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  • Writer's pictureMadalyn Otto

A Word on "Food as Medicine" & AGAINST New-Year-Dieting

Have you heard the catchy bit of Hippocrates' wisdom, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food"?

Within the philosophy of naturopathic medicine, there are tenacious roots anchoring the practice of good medicine to the use of food as a tool to both heal from and prevent disease. The depth of the concept "food as medicine" is more profound than you might think. There are layers to the chemical makeup of food and thousands upon thousands of separate chemical compounds that work differently when presented altogether in a whole food than the individual compounds each have separately on the human body. In other words, beta-carotene is not as healthful as the carrot from whence it comes.

Even the conventional medical community now (finally) recognizes the importance of nutrition in preventing or treating various chronic diseases like heart disease. Not too long ago, you would be hard-pressed to find a conventional medical doctor who believed that what you ate had any impact whatsoever on your health. In fact, I still have patients come to my office relaying a disturbing experience with their [insert type of specialist here] who told them that they could literally eat whatever they wanted because it would not make any difference whatsoever either way.

Using food as medicine as a guiding principle to your health is very different from "dieting". Few of you reading this would deny that we live in a culture of fad-diets and utter nutrition confusion as we glean mis-informative headlines and the cliff notes from crappy studies about what we should and should not eat (which seems to change monthly) as well as a super-hyper-obsession with instant gratification weight loss through radical and absurd food or calorie restrictions.

As doctors, we focus a lot on our patients' weights and waistlines and we derive medical knowledge when we know your "BMI" and "waist-to-hip ratio" - two calculations that help us loosely understand disease risk and health status due to the inclusion of these ratios throughout the medical literature. While the media and the food industry are, in my opinion, much larger beasts in our cultural circus around food, I do appreciate that the medical community can share some of the blame because we (unintentionally, I assure you) come to focus way too much on these numbers (for the aforementioned reason) rather than on the context in which these numbers exist. (In our defense, context is often missing from medical literature.)

For example, there is an impressive correlation between BMI (body mass index) and the development of something called "insulin resistance" - a mediator of many chronic health problems. In the literature, the higher a person's BMI, the greater one's risk of insulin resistance (IR), and eventually other conditions follow. One of said conditions with well-established links to IR is type 2 diabetes. So, many patients are told at their doctor's offices to lose weight. Simply losing weight will reduce blood sugar levels, reduce insulin resistance, oh and also lower blood pressure. There is truth to this of course, but a treatment recommendation to "just lose weight" then becomes the doctor's contribution to the confusing fad-diet circus, and the context of the individual person and his or her true and long-term health is now lost.

However, when we are using food as medicine, we re-establish a context. Our relationship with food in the western world has shifted in the modern era to emphasize convenience, instant pleasure sensations, time efficiency, and profitability of food manufacturers. This combination has resulted in dramatic shifts in how we eat, the type of foods we're eating, and even a massive societal ingestion of non-foods masquerading as foods like gels, stabilizers, gums, food coloring and other additives.

The first step to using food as medicine is to establish a strong nutritional foundation which includes a base of whole foods that don't require a manufacturing facility to come into existence. Fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, grains, animal flesh, milk products, eggs are all examples of whole foods - foods that exist on this Earth in their own right without (or at least before) being adulterated and/or processed by a fast food company, a packaged food producer or other food-like manufacturer. When we first and foremost eat whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, we have established a foundation for using food as medicine.

The next level up from this "food as medicine" approach to health is to modify your intake by including certain functional foods that are helpful for specific issues and/or reducing or eliminating certain foods that may aggravate a specific condition. For example, we may include green tea and turmeric in our whole-foods meal for their cancer-fighting antioxidants and we may reduce or eliminate our consumption of animal flesh to support our cardiovascular health. We take a healthy foundation and build upon that foundation with food-medicines that have additional therapeutic effects, or we replace weaker parts of the foundation that don't seem quite as good for our individual genetic susceptibilities.

When your body is fed exclusively whole, micronutrient-rich foods, it tends to optimize its weight as a secondary effect to being well-fed*. *It's important to me that I immediately explain that "well-fed" in this context means "fed with abundant & optimal micronutrition" which naturally yields relative caloric and macronutrient balance (balance of fats, carbs and proteins) without having to do math every time you eat as many fad-diets advocate. Let me reinforce this key point: weight tends to shift as a secondary effect of being well-fed*. When I work with patients using the "food as medicine" approach, rather than hyper-fixating on the number on the scale, I simply track that number on the side as one helpful data point while we put the vast majority of clinical focus on the wholeness of your food and the functionality of foods consumed.

I bring this topic up right now intentionally because January reeks of deprivation, self-deprecation and food monsters. So many people initiate a well-intentioned resolution to lose weight because of concerns of its impact on their health or because they don't like how they look in the mirror, or because they don't like the number they see on the scale. And this makes me sad.

What I'd like to see instead is more people falling in love with the amazingness of our bodies. Fall in love with your body's incredible physical and mental abilities, its strength, its ability to endure, its ability to create, and its ability to heal when provided the right resources in a healthy and peaceful environment. A disordered eating environment is now the norm because of industry and cultural shifts. It is understandable that many of my readers frequently attack themselves verbally with negative self-talk about their eating behaviors or just throw their hands up in the air because they have no idea which self-proclaimed nutrition guru to follow. What this year can be about is you falling back in love with food, real food, solely because food feeds your amazing body and allows it to do achieve lofty goals and a live a happy life.

Rather than using food as a tool for self-flagellation, you deserve to use food as medicine because you are a sentient being and you have limitless potential.

In Health,

Dr. Otto

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