Using Food As Medicine
Some foods can be powerful allies in your fight against chronic diseases and age-related conditions.
It’s no secret that diet is a powerful component of overall health and wellness. But what about using food as medicine? Is it possible to eat your way out of a chronic condition?
Quite possibly, it seems, based on the situation.
“Many foods can be considered medicinal depending on how they are used and how often they are consumed,” explains Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles. “In fact, food is one of our most powerful medicines. After all, we eat every day, several times a day, so what we choose to consume most often will accumulate to either be a powerful elixir to support and protect our health or a silent poison that can lead to disease.”
Foods That Act as Medicine
So, what makes certain foods better for your health than others? In short, it all comes down to two factors: the nutritional profile of each food and the concentration of certain components, such as fiber, vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. All of those components can have a potent effect on your body, but the most powerful is antioxidants, which are compounds that play a crucial role in protecting the cells in our body from damage caused by free radicals that cause disease.
These free radicals are created inside the body as natural byproducts of certain metabolic processes, but they can also be obtained from external sources like pollution in the air, contaminated water or the residue of some pesticides used in farming.
“When the amount of free radicals exceeds our antioxidant load, diseases like heart disease, neurodegenerative disease and even cancer can develop,” Richter adds. “Eating foods high in antioxidants can help to neutralize the oxidative, negative effects of free radical damage in the body.”
In addition, foods that contain high levels of antioxidant compounds are often high in fiber, which is an important nutrient that helps keep your digestive system moving and aids in heart health by helping to lower cholesterol levels.
“These types of foods don’t necessarily treat disease, but they can lower the risk of developing them or help reverse them,” explains Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and author of “Recipe for Survival.”
Which Foods Are Best for Health?
The following foods are high in a variety of health-supportive substances that may change how your body works and feels over time, particularly if you’re switching from a less nutritious diet:
Brightly colored berries – such as blueberries, blackberries and raspberries – are high in a range of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C and fiber. They are also rich sources of anthocyanins and quercetin, two compounds that may have powerful anti-disease effects.
Anthocyanins and quercetin are both antioxidants that can protect your cells from everyday damage. Anthocyanins are responsible for the bright blues and deep reds of berries. The brighter the color, the more nutrition the fruit contains. Quercetin is another plant pigment that also offers anti-inflammatory effects.
Mary Sabat, an ACE-certified personal trainer and nutritionist and owner of BodyDesigns in Alpharetta, Georgia, says that these antioxidants “contribute to heart health, improve cognitive function and may reduce the risk of certain cancers.”
Oranges, lemons, grapefruit and other citrus fruits are famous for their high vitamin C content. Vitamin C has been shown to support the immune system, which may impact inflammation. It also helps regulate collagen synthesis for cellular repair, which keeps your skin looking youthful and plump.
Kale, spinach, chard and other dark leafy greens are chock full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, which “can help prevent chronic diseases and (help you) maintain a healthy weight,” Sabat says.
Similarly, cruciferous veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as chlorophyll – responsible for the green color – which may reduce the risk of certain cancers, Richter says.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to various health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and certain types of cancer, Richter says. Incorporating foods that help combat inflammation may help reduce your risk of such diseases.
Fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, are excellent sources of the omega-3s, a type of fatty acid that makes up cellular membranes. As such, these foods “promote heart health, reduce inflammation and support brain function,” Sabat explains.
Foods like yogurt, kimchi and kefir contain lots of probiotics, the live organisms that live in the gut and help you digest food and fight illness. Eating foods rich in probiotics can “support gut health, boost the immune system and may alleviate some digestive disorders,” Sabat says.
“It contains various bioactive compounds, including apigenin, bisabolol and chamazulene, which are believed to contribute to its calming effects,” Richter says. “Chamomile also enhances GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) production, which calms the nervous system.”
In other words, a cup of chamomile tea before bed may help you get better sleep, which is when your body and brain get to work repairing damaged cells and getting you ready for the next day.
Getting enough high-quality sleep is increasingly being understood as a critical component to aging well and reducing risk for a variety of chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer.
“Research around these mushrooms is growing every day, pointing to their immune-supporting and antioxidant effects on the body,” Richter explains. “They also have adaptogenic properties, which means they can help the body adapt to stress and help to restore balance to the body.”
Several seasonings and spices – such as garlic, oregano and turmeric – have long been known to support good health and have sometimes played a role in traditional medicine. These include:
Garlic has antibacterial and, importantly, antimicrobial properties. Antimicrobials are substances that have the ability to inhibit the growth of or kill harmful microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
“They are essential for treating infections caused by these microorganisms and play a crucial role in preventing the spread of infectious diseases,” Richter adds.
