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Can food really be medicine?

Nutritionist Nicola Jackson looks at whether food can heal what ails you.

Q Can what you eat help heal disease?  Is food really medicine?

A With an ever-increasing interest in natural health and nutrition, the old Hippocrates saying “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” has been much discussed in health and well-being circles.

Unfortunately, in the weekend, I read a sad story of where this concept was taken too far. A breastfed baby became severely unwell after the mother was convinced by her naturopath to follow a raw food and water diet in an attempt to treat the baby’s eczema. But all this did was cause gross malnourishment and the child became very unwell.

I think this is a timely reminder that while diet is very important, it’s not the only part of managing our health. Diet can play a part in helping prevent some diseases and can help manage conditions, but it doesn’t often cure conditions. For example, a low-FODMAP diet can help manage symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, but it won’t cure it. Diet and exercise can help manage diabetes, and even in some cases lead to remission, but can’t cure it. So let’s see food as a part of the solution to our health and well-being but remember that it’s not the only part.

Here’s a brief overview of some of the ways food can help with managing our health and well-being.

Food in preventative medicine

A healthy, varied diet is known to reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. While many foods are claimed to have special healing properties, there is no single superfood that helps prevent disease in itself. It’s the whole dietary pattern that is important. Examples of good dietary patterns are those of the ‘blue zone countries’. Despite claims that certain diets are the healthiest, there are many ways to create a healthy diet to maintain good health – but they all have similar properties. They are mostly plant-based, focused on minimally processed foods and low in sugars.

Food intolerances and allergies

Diet is essential in managing both allergies and intolerances, and a suitable diet will lead to the resolution of symptoms. If you think you have an allergy or intolerance, it is important to first get medical advice to rule out any other causes of your symptoms.

Today it’s popular to cut gluten or certain foods from diets to manage symptoms without first seeking medical advice. Getting a proper diagnosis is important so that a clear treatment path can be formulated. For example, symptoms of digestive problems could possibly be caused by coeliac disease and this autoimmune disease must be treated with a strict gluten-free diet for life – not just when you feel like avoiding gluten.

Managing health conditions

Food plays an important role in the management of a whole range of health conditions. That’s why dietitians and registered nutritionists exist!

Some claim that cancer and other illnesses can be cured by quitting sugar, special juice detox diets or other dietary regimes. Unfortunately, treating cancer or other serious conditions involves more than just diet, but nutrition is a part of the management plan.

Food is definitely an important part of wellness, but don’t let it become your only focus for health. If you’re not feeling yourself, see a doctor. You might be fine, but it’s important to rule out other causes of your symptoms. And remember, food is for health, but it should also be enjoyable, varied and not cause you stress and anxiety. Find that healthy balance.

Date modified: 4 November 2020
First published: May 2016


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