You have probably heard on many occasions the phrase, "food is medicine". But, what does this really mean? It is not just a cute phrase to encourage people to eat healthier foods. In fact, food really is medicine.
Why is this? Well, let's first consider what the word medicine means. Medicine usually refers to some sort of compound or preparation that is used to treat, heal or prevent disease. So, basically we are talking about something with a chemical structure that interacts with an aspect of our body to achieve the goals described above (i.e. treating, healing, or preventing disease). That being said, look at the chemical structures below. Can you tell which chemical structures below are created by a pharmaceutical company and come in a pill bottle and which ones are found naturally in foods??
Hard to tell, right? Here are the answers:
A and D come in a pill bottle and B and C are found in food.
A = Atorvastatin (Lipitor), a common cholesterol lowering drug
D = Ibuprofen (Advil), a common pain and anti-inflammatory drug
B = Sulforaphane, a compound found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower and has potent anti-oxidant and anti-cancer properties.
C = Curcumin, a compund found in the turmeric root (and turmeric spice) with well-established anti-inflammatory properties.
Now you can see why we say food is medicine. Real, unprocessed, nature-based foods contain chemical compounds that work with the body's physiology to create and maintain health. This is what we expect medicine to do for us.
One of the most important differences between food medicine and pharmaceutical medicine is that food medicine comes without the slew of side effects that so often result with medications produced in a factory. Take again the examples above. Atorvastatin is well known for its potential to cause liver and muscle injury. People on Atorvastatin require regular blood tests to ensure that indeed, their liver is not suffering damage while taking the drug. Ibuprofen, when taken frequently, can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding. In general, a normal and varied diet of nature-based foods provides its medicinal benefits without any serious, negative impact on the body.
As always, I add the disclaimer that there are certainly times when pharmaceutical drugs are necessary and a valuable tool in our medical toolkit. For example, drugs are critical in acute situations where prompt and powerful treatment is necessary to stabilize a person whose life or health is being threatened and time is of the essence. Their use is especially appropriate if the drug is to be used short-term for the period of stabilization or treatment and not as the sole treatment for a chronic, non-acute condition.
For powerful and effective health benefits on a long-term basis for the treatment and prevention of disease, food is without a doubt our #1 medicine. And we can see this displayed time and time again in practice. People who switch from a diet of processed, fake foods to one predominantly of nature-based foods almost always see improvement in health.
I would love to see more medical school and health professional education include this most important medicine: food. We must not be fooled into thinking that just because something takes many years and millions of dollars to develop that it is somehow superior. Food is probably one of the few areas where our human ingenuity has not brought us advances or benefits. All evidence shows that the more we mess with nature when it comes to food (e.g. processing and modification), the more we suffer. Our bodies were designed to work with the foods that were in our environment when our bodies evolved and our bodies continue to work this way. If we stick with these foods, we should enjoy reasonably good health without any other alterations or interventions in our food supply.
With more knowledgeable healthcare professionals, more research into the health benefits of food, more support from the healthcare system for nutrition-based treatments, and more money directed towards subsidizing the foods that are truly medicines, we just may eliminate most of the healthcare costs (never mind pain and suffering) that we endure in this country today.