How To Make Food Your Medicine

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A Philosophy To Use Food As Medicine

Your overall health and wellness is dependent on many things: Genetics and what you are born with, your lifestyle, whether or not you engage in unhealthy habits like drinking or smoking, where you live, and yes – what you eat or don’t eat as well.

As it happens, your diet is not so much about how much you eat, but rather what you eat. And it goes beyond weight loss or weight management, and might actually affect your susceptibility and control of various illnesses, from dementia and other cognitive problems, to breast cancer and other cancers (1, 2, 3,), high blood pressure, stroke, chronic disease (1, 2,), all cause mortality (1, 2,) and cardio vascular disease (1, 2, 3,), metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.

The word on the actual mechanisms is still out, but it might not be too soon or cavalier to say that we can use food as medicine.

How To Use Food As Medicine?

The nuances and semantics of being able to use food as medicine will be explored throughout. For that matter, is the idea of using food as medicine valid in any meaningful sense?

We won’t be giving you something akin to a medical foods list because that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. 

Nor are we going to be giving you any “home remedies for immunity” or any other such… waffle.

Rather, what we’re going to do is simply talk about the food as medicine idea and explain to how we can use food as medicine in the first place.

The result of this is that it will give you the best shot at being the healthiest person you can be, and for the longest time.

So let’s begin with the basics.

Food Is Good For You

You have probably heard the phrase “you are what you eat” many times, but have you actually thought about what this really means?

For sure, it’s frequently used as a way to discourage unhealthy eating for people who are trying to diet or lose weight, but it has other meanings as well.

It’s actually trying to inform us of the importance of what we put in our body. Not just how much (for, say, weight management), but the ingredients, chemicals, and nutrients that may or may not be in our food as well.

It’s a matter of fact that our health can be changed (both helped and/or hurt) just by the foods we eat.

Everyday Food As Medicine

If you think about it, this is pretty obvious because most, if not all, of the nutrients our body needs to survive and thrive can be achieved just through the foods we choose to eat.

More vitamins and minerals are found in wholefoods, of course, and a whole foods diet is surely the best choice for health and nutrition in the generalised case.

But even processed foods can have a lot of the iron, calcium, protein, zinc, and other nutrients that a body needs because even though much was stripped out with the processing they’ve been fortified by adding some back.

But Food Cannot Replace Actual Medicine

Even though changing your diet can potentially improve your health, both mentally and physically, sometimes even in drastic ways, do not think that the idea of food as medicine can replace actual medicine. 

Food Is A Medicine Due Only To The Vitamins & Minerals

The reason why food can be medicinal is not because of the foods themselves, but rather because the nutrients, vitamins and minerals can help your overall health and protect you.

Food can be medicinal not because of the foods themselves but rather because the nutrients, vitamins and minerals can help your overall health and protect you. Click To Tweet

And it’s certainly not about restrictive or elimination diets because these lower your overall nutritional intake.

To use food as medicine is the same idea as just eating for health. It’s about adding in more good stuff, not taking away foods or food groups that have that good stuff.

[Note: There are caveats to this in select cases. For example, the classic ketogenic diet appears beneficial for epilespy.]

Prescribing Food As Medicine?

But can we prescribe food as medicine in the conventional case?

The short answer is no, we can’t do this. Food cannot replace medicine.

But a better answer to this might be potentially, in a way.

How so?

Well, medicine is about diagnosis, treatment, cure, and prevention, and the vitamins, minerals and nutrients in food can be of the prevention and protective kind of medicine, not the treatment and curing kind.

So in that way, food can replace medicine insofar as they can potentially make certain medicine unnecessary in the future.

So while we can’t use food as medicine in the conventional sense, it is still a type of medicine.

Even if we try and become pedantic with the semantics by saying that there’s actually a difference between prevention and preventive medicine (something which is recognised as actual medicine), then we’re basically trying to split hairs because preventive medicine is that which attempts “to promote health and well-being and prevent disease, disability and death.”

