Food as Medicine

More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates – Greek physician and philosopher, widely regarded as the father of modern medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” We have also heard the very common phrase, “you are what you eat.” This article will delve into the meaning and the urgent need to incorporate these philosophies today.

Even as recent as pre-1950’s, our attitude to food and health was very different compared to what it is today. For millennia, humanity’s survival depended on access to food. Where humans made their settlements, their economy, culture and in fact every aspect of life; centered around food and access to food. But in post-world war II era, for the first time, food became an after-thought.

With the advent of the post-industrial diet, based largely on synthesized ‘food-like’ particles, our present diet is incapable of meeting our nutritional needs while increasing toxic burden on our systems. With easily available, cheap, processed, junk food; people’s kitchens were hijacked by the food industry. Even natural produce and meats that are produced in huge quantities today, are devoid of nutrition and polluted with various chemicals like pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc. As a society, we rely on eating out, consuming fast food, quick meals, TV dinners, etc. Cooking has become a lost art and lost tradition! We seem to have also lost our instincts with regard to eating. Previous generations did not rely on food gurus to tell us what to eat!

Without a doubt, the outsourcing of our kitchens to commercial entities, has resulted in a chronic disease epidemic across the world, the likes of which humanity has not faced before. For most of human history, diseases were a result of “others” like bacterial, viral or parasitic infections. (It looked like we had conquered the “others.” But if current medical literature is to be believed, those little bugs and critters are once again gaining an upper hand! More on this problem later).

The rise in chronic diseases – heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mental illness, autoimmune diseases, autism, etc; is burdening our social-economic fabric tremendously. A few statistics from the National Health Council to share here:

  • Generally incurable and ongoing, chronic diseases affect approximately 133 million Americans, representing more than 40% of the total population of this country. By 2020, that number is projected to grow to an estimated 157 million, with 81 million having multiple conditions.
  • More than 75% of all health care costs are due to chronic conditions. Four of the five most expensive health conditions (based on total health care spending in a given year in the United States) are chronic conditions – heart disease, cancer, mental disorders, and pulmonary conditions.
  • A 2007 study reported that seven chronic diseases – cancer, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, pulmonary conditions, and mental illness – have a total impact on the economy of $1.3 trillion annually. By the year 2023, this number is projected to increase to $4.2 trillion in treatment costs and lost economic output.

Hence, we need to address these issues at their root. When we look at the root cause of these chronic diseases, they all share common factors in our diet and lifestyle. This article focuses on the importance of “real food” to reclaiming one’s health.

Prior to Hippocrates, more than 5000 years ago, physicians in India practicing Ayurveda (world’s oldest and continuously practiced medical science) recognized the central importance of healthy food for sustenance of life as reflected in many phrases. Two Ayurvedic phrases that encapsulate this philosophy are:

“The body is the outcome of food. Even so, disease is the outcome of food. The distinction between ease and disease arises on account of wholesome nutrition or the lack of it.”

And,

“When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.”

What all these ancient cultures realized is that food is not just about calories. Yes, food provides energy and calories indicate the amount of energy that is available to us from the food we eat. Beyond that, calories do not have any other inherent meaning or value. But as a culture, we have reduced food to just its caloric value. Also, not all calories are created equal. For example, 300 calories from stir fried broccoli in ghee (clarified butter) is not the same as 300 calories from a snickers bar. Although you may be consuming the same 300 calories from the broccoli, it is not going to increase your belly girth or cause inflammation, which is what we see happen with the snickers bar.

Food is connection and memory. Food connects us to our culture/cooking traditions, our relationships, to nature around us (when we allow it to happen). Most of our memories around holidays center around food we grew up with, each generation trying to create that magic around holidays for the next generation.

Food is information – that regularly upgrades or downgrades our genome, the “software” of our body. The genome of the food we eat (in the form of Micro RNA) exerts it’s influence by either up regulating or down regulating critical genes in our body (source). For example: studies have shown that a diet rich in Omega 3 fats down regulates inflammatory genes, where as food made of trans fats, hydrogenated fats, or low in Omega 3 vs Omega 6 ratio; triggers inflammation by up regulating inflammation genes. Inflammation is proving to be the common denominator for almost all chronic diseases (from cancer to depression to heart disease to stroke).

Let me reiterate what I just said above:

The food we eat literally speaks to our genes and influences their expression.

