Could food as medicine be the cure?

The cure for what ails you might be as close as your kitchen



Illustration by Victoria Marcelino

Even if you only occasionally watch the national evening news, you can’t miss it: each telecast brings a relentless torrent of pharmaceutical ads that are striking not only by dint of their sheer number, but also in terms of the numerous possible side effects they list. In a typical ad, actors frolic in the sunshine while a voiceover rattles off potential complications such as dizziness, nausea, hair loss and the really big attention-getter, death.

There’s no denying that Americans love their pills and quick fixes, and that despite our nation’s wealth a disproportionate number of us suffer from disease. But what if we could cure much of what ails us in a natural and non-invasive way that holds the potential to benefit not just our body but our mind and emotional outlook, as well?

If you’re interested, just check out what’s on your plate the next time you sit down to dinner. Food deeply influences our overall well-being, says Heather Wolfe, MPH, RDN, LD, a health and wellness coach and registered dietitian at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. “Diet and inactivity are the leading risk factors for four of the top six causes of death,” Wolfe says. The link between lifestyle, including what we eat, and our health is clear.

Nutrients in every substance we put in our mouths add up to a sort of communications code that affects us at a cellular level, lending credence to the adage “you are what you eat.” The types of food you choose to eat — not just the overall amount you consume — have “huge” health implications, says Albee Budnitz, MD, FACP, FCCP, a pulmonary and internal medicine specialist with Downtown Medical Associates and Foundation Medical Partners in Nashua. Food sets off a cascade of effects that can immensely contribute to, prevent or treat disease within your body.

In fact, “the [Centers for Disease Control] says if we as Americans exercised more, stopped smoking and ate healthier, we’d see 40 percent less cancer and 80 percent less heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes,” Wolfe says. “So when you talk about food as medicine, yeah, there’s no [other] medicine that could cure 80 percent of these chronic diseases and causes of death.”

Skeptical? Consider that some patients “absolutely” can ditch medications by changing their diet, Budnitz says. It might take “a tremendous effort” on the patient’s part, Budnitz says, but it’s not uncommon for beneficial changes in patients’ eating habits to enable doctors to reduce or even eliminate prescribed medicine for those patients, particularly in cases involving high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes or acid reflux.

Eating the wrong food, on the other hand, can cause irritation or inflammation in the body, “which then leads to dysfunction of the blood vessels,” Budnitz says. Given that our blood is our life source, it’s easy to see how dietary choices can have far-reaching effects that touch the heart, the brain and everything else. There’s no doubt that food, mental health and physical health are all inseparably intertwined, Budnitz says.

Proportion distortion

While there are numerous proven benefits to eating certain foods, knowing the proper amount to put on your plate can seem less clear-cut. Many Americans have lost touch with what constitutes an adequate serving size, something international travelers might have noticed. If you venture to some locations outside the United States, Budnitz says, “you feel like you’re getting gypped because their plates are smaller.”

If you’re searching for guidance, and maybe inspiration regarding portion sizes, consider the recommendations put forth in the Harvard School of Public Health’s “Healthy Eating Plate,” similar in concept to the USDA’s “MyPlate.” Both appear on websites as virtual plates that illustrate how we’re supposed to divvy up plate space to accommodate various foods. There are some notable differences between Harvard’s and the government’s nutritional advice, says Budnitz, but in each instance, vegetables take up the lion’s share of plate space, with protein and grains playing supporting roles, along with fruit, which takes up the smallest amount of real estate on both plates.

But it’s important to keep in mind that not all foods, even within the same food group, are considered equal. “There are good proteins and bad proteins, and good carbs and bad carbs,” says Budnitz. Pay attention to where your food is coming from. Are you consuming processed meat rather than fish or other more healthful protein option, for example, or high-fat milk rather than skim?

And rather than obsessing over the numbers on your scale, focus on making food choices that support good health and help keep disease at bay, Wolfe says. Commit to sustainable, long-term good dietary habits. Fixating on weight is “probably the biggest mistake that I see [clients make],” Wolfe says. “People come in just totally motivated by the scale, by numbers, rather than thinking about deeper health and well-being.”

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