So We Can Use Food As Medicine

And a healthy diet can be precisely that. The same as exercising to maintain a healthy lifestyle can be.

Indeed, many people find that increasing the nutrition of their diet helps them lower their blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce the risk of diabetes, help protect their brain and heart, and even helps with anxiety and depression.

Obviously, treatment and cures are still needed, but we can use food as medicine in the sense that it might prevent various future health issues and complications, issues that may never have come about or arisen if only we’d taken the idea of using food as medicine more seriously sooner.

Whichever way we decide to cut it, by switching to a healthier diet you have the opportunity to improve your health and potentially rely less on drugs in the future.

By switching to a healthier diet you have the opportunity to improve your health and potentially rely less on drugs in the future. Click To Tweet

Inadvertently Making Yourself Ill

Even closer to home than the future, a less than nutritious diet means you’re not getting the vitamins and minerals your body wants and needs to be in optimal health in the here and now, which can have the knock-on effect of increasing your risk of illness.

Probably the best thing you can do is to reduce some of the foods you eat and look for alternatives with more vitamins and minerals. An easy change is to reduce refined carbs and replace with complex carbs.

Here are two example consequences of a less than nutritious diet:

Malnutrition Without Knowing It

Yes, you can be malnutritioned even if you’re not going hungry.

In fact, being overweight itself is considered a form of malnutrition, and that’s the result of eating too much.

But malnutrition in the context we’re considering here is undernutrition, which we can say is a result of not eating enough of the right stuff.

If all you ate for a week straight was vegetables, sure you would get a lot of amazing vitamins and minerals, but you would likely be low on iron, protein, and zinc. These are essential materials that your body needs.

If It Makes You Feel Bad, It’s Probably Good To Stop It

While this is a broad generalisation, it can be true in many cases. People often eat what they want or what they are used to, but don’t pay attention to how it makes them feel.

If you are tired and lethargic, have a headache, or stomach and digestive problems after eating a certain type of food, it is probably best to investigate why that is.

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After we’ve got our basic healthy diet in place we can start to look more closely at the idea of using food as medicine and zone into areas for how it can relate to our health.

And our microbiome and gut bacteria is an excellent place to start.

Good vs Bad Bacteria

After we’ve established that it’s a wholefoods diet, with its vitamins, minerals and nutrients, that is protective and preventative, the next big thing to know is about our gut flora.

According to the American Nutrition Association, your body needs to have about 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria within your gut for things to operate optimally.

The mechanisms for how our microbiome affects our health are still being investigated and worked out, but it’s largely agreed upon that gut bacteria plays a role in regulating and maintaining our health.

A gut flora that’s gone awry is also being linked with many conditions, including various metabolic (1, 2,) and auto-immune diseases.

Of course, the causal arrow on these things is not clear, but promoting heathly gut bacteria appears very beneficial.

Bad bacteria will always be around (unless you live in a clean room), so the idea is to just focus mainly on eating things that feed your good bacteria.

Which brings us to…

Prebiotics

And prebiotics are how we feed our gut bacteria.

What They Are

In a nut shell, prebiotics are the foods that contain fibre that can be partially broken down and fed upon by your gut flora. This is the parts of plants that you can’t digest, like polysaccharides, resistant starch, and fibre in general.

In other words, prebiotics are our gut flora’s food, and since we share a symbiotic relationship with our gut flora, giving them food makes them happy, which promotes the health of the whole system (i.e. you and them).

How to Get More Prebiotics in Your Diet

Eat more fibre. It’s as simple as that. Both the soluable and the insoluble.

Another example is resistant starch (starch that’s been cooked and allowed to cool, then either ate cold or reheated).

You don’t have to be vegan or plant based for a healthy gut, but diversity of plants (prebiotics) is important for a strong and diverse gut flora.

Here are a few examples of prebiotics:

  • Asparagus

  • Bananas (the greener they are the more prebiotic)

  • Onions

  • Garlic

  • Apples

  • Artichokes

Probiotics

What They Are

Probiotics are the live, microscopic organisms that live naturally in fermented foods, and they’re more effective when gotten from food rather than pills.