This is the latest in the field of genetics, known as ‘Epigenetics’ – which translates to ‘Above’ genetics; and ‘Nutrigenomics’ – effect of food on our genome, for better or worse. This phenomenon has also been called, “cross-kingdom talk.”

No pill has come close to this effect. This is because, real, wholesome organic food that is not tainted with chemicals is made up of the same biology that makes us up. We are all products of this same earth. Millions of years of co-evolutionary processes have generated a wide range of interspecies, cross-kingdom co-dependencies. Due to this co-evolution, there is common genetic ancestry that makes it possible for communication to happen between the food we eat and our genome (cross-kingdom talk mentioned above). So, imagine, what can happen if this food is tainted with chemicals or maybe, genetically modified. The very nature of communication between our food and our genome is disrupted.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Let’s say you are communicating with your spouse by phone about what you need to prepare dinner. If the connection is clear, you will get the ingredients you need. But what if the phone connection is bad and your spouse gets only a distorted message. You are not going to get the ingredients you need for that dinner you planned. So, your dinner may not turn out the way you planned. Now, imagine this happening night after night! When we consume genetically modified, processed, junk food, made with industrial chemicals (more suited for your yoga mat or Nike shoes, than your bread!); unintended negative health effects result due to the miscommunication that has been caused.

Finally, food is you! The finest product of digestion, the essence of nutrients from the food you eat, is absorbed and used at the level of your cells not only for daily metabolic processes but also, to repair, regenerate, and build you. This is a continuous process that happens as long as there is life. A clear example is your bones and teeth. The two essential nutrients are vitamin D and calcium. Calcium under the influence of Vitamin D, after absorption, becomes your bones and teeth. A deficiency of these 2 vitamins causes structural and functional weakness in the bones and teeth, sometimes a very visible phenomenon. Lack of key nutrients have been associated with many illnesses from Scurvy to ADHD/dementia.

Overall, healthy food is anti-inflammatory, provides essential nutrients, alkalinizes the body (our blood is always slightly alkaline. When acidity increases in the system, it leads to inflammation), balances hormones & blood sugar, eliminates toxins, and is seasonal.

The seasonality of food speaks to the interconnectedness within nature. Let’s consider this question as to why water rich fruits and vegetables (cucumbers, zucchini, watermelons and other summer melons) grow and bear fruit in summer? Whereas, fleshy, calorie rich vegetables and fruits (pumpkins, potatoes, apples) are the bounty in fall and winter. For that matter, why is mulled apple cider or warm soup, a cultural favorite of fall/winter? And popsicles, lemonade, a thing of summer?

Ancient medical and philosophical traditions (like Ayurveda) have theorized that because of the interconnectedness and symbiosis that is an inherent aspect of any eco system, the kind of food that is abundant in a particular season is responding to the needs of the animals in that eco system. Hot, dry summers create the need for water rich fruits and vegetables; cold seasons create the need for warming, energy dense foods. Literally, what we need in a particular season is provided by nature in that season. Once we recognize this intelligence and support we receive from mother nature, we are filled with wonder and gratitude!

Another modern problem with not eating seasonally is to do with the unsustainability of this practice (in terms of ecological burden), the exposure to chemicals (from farming to preservation) inherent in growing food non-seasonally, and lack of freshness (as such food is grown in far off places only to be shipped worldwide).

In summary, favor food that is freshly prepared, seasonal, indigenous, organic & whole. Avoid food that is processed or refined; food with artificial dyes, preservatives, pesticides, additives, hormones, and genetically modified food.

A balanced diet should have all 6 tastes – salt, sweet, sour, bitter, pungent & astringent; 3 main components – Proteins, Fats, Carbohydrates; many minor components: vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential elements etc.

Variety is the name of the game – switch grains, vegetables, fruits, protein sources – guided by the season. Eat and live like our ancestors (at least 3 generations ago). We also need to develop body-mind awareness to assess how the food you eat impacts you. As there is no one diet for all!

As regards food preparation: it’s best to cook in stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic or earthen ware. Non-stick utensils can leach harmful chemicals (endocrine disrupting and cancer causing) into the food. Do not store food or water in any plastic containers for the same reason as non-stick utensils.

Finally, as food researcher and blogger, Michael Pollan says, “Eat (real) food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Aruna Tummala, MD, ABIHM
Trinergy Center for Integrative Psychiatry
12800 W National Ave, New Berlin, WI 53151
Ph: 262 955 6601