Food as Medicine

You are what you eat, they say.  Yeah, we’ve all heard it.  But think about it. Each day, millions of cells in your body are dying, and in turn, millions of cells have to be regenerated. Your DNA has to be reassembled correctly, and your organelles, which are the little workers of the cell, have to be re-formed in order to make your cells work. You have to make new red blood cells to carry oxygen to your brain and tissues and carry carbon dioxide away and back to your lungs, where the alveolar gatekeeper cells allow CO2 to diffuse out of the blood stream, into your airways, and out of your body as you expire. You have to make new hormones, like insulin, to regulate how much glucose is in your blood stream, and in turn, give the right amount of energy for your tissues to function. Basically, you are making you, over and over again, all the time.

Your body needs tools to do the millions of tasks it performs; it needs the right kinds of nutrients. They don’t just appear out of nowhere. The only way to get these nutrients is through the food you eat. To this end, I like to treat my body like it’s the only place I will ever have to live. I love my body, and I want to build it like the perfect house, to take care of it, because I want it to give me a lifetime of good health. I want to continue to thrive, disease-free, for the rest of my life, so I can enjoy my life and feel great. Therefore, I feed my body to function exceptionally for decades to come.

In medical school, nutrition was taught in the first year.  We learned basic information about why you need certain vitamins and minerals and what happens when you don’t get them – without Vitamin C, patients can get scurvy; without Vitamin D, patients can get rickets, just for example.  We were taught about how a healthy Mediterranean diet, high in vegetables, legumes and lean protein, can help prevent Diabetes. We were urged to counsel our patients on avoiding saturated fat and high salt; that diets in which these are plentiful could lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), and eventually, create plaques in the heart or brain arteries, which, when large enough or when destabilized, could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we were taught, but nutrition is still much more complex than what we, as the future leaders of healthcare delivery, learned. I can say this because most of what I learned has been self-taught, by reading research articles and books, and it is much more fascinating than I imagined.  I’ve concluded that nutrition has a much bigger role in medicine than just the ancillary position it is made out to have.

An overly-simplified version of what medicine looks like today for the most common disorders (hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia) is this: a disease is diagnosed; a number of pills are available to treat it, and one of them is prescribed; over time, if a patient does not modify anything about their lifestyle, another pill may be added; and the cycle continues.  This is how patients end up being on 10+ medications which treat the symptoms but usually not the cause of their diseases. They are shackled to their prescriptions as quality of life is decreased due to inconvenience, side effects of medications, and the nature of their ailments.  Cancer is the same, although usually compounded with grave emotional upset.  A cancer is diagnosed, and then either one or a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation is usually prescribed to treat it. A patient may or may not survive; that they and their families will suffer is nearly guaranteed.

Medicine should be approached differently. It is not completely flawed; a lot of medications, especially vaccinations, are absolutely essential.  Life expectancies and morbidities have improved through new research and treatments. But the pendulum has swung too far toward piling on the prescriptions and expensive surgeries and interventions. A more holistic strategy for achieving health should be the norm. Incorporating beneficial vegetables and fruits and excluding detrimental foods for health can not only prevent diseases but also treat them, as well.

Food can be medicine. Food can also be disease. Let’s explore why, and how to make great tasting food that promotes health.