Can Food Act as Medicine? All You Need to Know
By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD
What you choose to eat has profound effects on your overall health.
Research shows that dietary habits influence disease risk. While certain foods may trigger chronic health conditions, others offer strong medicinal and protective qualities.
Thus, many people argue that food is medicine.
Yet, diet alone cannot and should not replace medicine in all circumstances. Although many illnesses can be prevented, treated, or even cured by dietary and lifestyle changes, many others cannot.
This article explains the medicinal effects of food, including which foods should and shouldn't be used for healing.
How Food Nourishes and Protects Your Body
Many nutrients in food promote health and protect your body from disease.
Eating whole, nutritious foods is important because their unique substances work synergistically to create an effect that can't be replicated by taking a supplement.
Vitamins and Minerals
Although your body only needs small amounts of vitamins and minerals, they're vital for your health.
However, Western diets — high in processed foods and low in whole foods like fresh produce — are typically deficient in vitamins and minerals. Such deficiencies can substantially increase your risk of disease (1Trusted Source).
For example, insufficient intakes of vitamin C, vitamin D, and folate may harm your heart, cause immune dysfunction, and increase your risk of certain cancers, respectively (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source, 4Trusted Source).
Beneficial Plant Compounds
Nutritious foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains, boast numerous beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants.
In fact, studies demonstrate that people whose diets are rich in polyphenol antioxidants have lower rates of depression, diabetes, dementia, and heart disease (6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
Protein and Healthy Fats
The protein and fat in whole, nutritious foods play various critical roles in your body.
Whole, nutritious foods boast vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, protein, and fat, all of which promote health and are key to optimal bodily function.
A Healthy Diet Can Decrease Disease Risk
Notably, nutritious foods may decrease your risk of disease — while the opposite is true for highly processed foods.
Unhealthy Food Choices Can Increase Disease Risk
Unhealthy diets high in sugary drinks, fast food, and refined grains are a main contributor to conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
A study in over 100,000 people found that every 10% increase in ultra-processed food intake resulted in a 12% increase in cancer risk (20Trusted Source).
DALYs measure the burden of disease, with one unit representing the loss of one year of full health (22Trusted Source).
Nutritious Diets Protect Against Disease
On the other hand, research indicates that diets abundant in plant foods and low in processed products strengthen your health.
For instance, the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in healthy fats, whole grains, and vegetables, is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, neurodegenerative conditions, diabetes, certain cancers, and obesity (23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source).
In fact, some diets may reverse certain conditions.
For example, plant-based diets have been found to reverse coronary artery disease while very-low-carb lifestyles may help eliminate type 2 diabetes in some people (28Trusted Source, 29Trusted Source).
What's more, nutritious eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet are tied to better self-reported quality of life and lower rates of depression than typical Western diets — and may even boost your longevity (30Trusted Source, 31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source).
Such findings prove that robust diets indeed function as preventative medicine.
Following a healthy diet can increase longevity, protect against disease, and improve your overall quality of life.
Can Food Treat Disease?
While some dietary choices can either prevent or increase your disease risk, not all diseases can be prevented or treated through diet alone.
Many Other Factors Affect Your Health and Disease Risk
Disease risk is quite complex. Although a poor diet can cause or contribute to illnesses, many other factors need to be considered.
Genetics, stress, pollution, age, infections, occupational hazards, and lifestyle choices — such as lack of exercise, smoking, and alcohol use — also have an effect (33Trusted Source, 34Trusted Source, 35Trusted Source, 36Trusted Source).
Food cannot compensate for poor lifestyle choices, genetic disposition, or other factors related to disease development.
Food Should Not Be Used as a Replacement for Medicine
Though shifting to a healthier dietary pattern can indeed prevent disease, it's critical to understand that food cannot and should not replace pharmaceutical drugs.
Medicine was developed to save lives and treat diseases. While it may be overprescribed or used as an easy fix for dietary and lifestyle problems, it's oftentimes invaluable.
As healing does not hinge solely on diet or lifestyle, choosing to forgo a potentially life-saving medical treatment to focus on diet alone can be dangerous or even fatal.
Beware of False Advertising
While scientific evidence shows that food can aid various health conditions, anecdotal claims of curing or treating diseases through extreme dieting, supplements, or other methods are often false.
For example, diets advertised to cure cancer or other serious conditions are typically not backed by research and often prohibitively expensive.
Although many foods have strong disease-fighting benefits, diet should not be considered a replacement for conventional medicine.
Foods With Powerful Medicinal Properties
Transitioning to a diet based on whole foods can improve your health in countless ways. Foods that offer particularly powerful benefits include:
- Berries. Numerous studies have found that nutrients and plant compounds in berries combat disease. In fact, diets rich in berries may protect against chronic conditions, including certain cancers (40Trusted Source).
- Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale contain a wide array of antioxidants. High intake of these vegetables may decrease your risk of heart disease and promote longevity (41Trusted Source).
- Fatty fish. Salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish fight inflammation due to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which also protect against heart disease (42Trusted Source).
- Mushrooms. Compounds in mushrooms, types of which include maitake and reishi, have been shown to boost your immune system, heart, and brain (43Trusted Source).
- Spices. Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and other spices are packed with beneficial plant compounds. For example, studies note that turmeric helps treat arthritis and metabolic syndrome (44Trusted Source, 45Trusted Source).
- Herbs. Herbs like parsley, oregano, rosemary, and sage not only provide natural flavor to dishes but also boast many health-promoting compounds (44Trusted Source).
- Green tea. Green tea has been thoroughly researched for its impressive benefits, which may include reduced inflammation and lower disease risk (46Trusted Source).
Nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, honey, seaweed, and fermented foods are just a few of the many other foods studied for their medicinal properties (47Trusted Source, 48Trusted Source, 49Trusted Source, 50Trusted Source, 51Trusted Source, 52Trusted Source).
Simply transitioning to a diet rich in whole foods like fruits and vegetables is the simplest way to reap the medicinal benefits of food.
Berries, cruciferous vegetables, fatty fish, and mushrooms are just a selection of the foods that offer powerful medicinal properties.
The Bottom Line
Food not only provides energy but may also act as medicine.
Keep in mind that you should not rely on food to replace traditional medicine.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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