Food is Medicine
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” promoting an idea that comes from Ayurveda and other traditional medicines. But this notion didn’t survive as the Western medical model developed.
Medications have become the answer to many problems. But while medications are part of the solution, they rarely prevent diseases. 50% of Americans have at least one chronic disease and the number is growing. Medication doesn’t address the root cause of illness. And with so many pills (even medicinal herbs and supplements can be just one more pill), people often feel like they’re taking too many and stop them.
Things are starting to change with the recognition that food plays an important role in health. Culinary medicine, which blends the art of food and cooking with medical science, is gaining traction. This field incorporates nutrition and behavioral change— changing our relationship with food and carving out time to make easily-prepared, delicious, healthy food. Chefs and healthcare providers are teaming up to lead workshops in “teaching kitchens” that are popping up in hospitals and medical practices across the country.
Every February, at the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference in the Napa Valley, the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health bring together health care professionals, chefs, scientists, and the food industry to present current research on nutrition and lifestyle practices (while serving delicious food and wine).
Since attending the conference this year, I’ve started using these concepts in my own work by discussing food and health, and highlighting the evidence-based Mediterranean diet. Endorsed in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Mediterranean Diet is more of a way of living rather than a short-term weight loss strategy. I partner with my patients to map out their health goals, prescribe plant-forward diets, and help them understand how food impacts their health.
For example, we now know that the microbiome, the billions of tiny organisms in our gut, play an important role in our health. High fiber diets – with plenty of leafy vegetables and whole grains -- increase the good bacteria in the gut, which have many health benefits including promoting serotonin production. Early research suggests that this can improve mood. And results from the SMILES trial last year showed that dietary interventions for the treatment of depression may be an effective strategy.
It’s not necessarily easy to change eating habits, so I’ve started meeting people at the grocery store to help them get a lay of the land (stay in the store’s perimeter where the fresh food lives!), read nutrition labels, and choose healthier essentials with which to stock their pantries. And wanting to do more than just one-on-one sessions, I’ve helped to create a 4-week Food and Mood workshop for the Wellness Group at McLean Hospital, which I co-lead. (At some point, I plan to give more workshops in a teaching kitchen.)
I’m seeing positive results from all this. Some people have turned in their supplements for food-based nutrients, or reduced caffeine (which can sometimes provoke anxiety) and instead chosen a brisk afternoon walk. Others have added bran, high in fiber, to their diets and have found improved digestion and more energy.
These small changes can really make a difference. Here’s a link to Mediterranean Diet 101 to learn more.