their daily lives. This goes for laymen and experts alike.

Scientists are traditionally cautious about complementary and alternative treatment, although many of these predate, often by centuries, modern-day medical procedures.

If you believe most medical science journals, there has never been a study that has proven the effectiveness of diet-based therapies, says Dr. Mark Hyman, a physician and book author who himself believes very strongly in using nutrition as a central part of healthcare.

One of the reasons why we don’t integrate diet and lifestyle issues enough in the therapeutic process is that these are not as widely and intensely marketed as drugs. Unlike in the pharmaceutical industry, there are no sales reps who drop off health food samples in doctors’ offices, he says.

So, while the evidence supporting the benefits of wholesome nutrition is in effect overwhelming, there is just not enough research being done to back it up as a primary mode in fighting disease and preventing illness. In other words, an entire segment of potential treatment options is just being ignored, he laments.

However, there are signs that things are finally changing. While “food-as-medicine” movements have been around for decades, their insights are now accepted by a growing number of medical professionals and institutions that don’t want to solely rely on medications in their approaches. 

Examples are the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., which provides training for medical professionals to effectively integrate nutrition in their work; or the Food as Medicine Institute in Portland, Oregon, where nutrition science is taught as part of treatment and prevention of chronic disease.

The fact is that nutrition deficiencies and toxicity from poor diets are linked to almost all modern health conditions, including some of the highest risk factors for mortality like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer, says Dr. Josh Axe, a physician and practitioner of natural medicine and advocate of using food as medicine. Because we know that these illnesses and many others are highly influenced by eating and lifestyle choices, we must focus on their improvement first as we seek effective treatment methods, he urges.

Natural, nutrient-dense foods are known to help protect against, mitigate and even cure many chronic diseases, slow the effects of aging and promote longevity. They are able to do so by decreasing and controlling inflammation in the body, which is at the root of many ailments and a major contributor to premature aging; they help balancing hormones and ease age-related hormonal changes; they alkalize the body, which supports cellular renewal; they balance blood sugar levels, thereby preventing unhealthy weight gain and diabetes; they detoxify and eliminate toxins; and they improve nutrient absorption, thereby multiplying their own positive effects. For these reasons and others, remedies from food should readily be applied and put to use in support of other therapeutic measures in today’s medicine, he suggests.

Obviously, a renewed interest in nutrition for its medical benefits is not there to replace other well-established forms of health care. Integration in the whole process is key. But because – as most experts would agree – prevention is preferable to cure, the powerful role healthy food can play should always be given consideration.

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor, newspaper columnist, and blogger. She’s the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her website is www.timigustafson.com.