Food Is Not Medicine, And You Should Never Confuse The Two
Medicine (noun); a substance, especially in the form of a liquid or pill that is a treatment for illness or injury.
Food (noun); something that people and animals eat, or plants absorb, to keep them alive.
I flicked through my Instagram this morning and came across no fewer than four posts proclaiming that food was medicine, superimposed or commenting on a picture of an insanely beautiful bowl of vegetables. One was from allegedly some kind of nutrition expert, another a doctor and two other posts came from people whose full-time jobs it seems to be is to post on Instagram.
Not even an hour later, a patient I was seeing for heart surgery was keen to avoid the surgeons’ knife in favour of turmeric, which the Internet told him would ‘unclog’ his arteries.
As much as I’d love to help him avoid major surgery, turmeric is not the answer.
Recent years have seen major growth in the public’s interest in food and nutrition, and specifically its disease-fighting capabilities. It’s so popular that everyone from those with a peripheral interest in health to doctors whose nutritional expertise is incredibly varied are jumping on the bandwagon of dietary cures.
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Diet books make up a major portion of book sales around the world and in a cyclical fashion, dozens of diets or eating philosophies catch the public eye claiming to be the latest and greatest answer to our woes. Food is sexy and everyone who wants to make a name for themselves or make a buck is joining in on the ‘food is medicine’ craze.
Food or specific nutrients are purported to do everything from clear your skin, your eyes, prevent disease, stop bloating, or cure cancer in the case of Gerson therapy.
The influence of diet on our health isn’t exactly without basis, with the Mediterranean diet, a dietary pattern rich in fish, olive oil, vegetables and fruit having a strong association with lowered rates of heart disease. Likewise, diets that include a lot of whole grains also seem to protect against heart disease as well as bowel cancer.
This has evolved to an approach to nutrition where we’re valuing blueberries for their vitamin content or devaluing other foods including fruit for sugar content. The media and social media is rich with anecdotes of how people have changed their lives and cured their diseases by following a diet pattern or maximising the amount of fat or a particular mineral.
In modern times, the “I’m living proof of success” is as good, if not better than decades of rigorous scientific study.
Saying food is medicine does two things and neither of these are helpful for our health and well-being.
Firstly, calling food medicine overstates the influence of food on our health. That’s not to say that what we eat doesn’t matter, because there is more than enough evidence to say that our diet does influence some disease. But there is not nearly enough science to support the claims that certain foods can cure certain diseases.
Can food make you healthier? Absolutely. Saying it can cure though is pretty misleading.
The other side of the coin is that 'food is medicine' thinking undervalues medicine itself. I could very easily prescribe a diet for high cholesterol or high blood pressure and I often do get dietetics advice for these, but diet does not have the same consistent effect on our health as medicine and surgery do.
Food does not have the same firepower and I’d rather not let disease flourish while we give diet a crack.
The biggest issue I see with the 'food is medicine' angle, aside from its inaccuracies, is that it moralises disease and health.
Maybe as a result of years of public health messaging or biases around our lifestyles, health is now seen as a moral imperative and disease a moral failing. If you get sick, there’s a simmering notion that you didn’t take care of yourself well enough and that we get the health and body we deserve.
Our health and well-being is the sum of dozens of interacting factors like our environment, stress, genetics, our education and even how much money we earn.
Food is food, and it’s interesting and amazing because it fuels our bodies. Medicine is medicine, and is also marvelous.
The healthiest way to see food is as the stuff we need to stay alive, not the panacea it’s made out to be. When we see food for just food again, we can stop developing unhelpful and unhealthy relationships with our bodies' fuel.