If food is labeled as probiotic it’ll normally mention the culture it contains.

Two of the most common strain of bacteria found in healthy probiotic drinks and foods are bifidobacteria and lactobacilli.

Why They Are Important

In the grand scheme of things, probiotics are important mainly for population purposes. If your gut has an abundance of healthy bacteria then there’s not much space for the bad ones to latch on and cause you any ill effects.

Likewise, the converse is true. More bad bacteria, the less space for the good.

How to Get More

Fermented food is probably the easiest way to get probiotics into your diet (although not if pickled with vinegar).

Things such as kombucha, natto, and kefir. Yoghurt is another, particularly Greek, as well as dark chocolate with a high cocoa content.

However, the trouble with prebiotics is that they only really work while you’re on them, and if, while you’re on them, you don’t manage to get the population up of whatever bacteria you were trying to, there’s a good chance that they’re not going to stick around.

In an attempt to avoid this situation from happening, you need to feed your healthy bacteria.

Ergo, be sure to eat prebiotics if taking probiotics.

Harming Your Gut Flora

You can also harm your good bacteria with antibiotic use, so don’t go taking antibiotics willy nilly, like for a cold, or the flu (or any virus for that matter). They don’t work on viruses. They work on bacteria. 

Other factors that can adversely affect your gut flora are things like age and disease/illness.

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Heart health is also something that looks to be very much impacted by our food choices, so let’s conclude our account of using food as medicine with the it.

Heart Health

Excessive body fat, lack of physical activity, and too much saturated fat in your diet (leading to high LDL cholesterol and damage to arteries) are probably the worst things you can do for your heart and cardio vascular system in general, but here are some basic guidelines for improving your heart health through your diet.

Get your healthy fats

There’s a tendency among some to consider all fats to be equal, but this is not the case as there’s healthy and unhealthy fats.

You want to target the unsaturated fats, particularly mono-unsaturated and omega-3. Eat things like nuts and seeds, fatty fish, olive oil, and avocado.

Limit saturated fat.

Avoid trans fat.

Enjoy whole grains

Whole grains contain essential B vitamins that your body needs to maintain good cardiovascular health. They also contain fibre, which is yet more nourishment for your gut flora.

So when choosing bread, pasta, and similar foods, try and aim for the whole wheat or whole grain varieties. To be such a variety the word wholegrain needs to be the first entry on the ingredients list.

Eat a rainbow of fruits and veggies

In order to get a variety of produce in your diet, which is important for heart health and so many other areas of your health, try to aim for different colors.

This is such old advice that there’s a danger it might just sound trite to you, but eating the rainbow is the easiest way to get a good balance of nutrients.

Of course, the heart healthy diet is also good for the rest of the body as this single idea increases the vitamins, minerals and nutrients that your body gets.

As a general rule and unless you have a condition that means you shouldn’t, focus your attention into wholefoods by way of lots of fruit, veg, oily fish and whole grain.

Doing just this one things propels your nutrition into top tier and ensures that you’re getting all the medicinal properties of food that you can.

Should You See and Use Food As Medicine?

At the end of the day, what you choose to fuel your body with is entirely up to you, and you can decide whether your view and use food as medicine or not.

Of course, you shouldn’t become obsessive with this idea of using food as medicine as that can be unhealthy itself. After all, nobody is perfect and going to get all the best nutrients to nourish their body 100% of the time.

But you don’t need to do this anyway because the body can store various vitamins and minerals for later use.

A Balanced Diet Is How To Use Food As Medicine

If you’re onboard with the idea then the way to use food as medicine is as simple as aiming for a balanced diet.

If you can get to a ratio of 80/20 (wholefoods to junk food) then you’re doing excellent and certainly far better than many.

Body composition can be improved if you go higher, but unless you’re paid for your body or something to that effect then that’s not something you need to pay attention to, at least as far as health purposes are concerned.

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