The antimicrobials and antibiotics in garlic can, for instance, help fight off bacteria in the gut that can cause digestive issues and illnesses. They can also benefit the cardiovascular system.
Oregano also contains several bioactive compounds with strong antimicrobial properties that hamper the growth of bacteria, viruses and fungi in the gut and the body, Richter says. As a result, oregano is often used “in the prevention and treatment of certain respiratory infections, digestive problems and (may) even help with certain skin conditions.”
Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin that has been studied extensively for its anti-inflammatory properties. The curcumin is turmeric, a bright orange spice used widely in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine, “has been shown to be especially helpful in promoting joint health and healing the lining of our gut,” Richter says.
If you’ve ever been seasick on a boat, you may have been handed a ginger chew to help quell the queasiness.
“Ginger can help to relieve nausea and also improve the digestion of certain foods by stimulating digestive juices like saliva, bile and gastric juices from the stomach,” Richter says. “(It can also help) reduce gas and bloating by relaxing the intestinal muscles to allow gas to pass more easily through the digestive system.”
Like garlic and oregano, honey is considered an antimicrobial agent because of its low pH, low water content and high sugar content, all of which help to inhibit the growth of harmful pathogens.
“It is often used in the treatment of sore throats and coughs, as well as healing wounds and preventing infection,” Richter says.
A World of Medicinal Foods
There are many more foods out there that have medicinal properties and offer important health benefits. Exactly how well they work to prevent or treat disease isn’t always a simple question, though, because there is so much variability from person to person and diet to diet.
“Prevention is a tricky word because it’s difficult to prove something prevents disease,” Hunnes explains. “We can demonstrate that (certain foods) lower the risk for disease.”
In particular, she notes, if you have a genetic predisposition for a certain disease, such as heart disease, eating a healthy diet consisting primarily of whole, plant-based foods is effective in lowering the risk of disease.
What’s more, if you’ve recently been diagnosed with a medical condition, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, “eating healthy can reverse disease and lower the need for pharmaceutical medications,” Hunnes says.
Eating high-fiber foods and plant-based foods, for instance, can lower the need for statins, a common group of medications used to control cholesterol levels and reduce risk of developing heart problems.
Food As Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
Food is a key part of health and well-being, but it comes with a caveat.
“While diet plays a crucial role in maintaining good health, it is essential to recognize that foods are not a substitute for medical treatment,” Sabat says. “Foods can complement traditional medicine, but they should not be solely relied upon to treat severe medical conditions. The effectiveness of using foods as medicine varies depending on the condition and individual factors.”
For example, certain conditions – such as mild digestive issues, inflammation or vitamin deficiencies – typically respond well to a change in diet and may largely be resolved with a shift to healthier foods.
“Additionally, diets that emphasize whole foods and vegetables have been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes,” Sabat explains.
Richter adds that food as medicine is a long-term proposition and not a quick fix. Consistency and persistence matter.
“You are not going to prevent or cure a disease by following a fad diet for a few weeks or months. Nor can you exercise your way out of a bad diet,” she explains. “But what you choose to eat most often will absolutely compound over time and lead to exponential health benefits.”
For that reason, you should aim to incorporate more medicinal foods into your diet as early as possible. Don’t wait until you have physical issues or have been diagnosed with a disease.
“(It’s) far more impactful to use food and nutrition preventively rather than reactively,” she says.
In all cases, Sabat notes that you should remember the following when looking to use food as medicine:
- Moderation and balance reign supreme. Certain foods have beneficial properties, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Stick to a balanced diet with a variety of foods to make sure you’re getting all of your essential nutrients.
- Individual results may vary. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to food, so Sabat recommends personalizing your diet based on your unique health conditions, preferences and cultural factors.
- Miracle cures don’t exist. Steer clear of miracle foods and fad diets, Sabat warns. The best way to sustain your health over time is to focus on consistent, long-term food choices.
- Medical support and guidance is key. Certain foods can be great for your overall well-being, but they can’t replace medical treatment. Always seek guidance from health care professionals if you’re experiencing a health issue.
- Diet is just one piece of the healthy lifestyle puzzle. In addition, you need to be getting regular physical activity and sufficient sleep, managing stress and avoiding harmful habits.
When it comes to choosing foods, Richter recommends variety and color. Try to eat foods representing all of the colors of the rainbow.
“Adequacy – getting enough food – is also important,” she adds. “With the advent of intermittent fasting and low-calorie diets, many of us are actually under-eating, which means we are severely limiting the amount of nutrients we can consume. Ensure that you are getting enough food every day to meet your nutrient needs.”
Harnessing the power of food as medicine can be a valuable approach to support overall health and well-being, Sabat adds.
“By making informed dietary choices and working in tandem with medical professionals, individuals can optimize their health and reduce the risk of certain diseases,” she says.